Friday, February 26, 2010

Keeping it Real

It's no secret that I love fantasy. But when I write, my stories tend to take place in the real world. They'll have a fantastic element (or two or three!) but they're happening in ordinary places where you wouldn't expect to find magic of any sort. I like the idea that magic exists if you just know where to look. That guy you're sitting next to could become a werewolf when it gets cold. The girl in your class could be reading your mind, even if she doesn't know how she got this ability.

So if you've got these fantastic elements in your story, how do you keep it real? How do you make people believe this could happen to them?

For me, the key is to provide enough detail so that readers can relate, but not so much that it bogs down the story. For example, if I mention palm trees, island music and pink flamingos, you know you're not in Kansas anymore. Add some Coco Loco and you're sitting pretty, right?

I can spend weeks researching a place like Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. I may know when it was built and remodeled, who funded it, the schedule of events and seating capacity in the auditorium. But now your eyes are glazing over. None of those details are going to bring a story to life. So it's also important to know which details to include.

What's going on in your stories? What details are you using to keep it real?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Golden Ticket

My 10-year-old is really good at spelling. In fact, he hasn't missed a word on a test since he was in first grade. And really, he didn't technically spell the word wrong. He just wrote his "b" backwards when he spelled "dlack." He hasn't made that mistake since.

The funny thing is, when I put him in kindergarten, a lot of people questioned my decision. Since he has a November birthday, a lot of boys his age are held back a year, so they can mature. People implied that I was pushing him, that I would regret my choice, that I would cause him harm.

So far, they've been wrong.

Not only is he one of the top students in his class, he's also more mature than some of the boys in his class that are a year older, boys that were held back.

It's not always easy to trust yourself when you're surrounded by negatives. But one thing I've learned from watching my son grow and excel, is that you have to believe in yourself. Trust your gut. If you don't, no one else will.

Today I've got the golden ticket to take my son to the countywide spelling bee. He and a sixth-grade girl will be representing Ballard School. I've never seen him so pumped up, so proud of himself. I'm proud too. I don't care if he wins. He doesn't have to be #1.

Getting there has been fun enough.

Note: Drew spelled out on word #38, mystique. We celebrated the day by going out to lunch and then stopping at the bookstore -- during school hours! Woo-hoo!

It was a good day indeed :)

Monday, February 22, 2010

My Writing Life

I am in the midst of writing a shiny new novel that I LOVE, and editing a novel that I used to LOVE but now just like a lot. I'm hopeful that by the time I'm done editing it, I will LOVE it again...

Have you ever been there? Falling in and out of love with your stories? The good news is:
“A bad novel is better than an unwritten novel, because a bad novel can be improved; an unwritten novel is defeat without a battle.” – Paul Johnson

Good to know. Because as soon as you type "THE END" it feels great! What an accomplishment! Then you send it out for critique. You're amazed by all the plot holes, the uneven language and unbelievable characters. You cry. You scream. You want to crawl into a hole and die.
“Be suspicious of literary advice from anyone who consistently leaves you feeling like some subspecies of dung maggot.” – Jane Guill

A week later you realize that more than half of the advice is good. Now you just have to figure out how to apply it...
"Almost anyone can write; only writers know how to rewrite. It is this ability alone that turns the amateur into a professional.” – William C. Knott

Of course, you still have to keep up with daily life: feeding the family, doing the laundry, maybe even a day job. Something has to give...
"Women with clean houses do not have finished books." – Joy Held

Excellent! That extra ring around the toilet is justified! But then you have all the well meaning friends asking when they can buy your book at Borders. You have, after all, been working at this for more than a year. And they've seen your bathroom. You hang your head in shame. Why don't they understand?
"Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead." – Gene Fowler

To all my writing friends, I'm so glad that you're here and you DO understand.
"Easy reading is damn hard writing." – Nathaniel Hawthorne

And now I'm going back to my write.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Blame it on the Donkey

Nerd that I am, I can always appreciate a good play on words. However, the subtlety is often lost on my kids.

It doesn't take much to make them laugh. They tend to go for the obvious choices. Words like bum and buttocks send them into hysterics. And don't mention the name Dick Butkus around them. Nobody has a straight face when my kids are done making fun of that poor man's name.

So when I got in the car to take them to school the other day, it didn't surprise me to find them in the back seat giggling.

"Asphalt," said my son.

"What did you call me?"

"I didn't call you anything. I was reading that box. It says Asphalt." They laughed some more.

"I'm sorry, why is that funny?"

"It's not my fault," said my son. "Blame it on the donkey."

Of course. Why didn't I see it that way?


Just found this great link to the McVeigh Agency Blog. Get 10 of your friends to follow the blog and you'll get a free 15-minute skype or phone chat with Mark McVeigh. How cool is that? Go follow him now and tell him I sent you!!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Author Spotlight on: Shelley Moore Thomas

Today I'm pleased to be interviewing the StoryQueen, Shelley Moore Thomas. An author, storyteller and teacher, Shelley is also a regular fixture around the blogosphere.

Her first book, PUTTING THE WORLD TO SLEEP, received a starred review in School Library Journal. Publishers Weekly called GOOD NIGHT, GOOD KNIGHT a "magical bedtime tale," and when Booklist reviewed TAKE CARE, GOOD KNIGHT, they said "the story is written with a keen ear for language and a good understanding of what makes young children laugh."

Not too shabby! Especially when you consider that Shelley has successfully published eight books for children at three different houses...all without an agent.

Today Shelley talks about working with different editors, fighting the slush pile, figuring out who you are and why she loves her grandmother's rhinestone jewelry. Not too shabby at all :)

So tell me, Shelley, how did you get your first contract?
My first book was published by Houghton Mifflin.  I sent an editor there the manuscript for PUTTING THE WORLD TO SLEEP because I liked her name, Matilda.  She asked to keep it for a bit and my husband bought champagne.

Me:  But I didn't sell the book yet.
Him: Well, yeah, but, what if....never mind.
Me:  What?
Him:  Well, what if this is as good as it gets?

So we drank the champagne.  I mean, why not?  He was right.  It is important to celebrate the small victories.  I mean, somebody was considering my work.  How cool was that?  In a few weeks, she decided to buy the book, which was even cooler.

What a sweet husband! 
Was it smooth sailing from there?
No way!  Or maybe I should say, I wish.

Selling every book is just as hard* as the first.  Maybe a little harder because if you are already published, an editor (especially if they bought your first book) wants to like your next.  But sometimes they don't.

I have worked with three great editors from three great publishing houses because the truth of it is, different people like different things.  I don't hold it against any of them if they don't like a particular manuscript, because often, someone else does.  However, I think having an agent helps get manuscripts into an editor's hands, which is very important.  I have never had an agent, but am looking into the possibility now.  The slush grows and grows and if you have no agent, you have to dig your way out every time.

*The reality is that "hard" is a very relative term.  I have been very lucky.  It's not been that hard, because I get to do something I love.  But I would never describe getting published as easy!

I’m pretty sure that a lot of people (writers included!) look at picture books and easy readers and think, “I could do that in a bout an hour!” How long do you typically spend on a manuscript?
It totally depends on the manuscript.  Some have come out very easily, some I have struggled over.  The experience is different for each.  Some books took months and months to get right.  Plus, I am not super fast since I usually work on about 5 books at a time. 

Which book took you the longest to write? Why? 
A BABY'S COMING TO YOUR HOUSE took the longest because I wanted to write a book for my third daughter the entire time I was pregnant with her.  The drafts were dismal.  Then, after I had her, I realized what I really wanted to say, and I wrote the draft in a few hours. 

Which one was the fastest? 
I'm not sure.  Usually, if I am struggling with a piece, I just put it on the back burner for a while and work on something else until it is ready.

I write a LOT of stuff.  Not all of it is book-worthy, believe me.  But everything I write helps me to understand my process better, which I think is very important. I have been trying some different genres, MG and YA, so we'll see what happens...

Your GOOD KNIGHT series has done really well. You have five out and a sixth on the way. Did this start out as a series?
The first Good Knight was a stand alone.  My editor, Lucia Monfried at Dutton, said that they really loved the dragons and couldn't I think of another adventure for them.  Well, I loved the dragons, too!  So the dragons and their Good Knight got to have a little more fun.  Each dragon book is kind of a stand alone.  They are a series, now.  I think there could be even more in the future.  I'll have to see what happens in the old inspiration department.

Many of your books are based on real-life experiences with your children. Do they know which books are theirs?
Of course they know which are theirs...although from the dedications, you would never know.  (Isabelle's is dedicated to Noel, Noel's is dedicated to Cali and Cali's is dedicated to Isabelle...there is a weird-but-not-very-interesting story there as to how that came about.)

This photo of you guys on Space Mountain is hilarious! How old are your kids?
I have three daughters:  Noel, 20, Isabelle 17 and Caledonia, 11

I love how your website tells the stories behind the books. What are some of the other ways you’ve promoted yourself and your books?
Sherrie, you are so sweet to mention my not-so-great website.  I don't really know how to make one, so I have my blog then I have a blog/website.  Eventually I'll figure it all out.  I do love my blog, though.  It is a fun place for me to think about writing and connect with other writers. 

As for promotion, well, that's a tough one.  I am a storyteller locally and do story times for book fairs and such.  And a big part of my job is being the StoryQueen.  However, it's important to spend as much time writing as "promoting" (which I feel kind of weird about. "Oh, buy my stuff" and all that).
How did you become the StoryQueen?
There's the long version and the short version of this story.

Short version:  Summer was coming up and since I was a teacher, that meant a bit of a break.  There was a new locally owned bookstore in town that was awesome.  They had a kid's area with a boat in it!  I wanted to tell stories in that area.  So I made an appointment and talked to the owner, saying basically that I wanted to dress weird and tell stories in their store.  (Yeah.  I know).  But she said  yes.  (It was probably more like, "Um, okay....sure....if that's what you want......).  I started a weekly story time that summer. (I think it was 1997?)  It caught on like crazy.

The long version deals with what inspired my decision.  I was feeling a little hurt that there was a children's author panel for a big event in my city (which was Albuquerque at the time) and I knew the people in charge and they totally did not ask me to help out with the event, be on the panel, or  anything.  I felt kind of awful.

Then I had an epiphany.  Did I really want to present to adults THAT badly?  The truth was, no.  I write for kids and I wanted to perform for kids.  So, the StoryQueen came into being.  (Plus, it was an excellent excuse to wear all of my grandmother's rhinestone jewelry, a crown and a velvet cape!)

Sometimes things happen in you life that help you discover who you are.  The StoryQueen is, well, she is the most fun part of me.

I love how you turned your disappointment into such a positive outcome. That's perfect! And it ends up being rewarding for you and for the kids at the story time!

How many years have you been teaching?
I have been teaching since I was that's a long time.  (I'm not going to tell you exactly how long, though, because it would blow your mind.) 

Do you try out your stories on your students? 
Yes, my students are my guinea pigs.  (Brutal critics/enthusiastic fans, which ever the case may be.)

What book gets the best reaction when you do a story time (yours or someone else's)? 
Well, when an author reads her own book, that is a very special thing.  Kids pick up on this.  It's very close to magic.

Now I know from reading your blog that you've been working on a story with a great title: The Chicken Wizard. Those two words alone have sparked my curiosity! How's it going?
Don't ask.  I'm on my 4th completely different draft and it's still not resonating.  Some ideas are like that.  They take a bit longer to hatch.  (yes, pun intended.)

You are such a crack up :) 
Thanks so much for stopping by, Shelley.
This was fun Sherrie!  Kept me from doing the dishes for a bit!

All of Shelley's books are available on Amazon and Indiebound. You can keep up with her daily antics at the StoryQueen's Story Castle.

Friday, February 12, 2010


My kids have been getting out of school early every day this week because of parent teacher conferences. So Wednesday after school we hit the beach.

Now before you get jealous let me point out that it was cold. It had rained most of Tuesday. We had on sweatshirts and we didn't go in the water. We were there to look for shells. We found a ton.

We also found this cool vertebrae. Not sure what animal it's from, but it was fascinating to look at these perfectly preserved bones and wonder where they came from, how they got there.

For those of you icebound, snowbound or just plain tired of winter, remember: SPRING IS COMING!

And today, something we can all get excited about: Perceus Jackson!! YES!!

I even won free movie tickets for four people so tonight, I'm there. Just! Can't! WAIT!

I won't be posting Monday, but I'll have an interview up on Wednesday. Have a GREAT weekend!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Move Along

How hard are your words working for you?

As we get into our second and third chapters, my classmates and I are hearing the dreaded words: too much exposition. It's an easy trap to fall into. We try to fill in back story without leaving behind an info dump, we try to build character without telling the reader, we try to set the scene without a big block of description.

It's a lot to do.

Real live teens might sit around and chat just for fun, but in your book, their conversation has to have a purpose. They need to be revealing character, moving the plot and/or sharing info the reader needs to see. And they need to be doing it subtly. Every scene, every sentence, has to drive the story forward.

Are you feeling the pressure?

A lot of times we do this without thinking. Then there are those days where you move the same five words back and forth until you're ready to poke your eyeballs out. Been there.

But I'll share a little secret: finishing is half the battle. My class started a few weeks ago with 15 people, 13 people turned in outlines the second week. The following week, only 6 of us turned in our first chapters.

That's a pretty steep drop off.

It's hard work people. Not everyone can really make the commitment. Getting past the exposition is just the beginning. But if you're one of those people who perseveres, who puts in the time, you'll get there.

Make your words work. Some day they'll return the favor and be working for you.

Monday, February 8, 2010

My Brilliant Idea

Have you ever come up with an idea you thought was brilliant, only to find that someone did it first?

As most of you know, I've been working on a new book for my Media Bistro class. The story is about a 12-yo boy who gets struck by lightning and then can hear people's thoughts. His father is a detective and they end up tracking down this crime.

So last week I picked up a pile of books from my favorite sixth-grade reader. She's very into paranormal and insisted that I needed to read these titles. I pulled out Evermore by Alyson Noël and read it over the weekend.

Pissed. Me. Off.

Let's face it. Hearing the thoughts of every single person around you could be more of a curse than a blessing. One of the things I have my MC do when he doesn't want to hear people's thoughts is crank the iPod. And what do you think Alyson Noël had her MC do when she doesn't want to hear people's thoughts? Yeah. Crank the iPod.

It would be bad enough if this was a self-published title that maybe 200 people read. But no. This is a #1 NY Times Bestseller. And she stole my idea.

Okay, she didn't steal my idea. And I didn't steal it from her either. She just got there first. Which makes me want to cry.

Fortunately, my more rational side realizes that it's also an opportunity. Obviously the iPod thing was too easy. So now I have to dig deeper, be more creative, find something that makes just as much sense but hasn't already been done. It's a challenge. I think I'll be up for it.


Friday, February 5, 2010

Neil Gaiman and the Best Voice

I bought my tickets a few days after they went on sale. I mean, let's face it. In the writing world, Neil Gaiman is pretty much a rock star. And not just because of his books. He's made movies, written music, he's a prolific blogger and Twitterer -- the man's all over the place.

"I have planned nothing, so nothing can go wrong." We laughed at his first words and pretty much spent the rest of the evening enjoying his wit. I was looking forward to hearing about writing process and stories behind the story and he did offer some of that. But truly, he could have read us his grocery list and most of the people in that auditorium would have left happy.

He talked about finding the best voice, the best way to tell a story. He recalled taking a bubble bath at midnight in a suite that someone else was paying for and being awakened hours later by a phone call to tell him he'd won the Newberry. He told us about the joy of recording audiobooks, knowing "there will always come a point where you start cussing the idiot who wrote the book." He explained why he enjoys book signings: "The numbers turn back into people."

But mostly he read in his mesmerizing voice, stories that haven't been released yet, one that he called "a bit poemy around the edges." And he answered questions.

Someone asked him if he received a lot of criticism after winning the Newberry for opening a book for children with a murder. "No," he said. "Because I was diabolically clever about it. Words like murder, blood and kill are never mentioned. So if any vicious murders did them."

Another person asked him if he felt limited when he created screenplays based on his books. "Every mode has its limitations. But I find that the limitations are normally where the most interesting things occur."

And when a question came up from a person who is working on a PhD in Superherology, he just smiled. "I love living in a world where someone can get a degree in Superherology."

I couldn't agree more.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Cry if I Want To

Every once in a while I'll be in the mood to read a good tear jerker. Sometimes I'll get sucked into a book not realizing it's going to leave me in tears. And other times, something so unexpected will happen in a scene that it brings me to tears.

I remember reading the first Gregor the Overlander book and crying when a cockroach died. Sounds ridiculous, I know. And my kids were like, "Mommy, why are you crying?" But the scene involved sacrifice. This cockroach was willing to sacrifice its life for a baby girl. With my baby girl on my lap as I read the book, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of that selfless act. If a cockroach had run by me at that point, I probably would have scooped it up and fed it ice cream. Seriously.

Several writer friends have told me that they want to write a book that makes people cry. But how do you do that? How do you build scenes that bring out emotion in your readers? More importantly, how do you do it without the reader feeling manipulated?

Death usually brings tears. Especially if one life is sacrificed for another. But I guarantee that if the same cockroach had died at the start of the book, or even in the middle, I wouldn't have cried. My tears were justified (at least in my mind!) because of the relationship that had been built over 180 pages between the cockroach and the baby girl. They were friends, they loved each other. And when that cockroach turned and fought instead of running away, I knew he was only doing that because he loved the girl. And I knew how devastated she would be when she found out.

The groundwork for a teary scene has to be laid early in the book. We have to care about the characters and what's at stake for them.

What books have made you cry? And what are you doing in your writing to make your readers cry?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Building a Plot

I've spent the last week and a half plotting. And I've discovered something: I actually like it.

Up until now, I've been a pantser. I'll have a general idea that I want to write about, I'll open up a blank document and start writing by the seat of my pants. Once I got to know the main character I might plot out the next chapter or two, maybe go back and rewrite the opening. But plot out the whole story? Not a chance.

So when the second assignment for my class was to come up with an outline, I panicked. I wasn't sure if I could plan that far ahead. I didn't know my characters well enough. How would I do all the research in such a short amount of time?

It was interesting to see how other people approached the assignment. Some wrote a beginning, a middle and an end. Some wrote a line or two for each chapter. One person wrote a two page synopsis.

I wrote in scenes. This is just the way my brain works. A chapter may end up being more than one scene. I don't know yet. But I like being able to move scenes around until they flow logically and I often think up later scenes that tie in with earlier plot points. I also wrote a few pages for myself about the characters, getting to know them so I could plot their paths.

The book I'm working on for this class is a MG action/adventure with a mystery at its heart. So really, knowing where I'm going to end up is pretty essential to being able to tell this story at all!

Realizing that there was no right or wrong way to create an outline was really helpful. As I built my scenes, I realized something else: working out the major kinks and plot turns ahead of time is going to make writing this story go a lot faster. DUH!

I think I expected outlining to take away the creativity of writing my story, thought I'm not sure why. I'm still building this world and these people from the ground up. I'm just figuring out some of the structure of their story ahead of time, learning what makes them tick, looking for their turning points, their motivation.

Writing the outline has been fun but exhausting. I ended up with eight pages that I turned in this morning. Now I'll be jumping as every email comes in to see what comments my classmates and instructor have for me. Then I'll need to decide if I'm writing in first person, third person, present tense, past tense...but that's a decision for another day.

So tell me, are you a plotter or a pantser? And if you plot, what methods work for you?
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