Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What I've Learned About Writing

The more you write, the better you get.

There you have it. Everything I know boiled down to eight simple words. Deep thoughts, right? You probably already knew that.

But knowing it, and truly knowing it, are sometimes two very different things.

I didn't find an agent with the first book I queried. It won awards, it got requests, it had some close calls. I put blood, sweat and tears into that story. It was the absolute best that I could do.

At the time.

While I queried it, I started working on another story, the one that did land me with the incredibly wonderful Michelle Humphrey. And even though I found the first draft of that story quite brilliant, critique partners and beta readers were wise enough to point out what needed work. Sometimes quite bluntly :-) It took editing, rewriting, more editing, and another big rewrite until it got to the place where it was good enough to catch my agent's attention.

Last month when I went back to read that first book, the one I queried for a year to no avail, I discovered something amazing: I'm a better writer now than I was two years ago. Much better. I am SO glad that story never got published. It wasn't ready. And neither was I.

Of course, I didn't know it at the time. I probably would have been pissed off if someone suggested it at the time. It was the best I could do then. But by keeping at it, my best keeps getting better.

So my advice to every aspiring writer out there? Keep pouring your heart onto the page. Keep listening to people who are willing to give you feedback on your writing, even if you don't agree with it at the time. Because even the worst critique usually has at least a kernel of truth in it. Don't get discouraged. Everyone has suffered rejection and lived through it. Everyone has had to rewrite a story they thought they were done with.

The most important thing you can do is to keep at it. Keep writing. You can only get better.

Monday, March 28, 2011

An Action-Packed Series

"When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news."

Isn't that a great first line? It's the opening sentence of STORMBREAKER by Anthony Horowitz, the first book of the Alex Rider series. Awesome as that line is, the book only gets better from there.

Forced into spying for the British government agency M16, Alex Rider takes over the mission that got his late uncle killed. As he uncovers the plot, he learns the truth about his uncle's death as well. Alex is a likable hero, strong yet believable, and the clever way he gets out of situations keeps you on the edge of your seat.

The action never lets up in this book. In fact, I wouldn't recommend that you start it before bed because you'll be up all night reading and then trying to get your hands on the next book in the series. The plot is full of twists and turns, and of course, explosions. Every good spy novel has explosions, right? And If you've ever been fascinated by the cool gadgets that James Bond uses, you'll enjoy the ones Alex gets: zit cream that melts metal, a Game Boy that can find electronic bugs, and more.

Book 9 (yes, nine!) in the series, SCORPIA RISING, just came out this month so of course my 11yo had to buy it. These books skew to the older end of middle grade, but advanced readers as young as eight or nine will enjoy them too and parents won't have to worry about inappropriate content. While there are plenty of heart-pounding action scenes, there's no graphic violence or language.

STORMBREAKER was made into a decent movie starring Alex Pettyfer (currently starring in I AM NUMBER FOUR), but as always, the book (at least for me) is better. If you've got a middle grade reader who likes spies, epic action scenes and nonstop suspense, this is the perfect book to start them off with.

Looking for more Marvelous Middle Grade books? Check out these bloggers:
Shannon Whitney Messenger
Shannon O'Donnell
Ben Langhinrichs
Myrna Foster
Brooke Favero
Joanne Fritz

Friday, March 25, 2011

Writing Racy Part II

I just want to offer a heartfelt thank you for all the fabulous responses on Wednesday's post. You guys have given me a lot to think about.

I've spent a lot of time the last two days emailing back and forth with people who commented and I have to say, these conversations have been awesome. If you left a comment and you didn't hear from me, it's because I don't have your email address. Add it to your blogger profile or your sidebar or just email me at solvangsherrie at gmail dot com. I'm loving the thoughtful responses and I'd love to continue the conversations.

Because really, this isn't just about race. If you're female do you have a responsibility for how you portray females? What if you're gay or a cancer survivor or overweight or in a wheelchair? How much of who you are informs how and what you choose to write about?

As I said to many of you, I think in many ways, we're better off looking for our similarities than pointing out our differences. And yet, sometimes, by highlighting those obvious differences, we can then show our similarities with even greater impact. At least in my idealistic world :)

Maybe the fact that I've never experienced overt racism impacts my attitude. I mean, the worst thing that ever happened to me was in first grade. A kid named Stan told me I was chocolate ice cream and he was vanilla and vanilla was way better than chocolate. He actually taunted me for quite a while with this nonsense until a teacher heard him and he got busted. To this day, I'm not a fan of chocolate ice cream. Is it because of Stan? I have no idea whether or not I liked chocolate ice cream before Stan showed up in my life. But I do know that there are plenty of people who've had to deal with far worse. And I think for them, this issue could take on a whole different meaning.

I'd like to believe that one day race won't matter. That someday people won't be judged by their skin color, by whom they love or by any of the barriers that divide us now. Wouldn't that be lovely?

I'd also like to believe that one day I'll turn on the news and not see a single item about Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan.

Hey, a girl can dream, right?

And now, the winner of CAMO GIRL by Kekla Magoon:

Woo-hoo! Congratulations, Sheri!
Email me with your address and I will get that book right out to you.

And to everyone else, have a fabulous weekend <<33

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Writing Racy

You may have noticed from my little avatar, but just in case you didn't, I'll let you in on a secret: I'm not white.

Sorry if it came as a surprise. It's so much a part of me that I don't think about it on a daily basis. I certainly don't stop to point it out, at least not until today. Even when I look in the mirror I don't notice the color of my skin or the slant to my eyes. It's just me. I've been mistaken for Filipino, Hawaiian, Black, Latina... I am all of that, and none of it. (Oddly enough, no one has ever mistaken me for English or Scottish, even though I'm also that and only God knows what else!)

Every once in a while someone will ask me where I'm from. My answer? Ohio. That is where I was born after all. Sometimes they'll laugh, they think I'm toying with them. But originally, they'll say, where are your parents from? Um, Nicaragua and Jamaica. Oooohhhh... Like that explains it.

The thing is, I've never claimed to be anything other than a first-generation American. My parents are both mixed race so in my opinion, there's not enough of any one nationality in me to claim one race. That would be shortchanging part of who I am. When I fill out those forms that ask for ethnicity, I check every box except Eskimo. As far as I know, that's the only one that doesn't apply. But honestly, if an Alaskan native shows up on my doorstep and claims to be related, I'm not going to faint from surprise. I've got everything else. Why not that too?

But as a writer, what is my responsibility to represent people like me in the pages of my books?

I've been blogging for two years and never felt the need to talk about my race. People either like reading my posts or they don't. I don't think my race has anything to do with it.

In my books, I imagine characters who are not white, but I never say what any of them are. I don't think I even mention skin color except in one story. And every reader thought from my description that the kid just had a tan. *sigh* In many of the stories I've read where they do mention skin color, it often sounds contrived. Sometimes through language or situations or names, you realize that the character isn't white. That, to me, is the most natural way to integrate it.

Or through the cover. But that's a whole other can of worms that I'm not even going to get into. Not today at least.

Because there are a lot of people like me. We were born in America, we see ourselves as American. We don't have ethnic names, we just speak English (okay, yes, I speak Spanish as well, but ignore that for the moment!).

Do I have a responsibility as a writer to find a way to represent people like me on the page?

(And btw, sorry if you were expecting a different type of racy discussion, but I write middle grade. You can visit Stina if you want a more sexy topic :P )

Monday, March 21, 2011

Author Spotlight on: Kekla Magoon

It's another marvelous Middle Grade Monday and I'm pleased to have an interview with author (and agent mate) Kekla Magoon. 

Kekla made a splash with her debut novel, THE ROCK AND THE RIVER, winning the American Library Association's Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent. The book was also nominated for an NAACP Image Award and was named a 2010 ALA Notable Book for Children and a YALSA 2010 Best Books for Young Adults. What a way to debut! 

Her latest book, a contemporary middle grade novel called CAMO GIRL, came out in January and earned a starred review from Kirkus.  

Find out how you can win a copy of this marvelous middle grade book at the end of the interview.

How amazing was it to get so much attention for your first novel?
Amazing, yes. It was many things at once: wonderful, exciting, flattering, perhaps nerve-wracking at times. (I'm comfortable in my pajamas at the computer, and suddenly I had to find something to WEAR to all these events!) 

When ROCK came out, I hoped it would get noticed for being the first novel with significant content about the Black Panther Party for young people, but it still surprises me that the book was so widely well-received right away. I was really thrilled to be honored with the CSK New Talent Award, because the awards are selected by librarians, who are such fabulous book-oriented people--and very discerning! I can't imagine a bigger honor than ALA folk reading and enjoying my books, because that's how they'll really get into kids' hands. My other favorite award was the Eva Perry Book Club's Mock-Newbery, because I got to meet with a really fun bunch of teens at the ALA convention. 

The most unexpected thing was the NAACP Image Award nomination--before I got nominated it wasn't even on my radar as something to hope for. I got to go to Los Angeles for the televised award show (the literature part wasn't televised, but still) and I saw lots of Hollywood stars! Overall, it's been extremely uplifting and gratifying to know that people have come to care about my book as much as I do, and especially to know that it has helped inspire youth and educators to consider a different perspective on the civil rights movement.

Bummer they didn't televise your part, but still, what an incredible experience! Even though THE ROCK AND THE RIVER is historical, the writing feels so immediate. How hard was it to put yourself in 1968 to write this story?
Kids sometimes ask me if I was alive in the civil rights movement, because the story feels believable. I'm so glad you phrased it differently! But I'm always glad to hear that the writing feels immediate. 

I did work hard to put myself in a different time period, mostly through my imagination. I listened to 60s music on a playlist sometimes when I was writing, or to get into the mood to write. I also feel connected to the underlying issues of the story--race relations and social justice movements--because I deal with these issues in my own life in the present, although the manifestations are different today. 

Whatever's in me that made me want to tell this story is based on things I have experienced or witnessed, so I put a lot of that into the characters. I wasn't alive in the 60s (my memory starts somewhere in the mid-80s) but it really wasn't as long ago as it sometimes seems. There are lots of people in my life who remember those difficult days, and I was able to draw on their knowledge, as well as on research material like books, newspapers and documentary films. Interestingly, much of the intergenerational sharing has taken place after the book's release. Invariably, older people who read the book will come up to me and say, "I enjoyed your book; it reminds me of..." and they proceed to tell me a story about their own memories of the movement.

You did so much research on The Black Panthers and the civil rights movement for this book. Do you plan to put together a non-fiction companion book at some point?
Yes, I would like to do a non-fiction book on The Black Panthers. I'm currently researching and developing a proposal for it, actually. It's an important Black History topic that isn't widely talked about, especially with children and youth, but it's starting to be on the radar after
THE ROCK AND THE RIVER as well as Rita Williams-Garcia's Newbery Honor-winning title ONE CRAZY SUMMER.

CAMO GIRL is very different from THE ROCK AND THE RIVER. Are you more attracted to contemporary stories or do you plan to write more historicals?
I like both historical and contemporary. They serve different purposes for me, both as a reader and a writer, in the same way that fantasy serves a different purpose than realistic fiction. I often like to deal with so-called "edgy" topics in contemporary fiction. If that's too generic a term, I could specify by saying I write about topics that challenge me in different ways, things I struggle with or things I see others struggling with in the world. 

In CAMO GIRL, those issues include bullying, childhood psychological issues, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some would argue that exploring the Black Panthers is an "edgy" topic for historical too, I suppose, but for me historical fiction is more about understanding what it might have been like to live in a certain place and time. I like history, but what I'm attracted to is the story behind different moments, and how people navigated difficult choices within situations that really occurred.

How long does it take you to write and revise a novel?
Each one is different. Generally speaking, it takes me at least a calendar year to take a book from the idea stage to a complete manuscript good enough for submission to my agent or editor, but it doesn't take me a year's worth of actual writing time. In other words, I write pretty quickly, but I work on multiple projects at once. My inspiration/enthusiasm/commitment to each piece waxes and wanes. Sometimes I need time to mull. 

I wrote THE ROCK AND THE RIVER in about a year, then did two meaningful revisions over the course of the next two years. But after that first year, I was never working on it exclusively. I wrote the bulk of CAMO GIRL in about three months, but I knew the story and had been picking at it page by page for about a year beforehand--but during that year I was actively drafting another novel! At the other extreme, a novel I drafted the first five pages of back in 2003, I only just sent my agent the full finished copy in 2010.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Pantser, until I figure out the plot, then I switch over. I rarely write my chapters in chronological order, though, even after I know the general plot. I jump around a lot, drafting scenes that feel right to me, usually knowing as I type that "This will be in the book, I just don't know where yet!"

I've heard so much about the Vermont MFA program. How do you think it benefited you as a writer?
VCFA has affected me--and my career--in truly countless ways. I'm inherently excited about writing and I think I would still be writing even if I hadn't discovered the VCFA program, but I can't imagine that my life as a writer would be unfolding the way it is right now without that place and the people I've met there. 

I'll break it down three ways: 
  • One, simple craft. I know that my writing improved dramatically as a result of the intense and focused environment, the wisdom, talent and commitment of the faculty, and the support and guidance of my classmates. 
  • Two, intention. Going through the program changed me from a "dabbler" to a "writer." This is a linguistic distinction--I believe if you write at all, you are a writer--but VCFA helped me claim writing as a deep personal value, an aspiration, and ultimately empowered me to pursue it as a career. 
  • Three, community. Going to residency as an adult is like going to camp as a kid. Writing is a solitary occupation; it's so easy to get too far into your own head, and the regular non-writer people in your life can rarely relate to the struggles you go through. Other writers can. 

I can't fully articulate the emotion behind that sort of validation, but it's the same reason why librarians get excited at ALA, or teachers at NCTE, or SCBWI members at a conference--the people there GET you!

How long does it take to complete the coursework? Would you do it again?
Indeed, there are times when I wish I could do it again! I absolutely would recommend VCFA to anyone who is serious and committed to his or her writing. The MFA program lasts two years, which comprises four semesters of independent coursework with a faculty mentor and five total residencies--one to start each semester, plus one at the end of the program when you graduate. 

I returned to the campus this January to serve as a Graduate Assistant during the residency. It was great to re-enter the supportive, passionate community for an extended period of time. Frankly, the community's support has never waned for me, no matter where I am--we continue to form an active network with one another online and in person. It's been an extremely dynamic experience for me to be connected to VCFA, both as a student and as an alum!

What do you have coming out next?
This spring I have a non-fiction book out called TODAY THE WORLD IS WATCHING YOU (Lerner), which tells the story of the Little Rock Nine and their struggle for school integration in the late 1950s after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision. It's actually available now, although it's official release date is not until April. 

In 2012, I have a YA novel called 37 THINGS I LOVE coming out with Henry Holt (for those detail-oriented readers who are curious, this is the novel I was drafting while picking at CAMO GIRL for a year!) and a companion novel to THE ROCK AND THE RIVER called FIRE IN THE STREETS with Aladdin/Simon & Schuster.

Sounds like you've got a busy schedule ahead! Thanks for stopping by, Kekla!
Thanks, Sherrie!

You can learn more about Kekla on her web page
Or watch a Simon & Schuster interview about her favorite people in history

If you'd like to win a copy of CAMO GIRL, let me know in the comments. I'll be announcing a random winner on Friday so be sure to leave your comment before midnight on Thursday, March 24. Good luck!!

Looking for more Marvelous Middle Grade books? Check out these bloggers:
Shannon Whitney Messenger
Shannon O'Donnell
Ben Langhinrichs
Myrna Foster
Brooke Favero
Joanne Fritz

Friday, March 18, 2011

What I've Learned About Queries

We all know that querying sucks. It's hard to be rejected, hard to put yourself out there when you've been shot down so many times before.

But here's the thing: sometimes when you get the polite, "Thank you, but it's not the right fit," all they're really saying is, "It's not the right fit."

Now I'm assuming here that you've written a killer query and had it vetted by several people. I'm also assuming that you have written, revised, let it sit, and then rewritten and revised some more. Because if you've only written and revised and you're getting rejections, then by all means, go back and revise again before you send out more queries.

This is for the people who have done that, the people who have done everything in their power to craft the best story they possibly can. I know a LOT of people who are here. I've read their books. I know they're talented writers.

And I'm here to say, truly, sometimes it's not you. It's them.

I don't mean that in an adversarial way. All I'm saying is that there are a whole realm of possibilities out there. The agent you queried may have just signed someone with a similar story. Maybe they're holding out for a particular kind of story that they know a certain editor is looking for. Maybe they think it's a great idea, but not something they want to represent. Or maybe they just weren't feeling it that day.

Who. Knows.

The point is, this part of the process is out of your control. You can't beat yourself up second guessing the hidden meaning in a rejection. Sometimes it's not you. It's them.

Don't lose hope.

You only need one yes. But you might not get it until after you've heard a hundred nos.

Write the best story you can. Write the best query you can. And above all, keep writing. As long as you believe, one day it will pay off.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

My Favorite Book

It may seem kind of strange, but I rarely open my favorite book in my collection. I haven't read it cover to cover. Honestly, I only pull it out on occasion to read some of my favorite parts.


Because it's really, really old. As in printed-before-the-last-century old.
My 1882 Excelsior Edition of Andersen's Fairy Tales

Kind of silly, I know. But I love that the cover is embossed leather with gold leaf. I love the musty smell that comes off the yellowed pages. I love that inside there's an ad for additional collections, all priced at $1. I love that I paid $2 when I bought it from an antique store years ago. To me, its worth so much more.

I recently pulled it down to reread The Tinderbox, a favorite of mine as a child. I remember being fascinated with the story because while many fairy tales seemed to have a moral, this one was kind of immoral. The main character killed people who got in his way, never paid for his crimes and got to marry the princess in the end.

Hmmm.... No wonder Disney hasn't popularized this one....

What's your favorite book in your collection? Why?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Proof that You're a Writer...

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at
  • You edit everything, including your husband. While he's speaking to you.
  • Your main purpose for leaving the house is to scribble down conversations that other people are having so that you can go back home and type them into your novel.
  • You accidentally call your children by the names of characters in the book you are writing. And they answer.
  • You know more names of editors and agents in New York than you do of the people living on your street.
  • You go into withdrawal if you spend more than a few hours away from your computer.
  • A day without checking your email makes you so ill you end up in the ER, where fortunately, they have free wireless access.
  • You have better conversations with the voices in your head than the people sitting next to you.
  • You prefer to sit in a quiet room with your computer than to go out on a Saturday night.
  • You can come up with five other words for "look" without even thinking.
  • The word 'rejection' makes your heart stop, even when it has nothing to do with your writing.

Do you have any more to add? Leave them in the comments :)

I won't be posting on Monday because the kids are off from school so we're going to Knott's Berry Farm (which actually has far more roller coasters than berries these days). Have a great weekend and I'll see you back here on Wednesday!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Reading Out Loud

Today is World Read Aloud Day, part of LitWorld's global literacy movement. If you're in New York City, you can check out the 24-hour Read Aloud Marathon in Times Square, where they'll be having some famous names read to the crowds. But if you're like me, living in a different part of the country, you can find another way to mark the day.

My daughter and I decided to celebrate by reading one of our favorite picture books together, Bark, George by Jules Feiffer. Believe it or not, this hilarious PB has less than 230 words. Talk about making every word count!

Happy reading!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Building on a Classic

Like most kids, mine enjoy a good pirate story. We've read How I Became a Pirate, Uncle Pirate, The Time Pirates, and of course Peter Pan. So when I showed my kids the cover of Peter and the Starcatchers, they were more than willing to have me read it to them.

Now I happen to love a good retelling of a fairy tale. (Check out this review of three versions of my favorite fairy tale, East of the Sun, West of the Moon). But the writing duo of Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson do more than just retell the tale of Peter Pan. They turn it on it's head and create their own mythology. Filled with adventure, magic and, of course, pirates, this story also has a huge dose of humor (always a plus with middle grade). We see how Peter and the Lost Boys first cross paths with Hook (who has a different name since he doesn't have his hook yet) and Smee. We also learn how Tinkerbell and the mermaids of the lagoon come into existence.

This book makes a great read-aloud (perfect for National Read Aloud Day on Wednesday), but it's easy enough for good readers to tackle on their own. Now that there are four books in the series, this is an excellent choice for kids who like to follow a group of characters on numerous adventures.

Looking for more Marvelous Middle Grade book reviews? Check out these bloggers:
Shannon O'Donnell
Ben Langhinrichs
Myrna Foster
Brooke Favero
Joanne Fritz

Friday, March 4, 2011

Beautiful Blogger

I've been bad about passing on blogging awards, so I'm trying to rectify that by following up on this one that I received on Monday from Tabitha Olson. Thank you, Tabitha! (And if you don't follow her blog Writer Musings, you should! She writes great book reviews AND has some awesome giveaways!)

When she gave me the award, Tabitha listed seven pet peeves, so here are mine:

  1. Finding the word "perched" in every single book I read. It's become a game for the kids when I read to them. And oddly enough, we find it every single time. Perching is for birds, not people, not houses and it's not a creative use of the word when it's in every book.
  2. People who complain about the weather. If it rains, their plans are ruined. If it's sunny, they miss the rain. I mean seriously, we live in Southern California. It doesn't get much better than this. Enjoy what comes. It's all good. And complaining won't change it anyway.
  3. Misspelled words in advertising and product names. I downloaded a multiplication game for my daughter called Timez Attack. I'm sorry, but just because we're concentrating on multiplications doesn't mean you can spell the title wrong. It doesn't make the game more fun. It just undermines a different part of her education. Ugh.
  4. Tourists. Maybe because I live in a tourist town, but it really drives me crazy when they stand in the middle of the street to take a picture of a windmill. Hello! Trying to get somewhere without killing anyone but you're making it difficult!
  5. Laundry.
  6. Socks. Especially when they never make it into the laundry basket.
  7. Buying a book for myself. And then finding another copy buried under the stack by my nightstand. Although that sometimes turns into a sweet giveaway on the blog :)
I'm passing this award on to seven other beautiful bloggers, in no particular order:
Laura Pauling
Kristan Hoffman
Lori Walker
Anne Gallagher
Bish Denham
Angela Felsted
Lenny Lee

And the winner of Michael Spradlin's The Youngest Templar: KEEPER OF THE GRAIL is:

Congratulations, Kelly! Send me your snail mail and I'll get this book out to you asap.

Have a great weekend everyone!!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Read Across America Day

If Dr. Seuss was still alive, he'd be 107 years old. And probably pretty amazed by the legacy he's left behind.

To celebrate his birthday (and encourage young readers) the National Education Association established Read Across America Day in 1998. Schools, libraries and book stores observe the day in different ways. My daughter's third grade class gets to have a reading party before lunch. The kids bring in a stuffed animal or pillow and a favorite book to share.

But the celebration doesn't last for just one day. March is Read Across America month and NEA has an downloadable calendar with resources and ideas for keeping kids reading every day of the year.

Their website has plenty of ideas for creating reading events that support literacy for children.

And if you'd like to win a wonderful book to read with a child (or on your own!) leave a comment on the post below before midnight on Thursday. The winner will be announced Friday. Happy reading!
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