Friday, May 27, 2011

Reading Like A Writer

Blogger Tabitha Olson writes some of the best book reviews I've read. Even when she doesn't like a book, she manages to analyze it so thoroughly, that half the time I still want to read it, just to be able to fully appreciate the insight on craft that she so eloquently shares. I also know that when I read her reviews, she isn't going to cheer for something that she doesn't feel is quite there. But she's never insulting or offensive. She always strikes a great balance.

Today she's here to share her thoughts on reading, writing and reviewing. Take it away, Tabitha!


Honesty. What does it mean to you? I don’t mean the dictionary’s definition. What does it mean to you?

I’ll tell you what it means to me: an open mind, balance, objectivity, and exploration. Basically, it means I need to take a step back and look in places I don’t ordinarily look. It’s very eye-opening, and I apply this concept every time I sit down to read.

When you pick up a book, what are you intending to get out of it? Just enjoyment or entertainment? Or do you want to see how published authors manage their craft? For me, I like to read for entertainment, but it always come second to craft. So, I tend to view reading as a learning experience with the added bonus of good entertainment value. :)

But how do you turn reading into a learning experience?

It’s not easy. But, since nothing about writing is easy, that should come as no surprise. :) In order to get the most out of a reading experience, I have to embrace every aspect of honesty. This manifests in a few ways.

Put yourself in the author’s shoes.
Since writers do this kind of thing all the time, that shouldn’t be too difficult. :) Putting yourself in the author’s shoes helps you to be in the right place so you can better understand the story. In order to get the most out of this exercise, two things must happen. 1) Figure out what the author intended to accomplish with his story. 2) Look at the story itself and figure out what it actually accomplished. Yeah, it’s hard, but there are always little clues that help us along. When you first start out, it might require a re-read or two. Once you’ve done this, though, you can move on to the next point…

Put on your critiquing hat.
I firmly believe that critiquing can teach us as much about writing as actually writing, so I try to critique as much as I can. When I read a book, I basically treat it like I’m reading my critique partner’s work. I start out with the assumption that there’s going to be both good and not so good stuff, and make mental notes accordingly. Reading a published book is different from critiquing because the author can’t take the book back and make changes. BUT, he can improve his writing going forward. So, if you review books, you can write an honest review in the vein of a constructive critique, and learn something in the process. :)

Be objective about what works and what doesn’t.
There are two aspects to this. 1) Strong reactions, either positive or negative. Take a good look at why the story evoked such a strong reaction from you and explore it. If you loved it, or if you hated it, figure out why. There are likely several aspects to this. 2) Don’t let the weaker reaction slip away. Even if you hated the book, what did it do right? If you loved the book, what could have been better? There are always two sides to the coin, and we need to be objective and honest with ourselves by looking at both of them, because that’s the key to maximizing our learning experience.

To be the best writers we can possibly be, I think we need to read widely and analyze everything. What did we love, and why? What would we have done differently? Be honest with yourself, and with the books you read, and you’re on your way toward creating a good learning experience, which will ultimately make you a better writer.

Thank you, Tabitha! You can read more of her book reviews (and sign up for this month's giveaway) at her blog, Writer Musings.

Monday's a holiday so I won't be posting, but I'll be back Wednesday. Hope you all have a fabulous Memorial Day weekend!!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Trust What you Know

Maybe you’ve noticed…there are a lot of people dispensing advice on the internet. And a lot of it’s good. In fact, I’ve learned quite a lot from reading online posts.

If it wasn’t for the internet, I never would have learned how to plot a character’s internal journey as well as their external journey. I wouldn’t have known how to format a query letter, find a beta reader or kill my darlings. I may never have tried to interview my main characters, create layers for my stories or keep tension on every page.

But sometimes all the advice, even though it’s good advice, can get to be a bit much. These days when I sit down to type I don’t just hear my character’s thoughts, or even the sound of my snarky internal editor. I also hear voices reminding me to use more active verbs, stop using filter words and for once, add some emotional depth to those characters before the third draft!

Ugh. It’s a lot to think about.

Every one of us started on the writing journey because we had a story to tell. And if you’ve been blogging for a while, chances are you’ve become a pretty savvy writer because there’s a lot of great information out there to help your writing improve.

But for today, when you sit down to write, turn off all the advice and all the chatter. You already know what to do. Now just trust yourself to do it. Write that story.

We’re all waiting to read it.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Book Review: Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

I never thought I would fall in love with a criminal mastermind. Especially one who's only 12.

Artemis Fowl intrigued me from the first page. He speaks like an adult and takes fiendish delight in toying with anyone he doesn't consider his intellectual equal. He has no fear of brawn, either. But not because he's an imposing figure. He doesn't need to be. He has his heavily armed bodyguard, Butler, for that. Not that Butler needs weapons. He could kill a man a hundred different ways without using a weapon.

Do you see why boys like this book?

Artemis Fowl is full of gun fights, explosions, chases and double crosses. And did I mention the fairies? Yeah. But don't look for any sweet creatures with diaphanous wings. These elves, gnomes, trolls and fairies carry weapons. And they aren't afraid to use them.

The amazing underground worlds that Eoin Colfer has created with this series takes traditional lore and turns it on its ear. The best part, though, is the understated, smart a$$ character of Artemis. His ruthless words often contradict the thoughts running through his mind. Much as he wants to be seen as a tough guy, he has a soft spot for his mother. And though neither would admit it, he and Butler would be lost without each other.

The entire cast of characters make this book fun to read. There's Holly, the elf that Artemis goes up against. She's strong, she's a trained LEP Recon officer and she's got an attitude to match. Commander Root is the coolest, fungus cigar chomping fairy you'll ever come across. Foaly the centaur, a tech wizard, loves to match wits against Artemis, even while keeping the fairies shielded from humans and developing cool new gadgets. Mulch Diggums, the kleptomaniac dwarf with an explosive back side, can't seem to stay out jail. With more than one secret hidden in his beard, there's more to this dwarf than just his killer farts.

Put all of these characters together, add a stolen book of gnomish, a lot of gold, a missing father, a fairy-napping, cool futuristic gadgets, and lots of explosions, and you'll see why this has become a popular, long running series. I'm partial to the original covers, but my son thinks the new ones are even better. Whichever version you read, it's what's inside that will keep you turning the pages.

Looking for more Marvelous Middle Grade reviews? Check out these bloggers:
Shannon Whitney Messenger
Shannon O'Donnell
Joanne Fritz
Myrna Foster
Brooke Favero
Anita Laydon Miller
Deb Marshall
Barbara Watson
Michael Gilmartin

And I've got three winners for the ARCs from last week's post:

Congrats to Lenny, Brooke and Jackee!! Email me with your snail mail addresses and I'll get your books out to you!!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Racing Through Solvang

I sat down to write this post and realized I had written something similar two years ago. The only difference today is that Lance Armstrong won't be here, and neither will I. Rather than being trapped with all the road closures, we're heading down to the beach for the day :)

If you want to win one of the ARCs I'm giving away, be sure to leave a comment on this other post. You have until Sunday night. Have a great weekend!


Sometimes big things happen in small places.

Today the Amgen Tour of California makes its way through Solvang. It's astounding to me that part of this major world class event is staged in our little Valley. The riders fly by, about a block from my house. I watched from the bottom of the hill, where they rounded the corner, so close I could have reached out and touched them! I didn't want to get arrested so I kept my hands to myself :^)

The amount of people thronging our streets was pretty amazing. The booths, the groupies, the traveling masses that accompany this race -- it's overwhelming. It's not every day that you see a jumbo tv screen on Copenhagen Drive, towering over thousands of people, each hoping to catch a glimpse of the riders speeding by. Our population quadruples for the day when this event rolls through town.

One of my neighbors, a semi-pro biker, paid the thousand dollars to ride in the amateur pre-race. Other friends volunteered on the route or helped cook and serve food to the riders. For this one day each year, the town shuts down to accommodate the time trial. We don't get mail, many roads are closed, schools are out and we all throng downtown to see the spectacle.

This is the fourth year that Solvang has hosted Stage 6 of the race, and the first time I've been up close and personal with it. Soon the EZ ups will come down, the gates will be loaded and the bikers will move on to the next place.

And Solvang will go back to being a small town.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Magic Number

Today I'm guest posting over at Adventures in Children's Publishing. I'm both terrified and honored that they're including something from me on their amazing blog! Here's a sneak peek at what I wrote:


A friend asked me the other day how many queries she should send out for a book before giving up.


My first reaction was, “NEVER GIVE UP!” But then I started thinking about my own querying journey and I realized sometimes, you do have to give up.

I started querying SECRET OF UNDINE in early 2009. I loved that book. It had water faeries and trolls, and two unsuspecting kids who get caught up in a territory war between the magical creatures. It was brilliant. *snarf* I entered it in a prominent contest and won third place. I thought I had it made. Agents were going to be lining up to get their hands on this story...

Head on over to Adventures in Children's Publishing to read the rest.

And if you haven't already left a comment to be entered in the fabulous drawing for the ARCs of three soon-to-be-released books, get thee to the post below. Or just follow this handy link :)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Coming Soon to a Bookstore Near You

I don't have a review today, but I do have some ARCs to give away, courtesy of my fabulous local indie, The Book Loft. Two are middle grade, one is YA, all three will be coming out next month.

First up, SHARK WARS by E.J. Altbacker. Unlike most ARCs, this one is actually hard cover!

(From the back cover:) Journey into the ocean's depths for a middle grade adventure series that has all the action of Warriors and Star Wars...but brings the battle underwater!

(From Goodreads:) Since the dawn of time, prehistoric shark clans called Shivers have ruled over the earth's oceans, fierce protectors of all who swim. For eons, the Big Blue has prospered under Shiver Law, and the delicate balance of sea life kept sacred. Until now.

Rising sea temperatures and overfishing have caused food to become scarce, and the battle for new hunting grounds has brought with it corruption and warfare.

Now, with the ocean on the brink of chaos, a young reef shark named Gray - exiled from the safety of his peaceful reef home - must venture deep into Open Water to unlock the secrets of his destiny and bring peace back to the ocean. But first, he'll have to discover the truth about who - and what - he really is.

Coming from Razorbill June 28, 2011 

THE ABSOLUTE VALUE OF MIKE by Kathryn Erskine, author of Mockingbird

(From Goodreads:) Mike tries so hard to please his father, but the only language his dad seems to speak is calculus. And for a boy with a math learning disability, nothing could be more difficult. When his dad sends him to live with distant relatives in rural Pennsylvania for the summer to work on an engineering project, Mike figures this is his big chance to buckle down and prove himself. But when he gets there, nothing is what he thought it would be. The project has nothing at all to do with engineering, and he finds himself working alongside his wacky eighty-something- year-old aunt, a homeless man, and a punk rock girl as part of a town-wide project to adopt a boy from Romania. Mike may not learn anything about engineering, but what he does learn is far more valuable.

Coming from Philomel June 9, 2011  

And because some readers can never get enough dystopia (yeah, that would be me!)
ASHES, ASHES by Jo Treggiari

(From Goodreads:) A thrilling tale of adventure, romance, and one girl's unyielding courage through the darkest of nightmares.

Epidemics, floods, droughts--for sixteen-year-old Lucy, the end of the world came and went, taking 99% of the population with it. As the weather continues to rage out of control, and Sweepers clean the streets of plague victims, Lucy survives alone in the wilds of Central Park. But when she's rescued from a pack of hunting dogs by a mysterious boy named Aidan, she reluctantly realizes she can't continue on her own. She joins his band of survivors, yet, a new danger awaits her: the Sweepers are looking for her. There's something special about Lucy, and they will stop at nothing to have her.

Coming from Scholastic June 1, 2011

If you'd like to win one of these books, let me know in the comments. I'll randomly select some names Sunday night and announce the winners next Monday, May 23. 

If you're looking for some Marvelous Middle Grade reviews, check out these bloggers:
Shannon Whitney Messenger
Shannon O'Donnell
Joanne Fritz
Myrna Foster
Brooke Favero
Anita Laydon Miller
Deb Marshall
Barbara Watson
Michael Gilmartin

And are we all glad to have Blogger back to normal?! Yeah, Friday the 13th indeed!!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Writer Magic

Every writer believes in magic.

It doesn’t matter what genre we write. Whether it’s realistic fiction, paranormal, fantasy, YA, MG – every word we write is a testament to our belief in magic.

We believe in the magic of stringing words together, that those words will reach readers ready to dive into our fictional worlds.

We believe in the magic of querying, that we’ll find a dream agent who will sell our story to editors at the mythic New York publishers.

We believe in the magic of reaching out to people across states, countries, ages and platforms, to share our stories and build friendships.

There is magic to be found in every hour of every day, in every part of this writing journey. In every letter typed, every friendship forged, every world built, every smile shared.

Every tear shed.

Thank you for being part of the magic in my life.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Amazon Seeks (Publishing) World Domination

Things are changing so fast in the publishing industry it can leave your head spinning. Earlier this week, Amazon announced that they would be publishing a romance line, Montlake, and three of the Big Six publishers announced that they would be opening a joint, online retail site, Bookish. (Read the Publisher's Weekly article.)

Amazon made it clear that this is the first of several publishing imprints. Below is an excerpt from Publisher's Marketplace:

Amazon Launches Romance Imprint, with More Genre Lines to Come
Amazon is launching another imprint, Montlake Romance (named for a Seattle neighborhood), which will publish "a broad range of frontlist titles in popular romance sub-genres, including romantic suspense and contemporary and historic romance novels, as well as fantasy and paranormal." The first announced author is two-time RITA winner Connie Brockway, whose THE OTHER GUY'S BRIDE will be published this fall. They say it will "be available to North American readers in Kindle, print and audio formats at, as well as at national and independent booksellers," and Amazon tells us her print edition will be published as a trade paperback, though in the future they expect to publish romance authors in trade paper and mass market.

But it makes me wonder: will Bookish be able to compete against Amazon's formidable online book sales and who, besides Amazon, will carry Amazon published books?

Do they really think national and independent booksellers will carry their books? I mean truthfully, I can't see my local indie embracing Amazon books when they've been such a ruthless competitor in the past. And as a writer, would you want your agent pitching your books to Amazon imprints?

What do you think?

P.S. It isn't just books. According to this article, Amazon dominates one third of all e-commerce in the United States. Something to think about...

Monday, May 9, 2011

Audio Book Review: The Indian in the Cupboard

Confession time: I've never actually read this book. Mainly because the audiobook is SO very good!

A few years ago when we were going on a long road trip, we borrowed this tape from the library. (Yes, it was so long ago that we still had a cassette player in the car!) I'm not always a fan of audio books. Many times a perfectly good story can become annoying with the wrong reader. (The guy who read the Percy Jackson books totally grated on my nerves. If I hadn't already read and loved those books, I doubt I could have listened to a single cd.)

We were pleasantly surprised when we listened to THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD. None of us were familiar with the book. But the British author, Lynne Reid Banks, did a wonderful job of bringing her story to life. Her voicing, especially for the Indian and the cowboy, Boone, matched the personality of the characters so perfectly. In fact, when we watched the movie some time later, the guy playing the Indian seemed like such a wimp compared to the voice and personality the author had given him.

The story blends magic and history with an exploration of family, friendship and growing older. Not only do we watch the Indian and cowboy try to forge a friendship, despite their stereotypes of one another, we also see how the friendship between Omri and Patrick is challenged as they fight over how to take care of the Indian and cowboy they have brought to life. Banks subtly weaves in some very grown up themes of racism, responsibility, love and honor, but she never loses sight of the fun in the story of magically bringing a toy to life.

Because it was so good, we ended up downloading our own copy of the audio book. I've listened to this story now three times with my kids and every time I find new things to enjoy. Even if you've read the printed book before, I would absolutely recommend listening to Lynne Reid Banks read her classic story to you. It'll make your next four-hour drive in the car much more enjoyable :-)

Looking for more Marvelous Middle Grade Books? Check out these bloggers:
Shannon Whitney Messenger
Shannon O'Donnell
Joanne Fritz
Brooke Favero
Barbara Watson
Natalie Aguirre
Anita Laydon Miller
Sheri Larson
Middle Grade Mafioso

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Internet School of Writing

As writers we are constantly bombarded with ways to spend our money to improve our craft. Phenomenal conferences, star-studded workshops, weekend retreats. Quite the smorgasbord of expensive writerly treats.

The truth is: you don't need to spend another dime.

You can find tons of inspiration, tutorials and writing wisdom through blogging. Here are a few blogs that dispense plenty of useful advice at a price everyone can afford.

Adventures in Children's Publishing
If you don't already follow these ladies, you should. Their Friday roundups of blog posts are legendary. You could literally spend all day reading the amazing links they find each week. Their WoW Wednesdays posts are instructive and inspiring, and on Mondays they highlight new releases, often with giveaways.

Laura Pauling
This chick can analyze story structure in books like no one I've ever seen. Her posts are so good at showing what makes a story work. People always say that reading is the best teacher. I say read with Laura. Check out the books that she analyzes and then re-read her posts. It will help you understand the craft behind a good story and help you on the way to improving your own novels.

The Other Side of the Story
I just recently discovered this blog and holy smokes, what a treasure trove of information. Author Janice Hardy has more than 500(!) articles on planning, writing and editing your novel and it's beautifully organized to make finding what you're looking for a cinch.

The Bookshelf Muse
Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have put together multiple thesauruses for writers. With lists of descriptive words for emotions, setting, symbolism, and more, these ladies are a great resource when you're at a loss for words.

Literary Rambles
Casey McCormick does a ton of research to help writers find agents. Her profiles on people who rep books for kids should be your first stop once your manuscript is polished. She is constantly updating the information and if you don't see the agent you're looking for, you can email her your suggestion for a future profile. In addition to the agent profiles, Natalie Aguirre now regularly contributes with interviews and book give aways. Definitely a great site for kidlit writers hoping to be published one day.

Write On Con
The brain child of Casey McCormick, Elana Johnson and a host of other bloggers, this is the most amazing site. The inaugural free online conference took place last summer and all the incredible transcripts are still available on the site. They've also been hosting monthly chats with agents and live query events. This year's conference is scheduled for August 16-18 so mark your calendar. You won't want to miss it.

There are so many more valuable blogs and web sites. What are some of your favorite online resources? Give 'em a shoutout in the comments (even if it's your own blog!!).

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Author Spotlight on: Medeia Sharif

So many amazing books are coming out this year, many by people I've seen around the blogosphere for a while. And to me, it's even cooler when someone you "know" has a book to celebrate. One of those people is Medeia Sharif. Her debut, BESTEST. RAMADAN. EVER., will be released in July and check out these cool blurbs:

"I laughed out loud as Almira struggled to fit in with her traditional family as well as the rest of the world."

BESTEST. RAMADAN. EVER. deftly combines humor and poignancy with an authentic teen voice set against the multicultural background of vibrant Miami and Almira's loving yet-strict Muslim family. The book's universal themes will resonate with all teens balancing family ties with coming-of-age conflicts."

Please welcome author/blogger/teacher Medeia Sharif!

How long did you work on BESTEST. RAMADAN. EVER. before you started querying?
I worked on it for five months before I started querying.  Then I revisited the manuscript after a round of rejections, made it stronger, and started querying again.

How long did it take to find your agent? Your editor?
About nine months after starting BRE I found my agent Marlene Stringer, and this was after a few months of querying.  After finding her, it took approximately a year to get a book deal (but my editor was interested months earlier).  I’d say for both it took approximately 3-4 months.

That's pretty fast in the publishing world. You’ve had other agents before you signed with Marlene. Did you have books that came close to publication as well?

With my first agent that didn’t happen.  After her, I signed with someone else.  We got one strong nibble on one of my manuscripts, which was adult fiction.  But my writing wasn’t ready, I wasn’t ready.  So, that was my closest call before BRE. (You can read about some of her earlier novels on this fun blog post.)
BRE sounds like it does a great job of capturing the feelings of a first generation American struggling between two cultures. How much of the story reflects your own high school experience?
In high school, many times I felt out of place at home and at school because I didn’t want to conform to someone’s idea of how I should act and I didn’t confirm people’s expectations of me.  I remember what I wanted didn’t always sit well with family or classmates.  I felt like I was sitting on a fence between two ways of life and not fitting in.

Do you celebrate Ramadan?
I’ve never celebrated Ramadan.  I grew up with it, but never participated.

Oh, I love the irony there :)
Even before writing BRE, I wanted to write a book centered on the holiday.  My first inkling was to write a MG book with a male main character until Almira popped into my brain.  I liked the idea of the purification and self-restraint associated with the holiday, and both of those elements are mentioned in the novel.

So in a way, I guess it's similar to Lent, right? What does Ramadan commemorate?
The Koran was revealed during the month of Ramadan.  Also, it’s a time to rid oneself of sin and get closer to God. 

As you wrote BRE, did you have a feeling that this was the one?
Yes.  I wrote adult fiction prior to that, but most of it centered around teenagers!

Ha! Love it!
I finished my first manuscript when I was eighteen, and practically everything after that was a coming-of-age type of story.  Once I switched from adult to young adult (BRE is my first young adult piece), something clicked with me.

Are you still teaching full time?
Yes, I’m a full-time English/Reading teacher.

So how much time do you actually get to spend writing?
I write a half hour to an hour a day depending on my schedule.

It doesn't sound like much but the time adds up quickly and it has obviously worked for you! What are you working on now?
I’m working on a sequel to BRE and a young adult novel unrelated to my debut.

Okay, one last question. How do you pronounce your name? meh DAY ah or meh DEE ah? Medeia’s pronounced like the Greek mythological character, meh DEE ah. Then Sha-reef.

Good to know! Thanks for stopping by. I'll be looking for BESTEST. RAMADAN. EVER. when it comes out in July.
Thanks for this great opportunity.

You can find Medeia around the web:

BESTEST. RAMADAN. EVER. will be available July 8 from Flux.

Monday, May 2, 2011

A Book Review and a Book Festival

My daughter came home with an ARC that she'd gotten from a friend. She didn't pull her nose out of it until she was finished. And then she insisted that I read it. I'm so glad I did. What an amazing story! From the award-winning author of IDA B, this new novel will please fans and earn her plenty more.

If you want to read my review, you can visit my Goodreads page. But today, I'm going to give you a link to my daughter's blog. She'd love to have you read her review. Maybe she'll even convince you to pick up this book when it comes out on May 15 :)

We spent most of Saturday at the L.A. Times Festival of Books at USC. What a blast! With hundreds of booths, nine stages and 
Andrew Smith, Shannon Messenger, Me, Ally Condie
attendance in the thousands, it was an overwhelming experience for us small town book lovers. But it was also a chance to meet up with internet friends like Catherine Linka from Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse and MMGM founder Shannon Whitney Messenger.  Yeah, that's us between Andrew Smith and Ally Condie and omigosh, Ally Condie knew who I was! How cool is that? Just one more reason to love blogging :)

In addition to getting books signed, listening to fabulous author panels and trying not to get lost as we sought out specific booths, we also scored a bunch of cool free stuff: a Judy Moody movie t-shirt, a Narnia DVD, Ben & Jerry's ice cream (Yes! Free Ben & Jerry's!), bookmarks and pencils galore, airbrush tattoos and these awesome glasses that my son immediately had to wear. There was so much to see, we didn't even get to half of it. At least now that we know what to expect, we'll be better prepared for next year.

My daughter was most excited about getting her book, Aloha, Kanani, signed by Lisa Yee. Yes, lucky Lisa Yee has written two books for the current American Girl doll of the year. And she scored a trip to Hawaii for research. That's my kind of research! Can I have her job? My daughter is especially proud of this doll because she saved up her own money to buy it. (And the lovely person at the American Girl doll store didn't even complain as she dumped the money out of the jar to pay for it!)

The YA panel of (left to right) Gennifer Choldenko,  Robin Benway, Gayle Forman and Allen Zadoff was moderated by author Cecil Castellucci. They talked about finding inspiration for stories, choosing character names and balancing magic and reality in their writing. Halfway through the talk, my son turned to me and said, "Listening to this makes me want to go home and write."

Yeah. My sentiments exactly.

Looking for more Marvelous Middle Grade Books? Check out these bloggers:
Shannon Whitney Messenger
Shannon O'Donnell
Ben Langhinrichs
Joanne Fritz
Brooke Favero
Myrna Foster
Barbara Watson
Natalie Aguirre
Anita Laydon Miller
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