Monday, October 31, 2011

Why Cheesecake is like Mud

I write for children,  read children's books and teach elementary age children. I've got two children living at home. You'd think I would have a good handle on describing things in a childlike way. But every once in a while (more often than I'd like to admit!) I get a peek inside the 8-year-old- psyche that reminds me just how far I am from truly thinking like a child.

My daughter and I were making cheesecake together last week. As she mixed the ingredients for the graham cracker crust, she kept asking me if the consistency was right.

"No," I'd say. "It needs to be a little wetter, so it holds together when we put it in the pie pan. But not too wet."

She sighed. "Do you mean like mud?"


She saw my questioning look. "When you dig in the dirt, and it goes from dry to kind of damp and it sticks together in clumps."

I had to smile.

"Yes. Exactly. Make it like mud."


Tomorrow is the launch for OPEN MINDS by Susan Kaye Quinn. I can't even begin to tell you how excited I am for Susan, and not just because I beta read this book and was completely blown away by the story. I'm impressed with how she has approached this book release, how she has balanced the publicity with her blogging and how organized she manages to be with everything! I could definitely learn a thing or two from her, and luckily she's documented a lot of it on her blog :)

Her launch has cool prizes up for grabs (I want that t-shirt!) and a blog hop that will reveal the story behind OPEN MINDS. If you haven't already heard about  Susan or her virtual launch or her books, you will. She's amazing.

Have a great Halloween!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Author Spotlight on: Martha Alderson

I’ve written before about Martha Alderson and her helpful YouTube series on plot. Today I'm talking to Martha about her new book, THE PLOT WHISPERER: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master (Adams Media, October 2011). It's out just in time to inspire all of you getting ready to start National Novel Writing Month next week.

How did you become the Plot Whisperer?
The light bulb moment when plot became clear to me took about ten years to snap on. First came trial and error with my own writing, attending writing workshops and classes, and reading every book on writing I could get my hands on. But… the actual moment arrived when I volunteered at a writing workshop for children. Thanks to my background as a special education therapist, I completed a task analysis of the skills required of the students and developed a simple handout to support the children’s writing experience.

One of the first questions I asked the children to answer was who is the main character? (Character emotional development, inner plot)
The second question asked what does the main character want? (Dramatic action, external plot)

The simplicity of those two questions hooked me and since then I’ve been racing to keep up. I began analyzing all sorts of novels, memoirs and screenplays for plot and structure. I was so excited about my finding that I wanted to share the plot ideas with other writers. When I started plot consulting with writers from all over the world, I become the Plot Whisperer.

You’ve been teaching people about plot for nearly 15 years, through workshops, books and dvds. How is this book different from your previous offerings?
Thank you for asking this question! The plot bliss I’ve been swept up in for all these years has deepened as I began to deepen my understanding the universality of our shared journey together. Now I’m passionate to share the story beneath the story.

Just as a writer can push aside her words to see the deeper meaning of her story, anyone can push aside the drama of her own personal life to see the deeper meaning at play and what supports her efforts and what depletes her.

The Plot Whisperer book conveys that deeper meaning and points out how to direct your choices in ways that best supports you in achieving your personal long-term goals in life.

I watch your YouTube videos when I get stuck or need inspiration. What made you decide to create those – for free?

I’m so pleased you use the Plot Series as inspiration! A joy to hear. Thank you.

No, thank you! They've been so helpful.

A friend had created her own channel a couple of years before I did. I remember at the time how foreign it all sounded, exotic and confusing – hmmmmm… sort of just like what the protagonist of your story feels upon entering the exotic world of the middle and you may feel each time you move away from your comfort zone in life.

The idea must have been growing in the back of my mind all that time, because one day I asked my friend if she wanted to go for it. I owe the Plot Series all to her because she jumped in with both feet and off we went – blissfully being pulled along, never much knowing exactly what we were doing but having a ball doing it.

Another venue in which to share my passion, that’s how I saw the experience. What I have gotten back from kind words and support from writers all over the world far exceeds what I give.

A lot of “pantsers” get hives when people start talking about plot, but your techniques seem to apply as much to revision as they do to first drafts. Do you think it makes a difference whether you pants your way through the first draft or plot it all out ahead of time?
No. I don’t care how you write the first draft. Just get it written all the way from the beginning to the end anyway you can – pre-plotting, plotting as you write, or writing purely by the seat of your pants. With a completed draft, no matter how wretched you may believe it is, you can then get down to the real work of plot and structure.

I tend to plot as I write so this is good to hear :)

You talk a lot about transformation. As a writer, how do you know if your character has changed enough to call it a transformation? And how critical is that to the story?
Change is enough. Change whispers the same empowerment to your reader as a deeper and more profound transformation. All that dramatic action has to have an effect on the protagonist or what is the point?

Change is critical.
Transformation is sublime.

Mmmm...I like that.

What do you think is the biggest stumbling block for writers new to plotting?
Giving in to the belief that it’s too hard. No matter whether you plot or not, the true task at hand is the writing. Don’t ever let anything to get in the way of your writing. If plotting stalls you from writing, stop. Slowly, the more you ready yourself and the ideas grow you’ll find ways to make plot work for you, too.

Oh, this is SO true! And a good reminder to not use plotting as an excuse to not write.

Do you have any workshops coming up where people can work with you on a more personal basis?
Not yet. This has been a wild year of writing and getting the book ready in time for writers to use it to pre-plot for NaNoWriMo. I’m exhausted in a glowy, satisfied way.

Teaching is a part of me. Anyone who is interested in when I plan to dip back into teaching plot can sign-up for the free monthly Plot Tips eZine or follow me on any of the social media.

Thank you, Sherrie!

Thank you, Martha!

Martha Alderson has worked with hundreds of writers in sold-out plot workshops, retreats, and plot consultations for more than fifteen years. Her clients include bestselling authors, New York editors, and Hollywood movie directors. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA. Follow her blog, workshops, vlog, or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

When Bad Publicity Shines

Once upon a time it was a great honor to have your book named as a finalist for the National Book Award. Right now, I'm sure more than a few authors are grateful that they weren't caught in the vortex of embarrassment the National Book Foundation found itself in this week.

If you haven't heard about the confusion surrounding nominations for SHINE by Lauren Myracle and CHIME by Franny Billingsley, you can read about it in Publisher's Weekly, Vanity Fair or the Los Angeles Times. When I received the email announcement from the NBF, it included both books. Yes, it seemed odd to have two YA books with similar titles. Yes, I wondered why the category had six nominees instead of the usual five. Yesterday, under pressure from the NBF, Lauren Myracle bowed out of the nomination, after it was revealed that her book had been put forward by mistake.

I don't know about you, but if it was me, I'd have been devastated. To have the thrill of being nominated followed soon after by the knowledge that your book wasn't supposed to be there? To have the world publicly debating whether your book deserved the honor? We writers are already neurotic. What a nightmare to have to go through.

Lauren Myracle is used to being in the midst of a firestorm. Her books have been regularly banned and I'm sure she's used to a certain degree of public scrutiny. But no one should have had to endure the week she's been through. Despite her disappointment, she handled herself with grace, encouraging the NBF to donate to the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

To be perfectly honest, this book was not on my radar. I'd seen her earlier novels, ttyl and the others in that series. But after hearing about the whole debacle over the past week, I'm more than curious about SHINE. And I doubt that I'm the only one. All the publicity surrounding the Foundation's mistake has pushed this book to the forefront, in a way that simply being nominated for the award could not have done.

Maybe in the end, Lauren Myracle will have the last laugh, showing the world that not only is her book deserving of the title, so is she.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Paying it Forward Blogfest

Choosing just three blogs to highlight is tough. Kelly Polark's smile always cheers me up, especially when I read about the latest concert she's gone to. I enjoy reading Kristan Hoffman's musings and the adventures (and book reviews!) of Krispy and Alz. Medical Mondays with Lydia Kang always entertains and informs. Tricia O'Brien's poetry and photographs are always beautiful and Shannon O'Donnell usually finds something to inspire me when I need it.

So many great blogs I could highlight. I feel terrible leaving any out! There are plenty to visit on this blog hop.

But there are three that come into my Inbox on a regular basis. I don't always comment on their posts, but I always read them:

Susan Kaye Quinn
Laura Pauling
Stina Lindenblatt

Read them. They are awesome.

That is all.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Author Spotlight on: Shannon Whitney Messenger

If you haven't already seen the news heard round the blogosphere, let me point you over to this post, because the news of the week is that SHANNON WHITNEY MESSENGER HAS A BOOK DEAL! And not just any book deal. We're talking a six-figure pre-empt, big-name-editor, OMG kind of book deal. Woo-hoo!!

I've read Shannon's posts for years. I've known her in person for more than a year. And let me tell you, when I heard about this deal, I was SO VERY happy for her. She's worked hard to get to this point and she has been so generous with her time for other writers and around the blogosphere.

But enough from me. It's time to hear all about this awesome new deal that she's been sitting on for five months! Yikes!

Okay, so first of all, HUGE congratulations on signing with one of the coolest editors ever. It took weeks before you could officially announce the news. How hard was it to sit on something like that?

Aw, thank you Sherrie. And weeks? Ha—try MONTHS! We finalized the deal back at the beginning of May. MAY! So it was really, really, really, really, REALLY hard keeping the secret for that long. But in some ways, it was also nice, because it gave me a chance to get used to working with my editor and power through all my edits with a lot less pressure, because no one knew what I was up to. Plus, I wasn’t totally alone in my suffering (at least for most of the wait). My friend, Natalie Whipple and I were both sitting on secret deals at the same time (yes—we spilled the secret to each other). So we had a lot of fun amusing ourselves with vague tweets with the hashtag: #codeword. I’m sure everyone who saw them thought we were weird, but we found it ridiculously entertaining. :)

Oh, that's too funny! So many secrets :)
So when you heard the great news, what did you do to celebrate?

I wish I could say I did something super exciting, but it all happened so fast (we got the offer on a Thursday and by Saturday we were accepting) that I was a little too shocked to do much more than stare at my phone, hoping it wouldn’t ring and I’d find out it had all been a big mistake. I think my husband took me to a celebratory dinner—but honestly, it’s all a bit of a blur. We did continue the tradition of commemorating landmark events with a new charm for my Tiffany charm bracelet, though. My husband bought me the New York taxi one, since NY is the publishing capital (and they don’t have a book one—what up with that T&Co?).

Maybe when you're as famous as Audrey Hepburn they'll make one for you. (And I have no doubt these books will make you famous, Shannon!)

Like you, I’m a huge fan of Brandon Mull. When you found out you would be working with the same editor as him, what was your reaction?

Absolute disbelief. All of the editors we submitted to were wonderful, but—I must confess—Liesa was someone I was really rooting for because I am a HUGE admirer of so many books she’s edited. So when my agent told me Liesa had come in with a pre-empt I had to let the words sit in my head for a minute before they actually made sense. Once they finally did, my next reaction was basically: OMG-how-will-I-work-with-such-a-rock-star-editor????  Fortunately, my agent set up a phone call between Liesa and I, and Liesa was so funny and friendly that she put me at ease right away. I knew after like five minutes (though we talked for almost two hours—it might have been a record!) that not only could I work with her, but that she totally got my book and would help me make it the best it could be. And I was absolutely right. Working together these last few months has been amazing, and I know for a fact that I could not have found a more perfect editor for me, or my writing.

Can you tell us anything about the novel?

I CAN! (Which is so cool, btw. I finally get to talk about my book!) It’s called KEEPER OF THE LOST CITIES, and it’s book one in a middle grade fantasy series launching Fall 2012. It's about a twelve-year-old girl who has always been different -- she's years ahead of the other kids in school and can read minds. She's always assumed there's some kind of logical explanation for her talents, but when she meets an adorable and mysterious boy, she finds out the shocking truth. She's never felt at home because she, well, ... isn't. There are secrets buried deep in her memory, secrets about her true identity and why she was hidden among humans, that others desperately want and would even kill for. And she must figure out why she is the key to her brand-new world, before the wrong person finds the answer first.

Sounds awesome! I can't wait to read it!!
I know you studied screenwriting at USC. Do you have any finished screenplays?

Ha—um … yes. Though a better question would be: do I have any GOOD finished screenplays? To which the answer is a resounding, NO! I have one about boy bands (yes, really!) and one that’s kind of SLIDING DOORS-esque and then a few romantic comedies that aren’t nearly as romantic or comedic as they should be. I realized pretty quickly that my writing sensibilities were much more geared toward novel writing than screenwriting.

What made you decide to write a novel for middle graders?

Shannon as Rainbow Brite
Well, for one thing, I am totally in tune with my inner 12-year old (see picture at left!), so it’s a pretty perfect fit. I mean—you should see my toy collection. Middle grade was also the age range where I REALLY fell in love with reading when I was growing up, so when I started thinking about writing a book I was naturally drawn there. But this story was also not something I’d ever planned to write. I never thought I’d write something with such a complex world within our world, or such an in-depth mystery. But the characters popped into my head and they were so real and interesting that I couldn’t stop thinking about them, so I finally decided to write them down. Turned out to be a very good decision  :)

I’d say! Do you think your screenwriting background has helped you with writing novels?

It’s definitely helped with my character development and dialogue, since that is pretty much the foundation of a screenplay. But I guess the biggest thing I carried away from film school was to “think like a producer.” Every single scene, prop, location, and character has to be in the screenplay for A REASON—because it’s just too darn expensive when something ends up on the cutting room floor. We were taught to question the necessity of everything, and make sure that we tie every detail into the plot in as many ways as we can. And that’s definitely something I’ve carried over into novel writing, and I think it really helps to make each moment as interesting and powerful as possible.

Drawing by Shannon
Those are some great writing tips you sprinkled in there. In addition to writing novels, you are also an incredibly talented artist. Is it just for fun or have you ever thought of drawing for a living?

*blushes* Wow, thank you, Sherrie. And I actually did start out as an art major, but I switched away from that because I hate drawing on the computer (which is what so many of the careers in art now require) and because I am a REALLY slow artist. I realized that I would have to work ten times as hard as everyone else just to produce the same amount of work, and that didn’t seem like the most efficient career. So I switched my focus to writing—another decision that turned out pretty well :)

I know you and your husband met while you were studying screenwriting in college. Does he write also? Does he read your writing?

No, my husband is many awesome things, but he’s definitely not a writer, and he’s not much of a reader either. He’s only read a MUCH older version of my book (like, 5 or 6 revisions ago)—and keeps saying he wants to wait to read it again until it’s been printed, so he knows it won’t change anymore. But I don’t find that insulting because he doesn’t read anything else, either. He’s like a 10-year-old boy that way. If it isn’t a movie or a video game he’s really not all that interested. Le sigh.

Ha! I can so relate to that :)

So you write, you draw, you help organize WriteOnCon, you blog, and you attend conferences around the country... Do you also have a day job?

Thankfully, no. I was working part time until about a year and a half ago, but the schedule had kind of been killing me. So when I signed with Laura I decided that I was committing to making writing my career at that point, and I needed to take the leap. I quit the day job and hoped for the best, and I’m very, very glad that decision paid off. And I’m very, very grateful to have had a husband with a full time job to get us through the interim.

You’ve written some great posts about not giving up. How did you keep your mind off the submission process and just focus on writing?

It’s funny—whenever any part of this process gets stressful, be it intense revision notes, deadlines, rejection, whatever—I always find myself asking: WHY am I doing this to myself? But that question is actually what helps me get through, because I do have a reason. I love writing. I actually gave it up once, after I left Hollywood, and I missed it—bad! Sure, there are parts of this process that are filled with suckage and frustration. But there is also nothing more fun than watching a scene I see in my head come alive on the page. So whenever I start to get discouraged or feel like throwing in the towel, I do something to remind myself that writing is fun. I free-write a random scene with a favorite character just to play around a bit. No pressure for it to be good. No plans to ever show anyone. It’s just me and the words, falling in love with each other all over again.

When you started college, what did you think you’d be doing ten years later? How does this book deal compare?

Well, since I was at a very prestigious film school, I thought I was going to be a screenwriter. And while I wasn’t delusional enough to ponder who I would thank in my Academy Award acceptance speech, (okay, fine, maybe a fleeting thought had crossed my mind) I did think I’d have seen one of my movies on the screen by now. But honestly, seeing my book on the shelves—or better yet, in the hands of kids—will be way more rewarding. Hollywood and I were such a wrong fit, it’s almost laughable to think I wanted to work there. This is where I belong and I’m so glad I made the choices that brought me here. It’s certainly not perfect—nothing in this world is. But it’s totally my dream job, and I couldn’t be happier to have it.

I couldn't be happier for you, Shannon! Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions and once again, CONGRATULATIONS!! Maybe next time we meet up at a book festival, it'll be ARCs of YOUR book we're holding up :) 

Shannon Messenger may have studied film and television production at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, but she was always a bit of an odd fit for Hollywood. Her screenplays were about boy bands and stuffed animals coming to life and lonely tumbleweeds finding true love, and her professors never quite knew what to make of them. So after a year trying to find her niche in television, she finally discovered that it made much more sense for her to try writing books for children. After all, she still watches cartoons, regularly eats candy or cupcakes for lunch, and cannot sleep without her bright blue stuffed elephant named Ella.

She currently lives in Southern California with her amazing husband and an embarrassing number of cats. KEEPER OF THE LOST CITIES is her first novel, book one in a middle grade series launching Fall 2012 from Simon & Schuster (Aladdin). She is also one of the founding members of WriteOnCon, a free online Writer's Conference for kidlit writers. You can find her online at her personal blog, Facebook, or on Twitter.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Alisal is for Authors

I may not live in Solvang anymore, but this past weekend I got to experience one of the coolest things this little town has to offer: the Alisal Guest Ranch. Imagine my surprise when I found myself seated on a hay bale across from another children’s book author – one who’s book I own! But let me not get ahead of myself…

The Alisal Guest Ranch is ten thousand acres of wide-open spaces that has been in use for more than a hundred years. A working cattle ranch and luxury retreat, the Alisal started welcoming guests in 1946. If you time it right, you can live out your City Slicker fantasies during the spring cattle drive. That is if you aren’t already exhausted from all of the golf, tennis, archery, fishing, boating, hiking, spa treatments and other activities the ranch has to offer.

Most of us that live here never get to see much beyond the resort entrance since you need to stay overnight at the ranch to participate in the activities. And with rooms starting at $500/night in the off season, you can understand why we locals tend to sleep in our own beds.

But this past Saturday we got to join some friends on an all day adventure that started at 7:30 a.m. As soon as we arrived, we climbed on horses for a one-hour ride out to the Historic Old Adobe. My daughter loves to ride horses and has been actively riding for more than a year. My son, well…when the wranglers asked about each of our riding abilities, my son wanted to know if there was something lower than beginner. He even asked if he could ride one of the miniature ponies. “Less distance to fall,” he reasoned.

Fortunately, the lure of an amazing Cowboy Breakfast at the end of the ride convinced him that mounting the horse was worth it. After eating all the eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, biscuits, gravy, fruit, cereal, coffee, hot cocoa, oj and quesadillas we could fit in our stomachs, we rode back to the stables and got on a shuttle that took us out to the Alisal’s private lake. While the men jumped in a bass boat to go fishing, my friend and I got into paddle boats with our kids. We spent the afternoon cruising the lake and learning how to shoot air rifles as well as bows and arrows. What a blast! My middle finger is still numb and the bruises haven’t quite faded, but I think a compound bow and a target range might be on my Christmas list :)

As the sun set behind the mountains, we loaded into the hay truck to go back to our cars. Another family got in with us and the mother started talking about books with my daughter and her friend. They talked about The Wish Giver and the woman mentioned that she had written a book called The Wish Stealers.

My ears perked up. “Wait, did you say you wrote that book? It’s actually in the basket by my bed, in my to-read pile!”

Yep, I was sitting across from Tracy Trivas, her husband and two adorable daughters. We chatted for the rest of the ride about children’s literature, SCBWI and the writing retreat I had just attended. And I was reminded once again of just how small the world really is.

As we drove home, my son said, “It feels like we were on vacation for a day.” So true. A vacation practically in our own back yard.

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