Friday, October 31, 2014


Know what I used to think was utterly terrifying?  Submissions.  When I first started sending my work out in the world, I'd timidly peel open envelopes or click into my email account with my heart ready to pop out of my chest. 

More than thirteen years into life as a full-time author and four published books later, I don't think submissions are scary at all.  Mostly because I've been through the highest highs and lowest lows: seven and a half years of rejection before snagging my first book deal (and a low point four years into it when I nearly chucked it all), then good reviews--even starred reviews--crummy reviews, lovely letters from sincere fans, bulleted-point emails from would-be authors listing my "flaws" as a writer, winning awards, losing awards, signing multiple-book deals, struggling to sell work...

Know what I think's scary now?  NOT having a book on submission.  Not being up to my eyebrows in revisions.  Not exploring new platforms, new genres. 

Around the time she passed away, I saw a clip of Joan Rivers holding up a blank calendar.  "That's failure," she said.  I feel the same way: What makes me a failure as a writer?  Not meh reviews, not low numbers, not rejection.  What makes me a failure is losing my passion, my drive, waking up in the morning and not having three different WIPs on my mind.

Nah, submissions--they're just not scary at all...

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Smack Dab in the Classroom: Illuminating Symbols in Stories by Dia Calhoun

For students, a great deal of mystery hovers around the idea of “symbols” in a story. Here is a way to illuminate them. Start by having your students list the most fundamental pieces of a particular book. Let’s use the example of The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. Some of the elemental pieces are: Soup. Spoon. Light. Dark. Dream. Hero. Rat. Ask the students to discuss what these mean to them, separate from the story.

Soup is food, maybe the most basic and nourishing of food. Soup makes us well when we are sick. Soup sustains and nourishes even the poorest people. Soup is fundamental to life. You eat soup with a spoon. A spoon is fundamental, too--the first utensil a baby learns to use to feed itself. A rat is a vile, loathed creature. A mouse—a tiny, timid creature.

Now ask your students how these fundamental pieces work in the book.  In Despereaux for example, Chiaroscuro the rat wears an empty overturned soup spoon on his head. He isn’t nourished, but craves nourishment. As much as Despereaux wants to be more than he is, a mouse hero, so do Chiaroscuro, and Miggery Sow. Despereaux’s dream is heroic because he wants to save someone he loves. Miggery Sow and Chiaroscuro’s dreams are not heroic because they are selfish dreams.

When Princess Pea is imprisoned in the dungeon, she offers Chiaroscuro soup to save her own heart from being poisoned by  hate—as Chiarscuro’s has been poisoned. She is offering him the fundamental nourishment of life. Something we all need. Without it, our dreams too easily become selfish. With soup, our dreams can be heroic.

In the beginning of the story, books were Despereaux’s fundamental nourishment—giving him his knightly dreams. Long may books fill this need for us all.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Ghost Story for Halloween by Laurie Calkhoven

There once was a ghost who lived deep in the forest. He was utterly and completely alone. Even in his earliest memories, there were no other ghosts to play with nor humans to spook.  Occasionally groups of hunting parties came through—fierce looking men with steely eyes and determined frowns. They brushed him aside, laughing at his moans and groans, the rattle of his small chain. 
Then one summer afternoon he heard voices that were high and light and full of laughter. They were the voices of children.
 He peered through the leaves at a boy and a girl gathering berries, their mouths stained with rich, purple juice. They laughed about the delicious pie their mother would make and how good the berries would taste covered in rich cream, if only they could stop eating long enough to fill their buckets.
The ghost had never seen children before and he watched them curiously. When they finally set their full buckets down and began to play a game of tag, the ghost didn’t want to watch anymore. He wanted to play.
He flew as softly as a summer breeze and dropped in front of the childrenmwith an impish grin. The children took one look and began to scream.
The ghost’s eyes widened in shock and surprise. He wanted to tell the children that they had nothing to fear, that he only wanted to play, but they were already gone. They ran as fast as their legs would take them, leaving their buckets behind.
The ghost climbed into the crook of a tree and began to plot his revenge. The next morning, he tracked the children. A bent twig, a footprint in the soft earth, a single strand of hair caught in a bramble—these gave the children away.
At twilight the ghost slipped through the gathering darkness to a clearing in the forest and to the very window of a small cabin.
He crouched under the window and peered through his own reflection in the glass to watch a family eat their fill under their sturdy roof. The father slipped a shiny knife out of a sheath on his belt and used it to slice an apple while the family told each other stories in the candlelight.
The boy and girl told a tale about an eerie creature they had met in the forest. The father laughed a rich deep laugh and the mother gently scolded the children for leaving her buckets behind. The creature did not exist at all, she said, but was a trick of the sun and shadows and too many berries.
A trick? The ghost’s anger returned like a boiling fire in his belly. He waited for the small family to go to sleep. Then he opened the window and slipped through the glass into the one-room cabin. At first he was as silent as starlight. Then he let loose with such a roar, such a moans and groans, and such a rattling of chains that the family jumped out of bed screaming.
“A trick?” he shouted, making himself grow tall enough to tower over the quaking humans.  “Here’s your trick!

The next time a hunting party came through the clearing, they found not a family, but four corpses, their faces frozen masks of fear.
A little ghost family of five watched. And waited for nightfall.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

October Theme (Kristin Levine)

I know our October theme is supposed to be strange and creepy, but I'm afraid my month has been more full of warm and wholesome.  It has included a wonderful trip to Oklahoma City where I got to present with two lovely and talented authors, Nikki Loftin and Joan Bauer, ...

... a trip to an apple orchard that resulted in a delicious pie...

... and an entertaining trip to a pumpkin patch/farm with my kids.

Now, the scary thing is how little work I've done on my writing!  Well, there's always next month to be more productive.  Happy fall!!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Just jump" (October theme) by Claudia Mills

Let me get this out of the way first: I hate all scary things. I close my eyes during the last inning of closely contested baseball games, I leave the room when ominous music plays in a movie, I prefer the comfortable and predictable in storytelling - I love best when I know where a story is inevitably going to end up, and the only uncertainty concerns how.

Needless to say, this feature of my psychological makeup has not been a plus for me as a fiction writer.

So here I want to focus on dealing with fear, not in our writing, but in our lives as writers. We fear the blank page or screen; we fear the boring beginning, the sagging middle, the unsatisfying ending; we fear walking into a huge "cafetorium" crammed full of several hundred students ranging in age from kindergarten to grade five (who sometimes have never heard of us or our work).

Somehow we have to push past fear. Here are some of my strategies.

1. I start writing every morning several minutes after I force myself out of bed at 5 a.m. (actually, after my cat, Snickers, forces me out of bed by meowing for breakfast). I stumble down the stairs, feed her, make myself a cup of Swiss Miss hot chocolate, and settle in on the couch to write my daily quota of one pathetic, pitiful page. Before I'm fully awake, before my fear can be fully triggered, I'm already writing, engrossed in the scene. The worst is already behind me.

2. I say yes to things before I'm ready actually to do them, relying on the truth that, at least in my own life, things always turn out to be less awful than I dread. I commit myself blithely ("Five hundred kids? Sure! No problem!"), and then leave it to my future self to somehow follow through. Then that terrified future self gives the self of the even further future the confidence that comes with experience. I love the line from Emerson: "A great part of courage is the courage of having done the thing before." These days I still walk petrified into the cafetorium, but now when they hand me the mike and I look out at the kids, I say to myself, "Oh, right! School talks! You've done these before."

3. Finally, I read and re-read the wonderful lines from Arnold Bennett, from his 1910 gem, How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day. In response to the question about how to force oneself to begin a frightening task, Bennett replies: "Dear sir, you simply begin. There is no magic method of beginning. If a man standing on the edge of a swimming-bath and wanting to jump into the cold water should ask you, 'How do I begin to jump?' you would merely reply, 'Just jump. Take hold of your nerves, and jump.'" Bennett goes on to say (and these might be my favorite lines ever written), "No object is served in waiting till next week, or even until tomorrow. You may fancy that the water will be warmer next week. It won't. It will be colder."

So my darling fellow fearful ones: jump into that cold water before you're even fully awake.You'll warm up as you go. At some point along the way, with any luck, you may even learn how to swim. And the scariest of scary things will be less scary every day.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Creepy and the Strange, AKA: Herman (true story) by Danette Vigilante

Herman’s nighttime arrival was completely unexpected and unprovoked. He did not appear on the fringes of a dream for I had not yet fallen asleep. I've always been a wimp so no scary movies for me pre-bedtime, or ever.

It was a warm night as I lay on my back in my skinny twin bed. The curtains pulled to the side and the windows open, allowing my bedroom to be cast in a soft glow.

I waited patiently in the quiet for sleep to claim me when I felt an eerie presence to my right. Ever so slowly I turned in that direction, not knowing what to expect. I had hoped to see nothing unusual, just the other side of my bedroom. But I couldn't see my dresser or the wall. What I saw was someone, or something, standing about a foot away from me.

Where there should have been a face was only darkness. Or, perhaps the monk like hooded robe it wore simply hid its face. This thing held out its hand to me. Like its face, an actual hand could not be seen.

I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head as though I had just eaten the world’s largest lemon. I then turned my face in the opposite direction, the rest of my body stiff with fear.  

After a few minutes, I peeked to see if this “thing” had gotten the message. I was in no way interested in why it was visiting me. More importantly, I didn't want to know where it wanted to take me.

Luckily, the message had been received. The room was empty.

The next day, when I told my cousin about what happened, we laughed it off as best we could and named it Herman.

One of the biggest unanswered mysteries of my life is why Herman visited me. If I had taken his hand, would he have shown me my past, present and future, Scrooge style?

Maybe Herman is the reason why I don’t get Halloween and the need to have the living lights scared out of you. It’s just no fun, trust me.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Scary Stuff (October Theme) by Bob Krech

My wife Karen grew up in the Bronx. She had an Uncle Johnny who worked in the warehouse of a publisher in downtown Manhattan when we were in college. The publisher was Dover Books. Dover was (and still is) an interesting publisher. At the time, most of what they published were their own editions of works that are in the public domain. So they had a lot of classics like The Call of the Wild, The Prisoner of Zenda, and The Martian novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. They did lots of other art books, chess books, and books of games, but among the old reprints Uncle Johnny gave me was a classic I never heard of but now re-read annually. Especially when I want to be scared.

The book is Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood (Dover, 1973). Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) was born in Kent, England, the son of Sir Arthur Blackwood. He had a very unusual uprbringing including ultra-Calvinist parents, education at a Moravian boarding school in Germany's Black Forest, studying at the University of Edinburgh, a period of wandering the wilds of Canada, and landing penniless (he was disinherited!) and sick in turn-of-the-century New York City. His own life would make a great book.

Blackwood eventually returned to England and began writing in earnest in 1905. His experiences proved fertile ground for some great writing and inform many of his stories. He wrote a great number of books and short stories, including many stories for children's periodicals. He finished his career in the forties as a narrator of ghost stories (many his own) on BBC radio and television.

The great thing about Blackwood is that he was a master of mood and setting. His stories sweep, surround, and encompass you. His descriptions are models that I re-read for craft. The stories are almost mystical. No blood. No guts. No gore. But plenty of the supernatural. Here is a description of his work from the introduction to the 1973 Dover edition I still have. "He (Blackwood) could arouse a sensation of terror in the reader, and sustain it at high pitch until the end of the story. The suspense of "The Willows," for example, is hard to match. It has often been rated as the finest single supernatural story in English."

I think Blackwood's stories would do very well with middle and high school readers today, as well as adults of course. Particularly those among us who  want to study how a master writes a great scary story.  I would highly recommend reading Blackwood during spooky ol' October, especially these short stories; "The Willows," "Secret Worship," "Ancient Sorceries," and "The Wendigo." There are many others, but each of these is a gem. And guess what? Dover still has the book in print! Enjoy and Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

FEAR IS THE NEW FUN! (Or is it?) October Theme by Tamera Will Wissinger

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. And regardless of the time of year, I love to read a well-constructed murder mystery, ghost story, or psychological drama. (Nothing overly grotesque or horror-bound,’s not for me. I’m a big chicken.) So when it comes to my writing; scary, dangerous, or creepy are somewhat foreign ideas. As it should be, right? After all, my target readers are pre-k – 6th graders and I don’t want to frighten the children. A recent review from Publisher’s Weekly has me thinking, though. In a starred review of the children’s book WHAT THERE IS BEFORE THERE IS ANYTHING THERE: A SCARY STORY by Liniers, trans. from the Spanish by Elisa Amado. Groundwood Ages 4-7, the reviewer included this intriguing line: “Fear is the new fun…”

Hmmm. Children do love Halloween, and not necessarily for the candy. Children tell ghost stories and try to gross out each other on a regular basis. But is fear the new fun, or has it always been here marinating as a juicy ingredient for authors to drop into our stories for readers of any age? After all, as Janet Burroway says so well in WRITING FICTION: A Guide to Narrative Craft:  “[In fiction] Only trouble is interesting.” p. 32. Some of the best, most satisfying types of fictional trouble involve fear and the recognition that at times, life is scary. Handled well, books for children with a scary element may be able to help young readers navigate those fears.

So as we head into Halloween, I’m reading well written stories for children that have some scary elements, (I’m on the excellent story THREE TIMES LUCKY by Sheila Turnage right now, with THE GHOSTS OF TUPELO LANDING on deck) along with Poe and Shakespeare, captivated by this “what’s old is new again” notion of fear as fun and how it might apply in my own writing. (And trying my best to be brave.)

I wish you a Happy Halloween, and Spooky Stories!