Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Where I Write

“You’re in my spot.”

 If anyone has tuned into the comedy, The Big Bang Theory, you’ve seen Sheldon and his obsession with his favorite spot.

I also have favorite spots. Especially when I write.

It has, actually, become a slight problem in the past. I once took to writing a novel on my sun porch. It was spring, and the afternoons were sunny and pleasantly warm. Perfectly fine in May, but by July when I was steadfast that I had to keep writing that novel on the sun porch, it was a scorching 98 degrees with zero breeze. Not to mention, I did not have a comfortable office chair, but instead a metal folding chair. You can imagine my comfort level as I pounded away on my laptop in determination.

There are other times I make a more solid choice of writing in a quiet office where I can control the temperature. If, however, I make the decision to have a cup of mint tea on a good writing day, you can bet I’ll be fixing mint tea for the duration of that manuscript.

Sidebar: I’m sick of mint tea.

Perhaps most steadfast in location is my cat, Boots. Boots has inspired my middle grade novels, about a curious cat-turned-detective. No matter where I am in the house, Boots has a cat tree. Or, as I like to call it when I’m working, his Perch of Judgement. He watches me diligently typing away, his elegant and bright green eyes drilling into me if I get stuck on a plot point or bit of dialogue.

He rarely offers advice.

I tend to be slightly high-strung and a person who sticks to routine. Maybe it’s stability, or maybe it’s even slightly superstitious when I’m writing that I apply those same principles.

At rare times, I’ll take myself out of the house to write at a coffeeshop. This can be dangerous as many of those delicious lattes are not only high in caffeine and price but also caloric value. No writer wants to vibrate the rest of the day, especially if they are already penning an intense plot.

I have learned little from where I write and what it means to my writing process outside of: Writer beware.

Happy Reading!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

My Best Writing Field Trip Ever

My best writing field trip wasn't the one that was the most fun when it happened, nor the one that produced the best published chapter as a result. It was the one that gave me the best material for school visits, from which I have squeezed out every droplet of benefit for many happy years.

It was the time my writer friend Leslie and I spent an afternoon together trying to explode a pickle.

As I was writing Fractions = Trouble! I knew the book would have a science-fair subplot.
I adore science fairs, and to date I have at least three published books where I managed to work one into the story. So off I trotted to my sons' former elementary school on the day of the science fair, notebook in hand, to record the funniest, weirdest, craziest science projects on display. I gave a squeal of joy at this one, where a fifth-grade boy set out to answer the question: "At what temperature does a pickle explode?"

I drafted the chapter where Wilson and his best friend Josh try- and fail - to explode the pickle and then shared it with my writing group. They loved the premise, but not the execution. They wanted more details involving the pickle: what did it look like? smell like? sound like? Alas, I had to confess I had no further details to offer, because I myself had never tried to explode a pickle. "Oh," they said. "You need to do that."

But. . . but . . .

"Come over to my house," Leslie offered. "We'll explode it there."

I bought a big jar of pickles and presented myself at Leslie's door.
We put pickle number one in the oven and cranked up the heat: 350 degrees, 400, 450, 500, and then finally 550 degrees, as hot as an oven could go. The pickle turned black. He began to smoke. When we finally rescued him, he weighed absolutely nothing, as all the water had evaporated out of him. He was a mere hollow pickle skeleton.

We put pickle number two in a pot of water and boiled him for an hour. He came out fresh as a daisy, not at all minding a pleasant soak in the pickle hot tub.

Then we put pickle number three in the microwave and set the timer for twenty minutes, during which time the pickle turned gray and pimply, lost all his moisture to evaporation. . . and shorted out the microwave, which ended up requiring a $200 repair.

But now I had my pickle details for the book! AND the favorite story, by far, of all I share during school assemblies. In fact, it was a kid in one assembly who gave me the line about the pickle hot tub, which has become the biggest laugh line in the program.

Here are the three pickles in all their glory.
So hooray for field trips - not only because they improve our writing, but because they can enrich our school visits, too.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

This Magnificent Madness!

One tiny Hobbit against all the evil the world could muster. A sane being would have given up, but Samwise burned with a magnificent madness, a glowing obsession to surmount every obstacle, to find Frodo, destroy the Ring, and cleanse Middle Earth of its festering malignancy. He knew he would try again. Fail, perhaps. And try once more. A thousand, thousand times if need be, but he would not give up the quest.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien The Return of the King

Last time I wrote about my ongoing search for a new agent. Until my stories find this champion, I continue to study in hopes of mastering my craft.  In my ongoing quest, I returned to an old favorite, a steady, inspirational read by Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey (Michael Wiese Productions, 1992)

While the book explores the monomyth, made famous by Joseph Campbell, and its impact in the storytelling process, Vogler expands the myth to include the writer herself. Every storyteller bends this archetypal pattern to her own purpose or the needs of her culture. That’s why the hero has a thousand faces, states Vogler. But at the heart of the story is always a journey.

"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings 

The hero’s journey, you may remember, is found in all sorts of storytelling, most especially in adolescent and young adult. The profound truth of adolescence is the separation from parent, the search for uniqueness and the triumphant integrating into wholeness – the return to being. You can see how this hero’s journey is mapped out in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief.

Writers go on a similar journey, states Vogler. In fact, as he states, “The hero’s journey and the writer’s journey are one and the same.”

Most writers I know received their call to adventure at a young age. George Orwell knew he wanted to be a writer by the time he was five. Neil Gaiman also discovered his love of story at a young age, describing himself as “a feral child who was raised in libraries.” J.K. Rowling wrote her first story at age six, a book about a rabbit with measles. Raised by her grandparents, Lucy Maud Montgomery battled a debilitating sense of loneliness by creating imaginary friends, Katie Maurice and Lucy Gray, who lived in a fairy room behind a bookcase.

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring 

Writing is certainly hard work, “a perilous journey inward to probe the depths of one soul.” It is a fearsome process, no matter how many books one has under their belts. Sue Grafton, author of the wildly popular Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Series, once stated, “Most days when I sit down at my computer, I’m scared half out of my mind.” The mighty Stephen King noted, “I’m afraid of failing at whatever story I’m writing – that it won’t come up for me, or I won’t be able to finish it.” Even the mythic J.R.R. Tolkien said, as the first book of his iconic series was published, “It is written in my life-blood…I am dreading the publication, for it will be impossible not to mind what is said. I have exposed my heart to be shot at.”

So why write, we ask ourselves? We go through all this agony!

Says Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club), “I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead. I have a kind of primitive need to leave a mark on the world.”

Vogler shows that anyone – new as well as established writers – who sets out to write a story encounters all the trials and tribulations, joys and rewards of the hero’s journey.

A writer encounters her trickster, taking shape as computer problems, doctor appointments and time management issues, and other “enemies of the status quo that also bring perspective on the process.

A writer meets the grumpy threshold guardian in the form of our inner and relentless judgments of our work. The tension rises as we face the searing remarks of a reviewer, a copyeditor, an agent, or an editor. And finally, we cross the Rubicon. We are published. But the journey is just beginning, as we “fully enter the mysterious, exciting Special World” of a published writer. The ordeals become all the more exhausting as we face deadlines and revisions and constant rejections. As we build our platforms and speak – holy moly! – to readers. And our beloveds go out of print, and favorite editors retire, and the rise of the internet dragons.

Along the way, if we are lucky, we meet our sidekicks, our Dr. Watson, our Clara Oswald, our Hermione Granger.  Our Samwise Gamgee. Sometimes, we meet our Dumbledore or Gandolf wielding his magic purple crayon, the sage who gives advice, who tells us to keep going, just keep swimming. Don’t give up.

Take hope, states Vogler, “for writing is magic. Even the simplest act of writing is almost supernatural…We can make a few abstract marks on a piece of paper in a certain order and someone a world away and a thousand years from now can know our deepest thoughts. The boundaries of space and time and even the limitations of death can be transcended.”

“It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow. Even darkness must pass.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers 

Happy journeys to you!

--Bobbi Miller 

Friday, September 14, 2018

Listening for great snippets of dialogue, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

Our blog topic this month is about field trips; more specifically, where we like to write. But here's the deal: I write and revise at home. Routine and familiarity suit me and my work. I've found, through trial and error, that coffee shops are too loud and distracting, and have the inherent risk of hot beverage spills and muffin bits that get stuck in those temperamental laptop keys. Anywhere outdoors is always fraught with assorted dogs/bugs/humidity/sudden thunderstorms that crop up out of nowhere. Airports, hotel rooms, the lakeside cabin porch where I thought I would be able to concentrate - nope, not happening.

My cozy home office overlooking my backyard and filled with photos and inspiring sayings, my giant screen desktop computer, and space to spread out my piles of notes - now we're talking. And even better, it's exactly twenty-three steps to the kitchen pantry.

But! When it comes to dialogue, I emerge from my cocoon, go somewhere, and listen. Great snippets of dialogue can be overhead anywhere and everywhere, be it a restaurant, store, sporting event, or family get-together (those are usually a gold mine). More than one overheard gem has found its way into one of my books!

Here are some of the recent snippets I've overheard:

"No, not that. I told you. We're not looking for a bathtub."

"I sprinkled Wheat Thin crumbs on his car."

"This thing ran outta juice. They didn't charge it enough."

"Oh, you knew! You most certainly knew!"

"Did you feel safe there? I mean, like, here safe."

"Don't go anywhere, I'm getting the pineapple."

"They said to get zip-off pants. You know, the kind that zip off."

"She's not totally mean. She's just, like, partially totally mean."

I first learned of this simple but effective dialogue exercise while taking a summer course at the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop years (and years) ago. The instructor asked us to sit for one hour in the open-air Ped Mall and jot down bits of conversation we heard from people passing by. Afterwards, we returned to class and wrote a scene with these bits of conversation. The results were hilarious and in some cases, made no sense, but all of the resulting scenes reflected how people really speak to each other. It was a lesson I never forgot.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of four middle grade novels, from Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. Her newest, Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark, publishes on November 13. Visit her at

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Writer's Field Trips by Darlene Beck Jacobson

Another School year begins and it never fails to send me back to my own school days.  In keeping with our September theme of field trips and places we go to write, I want to share some of the things I learned about writing and life from the field trips I took in elementary school.

We grew up in a small working class town along the Raritan Bay in NJ. No one was wealthy, many of us - my family included - would be considered poor by today's standards. But as I look back, I realize how much the schools did to try and level the field by providing enriching experiences via class trips. Located within an hour's drive of NY City, we took advantage of the opportunities. In third grade we took a ferry boat to the Staten Island Zoo, passing by the Statue of Liberty on the way. First lesson: It's a big world out there and sometimes you need a boat to get to a special place.

In fourth grade we visited  George Washington's Headquarters in Morristown, NJ, and though I don't remember  much of the trip, one fact stayed with me. To get the pretty rose color on the walls of the interior, brick was crushed and pulverized into the paint. That someone would go to so much trouble to make something look beautiful amazed me. Lesson: History is much more than dates and battles.  It's people at their best and worst. This began my love of history.

In sixth grade we had the opportunity of a lifetime when we took our class trip to the New York World's Fair in 1964. Held in Flushing Meadows, Queens, the theme was "Peace Through Understanding". An international gathering on four square miles of land. Lesson: The world has so much to offer. Think beyond your own small part of it and appreciate what other cultures have given to mankind.  This is a lesson some of us still need to work on.

I have no doubt that these lessons formed the foundation of my writing. These beginnings - along with my adult trips as a teacher  and mother - influence what I write and continually give me inspiration for the young characters I create.  Tapping into these "field trips" is research of the best kind.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018


from Jody Feldman

This month, I've opted to answer this question: Where do you work?
Let me show you instead.

I work here

I work here.

I work here.

I work here.

I work here.

But I type here.
The better question is: Where DON"T I write?

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Incantations -- by Jane Kelley

Writing a novel can be like an archeological dig. You pick a likely place to search for artifacts and other treasures with stories. If you don't find anything interesting enough, move your shovel.

It helps to be curious. And it helps not to know exactly what you're looking for.

Midway through draft three of a novel (with the working title of "Mau" after the feral black cat who linked the main characters), I went to visit my daughter at the University of Chicago. While she studied at the library, I wandered into the Oriental Institute--a museum for objects taken from the Near East.

I was searching for examples of early writing. (I love thinking about what inspired that great leap from reality to symbols.) The Institute does have some lovely cuneiform clay tablets. But in another glass case, I discovered precisely what I had been looking for––even though I didn't know what it was or even that such things existed.

An Incantation Bowl.

These terra-cotta bowls were found buried upside-down near houses to trap any evil spirits lurking nearby. The bowls were often particular protections to a certain member of the family, presumably whoever was most at risk. In the center of this bowl, you can see a depiction of the demon, who has been tied down.

Writing spirals from the bowl's outer edge to where the demon is bound. This is the incantation, the invocation, the charm, the hex. This one is in Aramaic and ends with these phrases:  May god rebuke you, Satan. . .  Is this not a brand snatched from the fire?  

In the modern era, we have better explanations for madness or risky behavior than demons. So what could this artifact possibly have to do with my story about a girl Lanora whose desire to reinvent herself endangers her?

Her loyal friend Val doesn't really think Lanora is under a spell. And yet Lanora is acting so unlike herself that Val is worried. The cat Mau leads Val to Tasman who lives in an antiquities store. Tasman offers to help save Lanora with a book of spells. Val quizzes Tasman whether he really believes ancient spells have power. Tasman's answer is: "I believe in the power of believing."

I do too. That incantation bowl certainly helped me cast a powerful spell in my novel, which was eventually titled, The Book of Dares For Lost Friends. (Although the title I preferred was "Incantation For a Lost Friend.")

"What gives the material its otherworldly power is the way these three very different children (and a quartet of classmates that almost acts like a chorus) use ritual and magical thinking to find the faith they need to persevere and mature." -- said Kirkus in a starred review.

One final thought -- I need to give credit to Blackberry who inspired Mau.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Writing Without Writing by Deborah Lytton

Writing inspires writing. Any of us who have committed to sitting down either with a pen and paper or in front of a keyboard know this to be true. The more we write, the more we want to write. We become so involved with our characters and their stories that we can lose track of time and place.

As much as the action of writing words on a page gives rise to more words, experience gives rise to story. Sometimes it helps to step away from the desk and put myself into the same circumstance as my character to view the world from his or her perspective. For example, if my character bakes cookies, then I will go and bake some cookies as well. I want to touch what she would touch and smell what she would smell and taste what she would taste. In that way, I can write a much more effective description of the scene and her reactions. Sometimes, these experiences might take me on a field trip of sorts. This is how I write without writing. For on the field trip, I am gathering ideas, forming opinions and becoming inspired. Whether it is a walk down my street and feeling the breeze on my face or taking in the view from the top of a hill overlooking the entire city. My imagination can fill in the details. In this way, I am always writing, even when I am not sitting at my desk. The stories continue to evolve with detail and creativity and are enhanced by traveling into the world. Even if the story involves fantasy or science fiction or historical elements, there will always be similarities we can connect with because they come from our own world. I challenge you to use those elements and see what you can experience today. Feed your imagination. See what you can discover.