Thursday, July 24, 2014

Monthly Theme: Summertime Slump? Not for inspiration.

Stephanie J. Blake

It has to be said, I don't get a lot of writing done in the summer. I have three active boys and mine seems to be the favorite house on the block. All of the neighborhood kiddos tend to congregate in my backyard. My fridge is the one stocked with juice boxes and popsicles. The front door is always open, and my children's friends run in and out all day. Never mind using Windex on the fingerprints. Make sure there is plenty of toilet paper!

Talk about juicy writing material!

Summer has flown by. We had a garage sale.

Movie-watching on the back deck. S'mores by the fire pit. Oodles of fireworks. Swimming. Putt-putt. Baseball. My youngest went to Vacation Bible School. We went to the mountains for a baseball tournament.

Summertime is family time. You can really get to know your kids in the summer.

One of my boys has a girlfriend. He's 9! They talk on the phone. I pretend I'm busy, but I like to listen to his conversations. They say "I love you" every few sentences. He paces while he talks. Sometimes he goes into the garage if he thinks I'm listening. They had a fight every other day. She said she wants to see someone else. He's got lots of girl friends. They love our pool.

My 11-year old is a sports junkie. He's always got a baseball in his hand. Up and down it goes. Smacking the walls. No girl drama for him. He is worried however about starting middle school in a couple of weeks. He is going to ride the bus! And he thinks he is too short. He is a worrier.

My oldest loves to go thrifting. His favorite place is a Goodwill Outlet. This is the craziest place I've ever seen. All of the junk you can buy, priced by the pound. You should see some of the characters in the melee. We also go to the horse track together. That's a story for another time.

(All of this for $11.26.)

Best memory this summer? I attended a Journey/ Steve Miller Band concert. FUN!

Two more weeks of "summer" for us. Soon, the boys will be back to school. And I'm starting a part-time job. (This hoping to get published thing is maddeningly slow sometimes.)

All of my wonderful summer memories are tucked away in a notebook, waiting to be incorporated into a middle grade novel that I'm hoping to finish by December.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Great Escape: The Time it Takes to Dream

I was a mother of two school-aged children when I went to my first writing residency—a week of silence at Norcroft, an artist colony on the North Shore of Lake Superior.  It w
as a leap I took with terror—fear of silence, fear of living with four strangers, fear of isolation, (no phones, no internet, no email).  I’d never left my husband or my children for more than a short weekend, and here I was going off for a week to live with strangers in the woods.  “What are you thinking?” people asked, and I couldn’t answer.  Before I drove away, I promised my husband I’d find the nearest pay phone and call daily, and if the strangers were too strange, I’d feign a horrible sickness and head home. 

More than a decade later, I don’t remember the writers I lived with that short week, or what I wrote, but I do remember vividly my new love affair with silence, how I woke up eager to walk the wood path to my writing shed with nothing but lake and sky and page to fill my day.  I had a thermos of hot coffee, and an endless stretch of dream time. On the second day, I found a pay phone down the road and called my family once.  By the time I hit day five, I considered it my home.  If it hadn’t been for the next resident arriving, I’d still be in that shed. 

So what happened to the terror?  In that one, fortuitous week I discovered the great gift of solitary, work time.  Somehow, I’d made it all the way to forty, without a straight shot of uninterrupted time devoted to my fiction.  Like so many of my peers, I balanced work and writing, friends and family, obligations and delights, plus a steady stream of email to be answered. In fact, I’d made it deep into adulthood without seven days of silence by myself.

Norcroft was my first escape, but it wasn’t long before I craved another writing residency.  (My next one at the Anderson Center inspired SPARROW ROAD.)  Now, as often as I’m able—every two or three years—I head away for thirty days of deep immersion in my fiction, a rare and valued opportunity to live fully in the second universe of story, to occupy my dream world, and the longer that I live there, the more real that world becomes.    

This year, thanks in part to a sabbatical, and an incredibly supportive family, I signed on for three residencies: a month at Woodstock Byrdcliffe; a month at the Artist Studios of Key West; two enchanted weeks at the Tyrone Guthrie Center at Annaghmakerrig, Ireland.  In that time and between, I wrote two drafts of a novel, and completed one radical revision.  I dreamt the story into being on long walks through the mountains, and bike rides to the beach, and staring at the great green hills of Ireland for hours.  Mostly, I kept my own company in conversation with my characters, but I also had the company of artists—poets, painters, composers, dancers, playwrights, sculptors, animators--smart and thoughtful people, and a few became good friends. 

An artist residency doesn’t speak to everyone, but I know it speaks to some.  And I’m here to say it’s possible; it is.  The first time I contemplated applying for a month, I called a poet-friend who’d done a two-week residency.  She’d left two young, pre-school children, and when I asked her how her family fared, she said the only thing that happened was a dryer full of sand.  Sand? I thought.  I’ll do it.  “They’ll be fine,” she said.  “You’ll be fine.  Your kids are teens.  Go for the full month. You won’t regret it.”

She didn’t know it then, but she’d given me a gift: permission and encouragement to take time for my work.  So I give it now to you.  Run away.  Take a month, a week, or two weeks.  Take five days.  If you can’t make a great escape now, put it on your wish list, make it happen.  Your imagination needs it.  Your creative life deserves it.      

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Summer Fun at ALA in Vegas! (by Kristin Levine)

I'm not sure I can quite describe how much fun I had at ALA in Las Vegas this year.  It was my first time attending and I met so many great people.

The trip started with a dinner for librarians and bloggers attended Jacqueline Woodson, Joan Bauer and myself.  We goofed around a bit afterwards taking photos.

The next morning I had a great time signing books at the Penguin booth...

 ... and after that Tracy Holczer (from Smack Dab as well!) and I had a delicious lunch with our editor, the fabulous Stacey Barney.

After a lovely Penguin dinner Stacey and I went on yet another adventure - salsa dancing!!  It was the best deal in town - for $10 we got a live band, a dance floor and a free drink.

Finally, Stacey and I decided we simply must make a midnight visit to the latest Vegas attraction, the High Roller, a huge Ferris that takes you high up over the strip.  We even saw fireworks!

A big thanks to Stacey, Tracy and everyone else - especially all the Penguin folks working behind the scenes - who made the visit so much fun!!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Homework Holidays (Summer Theme) by Claudia Mills

When I was in graduate school, a friend and I liked to have what we called “homework holidays.” No, these were not holidays from homework (I was far too in love with school to consider such a thing). A homework holiday involved taking our “homework” somewhere else. Rather than working at our own university library, we’d head over to a library at some other college, or the public library, anywhere fresh and new.

Part of my fun this summer is to have "writing holidays." No, not a holiday from writing, but a chance to take my writing "homework" somewhere completely different.

I'm spending six weeks right now as a faculty member in the wonderful graduate program in children's literature at Hollins University in Roanoke. The whole experience of being here is an extended holiday, even as I'm working as hard as I've ever worked, because I spend every minute of every day doing what I love, surrounded by other people who love it, too. 

In the early morning I go for a five-mile walk around the perimeter of this idyllic, bucolic campus with two other writers, talking about our classes and works-in-progress while stopping to say hello to friendly horses already out to pasture.

I teach the seven super-smart, super-motivated students in my chapter book writing course on Mondays and Wednesdays from 9-12. I spend the rest of my time reading their work, discussing it with them one-on-one, attending guest lectures from speakers such as Han Nolan and Candace Fleming, and scribbling away frantically at two of my own books with looming due dates.

As part of my plan to have constant homework holidays within this larger extended homework holiday, I'm trying to write in as many different places as possible:

1. In a wooden rocking chair outdoors on the verandah of one of the buildings on the quad.

2) In the library's reading loft, reached by means of a tiny spiral staircase, where one reclines on silken pillows inspired by Arabian Nights fantasy.

3) On a cozy couch in the inviting little lounge in Swannanoa Hall, home of the creative writing program.

4) In the coffee shop Cups in the Grandin neighborhood of Roanoke, with a vanilla steamer close to hand.

Where else might I have a writing holiday while I'm here? Perhaps in the campus art museum? Or downtown Roanoke at an outdoor table during the Saturday farmers' market? Or with a picnic taken up to the Blue Ridge Mountains?

Later, when I re-read the chapters of my published book, I'll remember, "Oh, I wrote that one at Cups," or "I wrote that one on that sultry Sunday afternoon on the verandah." Writing somewhere else intensifies the sweetness of writing for me. And isn't summer the perfect season for that?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Summer Fun by Danette Vigilante

Since I grew up in New York City, it’s hard to think about summer fun without revisiting my childhood summers of playing in the Johnny Pump. Yup, good old Johnny sure cooled us sweaty kids down! If you’re wondering what in the world I’m talking about, I’ll tell you. A Johnny Pump is Brooklyn-ese for fire hydrant.

Way back in the day, the more experienced firefighters fought the fire while the rookie, or ‘Johnny,’ was left to pump the water by hooking up the hose to the hydrant.

As you can imagine, the force of the water was fierce but did not have the reach needed for everyone to enjoy it. In order to make this happen, someone would rummage through the garbage looking for an old can. After removing both ends of the can by scraping it against the sidewalk (mothers did not take kindly to sharing their can openers), the person stood behind the Johnny Pump and leaned into it. After planting both feet firmly on the ground, he or she placed the can to the gushing water, forcing it to flow through and create a geyser.

There were two issues for the people not involved in the day’s Johnny Pump action. Concern number one: you’re on your way to a date. Hair neatly coiffed and freshly washed (using your favorite shampoo, Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific), you’re wearing your best sundress, and you've expertly applied your bubble gum flavored Kissing Potion lip gloss. But there is a teensy problem. You have to be someplace on the other side of said Johnny Pump. So, you ask the can-wielding person, ever so politely, to please put the can down for just a few moments while you quickly pass. The laughter quiets, all frolic has come to a standstill.

Finally, there is an agreement. Eyes have met, heads have nodded. A smile has been smiled! You’re running late so you ignore the cold doubt rolling down your spine and proceed.

The second issue went like this: you’re driving in your car enjoying a beautiful summer’s day, windows down, hair blowing this way and that (and gee, your hair does indeed, smell terrific). You’re just loving the day until you notice the can-wielding person and the Johnny Pump frolickers. You roll to a stop many feet away and ask, in your sweetest voice, for safe passage. The can-wielding person looks you in the eye and agrees. You take a second to search his face. You’re watching for a twitch or one too many eye blinks indicating betrayal, but to your utter delight you don’t see any and proceed.

Then WHOOSH! The can-wielding person always went back on his word. So much for the date and dry car but after all, it was summer!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Yummy Summer Fun (July Theme) by Bob Krech

The summer I turned four we moved into a brand new suburb. There wasn't much in the area. To get to a legitimate store you had to drive eight miles south to a city or five miles north to a small town. There was really nothing you could walk to, but fortunately one of the most important parts of  summer came to us.

I would be hanging out doing whatever, playing baseball, riding my bike, chasing around with my friends after dinner and then you would hear the bells. Like Christmas bells! It made you think of Santa! And presents! And all you needed was a dime or a quarter. I could usually beg it from my parents, but if not, I usually had at least a dime stashed away somewhere in my sock drawer.

The bells would keep getting closer and closer, till finally it would turn our corner. And there it was - the Good Humor Man! You would never say, "the Good Humor Man truck." It was like they were one; man and truck and ice cream within.

And how white was that truck?! Gleaming, polar white! It radiated an aura of crisp, cold, clean treasure. The truck was solid too. It was thick. Like an armored car. Made sense with the very precious cargo of course. Even at four I began to learn to interpret the menu posted on the side of the truck. It was simple. It was pictures. And they were mostly cleverly illustrated "cut-away" pictures so you could see what was inside because a lot of those Good Humor ice creams had great stuff inside. You had the coating, then the ice cream, and then at the center sometimes something even better. Like solid chocolate!

The Good Humor Man was unfailingly nice. He always took his time with us. There was no rush. No impatience. He was smiling, all dressed in white. You would make your big decision and then he would open up that little square door on the back of the truck. The cold air would envelop us for a brief few seconds. Snow. Ice Winter. Inside that truck. He would reach in and come out with exactly what you asked for. And if you needed change he had that cool change maker on his belt. Bright chrome which looked like gleaming silver.

I had favorites. The coconut vanilla bar held me captive for a long time. Sometimes I would go for the toasted coconut, a little more exotic. Until I discovered the one with the chocolate on the outside and chocolate candy in the middle. There was always that big choice to make. I don't recall any regrets.

Monday, July 14, 2014

“Middleview” Interview with Debut Author Tara Dairman

Posted by Tamera Wissinger

Today, Tara Dairman is joining Smack Dab In The Middle Blog for a guest “middleview” interview. Tara’s debut middle grade novel ALL FOUR STARS, Putnam/Penguin, released on July 10, 2014. Congratulations, Tara!

Here is a bit about Tara:

Tiffany Crowder @ Crowded Studios.
Tara Dairman is a novelist, playwright, and survivor of the world’s longest honeymoon (2 years, 74 countries!). Thanks to her travels, parts of her debut middle-grade novel, All Four Stars, were written in a mall in Brazil, a guesthouse in Morocco, and coffeehouses in Argentina, Cameroon, Gabon, and Tanzania. Revisions took place in the slightly less exotic locale of her parents’ basement in New York.

Tara’s plays have been produced professionally in New York and Dublin, Ireland, as well as at various universities, and have been shortlisted for prizes such as the Heideman Award (Actors Theater of Louisville), the Jerome Fellowship (The Playwrights’ Center, Minneapolis), and the Princess Grace Award. She has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Dartmouth College and is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

With the traveling bug appeased (for now), Tara has finally settled down in Colorado, where she lives with her husband and their trusty waffle iron.

Here’s a description of ALL FOUR STARS:

Meet Gladys Gatsby: New York’s toughest restaurant critic. (Just don’t tell anyone that she’s in sixth grade.)

Gladys Gatsby has been cooking gourmet dishes since the age of seven, only her fast-food-loving parents have no idea! Now she’s eleven, and after a crème brûlée accident (just a small fire), Gladys is cut off from the kitchen (and her allowance). She’s devastated but soon finds just the right opportunity to pay her parents back when she’s mistakenly contacted to write a restaurant review for one of the largest newspapers in the world.
But in order to meet her deadline and keep her dream job, Gladys must cook her way into the heart of her sixth-grade archenemy and sneak into New York City—all while keeping her identity a secret! Easy as pie, right?

Here are the links to Tara online: Website, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads

Now it’s time to hear from our guest.

Smack Dab Middleview with ALL FOUR STARS author, Tara Dairman:

1. In a nutshell, what does your main character, Gladys, want?

All Gladys Gatsby truly wants is to get herself into New York City—specifically to 42nd Street and Ninth Avenue—and eat at Classy Cakes, Manhattan's hottest new dessert bistro. Because if she doesn't get her taste buds on some of their delectable desserts soon, she's going to lose her job as the New York Standard's newest freelance restaurant critic!

2. What is in her way?

Well, first of all, distance: Gladys lives an hour away from the city in suburban East Dumpsford, New York, a culinary wasteland full of fast-food restaurants. And she can't ask her parents for help getting to the city; in fact, Gladys's parents have no idea about her new job, and would probably hit the roof if they found out. Nor can she ask her editor for advice, since her editor thinks that Gladys is a grown-up, professional writer, rather than a sixth-grader. So she's going to have to figure things out on her own.

3. Did you know right away that this was your story, or did you discover it as you wrote? How did the story evolve?

While ALL FOUR STARS has gone through many, many rounds of edits (I first started working on the book in 2005!), the essential story has always remained the same: Girl accidentally gets hired as a restaurant critic for New York's biggest newspaper, and has to juggle her new secret career and her normal kid life. Most of the plot just followed naturally from that concept. Though I will say that, initially, I envisioned Gladys going on multiple restaurant-reviewing adventures in the book. But once I started writing, I realized that the story would work better if bagging one big review was her ultimate goal.

4. Was ALL FOUR STARS always for middle grade readers or not? If so, why did you choose middle grade? If not, what had to change for it to be considered a middle grade novel?

ALL FOUR STARS was always a middle-grade story (though I didn't know the industry term “middle grade” when I was writing it). I love how capable and creative kids in that age group can be. In fact, I remember feeling when I was that age that if the adults would only let me be in charge, I could run the show much better than they could. :) So, with the character of Gladys Gatsby, I wanted to give a middle-grader a chance to take on adult responsibilities and see how she fared with them.

5. What is the best part of writing for middle grade readers?

Two things jump to mind.

1) Middle-grade readers won't lie to you about what they think of your story. If they love it, they'll let you know, and if they hate it, they won't sugarcoat that, either.
2) Their creativity. I teach writing to middle-grade students, and I love to ask them how they would continue a story after the book is done. Their choices always surprise me.

6. Is there any downside?

Well, there's certain language that's hard to get away with in a middle-grade book—even if that's how (some) kids that age really do talk. So you have to be a bit creative with your expletives. (Gladys says “Fudge!” a lot.)

7. Is there one question you wish you could answer about writing, your book, or the author's life, but have never been asked? Here's your chance to Q &A yourself.

No one has ever asked me which character's eating habits in ALL FOUR STARS are the most like mine were as a kid. I think most readers assume that I had very gourmet tastes like Gladys does, but actually I was super-duper picky...just like Parm! In the book, she only likes to eat cold cereal with milk or plain spaghetti. My diet in sixth grade included a couple more items (salt bagels! Quaker chewy granola bars!), but I really was the most unadventurous eater back then. Sixth-grade Tara would be shocked (and, I hope, proud) of the variety of things I cook and eat now.

Thank you for joining us at Smack Dab in the Middle Blog today, Tara. Again, congratulations on the release of ALL FOUR STARS!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Playing in the Sand

One of my favorite summer beach activities has always been playing in the sand.  It was so satisfying to fill up the bucket with damp sand and turn it upside down to create the turrets and towers of a sandcastle. Decorated with shells, Popsicle sticks, and seagull feathers, these one of a kind creations were satisfying and  a day well spent with sand and surf. 
Last week I witnessed sand art on a grand scale.

Atlantic City NJ hosted the Sand Sculpting World Cup. This amazing display - held on the Pennsylvania Ave. beach next to the Steel Pier - drew artists from all over the world for the three week event.  All the sculptures were made with only sand and water.  A special "sticky" sand was brought in for the artists to use.  Once their creations were complete, a fine spray of watered-down Elmer's glue kept the sculptures from succumbing to the elements during the three week show.   If you’ve never witnessed this display, here are a few photos to get you excited.    

Doesn't it make you want to go and play in the sand?