Saturday, October 29, 2011

October Theme: Inspiration (but not mine!) by Tracy Barrett

I took a different path to publication from the one that most novelists follow. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on a medieval Italian poet that you never heard of: Cecco Angiolieri (see, told you!) and I figured that if I could research and write about him, I could research and write about anything. I sent some sample writing to a children’s nonfiction editor, and she assigned me a book.

Yes, she assigned me a book. Not too inspiring, huh? Sounds like homework! But that’s how it often works with unknown nonfiction writers. This specialist in medieval Italian poetry was asked to write a book for second- to fourth-graders about Nat Turner, who led a slave revolt in Virginia in 1831. A fascinating topic, but not one that had ever caught my imagination as the subject of a potential book. In other words, there was no inspiration.

But as soon as I started my re- search, and then even more as I tried to tell the brutal and disturbing story in a way that my readers could grasp, I fell in love with the topic. The struggle for freedom, Turner's terrifying visions, the slave-holders who quoted the Bible to support their horrendous practices, the horrifying deaths—they were all the inspiration I needed.

I went on to write a total of ten non- fiction books (and—so far—nine novels) for young readers. In some of the non-fiction cases I had a choice of topics from a list provided by the publisher; in others, I was pretty much told, this is a book we need. If you want to write it, fine; if not, we’ll find someone else. But in only one case (a book about the Trail of Tears) did the inspiration start with me.

My four-book series The Sherlock Files also came from someone else’s inspiration. The packager Parachute Publications had wanted me to write a series for them for a while, but none of my ideas really struck a chord with them. Then someone else sold them a concept: Two American kids living in London discover that they are descended from Sherlock Holmes. They’re given their ancestor’s cold-case notebook and set about solving his unsolved mysteries. Did I want to write a book outline and a chapter based on that premise and see if they could find a publisher?

Did I ever! I loved the idea, and once again, as soon as I got into it, enthusiasm hit, and inspiration for the mysteries, characters, and everything else followed.

In mainstream Western society, first comes love, then comes marriage. But in many cultures, arranged matches frequently lead to love and successful marriages. In the same way, inspiration sometimes comes to an author only after she lives with and learns about her characters and their story for a while.

Friday, October 28, 2011

October Theme: What Inspires Me? by Michael Townsend

What Inspires Me...?

Coffee Inspires me to wake up.

Legos Inspire me to build.

The wordless cartoons of Quino Inspire me to make cartoons.

The Art of David Shrigley Inspires me to make art.

Showers don’t Inspire me to shower but Elephants do.

The xx’s debut album inspires me to draw when I’m too tired to draw...

The Art of Henri Rousseau inspires me to paint places I’ve never been to...

The 1957 Movie Version of 12 Angry Men Inspires me to make a movie...

Chickens Inspire me to lay eggs...

Or is it eggs Inspire me to lay chickens?

Edward Gorey Inspires me to get my pen and ink on...

Boring stuff Inspires me to write...

Exciting stuff Inspires me to write...

Check marks Inspire me to make lists...

Hamsters Inspire me to stick food in my cheeks...

Wagner Inspires me to drink whiskey...

My being tired has Inspired me to bring this Inspirational list to an end...

Or is it the Wagner...?

Either way...

The End...

Michael Townsend

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

October Theme: Dreaming Inspiration, by Lucy Jones

I got my inspiration for The Nightmare Factory from a dream I had a few years ago. There was a brother and a sister who were trapped in this terrible place, a sort of factory which collected fear, and they were trying to escape from these dark shadowy creatures. It was so clear that when I woke up, I logged straight onto my computer and wrote a synopsis for it. Of course, the book has changed a lot since then, but it was that initial dream that gave me the basic idea for the plot.

Inspiration can come at the most random times and from the strangest of places. The other day I had a great idea for a book title - by misreading the print on a t-shirt whilst shopping.

But mostly I dream my ideas. They come to me in that strange moment between consciousness and non-consciousness just before I fall asleep. So now when I'm stuck for an idea, or I’m having a problem with a plot hole, I'll mull it over for a while and then take a power nap. And strangely enough - It usually seems to work!

I've always had really vivid dreams and nightmares. Usually they're complete rubbish and would make terrible stories, but occasionally I dream of something great. I keep a notepad and pen by my bed now, just in case I wake up in the middle of the night and don't want to forget the details.

I've heard of a few other authors getting their ideas from dreams, so I think it’s quite a common thing. What about you guys, have you ever dreamt of something that you think would make a cool book?

One more thing. Before I go, I wanted to share a link with you. A funny but interesting video by Jackson Pearce on stealing inspiration:


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Shake me and my confidence 'bout a great many things.

When I love a writer—and I mean really love a writer—their writing usually falls into one of two categories.

Category #1: Their writing energizes me, fills me with possibilities, and makes me want to run to my keyboard RIGHT NOW to realize my own stories.

And Category #2: Their writing shakes me on a sub-atomic level to a point where I realize I’ll never, ever be able to write as beautifully, eloquently, and poignantly and so I should probably never write again.

Sometimes I can articulate why an author falls into one category or another. Other times I can’t (it’s mostly if they fall into Category #2 that definition fails me). Here’s a short excerpt from my already short list of Authors Who Inspire Me and my attempt to explain why.

Jonathan Stroud—Everyone I know who loves the Bartimaeus books typically points to one overriding factor: Bartimaeus’s voice. And it’s true that this is probably what first drew me into the series. But it’s Stroud’s command of language that excites me whenever I enter his work. I’m a lover of words and the more sesquipedalian, the better. Not only does he use beautiful language, but he finds a way to make them flow in a way that makes you think those words were always meant to be in just that order. Add to that the aforementioned sense of voice and I can hardly wait to sit at my own keyboard the second I’m done read. Category #1

David Almond—I’m always astounded by people who can do things that I can’t. Acrobats. Triathletes. Almond resonates with me so deeply because he has a skill I deeply admire and envy. His tendencies towards minimalism never fail to take my breath away (often, quite literally). It takes me a long time to read an Almond book because I spend hours trying to figure out how he can evoke such a strong sense of place, character, and atmosphere with so little. In my own writing, I tend to be a bit more…shall we say, verbose. I look at what he does, in books like Kit’s Wilderness and Clay and say, “I can never do that. I should just stop now.” Category #2

A.S. King—There is a dynamic simplicity to Amy’s writing. There are only a handful of people writing YA today who spring to mind when I think of writing that is at once immediately accessible and also wicked smart. Amy’s one of those people. Anyone who wants a master class in writing with layers and symbols without being hoity-toity needs to race out and pick up Everybody Sees the Ants. It is stunning. (Full disclosure: Amy’s debut YA, The Dust of 100 Dogs, was published by the house for which I acquire, although I did not acquire that book and haven’t acquired anything by Amy since, to my sadness.) Unlike the first two authors I mentioned, Amy is harder to categorize. She’s scary smart, which should put her in Category #2. But her carefully chosen syntax and vocabulary that sneak up and force a gamut of emotions from me gets me jazzed so I want to put her in Category #1. For now, let’s say the verdict is out. Category ???

Monday, October 24, 2011

October Theme: The Little Things

by Stephanie Blake

Sometimes, inspiration comes from the little things.

I got the idea for my book, THE MARBLE QUEEN, on a Sunday morning. I was having coffee and reading the newspaper, when I came across an article about a men who were had won national marble shooting competition some fifty years ago. I wondered why girls hadn't participated in the competitions. An idea for a story was born.

Ten-year old Freedom Jane McKenzie longs to enter and win the local marble-shooting competition, even though everyone, including her difficult Mama, tells her that marbles are for boys.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

October Theme: Abandon your Inspiration by Dia Calhoun

Inspiration is an important, but ultimately tiny part of writing a novel.  Story blossoms  are everywhere—in the lines of a book I’ve read, the shape of a tree I’ve seen, the experiences I’ve had, and the lifelong sojournings of my imagination. Inspiration is the wind that comes and sprinkles pollen onto one particular blossom. Then the capricious wind flits away, leaving me with the job of growing that blossom into a lush piece of fruit. I have to water the tree, protect the blossom from frost, keep the insects away, stop the birds from pecking the fruit, pray that the hail will not come and that the well will not run dry. This has little to do with inspiration and everything to do with steadfast work.
What keeps me writing after the initial inspiration is the great glory of revelation— those flashes of insight where I suddenly see what the story is really about, suddenly see who the character really is, suddenly see what that character should really be doing. Such revelations mean that my story has come alive and is now running on ahead of me. If I am lucky, if the work is a true one, the revelations come again and again as I chase after the true story.
Often this coming  alive of the story means I have to abandon my initial inspiration. Perhaps I thought the blossom would become an apple, only to find it is really a peach. It can be gut-wrenching to abandon my inspiration. But I must, in order to see what is actually in front of me now, to see what the story has become and wants to become, rather than what I thought it was going to be. As a result of my own work and care, the story declares its independence from me. Like any parent, I must help it become what it was born to be, and must fight my reluctance to let it go.
When a writer honors the wonder and glory and kicking life of what she has miraculously created, then, with a kiss of blessing and thanks, she can let the capricious wind of inspiration blow away over another hill, and get on with the work at hand.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

October Theme: The Halfway-Point Inspiration Burst (Holly Schindler)

Initial sparks of inspiration are important, no doubt about it. (Where's a writer without a basic plotline?) But for me, those ah-ha! moments come pretty frequently. I get new ideas before I get a chance to get a current book finished...And I love the setup...I adore getting those first few chapters down on paper.

The middle? Not so much. I find middles extremely difficult. It's so easy for me, once I hit the middle of a book, to gravitate toward a new idea, and sink into a fresh beginning all over again.

I find that I need a burst of inspiration to kick me into gear again once I hit that middle. And nothing works better than just a little bit of kindness...a sweet gesture. Below are a couple of "Because You've Been Working So Hard" bouquets that recently made their way to my kitchen table.

...And judging by my crazy-good word count lately, boy have they worked...

Friday, October 21, 2011

October Theme: Inspiration (Alan Gratz)

Like other authors, my inspiration for stories comes from all over the place.

For Samurai Shortstop, my inspiration came from a deep abiding interest I had in Japan. I'd been reading everything I could get my hands on about Japan--adult fiction, kidlit, manga, essays by people who had been to Japan, and travel guides to Japan, hoping that one day I'd be able to go there. In one of those travel guides I saw a picture of Japanese playing baseball in kimonos--their traditional robes. The caption told me the picture was taken at the 1915 National High School Baseball Tournament in Tokyo, and I was intrigued. I knew the Japanese were mad for baseball, but as early as 1915? I'd always thought Japan got baseball after World War II, during the Allied Occupation. I went to the library, got a book about baseball in Japan, and learned they'd gotten it very early indeed, sometime in the 1860s--just about the time they were going through a radical cultural and political shift from their middle ages to their modern age. There were samurai running around with swords while people were playing baseball? I had to write a story about that! Samurai Shortstop became my first published novel.

For Something Rotten and Something Wicked, my inspirations came from two favorite authors. I wanted to do something with the character of Horatio from Hamlet--a down-to-earth character I admired and thought didn't get enough face time in his play. I updated him, turning him into a snarky, smart teenager, but I never could find the right story for him. Then I thought, "Well, I've already stolen the character from Shakespeare. Maybe I'll steal the plot as well!" For the atmosphere and banter between the characters, I went back to the works of noir writer Raymond Chandler, who's another of my favorites. I put Shakespeare and Chandler and my own teenage years growing up in East Tennessee in a blender and hit frappé, and the result was Something Rotten and Something Wicked.

The Brooklyn Nine was always going to be about family, American history, and baseball. I had the idea to break the novel down into nine "innings," or short stories, inspired of course by the nine innings of a baseball game. The stories too were inspired by real events from American history and baseball history. Some of the family elements, however, were inspired by my own family. I based the character in the second inning, Louis, on my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Louis Alexander Gratz, who came to American in the 1860s, joined the US army, and made his name and his fortune fighting for the Union Army in the Civil War. For the inning set in the 1950s, I called up my dad and asked him to tell me about his childhood. And of course the inning set in the early 1980s I was able to base on my own childhood, talking Atari and Indiana Jones and Star Wars with my friends.

My inspiration for Fantasy Baseball came from an odd source: baseball jerseys. My then-five year old daughter wanted to wear jerseys like her dad, but she didn't really care about the teams or the sports. For fun, my wife and I came up with fantasy baseball teams, as though there were teams in famous kids' books: the Wonderland Hearts, the Oz Cyclones, the Emerald City Wizards, the Neverland Lost Boys. Wendi designs and sews clothing, so she made up the baseball jerseys for our daughter. I joked that "Fantasy Baseball" would make a funny idea for a book, and from that point on it was always a story I was going to write. The result was Fantasy Baseball, a book about a boy from Atlanta who falls into a fantasy world populated by all the characters from classic kidlit, all of who, apropos of absolutely nothing, are playing in a huge baseball tournament.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

GUEST POST: AM I AS SMART AS A FIFTH GRADER…when it comes to cracking codes? (Penny Warner)

I’ve been a fan of puzzles and codes since I was a kid. I used to talk to my friends in Pig Latin, write the secret notes in Alpha-Numeric Code (each alphabet letter matches a number), and learned the American Sign Language Manual Alphabet so I could communicate with my friends in class without the teacher knowing.

After writing several mystery series for adults, I wanted to write a mystery for middle-grade kids, and thought it might be fun to include a code for the readers to solve in every chapter. THE CODE BUSTERS CLUB: SECRET OF THE SKELETON KEY was just published last week and it’s full codes for fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders to solve, such as Morse Code, Braille, Fingerspelling, Alpha-Numeric, Caesar’s Cipher, and even Semaphore. Each reader I meet gets a code-busting kit to go with the book.

The story revolves around thirteen-year-old Cody Jone’s odd neighbor, “Skeleton Man.” The old man has always been a little strange, spying on them from his upstairs bedroom window. But when the Code Busters notice something mysterious going on at his house, they think he’s sending them a message about a hidden treasure. They’re right—the codes are Semaphores that spell out “HELP.”

While most codes have been around for centuries, one of my favorite codes is called the LEET Code, also known as 1337 Code. It’s a recent high-tech creation based on computer keyboard symbols—and it’s just as challenging for adults as it is for kids!

Try to decode the following message in LEET Code. If you can’t, read hints below. If you can solve it, then you’re welcome to join the Code Busters Club, where you’ll find more codes to solve (

Here goes:

( 4 /\/ \|/ () (_) ( |2 4 ( I< + # 3 ( () I) 3 ?

For some people, this is as easy as ABC to decipher the code, but for others, it looks like nonsense. If you’re having trouble reading the sentence above, here’s a hint: Each letter of the alphabet has been replaced by a keyboard symbol that resembles the letter. For example, the parenthesis ( becomes the letter C. Now can you see what’s right before your eyes?

Still stuck? All right, here’s the key:

A = 4 B = 8 C = ( D = |) E = 3 F = |= G = 6 H = # I = ! J = _|

K = |< L= |_ M= /\/\ N = /\/ O= () P = |* Q = (,) R= |2 S = $ T = +

U=(_) V = \/ W= \/\/ X = * Y = \|/ Z = 2

I hope that was fun. Now you can communicate with your friends via email, using the LEET Code—and all you need is a computer keyboard!

Penny Warner is the author of the new middle-grade series, THE CODE BUSTERS CLUB: SECRET OF THE SKELETON KEY, and the adult mystery series, HOW TO HOST A KILLER PARTY. Her latest is HOW TO PARTY WITH A KILLER VAMPIRE, set in a cemetery and featuring a Vampire-themed party. She can be reached at or

Penny is also willing to give a copy of her book and a Code-Busting kit! To enter, email Penny directly at: pennywarnerink (at) yahoo (dot) com. Entries will be accepted through October 26th!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Interview with a Publicist: Jason M. Wells (plus a giveaway!)

I've been interviewing a lot of editors lately, so I thought I'd mix things up today and talk to someone in a different field. Please join me in welcoming to the blog Jason M. Wells, executive director of children's marketing and publicity at Abrams Books for Young Readers! Jason has worked on lots of books you've definitely heard of, including the beloved Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, so read on to see how he does all the fantastic things he does. (Jason is also hosting an incredible giveaway--details at the end of this post.)

Jason Wells at the ABRAMS NCTE booth
(Above: Jason hard at work at NCTE in the Abrams booth)

Welcome, Jason! First off, please tell us the full name of your publishing house/imprint, and your official title (just so I don't get it wrong).

I work for ABRAMS, The Art of Books Since 1945. Specifically, the imprints I work on are: Abrams Books for Young Readers, Amulet Books, and the new Abrams Appleseed, which will debut this spring and is dedicated to publishing the best books for readers below age five. My title is Executive Director, Publicity and Marketing.

What is a typical day like for you?

I’m a morning person so I’m usually up at 6 and at my desk by 8. My days are filled with pitching media, planning tours and conferences, working closely with my staff, talking to authors, illustrators, editors, booksellers, librarians, and checking in with my wonderful boss for frequent reality checks, budget questions, and, on more stressful days, she helps me keep my sanity.

Did you always plan to work in marketing and publicity? What was your career path?

I started

in publishing in 1997 at age 16, weekends after high school. It was love at first sight. After college I got an internship, which led to a full time job almost immediately. After some company changes, promotions, and almost 15 years of hard yet fun work, I’m running a department of three at Abrams and we’re leading the market for middle-grade books with Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the Origami Yoda books, and the NERDS series.

What sorts of books do you typically work on, and how (if at all) does publicizing a middle-grade book differ from publicizing any other type of book?

With the addition of the new Abrams Appleseed imprint, I now work on all types of books, from board and concept books for the youngest readers, to teen novels. Middle-grade books have been a sweet spot for Abrams. The company’s biggest success to date is Dairy of a Wimpy Kid. I believe with middle-grade books it is as much about the format as it is about the marketing. Package a good story and get it out there and the kids will do the rest if they like it.

I know that publicity and marketing campaigns differ vastly from book to book, by sheer necessity, but is there anything you can think of that, in your opinion, NEVER works to successfully promote a book?

If an author is not involved in the promotion in some way, it is harder to get attention, especially for first timers.

What moment in your career thus far are you most proud of?

Working to get the Wimpy Kid giant helium balloon into the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. And then walking with it in 2010---and again this year!

What kinds of things, when reading a new title at Abrams, make you sit up in your chair and say, “Now this is going to be a hit!”? (I like to imagine you sitting up in your chair and talking to yourself a lot at work…)

Ah, sometimes you just read something and know it is going to find its home. Nobody can predict success. Sometimes stories I love don’t do what we want them to do. Yes, I do tend to talk to myself at least a few times a day. My staff sits so close to me that it often ends up being a conversation.

What are some of your favorite non-book-related activities?

Biking, traveling, wine, studying new and old cars, going the beach, and seeing my nephews.

What was the book that made you fall in love with reading?

The Tim and Sandy books by Edward Ardizzone, and Coma by Robin Cook. I spotted a paperback copy of it at a garage sale for 10 cents when I was 11. My mother refused to buy it for me. Fortunately, I had a dime in my pocket. I still have it.

Lastly (and most important), if you could be the love-child mash-up of any two superheroes (e.g. SuperBatMan), who would you choose to be and why?

I have no idea. So I’m going to be silly and say WonderHornet.



Jason is giving away five galley copies of ONE DAY AND ONE AMAZING MORNING ON ORANGE STREET by Joanne Rocklin. Here's a snippet from the Amazon description:

When a mysterious man arrives one day on Orange Street, the children who live on the block try to find out who he is and why he’s there. Little do they know that his story—and the story of a very old orange tree—connects to each of their personal worries in ways they never could have imagined.

The book received starred reviews from both Kirkus and Booklist, so snap this giveaway up or I'm going to take all five copies for myself! :)

To be one of the five winners, simply email me at graff [dot] lisa [at] yahoo [dot] com with the subject line "ORANGE STREET." The winners will be chosen at random on November 1st.

The giveaway is now closed. Congrats to our five lucky winners: Kaela, Janet, Jill, Nicole, and Shannon!

Monday, October 17, 2011

October Theme: Inspiration (Sarah Dooley)

Inspiration is one thing. Quite another is the page-and-a-half past inspiration, when the fire that caught the first few pages, blazing through suspense-building and the first intriguing shadow of character, has burned itself low to embers and the realization sets in that there must be plot – and back story – and details that make sense together – and all of that is up to me.

This is when I start thinking about taking the dog for her third walk of the morning, even though she is asleep in a sunspot and will probably not want to be budged. Or maybe I should call my grandmother. I’ve been meaning to call her for about two years. Speaking of my phone, I’m getting sick of the factory ringtone, but I’ve been too busy to stop and figure out how to change it. I could do that now. I could do a lot of things now. I could clean my messy house. Wash the dishes. Pet the cat, who has been sitting just behind my computer, staring at me unblinking, for the better part of an hour.

Inspiration is one thing – one sizzling, startling, head-spinning, gut-grabbing wonder of a thing. Quite another are the pages in between.

People ask me where I get my ideas, and I tell them from my life, from my childhood, from something interesting I saw, from someone wonderful I met.

People ask me where I get my inspiration and I don’t know what to tell them. Inspiration is a mystery to me. It can be as simple as the temperature of the wind on my morning walk, or a word overheard in a crowd. It can come out of nowhere at all and spark a new story so powerful I can think of nothing else. I can do nothing but write feverishly, desperate to capture the story that always seems just out of reach ahead of me. I write like there is nothing else. I write like my characters' lives depend on it.

For about six pages.

Long about page seven … eight … nine … I start to notice the flaws and the plot gaps in the story I’m spinning. I start to think about how there are other, more definite things I ought to be doing. I start to think about how if I’ve lost inspiration this early, I may never find it again, and this story is doomed and will never be finished. I start to think about walking the dog.

I have learned, though, that inspiration is never truly missing. It has simply skipped ahead a page or two, or maybe even a couple of chapters, wanting to know what’s going to happen next, unwilling to wait for me to catch up. If I quit now, inspiration will finish the story without me and I will never get to know what happens. That fire will burn out, inspiration will slip away to some other writer with some other story, and I will never be able to catch up.

But if I keep writing -- even though I’m not feeling anything except frustration and despair and the cat’s eyes on me – any moment now I might turn the page and find inspiration waiting there, crouching behind some random paragraph, ready to grab me and sweep me away into an unexpected plot twist. It could even be on the very next page. Or the next page. Or the next.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

October Theme: Inspiration (Stephanie Burgis)

Ever since I was seven years old, I've known I wanted my job to be: writer. But as much as my internal control freak wants to pretend that that's a normal, controllable steady job option, the truth is it's not. Writing as a career takes a ton of hard work, commitment and stubbornness...but also that will-o-the-wisp inspiration.

Once I have an idea, I can force my way through the bad days, doing the work to get my ideas onto the page even if I don't feel inspired on that particular day (or month) - but before that can happen, I need to find real inspiration somewhere to give me the ideas in the first place. Luckily, by now, at 34 years old, I've figured out some pretty reliable ways to open myself up to inspiration in the first place.

I am not an artist. Ohhh, but am I not an artist. The intensity of my LACK of artistic ability cannot be overstated! In fact, that's not at all surprising, because I'm not a very visual person, in general. And yet...

...and yet, one of the best ways for me, personally, to get my brain moving with inspiration and ideas is to look at art. Back when I was working a day job in Leeds, England, I used to regularly take my lunch periods to walk around the (lovely! and free!) city art gallery, only two blocks away from my office. It always helped stir up ideas for new stories. Before I formed that habit, I used to collect postcards of art I loved from various museums and set them up around my writing area for inspiration.

Now that I live in a small town in Wales, I don't have a local art museum anymore, but I do have an online alternative: Pinterest (which, as everyone who follows my twitter account can attest, is my new obsession)! Pinterest is brilliant for anyone whose imagination is sparked by images, because it lets you collect every image that strikes you and arrange them all on virtual bulletinboards, exactly as you want to see them.

I have one board called Art I Love, where I collect art that starts my imagination going. Sometimes I open that board and just spend long minutes gazing at the collected art, passively absorbing it...and letting my subconscious get to work.

I have another board called Inspiration, which collects images that specifically make me want to get writing. I have separate boards related to different writing projects, and one more board, too...

Getting out of my house, out of town, into a forest breathing with magic - I can't imagine anything more inspiring. When I can't get out physically, I gaze at my Gorgeous Nature Photography Pinterest board to get that sense of space and breadth.

When I can, though...

Today I went to one of my favorite places in the world, the Puzzlewood in the Forest of Dean. If you've ever watched the TV show Merlin, you've seen the Puzzlewood, too! It's a natural choice for shows like Merlin and Doctor Who to film in, because it's filled with a sense of wonder and magic.

I sat on a bench by a cairn of stones, near massive, mossy rocks that were only half-lit by a natural forest twilight, even though it was noon and a sunny day outside the wood. Deep, vibrant green was everywhere around me. The trees loomed so high above me.

Suddenly, I wanted to write again...

Saturday, October 15, 2011

October Theme: Inspiration (Bob Krech)

When I meet with students to talk about writing I always bring my writing folder. It's a purple file folder stuffed with notes, newspaper clippings, photos, scraps of paper, and a few typed pages. This is where I stuff the little recordings of inspiration till I can get back to them. I find most of my inspiration by looking and listening, paying attention and noticing. I tell students that most of my ideas come from a three step process. Look (or Listen) > Why? > Maybe...

Here's a recent example. I was driving on a major road in our area and was stopped at a stoplight. A motorcycle pulled up on my left. It stopped at the light and sat there, engine revving. It was a big, black Harley with a big biker guy on it. He was all in black leather with a black helmet, big bushy beard, long ponytail, huge black boots, dark sunglasses, and the black leather gloves with the holes for knuckles and fingers. The classic biker. But while I was checking out his classic look, I noticed on his right wrist between the leather jacket cuff and the glove there was a thin pink and white bracelet. It was one of those bracelets where each plastic bead has a letter on it. The letters were dark blue and spelled out W-O-O-D-Y.

Then the light changed and he rumbled off down the road. I reached for my ever-present pad and pen and scribbled "WOODY biker bracelet" as I pulled away from the light (Don't try this at home!) Later when I had the little scrap of paper back at my desk, I started thinking about it using that simple three step process. 

When I LOOKED I saw the Woody bracelet. Now I asked myself, "WHY?" Why would the big biker guy have a little pink and white bracelet? The final step is to kick your imagination into gear and begin and try to answer the "Why?" with some "MAYBES." Here are some recent ones some elementary students came up with for this scene: 

"Maybe his little daughter gave it to him and his name is Woody. He misses her because she is big now."
"Maybe his friend Woody had cancer and he wears it to remember his friend."
"Maybe his father gave it to him when he was little."
"Maybe he likes Toy Story and Woody is his favorite character and he watches it everyday after work."
"Maybe he has a dog named Woody that he loves."
"Maybe his daughter gave it to him a long time ago, but she ran away, and he is driving everywhere trying to find her."

All of these "Maybes" conjure up characters and possible stories in my head. Looking and listening, asking why, and jotting down some maybes is one way to get an idea for a story. Inspiration is definitely out there all around us. Probably at the next traffic light.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

October Theme: Inspiration (Tracy Barrett)

Kidsand adultsoften ask where authors get their ideas, the inspiration for their books. I tell them that the ideas are out there, but that the author is the one who says, "Ooh, there's a story in that!" All of my novels have started with a question, something that nags at me and won’t let go until I’ve exorcised it by writing about it. But I'm sure that in each case, those same questions (the ideas, I guess) have occurred to lots and lots of other people. They just happened to catch my attention in a different way. Inspira- tion, for me, is the point at which an idea rubs up against some- thing individual in me, in you, in any writer or painter or actor.

The Sherlock Files: What would Sherlock Holmes have been capable of if he had had the resources of modern technolo- gy? Kids are much less resistant to new gadgets than most adults, so why not put metal detectors and GPS's and other devices into the hands of some young detectives and turn them loose on Sherlock's unsolved cases?

I'm hardly the first person to imagine Sherlock Holmes in the modern era. Case in point: The wonderful BBC series Sherlock has a similar premise, but oh, how different it is!

King of Ithaka: I read a review of Marga- ret Atwood’s Penelopiad, about Penelo- pe, Odysseus’s wife, and what she was up to while her husband was hanging out with nymphs and witches and monsters (very happily, at times—Odysseus isn't my favorite character from the Greek mythological canon) on his way home from the Trojan War. Immediately, I wondered, “What was his son, Telema- chus, doing all that time?” My idea was similar to the one I imagine inspired Atwood, but since I primarily think from a teen point of view, I fixated on a different character.

Dark of the Moon: The myth of the mino- taur has always bugged me, and it turns out there’s a reason for that: The story as we know it is a garbled retelling by Greeks of a ritual and traditions from what was to them a very foreign country, the island of Crete. Greek travelers to Crete couldn’t make sense of what they saw, so it’s no wonder that they told a confused tale when they got home. My own retelling is an imagined re-creation of what the original story might have been. But it's not the first retelling; the Greeks did that and gave us the myth that we're familiar with.

If we're lucky, the friction caused by the rubbing-up of an idea against the individual artist will create fire.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What Inspiration Looks Like (October Theme Post from Jody Feldman)

The number one question I get asked in school visits? Some form of ...
What inspired you to write your books?
Where do you get your inspiration?
How do you get your ideas?

I used to borrow an answer from another author – exactly who, I can’t remember and I’m sorry for that.* But it was a he, and at a conference some years ago, he spoke of going to a magical river in the heart of Africa and drinking deeply from its inspiration whenever he needed a good idea.

After saying that, I would go on to explain ...
For me inspiration and ideas are simply floating around the universe. My eyes and ears, and especially my brain and gut are always on standby. When a word or sight or sound or smell or feeling intrigues me, I perk up and I pay attention ...

... which is all well and good, but whenever that pretty explanation rolled off my tongue, I felt as if it fell to the floor and stuck there like a grey blob. Sure, I’d see nods of understanding, but did they really get it? Or were they left as unmoved as I was?

Then one day ...

I put my critique services up for auction in support of author Bridget Zinn, one of the loveliest women I’ve ever been privileged to meet. While I was at the auction site, I also browsed to possibly bid on something for myself. And there it was – a spread from the Caldecott honor book, The Way to Start a Day by Byrd Baylor and illustrator Peter Parnall.

One look at this picture, and I knew: Here was the perfect expression of my explanation ...
The brilliance is out there. It’s just a matter of noticing.

*A signed book to anyone who can tell me who the Idea River author is.

Monday, October 10, 2011

October Theme: Inspiration (by Tyler Whitesides)

Probably the number one question I get asked is this: "Where do you get your ideas?" or (the same question reworded) "Where did you get your inspiration for your book?" Luckily, I have a very straightforward and easy answer for how I got the inspiration to write JANITORS.

As a full time music student at Utah State University, I needed a flexible, part-time job. Just something to give me enough money to take my wife (then girlfriend) on a date from time to time. I decided to apply at a local middle school as a part-time janitor. I landed the job and spent the next year and a half taking out the trash and sweeping the floors.

I would often find myself at the middle school late into the night. Few places can be more inspiring than a dark school hallway, when the exit signs cast an eerie green glow over the doorways, and the classrooms are steeped in shadow...

Cleaning that school gave me a few hours of daily uninterrupted brainstorming. The time was far more valuable to me than the minimum wage I was earning. As I cleaned, I thought of ways to make a janitor's job more exciting. It wasn't long before I had a notebook full of ideas and a story that was begging to be told.

I took inspiration from my everyday life experiences. With a little magical twist, even a janitor's job can look heroic and exciting. I knew I'd hit the nail on the head when my Kirkus review said that my book "spins plenty of action [and] authentic janitorial detail... around an audience pleasing premise."

Sunday, October 9, 2011

October Theme: Inspiration (Platte F. Clark)

Sometimes inspiration comes as a kick in the pants.  

In my case, I had been thinking about being a writer for most of my life. I’m 44 now, so my kids will tell you that’s a long time. It started with a middle school English teacher who told me I had a talent for writing. I liked the sound of that, as long as it fit into my dreams of being a professional video game tester.

I took creative writing in High School—and promptly failed. To be fair, I received my “F” because our assignment was to write a horror story and mine involved the creative writing teacher in the principal (and admittedly, unflattering) role. My story was read out loud, to the teacher’s horror and the class’s howls of laughter. Later, as I reflected on things in detention, I realized I had learned an important lesson: writing funny was radical (“radical” being the appropriate expression for 1985).

I married a wonderful woman and started college with the intention of attending law school. My wife was supportive of this plan, but she said what I really needed to do was write a book. I took it under advisement.

College ended with a young family and a philosophy degree. Having learned to avoid job fairs, help wanted ads, and student loan collectors, I set my sights on graduate school. I had been accepted into an Instructional Technology program (they wooed me with strange talk of “employment” and “salary”), but an English professor pulled me aside and suggested I should double matriculate and seriously consider writing for a career. It sounded nice, but I also liked the whole “employment” part from the other program, so I decided to do both.  

With graduate school completed, I dived into the corporate world and rode the tech bubble until it burst. With a severance check in hand, a friend told me I should write screenplays. I wasn’t sure what to think about that, but I gave it a shot. I ended up writing stop animation shorts and then adapted Barbara Robinson’s classic book, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, for film. I had some success, but not enough to avoid having to go back to a regular job.

Finally, my employer told me that I wouldn’t be getting a promotion I had been working toward for several years. Dejected, I went home and plopped down in front of my computer. Three months later my first book was done.

Thinking about inspiration, I know I benefited from the kind words of many people who encouraged me over the years. But it took a low point in my professional life to truly inspire me to write my book. And on the heels of that milestone, I found a terrific agent and sold my work as a three-book series to Simon & Schuster.

It seems that inspiration is an interesting thing—not only can we benefit from the good but also the bad (or what we perceive to be bad at the time).  Often life is friction. But friction can cause sparks and those sparks can ignite a passion. So if the world feels like it’s kicking you around a little, kick back by getting inspired to do something good—and then do it. You never know what might happen as a result.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

October Theme: Inspiration by John Claude Bemis

How often do you hear people say, “All the good ideas out there are already taken”?

Nonsense! Inspiration for something original and exciting is all around us. It simply takes a certain way of viewing the world with a creative eye to capture it. Here’s my take on how to do it.

I think the most wildly imaginative ideas are when two things are put together in ways not seen before. When Reese’s put together chocolate and peanut butter, that was pure genius. How about when E.B. White saw that spider web and imagined writing in it? Or when Roald Dahl ate that peach and thought “What if a kid went on a journey in a dirigible fruit?” J.K. Rowling might not have been the first to put together magic and schools, but for many young readers that was their first encounter with that inventive and appealing idea.

So you’ve got all this stuff in your head. Background knowledge, as they say. That stuff you learned in school. All those experiences you’ve had. All those books you read and fascinating things you’ve encountered. That’s the “compost heap” of your imagination. Some of it breaks down forgotten. But much of it grows and synthesizes with other memories, ideas, and information in your brain into a rich field for growing great story ideas.

Then you encounter something new. Maybe you see some funny bumper sticker while driving in your car. Maybe you’re wandering around a flea market and spot something intriguing. Maybe you’re watching the news or reading a magazine or listening to your child talking to a friend. Your brain suddenly latches on some new information and makes a wild and crazy connection to something in the “compost heap” of your imagination. The light bulb goes off. An idea is born!

This is the heart of inspiration. Everyday encounters can cause a connection between something you already know with something new. Try to put things together in ways you hadn’t considered before.

When I was writing The Nine Pound Hammer, the first book in my Clockwork Dark series, I remember inventing this character name Peter Hobnob who was chained to a tree in the forest. I didn’t know how he was going to escape. I knew I wanted him to have a magical touch, something that would introduce my protagonist Ray to a world that was magical and wondrous. Then, while walking around my yard in mid-summer, I kicked a dandelion. What if Hobnob had a dandelion hat that when placed on his head allowed him to turn into a million little dandelion petals that float away on the breeze?

So look around you. There’s inspiration everywhere. Simply try to make a connection between something new and unexpected you encounter and something already percolating in your imagination. I guarantee something creative and wildly original will emerge.

Friday, October 7, 2011

October Theme: Here Comes the Rain (Naomi Kinsman)

This week, the rain finally came. I had that experience I sometimes have, after being sick for a long time, when I wake up and realize that I finally feel better. I didn’t know how long, how tired, how dried-up I had been. But, then the rain came.
All summer, I’ve been writing, finishing up Flickering Hope, and then drafting my new book, Waves of Light. Word after word, the stories have taken shape. Writing, for me, is like pouring love onto the page. Only recently, scenes have only come out as a trickle. There’s no pouring going on in my office.
I thought a long time about that word, love. Is writing really like pouring out love? Love for whom? The little girl I used to be? My readers? And when I write scenes full of conflict and trouble, how is that a loving act?
I think it is because even as I write scenes about loss and hurt and disappointment, I hold on to the belief that in the end, my characters are going to make it through the darkness. Their lives won’t be perfect, and all their problems won’t be solved. But they will make it to the other side. 
Howard Nemerov said, “The only way out is through.” If I can believe this, truly, with my whole heart when I write, then writing is exactly like calling a friend when I know they need encouragement. It is like sending a card just because. Like rain, after a long, dry spell, our writing can bring hope and a reminder that nothing is impossible. This reminder may be for our readers, but in many ways, it is more for ourselves. 
So, today, rain is my inspiration. As I walk from my car to the grocery store, or from classroom to classroom, freshness is in the air all around me. The ground smells like waterfalls and fall-time forest and like growing up in Portland. And tiny tendrils of new possibility are beginning to sprouting up in me. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Win, Win (and Maybe Win Again)!

Stop #6 on the Blog Tour for The Challengers!
(posted by Jody Feldman)

Greg Fishbone has to be one of the most creative, hardest-working people I’ve ever been privileged to meet. So it’s not surprising that he’s taken on the entire galaxy with his new middle grade series. The Challengers, the first book in the Galaxy Games series launched a few days ago with a Game/Puzzle/Contest on a month-long blog tour.

The stop here is day #6 ... and Puzzle Piece #6 is below. If you’ve missed collecting the previous puzzles, go to The Galaxy Games website.

But now, for more immediate gratification, here’s your chance to win a copy of The Challengers. I might give away 2 copies, if, well, go here to read what happened to the ARC and whether or not I’ll get it back to give away.

To win a copy of Greg’s new book, choose one or more:
*Comment here, below, in the Smack Dab blog
*Leave a comment here where I’ve just reviewed the book ... sort of
*Give me shout at the contest status update on my Facebook page
*On Twitter, tweet that you want to win @jodyfeldman; please include the #tysato hashtag

For double your entry, include your favorite galactic element (yes, you can pretend if you don’t really have a favorite). I will take entries through October 15. Good luck!

Now, sit back and enjoy Greg’s entertaining interview.

In The Challengers, Book #1 in the Galaxy Games series, Tyler Sato needs to take on some space travel ... which would be a dream come true for some kids. When you were a kid, did you want to be an astronaut?

The books I read always made it seem like permanent lunar and Martian colonies were just around the corner and from there the human race would spread across the galaxy like ripples in a pond. Instead, we've gone almost 40 years without human beings going any higher than low Earth orbit, less than 300 miles up. The farthest the International Space Station gets from Earth is closer than the driving distance between Boston and Philadelphia--a trip to the ISS and back is actually less of a journey than what my family does on a typical long weekend in our car!

If I were an astronaut today, I'd be incredibly embarrassed by the state of our manned space program. I'd probably tell people I was a plumber or something else instead. On the other hand, today's robotic probes, rovers, and orbiters are doing some amazing exploration work all over the Solar System. For kids these days, growing up to be a robotic probe would be a whole lot more fun and exciting than growing up to be an astronaut!

It seems like Ty was thrust in the role of unsuspecting hero. Talk about a time when had to rise above your comfort level to tackle a situation.

I've never had to overcome longshot odds like Tyler did. I don't know whether I'd be able to step up and take on the galaxy, and I'm honestly not too keen on ever being in a position to find out. But are lots of ordinary-seeming folks throughout history who have done amazingly heroic things. I take my inspiration from them.

The book doesn’t start with Ty in a hero position; in fact, it’s just the opposite. His birthday is the biggest embarrassment ever when his mom forgets an 11 year old has outgrown the birthday clown. What were your birthday parties like? Tell us about your best and/or most embarrassing birthday moments.

My most embarrassing birthday moment wasn't at my own birthday party. It was my cousin's party at the local Burger King. There was a make-your-own-burger station, a cake, balloons, paper crowns, and all the standard decorations. Every kid in our third-grade class was there, and we were all having a great time until my aunt noticed a tiny red dot on my cheek. And then another on my arm. And then a few more in various places. And suddenly, I had a full-blown case of chicken pox. Two weeks later, every single kid at school came down with chicken pox and they all knew they'd gotten it from me.

Space toys. Did you own any? What were your favorite toys and games growing up?

I had Star Wars figures, Luke's landspeeder, and a working model of the Death Star. That's all it took for some basic storytelling: "One day, Hammerhead and Greedo drove their landspeeder to the Death Star for a meeting with Darth Vader and C3P0. Then Bo and Luke drove by in the General Lee and this is what happened next..." It sounds silly now, but it made more sense than any of the prequel movies.

In The Challengers, Ty meets M’frozzo from the planet Mrendaria. Who’s the strangest being you’ve ever met?

There's a giant redwood tree in the Public Garden in downtown Boston. I used to visit it on my lunch hour, when I worked nearby. I thought it had to be pretty depressed, so many thousands of miles from all the other giant redwood trees back in California. I imagined that it probably didn't like the snow much and must hate getting teased by all the local trees who didn't get understand all the surfer-tree lingo. I guess what I'm trying to say is, the strangest being I've ever met is probably me.

Speed round ...
If you had three eyes like M’frozzo, where would you like the extra to be located?
On a fingertip, so I could look for spare change in the couch cushions.

Clown or magician?

Cake or ice cream?
Ice cream.

Basketball, baseball, football, hockey or ... ?

E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind?
Close Encounters.

Other than Earth, favorite planet?
At the moment? Kepler 16b.

And here's Puzzle Piece #6!
Have fun playing along!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

October Theme (Inspiration): Girl In the Mirror by Trudi Trueit

The tiniest spark of an idea for a book can come from anywhere, anyone, or anything at any time. Over the years, my work has been influenced by thousands of things, some as unexpected as a stroll through the mall, others as fearsome as a life-threatening asthma attack. But when I really consider what it is that that propels me to create, what truly moves me to write, it is nothing that can be found in the outside world. Ideas come from without. Inspiration comes from within. And for me, inspiration comes down to two things.

The first is heartache. In elementary school, I was a nerdy, uncoordinated, class brain who wore cat’s eye glasses and had unruly hair. That's me over there on the left side of the page (my Carol Brady hair brushed into 'school photo day' submission). Suffice to say I know a bit about childhood angst. I remember how painful it was when I got teased about my glasses, my weight, my hair, my straight A’s, my clarinet, or my name (Trudi Fruity - ugh!). I just never seemed to fit in. Fortunately, I found solace reading books and writing stories and plays.

A few years ago, I tapped into this loneliness and frustration when writing the Julep O’Toole series. Julep gets her journal read out loud over the P.A. system, she throws up on the gym floor, she gets her skirt caught in the automatic toilet. All fictional situations, of course (and not all in the same book), but these ideas were born out of my own struggles to find my place at school, in my family, and in the world.

The second seed of my inspiration is hope. Hope helps you survive the heartache of life. It is what lifts you up. It is the promise that tomorrow just might be better than today. It's also one of the reasons why I, personally, like to read. When I was in the sixth grade, I found a friend - my first real and true best friend. We passed notes, wrote silly poetry, and made up fun nicknames for each other. I was Trubin (so much better than Trudi Fruity!). We laughed a lot, which is why I love to write stories infused with plenty of humor. Our friendship helped me cope with my awkwardness and my feelings of not fitting in. It eased the pain. The joy of friendship is often reflected in my work. In Secrets of a Lab Rat: No Girls Allowed (Dogs Okay), the main character, Scab, says his best friend, Doyle, knows him “from the bones out.” It's all I wanted as a child, someone to know me and love me, for me.

This week, I am finishing final revisions on a tween novel called Stealing Popular (Aladdin, fall 2012). It’s about a new girl at school, who is frustrated by the way the popular girls, The Somebodies, treat the unpopular girls, The Nobodies. Furious at the social injustices she sees going on unchecked around her, the heroine takes it upon herself “to steal from the fabulous and give to the freaks.”

There they are again. Heartache and hope.
Wouldn't you know it?