Friday, December 30, 2011

December Theme: The Gift of Books by Christine Brodien-Jones

"I have  always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library."
                                                              ~Jorge Luis Borges

I can think of no better gift than a book.  Over the years, I've spent seemingly endless hours in libraries, which are truly a gift to all of us.  The following is a guest blog I wrote for The Picnic Basket during National Library Week 2010 in honor of my hometown library in LeRoy, New York.

As with the mysterious libraries of Borges' fiction, my hometown library still haunts my dreams: an elegant structure of shadowy interiors, labyrinthine halls and spiral staircases.  There was an upstairs room that in my dreams was always hard to find, its windows painted shut, shelves overflowing with odd fragile books.  For me, the library was a world unlike any other.  At the front desk, whispery librarians stamped our library cards.  Downstairs was the Children's Room, where we sat in circles and stories were read.  Magical times.  Out front grew an old copper beech with low branches: a perfect climbing tree where I could sit and read the afternoons away, fantasies like Edward Eager's delightful time-travel books.

 A few summers ago I visited my home town and noticed a book sale on the library's front lawn. There, among the jumble of discarded books, I spotted three familiar covers: Edgard Eager's "Knight's Castle," "The Time Garden," and "Magic by the Lake."  I examined each book, breathing in the smell of moldy pages, marveling at N. M. Bodecker's light-hearted illustrations.  These books, I knew, were the same ones I'd checked out of the library and read all those years ago.  I paid for them and walked off smiling, the books clasped to my chest.  To be reunited with them was, well, paradise.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

December Theme: An Unexpected Gift! Jennifer Cervantes

Last month TORTILLA SUN won the New Mexico Book Award! I couldn't have been more thrilled. As a writer you hope to find an audience to read and enjoy your work, to touch the reader in some way. Tortilla Sun has been a gift in my life in more ways than I could possibly ever articulate (I know I'm a writer so I should be able to, but sometimes words come up short). And so it seems fitting that as 2011 comes to an end, I celebrate not only this honor, but all the gifts that I have revceived because I am a writer! Here's looking forward to the unexpected gifts of 2012 for us all.

December Theme: The Gift of the Book Machine?

A few months ago the bloggers of 'Smack Dab in the Middle' played around with the topic of Digital Books and the Future... (or something like that). Yesterday, I came across this blog (posted below). It contained some interesting thoughts on the future of books...

And it also contained this video...

Could this be the future for those of us who still desire a physical book?

Future Mom- When I was your age we used to go to a place called a book store. It was filled with endless rows of books on shelves. We would walk around for hours just looking at them...

Future Son- You mean you didn't have e-books or Book Machines? And why would you walk around? Didn't you have robo scooters back then?

This has been a lazy post by somebody who is very behind on his current deadline.

Mike 'Not a Book Machine' Townsend

Monday, December 26, 2011

December Theme: The gift of Imagination

By Lucy Jones.

When we were young, we could hold tea parties with our friends without any tea or even cups. Try doing that now and you’d have a lot of guests thinking you were very mad. But back then, we were more than happy to pretend. Teddy bears were really alive, Santa Claus lived in the North Pole, and there actually was a possibility that a magical land exsisted behind each and every child’s wardrobe.
I remember one of my favourite games was gathering a pile of sticks together and ‘cooking by fire’, because I was stranded in the wilderness and the only way to survive was to collect berries and firewood. It didn’t matter that there were houses surrounding me left right and centre, or the fact that my mum kept on coming outside to check if I was OK, because my imagination ignored all the logical adult thoughts of ‘This isn’t possible’ and let me drift into the make believe world where anything could happen.

I had about a million Barbie dolls too, and created an entire town for them over my parent’s living room floor. Card board boxes came in very handy for making stables, beds, houses and cars. If only living costs could be that economical today...

So please Santa, what I really want for Christmas is my childhood imagination back. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried to hang onto it as much as possible over the years, and I think I’m doing a pretty good job so far, but I would love to re-visit the ‘five year old me’ where absolutely anything was possible...

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The gift that keeps on giving

When I first moved out of my parents’ house (mumble, mumble) years ago, I asked my mom to write down some of my favorite recipes so I could sustain myself in the wild. Mock chop suey, pasty, porcupine meatballs… Though I was happy to have my independence, the most powerful reminder of home that I carried with me would be the food I grew up.

Mom bought a special recipe book filled with sleeves that held note cards on which she’d written her recipes for everything I’d requested. Some were recipes that had been handed down from her grandmother, others were things she’d discovered in magazines and appropriated as her own. But all my favorite soups, entrees, and desserts were present and accounted for.

My efforts to replicate my favorite dishes yielded spotty success at the best. Initially, nothing turned out right. At first, I thought I was a failure at cooking. Then, I suspected Mom had intentionally sabotaged the recipes so that I would always be forced to return to her for the “real thing.” At one point, I bought duplicate sets of ingredients, took the recipe book, and went to Mom’s house, demanding we make side-by-side batches so I could see what I was doing wrong.

While making porcupine meatballs, I matched Mom’s every move… until she reached up into the cupboard, grabbed a couple packets of gravy mix, and added it.

“What are you doing?” I asked. “That’s not in the recipe.”

Mom stared blankly at me. “Well, I always do this.”

In using the recipes she’d given me, I hadn’t taken one fact into account: like her own mother, Mom played fast and loose with recipes. She often improvised each meal, adding a dash of this or a smidgen of that but never following any direction exactly. She hadn’t tried to sabotage the recipe collection. She just didn’t stop to think about all the riffing she did. (She would later admit that there were several meals in my recipe book for which no recipe existed; she made them all up and actually had to cook the meal once in order to write down a semblance of a recipe for the book.)

Once I knew this secret, I began experimenting with the recipes myself, eventually getting them to taste more and more like Mom’s meals. To this day, it only takes opening up that old recipe book and scanning the note cards in Mom’s old-fashioned script to take me back to the comfort food I had as a boy in central Wisconsin.

This is our second Christmas without Mom.

With my father coming to visit my husband and I for the holidays, I asked Dad what kind of treats he wanted me to have on hand. His answer was the same I would have given if asked: Great Grandma Farrey’s Chocolate Drop Cookies.

Every time I read this recipe, I smile. It’s SO Mom. “1/2 cup softened shortening part butter” What the hell does that mean?! “Frosting. Tablespoon or so of butter softened. Powdered sugar.” How much powdered sugar, Mom? A tablespoon? A gallon? A cruise ship full?

But I go with it. I improvise. I’ll be honest: I don’t think that’s something Mom set out to teach me. But in working the way she did in the kitchen and seeing how great things turned out, I’ve never once been afraid to just do my thang and see what happens. An unusual gift, to be sure, but one that’s served me well.

When I go through these recipes, it’s like she’s back. Her unique handwriting is enough for me to summon a very clear picture in my mind, hear her laugh, and even smell her cookies. Of course, the cookies that I made this year aren’t as good as Mom’s. Oh, Dad will tell me they are. But they aren’t. And I’m OK with that. Eventually, I’ll massage the recipe enough to make it my own. They won’t be Mom’s cookies. They won’t even be Great Grandma Farrey’s cookies. They’ll be mine.

How awesome is that?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

December Theme: Holiday Gifting

by Stephanie J. Blake

When I was little, it seemed it took forever for Christmas to arrive. My father is crazy for Christmas and always made it magical. As we counted down the days, I would search the house for hidden gifts whenever my parents were out. They were very good at hiding presents, and I never had an inkling that Santa wasn't real. We never even saw rolls of wrapping paper!

Every Christmas Eve, after we had slept for a few  hours, my brother would wake me up. "Santa came," he would whisper. We would creep from our rooms, and huddle on the stairs, sharing a blanket, marveling at the lights of our Christmas tree and counting all the presents, peeking inside our stockings. We would sit patiently by the tree, waiting for the dark sky to give way to morning, so we could wake up our parents.

Somehow, my father always knew what I wanted.

Now that I'm a grown up, I'm finding it's better to give than to receive. Still, I've been given a few precious writing gifts this year.

1. A new laptop!
2. A patient editor who helped me get my revisions just right.
3. Three smart authors who jumped at the chance to read my book and give a blurb.

All I really want for Christmas is a peek at my cover! (And a Kindle Fire).

Happy holidays!

Friday, December 23, 2011

December Theme: The Gift of Presence by Dia Calhoun

One of the greatest gifts I have ever received was a happy childhood. I tried on the world in joy—reading books, drawing—I loved drawing costumes from the encyclopedia. I spent endless hours telling stories with my dolls in the doll house my father made and my mother furnished, and I supplemented with my imagination—did you know a shiny gold lid makes a perfect table? Once a week I had a ballet lesson and a piano lesson. My first secret friend was the towering fir tree in our yard.

Not overly scheduled, I had lots of free time that I spent making things, pretending things. I believe I had a direct connection to the present moment.

When the teen years came, many things changed for me. It was as though I was wrenched from that happy childhood.

As a grownup, I now feel the direct connection to the present moment most strongly when I am outside, or when I am writing.  (No wonder I love to write outside!) I have turned to middle grade fiction for three reasons: First, because I loved that time in my own life. Second, because I would love to live with that kind of presence. And third,
Because I would like to return the precious gift that was given to me. I would like to write books that connect kids to their own pure joy.

I wish you a Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


I’ve talked about it often: my long road to publication, that is. Took seven and a half years to reach that first acceptance. And let me tell you, seven and a half years is an excruciatingly long time—especially when you have multiple close calls but not a single deal, and you have no idea when the hunt for that first acceptance will end. When you’re in the midst of the hunt for the first book deal, that hunt starts to feel endless…

Enter the holiday season of ’08. That’s when my YA, A BLUE SO DARK, was under submission at Flux. I spoke to Brian (Farrey, acquisitions editor at Flux) for the first time just before Thanksgiving, and though I tried to play it cool, I spent Christmas on pins and needles, tied up in knots, hoping that finally the acceptance I’d been working toward for so long would appear.

Appear it did, just a few days after the new year. And literally two hours—I swear it’s true—two hours after I accepted the offer from Flux, the phone rang. On the other end of the line was an agent who was raving about a middle grade book I’d sent earlier that fall. With an offer of representation.

I accepted (Deborah Warren later sold my debut MG, THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY, to Dial, and is still my agent). After that initial phone call, though, in the winter of ’09, I just stood in my kitchen, dazed, wondering how it could have happened. Seven and a half years I’d been seeking a book deal, seeking representation. And in the course of two hours in one day, I had both.

Needless to say, I’ll never forget what the holidays brought that year...

But the thing is, you never know what’s just around the corner. One moment, I was a writer trying desperately to just get started. The next, I looked down and found my pinky toe in the door of the publishing world. It’s pretty cool, how that happens…

Here’s wishing all of you equally fabulous gifts from Santa!


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

December Theme: The Gift I Most Want (Alan Gratz)

TIME. That is the gift I most want.

More time to write, more time to read, more time with my family.

The answer to this problem is very simple: don't sleep anymore.

We spend a third of our lives asleep! Think of all that time we're wasting. If I had that time to write, I could spend the rest of my day reading and hanging out with my family. But of course our bodies need sleep.

The answer to THAT problem is also very simple: I need a dolphin brain.

Dolphins have to be awake to breathe, so they never go fully to sleep. To compensate, one half of a dolphin's brain sleeps while the other half remains awake. Genius!

So I guess the gift I really want this holiday season is the brain of a dolphin.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

December Theme: A Gift to Give Myself (by Lisa Graff)

This month we're talking about writing gifts, both physical and intangible. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I'd like to receive this year, and I decided that the one gift I need and would appreciate most is one that I can actually give to myself:


I am by nature a very impatient person. If the bus won't come for ten minutes, I will walk to my destination, even if it takes me thirty minutes to get there. I'm impatient with people, too, if they're taking a long time to call me back or read something I've asked them to. But over all I am impatient with myself. Impatient and thoroughly unrealistic.

For example, I like to think that I can write a rough draft of a book in two months (I cannot; it usually takes me seven). I like to think that when revising, I can successfully rewrite three chapters a day (I cannot; a good chapter revision usually takes me anywhere from two to ten days). And I like to think that, if I really put my mind to it, I can write two novels, a picture book, and three short stories in one single year (I cannot, I cannot, I cannot). I plan to do all these things -- put them on my to-do list and everything. And when I don't achieve them, I am frustrated with myself. Instead of celebrating all I have done in an hour or a day or a year, I focus on what I haven't.

It can be hard to be patient with yourself when you're a writer who's full of ideas for future projects. Or even just a writer who wants to do so many things: make an awesome book trailer, seek out more school visits, start writing that picture book she's always meant to work on . . . Life is short, and there's so much I want to do in it.

But I know, when I'm having one of my more sane moments, that I won't do anything well unless I give myself the time to do it. Unless I'm patient with myself, and allow myself to move at the speed I actually work at (as opposed to the speed my crazy imagination thinks I should work at). Writing is not something to be rushed.

And so, Lisa Graff, as 2011 comes to an end, I give you the gift of patience. Please, do me a favor and actually use it.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

December Theme: Gifts (Sarah Dooley)

When I write, the first thing I do is let myself float. I fix on one thing – an idea, a song, a scent, or, say, a monthly blog theme – and I float through memories and sensory impressions until a few specific words disentangle themselves from the haze and give me a place to start.

When I began to reflect on this month’s theme – gifts, in their many forms – I kept coming back to a snowy doorstep in 1986. I felt the crunch of snow under my sneakers. Saw the puff of my breath blurring the twinkling lights from other trailers. I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to have the door open.

That was the year that presents appeared like magic on the doorstep. I know now that they must have come from some church or charity, and even then, at five, I knew it was people and cars, not elves and reindeer, who had brought them. At the time I only knew that they hadn’t come from Mom and Dad, and I felt a weight in the room, one I didn’t recognize.

That Christmas, we sat at the kitchen table with my grandma, my mom’s mom, who would only be with us another Christmas or two. She showed us how to paint walnuts to look like strawberries. I wasn’t sure why anyone would do such a thing, but the paintbrush felt good in my hands and doing something with food besides eating it seemed like a luxury. I sat at the table with my grandmother, whose love I could feel in every brushstroke she showed me, and created something totally pointless just for the sake of it.

Gifts. This is the time of year where everything is wrapped and tied with a bow and lit with softness and color against a backdrop of snow. Surreal. Nothing is quite what it seems and you never know what’s inside the boxes with the bows.

What was inside the gift I was given by being born where, and when, and to who I was? By growing up in a family in which walnuts were a luxury, and presents were left on the doorstep?

And what does this all have to do with writing?

When I write, I tell a story. But before the story, I find the setting. Often, my stories begin with things that feel a lot like snowy doorsteps and clumsy paintbrushes, the sound of church vans fading into the night, the tight expressions of parents who put aside their own feelings so there are packages for the little ones to open. When I drift – in that moment before the words come – I feel as if I know the scene from every vantage point – the well-meaning folks placing presents by the door, hoping they will bring a smile to a child’s face – the parents bringing in the presents to place next to their own, not caring which one brings a smile to the child’s face as long as one of them does – the child, not recognizing the weight in the room for what it is, opening the door to see if it escapes like a puff of breath against the snow --

I have been given the gift of setting, and my characters know how to love. This is one of the many presents I continue to unwrap.

Friday, December 16, 2011

December Theme: Gifts (Stephanie Burgis)

This spring, my first book (Kat, Incorrigible) finally came out in America, where I was born and lived for the first 24 years of my life. I've been living in the UK for ten years now, and I was absolutely thrilled to see my book on shelves over here (as A Most Improper Magick) last August...

...but yes. I may be a dual citizen now, but some things are ingrained too deeply in childhood to ever change. Legally, I am both American AND British, but I grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, with one specific image symbolizing my biggest dream: to see my books on the shelves of bookstores and libraries in my hometown.

Now here's the frustrating part: when it finally happened, I couldn't actually see it. I'd planned to come home to visit for at least three weeks around the publication date, so that I could have a wonderful book launch at my favorite independent book store (Schuler Books) and sign copies at Barnes & Noble and elsewhere. I was going to visit my old schools to talk to the kids there who want to be writers. I was going to celebrate my book's publication surrounded by my family and friends from childhood, who had always cheered me on.

It was a wonderful fantasy - a fantasy built on all those years of dreaming, from the time I was seven years old onward. Unfortunately, reality got in the way. The truth is, I have a chronic illness, ME/CFS, which hit when I was 28, over six years ago. Travel is very, very hard. I also have a toddler. And when you put together the fact that my ME/CFS was getting worse and worse this spring, while my son (and my writing) still needed energy and attention...

...yeah. That dream was just not practical.

I hated having to admit it. I cried a lot. I wrote one of the hardest emails of my life to my family, telling them I wouldn't be able to come, and the second-hardest to my editor and publicist, canceling our plans for in-person book promotion.

My family understood. They visited me instead. My editor phoned me immediately after reading my email to reassure me that she and the publishing house were completely in support of me and my decision. I was so grateful that everyone understood, and no one blamed me for having to cancel all our plans.

But there was one thing I didn't expect...the biggest gift I got this year, over and over again: I got to see my book on the shelves after all.

Photos came in from my family, showing my book in East Lansing, at Schuler Books and B&N and, maybe most meaningfully of all, at the East Lansing public library, where I'd spent so much of my childhood. But the photos didn't stop there. Friends from twitter and livejournal and readers I'd never met before went out to take more and more photos of my book on the shelves, really, truly there just like I'd always dreamed, in bookstores all the way from Massachusetts to Mississippi to California.

Every time a new photo arrived in my inbox, Facebook or TweetDeck, I gasped out loud with pure wonder. I've cried over almost every picture - but this time, only happy tears. Tears of wonder and tears of gratitude.

Even though I had to cancel all my plans - even though I was an ocean's-width away from home - I still had my lifelong fantasy made true:

I got to see my book on the shelves, just like I'd always dreamed, and that experience was given to me through the generosity of so many people I'd never even met.

I can't even imagine a better gift.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

December Theme: The Gift by Bob Krech

The trigger for my first YA novel was a breakfast conversation I had with high school students during a series of meetings about the future of the school district where I worked as a teacher. We talked a lot that morning about school, diversity, race, opportunity, and sports. Some of my favorite subjects. It was interesting to hear how some things had changed since I was in high school and how some things hadn't.

It made me reflect back to my own high school experience as a basketball player and how sports and the interaction of different groups of athletes helped me growing up. On the drive home I thought about an incident I was part of from a basketball game long ago. When I got home I wrote it down, changed it up some, and as I wrote two characters emerged. I began to think about those characters and who they were and what they wanted. I was thinking, maybe this could be a book.

Over the next weeks and months of writing, a story took shape as I moved my characters forward. Things were happening on the page. Events and scenes developed. But, in the back of my head a little bothersome voice, began to say, "Sure, this is nice. But, where is it heading? You know, you don't even have an ending."

Now, I have a personal pet peeve about books having a satisfying ending. I hate investing a ton of time reading a story only to come to the end and find myself thinking, "That's it? That's the end?" I hate stories that just peter out or leave things unresolved. And it is hard to write a good ending! To me the ride is not enough. I want a great ending destination. When I was a teenager I almost gave up on writing because I couldn't craft what I considered a good ending. I managed to get past that and keep writing, but it's always been an issue with me. Now, how could I put a book of my own out there without having an ending I personally considered satisfying. Frankly, I was very worried. Okay. Scared.

A couple of times during the writing of REBOUND I attempted to plot out an ending and think through what a logical and satisfying outcome would be. Nothing came. Or what came was so artificial it made me cringe. I would just have to keep writing to see where it would lead me. As I wrote and revised I came to know my characters better. I could begin to see where things were leading. A terrible climax was emerging. The ensuing conflict was inevitable, but I didn't see any resolution let alone that "killer ending" I hoped for.

I loved this story. I loved these characters. I wanted to give them what they deserved. So I kept writing. I had been told to trust the process and it didn't seem like there was any alternative than to do just that. Or quit.

Then after about a year of writing, working late at night during the winter when the temperature was dropping outside and I was in sweats huddled near the computer, a little something happened. The corners of the room were dark. The house was quiet. Everyone else asleep. I should have been asleep. I was revising a chapter for probably the fifteenth time, bleary eyed, tired, when -- Bam! It just dropped into my lap. A gift!

It was the ending. I saw it like a movie rolling in front of me, everything being played out just the way it should be. I typed furiously until I got the whole thing down. Ten pages just like they were dictated to me from above. You may say it was the inevitable result on spending all that time with my characters, revising those scenes, putting in the hours, or maybe just being cold and delirious, but I'll tell you, that ending sure did feel like a gift to me. One I'll always treasure. And I hope my readers will too.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

December Theme: A Gift

The dedication in my next-to-most-recent book reads: For my parents, who said “Wonderful!” and not “How do you expect to make a living at that?” when I declared a major in classics

Since 1984, I’ve been teaching at a university that regularly makes it to those lists of “Top 20 colleges in the United States.” Parents rightly expect a lot from the kids whose expensive educations they are funding. Still, I sometimes wonder at their priorities. I’ve had more than one student tell me that their parents will pay their tuition only if they take pre-med courses, or if they major in something “practical,” like engineering, and if they really love art history—well, that’s what minors are for.

When I hear these stories I can offer only my sympathy. If my parents had made those restrictions, I don’t know where I would have wound up. I probably would have made more money than I have over 27 years of teaching and 18 of writing for young readers, but I'm sure I would have been miserable. And I don’t think I would have become a writer. Everything I learned in my classes helped fashion the kind of writer I am and the kind of writing I do—not only the historical fiction set in the classical world, but the nonfiction, the mysteries set in the current time, everything.

The gift of a liberal-arts education was costly, but it was one my parents were happy to make. And I’ll be forever grateful.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

My Writing Wish List ... December Theme from Jody Feldman

We’re talking blue-sky writing wish list here, and I have just one item: Two all-expenses paid weeks in a luxury beach resort villa, the kind with a couple bedrooms, living area and small kitchen. It doesn’t need to be that extravagant (though above would be nice). I would love to settle in and write, no cares in the world.

But therein lies the catch. My corollary wish would need to include:
A. No cares in the world which, itself, includes but is not limited to ...
1. No responsibilities except to myself and my writing
2. No funky germs to throw me off my game
3. Perfect weather; though rain for an hour or so a day is fine, even welcome
4. Everyone in my life, healthy and happy

And that would also mean:
B. My family would be there (a person gets lonely by herself) with the following rules ...
1. They are to disappear between 8:00am and 3:00pm
2. They are to be totally self-sufficient
3. They are not to ask me about my work
4. But I can bounce ideas off them if I’m so inclined
C. I have all the writing tools I need including ...
1. My thesaurus, my baby name book, colored gel pens, 17"x11" sheets of paper, desktop computer, Internet access
2. Good ideas
3. A readiness to roll

And yeah. That’s not happening. But truly, all I need is A.4. The rest is icing. I wish you all A.4. now and in the coming year. Happy holidays.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

December Theme: A GIFT TO YOU, WRITERS by John Claude Bemis

Writers are often looking for good advice. I’m going to share some of the best advice I ever received. It begins with Ray Bradbury, one of my favorite writers. In his book Zen and the Art of Writing, he has a wonderful essay discussing how he one day began to make a list of possible titles. He didn’t know what the stories were. He simply made a list of titles that captured his imagination.

The Lake. The Skeleton. The Attic. The Carousel. And so on…

Years later upon uncovering the list in a journal, Bradbury was surprised by how many of the titles actually became stories although he never consciously used the list as a reference.

When I read this essay, it reminded me how when I began writing The Nine Pound Hammer, I wrote lists also. I wanted that book—as well as the entire Clockwork Dark trilogy— to be a fantasy adventure based on American history and folklore, rather than rooted in the usual European archetypes common in fantasy.

My list included types of characters, settings, and set-pieces that I hoped would capture the feel of a mythical America: trains, swamps, cowboys, hoodoo magic, John Henry, bottle trees, mermaids, steamboat outlaws, crows, a rabbit’s foot, traveling medicine shows.

These were all elements that to me would make the perfect book. The book I always wanted to read, but frankly nobody else had written. If I was going to enjoy an epic adventure set to America’s myths, I was going to have to be the one to write it.

This led me to a discovery. You (I’m talking to you, writers!) have your own unique list—what I’ve come to think of as “Magnetic Nouns.” These are the things your imagination is drawn to. Your list of Magnetic Nouns is rooted in your experiences, your interests, your passions. To write about them unleashes the creative excitement you hold for these nouns. They infuse your story with imaginative energy. And ultimately, it’s what makes your story uniquely yours, the story only you could possibly write.

The legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom in a letter to Maurice Sendak, when Sendak early in his career was feeling discouraged about his story subjects, said, “You may not be Tolstoy, but Tolstoy wasn’t Sendak either.”

Here is my gift to you, writers: the best advice I’ve ever gotten by way of Ray Bradbury and Ursula Nordstorm. Write the story that only you can write. Nobody else! Not J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins or Leo Tolstoy. What is your imagination magnetically drawn to? What is your list? Write the story that nobody else could possibly ever write.

I’ve tried to follow that advice. So far it’s served me well.

Happy holidays and happy writing.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

December Theme: Writing Gifts (Naomi Kinsman)

For Christmas a few years ago, my best friend gave me a clock with an extra hour. She said, "I knew the very best thing I could give you was more time."

It was sort of a joke. But also, not really a joke at all. I do need more time. Lots of it.

The gifts that mean the most to me are the ones I could never buy for myself. So, it isn't very surprising that the writing gift that has meant the most to me, over time, is honesty.

And wow, honesty hurts. Over and over in this past year, I have been given the gift of honesty, from fellow writers, from editors, from teachers, from my agent. That first glance at critique notes, or the first teeny-tiny suggestion that likely means you will have to rewrite your entire book, can't help but sting. My heart screams "Why didn't I see that?" and "But can't you see that I meant to..." and "I spent hours and hours and hours on it." And if you fight through all your objections, you end up in this scary place, like stepping into a huge cavern in a cave, where your voice only echoes weakly and your ideas only light up the smallest bit of the darkness. And in that place, you have to make a decision. Will you move on? Will you stick with the story, even if it means picking your way through the dark?

I've been in the opposite shoes a lot recently, too, giving feedback to others on their work. Surprisingly, the risk of honesty is even harder to give than to recieve. Why tell someone the difficult truth when you could easily gloss over all that and tell them, "It's good enough?"

This is why honesty is such a gift, and why I am so grateful for those people in my life who give it to me. When someone takes the risk of telling me the truth, not glossing over the difficult parts, challenging me to push myself, they do so because they believe in me, and in my story. They don't think I ought to write a "good enough" story. They want me to write a story that reaches into my own heart, and into my readers' hearts. And their belief is what lights my way through the revision, until in the end, I've written a book that is far beyond what I knew I could write.

I hope I can always be brave enough to listen to the truth when people are generous enough to give it to me. And I also hope I will always be brave enough to tell the truth myself.

Monday, December 5, 2011

December Theme: The Gift of Song (Sorry, No Returns) by Trudi Trueit

When I was young, my best friend and I spent countless hours trying to make each other giggle with horrendous poetry and goofy rhymes. We were known in class for our elaborate rebus puzzles that could take up whole pages (a rebus is when you link symbols or pictures to create phrases; remember the game show Concentration?).

Another favorite pastime was coming up with silly lyrics to familiar songs. So in the spirit of the season, I’m taking a break from untangling an enormous ball of Christmas lights (that aren’t going to work when I plug them in anyway) to pen my version of The Twelve Days of Christmas (for writers, of course). So gather 'round the fossilized fruitcake and sing along. You know the melody …

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me:
a movie deal with Martin Scorsese.

On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me:
two creepy fans,
and a movie deal with Martin Scorsese.

On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me:
three plot threads,
two creepy fans,
and a movie deal with Martin Scorsese.

Shall we skip to the last verse? After all, I've got figgy pudding burning in the oven …  

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:
12 agents-a-bidding,
11 critics-a-sniping,
10 editors-a-editing,
9 shallow characters,
8 rejection letters,
7 'likes' on Facebook,
6 works in progress,
5 chapters to be cut!
4 urgent deadlines,
3 plot threads,
2 creepy fans,
And a movie deal with Martin Scorsese!

Next year?
I'm thinking Hark! The Herald Angels E-Read ... 
Happy Holidays to you and yours!

"Secrets of a Lab Rat" Art by Jim Paillot, copyright 2011

Saturday, December 3, 2011

December Theme: CHRISTMAS LIST FOR WRITERS (Irene Latham)

Dear Santa,
I don't want a lot for Christmas -- there's not a thing I really need. But I do like to dream. And I do like to make lists, same as you. So here are a few things the dreaming writer in me would really appreciate this year:

1.      an e-reader. Because there are books ONLY AVAILABLE electronically. So it’s beyond desire now. It’s a necessity.

2.      EVERY THING ON IT by Shel Silverstein. There are some books I simply must hold. This is one of them.

3.      a “Life is Good” sticker for my van. Because it helps to remember that on those inevitable Black Cloud Days.

4.      a pocket projector. Have you seen these things? With all the school visits I do, wouldn’t this save so much hassle? I could just bring my own! I love the idea of self-sufficiency…. and it would allow me to present powerpoint in all sorts of situations I have not been able to in the past.
C     Courage. Sorry, Santa. I know you hate it when you get a kid like me on your lap. But it’s what I want MORE THAN ANYTHING.  Courage to write the book I know I need to write. I keep starting and stopping, and starting and stopping… I want to finish.

6.     Patience. And Impatience. That’s right. Now you’re seeing how high-maintenance I really am. It’s just, this writing life is HARD. And unpredictable. And sometimes the roller coaster really does make me woozy. Which is why I want to start a Prayer for Waiting, in the vein of the Serenity Prayer:

      Grant me the patience
    to wait with grace,
    the impatience to ACT
    when it’s called for,
    and the wisdom to know the difference.

7.     Grace. You may remember that I have a new book coming in 2012. Soon I will be plunged into that Neverland of Criticism: reviews! interviews! questions! about the controversial issues in my book, i.e. animals in captivity vs. animal rights, homeschooling vs. traditional schooling. I’ll need help navigating those tidal waters.

8.      a nice supply of Ghirardelli 60% cacao chocolate chips, a.k.a Creativity Fuel.

9.      one of those souped-up treadmills for writers. Because I totally write better when I’m moving. Also, see above item.

       notecards. Yep, thought I’d close with something easy. I've just run out of these Gee's Bend quilt cards and would love a new batch to use them to write hellos and how-are-yous and thank-yous. (Really, is there anything better than a handwritten note?)


Irene Latham