Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Eleven Bookish Things I Love: February Theme (Jen Cervantes)

1.Beautifully written books with characters that stay
with me long after I turn the last page.
2.Assertive characters that talk me to me at three
a.m. and insist on page time
3.Thoughtful smart, savvy agents, like the amazing
Holly Root
4.The beginning
5.Typing The End
6.Breaking rules
7.School visits
8.My writer friends who "get it" and provide support, humor, and
sanity in equal measure
9.My Kindle Fire
10.The Dictionary
11. Odd Numbers and lists (I know that’s two, but I
love breaking rules, remember?)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

February Theme: I Love the Duck Man and So Can You...

When I was a little boy I loved reading Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comic books.


Because they were filled with exotic treasure hunting adventures galore!


And marvelous mysteries!


And naughty evil villains and monumental chases!


And plenty of mundane situations!

Mundane Situations?

Yes, but even the mundane situations would always quickly devolve into hilarious insanity.

These Disney Duck stories sound like they would be easy to love.

They are and I love them all, just not equally. I love some Disney Duck stories more than others...

What do these stories you love the most have in common?

They were all written and illustrated by the great Carl Barks!

This Carl Barks sounds like an amazing man!

He was. He was beloved by millions (including Steven Spielberg and George Lucas!

He sounds dead.

He is but his work lives on! In fact, Fantagraphic Books has just begun reprinting the complete Carl Barks library and I just got volume one in the mail!

Was this volume beautifully designed and thoughtfully compiled?

Yes it was!

Do you work for Fantagraphics?

Sadly, I do not.

The End

by Michael Townsend

Friday, February 24, 2012

February Theme: I Love Research!

Stephanie J. Blake

I should have majored in history. I love it. I could look at black and white photos for hours, imagining what kind of lives people had "back then." I love reading historical novels and discovering all of the details that make the setting so real. I love historical movies, and don't get me started on Downton Abbey. It's really no surprise that my debut is a historical.

I've been working on three very different manuscripts off and on for a couple of years, but none of them are truly working in "real time." The problem is, I've failed to fully commit to the kind of story I want to tell. I've been hit with too many ideas at once.

I have realized something important this week. I should be writing another middle grade historical. Thus, I need to do a ton of research. (Good thing I'm in love with it!)

Yesterday, in the history section of my local library, I found myself filling my arms with books and couldn't stop. I could barely carry the bag to the car and came home with several fun books.

Four of the books are about the 1980's. Three are about the roaring 1920's. Two of them are about Telluride, Colorado. One is about the 1970's. One is about prominent women in the history of Colorado.

I have a hankering to write a middle grade about Butch Cassidy and the gold rush in Telluride in the 1880's. I'm in love with the roaring twenties and would love to do a noir. I want to explore a character with a mom who starts marching for women's lib in the 1970's. I  have an angsty teen character in mind for a story set in the 1980's.

Whoa, Nelly! So many ideas, so little time. My agent would like an outline sometime in the near future--like before spring break. So, here's the plan. I'm going to read all of these books and pick ONE idea and run with it.

Looks like I'll be doing a ton of reading this weekend.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

STICKIN' WITH IT (February Theme) by Holly Schindler

I completely agree with the other Smack Dabbers who have already said that one of the coolest things about the writing gig is the fact that it’s so incredibly hard for a writer to whittle what they love most about writing down to a single favorite. No—not just hard. Impossible.

For me, it’s all incredible: That initial, thrilling spark of inspiration. Outlining the entirety of a new book. The first few rounds of exploratory writing that introduce me to my characters.

While I’ve often said that a first draft—especially the middle—isn’t necessarily one of my favorite parts, I can’t say that I completely dislike drafting, either. There’s just something about getting through the first draft that feels—well—triumphant.

And, as I’ve often said—I adore revising. Revision is when my book inevitably becomes three-dimensional.

I even love the letter that comes from an editor, and the excitement of looking at the book from another’s eyes—brainstorming how to make my current work come together, using that editor’s suggestions.

As geeky as it sounds, I really do love the entire process—and beyond. I anticipate release dates, and treasure the relationships I’ve forged with my readers through the blogosphere.

To the outsider, writing probably looks like a dull occupation—one that pits a face and a computer screen against each other for hours on end. Inside, though, it becomes a grand adventure. And I can’t imagine doing anything else.

But beyond the process itself, one of the most rewarding parts of my journey has been sticking with a dream long enough to see that dream begin to pay off. I don’t care what the dream is—to become a singer, actor, writer, artist…There’s going to be a time, in the pursuit of that fantasy, when it feels like the dream is kicking your butt, a little. I’ve talked often about my long and winding road to publication—how it took seven and a half years of full-time effort to get the first book deal. Nothing could have been sweeter than inking that first deal…and then seeing that first book hit the shelves a year and a half later.

Whatever your dream may be, there will be a point at which you’ll look at yourself and wonder what you’re doing. There will be giant obstacles—a class that feels impossible, or a time commitment, or a monetary commitment…life’s obligations will try to block you from your ultimate goal. But trust me—there’s just nothing like seeing the sweat of hard work begin to pay off…

Below: my dog "advertising" my two published books

February Theme: What I Love (Alan Gratz)

What I love: getting a big box of books with my name on them! Fantasy Baseball (Dial 2011) is now available in paperback!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

February Theme: Ten Fantasy Books I Love by Christine Brodien-Jones

Here are ten fantasy books I fell in love with over the years.  Each one of them influenced my dystopian middle-grade novel The Owl Keeper in different ways:

1.  The Alchemyst by Michael Scott ~ A cracking adventure/fantasy that mixes myth and legend with the present day.  Shortly after twins Sophie and Josh meet the immortal alchemist Nichola Flamel, an ancient book is lost, unleashing mythical beasts such as the Egyptian cat-goddess Bastet, the Morrigan, and the three-faced Greek Hekate.  A wild, magical ride.

2.  The City of Ember by Jeanne Du Prau ~ In Ember, an underground post-apocalyptic city, supplies are scarce and blackouts are frequent.  Two friends, Lina and Doon, team up to decipher an ancient message and find a way to save the citizens of this dying city.  Brilliantly original.

3.  The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper ~ Eerie and atmospheric, set in rural England in the dark of winter.  When Will discovers his true heritage, life turns strange and wonderful as he learns of his role in the battle against the Dark.  Menacing, with supremely evil beings and surprise twists.

4.  Floodland by Marcus Sedgwick ~ In the watery landscape of a future England, where the sea is rising, a girl named Zoe sets off to find her lost parents in this tale of courage and determination.  The scenes of submerged lands are mesmerizing, as is the chaos amid a gang of kids seeking shelter on an island.

5.  The Giver by Lois Lowry ~ Jonas lives in a futuristic society where there is no poverty, crime, illness or unemployment.  Training to become the Receiver of memories, he slowly grows aware of dark undercurrents, and the hypocrisy that rules his world.  This book chilled me to the bones.

6.  The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman ~ No reader can help but fall in love with Lyra, the book's tough, sassy, street-wise heroine.  Drawn into a terrifying struggle - missing children, secret experiments, witch clans and armored bears - she travels with her daemon to the far North.  I never wanted Lyra's epic journey to end, and found myself longing for a daemon of my own.

7.  The Navigator by Eoin McNamee ~ Owen, an outsider of a boy, is unexpectedly thrown out of his world and into another: when time flows backward his family and familiar places vanish.  Owen must stop an ancient enemy, the Harsh, or everything he knows will disappear.  Dazzling, heart-stopping; I was intrigued by the creepy Harsh, whose breath freezes humans.

8.  Skellig by David Almond ~ A mystical gem of a book that blends the supernatural and the ordinary when ten-year-old Michael discovers a strange being in the shadows of his garage.  What is Skellig?  Man, bird, angel - or a beast he's never seen before?  I loved how Michael and his friend Mina dared to carry this unearthly creature out into the light.

9.  The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo ~ A haunting, lyrical tale of a grieving young boy, Rob, who discovers a caged tiger and meets a feisty girl named Sistine, all on the same extraordinary day.  Rob and Sistine stayed with me long after the book was finished.

10.  A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin ~ A stunning tale of wizards, dragons and shadows.  Sparrowhawk, a student of magic, meddles with dangerous powers, setting loose a terrible evil.  From the first page I was caught in the spell of this imaginary world, watching as the shadow-beast hunted Sparrowhawk to the far corners of Earthsea. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

February Theme: I Love Libraries (Sarah Dooley)

You know what I love?

I love libraries. With their shelves upon shelves upon shelves of books I haven’t read yet, so many books on so many subjects that by the time I get them all read, there will be shelves upon shelves of new books at the ready.

I love libraries, with their librarians, who can sort out exactly what book my student is asking for when all he gives them to go on is “no driving, bird!” – and in his hands appears Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, by Mo Willems.

I love libraries, with their meeting rooms, where some of my favorite kids come dashing in every Thursday, trailing chewed-up pen caps and loose leaf paper, ready to tackle a new type of poetry or weave another chapter about beloved characters.

I love libraries, with their classes on everything under the sun, from knitting to taxes to cooking to computers, offered free to anyone who wants to learn.

I love the library I grew up in – above the police station, hot and stuffy, where I read Nancy Drew and Danger on Panther Peek and every Dr. Seuss book there was – and I love the library I frequent now, with a WHOLE ENTIRE FLOOR DEVOTED TO CHILDREN’S BOOKS – so I can still read Nancy Drew and Danger on Panther Peek and every Dr. Seuss book there ever was – and also The Hunger Games and the Clementine books and Harry Potter.

I love that no matter where I live -- no matter how many times I pack up my own books and everything else I can carry into boxes and move to a new space that isn't yet familiar –- there is always a place in the nearest town that smells like books and feels like home.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

February Theme: What I Love (Stephanie Burgis)

Every day, this list changes..but here is my list of what I love right now:
  • Reading Mercer Mayer's Professor Wormbog in Search for the Zipperumpazoo to my three-year-old son and listening to him laugh and laugh with pure delight, just like I laughed over it 31 years ago - and like I laugh over it now, with him;

  • Reading a completely new book that utterly delights me, makes me want to skip meals and sleep and everything but reading, and reminds me why I wanted to write MG fiction in the first place;

  • Talking about writing with my husband (also a writer), being challenged and inspired by his ideas;

  • Fighting with a scene, being certain that I just can't get it right, feeling all the despair of realizing that I'm just not up to the task - and then finally, FINALLY finding the right turn of phrase that makes it all fall into place, and thinking: YES. I am a writer, really truly, after all;

  • Getting to celebrate with a dear friend when her wonderful, wonderful new book comes out at last, after years of hard work and waiting;

  • Realizing that I am part of a community, now, of writers and readers who care desperately about books - that this fact about myself doesn't make me feel weird anymore, not singular or odd or lonely - that in fact, there are SO MANY of us, and it's the best community I can imagine.

What about you guys? What do you love this week, today?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

February Theme: Books I Love and Would Hate to See Fade Away by Bob Krech

I’ve been eyeing my bookshelves recently. I know I have to pare back. I still have all of the books I used when I taught reading and writing in first, second, third, and fourth grades. And I stopped doing that ten years ago! I even have multiple copies for group reading! Now almost all of my daily teaching is focused on math and I have plenty of math/literature connection books as well. Plus my own kids are both in college, so I’m not using them there. Even my nephews and nieces are in middle school or higher.

The thing is—I love these books. I am having a very hard time letting them go. My favorites are probably the short chapter books I used for read-alouds with my classes. Every day brought another chapter and took us deeper into the story. It was a delight to hear the moans, groans, and pleading to just hear a little more, and even better when students would hunt down their own copies to that they could read on their own.

Some of these great books I fear will disappear. I just don’t see them on the bookstore shelves, on reading lists, or in classrooms anymore, yet they are as good, if not better (in my humble opinion) than some Newberry and Caldecott winners. So for today’s blog, I thought maybe I could mention a book I love, that I hope you will hunt down and read, if you don’t know it already. It’s one of those books we can learn from as writers and enjoy as readers and just plain humans.

From a writer’s viewpoint, it is a book with no wasted words. It has incredible economy. The story moves from page to page with a building tension and excitement. The characters are well drawn, their motivations totally believable and understandable. The writing seems effortless and the writer’s presence is never noticed, something Elmore Leonard mentioned as his acid test for whether he has to rewrite or not.

The book is A Toad for Tuesday by Russell E. Erickson with illustrations by Lawrence DiFiori. It was first published in 1974. This is a chapter book that is a great read-aloud from 1st to 4th grade and a good independent read for a second or third grader.

It's the story of Wharton the toad, who is captured by a fearsome owl. The owl brings Wharton to his home in a tree trunk and informs him that he will be eating Wharton the following Tuesday. Wharton tries to devise a means of escape while at the same time learning about who this owl really is. There is excitement and humor and very realistic detail both in the setting and in the habits and actions of the characters. It is a fantastic story of bravery and friendship. As one reviewer stated, it is a story where “intelligence, kindness, and compassion win the day.” And you have to love a story like that.

Monday, February 13, 2012

February Theme: I Love the Epiphany (by Tracy Barrett)

ἐπιϕάνεια: A manifestation or appearance of some divine or superhuman being. 

I used to think that epiphanies happened like this:

You know, you're sitting at your computer (or holding your snazzy red book), pondering where to go next, how to fix some awkward dialog, how to pick up the pace, where to insert that crucial scene, and lo! from out of nowhere the solution arrives.

That's what it can feel like, anyway.

But now that I've been at this a while, I recognize that an epiphany—that out-of-the-blue thought, idea, realization—is a more subtle process.

I also recognize that when I'm stuck, there's no point in pushing. I'm not one of those 2,000-word-a-day writers. If I wrote 2,000 words in a day, I'd wind up deleting 1,950 of them the next day. I'd rather write 200 solid words than 1,950 crappy ones. There are people who can write 2,000 solid words in a day, but I'm not one of them.

So when I'm stuck, I stop writing. And I've come to realize that what I'm doing in those days—sometimes weeks—is preparing the ground for the ideas that will spring from the seemingly barren dirt. I have to lay myself open to the new ideas.

My latest epiphany occurred a few weeks ago. I was facing several seemingly unrelated problems in my work in progress, and every fix I made to one made the others worse. So I quit, and went to the SCBWI Midwinter Conference.

The title of a session in the conference program caught my attention. Something clicked in my mind, and I recognized the click: A puzzle-piece had slid into place (okay, I'm leaving the fallow field analogy now). I didn't know where it fit, or even what it meant. I didn't probe. I didn't even attend that session.

A few days later, while reading Octavian Nothing, I felt another click. A small episode in that amazing book added another piece to the puzzle, and when I stood back and looked at it, I saw a smooth and cohesive scene in the puzzle where before there had been a hole.

If I didn't understand and accept my own writing process, and if I hadn't been paying attention, I wouldn't have known why that hole in the puzzle had suddenly filled in.

I still don't know if this will be the solution to the WiP's problems. But if it isn't, I can always hope for that angel.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

School Love (February Theme; Jody Feldman)

There are those moments you don’t forget. This one came when I was still pre-published, still raw from a particularly heart-wrenching rejection. I was on my daily cardio-walk past an elementary school filled with sounds you can only hear in a schoolyard. “If only,” I thought in regard to my book on submission. “If only I could go into schools and talk to kids.”

In a less emotional state, that might have had me figuring out a way to be a touring motivational speaker. But no. I wanted something more specific than I’d voiced. I wanted to be invited into schools because I’d written a book kids and teachers and media specialists wanted to talk about, wanted me to talk about.

Sometimes you throw things out into the universe and they do stick. And sometimes you should be careful what you wish for.

Not too much later I got my “yes,” had my first novel published, and scheduled my first school visit. But then reality struck. I needed to go into that school and talk. I got a bit terrified. What should I say? How could I entertain these kids and bring something worthwhile to this school? Like many authors, I’m inherently shy. Would they see through me? Would I blank out? Would I survive? Ahhhhh!!!

It turned out that my wish to go into schools and talking to students – from elementary through college – was something worth wishing for. I love the moment before they’ve heard my voice, wondering if the sounds and words match their expectations. I love all the hands that shoot up when it’s time for questions. I love the challenge of being asked something new, something off the wall, something they maybe shouldn’t ask.

I love going into schools. And I love the reason I get to.

Friday, February 10, 2012

What I LOVE about writing! (by Tyler Whitesides)

People often ask me why I like writing. What is it about the process that keeps me going and self-motivated? The answer is completely different for every person, but I'd like to share what I love about writing.

Like most writers, I have a very active imagination. I love picturing a scene in great clarity and detail. But the challenge comes in trying to portray that scene through writing. If it exists only in my head, then I am the only person that can enjoy it. I love the task of taking something from my mind and putting it on paper so everyone who reads it can enjoy the thing I imagined.

That said, my favorite part of the writing process is the first draft. I love to see the story unfold as I write action-packed adventure scenes for the first time. I love to see characters develop as I write conversations for the first time. The initial draft of a manuscript is raw and unrefined creation to me. A bit of drudgery comes in the necessary months of revising and editing, but it's all worth it!

There is so much that I love about writing! I am so grateful to have a book published and excited to share the future volumes of the Janitors series.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

February Theme: Books I Love -- Lewis Carroll, by Platte F. Clark

Alice in Wonderland first came to life for me as a cartoon. Thank you Walt Disney. And while I'll admit I didn't understand why the strange characters and story were a bit orthogonal to the big-eared elephants, singing bears, and rampaging Saturday morning exploits of cat vs. mouse, there was something about it that was just . . . odd. But compelling, too. It was hard to put your finger on it. It wasn't until my undergrad years in Philosophy that I entered the world of the Alice via the printed word, and found a magical and brilliant work.

I had just begun my studies in logic, and based on my previous experiences with Alice I had no idea what I was in for:

"'Speak when you're spoken to!' The Queen sharply interrupted her.
'But if everybody obeyed that rule,' said Alice, who was always ready for a little argument, 'and if you only spoke when you were spoken to, and the other person always waited for you to begin, you see nobody would ever say anything, so that -- '

'Ridiculous!' cried the Queen. 'Why, don't you see, child -- ' here she broke off with a frown, and, after thinking for a minute, suddenly changed the subject of the conversation."

Wait, there's a logic formula in there!

"It is a very inconvenient habit of kittens (Alice had once made the remark) that, whatever you say to them, they Always purr. 'If they would only purr for "yes" and mew for "no," or any rule of that sort,' she had said, 'so that one could keep up a conversation! But how can you talk with a person if they always say the same thing?'"

Even existential questions were deftly handled with logical fun:

"'Do you know, I always thought unicorns were fabulous monsters, too? I never saw one alive before!'

'Well, now that we have seen each other,' said the unicorn, 'if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you.'"

I love the fact that Carroll came at children with more than just a fantastical story to tell. There was a truth to it, many truths, actually, to be uncovered and discovered. Alice does more than entertain, she teaches. Not always on a conscious level (any child can learn, if nothing else, terrific manners from Alice), but it's there nonetheless.

There is certainly joy in writing something that entertains. But when we can touch upon the truths of the world as well . . . now that's something special.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

February Theme: BOOKS I LOVE FROM 2011 by John Claude Bemis

This time of year is awards season, from the announcement of the Newbery winners to the upcoming Academy Awards. I’ll take this post to declare my love for a variety of books from last year. While not all are middle-grade, I hope all will appeal to fans of children’s literature.

Nothing Like a Puffin by Sue Soltis and Bob Kolar was my favorite picture book from 2011. Funny and philosophical, this book beautifully considers what makes a puffin a puffin and not something else, essentially leading young readers through a playful logic puzzle to understand what makes us all unique. I’ve used this book in so many early elementary classrooms, and it’s an unequivocal hit.

Hopefully you have already discovered Tom Angleberger’s runaway hit The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda. If not, don’t wait another day. Last year brought not only the sequel, Darth Paper Strikes Back, but also a bonus Angleberger book Horton Halfpott Or, The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor; or, The Loosening of M'Lady Luggertuck's Corset.

Angleberger masterfully pulls off pee-stain-on-the-pants humor as well as unsentimental heart-string tugging, often in the same chapter. Horton Halfpott had me choking with laughter with its Downton Abbey-esque story that at times is hilariously bizarre and still keeps the Angleberger secret weapon for having characters with tons of heart.

While Brian Selznick’s graphic novel-novel hybrids have been a revelation for older readers, Eric Wight is working similar magic for a younger audience with his Frankie Pickle series. Last year brought the third, Frankie Pickle and the Mathematical Menace, of Wight’s comic book-early reader hybrids. Wight’s books blend the fantastical with the ordinary, as well as dynamic drawings of Frankie’s adventures through his own imagination with hilarious storytelling. I’m not sure who loves these books more - my four-year old daughter or me! She’s now convinced there’s such a thing as a “dryer sheet fairy.”

Another amazing middle-grade from last year was The Death of Yorik Mortwell by Stephen Messer. Messer’s macabre and funny story of a ghost caught up in a battle of cosmic proportions is at times Edward Gorey, at times Neil Gaiman, but mostly Messer’s own stunningly original style. The books have the added appeal of illustrations (why aren’t there more in middle-grade books!?) by Gris Grimly. As he proved in his debut Windblowne, Messer weaves tight, edge-of-your-seat stories of clever underdogs facing world-shaking forces.

The final book in the Everlost trilogy by Neil Shusterman, Everfound, came out last year. Don’t you love when you discover a great series when all the books are out and you can enjoy them all in frenzy? I don’t know why this trilogy isn’t buzzed about more. To me, Everlost is on par with fantasy epics like His Dark Materials and The Dark Is Rising. Officially labeled “young adult,” these felt completely and wonderfully middle-grade to me. Set in a limbo world between life and death, the complex characters and rich world-building left me wanting nothing more than to start back over at the first book and enter Everlost again.

Since I’m already breaking from the Smack-Dab format and hyping children’s books across age ranges, let me end with my favorite young adult novel from last year, This Girl Is Different by J.J. Johnson. Although I’m a fantasy author, I love realistic fiction. And the best young adult novels strike readers as a call-to-arms. This Girl Is Different begins with a homeschooled teen deciding to finish her senior year in a public high school as an experiment and grows into revolution against bureaucratic complacency and the everyday abuses teens face. Beautiful and inspiring!

Full disclosure, I know or have met all the above authors. While this might have led to my reading their books, it is my happy fortune to have discovered my 2011 favorite books in this way. I hope in them you discover some new favorites as well.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

February Theme: Ode to Laura Ruby (Naomi Kinsman)

Have you ever felt like writing up a wanted ad, when you’re browsing the shelves of your local library or independent bookstore? Something like:
Wanted: A wild tale of adventure that will make take my breath away, surprise me, astonish me, terrify me, cause me to shed a few tears, and above all, make me laugh so hard my sides ache.
Sometimes I have a hard time finding this book. And of course, I don’t need every book to cause me to feel the entire spectrum of human emotion. Still, I have to admit, when a book can totally entertain me, while also tugging on my heartstrings, I can’t help but fall in love.
Humor gets me, especially. I think this is because I’m not naturally a funny writer. Also, as my MFA colleague Peter Pearson would say, humor offsets pain in fiction. Often, where there is humor, there is also deep feeling. So, when I stumble across a book that makes me laugh, and makes me feel, I want to read it over and over, both for the experience as a reader, and for what I can learn as a writer.
Which brings me to Laura Ruby’s books, The Wall and the Wing and The Chaos King. I love these books. First of all, they are twisty-turny fantasies that delight me as a reader because I never know what’s coming. Secondly, Laura’s clever use of the absurd, and of specific, unexpected details is hilarious. But underneath all that, the characters are deeply felt individuals, with joy and pain and who face real challenges and grow through the books.
I learn something about writing every time I read Laura's books. And at the same time, I feel like I’ve taken a magic carpet ride through a world I could only hope to dream up. 

Read them. I promise you’ll fall in love.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Feb. Theme: Falling in Love with Your Characters by Trudi Trueit

When I started thinking about the things that make writing so delectably fun, my mind was flooded! I love coming up with a fresh, new idea. I love writing first lines. I love ever-so-carefully building a plot. I love it when I’m struggling with a passage and then—boom—everything clicks into place. I love fan letters and meeting readers and holding workshops. But the thing I love most?


I adore the process of creating each of my characters, even the minor ones, like Mr. Quigley the lunchroom monitor, who carries 187 pictures of his cat, Clawed Monet, in a fold-out wallet. I must admit, there are a lot of folks roaming around inside my head. Like a cast of jittery actors backstage, each waits for his turn in the spotlight.

My novel may germinate from an idea, but it’s the characters who make it blossom. I keep lists of potential character names, always adding new ones as I hear them. I can’t start writing my book until I have settled on the full names of my primary characters. Then I’ll do a quick sketch of each character—and I’m no fancy artist—just so I can get some of their physical attributes from my head onto the page.

Now, here is where it gets a little weird . . .
I talk to my characters. Because I used to be a journalist and if I’m not asking questions I am not breathing, I like to interview them. I will inquire about their favorite foods, music, hobbies, pet peeves, issues with their siblings, struggles at school - anything to find out what makes them tick. In the case of Scab McNally, my mischievous fourth-grade inventor in Secrets of a Lab Rat, I asked him to empty his pockets. That’s where I got the idea for his dead bug collection. For my miserable middle-child, Julep O’Toole, I asked her to write her feelings down in a journal. Some of her entries made it into the final book.

I know this may sound extreme, but in order for me to make a character convincing on the page, I have to believe she is real. When I am at my best, when I know that character from head to toe, I can sit back and let her drive the story. She communicates her wants and needs, in her own words. I merely dictate. In those times when I have tried to push the story in the direction I wanted it to go, to force the character to do something against her conscience, she will stop me cold. I can’t write a word.

I am grateful to my husband, Bill, who has, up til now, refrained from summoning the mental health professionals. When we are out and about he is used to hearing me mutter things like, “Cooper would break his leg trying that,” and “Julep would love this tee shirt.” Truth be told, Bill is my enabler. When I finished the Julep series, and was feeling a little blue, Bill presented me with a plastic, laser-cut-out figure of her for my desk. This year, upon completion of the Secrets of a Lab Rat series, I got a Scab figure, too!
Of course, when you get attached to your characters, saying goodbye is never easy. But, sadly, it must be done. There are new stories to be told and new characters waiting to be born. Like this one . . .
She'll be arriving this fall. She is a modern-day, middle-school Robin Hood, stealing popularity for the mean girls and giving it to the misfits. Her name is Coco Sherwood. She was a delight to get to know and yes, I already miss her.

So here's to breathing life into your characters! Make them real. Make them shine. And they won’t disappoint you.

Julep just whispered in my ear. She is not thrilled about sharing shelf space with an arm-farting fourth-grader.

Characters. You can't help but love ‘em.

Friday, February 3, 2012

February Theme: DISCOVERING THE WORLD by Irene Latham

What I love best about writing is that I could have written a dozen posts for this month's theme. And all those posts would have at least one major element in common:


 1. Discovery in research. The writing journey has taken me to 1932 Gee's Bend, Alabama, to the 1902 eruption of Mt. Pelee on the island of Martinique, into the future of a world called Inbetweenland, into the bowels of a shipwreck, behind-the scenes of a contemporary zoo in my next novel DON'T FEED THE BOY, and currently into the world of rock-n-roll. I love spending time in museums and poring over pages of notes and photographs.

2. Discovery of other people.  I love how writing a book is like starting a conversation. Being an author allows me to connect with other authors and book-lovers and quilt-lovers and history-lovers and everyday people like the UPS man. And I get to hear their stories about quilts and family and disaster and dreams and encounters with wildlife and all sorts of ordinary life experiences that are somehow not ordinary at all, but special, and sacred, and completely a gift in this world.

3. Discovery of myself. I love how the writing process ferrets the corners of my heart and reveals myself to me. I get a peek inside that girl who's still a mystery, that woman who knows things she doesn't even know she knows! Somehow, through writing, I learn more about myself than anything else. And being an introspective, soul-full kind of person, it's like meditation, massage, therapy. FOR FREE.

Wishing all you wonderful discoveries as you continue your journey, writing or otherwise! 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Feb Theme: What I Love Most About What I Do (Joan Holub)

It seems fitting that I begin our February theme with the thing I probably love most about writing. The beginning. The creative spark. A spark that in the beginning, I just know will make a good book.

Each time I come up with a book idea, it’s a thrill. I want to begin work on it now, today, this minute. Usually I can’t because I’m already working on another book that began as a spark months or years ago.

And sometimes it’s best to let an idea sit for a while.

Because some ideas need to time to ripen. They get better given more time to grow. Other ideas should be left to shrivel away and be relegated to the compost pile because they were rotten from the start. But when I first get an idea I am so excited about it, that it can be hard to see that the idea isn’t necessarily viable. 

To test an idea, I tell my husband, a friend, a crit partner. Their feedback helps me hone and shape that initial spark. It gives me direction. I start a folder for the book idea and fill it with scraps of paper I scribble on in the car, in a waiting room, while watching TV, in the middle of the night.

I carve out a block of time when I can get to that idea. I am full of energy, eager to start. My great idea is just waiting there in its file. Waiting to fulfill the promise of the book that’s shaping up in my head. Waiting to blossom on the page. And one day, at last, it’s finally time to start.

To begin.

~ Joan Holub