Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What Could Be Sweeter Than Ice Cream? Fan Mail! (July Theme) by Christine Brodien-Jones

There's nothing sweeter - or funnier, or more original - than letters and emails from young readers who love your book.  Here's a quick sampling:

"I am an eleven year old sixth grader who loves to write. I have wrote a few books in my life. None are published."

"Our lit. circles group recently finished your book. Nobody wanted to read it because of the reading level our teacher, Mrs. L., got off the computer. I don't think the level is very accurate."

From ICE CREAM EVERYWHERE! Illustrations copyright 2002 by Stephanie Roth

"Thank you for the great read and discussions filled with predictions, wonder, vocabulary discussing, and questions. It was hard to follow at first but you brought everything together by letting in secrets you didn't tell us at first."

"We all looked at the varieties of books and I saw The Owl Keeper. I immediately grabbed it off the wooden shelf and read the back. As soon as i finished reading it, I went over to my group and recommended it. They each took the book and read the back but they all didn't want to read it. Seven books later, near the end of the school year, they finally said that we could read it. They were amazed. How detailed it was, and how original and spellbinding the words were. Once you started to read it you couldn't stop. I finally had the right to say "I TOLD YOU SO!"

"I literally fell off my bed while reading this book." 

"When I grow up, I really, really, REALLY want to become a writer/illustrator of a book. So as an expert in this field of work, may i ask you some questions? How do you find inspiration for you books? ... Can you give me some tips on writing a book? What are major themes in your books? What was your favorite book as you were growing up? Will my questions ever END? Just kidding." 

"I am probably one of thousands to email you, and to praise you on your book. You are probably procrastinating your email from fans. Or maybe too busy to even read this because you are writing so much. My apologies if I am wrong."

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Delicate Balance of Building a Pig Trough (and writing a book) --July Theme by Jen Cervantes

I grew up right next to a Farrell’s ice cream parlor.

They served something called the pig trough: A double banana split with six scoops of ice cream and toppings. It was a right-of-passage to finish it in one sitting. If you’ve been to Farrell’s, you know what I’m talking about!

Of course, I could never eat the whole thing. And no matter how many times I tried, I always left with a sugar rush and a killer stomach ache.

I didn’t learn the art of subtlety, of when enough is enough until I was much older. Learning this lesson in my writing? Even harder.  I know you understand. We’re supposed to create tension and intensity in every scene, but not so much that our readers can’t breathe. We’re supposed to create an irresistible forward motion to keep our readers engaged, but not so much there’s no rest. We add scoop after scoop of emotional energy until we have a pig trough we can’t possibly eat.   

Now I realize, I can pour it on, build the trough-- but I don’t have to eat the whole thing. I can take a few savory bites, pull back, and save some of it for later.

Friday, July 26, 2013

July Theme: Sweet Treats by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

When I was a kid, some nights my mom would allow us to have ice cream for dinner. I remember often using that opportunity to take an evening walk to Baskin-Robbins in D.C. to get either the Butter Pecan or Bubble Gum flavors. Or both. Sometimes we'd choose Carvel. (For a time, we lived near the very first Carvel, and I once played in the Marching Band outside the shop -- and by "Marching Band" I mean, me, one of my best friends, and I think one other person, because yes, I was one of the hardy few willing to wear a green and white polyester track suit while playing an instrument outside of a popular high school hangout. We did get free "Flying Saucers" afterward, so there's that.) Other times, the "Jim Dandy" at Friendly's was my choice -- a super banana split with five scoops of ice cream. I went with chocolate and caramel sauce, and whipped cream. The nuts and cherry were merely distractions in my book.  And then sometimes we'd just go with at-home, at-the-kitchen-table bowls of whatever flavours my sister and I could agree on buying. 

These were some of the best dinners, and "dessert" was usually a book, read aloud, or silently side-by-side. Harriet the Spy was one dessert read that I remember vividly, as well as multiple volumes of The Chronicles of Narnia. There is something about the sheer magic of children's books and ice cream that goes hand-in-hand.

Now, my favorite ice cream journey is a walk to the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory for some vanilla with extra butterscotch. In a pinch, a nearby spot offers a wonderfully salty-sweet flavour called "Salted Crack Caramel". Now, I bring my own daughter, and try to pretend that I don't relish these trips as much as she does (weak attempt at perpetuating my "responsible mom" mystique.) And sometimes it's ice-cream-for-dinner. Or lunch. Or a sweet celebration. Or just today. And we love "dessert" just as much.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Open the Writer's Box of Chocolates.
One by one, bite into the ten delicious chocolate truffles below and taste their sweetness.

Truffle # 1
Taste the sweetness of--
actually writing your book--the wonder and struggle of the creative process.

Truffle # 2
Taste the sweetness of--
finishing your book--the sense of accomplishment and joy.

Truffle # 3
Taste the sweetness of--
working with an editor who pushes your book to new heights.

Truffle # 4
Taste the sweetness of--
seeing your book's cover art and loving it.

Truffle # 5
Taste the sweetness of--
having your book accepted by publisher.

Truffle # 6
Taste the sweetness of--
having a reviewer really understand you book.

Truffle # 7
Taste the sweetness of--
having your book placed on an important list, or receive an award.

Truffle # 8
Taste the sweetness of--
handing your published book to someone you love--or don't.

Truffle # 9
Taste the sweetness of--
getting a fan letter saying your book changed someone's life.

Truffle # 10 -- in the Gold Wrapper
Taste the sweetness of--
getting the idea for your next book.

Monday, July 22, 2013


Springfield (my hometown) is known for being the childhood home of Brad Pitt, Tent Theater, Cashew Chicken…and Pineapple Whip.

Every summer, Hula Lulu swings her hips from the top of Pineapple Whip stands across town.  (Literally—her hips swing, and her grass skirt sways back and forth.)  No summer is complete without the stuff—it’s closer to sherbet or sorbet than ice cream—and if I were to describe the taste, I’d have to say—it tastes just like July.  Like the Ozarks Empire Fair and blaring sun and humidity and…well.  It takes like summertime at home.

Pineapple Whip is definitely part of the local color of Springfield.  Sometimes, though, I forget that it is local color.  I’ve lived here so long that sometimes, it seems as though every summer, there should be Hula Lulus shimmying atop stands on corners all through the country…

Most of my pubbed books take place in my area of the country.  It just seems a natural fit for me to write about the Midwest.  Often, I find myself inserting details that, again, I feel like are well-known cross-country…only to get hit with margin notes as the book hits copyedits: “Is this a real product?”  Or, “What does this refer to?”  

I’m reminded, as I go through copyedits, that not everyone has the same “Hula Lulu.”  Not everyone has eaten a cup of Pineapple Whip during the Ozarks Empire Fair.  It’s my job as a writer to balance both worlds—to make sure those who are from the area nod in agreement, saying, “I know exactly what she’s talking about,” while those who aren’t can still vividly and vicariously experience the Midwest for themselves…

…How has local color made its way into your own work?

I Scream for Ice Cream, or Why I Write for Children by Laurie Calkhoven

I had a lot of trouble trying to make a connection between ice cream and writing. I had a few ideas, but nothing was coming together in an interesting way. So I decided to go to the source. After dinner with a friend in the Flatiron district a few days ago, I suggested we try the gelato at Eataly. Unfortunately, on that brutally hot day, half of New York City had the same idea. So we crossed the street to check out the Shake Shack in Madison Square where the line for cold items is usually much shorter than that for hamburgers and fries. That’s where the other half of New York City had gathered. We abandoned our efforts and boarded our respective subway trains. But I had one more option before I cried uncle—my subway stop happens to be right in front of Dylan’s Candy Bar, a mecca of sweet treats. Once again, my desire for ice cream and inspiration was thwarted. This time by a busload of tourists. The universe, perhaps in collaboration with my bathroom scale, was sending a message—no ice cream for you tonight.

Walking home, I remembered another time my quest for ice cream was unfulfilled. I was around six or seven, and with twenty-five cents in my pocket I walked to the Dairy Freeze with my older sister and her friend Dinah after dinner one summer night. This was exciting because we were kids out without an adult in the nighttime (although not yet dark) and because our journey involved the crossing of a street (although not a busy one) and the Dairy Freeze was a place where teenagers gathered in all their thrilling and slightly frightening grownupness.

I stood on line to get my cone—waffle, not sugar—filled with a beautiful swirl of vanilla and chocolate, and I had enough money to get chocolate sprinkles, too. Heaven. Sneaking peeks at the teenagers, I waited for the others to get their ice cream. I took a couple of careful licks, wanting to make sure my cone lasted for the entire walk home.
Dinah was riding her brother’s much-too-big bicycle, so she wolfed down her ice cream and tried to climb on the bike. Instead, she and the bike fell into me, knocking me down and sending my ice cream—splat!—onto the sidewalk.

Teenagers laughed, Dinah yelled at me for being in her way, and my sister gobbled up her ice cream so that she wouldn’t have to share.
I can still remember the swirl of feelings—sad about the loss of my ice cream and almost two weeks’ allowance, outrage at being blamed for what was clearly Dinah’s mistake, humiliation at being knocked over and yelled at in front of teenagers, and hurt that instead of defending and/or helping me, my sister ate her ice cream and sided with her friend.

I held in the tears until I got home and shared my outrage with my parents. I don’t know what I expected. That they’d take me right back to the ice cream store and buy me a cone? That they call Dinah’s mother and insist she refund my quarter? That they punish my sister (who was now laughing at me) for being such a brat?

None of that happened. To them, the loss of my ice cream cone wasn’t a big deal. My disappointment would be fleeting. There would be plenty of cones in my future. They were tired and impatient and told me to stop crying and get ready for bed. And that dismissal stung as much as the rest of it. But the thing is, like many adults, they didn’t remember what it felt like to be a kid or how important ice cream cones could be, especially when purchased with your own money.

My disappointment was fleeting as was my anger, but I still remember. I remember the acuteness of my disappointment, the passion of my outrage, the intensity of my hurt in that moment.

Even many ice cream cones and bigger disappointments later, I can still draw on those feelings. I don’t ever want to dismiss my characters’ feelings (or those of real-life children) because they are childish, because they are something my characters will get over. My being an adult hasn’t gotten in the way of that. I take their hurt and outrage and sadness seriously, and I think that’s why I write for children.

Friday, July 19, 2013

July Theme by Kristin Levine

One of the sweetest things about being a writer is getting to meet people I wouldn't otherwise meet.  Yesterday, I got to have tea with Tara Sullivan whose book GOLDEN BOY was published last month.  (See last months Smack Dab interview with Tara here.)

Tara and I share an editor, the amazing Stacey Barney at G. P. Putnam's Sons, so I figured we'd have stuff to talk about.  But it was great to talk to someone who really gets it, about how writing can be amazing and lonely, exciting and tedious, scary and joy-provoking all at the same time.

Which was nice.  Because frankly it can sometimes be a little hard to talk to non-writers about what we do.  It's a hard job to explain.  Sit in a coffee shop all day?  Sounds great!  How many people say, "Oh I'd love to write a book!"  And it's true, it IS wonderful.  But there's no "office water cooler," where you can share joys and fears, successes and setbacks.  

So today I just want to say thank you to Tara and this blog and all the other people I've met from my writing for being my "water cooler."  It makes life a whole lot sweeter!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

In Praise of Toppings (July Theme: Ice Cream) by Claudia Mills

I like ice cream just fine, but I like it chiefly, I must confess, as a platform on which to pile what I love beyond all reckoning: toppings. When I prepare a bowl of ice cream for myself, I start with a tiny scoop of vanilla and then load it up with Hershey’s chocolate sauce, multiple maraschino cherries with dribbles of their sweet syrup, perhaps a dab of strawberry jam, a swirl of whipped cream, and sprinkles.

I’ve found that “toppings” are what I love best as a reader, too. Yes, a book has to have some kind of plot, a basic story line to keep us turning the pages to find out what will happen next. But the things I remember most after closing the pages of a wonderful book tend to be those little sparkly details that are there almost for their own sake, just to add vividness and childlike wonder to the writing.

As a child I loved All-of-a-Kind Family, Sydney Taylor’s affectionate portrait of a large Jewish immigrant family growing up on the Lower East Side of New York City at the turn of the last century. When I re-read it as an adult, I was surprised to find that the book had a plot: a predictable, sentimental story line involving the romantic reunion between Papa’s mysterious employee/protégé Charlie and the girls’ beloved “Library Lady.” The parts I had remembered for decades had nothing to do with the plot, but with the detailed description of the rituals the girls developed for nibbling on the penny candy and crackers bought at the corner store and dusting to find the pennies hidden by Mama. I barely remember the major incidents of any of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books. Instead what I remember is how Ramona tried to get Miss Binney to think she would do a good job as the kindergarten post-nap wake-up fairy, giving a “delicate snore” so that Miss Binney would see how excellent she was at resting. Toppings!

In my own forthcoming chapter book, Annika Riz, Math Whiz, I created a plot involving Annika’s entering a district-wide Sudoku contest. But the fun of the writing for me was in the toppings: a minor subplot involving Annika’s doomed attempts to teach her dog, Prime (short for Prime Number) to count, and recurrent details about Annika’s life with her math-teacher father and tax-accountant mother in their “math house,” where the tablecloth is numeral-patterned and the salt shaker is shaped like a 3 while the pepper shaker is shaped like a 4.

Yay for toppings!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Brain Freeze or Bee Dodging: Observations on First Drafts (July Theme - Sarah Dooley)

There’s an art to eating ice cream. Or maybe it’s a science. I don’t know which, because, whatever it is, I haven’t mastered it yet, in spite of years of practice.

Eat too fast and you get the screaming, writhing, grind-the-heels-of-your-hands-into-your-eye-sockets headache that makes you want to swear off ice cream forever (until it’s time for the next bite). Eat too slowly and your hands get sticky with sludgy rivers of melted dairy, and then your beautiful day at the park turns into an exercise in dodging opportunistic bees.

This relates to writing how? Well, I don’t have to tell you. You know.

Everybody writes at a different pace, but it’s taken me a long time to sort out which type of first draft works for me. Write too fast and I get the screaming, writhing, grind-my-teeth-into-powder plot gaps that make me want to swear off writing forever (until it’s time for the next first page). And I say this as someone who has participated in National Novel Writing Month since 2005. I love fast drafting. I love writing my first draft in a crazy, mad flurry of flying fingers on clattering keys. I love giving myself permission to create something messy and unfinished and imperfect, to solve plot holes with placeholders like “FIX THIS LATER” and to name six different characters “Sally” and sort them all out in draft three or four.

What I don’t like is looking, a few months down the road, at what a mess I’ve made, and wondering how in this world I’m going to fix it by my deadline.

So sometimes, just to see if I can, I try to write slowly. I try to plot and plan and outline, to think things through before I write them down. I try, at the very least, to give each character her own distinct name from the outset.

I let things melt.

What I’ve found, though, is if I write too slowly, my passion for the project melts away, and what started as a beautiful day of story-weaving turns into an exercise in dodging opportunistic feelings of self-doubt. And that’s when the little recycle bin icon on my desktop goes from empty to “Do you want to delete this 4 items? … 6 items? … 12 items?”  and three hours later, I’m still on page one.

Everybody has their own way of writing a novel, and I don’t know what mine is, because I sure haven’t mastered it yet. I only know that when the weather’s right and the craving hits, I’m not going to let art or science or anything else stop me from the sweetness of creating something new.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Sweetness of the Writing Life: July Theme By Ann Haywood Leal

It was their favorite part of the day, even more than the announcement of snack time.  What could be sweeter and more heavily anticipated than crushed Ziplock baggies of Oreos and handfuls of fruit snacks with less than .0001 per cent fruit?

It was writing time in third grade.

They asked about it all day long, so anxious to get back to their works-in-progress.  I found myself jealous of them, at times.  Not only because I wanted to sit down with my own work, but because they were so brave and unencumbered.  They weren't worried what their editor was going to think about their character development, or if their plot had any gaping holes.  They knew their stories were the best things out there, and they didn't really care what anyone else thought.  They just wrote.

I found myself not just listening to their stories, but listening to the third graders:

"Want to be in my story?"  Kody leaned over Ryan's desk.

 Ryan shook his head, impatiently, his pencil to his own story.

Kody leaned in harder, getting fully into Ryan's personal space.  "It's a zombie invasion..."

Ryan squinted his eyes, considering, then nodded his head hard.

Kody smiled in a satisfied way.  "And I think I'm putting in a portal."

Lily, on the other side of Ryan, rolled her eyes.  "You always put portals in your stories."

Kody shrugged and went back to his zombie invasion.

Sometimes I need to remind myself to grab back onto that sweetness--that third grade confidence that just lets me write whatever I want, without stopping.

So go take the third grade challenge with me today.  Just write--without any worries or constraints.  Feel free to put a friend in your story, or a portal, or maybe even a zombie invasion.  See where it takes you...

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Lemon Ice Started It (July Theme) by Bob Krech

My parents had grown up in Jersey City, N.J. in the 1930's and moved out to the suburbs of Lawrenceville, N.J.  twenty-five years later. When I was growing up, all my relatives, including my grandparents, still lived in the city in rented flats downtown near the Hudson River in the shadow of the Colgate-Palmolive factory. In those days that area of Jersey City was not the "gold coast" it is now. It was a lot more rundown and a pretty rough and tumble neighborhood. 

My dad invented the "Reverse Fresh-Air Fund" when I was about eight. He thought it would do me good to leave the green lawns and split-levels of Lawrenceville and stay with my grandparents for a few weeks every year so that I could get a feel for what living in a city was like. So for the next four summers, Jersey City became my home away from home for a few weeks.

It was pretty great. I was in a place where I could walk everywhere. To the candy store, the grocery, the Hudson River, the park. I was living with my grandparents who like most grandparents wanted to buy me all the kid junk my parents would normally say no to. It was noisy, busy, teeming with all kinds of different people, interesting, and exciting. Incredibly to a young kid from suburbia, we were visited on our block every day by Sabrett hotdog carts, Italian ice carts, ice cream trucks, and lots of other interesting vendors. The Italian ice cart is where this story begins.

I had my first honest-to-God, all-out, no-holds-barred fistfight in Jersey City the summer I turned twelve. Jerry Geckle grabbed my head by the ears and started smashing it onto the pavement after I hit him with a lemon ice. This was in the grand tradition of kids throwing food at each other rather than just eating the thing. Jerry had thrown some lemon ice at me first and I was just returning the favor, but Jerry was two years older and took it as a personal insult that I would dare to presume that we were on the same level when it came to throwing things at each other.

I came home to my Grandmother crying, cut, and lumpy. She begged me not to fight with Jerry again. She said his mother would come and beat her up. (He belonged to a very tough family). My friends rallied around me as I sat on our stoop with an ice pack on the back of my head. They told me Jerry was really sixteen (even though he had just finished sixth grade) and that a "geckle" was a lizard.

The first piece I ever wrote and was paid for was a longer retelling of this story. I was taking a course on teaching writing and we were asked to write about a childhood memory and to employ all five sense as we wrote. The first thing I thought of was summer. And then lemon ice. Which I love. The best lemon ice I ever had used to come off of the pushcart that made its rounds in that Jersey City neighborhood every summer. And then I remembered the incident with Jerry. That flowed into the story. The result of that assignment was the story I called "The Reverse Fresh-Air Fund."

The teacher and the class really enjoyed it. She even suggested I send it in for possible publication. I submitted it to New Jersey Monthly and was extremely surprised to get a call a few weeks later offering me money for it! They published it the next summer under the title, "Summer in the City."

Getting paid for that piece gave me a big confidence boost when it came to writing. It also reinforced the idea that you don't always have to have a clever plot or incredible surprise ending for everything you write. Sometimes just telling a story well is enough to earn you an audience. So, in at least one small way, my professional career as a writer started with a lemon ice.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Story Writing Is Like Making Homemade Ice Cream - July Theme by Tamera Wissinger

Have you ever made homemade ice cream? It’s something that my family used to do when I was young, with one of those wooden hand-crank ice cream makers. It’s fun, but it’s also quite a bit of work and it can be messy.

As I was thinking of Smack Dab in the Middle’s July Ice Cream theme, it occurred to me that writing a story is a lot like making homemade ice cream:


Start with a few basic                           Start with a basic story idea.
The ice cream begins as                       The story writing begins fluidly.
a liquid.                                              
The crank turns easily                          The story comes easily at first.
at first.           
As you work the ice cream,                  As you work the story, it
it begins to take shape.                         begins to take shape.

The closer to done, the harder             The closer to done, the
it is to turn the handle.                          harder edits become.

For the most difficult parts,                  For the most difficult parts,
sometimes the ice cream                       sometimes the writer needs help.
maker needs help.

It can get messy.                                    It can get messy.

It can seem to take forever for            It can seem to take forever
the ice cream to be ready to eat.         for the story to be ready to read.

If you stick with it, you’re                   If you stick with it, you’re
reward will be something                   reward will be something
delicious and sweet to                         delightful and sweet to
share with others.                                share with others.

Whether cranking out homemade ice cream or cranking out a story – enjoy the work! Your results will be worth the effort!