Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Unfinished Writing Under the October Sky: Jen Cervantes

It all started the night Mrs. Winchester’s house was torpedoed by a falling star. Of all the houses in all the world, that star picked 222 Happleberry Lane right next to Ruby’s house. And as quick as a mean strike of lightning, Mrs. Winchester was gone. They found her bones as deep as twenty feet, scattered, broken, even melted into the blackened earth. Some of her bones were never found. 
The stately Victorian house (which had just been named a “historical gem” by the Historical Society of Misty Crossing) was miraculously still standing. Barely. Its wide
wraparound porch was scorched around the edges. Dark smudges marked the planks, as if something very black and very big had been dragged across it. The wood pillars looked more like toothpicks, splintered and bent, not nearly strong enough to hold up the porch. And the third floor roof suffered a dozen canonball-sized holes, one had slammed through two floors and Mrs. Winchester’s bed. But the house still had its Historical Gem sign planted in the front yard right next to the Condemned sign.
As Ruby lay in her bed she thought about coincidences, mishaps, and mistakes. If only her mother hadn’t been visiting Mrs. Winchester that night. If only she’d stayed home to sew the green sequins on Ruby’s silk slippers. If only….
Those two words floated like dainty snowflakes too small to grab hold of before melting. And now unable to sleep, Ruby sank into her down pillow and stared at the flickering stars millions and millions of miles away in the black October sky. They were fixed, unmoving, like someone had fastened them with screws. None dangled, drooped, or swung. No tell-tale threat that one was about to fall. Suddenly, she hated those stars.
The grandfather clock downstairs tick tick ticked with its predictable rhythm, growing louder and louder the more Ruby thought and tossed and turned. She could hear her father’s soft crying floating down the hall. It had been three weeks since her mother had died and her father had closed himself off from the world. He was unshaven, pale, skinny, and even somewhat crazed. At first Ruby had wanted him to come out, to talk to her and tell her it was all going to be okay, but as the days passed and his eyes grew puffier and redder and his mind grew more lost and his heart more broken, Ruby secretly wanted him to stay behind the closed door. 
The moonbeam grew brighter, like a flashlight shining on her pillow.
It was no good.
She rolled back the covers and slipped out of bed.
In the silvery moonlight, Ruby peered at the road outside. Tall Victorian houses lined both sides of Happleberry Lane. The black pointed roofs looked like crooked rows of giant witch hats. Ruby let her eyes follow the moon’s light back to Mrs. Winchester’s sad and lonely house. It looked pale, ghostly, almost see through. And then...
The sound sent shivers up Ruby’s spine, spreading like tiny fingers tickling her scalp.
There was something coming up the road. But from her vantage point, Ruby couldn’t quite see…
Taking two stairs at a time, she hurried into the living room and peered through the velvet drapes.
She’d been wrong. There wasn’t something coming up the road.
There were two somethings.
Two dark hooded figures drew closer. And closer. The figures’ arms hung so low that their knuckles nearly dragged on the pavement. Their heads lolled around like puppets and their hoods flopped back and forth but never enough that Ruby could see any faces hidden there. They staggered and limped like their legs were nothing but string.
Ruby ducked beneath the windowsill. Her eyes hovered over the edge. The dark figures were coming toward her. Closer and closer.
She held her breath.
They dragged themselves across Mrs. Winchester’s front yard.
The moon turned its face behind a veil of gray clouds.
The clock ticked. Ruby’s father whimpered.
She couldn’t tear her gaze away. She had to know what they were. She strained to see.
The somethings each dragged a big black bag behind them.
It sounded worse than rusty scissors on a chalkboard.  One bag slammed into the Historical Gem sign, knocking it into the dead grass. A trail of bones tumbled out. Ruby’s gaze followed the dark things as they hobbled up the walkway.
Up the stairs.
Onto the porch.
Their black tattered robes dragged behind them like trails of smoke.
 And then came the knock. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Mysterious Ducks of Haunted House Pond that Didn't Quack in the Night

It’s October—and flocks of geese have been flying over my house as they migrate south for the winter (although to me it always looks as if they are flying west).  It is the time of year in which my dogs run through the house baying at the ceiling as they hear their honks, then trip into the walls and doorframes and over each other because they weren’t paying any attention at all to where they were going. 

It seems like not that long ago I was out with the dogs in the backyard, watching as a flock of migrating ducks landed in the neighbor’s pond for the night.  They splashed around and quacked to each other—almost like they were discussing everything they’d seen that day on their travels.  Then, quite suddenly, they all went quiet just like someone had told them to shut up and go to sleep.

I should probably explain about the neighbor’s pond though.  It’s a man-made, but it’s big enough to have its own dock and a two-person boat.   And the yard it sits in is probably the biggest in the neighborhood  The house itself is much, much larger and much grander than the houses that surround it.  Or at least I think it is—it’s up on a hill and hidden from view by a mess of trees and shrubbery.  The owner lives elsewhere, rarely visits, and won’t sell (according to someone I met once who tried to buy it from her).  I’ve been told there is a caretaker, but I’ve never seen anyone there ever.  At night sometimes I’ve heard something large crashing around the grounds (the locals tell me it’s either deer or drunken teenagers, but I’m not ruling out ghosts or the jersey devil quite yet).   

God, I love that house.  Seriously, it's like every haunted house or spooky mansion from every scary or mysterious book I ever read.  It is The Westing Game, The Headless Cupid, Nancy Drew, and Scooby Doo all rolled into one.  And someday I'm going to write about it.  

Friday, October 25, 2013


When you've got a creative gig like writing, it's easy to focus solely on the end results:  A finished book.  An acquired book.  A book on store shelves.  But you don't get a finished project without a starting-off point, an inspired idea.  (Ideas are sometimes the most important part of the creative process!)

Creative games (like my cloud game in the video below) keep the imagination in tiptop shape and the ideas rolling:

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Monthly Theme: October Traditions

Stephanie J. Blake

Man, I love October! And Halloween.

I decorate the house.

We "Boo" the neighbors. (Boo-ing includes leaving a bag, box, or basket of treats and ringing the doorbell and running away! Find out how on this website: http://beenbooed.com/.)

Here's our treats for the neighbors.

I bake.

I dress up the dog.

One of my kids has a birthday towards the end of the month and we always have a Halloween-themed birthday.

We watch Halloween movies.

Some of my favorites are Hocus Pocus, The Haunted Mansion, Monster House, and Teen Witch. This year, we added Zombieland and Warm Bodies to the lineup.

I always dress up to hand out candy.

Want some candy?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

BOOK BLIND DATES: Smack Dab in the Classroom by Dia Calhoun

This month, teen librarian KATIE MITCHELL from Saline Library shared some wonderful ideas when I asked her how to use middle grade books in the classroom. From Book Blind Dates to Reader's Response Journals, read on for ways to engage young readers.

DIA CALHOUN: What tips do you have for getting a group of kids actively engaged with the same book? Kids who might have different interests?

KATIE MITCHELL: As a librarian in a public library, this has been an area that has been very challenging. The kids in my teen book group often ranged in age from 11-15. That’s an amazing time of growth and the levels of maturity are all over the map. Knowing your group is the first main step. I would always emphasize to the kids that all opinions were valid, all feelings to be respected. And I would tell them that if they *didn’t* like a book, I really wanted them to feel welcome, because figuring out what you don’t like in a book helps guide you to genres and writing styles that you like.

Reader's Response journals are great; as they help young teens make strong connections between their lives and the lives of the characters. Another great connector is having the kids themselves booktalk the titles. If you do rotational reading with your class, you can have the group that just finished the book talk it up to the next group to get it.

Finally, this is a group that still really enjoys having people read to them. Reading aloud, or having the audio book playing as they read can help your auditory learners and connect the students who have more challenges with reading. (But, please don’t make kids read out loud if they are uncomfortable. I know adults who stopped reading for pleasure in middle school due to extreme embarrassment in English classes.)

DIA CALHOUN:  Do you remember a specific activity with a specific book that really set kids' imaginations on fire?

KATIE MITCHELL:  Book trailers! Particularly 90 Second Newbery trailers. (See this one of THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND) I think it’s the blend of costuming, acting, playing together (when “play” time is really falling off the radar for these kids), and using technology that makes this an activity that reaches kids across the board. So many teachers use book trailers, sharing the student produced ones is a fantastic connector!

DIA CALHOUN:  Have you ever done something "outside the box" that worked really well?

KATIE MITCHELL: Book Blind Dates. Our middle school is directly next door to the library. Once a trimester, the Language Arts teachers bring their students over for booktalks and some other activities. One of the best ones is the Book Blind Date. We set up groups of tables for 4-5 students, with 7-8 books on each table (I usually do it by genre, so they get a fuller experience). Then when I blow the whistle (apparently, this is hilarious in a public library), they have to grab a book and just read for 3 minutes. After three minutes, they need to record it on their playlist and write down an few keywords and write it from 1 (it’s a match!) to 5 (see you never!). We usually do about six tables. The kids love it and it’s a great way to push some of the older titles that you still love.

DIA CALHOUN:  If you could give teachers/librarians one piece of advice for engaging kids with middle grade books, what would it be?

KATIE MITCHELL: This is such an incredible age group. While you will have readers who are at both ends of the spectrum in terms of reading ability, these are all kids who can be engaged with middle grade fiction. Always look for the connections. If you have a reader who seems too “jaded” for books about middle grade characters, this can be a chance to give them a time where they don’t have to try so hard to be grown up. For kids who are still finding their place in the middle grades (and frankly, who isn’t), these stories are touchstones for feeling normal. As they are growing and changing and their world is expanding, it is so imperative that they have some books that reflect their experience. We get to bring them that! Don’t ever forget how cool that is!

DIA CALHOUN:  Wonderful ideas, Katie. I want to try Book Blind Dates myself! Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience. Katie Mitchell works with the amazing AMELIA BLOOMER PROJECT.

Dia Calhoun's Smack-dab-in-the-Classroom series runs on this blog the 23rd day of each month.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Happy Fall! (Laurie Calkhoven)

For me, fall has come to mean book events. So many opportunities to connect with young readers. Fall’s a great time for writer’s conferences too—everyone’s sharpening their pencils, ready to begin a new school year even if we graduated thirty years ago.

Since mid-September I’ve been to book festivals in Princeton, Warwick, and Chappaqua. I’ve participated in two bookstore panels, and mentored at the always-fabulous Rutgers One-on-One conference.

Those of you who know me won’t be surprised to learn that I forgot to bring my camera to most of these events, or if I did, forgot to take pictures.  But I do have one, of the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival. Lots of kids and parents meeting authors and illustrators and excited about books outside on a sunny day, changing leaves in the background.  What could be better than that?

Next up I’ll be at NYC’s Bank Street Bookstore on November 2 talking about “The Story Behind the Story” with a host of other authors, and then back in Princeton on November 10 to present a workshop on Scene Structure at New Jersey SCBWI’s Fall Craft Weekend.

And then, finally, I fly to Rochester for the Rochester Children’s Book Festival on November 16th.

Yay fall!

Sunday, October 20, 2013



I’m lucky to live in a state with a host of wonderful writers, and one of those writers is Kurtis Scaletta, the author of Mudville, a Booklist Top 10 Sports Book for Youth, Mamba Point, which the New York Times Book Review called "entertaining and touching,” and The Tanglewood Terror, a Kids' Indie Next List Selection and winner of the Minnesota Readers' Choice Award.  His latest novel, The Winter of the Robots, has been called “a deft mix of middle school drama and edgy techno thrills” by Kirkus Reviews.  I’m delighted to talk craft with Kurtis at Between Writers, and I’m especially grateful for his good advice.

First, congratulations on your new book The Winter of the Robots.  It's always great to have new work in the world.  What excites you most about this latest novel?  

For me the most exciting thing is that it’s my first book to be set in my own neighborhood (which is Victory).

I'm curious about your pre-writing process.  How much of the book do you know when you begin? 

This has varied from book to book, but (for example) I wrote a series of lower middle-grade books where the concept was hammered out with the publishing company before a single line of the first book was actually written. For most of my longer books I really just start writing and see where it goes for a while, but then I start to structure – I find myself jotting down notes on the shape the book will take and the major turning points. I use something like a three act structure and work from there to chapter by chapter outlines. It’s not as orderly as it might sound.

So what are your goals in the first draft? 

I edit a lot more while drafting than a lot of writing teachers recommend. I want a draft I feel good about, something that I want to work with.

Any struggles?  

Probably the biggest struggle for me is continuity. I realize midway through a story that a character is going to school for the sixth day in a row, or that there’s no clear way to move to the next act. Hence my wont for planning. I use a calendar to chart the events of the book, take notes on what each character is doing and what they want to accomplish and make sure that explains their actions.

Do you share your work in-progress with anyone? 

Yes, absolutely. My wife reads the first draft, and my critique group sees the next one, and then my agent sees it. So by the time my editor sees it a lot of people have weighed in.

What writing advice would you give yourself and why?   

Don’t be afraid to change your practice. If you feel uninspired or are dealing with writers block, try doing something else. Get a bright green sharpie and a pad of giant unlined paper. If you listen to music, turn it off and just open a window and write to the noise outside. If you usually write fantasy, write something realistic. Or vice versa. This is the advice I’m following right now—writing a draft by longhand instead of on a computer, which precludes editing-while-writing.

What projects are ahead?

Among other things I recently wrote a picture book manuscript I think has legs… or rather, wheels.

Fantastic.  I look forward to it.   

October Sky by Naomi Kinsman (October Theme)

For October, the beginnings of an idea...

Born in the icy heart of January, the baby was anything but ordinary. 

Her exhausted mother took one look at that auburn mop of hair, those flashing amber eyes and insisted, “She’s not one of us, not a bit. Can’t call her Mary or Sara, and would never do to make her a Tucker.”

No one could change her mind, not even the midwife, who insisted that babies must share their family’s names. It was only proper, after all.

“This child dropped in from...” her mother reached out for her and drew her close. 

The baby wrapped her mother’s finger in her tiny fist.

“...From the October Sky.”

The others stared at the child, who had yet to make one sound.

“Write it down,” her mother said to the midwife. “This baby girl’s name is October Sky, and she’s destined for something bigger than this cabin, bigger than these snow-covered fields. Just you wait and see.”

photo credit: freyenberger via photopin cc

Saturday, October 19, 2013

"Red, White & Black" Teen Author Panel in Alexandria, VA

For anyone who happens to be in the DC area, I'm going to be at on a Teen Author Panel entitled "Red, White & Black" next Friday, October 25th, at Hooray for Books in Old Town Alexandria from 6:30-8:00 PM.   

Here's the little blurb from the store:

Kathryn Erskine (Seeing Red), Anne Westrick (Brotherhood), and Kristin Levine's (The Lions of Little Rock) middle grade novels feature tough social events and courageous protagonists. This very exciting author panel will be moderated by Meg Medina, author of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass.

I'm so honored to be speaking with the wonderful Kathryn Erskine (National Book Award for her amazing novel Mockingbird) and I can't wait to meet Anne Westrick and Meg Medina too.  If you're in town, please do come by and say hi!

Friday, October 18, 2013

October Skies Full of Poetry by Claudia Mills (October theme)

While some poets sing of the splendors of spring, for me autumn has always been the season for poetry. As first grade began, our teacher had us learn to write by copying these lines from the chalkboard:

Down, down, yellow and brown.
Leaves are falling all over the town.

My father liked to quote Helen Hunt Jackson’s poem “October’s Bright Blue Weather,” although he misremembered it as beginning with James Whitcomb Riley’s famous opening line, “When the frost is on the punkin.” My own childhood favorite poem for October was Harry Behn’s wonderful Halloween poem with its haunting beginning:

Tonight is the night
When dead leaves fly
Like witches on switches
Across the sky . . .

So in the spirit of this month’s theme, and because I can never resist the chance to write a poem, here is my own contribution to verse in honor of the October sky. (PS. I live in Boulder, Colorado, and we do start to get snow this month. In fact, it snowed last night!)

October Sky

A porcelain bowl of brilliant blue
Etched with leaves of every hue.

The air so crisp and sharp and bright
Like an apple’s tangy bite.

But sometimes clouds hang dark and low
Swollen with unfallen snow.

Dark comes early. Stars blink on:
The Harp, the Eagle, and the Swan.

And look! Upon her trusty broom
A witch soars past the harvest moon.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Capture It: October Sky Theme by Ann Haywood Leal

It arrives for me every year, without fail, with the October sky.   With an electric automaticity, my hands reach for it on the shelf.  I can't help myself.  I have to read it.  And it has to be out loud for others to hear.

I'm not sure why it happens in October of every year, but I've decided it must be due to a spell.  It's book magic--the kind of overwhelming true-believer spell that sweeps you up in its gentle, but firm grip.  If you are reading this, chances are you've had it happen to you-- perhaps more than once.

I will start today.  It will be after lunch recess when tummies are full and the afternoon heaviness is starting to overtake their limbs.  But as soon as I read the first line, their eyelids will snap open.  Because they're about to meet him.  Charlie.  All genuine story believers know in their hearts that they could be Charlie.  Their full stomachs start to growl as they feel Charlie's hunger.  They shiver as Charlie tromps through the early snow.  Tears have fallen on desks with Charlie's disappointments.  

An audible gasp goes up to the October sky as the flash of golden ticket is glimpsed...my favorite part...soon to be their favorite.

Find your magic.  All you have to do is open the book and it will arrive without any bidding.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

October Sky by Bob Krech

Greg carefully braked the car to a slow stop behind the high school. He cut the engine and the lights. They were tucked safe away from the street.
Pez opened the passenger door and got out. One smooth motion. Greg followed suit. They gently closed their doors. Greg decided not to lock it. It might save them a second when they got back if they didn't have to unlock the door. Pez would be proud of him for thinking of that. Details like that were important Pez said. They added up.
The parking lot was empty except for a beat up old pickup. The school maintenance truck.
Pez was striding purposefully across the gravel, small crunching sounds from under her sneakers.
Greg hustled alongside, looking left and right into the darkness. The lights that were usually on back here were out. Like Pez said they would be. All black back here. Tonight.
They moved around the corner of the building. They hadn't said a thing since Greg had picked Pez up from the 7-11. They had talked all afternoon about it, but when Pez got in the car back at the store all she did was nod.
Greg could feel his throat tightening. He wanted to talk. To talk over things one more time. Like the details. Not so much why and all that. That was done and talked through. But the details. So there'd be no mistakes. No miscues was how Pez said it sometimes.
 It was a soft night. That's how his father used to say it. Soft. Not cold, not warm. Soft. But there was sweat under his shirt. In the small of his back. He was hurrying along when Pez halted.
Greg froze in response. Was someone there? He listened. He waited for Pez to make the next move, but she was just standing there looking up. Greg swiveled his head in every direction. What if someone was there? They were screwed. That's what. Screwed royally. Or maybe not. They hadn't done anything. They could still just go back to the car and drive away.
He looked at Pez for guidance.
Pez had her head back, her delicate chin tilted up. She just stood with her dark eyes gazing up. Her long dark hair hanging straight back. Motionless. "The sky,"she said quietly.
Greg wasn't sure he heard right. "What?" he whispered.
Af first Pez said nothing and he hoped she wasn't mad. "The sky," Pez repeated in the low, soft tone she had.
Greg let his eyes wander up too.
"Everything's okay?" Greg asked. His voice was thin, strained.
Pez let her head rotate slowly still with her gaze fixed above. "More than okay. Look."
Greg allowed himself to look. Dark swirls and patches of silvery blue spread thin. The half moon was out now and had bathed everything in a soft sheen. Like a velvet. A velvet edge on everything. But Greg couldn't get any of this into words. He was not great with words. "Yeah," was all he could manage.
"Exactly," Pez was looking at him now and nodding. She understood what he meant. His one word. She understood him. She really did. A small smile. Small white teeth in the dark. "Exactly."
Pez looked up at that sky once more. "You know what that means?"
Greg only knew it was beautiful in a way. He had no idea what it might mean. He also knew if he waited, Pez would answer her own question. And she did. She reached out and lightly touched Greg's elbow. Electricity sang through his body.
Not that Pez noticed. She was scanning the big sweep of sky once more. "It's telling us that this is an excellent night to do this. You can feel that, right?"
Greg began nodding. "Yeah. Sure. I..."He tried to think of more to say.
But Pez had released his arm and was suddenly moving toward the back doors of the building.
Greg looked up one more time at the swirling October sky. He could see small stars and purples now. Deep stains of purple. He reached his right hand in his jacket pocket. He let his fingers wrap around the dark, hard shape. It was an excellent night to do this. Pez had said so. The sky had said so.
He hurried after her.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Showing Up for October Sky, October Theme by Tamera Wissinger

In preparation for this month’s October Sky theme, I recently set out to film sunset on the bay. I didn’t have a specific plan for what to write. In truth, I didn’t plan to film the sunset until I was on the dock doing it – let’s be honest, it’s not the most stunning sunset ever filmed. For some reason, though, I was drawn to the water, I-pad in hand. All I had to do was start to film and try to hold still while the Earth spun me away from the sun. So I did.  

Focused on my mission, I didn’t realize that a magnificent bird was about to fly into the scene until it was already there. I guarantee that if I had set out to film this heron, the shot would have been choppy – if I had been able to capture it at all. 

Listening to my intuition allowed me to simply be there to have that “right place/right time” moment.

Woody Allen is credited with saying, “Showing up is 80 percent of life.” I think it’s true, especially in art, and in particular in writing. It takes trust to show up to write even when we do have a plan, but especially when we don’t know what happens next. October Sky month was a good self-reminder to be an author who “shows up” and holds still while the Earth moves, ready to capture whatever images fly into view. I wish you all many opportunities to show up and create “right place/right time” moments of your own.