Thursday, November 15, 2018

Learning to Dance with the Dingoes!



I recently wrote about my ongoing search for a new agent. Despite having six books published, including a graphic novel that's coming out next year,  it’s a challenging task because I write historical fiction. I focus on forgotten characters (usually girls, who are not represented enough) and events (because I think as a nation, we are historically illiterate and have forgotten our own story) that helped build the American landscape. I also write American fantasy, both contemporary and historical, blending the tall tale tradition of humor and exaggeration that captures so much of the American identity into a unique form of fantasy. I touched upon the challenges of historical fiction, the ongoing argument on what is historical fiction, how and why it is relevant, and by extension why history is important. As a writer, one of the most stinging rejections that I get too many times is that, despite an interesting plot and engaging characters, “historical fiction is a hard sell.” (See my article Historical Fiction and All That Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey Stuff.)

And yet, historical fiction seems to be one of those steadfast genres. As UK literary agent Kate Burke (What’s Hot in Historical Fiction, 2018),  a common theme in popular historical fiction over the last thirty years is that protagonists in historical fiction tend to be “suffering witness to history”, in which writers pair small characters with big circumstances.This pairing seems perfect for middle grade and young adult readers.  To illustrate this point, consider Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2005), in which foster child Liesel struggles to survive the rise of Nazism, Germany. Or Kimberly Brubaker Bakdley’s The War That Saved My Life (2015), which follows ten-year old Ada’s plight to survive in war torn London. Or Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains (2008), in which the cruelty of slavery is seen through the POV of thirteen year old Isabel. In fact, Arleigh Ordoyne of the Historical Novel Society (Young Adult War Fiction: Fixture or Trend, 2018) suggests that roughly half of the historical fiction published in recent years  can be categorized as war fiction. And while more are sandwiched in eras between wars, these characters tend to be immersed in war-affected circumstances. Historical fiction consistently wins the Newbery Award. Consider Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest (2011), Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village (2008), Lynne Rae Perkin’s Criss Cross (2006), Cynthia Kadohata’s Kira Kira (2005).

"But history isn’t really about the past. It’s about human nature. We use the genre as a lens to see ourselves in a different age. To write on the human condition is to write with a reliance on history." -- Justin O’Donnell, Why Historical Fiction Will Never Go Away

So why the hard sell? And where do I fit in? 

To answer these questions, and find the courage to keep going, I came across two inspirational reads that address the writer’s plight.

Michael Alvear, and his The Bulletproof Writer: How to Overcome Constant Rejection to Become an Unstoppable Author (2017). Alvear has published fifteen books, written columns for The Washington Post and New York Times, and contributes to NPR's All Things Considered. ALL authors, reaffirms Alvear, deal with constant rejection.  And we’ve heard all the testimonies from famous writers like J.K. Rowling and Stephan King and Ursula LeGuinn. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich rejected J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Publisher and editor Barney Rossett hated J.R.R.Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, calling it a mishmash.

In fact, as Alvear asserts, “publishing is one of the few industries that systematically rejects its most talented people.” Would Sony or Verizon reject Steve Job’s resume with a form letter? Would Citigroup tell Warren Buffet that he doesn’t have what they’re looking for? That he doesn’t fit in?

Rejection becomes like an infection, says Alvear. We internalize it, give it more meaning than it deserves, and amplify it by taking on a chronically self-critical inner voice. It makes us question our skills, and our worth. It gives us writer’s block, and worse. It can also make us give up altogether.

What I like about this book is that he doesn’t offer cutesy quotes or power slogans, or as he calls them, motivational Band-Aids. Instead, he gives insights into how and why we receive, interpret, and react to rejection, then he offers some tools that we can use to move past the rejection. And the first thing he does is to outline three basic facts about the publishing business:

  1. Rejection is most likely not an indictment of your work. 
  2. No matter how many books you’ve published, you will not be spared the wrath of rejection.
  3. Less than one percent of writers make a living wage. The odds are overwhelmingly against you.
BUT! -- and this is a big but -- on the other side of rejection is acceptance.

Grounded in science, Alvear looks at how the brain is hardwired for fight or flight. Rejection feeds on the writer’s worse fears. And, according to Alvear, it can feel like it’s just a matter of time before the dingo eats your baby. “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones,” he quotes his research. The nature of publishing reinforces this built-in negative bias. The trick is, of course, is learning strategies that make the positive stick like Velcro.

In other words, we need to learn to dance with the dingoes!

Fearless Writing, by William Kenower (2017). This is the perfect companion to Alvear. Drawing on personal experience, Kenower elaborates on the writer’s worst fear: what other people think of our writing is more important than what we think of our writing. As Kenower suggests, what makes this fear so insidious is because of its apparent practicality, reinforced by the nature of the publishing business. As working writers, we need others to like our writing: agents, editors, publishers, critics and, most importantly, readers. Sometimes this fear becomes so overwhelming, we become blocked, or change the story we want to write to what we think others would read. Either way, we lose our story. Kenower offers a series of practical exercises that explores how to break the hold of this particular fear, and to find the confidence to write your story fearlessly. Don’t fear the wobble, Kenower states. Just write your story.

I just received my 36th rejection of the year. BUT I have also just finished another story, and have begun that process of submission. Yes, onward!

“Whenever I got those rejection letters, I would permit my ego to say aloud to whoever had signed it: ‘You think you can scare me off? I’ve got another 80 years to wear you down! There are people who haven’t even been born yet who are going to reject me some day – That’s how long I plan to stick around.’”Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love.

Bobbi Miller 

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Middle Grade Then and Now, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

When I was young, there wasn't really a category of books that were designated as 'middle grade.' I remember reading and loving Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins. (Oh, to live on my own island, away from my annoying two younger brothers!) I read classics, like Heidi and Little Women. And later, in high school, I read S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders and a slew of books by Paul Zindel, the most memorable being My Darling, My Hamburger. He was more or less a YA author before that genre was called YA. I remember reading gothic romance novels too, like Green Darkness by Anya Seton, which were all the rage when I was 16.

It wasn't until I was a mom and participated in mother-daughter book clubs with my daughters that I read today's middle grade novels. And fell in love with them. There were two that resonated so much that I knew I wanted to write one of these books. Or try to, anyway. They were So B. It by Sarah Weeks and Love, Ruby Lavender by Deborah Wiles.

I didn't think these novels were just for 9-12 year olds! They're compelling, deep, heartfelt, poignant, real stories with true-to-life characters that get under your skin. Plots that prompt the reader to ponder important, essential life questions. Conflict that keeps the pages turning.

Could I create something like that?

I read them several times. I studied them. I learned what ingredients made up a good story for this age group.

I tried to write a middle grade novel. Fail (of course). I wrote another. Fail #2. Those documents are stored safely on my computer and they're not going anywhere. I think of them as practice books, sort of like an archeological remnant of early cave drawings. But, like those plucky heroines in the two books who are determined to pursue answers, I kept at it. And at some point, something worked. I wrote something that got a nibble. Then a deal!

This month, my fourth middle grade novel will be released from Aladdin Books, Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark. It's a sequel to last year's Ethan Marcus Stands Up. I had such fun with these two books, which are narrated by five seventh-graders, digging into themes of determination, sibling rivalry, and learning to get along with others who see the world from a different lens.


I don't think I've quite yet reached the level of Deborah's and Sarah's extraordinary works, but I keep trying. I continue to be inspired by them and so many other middle grade authors.

There's no other writing world I'd rather be a part of.




Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of Calli Be Gold, The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days, Ethan Marcus Stands Up, and Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark. Catch up with her at micheleweberhurwitz.com.


Monday, November 12, 2018

Book Review: THE ART OF BEING REMMY by Mary Zisk

I recently read a fun book that was an entertaining trip down memory lane. THE ART OF BEING REMMY by Mary Zisk takes place in 1965 during the height of the Beatles fame in the USA. The heroine Remmy Rinaldi, who wants to marry Beatle Paul (she wasn't the only one!), also aspires to be an artist against the wishes of her father. The only way she can prove to Dad that girls can be artists too, is to win the Art Competition.





Here's my review of this delightful and funny story:



The Art Of Being Remmy by Mary Zisk is a delightful time travel trip back to 1965 when the Beatles reigned supreme. Remmy Rinaldi and her best friend Debbie ADORE all things Beatles and make a plan to one day meet their idols. Remmy also loves art and has a second secret plan to develop her Spark as an artist, even though it means going against her father’s wishes. Girls in the 1960’s need to know their place and follow the path men have set for them. A path that includes being housewives, mothers, maybe teachers, nurses , secretaries or stewardesses. But artists? NEVER!

Remmy is determined to prove her father and everyone else – including her once friend Bill – that she can be a great artist. Good enough to win a contest. She keeps her drawings in Super Secret Sketchbooks and earns her own money to take painting lessons so she can enter the Art Awards Contest.

Lots of challenges get in the way of Remmy’s plan, including problems with her best friend and a devious French Rat Fink. Along the bumpy road of 7th grade, Remmy learns that some rules are worth challenging and fairness for girls in all aspects of life is one of them.

This illustrated middle grade book is a funny and charming peek into the days when the Beatles took the world by storm and the force of female protest was at their heels. An entertaining read that celebrates creativity and girl power.
 


Darlene Beck Jacobson

Sunday, November 11, 2018

No One Single Mentor for Me

by Jody Feldman

7th grade, Home Ec*
The mandatory class was divided into sewing and cooking.
The sewing? I choose to forget that fiasco.
But the cooking? I had that down pat. Learning at the heels of my mother and grandmothers, not only did I already understand how to follow a recipe, I also understood how to stray from one to get even better results. I can tell you stories about how I got a B- in eggs because I refused to play by the classroom rules and an Incomplete in a homework assignment for the same reason, but I should probably explain why this pertains to this month’s theme... and my next sentence.

I am not Julie Powell. Who’s that?
She’s the author of Julie and Julia**, the woman who chronicled her year-long journey cooking all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

I own that cookbook, and I’ve cooked recipes from it, but I would never even entertain the idea of learning how to cook from one book. You don't see Julia Child making strudel or matzoh balls or mushroom risotto here. 

As much as I’ve set out to study what works for authors I admire, and as well as I understand how to use books as mentor texts, I find that I learn even more by experiencing books as stories. I am not wired to follow one person’s methods or lessons or examples to raise my skills to the next level.

It’s taken a village to educate me. It’s taken (off the top of my head) Cinda Chima, Debby Garfinkle, Mary Beth Miller, Martha Levine, Cindy Lord, Gordon Korman, Louis Sachar, Vicki Jamieson, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Rebecca Stead, Eugene Yelchin, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Franny Billingsley, Nancy Werlin, Agatha Christie, Patricia McKissack, Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl, Eve Bunting, and uncountable more—in their roles as critique partners or conference presenters or story creators or all three—to help me move my skills along. And I have to believe that it’s this patchwork of unofficial mentors that has most helped me to develop a style I can call my own.

The way I’m wired, it would never have taken a single Home Ec instructor to teach me how to cook. Or a single cookbook. Or even Julia Child. (I even learned something about cake decorating from my father.) Besides, I have way too much fun absorbing bits and pieces, learnings and lessons, ideas and inspirations wherever I happen to find them.
*****************
*Now known in most schools as some version of FACS—Family and Consumer Science.
**You may know it better as its film adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Philip Pullman's Alethiometer -- by Jane Kelley


I just finished reading the first novel of Philip Pullman's new trilogy, The Book of Dust. He is a master storyteller. I know I should have read the book slowly, to decipher how his realistic characters can thrive in such imaginative, suspenseful plots. But I couldn't. I devoured all 450 pages. So I have started reading it again in hopes of learning how he does what he does. 

Reading his interviews have given me a few hints. He described his workspace as having room for lots of books and several power tools. It isn't hard to picture him actually constructing things, like the canoe which is such an important part of the novel I just read. He is a craftsman. And so whenever he describes something he has imagined, like the alethiometer, the mechanisms are so clear that I believe I could actually hold one in my hand.


The name alethiometer comes from two Greek words. Aletheia means truth. Meter means to measure.  The characters in this novel and in his earlier trilogy, His Dark Materials, use the alethiometer to guide them. 

The device resembles a compass or a clock face with 36 symbols around its circumference. It has four hands. To ask it a question, you point three of the hands at three separate symbols. Then the fourth hand will spin until it points to a fourth symbol. These images provide the answer. Some people, of course, are better at reading it than others. Those who think they already know have a harder time arriving at the truth. What works best, as one of the characters says, is to hold the question in one's mind while simultaneously letting the mind drift toward discovery. 

That's exactly how I try to write. I select several separate symbols. I hold them in my mind (and also my heart). I let my mind roam around all the possibilities of what they suggest. And eventually, unless my thinking has become clogged by the predictable, the short-cut, or the trope, I arrive at a truth.


But of all the elements that he uses, my favorites are the daemons. 

He has said that His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust are not fantasies, but stark realism. He writes about "real people, like us, and the story is about a universal human experience, namely growing up. The fantasy parts of the story were there as a picture of aspects of human nature, not as something alien and strange. For example, readers have told me that the daemons, which at first seem so utterly fantastic, soon become so familiar and essential a part of each character that they, the readers, feel as if they've got a daemon themselves. My point is that we all have. It's an aspect of our personality that we often overlook, but it is there. I was using the fantastical elements to say something that I thought was true about us and about our lives."

Yes. That's it. That's exactly what I want to do. Maybe I should get some power tools? Or maybe just read his collection of essays for more insights. 

Monday, November 5, 2018

What I Learned From Kate DiCamillo by Deborah Lytton

I wish I could say that Kate DiCamillo is a close personal friend and that we have talked about books and writing over cups of tea at my favorite gluten-free, vegan cafe. But I can't.

What I can say is that Kate DiCamillo has taught me a tremendous amount about writing through her books. I study her craft as I read her stories, and I try to incorporate the lessons I have learned from her in my own work.



Ms. DiCamillo's gift of storytelling balances emotion with story so that one never overpowers the other. Keeping readers engaged can make the difference between a manuscript that finds a publishing home and one that will live forever at the bottom of a desk drawer. It is the story that makes a reader want to turn to the next page, just to see what will happen. And yet, story without emotion will fail to have a lasting impression. THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE combines moving details with a compelling story all told using beautiful spare prose. Kate DiCamillo shows us in all of her works that words can be pieced together to create art and story. In BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE, she demonstrates all of this as well as the way secondary characters need to have their own backstories and character arcs in order to balance the main character's journey.


Through her books, Kate DiCamillo has taught me many lessons about story structure, character development, and word choice, but most of all, she has taught me to keep writing. Because she continues to challenge herself to create new and inventive stories that touch the heart and make lasting impressions on all her readers, young and old.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

All Hail Barbara O'Connor

When I first started chasing the dream of becoming a published author of children's books, I did it quietly -- with books, and reading, and research, as is the usual m.o. for an introverted person like me. And there was one middle grade author I returned to again and again -- both through her work and through her blog/online presence: Barbara O'Connor.

To me, Barbara O'Connor writes the epitome of middle grade literature. Her books hit the sweet spot of flavor and spunk and heart -- and writing done right. Plus: dogs! Lots of dogs. :) How these books have not garnered every critical starred review and award known to man, I do not know (yes, they are sometimes recognized, but not nearly enough!) .... though they have been widely recognized and cherished by readers. Kids LOVE Barbara's books. And I do, too!

As I watched Barbara, from my little writing desk in Alabama, I learned. I particularly remember the inspiration and encouragement I got from reading her year-end blog posts found at Greetings from Nowhere (name after a book that if you haven't read yet, please go fix that RIGHT NOW). Here's her year-end musings for 2007 -- which was probably the first year I read Barb's blog, because it's the year she started her blog... and the year I landed an agent and sold my first book. (!)

Go ahead, read it. I'll wait right here...

Isn't that brilliant? So funny and honest -- just like Barb's books. And it inspired me. It helped me know what was possible. It encouraged me to keep going. THANK YOU, BARB!

Now I am off to read WONDERLAND, which is waiting so patiently on my nightstand...

 ------
Irene Latham is an Alabama author of more than a dozen current and forthcoming poetry, fiction and picture books for children and adults, including Leaving Gee's Bend, 2011 ALLA Children's Book of the Year and Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship (with Charles Waters). Winner of the 2016 ILA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, she also serves as poetry editor for the Birmingham Arts Journal


Thursday, November 1, 2018

GIRLS, STEM AND GEORGE JONES' RHINESTONES (GUEST POST BY CARA BARTEK)



George Jones, rhinestone studded and hair like a fresh dollop of sour cream, said it best: “I’ve had choices since the day that I was born.” While most of us might correctly believe the Possum was referring to his less than private relationship with the whiskey bottle, a keener observer will notice how subtle and stirring those lyrics actually are. Our lives are a cluster of choices. Everything we are and what we experience is connected to and dictated by choice. 

Nearly everyone who has survived being struck by lightning tells how their lives flashed before their eyes. Weddings, graduations, the birth of children, homes, jobs, vacations, lovers, and friends. All of these things come about as a result of choice: choices made by you and by others. To distill life is to reveal the crossroads we stand at every moment of every day.

Just because children are the smaller and non-voting members of the human race does not mean their choices have any less impact on their lives. Put simply, the choices kids make today stand to impact their lives and the paths they will take as they grow older. 

Girls and STEM is a hot topic now. Especially for middle school-ers during those very difficult in-between years. These are the years when “the crud” can creep in … when STEM subjects become increasingly difficult, when peers start to pressure, when social norms and expectations for what is appropriate for “female-kind” begin to form. All of these factors come together to create very difficult choices for girls.

The STEM Choice

I had a friend just the other day ask if I was trying to make everyone into a “nerdy scientist”. So I responded, “Hey! I’m just trying to make science happen. And rock these amazing yellow taco socks I’m wearing.” Okay, maybe it didn’t happen exactly that way. Maybe my friend had a point. While making everyone into a “nerdy scientist” certainly seems like a perfect world to me, I can understand her perspective.

She was recognizing the fact that not everyone, including not all girls, is going to be made for science. She revealed to me that STEM can be about preference, what we like and what we don’t like. Preference drives what we are attracted to. Much like the charge of an atom! We are naturally drawn to the things that we like and will over time become more skilled in those areas. So why encourage STEM for all girls?

As old George Jones would probably say, “It’s about the choice”. The issue with STEM and girls is not about the preference of science versus math versus history versus reading. The issue is the choice.
Very often as teachers, parents, and people who love those short people who don’t vote, we spend time developing their preferences. We make slime, we cut up frogs, we go to museums, and aquariums, and conservatories, and generally work our tails off ensuring interests are nourished and fed. Hey, I’m not knocking this. What I am saying is that there is a ceiling on preference. We all have our hardwired likes and dislikes. These things are dictated by deeply embedded components of the human body, like our DNA and brains and guts. Choice is another matter.

Choices are made, but their very nature is created by our greater world. In my experience in the STEM world, there were far fewer women in my field, there were far fewer female leaders, maternity leave was pretty stinky, and I often felt alone. My choices were all colored by these facts.
With my series, Serafina Loves Science!, I have chosen to work at the level of the little girls to expand choice. I have attempted to create stories about a little girl who is “making nerdy happen”. Serafina goes about her everyday life with a singular passion: science! She uses theory and construct and noxious chemicals to navigate her own life.

Societal change is something that takes place over long periods of time. Even though we have lots of fabulous momentum in the direction toward empowering little girls in the STEM fields, we are not there yet. We have to create change all levels. We have to expand the amount of choices little girls have in STEM. And little girls need to see themselves in those choices. They need to see themselves in a silly book character named Serafina to feel good about “making nerdy happen.”

About Serafina Loves Science! The series is middle grade fiction that focuses on an eleven-year-old girl named Serafina Sterling. Serafina is just like all other eleven-year-olds who have to deal with issues like annoying older brothers, cliques at school, and parents who restrict her use of noxious chemicals. Serafina is trying to figure it out, much like all of her friends. But she has a little secret… Serafina loves science! Her passion for all things scientific helps her make new friends and figure the old ones out, understand her family, invent new devices for space travel, and appreciate the basic principles of the universe.

About me: I live in Texas with my husband and two daughters. The Serafina Loves Science! series was inspired in part by my own career path. The other part of my inspiration is my two little girls. I hope to make this world a more equitable and opportune place for my daughters one silly story at a time!

You can find me at:








Monday, October 29, 2018

A Villain After My Own Heart

by Charlotte Bennardo

Ah, villains. We love to hate them. Here is my list of the 5 best villains: (due to copyright issues, I can't put certain pics in...)

1. Hannibal Lector. I mean, if you look at him the wrong way, you're the main meal. And he's so smart you have no hopes of outwitting him. The scariest part? There could be people like that, serial killers, out there...

2. Severus Snape. Until the last book, he was the villain. And nobody was cheering in his corner. He was mean to Harry! He still has to be considered a villain, but a 'restored to humanity' one.

3. That creature from the movie Aliens.  Geez, I had nightmares for years! Freddy Krueger and Jason could take creep lessons from this pure evil character. *shivers

4. The unseen spirit in the Paranormal movies. I mean, you can't see it coming for you, dragging you down the hall! Maybe even the Alien would be scared.

5.  Dracula, played by Frank Langella. Yes, he's a vampire, but he's alluring, pulling you in until it's too late. Any villain can be horrific and no way would you be tempted to do anything for him, except stake him. In this movie version (1975!) he's handsome and charming; when he turns those big brown eyes on his victim, and recites poetry about lonely wolves singing in the night... Who could resist?

There are so many villains; some we want forever gone, some we take through our childhood, and some who are a little too close to real... Who scares you the most?

Photo by Toni Cuenca from Pexels

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Writing in Silence?


I wish I could find the quotation and who said it, but of course, now that I’m looking for it, I can’t. But it was something to the effect of, “When I write, I don’t want anyone else in the room. Not even me.” And to that I say, PREACH!

You hear a lot about how professional writers don’t wait for inspiration, how they write for a certain number of hours every day, no matter what. Once, an accomplished writer recommended to a group of us budding writers that we get up early in the morning and “just be in the silence” when we write. I think my children were still little then, and I wondered, “Silence? What is this ‘silence’ of which you speak?”

But indeed, silence is golden. Especially for writers. I grab that silence whenever I can.

You see, I require a house devoid of distractions when I’m writing. Sure, I’ve seen people with laptops at coffee houses, supposedly working on the Great American Novel. Maybe they’re killing it, but how? How can anyone hear a character’s voice when other voices are drowning him out? How can you believe you’re in another place when you can hear your husband and kids in the next room?

Oh, I’m not saying this is the way to do it. My productivity suffers as a result of this need for silence. If only I could learn to drown out distractions, I could accomplish a lot more every day.

I’ve tried earplugs. They help some. But I’ve decided that plugs in the ears of a writer are like phones in the hands of mothers with young children: the second you use them, everyone suddenly wants your attention. No sooner do I put my earplugs in than someone HAS to ask me a question RIGHT THEN.

So I generally just wait until the kids are at school and my husband is at work, and then I get to work myself.

Of course, even when the house is empty, my kitchen office isn’t exactly distraction free. It always seems that the second I really get into a story, the dryer buzzes, the dog whines, the oven timer beeps, the mailman knocks at the door, and someone calls or texts.

Sometimes I dream of those fabled lake houses or cabins in the woods where novelists go for a week or a month to work on a manuscript. I don’t personally know any novelists wealthy enough to afford such a getaway. Maybe if they had a getaway and could write the novel in such wonderful, sustained peace and quiet, they’d make enough money to afford the cabin or the lake house?

Ah, the catch-22s of writing….

Thursday, October 25, 2018

WHEN FRIENDS ARE VILLAINS (HOLLY SCHINDLER)

I was a big Judy Blume fan growing up. Big. Huge. To a great extent, THE PAIN AND THE GREAT ONE was the book that made me a reader. But I think JUST AS LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER may have made the biggest impact.

This is the cover I had. I owned my copy until it disintegrated.
Basically, it's about losing your best friend to someone else. At least, that's how I remember it. I was going through something similar at the time, and the book hurt and it comforted me all at the same time.

We've talked a lot about making villains real this month. I think the most painful, cruelest villains--the villains who can do the most damage--are the people your main character loves. 

The friend who does you wrong (or dumps you or ghosts you, etc.) is exactly the character who can rip your protagonist in two. It's a character your protagonist would know thoroughly--and would never depict as some two-dimensional bad guy. It's also the last person on earth the protagonist wants to think of as a villain. 

But isn't that just like real life? How many of your own personal villains were once your favorite people on the planet?

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

What does it mean to be a “Creative Professional?” Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun

What does the combination of the  words “Creative Professional” mean to you writers and artists everywhere? What is the synthesis of creativity and professional? First thought typically—a professional is someone who makes money from her work. So, then the immediate question is…well, how much money? Am I a professional if I earn $5,000 for a literary novel? $100,000 for a best seller? A copy of the printed poetry journal for a poem? Money is one of the bottom lines of value in our culture.

However, some writers who win National Book Awards, especially in poetry, never make much money at all from their work. They certainly don’t earn their living from it, but likely from adjunct teaching or speaking. Perhaps then there’s a link between being a creative professional and reputation/credibility?

 Is seriousness a more useful word? Emily Dickinson was certainly serious about the poetry she threw in a drawer, but she certainly didn't make money from it. Does professional imply seriousness about making your work? One of the original uses of the word professional was for religious people who “professed” their vows. (I don’t think they do that for money!) A professional religious person, then, is a nun or monk. Perhaps creative professional might turn more toward ideas of commitment, dedication, or even consecration? 

Ultimately, I think all creative professionals will benefit from thinking through their own definition of this. For me the bottom line for calling myself a creative professional is not money or reputation. You can be a” serious artist” without making a cent or having any reputation at all. Dedication and consecration are more operative words for me. But, ultimately being a creative professional means somehow sharing my art, whether a book, sculpture, or poem, with the world. 



Saturday, October 20, 2018

Everybody's Had a Teacher Like "Old Hawk"

For this month's topic about favorite villains, I've decided to blog about a villain in one of my own middle grade books.  In my novel, Always, Abigail, the main character finds herself in a homeroom without her two best friends, which makes her first year of middle school seem somewhat doomed from the very beginning; but worse than that, her homeroom teacher is Miss Henrick aka "Old Hawk."

Here's an excerpt that will give you a glimpse of the "villain" she is:

Three Reasons She's Called "Hendrick-the-Horrible-Hundred-Year-Old Hawk"
1. She's horrible. You just have to know her; no explanation needed.
2. She's got to be at least one hundred years old by now.  (My mom had her when she was in sixth grade.)
3. She sees EVERYTHING that goes on - that's why she's called the Hawk.  She doesn't just have eyes in the back of her head.  She's got eyes in the hallway and on the playground.  No one knows how she does it.

Abigail goes on to describe her as the toughest, strictest teacher in the whole school.  But those are the very reasons Abigail's mom says that she'll come to appreciate Ms. Hendrick someday.


Old Hawk is one my favorite villains because I think everyone, young and old, can remember having a teacher like Old Hawk.  The difference between the young and old here is that usually as we grow into adulthood, we really do come to appreciate those teachers we had who seemed to be strict just for the sake of being strict.  As we mature, we realize all that strictness was there for a reason, and we end up appreciating them.  Why?  Because those strict, teachers, with those horrible nicknames, not only teach us things about math and reading and science, but they also teach us things about life.  Things that end up helping us to be better people than we would've have been had we not had them for a teacher.

So, this blog post is dedicated to those teachers.  The ones who may not have always been our favorite teacher while we were in their classes.  Ones who, maybe in some ways, were even seen as villains, but who, through their villainous strictness, taught us life lessons that just might make all the difference in the world.

Here's to all the Old Hawks we all know and, hopefully, have come to love,
Nancy  

Friday, October 19, 2018

Best Monsters and Villains and How it Inspires a Hero

It’s true. I enjoy a good villain.

Lord Voldemort. The Wicked Queen.

Loki.

A haunted house.

The very best villains and monsters, in my opinion, are those that have a rich backstory. A thick history of what led them to their evil ways and devious deeds. Characteristics that make them human, sympathetic, even relatable.

With Lord Voldemort, we see a childhood of abandonment, abuse, loss and grief. The inability to fit in, make friends and identify with a family. These issues are paralleled in the series hero, Harry Potter. Despite the comparisons, the two make very different choices in life. Choices which result in building of character, love, compassion and family for one – and ultimate defeat for the other.

Loki also found himself at a crisis of identity when he realizes his father is not his biological father, his brother, not his biological brother. He feels inferior, and turns to anarchy to make up for his anger and hurt.

Haunted houses, like Hill House or the hotel in The Shining, are malevolent forces, basically mysteries that we cannot solve or even pinpoint. We only know they are working against our heroes in the story, that something terrible must have happened many years ago within those walls.

I think it is human nature to want to know what makes a person or entity go bad. What I write, especially in middle grade fiction, includes villains like crooks or misbehaving house-pets. A cat who feels mistreated and lashes out, a rat who has felt ostracized and unloved so he wreaks havoc, a pack of dogs who enjoy terrorizing the smaller of the food chain for fun and power. It is up to the heroes in my novels to deal and cope with these villains, not just in the opposing forces of animals they meet, but also that of general evil in the world. The events we cannot control. Sickness, job loss, changes in a community or in a family situation.

I think if readers, especially young readers, can see how a hero in a novel deals with wrongdoing and evil, they can apply it to their own lives. And, in turn, see how they themselves can be the hero in their own life. They may not all be Harry Potter, or Ace the Cat, but they are the main characters in their very own life story. If they see their favorite characters succeed, I think it inspires them to also aim for that goal. Stories have power. Stories have relation.

Stories are human.

Even monsters.

Happy Reading!

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Antagonists as Protagonists by Claudia Mills

One very small moment in my third-grade year became a life-long touchstone for me.

I sang in our church's Crusader Choir, and a girl from another town named Claire Hatfield sat next to me each week at choir practice and shared my hymnal. One day, the thought suddenly popped into my head that while, to me, Claire Hatfield was just the girl who shared my hymnal in choir, to Claire Hatfield, I was just the girl who shared her hymnal in choir. In the same way that she was a bit player in the story of my life, I was a bit player in her life story, too.

The same is true, I've come to think, of protagonists and antagonists, both in fiction and in life. The antagonist in one character's story is the protagonist in the same story, told now from their point of view.

In my West Creek Middle School series, published much earlier in my career, each of the five books in the series features a different viewpoint character. And the two final books in the series - Alex Ryan, Stop That! and Makeovers by Marcia - star kids who weren't, well, so kind or empathetic to Ethan in Losers, Inc., or Julius in You're a Brave Man, Julius Zimmerman, or Lizzie, in Lizzie at Last. But when I gave Alex and Marcia their turn in the spotlight, I could see, for the first time, the hurts in their own hearts that led them to act as they had. I ended up loving them just as much as I had loved the characters they treated badly.

So many of the books that most broke my heart as a reader portray kids who act badly out of their own pain: The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar, and the achingly beautiful Home from Far by Jean Little. Thanks to the artistic skill of Paterson, Sachar, and Little, the worse the characters act, the more we ache for them.

Down deep I don't believe in the existence of villains or monsters, at least not child villains or child monsters. Children can act thoughtlessly. Children can act cruelly. But inside each antagonistic child is a child who yearns to be the star of his or her own story. How fortunate we are as authors that these stories are given to us to tell.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Historical Fiction and All That Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey Stuff


Especially during these times when facts can be alternative and history can be revised, the ongoing argument on what is historical fiction, how and why it is relevant, and by extension why history is important, seems perplexing. As a writer, one of the most stinging rejections that I get too many times is that, despite an interesting plot and engaging characters, “historical fiction is a hard sell.”

History often carries the stigma of being dry and irrelevant, says Y.S. Lee (The Agency 1: Spy in the House, 2010), but “the freedom of fiction is one way of exploring a subject that may seem intimating or remote. After all, it’s a kind of fantasy, a parallel world in which people act with recognizable human impulses and ideals but abide by very different rules.”

The genre of historical fiction is very broad, one that Mary Burns (1995) labels a “hybrid and a shape-shifter,” combining history with fiction. Or, as Trevor Cairney (2009) suggests, historical fiction is where “literature meets history.” Avi, an award-winning master of the genre, offers that some historical fiction stays close to the known facts, while others are little more than costume drama. “Ultimately, what is most important is the story, and the characters.” Facts, according to Avi, do not make a story. “Believable people do…Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction makes truth less a stranger.”

Historical fiction defies easy explanation. The controversy is grounded in conveying the ‘truth’ of history. Other popular genres have distinct rules that govern basic premises. Dystopian fiction, for example, features a futuristic universe in which the illusion of a perfect society is maintained through corporate, technologic, or totalitarian control. Using an exaggerate worse-case scenario, the dystopian story becomes a commentary about social norms and trends.

Many condemn the blending of invention with well-known and accepted facts, and consider the historical fiction genre a betrayal. Perhaps a better way to understand historical fiction is to take a lesson from The Doctor. Yes, that Doctor: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause and effect…but actually, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff.

It seems to me the same thing can be said of historical fiction.

In historical fiction, setting is usually considered ‘historical’ if it is at fifty or more years in the past. As such, the author writes from research rather than personal experience. But as an old turnip, my personal history dates back to the years prior to Korean War. The Civil Rights Movement, the Freedom Riders, the Bay of Pigs, the JFK Assassination, the Landing on the Moon, and the first Dr. Who episode are not some fixed points in history but a function of my experience. Yet, for these last generations, these are often just dates in a textbook. And the plot is a linear expression that begins on a certain date. The award-winning book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis (1995), depicting the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing of 1963, is often listed as historical fiction. Yet I remember vividly watching the events unfold on my parents’ black and white television.

Still, nothing about history is obvious, and facts are often open to interpretation. Once upon a time, it was considered factual that blood-letting was the proper way of treating disease, that women were emotionally and physically incapable of rational thought. It was illegal for women to be soldiers, and to vote. In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but he didn’t discover America. In fact, some would say he was less an explorer and more of a conqueror. History tends to be written by those who survived it. As such, no history is without its bias.

The meaning of history, just as it is for the novel, lays “not in the chain of events themselves, but on the historian’s [and writer’s] interpretation of it,” as Jill Paton Walsh once noted.

Some facts, such as dates of specific events, are fixed points in time. We know, for example, that the Battle of Gettysburg occurred July 1 to July 3, in 1863. The interpretations of what happened over those three days remains a favorite in historical fiction. My interpretation of the battle, in Girls of Gettysburg (Holiday House, August 2014), featured three perspectives that are rare in these historical fiction depictions: the daughter of a free black living seven miles north from the Mason-Dixon line, the daughter of the well-to-do local merchant, and a girl disguised as a Confederate soldier. The plot weaves together the fates of these girls, a tapestry that reflects their humanity, heartache and heroism in a battle that ultimately defined a nation.

In other words, history is more than dates. History is people, too. In the best of historical fiction, as with any story, a child becomes a hero who gains power over her situation, a theme that contemporary readers appreciate.

Historical fiction introduces readers to different points of view. Writer Kathi Appelt offers that one of the most provocative books to achieve this goal is M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (2006). “It broke my stereotypical assumptions about the period and events of the time,” says Kathi. And in so doing, “it broke my heart.” Reading different perspectives can build a reader’s “emotional sensitivity.” As Amy von Heyking (Scholastic Canada) says, “their moral and social awareness grows as they consider reasons for people’s behavior in other times, other places or specific situations.” Such stories provide the “insider’s perspective,” allowing readers to reach a new, deeper understanding of the other’s experience.

“Historical fiction helps young readers develop a feeling for a living past, illustrating the continuity of life,” says Karen Cushman, another master writer of historical fiction. Historical fiction, “like all good history, demonstrates how history is made up of the decisions and actions of individuals and that the future will be made up of our decisions and actions.”

Defining the ‘historical’ in 'historical fiction' is a bit wobbly, depending upon the age of the critics and researchers can be unrelenting in their quest for accuracy. The process of writing historical fiction, like researching history itself, is neither straightforward nor a risk-free process. But I am reminded what Pulitzer Prize winning writer David McCullough once said, “We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by-and-large historically illiterate…The textbooks are dreary, they’re done by committee, they’re often hilariously politically correct and they’re not doing any good. [But] there are wonderful books, past and present. There is literature in history.”

As the Doctor tells her companions, and in so doing reminding everyone, through those doors...

“… we might see anything. We could find new worlds, terrifying monsters, impossible things. And if you come with me... nothing will ever be the same again!” 

--Bobbi Miller

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Villains in Everyday Life, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

I've never been big on including traditional villains and monsters in my books. After all, I don't write fantasy, where many of these characters are a natural part of the stories. All of my novels are contemporary and realistic, set in present day.

I've had several readers email me when they're doing a book talk or project on one of my books, asking -- who's the antagonist in this story? I usually ask them who they think it is :)

Since our topic this month is on villains and monsters, that got me thinking, who are the antagonists in my stories? And the answer is that I like to weave my "villains" into occurrences and circumstances in the characters' everyday lives, so they're not obvious, but are very real, which is probably why it's a challenge for young readers to figure that out.

In my second novel, The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days, the antagonist is not a person, but a situation. The neighborhood cul de sac in which much of the story takes place has become detached and distant. A 5-year old character, Thomas, senses this, as he fights invisible "bad guys" in the circle of eight houses. The main character, Nina, starts doing some anonymous good deeds with the hope of bringing people back together. There's an older neighbor who's suspicious of all these unusual happenings and many readers think she's the antagonist, but she's really not. She's just a nervous ninny with a temperamental poodle.

In my first book, Calli Be Gold, the antagonist was the overwhelming pressure that parents can place on their kids to succeed in sports and activities. And in the novel I'm currently working on, the villain is the effects of climate change on a small lakeside Wisconsin town.

Things like that scare me more than Voldemort, even though he's one of the best villains ever written.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of Calli Be Gold, The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days, Ethan Marcus Stands Up, and Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark. Her next middle grade novel will publish in May 2020. Visit micheleweberhurwitz.com for more info.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

What Are We So Afraid Of? By Chris Tebbetts

I’m going to take a tangent to this month’s topic (Villains) and share an excerpt from a lecture of mine, where I look at the role of FEAR in the creative process. Read on… if you dare. :-)

Resistance to the creative process takes on a lot of forms, but if we’re boiling things down to their nature or essence, FEAR is a good one-word candidate, evidenced in part by how much has been written about it. Books like “Art and Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland; “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert; and “The Courage To Write” by Ralph Keyes have been highly illuminating for me, and represent the tip of the iceberg, in terms of what’s been written on this topic.

So…what are we writers so afraid of?  Plenty, as it turns out.



And thinking about all of that brought me around to thinking about the power of the WHAT IF question. WHAT IF is great for storytelling. What if a giant peach grew in my back yard?  What if deafness was a superpower? As it turns out, though, WHAT IF is also great for anxiety.  What if the elevator stops between floors? What if I need to get off the plane and I can’t?

I’m someone who has dealt with panic attacks on a number of occasions—especially in enclosed spaces—and it occurred to me a while back that my storyteller's tendency to ask WHAT IF also had an evil twin. As far as I’m concerned, the root of anxiety is all about projecting myself into an unknown – and as yet unrealized outcome.  

How do you scare an audience? For one thing, you include doubt about the outcome. How’s it all going to turn out? What’s going to happen? Will they get there in time? 

Likewise, a lot of writing fears – most of what’s in that previous image — turn on doubts about the outcome. What if they don’t like me? What if I can’t finish this story? What if I never publish again? To the extent that the key to anything is staying present in the moment, including writing, then fear about the unknown future is kryptonite.

On the other hand, as I continued to read on this topic, I found some good news, too. For instance, this idea:

FEAR IS A LIAR.



I love this image. For me, it’s truest in the middle of the night. That’s when my career always seems to be crashing and burning around me in the most convincing way – probably because I’m a captive audience, lying there in bed, where darkness turns my vision inward while I try to get back to sleep. 

And maybe 3AM isn’t your problem. Some of you are captains of serotonin, I’m sure (and envious, too). But for the rest I encourage you to take a look at when you’re the most vulnerable to the lies you tell yourself. For me, it's taken some real effort to see those moments for what they are --- night time illusions that nearly always go away in the day, and usually because getting back to work is the perfect antidote. That awareness is no miracle pill, but it helps a lot.  

Lawrence Block wrote:  “Once we are aware of our fears, we are almost always capable of being more courageous than we think. …. Fear and courage are like lightning and thunder: they both start out at the same time, but the fear travels faster and arrives sooner.”

Here’s another take I like on the subject:

FEAR IS NUTRITIOUS. 

Says Toni Morrison: “When you stiffen, you know that whatever you stiffen about is very important. The stuff is important, the fear itself is information.” And in The Courage to Write, Ralph Keyes says, “It’s important to distinguish between toxic and nutritious anxiety.” He refers to page fright, our version of stage fright, and the energy it can bring to the process.  

The difference, I think, is between putting fear into the story—using the present writing moment to capitalize on that energy, even if it makes me uncomfortable – and, on the other hand, dealing with those future-minded fears, the ones that are based in all kinds of stuff I can’t know or control.  

Anne Graham, daughter of Billy Graham, spoke about fear in a TED Talk radio hour podcast I heard.  She spoke about it as a natural, even necessary, companion on the way toward (in the case of her examples) enlightenment, but I’d extend that to the kind of truth-seeking we do in storytelling as well.  She spoke about Muhammed receiving the Koran—what she called the core mystical moment of Islam; and about Jesus on the cross in his last moments.  His final words, she says, were “Father why have thou forsaken me?” Muhammed, she said, “was held not by conviction but by doubt.” 

These were moments of trembling and fear, not elation or enlightenment, even though that’s exactly what these people, or characters, were on the cusp of. “Abolish all doubt,” she says, “and what’s left isn’t faith, but absolute heartless conviction.” The results, for us, might be a didactic or even soulless story.  In religion, it’s fundamentalism. I love that quote, and I love that it came, for me, from a somewhat unexpected place. 

And then lastly: 

FEAR IS BORING. 

Fear—the non-nutritious kind—is mundane.  In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert explains it like this:  

“If you pass your hand over a petri dish containing a tadpole, the tadpole will flinch beneath your shadow. That tadpole cannot write poetry, and it cannot sing, and it will never know love or jealousy or triumph, and it has a brain the size of a punctuation mark, but it damn sure knows how to be afraid of the unknown. Well, so do I. So do we all. But there’s nothing particularly compelling about that. Do you see what I mean? You don’t get any special credit, is what I’m saying, for knowing how to be afraid of the unknown.” 

So, is there a bottom line here? I suppose for me, it would be this: Fear is part of the creative process. It’s also a shared (can we say universal?) element of making art in this world, and any time I spend hoping to avoid it completely is not time well spent. Rather, let me be aware of it, allow it to play its part in my writing process, and, above all, never let it stop me from forging bravely--or at least, semi-bravely--ahead.