Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Holiday Look Back at a Year of Writing

To the members of SCBWI Carolinas
To the Goalies :)
To the attenders of the Oregon Coast Children's Book Writer's Workshop
And to the many other authors, editors and agents of the worldwide writing community who I've had the pleasure of spending time with and learning from this year...

Here's a glimpse back at the 2009 we've had together.

Happy Holidays to all as we write our way into a new year!

- Janelle

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Writing Historical Fiction

I arrived on this earth after Martin Luther King was shot, after most “flower children” stopped protesting Vietnam, quite a few years after the Holocaust, and many, many, MANY years after the American Revolutionary War. The same can be said for many of you.
And yet we know about those people and events listed above. How? We learned about many of them from reading “historical fiction” books like Johnny Tremain, Number the Stars, For Freedom, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Ok, so it's a fantasy, but the first few chaps are about WWII :)), Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, Al Capone Does my Shirts, Healing Water, Samarai Shortstop, The Brooklyn Nine, The Scarlet Letter, and One Million Men and Me.

So today let’s talk about historical fiction: books set in the past, with characters from the past, that resonate with kids and teens today.

At the SCBWI Carolinas Annual Fall Conference not long ago, our own NC Historical Fiction guru Joyce Moyer Hostetter, (author of “Blue,” and other great books of historical fiction books for teens,) shared the following tips for “Writing Historical Fiction for Young People.”

She said:

In writing historical fiction, the author should:

1.) “Find the story” --- It might be a historic event, person, or theme in your own back yard, neighborhood, or your own family’s history.
2.) “Tell the time” --- Along with your plot, include in your story things that give the reader a sense of the era the story happens in. This can be done by including dates, having your characters speak in phrases and words common at that time, and grounding your story among political events and the cultural backdrop of the era.
3.) “Ask the Experts” --- People love to be interviewed about their own life experiences. “You validate their story by (incorporating their knowledge of the time and their experiences into your story and) telling it well.” Joyce says “People want to share with you. So be really brave about calling total strangers.”
4.) “SHOW the place” --- Include in your story local landmarks, vivid nouns and adjectives detailing the food, plants, and local features of your setting. “Readers love to read about places in their own home town, and speech patterns they recognize.”
5.) “Cite your sources” -- Editors want to publish your book with confidence, knowing that those little tidbits of place, time, dialogue, and event are historically accurate. So cite all those sources you used!

But where does a person come up with a story for historical fiction? And how do we find out more about those historical facts, events, and people that we‘re thinking of writing about?

Joyce suggested some great resources:
Ÿ Historical photos of people and buildings
Ÿ Old newspapers
Ÿ Old letters and diaries
Ÿ Memoir’s related to your topic
Ÿ Museums
Ÿ Songs/Music from the time you are researching
Ÿ Dictionaries
Ÿ History books
Ÿ “Writer’s digest books on historic time periods”
Ÿ And websites like http://www.si.edu/ (The Smithsonian Institute,) and http://www.loc.gov/loc/infopub/ (The Library of Congress).

So, if you feel like you’re ready for a new writing project perhaps you should flip through your great aunt’s old photo albums, reminisce through your old high school year books, or start wandering around the old buildings in your city or state. You never know what you might find… and the story that comes out of it could be brilliant!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

YA Goes All The Way

The other day one of my co-workers remarked to a couple of our friends that
“Janelle writes children’s books.” The customary “Ooh, isn’t that wonderful…”comments were exchanged – the ones that mean they think I write stuff like Winnie the Pooh and Babar the Elephant -- stories for elementary school kids.
Trying to explain that I generally write for “young adults (YA),” would have made the conversation too long. So I listened and nodded, and smiled a little when someone said “it’s so great that you can still write (upbeat) stuff like that in this day and age when there are so many people who are so jaded.”
At that point in the conversation I figured it would probably shake things up too much to mention that the manuscript I have out circulating involves a lot of family conflict and a 300 year old `murder’ mystery, and that the story I’m currently writing has a narrator who’s a homeless teen. : ) But YA literature can show the reality of life with a little less sunshine than what the younger kids read.
So what can we write about in YA, anyway?

David Gill, author of the YA book Soul Enchilada, answered this question at the recent SCBWI Carolinas Annual Fall Conference. Here is his list of what can be found in a YA book:

“YA,” he said, “is not a genre, it’s a marketing category.”
YA books have a teen story-problem and a teen main character.
They are written for a teen audience.
They are told in a `here and now’ (teen) perspective, rather than with a narrator who is an adult looking back.
In YA the story “starts with the action and story, and ends with the action and story.”
YA is “reaching for college readers, becoming more truly young adult, and allowing more complex and darker themes, lately. Some YA books are also getting longer, and the themes and writing more complex.
David also quoted Scholastic Editor Cheryl Klein as noting that YA stories are “centrally interested in the experiences and growth of the book’s teen protagonist.”

So what is the difference between Middle Grade books (written for kids between approximately the ages of 9 and 14 years of age,) and YA? In a word, David said, it’s "intensity.”

He gave the following examples:

MG book = a character may sneak a kiss
YA book = a character might have sex or even get pregnant

MG book = bullies may push, pull or perhaps call names
YA book = Bullies can beat you up

You get the idea. And whatever age you’re writing for, remember: “your main character should be roughly 2 years older than your target reader’s age.”

Now go forth. And if you’re writing YA it’s ok to let that little jaded sarcastic teen in you write about tough issues. It’s ok to Go All The Way.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

How to be an Author that Editors Love

At the SCBWI Carolina's Fall Conference last month Atheneum Executive Editor Namrata Tripathi shared ways for finding a good editor. But she also shared the following list of tips for how to be the kind of author that an editor will love working with.

Here are Namrata's tips:

1.) Keep the lines of communication open between you and the editor. (If you don't communicate they can't read your mind. But also don't freak out and call or email them 27 times/day. One call or email should be sufficient. Give them at the least a couple of days to get back to you. They have a lot of meetings every day, and Namrata says "keep in mind that your editor does have other clients too.")

2.) Let the editor know if due dates that are set are unrealistic, early on. Namrata says when editors set publication schedules "there's money attached to that project for that season. If it's not ready in time, there's a big money hole that the editor has to answer for and take the brunt for."

3.) "If you feel like your vision is being derailed, please speak up."

4) Tell the editor what works for you -- what type of editorial feedback is helpful, what type of technology you are and are not comfortable using...

5.) A dream author is their own self promoter, working hard to promote their book. Dream authors try to build support on their own and then have the publishing house suppliment it.

6.) Tell your editor about your special skills/knowledge (contacts, blog skills or other internet presence, authors you know who can write blurbs in your book, etc.)

7.) SAY THANK YOU. (A good editor loves your book as much as you do, but their name won't show up on the cover -- yours will. Thank them for the work they do to get your baby out into the world. Many authors do this by thanking their editor in the front of the book. But thank you's during the publishing process go a long way too.)

And every good list of "Do's" needs at least one "Don't" So, here is one from Namrata. Please...

8.) Don't send rude emails. If you wouldn't want your mother to read it, don't send it. (Act like the professional that you are, and treat the editor like the professional that he/she is too.)

And my favorite quote from Namrata's presentation sums up the editors' loving role as they help authors bring new books into the world. She said:

"We (editors) are midwives to many, many babies. And we have to think that (each one) is as cute as yours."

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Finding an Editor - Tips from Editor Namrata Tripathi

At the SCBWI fall conference last weekend I was pleased to meet Atheneum Books for Young Readers' Executive Editor Namrata Tripathi, who not only gave helpful tips about the publishing industry, but who also demonstrated that editors are cool people both behind the desk and away from it. : )

During one of the break-out sessions she spoke about how to find the "right" editor for you.

Yes, yes, I know that most of us authors out here are just hoping to find AN EDITOR, ANY editor, forget about whether it's the RIGHT editor to match our personality, our book, and our career goals.

But I think the tips Namrata shared about finding the "Right" editor deserve strong consideration. Check them out.

Namrata said:

1.) Try to find (submit to and accept a contract with,) someone who shares your personality. This should also be someone who publishes the kind of books you like to read and the kind of books you like to write.

2.) "See which editor and which (publishing) house is interested in developing your career over the long term."

3.) If an editor, or more than one, becomes interested in your work, figure out what it is that YOU will need from your editor (compatible personality style for working together on revisions, similar communication style, etc), and consider whether the editor expressing interest in your book can meet those needs.

4.) If an editor offers to buy your book and thus take you and your book forward in the publishing process consider the revision process that editor is requiring. Ask yourself "How much work/revision am I going to have to do" based on this editor's vision for the book? And "am I going to have to go in a direction that I do or don't agree with?"

Great suggestions, Namrata. It's good for us as authors to remember that we don't have to put our "babies" in just anybody's hands. We can carefully submit our work to editors who we like, who like and can work professionally with us, and who love our babies as much as we do.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

SCBWI Carolinas Fall Conference DAY TWO

Ok guys. Don't get used to me posting something every day. : ) After the conference ends tomorrow I'll bop back down to the normal `1 post every two weeks' that I usually try to maintain here on writermorphosis. But since the fall conference only comes once a year here are:

Janelle's Favorite Things about this year's fall conference DAY TWO:

1.) Networking, Networking, Networking! (Which for me meant CHATTING, eating and CHATTING, talking about manuscripts and CHATTING, and standing CHATTING squashed in those long zig-zaggy lines in the women's bathroom.

2.) Seeing author/illustrator Ian Sands' Critters show up at the conference, even though Ian wasn't able to be with us this year. Go Critters! (In the photo above, Linda is snagging one to take home.)

3.) Hearing the school representative from Efland Creek Elementary School in Orange County North Carolina say "My God! I can't believe you've done this!" when informed that this year's conference participants had donated 3 laundry baskets full of books for her school. She'd apparently been expecting to drive all the way from Chapel Hill to pick up a small picnic basket of books. : )

4.) Almost passing out with shock when several more folks who I didn't know were reading this blog came up to me between sessions and told me that they're `following' writermorphosis! I was flabergasted. Hey amigos, if you're reading this blog - say "Hi" in the "comments" section from time to time. That way I can check out your blogs too! (And plus, that will keep me from constantly thinking I'm just talking to myself.) : )

And my favorite thing...

5.) Hearing Carrie Ryan, author of The Forest of Hands and Teeth say:
"All my characters were happy together in a tree. So I thought, what's the worst thing that could happen? And then I set fire to the tree."

Love that! Go Carrie!

Friday, September 25, 2009

SCBWI Carolinas Fall Conference DAY ONE

Just a quick post here to celebrate that the Carolinas Fall Conference began this afternoon and is now in full swing. I'll post helpful tidbits that the speakers shared throughout the conference -- later. For tonight, just a short list:

Janelle's favorite things about this year's Fall Conference on day one...

1.) Picked up 4 friendly speakers at the airport. Welcome to NC, ya'll.

2.) Smiled when I noticed how often the speakers from New York checked their blackberries and phones whenever they had a second of down time. Way to multi-task, guys!

3.) Caught up with writer friends from last year.

4.) Caught up with writer friends from last week too. : ) (8 members of my critique group, The Goalies, are at the conference again this year. Hooray).

5.) Listened to Carol Boston Weatherford and Jan Broadfoot talk about marketing.

6.) Chatted with a number of new attenders at the conference, and heard about their works-in- progress, their hopes and dreams, and their questions about children's publishing.

7.) Actually had a stranger say she'd been informed by another writer that I have a blog (this one) and that it was worth reading. Wow! Thanks Melissa for making my day! I think there are days when all bloggers wonder if the stuff they write is helpful or interesting to anyone at all.

8.) Sat at the conference center restaurant and watched two of my crit group buddies laugh so hard that they nearly snorted wine out of their noses when they both read the term "benchy-thing" as a descriptor in my most recent novel-draft. Apparently "benchy-thing" is not an appropriate word to use in a novel. (Awe...gorsh, guys. I use that term all the time in my regular speech! As in, "Could you please bring that benchy-thing over here? I want to set this parakeet cage down on it before this cute litte bird bites my finger tips off." Ah well...) :)

9.) Stood in the dark parking lot with new and old friends at the end of the night, with misty rain swirling around the street lights, as we discussed ways to shorten our verbal pitches and talked about the kissing scene in my book that the wine snorting friends were still critiquing for me. What a great way to end the night!

10.) Heading to bed happy that I'll be doing stuff like this again all day tomorrow! This is the life.

Monday, September 14, 2009

First Pages: Examples from Recent Greats

As those of us in the Carolinas Region prepare for our annual SCBWI fall conference, one topic is on everybody’s mind. “First Pages.” Every year, at conferences all across the U.S. and around the world, editors, agents, and authors critique the first pages of attenders’ current manuscripts. The idea is – editors, agents, readers for that matter, might not turn to the second page of your manuscript or book if page ONE doesn’t hold their attention.

So here are bits of several “first pages” of recently published middle grade and YA novels off of my bookshelf. They are good first pages. Strong ones. They either tell us so much about the character that we can’t help wanting to learn more about that character. Or they throw us right into a plot so intriguing that we want to keep right on reading!

So, as we’re deciding whether our own first pages are up to snuff, let’s consider these great examples: (I hope their authors and publishers won’t mind me sharing a few sentences of each one here).

Here are some greats:

Frindle: By Andrew Clements (Aladdin. 1996) (Chapter Book).

If you asked the kids and the teachers at Lincoln Elementary School to make three lists – all the really bad kids, all the really smart kids, and all the really good kids – Nick Allen would not be on any of them. Nick deserved a list all his own, and everybody knew it…

Skulduggery Pleasant: By Derek Landy (Harper Collins, 2007) Middle Grade

“Gordon Edgley’s sudden death came as a shock to everyone – not least himself. One moment he was in his study, seven words into the twenty-fifth sentence of the final chapter of his book` And the darkness rained upon them,’ and the next he was dead. `A tragic loss’ his mind echoed numbly as he slipped away…

The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp: By Rick Yancey (Bloomsbury 2005) YA.

I never thought I would save the world – or die saving it. I never believed in angels or miracles either, and I sure didn’t think of myself as a hero. Nobody would have, including you, if you had known me before I took the world’s most powerful weapon and let it fall into the hands of a lunatic. Maybe after you hear my story you won’t think I’m much of a hero anyway, since most of my heroics (if you want to call them that), resulted from my being a screw up. A lot of people died because of me – including me – but I guess I’m getting ahead of myself and I’d better start from the beginning.”

(Note the great “voice” in this one as well.)

Incarceron: By Catherine Fisher (Hodder Children’s Books in Great Britain, 2007) YA.

“Who can chart the vastness of Incarceron?
Its halls and viaducts, its chasms?
Only the man who has known freedom
Can define his prison. – Songs of Sapphique

Finn had been flung on his face and chained to the stone slabs of the transitway. His arms, spread wide, were weighted with links so heavy he could barely drag his wrists off the ground. His ankles were tangled in a slithering mass of metal, bolted through a ring in the pavement. He couldn’t raise his chest to get enough air. He lay exhausted, the stone icy against his cheek…”


Something Rotten, A Horatio Wilkes Mystery: By Alan Gratz (Dial Books, 2007) YA.

“Denmark, Tennessee, Stank. Bad. Like dead fish fricasseed in sewer water. I said as much to my friend Hamilton Prince as we rode in his 4X4.
“You get used to it” he told me. “Just think of it as the smell of money.”
And here I had always thought money would smell better.
The Elsinore Paper Plant was the source of the stink, and the money behind the Prince family fortune. Elsinore makes the paper that you use in your printer, the paper you read the sports scores on, and the paper you wipe yourself with. They make just about every kind of paper there is except the kind money is printed on, but enough of that comes rolling back in that they don’t have to bother…

First pages like these great ones – with their well-thought out characters, their settings detailed via all the five senses, and their action-filled (and sometimes even danger filled) plots make me look at my own first pages again. Do mine stand up to this type of competition? And do yours? Hmmm… they had better.

Because as agents and editors will tell us at every conference we attend: If they don’t stand out from the beginning, our books are not going to get noticed.

Do your first pages measure up?
As for me, today I sat down with mine and did a little re-working.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Spiders are Sailing!

This isn't a tip I learned at the Oregon Coast Children's Writer's Worshop, but rather a story from my recent life that I feel I must share.

The other evening I arrived home from work at around midnight -- it was a late one -- and I flipped the light on in the kitchen to douse my innerds with a glass of water before bed.

It was then, glass in hand, that I observed a phenomenon I have only ever heard about in literature. And quite frankly, it is a situation I did not know was based in natural science.

I have a plant sitting atop one of my cupboards. Graceful leafy vines hang about 3 feet down from it, decorating the front of my white cabinets. When I turned on the light, I initially thought that my eyes were tricking me. Tiny little puffs of what I could only imagine were grey brown dust bunnies seemed to be swinging from several of the leaves on the plant. Swinging, I'm telling you. Tossing themselves a few centimeters out from the cupboard and dropping from one leaf to the next one below it. At first I only saw three, or four, perhaps five. When I looked closer there must have been at least twenty. They were all at different heights on the plant, as if they'd been sleeping under one leaf or another and had suddenly decided to wake up and drop to the ground, leaf by leaf. And by now you've probably guessed what they were. Teeny, tiny, almost impossibly miniscule, baby spiders taking flight. They were sailing out to get their first view of life. Setting off to make their way in the world. It was a miraculous moment.

My first thought was -- Charlotte's Web! That little tidbit in that book was based on real science!

And though I never have listed this book, where the beloved mamma spider (yes, Charlotte,) dies and her young ones survive, as one of my favorite childhood books, I suddenly was crushed by an impossible ethical dilema. Do I squish these multitudes of baby spiders -- because that's what I do with spiders when they venture into my house, I'm afraid. Or, (my heart smote me...) was it just possible that some sweet, hardworking mamma Charlotte type of spider had laid these little babies on my plant? Was there a pig and other farm animals standing outside my window cheering the spiders on as they set out into the world? Did these spiders aspire to live fruitful, happy, possibly even college-educated lives as their wonderful web-weaving mother had probably done?

For several seconds I watched the flying babies -- caught up in the miracle of birth, the glorious spectacle of someone stepping off into new territory, taking the big leap into the giant, enormous world...

And I pondered how amazing it was that a story -- a kids' book -- that my mother had read to me when I was probably eight years old, and the plot of which I thought I'd long since forgotten, was suddenly wrenching my heart out with all these painful and yet hopeful emotions. Go spiders!

If anyone says literature isn't powerful... they've never read Charlotte's Web!

But this was my house, afterall, and I do have a dreadful fear of a spider crawling up on my pillow to sleep with me. So, in opposition to every ethical bone in my body, I grabbed a piece of paper-towel and began squishing the baby spiders as they dropped from leaf to leaf. It was a sad day for Charlotte, and I must also admit, a bit for me, and certainly for the baby spiders.

But here's a note to all of us children's writers. Let us remember that when we write about love and loss, and bravery, and hope, and sacrifice (which is what most great books are about in one way or another it seems to me...) When we write about these things, what we write has the power to change the world. Or at least a little piece of it. Even for spiders...

Monday, August 24, 2009

`Keeping it Lite' in Dark YA

At the OCCWW (Oregon Coast Children's Writer's Workshop,) each author had the opportunity to submit the first 5 pages of one of their current manuscripts to be read and critiqued by each of the 9 instructors. The instructors were 6 well-published authors, 2 children's/YA editors, and 1 agent. This opportunity, alone, made the whole conference worth the price!

Out of curiosity I submitted the first five pages of a novel that's been stewing in my mind for over a year. It's a YA tale of two teen girls who find themselves separately homeless on the city streets of Europe, in winter. It covers the very different hard choices they make in order to survive.
It's a dark, issue-laden YA story.

And yes, unlike my other novels, there's a curse word on the first page! I wasn't sure if that was a good idea or not, so I submitted it to the OCCWW for review.

I chose this manuscript to submit because I wanted to know whether this type of darker, issues-laden writing still has a place in the current YA market.
Would the editors, the agent, and the more experienced writers at the OCCWW
consider such a book too hard core for the current children's/YA market?
Would it be a downer?
Are there readers out there who would seek it?
Would it be marketable if I finish it?
Would it get published? Would it sell?
The answer I got? Yes.

Yes. It's marketable.
Dark YA is still hot with teens today.
Publishers are still looking for this type of book -- if it's well written, they said.
And YES, novels about real-life struggles and issues have a following among teens
-- certain teens that is, but not all.

What I was told agreed with what I already believed. Dark, issue-laden novels are not as mainstream as the gossip-girl style of books, or the darkish fantasies like Twilight.
But there are still teens who look for them.

Both editors at the conference said they would have read more, beyond the first 5 pages. I was elated. Hooray! (Now I guess I'll have to write page six and so on... : )).
One bit of very wise advice that I got from one of the editors was something to the
effect of " always keep some things lite in your dark YA."
The editor indicated that stories like this one, about difficult issues like poverty, war, violence,
drug use, homelessness, death/dying, divorce, mental health, or medical issues can
be overwhelmingly sad if there isn't something upbeat in your story too.

Real life has both sadness and happiness in it. Realistic fiction should reflect real life.

Therefore, she suggested that the best way -- in life, and in fiction -- to get through the darkness, is to laugh or have some sort of positive experience from time to time.
She said it's important to make sure there is humor or something upbeat in all books of dark fiction. That makes sense to me. Even if it's irony or sarcasm, humor lightens the mood.

Just like with life, in fiction things can't be terrible all the time, or none of us will ever get through it.

Monday, August 3, 2009


Hello world. I'm now back from the Oregon Coast Children's Writer's Workshop (OCCWW)-- and I have a number of tips that I learned there to share, and some stories to tell. These details will show up every two weeks, (approximately,) on writermorphosis, for the next few months. After that, I'll be off to the SCBWI Carolina's conference in September, and there will be even more to tell.

But firstly I want to talk about the most important thing I learned at the Oregon Coast Children's Writer's Workshop. It wasn't about markets, or first pages, or brilliant dialogue -- although information on all of those things will come out on writermorphosis soon. No, what stuck with me the most was how much literary work can get done where there is no internet or cell phone service to distract you!

The OCCWW is held in Oceanside Oregon, a tiny town that spills down from evergreen forested hills to the edge of a windy pacific beach. It's a twenty minute drive to the next town to get cell phone service on most plans, and the only place with internet access for visitors is the local coffee shop, where the adoreable sweatshirts suggest "make coffee, not war."

As a converted city-girl I was worried about having no contact with the outside world for a whole five and a half days. But I have been converted to the no-cell-phone life. It was wonderful!

For five and a half days we participated in workshops. In the afternoons and evenings, when not in the workshops, I and the two other writer's I shared a house with, wrote, and discussed plots, and helped each other modify troublesome sentences. I resolved more plot problems in my projects in those five days than I have been able to do back here in the real world over several months!

So I, the girls who is always busy in my home-town, running here and there, have finally learned the beauty of the word RETREAT.

RETREAT: an act or process of withdrawing, especially from what is difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable; a place of privacy; (or) a period of group withdrawal...for instruction under a director.

Just being away from the distractions and requirements of work, regular household responsibilities, the phone, and the internet, was a wonderful way to give my writing a boost.

I recommend it for anyone, and I hope to do it again, in some form, at least once a year.

For now, I'm vowing to only check my internet once in the morning and once at night on my writing days. There are some distractions that can't get to you unless you go to them. : )

Friday, July 10, 2009

Off to the Oregon Coast Children's Writer's Workshop

(A diagonal ocean view?)

From Sunday through Friday of this coming week I'll be in Oceanside Oregon at the Oregon Coast Children's Writer's Workshop. I'm looking forward to
comiserating with other writers and learning from more experienced folks in the field! And the fact that the conference center is within sight of the pacific ocean -- well, it doesn't get any better than that! I grew up here -- on the Oregon Coast. And it seems like a perfect place to come back to in order to get in touch with my children's writing Muse!
I've come a week early to visit my old childhood haunts. Here are a few of them.

These are the very same yellow, hardback Nancy Drew mysteries that my friends and I all read as kids! We found them today on the shelf in the library of the little town where we spent our elementary school days. Though the old library building has been torn down and a new bigger one built in it's place, our old favorites are still on the shelves! It reminds me that a good book can inspire the imagination of children for generations!

And so can the Beautiful Pacific Ocean, seen here along Hwy 101 on the Oregon Coast.

I'll be sans internet access during the workshop. My cell phone doesn't work where I am now either. : )But I'll post tips I've learned at the workshops once I leave the beach, next week!

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Home on the Field

Here's a post about a GREAT NEW BOOK.

The other week I was privileged to be asked to speak at a large conference about Latino issues in North Carolina. Though I speak Spanish at my `day job,' and work with many Latinos, I’m not of Latino background myself. Thus it was great to be immersed in an environment where each of the presenters was bi-lingual and had personal experience growing up Latino.

Though I went there as a presenter, I was still a writer underneath. So I sat at the Latino conference with my writers’ notebook, writing down phrases, cultural notes, and brainstorm ideas that I picked up from the other speakers’ presentations. You see – I’ve been plotting-out a YA novel about a teen girl from Latin America for the past few months, and here I was surrounded by people who are experts on what it is like to be a girl (or boy) from Latin America. So I came home with lots of notes to buoy my own experiences and to strengthen my plot (which truthfully needs a lot of strengthening).

The Keynote speaker at the event was Paul Cuadros, a journalism professor from the University of North Carolina (UNC,) who also coaches soccer at a North Carolina high school. He shared some great stories about the hardships that Latino teens face trying to balance and combine the culture of their home countries with the culture of the U.S. These teens walk the line between their parents’ strong feelings that family needs are the most important things in life, and the conflicting expectations of the teens’ U.S-raised peers who believe that individuality and reaching for your own dreams are the most important things, even if your parents don’t always approve.

For those of us who spend time with Latino teens, or who write for them, it's important to understand their struggles.

So, I want to recommend a book.

Paul Cuadros has written "A Home on the Field." It's the true story of the teens on his soccer team, their families, and their struggles. It’s a great example of nonfiction writing about teens and their community – a community that during the time of this book’s writing was in conflict with itself.

Here is the back cover blurb: For more than ten years, the small town of Siler City, North Carolina, has been at the front lines of immigration, drawing workers from Latin America as well as from traditional Latino enclaves across the United States. When reporter Paul Cuadros moved south to study the impact of the burgeoning Latino community, he encountered a volatile culture clash between longtime residents and the newcomers, one that eventually boiled over into an anti-immigrant rally featuring ex-Klansman David Duke. The bitter struggle imbued Cuadros with a new purpose: to show the growing numbers of Latino youth that their lives could be more than menial work at the local poultry plant. Soccer could be the key to helping these boys find a better place in this world.

`A Home on the Field’ is Paul Cuadros’ unforgettable account of his three seasons coaching `Los Jets’ of Jordan-Matthews High School, a team of underappreciated young Latino soccer players in an all-football town who overcame prejudice, poverty, and the odds to become champions.

Sometimes a book about real teens comes along that is a must read. I recommend
A Home on the Field” as just such a book.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Raleigh Schmooze a Wet Success!

At starting time it was pouring down rain and only a few children's writers were milling around the food tables at Quail Ridge Books and Music. The chairs, set in semi-circular rows amidst the bookshelves, were basically empty. The book table, ignored.

My stomach cramped with the beginning of nerves. Had the rain drenched the spirits of Raleigh's children's writers enough to keep them home today? Would the wet and muck make this annual event a complete wash? The whole downpour thing was beginning to dampen my spirits...

But then the question came. "Can I join you? Is this the children's writer event?"

I said. "Of course, please sit anywhere! Do you write for children or teens?" The answer, "No, but I would like to."

And then everyone started paddling in, shaking off umbrellas as they hurried through the door. We were wet, but we were ready. Nothing could drown our enthusiasm -- afterall!
We ended up with approximately 30 attendees, exactly what we had hoped for. And with snacks and pens in hand we settled enthusiastically into our seats to listen as our speaker Kelly Starling Lyons shared about her books, her childhood, and how the two are intertwined.

It was another great paring of Raleigh's children's writers and the helpful staff at Quail Ridge Books.
Quite a few new people came, including one who sadly arrived after the event was over and wanted more info. about the SCBWI and how she could join. We look forward to seeing you at the Fall Conference in September, Jill!
Today, Kelly reminded us to "tell the story only you can tell." She encouraged us to remember the emotions that we had during important experiences in our own lives, and to "give those emotions to your main characters."

She shared the following tips to help us find emotion-laden experiences in our childhoods that can provide story ideas:

Write down the following:

1.) Your best family memory
2.) Your worst school memory
3.) Your biggest struggle or fear
4.) An experience or relationship that changed you.

Then - write down the emotions you felt next to each one.

Then - "create a child character that's centered around a situation you've faced," or "invent a new story that's informed by your feelings, thoughts, beliefs, experiences -- your life."

We had an excellent discussion. Hooraah for those brave souls who shared their Junior High experiences with the group!

Thanks to Kelly and everyone who braved the weather to come and talk about their writing, their dreams, and the emotions and stories they experienced during childhood! It was great to meet several new folks and to chat with writer and illustrator friends who we don't see often enough between conferences.

Now we look forward to seeing you all again at the September 2009 Fall event! I dare each of you to submit something before then, and to tell me about it there.

Remember, as Kelly said, "write from the heart" and "trust that the story you're writing matters."

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Writers/Illustrators: Come SCHMOOZE with us!

We're breaking out the wine, cheese, and chocolate. It's that time of year again!

Time for my writing critique group (the Goalies) to host Raleigh's annual SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writer's and Illustrators) networking event at Quail Ridge books!

All local childrens'/YA authors and Illustrators are encouraged to attend. So are new people interested in learning more about the writing craft.

We'd love to see YOU there!

Wake County's own Kelly Starling Lyons will be this year's guest speaker. She's written several childrens/middle grade books, including "One Million Men and Me," a wonderful picture book about a little girl attending the 1990s' "Million Men March" on Washington -- an event that Kelly covered, as a reporter.

Kelly will share how she pulls her stories from actual life, and will give guidance on how other writers can do the same.
Come meet your fellow Triangle North Carolina authors/illustrators -- those with multiple works on bookstore shelves, and those who are just beginning to fall in love with our craft!

2pm, Sunday, May 17th, 2009. Quail Ridge Books and Music. Raleigh, NC.
See you there! Bring a friend and come early. Seats go fast.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Falling in Love with Edward Cullen... What Writers can learn from Twilight.

It’s taken me awhile to get around to reading Twilight. Jealousy? Aw – probably. Plus, I’ve never been super big on vampire books. But love for Twilight seems to keep growing and growing among the females of our species (females of all ages, mind you, not just teenaged girls). So finally I decided I should read it and see what all the fuss is about.

And you guessed it. Now I am a fan too. I borrowed the first book from a 9th grader friend of mine, and sat down to read it one evening before bed. Bad decision. I should have waited until the house didn’t need cleaning, no laundry needed doing, and there was no job to go to… Because by two days later, (thanks to staying up until 4am, reading in bed on the night before a workday,) I had finished that first book and run to the bookstore after work to buy the next one, and the next one. Of course I knew that a number of my friends owned the books, and would gladly lend them to me. I just didn’t want to wait a couple of days to see what became of Bella and Edward’s prohibited and dangerous love…

Now, several weeks later, I own all 4 of the books and have read some of them twice – trying to figure out what’s so addictive about them. (And nope, ya’ll, I’m not in high school anymore!) I’ve also gotten several of my friends to read them – friends in their teens, in their 30s, in their 40s… mothers and teen daughters who are now eagerly sharing the books… And, what the hey, I bought the movie too…

Clearly, this is a book for females, as author Stephen King (who apparently is not so infatuated with Twilight,) has pointed out. But what can writers learn? What is it that draws women to this book? Is it the plot? I don’t think so. Sure, there’s some drama – a near assault, a lot of secrets that people are keeping, a mystery to be sorted through – I mean, who are these Cullens, anyway? And why are they so different?

But no… I think the thing that draws readers most to twilight is the emotionality of the story. The most important scenes in these books are not the action scenes. Nope – they are the scenes where Bella and Edward, the Cullens, Jacob, or some other character is feeling strong emotion – and quite often these characters are just sitting around talking about it.

Usually, it seems, many of us writers want to describe physical movements to show emotion (“She fiddled with her hair…” to show boredom or nervousness. “He sighed…” to show sorrow, frustration, or longing…) And of course we’ve heard writer after writer (excellent, well-published ones,) indicate that this is the best way to show emotion. (Show don’t tell… remember?) : )

But sometimes I struggle to describe the emotions I’m trying to portray clearly enough through showing. Sometimes I feel that I’m saying “he sighed, she giggled, I raised an eyebrow in shock…” over and over again. Yuck! God help me! How can I describe these people’s actions in a way that more clearly shows that what I am really describing is emotional re-actions?

And now along comes Stephanie Meyer, with books whose primary strength is emotion -- (the longing for something that the characters cannot have and cannot live without, and the passion and fear and confusion that goes along with that).

So I looked at how she described their emotion so convincingly to my heart, and the hearts of all these women -- she did it so effectively that we cannot put the books down. We’re right there in the story too. And so, what did I see? Lots and lots of lines like these:

Telling and Adverbs?
1.) He gave a sarcastic smile that matched his tone.
2.) It was a self-congratulatory smile
3.) “It’s all right,” he answered, unimpressed
4.) He chuckled. Even his laugh sounded exhausted.
5.) “You’re early,” I said, elated
6.) “You were listening again?” I was horror-struck. All traces of my sudden good humor vanished.
7.) I kept my expression polite as I waited.
8.) “How’s your head?” he asked, innocently.

Of course there are examples of “showing” too.

1.) “It’s a BMW,” he rolled his eyes.
2.) “You’re unbelievable,” I turned, stomping away in the general direction of the parking lot.
3.) He sighed. “Will you forgive me if I apologize?”
4.) “Bella, I think you should go inside now.” His low voice was rough, his eyes on the clouds again.

The combination of the two?
1. “Really?” He was unconvinced. His eyes shifted their focus slightly, looking over my shoulder and narrowing.
2. “That was the plan.” I grimaced, wishing he hadn’t brought it up so I wouldn’t have to compose careful half-truths…
So, whether this is helpful to anyone else, or just to me, I am not sure. But Twilight has been a good reminder to me. “Everything in moderation” seems to be the best rule when writing descriptions of emotion. Thanks to Stephanie Meyer for creating a book full of emotions to give me that reminder.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Street Called Hope: Writing Can Change the World.

Writing can change the world. So, I've entered a contest. It's the Lenovo Computer Group's "Dream Assignment" competition. And I need your vote. The winner of the contest will be sent by Lenovo computers on a trip outlined in their contest proposal.
I want to use my writing to help change the world. (No pressure, I know!)
Some of my favorite writers (Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dr. Suess, and many more,) have used their writing to teach us important things, and their lives to change the world. I think they've got the right idea.
So I've proposed to Lenovo that they send me to India, Russia, and several places in the U.S. to interview street children and teens (homeless kids); And to interview the people who are working with them. I'll then post their stories (about their lives, their struggles, their hopes and dreams,) with photos of where they live, on the blog arranged by Lenovo. It will be a blogumentary to raise awareness, and to get the rest of us involved.
I hope to sit down with some of the homeless teens to help them write their own stories too --
to give them the opportunity to share their OWN writing, about their own lives, on the blog.

I happen to really like teens, you see. That's why I write for them.

But to win the contest, (so I can do this stuff,) I need hundreds of people to vote for my idea between now and April 2nd! And if you're reading this blog I'd love your vote (and the votes of your friends, as well)!

Stories really can change the world.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Mystery Books that Stand the Test of Time

Sorry All. I fell into a time-warped alternate universe at the end of December, and have only now been able to escape. Darn time-travel machine! Luckily I had my P.O.C.L novel revisions with me, so I have been working on those and making great progress. But now I’m back in real time here at Writermorphosis. Sorry for my absence during January.

While I was away I went used-bookstore shopping to feed my addiction for antique books. And in one used clothing store I came upon a treasure! For $2.00 I acquired a 1939 first edition hardback of “The Clue of the Tapping Heals” (A Nancy Drew Mystery, written by a ghost writer – most likely Mildred A. Wirt Benson, the first writer of the Nancy Drews). As a collector of old books, and a huge childhood fan of Nancy Drew, I snagged it immediately. Even though the back cover is splotched with water marks from where someone clearly left it in a puddle or a flood, I'm so thrilled to have it.

In my opinion, the Nancy Drew books have stood the test of time. And as a writer, currently slogging through my own mystery manuscript for young people, I had to wonder how they did it. What do these books have that is still relevant to readers today.

A quick peek within the thick, yellowed pages, answered my questions.

1.) A great first line, dialogue no less, that throws us right into the action: “Land sakes, Nancy, there’s so much commotion in this house a body can’t even think!”

2.) Action in every chapter that moves the plot forward. For example, in the “middle” of the book, where many stories tend to slow and sag, the chapter titles are these:
Ch 14. A mysterious disappearance
Ch 15. Hidden Money
Ch 16. A threatening message
Ch 17. Travelers
Ch 18. The Unpleasant Interview…

3.) Great last lines in every chapter with a “hook” that makes you want to keep reading.
Ch 3. “Someone was watching us from behind the foliage,” she said tensely. “As we came up the walk I distinctly saw a dark figure slip around behind the house!”
Ch 5. “Before Nancy could stop him he had pushed open the screen door and walked boldly into the living room.”

Ch 25. The girl gazed steadily at the woman. “That’s exactly what I mean to do—“ Nancy began, and then her voice trailed off.
In the doorway of the cabin stood Chief Officer Murray.

4.) Surprises and “red herrings.”
Ch 9 Hurriedly the girls moved into a nearby bedroom, but did not have time
to close the door. A man, whose face they could not see, crept noiselessly down
the hallway. Warned by some slight sound which Nancy and her chums were
unaware that they had made, he whirled toward them, whipping out a revolver.
“Hands up!” he ordered sharply.
The chums obeyed, then Nancy began to laugh. “Detective Keely!” She
exclaimed. “My, but you frightened us.”
Big thanks to Mildred A. Wirt Benson who, being a ghost writer, got little credit for her work. Thank you! Thanks for writing mysteries that writers today can still learn from. And thanks to Russell H. Tandy for great illustrations, and to Grosset and Dunlap for publishing it.

For those who want to know more about the unofficial history of the Nancy Drew Mysteries, check out the Nancy Drew pages at wikipedia.(http://en.wikipedia.org/–NancyDrew).