Monday, November 29, 2010

Teaching Books for Teaching Authors

     This is part one to a question posed awhile back by reader Sandra Stiles. Sandra's question was so thorough it will take more than post to answer.
     Sandra has a one hour after school writing class, and basically wanted to know how to keep the mojo going, for both herself and her students. Sandra didn't mention how old her students are, but the answer is the same whether they are eight or eighteen. Those of you have been reading this blog awhile already know what I'm going to say; read, read, read!

    There is an endless selection of books on writing and teaching writing, some better than others. Here is my "go to" list (in no particular order).

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamotte.  This book is for me and definitely not the students. This is what gets my mojo going. Anne reminds me (in no uncertain, and sometimes very blunt language) that writing is a process, that it's OK to write lousy drafts and that some days (lots of days) the magic just doesn't happen.

What's Your Story?:  A Young Person's Guide to Writing Fiction  by Marion Dane Bauer
The title pretty much tells you want this book is--how to write both long and short fiction--from the ground up. Although written for middle school age students, this was my bible when writing Yankee Girl.  That this book has been in print for nearly 20 years makes it a classic in my opinion.

Paper Lightening:  Prewriting Activities that Spark Creativity and Help Students Write Effectively by Darcy Pattison
Aimed at teachers of writing for elementary and middle school teachers, this book makes a terrific companion for Bauer's book. Where Bauer lays our the blueprint for writing, Pattison's backs up that blueprint with dozens of writing activities to jump start the writer's brain and to write in more colorful and creative ways. This book was published in 2008, and I forsee it still in print in 2008.

Anything written by Ralph Fletcher. Fletcher has a series of short (under 125 pages) of how-to-books written for students, each on a different aspect of writing. These include How to Write Your Life Story, A Writer's Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You, Live Writing:  Breathing Life Into Your Words, How Writer's Work:  Finding a Process that Works for You, Poetry Matters:  Writing a Poem from the Inside Out.  Craft Lessons is a virtual encyclopedia of specialized exercises for every age group for kindergarden and up.
As I was re-checking these titles on Amazon, I found that Fletcher has a new book our this past spring,
Pyrotechnics on the Page. I'm ordering my copy as soon as i finish writing this blog!

Although I am not a poet, I am working on a verse novel, which means I am reading a lot of poetry how-to's. Poemcrazy by Pam Woolridge is written for adults, but easily understood by the middle grade poet.
I'm also reading books by Ted Kooser and Mary Oliver, however the techniques here are best distilled through the teacher.

OK, fellow writers, back to the verse novel. I had a big breakthrough over the holidays and I don't want to lose my big 'mo.

Part two to Sandra's question next time.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Announcing Our Book Giveaway Winner!

Congratulations to Jennie of Biblio File, whose comment was chosen at random from the eligible entries for the autographed copy of Ann Angel's new biography Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing. Thanks to all who submitted writing advice! Watch for more Guest Teaching Author interviews and book giveaways!

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Perfect Day to Kidnap Mom--a different kind of Thanksgiving poem for Poetry Friday

Happy After-Thanksgiving!   

Before running out the door to buy-buy-buy, sit back and watch The Story of Stuff.  At least watch the first seven minutes.  Really. 

But...if you really want something--how 'bout a book?  You may still have time to participate in our book giveaway!  To qualify, your entry must be posted by 11 p.m. Friday, November 26, 2010 (Central Standard Time).  Here's JoAnn's interview with the author, Ann Angel.  Before entering our contest, please read our Book Giveaway Guidelines.

You may be in the middle of NaNoWriMoCarmela has commented on this and how she's modified NaNoWriMo to fit her life.  If you're writing--however that looks in your life--my hat's off to you!  Participating in this year's Poem A Day Challenge absolutely changed my life. It changed so much, in fact, that I've been writing a poem a day for 236 days...or seven months and 22 days (and sending each one to my friend Bruce as he sails around the world).

So here's a poem I wrote this week.  Not a kid's poem. Just a poem from me--to you. I hope your
Thanksgiving was warm and wonderful.

by April Halprin Wayland

 This morning I woke with a huge burlap sack of guilt
 about not being in town
 with my 88-year-old mother
 for Thanksgiving.

 Today was a perfect day to kidnap her.
 I poked around the internet, found an easy hike—
 terrific, except it was in Thousand Oaks,
 which always feels terribly far, like Romania, to Mom.

 I phoned her:
 “Pretend I’m Alan Alda
 and I’m inviting you somewhere, okay?”
 Okay, she said—except for the Thousand Oaks part.

 She would have gone to Thousand Oaks for Alan Alda.
 “I’ll ring you back,” I said.
 I hunted more.  I found
 Malibu Creek State Park.

 We drove north on Pacific Coast Highway
 on this after-rain day—
 everything green and blue and glisten-y,
 Mom oohing and ahhing as we cruised past the grey-blue Pacific.

Crushing layers of oak leaves,
we saw a huge blue heron, still as a tree.
Then it lifted,
its wings spread wide as awnings.

 We saw a rabbit, which, yes, had a white tail.
 We saw ground squirrels
 popping out of holes like an arcade game,
 and crowds of crows.

 “Crows remember a human that’s mistreated them,” I told her.
 “And one crow will describe him so other crows keep their distance—though they’ve never seen him before,” I said.
 “How do you say ‘a big nose and receding hairline’ in crow?” she asked.

 We saw three deer.
 The first, reddish, made its way down the slope towards a dry creek bed.
 The others, grey, stately; turned to stare.
 Later, they bounded across a field and up a hill—as beautiful as the flight of the heron.

 It was a short walk.
 Mom and I, hand-in-hand.
 She: bending over more than I remember,
 grateful to be healthy,

happy to be outside, surprised by this day.
Me: breathing rain-dampened oak,
surprised, too
by a different kind of thanksgiving.

poem & drawing (c) 2010 April Halprin Wayland

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A NEW Thanksgiving tradition?

Thanksgiving smacks of Tradition.
Shelves overflow with books about turkeys, Pilgrims and family gatherings.
Bloggers and columnists laud keeping a Gratitude Journal.

Reading, sharing and modeling Debbie Levy’s The Year of Goodbyes (Hyperion, 2010), however, could start a whole new tradition for a holiday that celebrates family, friends and life.

In her introduction, Debbie Levy writes,
“This book is based on another book – not a library book, or a bookstore book, or even a typed manuscript. It was a book written by hand and owned by my mother when she lived in Germany as a girl. The year was 1938. In her own language, German, the book was known as a poesiealbum (po-eh-ZEE Album). In English you could call it a poetry album.”

Poesiealbums weren’t hastily created. “Usually,” Levy shares in her introduction, “you took your friend’s
album home overnight and used your best handwriting, and maybe also colored pencils, to create a lasting impression. Your illustrations were likely to include symbols of good luck, such as ladybugs, piles of coins, horseshoes, fly mushrooms, four-leaf clovers, hearts, and chimney sweeps and their tools. You might further decorate your page with oblaten (o-BLAH-ten), stickers that girls collected and traded.”

Levy uses her mother Jutta’s discovered album - the actual poetic entries, art and oblaten of her friends sharing their twelfth year in Hamburg, Germany, from January through November – as the springboard for telling, in poetic verse, the true story of the Salzberg family’s last year in Germany. Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party reigned supreme. As public persecution of Jews and thus Jutta’s family increased daily, escape to family in America proved the only way out. Excerpts from Jutta’s diary share the Salzberg’s eventual safe passage to New York. Jutta’s sister Ruth’s entry closes the book.

        “Whoever loves you more than me
          Should write behind me, certainly.”

Levy created The Poesiealbum Project on her blog, The Year of Goodbyes.
She invites readers of all ages to send their own pages. 
Perhaps six lines about a wrong in the world we'd want to make better, someone who inspired us or others to face adversity or fear.
Perhaps a three-line goodbye, to someone important.
What treasured possessions would we pack in our one suitcase, were we forced to leave home?
What lines would we write to tell about another's Holocaust experience?

Jutta created her poesiealbum over the course of a year.  She looks back at the handwriting, at the poems, at the images, and abracadabra, she's with her friends - Cilly Seligmann, Eva Rosenbaum, Ellen Berger, Elli Lipka.  Aunts, uncles, neighbors, grandparents, the Bar Kochba Gymnastics Club, the Jewish School for Girls.  All are there in Jutta's poesiealbum, some seventy-two years later, thankfully alive.

Writing words that could be read many years later so the world might know our story?
That's the stuff of new (Thanksgiving) traditions. See the Writing Workout below for details.

[And don't forget to enter our latest TeachingAuthor book giveaway here for a chance to win an autographed copy of Ann Angel's acclaimed biography Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing.]

Happy Thanksgiving!

Esther Hershenhorn

Why not create a Thanksgiving Poesiealbum of sorts with those who gather at your table, around your tv or on the front porch tomorrow.
Ask guests to come prepared to note the day, the gathering, the celebration - with a poem, a photograph, a stamp, a picture that reveals something special about them, perhaps something for which they are grateful.
Assign each guest a page.  Note the guest's name, age.  Be sure to record the date.
Tuck this year's album safely away, leaving room for others to follow.

Monday, November 22, 2010

In Thanksgiving

Confession time.  Thanksgiving has always been my  least favorite -- I'd go so far as to way most dreaded --holiday (apart from Valentine's Day in my many Valentine-less years).  For one thing, I went to a high school with a lousy football team and a college that celebrates Homecoming during lacrosse season.  The Colts fled Baltimore in the dead of night when I was in eighth grade, and then I moved to Rams-less L.A.  In short... I am not a football fan.  I am a fan of eating, but not of cooking, cleaning, or calories. (And Carmela probably knows the Italian tradition of serving a complete turkey dinner in addition to a pasta feast!)  One of my favorite Thanksgivings ever was spent alone, under a quilt, with a book.

However, now I have kids and no option to opt out (or even eat out).  My five-year-old is engaged in a daily countdown, and each day she has added at least three decorations to our dining room.  The vegetarian/vegan portion of the menu is mostly complete, the wheelchair ramp is at the ready for my father (shh -- we won't tell him how steep it is!), and the steam-in-bag vegetables are safely ensconced in the freezer.

This week my kids have the craziest school schedule ever -- early dismisssal, late start, days off...  Can I say how thankful I am for kind neighbors?  I took my daughter yesterday to the local library to stock up for our week of school-lite.  I think 30 books and movies might get us through the week.  (Half of them, I must confess, are for me.)

My kids have been talking a lot about what they're grateful for -- family, friends, toys, green paint (long story).  As for me, I would add teachers, warmth, comfort, joy, and one more important thing.  A major criterion (confession #2) that drew me to the writing life was the blessed solitude of it all.  No conference calls, no office politics, no outsized egos.  Well, solitude is grand, but sometimes community is even better.  Thank YOU, and  Happy Thanksgiving to all!

And don't forget to enter our latest Teaching Author book giveaway here.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Book Giveaway and Guest Teaching Author Interview with Ann Angel!

The Teaching Authors are happy to present an interview with our good friend and Guest Teaching Author Ann Angel. To celebrate Ann's appearance on our blog, we're giving away an autographed copy of her new book Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing. Booklist and School Library Journal both gave it starred reviews, and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center named it a Book of the Week.  To enter the drawing, see the instructions at the end of this post.

 * * *
Ann Angel believes it was amazing fortune that brought Janis Joplin’s music and style into her life. As a teen, Ann preferred writing bad poetry and drawing to Janis’s songs over following along with the popular girls. That same influence encouraged Ann to live her own life without compromise.

Since then, Ann has written many young adult biographies, including her most recent, Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing. She served as contributing editor for the highly acclaimed Such a Pretty Face: Short Stories About Beauty and is working on more young adult fiction. A graduate of Vermont College’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, Ann lives in Wisconsin with her family and teaches creative writing at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee.

Welcome, Ann!  How did you become a Teaching Author?

I was a journalism teacher at a local two year college when I first started to publish articles and then books. Teaching gave me the security of an income and so I always did this part time. But my writing wasn't getting where I wanted it to go, so I returned to school for an MFA in creative writing at Vermont College and graduated in 1999. After that, I became a full-time professor at Mount Mary College, where I've taught since shortly before 1990 (so long ago that I don't recall the year I actually began) when the college created a graduate program in writing. I teach creative fiction and nonfiction there, along with Teaching Author JoAnn Macken.

What's a common problem or question your students have, and how do you address it?

Students tend to stop story to explain or describe. I give them the same sage advice I received from renowned author Norma Fox Mazer at Vermont College. Use the details you've already placed in the setting as props, filter them through your primary character, and you'll create a story that moves forward while also creating voice and tone in the story.

How can teachers use your books in the classroom?

My books are probably great resources for teachers who wish to use literature while dealing with issues of self-esteem, self-image and bullying. Such A Pretty Face: Short Stories About Beauty offers teens a variety of perspectives on how teens view real beauty vs. the image of beauty that advertising offers. It surprised me when I finished Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing and stepped back from it a bit to realize that this book, while nonfiction, also deals with issues of beauty, fitting in, and self-esteem. Through both books, I've come to realize that perceptions of beauty play a huge role in bullying. Bullies pick on people because of their differences, and so some get bullied because we don't have the sort of looks the rest of the culture admires or because we have too much of the looks admired in a culture. Stories in Such A Pretty Face certainly deal with coping in these instances. And Janis's story is so clearly one of a woman who rose above bullying with her voice.

Another book I wrote, Robert Cormier: Author of the Chocolate War, offers some tremendous insights into book challenges, censorship, and one author's efforts to fight censorship. Ironically, although he died in 2000, Cormier remains one of the most censored authors of the previous decade and continues to be listed as one of the top ten most censored authors of the year.

Can you share a funny or interesting story about how you got interested in writing?

I don't recall ever not writing. It's as if I was born to tell stories. I even have the first story--illustrated--that I ever wrote. It's a pencil drawing from about first or second grade where I drew my whole family and then wrote characteristics above each person. For my oldest sister, I wrote, "Katie yells a lot." For a little sister, I wrote, "Lulu cries a lot." Over my own head I wrote "I help the most." I look at that and think I was a fiction writer in the beginning.

When I go to schools to talk about writing, I often talk about how I choose my writing topics to focus on issues kids face. I can be talking about censorship and bullying or self-image issues, and inevitably a student will raise his or her hand and ask me, "Do you have any pets?"

For the record, I have a wicked little cat named Sparkie who fits her name perfectly.

Why do you write biographies for teens?

There is so much we can learn from entering the space of another person's life. It allows us to see how others think and behave, and it gives us a glimpse into the human condition in a way that is so real. We can learn from the lives of others. For instance, Janis Joplin was my role model. She gave me the courage to stop following along with the crowd and to do my own thing. Her death became my cautionary tale.

Would you share a favorite writing exercise for our readers?

The title of this exercise is "Who Is Listening?" Turn on the radio or turn on your iPod or click on music you've never heard before. As you listen to the song, freewrite and create a character listening to this song at the same time. As the song plays, describe the character and setting. Now listen to the song again and describe how this character is responding to the music and why. Would this character feel differently about this song if s/he weren't also dealing with ________?

  * * *
Thank you for joining us, Ann! We wish you and your books continued success!

Readers, before entering our contest, please read our Book Giveaway Guidelines. Then, for a chance to win an autographed copy of Ann Angel's new book Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing, post a comment to today's blog post telling us some sage advice you received about writing and who gave it to you. To qualify, your entry must be posted by 11 p.m. Friday, November 26, 2010 (Central Standard Time). The winner will be chosen in a random drawing and announced by 11 p.m., Saturday, November 27, 2010.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Taking My Gluteus Maximus for a Walk

Reading Mary Ann's post on Monday reminded me of something Madeleine L'Engle says in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art:
"If the artist works only when he feels like it, he’s not apt to build up much of a body of work.  Inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it, because the largest part of the job of the artist is to listen to the work and to go where it tells him to go.  Ultimately, when you are writing, you stop thinking and write what you hear."
For my pseudo-NaNoWriMo project, I've been spending lots of time with Butt in Chair, or BIC, as Mary Ann calls it. I've discovered something interesting. Often, when I first sit down at the computer, I have no idea what I'm going to write about next or where the story will go. Those days usually start with me tweaking what I did the day before, trying to add sensory details to make the scene come alive. Then, somewhere along the way, inspiration kicks in and I'm soon typing away. As L'Engle says, the story starts telling me where to go. I know the inspiration wouldn't have come along if I hadn't been sitting there, listening, Butt in Chair.

Unfortunately, there's no magic formula. As Mary Ann said in her post, some days, even when we glue our butts to the chair, the words don't come. That's when I usually try taking the old gluteus maximus for a walk. As Julia Cameron says in The Artist's Way: "A brisk twenty-minute walk can dramatically alter consciousness." That altered consciousness often helps me hear what I couldn't when I was sitting in my chair.

Over the last few days, I've fallen behind in my word count goals for my project, and no matter how I tried, the words just wouldn't come. When that happened again today, I took a walk and thought about my story. As I walked, it occurred to me that much of the tension had leaked out of the story. Why? Because I'd made things too easy for my character. I needed to go back and change events so that she'd have to work harder to get what she wanted. Aha!

I know from experience that taking a walk doesn't always yield dramatic "aha" moments. But at least it helps keep my gluteus maximus from getting too big for the chair. :-)

I'm keeping this post short so I can get back to my novel-writing now.
Happy writing, all!

P.S: I forgot to mention: there's a great book giveaway going on over at the MotherReader blog. Enter to win one of two sets of 25 books!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Writing with Your Gluteus Maximus

     It's Monday. It's raining. I left the windows down in my car last night.  Does it get any better than this?

      What I really want to do is curl up in front of the fire with my dog, a comforter and a supremely scary book I started Friday and didn't have time to read over the weekend. I left the two main characters stranded in the desert with two creepy teens that I just know are going to turn out to be serial killers.

     Instead, I am writing. That's what I do. There are writers like Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates who I suspect are married to their computers, their output is so prodigious. I just know they arise every morning, a song in their hearts and the next chapter bursting from their fingertips.

    I am not one of those people.

    For one thing, I am not a morning person. I literally walk into walls until noon. Not a good trait if you are a teacher or a mother, and I am both. I am a night writer. My creative mind doesn't kick into gear until about three in the afternoon---about the same time I pick up my daughter from school, and my second job kicks in--mother to a high maintenance sixteen-year-old. (For those of you who are trying to write with toddlers at home, I hate to tell you this but writing-mothering never gets easier.) By midnight, my creative mind has turned to mush.  So, like it or not, I have become a daytime writer. My work day is 8 am to 3 pm, pretty much the same hours I taught.

   When I taught, I had a forty five minute drive to turn my brain on (listening to NPR helped a lot).  Now, I have to hit the ground running morning at 5:45, to get my daughter (also not a morning person) going. Fortunately I have a husband who can save the world by 9 am or no one would ever accomplish anything before noon.

   With them gone, my brain in neutral, I listen to a half hour of NPR (my mental jumper cables), take my cup of coffee, and plunk my gluteus maximus in front of the computer. (This is known as BIC---butt in chair.) My mind protesting all the way, I start writing. I promise myself to write for 15 minutes, even if I am only typing "I can't think. I want to go back to bed. I want to take the dog for a walk."

    A more disciplined person than I could probably do all those things, and still have a productive writing day. But I am a Master Procrastinator. Going back to bed will lead to reading in bed, which will lead to reading until the book is done....and so is my writing day. So it's BIC for fifteen minutes.

     Most days, in those fifteen minutes, my brain turns on and picks up where I left off yesterday. Or it comes up with something that has been percolating on the back burner for awhile. Before I know it, three or four hours are gone (that's as long as my fingers can work even on the best of days). Three or four hours are up, and now I can take the dog for a walk (where I will probably going on thinking, planning tomorrow's work.)

    Some days, however, are total duds. Fifteen minutes of BIC, and I still have nothing to show for it. I used to make myself stare at a blank computer screen for hours, waiting for the Muse to arrive. I don't know about you, but staring at a blank screen for hours will eventually lead to a "quick" game of solitaire or Boggle, to "stimulate" my brain. Who am I kidding? And of course, the longer I Boggle, the guiltier I feel about not writing....and well, the beat goes on. Eventually I had to accept that there are going to be days when fifteen minutes is all that is going to happen. Sometimes I write something really great in those fifteen minutes....and can't go any further. It's a relief to know I have fulfilled my personal commitment, even if it didn't have the results I want.

     As writers, I am sure you have at least three people a month ask you how they can "write their story."
(Or sometimes it's "how can I get my book published?" only to learn that "the book" has not been written.)

     "Here is the secret to writing," I say in a mysterious voice.  The would-be-writer leans toward me, ready to drink in my literary wisdom.

     "B-I-C," I say. Sometimes the other person actually writes this down. Mostly they blink and ask "Un- BIC? Like you use a Bic pen?"

     "No, it means Butt-in-Chair. Lots of Butt-in-Chair. You could write standing up; I hear Thomas Wolfe did. But most of us write better sitting. For long periods of time. Day after day."

     And now, having applied my gluteus maximus to couch for an hour and a half (there are variations), I will go wipe the rain off my car seats.

     Does it get any better than this?

     Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, November 12, 2010

Adventures on a YALSA Poetry Panel in Albuquerque for Poetry Friday!

Howdy!  I was all set to write a whole post about the best advice I found on writing an acceptance speech.  It’s in an article by Thomas Murrell:  Speech Tips: Ten Things to Remember When Accepting an Award. The one that particularly struck me was:

“End With a Call To Action. What is it that you want the audience to do? You are the role model - inspire them to greater heights!”

It’s terrific advice.  It jump-started my stalled writing of the five-minute award acceptance speech I gave in Seattle this summer.

And if you’ll stay with me, I promise I’ll show you how that’s connected to what we TeachingAuthors call an Out and About:

This past weekend I was Out and About at the YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) Symposium in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I should have known it was going to be a good conference from the start.  On the shuttle from the airport, I met two wonderful women: Natashya Wilson, Senior Editor at Harlequin TEEN, and Jacque Alberta, editor at Zonderkidz (she’s the editor of Nikki Grimes’ forthcoming book, A Girl Named Mister.)

I was on a panel called THE FORMS AND FACES OF POETRY FOR TEENS created by (bowing low to the ground now) the woman behind the go-to-blog for children’s poetry, Sylvia Vardell. 

Author and poet Janet Wong introduced me to Sylvia many years ago, and boy, am I glad she did.
Sylvia Vardell, Ph.D: author, speaker, Texas Woman's University Professor and SO MUCH MORE!
Besides being smart, classy, funny and generous, Sylvia is also a professor of School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University, AND the author of: POETRY ALOUD HERE, and POETRY PEOPLE, and CHILDREN'S LITERATURE IN ACTION, and co-editor of BOOKBIRD, the journal of international children's literature,
and the annual review guide, LIBRARIANS' CHOICES; whew!

It was fabulous to be included as one of the five poets on Sylvia’s panel.  The others were: Jen Bryant, Ann Burg, Margarita Engle, and Pat Mora. (Sylvia wrote, “Betsy Franco had hoped to be part of our panel, but had to be in NYC to act in her son, James Franco's movie! Cool, huh?”)

Our poems, personalities, and backgrounds were all very different—that’s what made this panel so interesting.  And Sylvia sure knows how to build a cozy community between the speakers and the attendees in a session.

The panel began with a Poets’ Q & A and ended with Poetry Improv Prompts. I loved the way her original format encouraged us to play off each other, like jazz improv—lots of fun!

Sylvia’s spells out the format in this post and shows you how this format can be used with teens.

I waited about a gazillion hours for lunch along with my tablemates YALSA president Kimberly Patton, two fabulous librarians whose names I've forgotten (someone please remind me!), author/poet Ellen Hopkins, and Albuquerque's own author, Carolee Dean, who has also posted about the YALSA Symposium 

Author Carolee Dean lives in Albuquerque!
Oft-censored author / poet Ellen Hopkins
Also at the conference was my friend and fellow Southern California poet extraordinaire Nikki Grimes who gave a terrific session called OPEN MIKE: REACHING TEENS AT RISK THROUGH POETRY.

Nikki Grimes, Ann Burg and me, April Halprin Wayland,
                                                   at the YALSA Symposium

The best thing about the authors and editors and librarians I met at this conference was their generosity of spirit.

Authors Ellen Hopkins and Lauren Myracle spoke at the closing session about intellectual freedom and the banning of their books. Lauren quoted Judy Blume who has said that censorship is “Fear disguised as moral outrage.”
Author Lauren Myracle spoke without notes--
as if she were speaking to a just a few special friends. 
 Lauren also said, "Authors are freedom fighters...fighters for intellectual freedom."

Ellen and Lauren made us laugh, made us squirm, made us well up with tears, and, finally, their stories from the trenches of intellectual freedom were a call to action—they inspired us to greater heights. 

So, inhale that inspiration--go out there and write what you need to write.  Some reader, somewhere will need to read exactly that.
 drawings (c) by April Halprin Wayland

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Savage-soothing Tip for Novelists Pseudo, Real and/or Lost

I know first-hand: writing a novel can easily overwhelm – both the writer and the writer’s life.
I liken the experience to Alice’s, when she fell down that hole and left behind the world she knew.
By necessity, the writer becomes schizophrenic, a citizen of two countries – one fictive, one real.
Advil helps.
A lot.
The best cure for me, though, to keep me present to both worlds?
Hands down, it’s music.
It soothes the savage beast.

Your writer’s circumstances matter little.
You could be lost, like Mary Ann, in the fog with faulty headlights.
You could be over-tasked like Jeanne Marie or time-strapped like Carmela.
If you surround yourself with music that sings of your story - its heart, its soul, the characters who grabbed yours - you’ll be living your story 24-7.
Driving the carpool.
Shopping for groceries.
Washing dishes or scrubbing the bathtub.

I discovered this cure when writing my first novel,When They Only Had ‘til Monday, a never-sold middle grade – one part historical fiction, one part mystery - set in 1897 in St. Charles, Missouri. My peripatetic orphaned characters had but three days to uncover their beloved patriotic benefactor’s will or else... all six would be sent down river!
Reading about composer Scott Joplin’s Missouri hometown had indirectly led me to the story line. It seemed natural to surround myself with Joplin’s rags and operas.
Before long, I was assigning each Chapter a particular Joplin rag. An action-packed scene? "Cascades." A moment of poignancy? "Bethena." For the glorious resolution I chose the "Gladiolus Rag." 
The syncopation. The thrumping base line. The flurrying high notes.
Each time I listened I was scoring my novel.
Ironically, Joplin composed his rags in 4 prescribed movements, utilizing variations on a theme. Soon the scenes of my chapters mimicked Joplin’s style.

I played two Patti Page songs – “How Much is That Doggie in the Window?” and “The Tennessee Waltz” – while writing my middle grade novel The Confe$$ion$ and $ecret$ of Howard J. Fingerhut. Both 1950’s songs captured Howie’s earnestness, his ingenuousness, his yearning to win The H. Marian Muckley Junior Business Person of the Year Contest.

To me, the Yiddish folksong “Tum Balalaika” and my picture book Chicken Soup by Heart are one in the same, variations on a theme – i.e. the reciprocity of friendship.
To my surprise, the riddle nature of the song led to the back-and-forth dialogue between my character Rudie Dinkins and his afterschool babysitter Mrs. Gittel.

once you’ve written your first draft and told yourself the story,
think about your character, your setting, your story’s time, your story’s heart.
What piece of music sounds like your story?

[Note: if stuck, think what songs your characters might purchase for their Ipods were they living in today's world.]

In many ways, that piece of music might serve as your GPS from first draft to last, a handy tool to help you carry on should your headlights fail, time make itself scarce and/or your Life overwhelms.

Keep writing.  Keep whistling. (Or is it the other way around?!)

Esther Hershenhorn

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Falling Back

If you allow me to slip into "teacher mode" for a moment, let's have a show of hands.  How many here are participating in National Novel Writing Month?  Good luck, and happy writing to all!

I did consider signing up this year -- for all of two minutes.  Who am I kidding?  My writing ADD is at least as bad as my reading ADD.  Just as I tend to read a dozen books simultaneously, I am working on at least half a dozen writing projects at once.  In fact, I am finally discovering my natural pattern, and I can't say it pleases me. My habit is to complete a draft through chapter three, and then...  I send it off to my agent; he reads it, offers notes, and I revise; then he says he is sending out the proposal and the chapters to a variety of publishers, and then I never hear from anyone again.  Does this sound familiar to a single one of you? 

I suspect that the "real writer" in me should be so compelled by my characters that I absolutely must, must finish a draft.  On the other hand, I have other characters and stories clamoring loudly to be told, and extremely limited "spare" time in which to do so.  Do I finish a draft that apparently has little prospect of being sold?  (Especially if my agent is not actually sending it out!)  Or do I move on to the next one?  What would you do?

To illustrate my dilemma more clearly, these were my obligations of the past week:
1) Write outlines for two 60-minute TV shows (20 pages each) with two days spent in meetings discussing said shows.
2) Entertain my five-year-old, who had no school on two days this week.  (I have discovered that each week seems to bring at least one day on which one child has no school.)
3) Grade definition essays for my community college class -- for which, by the way, I spend more time driving to and fro than I do actually teaching.
4) Grade annotated bibliographies for my online class and moderate the week's discussion.
5) Write an article for a local publication.

Like sands through the hourglass...
I'm sure many of you can relate to the feeling of being generally overwhelmed.  (We Teaching Authors are hyphenate multi-taskers by definition, after all.)

In lieu of enrolling in NaNoWriMo, I signed up at to receive "gentle reminders" of encouragment toward the simple goal of writing one page a day.  I have yet to post a page.  (DAYS OF OUR LIVES, alas, does not count.)

Meanwhile, my Gruve exercise monitor has been blinking at me, telling me I have failed to have a "green day" (adequate calories burned) all week. 

I was exceedingly happy to crack open a book last night in bed, making the absolute most of my extra hour (until my five-year-old threw up in her bed, anyway). 

Today I hope to spend a few minutes with my adult mystery novel (!).  Small steps, baby!

Last weekend at church, my daughter almost poked out my son's eyes with a pencil in the middle of the Transubstantiation.  This week, a kind stranger from across the sanctuary came up to me and said, "I know you don't know me, but would your kids like to sit with ours?"  Then the priest went on to deliver one of those homilies that I desperately needed to hear today.  His advice, in a nutshell:

1) Live deliberately.
2) Live authentically.
3) Live as a brother or sister of the world.
4) Live fully in moment.

It occurs to me that substituting the word 'write' for 'live' in all these cases also works brilliantly.
Wishing everyone lots of good living and writing! -- Jeanne Marie

Friday, November 5, 2010

Poetry Friday Roundup and a Couple of Dog Poems

The Teaching Authors are so excited to host Poetry Friday today! What is Poetry Friday? A weekly celebration of poetry on the Web. Bloggers from all over share their favorite poems, review poetry books, and contribute their thoughts on poetic topics. One blog rounds up all the posts each week so poetry lovers can find and enjoy them all. Welcome to the roundup!

In honor of Poetry Friday, we have two poems today. By happy coincidence (or maybe ESP), April and I both wrote poems about our dogs. Here's mine. Enjoy!

What Is She?
by JoAnn Early Macken

With her black and white speckles
and her stubborn streak,
Bea leads the way,
jangling as she trots,
tail unflagging,
always on her toes.
She plows headfirst into each moment,
black patches covering both eyes and ears,
sniffing every splotch on the sidewalk.

When people ask, "What is she?",
we tell them what the shelter said, but nobody believes it.
They can’t resist a guess: "Maybe pointer?"

When she meets another dog,
she plops to the ground, tail a metronome,
waits for the signal it’s okay to play,
takes the first step in the introduction dance,
risks a quick pounce, feet splayed, head down,
woofs, and bounces.

What is she? We don’t know.
She’s a mutt.
     She’s Bea.
          She’s ours.

Here is April's dog Eli and her poem, which originally appeared on an NPR bulletin board.

by April Halprin Wayland

The dog park
is dog dark.
It can haunt you
like the hooting of something you can’t see.

There is no moon.

You’re both loners.
No dogs, no other owners.
Mostly it’s ghostly.

No owl, mouse or moon
can chase this ghoulish feeling.
Your dog finds a bone.
At night it’s not stealing.
He knows: it’s his alone.

Then—the double clink
of the double dog park gate.
Must be fate.

Two forms
one four-legged,
one hard to discern, not howling, probably human
walking towards you
a fellow dark dog park devotee.
Probably not a parolee.

And then a kind of thrill:
An all-white dog,
convenient on a black night.

Though you hear two dogs
swirling in large circles in the damp dirt
you see only one blinking by.
The other, yours, is invisible
in the dog dark.

If you have a link to share for Poetry Friday, please leave it in the comments. I'll update this blog throughout the day. New to Poetry Friday? Here's what you do:

1. Leave the exact link to your Poetry Friday blog post (not your generic blog address).
2. Say a little something about your post.
3. Link back to this page within your post.

Happy reading!

JoAnn Early Macken

Morning Roundup
  • Diane Mayr has three Poetry Friday posts today: a Poem a Day blog from a fellow NE librarian at Random Noodling, a look at the anthology Songs of Myself at Kurious Kitty, and a P.F. quote by Don Marquis, accompanied by an awesome travel poster of the Grand Canyon, at Kurious K's Kwotes.
More at Midday
  • Karen E. is in this week with "In the Middle" by Barbara Crooker, here.
Evening Additions
Bedtime Bonus
  • Janet Squires has 'Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving, written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey.
Thanks for all the woofs, comments, and dog pictures! Next week's Poetry Friday roundup (Friday, November 12) is at Liz in Ink.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

My Pseudo-NaNoWriMo Project

I'm hoping to make this post quick. You see, I'm working on my own novel writing challenge this month. As JoAnn and Mary Ann have mentioned, November is National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo. Writers from all over the world attempt to complete a 50,000-word first draft during the month of November.

Back in 2008, I had an idea for an historical young adult novel that I wanted to write, but I kept getting bogged down by research. I decided it would make the perfect NaNoWriMo project. The daily word-count quota would force me to stick to the story instead of agonizing over what kind of glassware my character drank from. The only problem: November is a bad month for me, due to family commitments. So I brainstormed with members of my critique group and we decided the best month for a NaNoWriMo-type project was January. Here in the Midwest, January is a great month to hunker down indoors and write like crazy. And, since January is the season of resolutions, what better resolution than to write a new novel? Plus, January has one more day than November. When you're counting words, every day helps. :-)

So, in January, 2009, I banned together with a group of other SCBWI members to work on what we called our New Year/New Novel project, or NYNN (which rhymes with "win"). We called ourselves NYNNies, or writing "fools," and set up a Yahoo group to support each other in our endeavor. We shared tips from a variety of writing books, including No Plot! No Problem, written by NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty. As facilitator, I also periodically sent links to the NaNoWriMo pep talks from the previous November.

Thanks to the support of the NYNNies, I managed to write (a pretty horrible) first draft of my novel that January. I learned so much about my writing process and how to quiet the internal critic. But perhaps the most important thing I learned is that when I make writing a priority and keep "butt in chair," I can accomplish amazing things.

Unfortunately, when it came to revising the draft of my NYNN novel, I allowed myself to get bogged down in research all over again. I also struggled to find some sort of a plot in the mess that was my first draft. Yet I kept procrastinating. After months of work, I'd managed to eek out little over 30,000 words of a second draft. A few weeks ago, I decided it was time to end the procrastination. I came up with a plan for my own pseudo-NaNoWriMo project. I calculated that I need to add about 37,000 words to finish this draft, and I'd really like to finish it before Christmas. Looking at my calendar, I counted up 36 days (not counting holidays and weekends) that I could commit to working on the draft, beginning October 25. That comes out to about 1050 words/day to reach my target. Having lived through the mad crush of producing 1667 words per day for my original NYNN draft, I knew 1050 words/day was a feasible, though aggressive, goal.

I've been at my pseudo-NaNoWriMo project for a week and a half now. It's actually been harder than I expected to reach my 1050 words/day goal. I think that's due, in part, to still struggling with some plot issues.What's really helped me stick with it is the tremendous support I've received on Facebook. Since I started early and will continue this project through December 15, I didn't feel right signing up as an official NaNoWriMo participant, which means I can't take advantage of all the NaNoWriMo support. So instead, I've been posting my daily goals and accomplishments on my Facebook status. Knowing that my friends (and family!) will be checking on my progress has really helped me persevere, even on bad days. (If you'd like to be one of my Facebook friends, you can find me at, but if you send me a friend request, be sure to mention you read this blog. I don't "friend" just anyone. :-) )

If any of you are participating in NaNoWriMo, you're probably too busy writing to read this. And that's as it should be. But if you do have a moment, stop by and let us know how it's going for you.

And for those of you who think NaNoWriMo is a ridiculous idea, you're not alone. See this blog post by author Tayari Jones. 

Whether you are a NaNoWriMo writer or not, happy writing!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Night Driving

     It's like driving a car at night.  You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.--E. L. Doctorow

     Welcome to National Novel Writing Month. This is the month when I drag out my favorite Doctorow quote about novel writing, and sticky note it to my computer screen.

     I hate driving at night. I have terrible night vision. I hate driving in Atlanta, where the street lighting is bad and a street can change names several times, for no good reason. I absolutely refuse to drive at night unless the route is so familiar, I can put my brain on autopilot.

     A couple of weeks ago I drove my daughter to the Regional Skating Competition in Raleigh, North Carolina. I had driven this road exactly once before.  In daylight. It's pretty much a straight shot from Atlanta to Raleigh, seven hours according to a certain Online Mapping Site. This time, however, we couldn't start until school was out. Trying to leave Atlanta any time after three can take up to two hours.

    It took two hours. By the time we got to the Raleigh-Durham area it was well after eleven. And that's when we got into trouble. My Internet Directions were more than a little ambiguous. Forking left instead of right left me driving in an endless loop for three hours. Three hours of driving through what could have been the set for The Blair Witch Project.  No towns, no signs, no lights, and only occasional traffic lines. Lots of deer and spooky looking trees.

   The rest of the world has GPS in their car. I don't. Or at least a road atlas. I didn't. All I knew was that I started in Atlanta and needed to get to Raleigh. Finally I found that wrong fork-in-the-road and made the correct turn. But even the "right" road looked unfamiliar because my directions send me a different way from my previous trip. Go figure. At one thirty in the morning, after a lot of U-turns and squinting at at unlit street signs, we arrived, exhausted at our motel.

    You can see why I like that Doctorow quote. Beginning a novel is easy; first chapters are a cinch. You know where you are; here are the main characters and setting. Here is the set up for the conflict.

     Then you hit chapter two. Suddenly you find yourself driving in the dark, with unclear instructions, and only your literary headlights to guide you.  For years, at this point, I would noodle around for a couple of more pages (usually, description....I love description), and then my headlights would go out. Or I would hit a dead end road, with nowhere to turn around. I have more Chapter Ones with no Chapter Twos in my files than I care to admit.

     I can't/don't outline. The few times I've tried, the story sounded forced, my characters unhappily moving around at my direction. Unhappy characters are not interesting people to spend time with. Some people can write an outline and wham-bam-thank-you-Sam, they have the first draft of a novel. Lots of people use this method for NaNoWriMo.

     I am not one of those people.

      Some people have an internal GPS that just tells them where to turn and stop. I really don't like those people. The ideas just flow right along, beginning to end. They always pull into the Driveway of the Last Chapter before dark. Boo! Hiss! No fair.

      Then there is me. The one thing I have learned about writing novels is that when you have to have some notion of where this story is going to end. Why start a journey if you don't have a destination? So after Chapter One, I make a lot of notes as to how I think the story will end.

     So now I have a beginning, and a possible destination. I assemble as much information as I can as to how to get there. I get to know my characters (which I have written about earlier), and my setting. I try to anticipate any specialized information I might need. Then ever so slowly, I creep along from Point A to Point B. Only moving as quickly as my headlights allow.

      NaNoWriMo encourages setting a goal of so many words per day, every day. I've never really had much luck with that. When I have written say 1500 words per day, every day, by the end of the month, I find I have about 200 pages of some pretty funny characters and description, but no story. No end in sight.

      NaNoWriMo discourages revising as you go. I'm all for that. I could spend Eternity polishing that perfect first chapter. I do make a lot of "pit stops" to make sure I am still heading towards my last chapter. I do have a compass in my car,(and head) so I can tell if I am heading north or south) Or. . .

     I may discover that I don't want to go to Raleigh after all(although in the case of Regional Skating, I didn't have much choice....I had to find Raleigh!).  Sometimes my characters start telling me where they are going. I always let them. As I've said, forcing characters is like forcing my size 8 foot into a size 6 shoe, just because I like the shoes.  It can be done, but not for long, and the result is not pretty.

     In both Yankee Girl and Jimmy's Stars, my characters bumped me out of the driver's seat for the last third of the book. I am embarrassed to remember how I thought those books were going to end. I think that by the time you are two thirds of the way through, you know your characters so well, that they just hijack your mind and finish the story for you. At least that's what's happened for me so far. It was if I started out for San Francisco and wound up in Omaha. And discovered that Omaha was exactly the right place to be.

     Writing novels is hard. I am constantly driving up dead-ends...but I've learned to find a place to turn around and re-group. I hit roadblocks; I suddenly discover I absolutely need to know something like World War I field medical procedures. (No kidding....this is my current roadblock.) Eventually I decide that I can go another route, or I find the necessary information.

    Sometimes I discover a character in the backseat who hasn't spoken in a long time. I stop the car and see what the problem is. Are they still part of the story, or do they need to be left by the side of the road? (I know it sounds ruthless, but your novel can't drag around dead weight.)

     Right now I am working on two novels, simultaneously, since they have the same settings and characters, albeit the time frames are different. I have been switching off every time I hit a roadblock. The result is I have 2/3 of two novels. I am putting pedal to the metal now on only one now(having removed a roadblock last week). I know where I am going, but I am still driving at night. Cautiously, and focusing only what I can see in my headlights.

     Maybe I can NaNo that last third this month. Now that is a possibility. . .

     Happy NaNoWriMo, fellow writers. Keep your headlights on.

     P.S.  My daughter won silver in her competition level.
      Posted by Mary Ann Rodman