Monday, December 27, 2010

The storm of 2010

We have snow!  According to the local paper, there's about 2 feet of the white stuff out there. 
It's no longer falling from the sky, but the wind is blowing, causing some major drifts.
My neighbor is stranded.  Seems the snow took a liking to her pretty yellow house and now she's surrounded by 6 feet of it. Fortunately she's not the type to panic, has tons of supplies and we will make sure she can get out. And even though the snow plows have been by a few times, the snow keeps blowing right back into the street.
I'm waiting for my feet to thaw before I go back out again. The deck has about 5 foot drifts and we're trying to shovel out a path so the dog can get into the back yard. Judging from her whines and whimpers, we'd better hurry. 

This wasn't the only storm in December.  There was a storm of good news:

From the  Dec 16, 2010 issue of  PW Children's Bookshelf:

Nancy Mercado at Roaring Brook Press acquired North American rights to Piney Moon, a second middle-grade novel by Nan Marino, author of Neil Armstrong Is My Uncle and Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me, In her new book, an 11-year-old musical prodigy freezes on stage on America's most popular televised talent contest and seeks refuge in the New Jersey Pinelands, where his friendship with a local girl and their search for a mythical song lead to a journey of hope and healing. Rosemary Stimola of Stimola Literary Studio brokered the deal for fall 2012 publication.
  And the same day, a plaque came from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators for the Golden Kite Honor Award for Neil Armstrong is My Uncle. I'll post a picture as soon as my camera decides to cooperate. (Seems my camera didn't like blustery weather and refuses to work right now.) The plaque is a perfect shade of blue -- trendy and fun yet it makes a statement.  I could be slightly biased but I think it is the most beautiful plaque ever.

Friday, November 19, 2010

I Found My Tree

During a television interview Barbara Walters once asked Katharine Hepburn the infamous question "If you were a tree, what kind you be?"  It immediately became fodder for comedians everywhere and spawned an entire industry of Barbara Walters imitators. But it didn't end there. People took the question quite seriously. I even know someone who was asked about her inner tree at a job interview. (Here's some trivia: the great KH answered it by saying she wanted to be an oak, because they were "strong and pretty".)
There's no bad answer. Oaks are strong. Willows are graceful. Pine trees are majestic.You can't go wrong with any of them.
I've never given this question much consideration. But yesterday while I was driving to work, I saw a tree in one of those parking lot gardens next to the local WaWa convenience store and thought "that is so totally me."
There it was, all decked out in its fall color, a beautiful orange red, totally oblivious to the fact that in this part of the country all of the other trees had done this weeks ago. Oh sure, there are a few stubborn leaves clinging to some branches, but that flurry of color is over. All those reds, golds, yellows and oranges have come and gone.
 I think there's a hot, sticky day in August when everything changes. Even though it's 101 degrees outside and you're busy planning a picnic at the beach, there's something in the air that makes you want to move on. You start saying things like, "Summer will be over soon." The trees feel it too. If you listen, you can hear them nod.
Except of course for that tree in front of the WaWa. Somehow it didn't get the message. So now while the other trees are going into their slumber mode, this one has its red dress on and is ready to party. And next spring when they're all showing off their pretty yellow buds, WaWa tree will hold tight to its silvery winter look.
And that's the way it will remain. The other trees will move on, slipping into different seasons as fast as a runway model changes outfits. And my tree will always be a few leaf changes behind.
Don't feel sorry for it, though. It will find its own rhythm. Some of us just like to linger.

photo by Petr Kratochv

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Are we who we once were?

In grad school I met a scholar who told me that he could predict a person's academic and social success by their kindergarten interview. "It only takes a few minutes. We ask the five-year-old questions, evaluate their problem-solving skills and rank them. We can tell how well they'll do in life by how well they do on our test."
We were having a conversation before a class so it's not like I had a lot of time to probe, but I did manage to ask a few questions.
"So how do you know what happens to them?"
"We follow them through school. We interview them again in high school."
"Only a few kids, right? Maybe it's just the children you're interviewing?"
"It's a huge, multi-year study."
"And there are no surprises?  No one does better or worse than expected?"
He folded his arms. "Sorry. It's a pretty good indicator."
I didn't pay much attention in class that day. Instead, I spent my time trying to get my head around what this study meant.  Are we destined to be that person we were at the age of five for the rest of our lives?
That thought depresses me. I hate thinking that who we are is predetermined by some genetic roll of the dice or some early environmental factors that we have absolutely no control over. If that study is true, then it doesn't give much hope in our ability to change and shape our own lives. And what does it say about the literature we read and about the books we write?
Is that why we're drawn to stories? Because book characters make discoveries about themselves and the world around them and have the ability to grow and change while we are destined to be the person we always were? If that's the case, then it redefines the word "fiction" in a whole new way.
The reason I've been thinking about this stuff is because thanks to Facebook, I've been reconnecting with old friends. I'm happy to say they prove that study wrong. Sure, there are things about them that remind me of the teenagers (or children) they once were. And with some, I bet if we met again in person, we'd have that wonderful feeling of thinking that no time passed at all. Have you ever had met an old friend and picked up the conversation exactly where you left off all those years ago?
But I can see changes too. So forget the stupid studies. Of course, people grow and change in surprising ways.
And yet, it has me thinking. How much of that five-year-old is left inside us? And how much have we left behind?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Sometimes in life, you get a chance at a do-over

I had a friend (I'm calling her Robin) in elementary school. Our families knew each other so we used to play together when we young. We stayed friends in high school, but after graduation we lost touch. 
Things happened faster for Robin than they did for me. When I was still in college, she sent me a letter. She had that kind of handwriting you could identify immediately. Big curvy letters.  I knew it was from her before I even looked at the return address.
The letter was filled with good news. She moved away, found someone special and had a little baby. A boy. I remember how she gushed about her newborn son. It was one of those really happy letters, and you just don't get those often enough. 
Babies are big events. I thought it would nice to send a little gift so I didn't write back immediately. I meant to go the mall and buy a present. I meant to send a card.  But I had finals and papers. And a busy college life. And somehow it slipped by.
Days passed. Then weeks. I started to feel embarrassed. I remember putting the letter at the back of my desk so I couldn't see her handwriting, thinking I'll get to it soon. Months went by. And then it felt like it was too late. I put the letter in a box and went on with my life. I graduated from college, went to grad school, got married, moved many times, became a librarian, got a book published (coincidentally, getting letters and writing people back play a really big part in my book, too). 
Robin went on with her life, too.
A decade or two flew by and the world changed. We have different ways of getting in touch. Yeah. I'm sure by now you figured out that Robin contacted me. Thanks to Facebook, she found me through a mutual friend. 
Of course, now we're Facebook friends.  I saw Robin's photos. There were a few of her standing next to a young man. Was that the little baby she wrote about?  
All those missed years...All because of that unsent letter.
She emailed me. So I got another chance to write her back.  I didn't begin my email this way, but I wanted to start it with.. "I really meant to write..." This time, I didn't hesitate. I wrote her back immediately.
Sometimes life (and Facebook) gives you a second chance.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Backing Out of a Hasty Facebook Post

So after months of not posting on Facebook, I posted this last Sunday:

Nan Marino has a feeling something important is going to happen today. It's not like I'm expecting news or anything. I don't know if the event will be a good one or bad one. But I could tell from the way the sun came up this morning, today feels like it's anything but ordinary.

I don't know why I said it. It was probably because (thanks to my dog, Chi) I was up way before dawn. So I saw the morning stars, watched the sun come up over the bay and drank the perfect cup of coffee. Caffeine-laced sunrises always make me giddy.

Now, I'm feeling foolish, like I should be making some big announcment: I won the lottery. Discovered a rare and extremely valuable historical relic hidden in the back of an old picture frame. Achieved enlightenment. But my Sunday was very ordinary.

Here are some of the exciting highlights:

*I was so busy writing that I forgot I was toasting some bread in the oven. Ate the edible parts. Gave the burnt parts to the dog.

*Decided I loved what I wrote. I loved my characters. Loved being inside their heads.

*Found a good song on Youtube.

*Wrote more. And reread. Hated every word. My characters were not living up to their potential. I told them it's over. There were other ideas..other stories..other was time. Then I decided it wasn't them, it was me. They were fine. My writing was swill.

*Caught up with an old friend. Drank way too much coffee.

*Spent some time outside with the dog and began to miss my w.i.p.. I went back in and reread. Found some good parts. Even found some parts that made me laugh. And the swill could be fixed. Made up with my characters. We're friends again.

*Reminded myself that my relationships with my w.i.p.s are always complicated.

*Got a gift from my husband for no reason, a beaded bracelet he found at the bookstore.

*Cooked some dinner. Didn't burn it much and went back to writing.

It was pretty dull, right?  And plain and ordinary.  And I hope next Sunday is exactly like it.

Note: We seem to be getting a lot of rainbows lately. This one was taken about a week ago.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

How to use poetry to solve tricky domestic disputes



I enjoy poems. When I was a teen, my friends and I memorized ones by  Frost, Whitman, and Browning  (wish I still knew them now). Recently I can't stop reading the works of Hafiz and Rumi. And thanks to a poet/library customer, who gently pointed out to me that many great poems have been written by people who are not dead, I've discovered some wonderful contemporary ones written by actual living people.

I've always known that the rhythm and beauty of poetry can heal you and bring peace to your soul. But what I didn't know is that it can also be used to solve domestic disputes.

Here's a hypothetical situation:  Let's say you've been married for many years and your normally considerate spouse has a habit of leaving empty milk cartons in the refrigerator. And imagine for a moment that this bothers you because before you shop, you look in the refrig and see one (and sometimes two) milk cartons and think you're good for the entire week. So when you go to the supermarket (which you hate to do) you don't buy milk. And you never notice that you're out of it until very early in the morning when you need it for your cup of coffee. Imagine also that over the years, you've had many many conversations about empty milk cartons and offending spouse promises to do better but usually within the week, he slips back to his old habits.

How to solve this problem: Forget meaningful conversations. Save them for other issues. And of course, nagging doesn't work (however, in this current hypothetical situation, the spouse who does the shopping would be completely unaware of that fact because she never nags). 

A heartfelt and well-placed poem could solve the domestic crisis. 

Here's how to do it:

Go for high drama and purple prose: You're in a crisis. This is not the time for restraint.  Begin poem with lines like: "My heart is like the milk container in the refrigerator. Empty."

Forget rhyme, meter, rhythm: Ha!  All that stuff is not necessary for effective dispute resolution. If your spouse cringes when he reads it, it will be more memorable. This poem should be intentionally horrendous. "Help build a marriage bridge by making sure milk is in the refrig". Yes. That line shows you exactly how far you have to go for the poem to work.  

Have it stand out: Remember, it's all about presentation. Try not to type the poem in a conventional font on regular paper. Poems should be handwritten, scribbled, and barely legible.  Neon-colored sticky paper works well for the marital-dispute poetry genre. If you happen to have a crayon or magic marker in a color so bright it is not known in nature, use it.

Put the poem in the center of the dispute: Get that poem right in the middle of the action. In the example above, the poem would be placed in the refrigerator and taped on the milk carton.

So next time you find yourself in a crisis, try mediation through poetry. Who knows, you might even get a scribbled and barely-legible poem written back to you *speaking hypothetically, of course*

Milk container clip art licensed from the Clip Art Gallery on and created by artist Mark A Hicks.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Wishes and Book Characters

Way back in the last millennium, I went to my first writer's conference. It was a looong time ago (maybe 15 years), but I remember it, especially the "first book" panel discussion.  As an unpublished writer and newbie, listening to the journeys of other writers was inspiring. But mostly I remember sitting in the crowded room wishing.  And dreaming. And hoping that one day, I'd get to talk about my own first book.
So tomorrow, my wish comes true.  I'm on a panel called "First Crop: Planting an Idea, Harvesting a Book" with YA author Jennifer R Hubbard (The Secret Year) and PB author Jeannine Norris (Tonight, You Are My Baby).  Btw, we're part of a really fun group of authors/illustrators called the KidLit Authors Club  
It's time for true confessions. I've never been to Philadelphia. Why, yes, I do live closer to that city than I do to any other city in the USA. As a long time New Yorker I still have that mentality that "the city" means NYC.  In my defense, I have friends and family in the NYC area. (It's a paltry defense, but it's all I have)
Yeah. I'm jumping up and down again. I'm really excited about the weekend.
But here's the other thing. My book characters in my w.i.p. have decided to start talking to me.  Finally!! And I'm experiencing that wonderful feeling of being torn between real life and my writing life. 
It happens when I'm in the middle of a story.  No matter what's going on in my real life, I find myself pulled into another world.
When you write, how do you leave your characters behind? 
It's hard for me. Even when I'm having a dream-come-true  moment, I can't let them go. Besides thinking about what they'd do in their own world, I start wondering what my characters would think if they were in mine. Would they like the library where I work?  My favorite view of the Barnegat Bay? And what would they think of Philadelphia?
I guess I'll find out the Philly answer soon.  It's time to get all of us into the car and hit the road.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Debut Author Laura Toffler-Corrie Comes to Ramble Street

This week debut author Laura Toffler-Corrie stopped by Ramble Street. Laura is the author of the very funny middle grade book The Life and Opinions of Amy Finawitz (Roaring Brook Press, 2010)
Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

“Told in wry emails and brilliant little one-act plays, this laugh-out-loud debut novel offers quirky characters, a whimsical tour around New York City, and an appealing story about what it means to be a good friend.”

And here’s what Newbery Honor Winning Author Patricia Reilly Giff says:

“Amy Finawitz pops right off the page! Her opinions and wry observations made me laugh out loud and her lively adventures are both surprising and captivating.  This is certainly an author to watch.  I loved Amy, and I bet you will too.”

This book is extremely funny. It has great heart (and a really fun mystery too).

Laura and I have a lot in common. We both grew up on the south shore of Long Island, our birthdays are only days apart (and we’re the same age) and our debut novels are published by Roaring Brook (which means we got to work with the same amazing editor, Nancy Mercado).

So Laura, welcome to Ramble Street.  Let’s start the interview.

I don’t normally laugh out loud when I read.  But I did when I read AMY FINAWITZ.  So let’s get to the question I’m wondering most about.  How do you write such great comedy? Any tips for writers?

"Well, comedy is a funny thing (sorry, couldn’t resist). I’m not sure that you can be taught to write humorously. I think it’s a sensibility, how you naturally perceive the world. I’ve always loved what’s absurd or ironic. I do think, though, that you can learn from other writers, Dickens, J.D Salinger, Woody Allen and Vonnegut to name a few, who do it well. I guess my tip is to not try too hard and to create fully realized characters and situations, otherwise humor can seem flat or ‘jokey.’"

What was it like when you got the editorial letter? Did you enjoy the editorial process?

"At first, getting the editorial letter was exhilarating! I was so happy to have sold my book and anxious to get working with my editor, and yours, the fabulous and insightful Nancy Mercado. Then the scary part set in. How do I incorporate someone else’s vision with mine? Can I make the book better? Will Nancy be happy with my work? I quickly discovered that working with her was an inspiring interaction. Ultimately, it was exciting to see my book develop into everything I wanted it to be."

I had the same feelings and fears. By the way,“inspiring interaction” is a great way to describe working with Nancy Mercado.  

I loved the places in NYC that Amy, Beryl and Miss Sophia visited. I can't believe I grew up so close to Queens and didn't know about Houdini's grave. How did you come up with such interesting places for your characters to travel to? Have you visited Houdini's grave?

"Because the first few drafts of AMY were more focused on a scavenger hunt around New York to search for clues to solve a historical mystery, I spent a lot of time thinking up cool places for Amy to go. I think I actually even googled  ‘cool places in and around N.Y.’ Honestly, I can’t recall what led me to Houdini in the first place, but as I started researching his life and death and discovered the secret message to his wife from beyond the grave, I became determined to make him a small part of the story. Having a Houdini’s graveyard scene in AMY was too awesome to pass up though. Actually, my agent, editor and I did an abbreviated ‘Footsteps of Amy’tour around NY, including Houdini‘s grave. Check it out here "
The tour looks like great fun.  Now I have so many new places to put on my “to visit” list.

One of my favorite parts of your book was learning about the immigrant Anna. Her story is so intriguing.  I don't want to give anything away here, but did this happen in history?

"The historical mystery in the book is true. I was breezing through an article about Jews in American history and came across this three line blurb about it. I was shocked that I’d never heard the story before. So, even though, Anna is fictional, this odd piece of American history seemed like the perfect element to weave into her story."

What's the best writing advice you ever received?

"‘Success leaves clues,’ is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard just generally. When I started trying to emulate the habits and philosophies of writers who I admired, basic concepts surfaced, like write everyday, stay focused, persevere in an intelligent way."

It was just announced that you have a second book coming out. Congratulations! Can you tell us about it?

"The working title is THE ACCIDENTAL SAINTHOOD OF JENNA BLOOM, which I really like and am thinking will probably stick. It’s a humorous YA and the easiest way to describe it would be to quote Publisher’s Weekly which says, ‘a comedy of errors about an awkward teen who becomes the unlikely object of her guardian angel's affection, much to the calamity of the town musical, the dismay of all the popular girls and the demon who has it in for her.’

It was acquired by Nancy Mercado at Roaring Brook and I’m very excited to be working with her again. You could say that I’m just excited in general and looking forward to diving into the book. Right now, it’s scheduled for release in the spring of 2012."

 Thanks for stopping by Ramble Street, Laura. To find out more about Laura’s book and to read her very entertaining blog, visit her at

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Big Birthdays

It's 4:48 in the morning and today is my birthday. I can't believe I'm writing this. I'm not the type of person who mentions that sort of thing. There have been years where if it weren't for my friends and family I would have forgotten about the day completely. And all that attention makes me run the other way.
When I was growing up, my mom would offer to make homemade frosted cupcakes for me to bring to school. Every year I refused. What if the teacher didn't celebrate birthdays or the kids in the class didn't like homemade cupcakes? Come to think of it, in all my years of school that never happened, but September was always the beginning of a new year, and you just never knew.
So maybe the reason I mentioned my birthday is because I'm still in that pre-coffee sleepy state. But it's also a big one, and those always make you feel more contemplative and perhaps a bit more brave.
I've got no major plans for the next decade. Okay, I have a few but I'm not talking about them. I try not to take them too seriously. Plans can scatter. Something as simple as a phone call can change everything. Sometimes that call can bring what you've only dreamed about and other times...well...oh heck, it's my birthday so I'm not going talk about the other times. But let's just say the past decade had a few major twists and turns.
I'm not sure if there really is such a thing as birthday wisdom, but there should be. What's the point of growing older if you haven't learned something? So please forgive and indulge my philosophical ramblings, but you only have big birthdays once every decade so I promise not to do this again until the next one.
Let's talk about your day for a moment. I bet it's going to be busy. I bet it's filled with projects, meetings, chores, a to-do list the size of the state of Texas, lots of unfinished business and then there's that front door that slams shut and you keep telling your husband that it's really bad feng shui and you don't know how to fix it (okay, maybe everyone doesn't have the front door issue). But there's a good chance that some part of your body hurts and you're dealing with a few aches and pains. And I bet there's something that you want to buy that you can't afford. And that there's something you want to do, but you don't have the time to do it.
And that is the good stuff. Really.
Some day it's not going to be like this.
I don't want to cue the scary music here. I mean this in a good way. Change isn't bad. Oh sure. There are going to be some major bumps, but your life could take wonderful turns. Amazing things will happen to you (and to me too). But for better or for worse, there will be a time when your life is very different than the one you have now. So enjoy this day.
I could never have imagined all the twists and turns that my life has taken. And when I was younger, I could never have imagined being where I am. But I'm glad I'm here.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Breaking the Rules

 That's my dog, Chi, on the couch. She's a rule breaker extraordinaire.  Every day, she tests her rules and every day, she gets away with something. I can almost see her thought process "Sure, I'm not supposed to drink the tea or eat the cookies Nan left on the coffee table, but she's probably not that hungry since she walked away and I'm sure she wouldn't mind sharing just this once."  
For Chi, the rules are always negotiable. And at least once a day, she gets away with breaking them.
 I understand rules.  Heck, when it comes to Chi, I'm the one who makes them (my husband, not so much).  
Of course, in writing there are rules too. I want to know what they are.  I want editors, agents, and other writers to talk about them at conferences, blog about them, tweet about them.  I want to know what draws them into a story and what drives them crazy.  
But rules are fun to break. And I love it when writers break them.

Below are some writing rules (ones I've read about, heard at conferences or found on the web) and some great examples of how to break them.

RULE:  Don't start your story with an onomatopoetic word.
RULE BREAKER: Pam Bachorz "Candor"
 First line in her great book:
"CA-CHUNK, CA-CHUNK, CA-CHUNK. The sound drifts through my bedroom window. Pokes through my homework haze."

RULE: Avoid use of flashbacks.
RULE BREAKER:  Gayle Forman "If I Stay"  
As she lies in a coma, seventeen-year-old Mia must make a choice between life and death. The story is told in a series of flashbacks. It is gripping and beautiful.

RULE:  Never start with your character waking up.  I had a list of books I've read that started with the mc waking up, but seemed to have lost it. So I went onto the kidderlit random first line generator to find these. (If you don't know this site, it generates first lines to pb/mg/ya books. It's addictive.)
RULE BREAKER: Eve Bunting "The Banshee" 
First line:
"I'm half asleep when I hear her wailing."
RULE BREAKER: Kristen Tracy "Camille McPhee Fell Under the Bus"
First line:
"When I woke up and kicked the covers off, I moved my legs back and forth like a superpowered scissors."

RULE: A first line should get the reader right into the action.
RULE BREAKER:  Lucy Maud Montgomery  "Anne of Green Gables"
The first sentence is 148 words long. It's not about Anne at all. Here's a link if you want to read it.    It's not really fair to hold this book to contemporary rules and standards since it's over a hundred years old. But I adore this book. And I get a kick out of the long opening line so it's always worth mentioning.    

When I find my misplaced list of rule breakers, I'll post some more. So how do you feel about breaking the rules and do you notice when other writers do it?                                            

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Road Not Taken

A poem that always leaves me puzzled is Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken.  Most people know it by its most famous line "I took the road less traveled by".  When I first heard the poem in high school, my English teacher said it was about a celebration of individualism, of going your own way, forging your own path, etc etc. But I never bought into that explanation.
The poem seems simple enough. The first stanza puts us right in the middle of the woods with a hiker who comes to a fork in the path. A decision has to be made about which road to take. That part I understand.
But what I don't get is the narrator's voice. I never know exactly what tone to take when I read it (which makes reciting it out loud very difficult). It starts out factual, but then it runs the range of emotions. Sometimes the voice seems gloomy. Other times it’s optimistic. Other times it seems cagey and sly. Every time I read it, I get another feeling.
And then there’s that last stanza which talks about a future regret. What do you do with the line "I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence…?" Go ahead. Place the back of your hand on your forehead and say that line out loud.  It's almost melodramatic, and Mr. Frost is not known for melodrama.
A few months ago, I did a little research. Here's what I found.  When someone asked Robert Frost about this poem, he said, "You have to be careful of that one. It's a tricky poem. Very tricky." 
Some scholars believe Frost wrote this poem in the persona of his friend Edward Thomas. Frost and Thomas took frequent walks in the woods and Thomas would always wonder about the other paths. Now the voice starts to make a little bit of sense. Instead of it being Robert Frost’s typical voice, he’s writing in a way that gently pokes fun of his wistful friend. BTW, I can totally relate to Edward Thomas when it comes to wondering about those other roads. Playing the "what if" game is one of my favorite pastimes.
Okay, let's get back to that path.  The narrator looks down one road but then takes the other “because it was grassy and wanted wear” so we assume he took that road less traveled.  But then in the very next line he claims that when it comes to travelers the paths are pretty much equal: “Though as for that, the passing there/Had worn them really about the same”.
Some scholars suggest that in those lines Frost is talking about his own decision to become a poet.  Maybe he’s saying the world is filled with poets.  Writers like to think that their decision to write is unique but anyone whose ever been acquainted with a slush pile will tell you that there are a lot of us out there.
So he’s taking a path that’s well worn. Then why does he sigh?  And why does he know he’s going to sigh?  For me, this poem always comes back to those last lines and the sigh that the narrator has planned for the future.  Is it one of regret?  Of satisfaction? Or is he still making fun of his friend?
I can’t decide.
There’s a reason I’m thinking about this poem. I’m at a point where I have to make some decisions for the characters in my w.i.p.  And I’m having a hard time.
I know. I know. Writers are supposed to write and eventually our characters will let us know how to shape the story. But honestly, sometimes I have to step in and make a few decisions.  First person vs. third?  Where and how the story begins. Right now, my main character is telling me every detail of his life including his earliest memories. At some point I’m going to have to say to him, “Dude, that’s not going into this story”.
So when you’re writing and you come to that proverbial fork in the road, how do you make your decisions?  How do you know it’s the right path?  Heck, how do you know you're making the right decisions in your non-writing life too?

BOOK GIVE AWAY: I’m so thrilled to be a guest blogger on Ellen Potter’s and Anne Mazer’s creativity blog this week.  Their book SPILLING INK is one of my new favorite books on writing. SPILLING INK is written for kids, and children will love it. But it’s a great book for writers too. Both Ellen and Anne are very forthcoming about their own writing process. I love this book for its great practical advice and for its honesty.
 Hop on over and make a comment on the blog post, and you’re automatically entered into the contest to win a copy of SPILLING INK.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Why I write middle grade: It started with an apple

Down the block from where I grew up, there was an old house with a beautiful garden. Unlike the other homes in Massapequa, this one had a chain link fence surrounding the front lawn. I'm not sure exactly how high it was but when you're in third grade and about 4 feet tall, the fence appeared insurmountable.
On each side of the walkway leading up to the house, there was an apple tree.
Now my memory could be playing tricks on me, but that year, there was this apple that appeared fully grown the moment the tree blossomed and stayed on that tree until it dropped its leaves in late fall.
Every afternoon, my friend and I would walk by that apple.  (For privacy reasons, I'm changing my friend's name and calling her Eve).
"It's going to be gone. It's too perfect not to pick," Eve would say when we rounded the corner before we reached the house.
But the apple was still there.
"They don't want it. Otherwise they would have eaten it by now." 
Eve agreed. "If someone doesn't pick it soon, it will fall to the ground and rot".
But it never did.
Oh sure, there were other apples on that tree. But none of them captured our attention like this perfectly formed, brilliant red, amazingly round thing of beauty. 
"Maybe we could knock on the door and ask them if they'd give it to us," Eve suggested. But the gate was always locked. So we'd slow down, stop to tie our shoes and linger, hoping to find someone outside. There was never anyone around (which is a funny thing since gardens like this don't happen by themselves. Somebody had to be tending to it).
We talked about what that apple would taste like.  We even talked about hopping the fence, climbing that tree and picking it.
"It would have to be me," I'd say. "I'm a better climber." But that fence was high and that tree wasn't an easy one to climb.
Every day we'd come up with a new scheme, but we never picked that apple. Eve wasn't the type of girl to do it, and I was too afraid I'd get caught.
Looking back, I wish I had.
Yes, I know. I'm talking about trespassing and theft so I'm not exactly proud of my wishful thinking. 
Here's the thing: If my friend and I were book characters, the story would have ended differently.
Those two girls would have gotten to that apple, and whatever the consequences, it would have been an adventure.
That's one of the wonderful things about middle grade novels. It allows readers to go exploring and do things they normally wouldn't do.
If you ask me why I write middle grade,  I'd tell you how important books are to people that age and how important they were to me when I was young. I'd also wax poetic about how so many MG books are beautifully written, talk about character arcs and themes, and ramble on and on about my favorites.
But maybe there's another answer.  Maybe the real reason I write middle grade stories is because someplace deep inside me, there's a third grade girl reaching for an apple.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Two Types of Writers or Two Types of People?

Almost every day, here's how my work morning begins:
Before I run into the library, I look down to make sure I'm wearing shoes.  I check to make sure I'm wearing socks. I give myself an extra point in my shoes and socks match. If it's seasonally appropriate and I'm wearing sandals, I make sure I'm not wearing socks.
I take a quick look at my shirt to see if it sort of goes with my pants. Then, I feel the lobes of my ears to see if I'm wearing earrings. All the while, I'm wondering if everything that should be in my bag (my laptop, cell phone, etc) is really there.
This tells you three things about me.
1. I have a hard time getting out of the house in the morning
2. I'd be a great candidate for that fashion show "What Not To Wear"
3. I'm not a planner.
Once, when I told a friend about my morning routine, she suggested that I decide what I was wearing the night before. She told me that on Sunday nights, she picks out her clothes for the entire week. 
And there you have the great divide: My friend is a planner. And I am not.
If you're reading this and you're a planner, you're nodding at the good common sense of her plan. If you're like me, you're wondering how this works. After all, what if on Thursday morning, instead of that happy-looking turquoise number you picked out, you feel the need to dress completely in black?
There are planners everywhere. You can spot them instantly. They're the ones with the big orders in the supermarkets,the parents of preschoolers who are sitting at the playground wondering about college, and the friends who pull out their BlackBerries to make arrangements for your next lunch date. 
You can also tell the non planners. We're the ones who see these things..and slowly back away.
Writers are often asked if they're plotters or pantsers (Pantsers refers to those who write "by the seat of their pants".) Personally I prefer the term "meanderer" but either way, you get the idea.  It's not hard to guess which camp I fall into.
Here's my question.  Is your writing process a manifestation of your personality?
If you're a planner in life, then are you a planner in writing? And if you prefer to take things as they come in everyday existence, then is that how you create a novel? Is it possible to be one thing in life and another as a writer? 
...and is there such a thing as middle ground?

ADDITIONAL COMMENT: A friend (who is a planner) read this and said that it was clearly skewed. For the record, I am in awe of people who can plan and wish I could be more like least, some of the time.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What do you remember about your favorite books?

Last week, I listened to the audio version of Jacqueline Woodson's Feathers. I loved it. I loved the language, how the words fell into my living room and wrapped themselves around me, and I loved the warm, soft feeling of the story. And the images... The scene where Sean and Frannie are sitting at the window and Sean talks about his bridge will stay with me forever. As will Frannie's struggle to find hope. And I had to listen to the part where they described the color yellow over and over again.

It's the feelings about a book that stay with me.  The plot will fade.  It always does. Even with cliff-hanger stories like Suzanne Collin's The Hunger Games, there are huge chunks of plot that I won't remember. I loved the edge-of-your-seat twists and turns in that story, and there are unforgettable scenes in that book. But what I remember most are the feelings I had while reading it. Anxiety. Tension. Surprise. I remember falling asleep at 3am and waking up at 6, determined to finish it and not really caring if the house fell down around me until I did.  

Sometimes I think I'm having one of those senior moments, but it's always been like this.  Books are like my other memories. I remember images, characters (or in real life, people) and how I felt during the experience.  I wonder if I'm alone.

How about you? What do you remember most about your favorite stories?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

And the winners are...

I had so much fun this week. Thanks to everyone who joined in the contest and who promised to howl at the full moon (you kept your promise, right?).  I'm glad the moon finally came out that night here in NJ.  It was touch and go for a while. The photo above is the moon over NYC taken by my amazing editor, Nancy Mercado.  She arroooed too!

 If you haven't seen this post from the fabulous Mike Jung, here he is, howling at the moon.  (I'm so touched that he thought to make this video. It's wonderful. Please go take a look). I only know Mike virtually but he is a fun, friendly guy.  Follow him on twitter. Friend him on Facebook. He'll make you laugh. (I'm telling you this because I believe it, but also because I'm going to have to give Mike some bad news soon...some very bad news).

So here's how we chose. I indulged my occasional Luddite tendencies and did this in a very low tech way. I printed out the blog post comments, cut and folded each comment till it was the same size, put them all into a box, shook the box (a lot), and then let my librarian friends pick the winners.

The librarians picked two names, one for each of the big prizes (one name was quite a surprise and we had a conversation about that too... but more about that later). 
After they were done, the librarians wanted to pick some more:
Librarian 1: What kind of a celebration is it if only two people win?
Librarian 2: Do you have anything else you can give away?
Me: Um, I suppose I have an extra hard cover book & a CD audio & an MP3 CD version.
Librarian 2: And didn't you get some soft cover books from when your book was part of the Scholastic Book Club?  
Librarian 1: And wouldn't it be fun to throw in a Slinky?

Who am I to argue with a group of librarians? (btw, what do you call a group of librarians? A shelf? A catalog? Is there a name for a bunch of librarians? okay.. I digress..)

Here are the winners:

SCBWI One Year's Membership:  Serenissima

Hard Cover Book:  Stephanie J Blake
CD Audio version:  salarsen
MP3 CD:   Thea Miller Ryan
Scholastic Paperback Version:  Suzanne
Scholastic Paperback Version:  Dana
Scholastic Paperback Version:  kcharman
Scholastic Paperback Version:  Deb
Scholastic Paperback Version:  Rosa
Slinky: Llehn

Did you notice I didn't mention the Neil Armstrong is My Uncle and Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me Gift Package yet?
The winner is: 
( Mike, take a deep breath here. To fill everyone in, it seems that Susanjsteward and Mike Jung have a friendly competition going on. It is friendly, right? There was a little tough talk on the blog and on twitter. And frankly with all the entries, I'm surprised at this too. Mike, if you look at this in the right context, it's kind of humorous. Of all the people who could have won, it went to your arch rival. That's kind of funny. Right?)

I can't change what the librarians picked (and I wouldn't want to because of course I'm happy for Susan -- as I am for all of the winners). 
 I did mention the rivalry to the librarians. And with all due respect to Susan, when a person risks getting mugged to create a moon howling video, you have to feel a little bad that his major competitor won. They thought I should send a hard cover book to Mike Jung for his extreme support in the birthday bash contest. After all, it's the first video for Neil Armstrong is My Uncle... Are you seeing a pattern here? Librarians like to give away free things. But who am I to argue with the librarians?

To all the winners, congratulations. Please send me your contact info. My email is on the right.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Party's Over: and How I Learned to Howl at the Moon.

I never howled at the moon before. Not really.  
Oh sure, to celebrate my book's release, I tried my best to channel my main character (or her best friend) and I went outside and I arroooed.  It was hardly what you'd expect. At their best, they were the quiet, respectable, "arrooos" of a person who is way too worried about what the neighbors would think.
I was there the day my librarian friends did a podcast.  While they were able to celebrate my book by howling in a spirited, carefree way, I sat there, watching. When they arroooed, I mouthed the word.  I can't help it. There are still too many times when I'm shy and quiet.
But last night, I had the contest.  And so many people promised to howl at the moon. My editor tweeted about it.  Blueboarder, Vijaya Bodach, blogged about it. Heck, Mike Jung promised to take a video,
There was a rainstorm. They're not fun events here. My dog, Chi, barks at every single flash of lightning.  There's nothing more stressful than watching your German Shepherd-sized dog freak out at a storm.  But it ended, and even though I couldn't see the moon, I went outside..and I arroooed.  A tiny whimpy arrooo.
At least I could say I did it.
I went inside, wondering why that was the best I could muster. It's not even like I have neighbors around. I live on a street filled with summer cottages. While this weekend, the summer people will come out in droves, last night the only people around was my eighty-year-old neighbor (and she would be totally cool about this).
I waited.
I checked twitter.
I tried to read.
I went outside one last time.
The sky was brighter, especially this one spot. I couldn't see anything because of the house next door. So I ran upstairs and looked out the window.
The moon was framed with clouds.
After the storm, it was wonderful to see. Perfect. Peaceful. Reassuring. I love the moon.
I howled. 
It was loud.
And the next time, it was louder.
They sounded so real my dog ran up the stairs and stood by my side.
So for the first time in my life, I arroooed.
Thanks to everyone who joined me.

My librarian friends will be randomly picking the contest winners today.  I'll post the results tonight.

Having some problems with the computer tonight. Will post in the morning. Sorry for the delay.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Neil Armstrong is My Uncle..Birthday Bash and Giveaway!

My book is a year old this month! Time to party! The first year after a debut book launch is something to celebrate. It’s time for a giveaway:

Giveaway #1: Neil Armstrong is My Uncle... is a Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators 2010 Golden Kite Honor Recipient. As part of that honor, I received a year’s membership to the association. But wait! I already am a member and expected to pay my way. (Frankly, it’s the best money I’ve ever spent). So I’m offering a one year’s membership to the SCBWI to another writer.

The first year I joined, some friends gave me a year's membership as a present. I can’t imagine a better gift. I’m certain I would have never been published if I hadn’t joined the SCBWI. It’s time to pay it forward and pass this on.

Giveaway #2: For those of you who are readers, kickball players, space enthusiasts, chocolate lovers, devotees of the 1960s or fans of Massapequa, there’s a Neil Armstrong Is My Uncle... gift basket --complete with a signed book, a slinky, tootsie rolls, a mini-kickball, a faux-Olympic medal, assorted book-related goodies, and some chocolates from Massapequa’s own Krisch’s Candy Store. Here’s my blog post on the walking tour in Massapequa if you want to see a picture of the amazing chocolates inside this store.

To enter this contest, you don’t have to post to Goodreads, blog, Tweet or anything (although.. you know.. no one’s stopping you from spreading the word). All you have to do is promise to howl at the next full moon (it’s something that happens in the story).
If you’re not sure how to do it, here’s a clip of my librarian friends saying “Arrooo!”
The next full moon is next Thursday, May 27, 2010. Winners will be chosen randomly on May 28th. Place a comment below. Make sure it’s not anonymous, of course. Let me know that you’re going to “arrooo” at that moon and you’re in the raffle. If you’re shy like me, you can ‘arrooo’ quietly. If you’re a writer (or thinking about writing) and want to also be included in the SCBWI one year membership giveaway, also include “SCBWI” in your comment.

Monday, May 10, 2010

What I Learned at the NJ Young Author’s Conference.

The New Jersey Young Authors Conference is a chance for elementary school students (aka the “young authors”) to talk with us, um, older authors.  This year, I was thrilled that I was invited to participate.

Since my presentation was for young writers, I came up with ten rules for writing and had the first letter of each rule spell out the expression “work it out”.  A friend reminded me that I had come up with an “acrostic” device.  Cool. Right?  I was all set to try it out.

The room was crowded -- packed with fourth graders and their parents. But I was ready. I had my props ( slinkies, a kickball, a July 20, 1969 newspaper) and of course, I had my trusty PowerPoint presentation. 

Sometimes when I get nervous, I forget words (admittedly, not a good trait for either a writer or a speaker).  The moment my school librarian host introduces me, the word “acrostic” slips away.

I wonder what will happen when I get to the “Work it Out” part of my presentation, and I try to recall as many multi-syllabic “a” words as I can.

Agnostic. Anagrammatic. Achromatic.

The intro is over. It's my turn. I begin talking about my book. But I’m thinking…

Acoustic.  Acetic.

I’m talking about the importance of stories now.

Anastatic. Anachronistic. Acrobatic.

It’s time to move into the “Rules for Writing”. When “Work It Out” comes up on the PowerPoint, my librarian host writes it lengthwise on easel paper (for the student to fill in the rules).

I am out of “a” words.  There’s nothing left in my brain. So I decide to ask the audience.

“Does anyone know the word for when the first letters in each line form a word or message?”

I look at the parents for help.  Some shrug. A few look away.  I look at the fourth graders. About a dozen hands shoot up.  “Acrostic” they say in unison.

“That’s it!” I say, and I feel saved.  I’m able to move on with the rest of my talk. 

That day, I learned what I already knew. That fourth graders are smart, interested in writing and know some pretty fancy words.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Earth Day Quotes

Here are some quotes to celebrate Earth Day!

"A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in." -- Greek proverb

"Earth laughs in flower."-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

 "No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden."-- Thomas Jefferson

"What is a weed? A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered." -- Emerson

"He who plants a tree, plants a hope."

"Flowers are the sweetest things God ever made, and forgot to put a soul into."-- Henry Beecher

“A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.”  -- Walt Whitman

”Nature has no mercy at all. Nature says, “I’m going to snow. If you have on a bikini and no snowshoes, that’s tough. I am going to snow anyway.”  --Maya Angelou

“I will be the gladdest thing under the sun. I will touch a hundred flowers and not pick one.” –Edna St. Vincent Milay

“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.” –Desiderata

“To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon the verdant green hills is the most perfect refreshment.” – Jane Austin 

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature; he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” – John Muir

Want to win a wonderful book and get $40 dollars in donated in your name to an organization that plants trees?  Head on over to Alison Formento's blog.  She’s giving away a copy of her new book, This Tree Counts! It’s a perfect book for celebrating Earth Day. To enter, all you have to do is tell her the name of your favorite tree. She'll also donate $40 to American Forests in the winner's name.


Thursday, April 8, 2010

Who do you write for?

The answer seems obvious. Whether you write middle grades, YAs or picture books, you’re aiming for a very specific demographic. But when you’re writing, do you think “hey, this book will amuse and delight ten-year-olds everywhere”, or do you write with a specific person in mind?

In his book On Writing, Stephen King said that he believed that “every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking ‘I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?’” King went on to say that his ‘ideal reader’ is his wife, Tabitha. That is one of the most romantic things I’ve ever read. He wrote all those scary creepy stories for the love of his life.

It makes me feel a little guilty. My husband is supportive of my writing in a million different ways. He was the first person to ever call me an author (and that was after I wrote the first sentence of my first story.) But he doesn’t share my passion for middle grade books and he doesn’t read many of them. And I feel that having a basic understanding of the genre in which you are writing is a non-negotiable prerequisite for an ‘ideal reader’. So while my husband will celebrate my accomplishments, build me up when I’m anxious and listen to me read the same paragraph over and over again, he’s not the person I have in mind when I write.

Elizabeth Gilbert wrote her latest book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, for twenty-seven women. After coming to the conclusion that she could never satisfy the millions of readers of her best seller Eat, Pray, Love, she narrowed it down her small circle of female friends. She even named them in her forward. Sure, whittling it down from millions to 27 is a huge feat, but I can’t imagine writing while thinking about 27 of my nearest and dearest friends. It would be hard to keep them all in my head. Besides, they all have such definite personalities. I wonder, at what point, my loved-ones would start to argue about the direction to take the story. Would they come to a consensus about a single sentence? Twenty-seven is way too many. For me, it needs to be one.

I have trusted readers whose opinions I cherish. Sometimes it’s a writing buddy, other times it’s my school librarian friend who has read every single piece of drivel I’ve ever written (if that’s not a definition of true friendship, I don’t know what is), other times it’s my nephew (he’s grown now, but he was a boy when I started writing).

For my work-in-progress, my ideal reader is a person I will never see again.
I met her on the release day for Neil Armstrong is my Uncle. I spent the day at a school visit celebrating with 4th and 5th graders. It was quite a party. Ice Cream. Cards. Banners. When the day was done, I sat in the classroom alone waiting for the teacher (aka my sister) to do an errand somewhere in the school. I was so tired I put my head on the desk. When I picked it up, a 5th grader was standing in front of me.

I’d met so many children that day that I couldn’t remember her name. I know she told it to me more than once. I was too embarrassed to ask. I wondered how long she’d been standing there.
What’s your next book about?” she asked.
I decided to be cagey. “What do you think it should be about?”

It was the question she was waiting for. She talked about two of the characters in my book. She wondered what happened to one of them. And she talked about friendship. She even gave me ideas for plots and themes. Then she put her hands on her hips. “And that,” she said, “is the story you should write next.”

Before I could ask her a single question she raced for the door.
While my w.i.p. has different characters than the ones she suggested, I keep her themes in mind. I still think about how confidently she spoke and how quickly she got to what was important. And when I write, I think of her. And I wish I could remember her name.