It’s All Relative

Last week, we had a rare winter week with four days of temperatures in the mid-40’s. The week before and this week were more normal for this winter – hovering somewhere between 4 and 30 degrees. When you have had weeks upon weeks of cold, windy, gray weather (combined with being stuck in the house with 2 hyper children for repeated snow days), 45 degrees feels like a heat wave. Add in some sun, and you might just close your eyes and imagine that Spring has arrived.

So last week, I found myself in such a situation. Running shoes pounding the pavement, sun on my face, a good beat in my ears, and I was in heaven. I managed to repeat this process twice during the 4 days, setting a new personal time in the process.

Life is challenging sometimes. There are things you want to do and things you want to accomplish, and frequently what you have to do gets in the way. You’re dying to write down that new story in your head. You’re almost done with a major revision and you just need a few more hours. You want to get your novel out to agents, and you need time to get the synopsis right.

So I’m trying out a new mantra. Do your best with what you have. This could apply to time, money, weather, or effort. Was it the perfect running weather last week? No – it was still a little icy and I’d rather run in shorts. But it was so much better than it could have been in the middle of the winter, I enjoyed every minute of it. Did I have time to completely finish my synopsis earlier this week? No – other deadlines took most of my time, but I did squeeze out an hour to dictate the story. And any day where I can write is so much better than working a 12 hour day in a corporate office.

So rather than feeling inadequate, or self-critical, or disappointed, I choose to make the most of what lies before me. Don’t get me wrong – some days I just end up mad at myself for what is left undone. But for this one moment, I choose to be content. And look forward to the day when I can again feel the pavement beneath my feet and the sun on my face.

Gifts for Your Favorite Book Lovers

Yes, it’s true. There are 18 shopping days left until Christmas. But don’t despair! If you have book lovers in your life, I have some great ideas for you. I have several nieces and nephews who are avid readers, and I searched high and low this year for something creative to get them. I always get them a gift card for Barnes and Noble, but what could I get them that would be interesting and unique?

  1. Zipper pouches, Bags, and T-shirts made with classic book cover images: Vintage Books
  2. Clip-on Booklights
  3. Journals: There are so many kinds, you can choose one that really suits your reader/writer. There are small ones ideal for backpacks or purses, larger format ones with room for sketching or doodling, and even ones for beginners like the one my son chose. There are even ones with writing prompts to get you started!
  4. Story Cubes: I bought these for my niece who is a budding writer. Each set has different images. To get you started on writing a story, you just roll the cubes and write something about whatever turns up.
  5. Personal Library Kit, with date stamp included: I wish I had one of these when I was young. I made up my own version for my personal “library.” My brother was never particularly good at returning my books on time.
  6. In the Library Perfume: Really.
  7. Tablet covers and Purses that look like book covers
  8. Car Window Decals: I thought I had seen all versions of the family decals, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover the Reading Family decals!Xmas bulbs 2013

Best wishes in your shopping endeavors. I’m heading to my local independent bookstore next week to snag some other creative gifts.

What are you buying the readers and writers in your life this year? Share in the comments!

The Music of Life

I’m sure each of us has a personal philosophy about music and its ability to enhance or detract from an experience. Film critics often discuss how a movie soundtrack either elevates or destroys the feeling of a film. Some people would not have gotten through college without some rock and roll in the background, while others preferred the silence of the library.

For me, different situations require different musical support. When I clean my house (which I detest), I play some music from my “Upbeat and Fun” playlist. And I play it loud. It seems to give me a little hop in my step as I wipe the same counters and wash the same floors, week after week. Extra bonus if my kids pop into the kitchen for an impromptu dance party.

When I am writing a first draft, I prefer to write in relative silence. No external distractions to take me away from the getting those thoughts out of my head and onto the page, as quick as possible. When I’m writing this blog, I do have a little wiggle room- not music exactly, but right now the swish of the dishwasher is proving to be quite soothing.

I was always the silent studier- probably because I know that I am easily distracted and I need to actively work to be focused. So it surprised me to find that there is some room for music when I write. Not in my first draft, granted, but during revision.

You may have read on this blog about my second middle grade novel work in progress – it is a time travel story set mostly in 1983. At one point in revising and expanding the story, I got stuck. So I put on some 80’s music for inspiration. And it worked! Many memories of my own experiences in the 80’s came back to me, and I had fun adding lots of vivid details to the story. Who knows if they’ll all make it to the final version, but it should be a more realistic and fun story.

This past week, music proved a happy little accident. I had made revision mark-ups to my first novel, and was sitting at the computer in the kitchen in the evening entering them. And my husband fell asleep in his chair in the next room. And snored. Loudly (sorry for giving up your secret, dear). So I put on my headphones and played some Justin Timberlake and Brian Setzer Orchestra to drown him out. Before I knew it, it was 11 PM and all my revisions were done. Yay!

So whatever part music plays in your daily life – inspiration, cheerleader, soul-soother – make sure to turn it on. Whenever the mood strikes you. And have fun!

Need a Quick Diversion?

Have you every just needed a moment to escape your thinking? Whether you are writing, or worrying, or trying to puzzle something out, sometimes we need a way to step back and refresh. For me, when I’m mentally stuck or really deep into something that I can’t see the way out of, I try to think about something else. Not procrastinate – just a brief diversion. Just enough to come back a few minutes later with a refreshed perspective. Think of it as a mental spa treatment!

So what’s a good diversion? How about:

  1. Write your grocery list for the next week’s meals
  2. Sit down and do a puzzle with your child/grandchild/friend
  3. Write something. If you are taking a break from your writing, write something else completely different: a poem, a list, or a writing exercise.
  4. Call someone that you really enjoy talking to. If they are not home, leave them a message about why you enjoy talking to them.
  5. Step outside and take a deep breath. Pick some flowers/weeds or go looking for signs of Spring.

Today, let’s try #3. Here’s a writing prompt to try:

In one of my current works in progress, I am writing about a brother and sister who discover a doorway in their secret hideout in the hall closet. It takes them back to 1983. I have fond memories of the 1980’s, so I am thoroughly enjoying writing all of the atmosphere and observations. Not to mention the parachute pants, big hair, and leg warmers.

Think back to a time of fond memories for you. Write a paragraph or list of the things that immediately come to mind about that time. It could be events, things, or people. Try to include all five senses: what did it smell like, what did it look like, what is a taste you remember, what could you feel or touch, what did you hear? Don’t get caught up in writing something formal. You can write this as a list, as a letter to yourself (now or then), or as a stream of consciousness.

The goal is to put yourself in that place and time, just for a few minutes. Just to let your mind take a big “ahhh.”

Then close your words up into your journal, stick them in your wallet, or tuck them in your bag. Put them somewhere for you to find when you need another moment to step away.

What time would you escape to in your mind? Please share with us in the comments!

Review: That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown

This week I thought I’d share one of my children’s all time favorites. It may be a little hard to find, but I found it at both my library and through used book sellers.

That Rabbit Belongs to Emily BrownThat Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown

Written By: Cressida Cowell

Illustrated By: Neal Layton

Orchard Books, 2007, Hardcover Version

Target Audience: Ages 3-7

Genre: Fiction

How We Discovered This Book

I happened to borrow this book from our library based on the cover art, and my children and I fell in love with it. I tracked down a used copy for our home library.


Emily Brown goes everywhere with her bunny, Stanley. They have all kinds of adventures: in space, in the Amazon rain forest, and many other places. The Queen decides she wants a toy as nice as Stanley. In fact, she wants Emily Brown’s bunny. Now.

What I Liked

The story is told with much creativity and humor. The illustrations not only complement the story, they have many additional details waiting for a perceptive child to find. The writing is so tight and critical to the story, you feel as if Ms. Cowell chose every word very carefully. There are no extra words in this story, but it doesn’t feel spare, either. We quickly know what Emily Brown is all about without much text.

What Did My Son Aidan Think?

Both my son and my daughter love this book. We currently read it at bedtime 3-5 times a week. They each have their favorite parts that they recite during the storytelling. Aidan’s favorite part (and mine) is when Emily Brown corrects the Queen’s military men, sent to get the bunny: “This rabbit is NOT for sale. And his name is NOT Bunnywunny. It’s Stanley.” My daughter loves when the men offer Emily ten talking dolls that say “Mama, Mama.”


If you enjoy this book too, and would like have more fun with it, here are some resources to check out:

Lesson Plans (Lesson 2)

Emily Brown Activity Sheets

Discussion Topics

Making My Story Matter: A Second Look at Revision

A few posts ago, I wrote about revisioning my novel, a la Cheryl Klein. Now I’m back at it, with another book – Writing A Book That Makes A Difference by Philip Gerard.

I admit it – I’ve had this book for well over a year and haven’t even cracked it open enough to skim more than a page or two. At first glance, it’s dense – altogether different from Cheryl Klein’s light, but informative transcribed speeches. But on closer inspection, this is a winner. I suppose it’s important to know why I even picked the book back up, after many failed attempts. Last winter, an agent requested a full manuscript read of a YA novel I’m working on. She liked some bits, but overall said the book wasn’t about much. Those are my words (she was very polite) but it got me thinking. I knew the book was about more, but after the teeniest bit of scrutiny, I had to agree with her. But what to do?

I underwent a big revision, after a random and fortuitous email sparked an idea, an idea that raised the stakes in the book. At this point, I knew I wanted the book to *be* something, at least in my eyes. Not just a bittersweet coming of age story (which it still is). I wanted my book to make a difference. Or at least read like it did. So I picked up Gerard’s book.

Yes, I’ve skimmed a bit, but the book isn’t as dense as I’d first thought. And there’ve been lots of great tidbits including:

– Have each character “present different facets [of an issue] in their actions and words”. Gerard is referring to novels affected by didacticism. Using characters in this way helps alleviate preachiness. Though my story isn’t driven directly by an “issue,” this approach has helped me flesh out the sidekicks in such a way that they now (hopefully) aid my protagonist in reflecting on what’s challenging her. Duh, right?

-A quote from John Steinbeck, included in the book: “A chapter should be a perfect cell in the whole book and should almost be able to stand alone. If this is done then the breaks we call chapters are not arbitrary but rather articulations which allow free movement of the story.” Wow. For some reason, this struck me something fierce. Mostly in that I’ve never quite reached that level of revision, and I mean that in the best of ways. Yes, I’ve reworded and rearranged and cut and inserted and and and, but this one quote raised my goals to heavenly heights. Could each chapter in my novel almost stand alone? Not yet.

Perhaps the most striking thing about reading Gerard’s book was realizing how I just hadn’t been ready to approach my novel in this way. I knew the people, but only vaguely. But my last revision helped me get to the place that I was even ready to delve into a book like Gerard’s, a book about meaning, a literary book (egads!). Now that I know why my characters matter (at least in my head), about why they as individuals will each make a specific difference in the story, my mental revision feels like it’s been expanded exponentially. Of course, now I have to actually do the revision.

With a big thank you to Philip Gerard.  His book made a difference.

Goal! – Sports in YA Lit.

Let me be frank. I am not a sporty person. Yes, I love the Olympics. Yes, I watched horse racing as an eighth-grader, even reruns. Yes, I did train for a triathlon once. But would I ever have anticipated reading and enjoying a novel with a sports theme so strong it constitutes its own character? In two letters, no.

But I love Chris Crutcher. And every one of his books — the ones I’ve read at this point — are sports books.

I first heard about Mr. Crutcher at the SCBWI NYC Winter 2012 Conference. He was a key note speaker, and man did he ever rock. He talked about the importance of using humor in order to write about grief. The audience was laughing and crying, almost simultaneously, as he pulled us down to the darkest depths of an emotional experience, only to lift us up through some unexpected, humorous twist. I’ve since read a good handful of his books, and each has provided me with the same wondrous blend of dark and light. Crutcher is a master, that’s for sure.

And he loves sports. Whether it’s swimming, cross-country, football, or basketball, Crutcher’s ability to develop sports into a character of its own is pretty remarkable, and that’s coming from someone who is not a sporty person. At times, his blow by blow narration of sporting events can be overwhelming for non-sporty people. Truthfully, I have to tune some of it out. That’s because I have no idea about layups and sweeps and off-sides. Even so, Crutcher uses sports to showcase his characters and their personalities, and even a non-sporty like me can understand the positive influence that sports can have on a person, in this case a teenager.

My favorite book so far was Stotan! This book is about four boys — the only members of their high school swim team. Being a swimmer, or should I say someone who enjoys a lap swim now and then, I could relate to this one a bit more. The boys enlist in a training exercise put on by their coach, and it’s a b&#$^ of an exercise. Somehow, even though I’ve never swum for four hours straight, doing sprints and pyramids and crab-crawls on the rough poolside, I understood how the boys were going to be stronger because of this challenge, more able to withstand the grief that Crutcher puts them through.

If you like sports and you also like YA novels, I highly recommend Crutcher’s books. If you like see protagonists face the gritty grief of real life and come out of the water still breathing, then read his books.

Cut Away!

I’ve recently had some major aha moments during the revision process of a manuscript I first wrote two years ago. After a round of rejections, including one that gave me the smallest smidgen of feedback, I couldn’t quite figure out what the story needed. I knew the stakes needed to be raised – that the story needed to be about more than just the romance. And while it was hard to hear the agent’s feedback, I think I’d always known that the story was about more. But maybe this awareness was just on some majorly deep, subconscious level. 🙂 In order to move forward with the manuscript, I needed to figure out what that “more” was.

I struggled with this for a while, until I received a mass email from a non-profit group I’ve supported a few times over the years. My mouth fell open. Just like that I’d found my “more”. I knew what the story needed, and my next wave of revisions was off.

Now I’m finding that so much of what had seemed so critical to the first draft of this story – and even to the second and third drafts – really didn’t matter so much in this new revision. Cut. Cut. Cut. I don’t think I would’ve seen these scenes for what they were – superfluous, fat, filler – without this new vision of what the story was really about. It felt so freeing to drop these scenes, which I am still in love with, into my “graveyard” file. Maybe they’ll find life again in another story someday. (On that note, if I end up pulling them out the graveyard someday, does that mean they’ll have to be in a zombie novel? Hope not…)

I’d always heard about people dropping major scenes, really rewriting, but I guess I’d never truly experienced it before. I suppose I’m lucky the trimming was voluntary and self-driven. Without those scenes, the manuscript will come together in a way I expect to be fresh. I’ll let you know.

You never know what will inspire re-visioning or a major trim session. But my wish is that, if you’re stuck, that you find your “more” to help you on your way.


Camp NaNoWriMo

Camp NaNoWriMo isn’t your ordinary summer camp. There’s no capture the flag (the last time I played the game, my braces ended up going through my bottom lip); no bug juice or grilled cheese made with Kraft singles; no saggy bunk beds or outhouses (yes, my summer camp did have an outhouse!). In other words, Camp NaNoWriMo has none of the good stuff. Just kidding!

Last November, I participated in National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo). Basically, a bunch of people (256,618 to be precise) get together as an online motivational writing group to each write their own 50,000 word novel. Many people aim for much higher word counts. Me, I squeaked by with just under 51,000. But I did it! Along 36,843 other people, I was a NaNoWriMo winner.

Basically, I completed the first draft of a young adult novel that I am now actively revising with the help of my critique group. The process of cranking out 50,000 words in 20 days (yes, I finished early) was fascinating. I woke up early and wrote for 30 minutes. If my son played by himself, I spit out another 350 words. When he napped, man, I could sometimes get in 1500. And of course I wrote into the night. I sent daily email updates to family and friends, and the accountability (and some good whip cracking) kept me going. I loved having the deadline and luckily my story flowed out. Of course, now comes the hard part. Revision.

But I’m putting that project aside so I can do Camp NaNoWriMo, a slimmed-down, summer version of the November event. I’ll still post my word count online, but I’m not planning on being as aggressive. (I’m writing this blog now, for example. Last November, I barely spoke to my family). The way I see it, there’s no point in not trying to complete a first draft. So, today as my sick son took his nap at 8:15 am (!!!), I typed out the first 879 words of my new, untitled WIP. Now, last November I managed over 3000 on my first day, so I’ll have to be okay with a slower pace.

I strongly encourage you to experiment with one of these events. They are free to participate in, you get some great discounts on all sorts of writing related things/services, and it’s just darn cool to say that I wrote a novel (albeit a bad one) in a month. Camp NaNoWriMo has two sessions–June and August.  What respectable camp would have only one? And of course, you can join NaNoWriMo in November.

Hope to see you there!