Friday, December 24, 2010

A Jewish Christmas

I absolutely love being Jewish during the Christmas season. Especially when Hanukkah is nowhere near the 25th of December, like this year. I don't have any shopping to do. Or wrapping. Or cooking. Or baking. Or cleaning. Or preparing for family gatherings. I don't have to decide who will be stuck at the kids' table. Or what I will serve to the vegan. Or to the one on the low-fat diet. I get to enjoy Christmas music and Christmas lights and Christmas sales. I get to receive lovely holiday cards with photos of kids growing up, and I don't have to send any in return. I wonder if this is this what it feels like to be Christian during Rosh Hashanah and Passover. Hmmm... must ask some of my Christian friends when those holidays roll around.

When I was a kid, my across-the-street neighbors, who were Jewish, used to have a Christmas tree, and we used to go over to their house and help them trim it. I loved it, but I never wished for my own tree. It sort of seemed weird to me for Jews to do that. But whatever. It was fun. And at the summer camp I attended, the last big activity of the summer was always Christmas, complete with a huge tree, cookie decorating, face painting, and presents. My senior year of high school, I spent Christmas with my friend at her family's farm in Virginia. I got to spend time with her younger cousins who firmly believed in Santa Claus. I got to go to Christmas mass. (I must admit I was nervous about that. I remember saying a little prayer to God before I set foot in the church, just to let him know I was still Jewish and this was only me sharing a holiday celebration with my friend.) I also got to milk a cow, but that's sort of besides the point.

So you see, I haven't missed out on Christmas. And I have to say, I loved when my own kids believed in Santa, and they plotted to stay up all night and watch the house across the street (the one with the twinkling Christmas lights) to see Santa arrive. I loved it even more on Christmas morning when they swore they saw him on his sleigh. And I loved it the most when we had a perfectly lovely lazy day, going to the movies and eating Chinese food.

So whether you're Jewish or Christian, or something else entirely, I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! I hope your holiday season is filled with love and laughter, good health and good fortune. See you in 2011!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

I hate waiting.

There. I've said it.

When I first started writing, I waited for the mail to come each day, hoping to find a magical acceptance letter hidden between the bills and magazines. I think my mail carrier might have been a little scared of me, the way I jumped out of my house everyday, the minute he came near.

Then, when I finally got published, I waited for reviewers to say nice things about my book. That waiting was even harder than the first kind. What if I stunk? Or what if I was a genius? Either way, my life would change dramatically. I became paralyzed with the anticipation. Waiting to see how my book would be received kept me from being able to focus on the important task at hand: writing my next book. Waiting was making me crazy.

After my first book got lovely reviews and even won a very nice award (and I determined I was neither genius nor stinky), I still had to wait. This time I was waiting to sell my second book. Then I waited for those reviews. And so on and so on and so on.

Yuck!

But, ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to say that I have found the cure for waiting! It comes in two parts.

Part I: I understand that the level of success of my writing career is not going to change who I am. I'm a writer. I get crabby when I don't write. I like having stories and characters in my head. I like the challenge of finding the right words and putting them in the right order. I constantly strive to write better books and dream bigger dreams. That's just who I am. Intellectually, there's nothing to wait for because I'm doing the thing I love to do.

Part II: When the logical part of my brain (See Part I above) isn't working, I appeal to my emotional side by plugging into my competitive spirit. Instead of waiting, I race. Right now, my agent is trying to sell my third novel. I'm pretty sure this is the best thing I've ever written, and I'm really excited about it. But at the same time, the market is tougher than ever. My sweet coming-of-age story for tweens is going to have quite a struggle to find its home. It's the perfect breeding ground for waiting-itis. But as I've blogged about before, I'm writing a new book, one that is completely different from anything I've ever attempted before. So here's what I'm doing... I'm racing against my agent. My goal is to finish the first draft of my fourth novel before she sells my third. She thinks she's going to win. I think I will. Truth is, I win either way. But don't tell her that!

Monday, December 06, 2010

365 Day Challenge

There's a kid named Alex in my town who is an amazing runner. I see him sometimes when I'm walking my dog or driving around the neighborhood, and I recognize him from far away because his stride looks so effortless and fast and powerful. Last week, my son told me that it was a big day for Alex because he had run for 365 consecutive days. Every single day for a year! We live in the Chicago suburbs. Our summers are hot and humid. Our winters are blustery and frigid. Our springs and falls are wet and windy. Can you imagine a 15-year-old boy running every single day for a year in weather like that? With typical teen distractions available to him all the time? It's no wonder his stride is so beautiful. It's no wonder that as a sophomore he's already one of the best runners on the varsity cross country team. His running may look effortless, but it's an illusion. He is putting in 100% effort, working every day, bit by bit, getting better, stronger, faster.

And isn't that true of all great things? The more you dedicate yourself, the more work you put into the creation of something, the more effortless it appears in the end. I really admire Alex's dedication. And I figure if he could do it, I can too. (I'm not talking about running, mind you. I hate to run!)

So, inspired by Alex, I've created a 365 Day Challenge, and I invite you to join me.

Choose something that you love and that you want to dedicate yourself to for an entire year. Working out? Writing poetry? Learning an instrument? Knitting? Singing? Creating a new business? Painting? Meditating? Shooting freethrows? The possibilities are endless. Now get a calendar. And go. No excuses. Find the time every day. And let me know how much progress you make. I bet we'll all have amazing stories of success to share.

My 365 Day Challenge is to write fiction. I'm one of those authors who tries to write everyday but quite often finds excuses why I can't get to it. (It's the weekend, It's a holiday, I don't have enough time, I have a headache, etc.) Recently, however, I realized I can get a lot of writing done in a small amount of time. If I turn off the internet, set the timer on my phone for 35 minutes and tell myself I have to continually write until the alarm beeps, I'm amazed at how much I accomplish. And usually, I can find several 35-minute chunks of time on even the busiest days. Every day I write for at least one 35-minute chunk, I'll mark it on my calendar. So far I'm on Day 6. Only 359 days to go!

Are you in? Let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

After the Honeymoon

You may recall about a month ago I was going on about how much I loved my job. I had just come up with this amazing idea for a new book, and I had the feeling if you locked me in a room for a month, I could write the whole thing and it would be a bestseller.

That, my friends, is called the honeymoon. Your idea is all shiny and new, and you just can't get enough of it. But alas, every honeymoon must come to an end. And although you still may be in love, you aren't dying to be with it every moment of every day. Reality sets in, and you find that your idea is a regular idea, with good points and annoying points, and it demands the regular effort of writing and thinking and revising and writing some more.

Please don't feel bad for me. I'm okay with the honeymoon ending. I've got other things in life that I need to pay attention to anyway. (Hi kids. Hi husband. Hi house!) And it's not like I'm at the 7-year-itch yet or heading for divorce. We're still newlyweds, me and my Big Idea. I still love thinking about it and figuring out what it's all about. I'm still committed. I may not be writing with the passion and intensity that comes during the honeymoon, but I'm still writing.

So how long will this newlywed phase last? I will let you know!

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

What It's Really Like to Be an Author:

It's fun.

1. It's going to see other authors speak.
Last night I took my niece to see Lisa Yee speak at Vernon Area Library. Lisa is the hilarious author of Millicent Min, Girl Genius, and lots of other great books. I love going to author presentations because I'm always looking to improve my writing and presenting skills. Why not learn from those who are doing it well?
Lisa introduced me to Peepy, and I introduced her to my latest addiction, Skinny Pop

2. It's making an impact in children's lives.
Today I visited a fifth grade classroom that had been reading Julia's Kitchen for read-aloud. I read them the final chapter and stayed to answer all their questions. The reception I received was so enthusiastic and energetic that I felt a bit like a celebrity. Have I mentioned lately that I love fifth graders??
Ms. Gordon's fifth graders and me

3. It's waiting to hear if your agent has sold your latest book.
Okay, maybe that's not always fun. There's definitely a dimension of anxiety with this one. These days publishers are not doing backflips when they see a middle-grade coming-of-age story cross their desks. But here's the thing... I only need one publisher to fall in love with my newest book. And it is kind of fun to imagine who that publisher will be. It's definitely fun to dream of a bright future for my manuscript!

4. It's developing new characters and stories.
I'm working on a new YA dystopian novel because I figured if you can't beat 'em, you might as well join 'em, and besides, I had this absolutely amazing story idea fly into my brain a couple of weeks ago, and I decided not to talk myself out of writing it. I'd been speeding along, writing faster than I normally do, when my agent reminded me that it can't be all plot. There has to be a compelling character with a distinct voice. Oh yeah, that. So now I'm thinking about this character I'm creating. She's sort of like a paper doll at this point, and I need her to be more flesh and blood. So I'm doing things like journaling from her point of view and imagining all aspects of her life. It's totally fun to create a character. Slowing down to do this important character work will definitely pay off in the long run.

5. It's curling up with a good book.
Yes, reading is a huge part of being a writer. I learn so much from other authors. I often re-read fabulous books to see how the authors crafted their stories. Currently re-reading Feed by M.T. Anderson. If you haven't read that book at least once, you are missing out big time!

So there you have it. Writing may be hard. But let's not forget how much fun it is, too.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Full Steam Ahead

So the Big Idea I wrote about two weeks ago? It's still big and bright and beautiful! I've outlined the entire book and written two chapters of it. And the best news is that I brought the first chapter to critique group on Monday and received a very enthusiastic response. One of my critique buddies actually predicted my agent will pee in her pants when she reads it. :-)

I don't know about that, but I am loving developing this story. Lots of writers are doing NaNoWriMo this month (where you try to write an entire novel in one month). I know I can't do that. I'm just not comfortable enough with writing so much crap, and believe me, if I tried to write a novel in a month, that's exactly what it would be. But I am trying to write A LOT. If I can write 100 pages by Thanksgiving, I'll be thrilled. Heck, if I can write 50 pages by Thanksgiving, I'll be thrilled.

Meanwhile, here is my new favorite song. Enjoy:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Big Idea

I seriously love my job. Love it! I don't care about all the yucky parts of being an author right now. All I care about is that my mind has been exploding with imagination lately. On Sunday as I was driving home from Michigan, a question popped into my head. It was a big question, prompted from playing "Would You Rather" with my kids as well as thoughts about my good friend who is about to undergo a bone marrow transplant. I can't tell you what the question was, but I promise you it was a Big Question. I immediately began pondering the answer to the question, and I discovered the answer sounded a lot like a book. A book that hasn't yet been written. A book that I want to write. That I need to write.

I floated my question and a bit of my answer to my husband and sons, and they were fascinated. You must understand that my husband and sons are not the least bit fascinated by the stories I normally ponder. And I don't blame them. How many males do you know who care about coming-of-age stories for girls?? But this story caught their imagination. And for the last few days I've been working out the details and discussing some of the problems with them, and instead of losing steam as the story unfolds, instead of coming up against a big Oh-That-Won't-Work or That's-So-Stupid moment, the story is getting bigger and better and more complicated in a really exciting way.

I feel so energized by this idea right now that I can imagine locking myself in a room for the next month and writing the whole book. It feels like it will flow right out of me. I have no idea how long this positive energetic feeling will last. But for now, I seriously love my job!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"The Great American Novel"

Today in the Chicago Tribune, Mary Schmich writes this about Jonathan Franzen's new book, Freedom:
"We live now in an age of thrillers, romances, and sci-fi. A novel that comes without a murder, a mystery, a vampire or sexy romance is likely to take the shortcut to the remainder table. As a result, few writers attempt the Great American Novel. The prospect that one might finally have arrived, to reflect back to us the details and deep truths about the moment we live in, is exciting."


I have no delusions that I will ever write the Great American Novel. I leave that up to the Jonathan Franzens of the world. But I do write realistic fiction for tweens. Coming-of-age stories. Books that mine the extraordinary in the ordinary. And lately I've wondered if that is enough. It's harder than ever for a novel to break out unless it's a fantasy or a dystopian or a very high concept.

But of course, everything runs in cycles. Could Freedom be the book that helps turn the tide back to realistic fiction? Aren't kids today just as eager to find themselves in a book as I was when I was growing up? Yes, there's a place for wizards and zombies and even vampires, but I don't think we'll ever stop needing real situations and real characters who make us laugh and cry and see the world and ourselves in a new light.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What Does Forgiveness Look Like?

Sometimes forgiveness is easy. You say, "I'm sorry." You kiss and make up. Or maybe you just hug.

But sometimes it's more complicated. Sometimes you realize a relationship will never be mended. You're hurt and angry, and you simply move on. There's no closure. There's no kissing and making up. There's only an echo of hard feelings and the fear that you will run into the offender(s) someday and won't know what to do. Should you say hello? Should you pretend not to notice them? Should you give them a piece of your mind and maybe a slap across the face? Or should you go overboard showing them how much better off you are now?

Of course none of those choices are good because they all give too much weight to the relationship that is supposed to be over. If you can't forgive, you will always have to fear those awkward occasions, and you will always carry that weight. But what if forgiveness looks different? What if it's not about sorry and making up? What if it looks like this:

The realization that the past has made you who you are today.
The belief that you like the person you've become.
The recognition that the person or people who hurt you did the best they could at that time in their lives.

I've struggled to forgive some people in my community. But I was picturing the easy kind of kiss-and-make-up forgiveness. I imagined calling them or bumping into them in the grocery store and saying, "Hey, I forgive you. Everything is great now. It all worked out for the best." I never did that because honestly, I never wanted to kiss and make up, and also they've never asked for my forgiveness. I really am better off without these particular people in my life. Yet the awkwardness and the weight of the past has persisted.

I realize now that forgiveness isn't about making up. I don't need to say anything at all. But I do forgive them. Just knowing this makes me feel lighter already.

Friday, September 10, 2010

When Pilates and Judaism Come Together

Happy New Year everyone! I have to say, one of the best things about being Jewish (besides the brisket) is that we celebrate our New Year in September, which for me has always seemed more appropriate than in January. You start school; you start a new year. It's simple.

This Rosh Hashanah was really new for me because I switched synagogues. My entire life, I've gone to Conservative synagogues, but this year I joined a Reform temple. There are lots of differences between Conservative and Reform services, and I wasn't sure I would like them all. I was afraid there wouldn't be enough Hebrew and that I would miss my favorite traditional tunes. Plus I felt sad leaving the many wonderful people I knew from my synagogue. It had been a comfortable place. I knew exactly what to expect there. But lately, it felt as if I were going through the motions, not feeling inspired or uplifted. I knew it was time to try something new.

My new temple is led by Rabbi Karyn Kedar. And clearly, if I was looking for inspiration, I've come to the right place. Rabbi Kedar writes books, she blogs, and she speaks in a powerful yet humble way. I know I will learn so much from her. The first blog entry I read from her was about her practice of thinking of a word prior to the start of the New Year, and dedicated herself to the full understanding of that word. Her word this year is humility. I loved this idea, and I spent several days thinking about what word I would want to bring so powerfully into my life.

Patience. Creativity. Humility. Excellence. Love. These words danced in my brain, all of them holding some kind of draw but none of them feeling exactly right. Then I went to my weekly Pilates class, taught by my beautiful and talented friend, Julie Cheifetz. As always, Julie reminded us that Pilates is not about the movement but rather about the stabilization of your core when the movement happens. And that's when I realized I'd found the perfect word: Stability.

Although I am not an extremely moody person or really that unstable in general, I hate when I let external factors impact the person I ideally want to be. So this year, I will focus on stability in every circumstance.

I got some practice this week when taking my daughter, Faith, to school in Connecticut. I am severely directionally-challenged, and even with a GPS device in my rented car, I was still feeling that tense anxiety of driving on unfamiliar roads. Then there was the added stressor of construction traffic making me late for the birthday dinner I was hosting for my daughter and her friends. I felt my body and mind begin to stress, so I reminded myself to stabilize my core. I actually tightened my stomach muscles, breathed deeply, and instantly felt better able to handle wrong turns, traffic, and the idea that I would most definitely be late. At a red light, I texted Faith to let her know the situation. She texted back, "ok." It wasn't a big deal after all.

I intend to fully explore the idea of stability this year. If this practice sounds interesting to you, I encourage you to think about a word to focus on, too. Leave your word in the comments. You don't need to be Jewish to play along!

Monday, August 02, 2010

How To Succeed as an Author (or anything!)

Success is a slippery thing to define. I have friends and family who think I'm a success because I've had my books published. And sometimes I do feel like a success. After all, becoming a children's book author is the fulfillment of a dream I've had since I was a kid. But there's always something new to reach for... that breakout novel, that big award, that huge advance. Maybe I'll truly feel like a success then. Or maybe not. Maybe success should not be defined by arrival, but rather by the journey itself. After all, we have control over how we conduct ourselves on our journey, so shouldn't that be the focus?

I often get approached by people who are at the beginning stages of their writing life. They want to know how to get published. They want the secrets of success. I am always happy to talk to these people and share the knowledge I've gained so far. My aim is to be encouraging and informative. But it never fails that after our coffee or email, I feel like I inadvertantly discouraged them with the truth. Writing books is really hard. Getting published is even harder. There are no shortcuts. My basic message is this: In order to get published, you have to write the best book ever. It's not who you know. It's what you do. Write. Revise. Revise some more.

I came across this fantastic 3-minute talk on TED.com by Richard St. John about what leads to success. The principles here can be applied to any endeavor. Everyone should watch this, no matter what your dreams and goals are. Take a look, and then I'll show you how it fits with writing/publishing...



1. Passion: If you LOVE reading and writing children's books, you are off to a great start. If you haven't read any children's books since you were a child, you are loving a memory, and that's not the same thing. Go to the library and read as many current, award-winning and best-selling children's books as you can. Still love children's literature? Still feel passionate about writing it? Then get started!

2. Work: Put your butt in the chair and write every day (or as often as possible). Don't wait for inspiration to strike. You have to write a book before you can sell it. Don't talk about writing it. Write it. It's hard, but it's fun. It's make-believe. It's play. It's creating something tangible from an abstract idea. I often imagine I'm reading while I'm writing, literally turning the pages of a book in my mind, seeing what comes next. So I tap into that pure joy of reading while I'm working.

3. Good: You have to practice to get better at anything. Writing is no different. Keep reading great books and study what makes them great. Take classes and workshops to learn how to improve your craft. And revise! Your first few drafts will be terrible. You need to revise a lot to make your manuscript good enough for publication.

4. Focus: You will have many distractions to fight against if you want to write children's books. If you have a day job, you'll have to find some early morning or late night hours to dedicate to writing. If you are a stay-at-home mom, people might assume you have all the time in the world, so they'll ask you to volunteer here and there, or to have lunch or coffee on this day and that. Be careful to only say yes to things you really want to do. Don't say yes out of guilt. Call yourself a writer. Set regular writing hours. Make it a priority. Turn off the internet. When I started out, I only had two hours a week to write. But at least it was something. If I had thought that wasn't enough, I might have never gone for it. Now I have at least two hours a day.

5. Push: It is very challenging to finish writing and revising an entire book. You will think it's terrible at many times in the process. You will want to give up. That is one reason you need to be part of a supportive community. Join SCBWI and get involved. We children's writers are friendly, helpful people! Form a critique group of like-minded people. They will help you improve your writing and give you emotional support as well. And you'll make lifelong friends!

6. Serve: Think about your audience. What is your book going to do for kids? What will you be giving them? Create a mission statement for what you wish to accomplish. Tape your statement up next to your computer, and remember why you've set out on this journey. My mission is, "I am writing stories that will touch children's hearts and souls and make them see the world and themselves in a new light." What's yours?

7. Ideas: This is really the heart and soul of being an author. No matter how good your writing is, you need to have a fantastic idea. So think. Daydream. Observe. Question. Stimulate your creativity. Think outside the box. Have fun.

8. Persist: Ah... he saved the best for last. Or maybe it's the hardest. Persistence truly is key in this profession. Chances are you won't find instant success. You will have to deal with lots of rejection and discouraging days, even after you've gotten published. But remember this: Nobody has the power to make you give up. Believe in yourself. Make it happen.

The truth is, becoming a successful children's book author takes all of the above plus timing and luck and a little magic. I choose to focus on what I can control. I can create a successful journey, one day at a time, by my own doing. And so can you.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bad Boys

I am horribly attracted to bad boys... fictional bad boys that is.

I think it started with Tony Soprano. Despite the beer belly and his womanizing and murderous ways, I was inexplicably attracted to him.


Then there was Eric Bana's character in Munich. Did you see that movie? Yes, Eric is amazing to look at, but he plays an assassin who gets a little out of control. Hmmm...




My newest bad boy crush is none other than Don Draper from Mad Men.

Not only does he look like Jeff Probst (my Survivor good boy crush),


but he is a philanderer, a liar, and (on the positive side) something of a creative genius.

In real life, I am very much attracted to good guys. One good guy, to be precise.


(My husband Alan. Just as cute and sexy as my bad boy crushes, but a good man through and through!)

Truth is, bad boys are not very interested in me. I don't think they're looking for someone who loves to read and write children's literature, who has a healthy self image and an optimistic outlook on life. I am way too boring for them. And way too averse to real life drama.

But fiction is a safe place to explore all kinds of drama. Which brings me to my current work-in-progress. I've started something new, and although it's way too soon to talk about it, I will say that my main character is most definitely attracted to bad boys in her real life. There's a part of me that admires her courage to play with fire. I was never so daring. But a bigger part of me is sad for her. You have to be wounded to want to be treated that way. Those bad boys are wounded, too. Maybe that's part of the attraction.

Do you have a bad boy crush? Did you ever date a bad boy? Let me know in the comments.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Registration is Now Open for Our Fall Workshop

Is it too early to think about fall? I know it's hard when it's so lovely outside, but here we are, opening up registration for our Fall Workshop. Once again, Jenny Meyerhoff and I will be facilitating a critique group in Highland Park on Tuesday nights. 

Here's all the info: 

Join Jenny Meyerhoff (author of THIRD GRADE BABY and QUEEN OF SECRETS) and me (author of JULIA'S KITCHEN and JEMMA HARTMAN, CAMPER EXTRAORDINAIRE) for another session of our facilitated critique group for children's book writers.

Where: North Shore Writers Studio in Highland Park, IL

When: Every other Tuesday evening from 6:30-9:30 pm;  September 21, October 5, 19, November 2, 16, 30

Who: a maximum of 6 children’s book writers (all levels from beginner to advanced, writing anything from picture books through young adult)

What: participants will submit five pages per week to all workshop members (including Jenny and me) for critique, participants will also receive pages from all other workshop members each week, and will be expected to comment on the work of their peers. All genres in children’s literature will be accepted.

Cost: $240

Register: send an email to northshorewriters@gmail.com by September 7. 
Registration is first come first served, and we have had a waitlist in the past. Your spot is not guaranteed until we receive your payment. 

Please note the following important information regarding cancellations and refunds:
If you cancel before August 21, you will receive a full refund.
If you cancel between August 21 and September 7, you will receive a 50% refund.
If you cancel after September 7, we will not be able to give you any refund at all. Sorry!

Did I mention that one of our first students got a 4-book deal with HarperCollins based on a manuscript he worked on in our class? It's true! (Congrats Allan!) Perhaps you could be our next success story. At the very least, you will improve your writing and meet other children's book authors who just might be kindred spirits. 

Monday, July 12, 2010

Greece: What I Saw and What I Read

In honor of our 20th wedding anniversary, my husband and I took a second honeymoon in Greece. It was bliss!

First stop: Crete



First book I devoured: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri


Second stop: Santorini


Second book I loved: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows


Third stop: Mykonos


Third book that touched my heart and soul: The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein


Fourth stop: Athens


Fourth book I couldn't put down: City of Thieves by David Benioff


I highly recommend all four of these books (as well as a vacation in Greece). If you want to see more of my vacation pix, friend me on Facebook and check out my photos.

Now I'm home, refreshed, and ready to dive into my next writing project. Life is good!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Book Club Extraordinaire!

Tonight I went to a mother-daughter book club to talk about Jemma Hartman, Camper Extraordinaire. Is there anything sweeter than moms and daughters sharing books together? I think not. What a wonderful way to foster a love of reading and bond with your daughter!

One mom and daughter baked this cookie cake with all things Jemma.
Yum! 

We had such a rich discussion. The girls and moms had the most interesting questions and comments, but the highlight of the night came for me when two of the girls acted out a scene from the novel. It was a scene I had struggled with getting just right, and seeing them act it out made all my millions of drafts totally worth the effort.
Thanks girls!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Feeling My Age

When I was a teenager, I had such a baby-face that I would never have been able to use a fake i.d., even to get into an R-rated movie. People used to say I'd appreciate looking young someday, and guess what? They were right! I love when people think I'm in my 20s now that I'm happily in my 40s. But just because I look young doesn't mean I feel young. Sometimes it is clear that I am old. Very old. Ancient, if you ask my kids.

Case in point, the B96 Summer Bash concert.


Ludacris, T-Pain, Jason Derulo, B.O.B, New Boys, and others. If you have no idea who I'm talking about, don't feel bad. I wouldn't know either if my daughter didn't take over my car radio every time she rides shotgun. I took my daughter and her friend to this concert on Saturday, and while they loved it, and I loved watching them love it, I was entertained by so many things other than the music.


Perhaps you might someday accompany a teen to a similar concert. If so, do not fear! I have some helpful tips to help you get through the night.

1. Remember to bring your earplugs. While your teens would rather potentially go deaf than die of embarrassment with something as ridiculous as earplugs, you should feel free to protect your ears. After all, you're a parent. Embarrassing your teen is part of the job description.

2. Don't make assumptions. Just because half the audience is dressed like strippers and hookers, it doesn't mean they are. And those guys with their pants so low it's a wonder they're staying up? They aren't necessarily hoodlums. Relax, these are just the fashions.

3. Don't be too relaxed. If your teen daughter goes to the bathroom by herself, she just might be offered drugs. Be thankful you've taught her to say no!

4. Those audience members grinding on each other? Yes, it's okay to be disgusted. It's okay to wonder why these girls seem to have thrown away all the progress of the women's lib movement. Even if your teen pretends to think you are a complete nerd, your opinions actually matter to her, so go ahead and let her know that young women are so much more than objects for guys to rub up against.

5. You know how when you go to a concert and the band actually sings and plays all the instruments? Don't expect that here. This is all about the dj. The artists will be singing/rapping along to their recordings. It's kind of like karaoke. But not. Have faith that your teen will someday see a real concert with real musicians. For now, let her squeal and dance and sing along the way crazed teen fans have been doing for decades. This is not the time to criticize.

6. Don't you squeal, sing, or dance! Please, you're a mom. Have some decency. Oh, and also? Don't drink alcohol. You're a role model, remember? You're the designated driver, too.

7. Last but not least, enjoy yourself. Take pictures of your daughter and her friend. Buy them a hotdog and a pretzel. And hug them at the end of the night, when their ears are ringing and their adrenaline is pumping, and they still remember to say thank you.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Out of My Mind

It's easy to think the world understands what you're thinking and experiencing. When I say "Chicago suburbs," I have a clear picture of exactly what that means. And if you live in a Chicago suburb, you do, too. (Though your suburb and mine might be somewhat different.) But if you're writing a book, you have to remember that most people do not live where you do. You have to provide details, even if the setting is something you might take for granted. And more importantly, the details you choose to include must be details your character would notice.

You need to get out of your mind and into your character's. Then, take a look around.

This week, I've been lucky enough to have a house guest who has never been to Chicago or the Chicago suburbs before. So I've been doing all kinds of Chicago things with her, and I've loved noticing the things she notices.

Like that some of our streets are paved like big sidewalks. And that Lake Michigan is way bigger than most lakes. It looks more like an ocean. And that deep dish pizza has the tomato sauce on top of the cheese, not below it. Even revolving doors are new experiences for our guest. If you've never been through a revolving door before, you might not know how fast to move your feet or how hard to push the door. A busy revolving door is almost like jumping in to Double Dutch jump rope!

Here are my kids plus our guest, sitting on the ledge of the Willis Tower (Sears Tower),
103 floors above the city!


And for those of you who know I have a fear of heights (or rather of falling from said heights), here I am, being brave!


And speaking of settings, my kids will all soon be heading to their favorite place on earth... sleepaway camp! If you've got kids heading to camp, check out my guest blog entry over at Sheila Glazov's blog. Sheila is the author of What Color is Your Brain? After looking at her descriptions of brain colors and types, I have hereby determined my brain is a rainbow. What's yours?

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

How To Make a Book Trailer

If you have a new book coming out, chances are you've considered making a book trailer to help promote it. Since so many people rely on getting information from the internet, and especially from video, a book trailer seems like a smart thing to add to your arsenal of bookmarks, postcards, booksignings, and other promotional items.

The cool thing is that book trailers are relatively new. You can be as creative as you want. Think outside the box and do exactly what you want to do. There are not many hard and fast rules. That said, I would warn you that there is one rule you should keep in mind: Do No Damage. What that means is your book trailer should not turn people off and cause them to avoid your book at all costs. Of course, you can't please all the people all the time. But you can certainly try your best to not be annoying.

There are many ways to tackle book trailers. My friend Simone Elkeles hired actors and a director to create a full out Hollywood style book trailer for her new book, Rules of Attraction. Check it out:


Pretty snazzy, huh?

Then again, not everyone has the money to spend on this kind of trailer. And truthfully, you don't have to spend any money at all. If you own a computer, you can make a trailer. I created my new trailer for Jemma Hartman, Camper Extraordinaire with my MacBook, my Sony camcorder, and a bunch of willing girls who love my book.

Here are the steps I took:

1. Came up with an idea. The idea was actually given to me by a fellow writer. It was, "Why don't you interview girls about their experience reading your book?" I liked that idea because my prior book trailers for this book were made before the book came out, and although they were fun and they captured the tone of the book, they didn't really tell you what the book was about.

2. Found willing participants. I emailed some friends and posted on Facebook letting people know I was looking for 8-12 year-olds who loved Jemma Hartman and who would want to be in a book trailer. I got a terrific response.

3. Scheduled the shoot. I had the kids meet me at a neighborhood park on a Sunday morning. I ended up shooting on consecutive Sundays due to the girls' availability and weather questionability.

4. Had the parents sign releases. I found a generic media release online and tailored it to what I needed it to say. Then I emailed it to all the parents and told them they had to bring it all filled out and signed to the shoot.

5. Shot the footage. I had the girls answer three questions: What is the book about? What was your favorite part? And who should read it? I also supplied snacks and drinks, autographed books, answered questions, and gave the girls cool rubber bracelets as a thank you. I wish I had been more careful about that pesky record/pause button. I lost one girl's entire interview due to this ridiculous mistake. Also, I wish I had shot more footage. If I had interviewed each girl multiple times in multiple locations, I might have come up with even better footage.

6. Edited the footage. I used iMovie, which is incredibly easy. True, I have experience with film and video production, but I swear, even a total rookie can use that software. The important thing I considered was brevity and getting a coherent message across with the right tone. Even though I had told the girls there was no guarantee they would make the cut, I felt strongly compelled to include each girl in the final video. After all, these girls are my fans! I love them!

7. Added music. I wanted my son to compose some original guitar music for the trailer, but he's an 8th grader and currently suffering from 8th Grade-itis, so he's not so interested in this kind of project. Instead, I used music from iLife. This is music that is copyright-free. Very important not to infringe on copyrights!

8. Got feedback. Before showing the trailer to the world, I asked a select group of people to look at it and give me feedback. This was incredibly helpful and led to me making some important changes.

9. Put it on the web. I uploaded it to YouTube and Facebook and told my publisher about it. Because they liked it and I had all the proper releases, Macmillan will put it on their site. Soon it will be on my website and on Amazon and any other place I can think of that features book trailers.

The entire process took less than 12 hours (approximately 2 hours of planning, 2 to shoot, 6 to edit, 2 to upload it everywhere) and cost me next to nothing. And here's the result:



Aren't those girls fantastic? I love them! And I'm sure hoping that the word will get out about Jemma Hartman, Camper Extraordinaire.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Look Who I Met!


It's another Jemma Hartman lookalike! I met this cutie-pie when I put out a call for girls who loved the book and wanted to be in my new book trailer. Can you believe how much she looks like Jemma?

I had so much fun spending time at a local park interviewing girls about their experience reading Jemma Hartman, Camper Extraordinaire. Does it get any better than being surrounded by girls who love your book? I don't think so!

Monday, May 17, 2010

How To Revise a Novel: Steps #4 and #5

I totally forgot to finish explaining my revision process! I guess my only excuse is that I was busy revising. In any case, let's take a moment to review:
Step #1 is Look at your work objectively.
Step #2 is See the big picture.
Step #3 is Write until it's true.

If you've done all that, it's time for Step #4: MAKE THE WRITING SHINE.
This is the step most people think of when they hear the word, "revise." This is red-pen-correction stuff. This is The Elements of Style and Essentials of English (books I consult quite often while revising). At this point, your ideas are solid. It's time to make sure you've expressed those ideas in the best possible way.

Here are a few things to consider:

1. Are your sentences in the best order? Are they clear?

2. Have you chosen the best words?
  • Look out for word echoes (using the same word too often, too close together)
  • Replace adverbs with more specific verbs.
  • Try to stay active with your language.
  • Be true to your characters' voices.
  • Don't use two words if one will do.
3. Have you been consistent with the point of view and the tense?

4. Have you searched for punctuation and grammatical errors?

5. Have you gotten rid of typos? (Try reading your manuscript backwards to catch these.)

If you've done all this, you are ready for the last step in the revision process.
Are you ready?
It's a doozy!

Step #5: REPEAT.

Yep, you read that right. Repeat. Go back to Step #1 and begin the process again. Each revision pass will bring you closer and closer to the amazing manuscript you have in your head. And when you really and truly don't know how to make it any better? That's when it's time to submit it to an agent or editor.

Good luck!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Request for Revision is NOT a Rejection (and other important tips)

Today I talked to a friend of mine whose husband wrote a young adult novel. My friend said her husband was so frustrated and disappointed because it seemed impossible to land an agent. She wanted to know if he should just try to submit directly to publishers. After I spoke with her for a while, I discovered her husband had made some typical newbie mistakes. So here, for anyone thinking about trying to find an agent, are some tips:

1. Do not submit to 50 agents all at once. Why? Because chances are, you still have work to do on your manuscript. Even if you think it's perfect, I promise you, it's not. It is great to have a list of 50 potential agents. But you should only submit to 5 or 6 at a time. See what the response is. If you get all form rejections, you might want to take a long hard look at your manuscript and your query letter. You might want to take them to a critique group or a book doctor or a published author. If, however, you get some personal rejections, see what the common themes are. Then revise your manuscript to make it stronger. The big problem with sending to 50 agents at the same time is that you have nobody left to submit to when you improve your manuscript. Your impatience has cost you dearly.

2. If a reputable agent gives you specific feedback and asks to see the manuscript after you've revised it, do a happy dance, and Get To Work! This is not the agent's way of letting you down gently. Believe me, the agent would just send you a rejection letter! This is your Big Opportunity. Even if you don't agree at first with the agent's comments, try to see what he or she is saying. Be open to revision. Seriously, if you don't want to revise, you really shouldn't be an author.

3. Don't tell anyone (agents or editors especially) that kids are loving your manuscript. Although it may be true, there is no way for anyone to know if the kids really just like you and the fact that you wrote the story. It doesn't sway agents or editors at all, but it does make them think you are an amateur.

4. Don't submit directly to publishers. Even though I sold my first two novels without an agent, I don't advise this today. The market has changed. Publishing has changed. An agent is pretty necessary in today's climate.

5. Be persistent, patient, and positive. Chances are you have a lot of revision, rejection, and more revision ahead of you. Every author does. But stay true to your dream. Stay true to your craft. Don't give up. Make your manuscript so unbelievably great that it will not only catch an agent's attention, but it will also go to auction, win awards, and become a best seller.

6. Lastly, remember why you are writing in the first place. I hope it's not to make millions of dollars and retire to some island in the Caribbean. Because I gotta tell you, that's highly unlikely. But if you are writing because you have to write, because you have a story to tell, a story that matters... then keep going. When I was writing my first novel, I taped this mission statement up next to my computer and I consulted it often: I am writing stories that will touch children's hearts and souls and make them see the world and themselves in a new light. That gentle reminder helped to keep me on track. What's your mission statement?

Saturday, May 08, 2010

My Mother's Day Wish

My birthday comes just two weeks before Mother's Day, so it makes it kind of tough for my husband and kids to come up with thoughtful ways to make these days special for me. In past years, I've told them I want the day off on Mother's Day. I don't want to walk the dog or clean anything or do any laundry or shop for any groceries or cook anything. I pretty much just want to read and write and relax and feel appreciated. And my wonderful kids and husband usually come through.

But there's a problem.

It's true that I get the day off, and it's true that they take care of the little things, like cleaning up after breakfast and walking the dog. But the other tasks? The laundry and grocery shopping and meal planning and stuff? I don't do it, and neither do they. So the day after Mother's Day becomes a great big catch-up day for me.

Who wants that?

So this year, I've told my sweet husband what I want for Mother's Day. It's not a new dress or a dozen roses or a sparkly necklace. (Though you wouldn't see me complain about any of those things.) What I really and truly wish is for my family to plan what we'll be eating for dinner every night this week. Then they'll all go to the grocery story and buy everything we'll need for all the meals, including side dishes. They'll make sure we have food for breakfast and lunch, too. Then they'll put all the groceries away and even fold the grocery bags and store them properly.



That would seriously be the best Mother's Day present ever. What about you? What do you wish for Mother's Day?

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Brain Burps About Books

With a title like that, you know it's gotta be good! Brain Burps About Books is an interactive, live Internet talk-radio show that focuses on anything that concerns great books for kids.


Hosted by author/illustrator Katie Davis, the show explores a range of subjects, from how teachers can extend books in their classrooms, to the inside scoop for aspiring children's writers who'd like to know how others got their start. Guests range from Newbery medalists to booksellers, agents, bloggers, and editors. (And on Monday... me!)

On Monday, May 10th at 4pm Eastern, Brain Burps about Books will examine the question, “How do you help a child who has to deal with death?” Katie (who happens to be hilarious and brilliant!) invited me to talk about my middle grade novel, Julia's Kitchen, about a girl whose mom and sister died in a fire.


I'll be joining New York Times Bestseller (The Kissing Hand) Audrey Penn discussing her new book, Chester Raccoon and the Acorn Full of Memories, about a child whose classmate has died due to an accident.

Child psychologist Dr. Paul Donahue, author of Parenting Without Fear will talk about the benefits of using books to help kids deal with difficult issues such as loss, grief, and mourning. The show will wrap up with Bird Bytes from School Library Journal blogger and New York Public Librarian, Betsy Bird.

I'm really looking forward to this interview because I have strong icky feelings about "bibliotherapy," and I get very uncomfortable thinking that kids who have experienced grief might be "prescribed" my book. However, I'm a huge proponent of using books as "vaccinations." In other words, the time to read about death is long before you have to face it in real life. But that's just my opinion. I can't wait to hear what everyone else thinks.

Please call (347) 857-4428 on Monday, May 10th between 4-5pm Eastern (That's 3-4pm in Chicago, people!) to add your comments or questions to the show. The stream and archives are available at http://www.BrainBurpsAboutBooks.com.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Have You Read a Book for Kids or Teens Lately?

This post is not aimed at my writer friends, because they already know how utterly amazing literature for kids and teens can be. No, this post is for the woman at the beauty shop yesterday. You know who you are. You were getting your highlights done right next to me, and you asked me what I was reading, and I said, "Will Grayson, Will Grayson," and you squinted your eyes and tilted your head in a way that prompted me to say, "It's a book for teens." And then you laughed.
Yes, you laughed dismissively, as if I must be missing a brain cell or two to be spending my hour in the colorist's chair reading a book for teens. I noticed you spent your hour reading Glamour, but I'll try not to hold that against you.


This post is also for the woman I met today at the library. You were checking out a few novels, and I recognized the one on the top of the pile as Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, and, thinking I had found a kindred spirit, I said, "That is a fantastic book." And you said, "Really? My friend recommended it to me, but it was in the teen section. Isn't that weird?" And I said, "Well, it's written for teens." And you scrunched up your nose as if you smelled something putrid and said, "But it was in the teen section."

Hello, people out there in the world. Have you read a book written for kids or teens lately? Because if you haven't, you are missing out on some of the best literature being written today. And I'm quite certain that you all were kids and teens at one point in your life, so I bet you can find something to relate to. It's not all about wizards and vampires, you know (not that there's anything wrong with wizards and vampires). There are amazing books coming out every year. Take a stroll into the kids and teens section of your library or bookstore, and see for yourself. I promise I won't laugh at you.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

On the Radio!


I'm doing a live internet radio interview on Tuesday, April 20th. I'll be on from 1-2 CST at www.toginet.com for the Believe in Your Fairytale and Your Zing Will Come True Show, hosted by Dhana Cohen and Debbie Glickman. I'll be talking about my books and how I made my dream of becoming a published children's book author come true. I will also be giving away free autographed copies of Julia's Kitchen and Jemma Hartman, Camper Extraordinaire! Call 877-864-4869 between 1-2 CST on Tuesday for your chance to win.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Book Trailers 101

Are you a published or soon-to-be-published author interested in learning about book trailers and online promotion? If so, please join me at this upcoming event:

April 17, Food for Thought: Book Trailers and online promotion. Several SCBWI-IL authors and illustrators will share their experiences creating book trailers and other on-line promotional tools for the picture book, middle grade, and YA markets. Both content and the how to’s of book trailers and online promotions will be covered. We will also consider what kinds of response actual trailers have received.

Our panel includes:

Host, librarian, and blogger Amy Alessio.

Picture book illustrator Larry Day whose Nanook and Pryce has a website and book trailer--

YA writer Laura Ruby. Check out her trailer for Play Me

And me. I'll be talking about how and why I made these two trailers for Jemma Hartman, Camper Extraordinaire.

This Food for Thought is intended for published and soon-to-be-published writers and illustrators who are members of SCBWI.

Here are the details:
Schaumberg Township District Library, Youth Services Classroom, 130 S. Roselle Rd., Schaumburg, IL 60193
9:30 am to noon
$10—please pay at the door
If your last name begins with A-L, please bring a breakfast treat to share (about 6 servings). Juice, coffee, and tea will be provided.
RSVP to Sallie Wolf, salwolf@comcast.net

Friday, April 09, 2010

Critique: Fantasy vs. Reality

On Monday, my critique group discussed my work-in-progress. I had given them the manuscript a month earlier, and I'd been fantasizing about how the critique would go...

Fantasy Critique:
Smart Writer: This is amazing! Have you shown it to your agent yet??
Writer Whose Prose Reads Like Poetry: Best thing you've ever written. I can't believe this is only your first draft.
Me: (Blushing) Well, actually, it's a second draft.
Overly Critical Writer: I think you could have used a semicolon instead of a comma on page 83.
Hilarious Writer: I was cracking up at parts.
Best Selling Writer: I cried at parts, too. You really captured what it feels like to be a thirteen-year-old girl.
Brilliant Writer: And that climax... I was dying!
Me: Really? Wow, thanks!

In reality, critique group didn't sound much like that at all. (Although one member, who is now my favorite person on the planet, did say the manuscript reminded her of something Judy Blume or Paula Danziger would have written.)

It would be nice to be one of those authors who writes brilliant fiction without much effort (is there such a being??), but since no fairy has granted me that magical power yet, I'm grateful for every bit of constructive criticism my critique group hands to me. Yes, it can be overwhelming. But I gotta tell you, I'd much rather hear my secondary characters need development from a critique group than from an editor in the form of a rejection letter. Or worse yet, from a reviewer after there is nothing more I can do about it.

In order to process all the comments I received (there are seven of us in critique), I went through page by page and copied everything into my one document. This is what a typical page of compiled comments looks like:


Note the smileys and stars! Note the, "Love this," and, "Such great timing!" Note also, all the questions. Clearly I have a lot of thinking and writing to do.

But this is my favorite part of writing. I'm taking something whole and making it better. I can do that. After all, I have some amazing writer friends with very high standards guiding me. And that's no fantasy.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Five Random Things on a Sunday

1. I'm reading Anne of Green Gables. Somehow I missed this book as a child. And when it wound up as #9 in Betsy Bird's Top One Hundred Children's Book Poll, I decided I had better give it a go. So far I am loving it. But I can't help laughing every time the author says "ejaculated" instead of "exclaimed."

2. Last night I picked up Alan and Sammy from the airport after they enjoyed three jam-packed days in New York City. Alan and I have taken each of our kids on one-on-one vacations over the years. When you have three kids in a nineteen month span, you have to do what you can to give them individual attention, and these trips are always so special. They went to The Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Times Square, and Central Park, and they saw The Colbert Report, West Side Story, and Avenue Q! I am happy for them, but I am also quite a bit jealous!

3. What did I do over my spring break? Well, I didn't go to NYC. I took care of my other son, Jacob, after he got all four wisdom teeth removed. I have to say, Jake was a great patient, and he's back to eating almost normally. The best thing about staying home doing a bunch of nothing was watching The Food Network with Jake. Who knew there were that many awesome cooking shows?

4. Today was so beautiful (74 degrees and sunny) that I spent some time swinging in a hammock in my backyard, just being grateful.

5. Tomorrow at critique group, we are discussing my new novel in its entirety. I asked for a brutally harsh critique. I told these writer friends of mine I could take it. That seemed smart and brave a month ago. But now I'm getting nervous. I hope they aren't that brutal. I hope they aren't that harsh!

Friday, April 02, 2010

How To Revise a Novel: Step #3

Back to thinking about revising...
Step #1 was LOOK AT YOUR WORK OBJECTIVELY.
Step #2 was SEE THE BIG PICTURE.
And now for Step #3:
WRITE UNTIL IT'S TRUE.

The other day, I was doing my Revising with Power and Purpose presentation for some seventh graders, and when I spoke about needing to write until it's true, a student asked if you have to worry about that when you're writing fiction. It was the perfect question because I was able to explain exactly what I mean by "writing until it's true." The story needs to feel 100% true, even when you've made the whole thing up. Especially when you've made the whole thing up. It needs to be 100% believable, logical, and emotionally authentic. Otherwise, your readers will be bumped out of the story.

Imagine you are reading Harry Potter, and you get to the scene when Hagrid first takes Harry away from the Dursleys to bring him to Hogwarts. If Harry had a tearful goodbye with Dudley, told him he would miss him, and promised to write, you would be completely bumped out of the story. You wouldn't believe a word of it. You're not bumped out by the magic, or the idea of Hogwarts; you're bumped out by Harry acting in a non-authentic way for his character in his particular story.

I put all my work through the "Telling-your-best-friend-the-story-over-coffee" trick. You imagine that you are telling your best friend this very true story. Then you imagine the questions your friend would ask you along the way. With Julia's Kitchen, one of the questions my editor asked me was, "Wouldn't a school social worker get involved?" The answer to that question was, "Yes, but I didn't want to write about that." Guess what? I had to write about that in order to make the story believable. Another question was, "Wouldn't Marlee get annoyed with all of Cara's grieving after a while?" A perfectly good question. After all, these girls are only 11 years old. I knew the answer was yes, but again, I didn't want to write that. I wanted Marlee to be the perfect best friend. Cara had enough bad stuff to deal with. Right? Wrong! To make the story believable and true, I had to write a scene with Marlee getting fed up. Marlee had to act like a real 11-year-old.

Confession: I cried my eyes out when I wrote that scene. And plenty of readers have told me they cried when reading it. I can't imagine the book without the fight between Cara and Marlee. The truth is hard to write, but it's worth it.

So don't cut corners here. Make sure your novel is factually accurate, emotionally truthful, and filled with authentic characters. You want your readers to be carried away by the story. You never want them realizing there's an author behind it all, making this stuff up. Keep the "Wizard" behind the curtain. Don't let your readers peek.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Another Reason I Love What I Do

After a school visit today, I received the following thank you from the teacher in charge:

"Thank you so much for your informative, inspiring, and motivating talk--I don't recall a recent concert or assembly where at least one of the kids didn't need to go to the bathroom in the course of an hour :) That's a great middle school compliment!"

On a day when one of my sons got his picture in the paper for his starring role in the school play, my other son was elected captain of his volleyball team, and my daughter found out she made the varsity softball team, I was proud to say I kept 70 seventh graders from wanting to use the bathroom for an entire hour!

It was a banner day for the Ferber family!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Best Musicals

Last weekend my husband and I took our three kids to see Billy Elliot, which is billed as "The Best Musical Ever." I loved Billy Elliot the movie, so I was really looking forward to the play. Before the show started, the director came on stage to tell the audience that the boy who was playing Billy that night was making his professional debut. So exciting! This kid, J.P. Viernes, only 13 years old, had more talent in his big toe than I have in my entire body. He commanded the stage like a seasoned pro. He sang. He acted. And he danced. Boy did he dance! After one number, the audience applauded for so long the play actually came to a stop. We almost gave him a standing ovation in the middle of the show.

But was it the Best Musical Ever? I don't think so. Though I laughed and cried and LOVED the dancing, I can't remember one song from it, not even one tune. And the story, though powerful, was told better in the movie version.

Which got me thinking about my favorite musicals of all time.
These are shows I would see again if given the opportunity. Shows I love to listen to on my iPod. Shows that made me laugh, cry, and walk out of the theater singing and smiling.
1. Les Miserables
2. Rent
3. Mary Poppins
4. Wicked
5. Avenue Q
6. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

I wish I had a top ten list, but really, top six is all I can come up with. Perhaps that's a good thing. It means there are more shows for me to see and fall in love with in the future.

There is one more play I'd put on this list if I could, but it's not a musical. It's August, Osage County. Best non-musical play I've ever seen. Brilliant. See it if you have the chance.

So, what are your favorite musicals?

Monday, March 22, 2010

How To Revise a Novel: Step #2

I've been so busy doing Step #1 in my revision process (which is to do nothing), that I haven't had a chance to blog about Step #2. Here, finally, it is...

Step #2: SEE THE BIG PICTURE.

Are you a writer who finds it's easier to make your writing shine than it is to deeply examine your story? Do you craft the perfect scene, compose beautiful sentences, search for exquisite words? Is that what you think of as "revising?" If so, I've got a different approach for you to consider.

All that polishing has its place in the revision process, but it comes much later. Right now, any time spent focused on your writing is wasted time. Instead, you should focus on your story.

In other words, rather than asking yourself, "Have I told my story in the best way possible?" you should ask, "Have I told the best possible story?"

Don't be afraid of the answer. It might not be pretty. You might realize there are giant holes in the logic, or that the stakes aren't high enough, or a million other things. But you've got to face reality and make your story shine before you can make the writing shine. You've got to look at the big picture.

Here are five important things you should have in your story:

1. A character with a problem. Not just an interesting character. Not just a situation. But a believable, sympathetic character with an interesting and difficult problem.
2. A beginning, middle, climax, and end. Make sure your beginning quickly sets up the main character and his or her problem. The middle should show the m.c. working to solve the problem but only making things worse. The climax should be a moment where it seems the m.c. simply can't succeed. And in the end, the m.c. should either solve the problem or not, depending on what kind of story you're writing. Either way, though, the main character has grown and changed because of the story.
3. Big stakes for your main character. What happens if the m.c. doesn't succeed? Why should the reader care if it's not the biggest deal in the world? Make the reader care!
4. A well-developed setting. Ground your story in a time and place. Readers want to know where they are.
5. An inner and outer conflict. In the best stories, the main character solves the inner conflict in order to solve the outer conflict. Think about the outer conflict as the story, the plot, the excitement. Think about the inner conflict as the depth, the growth, the meaning. You need both.

This is a lot to consider (and it's really just the beginning). You've written a big novel. So how do you go about "seeing" it all?

Here are some things that work for me:
I like to make Post-it maps of my novel. Each Post-it summarizes one scene in the story. The smaller Post-its are changes I need to make.



I always make a calendar and summarize what happens on which day. This helps with logic problems and timing questions.

I list all my chapters and describe the action in each one. This is a good way to see the action of the story in one or two pages. It also helps me see when I have left a story-line or character for too long.

Inner conflict and growth is important in my stories. So I like to outline that change as well. For example, in Julia's Kitchen, Cara goes from believing God is a sort of Superhero to seeing him more as a compassionate friend. But that belief can't change in an instant. There are small steps along the way, heading in that direction. I had to be very conscious of her belief and craft every scene appropriately. By outlining these changes, I was able to keep track of what she was believing and when.

All these things help me look at and think about the big picture. Fixing it all is pretty major surgery. But it's vital.

Coming soon is Step #3!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Thank You, Sherwood School!

Yesterday I visited Sherwood School, in Highland Park, Illinois. It was such a lovely afternoon, and I was bummed that my camera was out of battery power. Hopefully the wonderful media specialist there, Helen Weiss, will send me some pictures soon. But here are a few highlights:

1. What a location! Sherwood is just five minutes from my house, so there was no way for me to get lost. That's always a plus.

2. When I checked in at the school office, there was a sign there welcoming me, and the receptionist greeted me warmly. You may think that's no big deal, but I've been to schools where the words "visiting author" are met with confused stares.

3. There was another cute sign made for me in the library. And the projector and sound system worked perfectly right off the bat. Hallelujah!

4. I spoke in a cozy library to about 60 kids at a time. The kids AND teachers paid attention, and some of the teachers even took notes.

5. One student, Sydney, won a raffle prize of a backstage pass to my visit. Sydney got to wear a special VIP pass, she introduced me to the students, and she had a front row seat. She also won two autographed books. This was all coordinated by the media specialist. What a great idea!

6. The students were prepared. They had visited my website beforehand and were familiar with me and my books. What a difference this makes!

7. The students were engaged. They laughed, and oohed and ahhed, and applauded at all the right moments. You could hear a pin drop when I told them the true story that inspired Julia's Kitchen. They asked good questions, and they answered all my questions with enthusiasm.

8. The students were funny. When I asked how many kids thought they might grow up to be writers, one boy said he would if his basketball career didn't pan out. There were lots more funny comments and questions. I swear, I love fourth and fifth graders so much!

9. The students were inspired. It was cool to speak to kids from my hometown. I think they've got to be thinking, "Wow, if someone from Highland Park can make her dreams come true, maybe I can, too." I loved seeing all their eager and excited faces. I also loved seeing children of some friends of mine!

10. I loved watching the kids choose which giveaway to take at the end of my presentation. Most popular item was the Camper Extraordinaire bracelet. I must admit, it's pretty cool.


And I can't ignore the fact that at the end of this wonderful afternoon, the media specialist handed me a check. Some people think if you write a book, you've hit the big time... you're rich. It's unfortunately not true. I don't know many authors who can make a living off of royalties alone. We make our living by writing lots of books, doing school visits, teaching, etc. So yes, we get paid for our presentations. But the  biggest pay off of all is knowing that I've written books that are touching kids' hearts and minds. You can't put a price on that.