Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas

Just a quick note to all my friends to wish them a Merry Christmas!  Hope you have time to squeeze some writing in.  I know I'm taking my laptop with us to NC in the hopes I can pass the kids over to eager grandparents and write for a while. 

My newest way to get writing in?  Using the voice memo feature on my iPhone to record sections of the story.  Funny, huh?  Whatever works, I say!

Safe travels and happy holidays to you all!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Just the Boosts I Need (plus a cool pic of me as a bug!)

So the past few weeks, I've been asking myself one question: "What in the world have you done?"  Why?  Because I went back to work after five years at home raising children and writing.  And while they told me it would probably be 10 hours a week, it has turned into more like 15 inching up toward 20.  And my writing has suffered.  Much.  I'm hoping after my initial orientation period it will settle down, but I suffered some major stress last week trying to juggle it all.

Then two days ago, I got two much needed "shots in the arm."  I won Corey Schwartz's blog contest and will receive a bug caricature of myself from artist Neil Numberman.  How cool is that?  Here's my rendition:
Okay...Neil's will be much better.  But you get the idea.

Then, after many, many weeks, I got a follow-up letter on a submission.  Now, it was a rejection, but it was a personal letter.  EEEEE!  A really nice editor took the time to write me a long reply to my submission and pointed out where it needed some tweaking.  Sure, it was a smidge disappointing, but mostly it was the little pat on the back I needed to help me feel that I am getting closer, even when it seems that I am as far from my hopes and goals as possible.  I'll consider it my Christmas writer's gift!

May you get a gift of positive feedback, or even better, a full-blown acceptance letter this Christmas!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Squeezing It In

Do you feel the pinch this December?  Not only did I start a new job last week, we also have home repairs going on.  Christmas shopping is an afterthought.  I don't think I've ever felt so discombobulated at Christmas time!

But I have had time to squeeze in a great book: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.  My husband, God bless him, has started the tradition of buying me the Newberry Award winner every year since I have started writing, and When You Reach Me is this year's winner.

I love fantasy, but I had no idea as I started reading that the book would take a science-fiction turn.  The repeated illusion to Madeline L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time should have clued me in, but I'm a little slow!  The book follows Miranda, a 12 year-old New Yorker, as she starts to receive strange letters from an unknown person.  The letter alludes to an impending crisis, and Miranda has to figure it out before its too late.  I won't spoil it for you, but the book has some great twists and unexpected turns.  It's a well-plotted piece (that's probably an understatement).

What is great about this book is its ability to question really deep matters of the human condition, while at the same time exploring the kids' feelings about friendship and their day-to-day coping as preteens in a not-always sympathetic environment. 

To me, the best writing for kids does just that.  It acknowledges the daily grind of being a kid while also exploring the bigger questions of life that kids are only beginning to grapple with as pre-adults.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Storyboarding's not a new way to to torture a close friend.  It's a writing technique.  Ever since I read Pam Calvert's post on her use of storyboards to write a picture book (, I've been intrigued.  But I've also been broke.  So I made my own template on my computer and gave it a whirl. 

I used it first with one of my PiBoIdMo ideas, Romy for Hire, about a dog who runs away from home and finds a string of jobs that are better-suited to his unique talents.  It was a visual book from the beginning anyway, but scoping out the pictures concurrently with the text really made it pop in my head.  It also helped make my beginning more visual, which has been a problem of mine since I started writing picture books.

If you want to give it a try, I'll let you download my version for free.  Just reference my page if you share it with friends, please.  You can find it at

By the way, I think we all know we don't have to draw to use it.  Even stick figures count!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Hungerin' for The Hunger Games

I recently picked up The Hunger Games, a book that I had been meaning to read for ages.  Not only because I had heard it was good, but also so I could finally raise my hand at all the writing conferences when asked if I've read it or not.

Now, it wasn't a hard sell.  I'm a fan of dystopia since way back.  As a teen I read George Orwell and Ray Bradbury.  As I've gotten interested in kid lit, I've really enjoyed Lois Lowry (Gathering Blue) and Jeanne DuPrau's The People of Ember.  Cormac McCarthy's The Road made me sob way into the night.  (I've even written a dystopic picture book which I haven't had the guts to tell anyone about since my critique group heard it and went, "huh?"  Well, except for a certain agent who raised her eyebrows in sincere interest at the last conference I attended.  That reminds me...I need to work on that...).

But talk about dystopia with heart.  The Hunger Games was a hard read to put down.  Sure, there were things that bothered me (most of all that one of the major characters was named "Peeta" and he just happened to work at a bakery...never quite got over that one...), but overall I really enjoyed the book.  In fact, it's the first book I've read into the wee hours of the night, in spite of my aging body's disapproval.  Katniss is so tough, while at the same time being so very fragile.  In other words, a great and complex character.  From the first few chapters, I was hooked into her story and wanted to know what would happen to her.

Any book that can work that magic is a winner, indeed.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Somehow I Missed Thanksgiving

A critique group friend said casually at our meeting this morning, "I hope we can meet again before I leave on the 22nd." 

I just as casually replied, "Oh, are you leaving for Thanksgiving?"

"Kristen, Thanksgiving was last week."

Uggh.  Mentally, I have missed a whole holiday.  This month has been busy, for sure.  I participated in PiBoIdMo, I interviewed and got a part-time job (go, me!), we've had to juggle some family issues, I've had meetings out the patootey, we're doing some home remodeling, and yes, I do recall cooking a turkey on Thanksgiving.  With Christmas in the headlights, and not a sole present purchased to date, I can feel my heart race into next year.

BUT I promised myself today that I would not let my writing suffer.  I have at least two great ideas from PiBoIdMo, and several good ones that may, with tender attention, blossom into great ones.  (And a bucket of oh-my-gosh-what-was-I-drinking-that-night ideas that are best not mentioned here.)

So, I wish all of you happy writing as you try to get through the season.  Ask the kids to watch Rudolph one more time while you work on that Thanksgiving turkey of a story. 

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Where are the Parents?!?

My husband caught a film the other night on Netflix that he wanted us to watch.  It was called The Red Balloon.  Many of you may have heard of it.  It won numerous awards in 1956, the year it came out.

I'm not entirely sure what to make of the film.  I'm still processing it.  It was short (around 30 minutes) and had few words (French, subtitled in English).  It seemed, in fact, to be a childrens' book translated to film.  But my immediate reaction when watching it was, "Where are the parents, for goodness sake?!?" 

The film followed the adventures of a little boy (six, tops) and his balloon, which we quickly learned had magical qualities.  The balloon was able to follow the boy at will, all over town.  The amazing thing, however, was that the boy navigated the streets and alleys of Paris by himself.  A parent (or grandparent) and a school official appeared only to scold the boy for not behaving properly.  Otherwise, the boy was left to fend for himself.  Ironically, the balloon was more interested in the boy than the adults in the film.  It followed him, played with him, escaped trouble with him...(until the end, which I won't give away). 

As a parent of a pre-adolescent, the relationship between the boy and the adults in his life hit a nerve.  They say children are sometimes invisible to us adults.  I am positive it works the other way around.  Adults are definitely invisible to children as well.  And sometimes for good reason.  We appear only to scold.  We don't take the time to play, to follow wordlessly, to cuddle, to praise.

So does it matter where the parents were in this film?  No.  Does it matter if there are no adults in our books?  Mostly, no.  Sometimes adults get in the way. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Name that Emotion

I blogged a few weeks ago about my critique with Bree Ogden of a PB that I had been working on F-O-R-E-V-E-R.  To recap, the story's main character had never found the right voice.  The plot and idea were solid, but the little girl fell flat with every revision.  In fact, I absolutely dreaded my critique.  I had sent the story in weeks before, and by the time of the conference, I had decided to nix the whole project and chalk it up to experience.

But Bree mentioned one little thing in the critique that made it all sink in.  "She is angry about not being able to do what she wants to do.  We need to see more of that."  And once I clamped on to the idea of anger and indignation, I had a line for her, and from that line came the rest of her character.  I was shocked.  It seemed so simple...identifying one key emotion helped me build the rest of the story.  I felt enlightened and humbled (aka, loser!) all at once.

I read the revised story (major revision #7 or #8 now, I think) to my critique group yesterday, and they loved it.  I felt like I had rescued this little girl from the garbage bin, literally.  There are still a rough spots, sure, but I think it's on its way to being submission-worthy.

So that's my lesson for the week...identify the key emotion in your character, and use that as a jumping point.  I tend to gravitate toward the "quiet" characters, but maybe if I'm not so scared to embrace the more volatile emotions that children feel so intensely, I'll build more rounded and developed characters.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Decisions, decisions...

I made a decision today that I'm not entirely positive about, but that comes with being an adult, right?  I've told myself for quite a while that I would take the remainder of this year to devote solely to my writing.  Well, weakness (and a shortage of cash) took over my mind and body.  I saw the perfect job advertised in the paper.  Ten hours PRN social work at a local hospital.

Maybe they won't call me back...that will take care of that.  Easy-peasy.  But maybe they will.  I'm not sure which I want more.  It would be so nice to have a little extra cash, and I tell myself that having a parttime job will alleviate much of the guilt I feel in financing my wild writing experiment.  My husband's been more than patient.

I'll think I'll just go with the flow and see what happens.  At the least, it will keep my skills sharp for when my bubble lands, and I confront the fact that the writing gig probably won't pan out.  At the most, it will insert some much needed money into my account to help pay for all the conferences.  And it's just ten hours.  I hope.

What's your day job?  How do you pay the bills when you're writing on the side?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Advice from my son on character

It never ceases to amaze me when my son gives me advice on writing.  He is an avid reader at nine years old, so I take his advice very seriously. 

Last night at dinner, he mentioned a book that he read last year.  He considers it one of his all-time favorites: The Gorillas of Gill Park.  Sadly, I have not read this book yet, so I can't tell you anything about it myself, but Elijah loved the characters in the book.  I asked him what made them so good, and he said "just who they were."  I prodded further (usually necessary with a nine-year-old boy).  He said the characters were kind, polite.  Funny, I ask?  Not necessarily, he said.  He just liked that they were kids who did the right thing. 

So I jump in and give him an idea for a MG character I'm working on.  A boy with a personal flaw he wants to hide.  Elijah says, "Mom, your characters shouldn't have a problem within themselves.  The problem needs to come from the environment."  I'm not kidding...he said this.  And then I thought, yeah...what tween doesn't already have a whole slew of things they feel embarrassed about.  It must be refreshing for that age to pick up a book and read about characters that face and beat down problems on the outside, despite all their personal flaws, which rightfully take second fiddle to the real issues. 

I hope he can be my agent when I grow up.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

My daughter is beating me at PiBoIdMo!

My daughter has decided to participate in PiBoIdMo, too.  She has a pink notebook, just like Mommy's, and it's called "Maggie's Big Book of Great Ideas."  (Hey--you can't have that one...that's already idea #10 in my list!).  The sad thing is, Maggie's on idea #18.  She's beating me!  Here are the best so far (in my opinion, not hers...):

Idea #5: Trapped in the forest.  Where am I?

Idea # 6: My pet dragon.

Idea #14: I think there's too many letters in the alphabet.  Is there?  Tell me!

Idea #1: The girl who turned into a puppet.

Article on the Importance of Picture Books

Ruckus Media provided a connection to the following article on the importance of picture books.  Very comprehensive and provides links to picture book lists for the PB connoisseur.  Enjoy!

Monday, November 8, 2010

MO Conference Follow-Up

(Since my blog from last night was so long, I thought I would add a few details in a follow-up.) 

One of the high spots of the day was sitting down at lunch to chat with Lin Oliver for a few moments.  First, I had a question about published and listed (PAL) status in SCBWI (i.e., whether having a contract signed was the same as being published).  She said yes, it counts in terms of being considered a published author.  Good thing, too, because I learned from Lynnea Annette that it could take four years before my story for Highlights is published (yowza!).

Then Lin was gracious enough to give me advice on what story to take to New York.  I didn't ask her to-- she just offered when she learned I was going to NY.  I asked her opinion on whether to take a Hans-Christian-Anderson type of story or a mss about the son of a magician and his birthday.  She said the latter felt more marketable.  (Although, in retrospect--and it was a great learning experience for me--I don't think that I was marketing my former story in the right way.  Namrata also said it didn't sound marketable.  It has a definite modern feel, but I'm not describing it well.  I've gotta change my angle on it.)

Finally, we discussed the future of the picture book, the NY times article, and the general direction (or misdirection) of public education in our country as it relates to No Child Left Behind.  All I can say is, she is one smart lady.

My critique was with Bree Ogden.  I took a story about a girl and her robot.  I was really depressed going into the critique, because I felt this story was unsalvageable.  I had worked on it for so long, and it seemed to get lost along the way.  I even had sent her an older version of the story!  But good news...robots are the next hot thing (who knew?).  She pointed out what I knew was there...Alberta needed more character development.  But she said something that got me thinking about the story in a way I had not done previously.  One little word changed my perspective, and I rewrote the story in a morning when I got back.  Thanks, Bree!  Sometimes it just takes the right nudge at the right time.  And boy, I needed it!

I think I'm officially drained of conference highlights until NY.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

MO SCBWI Conference (Pssst...It includes Steve Mooser and Lin Oliver!)

Yesterday, I attended the MO-SCBWI conference, and I am so glad I did.  It was such a treat to hear from Steve Mooser and Lin Oliver, that I nearly came to tears...several times...really.  But more on that later.

The day started with Steve and Lin's list of Ten Most Important Things to remember as a children's writer (but really the list included was hard to edit).  It was basically a list of quotes from great children's authors.  You know, the quotes that you will go home and paste all over your office, to keep you going when you've lost your way.  Lin's favorite: "Come up with a character you love, think about what she wants most in the world and decide what's keeping her from it" -- Paula Danziger.

Namrata Tripathi of Atheneum Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) spoke next.  For PB writers, she's looking for young, bold picture books and has a special interest in a book with a "classic, but fresh" feel.  She pointed us to one of her latest, Lulu and the Brontosaurus, by Judith Viorst (of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), as an example of that type of book.

Bree Ogden of Martin Literary Management in Seattle also spoke.  She gave some great advice on how to be savvy in the current marketplace.  Put yourself out there in a blog (phew!), even posting some stories, and remember that an experienced agent or publisher makes a decision on a submission from the first couple lines of a cover letter.  So do your research and know what a particular agent or editor is looking for.

A common suggestion from Bree and Namrata was to take the relationship with an editor and/or agent seriously.  Treat it like a commitment.  Feel confident that you are compatible by asking them the right questions.  Of course, for first-time authors, this will be a hard challenge.  If you're like me, you're salivating, just waiting for that offer, and it will be tempting to grab the first thing that comes your way.  But hopefully stronger minds will prevail, and we'll all take the time to ask questions before we take the plunge.

I attended the two Masters sessions this year.  Jody Feldman gave a brilliant workshop on creating worlds within books.  I found the writing exercises particularly helpful.  Steve and Lin gave a workshop on diaglogue.  What a hoot.  They had us all writing on the spot and spilling our bare souls before each other. 

Which brings me to...the tears.  Steve and Lin closed the event with a look at children's writing, past, present, and future.  They talked about the founding of SCBWI, liking it to "a tribe" of like-minded people all working for the same goal.  In fact, when they held their first conference, they sent 10 letters to the best children's authors of the time (Judy Blume, Dr. Seuss, E.B. White, etc.), asking them if they could come speak to their small band.  All but one or two (with good reasons) said they would come, taking the time to respond in handwritten letters (insert tears here).  Steve and Lin also bouyed the nerves of all writers present when they talked about the future.  Yes, technology is changing the publishing industry, but it is not destroying our need for fiction.  In fact, technology will play a role in proliferating story, and authors may even see greater return for content in the brave new world.

Well, sorry for my longest post ever (I didn't even tell you about my lunchtime chat with Lin or my critique with Bree), but I hope you found it worth the read.  Good luck to all of you in the tribe!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


A lot of people have been writing about inspiration lately, considering the monumental tasks before us this month (NaNoWriMo and PiBoIdMo).

I get my inspiration first and foremost from my kids.  I think if you write for children, and you don't have any of your own, you at least need to borrrow some for awhile.  Hang out at the library (as long as you don't have long hair and tattoos), volunteer at your local school (see exception previously), or observe children at the playground or park (okay, if you do have long hair and tattoos, you're going to have to borrow some young relatives).

I also get inspiration from my own childhood.  In fact, my one published story to date (well, its under contract, but I consider it published for my ego's sake!), was based on some childhood memories of raising geese.  Take the time to do a journal of your childhood.  I basically took each year of school and wrote everything I could remember about those years in a diary.  When I'm at a loss for ideas, I shuffle through the pages and find some funny tidbit just waiting to be fleshed out.

Like most writers, I think the most important element of inspiration is openness.  Just be open at all times to what's going on around you and the potential it holds for a story.  I've gottten some ideas from unlikely places: National Geographic articles, posters of animals in the school hallway, conversations overheard at a restaurant, you name it!

Finally, don't forget your own imagination.  Dream up your own characters.  Think of something you've never seen in a children's book.  Ask the "what if" questions.  (Like, what if I got off my blog page and actually started working on my story!!!)

Okay, I get the hint.  Get at it!

Monday, November 1, 2010

PiBoIdMo Kickoff

Today is the first officia day of PiBoId Mo 2010.  Check out for details and to get involved.  You have until November 7 to sign in, so hurry, hurry.  Great prizes and fun are all part of the deal, so long as you come up with 30 ideas in 30 days.  And to those doing both PiBoIdMo and NaNoWriMo, my hats are off to you!

Off to think!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Doodle for My Noodle

I spend one morning a week mentoring a student at a local elementary school.  One of the perks of the program is the exclusive use of the "mentoring cabinet" -- a cubbard filled with all sorts of goodies and games to use with your mentee.  Today, we ran across a doodle book by Nikalas Catlow, Do You Doodle?  It's filled with all sorts of half-drawn pictures, and you're invited to fill in the rest with your own doodles.

What I didn't expect to feel as we flipped through the pages was the familiar (although sometimes hard-to-come-by) writer's "spark."  We flashed by a page of a boy looking into an empty cave.  The caption read, "What's in the cave?"  Another page showed a boy holding x-ray film over himself, and you're asked to draw his skeleton.  All sorts of images popped into my mind as we thumbed through the pages, as well as the phrase my family hears over and over: "Now, wouldn't that make a good picture book?"

As PiBoIdMo draws near, I've been wondering how I can feed that creative fire, to keep me stoked for ideas during the month to come.  I want to engage fully in the spirit of the challenge as well and come up with 30 brand-spankin'-new, hot-off-the-press ideas (not revisited versions of ideas sitting on the back burner and thereby stuck to the bottom of the pot!).  So like a kid with candy money in my pocket, I ran to the bookstore today and picked up a copy of Do You Doodle?  For my noodle, of course!  The real challenge will be not opening it until November 1st.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

And who said picture books are too easy?

I picked up The Odious Ogre at the library yesterday.  Who could resist such a title?  It's about an--you guessed it--odious ogre who wreaks havoc on the locals and is so horrible that he doesn't really need to try anymore.  Villagers practically roll over and insert themselves into his mouth.  It's not until he meets a kind young mistress that he becomes befuddled and loses all his ogrely confidence. 

I comment on this book, because it is an excellent example of a picture book that uses challenging language.  (Frankly, I could have used a dictionary myself as I wandered through the pages).  In light of the NYT article on the death of the picture book, I thought it appropriate to bring this book to your attention.  Picture books are not always for the extremely young set.  This book would be perfect for the older reader, who will undoubtedly soak up the advanced vocabulary like a sponge.  It's a fun read.  Pick it up!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

An Award

Thanks to my good friend Sharon for bestowing the Versatile Blogger award. 

I'm new to this brave new world of blogging, so forgive me if I don't get everything sorted out just right.  But if you're wandering how to blog and do it right, visit Sharon and get an education.  She's quite the blog diva.

Seven things about myself, per the award rules:
1.  I have the smallest toenails on the planet.
2.  I'm from North Carolina originally, so I really, really, miss the ocean out here in the Midwest.
3.  I have never broken a bone, but my daughter just broke two at once.  She is such an overachiever.
4.  I am married to a minister, but don't hold it against me.
5.  My favorite children's book is Knuffle Bunny (although growing up it was Amelia Bedelia).
6.  I once saw Sherman Helmsley in a grocery store parking lot.
7.  I am really nervous about this whole writing venture thingy-dingy.

As requested, I will dutifully pass this award to a few friends that I have met recently and have their own blogs:

Susan Uhlig (a.k.a. Ford), who gives great advice to aspiring writers.
Shannon Moore, who reviews new books in the children's market.
Lindsay Miller Weiss, who gets paid to blog (!) and is an aspiring children's author.
Michelle Brown, who is an awesome new critique friend and fellow writer.
Tara Lazar, who I just met in the blog world and is the founder of PiBoIdMo.  What a find!

Thanks again Sharon for getting me involved with the writers' blogosphere!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

PiBoIdMo 2010

No, it's not how to say hello in a foreign language, it's the Picture Book Idea Month, and it's going to start soon.  Head over to for details.  And dust off those thinking caps!

If I Can Make it There, I'll Make it Anywhere!

Start spreading the news...I signed up for SCBWI's New York Conference.  It's my first time!  I even dropped the big bucks for the pre-conference events.  I'm excited to say the least.  And nervous.  And pumped.  And did I mention nervous?

Mo Willems will be there.  And Jane Yolen.  And Lois Lowry (!!!)  Yowza! 

I'm trying to decide what story to take for the intensives.  It's a little bit like a Cinderella story.  You feel like you're dressed in rags, but you know the right dress is out there if only your fairy godmother would come along and whoosh it into existence.  Except then you realize there is no such thing as a fairy godmother, and you've got to whoose that story up yourself.  Gaccck!

If you're going, let me know.  I'd love to meet you.  I should be easy to spot.  I'll be the one in the homemade ballgown, hoping to find my Prince Charming!

Friday, October 15, 2010

How Do You Know When A Story Just Won't Work?

I've seen this pop up on blogs occassionally, so I know there's some advice out there somewhere.  I have a story...the robot story, you may remember from my last blog...that seems to get worse with every rewrite.  Most of my stuff gets better with revision, but this one just can't find a voice.  I'm thinking I need to retire it.  My critique group suggested as much at my last face-to-face.

So how do you know when to give a story a peaceful burial?  It's hard for this one, because I'm emotionally vested.  It was my first story, and the one my group loved at first.  I don't know why it's lost its way.  Unfortunately, I've sent it in to be critiqued at the Missouri conference, so I'll have to resurrect it one more time post-mortem.  I wish I had sent another one, but in a moment of weakness, I thought it was worth the CPR.

There is one more life-saving maneuver to try.  I think I'll rewrite it in first person, andsee what comes out.  Maybe Alberta (or Juliet as she was called previously...I got criticized for changing the name, too!), wants to tell the story herself.  I hope she can help, because I've got the funeral home on speed dial.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Taking it to the Next Level

I've noticed a trend in my early drafts, and my critique partners have as well.  While I am a fan of "quiet humor," it seems that I could improve my writing by taking it to the next level.  In other words, I need to ramp it up a bit and open my mind up to the possibilities.

For example, one of my earliest stories, and one that is being reworked in light of my recent conferences and manuscript exchanges, is about a girl who builds a robot to tie her shoelaces.  She is "a dreamer" I say at the beginning, but as a critique friend noticed, she really doesn't do anything outside of her house to move the plot along.  Great insight.  There are so many wierd and wacky things she could do to teach her robot how to tie laces, but I haven't opened that world up to her.  I forget sometimes that kids are much more open to the strange and fantastic.  I may think it is unusual to go to a ballet about shoelaces, but a child wouldn't.  (Hmmmm...that gives me an idea!)

So that's my goal over the next few weeks.  Ramp it up.  Take it to the next level.  Stretch those brain cells.  You have a plot, now dream!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Too Sad for Words

I saw an article in the New York Times today that made me sad, sad, sad.  See "Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children" at

This article predicted the death of the picture book, because parents feel that they do not challenge their children enough.  Evidently, five year-olds are being persuaded to read Harry Potter instead of Curious George these days.

I am sort of left speechless.  Of course, I have stakes in this argument, being a picture book writer wanna-be, but as a parent, I'm also confused and astounded that picture books are deemed less appropriate for budding readers than chapter books.

I have three comments:
1)  The article raises the point that picture books can have more complicated vocabulary than a chapter book.  YES!  The pictures can paint a definition of a word easier and perhaps better than a text-filled chapter book can through its context alone.  I just read a book called Violet the Pilot with my daughter this weekend.  It has big words out the wazoo.  My five-year old daughter had to ask for help reading them.  Good for Violet.

2)  The article did not discuss libraries.  Only booksellers.  I can understand why picture books are lanquishing in bookstores.  A $16.00-$18.00 book is a hard sell to parents strapped for cash in this economy.  (And it raised the issue of lowering prices on picture books.  Maybe it's time...)  But what about libraries?  I often use them as my go-to source for picture books when I can't fork out the dough for a picture book to stay in our home collection.  Picture books will always have a home there (of course, there's the funding issue for libraries as well...).

3)  What about the graphic novel?  This type of book has seen a huge jump in sells the past couple of years.  Who are these readers?  Maybe they are the wee ones who are pushed out of picture books when they are three, yet longing to immerse themselves in a visual as well as semantic world?  The industry shows that these are popular books.  Pictures sell.  Maybe the industry should take another look at an almost dead genre: the picture storybook.  Publishers have pared down picture books so much (many won't even look at anything over 500 words), maybe parents are feeling guilty about picking up such an brief story.  Flesh out a few of those books...see if parents return to them.  You don't have to read the whole story in a night.  Break it up, or let the kids soak it up by themselves.  Let it be their guilty pleasure.

4)  Okay, I have four points, and could probably think of more if I sat here long enough.  Stop growing kids up too fast!  If we start chapter books when they are 4, then they move to MG by the time they are 6, then it's on to YA when they are 9 or 10.  Do you know how hard it is to find a YA with suitable content for a 9 year-old?  It's hard.  My 9 year-old son is an amazing reader, but I'm not ready for him to pick up YA yet.  And I will still let him pick up the occassional picture book because he enjoys them, and because many of them are just as challenging to the creative half of his brain as MG fiction.

If you are a writer or a parent who cares about picture books, spread the word about this article.  Let the industry know that the picture book is not dead.  It just needs some believers.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Crawling Up through the Inferno

I told my husband the other day that writing felt like travelling through the levels of Dante's Inferno (okay, minus the eternal and unrelenting punishments).  You start at the bottom, the 9th level, and slowly work your way up to the limbo stage...waiting perpetually for that call into the promised land of publication.  But the weird thing is, you don't see it that way at the beginning...

When I first started submitting, it felt like a golden time.  You send your baby into the void and know that someone, somewhere will think it's the best piece of literature since Shakespeare.  You are blissfully unaware of the purgatory that awaits.  Then, the first rejection comes.  Okay, we still have some pieces out.  We'll get it next time.  Then the next rejection, then the next.

Before you know it, you've racked up quite a collection.  You're thinking you won't need to buy wrapping paper next year.  Then you realize it.  You're at the bottom of the pit.  You've got to scratch your way to the top.  It won't be easy.  Who were we trying to fool?  Why did we think a little revision here, a fixed typo there, could get the job done? 

I don't know what level I'm at now.  I'm not a 9, but I don't think that I've reached Limbo yet.  Maybe I'll give myself a 4.  I've learned a ton, but there's a few pieces of the puzzle still out there.  I hope they're not hard to find...maybe just hiding out under the couch.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Conference...with Benefits

One of the best things I get from going to conferences (besides the information and critique sessions with real live agents, editors and writers) is my growing number of contacts. 

The KS conference was quite a coup in terms of the great friends I made.  In the weeks since the conference, I have joined an online critique group for picture book writers; I have established a relationship with another budding critique group for short story writers, and I talk regularly with new writer friends around the midwest.

I was debating whether to attend the MO conference because of its close proximity to the KS and national conference in NY (which I am going to for the first time...yikes!), but I decided to give it a go again this year primarily because of my wonderful experience at the KS conference.  I'm sure I'll see some of my friends there, and I hope to make new ones.

If you are an aspiring writer and have ever wondered whether it's worth your time to go to a conference, then wonder no longer.  Go!  Go!  Go!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Tomorrow the World! (Today the Toilet Bowl)

If you're like me, you get to a place where only a good toilet-scrubbing can help.  I wish I meant this metaphorically, but I don't.  I literally mean that scrubbing the toilets is the only thing that can make me feel better.

We all have a to-do list a mile long, right?  When my list gets so long my brain starts sizzling, I head for the toilet brush.  It seems that a good 'ole house-cleaning does wonders for my creative, spiritual, emotional (add whatever physio-psych word you want to add here) life.  My mother used to wake up at 5:00 and vacuum the house.  I thought it was crazy and a sure sign that I would have to institutionalize her later in life (or myself due to lack of sleep in my growth years), but now I kind of get it.  She needed to clear those cobwebs first thing in the morning, or she couldn't focus the rest of the day.

I find the same is true for me now.  Maybe it's sign that I'm older.  I can't concentrate on too many things at once.  Then again, maybe cleanliness does lead to godliness, or at least a decent approximation of maturity.  Whatever the reason, I gladly pick up that toilet brush and scrub away.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Top 100

Okay, I admit it.  I've gotten bogged down in my quest to read every picture book from A to Z at my local library.  It's a worthwhile pursuit, and if I had no children, husband, dog or guinea pig, I would be all over it like butter on a pancake.

But I do have a life, so I've switched gears.  At my recent conference, Bruce Hale suggested I read instead the School Library Journal's list of the 100 most popular children's picture books.  For those of you who might want to do this as well, you can find the list here:

It's a much tamer goal, and one that's definitely doable before my children graduate from high school.  I've also read many of the books on the list already, so it's been easy to shoot through the list.  I'm reticent to admit that I read for the first time some classics of the trade, including Owl Moon by Jane Yolen (wow, what use of language to create a mood), and Blueberries for Sal. 

I'll discuss some of my favorites as I move along, but if you have any from your childhood that you would like to share here, please feel free.

A Follow-Up

I feel that I should follow up on a comment I made in my previous blog entry about Tammi Sauer's picture book approach.  Tammi was gracious enough to comment on my post, for which I am flattered and thankful!

When you are training a bunch of newbie writers, such as myself, you of course need to give them a framework.  Dian C. Regan repeated much of the same advice when she critiqued my story.  I think now that I have attended several conferences, the information is starting to be repeated.  Maybe that's what I was picking up on during Tammi's presentation, and I didn't even realize it until later.  It's actually a good think that I'm hearing the same advice.  I can tell that some of it is starting to sink in (which for me, can honestly take a while, sometimes). 

The main issue from my comment, however, is having an agent.  Evidently, having an agent can limit the number of houses that see your work.  This is new to my ears.  I was under the assumption that having an agent actually opens up new doors to you.  They have relationships with many publishers and know who wants what, right? 

Well, yes.  A good one does.  In a follow-up with Tammi, a good agent has many relationships, but may choose to limit your houses while your list grows and as you develop as a writer.  They may approach other houses if your style changes, or after you have a solid relationship built with your current publishers/editors.

So Tammi, thanks for the clarification.  I'm beginning to feel that writing is 2% talent, 98% hard work, persistence and luck.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

KS-SCBWI Conference

I told my critique partner as we left the KS conference of SCBWI that I always leave these meetings both supremely pumped up and drastically depressed.  This conference was about the same, although I have to say I left with the hope that some of some of this writing advice is finally starting to gel in my mind.

Bruce Hale was a great speaker.  I especially loved his enthusiasm and his encouragement.  I also had a great personal conversation with him the night before the main conference.  I commented to him that his bio made me feel better about having so many careers throughout my life.  He said writers need it that way...we need to experience all of life, so that we can sit down and put it on paper.  I'd never thought about it before, but I'll use it as my excuse for never deciding what I want to be when I grow up.

My critique was awesome.  Dian Curtis Regan blessed me with a typed-out summary of her advice.  I think she saw potential in what I had brought in with a few tweaks.  Whew!  At first, I was disappointed that I did not get an editor or agent, but the benefit of having a picture book author became apparent as soon as I sat down.  You can't beat the experience of 50 plus picture books.

Here's a recap of information that was new to me:
  • Editors are constantly comparing your work to what is out there, so it's good to know (and mention in your cover letter) what book your story is like but also what makes it unique (Andrew Harwell and Maria Gonzales mentioned this);
  • Editors are at the mercy of big booksellers when designing covers (who knew Barnes &Noble held the pursestrings or the publishing world?);
  • When sitting down to do a picture book, make a brainstorm list of everything that might possibly relate to the subject (Tammi Sauer's idea).
Speaking of Tammi Sauer, I think she gave some great advice on PB writing.  What did strike me, however, is how formulaic her approach is.  She complained about being boxed in by four publishers, and I wonder if it has something to do with her method of developing a PB.  Who knows?  It's a useful framework, one that I've heard several times now.  (I'm not published, so what am I doing questioning it, huh?).

The first pages portion of the conference was helpful, too.  I brought a story about a girl who has to move to the city because her father lost his job (for those of you who remember hearing it, please forgive me!).  I brought it because it has never felt right to me.  I loved the language and cadence of the story, but something was amiss, and I think the panel put the finger on it.  It has an adult narrator.  Ouch.  I guess I had never thought about it before, but a third person narrator must also be child-like and not speak in adultese.  (Now panicked me is looking at all my stuff with fresh eyes, thinking,,,omg, all these kids sound old!  Hence why I come away from conference feeling depressed!)

Overall, the conference was a great experience, and one that I don't mind repeating.  Here's a nod of good luck to all of us in the coming year!  Remember the p's: passion, practice, persistence!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Away We Go to Conference

Tomorrow I'll be attending my third SCBWI conference, and I am excited.  Not just because I'm getting away from my hectic home for a day and a half (okay, that's a huge part of it), but because for the first time I feel like a writer.  I've sweated; I've stacked up the rejection letters; I've collected a few "no, but here's my humble suggestion" letters (even better); I've started a website, blog and printed business cards; I've (drumroll) sold a story to Highlights.  I am a writer!

I look forward to hopping into the fray this year, knowing that I can talk about writing and not sound completely stupid.  Of course I'm still intimidated a wee little bit, but I am determined to move past those queasy feelings and make some real contacts.  Wish me luck.  I'll give a report when I get back (would you expect any less?).

Monday, September 13, 2010

Questions for a Nine-Year Old

I recently posted a note on Facebook about something I had started with my son about a week ago (¬es_tab=app_2347471856).  Each night, I ask him a question about himself.  It has to be open-ended, but otherwise, there are no rules.  I did it as a way to make him feel appreciated, especially as he gets older and the developmental need to pull away from the parental overlords becomes stronger.  I want him to know that we understand he is his own person, with tastes, thoughts, and dreams apart from our own.  So far, I think it has worked well.  Time will tell if he is soon uninspired by the whole process.

But a few nights ago, he surprised me with a question, "Are you asking me all these things for a story?"  "No," I replied, "I just want to get to know you better."  Which is true, of course, but the darker side of me did realize that I was getting some great information about the mind of a nine-year old.  I've used him for advice a couple of times before, and I'm not ashamed to say that with a few of my picture books, his advice was spot on.  Hopefully he'll forgive me if a little sparkle of our conversations makes its way into a book someday.  But for the most part, my son, it really is just a way to know you better and make sense of this mess called parenting. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

And so it goes...

I carried through on my promise to work through all the picture books in the library.  And you didn't think I would keep going, did you?  After the first few books this week, I wasn't sure I would either.  I hit a couple of "oldies but goodies" right away -- picture books from the 1980s that had at the minimum of 2000 words a piece.  I don't know if I'm a product of my culture or not (probably), but that is an awful lot to digest at night with your kiddie-pie.  I'm glad picture books have scaled back.

The one worth mentioning this week is The Babe and I by David Adler.  I didn't think I was going to like it.  I'm not into baseball at all, and period pieces aren't my favorite either.  But I was surprised.  It's a great example of how to intertwine history with a really good story.  I think I even teared up in the library.  Hopefully no one saw me behind the stacks (although I do wonder what the librarians think of the crazy weepy lady who keeps showing up to read through the children's section).

Thursday, September 2, 2010

From A to Z

I have read in numerous places that if you want to be a picture book author, you need to read every picture book in your local library from A to Z.  Sounds easy enough, right?  I decided to do it.

Well, I didn't pick the best day to start.  I was just getting over a head cold, and I felt like my head was swimming in a vat of jell-o.  I started with A and the first two books were long fables.  Not my favorite.  Not bad writing, mind you, just not my favorite kind of picture book.  But I made it through those and kept going.  Then I hit a really bad book.  Wow...didn't I just write a book that sounded kind of like this dribble?...keep moving and don't look back!  Then finally, something refreshing.  Some books by Alma Flor Ada structured as letters by famous fairy tale characters.  Really cute and funny.  How had I not seen these before (perhaps too early in the alphabet when I mosey over to the shelves and browse)?  And talk about voice.  Each character had a very distinct voice that came through in the letter.

And then I stopped.  My nose and my brain called a timeout.  Whew!  This is going to be harder than I thought.  But I'll give it a go, and let you know how I'm progressing.  I can certainly see after just one day, however, how certain books jump out from the rest.  The ones with unique writing, strong voice, fresh ideas....versus, well you know (i.e., the backlog of crappy ideas floating in my files!). 

Friday, August 27, 2010

Will the real Kristen Hilty please step forward?

I am attending the Kansas SCBWI conference in a few weeks, and while doing research on the attendees, came across a great piece of advice.  Here, Marietta Zacker is quoted in an interview with Casey McCormick:
It is difficult for me to ask to see a manuscript or get excited about what I am about to read when the query or cover letter has no soul or personality. I understand that everyone is trying to be respectful and professional and I certainly appreciate that, but if I had to choose, I would prefer to know who you are rather than the word count or to what book your manuscript can most be compared (
I struggle with this balance between professionalism and openness all the time.  I worked at a law firm for several years, so the professional, well-worded letter comes easily for me.  What is not so easy is letting go of some of my inhibitions and revealing a little piece of who I am. 

Using my "monkeypatch" logo has certainly helped, I think.  I use it now at the top of all my letterhead, while also referring to my website.  I guess I'm hoping really interested editors/agents will take the time to peek at my blog or website, but that's probably not realistic. 

My plan then, is to be a little more carefree with my cover letters and queries.  I don't know exactly how that will develop, but I hope it's a positive shift.  I already have a beginning line ready for my "ugly mermaid" story (assuming it ever gets finished, polished, and decent enough to send out).  Here goes...what do you think?
So I went to the library with my daughter the other day and she wanted all the picture books about mermaids.  Guess what?  There were only three.  I said, "Mommy can write you a mermaid book!"  And of course, my daughter replied, "Great!  I think it should be about an ugly mermaid!"  (Lesson: Be careful what you say to a five-year old!)  The manuscript enclosed for your review was born of that conversation...
Will that pique someone's interest and give them a feel for who I am?  Or am I paddling out from shore in a sinking boat?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Brave New World

My baby went to kindergarten today.  That means both kids are at school.  It's a bittersweet day.  Maggie was clearly nervous, and Elijah noticed right off the bat that a past-year bully was in the seat next to him.  We were nervous for both of them and a little sad at the milestone.  But...and this is a big but, not a little wimpy one...Mommy all of the sudden has writing time!

I sat at the computer today like a woman who has been crawling through the desert and suddenly sees a pool of water.  I picked up several stories, panting over each one, wondering where to start. 

For now, I decided to start with a plan.  I have a conference coming soon, so marketing needs to be considered.  Not  the favorite part of many writers, but a necessary one.  So here's the plan:
  • Update my blog, step one. 
  • Update my website, step two.  (Need to make the all important declaration that we no longer have a dog named Charlie...see previous blogs and be rest assured that he is in a good foster home awaiting a family who can love him despite his constant urination...but now have a dog named Allie.  And need to update my list of works).
  • Work on my application for the MO-SCBWI mentorship program, step three.
  • Then write, write, send, send, steps four through infinity.
This is a brave new world.  A world that I have never experienced and not quite sure how to navigate.  But as long as the puppy takes some naps (I see some long walks in my future to ensure that!), I should be just fine.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sympathy from a Five-Year Old

Today I visited a teacher supply shop with my children.  We weren't there very long, but it reminded me of long hours spent in these stores with my mom when I was young.  My mom, like all good teachers, spent much of her own time and money on preparing her classroom.  If you totaled up how much she spent on bulletin board supplies alone, it would probably be enough to pull a third-world country out of poverty.

Anyway, I shared this recollection with my children on the way home.  Here's how my conversation played out with my five-year old daughter.

After driving away from the store, I said, "My mom was so good with children.  I wish you could have known her."

"Is your mom already dead?" Maggie asked.

"Yes," I replied.  "My mom died about seven years ago."  Tears started pooling.  I didn't realize the memory would be sentimental.

"Well," Maggie said.  "That's sad that your mom died.  But it's good that you don't have to go to those stores anymore."

My tears immediately morphed into laughter.  My daughter has always been very matter-of-fact when death is the subject.  In fact, her sincere response encapsulates one of the main reasons I am drawn to writing for children.  Children see the world so clearly.  Their interactions with each other and with adults aren't veiled by years of social formation.  A child can voice in one sentence what a grown-up has been trying to convey his/her whole life.  What a gift.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What You Need is a Little Focus

So I've committed myself to being a serious writer (at least until the next period of deep depression).  But here's my problem now: how do you choose what to work on?  There is the obvious...a contest to enter over here, a mentorship application over there.  But what do I send in?  I have numerous manuscripts at this point (all of which could be perfected even they ever come to completion?), not to mention the scores of what I call "half-baked ideas" in my computer, all vying for my undying attention and devotion.

I think that kills my writing time more than any other thing right now.  Focus.  What to work on.  I sit at the computer and look at the intimidating list of files and my brain starts swirling with all sorts of thoughts...gee, my character in that story really needs fleshing out, or the ending in that story is really weak, or does that story fit this publisher...maybe I should reread it for the thousandth time to see....Agggghh!

I'll be hunting for some professional advice on this topic, and any and all comments would be appreciated.  Now back to staring at that list....

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Good News (and a Kick in the Pants)

The summer is hard for a stay-at-home mom/writer.  Writing has taken a back seat to family vacations and days at the swimming pool. 

But even harder on the novice writer is the growing pile of rejections and worse, hearing nothing at all.  The phrase, "no-news-is-good-news," doesn't stick in the writing world.  Rather, it means your writing has been heaved unceremoniously into a mile-high stack of paper destined for the recycle bin.  Many publishers and agents put this fact out in front.  And to put it in the language of the street, I'm down with that.  But when you attend a conference and make a personal contact, you hope to get more than a deafening silence broken only by the lonesome cricket melody.  You expect at least a form notice of rejection, if not a short personal note.

So earlier in the year when I received no word from a conference contact, the wind dropped from my sails, and my boat floated stagnant in the water.  I needed distance from my writing.  I needed to reassess my priorities...then...

Out of the blue, I get a letter of acceptance from Highlights magazine.  Holy cow!  Just when I had begun to think the writing gig was a pipedream, I get a contract offer for my story, "Wobblejohn."  And my next thought went something like this: "Man, I better get back to writing."

So let that be a lesson to you, Kristen Hilty.  Don't go wasting time on daydreams and pool tans.  Get back to work.  Write, write, and write some more.  Because in the middle of all the silence, someone, somewhere, might be reading your stuff and actually liking it!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Nature's Cleanser

A week ago, the winds they were a'blowin'.  For most of us, the winds wreaked havoc with our sinuses.  Pollen swirled in the air like a yellow tornado.  Weather reports cited the highest pollen count in years.  Even I experienced a tight throat and itchy eyes.  I'm usually unaffected.

But the winds played another role that week.  While at the park with my daughter and another playmate, I heard the cracking of limbs above.  One branch even fell a little too close for comfort, making us rethink the wisdom of playing under the canopy that day.  Mother Nature had implemented her built-in cleansing system.  The same winds that forced many of us inside with coughs and wheezes were busy blowing away the detritus of the trees.

How nice would that be to have a great gust of wind blow through our busy lives and blow away all the unnecessary stuff that we pile on?  What would go, what would stay? 

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

And Another Thing...

I like about children's books is that they rarely go on the half-read pile.  Increasingly I am reading my "adult" books half-way through and then stopping.  I don't know if this says more about me or the book.  I'm usually dogged in my determination to finish a book, even if I hate it.  I want to say I made it to the end, that I got my moneys worth.  But lately, not so much.  Am I tired, easily distracted, bored, incapable of protracted thought other than, "did I feed the dog this morning?"

I'm hoping it's just a developmental cycle of my adulthood, because I'm starting to feel a little guilty.  On the other hand, I think I have finished almost every picture book I've ever picked up.  Granted, there were a few I wanted to burn by the end, and maybe they never got read again, but at least I finished them.  There's some satisfaction in that.  Maybe I should just switch entirely over to picture books?  Naw...

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

One Darn Good Dragon Movie

I took the kids to see "How to Train Your Dragon" today (in 3D), and all three of us loved it.  It was one of the best kid movies I've seen in a long time.  The writing was superb.  The jokes were funny, the plot was intense, and the ending wrapped back to the beginning in a nice, but not cheesy way.  What a wonderful treat (versus a certain guinea pig movie that shall forever enter my memory with the pain of a dull tack being repeatedly poked into my gray matter)!

The focus of the movie was not new: a misfit teenager who finds acceptance through his wit and determination.  But there was a surprise twist at the ending, at least for me.  (I had not read the book that the movie was based on.)  After a mighty dragon duel at the end, the main character loses a foot (not on screen, mind you...he sports a prosthetic device in the final sequences). 

I was surprised by my initial reaction to the footless character.  An a kid's movie?!?  But then a wave of sentimental gushiness broke over me.  Of course an amputation in a kid's movie!  Why haven't we seen this before?  We so often relegate deformities or illness to "special" children's literature.  The type only read to your kid if they themselves have the handicap or illness which is the subject of the book, and typically published by the APA or a specialty house.  We ourselves got a plethora of books about diabetes when our son was diagnosed with Type 1, but he was embarassed for us to read them to his classmates, because the books were not "cool."  I kind of agree with him.

I'm sure there are some kid's lit characters with physical handicaps that escape my memory now, but by far we ignore the sheer numbers of these kids among us in our tales of normality.  What if instead, they were the heroes in a few stories?  How would normal kids start to perceive these "special" children?  Maybe they would start to be "special" only in their courage, and not in their physical differences. 

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Departures and Other Comings and Goings

We saw a film called Departures last night.  It's a Japanese film about a man who is fired from his job as a cellist with a big Tokyo orchestra.  To make ends meet, he and his wife move back to his home town, and he takes a job as an NK agent.  Based on the ad in the paper, he thinks an NK agent is a travel agent, but as he finds out later, it's a person who prepares a body for burial. 

As a former hospice worker and someone who has lost very close family members, I was moved by the man's journey through the movie.  At first, the job repulsed him.  But he came to love the job and even defend it to others who thought it was bizarre or unclean.  I balled over a lipstick scene that caught me offguard because of my own mother's funeral.  (Note to others: always discuss the color of the lipstick with the funeral home before they put it on!)

But the theme of departures is what really hooked me.  I've witnessed a lot of departures in my own life.  More, I think, than the average thirty-something.  We've moved at least five times in our marriage; I've held three (four if you count homemaker, a dubious title at best) jobs over those years; I've lost a mother, grandmother, father-in-law, several pets to death; I've left behind more friends than I can count; and our son was diagnosed with diabetes (a departure from good health forevermore). 

Some departures were good.  They brought fresh change and welcome challenges.  Some were not so good, even downright bad.  But they all brought stress, because they were all outside of my control.

I long for a departure that I choreograph.  A departure from the hectic life that has led us to this moment in time, a departure from everything that creates havoc in our lives, a departure from a conservative culture that we don't feel comfortable in, a departure from obligations and expectations that seem so trivial compared to the obligation to our own moral center, our emotional well-being, and our children's development.  Instead, I'm grounded.  Like a large, flightless bird, I run around in circles, but I don't get off the ground.

So I write.  Deep down, this is why I write.  It is my small attempt to fly.  To depart the world that sometimes presses down so hard and squeezes me into a tight ball.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Writing Dates

When we can, my husband and I have a date at the local college to sit and write together.  I write my stories, and Daniel writes his sermon for the week.  I laugh when I think about the the vastly different content being poured out across from each other.  He writing about deep, spiritual insights; me writing about puppy dogs and flatulence. 

I have no doubt, however, that Daniel would rather write sometimes about adolescence and childhood than the deep spiritual and theological matters of life.  It's tough to get those things on paper without sounding artificial or moralistic.  I really respect children's writers who can slide the great lessons of life into their writing without the reader even blinking an eye.  I love Kate DiCamillo's stories, because she is a master of this.  Example: in The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Edward the Rabbit talks with an ancient doll at the end of the book about hope.  At this point in the story, Edward has suffered so much pain that he can no longer bear to love.  The doll tells him, "You must be awash in hope. You must wonder who will love you, whom you will love next.”  What a beautiful line, but it flows so easily with the story. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

On to Iscandar!

For fun, we've been watching old epidsodes of Starblazers, one of the first anime superhits of the late 70s.  I wasn't sure the kids would enjoy the dated look of the cartoon, but they don't mind.  They enjoy the wacky theme song and crazy plot line as much as I did when I was young (I was seven when the series first aired).

My son wisely pointed out one of the series' key features to his sister tonight.  When the Star Force was enduring a particularly nasty attack by the Gamalons, Maggie looked worriedly to me and asked, "Are they going to be okay?  Are they going to make it?"  Elijah answered, "They always make it out okay, Maggie.  Don't worry."  And it's true, night after night, the Star Force is okay.  So far they've endured a missile net, fake stars, sulphuric rain...and the ship sails on.  Miraculously! 

I guess it's not surprising that Elijah finds the predictability of the show reassuring.  It's easy on the mind as well as the eyes.  I think we all wish we could face life with the knowledge that we'll "always make it out okay."  Of course, the flipside of the show is that the Gamalons seem to lurk around every corner.  I guess I'll take the unpredictability of life over constant attack by alien forces.  Call me crazy.

Monday, March 8, 2010

From K to 5

I have been writing.  I know it doesn't look like it here, but I have been faithful (well, at least 95%) to my pledge to write every day.  The grade school memory exercise was fun and revealed some things about myself I didn't realize until I wrote some things down.

Here's an excerpt from my fifth grade entry:

"Like every kid this age, I felt old and wizened and strutted the halls like everyone should jump out of my way. Wisdom dripped from my 10-year-old fingertips. I remember fifth grade as being a year when friendships meant a lot to me. And impressing friends. I seemed to have hung out with boys, however, more than girls at this age. I found boys to be a lot more funny than girls. Or maybe I found my friendships with girls to be a lot more stressful. I never fully recovered from the pain of comparing myself to my kindergarten friend who could read better than me, and by this time, she had found another friend which effectively made me a third wheel. And did I mention that new friend’s mother was my fifth grade teacher? Oiy."

And oddly enough, looking at my children's stories, I'm equally comfortable writing for girls and boys in my younger fiction, but as my books aim toward an older audience, I find it more comfortable to write from a boy's point-of-view.  I had trouble figuring out the mind of other girls growing up, and so I don't feel comfortable writing for girls now.  Hopefully that will change as I reflect on my own childhood experiences.  Probably also doesn't hurt that I have a girly girl for a daughter.  She'll educate me, for sure.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Memory Exercise

All of the sudden, the new dog has settled into our home and is normal.  Housebreaking fixed, howling at night fixed.  It's almost too good to be true.  So I have to find something else to write about.

Because I promised myself I would write every day during Lent, I've had to come up with some themes to get me going.  One of the projects I decided to tackle was a recollection of my school years grade by grade.  My husband was surprised I could remember enough from my childhood to write about, but I think I've been able to pull up some good stuff. 

Here is an excerpt from my kindergarten-year entry:

"The thing I remember most about kindergarten was being jealous of another friend who read so well that she was shuffled off to 1st grade reading group every day. The two grades were connected by a small stairway in the corner of the room. The first grade teacher would emerge from the mysterious recesses of first grade, call her name, and whisk! she would disappear for an hour or so. I remember thinking, 'I’m a good reader, too! Why can’t I go?'"

Kindergarten was a foreshadowing of my school experience for the next 12 years. I always wanted to be at the top of the class.  I didn't feel that I had looks going for me, so I leaned on my smarts.  Coming in second was a bitter pill to swallow.  (Of course, in adulthood, I've learned many times over that you can't be best at everything, and life is lot better because of it!)

My goal in this writing exercise is to delve deeper into how I thought as a kid.  Most children's writers I have had the pleasure of talking to say that understanding your own childhood is just as important (if not more important) than understanding how kids today think.  My children give me boundless examples of "kidspeak" and point me to what is funny for a child, but I want to pull on my own experience as well.  And as I have found in the course of this writing project, there are things about myself I didn't even realize until I wrote them down and saw patterns develop in my distant experiences.  Now, on to first grade. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Forty Days of Discipline

I never fully got into the practice of giving up something for Lent.  It was my Baptist childhood, I think.  But this Lent, I decided to do something instead of giving up something.  I am going to write every day for 40 days.  Some of that may be book writing (better be!), but some of it will be blog writing.  It all counts!  So away we go...

My days lately have been filled with one thing mostly...the new dog.  Charlie is overall, a good dog.  I think he must have had a rough life.  He is quick to feel threatened and go slunk away in a corner.  He pees like a fire hydrant (submissive urination, it's called) if he feels I am angry at him (unless, of course, he is outside where he is supposed to pee.  Then he refuses to pee for fear it will start another cycle of me being grumpy at him.)  Patience is my mantra lately.  Did I mention he has a habit of howling at night when we put him to bed, too?

Anyway, all this trouble with the new dog made me think of my own dogs growing up.  In particular, I think of Heather.  She was my first "dog."  She was a beautiful Irish Setter.  I haven't seen an Irish Setter in a long time, and I remember her being unusual even then.  I say "dog" (in quotes), because she was a stray.  I don't remember actually having this dog live with us.  I think she just visited and claimed our yard as her own.  We might have fed her.  I remember playing with her and thinking she was just the coolest dog ever.  Except one day she disappeared and never came back.  I did not get a good explanation as to why, but I found out (much later) that my parents had  taken her to the pound. 

We parents see pets, and life overall, in a much different light than children see it.  I loved a dog that my parents obviously despised.  So much so that they lied to me about why she disappeared.  Is it the burden of responsibility that changes us as we age?  Or do we lose touch with something else inside ourselves?  I'm not sure.

But it helps to think that at least my children love Charlie, even when I want to ship him off to Mars.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Writing in the Headlights

I have a new favorite quote about writing:

"[Writing] is like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."-E.L. Doctorow.

I experience this almost every time I write.  I sit down with a great idea in my head, thinking I know where the story is going, then as I sit down, the character does something, or says something and then bloop...I have a whole different story on my hands.  Sometimes I find this phenomenenon exhilirating.  Other times I find it exasperating.  Especially if I liked the first story better.  I guess an extremely gifted writer would wrangle the story back into submission and go with the original idea.  I, however, find it almost imperative to follow the new train of thought.  I've swerved to avoid a boulder in the darkness, and I want to follow the new path.

Take for instance my latest journey.  I sat down this week to write a story about gift-giving.  It was supposed to center around a young boy and a king.  Instead, I end up writing about a king who wears his clothes too big.  WHAAA?

Maybe I've got my headlights dimmed too low?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Every Kid Needs a Dog

Okay.  So the guinea pig died.  And we replaced it, guessed it...a dog.  We tried to get another piggie, but we were informed that our boy piggie would not like another boy in his house (evidently they live alone with a harem in the wild) and that a girl piggie would, well, you know what would be the problem there.  And we didn't want to get the piggie fixed.  My son downright refused to entertain the idea, and Mommy and Daddy thought it would be too much trouble.  So we got a dog.  Hmmmmm.  Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

If you are, (and you probably are), you are right.  A dog is a lot more hassle than fixing a piggie!  We got a shelter dog who is about a year old.  Old enough to have learned a few things, but young enough to have some "issues" to work through.  Despite reassurances to the contrary, Charlie has some housebreaking to work on, seems to possess some major separation anxiety (and who wouldn't after being abandoned, then losing your foster family), and has latched on to me in a serious way as his alpha dog.  A lot of work indeed.

But at least one thing makes it worth it.  I asked my son Elijah the other day if he liked having a dog around.  "Yes," he replied.  "Our family feels complete."  Wow.  I knew he had wanted a dog, but his comment surprised me.  But I thought back to my own childhood.  I had outdoor dogs (my dad hated indoor pets), and I remember the names of each one still.  I remember lying in the grass with one dog in particular, Brownie (my favorite).  I told him things that I told no one else.  We were pals.  Watching my son and daughter play with Charlie, I'm reminded of those days when I needed someone to cuddle, who didn't care if I broke the kitchen plate or made a mess in my room.  Someone you can call Charlie-Boy and not be worried about whether it's cool or not to show love.  Maybe every kid needs a dog.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Good Ole Days

I'm ashamed how long it's been since I've blogged.  I could give a lot of excuses (such as the kids' end-of-year parties, Christmas shopping and partying, travelling, tending to an ill then dead guinea pig), but there's not an excuse from being gone from writing so long.  So, to jog my blog and my writing again, I'll devote this blog to one of my favorite themes: things that come from my daughter's mouth.

This morning, we were all listening to some new music on the way to Maggie's preschool.  Daddy had picked it out with the family in mind, a new band called FanFarlo, or something like that.  Nice stuff.  Maggie especially liked it (her tastes seem to run akin often to Daddy's), and she declared that the music made her think of "the good days."  Of course, in adult speak, the music made her feel happy, but I love her description of the experience.

What's even funnier, is thinking that a five-year old has enough life experience to be able to compare a stretch of "good days" to a stretch of "bad days."   For a little girl who lost her pet guinea pig the past week, maybe she does have the wisdom to discriminate.  At the least, she knew a good, happy tune when she heard it and appreciated its ability to help her think of happier times.  And hopefully, she has many more good days ahead than behind.