Saturday, December 27, 2014

My Cry to the Captain Begins

In my last post, Cry to the Captain, I spoke about the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign and my own personal reading challenge for 2015 to read more diversely.

Because I have awesome reading buddies who lend me awesome books, I have just read Gail Tsukiyama's Women of the Silk. I loved it!

I realize that this book is fiction and if I really wanted to be pristine in learning hard facts about a country, people and their culture, I would read non-fiction (but even then, history is written by the victors, eh?); however, there can be something vastly humanizing about reading and learning about a culture through fiction. In this book in particular, I felt I learned a bit about Chinese culture and the silk industry from about 1919 - 1930s not in addition to, but because of the events that unfolded for the main character, Pei. Tsukiyama wrote rich, complex characters that made me care about them. I wanted to throttle the non-communicative characters at times, I felt Pei's sadness and curiosity, I wondered at Lin's self-control. For me, the history and the facts are lifted from dust to breath by the characters (which is another reason it is so important for authors to research meticulously and be a part of the culture about which they write).

If you haven't read Women of the Silk, I'd recommend it.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cry to the Captain

I am not a New Year's resolutions person. I am an anti-resolutionist. In fact, I think this year, I will simply change the '4' to a '5' in my road map from 2014. I am still working on all of it.

However, I'd like to issue a challenge this year - to me, to you, to everyone. Sparked by The Book Riot's 2015 Read Harder Challenge, which challenges us to read about experiences, places and cultures that may be different from our own, my challenge narrows it down to culture.

The We Need Diverse Books campaign has been long overdue and diverse books have finally gotten some attention this year. But have they gotten enough attention? And are publishers really listening and responding? I don't think so. Certainly some publishers are. But not enough. Maybe the publishing industry is akin to trying to steer an enormous steel ocean-going vessel (I'm trying not to say Titanic because I absolutely do not think that the publishing industry is sinking) - it takes a frustratingly long time for the captain to hear the cry, to then believe the cry and give the order to change course, and then a subsequently excruciatingly long time for the ship to begin to veer from its original course.

There are a number of concerned readers and writers who have made a resolution or given a challenge to read more diversely. I add my voice to theirs in attempt to have our cry heard.

I found the The Book Riot's 24 tasks very helpful in thinking about what I'd like to do to read more diversely, so I am borrowing from their list, with modification, to form my own challenge.

Here is my challenge task list, should you choose to join me:

  • Read at least 2 books that take place in Africa by an African author.
  • Read at least 2 books about Asian culture and heritage by an author of Asian heritage.
  • Read at least 2 books involving American Indian or First Peoples culture by an author who is American Indian or First People. On this task, I have suggestions for you. I'd suggest Sherman Alexie, Tim Tingle, Louise Erdrich and Cynthia Leitich Smith and Eric Gansworth as starting points.
  • Read at least 2 books about black or African American culture by a black or African American author.
  • Read at least 2 books about Mexican culture by a Mexican author.

You'll notice that my tasks differ from The Book Riot's in an important way - my tasks specify authors who are a part of the cultures about which they write. Within the conversation about the need for diverse books, there are two camps: those that believe that an author of any culture can, with research, write about any other culture and those that believe that it is extremely difficult and almost never happens for an author to write about a culture with authenticity unless h/she is part of that culture. I fall more in the second camp. As a Native person, I have read a lifetime of cringe-worthy books about American Indians. With all the research available to authors, there is simply no excuse for much of it. But even with well-researched books, there are things that a writer simply would not know, things they misinterpret, things they *think* they understand about Indians - and do not. To write authentically, I feel more and more that you must be part of that culture.

If anyone from those cultures has recommendations for my other challenge books, I'd love it if you would let me know in the comments. 

My diverse reading challenge for 2015 is not an overly-ambitious-for-over-achievers list. It might be a realistic list for me, given my other responsibilities. And I can cry to the captain through my diverse purchases.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Words and Ideas Can Change the World

Just think -

Amazing, right? And with all those different books made up of those 26 letters, 



Truth. That's not to say that authors are, or need to be megalomaniacs. But think about it - are your words making the world a better place?

You have that power. Use it wisely.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Writing Quotes, Notes & Inspiration

For this week's post, I thought I'd share my Pinterest board that I have had a wonderful time collecting today. This will be a good resource for me to turn back to when I need a kick-start or a self-check.

Happy Writing!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Journey Continues

I have been struggling with PiBoIdMo. I started off completely gung-ho, sure I would get at least one idea down per day.

Then life happened. And between one thing and another, I haven't had time to write down, let alone think of, a picture book idea in five days.

I wrote down my idea for today and then had much mental gnashing of teeth for the lost five days. Then for some unknown reason, I clicked over to my other blog (which I don't necessarily keep active) and saw that my one post that I wrote over two years ago FOR ME AND ME ALONE has about quadruple the number of hits as my next highest post. I so wrote that for me and me alone that I didn't even put any search labels on it. I just knew that I needed to have a post that would bring me calm just looking at the photos, which are of my personal haven. The photos wouldn't even mean anything or have any emotional impact to people who don't know the place.

So why the 1,200 hits? I don't have a clue. I'd be interested to know, but still, the purpose of that post was for me.

This got me thinking about my gnashing of teeth over my five day lull in PiBoIdMo. I'm participating in PiBoIdMo for me. My participation is for me and me alone. If I can keep up with an idea a day, that's great. If not, well, okay. It's just for me.

And to take this concept larger, the picture books (or MG or YA) I write should be FOR ME. They should speak to MY heart and give a piece of myself. If I write an idea because it was cute, fluffy, funny, it's a 'hot topic' at the moment or it seemed acceptable at the time, but it doesn't speak to MY heart and isn't a piece of ME that I am giving, I think there is far less chance that it will 'work'.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Just When I needed a Magic Idea Generator...

... there it was!

I'm very excited to be participating in Tara Lazar's PiBoIdMo for the first time this year. PiBoIdMo, or Picture Book Idea Month, is for writers along the lines of NaNoWriMo. For PiBoIdMo, you use November to think of a picture book idea each day.

One idea each day for a month? Just one? Phhht! I got this! I have millions of book ideas popping into my head all the time!

Welllll. That's what it felt like anyway. When those ideas were flapping and cavorting riotously through my head for weeks on end.

Turns out there were three ideas for picture books. Three. So here it is, November 9, and I have been barely coming up with additional ideas. Shaky ones at that.

Now, I do have a method. I put my picture book idea with the date on the 'front' of each page in my notebook. And then, (since it seems some of those cavorting ideas were MG/YA ideas filling up my brain and making the whole idea room in my brain feel pretty full) I put my MG/YA idea on the back of that same page.

Then I print out writer/artist/editor/book pro guest posts from Tara Lazar's blog that I think will really help my writing process and put them in the back of my notebook.
My coolio notebook which is actually one of my son's discarded composition books from last semester's classes

I also left room in the back of the notebook for making lists that may end up generating writing ideas.

So November 4 comes. Patting myself on the back for my organization, puffed up to be participating in PiBoIdMo this year, no sweat I'll pull millions of ideas out of my fabulous head! Millions, I tell you! Aaaaaaaaaannnnnnd . . . (cue clunker car engine death rattle wherein I write down one or two clunker ideas) . . . I'm out of ideas.

What I need is a genyoowine idea generator. Yep. A good, old fashioned, genyoowine idea generator.

Poof! And there it was!

Splendiferous. Check out the George Stanley Idea Generator from Jennifer Arena on PiBoIdMo Day 7.

I closed my eyes and dropped my pencil point on one idea. Dragon. Then another. Dinosaur. Dragon Dinosaur? How am I going to make a picture book idea out of that??  Dragon .....Dinosaur.  Dragon... Dinosaur?

I then cheated. Pumpkin. Dragon Pumpkin. Dragon Pumpkin? Dragon Pumpkin! I can make an idea out of that!

The George Stanley Idea Generator. Try it, you'll like it!

And I'm taking ideas for Dragon Dinosaur. Ahem.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Native American Heritage Month

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, I'm passing along a great post from First Nations Development Institute. This is their post for Native American Heritage Month 2014 that includes quotes from Native authors, historical leaders and contemporary leaders in Indian Country.
In their own words:
November is National Native American Heritage Month 2014, and Nov. 15 in particular is “Rock Your Mocs Day” in which Native people stand together by wearing their moccasins (there's also "Moc Mondays" every week during the month). In recognition, the 20-member staff of First Nations Development Institute has created a list of their favorite Native American quotations and films.
“Many of us here are prolific readers and movie-goers, especially when it comes to things by Native authors and filmmakers or about Native history and experiences,” noted First Nations President Michael E. Roberts.  “In doing so, we often bookmark certain quotes or passages that speak to us, both from historical figures or contemporary authors, or we recommend films that, for one reason or another, we think are worth seeing. We think Native American Heritage Month is a great time to share these quotes and movies with both the Native and non-Native worlds.”
First Nations is a 34-year-old, Native-created and led organization that works to build stronger Native American economies and communities.  It is based in Longmont, Colorado, but serves American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities across the U.S.

Dance Fan by Kara Stewart, Art in Photography

See the rest of their post here. Great stuff.

And don't forget about Moc Monday. Not just to show solidarity and support, but hey, comfy shoes to work every Monday in November works for me!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

PiBoIdMo time!

Have you heard of PiBoIdMo? I only found out about it this past summer. Author Tara Lazar started in 2008. In her own words, from her blog, Writing For Kids (While Raising Them):

"What is PiBoIdMo? Why, it's Picture Book Idea Month!

Tired of watching novelists have all the fun in November with NaNoWriMo, I created PiBoIdMo as a 30-day challenge for picture book writers.

The challenge is to create 30 picture book concepts in 30 days. You don't have to write a manuscript (but you can if the mood strikes). You don't need potential best-seller ideas.

You might think of a clever title. Or a name for a character. Or just a silly thing like "purple polka-dot pony." The object is to heighten your picture-book-idea-generating senses. Ideas may be built upon other ideas and your list of potential stories will grow stronger as the days pass.

Daily blog posts by picture book authors, illustrators, editors and other kidlit professionals will help inspire you. By the end of the month,  you'll have a fat file of ideas to spark new stories."

Awesome idea, right? She has a fabulous line up of guest bloggers for November who are authors, illustrators and picture book professionals. Prizes are involved. Squeee!

It starts November 1, so get registered now!
Get your own badge

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Importance of Adult Reading Buddies

As I'm learning to read more analytically as a writer, I realize that it is also important to me to continue to have adult reading buddies that may or may not focus on analyzing the writing of what we read.

I have a teacher friend who I consider my Book Buddy. While we both love reading, we might like slightly different kinds of books. Hannah opens my eyes to new things through her recommendations - and therefore new thoughts that may become fodder for my future writing. You never know.

Hannah recommended Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend by Susan Orlean. Although I am a big time dog person, this wouldn't be the kind of book I'd ordinarily read. However, I learned a lot of (to me) interesting history through this book - the orphan trains in America, the origins of the German Shepherd breed, tidbits about World War I that I never knew, tidbits about Hollywood's early film days. It expanded my horizons, which can only help me as a writer.

Another teacher friend and I gush about all things MG or YA. Jasmine is just as deadly in a book store as I am, and I haven't asked her, but Amazon might thank her personally like they do me. Every time I finish an awesome MG or YA book, I know I can rave to Jasmine and she'll understand and rave even more. She raved about R.J. Palacio's Wonder a while back and I can't believe I still haven't read it! I know I will find not only new thoughts in it, but it will be great to analyze it as a writer.

I'm currently reading The Cobweb Bride by Vera Nazarian, also recommended to me by a friend and fellow book lover/writer (Alison DeLuca). Now this is the kind of book I'd pick up and read in a heartbeat - fantasy, intriguing title and cover. And I did get this on Kindle quite a while back. Just hadn't read it. I was hedging because, honestly, you never know what you're going to get with Kindle books. I have read true drivel, and worse, irritatingly non-edited self-published books. I say that knowing that my own writing will probably be viewed as true drivel and/or irritatingly non-edited at some point. And I say that understanding that as writers, we all have to start somewhere. And I am glad that so many have started their writing adventures - very much so. But it also adds to the titles that you have to wade through that are not quite . . . finished.

The Cobweb Bride is not like that. So far, anyway, and I'm about half way through it. Again, I might have put this book down a little way in to it if not for Alison's recommendation. Why? Because it's a zombie book. No, it's not, really. But it is. I mean, it has people in it who should be dead but aren't. But saying Cobweb Bride is a zombie book is like comparing the Mona Lisa to a paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa. They are both paintings, but the masterpiece has infinitely more detail, delicacy, subtlety, nuance, emotion and intelligence.

I wouldn't have read it if someone had told me it's a zombie book. It's not. Not any more than your Great Aunt Sophie's paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa is the real thing. So read it. The book, not your Great Aunt Sophie's paint-by-numbers.

Point being, Nazarian's concept and implementation of the concept of Death and hence the plot, is phenomenal. Creativity plus skill. It opens my thoughts to how I can think and stretch creatively as a writer to new ideas and concepts. It makes me think about how we can help our students do that. My reading buddy spurred me to all of that.

My next book up is from my Book Buddy, Hannah. She has let me borrow Lisa See's Shanghai Girls and Gail Tsukiyama's Women of the Silk.  Again, neither are the sort of book I would pick up and read on my own. I tend to get stuck in MG/YA and fantasy, as well as Native literature. But I can't wait to find out what new information, world views, perspectives, concepts and tidbits I will discover.


And after those, Wonder!  Because MG/YA.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Do Something

A quick but meaningful snippet from Chuck Wendig's The Kick-Ass Writer that I have been pondering:

"Go Forth and Do Shit...Embrace authenticity. Writers do not gain a sense of authenticity by sitting at the computer all day popping out word-babies. Have something to write about. To do that, you must go out. Into the world..."

I have a tendency to nest. I am comfortable with my laptop, spitting out or reading other people's word-babies. I have my reasons, but whatever they are, the fact remains that experiences make up the bricks from which we build our written worlds.

Pondering can only get you so far. Time to go into the world and do some things.

Okay, maybe not this...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sender's Remorse

A few weeks ago, I sent in my picture book manuscript to Lee and Low's New Voices Award Writing Contest. As mentioned previously, this was my first venture in picture book writing.  While I am proud of myself for finishing it and sending it in, I love my story and my heart is in those pages, I now have sender's remorse.

I am told that it is par for the course for writers to have a flood of doubts about their writing. Here is part of my tsunami: Why did I send this in a month early? I should have waited until the last minute - divine inspiration might have struck to make it better! What makes me think I am ready to submit any picture book? This is my first try; I'm sure writers have submitted to this contest year after year before winning or receiving any positive response. Why did I think I could do this? My book is beginner's drivel, I'm sure, compared with the other entries. I should have waited until I got better at this.

I have to remind myself of two things:


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Reading Like A Writer

A few weeks ago, I was in Boone, North Carolina visiting my son who attends Appalachian State University there. If you have never been there or never heard of it - you must go. There is nowhere like it in the world. The mountains of North Carolina with the artsy, eccentric little town of Boone nestled in them are stunning. The university, which is just big enough and just small enough, has dorm rooms with views that rival 5 star hotel views, not to mention great academics. But I digress.

While visiting my son, we went to the university book store, natch. I picked up The Bookman's Tale, A Novel of Obsession by Charlie Lovett. It is about a young antiquarian bookseller whose wife dies. He relocates from North Carolina to the English countryside where he finds a mysterious painting from hundreds of years ago with a portrait that bears an uncanny resemblance to his dead wife. The chapters alternate between the 'present', the not too distant past when the bookseller and his wife met and married and the far distant past (Shakespeare's time).

A Shakespearean mystery is just my speed, so I purchased it with anticipation. As a beginning writer trying to hone my skills, I also wanted to do as I have read suggested in books about writing: read like a writer. I dutifully brought out my sticky notes and pen to use as I read; since The Bookman's Tale is a New York Times Bestseller, obviously I should note what the author did and how he did it. I dove in.

More properly, I should say, I slogged away. I stickied when and how new characters and settings were introduced, I stickied when and how the author maintained tension at the beginning, and each time the plot deepened in a notable way. I noted when the chapters ended in particularly cliff-hanging ways, when the mystery and tension was particularly good, how secondary characters were handled. I noted structure of the time period changes in the chapters and when the ending of the book began. I now have a book that looks like a porcupine with dozens of bright pink sticky notes protruding from the top and side. But I also have a reference example of how these things were done.

I did this because I think it will be good for me as a writer. It darn well better be, because it very clearly dampened my enjoyment of the book as a reader. Noting what the author did when and how interrupted my flow of story as a reader. And for that, I apologize to Mr. Lovett, whose book I didn't thoroughly enjoy as a reader (although I'm sure I would have if I hadn't been doing my level best to read like a writer).

I hope to get better at this reading as a writer business. If not, I will have a lot of apologizing to do to many fine authors. Either that or every now and then I will forget the stickies and reading like a writer and just dive in with readerly abandon.

Note to my professional self working with teachers and students: When we tell students to 'read like a writer', we need to make sure we say and mean RE-read like a writer. I don't want to dampen any student's enthusiasm for a book. Students can, and should, do a first reading like a reader. Then re-read like a writer. Choice of book or section will be important - short enough book that they will actually read it twice, or limit reading like a writer to a chapter or section at a time.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Picture Book Writing is HARD!

I have trouble finishing my novel manuscripts. I am the Queen of Unfinished Manuscripts. I have a lot of great starts, and even middles - but no endings. Yet (she said hopefully).

So last spring, I thought I'd try a picture book instead in hopes that I could actually finish a manuscript. I thought it would be easier. I know all picture book writers out there are either rolling their eyes or are tempted to throw a brick at my head right now. But yes, I thought that. Wrong! Could not have been more wrong.

The basic conundrum of picture books: How do you get your point across, beautifully, in hardly any words?

This is very different from novel writing, where you can, and should (at some points), describe people and places and give details and you have thousands of words in your word count limit.

In trying to wrap my head around this, I turned to my friends on the Blue Boards at the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Here is their advice on writing picture books:

  • Picture books are an equal marriage of the text and the illustrations. The art will tell half (or more) of the story. Leave room for the illustrator. This means your text should describe the action but not the visual details. The illustrator will add those the way they 'see' them from your text. You and the illustrator are creative partners - let the illustrator bring something to the story.
  • Think more about the art. What words are left out to leave room for the art? What story does the art tell and how does it enhance or expand the story? 
  • To get your word count down, try writing the book as an outline or just the bones of the story at first. Outline as poetically as possible. Then, take each action in the outline and write that as a line in your book.
  • To get your word count down, cut back anything you can picture - descriptions, emotions, even some actions.
  • Write in poetry. Not literally, unless you are writing a poetry book. But write the way you would write if you were writing poetry - the techniques that get meaning across beautifully in a few words.
  • Think in picture instead of words.
  • Have exciting page turns to make the reader want to continue reading.
  • Each page needs to show something new that moves the story forward - new action, new character, new emotion.
  • Read the story. If it is complete without needing any pictures to tell the story, your manuscript may be better suited as a short story.
  • Read your manuscript out loud to yourself. You will catch awkward places that don't roll easily off the tongue this way.
  • Make a dummy. There are lots of online sources for picture book story boards. Here's a great one with explanation from Tara Lazar's blog Writing for Kids While Raising Them. When you do this, also think about what illustrations you visualize on each page. You won't be illustrating them (unless you also happen to be a children's illustrator), but this will help ensure that there is a great picture for each page of your manuscript. You can also think about how your pages lay out in book form and think about your page turns this way. Are they exciting or boring?
These golden pieces of advice helped me tremendously on this adventure!

And now I know just how hard writing a picture book is! I'd describe writing my first draft on this first attempt at a picture book kind of like sitting in front of my laptop and bleeding from the eyeballs. Squeezing those words out in blood through my eyeballs! This was just my first attempt - maybe it gets easier?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


I wrote my first book, Twink the Circus Monkey, in first grade. I don't remember what shenanigans Twink participated in, or what circus feats he performed. But I do remember I wrote it on stapled, mondo-sized index cards in red pencil. And I was inordinately proud of it. I wrote A BOOK. Those awesome, magical vehicles that have the ability to transport us all over the world and beyond, to crack open thoughts never before thought, and dreams never before dreamed. And I WROTE ONE.

I've been in crazy love with books all my life. I've dallied in writing all my life. But I want to be much more intentional about it - hone my craft, write daily, learn continually. Because I think I will be writing all my life, through eternity. Thus: From Here to Writernity (I don't anticipate a trip to Hawaii any time soon).

Think of Buzz Lightyear.

I may go down that race track many times and go around in circles at times, but I'm going to bounce off that ball and keep on writing. Because that's what I do.

When you wake up with a story three-quarters written in a dream, when you wake up in the middle of the night with phrases that stick to your heart, when you giggle at word play - that's what you do. You write. And it doesn't really feel like there is much of a choice. It's just something that comes out of you.

Sure, I need to learn a lot more. And I sure as heck need to finish what I start! I am the queen of unfinished manuscripts. I need to give my writing the priority it deserves. "Writers write." as Chuck Wendig says.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Summer Learning

This summer, I spent a lot of time improving my writing knowledge, meaning the craft of writing. I am a Literacy Coach and Reading Specialist and have written creatively for years. While I am definitely capable of communicating effectively, that doesn't mean I have a lot of knowledge about the craft, the art, of writing. I need to learn more. I think most writers realize they need to learn more to hone their skills. Since I am interested in writing for children, I sought resources specific to that niche.

One of the best sources of information for writing for children is the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. In addition to a slew of resources, they also have amazing discussion boards where you can ask almost anything and get very helpful answers from the authors who also belong to SCBWI. I got great tips and suggestions (and more resources!) for writing picture books from the fab folks on the discussion boards.

I also participated in Kami Kinard and Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen's Kid Lit Summer School (part of the Nerdy Chicks Write blog) focusing on character. It was fabulous! There were great webinars, #30mdares and daily blog posts by guest authors designed to deepen our character knowledge.  And it was free! Yep. F.R.E.E. I found the exercises and daily focus on character really helpful. You missed it? Don't worry - they are going to do it again next year! And you can also sign up for their blog Nerdy Chicks Rule.

I've also found a few great books (they were recommended to me and are spot on):

The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig - for writers of any genre
Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul - specifically for picture book writers, but useful by any children's book writer
The Plot Whisperer, Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master (also has a workbook) by Martha Alderson - for writers of any genre

And of huge import - I reached out to my friend Alison DeLuca, author of The Crown Phoenix Series, for help revising and editing my picture book manuscript. No matter what other resources you seek out, it's vital to take that scary leap and have others read your manuscript. The key is they must be people who will give you honest feedback. Wherever the manuscript sucks, I want to know it so I can make it better. Thank you for that, Alison. And now it is ready (Well, you know. You can only tinker so much. After you've tinkered for months.) to submit to Lee & Low's New Voices Award. Scaaaarrryyy!

Happy writing, photographing and end-of-summer, everyone!