Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Book review: Tell the Wolves I'm Home

It took about 100 pages for me to figure out the title for Carol Rifka Brunt’s debut novel, “Tell the Wolves I’m Home.” I’m not sure I am entirely right. Like a good painting, this story of grief has layers.

It is 1987, and 14 year old June Elbus is dealing with the death of her favorite uncle and godfather, the renowned painter Finn Weiss, from complications caused by AIDS. He paints one last painting of June and her older sister Greta that is instrumental in uncovering hidden truths of Finn and the people he left behind. June grapples with feelings of grief, love, stolen moments, and guilt. She learns more about relationships and the space between them.

The book captures the suspicion and fear that was indicative of the times when little was known about AIDS. Anyone who remembers Ryan White will recognize the hysteria. Younger readers will pick up the vibe of the ancient history of the 80s. Young or older, the cadence of the language and the likable character of June carry the reader on a satisfying journey that touches the heart. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

St. Nick's Day

Tonight is the eve before St. Nick’s Day. If you don’t know what that is, you probably aren’t alone. Growing up, it was part of our lives, albeit a confusing part. St. Nick, which is an alias for Santa Claus, comes weeks before Christmas to fill stockings with candy, small toys and other goodies for children to find on the morning of December 6. It wasn’t until I had children and moved away that I realized not every household does this. It also got more confusing as my children grew up, celebrating this oddball holiday tradition in a place where it was not that common. Try explaining why St. Nick gave your kid candy and not his buddy Meghan.

There were some who did celebrate St. Nick’s Day, and the local Catholic church taught it, but it was an alternate version, where children put out their shoes to be filled with candy. Yuck! The St. Nick I know does not want to put food in my children’s stinky shoes. Although upon further research, I learned that putting out shoes has historical significance with this tradition, just not in my tradition.

Like most old tales, there are several versions of the story of St. Nick. It has been retold in that weird claymation action in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” More recently, it was told by VeggieTales (and pretty well, actually). I prefer the version of the poor man with three daughters who cannot marry because he has no dowry to give prospective husbands. The girls hang their stockings by the fire to dry and wake to find them filled with gold. Notice they were stockings, not shoes.

Last summer, we moved back to our hometown. St. Nick is in full swing here, with advertisements posted on scrolling signs outside local retailers announcing that the jolly old elf comes tonight. My children will not face the confusion of getting some goods while their classmates don’t, and haven’t once asked to set out their shoes. 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

A thanks to National Novel Writing Month.

November is National Novel Writing Month. This is the month where writers around the globe attempt to write a novel in 30 days. The goal is to reach 50,000 words in the month of November.

I have not reached that goal, not once, although I tend to observe NaNoWriMo every year in some way. It is when my writer friends go into hiding. It is when I get daily postings to my email that are meant to be inspiring, remnants from the year I actually signed up for the program and miserably failed to meet 50K words in a month. I see writers in forums and on Facebook post their word counts, which make me feel like an unproductive heel.

It also turns out to be one of my more productive months for writing. Must be due to the peer pressure, or the fact that writing is top on the mind for a month, rather than the 7,000 other things associated with the upcoming holidays.

As this month of November comes to a close, I want to congratulate my comrades for completing the challenge, or even attempting the challenge. I dipped into a rewrite project that reached the climax tonight. While I didn’t reach a word count, I did some great work this month. I thank the creators of National Novel Writing Month for bringing this isolated craft workmanship to the fore.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Otis on the Lam

Otis the cat went missing on October 25 and hasn’t been seen since. We miss him so and hope he comes back. He is a VIP (very important pet) in our lives. He isn’t our first cat, or our last, but he is one of the more memorable ones.

We found Otis almost 12 years ago at an adoption fair. While Dean and I argued the merits of two other cats, our son, little two-year-old Carter, was playing with this gray tabby cat through the slats in his cage. We were told Otis was previously adopted with a brother, but they returned Otis. I’m pretty sure they gave us a discounted price and ushered us out the door to be rid of that cat.

Otis was six months old at the time and 14 pounds. He drove us all crazy eating plants, knocking things off tables and trying to drink my water…..for the next 12 years. True to our first impressions, he loved kids. When we hosted play dates, he would run to the door to greet little two year old guests and their little brothers and sisters. Before Otis, I had not seen a cat so drawn to getting his tail pulled and eyes poked. I think he preferred children to adults, unless the adults were coffee drinkers.

Brewing coffee in our house was akin to brewing catnip. Otis would go bananas. His favorite snacks were tuna fish and coffee beans. He once broke into my mom’s suitcase while she was visiting and ate a hole in the bag of her coffee bean stash.

Otis was not to be ignored. He was a big cat who insisted on sitting on guests whether they wanted it or not. He wouldn’t sit in a proper, polite way, but that annoying cat way of walking back and forth while dragging a tail across the chair holder’s face. He would mess up my puzzles and knock everything off my desk while I was trying to work, then everything off my nightstand while I slept. He terrified the vet with an unnaturally vicious reaction to routine checkups, so much so, that I drugged him before getting shots.

It was the only time I heard him hiss. It was all he had the energy to do on the kitty Valium was to produce a long, silent hiss in protest to the manhandling at the vet.

Now Otis is gone. He disappeared from his foster home (my mom’s house) during a big move. The theories of where he went are running rampant, but the truth is that we don’t know where Otis has gone.

We only wish he would come back.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Keeping Your Chin Up When Life Refuses to Cooperate

I usually have a sunny disposition and am able to take the knocks of life gracefully. Lately, life is testing me and I feel cynicism and discontent etching a pattern in my daily life. This year has been tough with job losses, moves, housing troubles and a lost cat who may never return.

In an effort to keep my chin up, I am listing things that make me feel better. 

1)    Focus on other people. If I think about other people’s problems and situations and how I can help them, I don’t think as much about my own. It also builds empathy. We all struggle in life at times, some more than others. None of it is fair.

2)    Get outside, get active. One of the tasks I hate doing turns out to be a positive in my life. I walk or bike with my 1st grader to school every morning. I don’t want to be up that early in the morning, let alone dressed and walking in the cold. It would be easier to take the car, but I think the exercise is good for his health. Turns out it is good for me, too. That brisk walk/bike ride wakes me up for the day, gets me in touch with the outside world and gears up my body to take on the day. The days I drive him (there are some) turn out to be crabbier days that take me longer to get in a groove.

3)    Engage the senses. We went from living in a 2200 square foot house to an ugly, 700 square foot apartment. Some days I realize I am hungry to look at something beautiful, smell something delicious, bask in a warm glow of something. I have added a few touches to the apartment to help it look a bit nicer. We spend time looking at beautiful things, fall foliage in the woods or a wedding at Downton Abbey. Some days I make soup just for the smell.

4)    Create something. When things are stressful, I think I can’t work on my novel in progress, but that is the perfect time. It is an escape to another world that whisks me away from my troubles. I get the same effect in creating anything, be it a Bitstrips avatar or the ultimate chili.

5)    Exercise. This the last thing I ever want to do, but I work out so much during a good run or ride on the bike. I always feel more accomplished afterwards.

6)    Eat well. The candy only makes me feel good for a minute. Clean eating is a better choice that leaves a lasting feeling of good will.

 If you are struggling with troubles, keep your chin up as best as you can. At times, it seems a little wallowing is ok. If you are a creative person, use the energy in your work to create something tragically beautiful. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

From First to Final Draft

I am currently working on another draft of a novel I already wrote. This is the part of the process I get confused. I am not sure what is considered revision and what is rewriting. I use both terms for doing pretty much the same thing, working the words to make the story better.

This is probably my seventh or eighth draft of this book. I practically have it memorized by now. I think this is part of the process, and getting to know a book intimately. I know every curve and corner to this story, which is mostly why I am rewriting it again. I am close enough to see the flaws.

This is a good rewrite, as I am falling more in love with the story as well as its execution. It sometimes takes me a few drafts for the latter. Like anything, you must practice to make it perfect.

Malcolm Gladwell said it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. I feel like I spend that on each book, although I know I fall far short of that. I do know it takes more than one draft, or even two or five to get to something that is beautiful. Perhaps this is not true of all writers. Some may have an innate or learned skill that allows them to churn out a great story in one, two or even three drafts. I am not one of those writers, although I wish to become one of those someday.

Although in doing that, I would miss out on the intimate phase, where I have the story memorized. I would miss pushing my characters to their limits, and seeing what they are capable of. I would miss the growth of secondary characters and subplots, which often don’t emerge in first drafts for me.

So, for now, I hurrah the umpteenth draft of this novel, because it is making the story better. It may take me longer to publish. I may never be an author who can churn out a book a year or more, but I will churn out books I love. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Book Review: Crazy

The very complex and weird world of teenage relationships gets muddled by a presumed case of bipolar disorder.

Connor and Isabel meet at summer camp and keep in touch by email. The story unfolds almost entirely through email correspondence between the two of them, in which they talk about their parents, their relationships, their feelings for each other. Connor is steady in his devotion and remains calm and mature, almost too mature to be believable, but he is the son of a therapist. Isabel displays strong emotions that become increasingly erratic and starts reporting some dangerous and troublesome behavior that leads Connor into action to get help for her.

A tough and sad read at times, Amy Reed tackles the challenging topic of bipolar disorder in a believable manner. Reading this made me interested in what she takes on in her other two books, “Clean” and “Beautiful.”

Monday, August 26, 2013

Space Issues

Moving should be added to the list for torturers. They should force their victims to pack up all of their belongings, while keeping their space showroom clean. The victims then pack the items into the limited space of the vehicles available and transport them to another place, with animals and children in the car. Add a second story apartment and the hottest day of the year for extra discomfort. Thankfully, I married someone who has a lot of brothers who don’t complain much to help.

But, now there is this.

I moved from a 2,200 square foot house into a 700 square foot apartment. The bags on the floor contain what was in my pantry. The one I complained about constantly because it was too small. See those three shelves on the left side of the picture? All that stuff has to go there.

The other side of that sliding door is the hall closet. That is a battle for another day.  

Monday, August 5, 2013

Summer SCBWI Conference 2013

I was privileged to be able to attend the 2013 SCBWI international conference, where hundreds upon hundreds of authors, illustrators, editors and agents of children’s literature meet for an inspiring, educational and fun weekend of keynote speakers, dozens of workshop sessions, portfolio showcases and other events.

There were 1,266 people in LA this year, making it the second largest conference ever, second to the 40th two years ago. Nine hundred and eighty eight of these attendees were women, so you can imagine what planning had to go into bathroom breaks to avoid the knee crossing lines.

                                      1,266 attendees = a lot of introverts

Lin Oliver started us out by announcing, “We are all nut farmers here.” It truly is a nutty, frustrating and grueling business that somehow speaks to our hearts.

Keynote Laurie Halse Anderson, author of “Speak,” encouraged writers to “be brave today.” She said, “Books are proof humans can do magic.” She also spit on the word trends, for which she was teased about the rest of the conference.

She encouraged creators to turn off the internet, find your muses, take time to create and find that inner child. All good advice, although I would like you to ignore that the first thing I did upon coming home was write a blog post for the internet. Yeah, that turning off the internet advice may be harder for some people.

Her last piece of advice, about finding the child within, was a theme across the conference. Keynote speaker after keynote speaker, from comedians like Jon Scieszka and Matt Barnett to legends like Richard Peck encouraged creators to find your audience, create, and enjoy what you are doing. Anderson’s spitting on trends was not out of place. Writing for the trends was not encouraged, even by the more serious agents and editors in workshop sessions. While knowing the market can help when querying and trying to sell books, common advice was that it should be completely ignored in the creative process. In essence, it seemed that may be what editors were looking for after all, as both editors and agents mentioned looking for something not seen before, a new voice, a new concept, a new way to write literature.

                              Mo Willems, winner of Sid Fleischman award. 

These conferences are often about making friends, and I did make a friend with fellow resident cheesehead and first time attendee. We met a fellow at the black and white ball whose story was published as an app by a company in Milwaukee. I don’t know how much money he will make off this app, as the market survey given to us was not optimistic for that. He did have some fame among his peers, as it seemed everyone knew this Tim McCanna, who writes music and sold “Teeny Tiny Trucks” as a hardcover and an app to Little Bahalia Publishing in Milwaukee. Now you know him too.

Everyone dreams of going to these conferences and making that magic connection with an agent or editor and selling their work. In a way, I felt a bit sorry for the agents and editors, as one of the first questions in every of their knowledge sharing sessions was about how to submit to them. I heard about deals being made, and I know it happens. That did not happen with me. I went into a critique session with a manuscript I had written and revised at least five or six times and didn’t know what to do with it anymore. I did not come out with a promise of a contract, but I did get some incredible ideas that turn it on its head and may, indeed, lead it into the excellence the industry is looking for.

Or, it could turn it into a mess. I have to get off the internet and play in the mud a bit to find out.

As for writing what you enjoy, my final workshop was on writing humor, hosted by Lin Oliver and Henry Winkler. Watching those two interact was comedy in the making, which is why those Hank Zipzer books are so funny. They are based on Henry Winkler’s experiences as a child. During this session, Lin suggested writing what you think is funny, using the example of puns. She doesn’t think puns are funny and won’t write them. Someone raised a hand and said that children love puns and they should be written for them.

Lin asked the audience to raise their hands if they loved puns. Only a few brave souls raised their hands, knowing the greats before them did not think they are funny. Lin gestured to the hands in the air, saying, “Let them write the puns.”

I think that was the best advice ever. Write what you love. Know the market when you query, but not when you create. Let someone else write to the trends you don’t like. Make your own trends.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Book Review: So B. It

Written by Sarah Weeks, "So B. It" is a quiet, contemporary story about a 13 year old girl named Heidi It searching for the truth about her mother and her own story before she was discovered in the hallway of an apartment complex at about a week old. Heidi was raised by her agoraphobic neighbor and a mentally disabled mother who only has 23 words. One of her words, “soof,” is haunting Heidi. She must know what it means and is determined to find out.

Like most things, the best discoveries come along the way. I am pretty sure every person has had those embarrassing moments Heidi finds herself in during her journey.

This book is clean and satisfying, offering a unique premise that will prompt the reader to think about family a little different. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

What Makes a Place a Home?

For Sale: My Home

We are not strangers to moving to another area. That is what drove me to become a freelance writer and author in the first place. I would be working in PR for a college if it weren’t for my husband’s dreams to chase after retail management positions around the country.

This time, we are moving back home, if you describe home as being the place you were born.

Except it doesn’t feel like going home. I am happy to be closer to our families and friends and able to visit more. Perhaps my children will now be able to have stronger relationships with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I will see my nieces and nephews more often. I may see my brothers more than once or twice a year. Unlike the last 14 years of parenting, I may have someone local to put on the emergency contact list.

At the same time, I am leaving a home that I have built, although only part of that is literal. There is a foundation built by relationships that makes it hard to leave. Our friends who helped us lay the tile floor in our sunroom. My carpool ladies who get my kids where they need to be for sports practices and games, or lend me their kids, so I can hear what is going on in the teen world when it is my turn to drive. My neighbors I can call to check on my house, ring my bell, feed my cats, or check if their power is out, too.

We made this our home, not out of birthright or location, but from interacting with the community, neighbors and friends. Building relationships that bridged this vast landscape of parenting and life. I have seen inside the lives of neighbors and friends. We shared stories, sad and happy, and watched our children grow up together.

It is the only home my children have known.

Their home, where they learned to crawl, then walk, then tie their shoes.

I lie, the little one can’t tie his shoes. He is nearly seven and I feel like a failure about that.

We are going home, my husband says, but I am not so sure about that. I feel I am leaving mine. I’m not. We are simply moving to make a new home. It may take some time to feel that way, and memories will have to build. We will do things to our new house that make our mark and leave a footprint.

Because truly, home is wherever these people are. J

Friday, June 28, 2013

Fan Fear

I have a habit of following the blogs of other authors, some of whom are much more successful than I am. It seems the bigger a book sells, the stronger the emotions from the fans. This is good. Writers want their readers to feel something, to be moved by their books, but perhaps not enough to issue death threats to the author.

I am a fan of the Sookie Stackhouse series. If you are interested in reading this Southern Vampire series, the first one is called, “Dead Until Dark.” This is adult reading only, and for good reason. There is some vampire love in these books.

The author, Charlaine Harris, keeps a blog. I feel like I got to know her pretty well through the blog and 13 books in her series. The last book was released on May 7 of this year. It has garnered many reviews on Amazon and Goodreads since then. I am sure she got many, many hits on her blog and emails and messages about how she ended the series. Two days after the release of that last book, she writes an emotional blog post,
“ I’ll be happy to put this behind me and go back to doing what makes me happiest: writing the best books I can.”

Authors are often told not to read their reviews. Perhaps there is a point where one can’t avoid them. Ending a book is hard. I can’t imagine ending a decade-long series on the perfect note. It could possibly drive me to madness before my fans (all dozens of them) got their hands on the book.

Rejection is part of a writer’s life, but hearing it from readers and longtime fans has to cut deeper than editors in New York offices turning down a manuscript. In the latter case, you can blame the industry. When it comes to the reader, it is different, perhaps more intimate. The stories belong to the readers, after all.

Whether fans were angry, satisfied or neutral about Sookie’s Happily Ever After, they ran out in droves to buy the book and put Harris at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List. Not many writers achieve that, and perhaps it is impossible without a bit of pain. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Meeting Superman

On a recent roadtrip, we passed by the city of Metropolis, Illinois. This ubiquitous town in southern Illinois advertised itself as the home of Superman.

Road signs directed passing travelers to the giant Superman statue. It was three miles off the interstate, which is a commitment for a family of five driving 1,500 miles in three days. But, we are suckers for roadside attractions, and have experience seeing giant statues.

So we drove into Metropolis, looking to the sky for signs of Superman. We spot a poser. At first, Elliott thought this was Superman carrying groceries out to people's cars. It turned out to be Big John, just another giant statue in Metropolis.

Finally, we drive into a small square with the giant Superman statue, which was ultimately disappointing. To us, anyways. Other people were very excited about it, they even dressed up for pictures with this pseudo giant.
To quote Carter, "If you are going to advertise a giant statue, you should at least make sure it is the biggest statue in town." In side by side comparisons, Big John beats Superman by a head.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Summer Reading List

Memorial Day is the unofficial beginning of summer. The hot summer days are perfect for putting your feet up and soaking in some great stories. This is a list of books I think would make some great summer reads. Some are old, some are new. Some I’ve read, some I plan to read. Hope you find a great read. If you find a great book not shared on this list, please post it in the comments. I am always hungry for recommendations.

Middle Grade
Violet Raines Almost Got Struck by Lightning, by Danette Haworth. If I ever heard a book mentioned more often in my critique group, this is the one. I’d love to spend some time enjoying fish fries and brain freezes with Violet Raines while she learns about growing up and peer pressure.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, by Tom Angleberger – This book was universally liked by my critique group book club and all three of my kids. You don’t have to be a Star Wars geek to enjoy it.

The Schwa Was Here, by Neal Shusterman – If you think you are overlooked, the teachers don’t even notice the Schwa, until Antsy discovers him and does some experiments to see just how invisible this kid is. I was in a child/parent book club and read this book twice. It was still fun the second time around. Kids love it.

Destiny, Rewritten, by Kathryn Fitzmaurice – A little girl named after Emily Dickinson who doesn’t like poetry is destined to be a poet. The premise of this book is enough to draw me in. I read the author’s debut, “The Year the Swallows Came Early” and was charmed by her storytelling. Can’t wait to read her newest novel.

Young Adult
Cinder, by Marissa Meyer – Cinder is a cyborg. This isn’t my style of read, but its popularity makes it interesting enough to check it out. The last time I wanted to see what the fuss was about, I read the Hunger Games. Fun fact: this book was written during National Novel Writing Month.

The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater – This is another case of checking out what the buzz is all about. I hear great things about this author.

Private Peaceful, by Michael Morpurgo – This is a period novel about WWI and a boy on the front lines. I chose this because my teen stayed home from a party to read this book. He likes to read, but he usually likes to socialize more. This one has to be good.

Elsewhere, by Gabrielle Zevin – Elsewhere is where 15 year old Liz Hall ends up after she dies. Here, she will age backward from the day of her death until she becomes a baby again and returns to Earth. But Liz wants to turn 16, not 14 again. Now that she is dead, she is forced to live a live she doesn’t want with a grandmother she just met.

Adult Fiction
The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach - If you haven’t read it yet, this would be a great summer read. What is better in summer than a story about baseball? It has resonance to “A Prayer for Owen Meany” in some scenarios, others are more modern. Oh, and it is set at a fictitious college in Wisconsin. That makes it special. 

Room, by Emma Donoghue - This is an old one, but I decided to add it in case someone hasn’t read it yet. It is written from the point of view of a child born to a woman being held captive in an 11x11 room. I read this book ages ago, but it lingers in my mind constantly, especially with high profile media cases about women in captivity.

Bared to You, by Sylvia Day – If you loved Fifty Shades of Grey last summer, this one is said to be a great beginning to a series like that. Hmmm, I seem to have something HOT on my mind this summer.

Nanny Returns, by Emma McLaughlin – Remember the buzz of The Nanny Diaries? She is back!

The Paris Wife, Paula McLain – Get away to Paris in the roaring 20s in this tale of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Writers & How They Never Give Up

I don’t know many other professions as swollen with dashed hopes and rejection as that of a writer. Even those who seem to make it may only be a flash in the pan. The rest of us struggle to get published, then have sales, then sell another book, and on and on.

Yet writers, they don’t give up. Success stories are often after years of despair. Overnight success brought on by decades of hard work. Stephen King recounts the story of his wife fishing the “Carrie” manuscript out of his trash in his bible for writers, “On Writing.” In the face of failure, writers press on.

To be fair, many press on for more failure and despair. The advent of electronic publishing houses and more accessible self publishing options make publication more possible than ever, but success is measured on a writer’s own barometer. A writer may feel successful just getting work out there, but others may measure their success in other, unforeseen ways. Published authors can despair over sales, reviews, or wring their hands about selling a second book. The barometer of success constantly changes.

Many never see any success at all. They query with no bites or hold back in fear of failure. Yet, a few brave souls continue to write the stories gelling in their heads, in spite of the impossible odds. They write multiple books that take up space in their heads and on their hard drives, hoping one day those stories will be embraced by loving readers. It is no small thing to write a book. Some estimate it takes 6 to 18 months to polish a novel. In my experience, it often takes years. That is a long time to work on a project that could have no reward.

But writers do it, and they keep doing it, and I am glad they do. All that work, and self examination, and experimentation, and failure, and criticism and thinking all the time about the story and how to make it better add to the lesson on the craft of storytelling. The perseverance to not only complete a manuscript, but make it sing is a mighty effort. We all like to believe that hard work will lead to achieving a goal, a success. It may, it may not, or it may lead the writer to adjust the barometer. 

Never give up. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Book Review: The Knife and the Butterfly

This book was recommended to me by my critique partner, as inspiration and comparison to my super secret work in progress.

Skewed to a younger reader, “The Knife and the Butterfly,” written by Ashley Hope Perez, is a story about a tough young boy named Azael in some sort of detention hold after a gang fight. He is ordered to watch a girl named Lexi sit in a room, sometimes talking to counselors, sometimes just sitting there. Throughout the book, he is trying to figure out why he is watching her, and where he is. People come and go, with adults being mostly mysterious, except for the dependable guy who brings the food and Lexi’s notebook.

Gritty, mysterious and surprising, this is a great story that can be sometimes hard to read. It ends in a way that made me want to read it again from the beginning. I can’t tell you why, because that would ruin it for you. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Spring is Here, Somewhere

It has rained nearly every day for a week. Not only is it rainy, but it is as cold as possible for April, with highs in the 40s. My dearest wish is to put away my winter coat, hat and mittens. That isn’t happening.

While it might not look like spring outside, it is going strong inside. Last fall, I was certified as a master gardener. They gave us seeds as a graduation present. I know enough that seeds don’t last forever (really, they don’t, I had some for 10 years or more because I never thought about that). So, I decided to plant the seeds I got as a present, dragging my reluctant family to the Garden Expo to buy some plats to accommodate all these seeds. The seedlings are coming along and turning into flowers. There were some bumps along the way with cats eating my sprouts, knocking over the plats, cold and gray days and no grow lights. I may not try this again without grow lights. They look fairly cheap to make, and I would recommend them to anyone trying to grow from seed. Marigolds are pretty easy, but aren’t exactly thriving with just a sometimes sunny window.

Yesterday, I was separating garlic cloves to make lunch and noticed green on one of the cloves. Since I am in this growing phase, I dug my decorative tulips that had expired out of their pot and planted the sprouting garlic clove. It has grown an inch, maybe two since I planted it yesterday. I think it grew half of that while I was writing this post. This store bought garlic clove is going nuts. I have never heard of anyone growing garlic in a pot, so I might be breaking ground here.

I haven’t seen a single tulip growing in its natural environment this year. The snow barely melted and April refuses to warm up. But I have some stuff growing inside. If I am stuck here for the next 10 days because of more rain and 40 degree weather, I may as well have some green to keep me company.

It’s spring in here! 

Saturday, April 6, 2013


Common advice tells us that confidence can make a difference in how people perceive you and contribute to success in all areas of our lives. Dress for success!

It is good advice. We should all take it, even the writers among us.

Confidence can be fleeting when your life is filled with rejection, published reviews and constant self doubt. I used to keep a file folder of rejection letters. At first, I kept all of them. In those days, queries were sent by snail mail with a SASE (self addressed stamped envelope). Weeks or months later, I would find a 9x12 envelope in my mailbox with my handwriting on it. Usually it was a form letter rejection attached to my manuscript.

When the personal letters of rejection started coming, it could make my day. My husband would stand next to me, perplexed as to why I was so excited about getting rejected. You don’t understand, I said. He still doesn’t.

A high point of these rejections was one I received on a picture book submission. It was a personal rejection, in the form of a handwritten note scribbled on letterhead. Even more exciting, there were pencil marks all over the manuscript itself. Someone at this big 6 publishing house took the time to work on my manuscript. I was over the moon!

I stopped saving those rejections. Queries shifted to email, which don’t have the same signature impact as a personalized note penned by an editor. I am pretty sure I saved my acceptance letter from Solstice Publishing in my email box, which doesn’t have the same nostalgic feel as a file drawer of yellowing paper.

Writers face a lot of obstacles in our careers, and we are constantly seeking validation. It has to be one of the professions most mired in self doubt. This problem doesn’t end with publication. Then we worry if people will like the book, if it will sell enough, if the next book will be any good, or if that one will sell. 

Back in the day, I gained confidence when an editor gave my work thought enough to write a personalized note. These days, I gain my confidence from my readers. They are my most important critics now. For all those who shared reviews and ratings on Amazon, Goodreads, and elsewhere, thank you. It is fuel for the writer’s soul. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

How You Spend Your Days Is How You Spend Your Life

Like most people I know, I work for money. The work/life balance blurs when I get greedy.

Last week, I was offered a big freelance writing job with an incentive. The job became bigger after I agreed to do it. Days blurred together with me fixed at the computer, working on this increasingly big project with a very tight deadline.

I do regular work for this company, and I enjoy it very much, but I do it in much smaller doses. At first, the increased intensity was inspiring, even refreshing. The first day or two, I had a few hundred words left at the end of the night to add to my novel in progress. My income potential was rising. I had underestimated myself.

But things were sliding. My house was a mess. I wasn’t spending time with my kids or husband. I wasn’t reading outside of research reports and statistics. I wasn’t seeing my friends. By day three and four, I had a headache by noon and it was getting harder to get through it.

I talked to other people who took crazy jobs for extra money. One friend was turning in a project that day, trying to beat a snowstorm to get it off her hands so she never had to think about it again. The project paid for her daughter’s dance lessons, but she wasn’t sure it was worth the hassle.  Another told me about a job delivering phone books. She thought she could do it after work to make some extra money for Christmas. It turned into a kerfluffle that may have ended up costing her more than she made from the job because of childcare costs and gasoline to haul around heavy phone books.

By day six, the work had grown again and it looked like internal editing would make it a nailbiter to hit deadline. On that day, I woke up with a headache. While the end was in sight, I had to get through the day, and the day after that, and they both looked dismal.

A saying I probably read on Facebook popped into my head: How you spend your days is you spend your life. If this was true, I wasn’t too happy with how I was spending my life. I was living for the days on the other side of this project, but the days I was living were miserable.

I did my best for this project, and fulfilled my promise. Like my friend delivering her side project in a snowstorm, I questioned if it was worth it.  Dance lessons, or in my case, piano lessons, do need to be paid for, but I don’t have to earn the money in seven days. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Book Review: The One and Only Ivan

"The One and Only Ivan," by Katherine Applegate is the winner of the 2013 Newbery Medal, and it deserves it. This book is charming, heartbreaking and courageous as Ivan, the mighty Silverback gorilla speaks from his domain in the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade.

Except it isn’t a domain, it is a cage, and a small and dirty one at that.

Short sentences in short chapters, because gorillas don’t waste words like humans do, tell a rich story on friendship, family and home. The one and only Ivan does the impossible, in more ways than one. First, he fulfilled a promise from inside a cage. Second, he hooked my kids from the first page. They couldn’t stop reading until the story was done.

You won’t be able to either. This is a book to buy, because you will be proud to have it on your shelves. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Book Signing

Last weekend was my very first book signing. I thought I would be nervous, but it was exciting to connect with readers. My favorite guest was a young girl who was about 8 or 9 years old. With eyes wide with wonder, she asked if I was the writer, then asked if I was famous. Not yet, but that didn't convince her, judging by the expression on her face when I caught her watching me. I wonder if she will grow up to be a writer someday.

Many thanks to my good friends Caroline and Lora for making this book signing a success! They are fantastic coordinators. Any organization would be lucky to have them on their board;)

They set a great mood with balloons....
and cake. It looks like a book!

I did a reading, and really wished I had a podium.

People did some reading of their own.
I had plenty of books to sign, with a cheat sheet of phrases I wrote down earlier in the week in case I got writer's block.
Did I mention the cake? It was the icing on a really great day! Look at me, having my cake and eating it too!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Book Club Questions for Divided Moon

I am in several book clubs, and love it when I can find a suggested list of discussion questions about a title. As a service to my readers, I have compiled a such a list for Divided Moon. 


Divided Moon – Book Club Questions

1. Moon faces an arranged marriage in Divided Moon. What are your thoughts on arranged marriage? Do you see any benefits to arranged marriage? What do you see as the problems? Where do you think arranged marriage most often takes place, and why?

2. A Hmong saying is “to be with a family is to be happy. To be without a family is to be lost.” Moon fears losing her family if she refuses to marry. Do you think this adage is true? How do you think American culture values family?

3. Moon’s parents want to keep their cultural and family traditions. Why do you think this is important to them? Does your family or cultural heritage have any traditions you would like to see continue from generation to generation? Are there traditions that have been lost that you wish to see again? Are there traditions that stopped that you are glad to see go?

4. Jen wishes her parents would treat her more like an adult. Why do you think she feels this way? Do you think other teenagers feel this way? How is this different than Moon’s problem?

5. Adolescence is the transitional period between puberty and adulthood. What do you think is important about adolescence? Do you think this is an unnecessary step? What do people learn during adolescence that helps them in their adult lives?

6. Moon’s parents arrange her marriage to secure her future. What are some other ways parents can help their child enter adulthood?

7. What do you think will happen with Mai?  Do you think she will be happy about this?

8. In both Hmong households, Moon encounters roles associated with female and male family members. Are chores assigned according to gender in your family? Do you think males and females are treated the same or differently in American culture?

9. Moon says she and Ze are on the same side. What did she mean by that? Was she right?

10. Can you imagine another way this story could have gone?

Friday, February 1, 2013

Book Review: Flipped

The beauty of this story is how the perspective shifts over the course of the book. The reader is aware of it while it is happening, but like falling in love, she may want to go back and recount what happened to get the characters to this place.

In “Flipped,” by Wendelin Van Draanen, Juli moves into Bryce’s neighborhood and instantly develops a crush on him that lasts for years. Over time, she starts to see what is beneath those beautiful blue eyes, and it isn’t so great. Meanwhile, Bryce thinks Juli is very annoying, until she isn’t.

This is the perfect encapsulation of boy meets girl, girl chases boy, until boy catches girl.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Are You Sleeping?

I enjoy a good sleep. I am a frequent dreamer. My dreams often make sense of whatever I am dealing with in my waking life, with much less effort, because, hey, I am sleeping! I work out story problems, remember where I left my keys, find the right words for a difficult situation....all while fast asleep in my cozy bed. 

It turns out I am not insane, at least when it comes to sleep. Research states the restorative benefits of sleep help the mind process what it takes in during waking hours. A recent article that appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal claimed it is better to take a nap after a lecture than it is to pull an all nighter to study. The rest allows your brain to process the information you learned more efficiently than hitting the books.

I have been sleeping more than usual lately. This seems to be a trend for me in January. I have blamed exhaustion after the holidays, the cold days, longer nights that are actually getting shorter.

Perhaps I am just processing new knowledge. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

Operation Read It

A new goal for a new year. I plan to read every book in this stack this year, with the exception of the Wisconsin Blue Book. I already read that.

In order to accomplish this, I will have to avoid the library. A book on borrowed time always takes precedence over one I own. This is a stack of books I have owned and not read for an embarrassingly long time.

Next year, I may tackle what's on my Kindle.