Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Best Parts of Life Involve Other People

I work from home, I don’t like the phone, and I generally do not have a lot of people in my life. As an introvert, being around other people isn’t something I crave.

Yet getting to know other people is so interesting and relationships are the core to the human existence. It is one of the best parts of life.

Art by DeviantArt. 

I was talking to a friend about college classes. She is considering classes in sociology and psychology. I remarked that the only thing I remember about my sociology course was the personal life of the student who sat next to me. There was no reason why we sat together. It was a pit class, with at least a hundred students, probably many more. I don’t even know her name, and never saw her outside that class, yet she told me the most intimate of things at a very trying time in her life. I got an A in the class, but what I learned was her story, and I carried that with me. Perhaps that is fitting for a sociology course.

As I drove home from coffee and ruminating my college courses, I listened to NPR. Garden Talk was on. I am a certified master gardener, and my instructor was on the radio. Instantly, I felt important because I know her. I liked the familiarity of her voice and her advice was the same as what I gave my mom about pruning this week (I DID learn something!) She tells a joke about “revenge spraying” bugs and notes it is a Phil Peliterri joke. And I get it. I know Phil too, because he taught one or two of those Master Gardener classes and I listen to him on NPR. I heard him make that joke, in class and on the radio. I felt even cooler....and like a geek at the same time.

It is people who inspire my novels. Each story starts with a character, their problems, and eventually, I figure out how they are going to solve it. I wouldn’t have those characters if there weren’t people in my life telling me stories….friends, acquaintances, random people with generous souls.

I applaud the souls who leave their hearts open, for they are inspiring. I enjoy the colorful characters for making life more interesting. I tip my hat to the teachers among us, for their knowledge and ability to repeat their lessons and jokes again and again. Eventually, we get it!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Five Great Things About Being a Writer

1. When talking about what you are doing this weekend, this evening or in your free time, saying, "I am writing a novel," often wins.

2. You can ask inane hypothetical questions. If people know you are a writer, they assume it is for some book you are writing, even when it is not.

3. It gives you an excuse to read a lot. It is research. You have to study the craft.

4. You get to spend a lot of time in an imaginary world of your own making....and you call the time spent there productive.

5. Having the opportunity to meet other writers and if you are lucky, readers!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Making National Novel Writing Month Work for You, Even if You Aren't Writing a Novel in 30 Days

National Novel Writing Month is ambitious, something writers prepare for months in advance and takes dedication.

Or not.

I write this with the after effects of a sugar rush from Halloween candy on the evening before November. This isn't one of my favorite months. It is cold and bleak, with the trees bare of leaves and the winter gear out of storage for the longest season in Wisconsin. Later this month, people will be crushed to death, sleep deprived, or something trying to get a good deal at Walmart.

As far as I am concerned, NaNoWriMo is a welcome retreat from everything else in November. It is a reason to sit at the keyboard everyday and think about an imaginary world (or dig deeper into real life things, if that is your bag). It is a reason to look at Facebook groups, Twitter, Nano forums and other social networks more often, because they are inspirational. The vibe is fun. Writerly quotes command the internet. The idea of creating a story becomes important and public. People don't care if you refuse to see them so you can stare at your computer. It is ok. It is National Novel Writing Month!

And sometimes, all that inspiration clicks. I have never "won" NaNo, but plenty of others have. There are best selling novels that were born in the month of November. You will probably hear about them in the next 30 days. What I have done is make tremendous progress on first drafts, second, third or fourth drafts, revisions, plotting. All the emphasis on writing makes the writing part of myself more important for one month. Just one month. Then December hits and all the other important stuff takes the lead and I fight for writing time again.

So whether you are writing a novel, doing revisions, thinking about writing a novel, or doing research. Enjoy your month. If you are a writer, November is yours to ignore everything and explore your craft!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Wild Backyard Adventures

Today was one of those beautiful autumn Sundays that demands you spend as much time outside as possible. The weather was a mild 60 degrees, the sun was shining and the leaves were on full display.

Too lazy to clean out the garden, I decided to take the cat outside. Otis begs to go outside all day and all night. I only let him out in the yard supervised, because he has a history of running away.  I regularly took him with me when working in my garden this summer, since it was infested with voles. Otis caught several this summer.

As soon as I took him out, it was clear that hunting was on his mind. He took a few swats at a butterfly and I stopped him. I like butterflies. Catch the vermin.  

After taking inventory of the landscaping around the house, Otis trotted out to the garden while I watched from my covered patio.

Cats are extremely patient. I could tell when he found something interesting. He leaped toward something, missed, then lay low in the grass. Occasionally I would see the white on his nose as he looked at me, then buried in the grass at whatever he was watching. He was a cat on the job!

The dog next door woofed a few times, then looked at the grass to see if she could find anything. Otis ignored her, although the dog was a mere six feet away. Otis is not threatened by the dog next door anymore. He barely acknowledges her, although the dog seems to want to be friends.  

I started to get bored, thought maybe I should clean the debris out of the garden. I contemplated where to put the tomato plants since I didn’t want them in my compost.

I nearly walked over there, to the garden, but then I saw Otis tense again, his shoulders curved in that cat stalking prey kind of way. I stopped my approach and ran back to the patio. I knocked on the patio door for my husband to unlock it in case I have to run inside when the cat finds something and brings it to me. Because that is what cats do, they bring you their prizes. Otis likes to catch, but does not like to kill.

My husband thinks I am crazy. That is nothing new. He did unlock the door.

Then it happened. Otis leaped and caught a vole in his mouth. He must have hit the mother lode, because he continued leaping around the grass, but only had one mouth. He did not let go his charge. At this moment, I was cursing that he is declawed. He might have taken out more than one vole this afternoon.

As predicted, he jogged toward the patio with his prize, still alive and wiggling while dangling from his mouth. I am inside the house now, hollering at my husband to get a bucket.

I noted that my 12 year old son is more swift and better prepared to collect rodents the cat caught. In previous scenarios, my son quickly appears in the back yard with a shovel and a 5 gallon pail from the garage. He then takes the catch to the ravine across the street while making no contact with the injured rodent. My husband took forever to appear again, giving Otis plenty of chances to let the vole go on my patio, then, thankfully, catch it again. I got a little worried about that. One got away this summer, and now lives by my patio.

Husband finally arrived armed with a small bucket and a dowel. Seems a risky choice, but I needed the rodent removed right now. I eyed that small bucket and asked if he wanted a lid. He said no, staring at it for awhile, wondering what to do.  He ended up driving away with a vole in a small bucket in his car. Again, not a choice I would make, but at least the thing is no longer in my yard.

One more down. Otis has been begging to go out for another round all afternoon. Can’t say I haven’t been tempted to let him.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

My Writing Process

1. What Are You Working On in the Moment?
I do not like to talk about WIPs unless I am with my immediate family, a very patient muse or two and my critique group (who are probably sick to death of what I am working on!) Part of my writing process is figuring out what it is I am trying to do.  I need to work out what the story is about, what the character wants and what the character needs to overcome. Right now, I am revising a YA novel that is about that moment in life when your friends are everything. I also have an MG novel in the making that is getting a first chapter makeover.

2. How Do You Think Your Work Differs From Other Writer's In Your Genre?

I think the difference is regional. I have not strayed far in my sense of place when telling a story. Every tale is centered in a place I have lived, where I knew the community and felt the vibe. There are not that many other contemporary novels set in Wisconsin (save our homeboy Michael Perry and "The Art of Fielding"). I also think my stories have an element of the unexpected. Often when I read a book, even a good book, I have a sense of where the story is going. I am often surprised by my own work, even after the dozens of readings.

3. Why Do You Write What You Write?

I write when I feel compelled to tell a story. There is always a theme, or a feeling, or a general sense of discontent that needs to be translated into an entertaining story. Very often, I am inspired by people. Everyone has a story if you take the time to listen. Life is interesting!

4. What is Your Writing Process, And How Does It Work?

When I get an idea, I start doing a lot of research. I start a notebook to take as many notes of facts as I can. My background is in journalism, so I tend to investigate before I write. I read a lot of books with the same themes/characters/etc.... I investigate what I am trying to accomplish. I research my main character's problems and learn about quirks, behaviors, trends, perhaps even the science with that specific problem.

Once I feel I have a grasp of the facts, I start to explore the fiction side, starting with the character and his/her problem and his/her goals. I put together a rough outline and start writing. It doesn't always go as planned, but sometimes it does.

I sit on drafts for months and months and do multiple rewrites/revisions. This is where I feel I put in the most work. I may have a problem with that, but I want them to be perfect. There is a cadence to a well written story that carries the reader along. If I can achieve a cadence that carries me, I know I've got it and the first time reader would have an even more amazing experience.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Best Newer Books from Preschool to Teen

I recently listened to a panel of librarians, authors and children's media specialists talk about my favorite thing.....books. The moderator asked this esteemed group of experts what the best new releases were and their recommendations.

So now, I am telling you what they are, because who doesn't love book recommendations?

For Children:
The Dark, by Lemony Snicket - I am a big fan of Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events and this recommendation, for younger readers, caught my attention. This is a picture book for children ages 3 to 6 that casts Dark as a character, who leads a frightened child into the basement.

The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever, by H. Joseph Hopkins. This is another picture book, recommended for children ages 5 to 10. This is the story of Kate Sessions, an activist who helped transform San Diego from a desert to a lush, leafy city.

Henry's Freedom Box, by Ellen Levine. This is the dramatic story of a slave who mailed himself to freedom. It is recommended for children ages 4 to 8 years old, but I want to read it.

For Middle Grade and up:
Stubby the War Dog, by Wisconsin's very own Ann Bausum. This is the story of a stray, stump tailed terrier who helped win WWI.

Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. Of course! I have been hearing about this book so much and it happens to be promoted by my local library system. The story is about Auggie, a 10 year old boy with a facial deformity starting at a mainstream school.

Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli. This recommendation broke the rules, as Stargirl was published in 2002 and isn't a new release.  It is still a great story about the problems with popularity and first love. For ages 12 and up.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

New Release: My Tethered Soul by Dorothy Dreyer

Happy book birthday to MY TETHERED SOUL, by Dorothy Dreyer, just in time for fall reading. This is the second book in Dreyer's spooky fantasy/paranormal Reaper's Rite series. MY SISTER'S REAPER introduced Zadie and the Reaper in May 2013 and earned five star reviews on Goodreads and Amazon for its originality and storytelling. 


It’s been months since Zadie faced her sister’s Reaper, months during which she’s been under her mentor’s magical protection. But now that she’s turning seventeen, that protection is about to run out.

When dark forces lure Zadie to wander at night, she’s manipulated into committing unspeakable acts. With her friends and family at risk, Zadie must try to use her powers to break free from the Reaper’s grasp, or surrender to the Reaper’s Rite, which can only lead to death.


My body shook, knocking my teeth together. Why was the bed rocking?

“Zadie, wake up.”

My eyes were slits as I pushed Mara away. I was entirely too tired to get up yet. “Five more minutes.”

“Zadie, come on.”

“What do you want?”

“There’s mud all over the floor. Footprints.”

I scrunched my forehead up, my eyes still not all the way open. “What? What are you talking about?”

“There were muddy footprints all over the floor. I wiped the ones up in the hall so Dad wouldn’t see, but there are more here in your room.”

My eyes widened. I sat up and focused on my bedroom floor. Sure enough, a trail of mud led up to my bed. Panic jump-started my heart as I realized someone could have been in my room while I slept. But the footprints only led up to my bed, not away from it.

I grabbed my sheet and ripped it off of my body. “Oh my God.”


For more about Dorothy, her books, and a $30 Amazon Giveaway, visit her website at

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Burning the Manuscript

Writing is supposed to be a work of passion, so it should not be weird to wish to set a manuscript I spent months on, possibly year or more, on fire. I am sure Hemingway did that, or somebody. I am at that point tonight, looking at the messy, boring, ill connected collection of scenes I called a novel.

Four months ago, I thought that novel was amazing. A year ago, I was sure it was ready for publication. A perfect work of art that needed minor tweaking.

I was blinded by love of the story. Truly blinded. It took two years for me to see the flaws. TWO YEARS! I often hear the advice of setting the work aside for a month, three months, maybe even six months. I set it aside for a year, and still thought it was brilliant.  

Now you understand why I don’t have another book out. If it was out, it would be crap. It needs a major renovation, but I can see it now. I see the flaws I didn’t before. I can make it sing. But how lovely it would be to see the old version set on fire and burned into ashes. Like a phoenix, the story would rise again and be way better than before. It has to be. That version was crap. I don’t know why I ever liked it. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Summer Reading List

How are you doing on your summer reading list? 

Summer days are filled with baseball games, swimming lessons, and supervising small people at the pool, giving me plenty of time to read, but nothing too heavy as I need to pay attention to the game and keep children from drowning. 

I recently read a translation of Dante Alighieri's Inferno, which is the first part of a trilogy depicting a descent into hell, then purgatory, then paradise. I didn't bother to read the last two parts of that comedy. Reading his depictions of hell are quite fun and decadent, and involve a lot of gruesome things. I read this in preparation to read Dan Brown's Inferno. That book is not as fun, and quite frankly, the mystery is getting annoying. Maybe I am not a mystery lover.

Also on my reading list: 

Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell. I hear a lot about this author. She may be the next John Green. There is talk of a movie coming out on this book. I better read it first!

Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. I have had this on my list for awhile and it was chosen by my local library system for their reading program, so there are plenty of copies available. The main character has a craniofacial deformity, which is a problem that has pulled at my heart. In school, it is hard to look different, and I want to read this kid's experience when looking different is part of who he is. 

Splintered, by A.G. Howard. The main character is the descendant of Alice, in which Alice in Wonderland is based. I am a fangirl of Lewis Carroll's creation and love to read about crazy people. 

So, what is on your reading list? 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Not Writing Guilt

I haven't written a word in about a month. Before that, it was sketchy. I was working on revisions, halfheartedly. Mostly I have been letting story problems tumble around in my head and reading more.

My creative juices have been exhausted with a move. In the last two weeks, I have washed every dish, bowl, cookware, silverware and other kitchen gadget and accessories I own. I washed every piece of fabric in the house, from pillows to towels to clothing to jackets I don't even plan to keep. After sanitizing everything I own, I have to find a place for it to live in our new house, which is another challenge. To add to the chaos, I got a new computer on Mother's Day, and have been trying to make that transition. Getting a new computer is like a death to me. I have to lay the previous computer to rest and set up the new one. I hate that process. For months while still working on "Divided Moon," I was working with a computer that would shut down after 20 minutes of work, yet I would insist I was not ready to change computers, not until the work was done.

In spite of all this chaos, I have niggling guilt in the back of my brain for not writing. I have a fount of ideas, and actually recovered a notebook filled with plot, character sketches, a timeline and scenes for a horror novel I was too afraid to write before. I think I am ready now, if only I could get my house and office in order.

It will come, and I remind myself that a writers' downtimes are periods of collecting data. I have definitely been collecting data in the last few weeks. No words on the page, but ideas are bubbling as I examine my WIP, this lost WIP, my goals and other writing related things that don't involve actual writing.

I suppose I write this piece to remind myself, and all writers, that we are working, even when we aren't. Banish the guilt of not putting words on the page every day, as contemplation of story problems and planning other projects is also work. I also remind myself that when life gets in the way, I should pay attention, because it could be fodder for work. We have to live in order to know enough to create.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Book Review: Cinder

This is no fairy tale. Cinder, the debut young adult novel by Marissa Meyer and the first in her Lunar Chronicles series, is a clever, futuristic retelling of Cinderella….except I like this one better.  This Cinder doesn’t need a prince to save her, although one is making his intentions clear. She has a plan of her own that is interrupted when she has to save Earth.

Many elements of the fairy tale give the story a familiar feel. Cinder has an evil stepmother who puts Cinder to work and prohibits her from attending the ball. She has two stepsisters, although one of them is heartbreakingly charming. Cinder is dirty, not from cleaning the ashes from the fireplace, but because she is a mechanic and working with grease. Then there is the ball, and a twist to the lost shoe I saw coming, but loved all the same.

What is different is this story takes place in the future, when gasoline cars are ancient relics. Cinder isn’t entirely human, but a cyborg. I am not a frequent reader of science fiction or fantasy, so I wasn’t sure if I should know what that is. As far as I could tell with Cinder’s focus on her gloves and boots, she has some metal parts.

The story is predictable at times, which is fitting for a fairy tale retelling. We all know how the story goes. Yet there are surprises in every chapter that make this a light and enjoyable read. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

(Almost) A Year of Simple Living

Last summer, we decided to relocate the family to be together, moving from a 2200 square foot house to a two bedroom apartment in a new city.  It was a big change. Three boys sleep in one room, with about one foot between the beds. The garage is too small for our cars, so we were scraping windshields every morning all winter. We all learned patience and bladder control with one bathroom, five people, and a cat. Even the cat had to wait for the bathroom from time to time.

Tomorrow morning marks the end of our journey as we close on a new house in our new city.

Although I had doubts along the way, more than a few, the experience of living small has been something that changed all of us, probably forever.

1) Never underestimate the importance of a couch. We didn’t have furniture for the first five weeks in the apartment. Not having a decent place to sit in your place is harder (no pun intended) than any of us thought. We bought bean bag chairs, but they went flat after three weeks or so.

2) Same for a yard, or a square of driveway. People grill out in front of their garages, surrounded by a line of other garages in a parking lot pretty far away from a table. I hate it when the kids play outside, as all they have is the parking lot, which is not safe.

3) We don’t just love each other, we like each other, too. There has been no privacy for any of us in the last nine months. We laughed more often than we thought possible and grew closer. Perhaps because for some time, we were the only people we knew in town.

4) Being together is what is important. The darkest days were when the cat went missing. While it was hard to be away from him, not knowing if he was ok was what made a couple of us cry in the night. His return was the happiest of days and melted even the most cat hating family member. (Otis loves you too, Dean).

5) I don’t need half the stuff in my kitchen. I couldn’t bring everything, since the kitchen in the apartment is 1/3 the size of that in my house. I took the essentials. The only thing I truly miss is the George Foreman grill. Yeah, it surprises me, too. I miss it more than a microwave.

We won’t move first thing tomorrow, as I have some things to do to this house before we move our life and excessive stuff in. It could be a few weeks, perhaps as much as a month. I think I should leave a note of apology on the door of the apartment directly under us upon moving out. They put up with a lot with us.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Getting Past the Inner Critic

We all know the inner critic. It is the reason I write 15 blog posts before I decide to post one. It is the reason I spend years instead of months on novel revisions.

It isn’t good enough. Nobody would want to read this. It could be embarrassing.

The common advice for novelists in a first draft is to shove the critic aside and keep going. Writing a novel is a huge undertaking. Allowing the inner critic to voice its objections in early chapters may be an insurmountable roadblock and your work becomes a half finished novel. The words need to get on the page before you can really work with them. You need to fully flesh out the idea, and then tweak it.

If you are in revisions, it gets a bit trickier. I find it easiest if I work on one thing at a time during revisions….making the scenery pop, working on dialogue, fixing plot problems….one thing at a time. A notebook can be handy, to write notes on future revisions when the inner critic pops up to point something out.

Having a critique group is vital. Outside voices and eyes on the project can be far more informative than normal writer insecurities.  

The inner critic is not only for novelists. I see those shy Facebook posters and nonTweeters. Your friends and followers want to hear from you, too. Otherwise, they wouldn’t follow and friend you. Don’t be afraid to speak up, show a bit of yourself, cast aside the inner critic and embrace your voice. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Book Review: Doll Bones

The doll on the cover of Doll Bones by Holly Black is as deliciously creepy as it appears. As the story progresses, secrets are revealed, theories are confirmed, and strange happenings are not completely explained, making the doll that sends these three friends on an impossible quest even creepier.

It is a fun adventure born from the imaginations of children. There are some scary moments when we remember how young these characters are, like on the bus in the night. As they trudge along, these friends face the perils of their adventure and the very real issue of growing up and getting too old for play. 

It is a satisfying read worthy of its Newbery Honor in 2014.  

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Writers Out Loud

I spent last weekend in Madison, WI near the university campus, and not for a basketball game. It was the 25th Annual Writer's Institute Conference, sponsored by the University of Wisconsin Continuing Studies Division. About 300 writers gathered to pitch to agents and one editor, learn about the craft, meet colleagues and be inspired.

Writers are generally introverted people, but in the din of the chatter in the ballroom at the Concourse Hotel, I wondered if I was the only one who hadn't overcome that handicap. I tend to hang back and observe, too afraid to make the first move.

Except when walking up and down State Street between my on campus housing and the hotel. Downtown Madison is an energetic, friendly place, but not where I want to walk alone. My aloof, shy nature took a backseat as I easily approached and assimilated among couples, runners and college students who happened to be headed in the same direction.

I am not particularly comfortable with networking opportunities, such as conferences, but I always learn something and even with my wallflower tendencies, I make at least one new contact. We must step outside our comfort zone to a writer and a person.

The first keynote speaker, Nathan Bransford, seemed to be outside his comfort zone. He gave good advice in quotable nuggets, but didn't appear as at ease as his online presence. Perhaps he was tired or too busy shivering as it was snowing and blustery on that first day, causing delays in travel for many of the presenters. One of his best pieces of advice was to keep writing, as it could be the solution to every problem encountered in writing.

Next, I sat in on Ron Kuka's presentation on the Deep Edit and heard mind blowing advice for revisions. Words on the page became a sensory experience under his red pen, and he showed how to make that happen without overdoing it. He instructed writers to invoke at least three senses on each page, but touch each image once.

Christine DeSmet led an active discussion on plot, helping writers narrow it down to a central question. She also encouraged writers to have puzzles to solve and said an object is crucial. Every story must have an object. I keep thinking that can't be true, but haven't identified a story without one.

It warmed up by the second day, for nearly everyone. Writers were more eager to participate in discussions. While agent Laura Biagi gave advice on what made a stellar opening, volunteers from the audience demonstrated that a lot of writers start their stories with characters waking up naked.

That made me wonder about the pitch sessions going on throughout the conference. Agents and editor were taking eight minute pitches from authors. It is hard enough to have my own stories rattling around in my head. I can't imagine hearing seven and a half more stories every hour.

Jane Friedman, as much a capable and knowledgeable guide for writers in person as she appears online, gave solid advice on query letters.

She also gave the last keynote on Sunday, when the sun came out and warmed the world. She showed the business end of authoring, backed by slides with graphs showing the changing landscape.

By the end of the conference, I had a head and notebook full of advice, new goals, and a bunch of new websites to check out. I also love Jacquelyn Mitchard even more in her role as editor for Merit Press. Or maybe I just love hearing editors gush about the books they acquired.

As a touch of magic to the weekend, I walked up State Street each morning hearing the call of the Mockingjay. That is not as impossible as it sounds, since the movie makers had to use the call of some kind of bird to represent the mockingjay. Yet it was fitting for a weekend where imagination, play and dreams were business as usual.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Why Every Writer Should Take a Workshop on Picture Book Writing

Writers are the most information and inspiration hungry crowd of people, always looking for ways to improve their craft, see things in a new light, learn new techniques for plotting, building characters, beginning a story, ending a story. That thirst for knowledge endears them, but may drain the checkbook from time to time.

So why would a novelist waste those very hard earned dollars on a picture book writing workshop?

They probably wouldn’t. There are plenty of other workshops out there for novelists to take. Yet, a trip to the “Bunny Eat Bunny” world of picture book writing could shake up things a bit, and give a writer a new perspective.

Picture books are very short, as short at 500 words. I can barely write a 500 word blog post. Writing an entire story, with a beginning, middle and an end in so few words is breaking down a story to its very core.

The choice of words is crucial. With so few words, each word is debated as to whether it is the best one. If you want an exercise in building your vocabulary, this could be it. You can spend days trying to find the right word for “jump.”

The writer must keep the reader engaged in a picture book. Every page needs a picture, and it needs to be different than the other pictures in the book. Picture books are often 32 pages, which means the story needs a lot of action or twists and turns to fill out every page in an interesting way, while still needing to flow from one to the next with little explanation (remember there are few words allowed).

There is often a rhythm to a picture book. I took a rhyming picture book workshop at the Iowa Summer Writer Festival a few years ago. It was very eye opening. I didn’t realize the brilliance of Dr. Seuss and Karma Wilson until I started counting syllables in their sentences and which ones were stressed. Rhyming isn’t only about matching the sound at the end of the sentence and having the same number of beats per line. There is a meter involved, with the rise and fall of language being measured and repeated. That is hard!

The most important thing I got out of those picture book writing workshops was the sense that novel writing was so much easier. My picture book writing friends would disagree, thinking a novel is much too long and complicated to keep organized. But it gives some space to tell the story, which is not allowed in a picture book.

It also gave me a very big appreciation for picture books. People often think they are easy to write, because they are simple, engaging stories that read very well. It takes hard work to get them there. I know that now. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Book Review: Flora and Ulysses

The winner of the Newbery medal in 2014 goes to “Flora and Ulysses,” by Kate DiCamillo. Kate has an impressive body of work, most of which include cute animals, such as “The Tale of Despereaux.”

There are several superheroes in this story.  There is Flora, who discovers a squirrel getting sucked up in a vacuum cleaner and attempts to save the squirrel and come to terms with her parents’ divorce. There is William Spiver, who is temporarily blind, and somehow acts as an anchor for the other characters. Then there is Ulysses the squirrel, who discovers so much beauty in the world after being sucked into that vacuum cleaner that it inspires him to write poetry. He can also fly.

The story is silly, and at times has no point other than to entertain the reader. Pages are drenched in humor that pokes fun at the colorful characters, such as Flora's father, who constantly introduces himself, even when he knows every person in the room. The quest to save the squirrel from certain death doesn’t bear the weight it should. Still, the story is fun, with a lighthearted voice and whimsical illustrations for some scenes. “Flora and Ulysses” doesn’t hold a message as strong as last year’s Newbery winner, “The One and Only Ivan” did, but it has personality and timelessness.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Bookshelves are Necessary Objects

Five months ago, we moved our family of five from a 2200 square foot house to an itty bitty two bedroom apartment. We did it to be prudent. Job changes necessitated a move, and after hearing horror stories about houses being on the market for years, we chose to stay together and live conservatively until the house sells.

Moving from a fairly good sized house to a small apartment was a challenge. I have had to change my pantry habits, buying less and shopping more. No more stocking up on items for this mom. There simply isn’t room. There isn’t room for much. We are reduced to one coat per season, minimal toys. My Tupperware cabinet all but abandoned, as there is neither a spare cabinet big enough to contain my plastic stash, nor refrigerator space for the covered goodies.

Something else we left behind in our new skinny life…. the books. We own a ton of books. Nearly every room in our house had a bookshelf or two. With three beds in one room and barely enough clearance for the kitchen table with five chairs, we could not afford the furniture space. We vowed to use the library more often (and we do) and have a few reading choices stashed on the hall tree.

Even with library visits and those selected few volumes, I heard the swell of discontent. “I miss the books.” “I don’t have anything to read.” At one point, I had to give my Kindle to my 6th grader.

With this in mind, while packing up our house for the last time (it sold!), I told the patient husband we need to bring back a bookshelf. Neither of us knew where it would go, as the apartment was already filled to the brim with all of us and our minimal stuff. He doesn’t ask questions, and suggested the smallest of our bookcase collection. I put my sons on task to choose some books for it, and warned them to only bring what they will read in the next six months (because the house sold! We don’t have to stay in the apartment for years!)

This, of course, led to less packing going on and little boys getting into trouble for hiding in their empty rooms reading.

I put the bookshelf in the almost nonexistent hallway between the bedrooms and the living area of the apartment. We will probably run into it 500 times before moving out, swearing at this decision daily. The smallest boy put the books on the shelf, carefully, lovingly and oh, so slowly as he stopped to read each title and peruse the contents with the excitement of opening a package received in the mail.

Instantly, that bookshelf transformed the apartment. It made it a home. Somehow, this extra piece of furniture we decided was unnecessary five months ago adds an ambience that is comfortable and soothing. Each of us has stopped to look at the shelves, or touch its surface, page through a book, or notice how the shelf itself fills the space with good, comforting vibes.

A place is not a home until there is a bookshelf. I am convinced.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Creating Tension in Scenery

A writer friend shared this tip, from Donald Maass's, "Fire in Fiction."

Determine the point of view of your character about the scenery or objects in your book. Put in scenery or objects that the characters have feelings or opinions about....good or bad and even have them disagree about these feelings which can up the tension. 

Making the scenery, and differing opinions among characters, is a great idea to both add to the scenery that surrounds the characters and add a layer of character development. It also puts more tension on the page, possibly adding another obstacle for the protagonist to overcome.

In the book I just finished, "Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking," the main character loves living near Boston, but her mother is thinking about moving to New Hampshire with the boyfriend, Putrid Richard. Among other things, this is a source of tension in the book. Moxie clearly loves being able to go to Boston with her best friend, has great affection for the city, and doesn't want to move away.. She hesitates to give her mother any reason to move them away from Boston, especially when Moxie and her family may be in danger.

The tension anchors the reader to the place and adds importance to the scenery in the story. This helps make the images come to life for the reader. I am rooting for Moxie to stay in Boston. Her descriptions of Boston are more poignant, and make me love the city more. 

I noticed a similar theme in the book, "Tell the Wolves I'm Home," which was reviewed on this blog. The main character has a stated affection for the city, and the apartment her uncle lived in up until he died. What his surviving lover does to the place adds color and tension to the scene. His overflowing ashtrays and clutter change the apartment, and create a new scene that adds to the hardship in accepting her uncle's death. 

One of my favorite things about a book is its ability to paint a picture and capture a scene that comes alive in my mind. Creating some tension in those scenes can make those descriptions come across more clearly and without the dreaded list of details. The tension also attaches a feeling to a place, which further invests the reader. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Big Cat Lost, Little Cat Found

On October 25, my tabby cat went missing from his foster home. We had moved a month or two prior to this, into an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. My mom and sister agreed to take care of the cats until we got settled into a home. Otis had other ideas. He broke his leash and ran away on a balmy autumn evening.

We spent six hours searching the neighborhood for him the next day. It was likely he was still wearing his collar and dragging part of his leash, so we thought he might have gotten tangled in some bushes. Every inch of that neighborhood was searched, with no luck.

We made posters to hang, talked to neighbors. I contacted the police department, visited the shelters frequently, and I posted a picture on Craigslist.

At first, I got many calls. I checked out a lot of lost gray and white cats. None of them were Otis. One was close, so close I had to look twice to make sure.

Fall turned to winter, the calls became more infrequent. Our visits to the shelter became further apart. We were losing hope of ever finding him, but prayed he found a family to care for him. Otis is very friendly, especially with small children. If he couldn’t charm his way into someone’s life, he didn’t have much of a chance. He is 12 years old, declawed and has some health problems.

Then, on the coldest day of the year, my sister calls. Check your Craigslist email, she says. Otis has been found.

Sure enough, there are pictures of a cute little girl snuggling our Otis! He is skinny, but the same cat.

A few hours later, we arrive to take him home during a big sendoff for a missing cat. There were two families involved with Otis. One started feeding him when they noticed him taking shelter in the dog house in their backyard. The smallest member of the family, and Otis’s best friend, was a little boy of about three or four. I know well the bond Otis has with young boys. He was a house fixture while we raised three little boys and isn’t fearful of their huge gestures and loud voices, always in the midst of sword fights and knocking trains off their wooden tracks. I often said Otis prefers the company of kids to adults, the smaller the better. That little boy and Otis had a bond I could see, although neither of them had the words to express it.

The family who cared for Otis thought he was a stray. His collar was long gone, who knows where, and Otis hung around. They tried to bring him inside, but cat allergies made it impossible.

When the weather got dangerously cold, with wind chills near 50 below, they asked a friend to take the cat, renamed Leo, in her heated garage. The homeowner with a comfy garage room for the cat recognized this was probably a pet and did a search on Craigslist. She typed in missing cat and the city, and up popped a picture and post of our missing Otis.

It seems like a miracle, but really, it isn’t. It is the kindness of strangers and the capacity to love that saved Otis. It reminds me to do the same. Look around. Help others. If you see a skinny cat hanging around, give him some shelter and a meal. When Otis was missing, my dearest wish was not to find him, but that he was warm and safe and maybe even loved by someone. Having a little boy love him was the best possible scenario for him.

Frankly, I’m not sure Otis is that pleased to be found. The first time he meowed, it was because he wanted to go outside. He is refusing his prescription cat food he used to eat just fine, and raided the garbage looking for something else.

He may think life on the lam is pretty nice, with little kids to play with and better food.

This video on You Tube confirms my suspicions.

We are glad to have him back, and count each day forward as a gift. Otis lost four pounds while he was missing. The vet wants him to gain back some weight, but I like a trimmer Otis. He now fits on my lap. His sense of play is also high, which makes me think he really liked hunting for food for those months on the lam.

Otis the survivalist, coming home with astonishingly clean white paws! He definitely used one of his nine lives in this adventure. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014


Living in Wisconsin, I am familiar with winter as it is often depicted in movies and shows, with snow and cold and cars that don’t start. My mother would tell me she loves living in a place with four seasons, and I would wonder why she felt so fortunate.

Then I would spend all night outside, sledding down the hill next to my house, building snowmen, hiding under the pine tree to stay warm. Bread bags wrapped around my feet kept them warm and dry for the hours I spent outside. When I was spent, I would come inside for hot chocolate or chicken soup.

As much as I complained, those winter moments are some of my most vivid childhood memories.

I write this as the news is abuzz about an arctic freeze coming, threatening below zero temperatures not seen in two decades. Surviving winter is well ingrained in me. I have my warm clothes and blankets packed in the car. The gas tank is full. My home is stocked with milk, bread and eggs…necessary staples people race to the store for before an arctic chill or snowstorm.

As I curl up by the fire, hearing the winds blow outside, I feel cozy. This may be the best part of winter…the forcing you inside to appreciate the people and things that surround you that make it home. That, and it feels great to wear a great big sweater and UGGs.

Stay warm!