Thursday, September 4, 2014

What We’re Reading Wednesday (Except it’s Thursday, because it’s been that kind of a week)

This WWRW comes to you straight from a home in the delightful trenches of the first weeks of homeschooling. If you’re looking for recommendations of fascinating adult non-fiction, look elsewhere...

First up, a book I read for myself: the lovely debut NEST, by Esther Ehrlich. I received an e-galley of this one through netgalley, making it the first book I’ve read entirely on the used Kindle my mom gave me. I’m not really a fan of Kindle-reading, but I did enjoy a lot about the book.
NEST tells the story of Naomi (Chirp), a spirited and spritely young girl who--in short--has to deal with much more than any child should have to deal with. Her mother is diagnosed with a life-altering illness...and it just gets harder from there on out. The juxtaposition of Chirp’s hopefulness and courage against the challenges of her life was incredible. The portrayal of her friendship with a neighborhood boy with problems of his own was insightful and lovely. The writing style was downright impressive. (As a writer, many notes were taken.)
I won’t hesitate to recommend this story to adults or young adults; it’s especially perfect for those of you who love Katherine Paterson. But I would recommend reading it before giving it to an actual middle grade child. It was a little traumatic for me to read as an adult, so I’d use caution when giving it to a sensitive child.

As a family, we’re reading THE SECRET GARDEN, by Frances Hodgson Burnett--in my opinion, one of the best 10 books ever written for children. And I’d put it pretty high on the list. If you’re a writer, analyze the brilliance of Hodgson’s storytelling. She breaks all the rules with so much skill that it’s about a million times better than any rule-following story. I’m also practicing my read-aloud skills on this one, as I attempt to “do all the voices.” If you’ve read The Secret Garden lately, or love it as much as I do, you’ll recall that it’s set in Yorkshire (home of my patron Margaret Clitherow as well as the famed vet James I love it and all). They have a very unique accent in Yorkshire. I cannot render this accent with any level of believability. I pretty much sound like a New Englander who got stuck in Ireland and is trying to talk with her mouth full.

52 DAYS BY CAMEL is being read aloud for Earth Studies, as we learn about deserts. I am totally enraptured by Lawrie Raskin’s description of life in the Sahara, and so are the girls.

To balance things out, here’s a fiction picture book we found and loved: LOUISE, THE ADVENTURES OF A CHICKEN. Of course, we’ve recently become obsessed with chickens (we had our first eggs these past couple weeks!), so we may be biased. Also, we love Kate DiCamillo. But this was so much fun. You have to read it.

Check out what some other great folks are reading this week, here:

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Was, was, was (some very brief advice about description)

Week four of the workshop I led at my local library focused on description; I actually don't have any notes for you, as we simply had a vigorous discussion on what made descriptions great, read a few excellent passages of description and analyzed them.

One thing we discussed was how a good description
brings a scene to life by including good sensory details
and use of unique, active language: the verbal version
of what Caravaggio did in this painting...
Oh, and we and almost tore our hair out doing the following exercise:

Write a descriptive passage without using the word "was."

Yep. That's it. Try it and report back. It's a great way to exercise your writing muscles.

As we discussed afterward, though removing many (perhaps most) of the wases (hmm...weird word to pluralize) will absolutely strengthen your descriptions, removing them all may weaken it. Sometime the best way to say something is the quickest, simplest way, one that won't draw attention. That's where "was" comes in.

(And knowing when you've got it right? That's where critique partners come in.)

Friday, August 15, 2014

How to be a Writer-Mama; Things I Wish I'd Known Way Back When

 I started writing my first novel when I was newly pregnant with Baby #1. So my entire writing life has been defined, as it were, by being a writer-mama. I like to think I manage the balance pretty well (some days better than others, of course). Some of you, who may not have had the luxury of starting a family at 20, have had glorious months and years of developing a writing routine sans-baby--and the new arrival can make for a tricky transition. Here are some tips to get you started on that brave, new world.

1. So you've got one baby. Have another. Seriously, seriously, seriously. I can't stress how much easier it is to have two kids than just one. If you're up for the adventure, four is also much easier than three--and I can't wait to find out how easy six will be. :)

2. Find mothers to support you in your mothering journey--but don't forget your writing support system. If you write for kids, you're really lucky, because it probably means the members of your writing group like kids. We brought our babies to our local SCBWI meetings for a few years; at first we thought it would be tough to keep them busy. Ha. It was actually like walking into a room full of thirty babysitters. Not only were they extremely tolerant of baby noises, they'd even go so far as to take turns crawling around on the floor or offering a purse for a toddler to rummage through. (Interesting fact: writers carry cool things around in their purses. )

3. Make a space of your own. Even if it's just a corner of a hall or a specific cozy chair, it really helps to have a place where you can be alone.

Having a chair actually made for adults is a plus, but not a must.
4. (For the record, these may not be numbered in exact order of importance.) Eat. It's easy to forget feeding yourself when you've got a peeping little birdy-mouth to worry about, but I've discovered through grim experience that the brain actually needs food to work properly. Go figure.

5. Sleep. See above for reasoning. Take naps with your baby.

6. Only read excellent books to your children. Here's the thing: the words you read aloud become more ingrained in your mind than the ones you read silently. (I'm pretty sure this is scientific fact, but I'm just going on experience.) Analyze all the bad literature you want on your own, but try to stick to writing you admire when you're reading aloud. This may or may not mean chucking half the books you received as baby shower gifts into the trash...but it'll be worth it. You don't even want to know how long it took me to get Count with Dora out of my head. Also, your kids will grow up with cool vocabularies, and you can turn heads at the grocery store when they tell the cashier, "How do you do? It's such a lovely day. Your hair looks splendid. Your necklace is so elegant. Perhaps I'll see you again the next time we're here. I'm eager to go home and have lunch," and the like.

7. Just keep writing. Don't put it aside until mothering is over. Besides the fact that that day will be a long time in coming, it is so important for your children to see you writing--developing your talents, pursuing your dreams, sticking to it even at its hardest moments. Because that's what you want them to do, right?

8. Multi-task. I type while I'm nursing--I pretty much never type with two hands anymore. My four-year-old recently told me, "Mama, when I grow up, I want to be just like you. I want to write stories and nurse babies." :)

The Young Mother, by Charles West Cope

9. Don't multi-task. I know, I know. I'm contradicting myself. But even though it's so cliché it's growing mold, "this time passes so quickly" is true. You may have more babies, but you can never get this child's babyhood back, and you're going to miss it. Don't fritter it away. Enjoy staring at your baby's toes. Or smelling the milky scent of her skin. Don't just use it as an excuse--but remember that the book can usually wait.

10. Remember what [either C.S. Lewis or John Trainer, depending on whose Pinterest graphic you believe] said: "Children are not a distraction from more important work. They are the most important work." Be a writer-mama because you want to give your children the gift of your words and stories, the example of seeing you as a creative person. Don't be a writer "despite" them.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Julia's House for Lost Creatures!

Even though I write middle grade and young adult, I spend most of my reading hours with hardcover books with 32 pages in between. Sure, we read plenty of middle grade books together, but for every Mary Poppins or Tale of Despereaux, there are about twenty  picture books thrown onto my lap by the three-year-old, five-year-old, seven-year-old and occasionally my husband. :) I don't review them as often, for the poor excuse of a reason that I haven't yet tinkered that time machine into submission, nor have I mastered bilocation. But I'll make a special excuse for a very special book.

You may have noticed that we're big Ben Hatke fans around here. Lu can outline the entire plot of the Zita the Spacegirl trilogy for you if you'd like, and she also recently informed me that she'd rather meet Ben Hatke than any other famous person alive. Zoe regularly runs around in boots and a green cape, which Ginny has been known to snatch away when she's tired of being a robot. (Poor third child. At least the baby doesn't mind being a robot, so far.)

But they've given up the space play today, in favor of kerchiefs and skirts; also, Ginny gets to be a mermaid and Maddie gets to be the "little rag cat." Because this beautiful book came in the mail, and we're pretty in love:

Here's a little synopsis for you: Julia's house is a little lonely when it comes to town on the back of a giant turtle, but Julia soon fixes that. She sets out a sign to welcome "lost creatures" and soon the cozy comfort of her home is inundated everything from a patchwork cat to a homeless troll (he was evicted from his home under the bridge) to a mermaid. But resourceful Julia knows how to turn a whole lot of craziness into a happy home...

The story is simple, funny and charming. And the illustrations are so, so gorgeous. (You can see some on Ben Hatke's website, here.) So, um, why haven't you pre-ordered it yet? If you don't have kids, you can always read it to your husband. Or the neighbors. Or your cat. But I'd recommend finding some kids for best results.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Those who have eyes to see, let them see

St. Lucy, by Rubiles
Don't worry if you don't get it;
 it's a nerdy Catholic joke.
Here's Week 3 of my Library Writing Workshop notes. I've left them as they were for my super-duper live presentation, but I think you're all clever enough to adapt them to fit your needs. :)


I was going to talk about description this week,’s the thing. You can’t describe anything well unless you first learn how to look at it. Or smell it or taste it or feel it. So, while we’ll do a little describing, mostly we’re going to discuss observation.

A writer needs to have all the perception of a visual artist. You may not have to re-create an image with paint on a canvas, but you have to paint it with words on a page. In some ways, this is a more difficult task, because you’re essentially creating that image in your reader’s mind using entirely dissimilar items: words instead of pictures.

And that’s just the visual. You also have to recreate the other 4 senses in a scene, which means learning to be acutely aware of what you hear, what you smell, what you taste, what you touch. I’d say the senses of touch, smell and taste are even more important than sight and sound, because they will instantly put your readers inside your scene--right there, not observing from a distance.

Actors make a habit of being aware of their senses so they can recreate scenes on stage--our “sense memories” are so connected with emotions that sometimes recalling a certain sensory detail will allow us to instantly feel and see and smell that scene from our past. Writers can learn a lot from actors...if we can observe and remember these sensory details and put them on the page, we’re that much closer to creating a real world for our readers.

TRY: Close your eyes--or focus on one line of your notebook paper if you’re not big on closing eyes in public. (I’m not, either.) Try to recall an emotionally-charged moment from your past. Now, starting with the details closest to you at that time, try to remember all the sensory details from that moment. What clothes were you wearing? What was their texture? Did you feel hot or cold? Were you wearing make-up that made your face feel differently than usual? Were you sitting or standing? On what? Were you physically comfortable or in pain? What could you taste and smell at that moment? What were the sounds directly around you? What were the background noises? Lastly, what did you see?
How much more vividly can you feel that scene now that you’ve recalled all the details?

Another very important thing to do is to observe the details about people. If you want your characters to stand out on the page and come alive, you need to give your readers specificity and uniqueness. Everyone’s one-of-a-kind, but not everyone can call to mind the details that will set someone apart. A writer has to.

Keep a journal--for anything you like. But it in, try to carefully describe your observations of someone at least once a week. How do they stand? Speak? Walk? What do they do when they think no one’s looking? What sets their face apart from the average? What are their hands like? What do they do with their hands? Do their clothes mesh with the personality they express physically? (Okay, so you’ll have to spy a little. Waiting rooms are great for this.)

EXERCISE: While I’m tempted to send you out to spy on some unsuspecting library patrons, that would be a little creepy. So instead, I give you my permission to spy on me. For 5 minutes, write down the details you notice about me. Not to share aloud, just for your own benefit.

EXERCISE: Now I want you to use all those details, plus a few others, to write a description that you might find in a book. Here’s the twist: use me (or the details about me) as your character, only make me the villain. Only highlight the details that will serve that purpose in the story. If I’m just totally non-villainous to you, use that--highlight the paradox. A serial killer wearing pigtails and a sundress could be pretty creepy, right? Also, use this room as the setting. Find the creepy details, and turn it all into a frightening scene.