Wednesday, March 13, 2013


I know I usually keep it more or less about books around here, but if Molly O'Neill (brilliant Harper Collins editor, if you don't know) can squee about the new pope on Twitter, I can take a moment here, right? I've been glued to the live feed all afternoon, and I can't really think cohesively about anything else, so I think I'd better get it out of my system.

Pope Francis seems like an incredibly holy man, and I am so excited he will be leading our Church. I love that he is from Latin America, expressing the catholicity--universality--of the Catholic Church. I got teary-eyed at his humility as he asked the world to pray for him before bestowing his blessing. Though I'm not sure of the particular significance yet, I love the name he chose; both Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier are heroes and friends of mine. :) And...because you know that I can't get away from books for too long--I am kinda psyched that he was once a literature professor. :)

I hope, whether or not you are Catholic, you will join me in praying for him, as his job will be an incredibly difficult one, and his leadership will impact all the world.

Raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens

When my husband Mark attended the Highlights Foundation workshop in 2010, his mentor, Patricia Lee Gauch, emphasized the importance of things in writing: using (usually) inanimate objects to create mood, reveal character, and so on. Think of Bilbo's simple row of pegs on the wall--how this showed that Bag End was a comfortable place, that Bilbo liked to entertain, that hobbits were welcoming and sociable people.

There are some things that seem to have more instantly interesting qualities than others... so of course I made a list. :) I'll share it (or some of it) below, but I'd love to know what items you think are readily story-worthy.

pocket watches
grandfather clocks
fountain pens
blown glass
leather-bound books
full notebooks
pottery pitchers
little boxes
Irish sweaters
stuffed birds (though, yes, they are kinda creepy)
oil lanterns
wrought iron

and, naturally, brown paper packages tied up with string.

Monday, March 11, 2013

MMGM: Navigating Early, by Clare Vanderpool

"There are no coincidences. Just miracles by the boatload."

That's what Jack Baker's mom used to say, but in the months since her death, it's been hard for Jack to find anything but troubles. His distant and stern father takes him away from his home in Kansas and enrolls him in a military boarding school in New England...where the only person who seems more out of place than he is Early Auden, the strange orphaned boy who is part genius, but mostly--in the eyes of his classmates--just strange. Early can calculate Pi to hundreds of digits...but he also thinks Pi is a person, a real person, and that every digit tells a story, and that somehow that story will help him find his own missing brother. So when Early ropes Jack into his fall break quest to find the missing Pi, Jack is prepared for a good dose of craziness--but not for the boatload of miracles they will find.

Somewhere in the strange filing-system of lists that is my brain, I have a list of "themes worth writing about and living by" and "There are no coincidences" is at the top of them. So it's no surprise that I absolutely loved Navigating Early. It has the tight plotting and fully-fleshed characters that you'd expect from Clare Vanderpool if you've read Moon over Manifest (though the pacing was slower--more what I'd expect from an adult book than a middle grade novel), and an ending that is absolutely breathtaking.

And I'm left, as I was after reading her first book, in awe of Clare Vanderpool's ability to write entertainingly about things that are important, without ever hitting you over the head with her ideas. Because she doesn't write about ideas--she writes about people. (And suddenly the appropriateness of telling the story of Pi, the person, not the mathematical idea, just struck me...!)

For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, see the list of participating bloggers at the site of Shannon Messenger (who just had her second book release last week, by the way!)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

"Aww-ha!" Moments: using pathos and humor to create a character we love

I think if I have one fatal first-draft flaw, it is thinking everyone must love my main characters as much as I do. After all, they’re charming! They’re witty! And--most of all--they’ve been through so much. The problem being, of course, that I can’t dump all that backstory into Chapter no one actually knows all those endearing things.

I’ve been analyzing several of my favorite books to see how the authors created a character I loved from the get-go. The methods vary, of course, but here’s two things almost all of them had in common: 1) they all had a moment that made me say, “Aww!” (at least, you know, interiorly), and 2) they utilized humor, whether it was laugh-out-loud funny or a little dry wit. And with those two small things, they had my heartstrings wrapped up around their little fingers.

Here’s an example. In my opinion, one of the most instantly lovable characters ever created is Damian Cunningham, the protagonist of Millions, by Frank Cottrell Boyce. From paragraph 1, Damian makes you laugh:

“If Anthony was telling this story, he’d start with the money. It always comes down to the money, he says, so you might as well start there. He’d probably put, ‘Once upon a time there were 229,370 little pounds sterling,’ and go on until he got to, ‘and they all lived happily ever after in a high-interest bank account.’ But he’s not telling this story. I am. Personally, I like to start with the patron saint of whatever it is.”

And he goes on making you laugh, harder and harder, for the first 7 pages, as he relates his rather awkward moments explaining certain unusual saint stories to the kids and teacher at his new school. But through this, we’re already getting the picture that Damian is a little, well, weird. Certainly his classmates see him that way. As a reader, you’re entertained, but you’re wondering what, exactly, made this kid so different.

Then you get hit with it, right in the middle of page 7. Damian’s big brother Anthony tells a bully who is trying to steal Damian’s lunch, “You can’t take his Pringles. He’s got no mum.”

And, if you have any heart in you, it definitely goes “Aww!” right there. And you decide to love Damian forever and ever.

My favorite part of this chapter, though, comes a few lines later, when Frank Cottrell Boyce just makes his whole method clear through the words of Anthony: “Works every time. Tell them your mum’s dead and they give you stuff.”

Yes, well, maybe I am easily manipulated.

But it was an important lesson for me to learn: I have to give my readers just enough information about my character’s past that they will actually care. Not a whole life story, but that one bit that puts everything in perspective.

If you’re a writer, how do you help readers identify with your main character right away? And if you’re a reader, what books do you think do that best?

Monday, March 4, 2013

MMGM: Destiny, Rewritten, by Kathryn Fitzmaurice

In these last few, gray weeks of winter, the best consolation (besides snowdrops--thank God for snowdrops!) is curling up by the fire with a good middle grade novel. My brain thinks it's still the weekend, so instead of summarizing this one myself, I'll give you the much more logical publisher's version:

Eleven-year-old Emily Elizabeth Davis has been told for her entire life that her destiny is to become a poet, just like her famous namesake, Emily Dickinson. But Emily doesn't even really like poetry, and she has a secret career ambition that she suspects her English-professor mother will frown on. Then, just after discovering that it contains an important family secret, she loses the special volume of Emily Dickinson's poetry that was given to her at birth. As Emily and her friends search for the lost book in used bookstores and thrift shops all across town, Emily's understanding of destiny begins to unravel and then rewrite itself in a marvelous new way.
In her third novel, Kathryn Fitzmaurice again weaves a richly textured story about unexpected connections, about the stories that shape our lives, and about the most perfect kinds of happy endings: those that happen just on time.

That last paragraph really hits on the point that makes Destiny, Rewritten quite remarkable. Happy endings. You guys probably know by now that I am a total sucker for happy endings...even the improbable ones. The whole Deus ex machina thing, as much as it drives my brain crazy, will still generally be preferable to the well-crafted stories where the best friend dies at the end. BUT--if you can pull off a happy ending that still has that kind of strong emotional pull and ties into an overall well-developed plot...well, I will just "hug you and squeeze you and name you George." (That's Looney Tunes speak for: be really happy. Anyone else get that ridiculously obscure reference?)

So...Kathryn Fitzmaurice, you are George. :) And I would love to hug you, really. Because you created a plot that plays with destiny and choices and the probability of all sorts of endings, and you chose a really happy one. And that is almost as good for a dreary winter day as a garden full of snowdrops. :)

(To find more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, visit the blog of Shannon Messenger, the genius behind it all...)

Friday, March 1, 2013

The L. M. Montgomery Personality Method

Little nerdy fact about me: I totally use LMM characters as personality labels for everyone in my life. Myers-Briggs is great; analyzing the four temperaments is wonderful...but I think we need to seriously consider a new method consisting entirely of pegging someone to Maud Montgomery’s invented characters.

I, for example, am half Emily and half Jane (of Lantern Hill). My husband is nearly pure Hilary Gordon (I contest that Hilary is at least one and a half times the man Gilbert is...which is saying a lot). My friend Emily is 100% Pat. I always thought my friend Mandy was a rare combination of Ilse and Emily. My father-in-law is Matthew Cuthbert. My daughter Lucy--at least at the moment--has got an awful lot of Anne Shirley in her. Sometimes I take a strange comfort in knowing that some annoying old busybody could really turn out to be a well-meaning and self-giving Mrs. Lynde.

Do you find yourself, or people you know, in LMM characters? Or maybe characters from other books?