Friday, December 31, 2010

When "The End" is Only the Beginning

I’ve been composing this blog in my mind for days. But I told myself I couldn't actually write it until I'd reached "The End."

sanja gjenero

Lately I've been spending days pushing through the first draft of my WIP (work in progress), Half-Truths. These have been days of sitting down at the keyboard and feeling worried because I only had a vague idea of what might happen next. Days of looking up two or three hours later and being amazed that I’d written another chapter.

At the end of October I’d written 19 chapters. Challenged by two SCBWI friends, I decided to try and finish during NaNoWriMo. I wrote 20 chapters in 20 days. But my story wasn’t done.

My new goal became to complete this draft by the end of 2010.

When I wasn’t writing, I was thinking. Thinking about how I wanted the story to end. Thinking about how I was going to get my characters to that point. And wondering if I could I make it happen by New Year’s Eve.

When I first started this novel I wrote tight. I started each day by revising what I’d written the day before. I researched facts as I wrote. I tweaked adjectives and verbs. I was very slow. A chapter could easily take a week to write. Sometimes longer.

But in November my method changed. I learned about writing loose first drafts by reading Becky Levine’s blog. Instead of trying to pencil in the small details, I began to see that crafting this draft was like starting a painting with large brush strokes. I didn’t stop to figure out what road Kate would take coming home from school. I didn’t figure out which birds she listened to, which bus she took to get uptown, or how much it cost to ride that bus in 1950. There are hundreds of details that I’ll add later.

I started a HUGE “to do” list of things I want to consider layering into my story. Here is part of that list:

• North Carolina, United States, the world in 1950

• What else was going on in the Charlotte African American community?
• Clothing- who wore what where
• Buildings, cars
• Glass (yes, glass. You didn’t think I could waste all my research about glass without using it somehow, did you?)

• Characters- their physical descriptions, mannerisms

• Vernacular- southern, African American
• White and black debutantes
• The one drop rule

Did I say this is only part of my list? I have my work cut out for me.

How long will this take? I have no idea.

As long as it takes to get 53 short chapters or about 200 pages into shape.

As long as it takes to bring this novel to “the end.”
As long as it takes.

Monday, December 27, 2010

February Writing Contest Announced

Ever thinking of trying your hand at writing fiction but were too timid to try? How about starting with a short story? The Center for Writing Excellence just announced their February contest. Can you think of a better way to start off the new year than with a resolution to pursue something you have always wanted to do?

Several months ago, Janie Sullivan, the CWE director, asked me to be one of the contest judges. As a result, I know first hand that the prompts are fun and the stories are creative and original. Don't worry that I might recognize you or your writing; the judges only receive and score annonymous submissions. 

While you're on the website, look around at the services, courses, and writing tips that Jane offers. And in between contests, there are also free fiction prompt challenges to get your creative juices going. If you want to see the type of prompts used in previous contests, click here and scroll down.  

What are you waiting for? Check out the contest website, circle the dates on your calendar, and start thinking about the prize that could be yours if you win! And here is a hint. Since the stories are usually holiday related, you can probably guess what some of the prompts might be in February!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Looking Forward in 2011 by Looking Back into History

As readers of this blog know, historical fiction is not only the genre for my first novel, but it is also one of my favorite genres to read. (Search this blog under "historical fiction" and you'll see how many hits you get!)

I was delighted to read on Joyce Hostetter and Becky Levine's blogs about the Young Adult Historical Fiction Challenge that Sabrina Horande is hosting on her blog. You can join at three different levels. Post this challenge on your blog, Facebook, or Goodreads page, then e-mail Sabrina and you will become eligible for some fun giveaways.

I'm hoping that Sabrina's challenge generates increased enthusiasum for this informative and entertaining genre!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

When the Hero Is a Dog

This is the perfect time of year for elementary school students to read The Wreck of the Ethie (Peachtree, 1999). In this short novel, Hilary Hyland recounts how the steamer, the SS Ethie, was caught in the middle of a violent blizzard 90 years ago. Both girls and boys in 3rd-6th grades will enjoy reading the fictionalized account of how a Newfoundland dog saved almost 100 people from drowning to death on December 11, 1919. 

The story is told from multiple points of view. Readers see the voyage, storm, crash, and rescue from the perspective of Skipper (the dog); Colleen (Skipper’s owner and daughter of a local Newfoundland fisherman); Patrick (young crew member on board the Ethie); Fergus (the superstitious, hard-working first mate); and Captain Flannery.

Hyland does a good job conveying the details of the powerful storm and how the difficult rescue operation hinged upon Skipper’s strength and bravery. Months later the “real” Newfoundland (whose name was Wisher) was awarded a leather collar and silver plate inscribed with “Hero.” Lost for years, the collar resurfaced in 2002 in an Alaskan antique store.

The black and white illustrations, glossary, author’s note, and easy reading level all contribute to making this short historical novel accessible to reluctant readers.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Two Books by Gennifer Choldenko

Al Capone Shines My Shoes (Dial, 2009)

In this sequel to Al Capone Does My Shirts, Choldenko takes the protagonist, Moose Flannagan, into closer contact with Alcatraz’s most infamous prisoner, Al Capone. Although this is a work of fiction, the book is based on research about the prison and interviews with adults who lived on the island as children. The relationships of the children among themselves, their interactions with the prisoners, as well as details about the island, make this great historical fiction for young readers.

12-year-old Moose faces a dilemma. He is indebted to Capone, who pulled strings to help get Moose’s autistic sister, Natalie, into a special school in San Francisco. In exchange, Capone expects Moose to return the favor. After Moose discovers a bar spreader hidden in Natalie’s suitcase when she comes home for a visit, Moose realizes that someone on Alcatraz is planning an escape. His fears abound and allegiances are tested. The manner in which the island children work together to foil the escape brings together many disparate parts of the story including idiosyncrasies of autism, pet flies, a bullhorn, and Mae Capone’s handkerchief.

Themes of loyalty to friends, the complicated relationships between the prisoners and the guards, and isolation and imprisonment, permeate the book and make this a captivating, educational read for boys in girls from 4-8th grade. Choldenko is working on her third book in this trilogy; I look forward to reading it.

If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period (Harcourt, 2007)

To be honest, this book started slow. I kept listening because I admire Choldenko’s writing and I figured that this had to be more than just a story about a suburban white girl (Kirsten) who overeats because her parents are having problems, and a black boy (Walker) with a single mother who is trying to adjust to his new, mostly-white private school.

My hunch was right. Since every chapter alternates POV, the reader gets to see inside each 12-year-old’s mind as they meet and interact. This proves to be funny and enlightening and makes the book accessible to both girls and boys.

The story increases steam when Kirsten overhears a fight between her parents. She discovers a startling connection between her and Walk which is the source of her mother’s anger and depression. When Kirsten’s younger sister inadvertently informs him of their connection, Walker is shocked and angry. Kirsten is instrumental in calming him down, and in the process, discovers a new character trait about herself.The story ends with both protagonists accepting who they are. As Kirsten states at the end, “It matters who I am. I fit in the world.” This statement equally applies to both characters.

As in inveterate tree-lover and writer, I loved how Choldenko wove trees into the story. If I were a middle-school teacher I would elicit my students’ reactions to this symbol. Since my work-in-progress also has a multi-racial theme, I appreciate how Choldenko challenges young readers to think about racial prejudices and preconceived ideas about racial identity.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Writing for Children

My granddaughter, Ebby Clark, reading before bedtime.
 Have you always wanted to write a book for children but didn't know where to begin? If you live in the Charlotte, NC area than you can take a class that covers the basics of writing and publishing for young readers. Starting January 22, I'll be teaching at Central Piedmont Community College for six weeks. Find out more information by clicking here. The entire course outline is on-line too.

From my 15+ years of experience as the critique coordinator of the local SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators) group, I have found that most people first think about writing a picture book for or about their children (or grandchildren). Picture books are only a small part of the entire children's market. Writing for children includes everything from writing ABC or number books, magazine articles (both fiction and non-fiction), poems, puzzles, and early chapter books; as well as middle grade and young adult novels. Within these broad categories there are also genres such as science fiction, mystery, fantasy, sports, or historical fiction.

We will be using my book, Teaching the Story, as a text. If you aren't already following my blog, click on "follow," (in the left hand column) than send me an email at For the month of December I am collecting names of new followers. At the end of the month I'll draw a name and that person will receive a free, autographed copy of my book. Sign up for the class, and you'll already have the text!

Please pass this information along to a friend who dreams of writing for children. What better holiday present to yourself, or to a friend, than signing up and taking the first step towards making that dream come true.

And maybe one day Ebby will be reading a book that you wrote!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Red Pencil is Your Students' Best Friend

image from
If you have taken a writing workshop with me or who are familiar with Teaching the Story, you know that I always stress a positive approach to revision. DevoKids, a Christian website dedicated to providing spiritual inspiration, fun activities, and writing instruction for young people, is now featuring my article on this topic.

A funny thing happened as I worked with Terri Kelly, the editor of the website. Neither she nor I gave the article a final proof before it went live. As a result, we had three more rounds of revision before we finally got it right. That goes to show you that even professional writers and editors have to run through several cycles of write-read-revise before they're ready to hit "publish!"

The article is written for young writers; I hope you will share it in your classroom or with your home school students.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Who are You?

Lately my blog has averaged about 150-200 hits a week. That's great news, but with only 7 "registered" followers, I wonder who my readers are. When I look at my blog statistics I find readers as close as Matthews, NC and as far away as Mountain View, California and Alberta, Canada. I also gather hits from Kingston, JamaicaSydney, Australia; Manama, Bahrain; and Spanish Lookout, Belize-- to name just a few of the more exotic places.

I'd love to know who you --my unnamed blog readers--are. So, from now until the end of December, I'm sponsoring a giveaway of an autographed copy of Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8. Send an email to and tell me how you found my blog and why you read it. Then click on the "Follow" button on the left below "Speaking Engagements." I'll announce the winner here and share what I learn about my blog demographics in the beginning of 2011.

Be more than just a face in the crowd or a statistic on my blog. Intoduce yourself and enter to win a copy of my book! 

                                              picture from www.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


If you want to teach your child or student what the word "empathy" means, then read Mockingbird together. The author, Kathryn Erskine, takes you inside the heart, mind and body of 10-year-old Caitlin who has Asperger's syndrome. The recent recipient of the 2010 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, this book well-deserves the award.

Caitlin's brother Devon was just shot and killed in a random shooting at his middle school. Caitlin and her father are left with a huge weight of grief as well as Devon's incompleted Eagle Scout project, a wooden chest draped in a gray sheet that sits in the middle of their living room. In Caitlin's words it looks like a "...bird that is trying to fly but never getting anywhere. Just floating and falling. Floating and falling." (p. 2) A description that applies equally to Caitlin and her father.

In the world of Asperger's, the reader discovers how difficult it is for Devon to not only make sense of her overwhelming grief, but also how to function in school and relate to other 5th-graders. When her counselor suggests she learn social skills by befriending a younger student, Caitlin is drawn to a first-grader who she figures out is sad. This is Caitlin's first step towards healing and empathy as she befriends Michael whose mother died in the same tragedy.

There are so many wonderful parts of this book that I find it difficult to share just one selection. But since I appreciate how Erskine skillfully used one of my favorite books, To Kill a Mockingbird, in this book; here is a section where Caitlin is remembering watching the movie with Devon, who nicknamed her "Scout."

The first time we watched To Kill a Mockingbird I waited through the whole movie for the dad to shoot a mockingbird. He'd already shot a dog. And he was a good shot. No one shot a bird for the whole entire movie. At the end I said it was the stupidest name ever for a movie. Devon said I didn't know what I was talking about. This year he reads it in English and he said the title makes perfect sense and this is what it means:

It's wrong to shoot someone who is innocent and was never going to hurt you in the first place.

I still don't Get It and said, But you told me the dog was sick and he WAS going to hurt them.

And Devon said, "It's not about the dog! It's about people! You shouldn't hurt innocent people Scout. That's what it means.

I guess the evil school shooters didn't listen in English class because they did not Get the meaning of that book at all. (p. 80)

Typically children read books in which the protagonist is older than themselves. That would put this book in the hands of young elementary students and in Caitlin's own words, I'm not sure they'd "Get it." But like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas that also has a young protagonist, perhaps this book will be read at many age levels--from children through adult--and that each reader will take away something different from the book.

As long as part of what each reader takes away is empathy--then I'm good with that.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Committed Writer

Last February I had the privilege of reading a rough draft of Committed! (working title) by Joyce Hostetter, my fellow Talking Story partner and my inspiration for writing historical fiction. Although Joyce hadn’t signed a contract for it, she had already spent two years writing it. I finished reading it with tears in my eyes and thought that it was close to being ready to be sent to the publisher.

I was wrong.

Joyce has a proclivity for serious subjects. In two of her previous books, Blue and Comfort, she writes about a girl who loses a little brother to polio, contracts polio herself, and then recuperates at Warm Springs, Georgia. In a third book, Healing Water, she tells the story of a Hawaiian boy whose life is devastated by leprosy.

Now, Joyce takes on another serious topic: a young man who follows his Mennonite beliefs and becomes a conscientious objector (CO) during World War II. For over a year he serves in a mental hospital becoming a part of a group who successfully lobbies to get the horrendous conditions in the hospital alleviated.

Working from memoirs, letters, and interviews with conscientious objectors who worked in a variety of mental hospitals, Joyce incorporated details of how they worked to instigate change in these institutions. Their attitudes towards their work and compassion towards their patients deeply influenced this story and her fictional character’s motivations.

Joyce has skillfully woven together her CO’s story along with the story of Kelsey, his granddaughter, who decides to tell his story for her senior project. After I read the rough draft in February, Joyce decided to tell the contemporary story line in the form of a blog, in which Kelsey reflects on personal dilemmas related to modern day wars. This added layers and layers of details which then needed to be integrated into the story

Intertwining the two stories and time periods was part of Joyce’s challenge. After several months had passed when she thought it would be ready to send, I asked her how she would knew when the manuscript would be “done.” She replied, “I think there’s always room for improvement. But right now, I just see missing elements. I’m trying to make sure themes, characters, and subplots are evenly woven throughout the story. And tweaking of course. There’s always that obsession over the perfect word choice.”

Finally, months after she had hoped to submit the manuscript, Joyce finished tweaking word choices, cleaned up her bibliography, (which she accumulates as she writes,) and mailed her story to her editor.

I try not to feel overwhelmed by the amount of work and tweaking that Joyce put into her manuscript. I try not to think of the mountains of work and time and revisions that are in front of me as I push through a rough draft of my first novel.

I try to think of the day that someone will take a picture like this of me—kissing Half-Truths  goodbye and getting ready to mail it to a publisher.

I try to just write.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

National Novel Writing Month has arrived!

For me that means trying to finish a first draft of my novel, Half-Truths, that I started two years ago. I'm trying to crank out close to 2,000 words a day and not stopping to research or edit. That is hard for someone like me who wants to get the facts right the first time around!

It also means that the Young Writers Program at NaNoWriMo just put up an article I wrote entitled,  Mine Your Life. Who knew when I participated two years ago that I would be one of their "Writer's Block" authors this year? Not me!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Historical Fiction: Covering New Territory

Alligator Bayou by Donna Jo Napoli (Random House Books, 2009) and The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages (Viking, 2006 ) are set in times and locations which are not normally depicted in juvenile historical fiction; and both can be used as classroom supplements in the 5th-9th grades. Teachers can integrate literature with social studies by challenging students to examine the parallels between the protagonist’s conflicts and the conflicts in the world around them.

Alligator Bayou tells the story of orphaned Calo who emigrates from Sicily in 1899 to Louisiana. He is taken in by five men and one boy, Cirone, all of whom were friends of his father. The story came from a newspaper article which Napoli found detailing how five Sicilian grocers were lynched when they served a black customer before a white one. From that tiny piece of information flows a book that is beautifully written, despite its shocking story.

This is a story of bigotry, jealousy, love, hate, and survival. Calo and Cirone are more accepted by the blacks than the whites in this small community 200 miles from New Orleans. At one point one of the Sicilians relates to Calo, “The Negroes here are so much more timid than the ones in New Orleans. They won’t take your hand, no matter how far you stretch it.” (p. 108). But the boys prove them wrong. They initiate friendships with the Negroes and end up sharing adventures and celebrations with them. In an awful turn of events, these friendships lead to the lynching that takes all of Calo’s friends’ lives.

Calo’s heart-wrenching escape is facilitated by an old Indian who earlier charges him, “An orphan is free to become anything. The choice is yours.” (p. 121)


Fast forward fifty years to 1943 and move west to New Mexico, the setting for The Green Glass Sea. Eleven-year-old Dewey Kerrigan is taking a train to meet her scientist father who is working on a top secret government project. The reader quickly discovers that Dewey was deserted by her mother, left with a grandmother who just died, and has developed a tough self-reliance. In addition, she is a mathematical whiz and obsessed with taking gadgets apart and using the parts to build devices such as a radio or an alarm clock that wakes you with music.

Like Napoli, Klages weaves in numerous details making this book resonate with authority. Everything from Dewey’s knee socks, the comics she reads, and the types of junk she finds in the town dump, all convincingly depict the time period. But the hastily built city where she lives is unique. It is not on any map and has one goal: to build a “gadget” (the children’s term) that will end the war.

Dewey faces an assortment of conflicts: she is ostracized by the popular kids (in today’s terms she is a dork) and she walks funny because of problems with one leg. But she always can retreat to the safety of being with her father who she adores. Suddenly this relationship is destroyed when he dies in a freak car accident. Without other family, she moves in with one of her father’s co-workers, whose daughter despises her. The process of the two girls becoming friends is beautifully portrayed, but a new fear overwhelms Dewey. If the gadget works and the war ends then what will happen to her?

The ending is powerfully disturbing—and one that readers won’t forget.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Come to the Hub!

Spartanburg, SC, a former 19th century railroad center, is now home to one of the few independent non-profit bookstores in the country. The store which opened in June, 2010, is an off-shoot of the Hub-City Writer’s Project; a group founded 15 years ago by a trio of writers wanting to give their community a literary identity. They have gone beyond that dream and created a space which invites readers, writers, and artists to share their creativity.

Betsy Teter, Executive Director of Hub City Writer's Project and
Rebecca Ramos, Chair of HubCulture, Inc. proudly show off some of the Hub City titles

The Writer’s Project has published over 300 writers through its own press dedicated to publishing high-quality books emphasizing the Southern experience. The group has renovated two historic downtown buildings (one for the bookstore and one for the alternative arts initiative, HUB-BUB.COM--another off-shoot), given away more than $15,000 in scholarships to emerging writers, sold 70,000 books, commissioned public art, produced concerts and creative book launchings, and provided creative writing instruction to hundreds. All proceeds from book sales fund creative writing education and independent book publishing in Spartanburg.

These award-winning ventures reflect Hub City Writers Project’s serious commitment to reaching out to the community of Spartanburg and making it a better place for people to live and work. According to Betsy Teter, the executive director, “We want to show this community that words and books are important and we want to build a community through the arts.” Part of that commitment is reflected in providing fellowships and scholarships for emerging writers and artist residencies. “We want young people to come to Spartanburg and improve the community by staying here.” Teter said.

Just a short drive off of I-85, you can visit the Hub-City bookshop, coffee shop and bakery, and then walk a few blocks to visit the art gallery. Come to the Hub and see why other communities across the country want to duplicate this cutting-edge organization.


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