Saturday, November 26, 2011

Guest Blog: A Fresh Perspective by Judy Beglau

Judy, hard at work on her new laptop computer. 
I met Judy at a Highlights Writers Workshop two years ago. When I saw on Facebook that she was attending an editing workshop with Stephen Roxburgh, I asked her to be my guest blogger. I hope you enjoy these reflections on her experience.

Writing is a solitary pursuit, no doubt about it. We sit alone with our thoughts, tapping away at a keyboard for hours on end. And when we have finished our story, we turn away from our quiet effort and risk a “show and tell.” We let others in. A critique group, a generous friend, a family member. And sometimes, we take our words to a workshop where we lay our printed offspring bare to strangers.

At the beginning of November I took my newly completed YA fantasy novel to an editing workshop run by the Highlights Foundation in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. It was a three day editing workshop led by editor and publisher Stephen Roxburgh, who I met at a Highlights Workshop in Chautauqua, NY.

There were six of us writers and Stephen. Our time was divided between group sessions and one-on-one meetings. The group sessions were informative, as Stephen is a very good teacher. He led us through the nitty-gritty of plot development, explaining the difference between plot and story. He taught us about writing revisions. About the difference between copy editing and re-visioning our work. About the difference between “fiddling” with the book and examining the big issues. I had a feeling as he was leading this group session that many of the warning signs Stephen mentioned in the class pertained to my book. I was not in error.

It was quite amazing that a publisher like Stephen Roxburgh would take the time to read six novels before he arrived then take us through our works in detail. Labor intensive and time consuming, it is an effort that results in something many authors never, never get from an expert: personal attention to every aspect of a novel.

I would love to say my novel was so good I had no revising to do and I could just get on with the sequel. But I got something more valuable: I got direction in revising my story. I got kudos for the good aspects and blunt force trauma to the weak parts. And the strangest thing, the part I can’t explain to anyone, is the fact that I am happy to keep the three pages out of two hundred plus that will be included in my revision.  I am happy to be starting over with a clearer vision of exactly what matters in my story. I am not starting from scratch. I am starting from inspiration. 

Judy Beglau lives half the year in Austin, TX and half in the mountains of New Mexico. She started out writing children's musicals, and now is writing picture books, a young adult novel, and write-for-hire projects for Augsburg Fortress Press including hymns and adult devotionals.

Friday, November 18, 2011

What Drives You as a Writer?

"What motivates you as a writer?" my pastor, Rob McCurley, recently asked me. "Are you fascinated with the characters? Do you like delving into the plot? Playing with the words?" His questions got me thinking.  

Image courtesy of Google images
As a child I enjoyed putting together jigsaw puzzles. On many levels, writing Half-Truths is like assembling one huge puzzle. I visit neighborhoods, bike along streets, and talk to people--all the time thinking about what life in Charlotte, NC was like in 1950. I imagine local readers discovering history hidden under the sidewalks which they walk on.  As Harold Underdown said when I worked with him at an Highlights Writers Workshop, this setting creates the backdrop of my story. It's fun to dream up a story that didn't really take place here, but could have

Here's an example. Two months ago I discovered the location of an African American slave cemetery from the 19th century. No tombstones remain, but it is a short walk from the Barnes & Noble store where my writer's group meets. The cemetery itself will probably not be in my book, but its location contributes to my understanding of local history.

St. Lloyd's Presbyterian Church Cemetery
courtesy of Historic Landmarks Commission

Puzzle pieces come together through my interviews with"experts"--folks who lived in Charlotte during this time period. This city is a lot larger now than it was in 1950, but there are still people who are connected to one another and to this time period. One interviewee's mother served as help in another interviewee's home. Another interviewee's grandfather was the founder of the local Coca Cola company and became the prototype for the grandfather in my story. When I interviewed his grandson I discovered that he used to be a dental patient of my husband's. 

Image courtesy of Google images
A third interviewee was a nurse in Good Samaritan Hospital- a place which will play a key role at the end of my story.  It served the African American community for many years before it was torn down. Now, the ground on which it stood shakes with the vibrations of the Panther's football team--the Bank of America stadium was built on that land. Here is a video about the transition from hospital to stadium: 

The characters in my story are more puzzle pieces.   I enjoy creating their genealogies, back stories, motivations, and relationships with one another.  Two months ago an editor challenged me to write this story from both protagonists' points of view. As I dig into what both a white and black teenage girl experienced at that time period, the bigger picture of my story emerges. 

If I happen to write a sentence which delights me or if I find an image, verb, or noun that sparkles, these are more pieces for the puzzle. Last week I wrote:  Lillie knew Grandma needed her help. She just wished that the help wasn’t her. I didn't plan on playing on the word "help," it just appeared on the screen. 

Finally, I imagine that the border of this puzzle is the over-arching theme of speaking the truth. Both Kate and Lillie, my main characters, will face their own half-truths as well as the deeper deceptions which pervade their families.  
Image courtesy of Google images
Making all those pieces fit together really excites me. Thanks Rob, for asking. 
Image courtesy of Google images

Friday, November 11, 2011

Dangerous Skies

As part of my research for Half-Truths, I am reading as many books as I can which probe the relationships between African Americans and whites. By now I am less surprised by stories of segregation and prejudice in the 20th century, but Dangerous Skies is an exception. Readers may be shocked that this story takes place in 1991--just twenty short years ago.

At twelve years of age, the friendship between Buck Smith and Tunes Smith developed since infancy. They grew up together along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay where their families' lives intertwined. "[Tune's] daddy, Kneebone, was manager of my father's farm, like his father and his father's father before him, all the way back to the time when they were freed from slavery, which was how they first came to work the Smith land." (p. 6)

The two were highly respected fish finders, but the summer that they were to turn thirteen the watermen not only asked where the fish were biting, but where Buck and Tunes had been together. "I didn't think much about it at first, but before long all the looks and questions were getting on my nerves." (p.9) Buck says, foreshadowing the book's main conflict.

When Buck and Tunes discover a dead body floating in shallow water, events unfold which baffle and anger Buck. As he doggedly tries to discover who killed him, Buck has to face his own lies as well as long-standing alliances within the white community which breed condemnation for Tunes. 

The publisher recommends this book for readers from 8-12. I disagree. There are references to forced sexual intimacy between Tunes and a white man. Although these are written in a very subtle manner, I recommend this book for upper middle grade students and higher. 

Prejudice, deceit, hypocrisy, love, and loyalty-- this book has it all. But a book set in 1991--is that historical fiction or not? What do you think?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

FLUSH: An Example of What Every Book Should Include

I can't help myself. Whenever I read a book I'm always analyzing how the author pulls it off. How does he or she weave together the different elements needed to produce an engaging book for young readers? 

My recent read, FLUSH by Carl Hiaasen, is a great example of this type of book. It has:

A great beginning that hooks the reader

The deputy told me to empty my pockets: two quarters, a penny, a stick of bubble gum, and a roll of grip tape for my skateboard. It was pitiful.
  "Go on inside. He's waiting for you," the deputy said.
   My dad was sitting alone at a bare metal table. He looked pretty good, all things considered. He wasn't even handcuffed.
    "Happy Father's Day," I said.
(I dare you not to want to read more after that!)

Memorable characters
Paine Underwood- who is jailed for trying to prevent a floating casino from dumping raw sewage into the Florida Keys.
Noah Underwood- his son who supports his dad's crusade--even when his father gives up on it himself. (his name really fits him!)
Abbey Underwood- Noah's tough younger sister who has a very mean bite. 
Donna Underwood- who is tired of her husband Paine's crusades. She vacillates between understanding him and thinking he is a selfish jerk who she should divorce.

Antagonists that readers love to hate

Dusty Muleman- the greedy, scrupulous casino operator (his name fits him too).
Jasper Jr. Muleman- Dusty's bully son and Noah's #1 enemy.

Interesting Minor Characters

Shelley- a bartender with an attitude, guts, and her own axe to grind against Dusty.
Grandpa Bobby- a mistaken pirate with a wild past.


You name it, this book has it. Man vs. nature; man vs. man; man vs. self; man vs. a machine. It's all here.

A great ending where the main character solves the problem
For that you'll have to read the book.

And I'm going to help you do that by giving away a copy of this book!

Here are the rules to enter:

1. You have to be between 11-15 to win.
2. You have to follow this blog.
3. You have to leave a comment with your email address AND Facebook, Twitter, or email this post to one friend (or have a significant adult in your life post it on Facebook or Twitter. That works too.)

If you're already a follower--get going! If you're not a follower, sign up now! Contest is up November 7th.

If you don't fall into that age category you can:

1. Tell your child, grandchild, niece, nephew, or student(s) to enter.
2. Hop over to Joyce Hostetter's and my latest issue of Talking Story where we have 3 other giveaways going on right now. No age restrictions apply! 

Happy Reading...and oh yes, don't forget to FLUSH!


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