Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What I Saw and How I Lied

Congratulations to Donna Earnhardt who won last week's giveaway and will receive Gretchen Griffith's picture book, "When Christmas Feels Like Home." Don't be discouraged if you didn't win. Next week Deanna Klingel will share her winning query letter along with a chance to win "Cracks In the Ice."

Today, I want to share my thoughts on the 2008 National Book Award winner What I Saw and How I Lied; a book which could easily be subtitled, "Things aren't always as they seem." 

I was attracted to this audio book since my work-in-progress Half-Truths deals with the theme of family secrets. Set in 1947, author Judy Blundell, tells the story of 15-year-old Evie Spooner, who uncovers a series of lies which her beloved mother and step-father tell.

Her step-father, Joe Spooner, is a World War II veteran who marries Evie's attractive mother, Bev. In a moment worthy of being mentioned in the pages of LIFE magazine, Bev is rescued from a life of being leered at by men in order to give Evie a "normal" father like every other girl has.  

But what Evie doesn't realize, is that Joe brings baggage -- in the form of money from goods that were stolen from the Nazis who stole it from the Jews-- to the marriage. 

When 23-year-old Peter Coleridge follows the family to a vacation in Florida, Evie falls head over heels in love with him. Joe reluctantly admits that Pete served with him in the war and Evie doesn't understand Joe's resentment to Peter. Caught up in her own "first love" Evie doesn't see how her mother also sneaks away to see Peter. 

Blundell creates two believable stories: the "top story" of a young girl's infatuation, what she does to gain her crush's attention, and how she innocently sees the world; and then the "underside" story of events which leave her parents accused of an heinous crime. Evie comes of age as she recognizes that events can be portrayed, explained, and even legitimized -- all depending on your point of view.   

Blundell did an excellent job of depicting life immediately following World War II and the aftermath which both veterans and their families faced. In the author's note at the end of the book, Blundell explains how she immersed herself in the music and literature of the time period. Her diligence to details shows. 

Since I am also writing a post-World War II book that deals with lies and deception, this book challenges me to authentically portray my characters' struggles. 

I disagree with the publisher's suggestion that this is a book for 9-12 year olds. I think the hint at sexual activity, violence, and the complicated family allegiances make this more appropriate as a young adult book. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Behind the Scenes with Gretchen Griffith's New Picture Book and a Giveaway!

Many years ago, Gretchen Griffith commuted to Charlotte to be a part of our SCBWI critique group. Since then she has found a group much closer to her home in Hickory, NC, but I have watched from afar as she got her much-worked on article "Finding Forty Two" published in Highlights in 2009, and then went on to publish two books set in the North Carolina mountains. Today, I'm happy to share the story behind her newly-released picture book, "When Christmas Feels Like Home." Her publisher, Albert Whitman, is providing a giveaway copy. Details at the end of the blog. 

Carol: Can you share the backstory of this book? What influenced you as you wrote it? How did you come up with the story idea? How did you find your publisher?

GretchenI wrote the manuscript in 2008 for the 2009 Highlights for Children writing contest when the theme was “contemporary world culture stories,” but it was in my head for quite a while before that. I lived in Lima, Peru when I was in high school, so I have experienced the anxiety associated with moving into a new culture. For several years I’ve worked with high school exchange students who go from the US to other countries and those who arrive in North Carolina as well. Our orientation materials tell them to anticipate milestones of when they will fit into the new culture, as well as the ups and downs they'll experience.

With that concept in mind, I began to think about the milestones my fourth grade students would face moving into a new culture, or even if they were just moving from one town to the next. When would their new city feel like home?

By the time I received word that my manuscript didn’t win, I had gone on to other projects, to honing my craft, attending conferences, and studying how to revise what I had written. Most key to this manuscript, I began reading blogs that offered tips on submitting. Somewhere along the line I found a reference to an editor at Albert Whitman & Company looking for international or diversity themed children’s picture books.  

I dragged out the manuscript from the floppy disk (yes, it was that long ago technology-wise) and took a new look at it. Being away from it for over a year helped me see it as a stranger would and through this new perspective I was able to find flaws. I rewrote, fielded it to my critique group (essential step) and revised it again. I submitted and returned to my other projects, always writing, always tending to improving my writing, and I admit, always checking the mailbox.

When the letter came, it wasn’t an acceptance. It was a “the pacing needs some work and we’ll look at it again” kind of letter. I revised and resubmitted a few more times until the offer finally came. Even then, I had to mold and refine until the words sang.

Carol: The illustrations truly complement the story. What are your thoughts about how the book has been illustrated? Did you submit the manuscript with many art notes? 

Gretchen: The illustrator, Carolina Farias, is from Argentina. I had nothing to do with selecting her, but what a perfect match to my manuscript!  I offered no input other than a few minor points. I did say that there couldn’t be any older brothers in the family illustrations because the story line of the main character being alone wouldn’t have worked.

I'm on the picture book authors’ panel at this year’s fall SCBWI Carolinas conference in Charlotte, September 27-29 where I’ll fill everyone in on more details. Meanwhile, stop by and visit my blog. Comments are always welcome!

To win a copy of this book (think: present for a fortunate child or grandchild!) please follow these rules:

  • Post this blog on your social media site of choice OR become a new follower of this blog and I'll enter your name once. 
  • Post this blog on two different social media sites OR become a new follower of this blog AND post it on a social media site and I'll enter your name twice.
  • Either way, leave a comment with your email address (if you are new to my blog) with what you did. 
  • Winner will be drawn on Monday morning, August 26 - so get those entries in!

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Time to Think

Congratulations to Linda Phillips who won a 10-page critique from Rebecca Petruck. For those of you who know me personally, Linda is my best writing buddy, friend, and prayer partner. But, I want to assure you that this drawing was not rigged--although I'm glad that Rebecca will help Linda with her current WIP, a middle grade book about a boy with learning disabilities.

If you follow this blog, you know that Rebecca has been sharing her revision process for her forthcoming book, Steering Toward Normal. (If you're just coming back from vacation, you can find Part I and Part II here.) 

I recently received Rebecca's editorial comments on my second full draft of Half-Truths. Now I'm following her advice and taking time to think about where to go from here. Here are a few snippets of her feedback to me, along with my current "to do" list. 

Rebecca:  Lillie’s anger is too strong and too consistent throughout. We need an arc.  We need to plan how and why Lillie’s anger will build, and if that really is the primary emotion we want to focus on. For me, I’m less interested in Lillie being angry than I am in her growing awareness of her own social circumstances and how that makes her feel frustrated, hopeless, depressed, galvanized, stubborn and eventually determined to be a part of the change.

My challenge: create a character arc that shows Lillie's "normal" life including her goals, what happens that opens her eyes to the world of white privilege around her (including meeting Kate, the granddaughter of her grandmother's employer), and how she tries to reach her goals.

Rebecca: Kate’s arc is disjointed and too much about Lillie’s arc. Kate needs more of her own story if she’s going to take up half of the novel. The elements are there, I think, but need to be developed. What is Kate’s internal journey? Then what events will hamper and what will help that journey? I don't really "see" her very well. 

My challenge: Rebecca is right. Even though Kate was the character I created first I haven't really figured out her story. For that matter, I don't have a complete sense of who she is and what she wants! As Rebecca said in the last post, "Character and plot are Siamese twins." In order for me to plan her character arc, I need to know her better. So, I'm going to take the time to ask Kate these questions and if I need more help, I'll make her answer the questions on Janice Hardy's blog on Character Tips too.

And while I'm at it, I'll probably do more work in Donald Maas's excellent book, 

Then, I'll take two really long pieces of freezer paper and stretch them out on my dining room table. I'll place one on top of the each other and start drafting each girl's character arc. I'll think about what are the important events in each girl's story and how one story will affect the other. From there I'll construct  my new chapter by chapter outline. (I guess this means that I'm a plotter, not a panster!)

And then, I'll start draft #3. Meanwhile, now I know why I bought two of these at the grocery store. I might need a lot!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Revision and Seeing the Big Picture- Part II and a Giveaway!

In last week's blog, Rebecca Petruck shared how she created an overall plan for revising her soon to be released book, Steering Toward Normal. In this second post, she discusses what to do when the thinking is done. Rosi Hollenbeck, one of my newer but very faithful blog followers, won last week's critique from Rebecca. Don't despair--Rebecca is offering it again!

Once I had journaled about my characters’ WHYs and the theme, I drew a map of what needed to be added to or changed in the book. I didn’t map the entire book again, I only charted the new or different things that needed to happen. I also did a plot clock of the entire book, just to have it in my head, but once it was done, I didn’t use it much. The map was my constant reference point—written in pencil and with post-it notes for easy updating, moving around and reminders as I went along. (In the photo: purple notes are info that needed to be added somewhere; orange are new/revised scenes; green are additional notes from critique partners.)

I can’t emphasize enough how important this planning period is and how much time and heartache it can save you. If you have three weeks to revise, it may seem crazy to take an entire week to THINK about the revision, but the writing goes so much faster when you do. Especially if you only have three weeks to revise, know what you’re going to do before you do it.

Then, it’s all about making sure the dominoes line up. I wasn’t a slave to the plan—small things changed, were moved around, one whole scene was cut unexpectedly—but generally, I had the big picture.  

In a way, a novel is a logic problem: If - Then. Every scene, chapter, act and novel must have an If - Then. In WIRED FOR STORY, Cron calls it the action-reaction-decision, which I think is brilliance on a stick. If - Then focuses on plot. Acton-reaction-decision focuses on character. To quote Cron, “Stories are about how we, rather than the world around us, change. They grab us only when they allow us to experience how it would feel to navigate the plot. Thus story is an INTERNAL journey, not an external one.”

Character and plot are Siamese twins. We must have plot to navigate so that we can experience how it would feel, but we only care about plot in how it reveals a character’s experience and feelings (her reactions). When I critique, all I’m really asking of the story over and over is WHY? To quote Cron quoting Julian Barnes (nesting doll!): “Books say: she did this BECAUSE. Life says: she did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t.”

It’s tempting to think you can use an editor’s letter, notes from a critique partner or marked-up pages as a checklist and just get started, but that’s likely to result in a choppy manuscript and kind of misses the point. For one, your reader may comment that a scene doesn’t work, but it’s not really that scene. It’s that the scene three beats before wasn’t set up properly. You can revise the pointed to scene ten times, and probably none of them will be right because of the wonky early scene. Critique notes, even from an editor, are not a to-do list but a series of arrows saying, “Something’s off here; make it better.”

More importantly, every revision is an opportunity to re-imagine your novel. Use notes from your reader to really think about what you want to say with your book, then take the time to say it even more effectively than you already have.

Which brings me back to my thesis that you need a rest period between drafts. As you write, you have to get so close to the moment to write each scene, it can be difficult to see the big picture. The rest stop lets you shift your focus, like with those magic-eye pictures, so you can pull back and see what you’ve got. I have been surprised as heck by some of the stuff I learned about myself and what I was REALLY writing about—and I think that’s an excellent sign. If you can surprise yourself, it’s likely you’ve hit something deep and true that will resonate with readers long after the last page.

Thanks, Rebecca! I hope that between my break from my manuscript and your suggestions, I'll come up with a new vision for Half-Truths!

Rebecca is again offering another giveaway. You can win either a 10-page critique from her, or a copy of WIRED FOR STORY

Here are the rules:

  • Post this blog on your social media site of choice OR become a new follower of this blog and I'll enter your name once. 
  • Post this blog on two different social media sites OR become a new follower of this blog AND post it on a social media site and I'll enter your name twice.
  • Either way, leave a comment with your email address (if you are new to my blog) with what you did. 
  • Winner will be drawn on Monday morning, August 12 - so get those entries in!
Rebecca Petruck is a Minnesota girl, though she also has lived in Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, England, Connecticut and, currently, North Carolina. A former member of 4-H, she was also a Girl Scout, a cheerleader, and competed in MathCounts. She reads National Geographic cover to cover. She is represented by Kate Testerman of kt literary, and her first novel, STEERING TOWARD NORMAL, will be released by Abrams/Amulet Spring 2014. Please visit her online


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