Sunday, June 24, 2012

It's About Character


Thought for the day: 
 The difference between the right and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug.”
~ Mark Twain


A gift for my writer friends. Writers’ Digest sends me e-newsletters all the time with links to articles. Some are good and some are not worth much time. I think the following two links are very good. Enjoy!




The WINNER of the copy of Seeing Cinderella from my last posting is Carolyn Pile. I will be getting this to you right away, Carolyn. Congratulations!

I’d like to talk about character today. This is prompted by a couple of middle-grade books I reviewed recently for the Sacramento Book Review. As Donald Maass says in his instructive book, Writing the Breakout Novel, “Most of us do not for very long tolerate people who make us feel frustrated, sad, hopeless or depressed ― not in life, not in books.” Well, that is exactly what I experienced in these two books – the most obnoxious, unlikable main characters I have encountered in a long time, characters who made me feel frustrated most of the time I was reading the books. Honestly, if I hadn’t agreed to review the books, I’m not sure I would have finished them. The stories were not compelling enough to overcome the unpleasantness of the main characters.

I remember hearing at a workshop that writers need to create characters readers will want to cheer for. The main characters in both books were bratty, selfish, and downright mean-spirited nearly the whole way through. I found myself not only cheering for the other side, if you will, but saying out loud more than once, “Are you kidding me?” I wanted someone to come in from the sidelines and straighten those girls out.

Both these books came from large, reputable publishers. This is the kind of mistake I’m not too surprised to see in a self-published book by an anxious new author or from an extremely inexperienced writer, but I can’t imagine how this got past an editor at a big house. For one of the authors, it is her debut novel, but for the other, it is her seventh published book! I won’t be spending any of my time on her other books.

So what is it we can do as writers to build characters who make readers want to get their pom-poms out and jump out and down. According to Donald Maass, “It just requires identifying what is extraordinary in people who are otherwise ordinary.” This, of course, is not nearly as easy as it sounds. Unless we are writing fantasy or science fiction, we want our characters to be believable, which means they need to be fairly ordinary and very human. But I also believe most people have extraordinariness within them, and that is what we need to mine to build characters for whom our readers will want to cheer. I wish I had a good answer to offer here about how to do that, but I don’t. I can only tell you what I do. I try to look for the vulnerability in my character. That will lead me to what gives the character the best chance to become extraordinary by overcoming something that is frightening and difficult for him or her. And that’s where I think the writers of the middle-grade books I read last week missed the mark. They didn’t have characters who overcame anything difficult. Heck, they couldn’t even overcome their own brattiness and selfishness. They never would have even tried. The characters were just plain ordinary. So, writer friends, take a close look at your main characters and make sure the voices you hear in your head are cheering!

I’m not giving away a book this week. I didn’t read anything I want to pass along. Isn’t that sad? You will fare better next week. I have a very funny book to review and pass along. But please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you. Remember, if you have trouble leaving a comment, click on the title of the post and it will give you just this post with a comments section on the bottom. Also, if you haven’t signed up by email, please do. Just look in the upper right-hand corner of this page, pop your email address in, and you will receive an email each time I put up a new post. Your information will not be shared with anyone.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Seeing Cinderella -- A Review and Giveaway


Thought for the day:  
“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revis­ing a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” ~ Stephen King


The WINNER of the autographed copy of What She Left Behind from my last posting is Jennifer Rumberger. It pays to link my post somewhere for extra entries. Jennifer did and she won! I will be sending that out to you right away, Jennifer. Congratulations! By the way, Jennifer is also a children's author and has a great blog. You can check that out by clicking HERE.

Since today is Father’s Day and I have some family things to do, I’m going to simply post my review for a wonderful middle-grade book I read recently while wearing my hat as a reviewer for the Sacramento Book Review. I was happy to get my hands on Seeing Cinderella by Jenny Lundquist after reading a little about the concept. Sometimes I will read about what I think is a terrific concept for a book and be terribly disappointed by the book itself. Not in this case. Seeing Cinderella delivers. Here is my review from the Sacramento Book Review.

# # #
Callie will be starting middle school tomorrow, and now she has to get glasses! She is given temporary hideous, black-rimmed glasses. Everyone will make fun of her. It’s bad enough she has frizzy hair and freckles. The first day of school doesn’t go well when she finds she is stuck sharing a locker with a Goth girl. When Callie tries her new glasses, she finds she can see people’s thoughts. This is pretty helpful in math class, since she can read the correct answers in the teacher’s thoughts, but other times it’s not always fun to know what people think. When Callie’s best friend, Ellen, starts to pull away and seems to be making a new best friend, Callie is really unhappy with what she sees in other people’s thoughts. Callie is offered the lead in the school play but asks the teacher to give it to Ellen. Then Ellen decides she likes Scott, and Callie has liked him forever!
“Sometimes I really hated wearing the glasses around Mom. A lot of days I felt like she didn’t even see me. Even if she was looking right at me, she was too busy thinking about my dad to really see me. If Mom hated him so much (right now, anyway) and I reminded her of him, then how did she feel about me?”
Jenny Lundquist
Jenny Lundquist has written a gem of a middle-grade novel that examines so many problems faced by kids in that difficult stage of life. Girls especially will love the story, characters, and situations, all of which ring true.
# # #
If you haven’t seen this issue of the Sacramento Book Review, you can click HERE and be magically taken to it. It’s a HUGE issue this time with a large section of reviews written by kids along with the usual reviews of all kinds of books. There’s something for everyone. By the way, the cover review, which is well worth your time, is written by my friend, critique partner, and regular blog reader Elizabeth Varadan. So give it a look.

If you would like to receive a gently-read copy of Seeing Cinderella, just leave a comment on this post, and I will put your name in a drawing. If you would like to have your name in the hat more than once, post a link on Facebook or on your blog, and let me know. I will put your name in once for each. That was lucky for Jennifer Rumberger! But please leave a comment no matter what. I’d love to hear from you. Remember, if you have trouble leaving a comment, click on the title of the post and it will give you just this post with a comments section on the bottom. Also, if you haven’t signed up by email, please do. Just look in the upper right-hand corner of this page, pop your email address in, and you will receive an email each time I put up a new post. Your information will not be shared with anyone.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Review, An Interview, and a Giveaway - What She Left Behind by Tracy Bilen


Thought for the day: 
 “You must write every single day of your life... You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.” 
 ~ Ray Bradbury
 (We will miss you, Ray Bradbury!!)

Some gifts for my writer friends. The following are links I think are worth your time. 

I probably mentioned this site a year ago or so, but it bears repeating. Hope Clark offers the best free e-newsletters for writers listing grants, contests, markets, publishers, agents, articles. To go to this site click HERE and click on the Newsletters tab. Check it out.

I read a blog by Anne R. Allen about blogging recently and think it’s one of the most rational approaches to blogging ever. Click HERE to read it.

The WINNER of the autographed copy of Runaround from my last posting is Helen – not Helen Hemphill the author, but Helen the commenter. I will be sending that out to you right away, Helen. Congratulations! If any of you missed the review of two of Helen the author's wonderful books, click HERE.

Now on to the main post. I read a terrific new YA last week. It’s one of those books I carried everywhere with me – hoping for a long line at the post office so I could read a few pages while doing my errands, hoping to catch a red light now and then so I could finish another page or two, holing up in my study and, WHEN I SHOULD BE WRITING MY OWN DAMN BOOK, I shut the door and knocked off a couple of chapters before getting to work. The book is What She Left Behind by Tracy Bilen, and this is a very impressive debut novel.

Sara has been waiting for her mom to come to her senses and for the two of them to leave Sara’s father. He has become a total psycho since Sara’s brother, Matt, killed himself. And now the day they will leave has finally arrived. Sara packs her duffle and leaves it under the bed as her mother instructs her. She goes off to school as if it is any other day, planning to meet her mother at the Dairy Dream at lunch time. This just happens to also be the day that the high school hottie, Alex, pays attention to Sara for the very first time. In fact, more than paying attention, he seems downright interested in her. It’s hard to respond well in these circumstances when you truly believe, as Sara does, that she will never see Alex again.

Mom doesn’t show up. Sara misses the rest of her classes waiting – something that is just not like her – and finally gives up and goes home. She finds everything she had packed is unpacked and put back exactly where it belongs. She tries over and over to call and text her mom, but gets no response. When her father comes home, he tells Sara her mother has gone on a business trip and will be gone a week. He continues to act as if everything is normal – in his psycho kind of normal – which includes acting as if his dead son is still around and late for dinner!

“My dad takes another puff of his cigarette, then flips on the TV and doesn’t say another word – he just sits there and smokes. I want to wave my hands in front of his face and make him tell me more, but he would probably break my arm. So instead I back away.”

In a series of well-crafted flashbacks, we come to know how controlling and abusive Sara’s father has been for a very long time, telling her mother in front of her that she had better not ever even think of leaving – or else. They can’t go to the police. Dad is an ex-cop and has the local cops completely in his pocket. We discover how Sara didn’t only lose her brother, but several friendships as well, leaving her without much of a support system. She does, however, have one good friend, Zach, who is really always there for her. As time goes along, Sara comes to believe something terrible has happened to her mother. It’s up to her to find out. Oh, and all this time she continues to fall in love with Alex.

Tracy Bilen
There is a terrific mystery to be solved by Sara braided tightly with a love story and the great back story of Sara’s family life. This is all deftly handled by Tracy Bilen’s fine writing. This book is one you will want to read. It’s rich and absolutely enthralling. You can win a copy! Just keep on reading to the end to find out how. (Oh, heck. I’ll tell you. It’s the usual way. See the last paragraph.)

Now I’m happy to report I was able to ask Tracy a few questions about her book and her writing, so sit back, relax, and read what she has to say.

I read on another blog (click HERE to read that blog) that you came to this story from an image in your mind of a girl, a suitcase, and a field, and you had to figure out what happened. How did you discover your fictional characters? Are they based on real people?

Finding my characters has always been a slow process for me. I find I start writing with the plot foremost in my mind and drag the characters along for a bit. Then as I get further along, I go back and start adding character details, until by the end of the whole process, the characters feel like real people to me. The characters aren’t based on anyone…of course, as you’re writing, you naturally tend to talk about things that you like and know about, so like Sara, I used to play the shrunken clarinet and I like Ritz Bits, but there are also lots of things about her that aren’t like me at all!

Your writing has such a great, natural flow to it. Do you spend a lot of time planning your writing – outlining and such – or is it a much more organic process for you?

Thank you! When I wrote What She Left Behind I didn’t outline the first draft, I just wrote. Of course, I kept a few things in my mind as far as where I wanted the story to go. After I finished the first draft I wrote down a list of everything that happened in order (so I guess most people would call that an outline!) Then as I revised, I used the “list” to help me reorder events and add to them. I used this same process for the first two “practice” (i.e. unpublished) novels that I wrote. Now as I am beginning to work on new projects I find myself “outlining” a lot sooner (after the first 30 pages or so) – actually coming up with the specific plot details before I write them (imagine that!)

Writing can be a lonely business. Do you work with critique groups or critique partners?

My critique partners have played a huge role in my success. I had tried a couple of “open to anyone” critique groups at bookstores / libraries, but didn’t find the right fit that way. Then at SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conferences I met some great friends, a couple of whom I exchange manuscripts with via e-mail, and a couple of others with whom I meet with on a regular basis. This feedback, from people writing for the same age group and with similar professional goals, has really made a difference for me.

How was your journey to publication? Long, short, how many rejections? Did you have an agent represent the book or did you sell it on your own? If you had an agent, how did you go about finding an agent?

While it took me writing a few books before I got to the one that would sell, the actual query process for What She Left Behind was in some respects, rather fun. I used querytracker.net to keep track of my submissions (it’s free). I sent out about 50 e-mail queries (sent out in batches of 5 or 6) and received partial or full requests from about a fifth of them. The whole process took about eight months. I say that the process was in some ways fun, because although there was plenty of rejection, there were also the partial and full requests to keep my spirits up. It was always an adventure reading e-mail during that period!

Your main character, Sara, loves to read horror novels. What were your favorite books when you were growing up? Did those books inspire you to write?

My absolute favorites when I was quite young were Trixie Beldon mysteries (discovered in my grandmother’s adventure filled attic) and Anne of Green Gables. Trixie Beldon gave me my love of mysteries (while I consider What She Left Behind to be more of a thriller, it does have mystery elements). Anne of Green Gables was inspiring because Anne is a struggling author herself and I adored her eventual love, Gilbert (just like I adore Alex, the guy Sara falls in love with!) When I was a teen, I loved books by Lois Duncan and Caroline Cooney. Sara’s love of horror was inspired by the movie version of Stephen King’s Cujo which I saw when I was way too young, and his Misery which my mom MADE me read when I was in high school. I don’t think I’ve forgiven her yet!

What is the last book you read?

Right now I’m reading Slide by fellow Apocalypsie Jill Hathaway. It’s about a girl who “slides” into the bodies of others. It’s awesome!

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on another YA thriller.

What advice would you pass along to those of us who haven’t gotten that first book published?

Try to stop writing. (I know, you’re ready to kill me now – how is that inspiring??!). But I’m serious, in a way. Throughout my writing journey, I tried to stop (why did I want to publish a book anyway?) But I couldn’t stop. I always came back to it. So if you try and stop and you just can’t, you’ll know that you were meant to do it (and that your mind won’t give you any peace if you don’t). So then, go with it. Keep writing. Keep querying. Write something new while you’re querying (I wrote What She Left Behind while I was querying a book that didn’t sell). Join the professional organizations for your genre. Find a critique group with people who write in the same genre or for the same age-group. And don’t give up. Think back to when you were looking for your first (serious) job. It may have seemed impossible at first. You kept trying different things until you hit upon something that worked. And now when you look back on in, it doesn’t seem that bad. The publishing process is probably going to take you way longer than it took you to find that first job. But it’s worth it. And you can do it!

Thank you for so generously sharing your time and thoughts. Is there anything I didn’t ask about that you’d like to tell us?

Thanks for such fun questions! I hope you’ll take a peek at the book trailer for WhatShe Left Behind. I just love how the words hide behind the trees at the end! Click HERE to see the book trailer. It’s terrific. If you don’t already want to read the book, you will after seeing this.

If you would like to receive a gently-read, autographed copy of What She Left Behind, I have good news. Tracy was kind enough to send one to me to read and then give away. Just leave a comment on this post, and I will put your name in a drawing. If you would like to have your name in the hat more than once, post a link on Facebook or on your blog, and let me know. I will put your name in once for each. But please leave a comment no matter what. I’d love to hear from you. Remember, if you have trouble leaving a comment, click on the title of the post and it will give you just this post with a comments section on the bottom. Also, if you haven’t signed up by email, please do. Just look in the upper right-hand corner of this page, pop your email address in, and you will receive an email each time I put up a new post. Your information will not be shared with anyone.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Helen Hemphill Wrote Some Books


Thought for the day: “The cat sat on the mat is not a story. 
The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.” ~ John Le CarrĂ©

Some gifts for my writer friends: The following are some links I think are worth your time.
First is a really wonderful interview with Nancy Bo Flood, the author of no-name baby, which was reviewed here recently. If you missed it, click HERE to read it. And here is the link to the interview with Nancy: http://jayerobinbrown.blogspot.com/2012/05/interview-with-author-nancy-bo-flood.html?showComment=1338607555471#c2005596251607439218
Gotham Writers Workshop sends me newsletters often – mostly trying to sell me on-line workshops – but also having some good tidbits. Recently, I received one with 9 Common Fiction Writing Mistakes. No surprises here, but good reminders and examples. Take a look: http://www.writingclasses.com/FacultyBios/facultyArticleByInstructor.php/ArticleID/103?utm_campaign=ced4d580cb-WEB_JunNL_June15_31_2012?utm_source=Gotham%20Writers%27%20Workshop%20List?utm_medium=email
Anything Stephen King has to say about writing is worth reading. This has an article he wrote about adverbs: http://www.publishingsyndicate.com/publishing_syndicate/newsletters/wow_news_backissues/wn_may12.pdf

Now on to the main post. Last time, I wrote about attending the wonderful Whole Narrative Non-Fiction Workshop at Highlights in Pennsylvania. If you missed it, click HERE. One of the bonuses of attending workshops at Highlights is you will always come home with some terrific books. I received a copy of Peggy Thomas’s remarkable Anatomy of Nonfiction. We also often have authors drop by for visits and they usually bring books which they sign and give to us. At our workshop, middle-grade novelist Helen Hemphill stopped by. I read two of her books and I loved them both. I’d like to tell you about them.

The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones, a terrific historical, adventure novel. It is set in the 1870s and stars (and he is a STAR) Prometheus Jones, who was born to a slave woman in Tennessee the very day the Emancipation Proclamation was signed into law. His mother says he is a lucky child, and this seems borne out in many ways through the story. But we, as readers, are never quite convinced that his luck can hold up one more time through all the challenges he faces. It’s hard to believe he’s super-lucky. After all, he is a 13-year-old African American orphan living in the post-Civil War South when we meet him.

Prometheus has a great talent with horses and we meet him and his young cousin Omer as Prometheus is breaking a horse for a couple of local reprobates – the racist, hate-mongering Dill brothers – who refuse to pay him for his work. They finally settle things by giving him a raffle ticket they had bought for the same price they promised to pay him. When the winning number is pulled, lucky Prometheus wins a horse. The brothers Dill claim he stole the ticket. Prometheus and Omer decide it would be a good time to head west. They take the new horse and find a cattle drive to join. Let the adventures begin.

“But just as I feel the hot breath of the buffalo’s tongue on me, out of the dark, an arrow shoots straight into the first buffalo’s eye. Blood explodes from his eye socket, and he makes a low groan and veers off toward the river. One of them Pawnee rides up and jerks me onto the back of his mustang. Another buffalo rushes past us into the moonlit dark. The Pawnee howls into the clamor of the stampeding hooves and looks back at me with his painted white face and a flash of a smile.”

Helen Hemphill
The adventures come pretty much non-stop through the rest of the book. The characters we meet on the cattle drive are colorful, believable, and engaging. Prometheus meets some harrowing challenges on his journey and some are almost more than any person should have to bear, but bear he does. But when he is finally faced by the Dill brothers again and their lies convict him of a terrible crime, it’s hard to imagine how this can possibly end well.

I LOVED this book and can’t wait for school to end so my grandson can read it. I didn’t want to put it down for a minute from beginning to end. This is a true coming-of-age adventure story that every boy and a lot of girls will love. The action is non-stop, the characters fully-formed and beautifully drawn, and the feeling of being dropped into another century is palpable. Get this book. Read it now. You won’t be sorry.

Helen also wrote Runaround, the story of Sassy Thompkins, eleven, who spends all her spare time reading Love Confessions, a trashy magazine. It is the 1960s and Sassy lives with her father and older, very annoying sister Lula, the pretty one. Since the girls’ mother died many years earlier, Miss Dallas, their housekeeper, is also part of the household and there most of the time to help raise the girls. Sassy is ripe for romance both because of her age and because of her incessant reading of Love Confessions. She is mad at Lula for setting up a situation at camp that embarrassed Sassy and ruined any chance she had for her first kiss being the perfect one she’d dreamed of.

“Sassy wiped her eyes in the bend of her arm and lay back into the grass. Sometimes in Love Confessions, the plain girls got the boys to fall in love with them, but then they usually were just pretty girls in disguise. Boon would never lover her. She wasn’t good-looking enough. Mama and Daddy had passed all the pretty parts on to Lula before Sassy was even born. Maybe they never planned on having another daughter.”

Sassy decides to show her sister how grown up she is by getting Boon Chisholm to fall in love with her. He is a bit of a bad boy, Hollywood handsome, and a year older than Lula. Most girls will relate to this story, but especially those who ever made fools of themselves (my hand’s in the air here – isn’t yours?) and have older sisters with whom they ever had disagreements (hand in the air again). Boy, howdy, could I relate to Sassy. I absolutely squirmed reading much of this, but had to laugh at the same time. It’s a very funny book. She goes after Boon with a vengeance, completely oblivious to the pile of evidence around her that Boon sees her as a little girl and is very interested in Lula. Could it get any worse? When things really come to a head, there is a big twist that turns the whole story on its head.

This book is smart and clever. Every chapter is opened with a quote from Love Confessions magazine, the publication Sassy has decided should guide her life. The story is compelling, and, even if it’s painful to read, it’s truly funny and sweet. I recommend it for girls.

I was perhaps most interested in how different these books were. I’ve written two novels – one a contemporary YA that is pretty dark. The other is a middle-grade historical novel that is a coming-of-age adventure for boys. It was confirming to me that one can write books of such different styles as Helen’s two books and it’s not really a question. Good writing is good writing. You don’t have to be stuck in a genre. I can’t wait to read Helen’s third book, Long Gone Daddy. It looks great – and different from the other two.

If you would like to receive a gently-read, autographed copy of Runaround, leave a comment on this post, and I will put your name in a drawing (U.S. only). If you would like to have your name in the hat more than once, post a link on Facebook or on your blog, and let me know. I will put your name in and extra time for each. But please leave a comment no matter what. I’d love to hear from you. Remember, if you have trouble leaving a comment, click on the title of the post and it will give you just this post with a comments section on the bottom. Also, if you haven’t signed up by email, please do. Just look in the upper right-hand corner of this page, pop your email address in, and you will receive an email each time I put up a new post. Your information will not be shared with anyone.