Thursday, March 31, 2011

An Homage to Writing God Chris Crutcher

I received a little gift a couple of weeks ago. Not in the usual way – wrapped up and beribboned. It came as a reminder. I was accepted as a reviewer for the Sacramento Book Review. When the list arrived for me to choose my first books, I found a new Chris Crutcher book and requested it along with three others. When it came, I dove right in. My review hasn’t been published yet, so I won’t write about that book here until after the review has appeared, but the gift was I was reminded what an incredible writer Chris Crutcher is. From my perspective, in the world of Young Adult writing, Chris Crutcher is a god. Maybe even THE GOD. I’m serious.

IronmanWhen I was still teaching, I always cruised the room, checking to see what kids were reading on their own. I found some good stuff that way. When one of my students said to me, “You should really read this,” I not only listened, I read. Those kids opened a lot of doors for me. Along the way, I ran across a book by Chris Crutcher called Ironman. One of my students hated to read, but loved bicycling. That’s all he could think about. Book report time was an agony for him, so when he told me I should really read Ironman, I paid attention. I suspect a librarian who was a good listener helped him find it. I read it and fell in love with the writing. It is so real. The characters are real. The dialogue is real. The situations are, oh, so real. There are layers of realism that reach kids in ways not many writers manage to do. And what a deft hand he has. He uses humor the way smart kids in pain do – to deflect and defend – and it’s brilliant and real.

Staying Fat for Sarah ByrnesI went in search of other Chris Crutcher books and found Whale Talk, Chinese Handcuffs, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrne, and Running Loose. Most of his books and stories are sports based and he covers quite a few. A little something for everyone. Like football? He's got a book for that Running Loose. Are you a runner? Try Chinese Handcuffs. Is swimming your passion? Pick up Whale Talk or Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. What more could one ask? Well, how about a hockey book? Hockey is my favorite sport, after all. But then I haven't read all his books yet. Maybe he has one waiting for me.

I started recommending Crutcher's books to my students. Then I bought multiple copies and used them for my end-of-the-year novel projects and kept copies in my classroom library. They disappeared and I bought more. I understood. Kids didn’t want to return them. They wanted to have them and read them over and over. Great writing will do that for kids.

Athletic Shorts: Six Short StoriesHis new book, about which I will write when my review has been published, revisits some characters from earlier books. It sure was nice to see those old friends again, but I realized I had more reading to do. I met some characters I hadn’t met before and wanted to know them better. I picked up copies of Athletic Shorts and Deadline because characters from those were reprised in his new book. Next on my list will be The Sledding Hill for the same reason.

The first story in Athletic Shorts, a collection of six well-crafted, tight short stories, “A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune,” will introduce you to an extremely intelligent young man with problems hanging off his problems, like love handles hanging over a tight belt. His parents are divorced, gay, and remarried to gay partners. And he, like his parents in one way, is big. Not just big. Enormous. At least from his point of view. And since his is the only point of view we have, we are convinced he is huge. “Really, I’m surprised someone in my family doesn’t have a trunk. Or a blowhole.” And, he is quick to point out, he is named after a cow. A cow! Chris Crutcher just cracks me up. Through a nasty trick by a handsome, rich, perfect football star (who maybe isn't so perfect after all) who hates him, Angus is elected Prom King. And the girl of his dreams, all of his dreams forever, is elected Prom Queen. He arrives at the dance and, “eyes straight ahead on the band, walking lightly on the balls of my feet, like Raymond Burr through a field of dog-poop sundaes” he makes his way into the dance. I won’t ruin it for you. It’s worth your time to get the book and find out what happens. I just wanted to give you a taste. Give yourself a break and read Athletic Shorts.

Reading books is the best way for me to become a better writer. I'm working on a re-write of my first book, Family Matters, and since it's YA, reading Chris Crutcher is the best (and most fun) thing I can do to make that book the best it can be. I’ll be reading Deadline next, and I’ll let you know how it is, although I think it’s safe to say, it will be time well spent.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Some Helpful Places to Visit

Nearly every day something appears in my email inbox or I run across something on the internet that is helpful to my writing. I’ve been thinking about how I really need to share this with other writers, so today is my day. Make sure you read to the end for a special treat.

Today I received an email from Jon Bard. He and his partner, Laura Backus, put out a newsletter called Children’s Book Insider. I’ve been a subscriber for a number of years. It’s a most helpful newsletter for those who write for children of any age. Through an article in the newletter, I made my first sale recently. They also have a free e-zine that arrive via Jon’s emails. Today’s has several videos chock full of helpful info. You can view them here:

Hope Clark is another favorite person in my writing life. She has two free e-newsletters full of information on writing contests, places to sell writing, as well as interesting articles and links to other helpful places. If you go to and click on the link to newsletters, you can sign up for free e-newsletters. I receive the Funds for Writers and FFW Small Markets newsletters, and I think they’re great. I had a short story accepted to an anthology that I read about in one of her newsletters.

Some of the outfits I receive things from are trying to sell me something, but as an old salesperson, I know the way to a customer’s wallet is with giving her something of value for free. Gotham Writer’s Workshops hopes I’ll sign up and buy a class someday (maybe I will), and they send me e-newsletters with lots of free fun and useful information such as contest info and links to other good writing stuff. You can sign up to receive the newsletters too. Go to: The latest issue has a mini-interview with Wally Lamb, a wonderful author with some interesting things to say. This issue also included a link to The Writer Magazine on line and their free newsletter. Check it out:

Going to a writer’s conference any time soon? I know I am – April 2nd – the Spring Spirit Conference put on by the local SCBWI region. Before you go, give this a read:
Worth your time. (I know – her blog looks like mine, but that’s just because we have the same great taste and used the same template.)

Writing non-fiction? You should know about this:
Someone (wish I could remember who!) put me on to Wikimedia Commons – a place to find pictures and photos you can use for free to dress up your blogs. It’s easy to navigate and, while some things require giving credit to the artist, a lot don’t even require that. You can find it here:

Jane Friedman, former Writer’s Digest publisher and editorial director has a blog at You can subscribe to receive notice when she posts. You might want to wander through her archives. Great stuff.

I have some friends who write blogs about writing and some blogs I’ve found to be particularly interesting and useful. I think they are all good. Take a look.

I hope all this is helpful to you. And now, in case you haven’t had a laugh lately, try this:  Every writer should see this. In fact, every writer has probably met this guy!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Thinking about Writing or Writing About What I'm Thinking

I so admire people who have the kind of discipline I think writers should have. My friend Morgan Mussell is one of those. He reads – no, studies – a lot of writing books, as well as studying the business of writing, and shares his knowledge with those of us lucky enough to be in a critique group with him or readers of his wonderful blog, The First Gates. He’s an excellent, disciplined writer, as well and one of the best editors I’ve ever run across. Drop by his blog sometime and soak up a little of his very accessible knowledge. What amazes me is the discipline he brings to his writing. He works very hard at learning his craft and even writes synopses before he writes the books. I suspect he even outlines. He always knows where he’s going.

Another writing friend, Margaret Duarte, also shows amazing and resilient writing skills. She has completed four novels. FOUR! In addition, she was the first to receive a Creative Writing Certificate offered by UCDavis extension. She has been blogging five days a week for quite some time, and her blogs are interesting and useful. When I need to know how to do something new on my blog, I visit Margaret’s blog, Enter the Between and check her archives for the answers. She has also posted story samples and novel excerpts. Go there and have a taste of her wonderful work.

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Paperback)As inspiring as these people are, I return to Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones for inspiration and to assuage my guilt.

Don’t worry about your talent or capability: that will grow as you practice. Katagiri Roshi said, “Capability is like a water table below the surface of the earth.” No one owns it, but you can tap it. You tap it with your effort and it will come through you. So just practice writing, and when you learn to trust your voice, direct it. If you want to write a novel, write a novel. If it’s essays you want or short stories, write them. In the process of writing them, you will learn how. You can have the confidence that you will gradually acquire the technique and craft you need.

I have studied writing off and on for years: taking creative writing courses at San Jose State, both undergraduate and graduate, taking the initial writing course from the Institute of Children’s Literature , which was surprisingly good. I’ve attended conferences, joined writing associations, taken many workshops, read some books, etc., etc. All those had some value, and I probably built little compartments of writing knowledge in my mind. Sometimes I find the doors cracked open, and I can re-visit them. Sometimes I can’t find my way back to some of that information to save my soul (which could probably use a little saving, by the way). It isn’t easy getting old.

But the one thing that has worked for me is putting my butt in the chair and writing, just like Natalie Goldberg said. I’m not terribly disciplined about any of it. I have a few sticky notes where other writers have pages and pages of outlines and synopses. I don’t outline because, to be perfectly honest, I have little idea, at least with my novels, what is going to happen. For picture books, articles, and other non-fiction I have a good idea and do storyboards and other planning, but not my novels. In fact, I don't even feel as if I'm in charge. I sit down with an inkling of an idea and characters walk into my head, fully formed and usually named, and tell me their stories. I write in fits and starts, sometimes madly writing long hours for days in a row, followed by little or nothing for a while so my batteries can re-charge. Or I might stop working on my novel for days or even weeks while I work on other things, all the while letting my story percolate through the soil of my mind and pick up nutrients. But I always get back to work and let my characters lead me along.

I’ve written two novels this way. The first, I started from a writing exercise in a text book, and it turned into a young adult novel named Family Matters. I had the good fortune of having two sophomore classes read and critique it. They liked it. A lot. I was at the school a couple weeks ago and some of the kids from those classes (now seniors) talked about the book, even naming the characters – two years after they read it. How cool is that? Anyway, I learned a lot about writing books by writing that first book. I hope it will be published someday and am now revising it to that end.

I read an article a while back that said the way to get your first book published is to write your second book. So I did. I had learned a lot writing the first one; mostly I learned to listen to my muse and trust my characters to tell me their stories. My second book is called The Incredible Journey of Freddy J. and I’m really proud of it. I’ve had it critiqued, revised it, had many beta readers, and gotten great feedback. One of my beta readers described it as being much like the serial stories that used to be shown at Saturday matinees in the theatres when we were young. I liked that. Since it is really written for young boys, it was good to hear that. That's the kind of thing kids like. Another beta reader was a thirteen-year-old boy (grandson of a friend) whom I've never met. All I know is he read it three times. THREE times. Amazing. I’ve arranged for some sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students to read it and am awaiting their comments. I’m just beginning the agent hunt, so it may be a while before it’s out there, but that’s the nature of the business. Fingers crossed.

So even though I’m not the most organized person in the world, I know I can write and I know how to do it in a way that works for me…and makes real books, books that people like. Now, if I can just get the publishing world to listen…

If you already write, maybe you’ll leave a good tip for the rest of us. If you want to write, I say do it. Sit down with a pen and paper or in front of a blank computer screen or whatever works for you, and just do it. Natalie Goldberg would approve.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Book for Writers and Lovers

I’m a bit late with my post, but have been busy with out-of-town visitors and getting some writing work done. I have my first sale (YAY!!). It’s small, but still, it’s a sale. I sold two children’s poems to High Five magazine (sister publication of Highlights), and I am thrilled. I’ve also been working on an article I hope to sell to Highlights and just put it into the mail yesterday, so back to your regularly scheduled blogging!

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Paperback)Some years ago, someone at a writer’s conference mentioned a book “every writer or aspiring writer should read” – Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. I went on Amazon and ordered a used copy. When I received the book, it was a tiny thing – about the size of a cigarette pack. It is a Shambhala Pocket Classic. Never heard of them before. But I have to tell you, it’s been kind of a gift. Most of the time, I keep it in my purse. If I get stuck waiting on line in a store or, God forbid, the DMV or Post Office, I pull it out and read a few pages.

It seems no matter to what page I open, I find something useful or helpful or inspiring or affirming. Let me give you an example. I opened the book the other day and ran across this:
 Writers are great lovers. They fall in love with other writers. That’s how they learn to write. They take on a writer, read everything by him or her, read it over again until they understand how the writer moves, pauses, and sees. That’s what being a lover is: stepping out of yourself, stepping into someone else’s skin. Your ability to love another’s writing means those capabilities are awakened in you. It will only make you bigger; it won’t make you a copy cat.

I love that. It encourages me (and gives me permission) to take the time to read good writing, to immerse myself in it, to scoop it up slowly with a small spoon, and taste every word. I have met some writers over the years who have sucked me in completely with their extraordinary art and I have, indeed, immersed myself in all I could find by them and savored the works. This experience with writers really began for me quite early.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was likely the first. I must have been in second or third grade when I read Little House in the Big Woods, then found the rest and read right through them and read them again. I re-read them as an adult after my daughters were born and found them every bit as engaging as I did as a child. I re-read some and discussed them with my grandson as he read them. That says a lot about the writing.I always find her work inspiring.

Lucy Maude Montgomery followed close on Laura’s heels. The Avonlea series is simply heartbreakingly good. I revisited them more than once, savoring the strong movement of words across the page.

 The first writing lover for me as an adult was John Steinbeck. He has become a life-long love of mine. I believe I have read every piece of fiction Steinbeck wrote, most of them many times. My first encounter was when I was about twelve or thirteen. One of my best friends was a girl named Julie who had the most cool parents in the world and lived in an incredible house – modern and unlike any other house I’d been in. They had a large, circular living room. Floor-to-ceiling windows made up about half the walls, and most of the rest was a floor-to-ceiling book case filled with hardcover books. It had a ladder that ran on a track across the front. Yes. A rolling ladder, just like in those libraries in the homes of dukes and lords. One day while I visited, Julie’s step-dad climbed the little ladder and pulled a book from a high shelf. He handed it to me and said, “I think you’re ready for this. Let’s talk about it when you’re done reading it.” I was astonished to have an adult loan me a book, but more astonished to find he was interested in talking with me about it.

Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck Centennial Edition)The book was Of Mice and Men. I would guess I have read it at least forty times. I taught it for many years and always told my students I considered it a perfect novel. It has everything in it I wanted to teach students about literature – great characters, incredible descriptive writing, literary allusion, imagery, foreshadowing, irony, strong symbolism – all packed into a great sweeping story. And the names. I could talk for hours about the names in this wonderful little book. This book, and especially how it came to me, truly changed my life. I proceeded to read every piece of fiction I could find by Steinbeck, even Cup of Gold and Burning Bright, which I don’t recommend, by the way. Every writer has experiments that shouldn’t see the light of day. And I don’t think Of Mice and Men is Steinbeck’s best, but it surely cannot be overlooked. The distinction of being his best, in my mind, belongs to East of Eden. If you haven’t read it, my goodness, what a treat you have in store.

The Long Valley (Twentieth-Century Classics)I’ve gone through short-term love affairs with other writers but always return to Steinbeck. His short stories are little gems. My soon-to-be-son-in-law, Eric Baldwin, recently called me to discuss The Chrysanthemums, one of the short stories from Steinbeck’s collection published as The Long Valley. Now I have to tell you, Eric made a lot of points with me that day. Not only was he reading and appreciating my favorite author, but he gave me the gift of reminding me of that superb little story and to remind myself to spend some time with my first great love, gobbling up his words and drawing inspiration from his brilliance. You may also visit my writing lover. No jealousy here. I love to share him with others. Go ahead. Pick up some of his work. Steep yourself in it. Step out of yourself and into John Steinbeck’s skin. Fall in love with him if you like. Natalie Goldberg and I would approve.  

Who are your reading or writing lovers? How did you discover him or her? Inquiring minds want to know.