Monday, December 28, 2009

Mentor Monday: Keeping Track

At a recent meeting one we talked about (indeed, I think we committed to) "getting something in the mail" - a group New Year's Resolution, if you will, to submit or resubmit a manuscript (some of us have done nothing but Notable Women for a year now . . .). One member mentioned a manuscript she'd like to send out again, and that she couldn't remember where it had been in the past. This got me thinking about the tracking system I used when I was writing a lot of magazine articles on spec. . . .and that sent me in search of an article I wrote about said system. I offer it here, with some revision, for any writer who is thinking "this is the year I'm going to organize my marketing efforts!"

Your system can be a computerized spreadsheet, a card file, or a set of shoeboxes under the bed. One shoebox, section or worksheet is for ideas (this is in addition to and separate from the file folders, shoeboxes or ’74 Buick into which you toss clippings, pictures and notes that you might use someday). Here you capture those inspired thoughts that present themselves at the most inopportune moments. You hear a news story about a dog that rescues a child from an oncoming train while you’re driving the preschool carpool. “What a great story,” you think. “I could do a picture book about that.” But you’re working on a magazine article about using orange peels to clean carpets, and by the time it’s finished you’ve forgotten all about the hero dog idea. With the ideas file, you put some keyword about your idea at the top of the card (or in the first field of your record). Jot any useful information underneath (the date you heard the story would be a good clue). File it.

Some day when you can’t come up with anything to write about, pull out that ideas file and page through it. If one idea (or a combination) strikes a chord, start writing. And create a new card, for the manuscript section of your cardbox (or sheet in your spreadsheet file, or whatever). Include your working title, tracking number, or other identifier. Note the date you begin working on the story. When you finish the first draft, note the length. You may want to keep track of major revisions here as well (do you save revisions with distinctive names, so you can go back to them?) When you submit the manuscript, create a card or record for it in a section called "submissions."

Your submissions records will contain the name of the piece and its final word length. When you send it out, note here the market, editor’s name, and the date. If the piece is returned, note that date and any comments. If you revise it, make a note, and when you send it out again, record the new information. When it sells, note that, and add a line when it’s published. Reprints should get recorded here as well (may you need additional cards!)

The final section of your tracking system is the "markets" section. Set up a record for each market you send manuscripts to, so it cross-matches with the submissions records. The markets files contain detailed information on each publisher: what kinds of material they publish, what rights they buy as well as addresses. Note editors’ names and titles (and update them when they change jobs). If you meet an editor at a conference or a friend recommends one, make a note of that so you can mention it in a cover letter. Finally, as you submit to various markets, note the manuscript title (or tracking number) and the date here just as you note the market and date on the manuscript card. This will keep you from inadvertently submitting something new to an editor who is already sitting on one of your pieces. Purchases and publication information can be recorded here as well if you like, creating a history of sales to a particular market.

If you hear of a new publisher from a friend or discover a promising magazine in a waiting room, create a record for it and include as much information as you have about that market. Make up records for publishers you flag in your writer’s guides or other research. When you’re trying to decide where to send a returned manuscript or casting about for new fields to explore, paging through your markets file will remind you of this discovery.

One final bonus to this system: if you’re ever audited by the IRS, you’ll have documentation of your working writer status. Happy tracking!

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Very Merry Poetry Friday!

Please check out the post below--it is a combined Women of Wednesday and Poetry Friday posting. There you'll find a delightful poem by Katharine Lee Bates about Mrs. Claus called, "Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride." Enjoy!

Today's holiday Poetry Friday Round-Up is taking place at Book Aunt--be sure to visit!

Peace to all!


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Women of Wednesday--The Woman of the Hour

This is, of course, Mrs. Claus. The poor woman has been keeping things going all year--getting Santa fed each morning, noon, and night (plus, finding the time to do the baking for all those cookie breaks), doing the laundry, constantly sweeping away bits of workshop sawdust, and still finding time to make the occasional public appearance. Tomorrow for a brief period of time she'll get a break while Santa flies off on his yearly adventure. Then it's back to the old schedule once again. The woman is a saint.

The author of "America the Beautiful," Katherine Lee Bates, wrote a long poem about Mrs. Claus in 1889. In it, Bates, writing in the persona of Mrs. C., outlines all the tasks that the poor woman (called Goody, short for "goodwife," Claus) does around the North Pole. Goody C. has Santa's number--does she ever! She teases him about his weight, calls him "your Saintship," and complains "wouldn't it be pleasant to surprise me with a present?" In fact, before the poem's done, she manages to sweet talk Santa into taking her along for a ride on Christmas eve. Not only that, she surpasses her "gentle sailor" in generosity by repairing a holey stocking and offering a poor poet "a fallen star to write by, and a music-box of rain." The woman IS A SAINT!
Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride

Santa, must I tease in vain, Dear? Let me go and hold the reindeer,
While you clamber down the chimneys. Don't look savage as a Turk!
Why should you have all the glory of the joyous Christmas story,
And poor little Goody Santa Claus have nothing but the work?

It would be so very cozy, you and I, all round and rosy,
Looking like two loving snowballs in our fuzzy Arctic furs,
Tucked in warm and snug together, whisking through the winter weather
Where the tinkle of the sleigh-bells is the only sound that stirs.

You just sit here and grow chubby off the goodies in my cubby
From December to December, till your white beard sweeps your knees;
For you must allow, my Goodman, that you're but a lazy woodman
And rely on me to foster all our fruitful Christmas trees.

While your Saintship waxes holy, year by year, and roly-poly,
Blessed by all the lads and lassies in the limits of the land,
While your toes at home you're toasting, then poor Goody must go posting
Out to plant and prune and garner, where our fir-tree forests stand.

Oh! but when the toil is sorest how I love our fir-tree forest,
Heart of light and heart of beauty in the Northland cold and dim,
All with gifts and candles laden to delight a boy or maiden,
And its dark-green branches ever murmuring the Christmas hymn!

Yet ask young Jack Frost, our neighbor, who but Goody has the labor,
Feeding roots with milk and honey that the bonbons may be sweet!
Who but Goody knows the reason why the playthings bloom in season
And the ripened toys and trinkets rattle gaily to her feet!

From the time the dollies budded, wiry-boned and saw-dust blooded,
With their waxen eyelids winking when the wind the tree-tops plied,
Have I rested for a minute, until now your pack has in it
All the bright, abundant harvest of the merry Christmastide?

Santa, wouldn't it be pleasant to surprise me with a present?
And this ride behind the reindeer is the boon your Goody begs;
Think how hard my extra work is, tending the Thanksgiving turkeys
And our flocks of rainbow chickens — those that lay the Easter eggs.

Home to womankind is suited? Nonsense, Goodman! Let our fruited
Orchards answer for the value of a woman out-of-doors.
Why then bid me chase the thunder, while the roof you're safely under,
All to fashion fire-crackers with the lighting in their cores?

See! I've fetched my snow-flake bonnet, with the sunrise ribbons on it;
I've not worn it since we fled from Fairyland our wedding day;
How we sped through iceberg porches with the Northern Lights for torches!
You were young and slender, Santa, and we had this very sleigh.

Jump in quick then? That's my bonny. Hey down derry! Nonny nonny!
While I tie your fur cap closer, I will kiss your ruddy chin.
I'm so pleased I fall to singing, just as sleigh-bells take to ringing!
Are the cloud-spun lap-robes ready? Tirra-lirra! Tuck me in.

Off across the starlight Norland, where no plant adorns the moorland
Save the ruby-berried holly and the frolic mistletoe!
Oh, but this is Christmas revel! Off across the frosted level
Where the reindeers' hoofs strike sparkles from the crispy, crackling snow!

There's the Man i' the Moon before us, bound to lead the Christmas chorus
With the music of the sky-waves rippling round his silver shell —
Glimmering boat that leans and tarries with the weight of dreams she carries
To the cots of happy children. Gentle sailor, steer her well!

Now we pass through dusky portals to the drowsy land of mortals;
Snow-enfolded, silent cities stretch about us dim and far.
Oh! how sound the world is sleeping, midnight watch no shepherd keeping,
Though an angel-face shines gladly down from every golden star.

Here's a roof. I'll hold the reindeer. I suppose this weather-vane, Dear,
Some one set here just on purpose for our teams to fasten to.
There's its gilded cock, — the gaby! — wants to crow and tell the baby
We are come. Be careful, Santa! Don't get smothered in the flue.

Back so soon? No chimney-swallow dives but where his mate can follow.
Bend your cold ear, Sweetheart Santa, down to catch my whisper faint:
Would it be so very shocking if your Goody filled a stocking
Just for once? Oh, dear! Forgive me. Frowns do not become a Saint.

I will peep in at the skylights, where the moon sheds tender twilights
Equally down silken chambers and down attics bare and bleak.
Let me show with hailstone candies these two dreaming boys — the dandies
In their frilled and fluted nighties, rosy cheek to rosy cheek!

What! No gift for this poor garret? Take a sunset sash and wear it
O'er the rags, my pale-faced lassie, till thy father smiles again.
He's a poet, but — oh, cruel! he has neither light nor fuel.
Here's a fallen star to write by, and a music-box of rain.

So our sprightly reindeer clamber, with their fairy sleigh of amber,
On from roof to roof , the woven shades of night about us drawn.
On from roof to roof we twinkle, all the silver bells a-tinkle,
Till blooms in yonder bless├Ęd East the rose of Christmas dawn.

Now the pack is fairly rifled, and poor Santa's well-nigh stifled;
Yet you would not let your Goody fill a single baby-sock;
Yes, I know the task takes brain, Dear. I can only hold the reindeer,
And so see me climb down chimney — it would give your nerves a shock.

Wait! There's yet a tiny fellow, smiling lips and curls so yellow
You would think a truant sunbeam played in them all night. He spins
Giant tops, a flies kites higher than the gold cathedral spire
In his creams — the orphan bairnie, trustful little Tatterkins.

Santa, don't pass by the urchin! Shake the pack, and deeply search in
All your pockets. There is always one toy more. I told you so.
Up again? Why, what's the trouble? On your eyelash winks the bubble
Mortals call a tear, I fancy. Holes in stocking, heel and toe?

Goodman, though your speech is crusty now and then there's nothing rusty
In your heart. A child's least sorrow makes your wet eyes glisten, too;
But I'll mend that sock so nearly it shall hold your gifts completely.
Take the reins and let me show you what a woman's wit can do.

Puff! I'm up again, my Deary, flushed a bit and somewhat weary,
With my wedding snow-flake bonnet worse for many a sooty knock;
But be glad you let me wheedle, since, an icicle for needle,
Threaded with the last pale moonbeam, I have darned the laddie's sock.

Then I tucked a paint-box in it ('twas no easy task to win it
From the Artist of the Autumn Leaves) and frost-fruits white and sweet,
With the toys your pocket misses — oh! and kisses upon kisses
To cherish safe from evil paths the motherless small feet.

Chirrup! chirrup! There's a patter of soft footsteps and a clatter
Of child voices. Speed it, reindeer, up the sparkling Arctic Hill!
Merry Christmas, little people! Joy-bells ring in every steeple,
And Goody's gladdest of the glad. I've had my own sweet will.

Happy holidays to everyone!

Image from riptheskull

Monday, December 21, 2009

Mentor Monday--The National Archives

The U.S. government preserves our national heritage through the National Archives and Records Adminstration. People consult the NARA to do genealogical research or to check military records, but, the NARA is more than records of births, deaths, and years of service. It has a vast collection of photographs, maps, documents, etc., many of which are digitized and accessible from the ARC webpage. A great feature on the site is Today's Document, which displays an original historically significant document. Also included with the document may be a transcript, background information, suggestions for teachers, and research links.

The National Archives is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and there are thirteen regional Archives. I knew there was one about an hour's drive from me in Massachusetts, but I had never visited it until recently. I was impressed by my first visit, and I'm sure you will be, too. There is so much STUFF! Not only that, the people at the Northeast Region at Boston conduct workshops for educators.

I attended a workshop earlier this month on World War II. It was multi-faceted with an overview of World War II, a discussion of WW II books for elementary school students, and a talk by a writer of a children's book about WW II and how she used the National Archives in her research. We could have spent twice the two hours that had been allotted for the workshop. The best part? It was free! My tax dollars at work.

Northeast Region at Boston also schedules a variety genealogical workshops, including ones for kids!

We live in a great country! Take advantage of the opportunities afforded you by our government to learn.


Photo NARA

Friday, December 18, 2009

Poetry Friday - Robert W. Service

It’s been bitterly cold the last two days, here in New Hampshire. And whenever it gets that cold, I find myself pulling out Robert W. Service and The Cremation of Sam McGee. Just reading it warms me up!

First, a little bit about Mr. Service, who spent a great deal of his life up in the Yukon during the Alaskan Gold Rush.

From his obituary in the, Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, September 16, 1958.

He was not a poet's poet. Fancy-Dan dilettantes will dispute the description "great." He was a people's poet. To the people he was great. They understood him, and knew that any verse carrying the by-line of Robert W. Service would be a lilting thing, clear, clean and power-packed, beating out a story with a dramatic intensity that made the nerves tingle. And he was no poor, garret-type poet, either. His stuff made money hand over fist. One piece alone,
The Shooting of Dan McGrew, rolled up half a million dollars for him. He lived it up well and also gave a great deal to help others.

Imagine that. A poet making half a million dollars. On one poem!

Personally, I like Sam McGee better than Dan McGrew.

The Cremation of Sam McGee

by Robert W. Service

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he'd often say in his homely way that he'd "sooner live in hell."

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! Through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn't see;
It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and "Cap," says he, "I'll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I'm asking that you won't refuse my last request."

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
"It's the cursed cold, and it's got right hold till I'm chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet 'tain't being dead -- it's my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you'll cremate my last remains."

A pal's last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn't a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: "You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it's up to you to cremate those last remains."

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows -- O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I'd often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the "Alice May".
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then "Here," said I, with a sudden cry, "is my cre-ma-to-re-um."

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared -- such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: "I'll just take a peep inside.
I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked"; . . . then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door.
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm --
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm."

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Photo: Beverly Bennett Dobbs

Today's Poetry Roundup is being held at Susan Writes

Monday, December 14, 2009

Mentor Monday - Evaluating Your Manuscript

Many moons ago when I was a sophomore in high school, I had the opportunity to take a creative writing class. It was the first time I had ever had any instruction on writing for publication. On the first day, we received a handout titled, ‘Evaluating Your Manuscript.'

The purpose of the handout was to help us learn how to evaluate what we wrote, and how to tell when our work was ready to submit. I’ve had this handout tacked up on many walls throughout all my years of writing. It has faded and been retyped several times, and it is the only piece of paper I have never lost or misplaced.

Perhaps it can help you, too. Just answer the questions. You don’t have to write them down. Just answer them in your head and check off the questions you couldn’t answer. If the answers come readily, you’re on the right track. If not, there’s probably some work you still need to do, and you’ll know exactly what you have to work on - the questions you couldn’t answer. Not every question will apply to your story. If you’re not writing fantasy or a character-driven story, those questions obviously won’t apply. But most of the questions will.


Who is the protagonist?
What are the conflicts?
Are they physical, intellectual, moral or emotional?
Are they clearly defined good and evil, or more subtle and complex?

Does the plot have unity?
Are all scenes relevant to the total meaning or effect of the story?
Do they grow logically from preceding incidents and lead naturally to the next?
Is the ending happy, unhappy, or undetermined?
Is it achieved fairly?

Have you used chance and coincidence?
Do they initiate, complicate, or resolve the story?
How improbable are they?

How have you created suspense?
Is the interest in “what happens next” or are larger concerns involved?
Is there mystery? Dilemma?

What use does the story make of surprise?
Are surprises achieved fairly?
Do they serve a significant purpose? Or --
Do they divert attention away from weaknesses in the story?


How have you revealed character?
Are your characters sufficiently dramatized?
What use is made of contrasting characters?
Are your characters consistent in their actions?
Are they adequately motivated?
Are they believable?

Have you avoided stock characters?
Is each character developed enough to justify his role in the story?
Which characters are developing characters?
Are their changes large or small?
Are they believable changes?
Are they sufficiently motivated?
Has there been sufficient time for the change to occur?


Does the story have one?
What is it, in one sentence or less?
Is it implicit or explicit?
Does the theme reinforce or oppose popular beliefs?
Does it furnish new insights, or refresh or deepen old ones?

Point of View

Which POV have you used?
If shifts are made, are they justified?
What is the advantage of the POV you have chosen?
Does it furnish any clues to the purpose of the story?
Does the character’s POV have any limitations that affect his interpretation of events and people?
Does the chosen POV help to conceal or reveal events in the story?
Have you withheld any information known to your POV character?

Symbolism and Irony

Does your story make use of symbolism?
Do symbols carry the story or reinforce its meaning?
Does the story use irony?
Is it situational, dramatic, or verbal?
What function does the irony serve?

Emotion and Humor

Does the story aim for an emotional effect, or is emotion the by-product?
Is the emotion sufficiently dramatized?
Are you guilty of sentimentality?


Does the story use fantasy?
What is your initial fantastical assumption?
Does the story operate logically from that assumption?
Is the fantasy used for its own sake or to express some human truth?
If some truth, what is that truth?


Is the main interest of the story plot, character, theme or something else?
What contribution does the setting make?
Is the setting essential, or could your story happen anywhere?
What is your style?
Is it appropriate for this particular story?
Do all elements of the story work together to support a central purpose?
Is any part irrelevant?
What is the story’s central purpose?
Is it escapist or interpretive fiction?
How significant is the story’s purpose?
Does the story gain or lose upon a second reading?

That’s it! There are no right or wrong answers. The questions simply help you understand the story you want to tell, and to determine if you have actually written it. You can use them before you write to help determine if your idea is strong enough to merit a story. You can use them as you write and revise to keep you on track. And you can use them when you’ve finished to see if you’ve covered all the bases. Give it a try and see if it works for you!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Poetry Friday: Mea Culpa

It's Saturday. I awaken to a clean slate day. I've no plans until late this afternoon, and a lazy Saturday is just what I need after the craziness that was Friday. Friday was one of those days that didn't include breathing. There was just no room for it.

The day started with a fasting blood draw at 7:40 a.m. in Raymond, followed by a mad dash back to Epping where I spent the rest of the morning teaching. As soon as school was over, I jumped in my Alien Green Kia Soul and drove to Waltham. Grace's Christmas Party is coming up at Fernald and I needed to deliver her presents. I'd run to Walmart the night before and bought Gracie a turquoise velour jogging suit, a long-sleeve black t-shirt, a set of silver bangle bracelets, and a bright yellow smiley-face Mr. Happy pillow. They were all wrapped up in Christmas paper emblazoned with a pattern of Santas holding puppies, and Gracie nearly hyperventilated when she saw the presents.

Gracie and I and some of her pals hung out for an hour or so. We sang Chrismtas songs, and also a few of Gracie's favorites from her childhood, which ended in 1927 when she went to live at The Walter Fernald School at age 6. I kissed one-eyed Gracie goodbye, wished her Merry Christmas, and made the melancholy drive back to Epping.

I needed to get my school straightened up for the parent conference I had scheduled for 5 p.m. The conference lasted until about 6:15, after which I ran out the door and over to The Rockingham County Nursing Home to see my mother. This was the first Christmas she hadn't been able to visit her sister Grace herself, and she wanted to hear how things were going for Gracie down at Fernald.

I drove through McDonald's, picked up a fish sandwich for Eileen and a burger for myself, and enjoyed a quiet dinner with Mom. I stayed until the staff started bedding down the Rockettes, and was happy for the blessed quiet when I got home. Usually, I'd check my email, but that could wait.

And so here I am. The quiet of my Saturday shattered by my own screams when I realized I missed Poetry Friday. I missed Poetry Friday! And my good friend and sistah Diane hosted! Oh, the shame! Oh, the guilt!  Mea maxima culpa.

And so, I offer for Poetry Friday (a day late) Mea Culpa by Brittany's eco warrior, environmental poet Anjela Duval, translated by Lenora Timm. This poem could have been written for so many of New Hampshire's small communities which are falling prey to big development. (Going to both McDonald's and Walmart in little Epping would have been beyond imagining 20 years ago.)  This week, the first four words were written for me.


-- How stupid you are, people
Throwing stones at their signs
They have the right to stop you from passing
Through the city where they are
They have bought
They have paid
They have rebuilt ruins
That collapsed thirty years ago
Through the indifference of our Countrymen
Who go to town to buy a plot
-- A hundred thousand francs per square meter --
After they've sold their mills
Or their farms to the Foreigner
For a mere trifling
You're stupid, people
Beating stones against their signs
Beat instead your own breasts.

This week's Poetry Friday is being hosted by Diane Mayr at Random Noodling.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Mentor Monday: Why It Works

Don and Audrey Wood have created some of my all-time favorite picture books. Their 1986 Caldecott Honor Book King Bidgood's in the Bathtub is, in my opinion, close to picture book perfection. I've been reading this story to my students for 20+ years and it never fails to delight. It has all the elements necessary to capture and keep a preschooler's attention.

Visually, it's stunning. The costumes are lavishly detailed, and the medieval setting rings completely true. The characters' facial expressions and body language leave no doubt as to what's going on in the story. It could almost be a wordless picture book, but I wouldn't lose one syllable of text.

Audrey Wood knows how to tell a story that preschoolers want to hear. She knows that this young audience needs a storyline that can be summed up in one short sentence, like this: King Bidgood's in the bathtub and he won't get out. The scene is set for the hapless little page, who has to haul the water and mop up the mess. He looks to the adults in the book for help. "King Bidgood's in the bathtub and he won't get out! Oh, who knows what to do?"

The queen, duke, knight and the rest of the king's court are all sure they can coax Bidgood out of the tub, but of course they can't. They can't because Audrey Wood knows Rule Number One of picture book writing. If you're going to have a child hero, that child hero must solve his or her own problem. So the page is left to deal with Bidgood, who proves that it really is good to be king as he battles with his toys in the tub, eats lunch in the tub, fishes in the tub, and holds a masquerade ball in the tub.

Finally, with the king's court dripping wet and calling for help, the page takes matters into his own capable hands and pulls the plug. The problem is solved by the child hero, and the king is left fleeing the draining tub wrapped in a towel that reveals just a hint of royal behind.

Do Don and Audrey Wood know their audience, or what?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Poetry Friday--Winter Friends

I know winter doesn't officially arrive for another few weeks, but last year, at about this time, we had an ice storm that left us without power for several days. Afterward, it was beautiful, but sooooo inconvenient.

In looking forward to what Mother Nature has in store for us this year, I borrowed Winter Friends (Doubleday, 2005) by Mary Quattlebaum, illustrated by Hiroe Nakata, from my public library.

Winter has never looked as bright as it does in these eighteen illustrated poems. The poems cover all the usual winter topics--snow, snow angels, and sledding, as well some not so usual winter topics, like a mother's whistling, or a party.

Sadly, this book is listed as "permanently out of stock," but it is available in many public libraries, so look for it and get ready for winter!

This week's Poetry Friday Round-Up is being hosted by Elaine at Wild Rose Reader. Be sure to stop by!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Women of Wednesday--Nearly 90 Years Later

The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had been passed in August and the November elections of 1920 would be the first in which women could legally vote.
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Below is a cartoon that was published in October 1920.

There are an additional 7 steps to the top rung--the U.S. Presidency. Here we are, nearly 90 years later, and we have yet to make it to the top. Just a little something to think about as we head into 2010.


Monday, November 30, 2009

Mentor Monday--Common-Place

Common-place: A Common Space, an Uncommon Voice is a journal-type website co-sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and the University of Oklahoma.

If you haven't come across it before, it's worth a visit if you're interested in American History prior to the 20th century.
Common-place is a common place for exploring and exchanging ideas about early American history and culture. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, Common-place speaks--and listens--to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history before 1900.
Here are two examples of the articles found in the October 2009 issue: "Blogging with Pickles: Adventures (and Misadventures) in the Quest to Capture the Flavor of Everyday School Life" by Jim Cullen, and, "Shivering Timbers: Sexing Up the Pirates in Early Modern Print Culture" by Carolyn Eastman. How can you resist reading more with titles like those?

Of particular note is the Common-Place Web Library that reviews sites covering a variety of topics from Abraham Lincoln to food. All the sources are accessible to the non-scholar.


Friday, November 27, 2009

Poetry Friday: My Love For All Things Warm and Breathing

I have seldom loved more than one thing at a time,
yet this morning I feel myself expanding, each
part of me soft and glandular, and under my skin
is room enough now for the loving of many things,
and all of them at once, these students especially,
not only the girl in the yellow sweater, whose
name, Laura Buxton, is somehow the girl herself,
Laura for the coy green mellowing eyes, Buxton
for all the rest, but also the simple girl in blue
on the back row, her mouth sad beyond all reasonable
inducements, and the boy with the weight problem,
his teeth at work even now on his lower lip, and
the grand profusion of hair and nails and hands and
legs and tongues and thighs and fingertips and
wrists and throats, yes, of throats especially,
throats through which passes the breath that joins
the air that enters through these ancient windows,
that exits, that takes with it my own breath, inside
this room just now my love for all things warm and
breathing, that lifts it high to scatter it fine and
enormous into the trees and the grass, into the heat
beneath the earth beneath the stone, into the
boundless lust of all things bound but gathering.

--William Kloefkorn

I've never heard teaching described so . . . erotically.

Kloefkorn pushes boundaries with this one, and I'm sure some readers might find this disturbing. As a teacher my
self, I love the different way Kloefkorn shows a teacher's passion -- not for what we teach, but for who we're teaching.

Thanks to The Writers Almanac for publishing it. Be sure to sign up for your daily dose.

"My Love For All Things Warm and Breathing" by William Kloefkorn, from Cottonwood County: Poems by William Kloefkorn and Ted Kooser. © Windflower Press, 1979.

The photo of the Tennessee classroom originated here.

This photo is by Alfred Eisenstadt.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Women Say the Darndest Things!

"In passing, also, I would like to say that the first time Adam had a chance he laid the blame on woman."

-Nancy Astor, British politician

"When choosing between two evils, I always try the one I've never tried before."

-Mae West, American actress

go to this blog for an interesting take on what Mother Teresa and Mae West had to say (you have to scroll down a little bit . . .)

"Think wrongly, if you please, but in all cases think for yourself.

-Doris Lessing, British writer

"The most popular labor-saving device is still money."

-Phyllis George, American sportscaster

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mentor Monday: Self-Discipline the Joyce Cary Way

It's something I struggle with daily -- finding the will to write. The work is hard. It's sometimes isolating. There are days when it seems hopeless to even consider myself talented enough. And so I find ways to distract myself until I gather the courage to finally stop avoiding it. The only person who will write my books is me. Life is too short and the work too long . . .

During these times, I often turn to a description of the author Joyce Cary's last months and days of writing. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) struck Cary and he died in 1957. I wish I could credit the writer, but I have been unable to locate that information.

So, how dedicated are you to your craft?

He ceased working in the top attic as the stairs became impossible for him and began to use Trudy's old private sitting-room on the ground floor as his study. He had metal grips fitted into the walls of the passages at various strategic points and with their aid and that of a stick could for a time get about without other help. When the disease attacked his hands he contrived a sling with an elastic band which could take the weight of his wrist and leave him free to write . . .

He was in bed all the time now and working under heartbreakingly difficult conditions. He now had a bed-desk invented by himself and made for him by his next-door neighbor, a magistrate whom Joyce called "the Judge". A roll of blank paper ran underneath which led across the desk to another roll on which the used paper was wound.

At first, he still had enough movement in his right hand to be able to push the paper forward as it was used. When this, too, became impossible his son Tristram devised an electrical switch by which Joyce dropped his wrist on a button and the paper moved forward automatically. The hand itself was supported by a sling and the pen or pencil was fastened to the fingers.

You can read more about Joyce Cary here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Last Time. I Promise!

New writers are often told that they must read, read, read in the genre they want to write. All that reading won’t do a bit of good if you don’t take the time to analyze what you’ve read.

The three passages we’ve been working with describe three different times and places. They elicit separate moods, preparing us to enter the writer’s world. Surprisingly, they accomplish these tasks by using similar techniques. I’m going to use the first two passages to show you what I mean. After that, why don’t you try doing the same exercise with the Jean Fritz entry.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s opening sentences are very, very simple. The hundred or so words I’ve quoted have a readability level of slightly above a 4th grade level. The individual word readability is probably much lower than that and most likely measures higher because Ingalls uses longer sentence structure. I’ve used color to emphasize several words that elicit feeling. Then, I’ve used bold print to show the repetition of phrase or sentence structure:

“Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.
The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Picture yourself reading that passage aloud. Better yet, try it. Emphasize the blue words. Slow down when you get to the repeated phrasing. Feel the delicious scariness!

* * *
“If, instead of a pencil, I held a brush in my hand, I would paint the scene: the scene of Autumn Street…and Grandfather’s house would loom huge, out of proportion, awesome and austere, with the clipped lawn as smooth and green as patchwork pockets on a velvet skirt. The rough pink brick of the sidewalk, bordered by elms, would wind the length of the street, past the Hoffman’s house, past the bright forsythia bushes that grew around the great-aunts’ front porch, past the homes of strangers and friends and forgotten people, finally disappearing where the woods began.
I would blur the woods. I would blur them with a murky mixture of brown and green and black, the hueless shade that I know from my dreams to be the color of pain.” Lois Lowry

There is scariness here, too, but Lowry's passage also hints at horror.

Try your hand at the last one. Color the words that elicit emotion. Underline the repeated phrasing:

* * *
“In my father’s study there was a large globe with all the countries of the world running around it. I could put my finger on the exact spot where I was and had been ever since I’d been born. And I was on the wrong side of the globe, I was in China in a city named Hankow, a dot on a crooked line that seemed to break the country right in two. The line was really the Yangtse River, but who would know by looking at a map what the Yangstse River really was?
“Orange-brown, muddy mustard-colored. And wide, wide, wide. With a river smell that was old and came all the way from the bottom. Sometimes old women knelt on the riverbank, begging the River God to return a son or grandson who may have drowned. …but I knew who busy the River God must be. All those people on the Yangtse River! Coolies hauling water. Women washing clothes. Houseboats swarming with old people and young, chickens and pigs. Big crooked-sailed junks with eyes painted on their prows so they could see where they were going…” Jean Fritz

Go back in your own work and follow these techniques used by these masters. Choose your words as carefully as a poet. Try your hand at adding repeated phrasing. Does this type of emphasis work for you and your work?

These suggestions are just a couple to look for when you model successful writers. You might also go back and find metaphors or similes, alliteration or assonance. Let the masters show you the way to your own success.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Mentor Monday: Where Are You? (Part Two)

A few weeks ago, I asked you to look at examples from some books that give the reader a good sense of place. I asked you to think about whether you were bringing your readers along when you described the places your characters inhabited. This time, I’d like to use the same three examples and ask you to do a short exercise.

The art of describing a scene requires a fine touch because you are not only telling your reader where your characters are, you are also eliciting a mood. You are often setting the tone of your book. Some writers think of the setting as something akin to an additional character. I feel the setting should be so strong that, in most instances, your story could not take place anywhere else. Would a Tin Man have worked as a character if Dorothy had remained on her Kansas farm? How would a Huckleberry Finn have fared in a 19th century Boston? Just thinking about those possibilities makes me feel a little mentally disjointed. Would I be able to suspend disbelief enough to get into such stories? I don’t know.

So this week’s activity is to re-read the entries I quoted from Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lois Lowry, and Jean Fritz. I chose these passages because each of them open the story. Each writer sets us firmly in the place where her story occurs. This time, however, instead of reading these entries to get a sense of place, read to get a sense of mood. Write down words describing how each passage makes you feel. Try to write 3 to 5 words per entry. Then, when you have completed the exercise, write a sentence or phrase that describes what each passage seems to promise you. In other words, where do you think the author will take you? Will the novel take you to place of comfort? A place of fear? A place of adventure? Try it now:

“Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.
The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder

This passage makes me feel:_______________________________________________

Ingalls will probably take me to a story about:___________________________________

“If, instead of a pencil, I held a brush in my hand, I would paint the scene: the scene of Autumn Street…and Grandfather’s house would loom huge, out of proportion, awesome and austere, with the clipped lawn as smooth and green as patchwork pockets on a velvet skirt. The rough pink brick of the sidewalk, bordered by elms, would wind the length of the street, past the Hoffman’s house, past the bright forsythia bushes that grew around the great-aunts’ front porch, past the homes of strangers and friends and forgotten people, finally disappearing where the woods began.
…I would blur the woods. I would blur them with a murky mixture of brown and green and black, the hueless shade that I know from my dreams to be the color of pain.”
Lois Lowry

This passage makes me feel:_______________________________________________

Lowry will probably take me to a story about:__________________________________

“In my father’s study there was a large globe with all the countries of the world running around it. I could put my finger on the exact spot where I was and had been ever since I’d been born. And I was on the wrong side of the globe, I was in China in a city named Hankow, a dot on a crooked line that seemed to break the country right in two. The line was really the Yangtse River, but who would know by looking at a map what the Yangstse River really was?
“Orange-brown, muddy mustard-colored. And wide, wide, wide. With a river smell that was old and came all the way from the bottom. Sometimes old women knelt on the riverbank, begging the River God to return a son or grandson who may have drowned. …but I knew how busy the River God must be. All those people on the Yangtse River! Coolies hauling water. Women washing clothes. Houseboats swarming with old people and young, chickens and pigs. Big crooked-sailed junks with eyes painted on their prows so they could see where they were going…”
Jean Fritz

This passage makes me feel:_______________________________________________

Fritz will probably take me to a story about:____________________________________

Tomorrow, we’ll look at these passages one final time to notice the techniques the writers use to elicit these emotions.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Poetry Friday--"November Night"

Photo by lapstrake

You've heard of the form cinquain. Do you know who created it? A woman named Adelaide Crapsey. Crapsey lived a short life of 36 years, from 1878 to 1914. Much of her writing deals with the subject of death, but this lovely cinquain can be read simply as a description of what happens at this time of year.

November Night

With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp'd, break from the trees
And fall.

If you'd like to try a cinquain of your own, here are the simple "rules":

1. five lines
2. unrhymed
3. the first and fifth lines have 2 syllables; the second has 4, the third has 6, and the fourth has 8 syllables
4. usually with an iambic cadence

In elementary schools cinquain are often taught with this added element:

1. line one contains the subject name (noun)
2. line two is a description (adjective/s)
3. line three is actions (three words ending in "ing")
4. line four is additional description (a simple phrase)
5. line five is another name for the subject (noun)

Here's an example:

noisy, nosey
strutting, flapping, crowing
boss of all the barnyard chickens
King Cluck
© Diane Mayr, all rights reserved

It's a good lesson on parts of speech, but it makes for a lousy poem!

Visit GottaBook for this week's Poetry Friday Round-Up.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Women of Wednesday--There Have Always Been Women Artists

I've profiled several artists for the "America's Notable Women" series. These women were able to create art despite social nonacceptance. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that they were able to make their way into the art world. They moved from "gentle ladies" who could paint china, or do needlepoint, to artists.

Nowadays gender makes no difference--art is what is made by an artist.

There have always been women artists, and lest we forget, here is a short video I found on YouTube. It shows the work created by women over hundreds of years.

Imagine how much richer the video would have been if all women who were so inclined had received the training, support, and the freedom to create that their male contemporaries received!


Monday, November 9, 2009

Mentor Monday--What to Read Next?

If you're a writer of fiction, you must be a reader. You should read extensively in the particular genre (mystery, contemporary, speculative, fantasy, etc.) you wish to write in. But sometimes, you draw a blank. What to read next?

There are online places to go to for direction. All you need is the title and author of a book you've read and liked previously. You can look for either adult or children's books.

What Should I Read Next? is an easy to remember site! It's recommendations are based on those of other readers.

The Book Seer gathers its recommendations from Amazon and Library Thing. What I like about this site is the wise advice, "Of course, you could go ask your local bookshop or your local library."

At tastekid there is a definite "young adult" feel to the site. The search engine is named "Emmy" and is represented by a cute little Japanese manga character. Emmy suggests not only books, but also music and movies.

For the above three sites I used The Giver by Lois Lowry as my test. Not every suggestion made sense. Here are a few examples: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg, and The White Rose and the Swastika (Oxford Modern Playscripts) by Adrian Flynn.

Another place to look for suggestions is NoveList, an EBSCO product. Check your local public library to see if it offers this great database. One of its search options is "describe a plot." This can come in handy if you've read a book and can no longer remember the title, but you want to read something similar!


Photo by Marco Bellucci

Friday, November 6, 2009

Poetry Friday: The Flu

Is anybody else having as many swine flu conversations as I seem to be having? I know several people who are struggling with whether or not to have their children immunized. I'd roll my sleeve up in a heartbeat if the vaccine became available. I'm too old for the nasal mist, and apparently there are not enough shots for even those folks whose health puts them at risk for great complications. I guess my only defenses are to keep washing my hands and then crossing my really clean fingers.

I'd like to offer The Flu by J. P. McEvoy for Poetry Friday. It rings as true today as it did when it was first published in 1919.


by J. P.  McEvoy 

When your back is broke and your eyes are blurred.
And your shin-bones knock and your tongue is furred,
And your tonsils squeak and your hair gets dry,
And you’re doggone sure that you’re going to die,
But you’re skeered you won’t and afraid you will,
Just drag to bed and have your chill;
And pray the Lord to see you through
For you’ve got the Flu, boy,

You’ve got the Flu.

When your toes curl up and your belt goes flat,
And you’re twice as mean as a Thomas cat,
And life is a long and dismal curse,
And your food all tastes like a hard-boiled hearse,
When your lattice aches and your head’s abuzz
And nothing is as it ever was,
Here are my sad regrets to you,
You’ve got the Flu, boy,

You’ve got the Flu.

What is it like, this Spanish Flu?
Ask me, brother, for I’ve been through,
It is by Misery out of Despair,
It pulls your teeth and curls your hair,
It thins your blood and brays your bones
And fills your craw with moans and groans,
And sometimes, maybe, you get well —
Some call it Flu — I call it hell!
Today's Poetry Friday is being hosted by Elaine at Wild Rose Reader.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Rethinking the Pigeon

I was late coming to the Mo Willems appreciation party. Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! made me shake my head in the kids section of Barnes and Noble the first time I read it. I didn't get it. I understood that the pigeon, singularly focused on its ridiculous goal, represented a preschool-aged child. I knew the pleading, begging, bargaining, whining, foot-stomping, petulant pigeon was supposed to be funny, but I wasn't laughing. The bird left me cold.

I put the book back on the shelf and kept leafing through new titles. I didn't think of Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! again until it showed up in the pages of Scholastic's Firefly Books flyer one month. Since I buy any book recognized with a Caldecott that shows up in Firefly, I used my teacher reward points and ordered Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! I read it again when the book arrived, and my original opinion didn't change. If anything, I was maybe even a little bit more disgusted. Why, I wondered, did this book win a Caldecott Honor? It will only encourage this Willems fellow to continue polluting the picture book market.

I shelved the book and didn't give it much thought until this past Monday. One of my students brought a Mo Willems book for Sharing Day, which is kind of like Show and Tell. I hadn't read The Pigeon Wants a Puppy!, but based on my reaction to Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, I wasn't expecting to like the book. Of course I was right. I didn't like it. I loved it. If I was handing out starred reviews, I'd have given it 5 stars.

How could this be? Have I no convictions? I don't like the pigeon. At least I didn't before. I'm a total fan now. Could it be because I think dogs are the best thing since white go-go boots, and if the pigeon likes dogs the pigeon must be okay?

I needed to see if this was a fluke. I pulled Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! off the shelf and reread it. Oh, my God! What a great book! And the bird is actually kind of charming. What happened? Why am I suddenly a Mo Willems groupie?

It took fourteen 4-year olds to open my eyes to the wonder of Willems. Instead of zipping through the text silently, I read the books out loud to my students. The kids were instantly engaged in both of Willems's books. They were actually dialoging with the pigeon. They were invested in not letting the pigeon drive the bus. They were pointing out the holes in the pigeon's arguments. Puppies don't play tennis, for Pete's sake!

When I finished reading each of the books, all fourteen kids called for an encore. So we read the books twice, and they were just as much fun to read the second time around. In fact, the kids want even more Mo, so I'm heading to the library right now to check out any other pigeon books that Willems fellow was encouraged to write when he won that Caldecott Honor.

Before I go up to the Harvey-Mitchell Memorial Library I have one piece of advice. Resist the urge to judge a picture book after a silent skim through the pages. These books are meant to be read aloud as surely as song lyrics are meant to be sung.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Poetry Friday - The Erl King

In keeping with the creepy classic theme, I'd like to offer up the Erl King, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

The Erl-King

Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The father it is, with his infant so dear;
He holdeth the boy tightly clasp'd in his arm,
He holdeth him safely, he keeps him from harm.

"My son, wherefore seek'st thou thy face thus to hide?"
"Look, Father, the Erl-King is close by our side!
Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?"
"My son, 'tis the mist rising over the plain."

"Oh come, thou dear infant! Oh come thou with me!
Full many a game I will play there with thee;
On my strand many flowers there blossoms unfold,
My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold."

"My Father, my Father, and dost thou not hear
The words that the Erl-King now breathes in mine ear?"
"Be calm, dearest child, 'tis thy fancy deceives;
'Tis the sad wind that sighs through the withering leaves."

"Wilt go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there?
My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care.
My daughters, by night, their glad festival keep,
They'll dance thee, and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep."

"My Father, my Father, and dost thou not see,
How the Erl-King his daughters has brought here for me?"
"My darling, my darling, I see it aright,
'Tis the aged grey willows deceiving thy sight."

"I love thee. I'm charm'd by thy beauty, dear boy!
And if thou'rt unwilling, then force I'll employ."
"My Father, my Father, he seizes me fast,
Full sorely the Erl-King has hurt me at last."

The father now gallops with terror half wild,
He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child;
He reaches his courtyard with toil and with dread,
The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead.

~~~~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Today's Poetry Round-up is at Biblio File
Art by Albert Sterner ca 1910

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Classics Gone Bad

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
by Seth Grahame-Smith

This novel is exactly what the title implies - Pride and Prejudice, with zombies added into the mix. You’ll find the same characters you loved in the original, but in this slightly alternate universe, there just happen to be zombies, too.

From Wikipedia - Elizabeth Bennett and her four sisters live on a countryside estate with their parents. Mr. Bennet guides his daughters in martial arts and weapons training, molding them into a fearsome zombie-fighting army; meanwhile, Mrs. Bennet endeavours to marry the girls off to wealthy suitors. When the wealthy and single Mr. Bingley purchases a nearby house, Mrs. Bennet spies an opportunity and sends the girls to the first ball where Bingley is expected to appear. The girls defend the party from a zombie attack, and attraction sparks between Mr. Bingley and eldest daughter Jane Bennet. Elizabeth, however, clashes with Bingley's friend, the haughty monster-hunter Fitzwilliam Darcy

And thus a classic love story becomes a romping adventure. If you’re into Horror or Humor, you’ll love the farce and parody. If you loved the original, it’s fun to see how the new element of zombies is interwoven into the plot, and how, even with the zombies added, the original story still remains and holds up. A very fun read.

Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer
written by Van Jensen, art by Dusty Higgins.

I’m not a fan of Graphic Novels, but as with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the title just sucked me in. I had to see what it was all about.

Vampire Slayer is a 128 page Graphic Novel that you can read in 20-30 minutes. It’s about a kid (well, a puppet) with a killer nose that grows in the blink of a lie - which comes in handy when you happen to be in need of a stake.
The story, (which follows the original Carlo Collodi) begins after Gepetto is dead, killed by vampires who have taken over the village. Fueled by revenge, Pinocchio, who is still made of wood, sets out to destroy the vampires and clean up his hometown. He is joined on his quest by a fairy, now old and tired, the carpenter who found the wood to make him, who now makes cool and deadly gadgets, and the ghost of the cricket he killed in the original version, who serves as a wise-cracking sidekick.

I wasn’t thrilled with the art, but what do I know? It isn’t my genre. The story itself has darkness and mood with a nice touch of humor, both slapstick and subtle, and the premise is clever. As a writer, it got me thinking about all the things you could do with it. Jensen and Higgins plan for this to be a trilogy, and book two is already in the works. Here’s a peek.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mentor Monday - Horror: How Much is Too Much

Everybody likes to be scared. Even the littlest kids. Think about playing peek-a-boo with a baby. You cover your face with your hands, cutting off all eye-contact with your child, and you virtually disappear. If you peek through your fingers, you can see the worried look on the baby’s face. Keep your face covered too long, and the baby is overwhelmed with fear and cries. But if you time it right, you part your hands and shout ‘peek-a-boo,’ the baby gives a bit of a start then smiles or laughs, and you do it over and over, flipping him from fear to joy and back again.

Sounds sadistic, doesn’t it? Yet both adults and babies seem to like the game. Why? My guess is because scaring others, and being scared, is fun. There’s something in us that makes us enjoy that frightened, scary feeling, as long as we know we’re not really going to be hurt.

Unfortunately, once you pass a certain age, peek-a-boo just doesn’t do it for you any more. A good horror story can. But in the world of children’s writing, how do you know how much is enough? At what point does scary become too scary?

Early Readers - Make Them Imagine

Psychological terror is probably the scariest and most sophisticated type of terror there is. The things we imagine are always much worse than reality. Forcing readers to use their imaginations can create multi-layers of terror in a story. And if you’re writing for the youngest readers, it can be just the tool you need to keep things from getting too scary.

The Spooky Old Tree, by Stan and Jan Berenstein, is basically a haunted house story for the youngest readers. Three little bears crawl into an old, dark tree to explore. As they progress through the tree, they encounter a series of scary obstacles, (suits of armor with axes, a rickety stairway, a small chasm, a great sleeping bear.)

The text and illustrations are simple and straightforward, leaving readers lots of room to envision their own terrors. What is down in that dark pit? Is it bottomless? If the bears fall in, will they die?

If the Berensteins had answered those questions with text or illustrations, the story might have been too scary for some and not scary enough for others. In either case, a child might have put the book down. By leaving it up to the child’s imagination, each child may imagine something different, but the fright level for each is the same - just right - because we only imagine what we already know. The Berensteins have very skillfully allowed the readers to imagine their own worst fears, and what could be scarier than that?

Middle-Grade - Make Them Feel

Horror isn’t simply about fear. It’s also about making the reader feel uneasy and uncomfortable. It’s about making his stomach turn or his flesh crawl, making him gasp, go ‘eeeew,’ or turn away. One way to dredge up those feelings is to create clear, visual images.

This works particularly well in MG novels where the emphasis is generally on gross rather than terror, and the horrors are mostly monsters, the supernatural, or from the fantasy realm, rather than humans. Show your readers the blood oozing from the walls. Show them the headless corpse being eaten away by maggots at the bottom of the pit. Let them smell it decomposing. But be sure to use description carefully. Adding it gratuitously won’t do anything for a story, and may even turn some kids off. Like every other genre, a story should contain only the elements it needs to make it work.

Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell use description wonderfully in the dark fantasy, Beyond the Deepwoods. Their use of detail allows the reader to see a world of creepy creatures and gruesome deaths, and they do it without it being too much. The story is gory and gross and frightening, but it isn’t repulsive, and the horror is all kept a bit distant from the reader.

YA - Make Them Care

No matter how spooky or horrific your story is, none of it matters if your readers don’t care about your characters. The easiest way to create empathy is to put the reader into your character’s head. Let them understand not only what your character is thinking, but why. What makes him who he is? What makes him do what he does? And most important in horror, what is he afraid of, and why? Understanding people, and being able to empathize with them, is what brings people close. It’s not only the key to a great horror story, but to any story in any genre.

Creating empathy also gives your story more depth, which works well in YA. Teens can understand a more complicated story that isn’t simply about the scare. They can explore feelings and motivations, the darker fears and desires real people have, as well as why some people keep them in check and why others don’t.

A great example of this is Ray Bradbury’s, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury explores age in this story about kids who want to be older and adults who want to be younger, and what might happen if it were possible. He not only draws us into the lives of his main characters, but into the life of the town and the carnival as well. All his characters are unique with motivations of their own, and while we may not like some of the darker characters, he makes it possible to understand and empathize with all of them.

Writing horror for children can be a tricky thing, but as Australian Horror writer Robert Hood said -- How can we expect them (kids) to value the light if they never play in the dark.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Poetry Friday--Found Poems

Found poems are made up of words that a poet "found" somewhere--in print or in conversation--that the poet arranges on a page giving the words a whole new meaning.

Click on the link below for a delightful found poem from Naomi Shahib Nye:

One Boy Told Me : Poetry Everywhere : Video : The Poetry Foundation

An article by Hart Seely in Slate from 2003 gives many examples of found poems taken from official transcripts on the Defense Department's website during Donald Rumsfeld's term as Secretary of Defense.

Keep your eyes and ears open to the possibilities for creating a found poem of your own. Poems are waiting for you to find them.

Head over to Big A little a for the Poetry Friday Round-Up.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Women of Wednesday--Bosom Buddies

There have been many women whose battle with breast cancer is fought in the public eye--Elizabeth Edwards and Melissa Etheridge are just two. Most women, however, fight the battles away from the spotlight, but with the help of family and friends.

I'm a survivor myself. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, I made it through with the loving support the Write Sisters provided me during surgery, chemo, and radiation. They went above and beyond the call of a critique group when they accompanied me to purchase a wig! I'm eternally grateful.

This past weekend I attended the American Cancer Society's "Making Strides against Breast Cancer" walk in Manchester, NH. I've been suspicious of some of the "Run/Walk for the Cure" type events in the past because I was afraid that "the cure" meant more drugs and more chance for Big Pharma to make a killing (no pun intended) at the expense of women. I have a hunch, though, that the money raised in NH goes to provide NH women with support, like rides to treatment centers, and even hugs where needed. As of Monday, the total raised was $290,000 with more expected to come trickling in.

The walk this year, took place in the middle of a nor'easter that included rain, wind, and at points, SNOW. It was colder than a witch's you-know-what, but my heart was warmed by the numbers of people who showed up. Below are a few of the photos I took before my batteries ran out.

The weather's looking a little uncooperative!

Despite the weather the crowds came.

The Fisher Cats scoreboard flashed messages and photos from last year's walk. We attended last year, but we were still quite surprised to see our picture on the big screen!

Nice socks!

These lovely young women gave hugs freely!

There are seven of us Write Sisters, and of the seven, three of us have had breast cancer. So much for odds of 1 in 8!

I'll conclude with a HOPE that if you're a woman, you'll be faithful in getting a yearly mammogram, and with a WISH that if you do get breast cancer, that you'll have a group of bosom buddies as faithful as the Write Sisters!

(Note: Muriel alerted me to the organization Army of Women, which works for the prevention of breast cancer. Thanks, Mur, I've joined the Army.)