Catherine Stine's IDEA CITY

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Adventure Mantra 2011

Soon it will be 2011, an entire decade from the maelstrom of 9/11. The creator of facebook has been crowned man of the year. Email is rendered uncool, as it's all about texting, apps and iPads. The economy is creaking uphill, and the book industry is in a chaotic swirl. As Vampire lit is trending out, Aronofsky's luminous film, Black Swan cements the trending in of magic realism, and the subsequent blending of horror and magical realism. Conan's back, and his holiday set has been designed by a freaky New Agey guy living in the California desert and sporting a beard and a shalwar kameez.
Life in the good ole US of A. Weirdness, color and adventure.

Which brings me to thinking about dreams and wishes for 2011. I'm not really interested in New Year's resolutions, as they tend to be dropped after a couple of weeks. I'm thinking more along the lines of an overarching dream.

Adventure! Go places that fire up your imagination and inspire your writing. For me, that's traveling to places less familiar to Americans. For me, it was India, Russia, and now China. In 2011 it may be Istanbul. Take a notebook and fill it with sketches, ramblings, observations.

Pamper yourself between stints of hard work. Go for that massage, that spa visit, a day hike, a leisurely bike ride with friends.

Make a new writer friend. Have lunch, dinner, or a cuppa joe. Establish a pen-pal back and forth. Exchange ideas!

Subscribe to a foreign online paper. The Shanghai Daily? The Guardian? Expand your tight circle of where you get your info.

Make a gratitude list of all of your accomplishments of 2010. Don't fall into the trap of thinking about what you didn't accomplish. For a warning on this, check out Kelly Hashway's great post on Finding Balance:

Above all, don't take yourself so darn seriously! Have fun with what you do.

Seek adventure, take calculated risks, and more adventure! That's my mantra of 2011.
What's yours?

I'll think of you all fondly when I'm standing on the Great Wall of China, and freezing my ___ off as the Mongolian wind roars over the mountains. Cheerio!

Monday, December 13, 2010

New Trends in Children's Books for 2011

Hi all
Recently, Publishers Lunch posted a blurb from Scholastic Book Club president, Judy Newman, on New Trends in Children’s Publishing, and I thought it was worth posting again. Here's what she thought was notable for 2011:

1. The expanding Young Adult audience
2. The year of dystopian fiction
3. Mythology-based fantasy (Percy Jackson followed by series like The Kane Chronicles, Lost Heroes of Olympus and Goddess Girls)
4. Multimedia series (The 39 Clues, Skeleton Creek, The Search for WondLa)
5. A focus on popular characters - from all media
6. The shift to 25 to 30 percent fewer new picture books, with characters like Pinkalicious, Splat Cat and Brown Bear, Brown Bear showing up in Beginning Reader books
7. The return to humor
8. The rise of the diary and journal format (The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dear Dumb Diary, Dork Diaries, The Popularity Papers, and Big Nate)
9. Special-needs protagonists
10. Paranormal romance beyond vampires (Linger and Linger, Beautiful Creatures, Immortal, and Prophesy of the Sisters)

What do you think of these? Do you see other trends building? Do you see your fiction fitting into any of these, or do you prefer not to pay attention to trends? Which trends will you miss when they fade? What would you like to see more of?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Thrilling Holiday Gifts for your Author Friends

The holidays are fast approaching and you need to find those perfect gifts, including ones for your writer friends! Susan Kaye Quinn’s fun post on her Ink Spells blog about holiday presents for writers got me inspired to research and think up more great gifts.

You could buy your special author friend a party dress made entirely out of paper—specifically, out of phone books, designed by the awesome Jolis Paon. What a cool way to recycle! How about a gift certificate to a day spa for a massage, focusing on your writer buddy’s troubled neck. Or what about a tropical cruise? Neal Schusterman, the YA thriller author swears by cruises, and says that’s where he writes his best novels! Does your friend like jewelry? What about custom jewelry for writers? Tickets to hear your friend’s favorite author speak will, no doubt, be appreciated. A chocolate keyboard? Or simply some random keys? If your beta reader has a philanthropic streak, you could donate money to his or her favorite scholarship fund., for instance, funds Freedom to Write and prison writing programs. Or you could donate to an scholarship fund, such as the work in progress grant for a needy author. A gift certificate to your friend’s fave indie bookstore is always a sure bet. Does your friend like to entertain as well as write? Then how about a great authors coaster set? Cups that say “Be careful or you'll end up in my novel” are always conversations starters. Finally, for the fanciful cook or writer of historical fiction, you could always gift a digital Medieval cookbook, with recipes from 1390, some from Richard II’s own kitchen!

What is your dream present? Any other great ideas to add to the list? Feel free to list as many as you want! And don’t get too distracted by putting up the tree and making sprinkle cookies to keep on writing!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Nanowrimo Finish Line: The Sprint to 50K word count

I did it! 50K+ word count. I’m a Nano winner! I didn’t give up. I only had a couple of really low word count days (and a lot of angst), but now I have a good part of a working draft. Halleluiah! As the amazing fantasy writer, Holly Black reminded folks who were slowing down and doubting themselves during that difficult 3rd week: “Right now you are not writing a good book, you are writing a good draft.” Or as Chris Baty, who started Nano in 1999 reminded folks who were experiencing a sluggish mid-point in their draft: “Incite change… juice it up by inflicting some major changes on your characters. Crash the spaceship. End the marriage. Buy the monkey!” Or, a last piece of advice from super-sage, Tamora Pierce: "Set characters in motion, even if it's just to higher ground. You learn something, you can tell us something, by how people deal with with something that requires them to assemble themselves and move from their comfort zone."

These words of wisdom from nano peptalkers helped free me up to continue barreling ahead without obsessively editing, or poring over material from the day before. My Nano writing buddies helped spur me on too. Thanks, all! One of the few things that suffered, was my blog posting. But now that December is here, I will post more frequently. Promise.

What I learned from Nano:

I can actually write before noon!
Disaster won’t ensue if I let the laundry pile sky high
My family will be fine without daily home-cooked meals
If I write every day, I keep the story thread quite fresh
I do not need to obsessively edit each chapter as I go.
I can do a live write-as long as it’s not in Starbucks, with music blasting
There’s a huge adrenaline rush in banging out a draft so fast

And the best part? My “you-did-it" gift is a trip to China!

What’s your Nano experience? The most important thing you learned? The funniest thing you discovered? The hardest struggle? Your most proud moment? Your post-Nano gift to yourself?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Nano food, Nano diversions, and Name Your Inner Editor

What do you feed yourself when you’re trying to keep up your strength for Nano (National Novel Writing Month), basically writing each day until you keel over your laptop, in an exhausted haze?
I’m eating fish. Brain food. I had langostinos last night for dinner. What the heck are they, you ask? A crustacean sometimes called the Squat Lobster that lives in the waters of Chile and Spain. My hubby made langostino pasta. Mmmm. Today, I had sardines for lunch, in my salad, and tonight I’ll dine on Salmon teriyaki takeout. My brain will be fully charged from all of that omega-rich fish, but I fear possible mercury overdose a la Jeremy Piven. Perhaps I should switch to spinach and collards. A plain old mineral-rush.

Many writers are probably binging on junk food: fries, ice cream, Twinkies. You heard about that guy on the news who lived on Twinkies for a couple of weeks and still lost weight. It’s all about the calories, he determined. Don’t use that as a rationalization for self-medicating your wobbly confidence this Nano season or your stomach will rebel, and you’ll lose a few precious word-count days.

On another note, Erin F, the NYC Nano moderator posted about her inner editor. She named hers, Ethel, I want to say? I think I’ll name mine too. David. (My inner-editor is a “him”—a father figure from childhood, who paid close attention to details?? My muse is male too, so figure that one out, Dr. Freud!). Problem is, I’ll have to give my inner-editor more than one name. You see, David, has a few sides to him. When I’m sailing along he’s mellow too, so I’d call him Dave. But when I’m stumbling and the writing’s messy, my inner editor rails on me to go back and edit the darn mess. I reason with him, remind him that I’m not ALLOWED to go back and edit during Nano. He snaps, “But you’re writing’s sloppy, full of gaping holes and spelling errors.” That guy I wouldn't call David or Dave. I’d call him Mr. Thang.

Finally, the fabulous Aimee Bender, author of Willful Creatures, and Nano’s pep-talker of the day, encouraged writers to deviate from their outlines. She told us to follow our Nano daydreams, the playful questions percolating in our heads. In her words: “If you are writing a grocery scene, let’s say, and, if, on aisle 4 of the grocery store, character 1 starts to open up a peanut butter jar and eat it, and character 2 is so irritated she goes to flirt with a guy on aisle 3, and if this scene was supposed to be their first kiss—well? Maybe it's just not their first kiss at all. Maybe the guy on aisle 3 will end up being incredibly important!” Follow the scene to an unexpected place in the way you normally would NOT, in a tight outlined piece. I’ve learned to outline. I have to, to avoid wasting huge amounts of time as I spin a story into the outer rings of Saturn. BUT, now may be a great time for me to deviate—to noodle—to play—to take a dialog to an unintentional place. I’ll allow myself that liberty, in between scenes.

What about you? Special Nano foods? Your inner editor’s name? Your bravest deviation from the norm? Spill it here!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Nanowrimo Newbie

I decided to try Nanowrimo for the first time. It’s an amazing online writers’ event, where you bang out a draft of a novel in 30 days. You have to reach 50,000 words to win. And there are multiple winners! What do you win, you ask? Um, not $$ or a trip to Paris. You win a certificate with a coat of arms inscribed with a coffee cup, a laptop, and stack of manuscript papers… and, well you get the drift. You gather together some writing buddies, and you can see their daily word counts, which can either send you into a panic, or inspire you, or drive you on—or a heady mix of all of it. No editing allowed!

That’s the hard part, and the greatest lesson. I always edit every chapter, or scene. Not to do so, feels like I'm an incorrigible nail-biter in mittens, or as if I'm resisting a big bowl of chocolate ice-cream sitting right in front me.

But there are perks. You get to create a fake book cover, like my clunky attempt at Photoshopped layers (above-working title). And there are write-ins every day in NYC, and probably lots of other places. I mean, this thing is global, folks! Nano is even in Africa, which is why the site is operating at the speed of tar advancing on a level pavement. But they promised to have the kinks ironed out asap. Besides, it prevents you from checking on your writing buds’ word counts too often.

So far, so good for me. I’m sure by day 20 I’ll have a backache. But hopefully, by day 28, if I keep up the word count, I won’t care about the backache, or the wonky eyes, or the fact that my house is getting messier and messier as I ignore everything around me.

Are you Nano-ing? Newbie like me, or old pro? What’s your experience with it this year?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Text, Art and the Virtual World--new directions in novels

Graphic novels, manga and video games have infused popular culture so completely that kids today are born making the connection between text, images and the virtual world.

This does not make them “bad” readers, nor should one assume that kids are any less literate or have shorter attention spans. These are the sort of paranoid, knee-jerk assumptions that the older set has, those of us who have vivid memories as a kid of going to the library to pick out summer books for vacation reading. When the Commodore 64 was too coded for anyone but programmers to figure out, the only sanctuaries for those hungry for story were libraries and "ye olde" neighborhood bookstores.

Kids have more options now. This is a good thing. They are adapting very quickly to eBooks as they will to interactive and enhanced eBooks—those with embedded online links and video. As I said, the younger-than-twenty-set were practically born with keyboards in their paws. Authors, rather than fear the new technology, think of the many opportunities it presents for us to create content: enhanced eBooks, interactive eBooks, such as my recently penned A Girl’s Best Friend, from American Girl for the Innerstar University series, which has an online gaming component. Or the 39 Clues series from Scholastic (various authors), where a child goes from book to online game, and back to the book to solve the mystery.

In a similar vein, until recently, including pictures with text was a no-no with any fiction above a chapter book. Not any longer! In addition to the straight-on graphic novel, we now have the pleasure of reading all stripes of art-text hybrids. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick was among these first wave of hybrids. It caused a major stir in 2007 with its innovative drawings that oozed from one page to the next, and peeped out from corners, only to explode into full-blown drawings on the next page. Scott Westerfield’s YA steampunk series Leviathan and Behemoth is another example of this growing trend of art/text hybrids in fiction, in this case for teens.

Why not infuse YA and even adult fiction with brilliant, color-saturated illustrations? Why should the chapter book set have all the fun? I am thrilled, especially as an illustrator, to know that we can look forward to more and more novels, rich with illustration on the level of a Gustave Doré or an N.C. Wyeth.

Have you stumbled upon any new YA that’s filled with gorgeous illustration? A middle-grade fantasia of art and text? Tell us all about it! What do you think about these growing trends?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Pros & Cons of the Omniscient POV

How many of you have tried omniscient point of view? That’s when the author can write how any of the characters are feeling, and what they are observing. Unlike first person POV, where the narration stems from one person, or third person limited, where the “I” becomes “he” or “she”, but is still limited to one POV, omniscient can wander, from one person’s POV to another, but also in camera scope, from an extreme close up to a cinematic long shot, which describes the action from a distance.

The omniscient POV, or OPV, was out of favor for a very long time, especially in young adult literature, which favored extremely close first person POV, in the style of Catcher in the Rye’s stream of consciousness rants. OPV is hard to write well, because in fiction for kids and teens you still have to make sure you are telling a story with a main character, who will remain the focus. Thus, you have to have a strong editorial sense of when to go into another character’s head—it must be crucial to the forward action, not simply because you want to “head-jump” as some editors derisively call OPV.

So, why use OPV at all if it’s so tricky? Will it ever shake its bad reputation? Or, on the other hand, is it coming back in favor? More and more YA books seem to be in OPV. Ursula K. Le Guin, a well-known fantasy writer defends the OPV when she says, “the voice of the narrator who knows the whole story, tells it because it is important, and is profoundly involved with all the characters. It cannot be dismissed as old-fashioned or uncool.” Why then, has it been so discouraged in writing workshops, and even in MFA creative writing programs? Perhaps, because it is so easy to do badly! The downside is that we limit our options from our automatic negativity and fear of it. As Gwenda Bond says in her excellent Vermont College MFA thesis, “By rejecting the storyteller's (OPV) voice, we lose far more than we gain… The omniscient narrator is no more intrinsically artificial than a first-person narrator telling the tale, or of a third person limited perspective that comes from a vaporous invisible teller.”

Some authors swear by the OPV when writing multilayered fantasy, or where it adds to the story to have a scene, let’s say, in a wizard’s den where one has access to his plotting and planning, independent of the hero being there. Again, think of it as using three or four cameras in various locations, instead of being limited to one camera angle—the eye of the hero or heroine. OPV is also a way to delve deeply and quickly into the characters’ motivations, and bring out historic information.

More and more authors are using OPV, to great effect! A favorite of mine is Nancy Werlin’s Impossible. She exhibits masterful control over when and where she switches viewpoint, doing so only when it is crucial to the plot. Other examples are Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy and Marcus Zusaks’ The Book Thief.

For more information on this subject, check out Gwenda Bond’s thesis, Eye for a God’s Eye: The Bold Choice of the Omniscient Point of View in Fiction for Young Adults:

For another good post on OPV visit Justine Larbalestier’s blog:

Or this helpful post from Five Editors & You:

Have you ever tried to write in OPV? Do you see evidence that it’s coming back in fashion? Any OPV novels you would recommend? What's your favorite POV to write in?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Interview with Renée Watson about What Momma Left Me

Before I interview Renée, here’s my quick synopsis of her new novel, What Momma Left Me, from Bloomsbury Press (for 8 to 11 year-olds)

Following the death of their mother, and disappearance of their father, thirteen year-old Serenity and her brother Danny move in with their grandparents. At first, Serenity is put off by their rules and insistence on her attending long hours at church. There's the added challenge of attending a new school, and trying to make all new friends, all while missing her mother. Things start to brighten when Serenity meets Maria, also in the youth ministry group at the church. But as her brother falls in with a sketchy crowd, and Serenity finds herself drawn to a boy in that same clique, Serenity is faced with tough choices, which will test her faith, and sense of right and wrong. It’s a page-turner with real heart!

CS: In What Momma Left Me, the church is central to the plot. Can you talk about that?

RW: I write very close to reality and I grew up in the church. It was a normal part of life that was not separate from my school or friends. I wanted to show that fluidity and connection, and how so much good can emerge from that sort of tight-knit community.

CS: People often say that even though a novel is fiction, parts of characters come from the author and her experience. How much of the Serenity character came from you?

RW: *Laughs* I was always questioning everything, just like Serenity! My journal was my best friend too. And as Serenity looks out for Maria, I really looked out for my friends in school, particularly a new girl, who seemed overwhelmed. Also, when I was little, my mom was a lot like Serenity’s grandma. She prayed with me through troubled times and always had time to listen to me.

C: I thought one of the big questions in Momma was what is real peace? Do you agree?

R: Yes. There was so much chaos in Serenity's world that she was worried she might not find peace until she went to heaven, or that it didn’t exist at all. Her grandma helped her see that it was about making peace with the ups and downs of life: “You know how many times I’ve cried?... So many I can’t count.” Grandma smiles. “But guess what? I can’t count the laughs either!”

C: I love how each chapter begins with a poem. I especially love your Ode to Cake! Have you considered writing a poetry book for kids?

R: Sure. Poetry was my first love. I read at open mic poetry readings around the city, and do poetry workshops with my students.

C: What are you working on next?

R: I have a picture book forthcoming with Random House called Harlem’s Little Blackbird, about Florence Mills, a Harlem Renaissance performer. And I’ll be doing a reading and book signing in New York City at Bank Street on November 4th, from 5:30 to 7:30, so come on down! I invite you to visit my website for upcoming events and info.

C: Thanks so much for stopping by.

RW: Anytime.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Husky Mascots, Brooklyn Book Festival and Extreme Cuteness Alert

Let’s talk Husky puppies, shall we? One of the main characters of A Girl’s Best Friend, the book I penned for American Girl, is a frisky Husky pup named Pepper. Coincidentally, the college mascot at my son’s new college, Northeastern, in Boston, is… guess what? A Siberian Husky! You know, the soft white fur ridged with smoky black, the topaz eyes, the pointy ears that perk at everything?

So, to adorn my booth at the Brooklyn Book Festival, booth #77 to be exact, I bought two mascots to cheer the book on, and to thrill the kids who stop by. Who knows, maybe the adults too.

Major cuteness in the house!!!

And, if you want to see feisty Pepper in all his glory, check him out in the American Girl shop by clicking into the link here:

You can also see his pals: Sugar and Coconut, who kick up some serious dust at Pet Palooza in A Girl’s Best Friend.

The book festival's this Sunday, September 12th from 10 am to 6 pm, so if you’re anywhere near Brooklyn, come on down and say hi! My friend, and colleague, Vicki Wittenstein, will be sharing the booth. Her new nonfiction picture book, Planet Hunter reveals the method that Geoff Marcy, an astronomer, uses to detect planets that may support life. Great photos too.

I’ll have my YA, Refugees; Be Careful What You Wish For, a middle grade anthology of super-fun stories, and this latest romp, A Girl’s Best Friend. I may even have a few copies of my earlier AG book about the dark side of Greyhound racing.

Look for us near the Youth Pavilion, and in front of the sculpture garden. We’ll be the ones with the Husky pup mascots! At booth 77. WOOOF!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Girl’s Best Friend; New Book, New fall Season!

Today is more the first day of September, it’s the debut of A Girl’s Best Friend the book I wrote for the fabulous, new Innerstar University series from American Girl. You’ve heard of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” tales, where you interact with the story, and have a say in where you venture off to. Traditionally, most were adventure stories aimed at boys, where it was a matter of creeping into the snake-infested cave, or choosing to stay on the path, only to be confronted with a growling Grizzly bear.

A Girl’s Best Friend is more about friends and school and figuring out what it is to be really loyal. All of this, with a major scoop of pure fun… and a ton of puppies—cuddly, spunky and just plain dashing off faster than you could ever catch them!

Innerstar University has an online gaming aspect too. There are more than twenty endings, which was a challenge to write—like figuring out a jigsaw puzzle--and refreshing that readers to get to choose. Some of the endings go online, where the party continues!

Don’t take my word for it, read and explore for yourself.

I’ll be at the Brooklyn Book Festival, in the vendor section, Sunday, September 12th, so come on down and say hi, and check out A Girl’s Best Friend, while you’re there!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Agents: Finding, Switching, and the Fine Art of Communications

You’ve finally finished that awesome YA or Middle-grade novel and your writing group has helped you polish it to a fine sheen. You are ready to shop for an agent! You pretty much know how to write a great query letter, but you’re not exactly sure what questions you'd ask, if and when you “got the call.”

Having been through the hugely exciting process of getting that call, and signing on, as well as the nervy experience of switching to an agent who is much better-suited to my work and communications style, along the way I’ve asked a few right… and wrong questions. I’ve also intuited the right questions, but was afraid to ask them. Which, dear writers, is a no-no. Ask away when you get that call! It’s your special time to figure out whether this person is someone you can really work with… or not. True, it’s business but don’t discount your gut feeling. Intuition counts for a lot. As a result of my experience, I’ve put together a list of crucial questions to ask your prospective agent:

*Do you edit and revise manuscripts? If so, how many passes? Will you be the person editing my material?

*What do you like best about my work? Do you have a few publishers in mind that you would send this manuscript to? How do you see my platform going forward?

*Do you work as an agent part time or fulltime? How soon after you create a submission list will you send out my manuscript? (In other words, do you send stuff out in a timely fashion? All agents are super-busy, but waiting months and months for something to be read or shopped is not cool).

*How do you prefer to communicate, and how often? By email? Phone? IM? Will I get periodic updates? Every month or so, or only when my work is sold? Is it okay to call with a question? (Or will you bite my face off?)

*Do you welcome suggestions of editors to send to? Will you show me your submission list? How many editors might you send to at one time?

*Are you open to talking strategy? What about discussing a manuscript that we have different ideas about? (A good agent is one who listens to your ideas regarding a project, and shares his or hers and then negotiates. But don't forget, you are choosing a person based on their expertise, so you should trust them. If your gut is telling you that this person is too inexperienced or busy or has tastes that do not match yours, do not sign a contract out of sheer excitement).

What about switching agents? The question list is basically the same. Plus, questions that inevitably came up with your agent, who, for whatever reason, didn’t work out. Best to part on amicable terms if possible, and move on. There are many great agents out there, and there is one well suited to your writing, your personality and your communications style. Be bold, and level-headed. Take the steps you need to insure a happy, smooth work relationship. You won’t regret it.

Happy hunting!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Thrllers in Print & Film--Inception and Salt

I’ve now seen both SALT and INCEPTION, and for the most part, they rocked. However, in both cases, I wanted more story and less shoot ‘em up action. Don’t get me wrong; I thrill to a good chase. Fast pacing is crucial in both literary and on-screen thrillers, thus the measure of chase to back-story (or real-time story moments) is always a fine balancing act.

Without a good understanding of the character, we don’t care why he or she is being chased, or what someone’s searching for. But without enough action, the story becomes a snoozefest. In a novel, one can often sandwich more story between the action that one can in films. However, I sense that moviegoers are eager for much more story than Hollywood assumes.

Case in point: In SALT, Anjelina Jolie excels in gritty stunt work, and in breaking the traditional mold of the female femme fatal spy. She even dresses as a man in one scene, and does a stand-up job of the walk, the talk. Even so, I found myself fidgeting in my seat, wanting more of the backstory about her childhood training on a remote Russian island to be part of a sleeper cell, than her masterful trouncing of every poor sod who got in her way.

Inception was better at lingering on the story between the action, and in blending the two. The concept of stealing dreams or implanting ideas is certainly nothing new. But it’s still such a potent concept, that I’ve stumbled on at least three writers’ blogs, lamenting that they might have to junk their novels or stories in-progress because their ideas are so similar to Inception. For that matter, Inception’s concepts are strangely similar to the 90s anime series Ghost in a Shell. Indeed, is there nothing completely new under the sun? Well, that’s the subject of another possible post. Despite the longer and richer sections of story in Inception, the shoot ‘em up scenes grew tiresome. Particularly the scenes in the arctic headquarters, where all the enemy combatants wore white military snowsuits. Too similar to a video game? I dunno. It seemed almost clownish.

Bottom line? Don’t underestimate an audience’s ability to digest story; the rich, connective tissue—sweet, bitter, or bittersweet—that supports the pursuit, the pursuer and the search.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Pros and Cons of Book Trailers

Here's an interesting New York Times article by Pamela Paul on the pros and cons of book trailers. These days, it seems to be a necessary element of book publicity, but how effective is it, really? What do you all think?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Nowhere Else to Go--more thoughts on Retreats

I'm in the Internet coffee place by the beach where so many vacationers are checking their email that it's shuddering in and out. The luckier folks have iPhones, iPads, Blackberries, Droids and plain old PDFs so that they can check their email without slogging to the coffee joint. Or are they luckier?

The genius of this writing retreat is that there's nowhere to go when you want to dither, consternate, digress or just plain avoid your manuscript. And traveling to the avatar world of twitter, facebook, Huffpo, even this wonderful blogspot, is definitely going "somewhere else."
(Look, I've gotta post once week or so. Uh, yah!)

Come to think of it, I feel less obsessive, not being able to tweet every day. Even though the big black flies are biting my ankles and the seat of the rocking chair is hard, and the pacing and sighing and chuckling of my fellow writers is slightly distracting, the fact is, I've gotten a lot done. A 286 page revise finished and four pages of a new project.

I'm reminded of the artist whose wife used to lock up in a room, so he had nothing else to do but paint masterpieces (or rip his hair out in chunks).

We're not always producing masterpieces, but this retreat offers us the time to try!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Writing Retreats!

It’s that time again to pack up for the writing retreat I attend in New England. I look forward to this more and more every year, especially when my teaching schedule is reaching its stressful peak, with the reading and correcting of long student research papers.

So my two computers are packed, one for manuscripts, one for illustrations rendered in Photoshop. I’ve got my lightbox, my white gouache touchup paint and brushes. Then there are my beach towels, suits, sunblock and special sunhat from the Philly Flower show.

The schedule? Morning coffee on the terrace, while blabbing with my fellow scriveners, followed by three hours of writing on the wraparound porch. We lunch in the cool of the old, dark dining room, with more time to chat. Then I head back to my spot in the middle of the porch in the creaky rocking chair because rocking helps me conceptualize. Three more hours of intensive writing, while watching the occasional bunny rabbit hop across the yard to the woods. Then, ah! The group trek to the rocky beach for a dip. We take turns cooking dinner, reading our pieces, and we chat about writing, books, characters and plot concepts. When the cool breeze comes in off the nighttime woods, it’s off to bed in the camp style horsehair beds.

I highly recommend trying a retreat! You can choose one with cushy rooms, fabulous star authors and lots of clever writing exercises, or one that offers you hours of solitary writing time on a wraparound porch followed by a group beach swim like the one I attend. Even though it’s darn hard work, it’s essential community, and absolute play.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Fun Ways to Teach a Class-Write a Rap Song!

My son has been taking Arab class during these last two years of high school. The teacher, Anna Swank, is exceptionally creative and inspiring. She's taken them to a Lebanese restaurant in Queens, where they ordered food, and spoke to the staff in Arabic, on trips to the neighborhood deli, to chat with the owner, a Christian Egyptian, who makes wicked good sandwiches, and even to Syria and Tunisia.
For senior project, my son and his friends, many of whom are also musicians,

decided to write and perform an Arab rap, which underscored the importance of learning the language. Of course, they were determined to totally entertain themselves while doing it. And isn't that the part of the learning process that ultimately cements the subject in your mind? (My son is the tall one in the wheat-colored shirt, and then in the black soccer shirt). Their lip-synching is a bit off, but hey, this is video art 101. (They recorded the soundtrack and then tried to synch the video)

In addition, here is a link to today's New York Times article on Anna Swank's class. Kudos to all. Teaching and learning should always be this fun!

Most of Anna's students will go on to study the language and culture in college. I know my son will take Arabic 3.

Which begs the question, what have your teachers, your kids' teachers, and you done to reach out to your brother and sisters across the globe? And how creative can your teaching really be? I know I'll be stretching as I ready myself for teaching Writing & Lit this fall to college freshmen. My students are mostly film and art majors, struggling to write and make sense of the literary cannon. I intend to bring in film, and art right along with the books. And I'll use Anna Swank as a true inspiration as I proceed.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Fine Points Between YA Dystopia and Sci-fi

What distinguishes a YA dystopian novel from a YA sci-fi novel? And is there a difference between hard-core genre sci-fi, and creating a futuristic world, conceivable by scientific standards? What is the prevailing mood towards these genres?

Dystopias are almost always cautionary tales—utopias that have soured—and tropes for real life scary cultural trends such as fascism, climate change and technology run amok. Interestingly enough, the ancient translation of the word utopia is “no place”, which suggests that a utopia cannot actually exist.

A classic example of a dystopia that almost all high-school students read—and end up loving—is George Orwell’s 1984. Written in 1948, Orwell warned people of the dangers of totalitarian government a la Stalin’s Russia, and the loss of one’s personal independence in a repressive style of communism. Control in 1984 is obtained through mass brainwashing, and Big Brother’s ultimate desire is to have a person die loving the Party; this, so that there’s no danger of the “vaporized unperson” becoming a martyr and fomenting rebellion. Does Big Brother succeed? Ah! For the answer to that question, you must read Orwell’s very clever afterward.

Some current YA dystopias are THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins, set in an alternate USA, where teens fight to the death for the richest district’s entertainment, and BIRTHMARKED by Caragh O’Brien, a world where life is reduced to helping birth babies for the exclusive set inside the Enclave by “Unlake” Michigan.

So, what about YA sci-fi? I believe it’s slowly but confidently creeping into the YA canon, despite some editors fears that teens won’t “get” the science behind the stories, and therefore must be limited to YA fantasy where there is no steep learning curve. Quite the contrary, I think teens are itching for this kind of concrete, yet visionary material. After all, the classic authors such as Sir Arthur C. Clarke ended up inventing satellite technology. I mean, how cool is that?! In Clarke’s own inspiring words: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Who wouldn’t want to explore the magic of the real world?

There’s no need to fear that pages of details will overrun the genre on how to build a robot from scratch, or power a rocket. No current author wants to mimic the old-school adult genre. So, there’s no need for authors writing YA sci-fi to hide it under names like “futuristic thriller”.

Current examples of YA sci-fi run the gamut from Cory Doctorow’s LITTLE BROTHER, a sort of cyberfest for Internet geeks (And major nod to Orwell’s Big Brother), and THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX by Mary Pearson, which explores the ethics of using new science in medicine, and the nature of the soul.

And now, onto the difference between YA dystopia and Post-apocalyptic fiction… for this discussion, I will ferry you onto the excellent post by YA Highway:

But before running off, you may want to answer this challenging question: Is S.A. Bodeen’s THE COMPOUND post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, or simply a thriller?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


I did a presentation last week for 4th and 5th graders. Instead of reading them something of mine that was already published, I decided to read a couple of chapters from a work-in-progress and show them my illustrations that go along with it.

This is a project that I'd put away for months following a random publishing professional's comment that she was looking for middle grade material a la WIMPY KID, and I replied that I had something along those lines but it was fantasy and probably young middle grade. She responded with a tone of disdain. "No one's looking for any younger middle grade than WIMPY KID." After which, I put my project in a closet and didn't do any more pictures for it. Maybe she was right.

But my intuition told me otherwise. I was wondering what she'd think of CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS, and FERGUS CRANE, and the amazing HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, all aimed for a slightly younger middle grade audience than WIMPY KID.

I kept arguing with her in my head. But I wasn't sure enough of myself to get the darn project, which had been my joy, off of the dusty shelf. Until...

Until I did that school visit last week and read my three chapters... and realized that the kids were eating it up and wanting more. And loved the illustrations.
Not only that, but they had inspiring answers to my questions about the project.
I took a poll; "How many want a scary ending?"
A few hands shot up.
"How many want a funny ending?" A few different hands went up.
"How many kids want a funny AND scary answer?"
Every hand shot up and the kids cheered.

It's a no-brainer. Deliver that funny-scary ending (Which I already have!).
So, now I have my sketchpad back out, and my inking pens and the white gouache that renders all of those wiggly, blotchy lines super-sharp. Hey, I even installed Creative Suite 4 (Which I bought last December!) so that I can import the illustrations into Photoshop and make 'em sparkle with wacky backgrounds and airbrush shading. I know, I know, Creative Suite 5 is already out. No problem, I'll upgrade soon.

The moral of the story? Don't let one person sway you off your dream project. Especially if you've gotten great feedback from a lot of other people--and from a set of cheering 4th graders who are whip-smart and full of hilarious suggestions, like "Put some spikes on that rat's leather jacket!"

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

LOST, a study in brilliant and sometimes lazy writing

The last mega episode of LOST aired a few days ago. I already feel very nostalgic for it, even though I thought the end was a demonstration of lazy conception and writing.
Before I describe the reasons why I thought the ending was less that it should be, let me backtrack.

I learned much about good plotting from this show, which had a bevy of out-of-the-box writers, such as the amazing graphic artist and writer of EX MACHINA, Brian K. Vaughan. I learned that plot should have breakneck pacing, unexpected twists, poignant moments of backstory, exciting love affairs, and inventive details.

After all, Lost brought us smoke monsters, magnetically-charged islands, hippie communes a la BF Skinner gone incredibly sour, sideways universes in gritty Los Angeles, and the flash forwards that inspired the new show of the same name: Flash Forward.

LOST writers took inspiration from so many hi-brow literary and lo-brow TV sources it boggles the mind. To name a few: Alice in Wonderland, Lord of the Flies, Cast Away, Gilligan's Island, and the ancient myth of Pandora's Box. I learned that it's okay to cull inspiration from other sources as long as the resultant material is not too derivative.

Okay, now for that ending. After devoting years of my TV viewing time to LOST, I found out that the characters were already dead, lurching around in a kind of puragtorial head-space where they worked out personal dramas with the members of the doomed Oceanic flight. Hey, I guessed that ending about three years ago! Plus, it's too close to the ending of Jacob's Ladder--too derivative. Too easy. Too flat.

Still, there was some comfort in seeing all of the couples who had been torn apart by death or estrangement, magically rediscover each other. I guess certain cheeseball plot devices are appreciated. Which proves that audiences, at least in part, want their preconceptions affirmed.

Float on into the sideways, topsy-turvy, mad universe that belongs only to you, LOST, and where we can find you just a wormhole away.