Monday, October 13, 2014

Seven Days to Goodbye--And a Giveaway!

What do you get when you mix together a week at Edisto Island with your best friend, connecting to guys for the first time in your life, meeting a young autistic boy who falls in love with your service dog, and the thrill of protecting a loggerhead turtle's nest? You get the ingredients for Sheri Levy's debut novel, Seven Days to Goodbye

Faithful blog readers will remember that I blogged about Sheri's path to publication last spring. Today I'm pleased to review this book for middle school girls and offer it as a giveaway.

Trina, the 13-year-old protagonist has been training her service dog, Sydney, for a year. Her beach vacation doubles as a fun time introducing her Australian Shepherd to the ocean but it is bittersweet; Trina knows it will end by returning him to his kennel for his final training. This heart-tug theme is woven through out the book as Trina wrestles with knowing that her job is over and wondering if she could ever take on training another puppy.

In this sweet coming of age story readers will sympathize with Trina as she tries to figure out how to gain more independence from her parents; how to relate to a best friend who is quickly smitten by Peyton, a guy they meet in the beach; and how to talk to Chase, Peyton's brother--who just might be interested in her.

For me, one of the most touching parts of this book is Trina's interaction with Logan, Chase and Peyton's autistic seven-year-old brother. Together Trina and Sydney are able to relate to Logan in such a way that helps him begin to communicate better. Here is an excerpt from their first meeting on the beach:
I called to Logan.
He did a one-sided skip toward me.
"Do you want to practice calling Sydney?"
He nodded and his eyes rose for a moment.
"Say, 'Sydney…Come.'"
Logan clapped and bounced.
I patted his shoulder and said, "Stand. Don't move. Then Sydney can listen."
After a couple more hops, his hands grabbed his shorts and squeezed. He gulped short breaths of air and then shouted, "Syd-ney." He started to clap and then put his hands back on his shorts and said, "Come."
Sydney raced to Logan.
I said, "Good boy, Sydney."
Logan's eyes caught mine before he bowed his head.
I finished saying, "Logan, you did great."
Logan held a treat in front of Syd's face. "Good doggie. Good Syd-ney."
I tingled inside. This was a perfect example of Sydney's talent. I stretched taller, seeing the happiness in Logan's face. "Can I hug you, Logan?" (p.69)
Sheri's background in teaching children with special needs as well as her own experience with rescue dogs is infused into this book. If you are interested in receiving a gently read autographed copy, including an opportunity to download a free e-book version, please leave me a comment by 8 PM on October 16th. If I don't have your contact information, make sure you leave that too. U.S. addresses only. 





Monday, October 6, 2014

Gifts from John Bemis- Part III And a GIVEAWAY!

In the final post of this series, John Claude Bemis shares the last five points from his talk at the Table Rock Writers retreat on “What Creative People Can Learn from Observing Children. Directions for how to win an autographed copy of The Prince Who Fell From the Sky follow this post. If you missed the first five points, you can find them here.
Sixth, from the moment a baby starts exploring his world, his job is to learn. Kids’ daily “work” is going to school. This implies a position of humility as they listen to their teachers impart knowledge, facts, and wisdom. 
"I know there's a way these scissors
are supposed to work!"
Libbie Kasten, 18 months

The same goes for writers. No matter how knowledgeable you think you are about the craft, there’s always more to learn. Be a humble, patient, attentive student as you continue to grow your craft.
Seventh, kids operate from a gut-level. Sometimes the information daily flooding our brains from the news, Internet, and media can impede our decision making process. Whereas it might take us awhile to gather our thoughts, children often sit down at a blank piece of paper and begin to draw or create immediately. They listen to their intuition
"A masterpiece!"
Ebby Clark when she was 4
Everyone has an opinion about art. Sometimes writers get stuck trying to figure out if their idea is worthwhile or not. John reminded us that, “if you trust your instincts, you can create more purely.”

There is a time to critically evaluate your work, to tweak and re-evaluate it. It’s called revision. But, when you’re creating a new work, “shoot from the hip. Operate from your gut. Don’t over think—create from your intuitive imaginative place!”

Eighth, kids laugh. In fact, they laugh more than 300 times a day whereas adults laugh less than 20 times. Laughter decreases stress hormones, improves blood glucose levels, improves blood pressure, circulation, and oxygen intake, and releases endorphins. Think about laughter as a way to increase your productivity.
Mason & Libbie
laughing it up!
For children, laughter is part of their play.  Adults should make more time to visit with friends and laugh, relax, and have fun. This gets your right brain working, rather than the logical left side. John suggested that, “If you’ve hit that creative wall and can’t get back to a productive place, call up a funny friend, and find a way to laugh.  It’ll relax you and you’ll be surprised how quickly a solution to your problem pops out ‘Eureka!’”

Ninth, kids operate in the moment. Think about a child who is intensely interested in a bug on a sidewalk. That child is being mindful. “The act of being mindful is a place where you are sharply in tuned to the present moment,” John said.  Toddlers don’t think about consequences when they scribble on the wall.  But they are enjoying the moment!
"Isn't this what you're supposed to do with ink pads?"
Mason, 3-years-old
As writers, thinking too much about the future stifles our actions in the present.  For example, if you’re constantly worrying about whether your current story will get picked up by a publisher or how reviewers will respond to it, you can get into a “very negative head space.” John suggested that writers be “present to the journey, not the destination,” focusing on each word, page, and scene.  

Tenth, kids embrace and enjoy the absurd. They are delighted by James flying away in a giant peach with a crew of insects and Alice’s wacky adventures in Wonderland. Their brains don’t say, “That could never happen,” instead they love being surprised by the unexpected.

“When we hear something that strikes our brain as ‘wrong’ or ‘off’ or ‘weird’, we start to reassess our assumptions,” John noted. “A cognitive shift occurs as we try to make sense of the absurdity.” He advised writers to embrace the absurd, the strange, AND the weird, in order to get your brain in a more creative place.

In conclusion John encouraged all writers to take a few tips from the most creative people on the planet – kids! In the process, “you’ll be productive and make new discoveries about yourself and your craft.”
I appreciate John allowing me to use the material from his talk on my blog. I hope you'll visit his website and check out all of his marvelous books!
If you would like to receive an autographed copy of this book, please leave me a comment along with your contact information. (Sorry! United States only.) Drawing will be held after 8PM on Thursday, October 9. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Gifts from John Bemis- Part II

If you missed last week's post, I shared ten things I learned In John Claude Bemis's writing class at Table Rock Writers retreat. John also spoke to the entire group on, “What Creative People Can Learn From Children.” After quoting Picasso: “Every child is an artist.  The problem is to remain an artist once we grow up,” John shared ten ways writers should emulate children. In this post you’ll read his first five points with pictures and videos illustrating his points, courtesy of my grandchildren. Next week this series concludes with John’s last five points and the giveaway of his book, The Prince Who Fell From the Sky. 

First of all, kids love to play—it’s basically their job! Children make up games on the playground and in their own backyards. Their dolls and trucks act out fascinating stories as children “disappear into their imaginations through play.”

Libbie & Caitlin Kasten as princesses.

In the same way, adults also need time to play. Companies like 3M and Google have found that giving their employees time to pursue individual interests, take a walk, or even play pinball leads to more innovative work. “Google claims that 50% of their new products come from ‘Innovative Time Off,” John noted.

Play also increases problem-solving ability. A study found that preschoolers were more apt to figure out an unfamiliar gadget than college students because they played with it.

What does this mean to us as writers? Make sure you do something fun each day. Don’t be afraid to play with your work. “Don’t stick to your first pass at the story….Have fun making your writing better.”

Secondly, everything is brand new to a child. These years are a “time of great wonder and stimulation.” When we’re running down an idea for the first time, the newness “sparks our curiosity and creativity.” John explained that from a neuroscience perspective, our brains are building synapses, which boosts creativity and makes our brains function better. John recommended playing a new game, learning a new instrument, or traveling to a foreign country. Citing his own recent trip to Rwanda, John said travel “gets you out of your normal rules and challenges you to be flexible.” He experienced a huge creative bump when he returned home—and wrote like a maniac!

Third, kids embrace ambiguity. To them a pen can be a wand, a sword, a dragon bone, or a bridge. We’ve all seen kids playing with a box rather than the toy that was inside. 
Ebby and Mason Clark having
fun in their  box-train.
Why? The toy has a specific purpose—but the box can be anything. John said this was the type of creative thinking that allowed Picasso to pick up bicycle handles and see a bull’s horn.

John recommended that writers should embrace ambiguity as a source of discovery. Perhaps a typo on a page can lead you to a new idea. Flipping through magazines or pictures in the Apples to Apples game may stimulate a new path for your writing. The ambiguity loving part of our brain can make wildly original connections if we just let it.” 
Mason as a Ninja
with his two swords.
Fourth, kids have unlimited interests.  Mason created a story in which he starred as a super-hero. His cousin Caitlin (pictured below) described herself as a scientist with a telescope but also imagines herself as a ballerina, likes to cook in her kitchen, and fix things with her own set of tools.

Young kids think they’re good at everything, leading them to explore a wide variety of interests.

Unfortunately, when kids hit middle school, they begin to form a sense of identity based on what they think they are and aren’t good at.  They say things like, “I’m not an athlete. I’m no good at math.” As we age, our interests tend to narrow, constricting our choices. As writers, we need to keep expanding our horizons.

Fifth, kids are less self-critical. They think they’re great artists, writers, athletes, musicians and we wouldn’t dare contradict them! 
Caitlin describing her artwork

 This type of blind confidence makes a person keep doing something over and over again. Some writers dream of becoming NY Times Bestsellers. This confidence helps them work hard and push through discouragements during their early years.

When you hear that self-critical voice whisper in your ear, “You’ll never get published,” remember the self-confidence and stamina you had as a child. To be successful, you have to be persistent.  And to be persistent, you have to manage the negative thoughts that want to keep us from continuing to try.”

Monday, September 22, 2014

Gifts from John Bemis-- Part I

Congratulations to Linda Andersen who won a copy of Steering Toward Normal by Rebecca Petruck.

Two weeks ago I attended the Table Rock Writers Retreat in Wildacres, NC and participated in John Claude Bemis' class on Writing for Children and Young Adults. It was an inspriational week that left me excited and raring to dig into draft #4 of Half-Truths. In this post I share some of what I learned in John's class.  Next week I'll share highlights from a talk he gave to the whole group, "What Creative People Can Learn from Children" as well as a chance to win an autographed copy of The Prince Who Fell from the Sky.

 John surrounded by his appreciative students. 
#1. It takes a lot of drafts and revision before a book is published. Of course I knew this already, but when I looked at John's brainstorming notes for The Nine Pound Hammer and the editorial letter he received outlining the work he needed to do on the manuscript PLUS the marked up manuscript--I was encouraged. Here was a man who has successfully published four books and his first novel needed a lot of work. A light clicked on. If he could do it, so could I.

#2. Lillie's opening chapter needed to start by showing her doing an important action that grips the reader.

#3. Make sure that there will be consequences for both Lillie and Kate that will make my readers worry about them and care for them. 

#4. Give action and bold choices to dramatize the girls' journeys. 

#5. Think about how the universal desires and anxieties that all children/young adults experience will speak to my readers.

#6. Always think: "Why will readers care about my story?"

#7. Identify what I love in a story. These are elements I will want to include in my own book.

#8. List qualities about my two protagonists which my readers will find appealing. Incorporating these qualities into my story will create sympathetic characters. 

#9. Insert tension by creating stakes for the characters throughout the book.

#10. Play Apples to Apples when you get stuck and need to find out more about your character. (NOTE: It really works!)

There are TONS more that I learned but you'll have to excuse me. Draft #4's outline is tapping her foot and waiting for me to return to work.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Two Chances to Win Books + Three Writing Classes

To thank Rebecca Petruck for her support and writing instruction, I'm offering a copy of her debut novel, Steering Toward Normal as a giveaway on this blog. You'll find my review of this middle grade book for boys and girls here and directions for entering the giveaway below.

In addition, Joyce Hostetter and I are giving away another copy of Steering Toward Normal in Talking Story, as well as an ARC of Linda Phillips' debut novel-in-verse, CRAZY. You will find my review of this young adult book for girls here. By the way, Linda's book received a Junior Library Guild Selection award--pre-release!

If you live in Charlotte and you want to learn some of the tricks of plotting your novel that I learned from Rebecca, she is giving a workshop in Charlotte on October 13 entitled, "Plot Your Novel and Other acts of Joy and Heartbreak." Click here for more information.

Rebecca is joining Kami Kinard to teach an online class on writing a middle grade or young adult novel. Their class, "Crafting the Kidlit Novel" is sure to be jam-packed with information. As a participant in Kami's popular Kidlit Summer School (co-directed by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen I can vouch that these instructors know their stuff!

And finally, I'm starting my Intermediate Fiction Writing class at Central Piedmont Community College next week. There are still a few spaces left if you are interested in developing your children's or adult novel. 
If you want to win Steering Toward Normal, leave me a comment by Monday, September 22 at 9 AM. Please leave me your email address if I don't already have it.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Stab at Internalization: Lillie's POV

In last week's blog I shared the writing exercise which Rebecca Petruck, my writing coach, gave me. She instructed me to think about, "the difference between rote description, and description that reveals something about the character. When you describe the external world around them, it has to be in order to reflect how they interpret it, what it means to them and how it feels."
Rebecca also said I needed to infuse Lillie's love for science into my story. Here is my first stab at addressing these issues. 

This is the original text from Lillie's opening chapter:
I tackle the breakfast dishes taking special care with Big Momma’s china cup. I trace my finger around the blue doves flying over the pagoda. Big Momma used to tell me the legend of the young Chinese lovers. They turned into doves when they eloped against the girl’s Daddy’s wishes. A girl loving a boy when her Daddy didn’t think he was good enough for his daughter?  You can’t get more romantic than that!
There’s a chip along the rim and the handle’s broken off a bunch of times. Daddy teases Big Momma saying he’s going to buy a new cup for her birthday, but she says her coffee wouldn’t taste right. The way she prizes that cup, you’d think a boyfriend gave it to her.  
   Here is my re-write:

    I fill up the kitchen sink with water and sprinkle the soap flakes over the breakfast dishes. I wash Bigmomma’s blue willow china teacup first, taking my time, letting my fingers linger over the blue doves flying over the pagoda.
There’s a chip along the rim and the handle’s broken off a bunch of times. Daddy teases Big Momma saying he’s going to buy a new cup for her birthday, but she says her coffee wouldn’t taste right. The way she prizes that cup, you’d think a boyfriend gave it to her.
    I can hear Bigmomma’s rich velvety voice catch as she tells me one more time-because when I was little I demanded it every night before going to bed- the legend of the young Chinese lovers. They were turned into doves when they eloped against the girl’s Daddy’s wishes. Swells of anger still push up inside as I remember the part where the father banishes the couple from his palace. It was so unfair! The boy and girl were young and in love. Her father had no right to stop them!
    Bigmomma said the boy wasn’t good enough for the girl. My heart aches for that boy. I know precisely what it feels like not to be good enough. Not because my boyfriend’s father tells me I’m not good enough for Walter, my boyfriend. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. In his book, Mr. Johnson thinks I’m as smart as Mr. Albert Einstein himself! He always shakes his head and wonders about Walter and I being sweet on each other. I just smile and say we’re like electrons and protons: opposites attract.
    No, I’m not good enough because I’m a girl. And colored.  But when Daddy says that since I like science so much I should study nursing, I tune him out.
   Who wants to spend the rest of her life emptying bedpans and wiping up vomit all day long? Not me! I want to do more than that with my life. I want to be like Madame Curie. She discovered two elements! Or maybe George Washington Carver who figured out more than a hundred ways to use peanuts.  Their lives mattered.
   But will mine?  I can’t change my sex. And I’m no chameleon who can change the color of his skin. So, I’m stuck. As stuck as that blue willow Chinese girl.
    Except in her story there was magic. Maybe it was the magic of their love that changed them. Or maybe some sort of good fairy who waved her magic wand and turned them into doves.
   Those two Chinese lovers found a solution to their problem by becoming somebody different. No, modify that. They became something different in order to stay together.
   Do I want to change in order to get what I want? And even if I wanted to, could I?
    Everyone knows that when you put two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen together, you get water.  Never ammonia or salt or zinc. You can boil it and change it into steam, or freeze it into an ice cube, but it’s still water.
     I rinse Bigmomma’s teacup one more time, dry it, and put it up on the shelf, next to Momma and Pop’s.
    Yes. No matter what, I’m a colored girl who’s not happy becoming a nurse like every other girl at Second Ward High. Since I don’t believe in magic wands or fairies. I have to figure out a different way to get what I want.
So, how did I do? I look forward to hearing your comments!

To celebrate Rebecca's fantastic input into my story, this week I'll be giving away two copies of her debut novel, Steering Toward Normal. I'll have an additional post on Thursday to tell you how you can enter to win one.