March 30, 2010

Subject: How do your priorities align with your time?

A Different Approach to Setting Goals
I’ve been all about goals and resolutions this year, inspired in part by reading The Happiness Project and in part by my desire to make progress with my writing. After reading a challenge from the folks at Teaching Authors, I even wrote up a six-word resolution for the year (Write. Create. Revise. Complete. Enjoy. Repeat.) So when the Vermont Novel Writing Workshop opened with a session on setting goals, I felt like I was in good shape.

YA Novelist and writing teacher Sarah Aronson, who organized the retreat and led the goal setting session, urged all of us in the audience to think realistically about how we use our time before setting our goals.

How much time do we have to write? How much time do we spend caring for families, working at jobs, driving kids around, volunteering, cooking, cleaning, watching TV, and even, um…, blogging? Write it down, all of it, she said.

Since I write while my kids are at school, I have about twenty hours a week to devote to writing—all of my writing. That includes my novel, blogging here, blogging at StorySleuths, and writing short stories. Twenty hours is a good chunk of time, and I’m grateful for it.

Then, Sarah asked us to consider how our schedules match up with our priorities.

Oh, I realize there’s nothing new to the idea of comparing time with priorities but I had never looked at it in the stark light of basic numbers. Twenty hours a week and maybe one or two hours spent on my novel? The rest spent on… what? Blogging? “Research”?

Holy crap.

New resolution: Spend two hours a day working on my novel before working on any other writing. Ten hours of focused novel writing a week should add up to real progress over time.

How do you allot your time? Do you set daily writing goals? If so, how does that work for you? I’d love to hear about challenges, tips, and ideas!

March 23, 2010

Subject: A Top Ten List from Vermont Writing Retreat

Last weekend, I traveled to Montpelier, Vermont to attend the Novel Writing Retreat at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a workshop for 25 middle grade and young adult novelists organized by Sarah Aronson and Cindy Faughnan. The faculty included Nancy Mercado, executive editor at Roaring Book Press, Emily Jenkins (E. Lockhart for YA fans), and Uma Krishnaswami.

Weekend Highlights

10. Visiting Montpelier. This was my first trip to Vermont, ever. It was unseasonably warm when I arrived (temperatures in the mid 60s!). I enjoyed walking from campus to town, which is home to the capitol, several bookstores, and the Capitol Grounds Coffee Shop.

9. Dorm Living. Nothing like cinderblock walls and the hum of a mini-fridge to take you back to college days!

8. Book Recommendations. My to-read pile grew after each participant shared a recent favorite MG or YA book. Several people recommended our current StorySleuths book (The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly) as well as June’s book, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. One Crazy Summer has gotten starred reviews from Horn Book, Booklist, and Kirkus. Another recommendation: The Sky is Everywhere, by VCFA grad Jandy Nelson.

7. Prizes. I won a door-prize, the F&G of Feeding the Sheep by Leda Schubert, who is a member of the VCFA faculty. Schubert’s rhyming text along with beautiful illustrations by Andrea U’Ren tells the story of a mother and daughter who raise sheep and harvest wool.

6. Cafeteria Food. I have no complaints about the cafeteria food at Vermont College, all of which was prepared by students from the New England Culinary Institute. We had some great veggies… plus delicious cookies at every meal.

5. Workshop. The retreat’s critique track included a workshop with four other writers. I always love workshop time when at Hamline, and this was no different. I learn so much from reading other people’s work as well as from their feedback on my work. Critique Group One was awesome.

4. Making Things Worse. Emily Jenkins, author of The Boyfriend List and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, shared her techniques for plotting and pacing. At every step, she asks, “What’s the worst that can happen?” She also showed us different versions of the same scene so we could see how she revised for pacing. (My comments on the structure of The Boyfriend List are here.)

3. Reading Birthmarked. For her talk on pacing, Nancy Mercado gave participants a sneak peek at Caragh O’Brien’s new book Birthmarked, a dystopian novel set in a post-climate change society next to Unlake Michigan. Although I probably wouldn’t have chosen the book on my own, I have to say that I loved Birthmarked. Action, suspense, moral choices, plus a romance… definitely read it. Birthmarked hits bookstores next week.

2. Brainstorming with Uma. I am so grateful for the opportunity to talk about my work-in-progress with Uma Krishnaswami, author of Monsoon and Naming Maya. She provided excellent feedback on my opening pages as well as good advice about the directions I plan to take in the rest of the book.

1. Making Connections. As always, it was so great to meet other writers who love MG and YA books as much as I do. Good luck, all, in your writing. Hope to see your novels soon!

March 19, 2010

Subject: Ten Favorite Short Story Collections

Eager to read some middle grade and young adult short stories? Here’s a list of some of my favorite collections and anthologies.

  1. 13: Thirteen Stories That Capture the Agony and Ecstasy of Being Thirteen, edited by James Howe (Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing). Includes stories by Ron Koertge, Todd Strasser, and Bruce Coville.
  2. Baseball Crazy: Ten Short Stories That Cover All the Bases, edited by Nancy Mercado, (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2008). Includes stories by Frank Portman, Sue Corbett, and Joseph Bruchac.
  3. Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd, edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castelluci (Little Brown Books for Young Readers, 2009). Includes stories by Tracy Lynn, John Green, and Sara Zarr.
  4. No Easy Answers: Short Stories About Teenagers Making Tough Choices, edited by Donald R. Gallo (Laurel-Leaf Books, 1997). Includes stories by Walter Dean Myers, Virginia Euwer Wolff, and Rita Williams-Garcia.
  5. No Such Thing as The Real World: Stories about Growing Up and Getting a Life (Laura Geringer Books, 2009). Includes stories by Beth Kephart, Chris Lynch, and K. L. Going.
  6. Pretty Monsters: Stories, by Kelly Link (Viking, 2008)
  7. Soul Searching: Thirteen Stories about Faith and Belief, edited by Lisa Rowe Fraustino, (Simon & Schuster, 2002). Includes stories by Uma Krishnaswami, Minfong Ho, and Linda Oatman High.
  8. The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy for Teens, edited by Jane Yolen and Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Tor, 2005). Includes stories by Kelly Link, Lynette Aspey, and Delia Sherman.
  9. Tripping Over the Lunch Lady and Other School Stories, edited by Nancy E. Mercado (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2004). Includes stories by David Lubar, Rachel Vail, and Sarah Weeks.
  10. Up All Night: Seven Sunsets, Seven Stories (Laura Geringer Books, 2008). Includes stories by Peter Abrahams, David Levithan, and Patricia McCormick.

Would love to hear recommendations for other short story collections and anthologies!

March 17, 2010

Subject: A Book Review for St. Patrick's Day (Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd)

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Are you wearing green today? As usual, I forgot about the holiday. Fortunately, my youngest did not. She appeared for breakfast in a Kelly green hoodie and matching leaf-green t-shirt. Her St. Patrick’s Day spirit inspired me to hold off my planned post so I could write about a book set in Ireland that I recently finished.

Title: Bog Child

Author: Siobhan Dowd

Genre: Young Adult

Publisher: David Fickling Books, 2008


It’s the early 1980s in a small Northern Ireland border town. Fergus McCann needs to focus on studying for the exams that will take him away from Ireland to university. He struggles to concentrate, though, his mind and emotions occupied with the political turmoil that affects all aspects of Fergus’s life.

His older brother, Joe, is in prison, where he joins a group of hunger strikers appealing for status as political prisoners. Fergus’s parents argue constantly about the Troubles. And Joe’s old friend pressures Fergus to join the fight by transporting contraband across the border.

The novel begins when Fergus discovers a young girl’s body buried and preserved in peat. The body is presumed to be centuries old, and Fergus welcomes the opportunity to help a mother-daughter archaeological team investigate where and how the child died. Soon, Fergus hears the child’s voice in his dreams. Her story of betrayal and sacrifice mirrors many of the same themes Fergus encounters in his own times.

Bog Child brings to life a place and time in history that I know very little about. Dowd does not stop to explain the conflict, but much as Allyson describes in her recent posting about historical fiction at StorySleuths, the narrative alludes to factions and details in a way that lets the reader accumulate enough knowledge to understand the basics of the conflict. In the author’s note at the end, Dowd explains the hunger strikes of 1981. The book also inspired me to look up the Troubles online.

Writing Details

Dowd brings together a well-rounded group of characters in Bog Child. In addition to Fergus’s family, we meet Uncle Tally, who tends bar nearby, Owain, a young Welsh boy who stands guard at the border, and Cora, whose mother leads the archaeological studies. The characters reveal the complexity of the situation in Northern Ireland as well as the humanity of people who appear to be on opposite sides of the issue.

I really admire the way Dowd describes physical responses in a way that also reveals emotional reactions. Here are two examples from a chapter when Fergus visits Joe several weeks into the hunger strike. Joe asks to speak to Fergus alone and says, “You know. Love, That stuff.”

Fergus scrunched his fists to make the crying stop. “Yeah, I know.” He forced the crying feeling back down his throat. He sucked his lips between his teeth and bit the flesh, hard. He felt like a toddler crushing the jack-in-the-box back in (p. 177).

Dowd is unrelenting in her description of Joe’s state. His cause may be noble, but the experience of starving himself is anything but easy.

Another spasm came over Joe. His eyes dilated and he retched. Then he doubled over, grabbing his guts. Fergus got a whiff of something stale, like a breadbin that badly needed washing out, mixed with something chemical, like pear-drops (pp. 179-180).
Dowd writes with clarity and honesty about a place filled with conflict on many levels. She keeps the plot moving with a variety of storylines as well as a few unexpected twists.

I’m curious to know if anyone has read her other books. The London Eye Mystery has been in my pile of to-read books for a while.

March 15, 2010

Subject: The Power of the Adult World (or What's In Your Desk?)

Last Friday, my daughter had the day off from school, and she spent a better part of the morning digging through shelves and files in my desk.

She found:

  • A package of Avery pre-perforated business card paper
  • A box of yellow, pink, green, and orange chalk pastels
  • Stacks of old, unfiled photos
  • A box of gouache paints
  • An empty plastic 8x12” envelope, and
  • A file box containing drafts and sketches from the first picture book I ever wrote

What she did next:

  • She took three sheets of the business card paper to make business cards of her own, advertising the “grocery store” she runs out of our pantry.
  • She commandeered the pastels for her art class on Saturday.
  • She requested the box of paints for someday.
  • She filled the envelope with money and receipts from the grocery store.
  • And she complimented me on my drawing skills.

(As an aside… oh, how strange to see that old picture book story. It’s a full thirty-two pages long. I started it in part thanks to a challenge from my husband. Madonna had just released another picture book, and he said something like ‘If Madonna can write, then surely you can, too.” Thanks, love, for the nudge!)

Back to my desk

The treasures my daughter discovered reminded me of something I read once about Inkheart author Cornelia Funke:

Like Philip Pullman, Funke understands that children are intrigued by the power of the adult world (“Harry Potter’s German Cousins,” Times, May 13, 2006)

The power of the adult world.

I love that notion. It makes me think not just of Meggie in Inkheart and Lyra in A Golden Compass, but also of Millicent Min, Junie B. Jones, Ramona, Roy in Hoot, and Dewey in The Green Glass Sea, all trying to make sense of what is happening in the world around them and how they not only fit in but contribute.

So many aspects of the adult world fascinate our kids. Look at the way even toddlers beg to play with their parents’ cell phones or laptops. Think about the way they play dress up and “grocery store.”

I remember playing with the cash register at my grandma’s Laundromat, tapping on the secretary’s typewriter at my dad’s office, and sorting through fabric samples that my mom got from the Design Center in San Francisco. I dreamed of being a zoologist, a marine biologist, a journalist, and a spy like Harriet in Harriet the Spy (another character fascinated by the adult world).

Although Friday’s school holiday limited my writing time, my daughter’s questions and discoveries made me think of some character questions to explore:

  • What about the adult world intrigues the protagonist in my India novel?
  • If she dug through her mother’s desk, what would she discover?
  • What about her mother’s life intrigues her? Confuses her? Appeals to her?
  • And how do the answers to those questions impact her dreams and beliefs?

What about the adult world intrigues your characters?

March 12, 2010

Subject: How to Read Short Stories

One of the most common tips given to aspiring writers is read, an easy rule for me since I love reading. I read middle grade novels, YA, mysteries, magazines, recipe books, memoirs, the New York Times, writing books, articles about education reform, blogs, The Horn Book, and research materials for my novel.

But I don’t typically read short stories. Why? Probably for the same reason that many people don’t:

  • Limited time to read a large and constantly growing pile of books.
  • The disappointment that lingers after reading a dissatisfying story.
  • The sense that some short stories seem pretentious or contrived.
  • And most importantly, to me, the frustration of connecting with a character just before the story ends.

However, I feel compelled to read short stories given my goal to write two per month. The problem is that whenever I pick up a collection of stories, I invariably set it aside for something else.

I discovered that I am not the only person who doesn’t read a lot of short stories.

In a September, 2007, essay that appeared in the New York Times, Stephen King bemoaned the shrinking audience for short stories. He wrote,

In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines… not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there.

An audience of writers and would-be writers. That audience category would include me, only rather than conducting market research, I am more curious about what a short story looks like.

  • How long is a good story?
  • What makes it different from a chapter in a novel?
  • And the big question, when I find a short story I really like, what makes it work? Why do some stories hold my attention while others don’t?

In search of answers, I pulled a few short story collections from my shelf.

Then, after weeks of guilt when looking at the unopened stack of books, I decided on a new approach, one inspired by Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project. She says that

“By doing a little bit each day, you can get a lot accomplished," and
“What you do EVERY DAY matters more than what you do ONCE IN A WHILE.”

I decided to read one short story a day.

It’s an easy commitment to make, just fifteen to thirty minutes out of the day. A short story is perfect reading for a solo lunch or while waiting for my daughter’s gymnastics class to end.

Since taking the story-a-day tack, I’ve read—and enjoyed—more than thirty stories. Turns out that just like chocolates from a box of See’s Candy, short stories aren’t meant to be consumed one after the other. Instead, they’re individual treats, bon-bons to be savored in the moment.

In the coming weeks, I’ll share with you some of my favorite collections of short stories as well as some of the writing lessons I’ve learned from the stories.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you: Do you read short stories on a regular basis? Why or why not?

March 10, 2010

Subject: How many short stories can you write in a year?

Every time I encounter the quantity vs. quality debate, I vow to write more. One of my resolutions this year was to write two short stories a month. Sadly, I have not made much progress on that front.

Turns out, it takes a long time to write a short story. The first draft of my Geektastic-inspired short story, which I began for the StorySleuths StoryChallenge in January, is about 95% complete. It just needs an ending.

Although I’m off to a slow start, I’m not going to give up. I assume that the more stories I attempt to write, the more I will improve. Some may not work out, such as the other story I began in January. But some will.

Anton Chekhov, a master at short stories, gave this advice to his brother, Alexander:

To have as few failures as possible in fiction writing, or in order not to be so sensitive to failures, you must write more, around one hundred or two hundred stories a year. That is the secret.

A hundred or two hundred stories a year!


Better get typing.

(Note: The Anton Chekhov quote comes from Bob Blaisdell’s article “A Few Words of Advice from Anton Chekhov, The Writer, September, 2004).

In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting here about writing and reading short stories for middle grade and young adult readers. I would love to hear from you. What are your experiences writing short stories?