Saturday, October 31, 2009

Trick or Treat?

Which do you prefer? The sugar addict in me is inclined to scream TREAT as visions caramels and chocolates dance in my head. But then I remember a certain house on my block where I grew up. On Halloween, this cozy, yellow-painted ranch surrounded by a white picket fence, a house complete with white shutters and window boxes, transformed into a house of complete, no-nonsense horror. It was one, immense trick. No one approached this dwelling in search of treats. Oh no. On a kid’s scale of treat worthiness (ten being primo and one being lame), the goodies given away at this house came in somewhere around negative two. Yet, this home got more Halloween traffic than any other house for miles. Why? Because the people who lived inside it took Halloween seriously. They rigged, booby-trapped, and wired every inch of the property to be the ultimate scare experience. Every year the horrors were different. No one ever knew what to expect, but all understood that the experience was about the trick, not the treat.

The witch-themed Halloween haunts my memories most vividly. On that night, the adventure began the moment my friends and I stepped through the gate opening. A hideous, life-size witch came flying out of a tree, stopping short just before the sidewalk as cackles and witchy screeches filled the air from well-hidden speakers. Those who didn’t drop dead from heart failure, proceeded on to the doorway where a cluster of shrieking, real-life witches (and NOT the Glenda the Good Witch type, either) surrounded in purple light and dry ice fogs invited shaking hands to reach into one of three caldrons for a treat. Reach into the right kettle and get the low-rated goodie; reach into the wrong cauldron and get a mitt-full of wet eyeballs, innards, and hunks of flesh, which some craggy voice proclaimed to be the leftovers of earlier trick-or-treaters. Want to guess where my hand went? Only now, as a rational adult, can I muster up enough logic to assume that I’d palmed peeled grapes, cooked pasta, and raw chicken. But at the time, I KNEW I had my hand in guts and goo. I KNEW from that moment on that I’d never be a surgeon.

That wasn't the end of the adventure, either. On the way back to the gate and freedom, more witches popped out of bushes, screeching and cackling and lunging. Bats and black cats rigged to wires flew off the roof, the felines hissing and spitting at high volume. In complete panic, certain our lives were in jeopardy, we bolted and stumbled for the gate opening in a mad frenzy of costumes, screams and adrenalin. Would we survive this to see daylight?

Ah, good times.

So, trick or treat? Remember, though: a treat lasts but a moment; a trick, or the memory of it, can last a lifetime. Happy Halloween, everyone!

P.S. I can't end this blog without adding a very special treat that Buck Fever received from reader Sean and The Recorder Newspaper—a wonderful review. Okay, some treats do last longer than a moment:

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Happy Birthday Buck Fever!

Today is the release day of Buck Fever. Very exciting! And perhaps a good enough excuse to eat a birthday cupcake. Why not? Buck’s birthday is also (as I wrote in my last blog entry), an opportunity for you, or a middle school student, teacher, or librarian that you may know, to win a book. Because, to celebrate Buck’s birthday, I’m giving away signed copies of Buck Fever and Dog Gone. To register for a chance at winning a book, you can comment here or send me an email at

And, if you want to check out the Buck Fever book trailer, go to There, you'll find a link to that trailer.

So, good luck to all, happy reading, and have yourself a birthday cupcake!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Buck Fever Count Down

Is there anything better than seeing the UPS guy walk up to your house with a box of books? The other day I was gifted this excitement when multiple copies of Buck Fever arrived. Yea! And yes, I did launch into a full out Snoopy dance (after the UPS guy drove away, of course).

I’m also happy to report that Buck has been getting some lovely reviews. Booklist said “…The quietness of nature and small-town life is wonderfully reflected in Willis’ patient and artful prose, and every hunting detail feels authentic, from the construction of deer blinds to the skinning of animals. An unusually sensitive and reflective boy-centric book.” More Snoopy dancing (never mind that I’m starting to get dizzy).

All of this fun is revving up because, in less than a week, Buck Fever will be making its debut. And, as part of its birthday celebration, I’m giving away copies of both Buck Fever and Dog Gone (Let’s not forget the dog just because the buck is in town, right?). Anyone who posts a comment on this blog or sends me an email at will be given a chance for a book. Oh, and I should mention that there is a link to a book trailer for Buck Fever also on my site. The contest officially kicks off on October 27th, the day Buck Fever is released, but why not start the party early?

So, I’m breaking out the confetti and starting to blow up balloons.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

More Ideas to Motivate Kids to Read

In my last blog entry I offered up a couple ideas on how to encourage less motivated readers into the fabulous world of books. Today, I’ll throw out a couple more ideas. Here they are:

How about a book chat?

Getting kids to ask and answer questions about books can be fun and encourage more involvement in reading. Often, if readers know that they are going to talk about what they are reading, they will pay a bit more attention and get more involved in that reading. What a lovely thought, right?

Let's say that there are two or more kids reading the same title on their own. After they finish the story, they could come together to talk about it. To begin, each child could share his or her opinion of the book. Next, why not give the readers some fun and specific questions to chew on? If children have read Dog Gone, for example, they might discuss how they would each describe Dill or how her buddy, Cub, influenced her as she dealt with her wayward dog, Dead End. Students could also talk about how they might describe Dead End and how he complicates life for both Dill and Cub and the other characters in the story. If children read Buck Fever, they could talk about how Joey wants to impress his dad. What advise would they give Joey when he finds out about the bet that his dad has made? What would children say to Joey or one of the other characters if children were to meet these characters on their own turf, say on the way home from school or in the lunchroom?

Book conversations can get really interesting as each reader brings his or her own experiences to the discussion. As an added bonus, lots of writers, including me, offer discussion questions for their books on their websites. So, often, book chat questions are just a click away. Why not use them in classrooms, at home, or for author-student discussions when an author visits a school or library?

Ever try a book graffiti wall?

It’s easy and can also be fun and motivating. My local bookstore tried this after I talked about it during a presentation to teachers and librarians. Everyone at the bookstore had great fun with this graffiti wall, I'm happy to report.

To make a book graffiti wall, spread out a large sheet of poster paper or butcher paper. Have children draw a pattern of bricks on the paper so that it looks something like a wall. Next, attach the "wall" to a real wall, bulletin board, or flat surface. Whenever someone has finished reading a book, he or she can draw book-related pictures, write a book recommendation, something about the author. . . Anything the reader wants to put on the wall is acceptable as long as the graffiti has something to do with the book. For example, someone who read Buck Fever might want to draw a picture of Old Buck or jot down a get-well soon note to Joey. Putting up graffiti on the wall can be fun for the person who read the book, but this graffiti also advertises elements of the story that might entice others to read it.

So, there they are--a couple more ideas for writers, teachers, librarians, and anyone interested in getting readers more involved with books and to (hopefully) make reading even more fun than it already is.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ideas That Might Motivate Kids to Read

Yesterday I had the opportunity to talk with fifty plus teachers and librarians at an Educator’s Event at the Hamilton, New Jersey Barnes and Noble. It is always wonderful to meet and chat with teachers and librarians. Whenever I do, I often hear about those students who are not motivated to pick up a book. So, for the presentation yesterday, I tapped into my experience as a Reading textbook editor and presented ideas that might, hopefully, motivate kids to read. Since these ideas were well received, I thought I’d share a couple.

1) Back when I was said textbook editor, my fellow editors and I almost always included hands-on activities to be completed after the reading selections in the pupil editions and teacher editions. We did our best to tie these activities to the reading selections. Why? Because if students knew that an activity was coming that required them to know details from the reading, lo and behold, they often became more engaged in the selection. So, one idea to consider when helping kids get more enthused about reading is to incorporate story related crossword puzzles, games, art projects, and, or dramatizations to the stories being read.

For you writers out there, you might want to create some activities to go along with your books. I put together a crossword puzzle to go along with Dog Gone, for example. I give this puzzle to kids, teachers, librarians… Okay, to anyone who wants the darn thing whenever I’m at signings and events. Of course, one must read Dog Gone before one can complete the puzzle. Tricky? Mmmm, maybe. But who doesn’t enjoy a nice puzzle now and again?

2) Another idea is to engage children while reading a story aloud. Like most of us, children of all ages appreciate being read to. But once in a while, attention might wander. To hook a listener’s interest, try pulling attention back in by focusing on the reading strategies of making predictions and making inferences. Pause at points while reading aloud to ask children to predict what might happen next or make guesses about what is going on.

In Dog Gone, for example, children could be asked to make predictions and inferences (or guesses about what is happening) after only the second paragraph.

A Make Predictions question might be: What do you think Dill and Cub will do next? The story clues point to giving Dead End, the dog, a bath. As the reading continues, though, children discover that certain events keep Dill and Cub from delivering that bath. Children confirm or revise their predictions based on these story events.

A Make Inferences question might be: Where could the sour stench rising off of Dead End have come from? What could the greenish-brown smudges that mat his fur be? Again, as the story progresses, children can revise their guesses based on additional information or they can confirm that they guessed correctly.

So, there you have a couple ideas. In my next blog, I’ll share a two more while I’m still tapping into the textbook editor part of my brain.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Top Ten

Have you ever had someone throw out a question that is both thought provoking and revealing? A question that really gets a conversation going? Here’s one that I found fascinating:

If you were stuck on an island by yourself, with only ten books, which books would you want to have with you? Survival is not an issue. Your selection should be geared toward keeping yourself entertained. In other words, which ten books could you read over and over again and still learn from, enjoy, savor?

Hmmmm... After some thought, I’ve listed my top ten picks for best read and read again (and perhaps again and again) below.

Number one: The Bible.

Great stories, great characters, lots to learn and absorb, lots to savor.

Number two: A dictionary

Why not? Have you ever read a dictionary? It’s kind of fun, really, not that I’ve read one cover to cover. I would probably really have to be stranded on an island before I did that.

Number three: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

No explanation needed here, right? Action, drama, tragedy, etc…

Number four: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

If I’m alone on an island, Scout, Jem, and Atticus (along with everyone else in the novel) would make great company, I think.

Number five: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

This is just one of those novels that I can’t get enough of.

Number six: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Love, love, love this story. As it is, I’m pretty sure that I’ve read this twenty plus times. Probably more. Wow, I hope that's not too revealing.

Number seven: Grimm’s Fairy Tales

Again, no explanation needed, right?

Number eight: An Anthology of Hans Christian Anderson


Number nine: Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principals of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

Okay, here’s a book that I’m pretty sure that I could read twenty times and still learn from. It’s amazing.

Number ten: An anthology of poetry

I’m still undecided as to which one. I’ll have to get back to you on this.

So, which ten books would you want to have with you if you happened to be stranded somewhere for an undetermined length of time? Interesting question, right? Try throwing it out to others. The answers can be really interesting!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Down and Dirty of Clichés

Yes, clichés can be my worst nightmare. These insidious little gremlins sneak up behind me and into my manuscripts. The buggers muck up the works. Sometimes the ornery little clichés even disguise themselves so that I don’t recognize them right away. Since there is no Cliché-Be-Gone spray or ant-trap-esque device to use against them, I try to keep my eyes peeled for advice and help. Here are a few suggestions that I’ve come upon, just in case you, too, want to avoid clichés like the plague:

1 1. Most cliché killer experts recommend questioning comparisons and images in one’s writing. Does something sound a wee bit too familiar? Clichés are ever so easy, I think, to pick up from conversations whether in real life or from television or from movies. When a cliché is discovered, try beating it with a thesaurus. And then work on inventing a more fresh and colorful description that holds the same meaning.

2. What if a character is a cliché? Try scrambling the familiar. Say you’ve got a construction worker with a potty mouth and a gruff attitude. A guy with a enough strength to play for a pro football team. Kind of a cliché or a stereotype, right? Well, why not shake up the details?

Why not make this dude a female? Or inject some sensitivity into the guy. Maybe he’s into yoga or ballet. Perhaps his background or back-story sets him apart. He always wanted to be a librarian, but started a family or had to put school on hold and take another job to pay unexpected bills. He fakes the gruff attitude. He uses foul language because he really, really hates his job. See what I mean?

3. Sometimes plot elements can become too familiar. Is there a way to make something new and fresh? Can what happens be twisted in some way to unveil an unexpected turn of events? Such surprises can be delightful to readers and pure fun to write.

So, now the writing is on the wall. Are you chomping at the bit to search out clichés and nip them in the bud? Good luck!

Friday, October 2, 2009

It Takes More Than A Village (if you ask me)

And when it comes to putting out a novel, perhaps an army. There are so many talented people involved in the creation and birth of a novel. It’s really pretty cool, I think. From those willing to be interviewed in the name of research, to those who review a writer’s work in progress, to the agent, to the editor and all the amazing people at the publishing house responsible for turning manuscript pages into a stunning book, and then marketing and selling that book. Wow.

But today I’d like to focus on all the lovely people a writer relies on before the manuscript reaches the hands of an editor. Let’s begin with those who give up their time to answer questions and be interviewed in the name of research. For me, this was a veterinarian who discussed how and why people’s pets sometimes form dog packs (for Dog Gone). And the hunters who patiently explained every aspect of deer hunting (for Buck Fever) and read what I wrote to be sure my scenes were true. And the nurse who educated me regarding traumatic injuries (again, for Buck Fever). The generosity of people can be amazing.

And then there are the wonderful people who donate their time to critique all aspects of a novel in progress. No matter how hard I work on a story, squint at it, pine over it, and fuss with it, inevitably I miss something. Don’t even ask how many times I’ve slapped myself on the forehead and muttered Duh! after a reviewer has pointed out something in need of fixing.

Most recently, while wrestling with a title for a novel, I got unexpected help from the world of Twitter. While in the midst of tearing my hair out, because I so rot at titles, I vented on Twitter about my frustration. A wonderful fellow writer offered her help and guidance. Really. Isn’t that amazing?

So, whether it takes a village or an army to build a novel to the point of completion may be up for discussion, but I don’t think anyone can argue with the value of the guidance and the generosity of those who contribute to the end result.