Monday, March 29, 2010

Questions Without Right Answers

Some questions don’t have obvious or single answers. You know the type. Questions that make you squirm because each answer has ramifications. Thinking is required. The answers are anything but easy. For writers, answering these kinds of questions can be good practice for the wrestling match that is plotting because when charting the course of a story, every answer to a question affects the direction of the tale, like it or not.

Below are a couple mind-numbing questions that you might enjoy. Call them story-starters, call them fuel for interesting conversation, call them exercises, or call them annoying. Your choice. Nonetheless, here they are:

If you were going to be dropped onto a remote and deserted island this very moment (yes, even if you are in your pajamas, have not had your coffee, or the timing is inconvenient) and you are only allowed to take one item with you other than what you are wearing, what would you take? Oh, by the way, you’ll be there for a month. To be clear: ONE item. So, for example, if you decide you can't live without a toothbrush, forget about the toothpaste. Sorry.

Next, if you could have three people join you on this island, who would you choose to join you? To make this more interesting, let’s say these people can be either alive or dead.

Remember: deserted island, at least four weeks, one carry along item.

Finally, would you rather share this island with a hungry tiger and her cubs, an infestation of poisonous snakes (keep in mind that these buggers hide and slither), or a pack of four, also hungry, hyenas?

There you go. Interesting or no? If yes, perhaps I’ll throw you more questions in another post. And, if anyone out there comes up with a great story based on these questions, I’d love to read it!


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Digging for Details

Digging for the right story details can be like mining for bits of gold or the most sparkly gems. Don’t you think? Sometimes finding the right story details requires research. Did I hear you groan? Yes, research makes a lot of people grunt and roll their eyes. Some would rather have a tooth pulled than do even two minutes of research. But digging for details can be fun. Really.

The research that I did to find the right story details for Buck Fever is exactly what I talked about today when I visited the wonderful classes of seventh and eighth graders at a school in New Jersey.

The students and I talked about how road trips can be considered research. I shared how I drove out to Bucks County, Pennsylvania to find the perfect setting for my novel. When I found places that I could use in my novel, I took pictures and scribbled notes about the spots.

The students and I also talked about how writing about an experience is easier if the writer has actually done what he or she is writing about. For example, in order to write about Joey loading a gun, in Buck Fever, I learned how to load the same type of gun. I even went to a firing range to shoot a rifle. And, by the way, I actually hit the targets. I hope that you are impressed.

The students and I also talked about interviewing as a type of research and how interviewing is sort of like begging, borrowing, and stealing from the experiences of others. I pointed out that although I have never hip-checked or high-sticked anyone on an ice hockey rink, I was able to write about ice hockey in Buck Fever because I interviewed a hockey player and read about the sport.

By the time I left this wonderful school and my new seventh and eighth grade friends, I think we all had either a new or a renewed sense of how important details are when writing a story. In addition, I think we understood how finding the right details often means lots of mining, but also how interesting and fun research can be. I call this a successful day.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Happy Spring

Spring has sprung! The sun is waking up earlier each morning and staying up later each night. The air is slowly but surely getting warmer. The birds are chirpy and enthusiastic. The windows are opening to repel the demons of cabin fever. Fabulous! To celebrate the arrival of this wonderful time of year, here are some springtime quotes and a poem:

“It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.” ~Charles Dickens

“No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow.” ~Proverb

“The year's at the spring
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hillside's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in His heaven -
All's right with the world!”
~Robert Browning

“In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of four and twenty hours.” ~Mark Twain

Spring Quiet

Gone were but the Winter,

Come were but the Spring,

I would go to a covert

Where the birds sing.

Where in the whitethom

Singeth a thrush,

And a robin sings

In the holly-bush.

Full of fresh scents

Are the budding boughs

Arching high over

A cool green house:

Full of sweet scents,

And whispering air

Which sayeth softly:

“We spread no snare;

“Here dwell in safety,

Here dwell alone,

With a clear stream

And a mossy stone.

“Here the sun shineth

Most shadily;

Here is heard an echo

Of the far sea,

Though far off it be.”

~ Christina Rossetti

Happy Spring!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

What’s In Your Wallet?

Yes, this is a question from a popular commercial. And it’s kind of an interesting question, I think. When I chat with young readers about the characters in my books, I sometimes ask what those characters might have in their pockets, bags, or wallets. And I get some hilarious, really insightful, and just plain brilliant answers. Because if a reader knows a character, that reader will probably have some interesting thoughts about what items or trinkets the character keeps in his or her pockets, bag, or wallet. Think about your favorite characters. I bet you can guess what things they tote around.

Let’s take a real life example. A nineteen-year-old that I know and adore (not that the adoring part is relevant) carries around a miniature sewing kit, tiny manicure items (including the smallest bottle of nail polish that I’ve ever seen), a mini Crazy Glue tube, safety pins, and even camping and survival materials packed into a sardine can. I am not kidding. If you don’t believe that the sardine can exists, check out this link:

What do all these bits and pieces say about the adorable nineteen? That she is prepared for anything. The world could be hit by a meteorite in the next ten seconds and she’d be able to survive it with newly filed and polished nails. She might even be able to start putting the world back together. After all, she’s got that Crazy Glue and those safety pins. To me, this stash is mighty impressive.

In my carry-around satchel, you’ll find a small notebook, a year supply of pens and pencils (at least one of them red), a month-by-month datebook and planner, a camera, and a novel. In my wallet, there is always enough green for at least one chai latte. Also, a few hair clips and elastic bands. Yup, all the signs of a writer slightly obsessed with Starbucks and tormented by too many bad hair days.

So, what’s in your wallet, bag, or pockets? And what does this say about you?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Split Apart

Are you divided? Am I? Are the characters we read about and write about split apart? Or do we feel this way because it's a Monday morning after the clocks have been rolled back an hour? Hmmm.

I ask because I came upon some theories about how individuals might be split. The information is kind of interesting and kind of entertaining. Probably not real scientific, but hey, let’s not get greedy. It’s Monday.

The Right and Left Split

Did you know that the left hemisphere of your brain, the analytic and logical side (the smaller part of mine, I’ll admit) controls the right side of your body? Which means, of course, that the right hemisphere of your brain, the spatial, irrational, and artistic side is in charge of the left side of your body. Yet, a significant number of artists have been or are left-handed. Kind of interesting considering that, on average, only one in ten people in the population are south paws (left-handed).

The Top and Bottom Split

According to some theories, if your upper body is larger or more developed, you are likely to be more social, ambitious, assertive, and outgoing. On the other hand, if your lower half is larger or more developed, you are said to have a strong and emotional foundation. You are supposed to be introspective, stable, grounded, and private.

I’ll just add that thinking about this made me consider going to the gym. Enough said.

The Front and Back Split

The front of your person is supposed to represent your conscious self. The back is said, then, to represent the unconscious with all of its hidden attitudes and feelings. You know, the stuff such as the anger, the fear, and the anxiety that may not be totally appropriate to vent in public. Well, apparently, according to this theory, these negative emotions love to settle into the muscles and bones of the back. Ever wonder where that backache came from? Perhaps from showing socially appeasing appearances upfront while harboring more snarly emotions in the unconscious. Just sayin’.

There. A few tid-bits to chew on as a new week begins. See what happens when I veer away from reading books for children and young adults? Scary.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Glitz & Glamour?

Why don’t the award ceremonies within the world of children’s books have a big, glitzy, over-the-top, award affair something like the movie industry just put on? I’ve been mulling this over for a few days now, ever since The Academy of Awards (Oscar) gala this past Sunday.

I’m thinking that teachers, librarians, authors, illustrators, editors, designers, publishers, agents etc. deserve a blow out bonanza where everyone gets to show up in stretch limos wearing millions of dollars in gems and one-of-a-kind gowns and tuxedos (loaned to everyone by designers who want the exposure). These celebs would walk the red carpet and be cheered on by adoring fans. “Look! There’s Mrs. Dennison from Murray Hill Middle School!” Or: “OMG, there’s the editor of DOG GONE and BUCK FEVER!”

Of course, the celebs would be interviewed by the top names from entertainment networks. And there would be really important questions such as: “Ooo, what are you wearing?” And maybe the celebrities would answer: “My gown was designed by Tomie DePaola. The shoes by Maurice Sendak.” Or something like this.

The award ceremony would, of course, be talked about and anticipated for weeks before the event by people on television and radio. Newspapers and magazines would write articles about the nominees. Favorites would be photographed for the cover of People magazine. Good Morning America would be fired up before, during, and after the show, since it would air in prime time on their channel. The hosts would be as excited to interview Rebecca Stead as they would be to interview Sandra Bullock.

And how about some kicking parties after this award ceremony? Parties put on by Winnie the Pooh or Harry Potter. Parties that would turn away folks such as George Clooney and Meryl Streep because, frankly, they simply are not part of the “in” crowd.

Okay, maybe all the teachers, librarians, authors, illustrators, editors, designers, publishers, agents, etc. don’t need such a glamorous event to showcase their hard work. But they deserve it, don’t you think?

Monday, March 8, 2010

One Recipe for A Story

Necessary ingredients may include:

love of language and good writing






Steps (not necessarily in order):

Mix together ingredients for characters until they appear more real than people, one character to a bowl. Don’t worry if the batter appears curdled or muddy. This is to be expected.

Fold each character in, carefully and one at a time, to a profound fictional world. Do not beat the characters at this point. Maybe later. The batter is likely to be gloppy still.

Add in events that build to a climax and outcome.

Stir in drama such as sudden surprises and revelations that bring change.

Infuse truth and empathy, to taste.

Fold in sensations and details. These will make the batter rise.

Sprinkle in humor, being careful not to overdo.

Whisk and beat the batter for months. Add additional ingredients as needed. Delete portions of batter as necessary. Note: You may need to throw out the entire mess and begin again.

When the batter reaches a consistency that works for you, put it aside. Do not peek at it. Set a timer if necessary.

Don’t be surprised if it stinks when you revisit it. Add and subtract more ingredients, whisk and stir more, tweak, poke, rework.

When the batter is complete, it will rise and then fall. At this point you may wish to ice it with a complimentary title and serve it to those who have a taste for it.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

More on Names

One week ago, I blogged about the meanings behind names. Since then, more insights and techniques on finding names have come my way. So, I thought that I’d share some of these.

I’ll begin with a technique from one of my writer friends. She gathers “fun and interesting” names from old books, newspapers, and movies (she admits to always being the last person out of the theater because she insists on checking out the rolling credits for cool names). Believe it or not, she also scans menus for names. I assume that she meant menus from exotic restaurants, not New Jersey diner menus. Although, Omelet might be an interesting name. No?

A non-writer friend suggested I look to musicians and athletes for interesting names. Okay, why not? From the world of music, how about Ringo Starr or Howlin’ Wolf? From the world of sports: Did you know that a guy by the name of Mac Speedie was a super fast wide receiver in the AFL and NFL, as well as a college track star in the 1940s? Or, that Anna Smashnova is an Israeli tennis player?

Finally, in the March/April issue of Writer’s Digest, an article titled “What’s in a Name?” suggests opening a dictionary, randomly selecting a word, and then fussing with a couple letters to come up with the perfect name. I tried this and came up with squad and jerk. Does this mean that I should name a character Squado Jerkenzie? Or Squadisha MacJerken? Hmmmm, maybe not. I think I need more practice with this particular technique.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Lies? All Lies?

Let’s be honest: Writer fib. Or, at the very least, they stretch and mangle the truth as if it was a blob of Silly Putty. Frankly, it’s part of the fun of being a writer.

For example, before writing Dog Gone and Buck Fever, I wrote a novel that twisted truths that I couldn’t otherwise share. I was working for the CIA at the time, before the years I spent writing and editing elementary school textbooks. My CIA job was not particularly thrilling, but it gave me access to employee information. So, when I discovered that a certain supervisor was using his position in a less than appropriate way, I documented his nonsense in my novel. I expanded upon his shenanigans and used them, along with the (slightly exaggerated) slimy details I had at my fingertips. Of course I was careful not to name the man. I mean, who wants to be sued? Oh, and I published this novel under a different name. When the book became a best seller, the guy quit his job and moved to another state. I’m pretty sure he took on a new identity in his attempt to start over.

I share this because last week Bish Denham ( nominated me for a “Creative Writer Blogger Award.” Thanks, Bish!

The award comes with five things that I’m supposed to do:

1. Thank the person who gave the award and link them. Check.

2. Add the award to your blog. Check. It’s the spot art above. The yellow faced dude with the Pinocchio nose.

3. Tell six outrageous lies about yourself and one truth. Check. Oh, wait… Did you not realize that I’ve already lied to you six times? Okay, more than six times.

4. Nominate six creative liars ... I mean, writers and link them. Check.

Shannon Hitchcock (

Tess Hilmo ( Check her out—she’s got a novel coming out!

Jeannine Norris (

Sarah Dooley ( Sarah has already won this award, but she also has a novel coming out and, so, should be mentioned again.

5. Let your nominees know they've been nominated. Okay, I’m on it (or did I just lie to you again?)

That wraps up the Monday blog. No lie. *wink, wink*