Monday, July 30, 2012

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Inside Out and Back Again

Today’s pick: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

HarperCollins, 2011

Publisher’s Description:

No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.

For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by . . . and the beauty of her very own papaya tree.

But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food, the strange shape of its landscape . . . and the strength of her very own family.

This is the moving story of one girl's year of change, dreams, grief, and healing as she journeys from one country to another, one life to the next.

 My take:
This story was quick and easy to read, but it had a huge emotional impact. Before I read this story, I didn’t know much about the effects of the Vietnam war, though I’d heard of “boat people”. Although this is fiction, the author did move to Alabama at the end of the war, so her real life experiences allowed her to include many details and images to make this story of a ten-year-old girl come alive. I don’t usually choose novels in verse (though I’m warming up to them) but I think it was an effective way to tell this story. I liked Ha’s character and personality, I wanted to see her succeed and overcome the many obstacles in her life.

As a writer, I admired the way the author could use so few words to create compelling emotion and imagery.

How I discovered this book:
I recently looked at the list of recent Newbery Medal andHonor books and decided I should read more of them, so I got this one at the library.

Other info:
Thanhha Lai lives in New York and worked as a journalist for a short time before deciding to concentrate on writing fiction.
She was born in Vietnam in 1965—the year of the snake.
This is her first novel.
According to the Harper Collins website, she tries to read a novel a night: “If I love the novel, I read every word until I finish it. If not so much, I flip and get the essence of what the writer is doing.”

For more about the author, visit Thanhha Lai's author page at Harper Collins. 

***Marvelous Middle Grade Monday was dreamed up by the incredible Shannon Messenger. Visit her blog for an up-to-date list of all the bloggers who are participating and posting about middle grade books today!***

Friday, July 27, 2012

What I Learned This Week: Story Development

I recently discovered this blog: How To Plan, Write, and Develop Your Book by Mary Carroll Moore.

It's packed full of information and strategies for developing a story. It's like an entire writing course online. I recently watched her video about storyboarding and came away with some new ways of looking at the writing process.

I liked the way she described the purpose of the three-act structure as a way to give your book a shape that other people can understand.

And I also like her suggestion about brain-storming before beginning a new writing project. I usually start with a character or a problem that catches my interest and then I start sticking stuff to it and asking "what if" questions to expand on it.

But I'm intrigued by the idea of taking a bunch of elements that I'd love to see in a novel (or that I'd love to write about so I can learn more about them) and then trying to develop a structure around them. I might try this sometime as an experiment. I'm also going to look for the book A Writer's Time by Kenneth Atchity, which she mentioned in her video.

Have you ever sat down and thought about the specific things you'd like to put into your book before you begin? Or do elements of the novel appear as you're writing?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

YA Read: Pregnant Pause

One of the best things about summer is taking time to just read and enjoy a good book. Today I read the YA novel, Pregnant Pause by Han Nolan. This one is definitely not for a MG audience.

I read it practically all the way through, because I liked this original take on what could have been just another teen pregnancy story. Han Nolan doesn't sugar coat the issues and the characters talk and think about them in a realistic way. I loved how the main character learned about herself through her different relationships with her boyfriend, family, friends and enemies.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Wonder

Today’s pick: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Random House, 2012

Publisher’s Description:

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He's about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you've ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie's just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he's just like them, despite appearances?

My take:

I heard so many good things about this book I was excited to finally borrow a copy from my local library. But it’s so amazing that I’m putting it on my list of books to buy!
Auggie’s facial anomaly is a reality that can’t be ignored, but at the same time he’s just an ordinary boy—with a sister, an aging dog, friend problems and a StarWars obsession. This novel is full of funny moments, as well as touching and heart-breaking ones. I was so wrapped up in Auggie’s story that I was surprised when the author started to tell the story from the point of view of his sister…and then some of the other kids. But it was a really cool way to tell the story and show different sides of Auggie’s character.

As a writer, I am so impressed by the way the author got inside the mind of a 10-year-old boy and showed the world from his perspective. I’d read this again to study how she used dialogue and details to create an authentic view of the grade 5 experience. I also liked the chapter headings and I noticed their significance more after I’d read the entire novel.

Favourite quote:
“If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary—the world really would be a better place.”

Other info:

R.J. Palacio lives in New York and worked as an art director and book designer for many years.

This is R.J. Palacio’s first novel.

It’s worth visiting the Annotations page on the author’s blog to read about why she included the specific quotes and songs, and tidbits about creating the characters.

On her website, the author says “It's never the perfect time to start writing a book. So I decided to just go for it.”

 For more, visit R.J. Palacio’s website.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Importance of Story Context

Earlier this week, author P.C. Wrede posted on the real difference between "showing" and "telling" and what it means for a story in her post Show vs. Tell.

She has nicely put into words what I've always thought about the whole issue of "showing" (or dramatizing events) vs. "telling" or (stating something without actions or thoughts to back it up).

Making it a never-to-be-broken rule to show instead of tell isn't always what's best for the story. Like anything else, these are different techniques available in your writing toolbox and both can work, depending on what is needed. The key is to think about the context of each line in the story (and that's why revisions seem to take forever).

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Cool Blog Quote: It's The Story That Counts

"...what really grabs the reader isn’t the great writing. It’s the story that all that great writing is giving voice to."

Lisa Cron, Channeling the Reader's Brain: What We Expect of Every Story, guest post at Janice Hardy's The Other Side of the Story, July 12, 2012.

This quote struck me because it's what I've been thinking about for several years now. I can revise and improve my writing all I want, but if the story isn't there, it doesn't matter. That's why for me, it's so important to play around with the story ideas and events before I start the actual writing.

It also means that during re-vision, I need to be brave and make big changes, like cutting out huge parts of the story and replacing them with something more compelling that takes the character even deeper into a problem.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: This Dark Endeavour

Today’s pick: This Dark Endeavour  by Kenneth Oppel
HarperCollins, 2011

From the publisher’s website:

Victor Frankenstein leads a charmed life. He and his twin brother, Konrad, and their beautiful cousin Elizabeth take lessons at home and spend their spare time fencing and horseback riding. Along with their friend Henry, they have explored all the hidden passageways and secret rooms of the palatial Frankenstein chateau. Except one.
The Dark Library contains ancient tomes written in strange languages and filled with forbidden knowledge. Their father makes them promise never to visit the library, but when Konrad becomes deathly ill, Victor knows he must find the book that contains the recipe for the legendary Elixir of Life.

The elixir needs only three ingredients. But impossible odds, dangerous alchemy and a bitter love triangle threaten their quest at every turn.
Victor knows he must not fail. Yet his success depends on how far he is willing to push the boundaries of nature, science and love—and how much he is willing to sacrifice.

My take:
I got fully immersed in the world of Victor Frankenstein and his family. This novel has everything a tween reader might want – spooky explorations of secret passages and caves, fast-paced action and swordfighting, mad scientists, and a quest for seemingly impossible to obtain ingredients for a mysterious potion. Fans of Kenneth Oppel’s books will like the strange and lethal creatures that pop up in this story, as well as all the suspense and action.  

This prequel to the story of Frankstein is described as a young adult novel, but I think 12 and 13-year-old readers will enjoy it as well. Just be warned that there are some slightly gruesome elements (severed body parts) and some romance (a key plot element is a love triangle).
As a writer, I’d read this again to study how to create a flawed viewpoint character that readers will root for. Victor Frankenstein has negative qualities, and the reader is definitely aware of them. But at the same time, I was compelled to see if he would succeed at what he set out to do.  Then there’s also the skillful writing – I love the way the author uses only the words he needs, yet also manages to include details to create spooky atmosphere and settings.

What an almost 13-year-old says:
“Can we buy this book? I think we should have our own copy.”

“I liked it because it has lots of surprises and twists.”

 Other info:
This book was a finalist for the 2011 Governor General’s Literary Awards - Children's Literature (Text).

It is being made into a motion picture by the producers of Twilight.
Kenneth Oppel lives in Toronto.

On his website he says, “When I get halfway through a draft of a book, I usually hit the wall and don't want to carry on, because there's so much unfinished work behind me. So back I go and rewrite.”

Other books by this author include:
Novels for Young Adults

Such Wicked Intent, HarperCollins (Canada), August 2012, a sequel to This Dark Endeavour
Half Brother, HarperCollins (Canada) 2010

Starclimber, HarperCollins (Canada) 2008
Darkwing, HarperCollins (Canada) 2007
Skybreaker, HarperCollins (Canada) 2005

Airborn, HarperCollins (Canada) 2004

Firewing, HarperCollins (Canada) 2002

Sunwing, HarperCollins (Canada) 1999

Silverwing, HarperCollins (Canada) 1997
Dead Water Zone, Kids Can Press (Canada) 1992
The Live-Forever Machine, Kids Can Press (Canada) 1990

Chapter Books
The Barnes and the Brains Series: A Bad Case of Ghosts, A Strange Case of Magic, A Crazy Case of Robots, An Incredible Case of Dinosaurs, A Weird Case of Super-Goo, A Creepy Case of Vampires (all published by HarperCollins Canada)

Emma's Emu, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, reissued 1999

Picture Books
The King's Taster, HarperCollins (Canada) 2009
Peg and the Yeti, HarperCollins (Canada) 2004
Peg and the Whale, HarperCollins (Canada) 2000
Follow That Star, Kids Can Press, 1992, out of print
Cosimo Cat, Scholastic Books, 1990, out of print

Adult Novels
The Devil's Cure, HarperCollins (Canada) 2000

For more, visit Kenneth Oppel’s website.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday was dreamed up by the incredible Shannon Messenger. Visit her blog for an up-to-date list of all the bloggers who are participating and posting about middle grade books today!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Another Awesome Thing About Writing

Here's another awesome thing about writing:

Cheering for a writing buddy who got some great news.

This week, my writing buddy Debbie Ridpath Ohi (Inkygirl) found out that her debut book as an illustrator, I'm Bored by Michael Ian Black, got a starred review from Publisher's Weekly!!!! Yay!!! To read more about it, check out Debbie's post.

Also this week, I came across an amazing video by Denise Jaden, author of Never Enough. She asked some writers talk about how they felt during their high school years. I connected with it right away, and it made me wish all teens could watch it and think about what makes them special or what they are good at, despite what anyone else has to say.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Create Ordinary Characters by Making Them Dramatic

As I revise my novel, one of the things I'm noticing is that I'm often amplifying character reactions and behaviour beyond what they'd be in ordinary life. It's not that I'm trying to create an extraordinary character. (Though I suppose all authors want to think of their characters that way on some level, or else why would we bother writing about them?) But using words to shape personality involves making judgments about what is important for the reader to know, see or feel and then writing to emphasize those elements.

To bring out a character's personality, I think it's important to sometimes make their reactions a little over-the top. Give them a dramatic flair. In the same way that writers pile on more and more impossible obstacles for a character to struggle through, the actions and reactions of the character need to be big and bold to show that they are up to the challenge. Being bold doesn't mean that characters can't be quaking in their boots or feeling timid in the face of danger, but their fears or lack of confidence need to be big enough, noticeable enough, for it to stand out to the reader.

Some tips for making characters more dramatic:

1. Create a character that is conflicted to begin with. If there is something about the character that sets up an inner conflict, it can create empathy even before the story gets started. A typical example in a middle grade or YA novel might be having a character with a parent that recently died or moved out. Or some type of disability. Even if that's not what the story is going to be about, there are underlying emotional issues to resolve and that creates more drama.

2. Have secondary or minor characters react to what the main character is doing. This draws attention to the reaction or behaviour for the reader. If the other characters think it's important, then it must be important.

3. Choose the reaction with the most impact and let it stand on its own. Write all about how the character acts, thinks and feels when reacting to an event in the story. But then go back and choose the most compelling way to describe it and cut the rest. Over-explanations take away from the dramatic impact. But watch out for the opposite problem too, where the reader doesn't know enough about what the character is thinking and feeling to care. It's all about balance.

How do you make your characters more dramatic?

Monday, July 9, 2012

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Masterpiece

Today’s pick: Masterpiece by Elise Broach, illustrated by Kelly Murphy

Henry Holt and Company, 2008

From the publisher’s website:
Marvin lives with his family under the kitchen sink in the Pompadays’ apartment. He is very much a beetle. James Pompaday lives with his family in New York City. He is very much an eleven-year-old boy. After James gets a pen-and-ink set for his birthday, Marvin surprises him by creating an elaborate miniature drawing. James gets all the credit for the picture and before these unlikely friends know it they are caught up in a staged art heist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that could help recover a famous drawing by Albrecht Dürer. But James can’t go through with the plan without Marvin’s help. And that’s where things get really complicated (and interesting!). This fast-paced mystery will have young readers on the edge of their seats as they root for boy and beetle.

My take:
I love reading about tiny creatures and their different perspective on our world, so I really enjoyed this story. It reminded me of one of my old favourites “The Cricket in Times Square” by George Seldon, because of the writing style and the sense of adventure. The idea of a beetle that draws and helps to solve the mystery of a famous stolen Durer drawing was fascinating. I’d love to draw as well as Marvin the beetle!

As a writer, I admired the way Elise Broach created a close relationship between the boy James and the beetle Marvin, especially when Marvin couldn’t communicate by talking.

Favourite quotes:
“The most important things in a friendship didn't have to be said out loud.”

“When you saw different parts of the world, you saw different parts of yourself.”

Other info:
Elise Broach lives in Connecticut but her favourite cities are New York and Paris.

Masterpiece has been recognized with the E.B. White Read Aloud Award by the Association of Booksellers for Children in 2009 and as an ALA Notable Book, as well as named the Best Children's Book of 2008 by Publisher's Weekly .

On her website, Elise Broach says: “It still amazes me—and seems an incredible privilege—to get paid for making up stories.”

Other books by this author:

Missing On Superstition Mountain, (Book I in the Superstition Mountain Trilogy), Henry Holt and Company, June 2011
 Desert Crossing,  Henry Holt and Company, May 2006
 Shakespeare’s Secret, Henry Holt and Company, May 2005

Picture Books:
Snowflake Baby,  Little, Brown, November 2011
Seashore Baby,  Little, Brown, April 2010
Gumption!, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, April 2010
When Dinosaurs Came With Everything, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, September 2007
Cousin John is Coming!, Dial Books for Young Readers, June 2006
Wet Dog!  Dial Books for Young Readers, May 2005
Hiding Hoover, Dial Books for Young Readers, July 2005
What the No-Good Baby is Good For, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, May 2005

For more, visit Elise Broach’s website.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday was dreamed up by the incredible Shannon Messenger. Visit her blog for an up-to-date list of all the bloggers who are participating and posting about middle grade books today!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Cool Blog Quote: Add Originality To Your Writing

“Those other things that make us tick bring enriching and unexpected insights and originality to our writing. Don't neglect them because you should be writing.”

Since I'm not working at my day job for a couple of months, it's tempting to spend more time than I usually do on writing. I can sit in front of my computer for hours perfecting a paragraph because I have the time. Except I don't know how much that really helps my writing. It's more like an obsession.
Three times yesterday I had to grab my notebook when I wasn't writing, once because I had an idea that linked up with a story I'd started a while back, and two other times because I had ideas for the novel I'm revising and what I need for the next scene. I'm not sure I'd have gotten those ideas if I was still sitting at my desk, concentrating on perfecting every word.
I love learning new things, but they can't all be about writing. It's interesting how, when I'm learning about something like cooking or gardening, it opens up my mind to new ideas and that often gives my writing a boost.
So this summer, I'm going to make sure I take time for some of the other things I like to do -- playing board games, working on my gardening, trying out recipes (this week I made raspberry-rhubarb pie), or going on nature walks to explore places I haven't been.
I do think it helps to keep the creativity flowing if I do some writing every day. But for me, it's also important to remember to get away from my desk and do some living.
Do you ever have to drag yourself away from your writing? What are you going to do for yourself this summer that doesn't involve writing?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Boys Without Names

Today’s pick: Boys Without Names by Kashmira Sheth

Balzer + Bray, 2010

Back cover copy:
For eleven-year-old Gopal and his family, life in their rural Indian village is over: We stay, we starve, his baba has warned. So they must flee to the big city of Mumbai in hopes of finding work and a brighter future. Gopal is eager to help support his struggling family, so when a stranger approaches him with the promise of a factory job, he jumps at the offer.

But there is no factory, just a small, stuffy sweatshop, where he and five other boys are forced to make beaded frames for no money and little food. The boys are forbidden to talk or even to call one another by their real names. Locked away in a rundown building, Gopal despairs of ever seeing his family again.

But late one night, when Gopal decides to share kahanis, or stories, he realizes that storytelling might be the boys' key to survival. If he can make them feel more like brothers than enemies, their lives will be more bearable in the shop—and they might even find a way to escape.

My take:
I couldn’t put this book down because I had to find out what happen to Gopal and the other boys. Although some reviewers have described this book as slow-paced, I was fascinated by all the details of Gopal’s life in India and I felt they really made the story come alive. It was hard to read this story, because I grew so emotionally attached to Gopal and was angry about how he and the other boys were treated.  

I enjoyed reading the author’s notes about the research she did about child labour. This novel opens up many opportunities for discussion about fairness, child labour, peer groups and the power of community and sharing personal stories. As a writer, I admired the way this author was so careful to show the story from Gopal’s perspective, using dialogue and thoughts that stayed true to the main character.

How I discovered this book: I spotted it on the shelf of a library branch I don’t often visit. I’m glad I found this author, because now I’ll look for her other books!

Other info:
Kashmira Sheth was born in Bhavangar, India and moved to the U.S. at attend college when she was 17.

Before she became a writer, she worked as food microbiologist testing milk, cheese, ice cream and other food products for bacterial counts and pathogens. She has also run a dance school.
Kashmira Sheth compares writing to dancing: “When I write the first draft of a novel, I have the basic dance, but I need to master each movement.”

 Other books by this author:
Blue Jasmine
Boys Without Names
Keeping Corner (YA)
Koyal Dark, Mango Sweet (YA)
Monsoon Afternoon (picture book)
My Dadima Wears A Sari (picture book)

For more, visit Kashmira Sheth’s website.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday was dreamed up by the incredible Shannon Messenger. Visit her blog for an up-to-date list of all the bloggers who are participating and posting about middle grade books today!