Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Writing Stories Kids Want to Read

Over at Nerdy Book Club, there's a wonderful post this week by the author of the middle grade novel, Malcolm at Midnight:  Why Talking Rats Matter by W. H. Beck.

She wrote about why it's important to her to write stories that encourage kids to wonder, to get them dreaming, or to find a friend. And to write stories that kids want to read so they'll become bettter readers.

"Because the more kids read, the better readers they become. And the better readers they become, the more choices they have in their futures."

Beck's post reminded me that it isn't enough to think about how to create unique characters and plots. Or how to use realistic dialogue to keep the story moving. Or even how to raise the stakes to build tension. Of course, these things are part of writing a novel and they are skills to learn and develop.

But besides all of that, there are the deep-in-my-heart reasons why I'm writing and my hopes for my stories. It's these reasons and hopes that tell me what kinds of stories I really want to write and what kids will want to read.

  • Why do I read? What do I get from a story -- is it just entertainment or something deeper?
  • Why did I read as a child? What kinds of stories did I like and why?
  • What do my children read? What kinds of stories do they like and why?
  • Am I writing what I really want to write?
  • What do I really want my story to be about? Is that what it's about? Why or why not?

The next time I'm struggling over how to put together a scene or what direction to take my story, I'm going to remind myself of the real reasons why I'm sitting in my chair for hours every day, typing on the keyboard.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Beastologist

Today’s pick:  Flight of the Phoenix (Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist, Book 1)
by R.L. LaFevers

Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2009

From Amazon:
Ten-year-old Nathaniel Fludd is the reluctant hero of Flight of the Phoenix (2009), the madcap debut of the American author R. L. LaFevers’s Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist series and a Junior Library Guild selection. The year is 1928, the setting England, and Nate’s wayward parents have just been reported lost at sea. Nate is sent that very day to his Aunt Phil’s house in Batting-at-the-Flies, but not for long . . . The morning after he arrives at the renowned beastologist’s doorstep, she whisks him away to the Arabian desert to witness a phoenix lay an egg! Kelly Murphy’s cartoonish black-and-white pen-and-ink illustrations add charm and humor to an already delightful adventure sure to please fans of mythology, maps, camels, and gremlins. Includes a glossary of terms from “cartographer” to “Tidy Sum".

My Take:

Such a fun adventure! I loved Nathaniel’s character right from the beginning, with his awkwardness and poor sense of direction. And I especially liked the way he carried his sketchbook everywhere. The idea of a Beastologist really captured my attention and is a good premise for a series. I’m curious about the mysterious Book of Beasts and would read on to the next book to find out more about it. This is a quick, fast-paced story that will appeal to readers ages 7 to 11.

As a writer, this book reminded me that it’s okay to follow your imagination and see where it takes you when you’re writing a story.

Favourite quotes:
“She was tall with lots of elbows and knees and angles poking about, which reminded him of a giraffe.”

“His hopes began to grow, filling up and spreading out until there was hardly any room left over for fear.”

Other info:
R.L. LaFevers traveled on many adventures of her own when she was a child, and now writes from her ranch in Southern California.

These words of wisdom on writing from Robin’s blog are a great reminder that I added to a sticky on my computer:  “The plot is not the story. The plot is simply (ha! nothing simple about plotting!) the device or vehicle that gets all the elements together so that the real story can happen.”
In an interview with R.L. LaFevers at The Enchanted Inkpot with eleven-year-old Summer in 2010, she gave this inspiring advice: “Courage comes in all shapes and sizes. No matter how small or timid you are, you have the capacity to do heroic things.

Other books written by this author include:
The Unicorn’s Treasure (Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist, Book 4), 2011

The Wyverns' Treasure (Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist, Book 3), 2010

The Basilisk's Lair (Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist, Book 2), 2010

Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh (Theodosia Throckmorton, #4), 2011
Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus (Theodosia Throckmorton, Book #3), 2010
Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris (Theodosia Throckmorton, #2), 2008

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos (Theodosia Throckmorton, #1), 2007

For more, visit R.L. LaFevers’ 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, November 23, 2012

Tips for Picture Book Writers: Stuck for Ideas?

I'm doing pretty well in collecting picture book ideas for PiBoIdMo, but now that it's geting closer to the end of the month, there's a little pressure to get that notebook filled. In case you're struggling too, I have a great resource to help you out.

Rick Walton, author of the new picture book I Need My Own Country!, has an amazing online picture book course with lots of tips and strategies for picture book writing. I love this quote:

"The farther you go, the deeper you dig, the more creative the ideas get." 
Rick Walton, Step 4: Brainstorm Story Ideas

Rick's website includes a fantastic compliation of places to get more ideas. Some suggestions from Rick's list:

  • Adapt a Folktale, Fairytale or Fable
  • Answer a Question
  • Start wth Random Characters, Conflicts, Locations (this one is so much fun)
For the full list, check out Step 7: Find More Ideas for Stories.

What resources do you turn to when you're stuck for ideas?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Context and Momentum for a First Draft

Sometimes I find it stressful to read too many "how-to" or advice articles when I'm working on a new project. When I'm just starting to draft, the whole experience seems a little fragile, like if I go the wrong way or think too much it all might collapse into nothing. But so far this week, I've read a couple of great blog posts that helped me with my writing:

1. Darcy Pattison has some great advice this week about thinking about the context when trying to see the world through a young character's eyes, in I Wasn't Alive When...Consider Your Audience. Such a great reminder!

2. Laura Carlson's guest post over at The Bookshelf Muse on Increasing Your Book's Momentum gave me lots to think about. Her point about how readers have become impatient in our world of instant updates makes a lot of sense. She highlights the most important places to build momentum in the story and offers some great tips for finding and fixing places where momentum is slow. Definitely worth checking out!

Do you read about writing strategies and techniques while you're drafting a novel or do you find it distracting?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Racing Home

Today’s pick:  Racing Home by Adele Dueck

Cocteau Books, 2011

From Amazon:

Erik never wanted to leave his grandfather's farm, and the memory of his dead father, in Norway. But in Canada his family can have their own farm, so Erik, his mother, and his older sister Elsa journey to the Canadian west with Rolf, their mother's new husband, Rolf. Rolf is a hard man to talk to and even harder to get to know. And he's keeping a secret from his new family. Erik does a man's work, helping Rolf break land and build a sod house. Rolf's brother and his son Olaf live in the nearby town. Olaf looks a lot like Rolf, but for some reason won't talk to him, and seems to resent Erik as well. The boys start to get along through their shared efforts to save Tapper, an injured horse. Tapper gets well enough to be entered in a local horserace and turns out to be a real winner. "Tapper" is the Norwegian word for "brave," and Erik really must be "tapper" to face all the challenges of his new life and be a winner himself.

My Take:

I was attracted to this book because I enjoy reading pioneer stories. Most of the stories I’ve read are from the perspective of a girl main character, so it was interesting to read this one from the point of view of a boy. The story contained lots of details about how early settlers lived on the prairie, including living in a sod house, snaring game and looking after a farm. The characters in this novel were realistic, with family issues that kept my attention through the story (as well as some shady criminal activity).

How I discovered this book:
I found this book when browsing in the library.

Other info:
Adele Dueck is a Canadian author. She has spent many years working on her farm in the province of Saskatchewan.

She began writing children’s books when she saw how few books there were set on farms, especially in the Canadian prairies.
This book has been nominated for the British Columbia Red Cedar Award for 2012/2013, won the Saskatchewan Book Award for Children's Literature and was a finalist in the 2012 High Plains Book Awards.  

Other books written by this author include:
The New Calf, 2007, easy-to-read
Nettie’s Journey, 2005, easy-to-read
Anywhere But Here, 1996

For more, visit Adele Dueck’s website.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Tips for Picture Book Writers: Researching an Idea

Since I'm participating in PiBoIdMo (30 picture book ideas in 30 days, started by Tara Lazar), I thought I'd pass along this tip.

When I want to find out what other books have been published that relate to one of my ideas, I check out the Children's Picture Book Database at Miami University. This free resource allows you to search by keyword to find books written on your topic. It's also a great resource for teachers looking for picture books to address a particular lesson topic.

Do you know of any good resources for finding out about picture books?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Cool Blog Quote: Just Write

Since many people are pushing themselves to focus on writing this November, I thought this quote from Peter Salomon, author of the YA novel Henry Franks (Flux, September, 2012) was quite appropriate:

"Words of wisdom? Write. As simple as that. The moment you stop writing, you've given up, admitted defeat. Just keep writing."

Peter Salomon, in Interview: Peter Salomon, MSFV Success Star AND Super Guy at Miss Snark's First Victim, August 30, 2012.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The Humming Room

Today’s pick: The Humming Room by Ellen Potter
Feiwel and Friends, An Imprint of Macmillan, 2012

From Amazon:
Hiding is Roo Fanshaw's special skill. Living in a frighteningly unstable family, she often needs to disappear at a moment's notice. When her parents are murdered, it's her special hiding place under the trailer that saves her life.

As it turns out, Roo, much to her surprise, has a wealthy if eccentric uncle, who has agreed to take her into his home on Cough Rock Island. Once a tuberculosis sanitarium for children of the rich, the strange house is teeming with ghost stories and secrets. Roo doesn't believe in ghosts or fairy stories, but what are those eerie noises she keeps hearing? And who is that strange wild boy who lives on the river? People are lying to her, and Roo becomes determined to find the truth.

Despite the best efforts of her uncle's assistants, Roo discovers the house's hidden room--a garden with a tragic secret.

Inspired by The Secret Garden, this tale full of unusual characters and mysterious secrets is a story that only Ellen Potter could write.

My Take:

I didn’t remember that this novel was inspired by The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett when I first began reading it, but I soon saw the similarities as the story got underway. I loved the character of Roo, who seemed determined and spirited, despite the hard circumstances of her own life. The detail about her listening to the earth and the creatures moving within it was fascinating to me and added an interesting element to her character.
I was intrigued by the secret garden, just as I was when reading the original story, although the garden in this one is different and has its own unique story. The island setting was easy to picture and captured my imagination.
As a writer, I found it very interesting to see how the author created a unique middle grade story that has a similar plot to a classic novel. Reading this book inspired me to think about interesting elements that I want to include in one of my own novels.

How I discovered this book:
I read about The Humming Room in a Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post over at Shannon Messenger’s blog and in a book pick post on Marcia Hoehne’s blog (both great blogs to check out if you haven’t already).

Other info:
Ellen Potter lives in Maryland, with her husband and an assortment of pets, but she grew up in New York City. She decided to become a writer when she was 11 and realized that all the best books were written for 11-year-olds.

This book has been named a Junior Library Guild Selection.
In an interview at Ms. Yingling Reads, Ellen Potter says she doesn’t plot out her books in advance. Instead she creates several threads that need to be tied up in the end: “I am alert for ways to connect all these threads in tidily, but I prefer to let the story be guided by the characters.

Other books written by this author include:
Kneebone Boy, 2011
Spilling Ink:  A Young Writer’s Handbook, 2010
Slob, 2009
Olivia Kidney and the Secret Beneath the City, 2007
Pish Posh, 2006
Olivia Kidney and The Exit Academy, 2005
Olivia Kidney, 2004

For more, visit Ellen Potter’s website.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday was dreamed up by author 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, November 9, 2012

Dealing With Weak Story Ideas

I've been enjoying PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) and getting a good start on filling my notebook with ideas. But I know some of the ideas I've jotted down aren't strong enough to carry an entire story.

I usually write them down anyway. I often find that some of my stories result from ideas that connect or resurface again later, maybe in a different, more interesting way. Often, ideas that come back again and again in my notebook are the ones that I end up developing into a story.

In fact, taking two apparently unrelated ideas (neither of which is strong enough to be a story on its own) and trying to see how to bring them together is a fun, creativity boosting idea that might result in something interesting.

So, my writing tip for today is to write down all your ideas, no matter how lame they seem at the time. You never know when they'll be useful. What do you do with ideas that are just not strong enough to stand alone as a story?

In case you're interested, here's my November writing goal update:

PiBoIdMo:  Although I try to come up with a new idea every day, some days I'm on a roll and get several, while other days I end up with nothing. I figure it will all average out in the end.

Mini-NaNoWriMo:  I haven't made much progress with my Mini-NaNoWriMo this week and I'm trying not to let that get me down. I've been doing many other (non-writing) important things. But I'm still enthusiastic and planning to continue to try to keep my focus on writing.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Camo Girl

Today’s pick: Camo Girl by Kekla Magoon

Aladdin, 2011

From Amazon:
A biracial student questions her identity in this contemporary novel from the author of the Coretta Scott King/John Steptor Award–winning The Rock and the River.

Ella and Z have been friends forever, both of them middle-school outsiders in their Las Vegas suburb. Ella is the only black girl in her grade and gets teased for the mottled colors of her face. (Her deceased father was white.) Z is the classic “weird kid” who maintains an elaborate—and public—fantasy life, starring himself as a brave knight. Though Z is content with his imagined world, Ella wishes for a larger group of friends, so she’s thrilled when Bailey, another black kid, arrives at their school. He’s popular and wants to befriend Ella—but to join the cool crowd, Ella would have to ditch Z. Does she stay loyal to the boy who has been her best and only friend for years, or jump at the chance to realize her dream of popularity? 

Author Kekla Magoon deftly navigates the muddy waters of racial and cultural identities in this contemporary exploration of one girl's attempt to find herself.

My Take:

I got absorbed by the characters in this novel about a girl trying to fit in when she feels like an outsider. I could feel Ella’s isolation and her inner conflicts as she struggled to make sense of her friendships with Z, Millie and Bailey. The characters in the story are all believable, and so are the situations they find themselves in. I loved Ella’s loyalty to her friends, and the lengths she will go to in protecting them and herself. This is a story that really tugs at your emotions.
I’d read this again to study how the author wove the realism of the school setting into the story. I don’t often read novels where the setting and situation feels so real. There is a strong voice that comes through right from the beginning of the story, which brings Ella to life and helps me feel a connection to her. It’s beautifully written.

Memorable quotes:
“Fact is, we’re the trunk of the popular tree. The very, very bottom of the trunk.”

“He knows how to pretend in a way that makes him likable, not weird.”

How I discovered this book:

I first heard about Camo Girl in a Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post over at Readatouille, a blog by middle grade author Ruth Donnelly. It's a great place to visit to find new books to read!

Other info:

Kekla Magoon lives in New York City. She wrote her first novel when she was in high school, but she didn’t realize that she wanted to be professional writer until later in her life.

On her website, Kekla Magoon gives young writers this advice: “you need to believe that, no matter what anyone says about your writing, what you have to say is important.”

 Other books written by this author include:
37 Things I Love

Fire in the Streets

The Rock and the River

For more, visit Kekla Magoon’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, November 2, 2012

November is Writing Month

I'm not usually too fond of November. It's cold, dreary and follows fun-filled October (otherwise known as the Month of Treats in our household because of all the desserts, with Thanksgiving, 2 birthdays and Halloween). But this year I'm excited about November, because of my writing goals. I'm sure I'm being overly optimistic about what I can accomplish, given all the craziness in my life right now, but I've decided to work on two different writing goals:

1) I'm doing a mini NaNoWriMo, where I focus on writing a new story and try to get as much writing as I can done each day, with no pressure to complete a novel. I'm not going to sign up for anything but I will keep track of my progress so I can see how much I'm getting done.

2) Since I get lots of story ideas while I'm teaching, I'm going to also try PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month). The goal is to think up a new picture book idea every day. For me, that mostly means being more vigilant about writing down the ideas I already get, so I decided to sign up for it.

I love the idea of having a notebook that contains nothing but ideas. My usual writing notebook is filled with so much more, sometimes ideas for new projects get lost in there.

How am I doing? So far, so good. I've started writing my novel, even though there's something important I haven't worked out yet, and it scares me a little that I don't know where it's going. And I already have 2 picture book ideas in my notebook.

What are your writing goals for November? Have you made a start on them?