Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Using a Mentor Novel to Improve Your Writing

A good book can do so much -- give comfort, companionship, entertainment, knowledge, and an emotional journey. My goal in writing novels has always been to write the kind of book that does all those things.

But learning how is a slow process. One of the ways I'm learning is by reading books that do accomplish those things. I turn to my recent favourites to help develop my writing style, voice and pacing.

Today, I'm over at MiG Writers, discussing how to use a mentor novel to improve your writing.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Ungifted by Gordon Korman

Today’s pick:  Ungifted by Gordon Korman
Scholastic, 2012

From Amazon:
The word gifted has never been applied to a kid like Donovan Curtis. It's usually more like Don't try this at home. So when the troublemaker pulls a major prank at his middle school, he thinks he's finally gone too far. But thanks to a mix-up by one of the administrators, instead of getting in trouble, Donovan is sent to the Academy of Scholastic Distinction (ASD), a special program for gifted and talented students.

It wasn't exactly what Donovan had intended, but there couldn't be a more perfect hideout for someone like him. That is, if he can manage to fool people whose IQs are above genius level. And that becomes harder and harder as the students and teachers of ASD grow to realize that Donovan may not be good at math or science (or just about anything). But after an ongoing experiment with a live human (sister), an unforgettably dramatic middle-school dance, and the most astonishing come-from-behind robot victory ever, Donovan shows that his gifts might be exactly what the ASD students never knew they needed.

My Take: 
This story was fun (the very unlikely premise clued me in to its over-the-top nature) and I was rooting for Donovan, hoping that everything would somehow work out for him, even though it seemed impossible.

I did have to check the chapter titles carefully, because this book is written from the perspectives of several different characters, including some adults, even though it was sometimes hard to tell from the voice. And I should mention that there have been some controversial reviews of this book because of the stereotypical way the gifted students are portrayed (for example, Book Review: Ungifted by Gordon Korman at The Book Smugglers). But for me, it was an entertaining read that was full of humour.

As a writer, I’d study the dialogue – it seemed so authentic. I’d also read this again for another look at creating humor, something that’s challenging but Korman pulls off so seemingly easily.

Other Info:
Gordon Korman was born in Montreal, Canada and wrote his first book, This Can't be Happening at Macdonald Hall when he was 12 years old in grade 7.  It was published when he was 14.

On the Scholastic website, he is quoted as saying, “I always start off with something real, but then I unleash my imagination to make it more exciting, funnier, or a better story. To be honest, by the time a book is done, you can’t recognize much of the real-life part.”

Other books by this author include:
This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall '78
Go Jump In The Pool '79
Beware The Fish '80
I Want To Go Home '81
Who Is Bugs Potter '80
Our Man Weston '82
Bugs Potter LIVE at Nickaninny '83
The War With Mr. Wizzle '82
No Coins Please '84
Don't Care High '85
Son Of Interflux '86
A Semester In The Life Of A Garbage Bag '87
The Zucchini Warriors '88
Radio 5th Grade '89
Losing Joe's Place '90
Macdonald Hall Goes Hollywood '91
The D- Poems of Jeremy Bloom '92
The Twinkie Squad '92
The Toilet Paper Tigers '93
Why Did The Underwear Cross The Road '94
The Last-Place Sports Poems of Jeremy Bloom '96
Something Fishy At Macdonald Hall '95
The Chicken Doesn't Skate '96
Liar, Liar Pants On Fire '97
The Sixth Grade Nickname Game '98
Quarterback Exchange: I was John Elway '97
Running Back Conversion: I was Barry Sanders '97
Super Bowl Switch: I was Dan Marino '97
Heavy Artillary: I was Junior Seau '97
Ultimate Scoring Machine: I was Jerry Rice '98
NFL Rules! Bloopers, Pranks, Upsets, and Touchdowns '98
No More Dead Dogs '00
Slapshots 1 - The Stars From Mars '99
Nose Pickers From Outer Space '99
Slapshots 2 - All-Mars All-Stars '99
Planet Of the Nose Pickers '00
Slapshots 3 - The Face-off Phony '00
Your Mummy Is A Nose Picker '00
Slapshots 4 - Cup Crazy '00
Invasion Of The Nose Pickers '01
Shipwreck (Island Book 1) '01
Survival (Island Book 2) '01
Escape (Island Book 3) '01
Son Of the Mob '02
The Contest (Everest Book 1) '02
The Climb (Everest Book 2) '02
The Summit (Everest Book 3) '02
Maxx Comedy: The Funniest Kid in America'03
Jake, Reinvented '03
Dive Trilogy '03
Son of the Mob: Hollywood Hustle '04
On the Run (Series) '04-'05
Born to Rock '05
Kidnapped (Series) '06
Schooled '07
Swindle '08
The Juvie Three '08
One False Note (39 Clues Book 2) '08
Zoobreak '09
Pop '09
The Emperor's Code (39 Clues Book 8) '10
Framed '10
Titanic Trilogy '11
The Medusa Plot (Kahills vs. Vespers Book 1) '11
Showoff '12
Hideout '13

For more, visit Gordon Korman's website.

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

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Anticipation of a Good Book

One of the things that thrills me about reading is looking forward to opening a book and finding a new story or character to love. My night table and its too-tall book stack is like a treasure chest of experiences and I get to pick the treasure I want right now. But I also have all the other treasures waiting for me, whenever I'm ready.

So how exciting was it to get a package today with FOUR books that I've been looking forward to experiencing. It's hard to know where to start!

 My 13-year-old scooped up The Runaway King right away (I'll have to pry it out of her hands later), but I have three others to choose from. I've already read Legend and See You At Harry's, but I wanted my own copies so I can re-read them anytime. I'm also excited to explore the illustrations in The Bird King, especially after hearing Shaun Tan speak at SCBWI-NY.

 Sorry, iPad. Tonight is all about holding a good book in my hands.

I think if I ever get a novel published, one of the best "reviews" I could get would be to hear that someone loves my book so much just signing it out from the library isn't good enough. They need to have their own copy to enjoy over and over again.

Of course, I'm not yet in the position where I have to worry about people reviewing my novels. But in case you are, over at MiG Writers, Carmella Van Vleet has ten sensible tips for how to keep cool when your reviews come out in Dealing with Reviews. It strikes me that these tips are also pretty good for any circumstances when you have to put your writing out there for someone to give an opinion on.

Do you have a good book to sink into this weekend? Happy reading!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Sparrow Road

Today’s pick:  Sparrow Road by Sheila O’Connor

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011

From Good Reads:
It's the summer before seventh grade, and twelve-year- old Raine O'Rourke's mother suddenly takes a job hours from home at mysterious Sparrow Road- a creepy, dilapidated mansion that houses an eccentric group of artists. As Raine tries to make sense of her new surroundings, she forges friendships with a cast of quirky characters including the outrageous and funky Josie.

Together, Raine and Josie decide to solve the mysteries of Sparrow Road-from its haunting history as an orphanage to the secrets of its silent, brooding owner, Viktor. But it's an unexpected secret from Raine's own life that changes her forever.

An affecting and beautifully written story of family and forgiveness, Sparrow Road is an incredible gift.

My Take: 

I enjoyed this book about Raine working to figure out what it means to have a family and where she fits in the world. It’s a quieter story, but the author does a wonderful job of holding the reader’s attention through creating an authentic main character.

As a writer, I loved the unique descriptive phrases the author used, as well as the distinctive story voice. I’d read this novel again to learn about word choice and phrasing, because the words seem to be chosen with a lot of care to create lovely images.

Favourite quotes:

“Every day Josie sewed a brand-new patch of memory so in the end her summer would be a kind of quilt.”

“Art just has to be. Dream your dreams. Trust the words that come.”

Other Info:

Sheila O’Connor was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota and lives there now. She started writing when she was in fourth grade.
According to the author's website, “Her favorite writing ritual is to walk across the snow or grass with a thermos in her hand, and her best pal Rollo at her feet, and step into the perfect quiet of her cottage, where her next page is waiting to be written.”

Other books by this author include:

Keeping Safe the Stars
Tokens of Grace

When No Gods Came

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


Friday, February 15, 2013

New Agent for MG and YA...Plus Writing This Week

In case you missed it, Tara Gonzales, a new agent at the Larsen Pomada Literary Agency, accepts submissions for picture books, middle grade and young adult works. For more details, check out Introducing Agent Tara Gonzalez over at Kris Asselin's blog.  

How was your writing this week? Sometimes when I’m working on my own writing, it's like I'm a magnet for new strategies and ideas that I don't really have time to try out. This week I ended up with lots of ideas and fuel for my own writing. Here are a few of the things that caught my interest:

1) James Scott Bell at the KillZone on How to Work on More Than One Book At A Time.
I'm always on the lookout for ways to get more writing finished. After reading this, now I’m determined not only to make sure I finish at least one scene of my work-in-progress every day (my latest middle grade novel) but also to spend a little time working on a different project (even if it’s only doodling in my notebook while I watch TV).
2) People Who Are Not Like You by author Patricia C. Wrede, on how to write characters that are not like yourself.
It’s much easier to assume a character has some of your own background and experiences. I realize I need to examine my characters even more closely to make sure the non-me parts are believable.
The greater the differences between the writer and the character, the more aware the writer has to be of how the differences affect everything else in the character’s life.”  

3) Since my new not-yet-started project has some fairytale elements, I found the latest Writing Excuses podcast on Retellings and Adaptations so useful I listened to it twice. I especially liked the idea of playing around with a plot that already works to create a new story.
Did you come across anything that gave you a new perspective this week?


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Susan J. Laidlaw: An Infidel in Paradise

Yesterday was the release day for AN INFIDEL IN PARADISE, a YA novel from Tundra Books, written by MiG Writer, Susan J. Laidlaw! Yay, Susan!

Here's the Amazon blurb:

Set in Pakistan, this is the story of a teen girl living with her mother and siblings in a diplomatic compound. As if getting used to another new country and set of customs and friends isn't enough, she must cope with an increasingly tense political situation that becomes dangerous with alarming speed. Her life and those of her sister and brother depend on her resourcefulness and the unexpected help of an enigmatic Muslim classmate.


To celebrate the release of her book, I interviewed Susan about her writing and the challenges of writing her book. I'm posting a few exerpts from the interview here to pique your interest. The complete interview is posted over at MiG Writers:

Share a little about how you ended up as a writer.

"I've wanted to be a writer since I was a child. I actually studied journalism for a year but switched to English when I realized I wanted to write fiction."

What was the most challenging aspect of writing your book?
"The hardest thing about writing this book was to make Emma, a rotational kid, comprehensible to people who haven't had her experience of moving around. Emma's an angry, alienated and depressed kid, in the throes of culture shock. But just like the hundreds of kids I've worked with, she's going to confront people who don't have the ability to empathize with her situation."
"I don't think a reader needs to have experienced Emma's life to identify with her pain. They only need to be capable of empathy and most teens have plenty of that."  
 Each book I write teaches me something about the world, myself or the process of writing. What did you learn through writing your book?
"...when a kid comes into my office, angry or depressed because her parents have moved her yet again, I feel an immediate connection that transcends my usual empathetic response to an unhappy kid. As much as I love moving around, and despite the fact that I willfully subjected my own children to this lifestyle, I feel that child's pain with every fibre of my being. But can I communicate that to a reader in a meaningful way? There's the challenge."
For the full interview, check out my post over at MiG Writers: An Interview With Susan J. Laidlaw author of AN INFIDEL IN PARADISE.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Making Bombs for Hitler

Today’s pick:  Making Bombs for Hitler by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Scholastic Canada, 2012

Summary from Good Reads:
In this companion book to the award-winning Stolen Child, a young girl is forced into slave labour in a munitions factory in Nazi Germany.

In Stolen Child, Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch introduced readers to Larissa, a victim of Hitler’s largely unknown Lebensborn program. In this companion novel, readers will learn the fate of Lida, her sister, who was also kidnapped by the Germans and forced into slave labour — an Osterbeiter.

In addition to her other tasks, Lida's small hands make her the perfect candidate to handle delicate munitions work, so she is sent to a factory that makes bombs. The gruelling work and conditions leave her severely malnourished and emotionally traumatized, but overriding all of this is her concern and determination to find out what happened to her vulnerable younger sister.

With rumours of the Allies turning the tide in the war, Lida and her friends conspire to sabotage the bombs to help block the Nazis’ war effort. When her work camp is finally liberated, she is able to begin her search to learn the fate of her sister.

In this exceptional novel Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch delivers a powerful story of hope and courage in the face of incredible odds.Lida and her younger sister are caught by the Nazis and separated. Lida is sent to a slave labour camp, where she works from dawn to dusk on only bread and soup. clad in one thin dress and no shoes. Even if she manages to survive the war, how will she find her sister again?

My Take: 
I couldn’t put this book down! Whenever I read about life in a work or concentration camp, I am shocked and saddened that people could ever treat other people in such a cruel and inhumane way. At times, this book made me feel very emotional. I was rooting for the main character, Lida, and her friends to survive. The author did a great job of creating a character that I cared about. I liked the way her research blended seamlessly into the story to create a compelling read. Now I want to read her other book about Lida’s sister, called Stolen Child.

As a writer, I would study this novel to see how every detail was portrayed through the main character's perspective. There is nothing unnecessary to the story here.

Other Info:

Marsha Skrypuch didn’t learn how to read until she was in grade 4, when she taught herself by reading the fat book, Oliver Twist.

Her book, Stolen Child, won the 2011 SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for the Americas.

In an interesting interview with Debbie Spring for the Canscaip IBBY Interview Spotlight in September, 2012, Marsha says, “My own learning challenges made me the kind of writer that I am. I write the kinds of books that I would have liked to be able to read when I was a kid – complex and lots of action and not talking down to the reader.”
I recommend reading this fascinating interview for more about how Marsha does her research and her thoughts on the differences between books for adults and books for children. She says: “In children’s fiction, the reader steps into the shoes of the person who is experiencing the mistreatment, and that builds compassion.”

Making Bombs for Hitler is nominated for the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading in the Silver Birch category for 2013. Other nominated books that I’ve featured include: Dragon Seer's Gift by Janet McNaughton, Cat Found by Ingrid Lee, A Tinfoil Sky by Cyndi Sand-Eveland and The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis.]

Other books by this author include:
Silver Threads - 1996
The Best Gifts - 1998
The Hunger - 1999
Enough - 2000
Hope's War - 2001
Nobody's Child - 2003
Aram's Choice - 2006
Dear Canada: Prisoners in the Promised Land: The Ukrainian Internment Diary of Anya Soloniuk, Spirit Lake, Quebec, 1914 - 2007
Daughter of War - 2008
Call Me Aram - 2009
Stolen Child - 2010
Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan's Rescue from War - 2011
One Step At A Time: A Vietnamese Child Finds Her Way – 2012

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


Friday, February 8, 2013

Cool Blog Quote: Choose to Write and Then Keep Going

It's only a few days after my amazing experience at SCBWI New York, but I know it's going to inspire me for weeks to come. 

The thing is, you don't need to go to a writing conference to get that shot of inspiration because you can get it from home through participating in the online writing community. Today I'm featuring an awesome quote from Robert Kent at Middle Grade Ninja:

"There comes a point in every writer's career where the writer must make a choice to give up, or to keep going no matter what. And if you're going to keep going, go all the way."

Robert Kent, Middle Grade Ninja, Why We Write Part 2, February 6, 2013

This is so true. It's like playing a sport or being a parent or teaching a class. If you're going to do something, you might as well give it all you've got. Get the most out of it. Do what you can to make it your best. Especially if it's something you love and something you want to succeed at.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

What I Learned from SCBWI New York 2013

What an inspiring and amazing experience it was to attend the SCBWI NY 2013 conference! I got to meet all the other members of my writing group, the MiG writers, who are just as wonderful in person as they are online. They are (from left to right): Kate Fall, Debbie Ridpath Ohi, Carmella Van Vleet, Christina Farley, and me. Susan Laidlaw wasn't in this picture, but she was at the conference too, taking time out from her world-wide adventures to hang out with us.
Aside from the socializing, I also enjoyed all the content!

One of the common themes I noticed was how many of the speakers mentioned books from their childhood and the important place these books have in their lives. Books are a safe haven (Emma Walton Hamilton and Julie Andrews), with “characters that felt like friends or the friends I wish I had” (Margaret Peterson Haddix).
It reminded me of my own reasons and passion for writing children’s books – to provide that experience of immersion in another world, to create that all important book friend for someone else.

Mo Willems: “Your job is to be some child’s best friend”.
One of the interesting questions that came up from Emma Walton Hamilton and Julie Andrews was: “What was the book that made you want to read?”

Another important takeaway for me reinforced something I already strongly believe in:  the importance of ordinary, everyday experiences. Jennifer Besser (Publisher at G.P. Putnam and Sons) talked about how using your power of observation allows you include small details that keep your work “fresh”.  Artist Shaun Tan was all about looking at things you see every day “in a new way”.
The third big thing I heard over and over was to keep writing new work.  New agent at Upstart Crow, Alexandra Penfold, said you should “work on lots of projects” and try out new genres or ideas.  Jennifer Besser talked about how you should be ready to experiment. And there was Mo Willems: “Ideas are gardens. You plant every day.”

For more on the SCBWI conference and a fun video of the MiG Writers, check out Christina Farley's SCBWI NY Conference Recap.

There are so many more bits of advice I collected, I know I’ll be feeling inspired for months to come. The best thing was coming away from the conference fired up and ready to write! I even started a new picture book manuscript in the airport on the way home.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Margaret and the Moth Tree

Today’s pick:  Margaret and the Moth Tree by Brit Trogen and Kari Trogen

Kids Can Press, 2012

From the publisher:
Lemony Snicket meets Charlotte's Web in this spellbinding story about a quiet, brown-haired orphan named Margaret trapped in a dreadful orphanage run by the sinister, beautiful Miss Switch. After an unsuccessful attempt to alert authorities to Miss Switch's tyranny, Margaret is forced to endure a life of complete silence. But the new state of affairs proves to be more blessing than curse. You see, Margaret can hear things other people cannot. And on one incredible day, Margaret hears tiny voices coming from a strange, thorny tree and discovers a community of playful moths. Together Margaret and the moths prepare a plan to end Miss Switch's reign of terror and provide a better life for everyone.

My Take: 

I've never come across moths featured in a story before (and I wasn't enthusiastic at first, since I'm not too fond of moths), but I liked the humour in this story. I also liked Margaret’s ability to listen to the “very smallest of sounds” in nature. Although the storyline of an orphan meeting up with an evil matron at an orphanage is not new, Margaret’s personality and the unique element of the moths kept me reading. The story had a magical feel to it that I think will appeal to younger middle grade readers.
The voice in this novel draws you in. As a writer, I studied the way the authors included specific details to add humor and personality, such as Miss Switch admiring her “own glittery reflection” or a girl smiling at Margaret with “the type of smile a hyena might give a tasty mutton chop”. Although writers are often warned to use adjectives and adverbs sparingly, here they are used effectively to create a specific writing style.

Favourite quotes:
“Any place you can go to escape from the pinches and punishments of the world is called a sanctuary, and this is just what Margaret had found in the moth tree.”

“…there are some talents that can never really be lost. They are only hiding, like a sleeping turtle in its shell, waiting to be coaxed out and used again.”

Other Info:
Brit Trogen and Kari Trogen are sisters.

Kari lives in Toronto and has been writing stories since she was in elementary school. Brit lives in New York and studied biology before she became a writer.
According to the publisher’s website, the two sisters came up with the story on a trip through New Brunswick, Canada. This is their first novel.

This book is nominated for the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading in the Silver Birch Express (Fiction) category for 2013.

For more, check out their author websites: Brit Trogen and Kari Trogen

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