Monday, August 26, 2013

Risk-Taking and Revising

I can't believe the last week of August is already here! It's been a great summer, and I've learned a lot about my writing and especially about taking risks when revising.

If you're trying to decide whether or not to make a big change to your novel, I suggest you jump in and try it! You never know how it might turn out. [Here are a few tips on How To Make Revision Less Painful.]

In my household, we're all getting ready to launch into another year of school. Instead of writing or blogging about writing, this week I'm taking a break to focus on back-to-school preparations.

Wishing you a creative writing week!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Learning from Picture Books: Too Tall Houses

Since I’m inescapably drawn to writing picture books as well as middle grade novels, I decided I’d better start reading more of them and figuring out what makes them work.
Too Tall Houses

written and illustrated by Gianna Marino

published by Viking, 2012

From Amazon:

Good friends learn a small but important lesson.

Owl and Rabbit are good friends and live in two small houses next to each other. They are perfectly happy . . . until Rabbit's garden gets in the way of Owl's view. So Owl builds his house a little taller. Only that blocks the sun from Rabbit's vegetables. So Rabbit builds his house taller. And soon it's a house-building frenzy and the two now not-so-good friends have the two tallest houses in the world!

All it takes is a gust of wind to remind them that maybe living smaller and together is a much better way to remain friends.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

This book has a simple and easy to relate to concept that is so well-suited for 3- to 7-year-olds. It’s one of those ideas that makes you think “I wish I’d thought of that”, and it’s cleverly executed. Sound words like “plunk” and “creak” are used sparingly in an effective way.

The page breaks help to build the tension and suspense, allowing places where the reader can predict what might happen. I love the way the illustration layout shows the friendship between Rabbit and Owl using double page spreads at first and then single pages as they become competitive and angry at each other.
This is a great book as a model for a problem/solution type of structure and I’d love to have it on my bookshelf to study further.
My Thoughts as a Teacher:

I’d love to read this book to my kindergarten students and buy a copy for my classroom! It would be so easy for my students to relate to the competitiveness of Owl and Rabbit, and their the angry feelings and tantrums.
This would make a great read aloud to lead into discussions of cooperation, tolerance in friendship, and social problem-solving. It’s would also be useful for talking about story structure, since it has a well-defined problem and a solution at the end. Some questions might come up about why the Rabbit lives in house and not underground, and could lead to research about these animals.


Monday, August 19, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - The Thing About Luck

Today’s Pick: The Thing About Luck

written by Cynthia Kadohata

illustrated by Julia Kuo

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2013

From Amazon:

There is bad luck, good luck, and making your own luck—which is exactly what Summer must do to save her family in this novel from Newbery Medalist Cynthia Kadohata.

Summer knows that kouun means “good luck” in Japanese, and this year her family has none of it. Just when she thinks nothing else can possibly go wrong, an emergency whisks her parents away to Japan—right before harvest season. Summer and her little brother, Jaz, are left in the care of their grandparents, who come out of retirement in order to harvest wheat and help pay the bills.

The thing about Obaachan and Jiichan is that they are old-fashioned and demanding, and between helping Obaachan cook for the workers, covering for her when her back pain worsens, and worrying about her lonely little brother, Summer just barely has time to notice the attentions of their boss’s cute son. But notice she does, and what begins as a welcome distraction from the hard work soon turns into a mess of its own.

Having thoroughly disappointed her grandmother, Summer figures the bad luck must be finished—but then it gets worse. And when that happens, Summer has to figure out how to change it herself, even if it means further displeasing Obaachan. Because it might be the only way to save her family.

My Take:

I don’t know much about farming and the harvest so I really enjoyed this different setting and situation. I also liked the details about farming and how combine harvesters work (something I’ve never thought much about before). But this novel was about so much more than farming—family, bullying and peer pressure, taking chances and learning about the world. It’s a quieter, slower paced novel but I liked the quirkiness of it and how Summer worked out her family relationships.

As a writer, I was impressed by the way the author created a strong sense of setting and was able to keep the story moving along and hold my interest, even though “combines” seem like potentially boring subject matter for a novel. I’d study this novel again to see how the author was able to get inside the main characters thoughts so effectively.

Opening Line:

Kouun is “good luck” in Japanese, and one year my family had none of it.”

Favourite quotes:

“A quilt was one of the two things I had always wanted. The other thing was a wicker chair for the front porch.”

“The combines were still churning away, the sound growing louder as they moved nearer, their lights shifting in tandem.”

“That’s kind of the way I felt right then, like everything that was real—the black sky and the stars and the wheat—all started to kind of melt into one another, and the only thing that seemed clear was me and a dog.”

Other Info:

Cynthia Kadohata lives in the Los Angeles area and loves to travel.

Other Books Include:


Kira Kira


A Million Shades of Gray

For more info, visit Cynthia Kadohata’swebsite.

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, August 16, 2013

WriteOnCon 2013 Day Two: More Inspiration and Learning

I stayed up way too late thinking and commenting on queries and first pages over at WriteOnCon 2013, but it was a great chance to get a peek at different ways to write a pitch and query - lots of great examples to learn from.

For me, some of the other highlights from Day 2 included:

Fostering Sibling Rivalry: On Writing Sibling Relationships by author Jessica Spotswood

I'll be reading and thinking about this post again, for inspiration and insights when writing about families. Most of my MG novels are about family relationships and this article made me think about the interactions between brothers and sisters in different ways.

Middle Grade Writing or Publishing Questions with author Peggy Eddleman

I didn't have a chance to attend this forum chat when it was live, but reading the transcript gives a wealth of information about writing middle grade. I really enjoyed thinking about what makes a middle grade novel work.

Setting the Tone With a Great Query Letter by literary agent Traci Marchini

Great practical advice on making a query letter shine!

Killer Last Lines—How to End a Chapter by author Elsie Chapman

This was something I hadn't thought so much about before, since like many other writers, I concentrate on beginnings. But Elsie points out how chapter endings are so crucial in keeping up the tension and leaving those unanswered questions that keep a reader moving forward.

Day 2 also had lots of live twitter sessions and videos that I will come back to check through later to help me construct my own pitches. I love the online aspect of this conference, because it is really so great to be able to come back and look at all the information again later.

Did you check out any of the posts from WriteOnCon 2013? What was the most important thing you learned?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Learning from Day One of WriteOnCon 2013

I spent the past couple of days being distracted from revising by WriteOnCon 2013. This is a fabulous, free (though you can contribute in appreciation) online writing conference. Their forums are a great place to see the kinds of stories other people are writing and to get some feedback on your own queries and story beginnings.
There were also LOTS of awesome articles about different aspects of the writing process. Here are a few of my favourite snippets from Day 1:

Author Liesl Shurtliff: “The very best books take plot and character and work them together in order to build the most resonant stories.”

How Character and Plot Work Together by Liesl Shurtliff, WriteOnCon 2013

I could really connect to Liesl’s point that it’s hard to separate plot and character sometimes. Especially in the middle of my current revision, where it’s so hard to go backwards from what I wrote before and restructure. So it was heartening to hear that developing plot and character together could result in a stronger novel.

Author Loretta Nyhan: Don’t fear the weirdness inside you. It’s why people love you, and why they’ll love your characters.
We’ve All Got it Goin’ On…Writing Realistic Characters by Loretta Nyhan, WriteOnCon 2013

One of the goals I have is to make my writing stand out, to create that special story that’s a little different from what’s already out there. Loretta emphasizes how that uniqueness comes from inside you and not to be afraid to let it into your story.

Literary Agent Peter Knapp: “And when you write a great novel, you don’t merely show what courage looks like but allow the readers to experience it.”
Courage and Kit Lit by Peter Knapp, WriteOnCon 2013

Peter’s post reminded me about how brave kids and teens really are – how they forge ahead and sometimes fail but are brave enough to try things adults might never dream of. It also made me thing about how brave we are as writers, to reach deep inside to our own emotions to try to create a meaningful reading experience for someone else.

Literary Agent Marie Lamba: “…be careful what you promise. The query builds an expectation”
Promises,Promises by Maria Lamba, WriteOnCon 2013

Marie reminds us that a query is really a promise to an agent of what’s to come in the story. She explains why not keeping those promises can lead to rejection.

I also got some great tips on Adding Emotion to your Writing by author Lenore Applehans. There was so much to learn from Day 1, it's hard to believe that there's was even more on Day 2! I’ll post a few highlights from Day 2 tomorrow.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Little Blog on the Prairie

Today’s Pick: Little Blog on the Prairie by Cathleen Davitt Bell

Published by Bloomsbury USA, 2011

From Amazon:

Camp Frontier promises families the “thrill” of living like 1890s pioneers. Gen will be thrilled if she survives the summer stuck in a cabin with her family and no modern amenities. But ever the savvy teen, Gen sneaks in a phone and starts texting about camp life. Turns out, there are some good points—like the cute boy who lives in the next clearing. But when her texts go viral as a blog and a TV crew arrives, Gen realizes she may have just ruined the best vacation she's ever had.

My Take:

I really enjoy pioneer stories, and I loved the idea of a modern family trying to live like pioneers (though after reading this book, I’m kind of glad just to read about it, rather than experience it).  I liked all the details about how Gen and her family had to adapt to pioneer ways. The friendship between Gen and one of the other kids, Nora, was interesting and it was fun to read about Gen’s crush. I think middle graders who are interested in or learning about pioneer life would enjoy this story.

As a writer, I was intrigued by the concept, since at one time I had an idea to write something similar. I liked the way the author showed all the details of pioneer life through the main character's eyes.

Opening Line:

“At first, it felt like a normal family vacation.”

Favourite quotes:

“We’d be pretending to live in the time before even Monopoly was invented, not that I like that game.”

“Food should be something you just walked downstairs to the kitchen for, without having to argue over killing it or whether there was enough.”

Other Info:

Cathleen Davitt Bell lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Although I came across a website (, it wasn’t working when I tried it. But I did track down an interview on ChasingWords, where Cathleen Davitt Bell talked about what inspires her to write: “When I finish a good book, I am so excited to get down to writing myself. When a writer is really good, they make it look easy...and that makes me want to give it a try myself.”

Other Books  By This Author:

The Amanda Project Book 4: Unraveled with Amanda Valentino

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!


Thursday, August 8, 2013

How to Make Revision Less Painful

I’m in the middle of the toughest revision I’ve ever worked on. One of the things that makes it hard is all the cutting and changing I’ve had to do. I’ve reworked my outline and my plot, so that entire sections of my story are being rewritten, moved or…gulp!...completely taken out.

It can be hard to let go of those well-written gems. Some ways that help me to make it a little less painful:

Stuff-I-Might-Use-Later document.  I put the sections I’ve taken out into another document ‘for later’. Somewhere in my brain, I have a vague notion that ‘later’ may never arrive for most of them, but I feel a little better, knowing they are there if I need them. At least they haven’t been totally zapped from existence.

Stay Focused on the Goal. Reminding myself of how much stronger the story is now, even though I’ve cut out some parts I liked, helps me to stay on track with my revision. I’m always asking:

Do I need this part?

Did I already show this in a different place?

Can I put this into another scene so it can do ‘double duty’?

Play Mind Games. One thing I like to do is to tell myself that I’m ‘just trying it out’ to see if it works. I always have the old version (and a few different versions as I go) if I don’t like it.
Although revision is hard, it's also rewarding. My story is a lot better and it feels like pieces are falling into place. I'm working harder, but having more fun than ever as the story takes new directions.
How do you get through a tough revision? What’s the hardest part?

P.S. I'm also over at MiG Writers this week, sharing some tips on Creating Characters That Live Outside the Story


Monday, August 5, 2013

Simcoe Day Fun

Today is a holiday - it's called Simcoe Day here in the Toronto area, in honour of John Graves Simcoe, who founded Upper Canada which later became Toronto. In other places in Canada, the holiday might be called the Civic Holiday or "that holiday at the beginning of August". Whatever it's name is, who would pass up a chance to celebrate?

We're going to eat blueberry pie and do something fun, so no Marvelous Middle Grade Monday today (though I might sneak in a little writing later). To see what I've been reading lately, check out my 100 Book Challenge for 2013.

I'm also always open to suggestions for great middle grade and YA books to read, so if you've read something good lately, please do share!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Keep Your Writing On Track by Making Lists

How are you doing with your writing this summer? There are so many wonderful distractions--ice cream, amusement parks, gardening, more ice cream, visiting friends, the beach, and the list goes on and on.

Over at MiG Writers, this week my writing buddies and I are offering some tips on how to keep your writing on track in How to Keep Your Writing Focus: Tips from Six Middle Grade and YA Writers.

But I have another tip for staying on track with writing that I'll share here on my blog: making lists.

I always make lists of the things I plan to do in my non-writing life (e.g., the chores I want or need to get done), but it's totally helpful to make lists related to writing as well.

Examples of some writing lists:

- steps my character needs to accomplish to reach a goal

- ways that my villain could stop my main character for reaching the goal

- a list of potential setting locations for scenes in my story

- a list of cupcake flavours (for research purposes, of course)

- a list of what I need to accomplish in a scene or chapter

I often find that creating a list kicks my brain into gear and gives me ideas for new scenes and story events, or even helps me find places where I can double up and put two story events into one setting.

Lists are also really helpful when I'm trying to brainstorm details about my characters to give them a life that extends beyond the book. I generate ideas that I don't need to discuss in detail in the story, but can mention briefly. Here's a peek at a couple of the lists I used to brainstorm ideas for my current revision:

Do you write lists when you're writing a story? What kinds of lists do you make?