September 04, 2015

On Breaking Things to Fix Them

Many strange and wonderful things have happened in the past few weeks: I received ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) of Counting Thyme (!!!!), I took my kiddos out of the country for the first time, and at the end of that trip, I broke my foot.

That progression felt quite literally like the kind of rising action and climax from a novel. Now I'm left in bed, foot propped, medicine cutting off all functionality for stretches of time...but I'm also thinking a lot in between. I am a person who asks WHY.

Why do these words of mine look so different in book form?

Why did we end up taking a two-day detour through Atlanta and Miami to get out of the country?

Why did that bone in my foot snap?

I swear, all I did was take a step!

Well, that right there is the answer, I think. I took a step. That's what we do every day in life. We move forward, and what happens next isn't always what we expect. We write a book only to rewrite it twenty times. We forget that our children need passports too and end up spending the day at the World of Coca-Cola while those passports are printed. We break a bone and spend the hours waiting for it to heal as all the petty concerns fall away, leaving us somehow happier.

My busted foot

In life, as in writing, sometimes you have to break a thing before you can fix it.

When something breaks, we despair. We resist. We fight. And sometimes, we save ourselves--to a degree--but there's often a moment of surrender. There is opportunity in that moment.

I like to think of this as the magical point when clouds part and the sun breaks through, bright and glowing and overwhelming--pure sensory overload. Surrender feels like that to me. Like I'm suddenly cut loose, awash in light, moorless but not lost. Instead, I've stepped into a more open space, a space where I can catch my breath and a glimpse of clear blue sky before the clouds close in again.

I've experienced this moment many times while writing. Often there are tears and yelling. I tend to yell when I'm at the house, working by myself. All of that fight and energy is me resisting letting go. When I finally do, instead of feeling like I'm drowning, I usually feel relief. Inevitably, the answers come soon after that. I think the letting go allows me to be more honest with myself about what matters in a story and what doesn't--about what truths I am avoiding because I'm afraid I can't fix them, and what changes I'm avoiding because they don't ring true at all.

Me, breaking things

Truth is the goal we're seeking in all of this.

We want our stories to resonate, to latch onto readers' hearts and give them a squeeze. Sometimes, those truths become buried in all of the work we've done. That's where the breaking comes in. We break what we've worked so hard to achieve, and when it heals, it comes back stronger. Better. Infinitely better than if it had never been broken in the first place.

June 10, 2015

It's Here!!! The Cover for COUNTING THYME!

I'm shocked, amazed, and proud to share the cover for COUNTING THYME! You work on a book for so long that it doesn't seem like it will ever become a public thing, and yet here's my girl Thyme, taking her first big step into the world on School Library Journal's blog. Click through to see a larger version. So excited for all that will come!

May 13, 2015

Uncharted Territory

One of the cool (read: terrifying) things about writing is that you're always striking out into uncharted territory. You might be on the road to publication and enduring the sinking-swimming sensation of querying or the ulcer-inducing reality of being on submission. Or you might just be writing, which is in itself gut wrenching enough, with the constant push to improve your craft and find your heart.

That bit about finding your heart is perhaps the most challenging.

I'm a firm believer that anyone can learn the craft of writing with enough study and practice. Writing is a skillset. That skillset can be enhanced by what we call talent--a natural propensity for the skillset--but writing is still just a learned skill. We all start out tracing letters and filling in blanks. Where we go from there varies. Some of us discover a passion for story early on, while others take a while to get there. The idea, though, is that at some point, it's not our minds but our hearts that demand we write.

You hear a lot of writers talk about the "story of their heart." I think that phrase is a bit misleading, because there's not just one story of your heart. Just as you can love multiple people, or pets, or flavors of ice cream, you can love different stories. The key, though, is figuring out how to tap into that love in the first place.

When you're early in the journey of writing craft, many stories call to you. If the puzzle pieces fit together, you're hooked. They key is understanding that you might just be hooked on the fact that the story works, and not the content itself. That's okay. That's how you learn. That's also how you end up querying a book that doesn't pan out, or going on sub and coming up short. Your early passion for writing is productive, but it can lack that zing of emotional heart.

How do we tap into our own hearts?

I attended a workshop with Meg Rosoff last fall that keeps bouncing around in my head whenever I think about this topic. She talked about the unconscious mind, and how it holds onto the things that matter to us, the things that resonate in our emotional cores. It follows that tapping into your heart requires tapping into your unconscious mind.

There are lots of different ways to tap into your unconscious mind, the center of you. Some of them are as easy as shutting your eyes and allowing your mind to wander. In yoga, we call this shavasana. You assume a comfortable position and sit still. You shut your eyes, and listen to your breath. In and out, in and out. When the grocery list pops into your mind, you acknowledge it and send it away. You try to only hear your breath, think of your breath, and let your muscles sink into the earth. Your mind will slow down. It will start to wander. And after a while (it'll feel like ages but only be about 5-7 minutes) little blips of light will pop through. These blips, these random thoughts, are your subconscious talking to you. By actively releasing your conscious mind, the boss who runs all the things, you allow those inner thoughts to come forward. When you reach this state, ask yourself: what matters to me? You'll likely be overwhelmed by the emotion that surfaces.

For some people, this emotional release occurs when running or walking. For others, when they recount their dreams or listen to music. Give yourself the time and space to tap in. Practice it regularly. You will gain better access to your emotional core, and all of the distractions will fall away. Once those distractions are gone, you'll know what matters to you. Is it the video of a police beating that went unprosecuted? Is it the memory of your grandmother? Is it the struggle of your oldest child, who cannot sit still, who won't tell you their secrets any more, and who you fear for in the worst of ways?

There are things that matter, and there are things that MATTER. Find the things that matter to you. Follow them into uncharted territory to find the heart of your stories.

March 14, 2015

Short Story: I'm a Loser

The first crushing defeat of my life occurred in sixth grade.

Up until that point, school had gone pretty well for me, considering I was a card-carrying nerd who took more books on vacations than bathing suits. I wasn't cool, and I knew it. But I wasn't exactly trying to be cool, either. I knew that I should stick to my strong suits, one of which was drawing.

"You're the best drawer ever!"

That's what approximately twenty kids wrote in my fifth grade "yearbook," which was really just a discontinued social studies book that the school let fifth graders keep that year. I still have it somewhere. It was a book of North Carolina history, featuring less than accurate descriptions of how our state was settled, including quaint drawings of pilgrims and Indians hugging that we, as kids, thought made a pretty awesome souvenir of fifth grade.

Enter middle school, with four times as many kids and changing classes, and the distinct possibility that I would actually drown if I tried to get along with the wrong people. So I clung to Art class like a life raft, building my entire public identity around the fact that I could draw just about anything (Except for babies. My babies always looked possessed).

For a while, the strategy seemed to work. I won competitions, but in a good way, where people actually admire what you can do, as opposed to winning the school read-a-thon which only got you branded as a nerd. The popular kids even noticed me, asking me to draw posters for the school basketball games that I had never attended. To my shame, I spent countless hours making these signs to cheer on the Vikings, followed by hours of sitting in the stands, utterly confused about what was happening in the game but glad to be accepted, and valued.

Right before winter break, our Art teacher announced that there would be elections for the Art Club when we got back. I knew as soon as she said it that I would be President. Of course I would be! I was nice to everyone. I was always helping other people out. And I could draw. Like, REALLY draw.

I spent winter break making posters for myself this time. I made enough to put one in every hallway, even though there were only seven of us in Art Club. When we got back to school, I was so nervous for our Art Club meeting, where I would get to pitch myself to the other kids and ask for their vote.

When the meeting day came, I walked into the Art room, feeling a mix of excitement and nausea, only to find that there was a new bunch of kids in the room. My old Art friends were there, but so were a bunch of boys who'd never come to Art Club before. They were in Art. I recognized one of them from my class, even. His name was Bradley. He was clearly the ring-leader of the group, making noise and shoving at the other boys the way kids do. He gave me a look that said, "What are you looking at?" So I sat down, wondering why he and his friends were even there.

Our Art teacher called us up, one by one, to give our speeches. I gave mine and hardly remembered what I said. Then she called Bradley up to the board. He stood there, grinning like he was getting away with something terrible, and told everyone how he would do all of these crazy things as Art Club president, including taking a field trip to Italy to see the Mona Lisa. I rolled my eyes, feeling pretty certain that he was just messing around and it really didn't matter.

We voted blind, on little slips of paper.

Then the Art teacher tallied the votes. When she was done, she read the results. Secretary. Vice-President. And President--Bradley. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. How was it possible? Had everyone turned against me?

I remember twisting around in my chair, staring at him as he hooted and laughed over his eleventh-hour coup. That's when I realized that he had seven friends with him. Which made eight votes for his side. Whereas there were only seven original members of the Art Club. None of my friends had turned against me. It was just that all of his friends had voted for him.

You'd think that would have made me feel better, but instead I was SO upset by the utter unfairness of it all that I cried all the way home and most of that evening, and even begged my mom to let me skip school the next day. She didn't. She said it was going to be okay. I knew she was right, but that didn't make going back to school any easier.

I wish I could say that Bradley's win got reversed. That the teacher tossed him out of Art club. But that's not what happened. Instead, I got used to the idea that I'd lost. I'd been crushed by a bunch of jerks who never even showed up to Art Club again--except for Bradley. Strangely enough, he stayed on as President, doing a horrible job, but trying anyway. It hurt a lot at first. But it did get better. Mainly because I realized that I didn't need to be President to do my best, or to be a leader. Being a leader means choosing to be kind to someone when they need it. It means sharing your favorite drawing tricks with someone and helping them get better, too. It means being yourself even when you feel like a total loser.

Since sixth grade, there have been plenty of times when I've felt like a loser. In fact, it happens most days, in some way or another. But that election was when I learned that being a loser is just a feeling, the same way that being a winner is just a feeling. It isn't WHO we are, but HOW we feel, for a little while. Who you are is up to you.

February 04, 2015

Ever heard of Neuroblastoma?

The story in Counting Thyme centers on a family whose youngest child is in the midst of treatment for neuroblastoma. Seeing as today is #WorldCancerDay, I thought I would share some information on what the heck that means, for anyone who is curious.

First of all, childhood cancer is far more prevalent than you might think. According to Band of Parents (highly recommended reading!), one in 330 kids will develop cancer by age 20. That number sure shocked me. In the case of neuroblastoma, which is the most common cancer in children under 2 years of age, the numbers are even worse. NB is cancer of the nervous system. It has a five-year survival rate of just 30%.

I first learned about NB about eight years ago, when we were living in Brooklyn, NY. There was a family in our Park Slope neighborhood whose son was diagnosed with NB. New to parenthood at that time, I followed their blog closely, crying way more often than not. I had no idea that this was what parents went through for their children. I had no idea that the world could be so cruel.

Neuroblastoma is devastating because it is often not found until it is Stage IV, and it has such a high relapse rate that patients often develop secondary cancers and conditions from all of the chemotherapy. The hope for NB patients is that medicine will continue to develop new theraputics, like the immunotherapies currently in trial stages. Unfortunately, the funding landscape doesn't reflect this need. The National Cancer Institute's funded research portfolio in 2010 was $3 billion. Of that, breast cancer received 21%, prostate cancer received 10% and ALL 12 major groups of pediatric cancers combined received less than 3%.

Less than 3%!

To put that in perspective, each child in the U.S. diagnosed with cancer receives approximately one sixth of the federal research support allocated to each patient afflicted with AIDS, even though cancer accounts for the greatest number of deaths of children in the U.S. and kills more children per year than cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, asthma and AIDS combined.

The good news is, funding is something we can CHANGE.

The Band of Parents that I mentioned earlier includes the parents I came to know in Brookyln. Their non-profit group accepts donations to support research efforts.

Cookies for Kids Cancer is an incredible group that raises funds for NB research. These Good Cookies sprung up right around the time that I became aware of the NB community in Brooklyn. I cherish my memories of baking cookies in a half-broken rented oven off of Flatbush Avenue, and later at the French Culinary Institute. Since 2008, support from Good Cookies like YOU has helped Cookies for Kids' Cancer fund nearly 6 DOZEN childhood cancer research grants, leading to 11 promising new treatments now in clinical trial, available to children fighting cancer TODAY.

There are many great organizations out there raising funds for many worthy causes. These are just two groups that happen to mean a lot to me. Thanks for reading about them!

December 12, 2014

Short Story (in Pictures): Tis' the Season of Giving

Whenever I indulge in that ever-recurring fantasy about winning the lottery, the first thing I imagine is giving money to other people. Being as thorough as I am, I have even planned the order and corresponding amounts of cash that I would gift upon the world. The good news is, I would like to give money to everyone. The bad news is, I haven't won the lottery, which is largely due to the fact that I don't play the lottery. Thus, the self-indulgent fantasy.

So, in lieu of cold, hard (why isn't it soft? isn't money soft?) cash, I give you a series of weird yet inspirational images that have made me think this year. These are the kind of things I collect in a folder called FODDER. My husband sends me a lot of these weird things. I like to call him the FODDERER, because if there's one thing we love in our house, it's making stuff up. Even words.

I love this statement. I love this old building. It reminds me of long gravel roads in NC with surprises hidden in the cornfields.
Marie Curie's Notebook. YES. YES, THAT'S REALLY IT. Try not to drool on your screen too much. (And yes I tried to read it all.)
Kids inside of a geodesic dome made out of rolled newspaper, because that is beyond cool, and I'd like to give that teacher a high five.
This is a Chrysopelea snake. It flies through the air. That is amazing.
In Denmark, they set up cafe tables on the ice in winter. (!!!)
Finally, a reminder that there are always more stories waiting to be told.

November 13, 2014

Plot v/s Story

I just had the incredible fortune to attend the Writer Unboxed UnConference, a unique gathering of writers in Salem, Massachusetts for a week long study of writing craft. I've attended several conferences in the past few years, but this one was like no other. Our entire focus, every single day, every session, was on craft alone. No pitching. No marketing. Nothing but WRITING.

Yeah, it was pretty much heaven.

Now that I've had a few days to decompress from taking in all of that information, I wanted to throw out a few notes on the theme that connected nearly all of the craft sessions: focusing on STORY.

It's super easy to misconstrue plot for story, so that's the first bit of info to note. According to the brilliant Lisa Cron (highly recommend her book WIRED FOR STORY):

Story is how what happens effects someone in pursuit of a difficult goal.

Plot is HOW that happens.

Story is change. It is the Inner Journey. It must be defined to choose a plot.

Plot is externalization. It is the Outer Journey. The specifics are flexible. In a way, it doesn't MATTER what your plot is, only how it creates a sense of meaning and journey of change.

If you're anything like me, it's a relief to think this way. It's a relief to LET GO OF PLOT. To know that what matters is nailing the emotional journey of your character, especially in the first draft. Now, of course I believe that certain external specifics are better choices than others, in terms of suiting your themes, maximizing your conflict, and maintaining the pace of your story.

How to put this connection into action?

There are two opportunities: before you write, and during revision.

Before you write, it's key to identify the core elements of your STORY.

What is your character's emotional arc over the course of the story? How do they start out? How do they change by the end? Even if you have zero clue about the plot mechanisms that will get you to your conclusion, you need to have this transformative process in mind for your characters. Note, that's ALL of your characters. Ask yourself the same questions about your secondary characters. Let them star in their own complicated stories. If you begin drafting with some of this character backSTORY in mind, you'll tap into the heart of the story more effectively.

Notice how I capitalized part of backSTORY? That's because I see so many worksheets asking ten million questions about character traits that honestly don't teach you much about your characters. Instead of figuring out their favorite flavor of ice cream, ask the heavy questions: what happened in your character's past that changed his or her life? How was this moment a turning point in your character's life? How did this event leave your character with a false self image, a falsity that they will not shed until they complete the journey in your narrative? Dig in for the tough stuff, and you'll have your backSTORY.

Once you hit revision, you have another chance to evaluate your PLOT choices.

Look at the progression of the overall character arc, and examine the effectiveness of each subplot and scene. Do all of your choices support your core story? Is there a way to increase the conflict by choosing a different inciting moment? By shifting to a new quest or subplot? By changing the setting and characters present in a scene?

Once you have a draft to work with, you can hone in on the right plot choices, the ones that increase tension and raise stakes. Remember, changing your plot choices is OKAY. Your plot is just a series of steps from point A to point B. You can change those steps out for a yellow brick road. You can cut through the woods instead of following the stream. You really can steer that path where you want it to go, because plot is a function of STORY--and YOU are the storyteller.

Happy writing, everyone!

October 28, 2014

Books for Boys

I can't tell you how often I hear friends looking for book recommendations for their middle grade aged boys on the Facebook, or on the blacktop after school. It's hard to find books for this age set if you're not tuned in to reading blogs and Newbery lists.

To be clear, by middle grade I mean grades 3 through 7, age 8 to 12 (roughly). Anyone can enjoy a middle grade read, but in terms of content as appropriate to age of reader, this is the rough guideline for the designation. For example, if you're not ready for your child to read THE HUNGER GAMES because of the overall concept of kids fighting kids to the death, then middle grade is where you want to go for some great books.

Now, as far as the gender thing goes, I firmly believe that anyone can enjoy any book, if it's the right book for them. Middle grade is a great source for books that appeal to both genders, with the acknowledgement that individual readers will have their own tastes, and that's okay!

With no further blabbery from me, here's a list of some FABULOUS middle grade reads, ones that offer plenty of action, humor, and heart:

The Riverman (The Riverman Trilogy, #1)
THE RIVERMAN by Aaron Starmer
The Dragonet Prophecy (Wings of Fire, #1)
The Great Greene Heist
The Fourteenth Goldfish
Steering Toward Normal
By the Grace of Todd
BY THE GRACE OF TODD by Louise Galveston
The Wednesday Wars
FRINDLE by Andrew Clements


October 05, 2014

Short Story: 777 Challenge!

I don't usually participate in blog hops, especially of works in progress, because, well, IN PROGRESS! But I guess I'm feeling super share-y today, so I'm hopping on the 777 challenge thanks to Ashley Herring Blake, a fellow Sweet Sixteener.

What's the 777 Challenge?

You get to read the first full 7 lines on the 7th page, starting 7 lines down, of my WIP, which is a contemporary middle grade story about a girl named Sky, whose musical family sends her to deaf camp after she suffers hearing loss due to an illness. There are tent mates and horses, a villainous camp counselor and an enormous inflatable Blob...

Without further blabbery, here it is, a sneak preview of THE SOUND OF BRAVE:

When I opened my eyes, there was a shadow across the envelope.

The purple cabin leader was standing next to my bed.

I sat up, and her hands started flailing rapid-fire, touching her cheek and chin, swirling around in front of her body. Rock Island was an immersion camp. Which meant all sign language, all the time, no exceptions. In theory, the cabin leader’s finger flails were supposed to magically mean something to me, even though I'd never studied sign language a single day in my life. Well, I had news for her. She could flail all she wanted. I wasn't going anywhere.

I can't wait for you all to meet Sky in the near future! Here are the seven writers I'm tagging. Happy sharing, and happy writing all! :)

Colten Hibbs
Jeff Chen
Paul Adams
Brian Sargent
Rebecca Sutton
John Hansen
Ella Schwartz 

September 15, 2014

It's International Dot Day!

Today is International Dot Day! Inspired by Peter H. Reynold's classic children's book, THE DOT, this is a day to make your mark on the world. I had the good fortune to meet Peter at BEA this year, and he really is an ambassador of creativity. My boys positively lit up when I gave them Peter's bookmaking kit after the show.

Now, today, I get to reveal my very own Celebri-Dot! As a designer first and an author second, the art of mark-making still captures my heart. Whenever I begin a new drawing, I always warm up by making a series of marks--ellipses, from 10 degree to 90, which is a full circle--and there is nothing like the feel of my pen cutting into the paper.

About my dot: in creative pursuits, it can often feel like you're stabbing in the dark, again and again, and it's not until you step back that you can see you have made your mark. That's what I've tried to capture here, with a take on pointillism, which is a technique I frequently employ in my illustrations.

Without further ado, here it is, my mark on the world!

September 02, 2014

Cookies for Kids' Cancer

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month. As some of you know, my forthcoming novel COUNTING THYME centers on a girl named Thyme whose little brother is fighting neuroblastoma. As I work to improve this novel, I often read the blogs of families and children affected by childhood cancer, which is as devastating as it is unfathomable. I owe a debt to their sharing, their kindnesses, and their struggles. I hope to honor their children with Thyme's story in 2016. Until then, I will continue to support my friend's amazing organization, Cookies for Kids' Cancer.
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