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.

July 18, 2014

Need a Little Inspiration?

I'm a visual person. I doodle on everything, and I get lost in pictures. I also get lost when I drive somewhere at night because the journey looks so different than in the daytime. My kids will tell you within five minutes of riding in our car that "Mommy gets lost a lot."

But you know what? Sometimes getting lost is exactly what you need to find your way.

Here are some of the places I go to lose myself on purpose.

Nasa satellite pictures! You can visit any place on earth by going to their website. And the images are rights free!

The streets. Whether you live in the city or the country, LOOK as you go.
The human imagination is all around you.

The news. I collect interesting links in a folder by "printing" the articles to PDFs.
When in need of inspiration, I browse!

The garden. If you don't have a nice outdoor space, borrow someone else's. Pull weeds. Tidy things up. Gardening for even a short amount of time clears the mind, and the plants fill you with color and form.

Memories. It's easy to think we remember, but a quick look through old photos will being details to life in vibrant, heart-squeezing emotion. (This is my Mom, sister, and me, with one of many stylish snowmen from my childhood)

June 01, 2014

The Truth About BEA & BookCon

I just got back from this year's BEA event in NYC, and I want to summarize a few things for those of you who wonder what happens there, or what this BookCon thing is, or what's going to happen to BEA in the future...which is a big question, for sure.

BEA is short for Book Expo America.

It's a trade show held at the Javits convention center in NYC each year (until 2015, that is). If you've never been to a trade show, imagine an enormous building the scale of a concert hall, lined with booths and banners. What's in all of those booths? Publishers, but also companies that are related to publishing (including printing services, toy companies, app groups, etc).

For most people, the only parts of the BEA floor that hold interest are the publisher's booths. During the show, you can get ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) of books from these booths, as well as line up to get books signed by certain authors (there's also a large Autographing Area for this specific purpose). What this means overall is that you end up walking around a crowded convention hall, trying to decide which book to line up for, if the line is too long, or if there might be a book drop (an unscheduled release of ARCs) at any of the big booths.

Yes, you can get a bunch of books for FREE at BEA...but that's changing.

While this year's event is fresh in my mind, here's what I think is coming: BEA as a trade show has lost some of it's past functionality. Meaning, there aren't a TON of publishing deals going down at the show compared to the past. Publishers are seeing less incentive to spend a lot of money on the event (and that means fewer free books for attendees).

Plus, the books they are giving away aren't intended as awesome presents from heaven--they're intended to help market the upcoming books and build buzz. That's why the event is traditionally limited to publishing professionals, including bloggers. Bloggers and avid readers will promote a book and build buzz, and therefore are worth the investment. The general public isn't considered as great of an investment when it comes to ARCs.

This year, I also noticed that the ARCs were even more tightly controlled than last year. Many book drops were scheduled, instead of being randomly set out. Some of the book drops even required lines, which meant that over all, you weren't going to grab as many books (because there is only so much time, and you can only wait in so many lines).

So, professional or public, BEA is changing.

It's not so much about the books anymore.

Instead, BEA is evolving into a more consumer-centric event with the advent of BookCon.

Now, BookCon came about in a way that was uber confusing for a lot of attendees. Last year, BEA offered Power Reader passes, which were one-day passes for the public to attend the show on Saturday. This was the only opportunity for "non-publishing" people to attend this show. Usually, you have to be an author, blogger, or publishing professional of some sort to attend (again, that whole "investment" concept).

But back to BookCon. This year, after Power Reader passes were sold, attendees were informed that a new event was taking place--BookCon--and that their Power Reader passes were being reassigned to this event. Most people crossed their fingers and hoped for the best: that BookCon would be the same as Power Reader day last year.

Well, it wasn't.

And it's not going to be in the future, either.

BookCon is run by the same entity that runs ComicCon. They are focused on consumers, celebrity, and drawing large amounts of revenue by bringing those two entities together. Like ComicCon, BookCon was focused on panels. Panels are basically presentations/Q&As with important people of some sort--in BookCon's case, the panels were mainly focused on authors and celebrities with tie-ins to publishing or book-to-film projects (like TFioS, Stan Lee & Marvel books, Dystopian panel including Veronica Roth). Yes, there were panels on other topics like diversity, but by and large, the panels were focused on presenters with some clout behind their names, culminating in the TFioS panel with John Green.

So, what happened at BookCon?

Basically, thousands of people showed up and lined up for different panels or a few select book giveaways on the BEA floor. By noon, publishers on the BEA floor started packing up. Their trade show was over, which was utterly confusing to many of the BookCon attendees hoping for free books. There weren't a lot of those on Saturday, because BookCon attendees are perceived as the general public, and remember, they aren't the intended audience for ARCs. But there were a lot of opportunities to line up and see celebrities, as well as a greater emphasis on poster, sticker, and button giveaways.

So, if you're considering attending BEA next year, while it's still in NYC, here are a few important details to keep in mind:

  • BEA is evolving toward a pop culture event for consumers centered around books and authors, as quoted from this PW article.
  • BookCon organizers have announced the intention to hold MULTIPLE BookCon days in 2015, with an increased focus on consumer attendance and revenue generation, as described here.
  • BEA is moving to Chicago in 2016, and the word I heard is that many publishing pros will not be able to justify attending, and so the event is likely to evolve even further toward the ComicCon approach. Meaning, there will be a focus on books and authors, but in the celebrity-viewing sense, with fewer free books.
  • Many authors attend BEA because it's in NYC, and they get a chance to meet with their editors, agents, and publishing friends while in town. Many of us are only at the show itself for smaller periods of time, so a lot of the fun stuff you see on Twitter and the like is not even at BEA itself.

So, consider all of this before you invest in attending--what will you get out of BEA? Or BookCon? They are fun events,  but also events with a very specific purposes, and those purposes are changing. In the future, I think BEA will have less and less emphasis on books, and more on cultural tie-ins that tend to be more lucrative, as evidenced with the shift toward BookCon. It's something to keep in mind.
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