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.

May 21, 2014

The Why

My younger son and I, reading MY TRUCK IS STUCK to his class

It can be easy to forget why we do this work, what with deadlines and doubts and all of the things we do in our own little writerly vacuums. The good news: All it takes is reading a book to a class of eager young readers to remember the why.

May 08, 2014

Short Story: My Brief Flirtation with the Devil

I've been getting a certain question quite a bit lately, especially since I attended #NESCBWI14 (which was fab! you should go!). That question is: When did you start writing?

Typically, I answer that while I did study literature in college (along with product design), I didn't really start writing with the aim of producing a novel until about three years ago. But the more I think about that, the more I realize it's a total lie. I've been creating fiction all my life. I just forgot about those moments somehow--or maybe, I didn't recognize what I was trying to do at the time.

Take second grade, for example.

In second grade, I had a rather uptight teacher whose name I can't recall, so let's just call her Mrs. Prim N. Proper. *snort-laugh*

Anywho, Mrs. Proper gave us a pretty great assignment at one point during the year: we were to create a poetry collection. Meaning, not just one poem, but SEVERAL. I recall scribbling in my spiral-bound, wide-ruled notebook for ages that week. Every day brought a new idea, a new subject to explore. I wrote about flowers (I think it was spring outside, and in NC, that means thousands of daffodils). I wrote about my dog. Horses. The typical subjects.

But then one day, I had this crazy idea.

What if (see! I should have KNOWN)...what if there was a man whose face was painted on? What if he was like, made of fabric like a doll? I thought about how horrible that would be. I imagined him with a smooth, shiny face as pale as paper, yet made of cloth. A fabric a lot like satin, which I'd read about so often in Vanity Fair (Yes, I read it in second grade. Major nerd alert).

I rattled off a couple of different versions of this man's story, but the short of it is that his face gets wet, and tragedy ensues. I thought it very touching and sad. I think I even cried as I illustrated the final page, which I placed at the very back of my poetry collection. This poem was my shining star. My great achievement. I thought for sure it would knock Mrs. Proper's socks right off.

When it came time to present our poetry collections, I of course chose to read this particular poem to the class. I handed the book to my teacher, who glanced at the page to make sure it didn't contain any kind of blasphemy. As her eyes hit the page, she sucked in a breath. Her cheeks reddened. And I thought to myself, "Wow! My poem is so good, she's going to cry!"

But of course, that's not what happened.

Instead, Mrs. Proper adjusted her narrow, frameless glasses and stared at me with a look that could only be described as disappointed.

"Why would you write this?" she demanded.

As you can imagine, I had no answer.

She stubbed her finger at the paper, jabbing at the title, which I'd lettered so neatly across the page. "Tell me why you would write this, Melanie."

I looked at the words. I said them aloud. And her face miraculously softened.

"Oh," she said. "I see."

She grabbed an eraser from her desk and instructed me to fix my title. "Satin is spelled with an 'i'," she said, "Not an 'a'."

That's right. I'd turned in a poem titled "Satan-faced Man" to my proper southern baptist teacher. But honestly, even after correcting my paper, I still wasn't sure what I'd done wrong.

It wasn't until more than a decade later, when my mother forced me to purge my old papers from her storage space, that I found the poem and realized the significance of the mistake I'd made. What was just a simple spelling error for me was surely the talk of Mrs. Proper's Sunday table. Which just goes to show, you never know what tiny detail will define you. For a few seconds in the spring of second grade, I was a heathen poet of the highest order.

Short Stories feature my random anecdotes and ramblings, sometimes tied to writing and other times to life at large. If you're an author interested in sharing a short story of your own, please do get in touch!

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