Thursday, January 19, 2017


First, I want to thank Kell for her awesome advice in her 5 January post. She is a pro and it shows! I thought I'd chime in on a few things I've learned the hard way. 

The idea of New Years is daunting. It's fresh, unsullied, massive, and anything is possible. Unlike simply saying we will start tomorrow, the New Year is a big empty space. The first thing we want to do is make big promises to fill it. It’s the New Year, ready for us to tackle whole. Um…let’s take a step back. I know, for me, when I start making the mental stack of things that I want to do, the stack turns into a giant mountain that seems to represent the impossible. And a mountain of things IS impossible. But it is made up of individual things that are not. There are lessons to be learned from mountains. Here are three things to remember as you head into your new year promises:

Ah, deadlines. The bane of existence for many. For me, I take them as a welcome gift. I can appreciate them as a guide towards accomplishment. Instead of seeing deadlines as looming, consider them as something to beat. As a once-editor, I have a deep-seated fear of tardiness. Having to edit and place late articles is a miserable task. There is always the question- will the writer/photographer/reviewer/artist come through? As an author, I find that I tend to beat the deadlines given to me by my publishers. This year was tricky. I have had two manuscripts due to two different publishers, both books coming out this year. Straddling deadlines is a challenge, but I quickly realized that one of the demands, a book with a co-author, was simply unrealistic. Normally, there is about 18 months from manuscript to release. This book was a quick query and contract thing and is slated for release in December, 2017. This means very little time to write. The timing was terrible. I was grading and finishing final edits on the third Young Inventors Guild book. My co-author, Salima Ikram, Egyptologist extraordinaire, needed to spend most of the fall semester on digs and at Yale and traveling to amazing places. No way were we getting the text, let alone the artwork in by October. In addition, we are working with Steve Parke (the artist who did the covers of all three YIG books) who had his book on Prince (he was Prince’s art director for many years) released over this Christmas holiday. I took a deep breath and told my publisher that we could not do it. We’d need more time. Salima, from the caves of somewhere, concurred. Holding my breath, a let out a sigh of relief when they said they’d give us until March. Hurray! There was no reprieve for the YIG3 manuscript so I enlisted my daughter as reader/editor/moral support and we read through the manuscript together and turned it in. This was intense and emotional (both because it is the third in a trilogy and I had to cut out 250 pages I originally thought were important but now see that the team at Bancroft was right and the book will be better for it) but we got it done. The ARC is out. The book shall come.

In addition to books being prepped for publishing, I have a book series I really, really want to write. I know a publisher interested, but I am trying to be smart and not make promises that will kill me. That said, keeping in mind that a deadline can be my friend, I have built into my schedule a deadline. I will not even look at the manuscript (I am chomping at the bit to write) until after March. Then, I will give myself a deadline. I know I will work better, and more often, if I have a goal.

So lesson here:

-       Be realistic. Deadlines can sometimes be adjusted. Don’t be afraid to ask for more time. Be prepared to be denied or for a possible change in release date, but there is no harm in asking your editor if it is possible.
-       Be ready. If a deadline cannot be adjusted, do not feel the looming, but feel the goal.
-       Be committed. If you do not yet have a publisher and you have a book you want to write, give yourself a realistic deadline and honor it. This will get that collection of ideas into a manuscript.

If you have made a list of the seventeen books you want to write and now feel paralyzed, take a step back from that mountain. I know this feeling. It is miserable. If you feel there are so many things you want to do but cannot ever finish them all, don’t. Once again, take things into smaller bits you can swallow.

So, the lesson here is:

-       Make a list. Look at all of your project ideas and make a list. Once you have these down, by title/working title or idea, each one is a separate thing.
-       Make an order. This is a way to prioritize you work. Do not feel bound by what is already partially written or in order of when you started, make the order of what you are most excited to write and start there.
-       Make time. Once you know where you want to start, give yourself some time to work. Maybe consider a deadline. It works for me.

Once you begin writing, decide who you are writing for. I do not believe we can create books in a vacuum. Books are for readers and you will need readers either to read a draft or to read as you work. For me, I read my work aloud to my sleeping husband, beg my children to look at chapters, ask friends to read ARCs, and I feel this gives life to what I write. Do not be afraid to have people make comments counter to what you think is what you want. Sometimes, it makes you all the more determined to stick with the plan. Sometimes it gives you ideas for a better plan.

So the lesson here is:
-       Draft it. As you write, mistakes happen. Changes will happen. Edits and alterations and your direction may shift. Do not be concerned with making the first draft perfect. Just get it down on paper or onto the virtual page.
-       Don’t be afraid. Now that you can look at the one idea, play with it. Enjoy writing bits of it as it slowly (or quickly) turns into your manuscript.
-       Do it! You will be surprised how much pleasure you will get out of writing if it doesn’t feel like part of an insurmountable task. It is not a task. It is writing.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Monday, January 16, 2017

On HIDDEN FIGURES, by Anne Nesbet

Christmas and Hanukkah coincided this past December, which meant our Jewish/Quaker/secular family's chaotic all-things-at-once version of the holidays--best latkes in the world (celery root and parsnip, YUM!), combined with presents, the Beatles, and Christmas carols--almost sort of made sense, for once. And then all fifteen of us, ranging in age from approximately 11 to over 94, trooped across the street to go to the movies.

We pretty much dominated the lower left-hand quadrant of that theater. We settled in. Some of us had popcorn. And soon we were transfixed.

The movie we had chosen had just come out that day: Hidden Figures. It tells the story of three remarkable African-American women--Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson--who worked as mathematicians and engineers at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, renamed NASA in 1958. The film uses John Glenn's 1961 space flight--the first time an American orbited the earth--as its dramatic highpoint; it was the unsung human computers who made the calculations that ensured his safe return to earth.   

How had we not heard of these women before? It was thrilling to see them rise up through the ranks of the human computers--while faced daily with the harsh realities of segregation and discrimination. We all agreed--young folks, parents, and Grandpa alike--that this film was the best possible choice for a family outing at the end of 2016 in the United States of America. We really needed to see it. We needed to be reminded about the things that matter, and about the power of hopeful stubbornness to reshape the world.

I've finally tracked down a copy of the book by Margot Lee Shetterly on which the movie is based, and I heartily recommend it. The movie simplifies the timeline and focuses on three women's stories in order to make the story more vivid, but the book helps you see the larger picture, the way the war shapes Langley, and then the way NACA/NASA, Virginia, and the United States slowly change in response to the persistent, courageous, and, I would say, patriotic pressure put on the old institution of segregation by women who thought their minds should get as much respect as minds housed in white, male bodies.

(I see there's a simplified edition of Hidden Figures for "young readers," but I haven't had a chance to look at it yet--my fingers are crossed that it's good.)

It seems to me that a worthy goal for 2017 might be to bring as many "hidden figures" as possible into the light. Whether we are reading books or writing them--or going to movies and then talking about them with our friends and family--let's try to foreground more stories about people who have played important but relatively forgotten roles in science, politics, social movements, the arts, and in history.

Our own mothers and grandmothers, for that matter--how well do we know their struggles, their stories?

I hope we can inspire a new generation to become avid detectives and researchers in their own right, willing to dig beneath the surfaces of things and to continue the work of making our understanding of history deeper, richer, and truer.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Blog Tour: THE WARDEN'S DAUGHTER by Jerry Spinelli hosted by Michael G-G

THE WARDEN'S DAUGHTER by Jerry Spinelli (Alfred A. Knopf, January 3, 2017)

What It's About (via Goodreads):

From Newbery Medalist Jerry Spinelli (Maniac Magee, Stargirl) comes the knockout story of a girl who must come to terms with her mother's death from inside the walls of a prison.

Cammie O'Reilly is the warden's daughter, living in an apartment above the entrance to the Hancock County Prison. But she's also living in a prison of grief and anger about the mother who died saving her from harm when she was just a baby. And prison has made her mad. This girl's nickname is Cannonball.
In the summer of 1959, as twelve turns to thirteen, everything is in flux. Cammie's best friend is discovering lipstick and American Bandstand. A child killer is caught and brought to her prison. And the only mother figures in her life include a flamboyant shoplifter named Boo Boo and a sullen reformed arsonist of a housekeeper. All will play a role in Cammie's coming-of-age. But one in particular will make a staggering sacrifice to ensure that Cammie breaks free from her past.

Master storyteller Jerry Spinelli spins a tale of loss and redemption like no other. The Warden's Daughter shows that kindness and compassion can often be found where we least expect it.

My Thoughts:

This is a luminous book, and I couldn't put it down. I marveled at the language, at the way Spinelli handled the telling of the tale, and about how Cammie exploded onto the page.

For writers, this would be a good book to study for how to deal with unlikable characters. Cammie acts out big-time, but it's for a reason. A motherless child--her mother died to save her--Cammie is looking around for a mother figure. But all the women she is around are prisoners in the prison where her father is the Warden. There's one trustee (the term used for prisoners who are allowed to help in the warden's quarters) but this woman has secrets and troubles of her own...

It is also a book which should be studied for the writer's use of time. We know from the outset that Cammie is looking back at her life from an adult vantage point and, at the end we realize why. This technique is accomplished brilliantly.

For readers, this is a sophisticated novel which, in parts, is very sad. It may be a book that gets more love from adults than for the target audience, but I would love to hear from any young readers who have tackled it.

Jerry Spinelli, quite frankly, is a national treasure. I was thrilled to be able to read this novel the week of its publication, and to be a part of this blog tour.

January 5: My Brain on Books
January 6: Book Blather
January 9:  Bookhounds YA
January 10thReviews Coming at YA
January 11thProject Mayhem
January 13thReaders in Wonderland
January 16th: The Cover Contessa
January 17th: YA Books Central
January 18thReading Nook Reviews
January 19thXpresso Reads

Here is a video of Jerry Spinelli talking about THE WARDEN'S DAUGHTER:

(Disclaimer: I received an ARC from the publisher, and this did in no way affect the content of my review.)

Monday, January 9, 2017

Proof that Bigfoot is REAL! by Hilary Wagner

If you've ever watched the show, Finding Bigfoot--something I watch when I can't fall asleep, you've probably noticed the show tends to go in a loop. They interview folks who claim to have seen Bigfoot, they go searching the wilderness in a dark, mostly creepy forest setting, and then--of course--there's some mysterious howls exchanged across the landscape and knocking on wood, which apparently is something Bigfoot would do to attract, well...another Bigfoot. They never find Bigfoot. They never find irrefutable proof of Bigfoot, but man, do they believe he's out there.

I know Bigfoot is not real. In all the years people have been chasing Bigfoot, there would be scientific proof, such as remains, DNA, or heck, even pictures that weren’t blurry brown smudges! Truth is, though, I want Bigfoot to be real. I want there to be a creature out there that's stayed miraculously hidden from humans for eons. I want the Yeti to dwell in the snowy mountains of Nepal. I WANT TO BELIEVE! 

That's where we come in. As writers, we get to step in and bring our favorite "what-ifs" to life! We get to give them blood, and skin, and fur, and voices. Winged goblins, evil witches and scaled dragons take flight. Animals talk in a way we understand. Dwarves, gnomes, and fairies live in the shadowy places of forbidden forests, and we, as writers, have the honor of making the unreal very real.

This is how we know all dragons have a small soft spot on their underbelly. This how we know Santa can squeeze down even the smallest of chimneys. This is how we know house elves are bound as servants forever, unless given clothes by their owner. 

And, this is how I know I'm born to write.

I want to believe.  :)