Blog Tour 2014

Thank you to Mary Losure for inviting me to join this blog tour, in which authors andBackwards-Moon_jkt__new_-198x300 illustrators share something about their writing process and latest work. Mary is part of my writer’s group and I’ve been fortunate to read drafts of her upcoming book, Backwards Moon, a fantasy for ages 7 – 10, which will be released on September 15, 2014 from Holiday House.
Click here to see Mary’s post and to backtrack through the blog tour.
The blog tour asks us to answer four questions:

What am I currently working on?
I’m revising two novels right now, one a young adult novel set in Area 51, one of the most famous and secret military installations in the world. It concerns a girl who lives there with her father, a Colonel in the Air Force. The girl also has an unusual medical condition in which her skin is transparent.

My other novel is a crossover one that I hope will appeal to adults and teens alike. Some places have a special hold on our hearts. Having grown up in Iowa, The Surf Ballroom surfin Clear Lake is that place for me. During World War II a POW camp was located thirty miles away from the Surf Ballroom and the POWs worked on farms in neighboring communities. My story SURF BALLROOM SERENADE, is about a girl who falls in love with a German soldier who works on her parent’s Iowa farm in 1944 while her brother is in France fighting and how they’re brought together again at The Surf Ballroom when he migrates to the U.S. after the war. I’ve been working with an independent editor, Alexandra Shelley, to make this story as strong as it can be before I send it out.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I’ve been told that my stories speak to the heart. I hope this is true because it’s a wonderful compliment.

Why do I write what I write?
As a former student of Jane Resh Thomas, I’ve learned that we must write what haunts us, what we dream about, and what we truly care about. I don’t worry so much about genre as I do about the stories that really speak to me. It just happens that the voice that comes out in my writing is often young adult. I joke that my writing voice is controlled by my years of teaching junior high students, that their voices are still stuck in my head.

How does my writing process work?
I write to find out what happens in a story. Since I don’t outline, this often results in many revisions, but I find this process works best for me, as outlines tend to make me feel more inhibited. I do write character analyses, which help me know enough about my characters to let them loose upon the page. A good source for character analysis can be found in Elizabeth George’s Write Away. I’m also a devoted fan of Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, a Guide to Narrative Craft. I also read a great deal, which I advise to anyone who wants to write. In her book Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose states that “I often think of learning to write by reading as something like the way I first began to read. I had a few picture books I’d memorized and pretended I could read, as a sort of party trick that I did repeatedly for my parents, who were also pretending, in their case to be amused. I never knew exactly when I crossed the line from pretending to actually being able, but that was how it happened.”

Next up on the tour….

Next up on the tour….
Gwenyth Swain, whose book Hope and Tears:  Ellis Island Voices, received a well-deservedHope&Tears starred review from Publisher’s Weekly.  Gwenyth is a good friend and former member of my writing group.  She’s a great writer and editor, having worked as a senior editor at Carolrhoda Books in Minneapolis.  She moved with her family to Massachussetts and we miss her.  Check out her blog entry next week.

Pi Day = Pie Day!

UnforgettableIt’s no longer square to be a circle. LIFE OF PI author Yann Martel chose Pi as his main character’s nickname because Pi, the number used so often in mathematics and engineering, is an irrational number; that is, a number that goes on forever without any discernable pattern. He said, “It stuck me that a number used to come to a rational, scientific understanding of things should be called “irrational.” I thought religion is like that, too: It’s something “irrational” that helps make sense of things.”

In my book UNFORGETTABLE, Baxter has a math assignment to memorize 1,000 digits of Pi, or as many as he can remember. In his case, it’s all of them. That’s because Baxter can’t forget anything! His irrational but unfailing love for Halle, the girl of his dreams, turns out to be his way of making sense of things. But he discovers that his memory isn’t as perfect as he believed it to be.

peach pieMarch 14 is National Pi Day.  Many people celebrate by eating pie.

Baxter finds a hidden connection with Pi and it ends up becoming the catalyst in making some changes in his life. You can find your own connections with Pi, too. Here are some links to fun activities. You might want to find out where your birthday falls in the digits of Pi, send a Pi Day greeting card, play a Pi trivia game, or simply enjoy a piece of pie (my favorite Pi celebration activity).

Your birthday in Pi –

Pi trivia game –

Send a Pi greeting card-

Here’s a song about Pi-

For teachers: Teaching Pi –

So, why do you think Pi is cool?

Inspiration or Imitation?

There has been a lot of fuss lately about fan fiction, mostly due to the overnight sensation of Fifty Shades of Grey, a story that started out with the name Master of the Universe as a piece of Twilight fan fiction.  For those unfamiliar with fan fiction, it’s fiction written by fans of a particular series, TV show, or movie in which the writer uses the same characters/plot.  Fan fiction is free to read on fan fiction sites and is technically considered a violation of copyright, where one exists.  Many authors consider it harmless and are flattered, whereas others go to great lengths to prevent fan fiction, which they see as copyright infringement.   Some characters and novels are no longer protected by copyright, such as The Wizard of Oz as well as the stories of The Brothers Grimm.  Any writer can freely use Hansel and Gretel as a character, or the Wicked Witch of the West.  But works that are protected by copyright?  That’s a no-no.

Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L. James placed the Twilight characters a few years in the future in Seattle.  That book was published on as Master of the Universe.  She then rewrote the story with Edward’s character becoming Christian Grey and Bella as Anastasia Steele, and she removed the vampires. The new name of Fifty Shades of Grey was given to the work published by Vintage, but which many claim is mostly the same material that was on

How do we judge whether a work is original?  This is a difficult question, one which will continue to plague all those in the publishing industry when/if more fan fiction gets published.  In 2009 the U.S. District Court permanently prohibited publication in the United States of a book by a Swedish writer whose protagonist is a 76-year-old version of Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye.  I have to wonder:  If the writer had changed Holden’s name to Christian Grey, would the story then have gotten published?

There is a difference between using a favorite book as inspiration versus using it as imitation.  Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu is a new take on a familiar fairy tale, a retelling of The Snow Queen.  The Newbery-winning book When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead pays tribute to A Wrinkle in Time.

My young adult novel In Search of Mockingbird pays tribute to Harper Lee’s book To Kill a Mockingbird, and my new novel, Unforgettable, draws parallels to The Great Gatsby, a book mentioned as one that inspires Baxter in Unforgettable as he seeks to win his long-lost sweetheart Halle.

Favorite books should inspire creativity.  But inspiration is different than imitation.  It involves respect for an original work and requires creating something new and original.

Your thoughts?

The Art of Critique

As writers we often become so close to our own manuscript that it’s helpful to have another pair (or four or five pairs) of eyes looking at it. And it’s amazing what those eyes are capable of picking up, of what they’re able to see that we miss even though we’ve read it a hundred times. As a writer I desperately need that fresh insight, an engaged reader who is helping me make my work stronger.

But it’s also risky to have someone else read your work. We’ve all had terrible experiences both in sharing our works in progress and in critiquing other work. After sharing a novel I was revising, there were so many overwhelming questions and negativity about what didn’t work in the piece that I shoved it in a drawer and never took it back out. And when an acquaintance asked me to read her young adult novel, she reacted to what I thought was a positive, supportive critique with a mean-spirited email that lashed out at my own work and at me personally.

What I’ve learned is that there are better ways to approach this process. A writer shouldn’t come away feeling crushed or discouraged. In fact, the whole reason for critique is to reenergize the author, to give her the impetus to revisit her work with new enthusiasm. But there need to be some ground rules. And the first ground rule is this:

There should be a trusting relationship between the author and reader before any work is shared. The reader is not a judge. Unless the reader is an agent or editor, the reader’s role is not to decide whether the work has merit or whether it is publishable. It is to offer caring, insightful, and constructive criticism of the work as well as reinforce all the positive qualities of it, to let the writer know what is working and what speaks to the reader’s heart. In order for a successful critique to take place, the reader must be capable of doing the above, and the author must be capable of accepting it.

Decide what you need from a reading. Some writers want feedback early on, others want to wait until it’s a finished piece. Some want a nuts and bolts critique, others want a larger view of the strengths and weaknesses, what works/doesn’t work type of critique. Sometimes we want both types of critique at different points in the writing process. When I critiqued the work of my acquaintance, I assumed she had been through the process before, that she could accept questions about her work in a positive manner. What she wanted, though, was a line-by-line grammatical edit of her novel, not questions about motive or character or plot.

Use questions to frame your criticism. No manuscript is perfect, and there are always ways to make it better. But no one responds to insults. Which works better: the statement, I hated how your description was vague and abstract, or the question, Could you give us specific, concrete images that appeal to our senses?

Allow for discussion of the work between the author and reader. Discussion should not be a defending of the work or arguing with the reader, but a conversation that allows the author to ask questions, gather suggestions, or simply to state how she feels about the critique. Sometimes an author doesn’t want to speak or even look at the readers during a critique, but I believe open dialogue can only improve a critique. After all, it’s a wonderful gift to share in the process as a novel is born, and it’s a wonderful gift to be able to see your work through someone else’s eyes.

This is my own personal approach and I realize that it may not work for everyone. I’d love to hear what works for you, and what you’ve learned from your own critiques, whether as the author or reader.

Early Memories

In Unforgettable, Baxter hits his head when he’s three years-old and remembers virtually every detail of his life from then on. As someone who has trouble remembering what I ate for lunch two days ago, it was hard to get into the head of a boy who has such an amazing memory. I ended up looking at my earliest memories, of which there aren’t too many. I have one particularly vivid memory from when I was four years old. I was a flower girl in my aunt Mary’s wedding. After the ceremony, the congregation would sit and watch while pictures were taken on the altar. During the picture taking, I heard a car go past the church and thought for some reason that my parents had left me. I ran down the aisle yelling for them, then stopped when I saw them sitting in one of the pews. I was terribly embarrassed, and of course some people laughed, which made it worse. I remember the long walk back up the aisle to take my place for the pictures.

The average age that people report having their earliest memory is age three and a half. Until then the neocortex, the outer layer of the brain where memories are stored, is not fully developed, and scientists think that infants don’t have the language skills to organize memories. Often those early memories are associated with strong feelings (in my case, embarrassment) or sensory association; for instance, one of my sister’s earliest memories involves the scent of a strong perfume.

What’s your earliest memory? How old were you? Does it involve a strong emotion or connect with one of your senses?
To celebrate the release of Unforgettable, I’m giving away a black-and-white Nook. Although I don’t use an e-reader myself, many of my friends do and they love them.

It’s easy to enter. Between Sept. 6 and Oct. 6, 2011, just post a response below, describing your earliest memory and how old you were. I’ll hold a random drawing from all entries and will post the winner’s name on my website. You must be older than 13 to enter (you could have a parent or teacher enter for you if you’re younger). The winner will need to provide a mailing address so I can send you the Nook.

Good luck, and don’t forget to check out my new book, Unforgettable.

Reinvention Versus Self Acceptance

Jay GatsbyI recently attended a Naturalization Ceremony where over 200 people from 47 different countries were sworn in as new citizens of the U.S. The speaker was a woman from very modest means who’d worked her way through law school to become a judge. She talked about freedom and the American dream, which she said was the opportunity to reinvent yourself.

We’ve been reinventing ourselves for over 200 years now and it continues to be our defining characteristic. Look at any magazine cover or the multitude of non-fiction books or TV shows that promise a ‘new you’. I’m not talking about just self help or improvement. They promise total transformation.

I’ve been thinking about how so many young adult novels have themes of acceptance, of learning to embrace who you really are. Is it any wonder that young adults struggle for acceptance when the grown up world is full of people who constantly want to change themselves?

In my upcoming novel Unforgettable, Baxter is a fifteen year-old boy with a perfect memory who moves to a new town in a different state with the express purpose of reinventing himself and outrunning his mom’s boyfriend who swore vengeance on him. When he reads The Great Gatsby for English class, he relates to the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby.  Gatsby, who is the ultimate story of reinvention, becomes a rags to riches legend. But we know that it doesn’t end well for Jay Gatsby. And we know that sooner or later Baxter will slip up and have to face his past, which he remembers all too well.

It seems that teens are not the only ones who struggle to accept themselves. Jay Gatsby never did embrace his poor North Dakota roots. A definition of reinvention is ‘complete makeover,’ and it’s what adults strive for on a daily basis. Just check your local television guide or your nearest bookstore.

How Writing a Novel is Like Pi

I’ve never outlined a novel in my life. I envy those who do. For me, writing the first draft of a novel involves randomness, frustration, persistence, and the number one component – butt in chair. I usually have no idea where my story is going until I get there, which sounds like a recipe for disaster, or at least a great deal of revision.
But what I enjoy most in writing is that randomness, of not knowing where I’m going. It’s a chance to enjoy the ride and the scenery, to take a winding road in the story that is unexpected. Quite often my stories lead me to new places and introduce me to unique characters and ideas. Like Pi.
The character in my newest book needed a math assignment. Since he has an amazing memory but wants no one to know about it, I decided to add tension by giving him an assignment where he’s supposed to memorize as many digits of pi as he can.
We usually associate pi (or its corresponding value of 3.14) with the formula for computing the circumference of a circle: a=πr².   Pi is an irrational number, which means that it goes on forever in a seemingly random sequence. As I researched pi I discovered that it’s been studied for over 4,000 years. It’s the most intriguing number in all of mathematics and is often thought to contain the answers of the universe. Some people have spent years memorizing the digits of pi.
Since pi goes on forever, potentially every possible number you can think of is hidden in pi: your phone number, age, date of birth, etc. It ended up leading my character to discover something about himself that’s hidden in the numbers of pi. I also learned that by using a code that converts numbers into letters we could find every piece of literature in pi as well, including The Bible (if we looked at enough digits).
When I read this I was reminded that I once heard that there are only three original plots in all of literature. Or maybe it’s 3.14 plots (insert Twilight Zone music here). And perhaps trying to outline my story would be like trying to contain pi to 10 digits, like trying to make a square out of a circle. It would take the mystery out of the process, if there happens to be any, and circumvent my own random approach.
How about you? What method(s) work best for your own writing?

Ann Bancroft and Big Dreams

I recently had the pleasure of hearing explorer Ann Bancroft speak about her North and South Pole expeditions.  She spoke as though she hadn’t done anything all that spectacular, even while the pictures showed her with icicles hanging off her face as she pulled a 250 pound sled across a frozen continent.  She is soft spoken but inspires girls to follow their dreams just as she’s pursued her own dreams.

She inspired me, too.  Of course I couldn’t survive in the Antarctic and I have no desire to walk in sub-zero weather and not shower for ninety-five days, even if it is too cold to smell anything.  But she reminded me that we shouldn’t be afraid to dream big and that dreams change as we grow older, but that our passion remains.  Ann’s passion has always been her love of the outdoors.  She worked as a physical education teacher before she became an explorer.  She’s found a way to incorporate her love of both by using satellite hookups so that schoolchildren can follow her expeditions.

My writing passion didn’t emerge until high school and I pushed aside dreams of being an author for many years.  Getting published was a dream, one I’m still living.  Every book of mine that’s published is a dream come true.  But now I dream of pushing boundaries and finding new ways to explore my writing.

An author friend of mine once told me that she never expected to win any big awards with her books.  Her books were all beautifully written so it surprised me.

“You’ve never dreamed of winning a Newbery?” I asked.

“No.  I figure I’m more of a midlist author,” she said.

I’ve imagined the phone call and my reaction many times; the tears and whoops of joy.  I can’t dream of writing without dreaming of that, too, even if it is just a dream.

Ann Bancroft would tell my friend not to be afraid to dream big.  Because it’s your passion that drives your dreams, and dreams are meant to expand.  After all, Ann’s dream was inspired by the book Endurance, about polar explorer Ernest Shackelton.

It’s a book she read when she was a little girl, when all she had was a dream.

At Auschwitz

At Auschwitz

We wait a long time for an English translator
The other groups go out before us
Finally a young man gathers us up
Britains, Americans, Irish
He speaks to us in his Polish-English accent
Of the horrors of this place

He’s calm and straightforward in his speech
Ordering us from room to room
Not letting us linger too long in any one place
He shows no emotion even while we dab at our eyes
Too distraught to speak, we move along
The only sound the creaking of the wooden boards beneath our shoes

A room full of human hair, some of it in long braids with faded bows
A display case of shoes; another one of discarded suitcases
With names written on the outside
The prison and starvation cells
The black wall for executions
And finally, the gas chamber

It’s small, this place where so many died
Tucked into the countryside
We almost drove past it
How can wildflowers grow alongside death?

We meet three white-haired men dressed in plaid uniforms
One plays a sad song on the bagpipes while they march
They’re serenading their fallen comrades, they tell us
Their friends who never made it home

We break down in the car on the way back
We’re overwhelmed
We ask how could this happen?
We pray
We vow never to forget

January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau in August, 2006.

School Pranks

I almost didn’t graduate from high school because of Cardinal Newman. He was the namesake of our school and a life-sized statue that graced the foyer. He was also the subject of many pranks and disappearances over the years. The longest one lasted a month when he was found in the confessional (seems no one had been there in awhile—this was the seventies, after all).

Our principal was a white-haired, no-nonsense priest who didn’t take kindly to the statue’s disappearance. So when Cardinal Newman disappeared the week before graduation, he assumed it was one of the graduating seniors pulling a last prank. He was right, of course. The day before graduation, when the Cardinal still hadn’t shown up, Father gave us an ultimatum: if the statue wasn’t returned by the next day, none of us would graduate.

Looking back, I realize it was a false threat. He wouldn’t have cancelled graduation because of a few misbehaving students. But I suppose he was panicked at the thought of graduation without the beloved statue in the foyer welcoming guests. Or maybe he was frazzled because it was the end of the school year. I wondered how the students who took him felt when Father made the threat, if they were thinking the same thing, or if they were secretly laughing at having pulled one last memorable hoax. But the Cardinal reappeared back in place as mysteriously as he’d disappeared and graduation went on as planned.

I’m writing a scene about a student prank now. Looking back, the missing Cardinal was harmless and perhaps too mild for the book I’m writing. High school students are more sophisticated. I doubt they’d be impressed by a missing statue. But the event is ripe in my memory with those same feelings: the tension and excitement, the worry and anger at the administration. That’s what I hope to capture in my scene.

Many things have changed over the years since I attended high school. The school has been expanded and renovated. Student uniforms are different. Even our school colors have changed. But the Cardinal is still there, still greeting people in his usual place. Only now he’s a permanent fixture, unable to be moved. It’s safer for him now.

Of course, students are still pulling pranks. As a former teacher, I’ve been subjected to a few myself. As a writer, it’s all good material. So I continue to mine the feelings of the past, to put my characters in trouble as they pull their own pranks and create their own lasting memories.