Friday, January 29, 2010

Poetry Friday

This week marks the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. While some were lucky enough to survive the Holocaust, many more were not, and today we only have their words. The Hypertexts is a site that keeps those words alive. From unknown poets to Pope John Paul II, here is a collection of Holocaust poetry written by those who lived it.

The Little Train Station: Treblinka

On the Tluszcz-Warsaw line,
from the Warsaw-East station,
you leave by rail
and ride straight on . . .

The journey lasts, sometimes
five hours and 45 minutes,
but sometimes it lasts
a lifetime until death.

The station is tiny.
Three fir trees grow there.
The sign is ordinary:
it’s the Treblinka station.

No cashier’s window,
No porter in view,
No return tickets,
Not even for a million.

There, no one is waiting,
no one waves a kerchief,
and only silence hovers,
deaf emptiness greets you.

Silent the flagpole,
silent the fir trees,
silent the black sign:
it’s the Treblinka station.

Only an old poster
with fading letters
“Cook with gas.”

~~Wladyslaw Szlengel
(translated by Yala Korwin)

Todays Poetry Friday is at Picture Book of the Day

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Are you a web person? Not the internet kind. The story kind.

If you are, you know how helpful story webs can be in brainstorming and plotting. You also know how hard it can be to fit all your ideas on one sheet of paper, or to go back to it later and read what you originally wrote. And what happens when you start to organize your ideas, selecting those that work for you and discarding the rest until - you change your mind? Story web ideas aren’t easy to shift around, not without a lot of rewriting.

That’s where comes in. It’s not new and amazing. It’s simply a story web on the web. But the advantage of having it here is that it’s always neat and legible. You can make it as huge as you want without running out of space, and changing your mind, or rearranging things is no hassle at all.

The arrangement of things is actually the fun part (for me.) After you decide on the ideas that work for your story, you can rearrange the plot elements you want to use in a linear fashion to see if they’ll work. Not happy with it? Just erase, or rearrange - whatever suits your purpose. You can also change the colors of your ‘bubbles,’ so that different threads in your story are different colors, making ideas easier to follow.

In the end, you not only have a plot for your story, you have a plot line with major plot points and connecting scenes you can save, print, embed, e-mail and/or even change again if you feel like it. It's free, and you don't even have to register if you don't want to save what you've created.

Check it out!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Mentor Monday - Book Trailers

I’ve been thinking a lot about book trailers lately. Do they really work? Do they encourage people to buy your book? And how hard is it to make one? Or are they just the next thing we’re supposed to do as writers, like joining Facebook and Twitter and having a web page and blog?

I still don’t know the answer, although I’m leaning toward a ‘yes’ after seeing Arthur Slade’s trailer for The Hunchback Assignments, a YA Steampunk series. Until I saw his trailer, I hadn’t heard of him or his books, but once I saw the trailer, I made it a point to go out and buy the book. The trailer was just that effective. But then, I’m into Steampunk, so maybe that’s why I liked it.

But how would I feel about a picture book trailer? I looked at a dozen and none of them appealed to me. Some were clever and funny, but they didn’t make me want to buy the book. But I think that’s just because I’m not into picture books. There were several YA and MG trailers that did peak my interest in the book they were promoting.

So, assuming book trailers were effective, the next step was to learn how to create one. Some people have professionals create theirs, other people do it themselves. Arthur Slade’s The Hunchback Assignments was done by professionals. A company called My Next Demo created the trailer for what I thought was a very reasonable $499.00.

But if you’re a creative type and know your way around technology, or have a family member who does, you might consider doing it yourself. Here is a site that offers a tutorial that shows you how to do it yourself, absolutely free. And even if you don’t yet have a book to promote, you could make one just to get the hang of it, so you’ll know how to do it when you do have a book to promote.

If you give it a shot, or you’ve already made a trailer, feel free to come back and leave the URL in the comments section, along with how difficult or easy it was so we can all learn from each other.

And if you want to take a look at some of the book trailers out there, check out

Happy trailer blazing!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Poetry Friday: Life

I, like millions the world over, have had the people of Haiti in my thoughts since last week. I'm rather ashamed I hadn't given much thought to the people of Haiti before the quaking earth shook them into my field of vision.

I wanted to offer something hopeful for Poetry Friday this week. To that end, I'm sharing Life by Charlotte Bronte.

Poetry Friday is being hosted by Liz Scanlon at Liz In Ink.

by: Charlotte Bronte
      IFE, believe, is not a dream
      So dark as sages say;
      Oft a little morning rain
      Foretells a pleasant day.
      Sometimes there are clouds of gloom,
      But these are transient all;
      If the shower will make the roses bloom,
      O why lament its fall?
      Rapidly, merrily,
      Life's sunny hours flit by,
      Gratefully, cheerily
      Enjoy them as they fly!
      What though Death at times steps in,
      And calls our Best away?
      What though sorrow seems to win,
      O'er hope, a heavy sway?
      Yet Hope again elastic springs,
      Unconquered, though she fell;
      Still buoyant are her golden wings,
      Still strong to bear us well.
      Manfully, fearlessly,
      The day of trial bear,
      For gloriously, victoriously,
      Can courage quell despair! 

Monday, January 18, 2010

Mentor Monday: Inspire Yourself

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day! To say Dr. King was an inspirational person is an understatement. He helped transform the thinking of (at least) our nation. People will be finding inspiration in his life's work for generations.

For me, inspiration is the happiest part of the writing process. It brings with it a focus so intense, there's nothing to do but write. Something so magical should not be left to chance. The permanent number two on your writing list of Things to Do should be Find Inspiration. (Number one on your list is Sit Down and Write, but you knew that.) If you wait for inspiration to strike, you could be waiting for a long time.

Attending conferences, workshops or retreats is a great way to keep the writing fires stoked. In a few weeks I'll attend my fourth Kindling Words (KW) in Vermont with Janet and Diane. It borders on crazy how psyched I am for it. 

According to the KW website, "Kindling Words is an inspiring retreat where accomplished authors, illustrators and editors meet, talk shop, participate in workshops, and inspire each other." They had good reason to use a form of the word "inspire" twice in that sentence. KW truly is inspirational. Participating in KW, however, isn't easy. You have to be published, and you have to snag your retreat spot in a lottery.

What can you do if KW is exactly what you want, but you're not published or favored by Lady Luck? Check your regional chapter of SCBWI to see if they offer any retreat opportunities. (While you're there, mark down the dates of your regional conference and then go to it!) If you can't find a retreat, or if what you find is just too expensive for your budget, create your own retreat.

Decide what you want from your retreat then make it happen. Maybe you want uninterrupted writing time. Maybe you want unstructured time for clearing your head. Maybe you need to do some research. Probably you need to do a bit of each. The point is, you need to plan things out before you take yourself on retreat. You might just plan to bring a few writer friends with you.

A few years back, Write Sister Diane Mayr organized a successful small retreat for children's writers at Poland Spring Inn in Poland, Maine. Twelve writers participated in Writers' Asylum Retreat, and it remains among the best retreats I've attended.

If a retreat is what you're after, look around. See what's out there. If there's nothing, then pull your own together. You'll be happy you did.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Women of Wednesday: New Year's Resolutions

"Life itself is the proper binge."

--Julia Child, cook

"If you have made mistakes . . . there is always a chance for you . . . you may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call 'failure' is not the falling down, but the staying down.

-- Mary Pickford, American Actress

"You may be disappointed if you fail, but if you're doomed if you don't try."

--Beverly Sills, American opera sing

Monday, January 11, 2010

Mentor Monday: Write or Die!!!

Putting the PROD in PRODuctivity

I've just discovered Write or Die. The website is just what a procrastinator like me needs. It's designed to put the fear of not writing into the writer who may have the best intentions, but not the best self-discipline. The site is diabolically brilliant. Set your word goal. Set a time limit. Choose your grace period. Write or suffer the dire consequences. I'll let Dr. Wicked, the site's proprietor, explain:

The idea is to instill in the would-be writer with a fear of not writing. We do this by employing principles taught in Introduction to Psychology. Anyone remember Operant Conditioning and Negative Reinforcement?

Negative Reinforcement "strengthens a behavior because a negative condition is stopped or avoided as a consequence of the behavior."

  • Gentle Mode: A certain amount of time after you stop writing, a box will pop up, gently reminding you to continue writing.
  • Normal Mode: If you persistently avoid writing, you will be played a most unpleasant sound. The sound will stop if and only if you continue to write.
  • Kamikaze Mode: Keep Writing or Your Work Will Unwrite Itself.

I tried it out myself, and yes, some of sounds are truly annoying -- think Rick Astly here. (And if thinking about Rick Astly isn't annoying enough, you can think about whether or not he's really dead or if it's just another fake celebrity death report.)

On the other hand, Banana Phone is catchy little tune which may or may not keep me writing.

Save your text into your own word processor before leaving the site!

Good luck!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Poetry Friday

I've written very few poems in my life. I am in awe of those who have the skill. As I sit here, in my New England home that is covered in wind-blown snow, I wonder what a poet would make of this gray and black and white day? Wendell Berry gives us a clue about how to go about it:

How To Be a Poet
by Wendell Berry
(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What a Novelist Can Learn from Film

Part 2: Crossover Audiences

The Secret Life of Bees was another film that made me think about the writing life. I’d read Sue Monk Kidd’s novel and both the book and the film work for adult, young adult, or middle school audiences. The story is about a young teen, Lily, who wants to know her long-dead mother and runs away from her abusive father, T.Ray, to search for answers.

Since the Harry Potter books came out, it seems the linesthat usually separate adult lit from kid lit have been erased. This concept isn’t really new. Isn’t Romeo & Juliet Shakespeare’s contribution to YA lit? While it is, at heart, the story of two teens in love, it is also the story of anyone who falls in love with the “wrong” person. Thirty-year-old people of different faiths or races may face the same disapproval that Shakespeare’s teens did. An older woman courted by a younger man may face the disapproval of her children who wonder what the guy really wants. The reason Romeo & Juliet works for all kinds of audiences is because the basic story can happen to any one.

The Secret Life of Bees works in a similar way. It is a traditional quest story incorporating the sidekick (in this case, housekeeper Rosaleen) and ultimately leading Lily and Rosaleen to the keeper of the knowledge. The age of the protagonist appeals to the middle school crowd but, as there are various levels of complexity in the story, adults enjoy it too.

When critiquing manuscripts, I often ask myself, who is the intended audience? This is especially important for a young audience limited by its reading skills and life experience. So, how do you know if your novel will appeal to more than one generation? You may not, at first. All you can do is write the best story possible, and try to incorporate a few rules:

-Don’t fuss too much about vocabulary. Award-winning biographer, Jean Fritz, says, “…I write as if I’m talking to children naturally. I limit my vocabulary, but not any more consciously than I do when I’m talking to my grandchildren. If you’re intent on communicating, the vocabulary takes care of itself.” Sue Monk Kidd was able to present the complex issues of Civil Rights, mother love, and family secrets to readers of multiple ages. Her book will be read differently by people of different ages and life experience. But each reader will “get” the basic story.

-Pay attention to your characters. David De Batto, in the February 2007 The Writer points out that “The most interesting characters …are ordinary people placed in extraordinary situations and forced to react.” Sherry Garland, in her book Writing for Young Adults, agrees. She says, “Give your protagonist goals…without a character goal, the story becomes no more than a string of events…”

-Finally, trust your audience. When someone opens your novel, know that they want to enjoy the book. They want to take the journey with you. Tom Wolfe once said that he believed a writer’s first job is to entertain. If your work is entertaining enough, trust that audiences of all kinds will want to go along.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Mentor Monday: What a Novelist Can Learn from Film

Part 1: Flashbacks

I love movies. I find it easier to get lost in a film than in a book because I tend to edit too much when I’m reading. Still, films always make me think of writing.

I recently watched two movies that brought to mind writing topics. I’ll start with one today and finish up the next one tomorrow.

Will Smith and Rosario Dawson do a fabulous job in the film, Seven Pounds. Smith plays a man who feels responsible for his wife’s accidental death and decides he must make up for his error. I won’t discuss the rest of the plot in case some of you reading this have not seen the movie.

The story is told in flashbacks. Unfortunately, they are very disjointed flashbacks. We’ve all had the experience of sitting through a film and wondering what it’s about. Then, if we’re lucky, it all comes together at the end. While the story-line sort of made sense at the end of Seven Pounds, I still sat there wondering why the film editor, or the director, or both, decided to tell the story in this particular way. In my mind, flashbacks should add to a story, not detract from it. Unfortunately, in this case, the flashbacks were not only distracting, I felt that they gave me very little information to help me build on my understanding of Smith’s character and the motives for his decision to “make up” for his wife’s death. I didn’t feel any particular connection between the protagonist and his wife. Yes, they were married. Yes, they loved each other. Every human being loses people they love but why does Smith’s character go into this great despondency? What is it about his personality that makes him go to such extremes? The movie never answered those questions for me and I think the flashback sequences were partly to blame.

As writers for children, we must be especially careful of how we use flashbacks to tell our stories. Connie Epstein, in her book The Art of Writing for Children: Skills and Techniques of the Craft, gives the following example:

“Under any circumstances, the time transitions of flashbacks, from the present to the past and back again, require a great deal of skill to manage smoothly. When writing for children, they become even more of a problem as readers will have had less experience following narrative that jumps around in time. I still remember Jean Lee Latham’s telling the audience in her Newbery Medal acceptance speech for Carry on, Mr. Bowditch, …that she had given the manuscript to a neighboring child to read, asking her to identify the boring parts….the passages she had listed for Latham were without exception flashbacks that apparently were difficult to follow.”

I think the end of this quote sums up my problem with Seven Pounds. Flashbacks should build on the plot, or on our understanding of the protagonist, and on each other. These flashbacks did neither. As writers we need to use flashbacks carefully. They are supposed to aid in our story telling.

Children can get easily confused by the over-use or poor use of flashbacks. Lee Wyndham, in her book Writing for Children and Teenagers, says the child reader “… is far more interested in what is happening now and in what is going to happen next than in what occurred last summer, or last year, or ten years ago. The necessary flashback must be worked into the story line imperceptibly, so that the reader is in and out of it—and properly informed—without being aware of the literary maneuver.”

Novels often need flashbacks to inform the reader, in a concise way, why the protagonist is acting in a certain manner in the current story. As the writer, you know all the facts, all the back story, all the pertinent details but sometimes that knowledge becomes a drawback. If you decide to use flashbacks to help your reader learn some of this additional information, get a fellow writer to critique your work in progress. Find out if your use of flashbacks is helping or hindering your story. You just may need to start your story elsewhere and tell it in a more sequential way.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Poetry Friday: Thomas Bailey Aldrich

For all of us who find inspiration difficult to come by in the dark days, a word of sympathy and encouragement from New Hampshire's own Thomas Bailey Aldrich. I also love his evocative depiction of the season:

No Songs in Winter

The sky is gray as gray may be,

There is no bird upon the bough,

There is no life on vine or tree.

In the Neponset marshes now

Willow-stems, rosy in the wind,

Shiver with hidden sense of snow.

So too 't is winter in my mind,

No light-winged fancy comes and stays:

A season churlish and unkind.

Slow creep the hour, slow creep the days,

The black ink crusts upon the pen --

Wait till the bluebirds and the jays

And golden orioles come again!