Spooky MG Halloween Reads

My eight year old is on a spooky book kick just in time for Halloween, so I thought I’d continue my children’s book recommendations with a Halloween-inspired list. I have to be honest that scary isn’t really my thing. I was never a die-hard Goosebumps fan, and I’m the girl who peed her pants screamed her head off the one time her high school boyfriend convinced her to watch Halloween. But regardless of my own preferences, these books are almost sure to be a hit with the middle grade (8-12 year old) crowd.

Coraline & The Graveyard Book

OK, I don’t typically like spooky, but I make exceptions for Neil Gaiman. Coraline, the story of a little girl who moves into a spooky house and uncovers a rather diabolical ghost who wants to trap her in an alternate world, is spine-tinglingly creepy. For more sensitive readers, Gaiman’s Graveyard Book is equally good and while still involving ghosts, monsters, and bad guys, seemed a little milder to me. Still, these two are more for the upper middle grade (10+) age group.

Cinderskella & Little Dead Riding Hood

I just recently discovered Amie Borst’s amazing dark reimagined fairy tales. And my daughter can’t get enough of them. If the creepy-factor of tween girls who are trying to live a “normal” life under very abnormal circumstances (Cinderskella turns into a skeleton by night and Scarlet from Little Dead Riding Hood is a vampire), these books are co-written by Borst’s middle-school aged daughter. I would read them for that alone, but they’re also hilariously dark and gripping stories.

Bunnicula, The Celery Stalks at Midnight, & Howliday Inn

Some classics are more timeless than others. These suspense-laden tales about a vampire bunny and his other furry pals still get a giggle from my kids just like they did from my brother and I thirty years ago. Oh, and in case you missed it, there are SEVEN books now instead of just three.

Goosebumps

I may not have appreciated R.L. Stine when I was 10, but I sure do now. A prolific and abundantly spooky writer, Stine knows not only how to create a scary scene, but to connect with what middle grade readers will find interesting. With a good mix of male and female protagonists, Goosebumps has something for everyone.

What’s Up Wednesday

What's Up Wednesday

What’s Up Wednesday

My writing buddy Sara Eastler introduced me to a fun little blog series called What’s Up Wednesday and since I’m trying to blog more these days, I decided to play along. And since my readers seem to enjoy my book recommendations, you’ll be happy to notice that this means I’ll be recommending a book every Wednesday.

What I’m Reading

I just finished Helene Wecker’s beautiful The Golem and the Jinni and I really can’t stop thinking about it. This gorgeous story about two mythical creatures–a golem and a jinni, of course–who are both trapped in 1899 New York City explores fate, free will, spirituality and mythology all in an evocative setting and through the eyes of two very interesting narrators. It reminds me of a cross between Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Carlos Ruis Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind.

What I’m Writing

As things continue to come together for my 2013 NaNoWriMo project, Finding Gib, I’m also mid-way through drafting a new middle-grade project called Search for the Sampo. Set in Finland, it tells the story of two expat children who discover an ancient book and with it, a plot to use a long-forgotten and powerful tool to take over the world. This story gives me my first opportunity to write about magic and considering my long-term love affair with fantasy, this alone is reason enough to celebrate. But I also have to say that I love writing in the dual-point-of-view of the two sibling main characters and am really enjoying the project so far. That makes sense because I still love drafting so much more than dreaded revision.

What Works for Me

I’m juggling a lot right now: polishing last year’s manuscript, querying it, contesting, and drafting the new novel. And I have to admit, that works for me. Querying is an agonizing process, full of waiting and uncertainty, and keeping myself almost manically busy distracts me from the fact that I have manuscripts out there as. I. type. this. post. Just typing that made my heart flutter a bit. So yeah, I’m querying. It’s cool. *shoves sweaty palms in pockets and pretends to be calm and relaxed*

What Else I’ve Been Up To

Just returned from a lovely week in Hvar, Croatia, a small island in the Adriatic along the Dalmatian Coast. Watch this space for tips on traveling to Hvar with your children as part of my Traveling with Children series. It’s a gorgeous place to visit, especially at the tail end of the season when things are quiet, but the sea is still warm enough to snorkel and sail.

I also guest-blogged over at Book Country, introducing my five-line outline method for pants-ing your way through NaNoWriMo.

Check out Jaime and Erin‘s blogs for more What’s Up Wednesday fun.

Insomnia Hacks

As the light fades to winter darkness here in Finland, I’ve been pulling out my woolens and preparing for my annual fight against Seasonal Affective Disorder. What I hadn’t planned for, however, was a bout of insomnia.

I often struggle to fall asleep (or go back to sleep if I wake in the night) when I have a lot on my mind. And boy do I have a lot on my mind this month. We’re planning our move back to the US, with fewer concrete details and less time than I would like, trying to sell our house in Colorado after quite a bit of fixing up/painting/cleaning and hiring a new realtor, and on top of that, I’m querying the book I wrote last year as I work on finishing a different manuscript. Whew! No wonder I can’t sleep.

The National Sleep Foundation reports that 48% of Americans struggle with insomnia, 22% chronically. They also point out that women are 1.3 times more likely than men to suffer from insomnia. Being over the age of 65, or being divorced, widowed, or separated are also all risk factors. I don’t know if this makes me feel better because I’m not alone or worse because so many people know exactly how lousy I feel right now.

I need to be alert to make it smoothly through the next two months of writing/moving, so walking around in a daze until the sleep goddess returns to me is not an option. But neither is taking a pill, since they typically make me feel ill and groggy. So here is a list of natural insomnia remedies that I’ll be working through this week as I try to sleep. If you also struggle with insomnia, maybe they’ll help you too. Continue reading

Contest Craziness Continues!

Sub It Club already posted a great guide to a few of the remaining writing contests for 2014, but I wanted to share some of my experiences as a newbie contester.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know you could pitch your novel as part of a contest until I attended the Midwest Writers Workshop in July. At that point, I was on the verge of having my first query-able manuscript completed and knew absolutely nothing about what it would take to try to get it published. The conference provided an amazing overview of the process thanks to two people who are fairly active in the world of online pitching contests: agent Pete J. Knapp of Park Literary Group, and writer, Summer Heacock (also known as Fizzygrrl).

During that panel discussion, I heard the two words that changed my querying strategy: Pitch Wars. Brenda Drake’s amazing contest was my first, but definitely not my last.

If you’re new to contesting, or you’ve dabbled and aren’t sure it’s for you, consider this post the post I wish I’d read back in July. And enjoy! Continue reading

Studying the first 250 words

It’s contest time here in writing land and that means there’s a lot of pulling of hair and rending of garmentsgreat work going on with the first 250 words of each of our books. Right? Right! Despite the fact that I’ve been polishing my first 250 for six months, that it’s been through rounds and rounds of edits, WriteOnCon, agent feedback and a serious line edit, I still submitted it to #PitchSlam, got feedback, and proceeded to gut it yet again. Ugh.

In the spirit of learning from the masters, here are the first 250 words from three of my favorite Middle Grade books. I may do some YA/adult books later as well, but I’m writing MG right now, so I’ll stick to that age group for my own sanity. Enjoy!

In a valley shaded with rhododendrons, close to the snow line, where a stream milky with melt-water splashed and where doves and linnets flew among the immense pines, lay a cave, half-hidden by the crag above and the stiff heavy leaves that clustered below.

The woods were full of sound: the stream between the rocks, the wind among the needles of the pine branches, the chitter of insects and the cries of small arboreal mammals, as well as the bird-song; and from time to time a stronger gust of wind would make one of the branches of a cedar or a fir move against another and groan like a cello.

It was a place of brilliant sunlight, never undappled; shafts of lemon-gold brilliance lanced down to the forest floor between bars and pools of brown-green shade; and the light was never still, never constant, because drifting mist would often float among the tree-tops, filtering all the sunlight to a pearly sheen and brushing every pine-cone with moisture that glistened when the mist lifted. Sometimes the wetness in the clouds condensed into tiny drops half-mist and half-rain, that floated downwards rather than fell, making a soft rustling pattern amongst the millions of needles.

There was a narrow path beside the stream, which led from a village—little more than a cluster of herdsmen’s dwellings – at the foot of the valley, to a half-ruined shrine near the glacier at its head, a places where faded silken flags streamed out in the perpetual winds from the high mountains, and offerings of barley-cakes and dried tea were placed by pious villagers. — The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

I love the rich, evocative description and would like to point out that this works as a beginning even though we neither meet the main character no see any action more titillating than the leaves blowing in the wind.

Ethan said, “I hate baseball.”

He said it as he followed his father out of the house, in his uniform and spikes. His jersey read ROOSTERS in curvy red script. On the back it said Ruth’s Fluff’n’Fold.

“I hate it,” he said again, knowing it was cruel. His father was a great lover of baseball.

But Mr. Feld didn’t say anything in reply. He just locked the door, tried the knob, and then put his arm around Ethan’s shoulders. They walked down the muddy path to the driveway and got into Mr. Feld’s Saab station wagon. The car’s name was Skidbladnir, but usually they just called her Skid. She was oranger than anything else within a five-hundred-mile radius of Clam Island, including traffic cones, U-Haul trailers, and a fair number of actual oranges. She was so old that, as she went along, she made squeaking and rattling noises that sounded more like the sounds of a horse buggy than of an automobile. Her gauges and knobs were all labelled in Swedish, which was not a language that either Mr. Feld or Ethan, or for that matter anyone in Ethan’s family, going back twenty generations on both sides, could speak. They rolled, squeaking and rattling, down from the little pink house where they lived, atop a small barren hill at the centre of the island, and headed west, towards Summerland.

“I made three errors in the last game,” Ethan reminded his father, as they drove to pick up Jennifer T. Rideout.–Summerland by Michael Chabon

This one has action and a major helping of Ethan’s voice, which is so full of that great middle-grade annoyance with his father, embarrassment over their weird car, and disdain for baseball. His description gives us a great feel for the setting as well.

It was only a duck pond, out at the back of the farm. It wasn’t very big.

Lettie Hempstock said it was an ocean, but I knew that was silly. She said they’d come here across the ocean from the old country.

Her mother said that Lettie didn’t remember properly, and it was a long time ago, and anyway, the old country had sunk.

Old Mrs. Hempstock, Lettie’s grandmother, said they were both wrong, and that the place that had sunk wasn’t the really old country. She said she could remember the really old country.

She said the really old country had blown up.

I wore a black suit and a white shirt, a black tie and black shoes, all polished an shiny: clothes that normally would make me feel uncomfortable, as if I were in a stolen uniform, or pretending to be an adult. Today they gave me comfort of a kind. I was wearing the right clothes for a hard day.

I had done my duty in the morning, spoken the words I was meant ot speak, and I meant them as I spoke them, and then, when the service was done, I got in my car and I drove, randomly, without a plan, with an hour or so to kill before I met more people I had not seen for years and shook more hands and drank too many cups of tea from the best china. I drove along winding Sussex country roads I only half-remembered… –Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I’ve already argued with more than one person about whether this is even a middle grade book because the narrator is an adult reflecting back. But my son, who was nine when he read it, flew through it, and that makes it middle grade in my estimation, even if it did compete in both grace and beauty with the best adult books I read last year. Gaiman blurs the line between the real world and his fantasy world so well that you can’t pinpoint the exact point where the story departs into fantasy.

What do you think of these “first 250″ excerpts? Do they make you want to read more? Because that is the ultimate goal of your first page.

Living with a Writer (or, why I feel sorry for my husband)

Lying in bed the other night, my husband and I were chatting about our day and decompressing a bit before bedtime. Our conversation lulled for a moment and something (a dust mote floating through the air, the scent of smoke coming in through the window from our neighbor’s fire, it doesn’t take much) sent my mind from the relative calm of our pre-bedtime routine straight back into the insomnia-inducing danger zone of revising my book.

He asked what I was thinking about, and I had to sheepishly admit that I was thinking, yet again, about my story. He groaned, teased me a bit, and we were both able to drift off to sleep. But it got me thinking.

I’ve blogged before about life as the wife of an INTP, but now I’d like to send some appreciation over to that INTP, who is now suffering through the sometimes-agony of being married to a writer. Not that I haven’t always been a writer, because I have, but for the past year, it’s gone from a hobby or future dream to a full-time job, and one that’s consuming all of my time and most of my mental energy as well. Continue reading

Pack List for Vacation Rentals

 

a photo of our vacation pack list

Packing these items makes life in a rental house or apartment so much easier!

Tomorrow we leave for Croatia and with the weather here holding at 8C and rainy, the 24s forecast for the Dalmatian Coast cannot come fast enough. Brrrrrrrr. *Snuggles down into comfy chair with pot of tea for the day*

Today I’m packing for our trip and realized that after four years of vacations spent primarily in rented apartments and homes throughout Europe, we’ve got packing experience worth sharing. I’m not talking about clothes or shoes, because that varies so much based on where you’re going and when. I’m talking about a handful of household items that we’ve learned through experience can make life in a rental so much easier.

These items may not be necessary if you’re staying in a major metropolitan area with a mega-store right down the way, or if you’re hoteling it, but if you’re staying in out of the way places, or traveling without a car, both of which are the norm for us, packing these few items can make a huge difference. Continue reading

Embracing Comfort Food

photo of home-made chicken fingers

My kids’ new favorite meal: Home-made chicken fingers

I’m a foodie. I love food and, on more than a special-occasion basis, I like fancy food. While my kids are good eaters, sometimes they get tired of my chutneys and sauces and garnishes and just want plain old comfort food.

Between my insane aggressive writing schedule and the kids’ after school activities, we need quick (<30 minutes to prepare) meals 3-4 nights a week. And I can't make every. single. meal. in the slow-cooker, no matter how much I might like to.

Enter exhibit A: healthy, home-made (even gluten-free!) chicken fingers. My kids' new favorite meal.

Ingredients:
4 chicken breasts, sliced into 1-inch wide strips
2 egg whites, lightly beaten with a pinch of salt
2/3 c fine-ground cornmeal (I’ve heard crushed cornflakes work too!)
herbs & spices

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 225C (450F).
  2. Pour the cornmeal into a wide shallow bowl and season heavily with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and whatever spices go with the rest of your meal. Try taco seasoning, italian herbs, cumin, smoked paprika (not all at once!), or whatever your kids like. Mix thoroughly. You want to be able to see spices in the cornmeal mix. If you can’t, you haven’t added enough!
  3. Dip chicken strips in egg white.
  4. Dredge them in the cornmeal mixture, making sure every bit of the chicken is evenly coated.
  5. Arrange on a baking tray so that the chicken strips don’t touch.
  6. Bake for 15-18 minutes or until chicken is cooked to the internal temperature you prefer.
  7. Cook veggies & starches while chicken bakes. In the picture above, I made a veggie pilaf with quick-cooking brown rice, and kale salad.
  8. Serve with ranch, ketchup, or whatever sauce your munchkins love.

Revising by broad sweep

Last week, I wrote about how I making a plan for revision so that I don’t get overwhelmed by the enormity of edits that need to be made across a whole manuscript. And, in a stroke of cosmic awesomesauce, John Green also shared a few thoughts on revision that are worth a listen.

So much of revision is manuscript-specific that it’s hard to put together a how-to list for the fine-tuning. But there are definitely some broad sweeps that you can do to fix easy problems. Find & Replace can be your friend, especially when you’re feeling fried and just need something easier to tackle than the ephemeral “voice” or “pacing” or “character.”

I decided to seek out what other writers have to say about these broad sweeps and to put together a laundry list of checks that I can reuse each time I’m editing. Then I realized (with the help of one of my critique partners) that this information might be useful to others as well.

Here’s my list of Find & Replace checks I ran on my manuscript to get it ready for submission to agents. This doesn’t replace incorporating critique partner feedback on things like character, pacing, and plot. Nor does it replace a good copy-edit. But it does cut word count and tighten prose almost by magic. This checklist helped me cut 2,400 words from a 63,400 word manuscript and took about a week of almost full-time work to complete. Continue reading

I Read Banned Books

September 21-27 is Banned Books Week in the United States. Wait a minute, I hear you say, how can book be banned in the country whose Bill of Rights is held up as a model for the rest of the world? Many Americans ask that same question.

The First Amendment reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Only three little words in that very-long sentence apply here (and no, I won’t be commenting upon other pieces of this amendment in this post, although there is much that could be said): freedom of speech. And, to be fair, I don’t think Congress has ever banned a book or passed a law that would ban a book. In most cases, books seem to be banned by school administrators or removed from curricula or library shelves for a variety of reasons ranging from obscenity to sexual content to social issues that they’d rather not address with their students.

All of that might seem reasonable, if not for the books in question. I could almost, almost understand To Kill a Mockingbird being controversial when it was first published in 1960. It talks about racism and justice in ways that were considered groundbreaking on one side of the equality movement and heretical on the other. But when I started poking around yesterday, I learned from the American Library Association’s Frequently Challenged Books list that To Kill a Mockingbird was banned as recently as 2011 for containing “racism.”

There are so many other books I could mention here from Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner being banned for “homosexual content” and questionable religious content (apparently folks have missed the freedom of religion clause in addition to freedom of speech) to Judy Blume’s books being banned for honest portrayals of adolescent sexuality, to The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison being banned for some of the same misguided reasons as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. But there’s actually a great list of banned books on Banned Books Week’s site.

But I just keep going back to banning the too-few books that actually try to talk about race for containing “racism.” There’s a huge movement underway to increase the diversity in the publishing industry. That diversity extends beyond racial diversity to include diversity in sexual orientation and also characters who have disabilities. It began as a reaction to the announcement of an all-white, all-male panel as part of BEA’s BookCon this past spring, but #WeNeedDiverseBooks has spread beyond that, in part because of the increasing tension in the United States over marriage equality and police violence against black Americans and elsewhere over similar issues.

Diversity in YA put together a great post about how banning books squelches this diversity because the majority of banned books are ones that are written by minorities or written about them. And heaven forbid minorities speak out about this issue. When UK’s children’s laureate Malorie Blackman did so, bigots heaped abuse and threats on her for speaking up.  In a society when we’re already marginalizing so many people based on race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or socio-economic group, can we really afford to continue banning books that speak for these very people?

The answer is no. We cannot. Ultimately, diversity in publishing is not a matter just for writers or publishers to address. The works of art that we as a society produce reflect our hopes, our beliefs, and our identities as individuals and as a nation. Likewise the works of art that we choose to censor reflect our fears and our tight-as-ever grip on status quo.