Monday, March 28, 2011

Write. Write badly. Write often.

As my friend and YA author, Linda Gerber, says on her blog this week – give yourself permission to write stuff that sucks. (Not a direct quote, but that was the gist of her message!)
Seriously. This is something I struggle with ALL THE TIME. I sit down to write – with very little, precious time available between work, kids’ sports, scrubbing toilets, feeding whatever children happen to be in my house at any given time, and cleaning up after a teenage dog and a geriatric cat – and I freeze.
I stare at my laptop. (First closed, then open but not on, then finally…booting up.) I run through an internal monolog that sounds something like this: “Time to write. TIME to WRITE. Ugh. Really? Maybe I should sweep the floor or wash something. NO! Write now! And it will be GOOD. It better be good. I don’t have time for it to suck. Who am I kidding? Of course it will suck! Why did I ever think I could/should/would be a writer anyway? IMPOSSIBLE! Even if it sucks…I need to write anyway…Good God! Why did I tell people I think I’m a writer?!? blah, blah, blah…”
Here is the cold hard truth: Writers write stuff that stinks. We all do. Some of us suck more than others…true. But all writers write that icky, flat, boring, ridiculous first draft. It isn’t the quality of the first draft that makes you a writer…it is the belief that no matter how it turns out, the act of putting words on the page, the faith that the story in your heard and your heart should be told, the certainty that you will keep writing no matter what – these are the things that make a writer.
So LET GO of that peevish inner critic who sits on your shoulder or on the arm of your favorite couch when you get out your laptop. Tell her to stuff a sock in it. Flick him off of his perch with a powerful wave of your pen. (It IS mightier than the sword, you know.)
Breathe deeply for a few minutes. Close your eyes. Sink into your story. Hear your characters’ voices and smell the road dust on their jackets. Taste the elderberry wine they drink and hear the bass line of their music. Then let your fingers do their work. Type or write…pound away or scrawl across the page.
And if it sucks…who cares? After all – you aren’t a writer until you actually WRITE something. Right?
Go on. You can do it. Believe. Carpe Keyboard, for heaven's sake.
Shoo. Go write.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

E-Books, Schmee-Books

I’ve seen many headlines recently, like this one at Huffington Post, declaring that e-books are the wave of the future. Here’s another one about e-books apps specifically for parents and children.
I cringe every time I see one of these articles. I can’t help it! I love books. Real, soft or hard back, filled with pages and with mass and weight and a spine that may or may not be warped in honor of a recent reader’s favorite chapters or scenes.
I love the familiarity of finding a dog-eared page in one of my favorite books – realizing that I’ve tread this path before, that I’ve read these words – perhaps while sipping a cup of Earl Grey or munching a sleeve of Thin Mints.
I still own some of my lit class books from college and I know, without even having to open them up, that they are filled with my sophomoric, philosophical thoughts about poetry, the Romantics, and the symbolism and meaning of Ezra Pound scrawled in the margins. Like little pieces of myself at a younger age…notes and highlighted passages leave a historic trail. My own personal path, worn like the wagon train ruts that still exist in Kansas, through a body of literature that in some way made me into the reader and writer I am today.
Could I have this history if I had only used e-books back in the day? Do typed notes in some app really result in the same sort of feeling? The same…record of history?
Will my kids have the same sort of feeling about actual books as they grow and are educated? Today, their rooms hold collections of books right now, but I suppose the future holds a different type of library for them. Odds are strong, I realize, that as adults they will not have a shelf of old college texts (or even favorite books!) taking up space in their homes. Instead, they’ll have files saved to a thumb drive somewhere…Or whatever media will serve to save electronic files in the future.
An e-reader would definitely prevent further clutter in my house. Right now, every room has stacks or shelves (or both) of books, teetering here, leaning there, threatening to fall over if someone nudges them just the right way. My bookshelf is stacked two volumes deep in places, so I can’t even see the books in the back row anymore.
But what fun to rediscover them! With a layer of dust coating the top edge and the memory of the first read clinging to the uneven page edges.
Some day, I’ll cave and end up buying an e-reader. Not sure which kind yet. Or even when. And once I give in, I’ll probably go whole hog and end up with just as big of an electronic book library as I have a “real” library in my house.
Less to dust. Less to shift from one pile to another. But will it be worth it?
Do you have an e-reader? Do you like it? What are the positives and negatives to using one?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Talking with Wiande Moore about One Moore Book

Recently, I discovered a new publishing company called One Moore Book online. Having an interest and a firm belief that each of us has our own story, and that our stories – or narratives – have great importance in life, I loved the mission of One Moore Book.

There mission statement says, “One Moore Book provides culturally sensitive and educational stories that highlight the lives of children of countries with significantly low literacy rates. One Moore Book provides literature for children whose narratives are largely missing from the children’s book publishing industry. The books will also serve as a key to unknown people and places for all kids who do not have access to cultures outside of their own.”

One Moore Book is a family company, where the writing, illustrating and the business of publishing are all handled by the Moore siblings: Wiande Moore-Everett, Wayétu Moore, Kula-Facia Moore,  Augustus Moore Jr., and David Moore.

They graciously agreed to answer some interview questions about their company and how they got started. Enjoy!

Carpe Keyboard: What is your favorite childhood story? Why is it so special to you?

Wiande Moore (Co-Founder/Writer): I have two favorite childhood stories: the story of Moses, and Jamonghoie. As a child, my mother made it a priority to read to us from the bible, so at a very young age, I enjoyed reading and hearing stories from the Bible that were really much more interesting than the fairy tales we read in school.  I also enjoyed hearing Liberian fables and Jamonghoie, one of the books of the Liberia series (orated by my grandmother and written by Wayetu and I) is one of them.  

Your mission statement online says: One Moore Book provides culturally sensitive and educational stories that highlight the lives of children of countries with significantly low literacy rates.  One Moore Book provides literature for children whose narratives are largely missing from the children's book publishing industry. What moved you and your siblings to publish books for this specific audience? Is there a family story here?

Other than the fact that we are Liberian and of Liberian decent, something I noticed is that a lot of what my mother read to us growing up were stories that were very different from the ones she orated to us from Liberia.  The lack of cultural variety in children's literature is standard.  Since I've become a mother myself, I find myself doing a lot of the same of what my mother did-telling my daughters stories about different cultures and with people with names and histories that they could relate to.  It engages them more and I see their eyes light up when I tell them culturally diverse stories.  We chose this particular audience because we wanted to share that same excitement.
Why didn't you go through a more traditional publishing path? Did you try working with established publishers, or did you decide right away that you would start your own publishing company?

My sister Wayetu is actually a writer and she was the one who brought the idea of a publishing company to the 4 of us.  It started between her and my other sister, who is an artist.  They initially just wanted to publish a children's book-but after research and a lot of hard work, Wayetu decided that it made more sense for us to do our own thing.  What we wanted to do was on a much bigger scale than what a traditionally publisher could provide.  We have the freedom to create our own timelines, our own content and take charge of our message.  We have no limits in what we can do and that is invaluable.  

Your family writes the stories and illustrates. So talented! What does a typical book project look like? Does one of you write a story, then ask for a specific sibling to illustrate it? Or do you have an overall plan - types of books needed by specific audiences from which you choose to begin writing or illustrating?

For this cycle, Wayetu outlined exactly what books we would need.  I am an educator so she consulted me regarding language, grade level, vocabulary we should use, etc.  When all the books were written, we communicated with each other during 5-way phone conferences and decided who would illustrate what based on the strengths of our two illustrators, Augustus Jr. and Kula.  We plan on following the same protocol for our next cycle.

And what about editing? Does each story go through a "traditional" editing process where someone other than the writer picks apart the text? Is that hard when you are all so closely related?

We actually edit ourselves.  The stories get bounced around before going to the graphic designer so we usually have a lot of perspectives and constructive criticism to fine-tune both the written work and the illustrations. We are all the hardest on ourselves and have always welcomed notes from each other.  I understand that the notes are coming from people who love me and really want the best for me, so I don't typically get offended and I think I can speak for my siblings in saying that they don't either.

How do you distribute your books? Do you work with organizations specifically in the target countries or communities?

Our books are available on our website at,, or can be ordered at your local Barnes & Noble.  We also work with schools in Liberia and a number of libraries in America.  We plan to work with different organizations each time we publish a new cycle.    
What is your goal for 2011 for One Moore Books?

Our goals for 2011 include placing the first cycle of books in 50 libraries across the United States, sponsoring all 15 of our partner schools in Liberia, and publishing a second cycle for the children of Haiti.    
Could other children's book authors or illustrators help with your mission? How?

We are a small company right now and are not looking for any more creative talent; however, we do hope to add a guest writer or illustrator to our team for each cycle beginning with either our 2nd or 3rd cycle.  

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Once Upon a Time... Or Thoughts on Reading Aloud

My kids are eight and twelve. They are both “readers” and can most definitely read books of all types by themselves. I’m lucky to have kids who think a trip to the bookstore or library is a treat on a Saturday afternoon. And when they were about four and eight – right when the oldest was really jumping into novels with both feet and the youngest was working his way through the beginning leveled readers – I found myself wondering when our evening read aloud ritual would come to an end.

I was worried that day was close at hand. You see…the evening ritual was one of my favorite parts of my day. Here’s how it went: We’d all get into our jammies. We’d all snuggle into my big bed – usually me in the middle with one kid on either side. We’d prop up with a bunch of pillows and burrow under our favorite down blankets. In the quiet of the late evening, we’d read. OK…mostly I’d read. To them. But also to me.

What is it about reading a story out loud? I think it changes the story somehow. And I think there is more to it than bringing it to life by “doing” the voices of the characters – whispering when they whisper, giving them a lisp if it feels right, or throwing yourself into the CRASHES and BANGS and THUDS that might belong in the story.

There is a magic there. In the voice. In the bed – under the covers and curled up against the pillows. In the little feet pushed up against your thigh and the tooth-pastey smell of kid’s breath right before bed. There is magic in how the story unfurls from your mouth, curling a bit around your tongue before floating into the room, to hover between you and the rest of the world like a ghost or an angel or a movable window to another space.

Perhaps the world would be a better place if grown ups made a habit of listening to a story read out loud once in a while. Turned off the blackberries, turned off the televisions and computers and cell phones. And really listened to a story out loud.

We read every Percy Jackson story like this – tucked in and following Percy through his adventures together. It was great.

And recently – I’m glad to report – I spent the last week snuggled up with my now 12 year old and my 8 year old in that same bed under those same blankets reading Leaving the Bellweathers.

Could they read Kristin Clark Venuti’s book by themselves. Sure.

Did they want to? Nope. They chose to have me read it out loud so we could share the story together.

And I’m so glad.

Do you read aloud ever? When? Do you read out loud to yourself? (I do this when I’m writing…when I want to hear how a particular sentence or patch of dialog sounds.) Or do you have a regular audience?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Talking with Jennifer Donnelly, Author of REVOLUTION and A NORTHERN LIGHT

I recently wrote about Jennifer Donnelly’s amazing novel, Revolution, here on Carpe Keyboard. I sent her a note to let her know I blogged about her novel. Turns out she was glad to be compared to a vintage wine rather than a soft drink!

Ms. Donnelly generously agreed to spend some of her valuable time responding to a few interview questions about her writing life. So…with no further adieu…I welcome her to Carpe Keyboard!

Carpe Keyboard: To start off, when did you know you were going to be a novelist? Were you inspired by any particular events in your own life or by any specific authors?

Jennifer Donnelly: I always wanted to be a writer, and in fact worked as a reporter for a small upstate NY daily paper, and as a copywriter for Saks Fifth Avenue, but I didn't know I was going to be an novelist until the day I (finally!) got the call from my agent telling me that St. Martin's Press had just offered on The Tea Rose. That night I drank champagne and danced on the table. Quite literally.
I was raised by a mom who was a wonderful storyteller, and many members of my extended family loved to tell stories, too -- so I grew up with this expectation of words and stories. When I got a bit older, I decided I wanted to create a few stories of my own.
Many, many authors inspired me. Some of my favorites are James Joyce, A.S. Byatt, Jeanette Winterson, Stephen King, Barbara Taylor Bradford, and Graham Greene.

I’m a hopeful middle grade/YA writer (as are some Carpe Keyboard readers), crossing my fingers and toes about my agent and her quest to sell my book. Do you have any advice on the writing “biz” for those of us trying to break into the publishing world today?
Write a good book. If you do, and you are persistent and stubborn and absolutely refuse to take no for an answer, you will eventually get published. The publishing industry can be a hard nut to crack...but so what? That's life. Lots of things are hard. You may get discouraged, and that's okay. Rejection is pretty discouraging. Just don't let it make you quit. Make sure your ms. is the best it can be, and your pitch letter, too, and then never, ever give up.
For the story of my first sale, and how I kept going until I sold my first book, check out this link at

What is your biggest writing craft challenge? I, for one, struggle so with writing realistic, honest, solid dialog… 
It's all a challenge! Everything! I've written five novels now, and it's all still new and scary and overwhelming every time I sit down to write.

When do you carpe your keyboard? What are your writing habits?
Generally I write while my daughter's at school, but I often work nights and snatch hours during weekends, too. Working as a reporter at a very scrappy daily paper, with a big work load and constant deadlines, taught me not to wait for the muse. Sit down, start working, and she will show up.

Thanks so much, Ms. Donnelly, for talking with me and sharing your writing life with us! I hope to have you back soon to talk about your next book.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Wanted: Experienced, Proven Author Willing to Write Clichés for Cash

I’m a murder mystery fan. Have been for decades. I love them. And I love a good detective character. So like a moth to a flame, I’m pulled toward mysteries in TV shows and movies, too. Combine that with my love for YA literature, and I’ve ended up with quite a few of the cross-over mystery writers on my shelves.

What do I mean by cross-over? I mean writers who have made their name (and quite a comfy living, I suspect) writing mysteries and thrillers for the adult audience…only to have recently turned to churning out mysteries for a younger audience.

I don’t blame them. Heck…I’m jealous, really. I’ll admit it. Not just sort of successful…these writers are already uber-successful in their own chosen genre, and now are taking a crack at the YA market. But are they good at writing for young adults? Or is there another reason for these sudden departures from their normal readership?

This weekend I read a novel by one of these cross-over writers. (Here I’m restraining myself from going all acronym-y on you and calling them … something… for short from here on out. I work in the software industry, after all. I’m trained to use acronyms… even when the results are perhaps offputting. But I digress…)

Here some thoughts on my weekend read – a novel which shall remain nameless (but is one written by someone who usually writes for a more adult audience). It looks like the first in perhaps a series, although I haven’t seen a second on bookstore shelves yet

This writer seems to have gone down a cliché covered path with this one, even though her more adult fare isn’t usually quite so formulaic. Frustratingly…I’ve been told time and again to avoid clichés in my own writing, with the implied (or firmly stated) threat that no editor will ever publish anything ridden with cliché’s in any form.

Apparently, publishing – like the rest of life – isn’t fair.

The following details popped into focus as I read because they seemed a bit too familiar, or were examples of how NOT to write for teens according to many sources I’ve encountered in my journey as a writer.

Why must the main character, if a girl, have long, curly red hair? That’s often a mess? And why must she be too smart for her school and too smart for a “normal” group of friends? Brilliant, too mature for her own peers, carrying a chip on her shoulder, thrown into a new town and a new school. Yep. I’ve heard this one before.

Why must one of her friends be the “strong, silent type” boy – who is good looking, in love with the main character, but too quiet for his own good? One of her other friends is the only black character in the story and his one remarkable skill is…get this…picking locks. Really? (Didn’t know whether to laugh or roll my eyes at that one.)

And Superpowers. I mean really? They have to end up modified DNA that enables them to have a unique set of “powers” – and turns them into a “pack.” Cuz I’ve never read a teen novel where a group of kids could morph into dogs and could read each other’s minds to communicate. Nope.
There are also:

·         mean girls….rich, mean girls
·         absentee parents (One dead, the other oblivious and keeps saying things like, “We’ll talk about THIS later!” before disappearing for a few dozen chapters.)
·         cute puppies (Part wolf! After all, wolves haven’t had their share of the teen reading market lately, have they?)
·         technology that isn’t quite realistic all the time
·         an environmental message that plops into the plot rather coinkidinkly in time to provide a motive for the crime at hand
·         an evil stepmother
·         modified versions of the “f-word” – (Frackin’ worked for Starbuck and the pilots on the Galactica…but throwing in “frick” as a curse word used by a geeky teenager just doesn’t sound cool to me. Does anyone say “frick” instead of the real thing??)

Am I a little grouchy about this particular book? You betcha. Why? Well – it is simple really.
Why can an already self-made, wealthy, successful, world-famous author get away with these things, yet a new writer trying to break into the biz would be laughed out of any self-respecting editor’s office for the same sins?

I have this picture in my head of this writer getting a set of instructions from their editor, requesting that they “please write a story for teenagers with the following items included…{insert above bullet list here}. Be sure the characters are mostly two-dimensional. Write it fast. We’ll sell a ton of them.”

This writer and others following the same path will sell a gazillion copies of their YA books and keep turning out even more successful novels for adults at the same time. Why write suddenly for the YA market? My guess is because it is a hot market in an industry that, as a whole, is struggling right now. It is a ticket to more cash, both for the writer and for the publishing house. Put a well-known name on the spine of a book in the teen section of the bookstore, and it will sell. Even if it is formulaic and riddled with clichéd characters and language.

It just has me a bit ruffled this weekend.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Road Trip with Obi-Wan...or a Hero's Journey

Joseph Campbell
I have a wonderful memory from childhood that involves Joseph Campbell. (Yes. I know. Geek.) My mom and I would curl up – she in her lazy boy rocker and me on the yellow naugahyde sofa (Yes. I know. It was the late 70s, ok?). We would watch Bill Moyers talk to Mr. Campbell during the now famous “Power of Myth” interviews.

Mr. Campbell was like some mythic figure himself – a cross between a grandfather and an oracle…or a priest and the best English teacher.  Even at 9 or 10 years old, I remember being fascinated with not only his good humor and great smile, but also with the stories he told. He talked of myths I’d never heard of before – stories from far away and from right around the corner. He introduced me to Odin and the idea of archetypes and the knowledge that there are many more creation stories than just the Book of Genesis. If I could have curled up on his lap and listened to his stories at bed time every night, I would have been in heaven.

Luke Skywalker
It could be…just might be…that his references to Star Wars helped capture my attention, along with the fantastical mythologies he spoke of. At the tender age of 10 or so, I’d already become quite the sci-fi fan (as was my  mother) and could recreate the first chapter of the space opera…with sound effects, mind you…using my first edition action figures, my Millennium Falcon space ship model, and my very own official light saber. The idea that someone like Joseph Campbell would reflect on the story of Luke and Leia and Han as part of a mythology was…well…pretty amazing.

He called it a “hero’s journey.” As an adult and as a wannabe storyteller – I find myself having ah-ha moments about the hero’s journey. I’ll be struggling along with some story idea or trying to overcome some plot problem or staring at my work computer wishing I was writing a story instead…and it will dawn on me that if only Obi Wan could step into my story, everything would be ok. If only my protagonist could find her very own Han Solo/Chewbacca sidekick or her very own R2D2 helper, my plot would magically fall into place.

So – the Hero’s Journey looks something like this:

1.      Readers get introduced to the hero’s world.
2.      The Hero is interrupted; some disturbance pushes him toward adventure.
3.      He crosses into a dark world.
4.      A mentor appears in the story to help the Hero.
5.      The Hero battles evil and darkness. Repeatedly.
6.      He has a dark moment within himself. He must overcome his own weakness to continue.
7.      The hero is given or somehow obtains a talisman to help on his battles against darkness.
8.      He fights a final battle.
9.      The Hero returns home – changed by his journey.

According to James Scott Bell in his book Plot and Structure, the journey as described above fits neatly into a traditional three act story. Act One = our introduction, hero is pushed into adventure and crosses into darkness. Act Two = a mentor appears to assist, our hero battles darkness or evil many times, he has a dark moment within himself and is gifted with a talisman. Act Three = the final battle and the return home.

"Old Ben" Kenobi
So…you know I’m a geek about this stuff by now, right? Here is something I love to do: I love to line up stories I’m reading with the Luke Skywalker/ObiWan Kenobi/Han Solo/Darth Vader version of the hero’s journey. I even have notes in many a notebook that say things like “protag’s Obi Wan!” and “Like Luke vs Vader in the cave!” or “Her very own Han Solo…the Dog = Chewie!” in the margins.

There is something soothing about it -- knowing that thousands of other storytellers have followed the same path. It is tried and true. It works. It exists for a reason…and it provides a sturdy, strong platform from which to launch into entirely new stories.

What is your favorite Hero’s Journey? Do you lean more toward Homer’s Odysseus instead of Luke Skywalker? I have my own opinions on more recent examples in the world of YA lit, but I’d like to know yours. Which heroes are your favorites and did they follow a true hero’s journey?

(By the way – if you want a fantastic example of this sort of three act plot, including the steps of the journey, with a very different flavor from the Star Wars version, try Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Very dark. Very gothic. Amazing.)