Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Book Club and Bookwallah -- Lesson and Challenge

I joined a book club this afternoon. Not one made up of women from my office or neighbors from the next street down. Nope. Because I’m a writer who writes for kids…I joined a kids’ book club.

No better way to learn what kids are looking for in books – and better yet – to hear what they say about books after they’ve read them, right? I hope so! I’m counting on these girls (yes, they are all girls, despite my repeated suggestion that they invite some of the opposite sex to attend) to help me reach a little deeper into the psyche of the tween.

One of my challenges in my writing has always been dialog, so I hope that sitting quietly, listening to them chat about stories will give me some good fodder for future scenes and realistic dialog. But – for heaven’s sake! – someone clue me in quickly if I start using “like” every third word! Please!

I watched these 11 year old girls flip their shiny hair and twirl their cell phones around on the table while we made decisions about the first book we’re going to discuss. Now I’m at home, and opened up Huffington Post to read the Book news section. I was drawn to the blog entry (see link below) about Bookwallah—an organization that puts books in the hands of orphans.

Now, all I can think is how lucky my kids are. How lucky we all are – and how blessed we are the first time someone hands us a book of our very own. My kids were too young to remember that moment, but in my mother-heart, I can imagine the look in the eyes of a child old enough to know what they hold in their hands. The dreams. The possibilities. The hope and joy. Between the covers of a book.

Check out the article here…and visit the organization at www.bookwallah.org. There are lots of ways to contribute. Dust off a book from your shelf or go get the one you know is hiding under your kid's bed. You know...that one they'll never read again? Visit Bookwallah and find out how to get it to a kid who needs it.

Let’s put stories in the hands of kids…especially those who need a story of their very own.

Bookwallah Gives Books to the Orphans of the World by James M. Lynch

Monday, August 30, 2010

Feed Your Inner Teen. And Your Inner Writer.

Like many writers, I grew up knowing that I had stories to tell. In my deepest heart, I wanted to declare to the world, “I’m a Writer!” But I hesitated. More than hesitated…I froze up and choked and buried the writing desire under years of being too busy. I ignored it. Denied the stories that tumbled around in my head.

Did I write anything during all of this denial? Of course. Essays and film criticism papers for college classes. An occasional thank you note… Eventually, user guides and business procedures. But no stories.

During the day, I work for a very large business software company. Somehow I ended up with a job where I spend most of my time…you guessed it… writing. Weird how things work out sometimes, isn’t it? It’s not storytelling, really. Or at least it didn’t start out that way. But it got me started and helped me believe that I could put words down on paper. And, I have to admit, the results were encouraging. I write technical training materials – lots of “how to” stuff. I teach, too. And my experience standing up in front of a group of students led me back to a fundamental truth: Stories help people learn. I’d make them up on the fly. Share stories from my own experience, and create new ones to fit a specific question or challenge we were facing in class.

I dug into the concept of how people use stories to teach each other; how we learn as children and as adults from the stories others tell us. Then I got brave. I submitted a proposal to an online training journal. They quickly accepted my idea, so I had my first experience working with an editor, meeting a deadline, and seeing my name in print. (Well – on screen, since it was an online journal. But it still felt good!)

Would you believe it? I got fan mail. What a hoot! But it sort of turned me on to the idea that I could – and would – share what I’ve written.
And I’ll just admit it now – fiction is so much more fun to write than this technical stuff!

So what stories will I put in this blog? Mostly I’d like to share my journey from a technical writer to a fiction writer. Share stories from my own experience of researching my genre, attending classes and conferences, working with a writing partner, finishing a draft (then another and another and another…). I hope to have a few things to say that might help other writers believe in themselves and spark their desire to write.

And…I can’t help it. I’m also going to plug books that I love. I read about one a week – sometimes more. It’s usually a mix of stuff – but lately, the bulk has been either Middle Grade or Young Adult. I could tell you it is all about researching my new career path. But it’s not. I love these books! Oh, the teen angst! The falling in love, the anger and frustration…the conversations between lockers and the catty glares across the caf! Escapism for a woman of a certain age…but I like to call it “feeding my inner 14 year old.”

If you’ve read any young adult or kids lit lately, let me know! I’m always on the lookout for titles and love to pick up something a friend has recommended. And if you haven’t picked up one of the hottest selling genres around – head to your local library and check out Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games. The third book in the trilogy, Mockingjay, just came out last week. Any so-called adult who doesn’t fall into this story – cheering for Katniss and Peeta and District 12 – should be ashamed of themselves!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Backstory...Or How I Wrote a Book with a Friend

Sayantani and I met in elementary school. My teacher asked me if I would help a younger student learn long division. So, she introduced me to this girl I’d seen around school, but didn’t know.

Strangely enough, we soon discovered that we lived only 2 doors away from each other. I could literally walk to the end of my driveway, look to the left and see her front door.

I’d say we became fast friends, but that wouldn’t exactly describe it. It would be more accurate to say (as my mother said) we were “attached at the hip.” Her house became my second home, with its Indian art work and walls full of books, the backyard hammock and a kitchen full of spicy scents.

As Sayantani’s house became my second home, so mine became another home for her. My mother welcomed Sayantani into our lives with open arms … literally. She made sure we had plenty of Hostess Cupcakes and Doritos to keep us going, and made sure we got a hold of books about absolutely any topic we mentioned.

We spent time…well…making up stories! We read about and kept journals on myths – especially the Greek and Roman variety. We played survival games in the back yard, mixing up berries and leaves and water to make “stews” while we hid from our make-believe arch enemies. We read books by the sack-full, watched old movies (Casablanca and the Maltese Falcon were favorites) and dreamed of futures full of adventures, travel and boyfriends. Well…ok…the boyfriend dreams came a little later, but you get the picture.

Sayantani’s father was transferred out of town the summer before our seventh grade year. I, for one, was devastated. What I didn’t realize at the time, was that we were about to embark on a new type of friendship – one that would grow with us as we went through high school, college, med school (for her), jobs, love, and marriage.

We wrote letters. We’d had practice during some childhood summers when Sayantani would go to India for weeks at a time. But the letter writing took on a new role when we were separated permanently by more than 2 driveways and one short, suburban street. The letters were sometimes in Spanish, mostly in English, sometimes newsy, often full of teen-age rants about our lives. Peppered into the mix, were letters that were entirely fiction. Chapters of mysteries in which we took turns adding to the plot and trying to outdo each other with details and crimes. Sayantani would write a chapter and mail it to me…I’d read it and respond with the next piece of the story.

There were months – and even years – that went by without any letters at all. We’d temporarily lose touch and our lives would continue, taking new turns and giving us distinct experiences. But in the end, we always managed to track each other down, at least through letters.

And I saved them all in a series of manila envelopes, labeled “Spot’s Letters” (Spot was a secret nickname for Sayantani. If I remember correctly, mine was Rover, believe it or not.)

Starting near the beginning of our undergrad years, we became less and less frequent pen pals, and stopped talking on the phone entirely. But, years later, when the internet became ubiquitous, I did something I’d made fun of others for doing: I googled my old friend. And got a bunch of hits! (Because she is amazing!)

We got back in touch and, eventually, in January of 2008, I planned to visit another dear friend in New York City. It was the perfect opportunity to actually see Sayantani again. We hadn’t seen each other face to face for over 20 years, but walking into a restaurant in Manhattan and seeing her waiting at the table was like walking into a place in my heart called home. She looked exactly the same to me and the conversation picked up like we’d only been apart for weeks instead of decades.
We were partway through breakfast– laughing about the thick envelopes full of our old letters I had only recently rediscovered in my desk drawer-- when Sayantani looked at me and said, “Hey! You know what we should do? We should write a book!” And I agreed.

So here we are – 2 years later. We jumped into this project with both feet – but together – and produced our first novel. We learned so much from the process – especially as we figured out how to collaborate to write a full length novel. Most of all – we had fun. Lots of work, but lots of laughter, excitement, frustration, long Skype calls, dozens (maybe hundreds) of Word files, and…yes…friendship.

Although the original idea was more based on our experience writing letters back and forth as best friends, separated by many states; the final manuscript grew into something more like a Nancy Drew meets Indiana Jones adventure. With characters that aren’t us…but resemble each of us just a bit.