Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Outlines and Re-writes and Edits, Oh My!

I haven’t been using outlines when I write lately. One of my WIP manuscripts is completely un-outlined. If I dig around in my files, I probably have an old plot treatment of some sort that I haven’t looked at in years. But no working outline. Each chapter is occurring as I sit down and write. Kind of organic, really.

My other WIP manuscript has a sort-of outline attached to the end of the manuscript. Literally…a few blank lines after the last sentence, you would find a bullet list of the events in the plot. I ended up jotting down the high-level plot points on this one because I found myself getting swept up in the fantasy of this story. There are magic, dragons, and journeys through dark forests in this book and I’d MUCH rather write all that description than stick to the action. So – to keep myself honest, I figured having a cheat sheet of the actual EVENTS that needed to take place wouldn’t hurt. I can definitely say it is handy for keeping me on the right track and keeping my action moving along the plot curve. This way, I hope I won’t forget any crisis points or events that will help my characters change the way I need them to as their story unfolds.

But…even though I do refer to those last pages of my manuscript when I sit down to work, and even though I just told you it is helpful…there is something so planned about it. Something the opposite of organic. Something sort of…well….limiting.

I will say that some hybrid form of outlining (not the roman numeral type from school, but still…) was absolutely necessary when I wrote a novel with a friend.  Keeping a full story straight as you move it from your head to your laptop or paper is hard enough, let alone when that story is growing and emerging from two writers simultaneously. It was sort of a magic trick – writing with a partner. And I like to think of our ever-shifting outlines and notes and conversations about what coulda/shoulda/oughta happen next or last or sometime in the book were organic in their own right. But we did write those “coulda/shouldas” down so we were both on the same page (pun definitely intended).

I think I like organic, but might need outlines and notes.

Here’s the other thing I should confess – the organically growing manuscript? It’s been organically growing for years. Really. Years. The outlined one with dragons? Moving much faster.

So maybe the outlines are not only a good tool for keeping the details straight – but offer some sort of impetus, too. An urge. A nudge. If something can be outlined, it can be written, right?

What about you? Do you use outlines? Do you take notes, write up other “tools” like character sketches or plot diagrams when you write?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Drummer Boy

I've been stuck with my writing lately -- but was challenged by a friend to write a Christmas story and share it with other writers I know. So...as a gift to myself this holiday season, I've taken time for myself. Time to write when I've been not giving myself that time lately at all.

It is just a first draft -- the beginning of a simple story, but I'll share it with you. I've always loved the Christmas carol "The Little Drummer Boy." Even as a little girl, I loved the pictures in my head when I heard that song -- pictures of a small boy who wanted so desperately to show his love for his new king that he gave the only thing he had: his music.

So -- as inspired by my favorite Christmas carol... a first, unfinished (much work still to be done) draft of The Drummer Boy. Merry Christmas.

“He’s arrived!”

Father heard the shout and stopped walking. The night was black as ink, but I was still out with Papa and the goats.  I gripped Papa’s thumb tighter so I wouldn’t lose him to the voices in the dark.

“Who’s there?” Papa called.

The figures, dressed in robes that glittered with moonlight, waved from the other side of our little sea of moving goats. When they walked toward us, the animals scattered in two directions, moving out of the way and bleating their unhappiness.

I worried about gathering them back up, but Papa kept a hold of my hand and watched only the men coming toward us in the darkness.

“Blessings to you, on this beautiful night,” the tallest man said. He smiled at Papa and laid one warm hand on my head. He ruffled my hair just a little when he took his hand back. This man was not a shepherd, not in clothes that captured the moonbeams and a beard combed soft and full.  

Papa bowed his head in greeting. “Kind sir, what brings you through our valley tonight?”

“Haven’t you heard? The babe we’ve waited for has come.”

Papa didn’t say anything, but his hand tightened on mine again. I looked up at his face – the face usually full of laughs and smiles and kisses – and saw something new.

“Papa?” I asked. “Papa? Do we have another baby?”

Papa did not answer. He looked at the visitors, one after the other. “Say it again? Tell me again.”

The tall man smiled again and laid one hand on Papa’s shoulder. “It’s true. We are on our way to welcome him. The world will be different now that he has come.”

I tugged on Papa’s finger. “Papa? Who is coming? Is Mama having another baby?”

The visitors all chuckled. Their rumbling laughter sent me hiding in the folds of my father’s dusty robe, but I peeked out of my safe haven and sent a smile to the closest stranger. He smiled back and winked one eye.

“Where?” Papa let go of my hand and let me cling to his clothes.

“Not far. Only another day’s journey from here, we think,” one of the men replied. “We are bringing gifts to celebrate his birth.”

“I want a gift!” I said, boldly, from my hiding place.

Laughter rumbled from the men again. “Oh, my boy! He is a gift for us all, this new baby.”

“But who is he?”

“The king.” My father’s voice was soft.

“He is our new king,” the tall man said as he kneeled down in the dust. He held out his hand, each finger encircled with a wide gold band and jewels that reflected the stars.

I looked up and Papa nodded at me with a smile. I reached out and took the stranger’s hand. He pulled me closer, until I was tucked right up against his chest, looking out over our herd with him. One long arm pointed up to the sky over my shoulder. “See that star? That is a sign from God that his son has some to lead us all.” I could feel his voice against my back. He smelled of wood smoke and something spicy. I leaned into his warmth and followed his gaze up to the bright star.

“God’s son?” I whispered. Papa had told me God would send us a king some day and that king would teach us to love one another. He would bring all of God’s love down to us and keep us safe.

“Can I give the new baby a gift, Papa?” I asked from within the tall man’s embrace.

Papa’s eyes changed. He looked out over our goats and the dry ridge where we lived. He looked back over his shoulder to where our tents stood, a small fire burning on the horizon. Finally, he looked at the men surrounding me – at their rich robes and jeweled hands.

“We do not have as great a gift as these men, son. We do not have a gift worthy of a new king.”

“But your welcome will be gift enough,” one of them said. “His parents will know you come to welcome him. That will be enough.”

Papa shook his head just a little and looked at me as I stood still tucked in the man’s glittering embrace. “We may not have a gift worthy of a king, but I insist we welcome you for a rest and a meal. Come, son – show our new friends the way home.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Inspiration, Dedication, Tremulation...

What inspires you to write?

I’ve had a few weeks away from my keyboard lately. I could blame it on my daughter’s new equestrian team or my son’s football games or my new job…but if I’m honest with myself, I think I have been my own biggest hurdle.

If you are a writer, do you ever go through times when sitting down and putting fingers to keys, words to screen or paper, just seems too painful? It all seems hard…and in a way, an open door to failure?

Harsh? Maybe… but I’m also my own biggest critic, so why does it not surprise me if I turn out to be my own biggest obstacle?

I have two WIPs going on right now – one a middle-grade fantasy and the other an edgy contemporary YA novel. I was on quite a roll with the fantasy there for a while, but got stuck in an invisible rut that has grown into the Grand Canyon where stories go to languish.

I need to get my creative juices flowing again. I need to find the energy and the strength to write stories again. I need to write. Then, perhaps, life will find a balance again.

So what do you do when you need inspiration? I used to belong to a writer’s group where we sat together and wrote “writing practice” a la Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. We’d come up with phrases or even words, set a timer, and write until the clock reached zero. Once in a blue moon, we’d bring along pictures as prompts, just to change things up a little.

Maybe I need a little old-fashioned practice to get across that grand canyon.

Any other ideas?

Sunday, October 23, 2011


I’m not much for horror stories. For example, the year I made it through about a third of The Exorcist with my hubby…I couldn’t go down into the basement for MONTHS. He literally had to rig a light switch in our kitchen that would turn on lights and a radio  in the basement so I could go throw in a load of laundry. In broad daylight.

Yep. Not good with horror stories.       

I had an encounter with an Ouija board when I was 16, which probably explains my fascination and terror when it comes to stories that have to do with spirits and evil and the like. (By the way, vampires don’t count. Especially sparkly ones. Just in case you wondered.)

The Ouija Board Story, Part 1:

I was home alone one weekend and a friend brought over the board. We joked and teased each other about it, but ended up lighting candles and turning off all of the lights. I don’t remember what questions we asked or what the answers were from the board – but I do remember that every candle in the room was extinguished simultaneously for no good reason. (Gives me goose bumps just to type that.)

The Ouija Board Story, Part 2:

Later that weekend, I was still home alone. Just me, my dog, and the cats. A huge thunderstorm whipped up and the power went out. No TV, no lights, nothing.

I huddled in an overstuffed chair in the family room (my back to the rest of the house) trying to read a book by flashlight. Strange bumping sounds started up in my basement. The dog perked up her head, looked past my chair into the kitchen….and whined. She was not a whiner, this dog.

The bumping in the basement was erratic. The dog started growling. My heart in my throat, I finally worked up the courage to peek around the edge of my chair toward the kitchen and the basement door. The light over the kitchen table – which should have been dark since the power was out all over town – was glowing red. By this time, my hands were shaking so badly, I couldn’t hold my book still anymore. The occasional lightening lit up the entire house with bright white light – but the glowing red in my kitchen was steady. Every time I looked behind my chair, that light was glowing…and sometimes swinging just a little bit.

I was bolted to my chair, terrified to move. To get to my phone, I would have had to pass the open basement door and walk right through the kitchen. The dog continued to growl and whine and I continued to shiver until the power came back on.

I turned on every single light in the house, pulled the basement door shut and blocked it with a heavy chair, and tried to get some sleep. (What did I think the chair was going to do? Stop some evil from coming up from the basement? GACK! But it somehow made me feel better.)

I picked up The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin a few weeks ago based on the cover.  Little did I know, an eerily familiar scene at the beginning of Ms. Hodkin’s story would suck me right in. Teenage girls huddled around an Ouija board… And I’ll just tell you this story gets much spookier than a glowing red light over a kitchen table!

Keep a flashlight handy. And maybe a generator. Just in case. You definitely want the lights on when you’re reading this one.

Have you read any good October Spooky Stories lately?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

A writers' challenge -- and a chance to win a free book!

I have a challenge for you: Go dig around on your laptop or under your bed for something you wrote a few years ago. For some of you, it might be only a few months ago. Either way, dig it out and take a look.

Here are the rules:

1.      Be kind to yourself.

2.      Be willing to chuckle at your own writing.

3.      Look for what you were already doing well.

4.      Identify why you are better now at certain aspects of writing craft.

5.      Thank your mentors.

6.      Dabble in editing the piece. But be sure to save your edited version with a new name so you can preserve that writing time capsule. You may need to go back and look at it again some other day.

It is a great thing to be able to look back for the sake of seeing how far you have come.  But don’t gaze that direction for too long. Appreciate your progress – then continue your journey.

Write something new.

Leave a comment below to enter a drawing for a free copy of Seize the Story – a writing craft book for young adult writers. Tell me how the challenge worked for you – or comment on what you’ve learned about your own writing recently. I’ll draw the winner on Sunday, October 16th.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Talking with Meg Rosoff, Author of How I Live Now

If you are a regular Carpe Keyboard reader, you know I had a minor addiction to post-apocalyptic YA fiction a few weeks ago. One of the novels I read during that genre marathon was Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now.

Ms. Rosoff generously agreed to a CP interview. We discussed one of her many novels as well as the writing life she leads.

Welcome, Ms. Rosoff!

Carpe Keyboard: I thought How I Live Now was a beautiful story about family, loss and love. I was particularly interested in the shift in Daisy’s voice from the bulk of the story to the last section where we find out she’s been recovering back in NY from her war experiences. Voice for YA fiction is such a tenuous thing – and difficult for many writers to feel that they have captured an authentic young person’s voice.

How did the shift come about as you wrote this story? Did you plan all along to show Daisy’s changes and growth that way? Or was it more organic and her voice changed as you got to the end of the story?

Meg Rosoff: I don't really plan my books, so the voice develops in a completely organic way. The shift in voice was useful to indicate that time had passed, and Daisy had changed considerably from her younger self.

Why did you choose to have Daisy fall in love with her cousin? At first, I was taken aback, as an adult reader, when I realized how much Daisy and Edmond were in love. On the other hand, their situation and circumstances made their love story seem plausible. Did you have any negative feedback or concern from your agent, editor, or readers about this unconventional love story?

I'm fairly astonished that people endlessly commented on the cousin aspect of the relationship and not the fact that Daisy and Edmond were 15 and 14 at the time they were having sex. Almost no one (in the US particularly) worries about Daisy and Edmond being underage, but lots of readers freak out that they're cousins. Marriage between cousins is a traditional method of keeping dowry in the family and not "marrying out" -- it's not illegal in most places (UK and most US states as well) and I was really surprised at the reactions by some readers. It never occurred to me that it would bother anyone.

So much of How I Live Now was about family. Family to Daisy meant a distant father and an antagonistic step-mother…until she met Penn and her cousins. It was as if, in the midst of this time of war, Daisy uncovered a fundamental truth about family in a way that changed her life.

Were you writing Daisy’s story to send a message specifically about the importance of family? Were you inspired by your own life experiences or other stories to focus on meaning of family with this book?

I don't write books with agendas or to send messages. I'm interested in love, the complexities of relationships within families, adolescence, identity and coming of age, so that's what I explore in my writing.

What tools do you use when you write? Do you outline? Plot on index cards? Write character sketches?

None of the above. I plunge in and see what happens.

When do you carpe your keyboard? What are your writing habits?

I write almost every day, for most of the hours of the day -- when I'm not walking dogs or riding horses or (occasionally) paying attention to my daughter and husband. Some days/weeks/months i don't accomplish very much. I'm a very fast writer, so once I know where I want to go, I get there. Plot gives me a lot of trouble, and all my downtime is spent figuring out where to go next. I also waste a vast amount of time on facebook and wandering around on the internet or blogging (http://www.megrosoff.co.uk/blog/)

Any advice for hopeful writers who want to “break in” to the business?

 Ha! Everyone's saying the book is dead. I don't think it is dead, but it is morphing into something a bit different. The best advice I can think of for getting published is to write something really really good. Publishers are (still) gagging for good books.

Check out Meg’s blog and her website to learn more about her other stories. You can read up on her latest novel, There is No Dog. Sounds like a great one!

Thanks so much for spending some time with us, Meg.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Yellow tears and skies the color of milk

I love fall. I love the colors associated with it – the ruby leaves, the khaki colored soybean fields ready for harvest, the blue, blue sky set against the still emerald grasses. When I was a kid, I used to love keeping tabs on the big crabapple tree that stood outside my bedroom window. I watched it shift from its deep green robes of summer to the confetti celebration of fall before my very eyes.

Maybe this is why, as I’m reading Markus Zusak’s Prinz Honor book, The Book Thief, I’m falling in love a little bit with his use of color. Somewhere in my head, I’ve always known that writing about any of the senses – the experience of color included – grows flesh on writing. But Mr. Zusak’s colors don’t just build virtual flesh. His use of color changes tone. Punches you in the gut. Whispers secrets in your ear. Sneaks under your skin and raises the hair on your arms.

Mr. Zusak writes of yellow tears and skies the color of milk. He shows us “orange and red embers” that  “looked like rejected candy” after a horrible bonfire. Liesel, our heroine, sees the “skull-colored part” in Hitler’s hair at a rally. Even light illuminating a man’s deathbed is “gray and orange, the color of summer’s skin.”  

Here are some others:

“A star the color of mustard was smeared to the door.”

“Still, with red tongues and teeth, they walked down Himmel Street, happily searching the ground as they went. The day had been a great one and Nazi Germany was a wondrous place.”

“The book was hot and wet, blue and red – embarrassed – and Hans Hubermann opened it up.”

Have you found examples of color used to bring such power to writing? Do you consciously work on including color – and other sensory details – in your writing?

Think in emeralds and rubies, sapphires and brass today when you sit down to write. Color your sentences with the deep red of blood or the glow of orange from a jack-o-lantern’s eyes.

Or can you color other senses? Can the sting of a bee feel a certain color? Can the scent of mildewed and rotting leaves smell a certain color? What about the heat of the sun on the back of your neck or the sound of rain dripping against a cold window pane?

Write today. Write with all of your senses – and use the colors of fall as your inspiration.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Landing softly on a hard day

On this anniversary of 9/11, I find myself searching for something soothing. Something that will ease the ache of the horror I remember vividly – even though I was a thousand miles away from the Twin Towers and felt like a spectator, powerless and destroyed at some level, watching the events unfold on television.

Without realizing it, I choose a book last night that help a bit. Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting – with its lovely language, gentle plot, and wonder at the power of time and the grace of being able to die – provided a soft place for me to land on this Sunday morning.

Ms. Babbitt’s settings are part of what drew me into the story. The contrast between the Foster house and the Tuck’s home – along with the sense of strict order versus jumbled ease… life strangled versus life going on – is powerful in a way I’m sure I didn’t fully grasp when I read this book as a child.

Here is the first glimpse we get of the Foster’s house:

“…a square and solid cottage with a touch-me-not appearance, surrounded by grass cut painfully to the quick and enclosed by a capable iron fence some four feet high which clearly said, ‘Move on—we don’t want you here.’”

Later…we see the Tuck home:

“So she [Winnie] was unprepared for the homely little house beside the pond, unprepared for the gentle eddies of dust, the silver cobwebs, the mouse who lived – and welcome to him! – in a table drawer.”

She goes on to mention “dishes stacked in perilous towers without the lease regard for their varying dimensions”

“every surface, every wall, was piled and strewn and hung with everything imaginable, from onions to lanterns to wooden spoons to wash tubs. And in a corner stood Tuck’s forgotten shotgun.”

In fact, the entire first few pages of chapter 10 (in case you have a copy handy) is one of the best, most comfortable descriptions of a house possibly in all of children’s literature.

For some reason…the controlled chaos, the clutter, and the well-loved, well-lived feeling of that house reminds me of my house when I was a kid. No one ever accused my mom of having a perfectly clean house. (Sorry, Mom!) But it was far better, in my mind, to trip over dogs and toss shoes in a pile and move books from almost every flat surface (even to draw hearts and write my name in the dust on the dresser tops) than it was to visit the house down the street, where the living room furniture was quite sadly covered in clear plastic sheeting and no one was allowed to step on the carpet.

And it probably is also worth noting that I might have found this story soothing today in part, because I think Mae Tuck reminded me of my own mother. Round and soft, full of hugs and ready to feed anyone who walked through the door. Mae even feeds that mouse living in her table drawer with flapjack crumbs after dinner…something my mom would have done in a heartbeat.

At any rate, I am glad to have found some sense of peace in this story, on this day.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What Can We Learn from The End of the World?

I walked away from the public library with a stack of novels from the YA section last week. Only upon checking out, did I realize I had a theme going on: After The Apocalypse. Each novel was about young people struggling to survive and make sense of life after some horrible event (plague, total natural disaster, unknown set of events) almost eliminated civilization as we know it.

As you might imagine, four novels of the same theme over the course of less than 2 weeks was a little much. By the last one, I had started to see similarities I probably would have missed if I’d read these books over time with other stories in between.

For example:

·         Love story. All of the stories had an element of YA romance involved. (Apparently, love survives even when white bread and hot showers do not!)

·         Young heroines play a major role – and they are TOUGH. (‘Nuf said. Girls rock.)

·         Boys, after the apocalypse, still have strong arms and chests worth resting your hand on. (If you’re a tough girl who really wants to have a boyfriend in the midst of learning how to survive.)

·         Food is really important – and when you’re hungry after a plague or other disaster destroys everything, you’ll eat just about anything.

·         Villains don’t all end up dead when the end of the world as we know it comes. Where there are good guys, there are also bad guys.

·         A journey must be taken, with very little food or water, over treacherous landscapes (deserts, post-earthquake or post-tsunami wreckage, behind enemy lines, etc.).

In the meantime, I also learned a little bit about technique from each of these authors.

From Meg Rosoff and How I Live NowChanging voice in the story is a powerful way to create a distinction between a character’s mental state at different times in their story. Ms. Rosoff’s style for most of this novel is very “stream of consciousness” and rather rambling. (Took some getting used to, honestly.) But the end of the story – clarity is revealed. You discover something about the heroine through not only her words, but how she communicates. Her whole voice coalesces into something new, which fits in with who she has become.

From Jo Treggiari and Ashes, AshesDon’t rely too much on formula or your reader will be able to predict too much of your plot. Unfortunately, I knew early on who the “betrayer” was, who the “perfect guy” was, and who would be the game-changer in this journey. Although I thought Ms. Treggiari had great, gory descriptions of butchering a turtle. (Ick!)

From James Dashner and The Scorch TrialsHow to make the second book in a series even faster and riskier than the first. I didn’t think he could live up to the pace and fear-factor of The Maze, but Mr. Dashner ratcheted up the speed, the terror, and the consequences of everyone’s actions in this one. Breakneck pace. I felt like I’d run a footrace through the Mojave Desert by the time I reached the last chapter.

From Carry Ryan and The Dead-Tossed WavesEven zombie stories deserve poetic language. Like The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Ms. Ryan continues to use lovely language to describe a horror of a world where zombies infect humans and society has been reduced to small pockets of villages connected by fenced-off paths through the forests. In eerie scenes, Ms. Ryan’s storms bring not only the threat of flood and water to this post-apocalypse word – but the threat of the “downed dead” rising from the ocean floor, to awake and seek out victims again.

Have you ever picked a “theme” for a week or a month? Ever focused on a specific genre over and over until you see patterns emerge?

Maybe next week, I’ll pick another literary deep dive. What should I choose?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Who do you think I am?

Last Sunday, the sermon at my church was about a time when Jesus asked different people “Who do you say I am?” It wasn’t a Bible story I was very familiar with, but it struck a chord with the storyteller part of me. Jesus didn’t ask, “Who am I?” The question was more subtle and more loaded – it was specific for each person asked. “Who do YOU say I am?”
On the drive home, my mind was busy relating this to fiction and story construction. It made me think about the ever-challenging Point of View aspect of writing. Will you write your story in first person, as if you are speaking for the main character? Or will you rely on limited third person, telling the story from a further distance? Will you see events through their eyes, or will you leap to an omniscient third person point of view and see into all characters thoughts – see events from multiple sets of eyes?
But beyond the POV you’ll choose as a writer for your novel or story, think about this: how do your characters see one another? What are the different points of view within your story?
Take a step back, and let your main character ask his supporting cast, “Who do you say I am?” What kinds of answers will you get? Is your main character fleshed out and well-rounded enough for the others to each have a unique view of him?
I happen to be reading Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion this week, which is a lucky thing. It is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.
The main character, Matt, grows from a young child to a young adult throughout the story. He is a clone, living in a fictional, futuristic country built on the out of control drug trade along the US-Mexico border. He embodies the outsider. He is both different from everyone around him, while simultaneously being exactly the same.
If Matt pused within his own story and asked, “Who do you say I am?” to characters at various points in the novel, he’d hear answers like:
·         Orphan
·         Child
·         Monster
·         Pet
·         Clone
·         Brother
·         Son
·         Friend
·         Prisoner
·         Promise of youth
·         Livestock
·         Hero
·         Enemy
·         Killer
·         Runaway
·         And student

Nancy Farmer helps readers see her main character through the eyes of others – allowing Matt to have more flesh, more body because the reader can see how others view him.  As the points of view change – as Matt grows in both age and in maturity – the answer to the question shifts.
Are your characters so well developed? Have you considered how your cast of characters sees one another? Could you answer on behalf of your various characters, “Who do you say <name of main character here> is?”
As if point of view, all on its own, wasn’t hard enough to tackle, right? I suppose I’m only now learning there will always be a nuance of writing to discover while driving down the highway or a storytelling skill to learn when you least expect it.
Think of it as a version of “job security” for writers. We’ll never stop learning how to tell a story better, will we?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

It's that time of year again...

My kids are getting ready to start the school year again – which means we are all about school supplies at our house. Pencils, paper, flash drives, binders, sketch books…you name it, we’ve got it stacked in the hallway or already packed neatly in new backpacks just waiting for the journey to school on the first day.

In a third grade classroom I explored this week, I found boxes and shelves and bins full of books. (Good sign!) Some titles I recognized, and others I didn’t. Some looked on the newer side, and some were dog-eared and well-loved with creases in the corners of pages and ratty edges on the paperback covers. Either way, it always makes me smile to see a well-stocked classroom library. My kids are in for a year of exploration and literary “newness” that comes from a teacher suggesting books to read instead of mom doing the suggesting.

My third grader is still in love with the How to Train Your Dragon books by Cressida Cowell. Together, we’re reading Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan. I find myself explaining some of the language and we end up having discussions about government leaders, alliances, and why countries go to war between chapters, so I’m glad we’re reading that one together. He’s a book lover (like his mom!), so I’m looking forward to seeing what choices he makes from his teacher’s stash of books.

In his soon-to-be classroom, I noticed books by Mary PopeOsborne and Beverly Cleary. I also saw books with titles and authors I didn’t recognize – which made me want to explore the bins and shelves a little longer, myself. In addition to math handouts, science experiments, social studies assignments and gym class – I hope my son comes home excited about new authors and new stories, gives new writers a try and maybe even models some of his own stories after a new author he’s read in third grade.

I’ve been trying to remember books from my third grade classroom – but they’re all a blur! I know I read a lot. I was always that kid with a book in her hand even on the playground… but specifics of titles and authors run together from my elementary school years. Certainly, I read my fair share of Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Walter Farley, Marguerite Henry, and others. When I was in elementary school, I’d lose myself in novels for hours at a time only coming up for air when I got hungry or too sleepy to keep reading. Of course, I also loved shopping for new binders and pencils – couldn’t wait to get my shiny new supplies all sorted out and organized, tucked neatly into my desk, new pencil box or binder.

Ahh…the first day of school!

What books would you like to see in your child’s classroom? What books to you remember finding (Loving? Hating?) in classrooms when you were a child? What books do you hope to introduce to your kids/teachers/classmates?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Have you told your story lately?

I was at a professional conference last week, and had the honor of listening to the story of a wounded warrior.  This woman – a leader from our military – lost her right arm in an attack on her humvee in Iraq.  Now, she is a leader for the Wounded Warrior – an organization dedicated to helping support wounded veterans and their families.

She received two standing ovations from the crowd of well over 1,000 in the audience – one when she took the stage and another after she told her story.

She spoke simply. She spoke with humility and grace. She told her story honestly. We needed, at some level, to hear what happened to her; and not only that – but we needed to hear her voice tell it. We wanted to hear not only the events, but how she felt, how she changed, how her story didn’t end – but continues to this day.

She told us about what the moment of attack was like – the sound of gunfire and the bright flash of light as a weapon tore her vehicle and part of her body to pieces. She told us about lying in the dirt waiting for transportation to a military hospital, and how her fellow soldier (a man under her command) bled into the earth next to her and asked her to tell his children he loved them. She talked about the dozens of surgeries it took to rebuild her body and her journey to becoming a leader and business entrepreneur.

She is strong. She stood up on stage, under lights and microphones, to tell us her story. And her story made me tingle. Brought tears to my eyes when I heard the pain, the calm reaction to such terror, and ultimately the deep desire to continue to tell her story to those who would listen.

There is power in story. There is power in stories as dramatic and heart breaking and inspiring as hers. But there is also power in YOUR story.

Have you told your story lately?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Wanted: Escapism, pure and simple

In the midst of these crazy (and HOT) days of summer, I found myself looking not only for some escapism in my reading, but also for the feeling of returning to an old friend. I needed to curl up with a story I knew and loved – one with characters I felt at home with and places I could see in my dreams. I put aside my stacks and piles of unread middle grade and YA novels for the last few weeks, and turned, instead, to an old standby.

Two of my favorite stories -- Outlander and Voyager -- are about time travel, history, Scotland, war, love, intrigue, and large red-headed heroes who always (ALWAYS) say and do the right thing at the right time. Gotta love that going back again and again to the story of Claire and Jamie Fraser is sort of like coming home to my favorite, soft blanket and a mug of English Breakfast tea.  

Diana Gabaldon is a most prolific writer with talent for not only characters who seem like they could walk right off the pages of her novels, but also for time and place. Her settings are historical and redolent with detail. When I read her stories, I feel like if I tilt my head just right, I should be able to see the stretch of the Scottish highlands where Jamie escaped from prison after Culloden. If I close my eyes and inhale, I should smell the herbs hanging from the rafters in Claire’s surgery at the clan castle.
So…instead of working on my own books or writing blog entries or studying my genre – I’ve been goofing off. I’ve been using my reading time (and writing time) to escape to the highlands for a bannock or two and a glass of ale with my friends, the Frasers.

Do you have books you return to time and again? What about them – the characters? The setting? The storyline? – makes you snatch them up when you need an escape?

As writers, what can we learn from these books?

Or…perhaps we should just find a beach chair or a hammock and read. Escape. There will be time for learning and writing tomorrow.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Surrender to Imagery

Imagery is descriptive language that not only engages the readers’ senses, but also evokes an emotional response. One of the most famous examples of imagery in poetry is probably the first line of Carl Sandburg’s “Fog” – The fog comes / on little cat feet.

I was pulled into a novel written by Sonya Hartnett this weekend and found myself alternately bobbing and sinking in an ocean of imagery. Some of the language literally caught my breath like the topmost hill of a roller coaster. Some of Ms. Hartnett’s images made me struggle to breathe. The story, Surrender, written in 2005 and awarded the Michael L. Prinz honor, has creeped into my head and seems to want to stay there, curled around the bulges and beating veins of my brain. Lurking like a snake. It is hiding among my own bits of story and snippets of words as if waiting for the right moment to make itself known in a new way.

The story is demanding and horrifying, inescapable and worthy of being shoved into a back corner of a high shelf when you are finished, just in case you feel the story calling to you another day. You will remember it. You will want to revisit the language, the story, and the images so brilliantly used by this writer. Most of all, it is human, this story. Full of contradictions, mysteries, and the honesty of lies told to oneself to keep the peace.

Here are some of the phrases, sentences and images that are echoing in my ears and keeping rhythm with the beating of my heart –

Page 15 – If my visitor walked away now he would seem like a daydream, like touching a tiger’s face in the dark.

Page 40 – His yellow smile – all of him is yellow – patrols the room like a lighthouse beam, falling on my sandy-beach aunt, on jagged-rocky-outcrop me, on the foaming blankets of the sea…

Page 159 – In this room, night is not black but gray. The door is gray, the walls are gray, the air itself is gray. Yet light skates goldenly round the door handle as it spins.

Page 165 – The sky above our heads dashed white with cockatoos.

Page 180 – The morning heat bulged and swore, trapped in the confines of the forest, a bully pinned furious to the ground.

Sort of exhausting, this story. Deep and treacherous and so beautiful. I was going to send it to a friend, but I think I’ll slide it onto the top shelf of my bookcase instead. I’ll keep it until another day when the images call to me again.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Talking with Sarwat Chadda, author of Devil's Kiss...and a Book Give Away!

The first novel I wrote revolved around Hindu mythology – specifically the stories of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god. I have a soft spot for traditional stories – myths of all types, legends, fairy tales, folk stories and the like.

And I’ll admit I’m a complete sucker for those History channel shows about topics like the Holy Grail or Lost Scrolls or the Shroud of Turin. (Ancient Aliens? Bigfoot? Giant Killer Catfish? Yep. I’ll get sucked into all of that stuff! Sounds so much like the stuff of myth to me.)

So when I heard of Sarwat Chadda’s books about the first female among the ranks of the Knights Templar, I couldn’t find a copy fast enough. Strong girl heroine. Ancient myths. Mysterious organizations with even more mysterious missions? Who could ask for more?

I was thrilled when Mr. Chadda agreed to answer some questions for me about his stories and his writing life. So please welcome Sarwat Chadda to Carpe Keyboard.

Carpe Keyboard: Since I just finished reading Devil’s Kiss, I’m dying to know if the ending was planned. It is unexpected (at least it was to me!) and I love the twist in the prophecy. Now…I don’t want to give too many spoilers in this conversation – but could you tell us if you planned all along to end the book the way it was finally published? Did you plan out the whole plot, or do you work more organically?

Sarwat Chadda: There’s a big divide between writers who plot and those that let the story develop its own path. I’m very much the first group. I usually have a strong idea of how it’s going to end, then work towards it. I must admit, I usually have to rewrite it several times to make sure the story does flow logically, and I can appreciate this is the risk of being too rigid about where you want the story to go. On the other hand I have read a few books where it’s clear the writer has a strong initial concept but isn’t able to deliver the goods at the end. Then there’s the sense of frustration that the writer failed to deliver on the key promise of any story teller, a satisfying ending.

The end is incredibly important and I want to make sure I’ve saved the best till last.

I love it when writer’s pick names for their characters that just seem so….well…so right. How did Billi SanGreal get her name? And what about Kay? An unusual name for a boy, but somehow it fits with his physical description without seeming too feminine.
All the Templars are named after the Knights of the Round Table. I like the idea the Arthur doesn’t exist in Billi’s world but, in centuries in the future, her adventures will be the myths of her world.
Billi’s name is different. I wanted to establish her Muslim heritage, her full name is Bilqis, and that name too has a lot of mythical resonance with the King Solomon legend (Bilqis was the name of the Queen of Sheba and her descendants were said to be the guardians of the Ark of the Covenant).
SanGreal is a name associated with the Holy Grail and the Templars and I wanted to give Billi a mythic quality. Again it’s a conceit, reminding us we’re in a world more ‘heightened’ than our own. It’s got to be painted bigger and more contrasting.

I’ve written before here on Carpe Keyboard about the distinct lack of parents in YA literature. If they aren’t physically out of the picture (dead mom, anyone?), then they are checked out somehow – not capable of having a relationship with the main character. Billi’s relationship with her father plays a huge role in how the plot moves along in Devil’s Kiss. Do you think readers relate somehow to parents being “checked out” or not fully involved in their lives? Why do you think this is such a pattern in literature and stories for young people?

I’m guilty of the dead mom but compensated that by adding a psycho father! The fundamental issue is what right-minded parent would allow their kid to go on death-defying adventures? So I made sure Billi’s dad isn’t right-minded at all. The dynamic between father and daughter isn’t much dealt with in kids’ fiction so I wanted to make sure it was central to mine.

That’s the same reason so many stories are sent in boarding schools, it’s all a way of keeping the grownups out of the picture. It was a challenge to take this new direction, of keeping the adults central to the story without sidelining Billi, but it was worth doing as it gave the story a fresh perspective

What research did you do into the Knights Templar and Christian tradition or mythology to write Billi’s story? I’d never heard of King Solomon’s mirror legend before… and I find it fascinating. (I happen to know a few myths and folk tales that revolve around mirrors…so I guess I’m particularly drawn to this one.)
The mirror story combines several legends. Solomon was master of magic and commanded the djinn and spirits through the power of a ring. But circles are a common motif in sorcery, so I translated that ‘ring’ to mean something circular, in my case a disk. Now the djinn and a form of supernatural creature, similar to angels and devils, and there’s a myth regarding the sorcerer Dr. Dee, who was said to have a scrying device that allowed him to communicate with angels.
I then tied the two things together, the ‘ring’ of Solomon and Dee’s scrying device are one of the same.

And about those weapons…. Sheesh! Billi really is the bad ass warrior she’s advertised to be! Do you have swords and maces hanging around your house for inspiration? Or at least pictures of weapons Billi and the Knights use? (And if they’re hidden in your closet or hung on the walls of your basement…I don’t think I want to know!)

Yes, I have a number of swords from the Middle-East, Asia and Africa. All totally blunt I hasten to add! They’re on display in my weapons’ cabinet with a few other artifacts.
I wanted the stories to be as real as possible so, given that Billi is a weapons’ expert, that needed to be reflected in the book. She would know the specifics so would deal with the specifics. It’s one of the ‘tricks’ of writing and helps make the setting more believable if you can go into specific detail. It could be anything, a car, a street, a building or sound.
This also meant that when it came to book 2, Dark Goddess, I needed to make the setting as realistic as possible. Since the story was set in Russia that meant me going out there and exploring so I could write a ‘street-level’ viewpoint.

You followed Devil’s Kiss with Dark Goddess, another Billi SanGreal story. What can you tell us about your next project? Will we see more of Billi and the Knights Templar?
I’d love to write a Billi #3 but there are no hard and fast plans yet. The next series is part of the same world but introduces a new hero, Ash Mistry. The first book’s due out Fall 2012 from Arthur A. Levine and called ‘Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress’.

Few books have made any use of the amazing India myths or used India as a setting. That’s about to change. It’ll take bad-ass heroes to a whole new level.

That said, it is the same world as Billi and there are plans for her to be in this series too, but not as a central character.

 When do you carpe your keyboard? What are your writing habits?
Drop the kids off at school. Try and write 2,000 words a day. Pick them up. Then a bit of paperwork and admin in the evening. Monday to Friday.

Finally, any advice for budding YA writers? (Not that I…ahem…know of any.)
There is only one: Keep writing. Set yourself a word count (500 a day, whatever) and DO IT. Write whether you feel like it or not. The more you practise the better you’ll get. I promise you.

Thanks so much, Mr. Chadda, for your time and for sharing your insights with us! I’m off to find a copy of Dark Goddess...and I’ll wait impatiently for your new stories involving Indian mythology. Good luck with sales! I wish you great success!

One last thing!  Mr. Chadda has generously donated a copy of one of his books to Carpe Keyboard readers! If you’d like to be entered into a drawing to receive one of the Billi Sangreal books, leave me a comment below or post a link to this blog on your social network (and then tell me about it). I’ll draw the lucky winner on Monday, July 18, 2011.

(All Carpe Keyboard typical drawing rules apply. If the winner does not respond to me via email within one week of the drawing, I’ll put the book back in my stack for a different give away or I’ll draw another name from this lot.)