Monday, July 10, 2017

MMGM: I Am David


I initially picked up this book for my son. He’d been studying modern history this year, and I wanted a book about what it was like behind the Iron Curtain. He didn’t read it, but I did. And what a book! Many of you know I have a place in my heart for anything Eastern European or Russian. Honestly, I think it goes back to my own teen years. Before the wall fell, I watched an interview of Russian teenagers on TV.

 “They’re just like me,” I thought. And that one show changed my life. I went on to study Russian in college and live there for a semester because I wanted to meet in person these teens who “were just like me.” I still feel fortunate to call these people, former Soviets, friends.

I think when you read I AM DAVID, you will be struck with the same sort of “ah hah” moment. Yes, he has suffered more than most. He’s never known joy or a loving family or even tasty food. But at its heart, I AM DAVID, is about the strength of the human spirit, about not giving in and rising above those people who’ve sinned egregiously against you. I dare you not to fall in love with his amazing boy.

David's entire twelve-year life has been spent in a grisly prison camp in Eastern Europe. He knows nothing of the outside world. But when he is given the chance to escape, he seizes it. With his vengeful enemies hot on his heels, David struggles to cope in this strange new world, where his only resources are a compass, a few crusts of bread, his two aching feet, and some vague advice to seek refuge in Denmark. Is that enough to survive?

David's extraordinary odyssey is dramatically chronicled in Anne Holm's classic about the meaning of freedom and the power of hope.


What to like:

1. An amazing main character: What I loved about David, more than anything, is despite his various mishaps and misunderstandings of the world outside, he never loses his desire to not be like his captors. “You must hate what is bad or else you grow just like them.”

2. An outsider’s view of the western world: One of the most interesting parts of the book for me is David’s innocence, which seems ironic, seems he's been exposed to so much. But his misunderstandings about babies, families, God, among other things, are quite realistic and endearing.

3. A book in translation. As I shared here, I think we have too few books in translation in the United States. While we are a large country with lots of talented writers, I love reading children’s books from writers from other countries. It expands your view of the world.
 

It's hard for me to come up with bullet points for this book. I loved it because this character touched my heart and gave me a glimpse of a completely different world. I was initially drawn in by David’s unusual experiences and reactions, but I walked away inspired to be like him.

Have you read any inspiring books lately? Or something set during the Cold War?


To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.  

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

ISWG: Just Keep Writing




Last spring my son had two piano performances—a festival and a recital—on the same day. I watched as he struggled to continue playing after he made a few mistakes (he wanted to start over) and another student did the same. But the interesting thing to me, is that neither of these students were beginners. The beginners don’t struggle as much if they make mistakes. These two kids had high standards and their fingers couldn’t keep up with how they imagined the piece should sound.

I realize I do the same thing with my writing.

I am thankful that writing is not a performance art. Unlike when I played piano, no one sees the tears I cry at a harsh critique or a rejection from a much hoped for agent. I get to do that in private, which I am extremely grateful for.

But like the piano students, my fingers haven’t caught up with my imagination.

With other things in my life, I pick a sane, easy route. (While I love to bake, I will not be making anyone a wedding cake any time soon.) But with writing, I have the strange desire to pick the hardest thing ever.

I wonder now if some of my problems with my earlier books are that I made everything too complicated: several hundred subplots, anyone? Mashups of as many genres as possible?

See, with writing, I don’t hold back. I am not sane. And the fact that I still need to develop as a writer has never stopped me from tackling something beyond my reach.

And now here I am, having just finished a draft of a new book. I still have a lot of work to do. My rough drafts are usually more like filled-in outlines; the big work of revision is ahead. And this book is complicated in every way: a culture not my own, a theme so close to my heart it feels about to burst, a genre I’ve never tackled before.

I’m afraid that I’m going to fall on my face, or behave like I did at my piano recitals, run out of the room crying.

But I wouldn’t be writing if I didn’t stretch myself, tackle a piece that’s just beyond my reach.

I need to remember the advice the adjudicator told my son: Just keep playing.

The question this month is what is the one valuable lesson you've learned since you started writing? I’ve learned many things, but the most important is perseverance, or in other words, Just keep writing.


What is the one valuable lesson you've learned since you started writing?


What is Insecure Writer's Group?

Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer - aim for a dozen new people each time - and return comments. This group is all about connecting!

To see more ISWG posts or to sign up, go here. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

ISWG: Finding Your Way Back

This month's question: Did you ever say "I quit"? If so, what happened to make you come back to writing?

I have many different times in my life when I wanted to quit. The longest stretch was about six years ago. I had a lot going on in my personal life (my younger son required two surgeries within the space of a few months), and I’d gotten some discouraging feedback on a new project. I’ve since learned never to let anyone see my first drafts, but I didn’t know that then. I was so discouraged I set that book aside.

That’s when the writer's block started. For a few months, I just wrote, “I can’t write anything,” in my journal. At least I was writing words, right?

How did I find my way back? I started asking myself what I really liked to read and what I really wanted to write if I didn’t have to worry about anyone else reading it. This led me to tackling a YA retelling, a book of my heart. Instead of writing for the market, I wrote just for me.

No, it’s not published, but that’s not the point. The important thing is that through writing that novel, I found my love of writing again. Because if I don’t enjoy writing, why am I doing this anyway?

I’ve since learned that I’m often most vulnerable to giving up when life presents me with a mix of writing obstacles and difficult life circumstances. But now that I’ve seen I can come back, dealing with those bad days or those days (or months) when writing comes hard is easier. I know they won’t last forever.

All I need to keep in mind is why I’m writing in the first place: What do I like to read? What do I like to write?

If that’s my focus, I won’t give up for long.

And that book I gave up on? It’s finished, and I’m now querying it. Setting something aside doesn’t mean forever.





What is Insecure Writer's Support Group?

Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer - aim for a dozen new people each time - and return comments. This group is all about connecting!

 To see more IWSG posts, go here. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

What I Learned About Dreams from La La Land


Summit Entertainment via redbox.com
Have you seen La La Land? I recently watched it, since it just came out on DVD.  As a fan of old movies, especially Singing in the Rain, it was my cup of tea: lovely score, costumes, and snappy dialogue. I was enthralled with this story of an aspiring actress and a jazz musician till the end.

But all that talk of following your dreams made me think of my own dreams—and how long I’ve wanted to be a writer (since fourth grade—but who’s counting?).

Here’s what I learned about dreams:

***Spoiler Alert—if you haven’t watched the movie, you might want to stop here.***

1.  Rejection can make you lose sight of your dreams. There’s one point in the movie, when Mia, the main character, is so discouraged she wants to give up. “It hurts,” she says. I don’t blame her. Auditions are harder than querying. I’d rather get a form letter. But no matter how it happens, rejection does hurt. The only thing that’s helped me is to remember—it’s not personal. It’s my work they don’t like, not me.


Summit Entertainment
2.  Support is essential for any dreamer. I loved how Sebastian pushes Mia when she’s at her lowest, finding her an audition and driving her all the way from Nevada to L.A. This made me thankful for the supportive people in my life—like my husband who always took my dream seriously, never doubting I’d see a book in my hands some day. I know it’s harder following your dreams without support, though not impossible.

3.  Being a dreamer means making tough choices. The only part about the movie I didn’t like was the ending. If you’ve seen it, you know it’s not typical Hollywood. But, at the same time, I agree with what the filmmakers are saying. Having a dream—a big dream, like acting or any of the arts—is consuming. It can be hard on your family. I know this, because there was a time when I was so consumed with my art that I had very little left over for my husband or kids. But unlike Mia, I don’t think that is a good thing. I love writing, but I hold it a lot more loosely than I once did. Of course, it’s still my dream to get published, but there is more to life than writing. And I don’t regret the fact that my writing dreams have sometimes moved at a snail's pace in order to put my family first.


Summit Entertainment via redbox.com
Have you seen La La Land? What do you think about what it said about choices and following your dreams?



* I won't be blogging for the next Mondays due to a family wedding and Memorial Day weekend. I'll be back on June 7th for Insecure Writer's Support Group.  I'll see you then!

Monday, May 8, 2017

MMGM: School Ship Tobermory

If you’ve been reading this blog awhile, you may have heard me mention Alexander McCall Smith. I love his mystery series for adults, THE NO. 1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY. It’s one of a few series that  I faithfully read Why? It’s got quirky characters, lovely prose, and a rich African setting.

When I saw that he had a new series out for kids, I was excited. Not only did it have a mystery element, but it was set on the isle of Mull in Scotland (!), and just happened to take place on a school that’s a ship. What’s not to like?

Here’s the synopsis (from Amazon):

The author of the beloved No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency draws from his own sailing experience to deliver this rip-roaring adventure on the high seas. The first volume in a middle-grade adventure-mystery series perfect for boys and girls!

Ben and Fee MacTavish are twins who’ve been homeschooled on a submarine. Now they’re heading to the School Ship Tobermory. This is no ordinary school—it’s a sailing ship where kids from around the world train to be sailors and learn about all things nautical. Come aboard as the kids set sail for their first adventure.

Ben and Fee make friends as they adjust to life aboard the Tobermory. When a film crew arrives on a nearby ship, the Albatross, Ben is one of the lucky kids chosen as a movie extra. But after a day’s filming, his suspicions are aroused. Are the director and crew really shooting a film? Or are they protecting a secret on the lower decks of the Albatross? Ben, Fee, and their friends set out to investigate. Are they prepared for what they might find?


What to like:

1. The author, as always, draws from his own experience: This is what I love about the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. McCall Smith’s books are always set in places he knows well, like Africa or Scotland. He’s also a sailor. So, it goes to show that “writing what you know” really pays off—especially in the depth of your story.

2. A close-knit family: Although Ben and Fee’s folks only appear in the very beginning, I thought it was endearing that Ben and Fee are constantly thinking of writing their parents. I also loved how these twins share secrets and clearly like each other. While Fee and Ben drive the narrative, the author didn’t make the parents awful or kill them off in order for that to happen.

3. An interesting setting: Much of the first part of the book is establishing this school on a ship, and wow, that was a fun idea. I loved how all the students are from all over the world, each with different stories about why they’re at this boarding school.

4. A mystery that’s engaging (and not too scary) for kids: I loved how the two mysteries in the book entwined together.  I loved the emphasis on animals, which was also a hit with my 12-year-old son. This is a gentle mystery, like the No. 1 books, which will appeal to kids who normally don’t like the dark stuff.

5. Kids solve the problems, but adults play a part too. Recently my kids and I were talking about how it seems that all kids in kidlit are smarter than the adults. That doesn’t happen in Tobermory. The teachers are warm and caring, though not without flaws. I liked how the kids decided to tell their teachers what was going on—even if that didn’t work out so well at first—rather than sneaking off by themselves. (I suppose my teacher/mom side is showing.)

What else? Well, there’s an antagonist aptly named Shark (with hair to match), comic-style drawings throughout, cool parents, and the possibility of a sequel in the Caribbean.

This is MG approved, at least at my house. It’s interesting to watch what happens when I bring books home to read for MMGM. The more literary books, especially if they’re perceived to be “sad,” never get stolen from me. But humorous adventures and books about ordinary kids in interesting circumstances (like a Scottish sailing school) almost always disappear. 

Have you read any good nautical yarns lately?


To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog. 



Wednesday, May 3, 2017

ISWG: Hands On Research



 This is an update of a post I ran in January 2014. To read the original post, click here.


They say children learn best if they can touch and handle what they are learning, if they are given real experiences.

That seems to apply to us writers too.

One of my favorite parts of writing is the research. (Hey, my first job out of college was a research assistant. I got paid to go to the library!)

But the best kind of research is the kind you can't find in books.

About four years ago, I was working on a historical fantasy set in Russia in 1812.

Although it was not possible for me to travel to Russia to see a reenactment, I attended a Civil War reenactment nearby my house, just so I could talk about wartime medicine with some experts.

Tools used for amputations
I brought my then 8-year-old son as a foil and asked lots of questions. The answers changed a quite a few details in my book.

I also have a falcon in my book, so thanks to some advice from Oregon writer, Emily Whitman, I went to my local Audubon society and met Finnegan:

Finnegan the Peregrine


I took movies with my camera to refer to later. For my kids, it was a "field trip for Mom."

This last summer (2016), I stumbled on two research opportunities that helped with my current projects. Again, these both happened at different festivals or shows that I attended with my kids, often not knowing that I'm find a gem of insight for my writing. 

One, was a medieval sword demonstration, which taught me, among other things that swords fighting is much different in reality than in the movies. And a collie dog show taught me some important facts about that breed (also needed for that same book). Most recently, I am living my research as I just happen to be writing a story set in a school and have recently started substitute teaching.



Me handling a medieval sword

What's next? Hopefully, this summer, my faithful research assistants (a.k.a. sons) and I will learn how to fence.

What has been the most memorable research you have done?

What is Insecure Writer's Support Group?

Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!  

Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer - aim for a dozen new people each time - and return comments. This group is all about connecting!

To see more ISWG posts, check out our list here.

Monday, April 24, 2017

What I've Learned (About Writing) From the British Baking Show



(BBC photo)

I just rewatched several seasons of the British Baking Show on Netflix. It’s comfort TV for me: lovely English grounds, accents (!), and beautiful food. And unlike most American cooking or baking shows, the contestants and the judges are actually supportive of each other. But recently I’ve been thinking of how some of the contestants acted in the competition and how that relates to writing.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Don’t self reject. In season 1, episode 4, one of the contestants flubbed his dessert. He was so angry at himself that he threw everything in the garbage or rather the “bin.” So he had nothing to show for himself during the judging—except a garbage can.

Lesson learned: I’ve had a couple times where I’ve felt like giving up on a manuscript or writing because of harsh criticism I’ve received. Thankfully, I snapped out of it. There are other ways to reject yourself too—like not sending your work out at all or not sending it to certain agents or editors because you're certain they wouldn't like your work. All of this is throwing your work away before someone even has a chance to judge read it. 

The Baked Alaska before it went in the bin. (BBC photo)

2. Don’t broadcast your mistakes to the judges (or other writers, agents, or editors). In season 2, there was a baker who constantly put herself down. At one point, the judges told her to quit telling them what was wrong with her baking before they took a bite! Despite that, this girl made it to the final three—so obviously she had a skewed view of her talents.

Lesson learned: It’s easy to put your work down when you’re handing it off to beta readers, critique partners, editors or agents. In Confidence, I talked about how I struggle with this myself. But if you put your work down (or elaborate on all your mistakes before someone reads your book), you prejudice your readers against your work. Don’t do it. Be quietly confident—confidence is not the same bragging.

Mary and Paul judging the dreaded technical challenge (BBC photo)

3. Good bakers (and writers) have style AND substance. In the second season and third season, two bakers kept getting criticized for bakes that were beautiful on the outside (fancy piping and cute themes), but tasted horrible. This is not what you want to do!

Lesson learned: It’s not just words or lovely phrases that make a book, it’s the story your book tells that makes it compelling. Purple prose and lovely metaphors will not mask plot holes. I’ve been so guilty of this at times—because I struggle with plotting, but love a good turn of phrase. 


(BBC photo)

Have you made any of these mistakes? Do you watch the British Baking Show?