Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Writers on Writing: An Interview with Kristin Burchell

Photo Credit: Kristin Burchell

Kristin Burchell and I met at Oregon SCBWI’s Great Critique last January. We were fortunate to be in a YA group with the amazing Cidney Swanson (SAVING MARS). Kristin sat next to me, and I couldn’t believe that not only did she write historical fantasy, but she had written one set at Versailles, just like I had. Although our books are set in different time periods, we both love lyrical language, history and magic. Soon we began to exchanging work, and she was a great help to me on the book I’m currently querying.

I was so happy when Kristin told me her agent had sold her debut novel, THE WITCHES OF PROPOSAL ROCK, to Astraea Press.  Proposal Rock is a rock in Neskowin, Oregon, where my family and I vacation every year. I’m so excited that a book inspired by one of my favorite places is going to be published!
Recently Kristin and I met over Lebanese food to discuss her publication journey.

When did you decide to be a writer?

I’ve been writing my whole life. Even when I was a little kid, I wrote little books. When I started teaching, I started writing novels, and I would often imagine stories about teaching. We did a lot of travel during that time, and I became interested in the Terror and Marie Antoinette. My novel about Marie Antoinette was the first one I sent out in the late 90s.

How many novels have you written?

I’ve written five to completion, and I’m in the process of writing another one. Two of them are not based on a historical time period.  WITCHES OF PROPOSAL ROCK takes place on Proposal Rock as if it were in New England during the time of the witch trials.

Most of your novels are historicals. What kind of research do you do for your stories?

I love to travel to the places I’m writing about. I read a lot about the French revolution for my novel about Marie Antoinette. I read a lot of Shakespeare’s plays and about Shakespearian England for one novel. I wish I could go to England.

Proposal Rock on a not-so-stormy day
How did you get the idea for THE WITCHES OF PROPOSAL ROCK?
I was at Neskowin on one of those beautiful stormy days at the beach. I was thinking of all the  good stories of people proposing on Proposal Rock. Then my mind went to the morbid—what would happen if something bad happened?

How did you get your agent? How did you know she was the right agent for you?

When I was researching agents to submit to, she said she was looking for suspenseful historicals, which is what I write. Then when I talked to her on the phone, she said she read my sentences out loud a couple of times. She really liked the language.

I submitted a query letter. She asked for a partial in September. Then she requested a full in April of the next year. I signed with her in August. I revised the manuscript a lot with my critique group before I sent it.

I know it took a year and a half for you to sell your book, THE WITCHES OF PROPOSAL ROCK. How did you stay sane through the submissions process?

My agent was really good and told me to keep writing and not to get discouraged. Luckily, I was already writing another novel.  I tried to remember what it’s all about: it’s not about getting published, it’s about the craft and enjoying the craft.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on revising the original novel about Marie Antoinette. I am finishing a novel I’m co-writing with a friend. I am in the baby stages of a novel about the Terror.

What books or authors influenced you?
Young Adult:

Historical Fiction for adults:

What piece of advice would you give to other writers?
Remember: Keep writing because you love to write, not just to get published.

That's great advice! Thanks for sharing about your publication journey with us, Kristin.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Hush

As I mentioned last week with my post on THE YEAR OF BOOK, I was inspired to pick up a few middle grades that I hadn't read before. One of them is HUSH by Jacqueline Woodson. I was so glad I did.

Here is the synopsis from Amazon:

Toswiah Green. Evie Thomas. One girl. Two names. Two lives. When her police officer father witnesses two white cops killing a black boy, he makes the heart-wrenching decision to testify against his former friends. Overnight, thanks to the witness protection program, Toswiah becomes Evie, and she and her family leave their idyllic Denver, Colorado, life far behind. Toswiah's previously happy, lighthearted mother abruptly turns to religion, her big sister makes secret plans to escape the family, and her proud father collapses inward to a depressed, almost catatonic state. Adolescent Toswiah--now Evie--copes as best she can, taking up track and field in school, and trying to fathom who she is, and who she is becoming. Jacqueline Woodson, Coretta Scott King Award-winning author of Miracle's Boys and many other highly acclaimed titles, delves deep into the confused hearts of a family that has lost its identity. Toswiah, as a young teenager, was already on the verge of shaping her identity as a young woman; with these shattering events, it takes every ounce of strength and courage to keep her core intact. (Ages 13 and older)

The title for HUSH comes from the lullaby: "Hush little baby, don't say a word..."
HUSH is not an easy book to read. It brought me to tears at times. But that is what I love about Woodson's writing. It is raw and sparse, and conveys so much emotion.

There isn't a lot of action in the book. Much of the main action happens off screen or in the past. But I couldn't put this book down. I couldn't help but feel for Toswiah/Evie, the hard choice her father made, and the repercussions on her family. I will be thinking about this book for a long time.

Some of my favorite lines:

 "Me and Cameron sat there, my love for Daddy blossoming and into something deeper; Cameron's disgust growing fast as a weed."

"I smile and take my father's hand, thinking My life is a rewrite. I hope this is the last revision."

I have seen various category designations for this book. Toswiah/Evie is 13 at the time of the book, and her voice is middle grade, but many of the topics are weighty for this age group. Although most of the violence takes place off screen, I would consider this an upper middle grade book.

Jacqueline Woodson was a National Book Award finalist for HUSH. She's also won three Newberry medals. More info about HUSH's other awards and why she wrote it is on her website. 

For more Marvelous Middle Grade titles, please see Shannon Messenger's blog. She is the author of KEEPER OF LOST CITIES (MG) series and SKY FALL (YA).

What inspiring middle grades have you read lately?

Friday, February 21, 2014

Friday Five

  1. I had the great pleasure of attending a workshop with Fiona Kenshole last Saturday.  I am still laughing about some of her anecdotes about children lit authors, especially P.L. Travers (Mary Poppins). But my main takeway was: Be like Madonna. It’s not necessarily the ones with the most talent who make it, but those who work the hardest and know how to reinvent themselves.
  2. Love that my kids have both been bitten by the storytelling bug. Lots of stories are being read and created around here.  
  3. One of my critique partners, Kristin Burchell, has just sold her first book to Astraea Press! I'll be interviewing her next Wednesday.
  4. I have finally come to a place where I am “satisfied” with a certain manuscript. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt this way about a project before. I know it’s not perfect, but it feels done.
  5.  Spring is just around the corner, which means my favorite corner fruit stand will soon open. Fresh asparagus and more sun = happy  me.

 What has been going on in your world?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What Dickens Taught Me

Did you know that Charles Dicken’s birthday is in February?

I've been reading LITTLE DORRIT lately. It's one of those books that's taking me awhile, because I read a little bit and then put it aside to read something else. But I will finish it at some point!

I've been thinking about Dickens (who after Austen, is my favorite classic author) and what he’s taught me as a writer.

What I love about Dickens:

1. Dialogue: Dickens is a master at making each character sound unique. You can determine who a character is just by the way they speak. 
See if you can guess who said these lines:

A.  “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
B.  “I’m a very umble person.”
C.  “Barkis is willin’”
D.  “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”
E.  “Please, sir, I want some more.”
(Answers to be posted tomorrow.)

      2. Character traits/tags: Along with dialogue, Dickens gives all his characters a physical attribute, mannerism,   dialogue tic, or repeated word or image. In LITTLE DORRIT, Mrs. General is often spoken of as a varnish, which is fitting for her character. To read more about using traits/tags in your work, see JimBrutcher’s blog (2/10/05).

  3. Names: Dicken’s character’s names can sometimes be a little bit over the top, but they are descriptive of the characters, just like the names in J.K. Rowling’s work. 

     4. Plotting: Dicken’s plots are masterful, the way he weaves in some many different plot strands into a unified whole. You never meet a character once in Dickens. That character will come back at a different time in a different way.

Alas, I do have a few Dickens pet-peeves (gasp!):

1.  Sometimes he takes the character tag thing too far. I’ve read several scenes in LITTLE DORRIT where the characters are not named, but they are only referred to the as the “traveler” or the “little lady” and we are supposed to guess who the characters are by traits alone. This only leaves a reader (like me!) confused.

  2. Like most Victorian novelists, the “show don’t tell” rule is not adhered to. This reminds me how modern fiction trusts the reader a bit more.

3.  Although most of Dicken’s minor women characters are interesting (Nancy, Betsy Trotwood, Maggie, Peggoty), I am not impressed with his lead women characters. He seems to glorify women who aren’t assertive or have a mind of their own (i.e. Little Dorrit, Agnes from DAVID COPPERFIELD). Granted, he is a product of his times, but as a female reader, I am not happy with his lack of strong women characters.

If you like Dickens’ style, but want to read something modern:

I really enjoyed THE GREAT TROUBLE: A MYSTERY OF LONDON, THE GREAT BLUE DEATH, AND A BOY NAMED EEL (Deborah Hopkinson). Eel seems to be a character who’d be best friends with Oliver Twist. He has spunk, charisma, and a lot of heart. Hopkinson’s style and the way that unconnected characters ended up connecting in the end reminded me a lot of Dickens.   (There is some gruesomeness in describing the Blue Death, so not for squeamish readers.) 

THE TRAITOR’S GATE by Avi is also told in the Dicken’s style. I loved how Avi emulated Dicken-style language and plotting in this. This involves John Huffman whose father has just been sentenced to Whitecross Street Prison. This was based on Dicken’s early life.

Masterpiece's DAVID COPPERFIELD with young Daniel Radcliffe

If you haven’t read Dickens before, and are looking somewhere to start, OLIVER TWIST and DAVID COPPERFIELD are good starting points. Caveat: TWIST has a very violent scene at the end that might be too intense for sensitive readers, and COPPERFIELD is very long (it took my son and husband three months to read it!), but it isn’t as dark as some of his other novels.

Happy Birthday, Dickens!

Thank you for the legacy you’ve left to English literature.

Friday, February 14, 2014

For Valentine's Day: Writing Romance

Happy Valentine's Day!

In honor of Valentine's Day, I'm posting a few of my favorite links on writing romance. When I get stuck,   like to go to the experts:

Most of Gail Carson Levine's books have a strong romantic component. But ELLA ENCHANTED is still my favorite for its amazing last scene, a great illustration of the power of sacrifice.
On her blog, Gail Carson Levine talks about Unsappy Romance
She advises to think about your characters as jigsaw puzzles--how do they fit together?

Mette Ivie Harrison (THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND series) says you need to make character development equal. Both characters need to grow and change. For example, in EMMA, only Emma changes, but Knightly is perfect just as he is. That, to me, is why PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is so satisfying.  : 13 Elements of Romance

I also found Book Therapy Blog's 10 Elements in a Romance 
helpful. It uses well-known romantic comedies to illustrate romantic plot elements.

Sometimes the best way to learn as a writer is to study what the books you love are doing right.

Here's a few of my favorite YA romances (to study and enjoy):

COURTSHIPS AND CURSES (Marissa Doyle): Not only is this a book about magic in the Regency period, but Sophie has one of my favorite character arcs. Stricken with a limp from polio, she must overcome her self-pity (and use her magic) with the help of her friends and Lord Woodbridge. Like all of Doyle's books, this one is so rich in description and language that you feel like you're reading a book from that period.

BOOK OF A THOUSAND DAYS (Shannon Hale):  I love how Shannon Hale often has her characters connect through humor and friendship first. In BOOK OF A THOUSAND DAYS, Dashti is acting as Cyrano for her mistress. Amazingly,  the main characters fall in love without seeing each other for the first half of the book. Like all Hale's books, there's so much more to this book than romance. 

THE COUNTESS BELOW THE STAIRS, also know as THE SECRET COUNTESS (Eva Ibbotson): Ibbotson's YA romances have a bit of a "take me away" quality.  In this one, Anna Grazinsky is a Russian countess who takes a job as a housemaid in England to hide during the Russian revolution. Anna charms everyone in the house. When she falls for Rupert, the earl of the house, hilarity and misunderstandings ensue.

What are some of your favorite YA romances? 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Writing Wisdom from Elizabeth Goudge


I first discovered Elizabeth Goudge a few years ago when I read THE LITTLE WHITE HORSE. A lovely, charming book filled with magic, rich in symbolism with subtle Christian themes. A book to get lost in, and just the kind of book I would’ve loved as a child. It is, by the way, a favorite of J.K. Rowling.

Recently, I picked up one of her adult books, THE SCENT OF WATER. While completely different, (no fantasy or magic), it still has Goudge’s characteristic description and symbolism. It’s a quiet book and felt like sinking into an easy chair each time I picked it up.

But the best part of SCENT OF WATER is the storyline about a blind writer, Paul, who’s struggling to find success. It doesn’t help that his wife is not very supportive. I loved his character arc, and how he finds success in the end, because he develops a “happy partnership” with a neighbor, who finally reads and understands his work.

Here are some writing nuggets from the book (mostly Paul’s dialogue):

About being an artist (or a writer): “It’s the kind of picture you paint, or the kind of book you write, that makes you unordinary, not just writing a book or painting a picture.”

About rough drafts: “But the first time through is a profound relief, like knowing you’ve reached the turning point of an illness.”

I am fortunate to have found some writing kindred spirits like Paul: “He had found in her a sympathetic but intelligent critic. She could wield the pruning knife mercifully yet at the same time she watered the roots. “
About success (when it finally comes); “I like it that people now want my work. But I don’t like them knowing so much about me through what I write, for it makes me feel naked. I want it both ways, of course, to be wanted and anonymous at the same time.” 

Books about writers and their journeys inspire me to keep going.

Have you read anything that inspires you lately?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Ten Good and Bad Things About My Life (So Far)

I discover some of the best reads in the "new books" section of my library.

TEN GOOD AND BAD THINGS ABOUT MY LIFE (SO FAR) by Ann Martin is one of those books.

Here’s the blurb from Amazon:

Pearl Littlefield’s first assignment in fifth grade is complicated: She has to write an essay about her summer. Where does she begin? Her dad lost his job, she had to go to a different camp—one where her older sister Lexie was a counselor-in-training  (ugh!)—and she and her good friend James Brubaker III had a huge fight, which made them both wonder if the other kids were right that girls and boys can’t be good friends and which landed one of them in the hospital.

And there’s much, much more on the list of good and bad things, as Ann Martin takes this appealing character into new adventures through which young readers will see that good or bad, life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

 Ten Good Things about this book:
1. Humor--Pearl is hilarious.
2. Unemployment through a kid's perspective. I think a lot of kids (and adults) can relate to the changes Pearl's family has to make.
3. An interesting best friend (James Brubaker III)--and a realistic portrayal of how boy/girl friendships change at this age.
4. Staycation ideas!
5. I really loved Lexie, even though she's supposed to be the annoying older sister. This is probably because I was the annoying older sister, but it's also because I loved how the girls grow together throughout this book.
6. Lots of lists!
7. A tie-in to a homework assignment. It's the former teacher in me, but I love books that take place in school settings or where school is part of the plot.
8. Camp scenes.
9.  Interesting parents. I am a sucker for stories where the parents are not absent, but complement the story.
10. Fills a Ramona Quimby fix. It's a great book to read if you or your child has a hankering for Ramona Quimby books (but have already read them all a million times). This is a lot like a modern Ramona and Beezus.
Little known facts: The author, Ann Martin, is also the author of the Babysitter Club books.

THE GOOD AND BAD THINGS ABOUT MY LIFE (SO FAR) is part of a series. The first book involving Pearl and her sister are TEN RULES FOR LIVING WITH MY SISTER.
To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

To Sochi--With Books

In honor of the Olympics starting in Sochi today, I'm celebrating with a few of my favorite Russian books. Here's a few books with a Russian setting, characters or themes that are dear to my heart.

Picture Books

Gennady Spirin's artwork is exquisite. And THE FROG PRINCESS (Patrick A. Lewis) is my favorite Russian folktale.The Russian version is nothing like Grimm's--be prepared to be enchanted.

THREE CHEERS FOR CATHERINE THE GREAT (Cari Best, Giselle Potter) always made my sons roll with laughter. A classic.

Middle Grade

Ah, I loved this Newberry Honor Book. Sasha's journey to understand the Party and his father was so moving.This is required reading at my house. My 11 year old son loved it.

THE TURNING (Gloria Whelan)
As a teen, I was fascinated by Russians who chose to defect during the Cold War. I loved this subtle story about a Kirov ballerina trying to decide whether to make a break for freedom on a trip to Paris.

Young Adult

THE LOST CROWN (Sarah Miller)
I love all of Sarah Miller's books, but this is my favorite. She captured the voice and the Russian-ness of the Romanovs so well, that I was surprised to learn Miller doesn't speak Russian. The last sentence is one of the most haunting in YA literature.


SNOW CHILD (Eowyn Ivey)
Can you tell that I have a thing for Russian folklore? This was my favorite adult read of last year. It does not take place in Russia, but in 1920s Alaska. The language is gorgeous. This is one of those books you want to savor, like a cup of strong Russian tea.

To accompany any of these reads, I suggest very strong black tea, sweetened with lemon and sugar or copious spoonfuls of jam (tastier than you would think). Then you too can be a true Russian reader.

Happy Reading!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


In TWO PART INTERVENTION: A STORY OF A MARRIAGE, Madeleine L’Engle tells about her early life in the theater where she met her husband. During this time, she knew an actress who every time she thought she had a bad performance, actually did well, and every time she thought she had a stellar performance,  performed awfully.

She said it was a good lesson for her as a writer. As artist, you never have true objectivity about your work.

I think about this every time I get a critique on what I write. I am often shocked by what is working as much as what is not.

I don't have a lot of objectivity.

Most days I vacillate between thinking my book  is horrible to thinking it's the best thing I've ever written.

How  do I know that I'm getting anywhere?

I rely on my wonderful critique partners to be that objective eye. At least with this book, I didn't need to write it all over. And the query letter was easier to write. So perhaps, I am getting closer.

And also, I try to trust that when I’ve feel like I’ve done my best, I have. Even if it’s not perfect.

The Insecure Writer's Support Group was started by Alex Cavanaugh (CASSASTAR, CASSAFIRE, CASSASTORM).
You can find more links at http://alexjcavanaugh.blogspot.com/p/the-insecure-writers-support-group.html

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Vanished by Sheela Chari

I was so excited when I heard about Vanished by Sheela Chari. It's not often that a mystery centers around an ancient Indian instrument. I was immediately intrigued.

Synopsis from Amazon:
Eleven-year-old Neela dreams of being a famous musician, performing for admiring crowds on her traditional Indian stringed instrument. Her particular instrument was a gift from her grandmother-intricately carved with a mysterious-looking dragon.

When this special family heirloom vanishes from a local church, strange clues surface: a tea kettle ornamented with a familiar pointy-faced dragon, a threatening note, a connection to a famous dead musician, and even a legendary curse. The clues point all the way to India, where it seems that Neela's instrument has a long history of vanishing and reappearing. Even if Neela does track it down, will she be able to stop it from disappearing again?

What I loved about this book:
--Learning about another culture, an unusual instrument (a veena) with a fascinating history. You don't have to have a murder for a mystery to be compelling.
--Neela's difficulties in learning to play in front of others was very relatable. I still remember how I hated my piano recitals! (Please don't make me play in front of other people. Ever again.)
--I loved that Neela had a strong relationship with her parents and her brother. This was so refreshing, because often in kidlit, kids seem somewhat divorced from their parents. Although Neela did branch out on her own, her relationship to her parents and family was always important to her.
--I thought Neela's pull between the Indian and American sides of herself was very authentic and real.
--I loved how Chari handled Neela's friendship with a boy in a way that was authentic to Neela's culture and her character.

Vanished was an APALA Honor book, an Edgar Nominee and pick for Al Roker's Book Club for kids.

For more middle grade suggestions, see Shannon Messenger's blog.

Have you read any good middle grades lately?