Monday, July 28, 2014

The Secret Hum of a Daisy and Writer's Process Blog Hop

I have two posts for the price of one today. First I’m going to do my regular Marvelous Monday highlight, but keep reading to see my answers to the Writing Process blog that has been making the rounds. Enjoy!

The Secret Hum of a Daisy:

This is one of this year’s books that I’ve been really looking forward to. Recently, I read an inspiring article by Tracy in the SCBWI Bulletin. If you haven’t read it,  it’s all about how taking a break from writing can actually help you be creative. A must read!

Now on to the review:

 The synopsis:

Twelve-year-old Grace and her mother have always been their own family, traveling from place to place like gypsies. But Grace wants to finally have a home all their own. Just when she thinks she's found it her mother says it's time to move again. Grace summons the courage to tell her mother how she really feels and will always regret that her last words to her were angry ones.

After her mother's sudden death, Grace is forced to live with a grandmother she's never met. She can't imagine her mother would want her to stay with this stranger. Then Grace finds clues in a mysterious treasure hunt, just like the ones her mother used to send her on. Maybe it is her mother, showing her the way to her true mother used to send her on. Maybe it is her mother, showing her the way to her true home.

 What I loved about this book:

  1. It did not manipulate your emotions. Even though this book was about a grief, I never felt like the emotion was forced. I wasn’t crying buckets by the end. Yet, Grace’s grief and growth were beautiful and realistic.
  2. Before vs. After. Grace talked about this throughout the book—how everything in her life had changed with her mom’s death. This really resonated with me, because I remember this feeling when I lost my dad.
  3. Motifs. I loved how Tracy used daisy and bird motifs throughout the book. They came up often, but never overpowered the narrative. Really well done.
  4. A courageous main character. I loved how Grace’s emotions ran the gamut from angry to sad. Even though she could be prickly at times, she was always sympathetic. Her bravery in facing such a devastating loss at such a young age was inspiring.
  5. Themes.  I loved the themes in this book: that people aren’t perfect, that everyone will hurt you at some point, but life is about “repair,” and how sometimes we have to get a little crazy to deal with the pain in our lives.
    The Secret Hum of a Daisy is unique in contemporary MG books. It’s la lot like LOVE, AUBREY, but I liked it even more. It had an authenticity about it that I don’t often find in books about grief. This would be a great book for a child who is dealing with loss, but also for anyone who loves more literary, character-driven books 

    If you're looking for Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.

Writer’s Blog Hop

A couple weeks ago, one of my critique partners, Andrea Brame, who writes YA contemporary and speculative fiction, tagged me for the Writer’s Process Blog Hop. Thanks, Andrea! Here are my answers to how I write:

What am I working on/writing?

I am revising a YA historical fantasy right now. It’s a retelling of a Russian folktale set in the time of the Napoleon and a story close to my heart.

I am also drafting a middle grade contemporary mystery set in Scotland. I am only about half-way through with this novel, but I need to finish it by late fall, since I will be working on it at a revision retreat this winter.

How does my work/writing differ from others of its genre?

For YA: I don’t write straight fantasy. It’s more magical realism. It has a real historical setting, rather than just a historical feel. I do adjust dates, etc., if needed, but I try to stick to the historical facts as much as possible. My goal is to capture the voice of the time period.

As far as my middle grade work, I tend to write about close families with parents present (something that can be unusual in kidlit). I often include kids with disabilities in my work. I think of my writing as more “realistic” in style and tone than my YA.

Why do I write what I do?

When I studied in Russia, one of my favorite things was the skaski (magical tales). I also love Tolstoi's work. (I'm actually one of those crazy people who like War and Peace.) This book grew out of those two loves.  When I started this book, I’d just endured a long stretch of rejections and was discouraged. I decided to write the book I wanted to read. That was a freeing experience.

I wrote my middle grade book for my son. We took him to a handmade instrument festival when he was young, and that sparked the idea for characters whose life revolved around music history. At about the same time, my grandfather told me some family history about his mother, who was of Scottish descent. The ideas came together and voila--a story idea was born.

I almost gave up on the MG book. I started it and then set it aside for five years, thinking it was too hard for me to write from the perspective of a boy. I’m finishing it now, hoping that my son can read it before he graduates to YA books.

How does my writing process work?

It’s different with every book, but generally I have a period (usually when I’m writing another book) where I get a bunch of ideas. Over time, these ideas germinate into a really COOL idea—or sometimes not. The ideas for stories that stay with me for several months or even years get written.

Then I do some preliminary work with characters and make a general outline. If I’m writing a historical, I do research at this stage. But then I start writing. I don’t think I’ve ever written a scene that didn’t turn out differently than I expected. I don’t think I’ve ever written a character that I fully knew before I started writing him or her. I get to know my characters—and my plot--as I write.

Then after I have a full draft or sometimes before, I start exchanging with critique partners. I usually have some people read it in the early stages and then after I’ve made it as good as I can, I have a few people read the whole thing.

Then I revise. And repeat as necessary. I often take breaks to do more research as needed.

I know I’m getting close when I’ve torn it to pieces multiple times or when my critique partners are fairly positive in their reviews.

Then out it goes!

I’m tagging June Small, whose first picture book, DONNA IS EVIL, comes out this year. I’m also tagging Laurel Decher, who lives in Germany and writes middle grade. Take it away, ladies! I’m looking forward to reading your responses.

One last note: due to my son’s birthday, family visiting, and other summer fun, I’m going to miss the next two middle grade Mondays. See you later in August!

Monday, July 21, 2014

MMGM: The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky

This book has been getting a lot of love, especially when it first came out. I've learned, though, that just because everyone else likes a book, doesn't mean I will. But I knew I was reading something special from the first page.
Not only does Auggie have the best grampa in the old, but he’s got a car with personality (and a name!).

I’m in.

The synopsis:

 August “Auggie” Jones lives with her Grandpa Gus, a trash hauler, in a poor part of town. So when her wealthy classmate’s father starts the House Beautification Committee, it’s homes like Auggie’s that are deemed “in violation.” Auggie is determined to prove that she is not as run-down as the outside of her house might suggest. Using the kind of items Gus usually hauls to the scrap heap, a broken toaster becomes a flower; church windows turn into a rainbow walkway; and an old car gets new life as spinning whirligigs. What starts out as a home renovation project becomes much more as Auggie and her grandpa discover a talent they never knew they had—and redefine a whole town’s perception of beauty, one recycled sculpture at a time. Auggie’s talent for creating found art will remind readers that one girl’s trash really is another girl’s treasure.

What I loved about this book:

  1. Memorable characters: Most of Schindler’s characters, even the most minor, are interesting. I love how she gives them memorable tags: the pastor who wears sneakers to remind himself how he used to live on the wild side, the principal who’s taken his wife’s maiden name, the teacher who pops indigestion tablets by the handful. The only exception is the antagonist and her side-kick (Auggie’s former BFF), who I wish were a little more well-rounded.
  2. Description: I’m sure this is something I noticed because I’m working on in my own writing, but I loved how Schindler described everyday things in interesting ways: “Chuck’s grin grows like a flower blooming on fast forward.” The book is peopled with interesting turns of phrase like this showing that kids are the best metaphor-makers.
  3. Poverty as a theme: One of the things I loved about this book is how Auggie and her family are never ashamed of not having as much as others. The theme of accepting who you are and where you came from was really strong. I loved how grampa said, “Poor folks have poor ways”—and how that was something to be proud of.
  4. Names: I loved how most of the names of the characters in this book have a history—Auggie was named after her grampa so he would keep her, the aforementioned principal who changed his name, even the truck “Old Glory.” This gave the story depth and interest.
    For writers: If you’re working on how to avoid typical clichés for describing emotions (heart beating fast, sweaty palms), check out this book. I love how Schindler avoids these clichés with interesting metaphors in Auggie’s voice. Like: "Gus's face is filled with so many worry wrinkles, it reminds me of the collar of a shirt that's been inside of someone's fist." 
    JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY would appeal to fans of quiet, feel-good books like those by Cynthia Lord, Linda Urban, and Danette Haworth.
    Have you read any interesting middle grades lately?
  5. If you're looking for Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Writers on Writing: Anna Staniszewski and THE PRANK LIST blog tour


I'm so excited to have Anna Staniszewski joining us today on my blog! I first met her on the Blueboards, but I've come to enjoy reading her thoughtful and informative blog, and I'm a big fan of her books. It's not many who can combine tween fantasy or contemporary fiction with humor, and Anna does it so well.

Anna's Bio:

Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna Staniszewski grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. Currently, she lives outside Boston with her husband and their crazy dog. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. She is the author of the My Very UnFairy Tale Life series and the Dirt Diary series. Her newest book, The Prank List, released on July 1st from Sourcebooks. You can visit Anna at

Her latest book, THE PRANK LIST, which released on July 1st, is a fun, fast read. I think it would appeal to middle school girls especially--the age when I remember pulling a few pranks of my own.

The synopsis (from Goodreads):
Rachel never thought she'd fight for the right to clean toilets, but she has to save her mom's business. Nothing can distract her from her mission - except maybe Whit, the cute new guy in cooking class. Then she discovers something about Whit that could change everything. After destroying her Dirt Diary, Rachel thought she was done with secrets, but to save her family's business, Rachel's going to have to get her hands dirty. Again

Hi Anna! Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a writer.
Hi Jenni! I live and teach in the Boston area and am the author of the My Very UnFairy Tale Life series and the Dirt Diary series, both published by Sourcebooks. Honestly, I’m not sure I ever became a writer. I feel like I’ve always been one. I’ve been writing stories since elementary school and always dreamed of being published one day. It wasn’t until I finished grad school, though, that I buckled down and started actually FINISHING projects and sending them out into the world.

That's great that you've always felt like you were a writer. How did you get the idea for THE PRANK LIST?
At the end of the first book in the series, The Dirt Diary, there’s talk of Rachel taking a pastry class. Since she loves to bake, I started to think what it might be like for her to get to the class and realize that it’s not at all what she thought it would be. What if she starts doubting her baking skills? On top of that, I started to wonder what would happen if Rachel’s mom’s cleaning business was threatened by a rival company. What might Rachel do to save her family?

THE PRANK LIST is your fifth book since 2011. You have a final novel in that series coming out next January and a new series, I’M WITH CUPID, debuting next summer, along with two picture books coming out in 2015 and 2016. How do you juggle so many different projects at once?
Some days, not very well! Luckily, only some of those projects have overlapped, but there were a few times when I had to drop drafting one manuscript to do revisions on another, etc. I actually like having more than one project going at a time because if I get stuck on one, I can work on the other one for a little while. In that way, jumping between projects works for me. But having so many deadlines also means that I’ve had to become much more organized.

Your books are filled with laugh out loud humor, which is so refreshing in fiction for tweens. Do you have any tips for writing humor?
My biggest tip is to think about what makes you, specifically, laugh. You’re never going to write humor that appeals to everyone, but if you focus on the type of humor that makes you giggle, it will feel genuine in the story. Also, don’t be afraid to exaggerate! A lot of humor comes from taking amusing situations and dialing them up a notch—or ten.

Great advice about focusing on what makes you laugh. Your first book came out in 2011. What have you learned since then or wished you would have known back then?
I mentioned above that I needed to get a lot more organized with my writing. That’s the big thing I’ve learned about writing/publishing in general. I used to be a total pantser, never outlining or planning my stories beforehand. Now that I write on deadline, that approach just doesn’t work anymore. I thought planning a story in advance would stifle creativity, but I’ve realized that it actually allows me to be more creative. Once I figure out a strong framework for the narrative, I have more time to think about making each individual scene as interesting as I can.

What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on drafting I’m With Cupid, which has been a fun departure from my other projects. While it’s still in the funny tween genre, it’s a bit darker than my other books (it’s about a girl reaper and a boy cupid who accidentally swap powers) and it’s also written in a different voice than my other novels. I’m also getting excited about the release of my first picture book, Power Down, Little Robot, forthcoming from Henry Holt in March 2015.

What your favorite books or authors influenced you? Do you have any favorite books on the writing craft?
Two authors who’ve greatly influenced my own writing have been Lois Lowry—because of her amazingly economical use of language—and Wendy Mass—because of her ability to create real worlds with a hint of magic. As for craft books, I absolutely love The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. That book completely changed the way I approach plot.

I love The Anatomy of a Story. It's not often that I hear it mentioned.What piece of advice would you give to other writers?
I would share a piece of advice that Jo Knowles once shared with me: Make writing a priority. It’s so easy to allow everything else to get in the way, but if you’re serious about writing then you have to make time for it.

That's great advice and so true! I need to remember not to let all the other things in my life crowd writing out. Thanks so much for joining us, Anna!

To find more PRANK LIST blog tour posts or to learn more about Anna, visit her on her blog . You can also find her on Twitter

Do you have any questions for Anna? Ask away in the comments!

Monday, July 14, 2014

MMGM: Violet Raines Almost Got Struck By Lightning

This is another one of those books that’s not super-new (2010), but I’ve been meaning to read it for a long time, ever since I’d heard about the deal on Blueboards. More recently, Mary Kole recommended it as a MG for authors to read and study. So when I saw it recently at my library, I had to pick it up.

I'm so glad I did. There is much for authors to learn from this lovely book.


Violet Raines is happy with things just the way they are in her sleepy Florida town, but when Melissa moves to town from big-city Detroit, all of a sudden things seem like they're changing whether Violet likes it or not. It'll take a few run-ins with lightning and a whole lot of courage for her to realize that growing up doesn't have to mean changing who you are.

What I loved:
  1. Character (this seems to be a reoccurring theme, I fall in love with books based on their characters): Violet Raines is a great combination of spunkiness and vulnerability. I loved how she didn’t want to wear make-up and wasn’t boy-crazy, but was struggling to fit in with girls who were. This was very believable, and I think a lot of tweens will relate to it.
  2. Voice: Haworth captures the voice of the South and of Florida very well. As a Northerner, it took me a bit to get used to all the so’s, but it really worked in this book. I will stay with a book for a long time if it has a good voice—and this one won me over.
  3. Faith: I loved how Violet’s going to church and praying was part of the story—not forced, but very authentic and keeping with the characters and setting.
  4. Beautiful ending and one of the best last lines I’ve read in awhile. A great reminder that although we tend to spend a lot of time honing that first line, a last line that resonates is just as important, if not more so.
  5. Symbolism: I loved the way Haworth used a bridge (complete with alligators underneath) as a symbolic device, which made for a very powerful ending.
Violet Raines is a book that would appeal to fans of BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE and GLORY BE and readers who like quiet, character-driven stories set in the South (like me!).

Have you read any inspiring middle grades lately?

If you're looking for Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.
P.S. I don't normally post on Thursday, but please come back this week for a very special interview with Anna Staniszewski, author of My Fairy Unfairy Tale Life and the Dirt Diary series. We'll be talking about writing and her latest book, THE PRANK LIST.

Monday, July 7, 2014

MMGM Odds and Ends

For those of you here in the States, I hope you had a wonderful Fourth of July!

Due to the holiday this week, I don't have a regular MMGM post for you, but I do have a winner to announce.

We also have a surprise giveaway. After the interview ran last week, S.A.M. Posey contacted me about a passing along her book to one of the commenters. I drew a name this weekend. And the winner is (drum roll, please):

Congratulations, Andrea! I have sent you an email.

Please come back next Monday (July 14th) for my regular MMGM post. And on July 17th, I will be part of Anna Staniszewki's PRANK LIST blog tour.

If you're looking for Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

ISWG: Better Than Last Time

I was never too into sports as a kid. My first (and only) foray into soccer at 9 wasn’t very successful: I was more interested in counting daisies than paying attention to the ball.

But in high school, I found my sport: swimming. I didn’t have to deal with a ball. I could be in the water. And I could compete with myself.

My swim coach didn’t see it that way though. I’ll never forget barely missing first place in a really long race (500 yards). As I struggled to get out of the pool, he berated me.

“How could you not get first?”

Luckily, I had some swim buddies to cheer me up. I had gotten second, but I’d swam the fastest 500 of my life.

See, I didn’t really lose the race. I’d improved. I’d gotten faster. No matter what my coach said.

It seems like the world (or the little doubts in my head) are like my coach:

Why aren’t you published yet? If you’re not, you’re not a real writer.

Or maybe if you are published:

Why didn’t you win that award?

Why haven’t you sold as many books as X? etc., etc.

I remember reading a blog post a year or two back where the writer said that was her goal in querying was only to “get better.” If she only got more requests than last time with each book, she felt like she’d succeeded.

That’s what I’m trying to keep in mind now.

Someone’s always going to be a faster or better writer or get a book deal/agent sooner. Or perhaps someone will win an award or sell more books or make more money.

But if I’ve done better than last time, I have succeeded. So, yes, silly as it seems, I’m ecstatic that my rejections are “better” than last time. I’m getting closer. I’m getting better.
Winning isn’t everything.

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.

Let’s rock the neurotic writing world!

Our Twitter hashtag is #IWSG

 For more posts in this blog hop: