An Irresistible Book on Writing Kidlit

kole kidlit In November, I'd read this post on Through the Tollbooth, a blog by VCFA alums. I'd graduated with my MFA some four months earlier and I assumed (somewhat snidely, I suppose) that I had all the writing books one could need. There wasn't a book out there that could tell me something I hadn't already heard, right? The post slowed down my assumption-creating brain a little when I considered that author of the post was also an alum -- a published one at that -- and she found the book quite helpful. Also, the book was written by agent extraordinaire Mary Kole.

In need of some inspiration or motivation or I don't know what -- I ordered the book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers, and it arrived on a doorstep just a few days later. (Oh how love books arriving on my doorstep.) I find the book to be compulsively readable and despite the many books on writing which line my shelves (and spill over onto counters and pile onto side tables), this one does indeed fill a gap that I didn't know I had.

Having Kole's book is like having SCBWI sitting on your shelf, only less crowded. Kole's tone respects the art of writing, but also oh-so-gently reminds the sensitive writer that bookselling is (ahem) a business. She reminds us that it will help us as writers to know the markets, to understand the lingo, to grasp the process of selling a book. Kole provides clear, thought-provoking descriptions of the differences between middle grade and young adult literature. For example, she reminds writers where middle grade kids are in their development and what they will identify with in those stages. Toward the middle of the book, she dives into craft issues, including chapters on story foundation, character and plot. Each chapter includes examples from published novels as well as quotes from contemporary authors and editors of middle grade and young adult novels. All of it is written in an encouraging and straight-forward manner.

A section in Chapter 6 on Plot particularly helped me. Kole provides two plot graphs. The first illustrates the traditional three-act plot graph. You've all seen it, it looks like an inverted check mark. The second was an emotional plot graph, which looks sort of like a sea serpent. It's got more curves and it's upside down, compared to the traditional one. (I'd like to copy it for you here, but I'm not sure about copyright stuff.) At any rate, looking at the two graphs, I realized what was missing in my manuscript. My character hadn't hit her moment of no-hope despair, the moment that will allow her to grow and understand her new normal, the moment that will allow the reader to resonate with her pain and see her ability to move through it. This, of course, was not a lack of teaching on the part of my MFA advisors. On the contrary,  I knew I needed to raise the stakes for my character, but the visual cue of the graph, helped me to see how to do that in a new light.

Kole's book offers a nice entre to concepts of craft and it is an excellent resource for writers who are ready to learn more about the business side of writing for children and young adults. Also, it's just plain fun to read.

Hello, Hello, Hello. Is There Anybody Out There?

 Hello? Yoo-hoo?  Oh! There you are. Hello!  And thanks for hanging about while I neglected my blog on a grand scale.  And yes, I am/was a Pink Floyd fan. Hope you caught the reference.  Most of you have probably assumed that since I started my writing program, I simply haven't had time to update my blog.  And you've forgiven me - thank you for that.  You are right, partly, well, mostly.  It's true, I have been busy but it hasn't been all writing, all the time.  See, I seem to like to lump it all on at one time so it's not just that I'm writing a bunch of words that hopefully form sentences that perhaps make chapters - it's also that I am training for the New York Marathon.  

There I said it. I don't think I've said that here yet.  Probably not, seeing as I haven't updated this little puppy in almost three months.  And back then, in July, I was most certainly not publicly announcing my plans to run the New York marathon.  It's not that I was on the fence - I had registered, I had committed - in my mind at least.  But I'm sort of , I don't know, superstitious and I worried that if I talked about it too much, I might jinx myself.  There's a bit of reality behind my coyness, too.  I've been plagued by injuries in the past and I didn't want to tell the world I was running if I ended up with stress fractures or whatever and couldn't run.

Now, with the marathon less than three weeks away - with my last monster long run behind me - I can say with confidence that I will be running the five boroughs on Sunday, November 7!  

One thing I didn't expect is the structure that my marathon training has brought to my writing.  As you know, if you read this blog ever, at all, I quit my job at Swarthmore College back at the end of June to devote myself the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  The marathon training started during the week I was away for my first residency and since then, I've found that the runs give me something to work around. I don't mean to say that my writing is taking less a priority than my running. It's more like, once I plug the running into my schedule, I see the time available for the writing.  It's like Michelangelo and sculpture. I just carve out everything that doesn't look like writing time. Yeah. Michelangelo. Sculpture. Anyway....

I've been running and writing and reading.  Pretty much all the time.  That is when I'm not momming.  (Spell-check is telling me that isn't a verb but don't you think it should be?)  The writing is coming along pretty well.  With the first packet I sent my advisor, I was all "I'm cool, I got this," so with the second packet, I had to humble myself.  Now I'm in a good groove, writing two critical essays a month on books I've read and writing lots of pages of my fun paranormal romance based on the story of Black Aggie. Shout out to all the Baltimoreans reading this blog!  

In support of my new project, I did lots of research on Black Aggie.  For those of you not from Baltimore, here she is:

She's creepy, right?  It's no wonder she inspired me to write a paranormal young adult novel.  And since I no longer live in the Baltimore area, I'm using a local cemetery as the setting. West Laurel Hill is a beautiful, old cemetery just this side of Philadelphia. The original Laurel Hill - no the spillover West part - is in Philadelphia and I hear ghost hunters give tours there. I haven't made it to one yet but I did drag the kids to West Laurel Hill for more inspiration. And I found it:
Beautiful, right?  And haunting.  Yeah, that's what I thought, too.  

So there you have it.  I am settling into the stream of my new life - the ebb and flow of the kids' activities, the regular current of my running and the tidal wave of deadlines - okay, okay, enough with the water metaphor.  But for real - all is good.  I am busy but not freaked out.  And the truth is, every time I planned to update my blog, I remembered a quote from Sherman Alexie in a Writer's Digest interview: Every word on your blog is one word not in your novel. Ouch!  And off I'd scurry to muse about my new project some more.  But for today - I was compelled to reconnect and post again. I hope you are well and I'd love to hear how you've spent the last three months!  How's Autumn treating you? Do you miss the lazy days of summer or are you inspired and reinvigorated by the brisk mornings of fall?  


Black and White

On Monday, my husband and I flew home from a weekend in Florida. The pilot announced that we would soon be landing in Philadelphia and I looked out the window to watch the land rise up to meet us. The river and the roads cut black lines through the unending white that stretched in all directions as far as I could see. A black and white rendering of the land where we live. The pale blue of a water tower and the burnished red of a barn were muted, unable to compete with the stark landscape. The snow stalled life last week, keeping me home from work, the kids home from school and my husband away. I felt a different sense of wonder with this snow. This time I felt the nervous sense of the power of nature. Power was down in my neighborhood, branches fell from trees. I still appreciated the forced slowdown of our busy lives but the shoveling was daunting. Our backyard looks like an Olympic mogul field because we ran out places to shovel the snow from our driveway. It took days to dig out, both figuratively and literally and it's only today, a week later, that I feel that I've caught up.

On the heels of that storm, I was lucky to get away for the weekend, even luckier to have a sitter to stay with the kids. As you probably know, Florida had experienced the coldest winter in memory and Key Biscayne was no stranger so I wasn't on the beach but everything was green, there was no snow and that was enough for me.

Since my husband was attending a conference, I took advantage of the alone time to catch up on reading and spend some time writing. On Sunday morning, I stood before the hostess with a book in hand and felt a quiver of excitement as I smiled and said, "Table for one, please."

There are few things as luxurious to me as a brand new book and hours of unscheduled time. Don't get me wrong, I also enjoy my time with my family but when it comes to luxury - I love a good book and no demands. Besides, things aren't usually as clear as the black road cutting through the white snow, right? As Walt Whitman said in Song of Myself: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)"

What is luxurious for you? What do you love to do when there's no laundry calling, no meals to be made, no demands on your time?