Thursday, April 28, 2011

Riding The Bus With 5th Graders

Yesterday I squished onto a big yellow school bus with a few dozen 5th graders to chaperone a field trip. The bus smelled like wet socks. The girls across the aisle nibbled bits of neon green paper. The kid behind me kept jamming his knee into my back. One girl wore a cluster of key chains on her eye glasses--and my daughter informed me that the one that said "I *heart* Justin Bieber" was meant to be ironic.

I scribbled notes about all these potential characters in my little notebook.

But my biggest writing lesson happened during the play we went to see: Honest Abe Lincoln. The actors were fun to watch, but I couldn't imagine anyone except a school group watching this message-driven play. Abe was honest. Abe loved to read. Abe was honest. Abe loved to read. Abe was honest. Oh, and he loved to read.

Bam. Bam. Bam. 

The writer hammered the message into almost every bit of dialogue, as well as dumping information into conversation, "As you know, Abe, [insert facts that no one really says in dialogue]."

I watched the sparkly-ballet flat-wearing girls, slumped in their seats, fuchsia-encased iphones resting on their laps. Earlier these girls showed off impressive dialogue skills as they flirted with the boys sitting behind them.

Kids are sophisticated these days. And smart. Even 5th graders deserve our best storytelling skills. Plus, they're at an age when most people talk down to them. And they hate that!

If the play had focused on an interesting anecdote in Abe Lincoln's life, it would've had more impact than constantly telling the audience that he loved to read and that he was *gasp* honest.

Tonight most of those 5th graders will be putting on a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The kids have embraced the challenge of learning new vocabulary, memorizing lines, puzzling out the meaning of each scene... Because they're smart.

Remember that in your own writing. Your readers are intelligent and sophisticated, even the ones who chew neon green paper on the school bus.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Teen Author Boot Camp

Last Saturday I spent the day with 130 fabulous teen writers at the Teen Author Boot Camp. The teens impressed me with their intelligence and creativity as we busted stereotypes and figured out ways to make believable bad guys and interesting main characters. 

Wanna try it yourself?

• List five stereotypes. How is this character the exact opposite of one of these?
• Think of three actions that will make this character sympathetic.
• Write this character’s history (parents, trauma, etc.). Add the best bits to your story.

Thanks so much to Writers Cubed for organizing a wonderful day! 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Few Books on Writing Craft

I'm always surprised when I encounter one of those writers who thinks the struggle to master craft stops with publication. Learning is my favorite thing about writing and I'm always stretching myself to improve my craft.

April is Poetry Month so I'm working through Writing The Life Poetic by Sage Cohen and filling my practice notebook with a lot of mediocre verse. Poetry has always intimidated me (I never understood all the significance my high school teachers found in poems), but it's something I want to learn. So I'm practicing every day. The short chapters and exercises in this book are, for lack of a more poetic word, fun.

Here are some other books that have helped me along the way:

Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg. This book gave me permission to practice. Until I found this book I thought that becoming an author required some elusive mixture of alcoholism and magical talent that I didn't seem to possess. Twenty-three spiral notebooks later, I will always be grateful to Natalie Goldberg for showing me the first steps to becoming a writer.

The Write-Brain Workbook by Bonnie Neubauer. The gorgeous graphic design in this notebook has me looking forward to the next exercise. These short exercises are a great way to jump-start creativity, silence that annoying internal editor, and feel a sense of accomplishment no matter what else gets written that day. I meet a lot of writers who "just don't have the time." Everyone has the daily ten minutes needed for these quick prompts. No excuses!!!

If You Want To Write by Brenda Ueland. Published in 1938 this book provides timeless nuggets of advice as well as inspiration. Ueland writes, "Everybody is talented, original and has something to say..." After you've read Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird and Stephen King's On Writing try this one.

The Fire In Fiction by Donald Maass. I read this one so vigorously the pages came loose! I've got high-lighted sections, sticky note markers, notes jotted... I especially love the Practical Tools sections at the end of each chapter. I find myself returning to this craft-intensive book again and again.

Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. I bought this book when I first started revising Jungle Crossing, but I've returned to it every manuscript since. It's also the gift I give to all my friends who complete their first novel.

One last note: Take the time to do the writing exercises listed in craft books. It's often too tempting, too easy, to think, Yup. Did that. Mmm-hmm. Did that too. I'm obviously brilliant--no need to revise. YAY!

You're not really stretching your abilities unless you dig in and do the difficult work.

Contest Winner!


Jolene wins signed copies of Joy Preble's series Dreaming Anastasia and Haunted

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Shake Up Your Story Settings

Most of the time I hear bands play in concert venues like sports arenas, outdoor amphitheaters, or grimy bars. Here's Arcade Fire playing last week at Utah Valley University:

I had a whole blog post planned about how the lead singer forgot the words, singing "something, something," until the crowd helped him along. Moral: people forgive your mistakes & even Grammy-winning rock bands blank out sometimes, so don't freak out when your own words don't come.

But alas I had two presentations to give at our regional SCBWI conference in Boise, Idaho on Saturday so I didn't get that post written. Saturday afternoon, I found myself listening to another band play at Boise State University:

Most people don't equate children's writing conferences with electric guitars, right? And who knew that picture book author Judy Cox could really rock that bass! Come to find out, she's been in a band for thirty years & plays regular gigs.

I never would've known about Judy's inner Guitar Goddess had we not switched up the setting. Take the rock band out of the club and plunk it into a writing conference. Not only did the silly songs make us laugh, but the whole show revealed character. (I have crazy creative SCBWI volunteers in Boise!)

Now think about your own writing. What would happen if you took that big argument between your MC and her parents out of the kitchen--and put it in her dad's office? A bowling alley? Outside church?

Too often we rely on the same old settings in our stories: school cafeteria, home, home, home, Biology class, home, cafeteria... Shake things up. Make lists of all the unique places in your character's town or fantasy world. Are your scenes happening in some of these places? Why not?

Putting your characters in unique and varied settings will allow you to reveal new things about your characters. Try it!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On The Go With Joy Preble + Book Giveaway!

One of my favorite author friends, Joy Preble, visited Utah last week, so I took her on a short adventure to Antelope Island. Where else in the world can you see bison roaming on an island in the middle of a huge, salty prehistoric lake? 

I also attended Joy's book signings to celebrate the release of Haunted, the sequel to Dreaming Anastasia. Joy was also kind enough to kick off my new On The Go questions. 

Leave a comment and you can win your own signed copies! 

1. You have been given your Dream Vacation. Where are you going & what are you doing?

I am actually planning for one of my dream vacations - probably year after next if we can save enough money. We will be going to Australia and New Zealand to see everything we can see - including Sydney, koala bears, and the gorgeous scenery where they shot Lord of the Rings. I can hardly wait!!

2. What if you could travel to a different time period?

I'd like to travel to turn of the 20th century NYC and have tea at the Plaza Hotel. Because seriously, who doesn't want to do that? I could do that every afternoon, actually. Wouldn't that be amazing?

3. Are you a planner or a seat-of-the pants traveler?

I'm a ridiculously OCD-type over-planner. Just ask my husband. He referred to one New York trip as "The Bataan Death March of Vacations."  I read travel guides. I search on line. I map quest like a mad woman. I ponder. I make lists. My lists make lists. I have plans for vacations we might never get to. It's scary.

4. What's the worst thing that's ever happened to you on vacation?

One time - on a spur of the moment trip to San Antonio and Sea World, we got to the hotel and the clerk said, "Your room isn't ready." What she meant was that this hotel was still being built and our room (which we'd booked from a central reservation line, not the individual hotel) wasn't actually built yet! But as it was late and every other hotel in the area was booked, they put us up in what had been the hotel night club. We were awake all night with the neon flashing in the windows. I guess that's more funny than awful, though.

Find out more about Joy Preble at

Now it's your chance to escape into adventure & romance based on Russian folklore. Leave a comment to win a copies of Dreaming Anastasia and Haunted

Contest ends on Tuesday, April 19, 2011.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

So You Want To Grow Up And Be A Writer?

Last week I spoke at Two Rivers High School's Career Day, presenting with writer friend, Wendy Toliver, about being an author. When I was a teenager I thought writers needed to be as troubled as Hemingway, possess grammatical super powers, or have something... something I certainly didn't have.

I wish someone had given me a few tips about things I could do as a teenager to prepare for a career in writing. You don't need to learn to leap run-on sentences in a single bound, but doing these things will help your writing: 

Practice. Allow yourself to experiment, learn, grow, and write some not-so-good stuff. Fill up pages and pages with your practice writing. Try all kinds of writing!

     Keep a diary or journal about your own life. You may think your life is boring, but it’s not. Write about your observations of other people, your dreams, the sucky things that happen, the exciting things... Your diary will help you develop your unique writing voice. (And you might turn some things into stories later.)

3.     Publish your writing. Work on the school paper or yearbook. Submit poems and stories to magazines. Enter contests. Create a blog. Review books.

4.     Read, read, read. Reading will teach you how to craft your own stories—you’ll naturally learn what elements make good writing.

5.     Learn. Take writing classes, attend teen writing workshops. Don’t worry if you’re the star student, or not (I've never been the shining storytelling student *sigh*). Your own passion for writing is what matters in the end! 

6.     Believe in yourself & follow your dream. Writing is a learned craft—and you can do what it takes to be published!


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