Thursday, December 31, 2009

Endings and Beginnings

Many people I know like beginnings - they like spring, and dawn. Personally, I have always preferred twilight, and autumn. I like endings. To me, endings offer the promise of that new beginning before it has begun. Once trees are budding in the spring, and once dawn's first light touches the sky, the new season or the new dawn is underway. It feels to me as if its course has already been set. But while the old season or old day - or old year - is in the process of ending, the future is filled with limitless possibility. Its course has not yet been set.

New Year's Eve feels the same way to me - full of promise. And this is not only the end of a year, it is also the end of a decade. It's been kind of a tough decade for me, dealing with physical injuries and difficult moves. But with 2009 drawing to a close, the new decade appears full of limitless possibility. Nothing is yet set in stone. Books I have yet to read could introduce me to wonderful new authors and beautiful writing. Books I have yet to write could be the most intense and insightful and moving works that I have ever written.

It's all still possible.

I wish everybody one last night of possibility. May you treasure the potential that 2010 offers, before time shows you its reality. This is a night for dreaming.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Reading and Writing Friendships

It's been snowing. The river outside my office window has frozen in choppy waves and the ice is frosted in white. It's the perfect time to curl up with a book, whether that's a manuscript in progress or someone else's book to read. Most people are under the impression that writers and readers are solitary souls with no interest in companionship. Nothing could be further from the truth! Writers and readers are surrounded by friends, whether those friends are fellow writers in a community spreading from our local critique group to online contacts on the other side of the world, or friends we discover in the books we read or the books we write, who walk off their pages and make their homes in our hearts.

Often as I read a book while I was an aspiring author, I'd wish I were brave enough to write to the person who'd written that book, and tell him or her how much I loved those characters and their story. "And one day," I dreamed of adding, "I'll be published just like you." But I never wrote. What if they saw me as a stalking fan? Even worse, what if they never wrote back?

One of those books was About David, by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Lynn, the narrator walked off the pages of that book to become a friend. I even liked difficult, damaged, and dangerous David. And I very much admired the author. I lived in upstate New York at the time, and worked part-time at my local library. When I discovered that Ms. Pfeffer was speaking to a group of librarians in our region, I convinced my librarian boss to let me go along. This much-admired author was a great speaker, as friendly and intriguing and human as her books. But I still couldn't manage to introduce myself as an aspiring writer and a fan, although I went home and over the years have read my way steadily through her books.

A few years ago, I saw she had a new book out, Life As We Knew It. Miranda, experiencing the changes in her family's life after a meteor strikes the moon and knocks it off course, stepped off the pages of her diary and made herself my friend. She was no noble heroine who saved the day by setting the moon back in its place - she was a prickly teenager who was angry that the world was ending around her when she just wanted life to get back to normal so she could have a boyfriend and a proper date - and fudge. Yet she grew through the book into a teenager who still wished for those things, but accepted that she wouldn't get them, and treasured what she had in terms of family all the more.

After I finished reading this book, I felt the familiar desire to write to this author. But by then I was a published writer myself. I looked online, and to my delight, I found that Susan Beth Pfeffer had a blog! And an e-mail address! And so - I took the plunge. I wrote to her. And I made a friend, not only of the characters in a book this time, but also of their author.

I've just finished reading the ARC of the third, and probably last, book in her moon series, This World We Live In. (There was a second book in the middle, the dead & the gone, which I've also read and enjoyed, but if I write much more this blog post will grow to epic length...) I'm marveling at how my friendships have deepened, both with Sue and with Miranda, who is still prickly and fights with her mother, but has also grown into a strong, unflinching young woman who makes hard choices out of love - more like her mother than she yet realizes - and is able to act on those hard choices with tenderness. I don't want to write a formal review of this bleak, yet beautiful book - I just want to treasure the way my relationships with character and author have moved forward.

Between my friendship with Miranda and my friendship with Sue Pfeffer, I'm not alone at all as I look out at the snowy expanse.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks

It's been a challenging year with family health issues and worries, seeing a much-admired editor leave publishing, and spending way too much time away from home. But I still have much to be thankful for today.

I'm thankful for my new editor, who has proven wonderful to work with: swift to respond, thoughtful in his comments, enthusiastic about our future work together, and who introduced me to Web 2.0 life.

I'm thankful that An Unspeakable Crime, the book I completed with that new editor, is ready to be released in 2010, and has already been chosen as a Junior Library Guild Spring selection.

I'm thankful that I was able to take some retreat time, all on my own, to concentrate on my new novel and make some serious progress in writing the first draft.

I'm thankful for all my readers, especially the ones who take the time to write to me and tell me how my books have moved them.

I'm thankful that I have been welcomed into so many schools this spring and autumn, and been able to talk to thousands of students about my love of writing - and I'm thankful for being able to believe that I may have inspired some of them to follow their dreams, and perhaps even become fellow writers.

I'm thankful for my friends in Bozeman, who haven't forgotten me despite my months away from home, and are planning our writers group's annual Christmas party for a time when I'll be able to attend. And I'm thankful for my friends in Chamberlain who have invited me and my husband to Thanksgiving dinner so we won't be alone on the holiday.

Most of all, today as every day, I'm thankful for my husband, who has encouraged and supported my writing from the day we met, and who continues to earn his place in my dedications.

Perhaps this year has had more to be thankful for than it has had challenges, after all.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

School Visit Energy

I'm halfway through the autumn (or winter, since it's been snowing around here) school visit season. Halfway through school lunches (which are considerably better than what I remember from my own school days - or perhaps I've just been lucky). Halfway through the muscle-building exercise of lugging presentation materials into schools - or, if I'm very lucky, halfway through the character-building exercise of persuading kindly souls at the schools to lug the presentation materials in for me.

But, mostly, I'm halfway through the incredibly energizing experience of facing my readers and sharing my ideas about writing with them. To stand in front of groups as large as a couple hundred or as small as a dozen, and see eyes light up, and pick a question from a sea of wildly waving hands, is to feel my heart lift. To share the tension as the group, no matter what its size, falls completely silent and motionless when I share with them certain books (A Bear for Miguel for the youngest students, The Ghost Cadet with upper elementary and middle school, and The Perfect Shot with teenagers), is to know for certain that the book is touching every one of them in the gym or library or auditorium or cafeteria.

After the stillness, after the questions, after the younger students crowd around me at the end, after the teenagers hang around, too cool to talk while their peers are leaving the presentation, but eager to tell me about their own writing and their dreams, I pack up and get back on the road for the next school, delighted that I drove so far to have that hour with those students, and eager to get back to my own writing so I can complete the next book for them.

Monday, September 28, 2009

On the Road Again

The school visit season is entering into full swing, and I'm trying to keep momentum going on my new novel, coordinating with teachers and librarians about what I'll be doing at their schools, figuring out how to do laundry efficiently on the road, and, most of all, trying to work out where I'm going.

I always ask for directions to the school, and I've gotten quite a collection of interesting responses over the years. One teacher told me to turn at the corner where the gas station used to be. When I asked her what I'd see now, since the gas station was no longer there, she gave me a street name to turn on. Unfortunately, that was the nickname used by people whose great-greats had been born in that town, not the name that was currently on the street sign.

Even more interesting was the time that I received directions a week before a school visit, only to find they led me straight into a road closure, and a detour that vaguely directed me into a woods, and never led me out of them. I had to backtrack until I found a different road that led me to an interstate that brought me into town the long way. When I asked the teacher how long the detour had been there, she said the road had been closed since the previous year, but she'd forgotten about it when she told me to come that way.

Just this week I received directions to drive on one road for 36 miles, then turn north and cross the railroad tracks. No mention of what road number or street name I'm supposed to turn on. I certainly hope that both my odometer and her measurement of 36 miles are accurate, and I actually find the right road and, ultimately, the school.

Apparently, everyone feels that where they live is so familiar to them, that anyone coming to visit must pick up on their local street nicknames or demolished landmarks by osmosis. Perhaps I don't think that way because, as a writer, I need to describe settings that readers haven't seen before in my books. Perhaps I run into problems simply because I'm geographically challenged. While I would never mistake North for South on a road (thanks to the compass in my car), I feel confident that I could certainly cross railway tracks at the wrong place without a street name (preferably the current and correct street name).

As I pack up my presentation materials and load the car to take my act on the road for the next two weeks, I'm certainly hoping that I'm able to find the nine schools, one library, and one Book Festival site where I'm supposed to speak, plus all the hotels along the way. I'm quite sure the experience will be an adventure.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Inviting Readers to Read

Publishers are being urged to reach out to children of color, to children whose family differs from the conventional, to children who feel overlooked or alienated by books that are currently available. Zetta Elliott offers some excellent reasons for this need in her blog. As a writer with a Latino heritage, the question of whether more books about children in specific groups will inspire more children to read makes me examine my own reasons for writing about the characters I choose - or the characters who choose me.

I believe that young readers (including teenagers) read to get a handle on who they are. They read to see what the characters in books do in challenging circumstances, and then ask themselves whether they would do the same thing, or something different. Kids and teens who already love to read willingly read about characters like themselves and unlike themselves, making friends with the characters and then approving or disapproving of their decisions at the climax. With each critical evaluation, they are shaping the person they are growing into.

But I suspect that kids who are not willing readers may find it harder to submerge themselves in the world of a book, any book, until they find a doorway inviting them in. They want to find a friend in the book's cast of characters, and they want to measure their own feelings and judgment against that character's, but difficulties in the act of reading, and a story situation that they can't imagine themselves into, can throw up barriers - not for every reader, but for enough to make this a legitimate concern. If the book makes its world welcoming to less willing readers, perhaps they will put in the extra effort to read it, and once they discover the thrill of vicariously sharing the main character's journey, they'll be more willing to try the next book and the next - until they're stretching to read books about characters very different from themselves, and feeling comfortable and confident about evaluating those characters' decisions in terms of what they as readers would do.

To my mind, books that reflect the worlds of unwilling readers aren't the end of the publisher's and librarian's journey to create more readers - they're the beginning of the reader's journey to discover the power of a book to show them themselves. And, as a writer, my own journey takes me through the lives of many characters of varying genders, racial and religious backgrounds, sexual orientations, and family situations. My writer's journey has led me to the novel I'm working on right now, Permanent Record, in which one of my main characters is Latino, as are many of the secondary characters. We'll see how Ramón makes his way through the story arc, and what readers think of him by the end.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Writing for a Touchdown

Football has had unexpected influences on my writing life. I didn't always know I cared about it.  But when I lived abroad for a year, researching my English ghost story, Tournament of Time, I realized I missed the sport. Neither soccer nor rugby quite seemed to inspire me. I came home to Houston and began watching football like a lifetime fan— writing my novel after work every afternoon and evening, except for Monday Night Football. When the opening music filled my one-room apartment, I swiveled away from my typewriter and toward the screen.

When I met my husband-to-be, two things about him struck me immediately. He believed in my dream of writing for children, even though I had only published some magazine pieces for adults up to that point. And he loved football. We discovered this mutual passion on our first date—the night before the Super Bowl. Needless to say, we watched that game together.

Unfortunately, my characters refuse to play football. I knew my main character in The Perfect Shot was an athlete with a strong sense of fair play. Wonderful, I told myself - he can be a quarterback. "No," Brian replied. "I'm a point guard." I said "Nonsense - there are no point guards in football." "You're right," he told me. "I play basketball." So I had to master basketball plays and terminology in order to write that book.

Now I'm writing about another athlete in Permanent Record. Once again I assured myself that I could write about a football player. But Ramón informed me he was a shortstop, and produced photos and baseball cards of his heroes to prove that he lived and breathed baseball, not football. So, once again, I'm struggling to familiarize myself with a sport that's not one I know intimately. But someday, I assure myself, I will write about a football player, and not have to do so much research into unfamiliar territory.

So why my fascination with football? As I was writing Simon Says, about a group of teenagers at a boarding school for fine arts, I was surprised when my main character, a painter, felt compelled to paint a moment from a football game his father dragged him to:

All I want to do is paint the receiver, hanging in mid-air, his fingertips brushing the rough, pebbly texture of the ball. He knows that three defenders, each one twice his size, are about to crash into him, but he makes himself tune them out, straining to clasp that ball to his chest and bring it safely to earth with him.

Maybe that’s why I feel so drawn to football - every time I write a manuscript I love and send it out, it seems as if a whole squad of editorial readers who reject it, and critics who dislike it, are leaping up at me like those defending players. But I hold onto the manuscript - yard by yard, down the field, editor by editor until I find the right one, and then its publication is my touchdown and a letter from a reader my extra point. And none of the tackles and rejections along the way matter any more.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Shower Writing

My writing retreat is drawing near the end - back to the real world with its distractions. But there's one technique I must remember when I'm struggling to make time to write: the power of standing in the shower, especially a long one while I wash my hair.

When I lead writing workshops, I often tell the attendees that, if they run into a situation where they're not sure what to write next, they should walk away from their computer or pad of paper, and do something that will get their hands dirty (weeding, or working on engines are two good activities). As soon as the imagination knows your hands are too grubby to write, it lets loose a flood of ideas on how to get past the current writing blockade. Then you trick your imagination by having a pencil handy that you don't mind getting muddy or greasy, and write down your idea before it can get away. But showers are even better.

I spend my time in the shower thinking about my characters - not about them taking showers, but about what they're doing in the upcoming chapter. I allow them to carry on conversations and take action - apparently, the notion that I can't write while my hands are covered in soap or shampoo frees up my imagination wonderfully. Whole scenes write themselves. The trick is to get out of the shower and write them down immediately. What I write doesn't have to be perfect; I just get what I've imagined down on paper. Then, after my hair is brushed out, I can keystroke it into my Mac and tweak and polish as I go.

Presto: my imagination is satisfied, my drive to move forward with my manuscript is satisfied, and since a shower a day is good for one's health (and for the comfort of everybody in one's vicinity), it's a terrific way to make good progress every day.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Making Yourself Write

When I was in college, I had no trouble whatsoever making time to write. In four years I wrote four novels, had a paying newspaper job, was active with the theatre group, and graduated with three majors (my university didn't offer minors). One of those novels was even ultimately published, once I had learned a good deal more about novel writing. But the point is that I must have known how to manage my time - taking all those classes successfully and enjoying myself with the theatre crowd and doing a great deal of writing.

When I got out of college, I took part time jobs, lived cheaply, and kept on writing both fiction and journalism. After I became a full-time writer, I usually managed to produce more than one book a year, balancing the novels with shorter nonfiction books. But somewhere along the way I discovered I was having trouble getting the writing done.

First it was because I was in a terrible auto wreck, and my right wrist was seriously damaged. (I am very right-handed.) It took almost four years to find the right surgeon (who had just gotten FDA approval for a prosthetic wrist joint) to repair the damage. During those years I struggled to write, and was generously helped by writer friends who gifted me with dictation software for my Mac. That software got me through the crisis of deadlines that had to be met despite the injury. Several of my editors were more than understanding, but publishers can't wait forever, and I refused to be permanently sidelined by my wrist. Fortunately, after the surgery, my wrist is back to typing energetically, at all hours of the day or night.

But since then I've found it more and more difficult to overcome writing complications. Case in point: I am on a writer's retreat to make serious headway on my new novel. I got out of bed yesterday morning with a swollen, painful left ankle. It had been fine when I went to bed and dreamed about my characters. But sometime in the night, I (or my teddy bear) did something to it. Yesterday, I barely managed a page of usable writing, because my ankle hurt enough to make me sick to my stomach. I tried taking Advil, I tried propping it up (a pillow on the top of a cooler makes a very nice ankle support), I tried to lose myself in the book, but it just wouldn't work. I went to bed hoping the ankle pain would disappear as mysteriously as it had appeared. 

But when I woke up this morning - I think you can guess what I found. That's right - I hobbled to my computer with my ankle still hurting. And I asked myself: what magic had I employed back in college to accomplish everything? I distinctly remember taking some rather serious spills off my bike (just a ten-speed, but you can still fall hard when you're pedalling full out and hit a city pothole). I'm sure I was sick, and I know I slept in and missed many a morning class. But I never missed a deadline for either a paper or a newspaper article, and I finished one novel for each year I was there. What did I do?

I honestly can't remember, but today I decided that, with that sublime confidence that only a teenager can possess, I must simply not have cared whether I was sick or injured. I had writing to do, so I did it. And today I did just that. I told my ankle to just sit there and be glad I wasn't walking on it, and I wrote. And I produced 8 good pages today. And this blog entry.

Of course, I'm going to have to hobble to bed, and I know I hope again that the pain will miraculously disappear, but even if it doesn't, I'm determined to rise and write again. That's the only way to finish a book.

And an ankle has very little to do with the writing process, after all.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Retreating to Write

Sometimes, no matter how enthusiastic you are about the book you want to write, life gets in the way. Distractions from other (paying) work and stress about family crises get in the way of creativity - not to mention in the way of time to write! So this summer I decided to take some time off for a one-woman writing retreat.

I headed down to Wyoming to combine writing time with a few necessary visits to my chiropractor. The drive went well, I had all my reference materials and all my plotting notebooks, I felt inspired and excited. And when I arrived and set up in my distraction-free workspace, I discovered two things: the air conditioning was dead, and that part of Wyoming was on track for near-record-breaking temperatures. Oh - and the air conditioning repair people were booked solid due to the temperatures and the fact that most people had neglected their air conditioning repairs until the summer heat got to be a really big problem.

The idea of my writing retreat had been to get away from distractions. To my surprise, heat can be as much of a distraction as other work and stress. When you feel as if you're melting away at 85 degrees in your office (yes, I got a room thermometer to confirm just how hot it was), it's hard to concentrate on the fates of your characters. Fortunately my husband (who'd been the cause of some of the stress, and work, and other previous distractions) pulled some strings from afar and arranged for an air conditioning repairman to come work some magic later today to give me some cool air. Ah, if only I could wave my wand, say Reparo! and do the job myself. But clearly, not attending Hogwarts has left me at a disadvantage here. So I shall just keep my fingers crossed and hope that the repairman has more practice with Reparo, and that the house will cool down by evening.

Oh, and I should add that I'd intended for my book to take place in the fall, but I'm beginning to think that setting it in the spring, with the threat of summer heat coming on, will be a more intense time of year. After all, you can light fires, pile on extra clothes, pad yourself with newspapers, and find shelter to stay warm in winter. There's a limit to how many clothes you can take off in the heat, and you'll still feel wilted and sweaty and cranky. See? My writing retreat has yielded results already.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Missing ALA - particularly the YALSA BBYA discussion

Many friends and colleagues are in Chicago for the ALA Annual Conference this weekend. I'm stuck at home this year, consoling myself with progress on my new novel and happy anticipation of attending the midnight showing of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in a couple of days. 

But I'm also worrying about the intense discussions going on about whether YALSA will disband the Best Books for Young Adults list and create, instead, a popular reader's choice list selected from online votes instead of face-to-face discussion. I know that lists come and go, and are often reincarnated under new names - one of my books was named an ALA Recommended Book for Reluctant Young Adult readers shortly before that list was abandoned, to be replaced by the newer Quick Picks list. 

Quick Picks is definitely pithier as a title, but both lists were connected by the fact that librarians actually read a collection of books and debated their virtues before compiling the list. The situation is different when a reader's choice list is decided by popularity instead of quality, and even less rigorous when any member can simply post virtual comments from their computer work station.

I'm glad to see reviewers and bloggers posting their opinions (nearly all opposing the plan to disband the BBYA list), but I'm dismayed that the YALSA Executive Committee would suggest eliminating the BBYA Committee without asking the membership its opinion. This is a change that would have a powerful impact on the way librarians choose which books they can buy for their collections within their budgetary constraints. Inclusion in the BBYA list can boost exposure for less well-publicized books and can lead to those titles appearing on state lists and reaching a much larger readership. 

I hope librarians and authors are speaking out against this plan, loudly and clearly, to every YALSA board member they encounter in Chicago. Popularity is nice, but having a list where quality counts seems as if it would be a hands-down winner in terms of usefulness. Right now I wish I were in Chicago so I could speak out against this plan, and speak up for the important principles of transparency in committee decisions and quality in list selection.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day Stories

As a small child I tended to make a lot of noise early in the morning. My mother was a night person who patiently put up with my early morning energy during the week while Dad went to work, but on weekends he took charge of me. A morning person, he'd whisk me outside where I could shout and run around, letting my mother sleep in.

But Dad did more than exercise my body to burn off excess energy on those weekend mornings. He exercised my imagination. We lived in San Francisco, and he would take me for walks along Land's End, where we were more likely to run into a surprised fox than another person. As we walked through the foggy morning, with the surf crashing against the rocks below us, Dad would tell me stories.

Dad had come to America from El Salvador as a teenager. He learned his new language well enough to write and publish poetry in English, became a naturalized citizen, and would ultimately become Vice President Richard E. Bonilla at the United Nations. On those early mornings in San Francisco, however, he opened my mind to the idea that stories weren't just something published in books. They came from someone's imagination. Dad loved history, so he told me lots of stories from history. He gave the historical characters dialogue and personalities from his imagination, and brought them to life for my delight. I can still see him acting out the story of a nobleman laying his cloak over a mud puddle for Queen Elizabeth - at the same time explaining that it might have been Sir Walter Raleigh or it might not, but what mattered was the story.

I loved listening to my father's stories so much that I wanted to make up stories that were as good as his. So while he went to work during the week, I struggled to make up stories that I could tell him during our next morning walk. I didn't know very much history at the time, so my efforts were more contemporary. But I discovered that making up stories was even more fun than listening to them. And I began to look at the shelves and shelves of books in the library, and think: someone made that story up, someone like Dad and like me. And if they could do it...

It's often said that the squeaky wheel gets the oil. Well, I was the noisy, energetic child who got the story - and with it, the idea that I could become a writer, and one day see my stories on those library shelves. Thanks, Dad. Even though I've grown into a night person, like my mother, and no longer get up early in the morning, bubbling over with high-volume energy, I've also grown into a writer who's up late at night working on her new story.

Monday, June 15, 2009

New Ways to Visit Readers on the Internet

A few months ago, the internet was merely a way for me to introduce readers to my books on my website, respond to emails from readers and librarians and teachers, and, I'll admit it, a great source of hidden object games for my Mac. But the net has suddenly expanded into a more powerful networking tool than I had anticipated, through Facebook and this blog, and also to a new way of doing more affordable school visits.

With budgets being cut across the nation (schools seem to be on the lower end of government financial expenditure), a lot of authors I know have faced school visit cancellations and a decrease in the number of new invitations. To my delight, I've received more invitations to speak to schools in the 2009-2010 school year than ever, and most of them are thanks to the internet.

The honorarium is usually the least of the cost of bringing an author to a school, unless you're lucky enough to have one living down the block. The real expense comes from the travel costs. But having a virtual author visit eliminates travel expenses completely. I've always offered typed chats with a class in a chat room, but that wasn't as personal as seeing the author face-to-face through a camera lens. I'd done some video chats in the past, but they usually involved traveling to a school that had a distance learning lab so their equipment could be used to transmit my talk to other schools. It was a good start, but it was still expensive, because the other schools had to pay for the use of that equipment as well as the author honorarium. But current software takes expensive equipment out of the equation.

Using my Mac iChat (something included on every Apple computer) and the built-in camera, I can talk to students in a classroom with no extra expenses. Even if the school uses PCs instead of Macs, either a teacher has a MacBook or the school has a PC with an AIM network. Plug the school's computer into a large screen, and a group of kids can see me easily. Timing become more flexible, as we can have either a single class visit at a single affordable price, or schedule several class chats during a day for a full day's honorarium, something that can't be done as easily if the author has traveled several hundred miles to take time out of her writing schedule to speak to students.

More and more friends are starting to do these virtual school visits. Okay, I miss the hugs from the kindergarten students, and I miss the cookies that kind-hearted teachers bake to share with me, and the other real moments of a school visit, but I don't miss the hours of driving and I'm sure the school administrators don't miss writing the check for the travel expenses. We both miss autographing, but I send signed bookplates for students after our virtual visit, so they have a little something solid to remember the experience. Who knew the internet could put an author from Montana into a school in Indiana so easily, affordably, and instantaneously?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

School Mystery Success

As the school year draws to a close, I'd like to share a unique school visit experience. A writing friend, Kiri Jorgensen, who teaches gifted and talented students at the Monforton School (a relatively small K-8 school) approached me with a plan for the whole school to write a mystery.

I visited the school in the beginning of the year, and spent two days talking to all the grades about writing in general and writing mysteries in particular. In preparation, Kiri and I met to plan out some basic parameters for the school's mystery. Then she met with the students to brainstorm ideas. She settled on their idea that a sixth-grade class would take a camping trip for a week to Yellowstone Park, and one by one kids' Palm Pilots would disappear. Suspicion would fall on the main character, Phil, who felt a responsibility to his father to "keep the family name in good shape," and was therefore desperate to prove he wasn't the thief.

Kiri wrote the first chapter, to get the kids started, and we tweaked it together. When I visited the school, I worked with the students to brainstorm ways Phil could try to solve the mystery, obstacles that would make it hard for him, ways that clues could be hidden, and methods to create atmosphere and build tension. Following my visit, Kiri met with one grade each month, from third grade to eighth grade, to plot one chapter in the mystery. Then she worked with one gifted and talented student from that grade to write the chapter itself. The children in kindergarten, first and second grades illustrated the chapters.

Each chapter was posted online at The Monforton Mystery. I would read it and then post comments on a special school blog, suggesting ways that the students in the next month's grade might build on the plot development in that chapter. The project culminated in a contest: any student could write his or her own ending to the mystery. And write they did - even several second graders submitted contest entries! Kiri and I read the chapters, and both agreed on the winner, though on the spur of the moment we decided to also award an Honorable Mention for another chapter that we both thought came very close.

Last week I returned for an school-wide assembly where the students who had written each chapter were recognized. Then every student who had submitted a contest entry was awarded a journal and movie passes, and I gave the Honorable Mention writer an autographed copy of  my mystery, Ghost Soldier. I read the winning chapter aloud to the student body, who hung on every twist and turn of Phil's trap to catch the thief, and loved the ending. The winning writer also received Ghost Soldier, and a cash prize.

What a wonderful school-wide project! I was delighted to be a part of it, and to give the students the satisfaction of not just reading mysteries, and discovering how mysteries were crafted, but also the joy of writing and owning their own mystery book that is now published online, and also in print for them to check out in their school library. Kudos to Kiri Jorgensen for coming up with this terrific idea, and for giving her students such a wonderful experience. This is something it would be exciting for other schools to try, and I hope they do.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Who's Eligible to Write What?

Roger Sutton has an excellent, thought-provoking post at Read Roger that ends with his commenting that:
"But let me just add: after a year in which two of the biggest buzzed books, Kingdom on the Waves and Chains, were by white people writing in the voice of African Americans, let me just say that EA is NUTS to think white writers are excluded from publishing about blacks by virtue of their exclusion from the CSK."

Many of the comments argue that it is unreasonable for white writers to greedily want recognition for writing in the voice of African Americans, prompting me to comment the following (I include it here since my blog is young, and the people who might be just finding me might not see my comment at Roger's blog):
"The whole concept of who is eligible to write about what has always troubled me. I am a woman, yet I write mostly books about boys. Should I be ineligible to do so because of my gender? Somehow the boys I write for don't seem to object.

"I wrote a book set in El Salvador, A Bear for Miguel. My editor loved it, but she said she knew she was going to have trouble getting it through acquisitions because of authenticity. How could I as a white American (she had met me in person), be expected to be able to write about El Salvador? I mentioned that my father had come to America from El Salvador. She relaxed visibly and assured me that, in that case, it would be no problem. Yet I have never been to El Salvador myself. Did my father's experience make my book more authentic?

"I believe that an important part of the writer's job is to put herself (or himself) into another person's or character's soul. If we do our job well, it should not be an issue of how authentic we are in terms of sharing the same ethnic heritage, gender, or religion. The sole issue should be how compelling and believable that character is, and whether the reader accepts that character as being truthful in his or her thinking and behavior.

"I am finishing work on a nonfiction book about a Jewish man on trial for murder in 1913 Georgia, An Unspeakable Crime. I am not Jewish, I am not a man, and I've only been to Georgia twice, but I do not think this makes me unfit for the job of writing this book, nor should it make the book ineligible for attention from Jewish, male or Georgia readers. Oh, wait - my mother was born in Georgia. Perhaps An Unspeakable Crime will be considered authentic thanks to her."

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Orwell was just off by a few years...

Yesterday evening I heard a noise at our door. When my husband checked it out, he found a Census Bureau  volunteer who seemed a bit flustered to be noticed. She explained she was just "shooting our door for GPS" in preparation for the next census.

With our medical records going online, our homes going into the GPS system, and our cell phones tracking our movements, it seems we're getting closer every day to the world that Orwell envisioned.

If you haven't yet discovered it, I'd recommend you read Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. It's a riveting tale of government out of control and a sharp teenager who decides to tackle the system. And because Doctorow believes in the free distribution of information (and also that ebooks sell print books), he offers free downloads of his book here. Check it out.

And be on the outlook for Census Bureau people armed with GPS.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Beginning

The Beginning

I'm finally getting started at blogging, thanks to being nudged by my wonderful new editor at Carolrhoda. We'll see where this leads! 

While I'm thinking of insightful things to write here, and getting deeper into my YA novel in progress, Permanent Record, I'll just send you over to my website to get to know me better: