Thursday, December 29, 2011

Smallest Library I've Seen -- Frankfurt, Germany

This has to be one of the world's smallest libraries.
It is definitely smaller than the phone booth library in England.

This tiny library is the close to where I live.

This bookshelf library can be accessed from either side by opening the glass doors. There are ten shelves, five on each side. The sign in German, when translated says, "open book closet." It is an official Frankfurt am Main City Public Library and is always open.

Of course, since this is Germany, books are borrowed on the honor system. Take a book and bring it back when you've finished reading.
I looked inside and scanned the titles. They are all in German and some of the books looked very old! I pulled one out to look at it's printing date: 1926!

Another angle of this library.

Libraries, whether large or small, whether the books are in English or another language, are one of my favorite places in the world. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Fairy Tale House in Michelstadt

I rounded the corner in Michelstadt when visiting their Christmas Market and saw this amazing building.
Characters from various Grimms' tales are painted on the outer walls of this traditional fachwerk house.

Characters on this side of the house include Hansel and Gretel (top), Bremen Town Musicians (center), Little Red Riding Hood (right), and Cinderella with the prince (left)-the 2nd panel of the story.

Detail of Bremen Town Musicians and Little Red Riding Hood. (Her hood has faded from a brighter red, but see the wine and bread in her basket?)

Here I'm standing in front of another side of the building. 

 Bottom right is the first panel of Cinderella with birds. Above is the Frog Prince, and to the left is a dwarf, carrying a lantern. I'm not certain which tale he is from, as there are a couple possibilities.

Three panels that tell the story of Puss in Boots. Left, the cat is with a man with a horn; center, a girl and boy pass by; right is Puss in his boots.

Details of Puss in Boots 

Details of The Frog Prince

And last--here is a view of the house, with part of the Christmas Market in the foreground.

May your holidays be filled stories.
Happy Holidays.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Art of Revision—The Rainbow Manuscript technique

Art of Revision—The Rainbow Manuscript technique

I started using colorful fonts when revising after Martine Leavitt, my advisor at Vermont College of Fine Arts asked me to make all my changes in red. 
My manuscript was bleeding after I was done: 

Screenshots of my novel, River at 10% zoom. Shown
are the beginning (top), middle, and end (bottom.)
Yes, I made that many changes; the changes represent a deep revision.
As I worked I grew to love red font!
Because all red words are better words, better sentences, and even new scenes at times, I have grown to think of red as a positive writing color, instead of the color that marks all my mistakes.
Later revision of River
 Using another font color lets me see what I’m doing, or what I recently changed.  In some cases it is helpful when I read through my novel the next time, as I can see what I changed.  Other times, the red font was just for the process, and I switch the font all back to black before I work on it again.. 
Also, if I work for several hours or a couple days and feel I didn’t make much headway, I can look at the colorful font, and realize, yes, I did make good progress.
I don’t use colored font with every draft. It’s not useful to me in early drafts. 
Occasionally, if I need to both be aware of the last changes I made and need to track my current changes as I take an additional revision pass, I’ll add another color, like blue. If I move a substantial passage, I may mark those sentences with another font color for those passages. 
By the end of the revision pass, at least temporarily, I have a rainbow manuscript.

Screenshot of my novel, Crossings-a late revision at 10% zoom

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Choosing Books for Gifts

I recently received an email from a relative asking for book suggestions for her teens and college age sons.
At first I had two thoughts:
What books do I think each would enjoy?
Word of mouth is powerful.
In this case, her daughter stayed with us this past summer—so I know what types of books she likes. For the others, it is harder to come up with titles. Different books speak to different readers, and it can be tricky when giving suggestions and buying books for others.
So how does one find the “right” book? (Or books, because one book is never enough.) 
1. One of my favorite approaches is to peruse the shelves of a bookstore or library. (Of course, here in Germany, where typically only bestsellers are imported, a bookstore isn’t the same experience. But every time I go back to the states, I visit at least one bookstore and feast.)
2. Lists of books. Many organizations publish year-end lists online, such as the New York Times, Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly. But often we want to find a book that is more specific, a great book that isn’t a bestseller. One can search online and find all sorts of lists, for example, the recent lists about dog books posted by Leda Schubert and cat books posted by Kathi Appelt). For children’s books an extensive list of lists can be found at Chicken Spaghetti.
3. Bloggers' book reviews. There are many wonderful blogs. Kidlitosphere Central has a great listing for those who want to discover and explore blogs that review and talk about books.
4. And of course, word of mouth. If someone gives me a book recommendation, the chances that I’ll buy that book are quite high.
I’ve always given books as gifts. (Which is one reason for our overflowing shelves and our substantial library of children’s literature—a home library that has more English books than either the international school or national library in one country where we lived.) 
Beloved books will be read over and over again and they will be treasured for years. Uma Krishnaswami  wrote a blog post this week about her first book. I also still have my first ragtag books from childhood —Snow Treasure, an Enid Blyton, and Island of the Blue Dolphins.
It's delightful to choose the “right” book for a gift, especially when the child immediately falls into the pages, losing herself in another great story.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Kimberley Griffiths Little: setting, characters and book trailers

Kimberley Griffiths Little is the author of five middle-grade novels. The Healing Spell was a Bank Street College Best Books (2011) and won the 2010 Whitney Award for Best Youth Novel. Her most recent book is Circle of Secrets.  Kimberley once had 6 weeks to write and revise and submit a novel to her editor.

[Sarah] How do you approach writing when you first get an idea for a story?
[Kimberley] When I first get the initial inklings of an “Idea”, it just attacks me. For instance I’m sitting at my desk travelling the many wonders of the inter-webs when *SMACK*! An “Idea” for a new project hits me right in the face and plum near knocks me off my chair. After I recover (and get an ice pack for my resulting black eye), I find my “Notebook” or a piece of paper and start writing down my Idea. Now because I have a life, (and kids and a husband and a house to clean and cats… :/ ) I usually just write down the Idea and then let it simmer on the back burner of my brain stove while I go about my daily activities. When I get my next “Idea” (I managed to dodge this idea from hitting me in the face but it did clip my shoulder), I go and I write it in that same notebook and let it simmer for a while. My next idea (which gut punched me) I write it down and I just continue to do this until I think I have it all down (which usually results in me needing to get a massage to work out all the inevitable kinks).

Note: these head-smacking Ideas are all for the same Big New Fancy-Schmancy Novel, but I will get hit with little pieces of the characters, the twists and turns of the plot as well as the climax or the emotional core of the story over a period of many weeks or months.

Once I have a Notebook – or my head – filled up with Ideas, I transfer all these notes onto 3x5 cards which I then lay out on a table of the floor and rearrange in various orders. Once I’m ready to write, I dive in and start fattening the Ideas with words to make them all nice and fluffy (like sheep) and I put it all in a Word document called a Manuscript.

[Sarah] How do you find your characters? As you revise, what do you do to deepen your characters?
[Kimberley] Well, my characters often find me. They just walk up to me when I’m doing any of my daily activities and introduce themselves. They give me a big ole hug and greet me like I am an old friend who has just been gone for a little while. Then they move in. They come in with all their stuff and a couple of suitcases and they make themselves at home. They eat my food in the middle of the night, they watch my TV during all hours of the day, and they take my cars and go travelling all over my neighborhood and they even sleep in my Bed!  My Bed!!! 

Then when they realize that I’m going insane watching them wreck my house and life, they come over to me and pour out their hearts and souls and tell me all their darkest desires and secrets and deepest dreams—all while sitting at the table drinking a nice cup of cocoa and me writing furiously in my notebook. Then they thank me for the “Wonderful Visit” and they go back to their own little world where they live their lives through my writings.

[Sarah]  The setting permeates through your writing. You recently discussed “deepening character with setting” on Cynsations. What craft techniques, besides description, do you use when writing and revising to make the setting a character?

[Kimberley] Me and my setting have a “date” so it can try to woo me.  I get dressed up nice and fancy and go to pick up my setting in my car and we go out to dinner. Then the whole evening is filled with my Setting talking to me about its great characteristics and then it butters me up with telling me just how I could write about it and make us both shine in the spotlight. Then it whisks me away to show me all of its wonderful sights and history and hidden nooks and crannies, and it makes me fall for it over and over again. When I get home, I’m still hungry for more so I spend weeks and months reading everything I can get my hands on about my setting, jotting down all of its lovely secrets and small and wonderful aspects in my Notebook. Or you might say that I do a big research trip, fall madly in love with the setting and just write passionately about it. Either way it works ;-)

[Sarah]  You have some great book trailers. What steps did you take to make your last book trailer?

[Kimberley] First I write a Script. Once the book is written, I write the script—or try to—about a year in advance of publication. It gets rewritten a bunch and I say it out loud to get the words and phrasing and timing right. Then I let it sit in my computer file because I got distracted by this chocolate covered Peep that just kept calling my name and teasing me all over the house.

About nine months pass and I remember that I have a book that is about to be published and I need to make a book trailer for it—because I ADORE book trailers, I really do. SO I rush to my computer and find my file that I emailed to my fantastically talented friends who makes Book Trailers for a living (Nua Music, although they mostly write music and do amazing Sound Design). Then I start screaming and hollering and otherwise just freaking my head off because I need a book trailer done soon and all I have is a script and some pictures or video that I managed to take during past research trips to the area—and how am I going to make The Best Book Trailer of the Year out of just that??!!
*commence hysterical crying*

Finally, I pick myself up off the bed (where I had dramatically thrown myself to cry), call my friend and tell her what’s up. And she takes over! Cindy-Rae gets all the items I’ve collected for the trailer and she and her son start working, writing music, taking more pictures and finding a wonderful family from the bayou to do all the voice-over’s and pose for more pictures and they manage to make all of the Trailer an Over-all Delicious Delight. I’m asked for my opinions quite often and we are up to the middle of many late nights but after many questions and debates we finally arrive at something Marvelous! And Tah Dah!
 Circle of Secrets book trailer

[Sarah]  Which authors have inspired you?

[Kimberley] This is such a brain-freeze question! I love so many authors and many new authors and debut authors inspire me to work harder. The very first writer’s conference I ever went to was a small affair in Santa Fe, New Mexico eons and eons ago and at that point I had never met another writer before in my life, let alone a published author, let alone some of my favorite authors. I was so overwhelmed after the two-day conference was over that I went home and cried for a week. It was such an emotional time and confirmed to me that this was what I wanted to do with my life (I’d been writing since I was a kid) and I felt like I had found my *tribe*. The authors who spoke that weekend were Richard Peck, Lois Duncan, Steven Kellog, and Rosemary Wells. And they didn’t’ just *speak* from afar. Since the group was less than one hundred people there was a lot of one-on-one time with them. We had meals with them and Rosemary Wells was critiquing everyone’s stuff for free and letting us sit in the “living room” and ask questions and she talked and talked and talked. It was simply marvelous. 

[Sarah] What are your writing snacks?

[Kimberley] A local delicacy known to heighten the senses and Stimulate the Writing Capabilities of any who will answer its Siren Call: Chocolate. Or some homemade chocolate chip cookies. Lots of Homemade cookies.

Thanks, Kimberley, for a great interview! Be sure to check out her blog. You may also want to read her process and be inspired by her 3x5-card-plotting-method.

Celebrating Picture Book Month

I wanted to join in the fun and also celebrate picture books this month.
November is picture book month, and readers, librarians, and writers are celebrating all over the internet. Check out the great picture book month website and read the daily blogs posts written by "picture book champions."

One of the things I love about picture books is they are such a delight to share and read aloud. Picture books are for all ages, infants to adults. My parents read books to me when I was young, and I read to my kids. I even occasionally read picture books to my teenagers; some books beg to be shared. (We couldn't stop laughing when I read Ned Mouse Breaks Away, by Tim Wynne-Jones, to them.)

I've even read picture books a few times to my kids in college, over Skype--this was when I discovered a few incredible picture books during my MFA program that I wished we had read when they were young. (Bark, George! by Jules Feiffer and May I Bring a Friend? by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers.)

We wore out favorite picture books with our frequent readings. I taped pages back into (and sometimes bought a second copy) of many books, including Jamberry, by Bruce Degen; Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson; and Freight Train, by Donald Crews. I taped covers back on. I accidentally taped the cover back onto the spine of The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear, by Audrey and Don Wood, so the cover was upside down and at the back. It didn't matter--we read it again and again, until pages fell out second and third times.

Some picture books can be read in a few minutes, while story picture books, such as Big Bad Bruce, by Bill Peet (which I've read at least 50 times out loud, as it was one son's favorite for a year) take almost thirty minutes. Yes, I had to tape this book back together too.

Some of my most vivid, emotional reading experiences came while reading picture books. The Arrival, by Shaun Tan, perfectly captured my experience (bewilderment, fear, amazement, adjustment) of moving to a foreign land where I couldn't understand anything or read a word.

I found spending a semester studying picture books at Vermont College of Fine Arts  helped me with my novel writing. I discovered new favorites as I read hundreds of picture books--books ranging from The Tragical Death of an Apple Pie--an ABC book from 1840 and Struwwelpeter--a groundbreaking Germany picture book (1845), to the classics, metafiction, and as many Caldecott Award and honor books that I could find.

Each year, I buy picture books for myself, my family, and friends. I love discovering newly written picture books. Recent ones I read and love include Big Bouffant, by Kate HosfordBig Red Lollipop, By Rukhsana Khan; Out of the Way! Out of the Way! by Uma Krishnaswami; and Do! by Gita Wolf.
I'm looking forward to reading If All the Animals Came Inside, by Eric Pinder as soon as it is published next spring.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, which means it's time to pull out my favorite seasonal picture book, Thanksgiving at the Tappletons', by Eileen Spinelli and illustrations by Maryann Cocca-Leffler, and read it again.

Here's a wonderful video from with great quotes about the importance of having picture books in our lives:

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Amsterdam -- Photo Tour, plus SCBWI Netherlands Conference

Last Friday, I took the high speed train from Frankfurt to Amsterdam to attend an SCBWI conference where I taught a writing masterclass on Saturday morning. Mina Witteman, the regional advisor, organized a stellar conference. Check out the post conference write-up at the SCBWI Netherlands website.
I dashed out during a break and bought several packages of delicious stroopwafels from a grocery store to bring home. (They are what my kids wanted me to buy for them.)

It was my first time to visit Amstersdam and I took a ton of pictures.  Here is a brief photo tour.

A canal, with a view of boats, bikes, and townhouses.
This photo is taken from a bridge.

Construction project on a canal.


A bike and a door.
This type of bike, with a carrier in front, is common.

Wall mural--mosaic tile combined with bas-relief painted figures.

Modern wall mural

 Entrance to a mall. 
Note the old archway entrance with statues on top.

Dam Square and a mime. 
About six mimes were performing the day I walked through this square.

Lamp post--detail of metalwork. 
The city lamps use gas to make the light, so they give a cool glow. 
(The actual light bulb isn't in this photo, but I am most fascinated by the details here.)

A canal at night. I like this photo, because it shows the intersection of one canal into the canal that runs to the left and right of this photo.

All photos copyrighted by Sarah Blake Johnson

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Link Medley: Hunger Mountain, Write at Your Own Risk, and Sita's Ramayana

Hunger Mountain Literary Magazine released their latest issue, and it's available online. Be sure to read "A Cut-Out Face," a great short story by Mima Tipper. Also check out "Idiosyncratic Tone in the Novel" by Wendy Voorsanger, a superb writing craft piece that discusses tone and shaping language.

Recent insightful posts in the blog, Write at Your Own Risk, include "Touching Silence" by Uma Krishnaswami, "Finding Stuff Out" by Leda Schubert, and "Writing Roots" by Laura Kvasnosky. Also don't miss, "Making a List" by Kathi Appelt where she talks about making her list of 100 stories that "not only influenced my writing, but that live within the heart of every tale I've every told."

I'm still mulling over these posts, thinking about my writing roots, how I do research, where I "touch" silence in my creative process, and which 100 books should go on my own list.

Also, Sita's Ramayana, by Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar, appears on the New York Times best sellers list for graphic books. In this version, the story is told from the viewpoint of Sita, the queen. It is brilliant. (A review can be found in the New York Journal of Books. ) Sita's Ramayana is published in North America by Groundwood Books.

I looked through this wonderful book at the Frankfurt Book Fair in the Tara Books booth--it's a another example of the high quality books that Tara Books always publishes. They also recently published another great graphic novel, I See the Promised Land, about Martin Luther King--which received Special Mention in this year's White Ravens Catalogue at the Bologna Book Fair.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Frankfurt Book Fair 2011

I visited the Frankfurt Book Fair again this year. (I live in Frankfurt close to the fairgrounds.) It is a huge rights fair with over 7000 exhibitors from more than 100 countries. It is a business fair, a working fair, and is only open to the public on Saturday and Sunday.

The fair is a great way to easily see a publisher's list by looking at their booth. The fair always reminds me how critical a cover is--I can tell from the covers about the type of books a publisher publishes, especially when I see 50 to 200 book covers next to each other. Also this year there were more movie size posters of book covers on booth walls, as well as more booths with interactive screens and other electronic items.
 I love seeing all the children's books from Latin America, Asia, Middle East, Africa, and from every country in Europe. By viewing these, I get the pulse of worldwide children's publishing and a feel for the trends in different parts of the world.

One of my favorite parts about the fair is seeing some of my friends' books displayed.

A few highlights from my fair visit:

Finding a friend's recently released book, My Name Is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson. Her book was announced this week as a finalist for the National Book Award!
(A great interview with Debby was just posted on Uma Krishnaswami's blog, Writing with a Broken Tusk.)

Tara Books booth. This is one of my very favorite booths to visit each year. They have published some of my favorite picture books.

Running into the President of Iceland at the Iceland's special country booth--Iceland is the country guest of honor this year. I was reminiscing about my years in Iceland, and I recognized him when he brushed past me. (We'd met at an event at his house when I lived in Iceland.)

Meeting someone from Bhutan! A publisher, Kuensel, from Bhutan, had a booth at the fair. It was Bhutan's first time to the Frankfurt fair. It was interesting to talk with this man about publishing in Bhutan and about his country. Many of the books were dual language English-Dzongkha. It's a beautiful script. (He didn't have any children's books with him, but they publish them.)

I took the time to attend one of the fair's numerous events: a discussion and reading about translating poetry for children.  It was a delight to hear poems in the different languages as well as the lively discussion about the opportunities and challenges of translating.

At the end of the day I went to the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award announcement of their 2012 nominated candidates. It's the largest literature prize for children's literature. They discussed Shaun Tan's work--he won the prize this year--and showed a great powerpoint presentation that showed his work, including a drawing from his childhood. Next they talked about the prize (and how the person or institution is chosen) and handed out the announcement. There are 184 candidates from 66 countries this year.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Teaching Masterclass in Amsterdam

I'm teaching a writing masterclass at the Netherlands SCBWI conference in Amsterdam on November 5th.

The conference will be held at ABC Treehouse, and the theme is Publishing in the Global Market. Other presenters include Doug Cushman (illustrator and writer), Ben Norland (art director at Walker Books), Martine Schaap (publisher), Omar Curiëre (app designer ), Erzsi Deàk (literary agent) and Siobhan Wall (artist and writer).
This is a very nice conference, and writers and illustrators from many countries in Europe are attending.
(The registration deadline is October 1st.)
If you live in Europe, consider attending this regional conference.

Also coming up, in October, is the Frankfurt Book Fair.  Iceland is the guest of honor, and since I lived in Reykjavik for a couple years, I'm looking forward to their special exhibits and program. If anyone wants me to look for a specific book or take a photo of your book at its booth, comment here and I will see if I can find it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tami Lewis Brown and The Map of Me

Who gives a twelve year old girl the keys to her dad's "Faithful Ford" and sends the girl and her little sister on a road trip?
Tami Lewis Brown does in her latest book, The Map of Me, a delightful and realistic middle grade novel. 
When reading, I really believed that Margie took the Faithful Ford (and her sister) and drove through the rainy night in search of her Momma.
This story takes Margie, her sister Peep, and readers on a marvelous journey. More than a road trip, this book is also about maps, following one's heart, family, sibling rivalry, courage, and chickens. 
Tami joins me today to answer a few questions about writing The Map of Me.
Sarah: One of my favorite lines in the book comes while Margie is figuring out how to use the gas and brake pedals: “that almost near mistake proved something. I knew how to react in an emergency.” Many obstacles arise during her road trip, and Margie attempts to solve all the problems so they can make it to her destination. What solution did Margie came up with that was the most fun to write?
Tami: The starting to drive bits were really HARD to write but I always knew Margie would “put on a good face” and act like her failures were intentional. At the beginning of the book she lies to herself as well as to others and I enjoyed capturing that.
I liked writing the gas station scene a lot, especially when Margie pays for the gas. She picks the cheapest gas then worries whether the car will like it, almost as if the car is a cat and she’s picking the cat food flavor. I wanted Daddy’s Faithful Ford to be almost a living creature to Margie and that scene gave me a good opportunity to explore that. Plus choosing gas, paying for it, and pumping it seems obvious to an adult but it’s is a mystery to kids.
Sarah: In a flashback scene late in the book, Margie lies in the grass next to her Momma in the middle of the night, and they watch the stars. Often, when two characters interact, writers rely on dialogue to move the story forward, but this is a scene that is filled with very little dialogue and a type of silence. What writing craft techniques did you choose to use when you wrote this emotional scene? Why?
Tami: That’s my favorite scene in the book. In some ways it drove the entire story. The central question was what could make a mother leave her children behind. Writing this scene I realized that Helen Tempest is having a nervous breakdown. She’s not acting rationally and she’s cut herself off from her family. She doesn’t respond to Margie so there’s no opportunity for true dialog. Margie has to make the journey on the road to absorb what was really happening in the backyard. That’s why this flashback appears so late in the book. Margie remembers it when she’s ready to understand it.
This scene is all about things that are unsaid or cannot be said in the Tempest household. It felt natural to bring the night noises forward in the absence of the sound of dialog and I was inspired by Vermont College advisor Richard Jackson’s article “The Word Overflown by Stars: Saying the Unsayable.” It’s a poetry essay but much of what Jackson says can be applied to prose.
The scene was motivated by two sensory images- the velvety sky and the whispery night sounds. When I was a child I often thought about people I loved being somewhere else but under the same stars. I knew Margie would think about that once her momma was gone. That led me to a series of star and constellation images which become most visible in this scene. I suppose these stars are an objective correlative, the map of the stars embodying Margie’s quest and inner yearning.
Sarah: The craft book that you mention is one of my favorites, one that I suggest to other writers all the time. The secondary characters in your book such as her little sister, her father, and Jimmy, are as real as Margie. What did you do while writing and revising to bring these characters to life?
Tami: Mostly I wrote, and wrote, and wrote, then I wrote some more. For this book I didn’t look for pictures to “represent” these characters and they’re definitely not based on real people. It was hard to get a firm grip on Daddy. He kept sounding mean—very mean in some drafts. My editor reminded me that in the end I couldn’t send Peep and Margie home alone with a cruel man. I didn’t have to write a “happy ending” but I needed to let my middle grade reader understand that Margie would prevail in the end. She’d be safe. So I had to tone Daddy’s personality down a lot. The last scene, where he arrives at the International Poultry Hall of Fame, was hard to get my head around. But again I just wrote and wrote until it felt right.
Sarah: Equations and the symbols < and = show up as an important element in the story, even though Margie believes she is not good at math. Could you talk about how this reflects her view of herself compared to other members of her family and also how it correlates to her emotional arc?
Tami: Margie feels less than Peep and in sixth grade they’d be studying some algebra basics with simple less than and greater than equations so I thought that symbol might be on Margie’s mind. It also looks like a closed chicken beak. There used to be a long sequence of made up equations and imaginary chickens clucking but it was a bit too surreal, maybe, so it got cut. I have always been horrible at math and the less than and greater than signs seemed so weird to me in elementary school. I guess I carried that into Margie’s perspective.
I admire so many middle grade authors and Sara Pennypacker, the author of the Clementine books, is one of my favorites. I especially like how Pennypacker describes ordinary things in a completely fresh but childlike way. I think in one book she describes an angry person’s lips as a ruler line. It’s a complex description but it springs from an authentic child perspective. 
That description was in the back of my mind when I thought about Margie looking at Daddy’s face when he arrives at the Hall Of Fame. What would she see? Lips that formed two straight lines? What does that look like? An equal sign. This is the precise moment when Margie comes into her own, recognizing that everyone, including her blustery daddy, is vulnerable, and in this way they are equal. That image, both child-like and emotionally loaded, embodies what I was trying to say in the novel. We’re all in this together. Even if a young reader doesn’t get all the layers they know what an equals sign means and they understand Margie’s journey from less than to equal to. 
Thanks so much, Tami, for joining me today.
To read another interview with Tami head on over to Writing With a Broken Tusk where Uma Krishnaswami talks with Tami about the process of writing.
Also, check out Kathi Appelt's video blog where she reads a snippet from the book.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Images and the Illusion of Reality in Fiction

I posted in Through the Tollbooth blog this week.

I wrote about a topic I've been considering recently: how does fiction becomes real while we are writing or reading.
One important element of this is producing images in the readers' minds.

Crafting fictional worlds and the illusion of of reality is part of the art of writing.

On Monday (Virtual Reality or how Words Can Create images) I looked at how descriptive details, active verbs, and setting allow the image to be formed. When crafting the sentence (and the associated image) every word counts.

 Images and emotion was Wednesday's topic. Here's a quote: "Emotional images are the wings of a virtual world." I consider how senses, dialogue, and the unseen can help produce powerful images.

Friday's post (Images at the Story Level) is where I look at the bigger picture. I discuss two major elements of creating images and the illusion: repetition or accumulation of images and continuous, consecutive images.

If you want to read the complete posts and see the examples I share click on the links above.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Plotting resources

Janet Fox talks about plotting on her blog this week.

As I read her post (where she talks about using a plot chart, the 3 act structure, and turning points--which are placed in specific points in her books), I glanced at my bookshelf. Although I have a few books which discuss plot, I don't own many books that focus on plot. I have three: Story, a screenwriting book by Robert McKee, Aristotle's Poetics (of course), and The Hero with A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. In addition I have notes from some great lectures given by M. T. Anderson on structure (and plot) while I was attending Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Janet includes an excerpt from an article she wrote in her blog post, and it's worth heading over to her blog to read that.
The complete article is included in a book titled Advanced Plotting. Several authors contributed to this book, so I assume a wide range of approaches to plot are discussed in the book.
Until September 3rd this book is free!! (After the promo it is 99 cents.)

So if you want to read several writers' thoughts on plot head over to Janet's blog where there are links and the code you can enter for the free e-book.

Do you have any favorite writing craft books that focus on plot?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Fictional Reality without Manipulation

Until I became a writer, I did not notice the puppet strings that make a story work. Now the strings are obvious to me when I read, as obvious as thick ropes.

Kathy Cowley, a documentary filmmaker, discusses filming decisions in a blog post, "In Which I Attempt Not to Manipulate You or Take Advantage of My Subjects" (Her current project is a year long documentary called Days of Film.)

Since I read her post, I've been contemplating manipulation in stories.

She writes, "emotion is powerful, and can also be manipulative." Later in her blog post, she adds, talking about some films: "I'm upset, because I feel like I've been manipulated as a viewer."

When a story works well, the reader enters the setting, walks in the shoes of the character, and experiences strong emotions.  The writer crafts a story to make a fictional reality, so it is critical to understand writing craft as well as how to create characters who experience real emotions, but where and how does the writer cross the line into manipulating of the reader?

Kathy Cowley also wrote,
"What is the key to being an ethical documentarian? Thinking about it. Reevaluating. Asking myself tough questions. I think this is something every documentary filmmaker should consider, because film is too powerful a medium to be used carelessly."
The same is true for writers. Story (and books) are a powerful medium.

Because I respect both the reader and the story I am telling, I don't want to fall into the trap of manipulation. By understanding writing craft and knowing how I use the puppet strings, I can make sure I am not manipulating readers. Ideally, my stories use the film equivalent of a well done blue or green screen and my sleight of hand will be unnoticed.

In the end, it is most important for me to focus on telling a story well, but it is also important for me to pay attention to craft and understand how I create the illusions, the effects, the smokes and shadows, a fictional reality.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Culture and Stories: Thoughts on the TED talk by Elif Shafak: The politics of fiction

I’m intrigued by culture and fiction and especially the place where they intersect. My fascination with cultures began when I was a child reader. I loved reading books that took me into other times and to other places, places I never dreamed I might have a chance to visit.  I grew up and through a series of events and choices, I became a global nomad who moves every couple years to a different country. Crossing into other cultures is part of my reality, and it comes with a unique mix of challenges and joy and discovery. Now, as a writer, my questions about cultures (and how one moves between them) enter my work. So anytime a writer talks about story and culture, I'm interested.

Elif Shafak, an international author, gave a TED talk where she discusses identity and stories and boundaries and cultural ghettos. She crosses, or as she puts it, she commutes between cultures. (After listening to her talk, I want to read her novels.)

Her talk is also available on the TED site (with transcript and translations) here, plus the TED site also has a nice bio.

How do we write our stories?
How do we read?
Do we cross boundaries and explore the world, or do we stay in our safe, small community?

Each place has its own stories and fiction, yet the stories of each place exert influence on other places. We can learn all sorts of information and “facts” from nonfiction and history books and the news, but it is through fiction that we can, for a short period of time, truly enter and experience another person’s life and other cultures.

Story is a way to experience the world. As Shafak says, stories “connect all humanity.”

Here are some other links to people and blogs that talk about culture and fiction: Adichie Chimamanda, and the author, Uma Krishnaswami.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Write At Your Own Risk--a new blog

Faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults launched a wonderful group blog,
Write at Your Own Risk.

This is a blog I will be following.
Contributors include authors Louise Hawes, Uma Krishnaswami, Coe Booth, Susan Fletcher, Leda Schubert, Sarah Ellis, and Mark Karlins.

Check out my photo on their masthead.
(The center one with the words. They mention it in their first post here.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tour Paris with a Story App! Conversation with Sarah Towle about her StoryApp Tour

Sarah Towle, founder of Time Traveler Tours, is a writer and ex-pat who lives in Paris.  Today is launch day for her StoryApp Tour, Beware Madame la Guillotine. (This link takes you to a preview. I've never used an app, but found it fun to preview with my computer.) Typically, I look to books for stories, but I also enjoy stories in many other places such as film, stage, and oral storytelling. Apps are fun and interactive, plus what a great idea for a tour. I wanted to learn more about Sarah's approach to telling stories, so asked her to join me here.

Your app, Beware Madame la Guillotine: A Revolutionary Tour of Paris, tells a story and is also a tour to some of the sights in Paris. Sarah, this is a wonderfully innovative approach to storytelling.

What is your app tour/story about?

Beware Madame la Guillotine is the story of the French Revolution, a seminal moment in history, told by a lesser-known historical character who lived at that time and whose actions helped shape that time. The narrator – and tour guide – is Charlotte Corday, a 24-year-old convent-school girl who was driven to murder. Her victim: the radical journalist, Jean-Paul Marat.

Charlotte blamed Marat for the Revolution’s turn to terror and execution of King Louis XVI. She traveled to Paris from Caen, Normandy, spent a few days at the Palais Royal learning everything she could of Marat’s habits, then bought a kitchen knife, tracked Marat to his home, gained entrance under false pretenses and stabbed him to death as he lay soaking in the bath. She was imprisoned at the Conciergerie before losing her head at the base of Mme la Guillotine.

As Charlotte spins her yarn, she reveals the story of the Revolution and takes you on a personal journey from the Palais Royal on the Right Bank to La Conciergerie on the Ile de la Cité into the sights and sounds of the Paris of her time. Along the way, map challenges, brainteasers and hunts for historical treasure bring this important part of Paris’s past to life.

Why did you select this story as the first to develop as an app tour?

Charlotte’s is one of several tales of creative non-fiction that I’ve written focusing on Paris history. As a reader, I’ve always found it more enjoyable to access history through the stories of those who lived it. As a traveler, I’ve always preferred to follow the ghosts whose footsteps preceded mine. So the original idea was to marry story with history to create itineraries that, taken together, would provide an engaging sweep of Paris’s past for school groups and families traveling together.

The sweep begins with Roman Paris and continues to the roaring 20s, the period entre les guerres.Of all these eras, the French Revolution posed the greatest challenge. I was daunted by it, the most important yet most difficult period of French history to synthesize for anyone, much less a young reader. So, I decided to start here. I figured if I could successfully capture the Revolution, I would certainly be able to manage the rest.

Besides, as soon as I discovered Charlotte, it was love at first sight. She’s a very compelling character!

What special things or effects are you able to do with an app that you couldn’t do with text alone?

As an app you can listen to Charlotte narrate her own story aloud as you walk along and/or look around at your surroundings. In the print iteration, the user had to assume the role of Charlotte and stop to read at each new location. The kids who piloted the print version felt this was too much like school. I found that it just plain took too long. It really bogged the story down. With audio narration, you are more effectively transported to Charlotte’s world.

Questions, map and trivia challenges can be responded to in the app with a simple tap on the screen. In the print version, you had to go searching for an answer key. And this really limited the types of questions that could be asked.

In the app the user can elect to dig deeper into this or that topic, or not; turn the text on to read while listening; or turn the audio off altogether and just read. As the author I’ve provided you with various elements that interact with both story and surroundings and that serve to enhance Charlotte’s narration. But how you choose to use these elements is up to you. The story experience, therefore, is not exactly linear. Although there is a beginning, middle and end to Charlotte’s tale, the journey you take as a user/reader isn’t necessarily straight. And your own interaction with the story can change depending on whether you are using the app to tour Paris or reading it on your trip to or from Paris. It can be consumed in myriad ways.

Many potential readers aren’t able to visit Paris and walk around with this app tour? Is it also set up as a virtual tour?

Not yet, but the idea of repackaging the story as a virtual tour is definitely something I’ve been turning over in my head, and more, for some time. The technology is certainly available to create a virtual tour for use in the home on your personal computer, on your tablet or – and I find this idea particularly exciting – on a classroom smartboard.

But first things first. As I am currently a company of one, I thought it best to start with one StoryApp Tour in one language on one device. Assuming Charlotte’s tour to the French Revolution for iPhone and iPod Touch proves sufficiently successful, I plan to put out a second bilingual (French-English) version of the app for both iOS and Android. I then have other stories, as I mentioned above, waiting to be produced as StoryApp Tours, while I also put in motion the virtual tour idea.

Unfortunately, unless I win the lottery, that’s still a few years away.

What other app tours do you have planned?

I have two others written and in various stages of illustration:

The story that precedes Charlotte’s takes you to the gardens of Versailles in the heyday of the Ancien Regime, the era of King Louis XIV, XV and XIV, with the Chief-Botanist-to-the-King, a descendant of France’s real-life Indiana Jones. His stories of danger, loyalty and betrayal over what today are for us simple everyday garden plants and flowers, will cause your heart to race and your stomach to churn.

And speaking of churning stomachs, the story that follows Charlotte’s is told through the eyes of a gravedigger who, facing starvation, worked to move the over-crowded skeletal remains of central Paris’ pestilent church graveyards to the underground former rock quarries on the then southern outskirts of the city. Once in power, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered our gravedigger and his compatriots back to work to gussy-up the remains of 6 million dead so, as in Rome, the seat of his empire could have a spectacular Catacombs.

And a fourth StoryApp is currently in the works. It takes you to Paris of the Romantic era, to Hausmannian Paris, the Paris most of us know today, through the lens of one of the world’s first photographers, Nadar. He lived a long life, surviving five governments and three revolutions and he knew and took pictures of all the famous creative people of his day. His stories are legion. (As are the stories other have to tell about him.)

For more information about Sarah Towle’s StoryApp Tour, visit her website, TimeTravelerTours.

Beware Mme la Guillotine: A Revolutionary Tour of Paris will be available from Tuesday 26 July at a 20% discount the first week. You don’t have to be in Paris to buy it, play with it and post a review to the App Store. Save it on your phone and give it a go when you’re next in Paris!

Thank you, Sarah for joining me today.

Also, she is running a kickstarter campaign to get these storyapp tours up and running. Her kickstarter site can be found at this link: Beware Madame La Guillotine, An Interactive Story App Tour.

Note: Other interviews and information are available from the following sites:

 "Why I write Apps for Teens and Tweens" at Time Traveler Tours.

"From Print to Digital Media: Why I made the Shift" on Laurel Zuckerman's Paris Weblog.

"Special Report--Time Traveler Tours presents Beware Madame la Guillotine" at An Alien Parisienne where the blogger talks about taking the tour.

"Revolutionary Paris Tour with Mme Guillotine" at Bonjour Paris: the Definitive Guide to Paris

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Revising -- through a different lens

A photo-journey about revision:

Revising is like exploring castle ruins: walking through arch after arch, or wandering up towers or down dark tunnels where you can't see a thing, or choosing to take a right or left turn. Explore everywhere. It is okay to get lost. (Actually, it's expected.) That is part of the journey.

German castle ruins

Revising is sometimes like using a sundial on a cloudy day. No shadow to give any clue of the time, and no sun to give any sense of direction.

Wall sundial on the outside of a medieval church (1300s)

Keep eyes open when revising. Notice objects that are not on the trodden path and look for what is not expected. The clues in the manuscript can be the key to unlocking difficulties in a revision. After all, a stone shot by the enemy's catapult can make a very nice garden ornament.

Castle garden with a catapult stone in the foreground

Revising is not only re-envisioning, it is also mixing the very old and the very new.

600 year old houses and the modern day skyscrapers

Enjoy the revision journey. Although revising at times means wandering, getting lost, scrambling in the dark, dealing with the unexpected, and asking question after question while searching for solutions, there are glorious moments when one should pause and enjoy the view.

Castle towers

Monday, June 20, 2011

Summer Solstice Scrawl Crawl 2011

June 21st.
Summer solstice, the longest day of the year.
Here in Frankfurt the sun rises at at 5:15 and sets at 21:39 (9:39 pm).
Dawn is at 4:30 and dusk at 10:24 pm.
(An aside--Gaisma is my favorite site for info like this. Iceland, where I lived for a couple years is light all night!! It was my favorite time of the year there.)

What is a Scrawl Crawl?
It's a day where writers and illustrators participate in an "event where individuals create something speedily drawn or written [scrawl] that is inspired by their creativity and observational powers as they go from place to place [crawl]."

SCBWI members in Europe will be exploring, creating and sharing with the theme Dawn to Dusk. (SCBWI members from other continents can register as roving-scrawl crawlers.)

We'll be posting on the ScrawlCrawl blogsite, sharing what we wrote or drew. Feel free to come visit us, or better yet, join us and be creative on Midsummer's day.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Writing Craft: Tension

I'm blogging in Through the Tollbooth this week.

I'd love to have you come visit me.
On Monday I talked about tension and character. I look at some of the ways characters add tension to a novel. I get into topics such as desire, flawed characters, internal struggles, and choices.

On Wednesday I talked about tension and plot or macro tension. Premise, plot design, stakes, subplots, and conflict are a few of the techniques I explore as I look at ways we can create more tension with plot.

Friday's topic is tension on the page, or micro tension. These types of tensions include cliffhangers, white space, and subtext, and several other techniques.

Come swing by the tollbooth. I'd love to hear what type of tension in books is your favorite and what makes a book a page-turner for you.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Uma Krishnaswami - Author and Writing Teacher

Today Uma Krishnaswami visits me on her blog tour.
Uma writes picture books (including Monsoon and the recently published Out of the Way! Out of the Way!), retellings of traditional stories (my personal favorite is The Broken Tusk: Stories of the Hindu God Ganesha), and middle grade novels. She also teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts and was my advisor when I took the picture book semester.

Her latest novel, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, was released this week. It is a humorous middle grade novel, "featuring best friends, Bollywood dancing, postal mishaps, monkeys, and chocolate.) It received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.

Today we talk about her writing, her teaching, and how each contributes to the other. Plus, she answers a couple questions about The Grand Plan to Fix Everything.

Sarah: How have your interactions with other writers at Vermont College (VCFA) influenced any of your books or your writing?

Uma: The conversations at the residency are so full and rich that they invariably get me thinking about my own work and how to stretch myself in working and reworking it. I think I read from
The Grand Plan to Fix Everything three or four times over several residencies, and each time I’d watch the audience to see where they laughed and how they reacted. Kathi [Kathi Appelt] and Tobin [M. T. Anderson] both read the manuscript and offered really terrific comments as well.

Sarah: Do you approach writing differently because of teaching at VCFA?

Uma: No question. I push myself more. I take more risks. I have to because I see my students doing exactly that, and I’m encouraging them to do so. The other part of how it affects my work is purely a matter of scheduling. That’s the hard part for me and I’m still struggling with a reasonable balance. This is because I have to get all my own work done between student packets. That means not just the writing part (drafting, revising, planning, research) but also what I think of the author part of the work (contracts, promotion, blog posts, submissions, and e-mails, e-mails, e-mails). So I have to compartmentalize things more than I would otherwise but it’s a good amount of pressure. I think that when I do write, as a result, I’m more focused because I know I have a limited amount of time.

Sarah: In what way(s) has teaching helped your writing?

Uma: It keeps the conversations about writing in the forefront for me. Even when I’m teaching (and so not actually working on my own writing) the questions that come up in exchanges with students are related to craft. That makes for good, fallow time for my own work, but also allows me to be thinking about it subconsciously because everything I’m doing is indirectly related. The other thing that teaching does is keep me honest. If I start saying something about a student’s work I always reflexively stop to think, Is that really true? Is it practical? Would I do that? And it makes me, you know, a little more generous than I might be otherwise.

Sarah: When did you realize that you are a writer? Who first encouraged you or told you that you are a writer?

Uma: I’ve always been a writer, even as a child. I was praised for my writing through school but I never thought of myself as a writer, not until I felt the urge to add my voice to the conversation of books. That was when my son was born and I realized (this was in the late 1980’s) that the books I went looking for, books across the age range with a range of diverse characters and themes, seemed few and far between. It was circumstance rather than a person that led to the realization. That’s not to say I don’t have many, many people to thank for their help and support over the years—you’ll find them in the acknowledgments and dedications pages of my books. My students figure largely among them these days.

Sarah: Has your writing process changed over time?

Uma: Definitely. I used to love drafts, and now I can’t wait to get past them so I can get to the real work of revision.

Sarah: Uma, you taught writing extensively both online and in other places before joining the faculty at VCFA. At Vermont you meet and interact with your students twice a year. Although online teaching is effective, what additional benefits does the Vermont low residency method add for both you and the students?

Uma: I think it strengthens the writing community we have at VCFA. We have that very intense, compacted time together at the residencies. Then as we all go home and begin the work of semester projects the impact of the residencies seems to persist until the momentum of the work builds and carries through. It gives us a foundation to work from, I think, as well as the common language of lectures and workshops.

Sarah: It must be a thrill to see your students publishing books, especially books that you worked on with them. What are some of these books and who are the authors?

Uma: Yes indeed. Here's a sampler of published and forthcoming books from both my classes and from VCFA: Amadi’s Snowman by Katia Novet Saint-Lot, The Faerie Ring by Kiki Hamilton, Fiona Finkelstein, Big-Time Ballerina by Shawn Stout, So Punk Rock and Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother by Micol Ostow, The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams. There are others in the pipeline, I know.

Sarah: Could you tell us a little about your latest book, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything? When will it be released?

Uma: The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, the one I read from at residencies, will be out very soon, May 24. You can find more about it on my web site, and the trailer is here.
It was great fun to write and came from a sense I’d had for a long time that fiction grounded in culture and geography (the kind of thing we call “multicultural”) can be lively and funny as well.

Sarah: Chocolate plays a big role in The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. I've enjoyed eating chocolate in many countries (such as China, Finland, and Brazil) and am now curious about chocolate in India. Is there much of a chocolate market in India and if so how did it lead you to the character of the baker, Mr. Mani?

: Cadbury ruled the Indian chocolate market for years until Amul, an Indian milk products company, began making chocolate. Maybe in the 70's, I can't exactly remember. Nestle also manufactures chocolate in India. Almonds, cashews, and raisins are common as ingredients, and milk chocolate is more common than dark. Some of the Amul gift products have wonderful wrappers. Several imported European brands are available as well, although at a price. More recently, gourmet and designer chocolate is starting to hit the market for those who can afford it. The down side to this is that it may be displacing some of the more traditional Indian sweets.

That trend is what made me think of the baker in The Grand Plan, entering a small niche market with his dreams of redeeming his family's honor. Mr. Mani's trying to combine his Indian heritage with his baker's vocation. Hence he employs rose petals, a traditional Indian flavoring, in his recipes. He also adds pinches of chocolate to fusion foods like his curry puffs. Cultural fusion is a big undercurrent in this book, and chocolate seemed to be the perfect ingredient to embody that. But here's an interesting thing--when I was in New York last I stopped at
Dean and Deluca's to pick up a gift for someone, and got talking to the cashier about a box of rose petal truffles they had on display. Just the kind of thing that Mr. Mani would be proud to offer his customers, right? It turns out that rose petal chocolate is a hot new trend internationally. I felt very pleased and affirmed, having created that trend in my own small way in fiction, in complete ignorance that it might even exist as a trend in the real world.

Sarah: Thank you, Uma for joining me today!
Mr Mani's curry puff recipe can be found on Uma's website by clicking on the downloadable activity kit. She blogs at Writing with a Broken Tusk.

Please visit Uma on other stops on her Grand Plan Blog Tour.
Today is VCFA day, and she visits with Kathi Appelt (a video interview, plus a clip of Uma reading from the book), Bethany Hegedus, and Michelle Knudsen in Through the Tollbooth.
Also, don't miss the previous interviews with Cynthia Leitich Smith on Cynsations where they talk about "Reinventing Your Children's Writing Career, and Got Story? Countdown where Joy Chu visits with several of the creative minds involved in the creations of Uma's book, including the illustrator and art director and Uma and a surprise guest.

Also, as part of this blog tour, there is a grand giveaway. Here are the details:
A Grand Giveaway! Three lucky Grand Prize winners will each receive one copy of THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING along with a starry assortment of bangles and trinkets that Dolly Singh, famous famous Bollywood movie star, would adore! An additional 3 runners-up will receive a copy of THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING. To enter, send an e-mail to In the body of the e-mail, include your name, mailing address, and e-mail address (if you're under 13, submit a parent's name and e-mail address). One entry per person and prizes will only be shipped to US or Canadian addresses. Entries must be received by midnight (PDT) on 6/30/11. Winners will be selected in a random drawing on 7/1/11 and notified via email.