Wednesday, May 16, 2018

7 Questions for Dream Gardens Podcast Host Jody Lee Mott

Esteemed Reader, you know I love podcasts and audiobooks and I firmly believe that if you're doing dishes or working out or any number of other activities that prevent you from actually sitting down and reading a thing, you can still be taking in useful information to improve you as both a writer and a human being. Dream Gardens is one of my new favorites and I would definitely classify it as "useful." 

I've listened to every episode and I'm a guest this week as Jody and I discuss my favorite middle grade novel, The Witches by Roald Dahl. You can hear the full episode here or below at the bottom of this interview.

Here's an official description of the show: Dream Gardens is a twice monthly audio podcast interview with writers, teachers, librarians, or anyone who share a love of children’s books. In each podcast, I’ll talk to my guests about their favorite children’s book: old favorites and new discoveries; books they shared with students, their own children, or other adults who love to read; stories that have made them laugh, cry, and wonder; words that still speak to them no matter how many times they have read them.

Jody Lee Mott is a former teacher, doting husband and father, intermittently successful cook, would-be writer of and all around geek for great kids’ books. After years of futile resistance, he is engaging at last in the digital world to share his own passion for those stories written specifically for children, but which are really for anyone who still opens the pages of a book with a sense of wonder and joy.

And now Jody Lee Mott faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite children's books?

1. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo – Not just my favorite children’s book but one of my favorite books period. Here you have a passive, prickly and self-centered china rabbit who bounces from one group of characters to another, never quite finishing their own stories, and whose big climax has Edward sitting on a shelf, collecting dust and brooding. None of it should work, but of course it all does because Kate diCamillo is just that good. A wonderful and moving book that's really about what it means to be a human being.

2. The Bromeliad Trilogy (Truckers, Diggers, Wings) by Terry Pratchett – a terrific set of books in their own right, but they were also my introduction to the fictional worlds of Mr. Pratchett, including his Discworld novels. What’s marvelous about them is how even though they are “children’s books,” they are just are smart and hilarious and insightful as any of his adult books. As it should be.

3. D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths by Ingri d’Aulaire and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire – the first book I remember checking out of the library, and I remember it because I checked it out at least a hundred times. The stories and the illustrations fascinated me, and scared me a little too. And though I did have to return it when the due date came around, it was the first book I felt like I owned. A very special feeling I’ve never gotten over.

Question Six: What attracted you to podcasting?

Along with being a podcaster, I am an aspiring children’s book writer, and in the past few years I’d been considering a way to increase my online profile. But it was while listening to various podcasts like Grammar Girl and Brain Burps that the idea first struck me that podcasting might be fun to do, and that I might be good at it.  There was something about the performative aspects of the podcast that appealed to me as well, like the poems I read at the beginning of the podcast and my role as interviewer, while my introverted nature appreciated that I would be heard but not seen (which is why I doubt I will ever add a video component to Dream Gardens).

Question Five: What are you most hoping listeners will take away from the Dream Gardens podcast?

Two things: One, that there is a wide variety of kids’ books out there, past and present, that are worth looking into. Part of the joy of doing this, for me, is not only re-reading old favorites but having the chance to read books I either had meant to read but hadn’t got around to or to read books I might never have heard of otherwise. If nothing else, I hope the podcasts introduce new books to new readers (and any book is new, no matter how old, if it hasn’t been read yet).

And second, that children’s books are works of art worthy of serious discussion as much as any other book.  Yes, their primary audience is children, but that does not mean there is less craft involved, or that they lack depth or complexity. Children’s books, like kids themselves at times, are too often under-estimated.

Question Four: Has hosting a podcast about children's books changed your view of children's books? What have you learned from your experiences thus far?

I’m not sure it changed so much as confirmed my view that the books we read as kids shape us as readers, and sometimes even affect the paths of our careers, making us teachers or librarians or writers or even podcasters.

What I've also learned is that people who are passionate about kids’ books want to share that with others. When I first started out, I wasn’t sure if anyone would agree to do this. I mean, why should they? I was just a guy no one knew who said he had this podcast no one had heard of.  And after a year and a half of doing this, it still surprises me when people say yes, but I am grateful they do.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about hosting the Dream Gardens podcast? What is your least favorite thing?

My favorite part of hosting is just listening to what others have to say about their favorite books. I have always felt that my role was secondary to just letting others talk about how a particular book has engaged them. And I think the enthusiasm for that book does come through in that conversation.

My least favorite part is the initial invitations I send out asking people to participate in the podcast. As I’ve mentioned, I’m an introvert, and asking complete strangers to join me in a chat goes against all my normal instincts. It is something I have to fight against every single time I do it, and I still cringe a little when I click send.

Question Two: What advice would you give to anyone looking to start their own podcast or otherwise build an online following for their creative work?

My biggest advice is to do the research before you get started. Listen to other podcasts, both to see what is out there and to get an idea of how to format your own. Then research all the pieces involved in getting started and keeping it going--and there are a lot of pieces. Sure, there are ways to get started quickly, but they usually involve giving up some control of either your podcast or its distribution. If you want to do it right, take the time to do it right. Once I decided I wanted to do a podcast, I took nearly a year of figuring things out and getting the right equipment (tip: a high-quality microphone and headphones are essential) before I posted my first podcast.  As for other online ventures, I think the same advice holds true—do your research first.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Robert Louis Stevenson, because he was such a good writer (I’ve always thought The Master of Ballantrae was pretty much a perfect book), a wide traveler, and an all-around interesting human being, and because I know he would have so many stories to tell I could just sit back and listen and eat my lunch.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

7 Questions For: Author Gennifer Choldenko

Gennifer Choldenko is best known for her Tales from Alcatraz series, which has sold more than 2 million copies. Book #1: Al Capone Does My Shirts was a Newbery Honor Book and the recipient of twenty other awards. Book #4: Al Capone Throws Me a Curve is due out in 2018. BookPage said of her most recent novel, Chasing Secrets: “Choldenko’s ability to research obscure yet intriguing topics is uncanny, and as she did with the popular Al Capone trilogy she turns a tough topic into a high interest read … a compelling work of historical fiction.” Gennifer lives with her loyal husband and naughty dog in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In her own words: There’s a Lego in my bum which fits with the Lego in my chair and when I sit down to write, I hear the satisfying snap of the two pieces fitting together. I love words, dictionaries, thesauruses, sharp pencils, the smell of book ink and the delicious art of carving out sentences on clean white paper. I love to slip into another person’s skin and feel what it’s like to live another life. I love when characters come to me out of nowhere and make me cry so hard my mascara runs or laugh until my stomach hurts. I love the crazy fun and infinite possibility of storytelling.

What prepared me for a life of writing fiction? Though I have a BA from Brandeis University in English and American Literature and a BFA in illustration from Rhode Island School of Design, the true answer is probably genes. I come from a long line of Irish storytellers on my father’s side and theatre people on my mother’s. I always knew I loved to write, but it took me a long time to summon the courage to chase the dream. I finally went for it when I realized I would prefer to be a failure at something I wanted to do, then a success at something I didn’t. 

While I was pretending I wasn’t a writer, trying to be a nice person with a nice quiet job somewhere, I sold lingerie, lipstick and lamp shades. I wrote junk mail. I taught visually and hearing-impaired kids horseback riding. I held a prestigious job in rubbish removal and I worked in a factory wearing a paper gown while wielding a large mallet on small serving packages of ketchup. 

One Third Nerd, my funniest novel yet, is due out in January 2019. My most famous novel, Al Capone Does My Shirts, garnered 20 awards, one of which was the Newbery Honor. The Tales of Alcatraz series has sold more than 2 million copies. What will probably be the last book in the series: Al Capone Throws Me a Curve is the best of the fifteen books I’ve written so far. 

I am a fitness fanatic; a book-obsessed, tennis-playing woman who thinks like a twelve-year-old. If I ever get the good fortune to meet you, offer me coffee and I will be your friend for life.

And now Gennifer Choldenko faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Charlotte’s Web, Holes, All the Light We Cannot See

(In my view, All the Light We Cannot See is YA.)

In the competition for top fourth book: El Deafo, A Little Princess, The Watsons Go to Birmingham, Harriet the Spy, The Book Thief, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?

The last six months, I’ve been writing seven days a week, which I really enjoy. On weekend days, I generally write for two hours; during the week, four to five hours.  Sometimes I read during my writing time. Today, I spent less time writing because my ideas for my newest book feel thin.  I haven’t done a good enough job researching.  So I worked on finding the information I need.

As for reading for pure pleasure: two hours.  I read during breakfast and lunch.  I am a huge fan of audio books.  I “read with my ears” while I walk the dog, do errands, clean the house and drive. Right now, I’m listening to Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.

Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?

I’ve always loved to write.  For seven years, I made a living writing advertising.  But then writing advertising started to make me hate myself.  I just couldn’t do it anymore.  I tried writing fiction for adults, but I found that boring.  Who cares about adults?  After a few wrong turns, I finally figured out what energized me was writing for kids.  I am twelve on the inside and I care passionately about things that other twelve-year-olds care about.  

Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?

There are three intrinsicqualities that have to come together to make a writer: talent, personality andambition.  My brother is a talented writer, but he’s such a people person he can’t handle the alone time.  My daughter is immensely talented but she hates how subjective the writing process is.  She prefers math and science, where the answers are clear.

Once you have talent, a writerly personality and ambition, then you need to figure out how to build your skill set. And that is a lifelong endeavor.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?

Wow, I have so many favorite things.  I love the endorphin high I get when a new idea pops in my head.  I love when a scene comes to me and I can’t type fast enough to get it all down.  I love revising.  (My license plate?  REWRITZ.)  I love when my characters talk to me and I become so involved in their stories that I don’t want to leave my fictional world.  Really there’s no part of writing I don’t like, but there is a part of the writing business I dislike.  I’m terrified when a book launches.  It feels like I’ve sent my kindergarten age child out on the streets to fend for herself.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

1.Don’t beat up your muse.  Be grateful for every gift she gives.

2. Revel in the process.  It isn’t about getting through it or getting it over with.

3. Every year ask yourself what part of your writing skill set needs work.  Then strategize how to up your game.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why??

Frank L. Baum and JK Rowling.  I don’t think Frank L. Baum is the best writer, but his imagination was incredible.  He fired off every cylinder.  J.K. Rowling is both a terrific writer and she is intensely imaginative.  What would Frank and Joanne order?  What would they say to each other?  I would love to hear them discuss how their ideas came to them. 

Monday, May 7, 2018

Book of the Week: AL CAPONE THROWS ME A CURVE by Gennifer Choldenko

First Paragraph(s): Even when you live on a prison island with crafty criminals plotting ways to knock you off, summer is the best time of the year.
No tests. No homework. No getting up early to catch the ferry. No teachers who think you flunked a few grades because you happen to be kind of big for thirteen and a half.
Summer is freedom. Not for the prisoners, of course. But for us kids who live on Alcatraz Island. 

Gennifer Choldenko will be here  Wednesday to face The 7 Questions, so mark it on your calendar and find your way back here. Today, we're going to discuss her newest middle grade novel; why I loved it and you will too.

I know I'm always picking a new favorite opening, Esteemed Reader, but the opening of Al Capone Throws Me a Curve is definitely near the top of Middle Grade Ninja's List of Fantastic Openings Made of Win Because They're Everything You Want in a Book's Opening, or MGNLFOMWBTEYWBO for short.

Let's break it down. First, Choldenko hooks us with the setting. To be fair, Al Capone Throws Me a Curve is the fourth book in a beloved series, so presumably many readers will already be familiar with the setting. Choldenko is reminding them of the dangers of Alcatraz and enticing first time readers, of which there will always be some who obstinately skip the first three books (***waves***). Second, she expertly sets the story's tone  by simultaneously re-establishing our main character since this is a first-person narrative. She tells us what summer means for Moose, and shows he's a bit cheeky with that swipe at the prisoners who won't be having a summer of freedom.

Two other things that win my heart right away are, one, every chapter is dated so there's never any question about when we are; it's Tuesday, May 26, 1936. If I had my way, every historical work would do this. Two, she finds a way right up front in the second paragraph to tell us our protagonist is thirteen and a half. 

Game, set, and match. All the essential exposition we need to know up front is seamlessly conveyed with a juicy hook set both in tone and in setting. If you're a returning reader, welcome back. Make yourself comfortable, newcomers, you're in the hands of a storyteller who knows what's she's doing. 

Obviously, there's more exposition needed. But exposition for exposition's sake is boring, especially since lots of readers already know this stuff. Observe how Choldenko slows down just enough to catch up the newbies and remind folks who've slept since the last book what the situation of our heroes is:

"Uh-oh! Uh-oh" My older sister, Natalie, mutters like a character on a kids' radio program. Her blond-brown head is bent forward as she counts toothpicks in a row. She's tall, like my mom and me, but she holds herself in a way that makes her look younger and smaller than she is.
My father's hand hovers over Natalie's toothpicks. "Okay if I take one?"
Natalie hands him the last one in line.
We moved up here from Santa Monica a year and a half ago so Nat could go to a school called the Esther P. Marinoff, which helps kids whose brains aren't wired like everyone else's. My parents sacrificed a lot for her to go to that school. We all did.
My father was an electrician in Santa Monica, but he had a hard time finding a job up here. It's almost impossible to get work right now on account of the Depression. I don't understand exactly what the Depression is except it has to do with the banks collapsing and people not having money. Anyhow, the only job my father could get was as a guard and an electrician in the prison. Everybody likes him here, though, so he got promoted to assistant wardn.
Since Nat's been at the Esther P. Marinoff, she's learned how to have a conversation--not just echo what you say. She still has a hard time looking people in the eye, but she has been trying really hard. Now we're helping her make friends.

Choldenko's not just giving us a quick recap, but establishing one of the major conflicts of the novel. There's a bunch of stuff about baseball, one baseball in particular signed by Babe Ruth and another historical figure I won't spoil except to say that his name is in the title:) And all of that is just fine and young readers in particular will enjoy those aspects of the story. But at its heart, this is a story about the family of an autistic child.

Seems like there's been a recurring theme of autism in the books we've been discussing this year, doesn't it, Esteemed Reader? That's not an accident.

But the word 'autism' is never once mentioned in this book until the author's note because this story takes place eight years before autism was first diagnosed. Part of the tragedy of this tale is that our characters don't understand what's happening with Natalie or why she never snaps out of it. There aren't any resources to assist them or even educate them as to what they can expect or how they can help.

If this detail doesn't break your heart, Esteemed Reader, I suspect there's nothing in your chest to be broken:

Things have always been screwy around Natalie's birthday. Every year Mom pretends Natalie is turning ten again, instead of fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, or, this year, seventeen. Mom wants Nat to be younger so she has more time to catch up with the other kids.

Choldenko doesn't shy away from showing the frustration both for Natalie and her family:

"No little girl dress. No." She spins faster.
My mother marches to Nat's closet and picks the pink dress off the hanger. She unbuttons it, walks back to the kitchen, and shoves it in Natalie's spinning face. "Take that dress off, now. It makes you look--"
Natalie hugs herself.
"Natalie, now!" my mother shouts. It's awful when my mother loses control. Then it seems like there are two Natalies.
"No now! No now!" Natalie knocks a vase off the shelf. It falls with a thud. A glass bowl crashes, splintering into pieces. She bangs her head against the wall, bites at her wrists, kicks the books off the shelf, and then collapses in a heap in the middle of the broken shards.

My mother is shaking hard. She stands next to Natalie, unable to move.

Natalie isn't just the autistic girl. She's a character as fully flushed out as the non-autistic ones. She has things she wants and needs. She knows how old she is and she wants to grow up and she wouldn't mind being kissed.

But this isn't her series. Our character is Moose, our narrator through three previous books. And being Natalie's brother isn't always easy:

When I get back to my apartment, my mother and Natalie are already gone. Under the saltshaker I find a note.
Moose, four more days to go! Love, Mom
I can't help smiling at this. I didn't realize she knew I was counting the last days of school. I like when my mom acts like my mom. Sometimes it seems like all she thinks about is Natalie.

This book is dedicated "to every kid who has a sibling with autism," a position that brings plenty of difficulty as Choldenko knows only too well. She reveals in the author's note that her own sister was autistic and so she brings to these books that, again, are also about Al Capone and Alcatraz, a lifetime's worth of research born of experience. And it shows.

There is no element of the story we experience outside of Moose's perspective and it's his frustration we feel most keenly. Moose wants to play baseball with the high school team, even if he's got to sneak them items to prove he's an acquaintance of Al Capone (it's a whole thing that a 'review' less focused on the treatment of autism would probably spend more time on). Although, I did get a chuckle at how difficult a prospect it would be for Moose to get a selfie with Al Capone in 1936, even if Alcatraz prison weren't a factor.

When Moose is forced to take Natalie with him as he auditions for the baseball team, she's legitimately inappropriate, particularly for the more chaste era she's living in. Because autism isn't a known thing, the other kids don't understand. Moose doesn't entirely understand and you can feel his pain and frustration:

"Who's she kissing?" Beck asks.
"Got to be Passerini," Dewey snorts. "All the girls love him."
The guys laugh.
My cheeks turn burning hot. I jump up and dash to the bleachers. "Natalie, stop doing that!" I growl.
"Passerini! Passerini!" Beck calls.
"Go on, Pass... kiss her," Dewey hoots.
"He, Pass. She wants you, Pass!" Dewey, Beck, and Scout are all laughing.
"Stop it, Natalie!" I hiss.
She stops smacking, but her lips are puckered like they;'re frozen there. Her arms cover her ears blocking me out.
I grab her arm. I know she hates this, but I can't stop myself. "Don't do that with your lips!" My breath is hot in her face.
Natalie wraps her arms more tightly around her head, covering her face with her elbows. She doubles over, rolls up into the footrest of the bleachers.
"They're making fun of you. Don't you see?"
But the more I talk, the tighter Natalie pulls inside herself.
I glance back at the guys. They aren't laughing anymore. They're staring. Even Scout.
"Get out of here!" I shout, rushing at them.

There also a lot of touching moments in this story, which I'm not going to share because I don't want to spoil them. And there's a somewhat villainous woman who takes particular interest in Natalie for her own nefarious purposes. Bea gives Natalie some grown up dresses and a more mature haircut, helping her escape her mother's intentions of keeping her forever ten, which is good. Unfortunately, Bea also places Natalie in harm's way.

Although Choldenko doesn't go out of her way to show us the full brutality of the time period, she doesn't shy away from it either (without every straying too far from Middle Grade country). Being dishonest about the realities of 1936 would be cheat. We're told of grown men so hungry they lick the street where children's ice cream has been spilled. And I shook my head in disbelief at how an incident involving children and a gun was resolved.

There's plenty of sexism to go around, both avert and less so, and not softened just because the reader presumably has more progressive thoughts than the characters (always assuming the reader isn't named 'Pence'). Even our likable protagonist says some things that wouldn't fly today, such as "It's prison, not a women's club." No doubt, readers will bristle at some of the realities of the time, but Choldenko isn't writing about a fantastical past or an alternate history. That baseball signed by the Babe and Capone was real and so were outdated social norms, unfortunately.

And that's where we'll leave it. Al Capone Throws Me a Curve is a very entertaining read that made me wipe my eyes several times before it was done and laugh out loud as well. 

Before we'll call it a review, I want to share one more of Choldnko's pro tips for writers. Here's a memorable way to describe a character's appearance in a first-person narrative without looking in a mirror:

As soon as my feet hit the wooden planks, the dock officer, a man they call the Nose, comes over. The Nose got his name because he smelled convicts' moonshine hidden in a fire extinguisher.
He's the same size I am--almost six feet--with the same brownish-blondish hair and brown eyes. Everybody says I look like him.

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Al Capone Throws Me a Curve:

My stomach is mixed up, like it can't decide if I ate too much or I'm hungry.

My head nods like a traitor.

I don't see how Alcatraz is going to get us on the high school team. But if anyone can wangle a way on, it's Scout. He can charm a tree stump. He can befriend a highway divider. He can convince a pen to become a pencil for the day.

I've just turned away when I hear her voice, thin as chicken broth.

Worst inning I've ever seen.
Back in the field, Dewey fumbles a pop fly. Passerini walks two players. Beck trips and falls on his face. He spits out a mouthful of dirt.
They're way better than this. Sometimes slumps are like a bad case of chicken pox. The pain has to run its course. You can't just snap your fingers and have it go away.

Piper laughs in my face. I've never known anyone to enjoy my pain as much as she does.

I keep waving until the ferry is small enough to fit in my pocket. And then I let her go.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

Monday, April 16, 2018

A Survey Of Cannibals

Sorry to have been away, Esteemed Reader. I've been bogged down by finishing my newest book and teaching my first fiction workshop, which has been a wonderful experience, but has taken away from my usual blogging time. I'll be back to regular posting soon, but today I have something fun to share with you.

One of my best friends, Jody Sparks, recently surveyed my beloved critique group, the YA Cannibals. If a book can be said to be an author's child, these folks are the co-parents to each of my babies (even if they won't admit to helping out with The Book of David, they're thanked in the back).

If there's one thing I've been trying to impress upon my workshop class, it's that they need writer friends to support and critique them. To my delight, my students are doing that for each other.  It's with them in mind that I offer up this collection of my favorite writers because they're my writing family. If you don't have writer friends like this in your life, go find some.

Alexander, Shannon Lee

Shannon Lee Alexander is the author of Love and Other Unknown Variables and Life After Juliet. She's a wife and mother (of two kids and one yellow terrier named Harriet Potter). She is passionate about coffee, books, and cancer research. She spent most of her time in high school hiding out in the theater with the drammies and techies. Math still makes her break out in a sweat. She currently lives in Indianapolis with her family.

Find her at

Sign up for Shannon's newsletter at

Click here to see her face The 7 Questions.

1. How do you tackle working on craft? Do you use specific techniques like craft books, classes, critique group work, writing exercises, etc.? Or do you just read, write, notice improvement? Or something else? Explain.

I like to read craft books. Some are helpful and some I don’t finish because they are doing more harm to my psyche and process than good. I also listen carefully to critiques, trying to understand how I can improve my writing (not just one particular book) from comments. I’d love to take more classes, have even considered an MFA in writing just for the ability to go back to class, but haven’t pursued that yet. Some of that is financial and some is time commitment. Some of it is fear.

I also mark up my favorite books, so I can easily go back and find bits that spoke to me and try to figure out why. What was the author doing here that really spoke to me? Can I make improvements to do the same or is this specific to a person/type of writing? As you can see, I ask myself a lot of questions when I read! :)

2. What's the best criticism you've ever gotten? Did it lead to a craft breakthrough?

Agent Laura Rennert telling me the stakes weren’t high enough for Charlie Hanson changed my writing life. That was my first big critique/rejection. I’m glad I listened and made changes. I still struggle with raising the stakes! But at least I know that’s a hurdle for me and go into any story prepared to meet it.

3. Tell me about a craft break-through you've had.

I feel like maybe I’m waiting on this still. I don’t know that I’ve had a breakthrough. Sounds awesome though. Sign me up for sure.

4. If the idea of having craft break-throughs doesn't resonate, then tell me how you notice when your writing improves.

If I’m improving, I think it’s in very small and almost unnoticeable ways. I know I must be getting better at this whole thing, but it’s not in some dramatic way. Instead, it’s more like I doubt myself less. Or my instincts for telling the story are more closely aligning with the ways people enjoy hearing stories (so while I’m still not a plotter, my stories ramble less and move forward more). And I think my characters are becoming more diverse and rich in texture and development. Again, all of this is small stuff, like grains of sand, but it’ll build up over time.

5. Name each cannibal and which aspect of craft you think they are best at--only one craft aspect per cannibal. There's no list to choose from. You just have to free write it.

Jody—characters I fall in love with

Sarah—characters I want to simultaneously strangle and protect

Lisa—give me your skill for using everyday words so beautifully

Rob—intricate plots with lots of moving pieces

Josh—willing to reinvent his own worlds

Laura—hook, line, and sinker! Laura’s ideas for story hooks dazzle me.

August—characters that contain entire worlds within themselves (I’m still reeling in the best sort of way from reading his last submission!)

Fipps, Lisa

I am an avid reader and just finished writing a YA novel in verse and am working to get it published. I have been the Director of Marketing and Community Engagement at a public library since 2011, after transitioning from a 19-year career in journalism in Indiana and Texas.

1. How do you tackle working on craft? Do you use specific techniques like craft books, classes, critique group work, writing exercises, etc.? Or do you just read, write, notice improvement? Or something else? Explain.

I read. A lot. Three books a week, on average. I read for the good details -- word choices, verbs -- and bad details -- tropes, convenient characters. If I'm struggling or just want to improve an element of my writing, I seek out classes (Chautauqua and three times at Highlights), conferences, and craft books. I find classes/workshops are costly and time-consuming, BUT the biggest changes in my writing have come from them.

At conferences, because I've been in SCBWI for 18 years now, I usually learn less but get radically inspired. Critique groups are, for me, crucial. I know Linda Sue Park doesn't use one. She hates people trying to tell her what her book should be because then she gets lost in their ideas for her work. That's what you have to be mindful of.

I also just love to play, play, play with words. Having been in journalism and on deadlines for 20 years, I know how to sit down and write pretty clean copy grammatically on the first draft. That's very helpful. It allows me to spend more time experimenting. I also write fairly fast because of my previous career. What slows me down is word choice. I can get bogged down for hours looking for one, perfect word. I won't let a poem go if there are word choices I don't love.

2. What's the best criticism you've ever gotten? Did it lead to a craft breakthrough? 

That's a hard one. I guess the best criticism was actuallysomething that was most encouraging to me. It was from Stephen Roxburgh during the Highlights Foundation Writers’ Workshop in Chautauqua. He's honest. Brutally so. I was terrified. He saw a story I have since shelved that will be my third novel.

We were sitting at a park bench on the corner of South and Park (LOL), and he said, "This is damn brilliant." I literally almost vomited. Yes, he said there was all kinds of work to be done (and I’ve since changed it from prose to free verse to create more work), but he said the emotion and power I can get from words and the pictures I create were brilliant. I was just at the stage of deciding IF I could become a YA author or if I was only cut out to be a journalist for the rest of my life. So those words were life-changing and dream-affirming.

Then when Sonya Sones, whom I adore, liked my work, I thought, "Okay. I'm a poet." So those aren't necessarily criticisms, but they were, for me, essential. Without them, I’m not sure I would have had the courage to pursue writing YA novels. But Patti Gauch's words of "go there," so simple, so true, so needed in good writing, stays in my head. It makes me take chances.

3. Tell me about a craft break-through you've had. 

I'd say at the Masters in Voice Workshop at Highlights with Patti Gauch in 2016. Studying how other authors "go there," was essential for me. At Chautauqua in 2009, Patti had said, "push, push, push." I did from then on. But I didn't "go there," until 2016. Those two words say to me, go to where you are afraid to go. Say words you're afraid to use. Rip open the heart -- mine and the reader's.

4. If the idea of having craft break-throughs doesn't resonate, then tell me how you notice when your writing improves. 

I can usually tell if my writing’s improving based onif I am truly happy with a poem. I am my own worst critic. When I'm revising and willing to scroll past a poem, or I re-read it just for pleasure, I know I've done well. I also know I've done well if my fellow YA Cannibals "get it."

5. Name each cannibal and which aspect of craft you think they are best at--only one craft aspect per cannibal. There's no list to choose from. You just have to free write it.

Rob - I try to imagine what he's going to find wrong with it because he will always call out something that doesn't ring true.

Josh - He's great with action details.

Shannon - She's wonderful with word choice and actions not true to a character.

Virginia - She's the detailer of the group, catching every little comma.

Auggie - He keeps me outside of boxes, freeing me to write. He's also tough, but funny, making me notice my errors more.

Sarah - She's great at talking out plots.

Laura - I'm not used to her style yet. Sorry.

Jody - She sees the whole picture and the dovetails and asks, what if?

Kent, Rob(ert)

Robert Kent is the author of the horror novels The Book of David and All Together Now: A Zombie Story, and the novellas Pizza Delivery and All Right Now: A Short Zombie Story.

Under the name Rob Kent, he writes middle grade novels such as Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees and the upcoming Banneker Bones and the Alligator People.

Rob(ert) Kent holds degrees in Literature and Creative Writing from Indiana University and owns over 900 Batman action figures. He lives with his family in Indianapolis where he teaches courses at the Indiana Writers Center and is hard at work on his next book.

Click here to see him face the 7 Questions, which he also wrote.

1. How do you tackle working on craft? Do you use specific techniques like craft books, classes, critique group work, writing exercises, etc.? Or do you just read, write, notice improvement? Or something else? Explain.

I’ve tried a little bit of everything, which is what I recommend writers do early in their career. You can’t know whether or not something is effective for you unless you give it a shot. I’ve got a pretty good understanding of how I write and what works for me at this stage, but no one’s a monolith and I occasionally try new things to keep writing fresh.

At this stage, I only do writing exercises if I’m at a conference and it would be rude not to. If I’m going to sit down and do the work of writing, I want a shot at selling what I wrote later. I absolutely attend classes when I can, with the caveat that I always read something the instructor wrote ahead of time to make sure I consider them worth listening to. I’m always shocked at the number of students who pay money to attend a class taught by me without first having read one of my books.

As for craft books, I read stacks of them when I was younger. Now I tend to read more about book marketing. I find the best teachers of craft to be other people's books. But I keep the audiobooks for Story by Robert McKee and On Writing by Stephen King handy and listen to them at least once a year. And I never miss an interview or guest post at

2. What's the best criticism you've ever gotten? Did it lead to a craft breakthrough?

That's a tough one because I've been given a lot of great criticism. One thing that comes to mind was not a criticism of craft, but a criticism of my behavior outside of writing. When I was brand new to writing, I wanted to tell everyone how excited I was to be writing... at length. I would raise my hand at every opportunity in class and sometimes I would talk over other students because I was just so excited and, also, annoying.

My mentor, the great writer Will Allison, told me to talk less and listen more. He told me I was a good writer and that anyone who read what I wrote would know that, so there was no need to tell them in advance. And while I was talking, I was missing a lot of opportunities to hear important lessons other writers had to share. Also, other writers are more willing to give you a hand when you're not an obnoxious egomaniac.

Now when I have over-talkers in my classes, I give them the same advice. But I get it. Most of us have been that guy and learning to not be that guy is a very necessary step toward maturing as a writer. When I meet an older writer who's still that guy, I'm embarrassed for them. If I had my way, I'd make a law that ever new writer be required to watch Barton Fink, which illustrates this common behavior and its pitfalls beautifully.

3. Tell me about a craft break-through you've had.

I've had many and expect to have more. What's the point in continuing to write if I don't expect to continue to grow and improve? I can't think of any one moment where I was suddenly struck by glowing insight that made a foggy world clear. Unfortunately, most craft improvement doesn't work that way. It's a gradual process of improvement over time that presents as a cumulative effect rather than a moment of pure insight.

But since that's unsatisfying, I'll share an anecdote:)

I had a writing instructor insist that I start a horror story at the first instance of violence, because the class agreed that the first five pages of the story was too slow and things didn't get interesting until the killer was threatening the protagonist. After that, the class was unanimous that the story was scary. I argued those first five pages were where we got to know the character so we would care about him when it mattered. But the instructor was a big deal author, so I cut those five pages.

When I submitted the story to a new workshop, no one found it scary. They didn't care about the character, so they didn't care what happened to him. I realized the big deal author, while not entirely wrong, hadn't been entirely right either. That's when it hit me that no one knows how to write perfectly all the time. We're all figuring this out as we go and doing the best we can.

I rewrote the five pages to three pages and opened with a promise of the violence to come, thus hooking the reader and keeping them hooked because they cared about the protagonist. That version of the story got published.

4. If the idea of having craft break-throughs doesn't resonate, then tell me how you notice when your writing improves.

I like each new book better than the previous, whatever the author's opinion of his own work does for you:) I have to believe my next book will be my best every time because it's  necessary to my finishing my next book (nobody's motivated to write their second-best book).

Even though, if I'm honest, I don't ever expect to top Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees, which I wrote eight books ago. But with every new project, even sequels to previous projects, I try to push myself to do something I haven't done before. You can't make all readers happy all the time, so I try to make me happy. And why not? It's my name on the cover.

5. Name each cannibal and which aspect of craft you think they are best at--only one craft aspect per cannibal. There's no list to choose from. You just have to free write it.

This is a difficult question, partly because the other cannibals will read my answer, and partly because I depend on every cannibal for multiple aspects of craft. My critique partners are extremely talented. I also don't want to repeat the answers of the other Cannibals being surveyed. But if I must pick one aspect for each of them and only one:

Josh - Is great at sentence structure. I typically make all of Josh's changes because the man knows how to diagram a sentence. Often, I feel silly for not seeing the simpler version of a sentence that was hiding in my overwritten word pile.

Lisa - Is our resident poet and wordsmith. She always lets me know when I'm overusing the same word or phrase. She can also be counted on to select a better, more precise word than whatever low hanging-fruit I've reached for.

Shannon - Is especially good at catching little details, even when they involve a bit of research on her part. She has more than once saved me from embarrassing myself by finding factual inaccuracies in my stories.

Virginia - Is wonderful for moral support. She leaves smiley faces throughout my manuscripts, which lets me know what's working. This is crucial as constructive feedback is best tempered with positivity.

Auggie - Is great at pointing out potentially offensive aspects in my writing. I may argue that something I've written wasn't considered sexist or otherwise terrible when I was growing up, but that means nothing to Auggie with his younger read on things. Guess what, Grandpa Ninja? Times change and it's no longer cool to describe your characters as 'crying like a girl' even though your dear old gym teacher used that exact phrase at least 20 times per class. Just because society is sometimes accepting of a phrase doesn't mean it's acceptable.

Sarah - Is especially good at letting me know when I've gone too far, as I frequently do. Whether I'm too offensive for a YA audience or too blasphemous for a religious audience, Sarah lets me know when I've crossed the line. Though I rarely cross all the way back to the other side, I'll at least retract some:)

Jody - Is very good at making sure my story is comprehensible. She never fails to zero in on something I haven't clearly explained, or something that's likely to be confusing.

Laura - Is amazing at big picture/concept stuff. I would love to write a dinosaurs-in-Indiana story, but Laura already beat me to it. She's got some unpublished stuff I also wish I'd written, but now I can't. Sometimes I completely agree with suggestions Laura makes to re-frame the novels of others, and sometimes she comes up with an idea that's far better than what I had. Usually, I want to read Laura's version of someone else's novel.

Martin, Laura

Laura Martin believes in chasing dreams, and she brought that philosophy to her classroom for six years as a seventh-grade English teacher. She is the author of the Edge of Extinction series. When she isn’t writing stories about dinosaurs and underground civilizations, she can be found in the Indianapolis area with her dashing husband Josh, her two adorable kids London and Lincoln, and two opinionated bulldogs. You can visit her online at

Her latest, Float, releases on May 29th.

Click here to see her face The 7 Questions.

1. How do you tackle working on craft? Do you use specific techniques like craft books, classes, critique group work, writing exercises, etc.? Or do you just read, write, notice improvement? Or something else? Explain.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure if I actually do work on craft. I did that A LOT leading up to getting a book published. I was a creative writing major, and I took an awesome community writing class which provided me with my first ever writing group, but since being published (and having kids…which happened pretty much simultaneously) I haven’t worked on craft as much as I’d like to.

What’s been most beneficial for me has been working with my editor on my books. The more I’ve revised, the easier it has become to spot my own personal weaknesses and improve them.

2. What's the best criticism you've ever gotten? Did it lead to a craft breakthrough?

The best criticism I ever got was from my writing professor at Butler University. He basically told me to just get over myself and write a good book, and if I could do that, the publishing thing would happen for me. And he was right!

He also told me that I needed to write another book while I was getting rejections for my first book. It gave me the distance from the first book to see what utter garbage it really was. A lot of times we get so wrapped up in our own writing we can’t see the good from the garbage without a little help.

3. Tell me about a craft break-through you've had.

My one big break-through was about making a novel exciting for young readers. I call it my frying pan-fire break-though. If your character just got out of the frying pan, it’s high time you threw them into the fire and vise versa. I did that a lot in my Edge of Extinction books…as soon as my characters were feeling safe, I made sure something showed up that made that feeling go away.

4. If the idea of having craft break-throughs doesn't resonate, then tell me how you notice when your writing improves.

My writing improves when I can get it in front of someone else, be that an editor or a writing group. I love hearing what people think of my writing. Creativity (for me at least) can’t happen in a bubble.

5. Name each cannibal and which aspect of craft you think they are best at--only one craft aspect per cannibal. There's no list to choose from. You just have to free write it.

This one is hard since I’m still new to the group, but here it goes!

Shannon—She really paints a wonderful picture with her writing. I FEEL like I’m sitting there watching her characters because she sets the stage so well.

Sarah—Her writing is so fun because she’s effortlessly funny. Even when she’s writing something serious, she makes me laugh.

Lisa—I will never be a poetry writer…but if I was, I’d like to write like Lisa. She makes you feel with five words what it takes me fifty…

Rob—He has really nailed the middle grade voice, something I feel I still struggle with. (note, Laura has not read Pizza Delivery--MG Ninja)

Josh—SORRY! I haven’t read anything of Josh’s yet!

August—He writes fabulous and unique descriptions and somehow manages to capture his character’s voices just by the way he describes them.

Jodi—She creates the best characters. They are unique and quirky and believable all at the same time.

Prokopy, Josh

Josh Prokopy is a stay-at-home dad with a love for young adult action adventure and mysteries set in exotic locales.  When not writing or looking after the house and kids, he loves to practice martial arts and brew great beer.  You can find his in-depth reviews of dozens of YA action adventure novels, good and bad, at

1. How do you tackle working on craft? Do you use specific techniques like craft books, classes, critique group work, writing exercises, etc.? Or do you just read, write, notice improvement? Or something else? Explain.

In the past I have read books on craft, taken online classes, and, of course, gone to conferences.  And early on I definitely got a lot out of that.  Before my first conference, I thought I’d written an amazing book (Just send it out right now.  They’d be crazy not to publish it.).  Within the first two sessions I knew how wrong I was.

But these days, most of what I do in terms of craft is just writing, getting those gut wrenching Cannibal critiques, and critiquing stuff for others.  That last one is huge, because I read so much differently and more carefully when I critique, and it’s a great opportunity to learn about writing in a way that just doesn’t happen when you’re reading for fun.

2. What's the best criticism you've ever gotten? Did it lead to a craft breakthrough?

The best criticism I ever got was actually from my first Cannibal’s critique when I learned that many of the actions and reactions my characters were having where not actually in character.  I was writing for convenience and for fitting into the plot as outlined – but what my characters were doing just didn’t fit with who they were.  The advice was to go back and really assess each action my characters were taking, to think about who they were and whether or not this was actually something they would do.  I have no doubt that my characters still do things for the convenience of my plot, but I try much harder now to root that out.

3. Tell me about a craft break-through you've had.

Not sure I can really identify any single break through.  It’s been more of a steady progression.

4. If the idea of having craft break-throughs doesn't resonate, then tell me how you notice when your writing improves.

Well, I suppose I always feel like each draft I write is better than the last one. But ultimately, the only way to really gauge improvement is to show that work to a group of people who aren’t afraid to tear it up.  That has its down sides, and after a harsh critique it can be incredibly hard to motivate and get back to writing – sometimes it requires an extended break.  But no matter how crappy the critiques make me feel, the end result is inevitably a much better manuscript.  Of course, to get that kind of outcome you have to show your work to other writers, to people who aren’t afraid to tear it up and will say more than, “that’s great” or make a few grammatical corrections.

5. Name each cannibal and which aspect of craft you think they are best at--only one craft aspect per cannibal. There's no list to choose from. You just have to free write it.

Rob – Creates incredibly compelling story lines.  Even if the characters are sometimes reprehensible, you can’t stop reading.

Shannon – She’s capable of huge emotional depth.

Lisa – Gorgeous use of language.  She can create rich emotional scenes with very few words.

Jody – Amazing character development.  It’s so easy to fall inside her characters’ heads.

Laura – Does a fantastic job with plotting.  Her stories are wonderfully paced and a joy to read.

Sparks, Jody

Jody Sparks Mugele was born and raised a Hoosier but spent some time in Tennessee, California, and Michigan before returning home 2011. She’s been married to her husband for twenty years. Jody has two kids, but sometimes others wander in and stay for a while. She used to do marketing writing, but now focuses on fiction. She’s also on the board of the Indianapolis chapter of PFLAG.

1. How do you tackle working on craft? Do you use specific techniques like craft books, classes, critique group work, writing exercises, etc.? Or do you just read, write, notice improvement? Or something else? Explain.

I do all those things, but find classes most useful. Once, I read a child psychology book because I needed it to develop an adult character who was a child psychologist, and that book actually turned out to be one of the more informing books on the craft writing for children. It really opened my eyes to specific developmental milestones I'd never thought of exploring.

2. What's the best criticism you've ever gotten? Did it lead to a craft breakthrough?

The best criticism I ever got was from Andrew Karre. I'd built a hero character who, at the end of the book, was discharged from the Navy dishonorably. Andrew challenged me to think about the current pulse and temperature of America (early 2000s, just after 9-11), and to ask myself how salable I thought the book would be. I was pretty sure I couldn't write the book without the dishonorable discharge, but I wanted to try.

I ended making enormous revisions and completely changing the course of the character's future with the Navy. And the story still worked. I felt like I was still being true to the heart of the book, which was about sacrifice. I realized I could write against my natural instincts and against some of my own values (I'm not anti-military, just for the record) to create a more marketable book. I still haven't sold it, but it is the book that helped me land my first agent.

3. Tell me about a craft break-through you've had.

My last breakthrough was with voice. I'd worked on it at Highlights. The next critique I received, all the smiley faces and compliments were directly related to work I'd done at that workshop. Nice to see the class had paid off. But it's not like I took the class because I felt I was struggling with voice. I just took it because it sounded really good. The best part is that I can take what I learned there and apply it to future manuscripts. Sometimes with craft work it's very hard to see the gains. But in this case, I could be deliberate in how I applied what I learned.

4. If the idea of having craft break-throughs doesn't resonate, then tell me how you notice when your writing improves.

Besides small break throughs like the one above, I've had one giant improvement that I've noticed. A couple years ago, I stopped writing "safe" books, which for me are contemporary YA books that are mostly hetero white middle class love-and-suffering stories.

But then I had this idea that was so funny to me that I wanted to write it just because it just seemed so fun. I said yes to everything including non-white characters, non-hetero characters, nudity, gender non-conforming characters, and a school setting that broke all the norms of a typical high school.

I pushed myself to write through fear and discomfort and the nice clear boundaries of a contemporary setting. It showed me a lot about discovering universal truths as well as empathy. That book is so far the best book I've written. I'm staying on this playground for as long as I can.

5. Name each cannibal and which aspect of craft you think they are best at--only one craft aspect per cannibal. There's no list to choose from. You just have to free write it.

Shannon—Her prose is like a walking into a bakery on a cold day. Just mmmmmmmmm.

Sarah—Action. No matter what her characters are doing, I'm into it. I want to know what happens next.

Lisa—Imagery and emotion. So efficient with language!

Rob—His plot puzzles satisfy! When there's a gun on the mantle in the first scene, that baby will go off in chapter three. The ending of his zombie novel is one of my favorite endings of a book in all of ever!

Josh—World building. No details left behind here. I want his stories as movies so I can SEE them.

Laura—Still learning Laura's writing, but I love the efficiency of her dialog. You get to know a lot about a character from their word choices. And she infers tone somehow, which is amazing!

August—Character building. He's so imaginative! He writes Stargirls and Tiny Coopers and Viking God Balders and Don Quixotes.

Not available for survey: Sarah J. Schmidt. Click here to see her face The 7 Questions.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Hilary Harwell

Hilary joined the KT Literary team to support office operations and assist with queries and manuscripts, and now acts as Associate Agent with clients of her own.

She graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder, with a degree in Anthropology and went on to work in the back office of a major Swiss Investment Bank for eight years before deciding to trade numbers for letters.

When not reading or editing or writing stories of her own, Hilary likes to hike the Rockies with her family and dreams of one day owning her own horses.

You can follow her on twitter.

And now Hilary Harwell faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Choosing is so harrrd. The Graveyard Book, The Grisha Trilogy (that counts as one, right?), and hmmm, let's go with The Westing Game for something different.                            

Question Six: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows?

I don't watch much TV, so we'll stick with movies here. Favorites are Braveheart, Tommy Boy, and The Usual Suspects.

Question Five: What are the qualities of your ideal client?

Open-minded, highly creative and motivated, passionate about their craft.

Question Four: What sort of project(s) would you most like to receive a query for?

I'm craving a good Southern Gothic YA right now. Must be the time of year (autumn!). A dark, original YA fantasy would be amazing, too.

But please note, I'm always looking for stories from underrepresented voices.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about being an agent? What is your least favorite thing?

Favorite thing? The sound of gratitude and joy in an author's voice when I offer to represent their work.

Least favorite thing? Not being able to represent everyone. It's so hard to say no, especially to the ones that are really close.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Publishing is a long game. Being a writer and dealing with waiting and rejection and all the lulls is a lifestyle choice. Make sure you're ready for it, and always seek to improve upon your craft. There's always more to learn (in writing and in life in general!).

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Neil Gaiman. His stories and writing are amazing.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

7 Questions For: Author Holly Goldberg Sloan

Holly Goldberg Sloan was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan and spent her childhood living in Holland, Istanbul, Turkey, Washington DC, Berkeley, California and Eugene, Oregon. After graduating from Wellesley College and spending some time as an advertising copywriter, she began writing and directing family feature films, including Angels in the Outfield and Made in America. Counting by 7s, her first middle-grade novel, was a New York Times Bestseller. The mother of two sons, Holly lives with her husband in Santa Monica, California.

Her new middle grade novel is the bestseller Short Julia is very short for her age, but by the end of the summer run of The Wizard of Oz, she’ll realize how big she is inside, where it counts. She hasn’t ever thought of herself as a performer, but when the wonderful director of Oz casts her as a Munchkin, she begins to see herself in a new way. As Julia becomes friendly with the poised and wise Olive—one of the adults with dwarfism who’ve joined the production’s motley crew of Munchkins—and with her deeply artistic neighbor, Mrs. Chang, Julia’s own sense of self as an artist grows. Soon, she doesn’t want to fade into the background—and it’s a good thing, because her director has more big plans for Julia!

Follow Holly Goldberg Sloan on Twitter, Facebook, visit her website, or check out her IMDB page.

Click here to read my review of Counting by 7s.

And now Holly Goldberg Sloan faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

My favorite books, like my favorite foods, my favorite music, my favorite anything--are always changing. I just read David Barclay Moore's The Stars Beneath Our Feet and I loved that. I also loved Meg Wolitzer's adult novel (publishing in April of 2018) titled The Female Persuasion. If I time traveled back to being a young girl I would say that I couldn't live without Beverly Cleary.

Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?

I write every day. Seven days a week. I think the best way to think of this is to look at professional athletes. They train year round. They work hard on staying in shape. The same is true of writing. You need to keep those muscles working!

Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?

I didn't publish my first novel until I was in my fifties. Prior to that, I worked exclusively as a writer for film and television. I wrote the Disney film Angels in the Outfield, as well as The Big Green, as well as other family movies. My books are now an extension of that.

Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?

I believe writers are shaped early on. They have an interest in the world and an interest in words. They like to read. They are often daydreamers. They want to express themselves. That's a need. I was fortunate to have fantastic teachers in my life who encouraged me to tell stories.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?

My favorite thing about writing is the joy I experience when it's going well.

The least favorite thing is when I've written myself in a corner and I don't know the way out.  But then I take a walk, I force myself to think about the story and the characters while at the same time being open to the world around me. And then ideas and connections appear and I go home and try to make sense of it all.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

I think it's important to get trusted people to read your work and to listen to what they say (the good, the bad, the ugly). Don't listen for solutions, but listen to what might be a problem and then work to fix/improve the material. Unless you are writing a diary that you hope no one will ever read, you are looking for an audience. Criticism is hard to take, but professional writers all know that rewriting is what separates them from the rest of the world.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

I would pick Maya Angelou. I admire her work and who she was and I'm a complete fan.

Ms. Angelous famously said: "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

Monday, March 5, 2018

Book of the Week: COUNTING BY 7'S by Holly Goldberg Sloan

First Paragraph(s): We sit together outside the Fosters Freeze at a sea-green, metal picnic table. 
All four of us. 
We eat soft ice cream, which has been plunged into a vat of liquid chocolate (that then hardens into a crispy shell). 
I don’t tell anyone that what makes this work is wax. Or to be more accurate: edible, food-grade paraffin wax. 
As the chocolate cools, it holds the vanilla goodness prisoner. 
Our job is to set it free. 
Ordinarily, I don’t even eat ice-cream cones. And if I do, I obsess in such a precise way as to prevent even a drop of disorder. 
But not today. 
I’m in a public place. 
I’m not even spying. 
And my ice-cream cone is a big, drippy mess.

What a treat I've got for you today, Esteemed Reader. Counting By 7's is one of my newest favorite books (I have so many) and Holly Goldberg Sloan is one of my newest favorite authors. Which is why it thrills me to tell you she'll be joining us on Thursday to face the 7 Questions.

As I write this, it's the day before I'm to teach a class on writing and I've just been looking over the syllabus I wrote the last time I taught it to make sure I still agree with myself (mostly, I do). I could teach a whole class on Counting By 7's. I'm probably not going to, but HGS (I'm not typing out three names every time) certainly taught me some lessons, not all of which I'll be able to relate to you in this short "review."

TOTAL REVIEW: Counting By 7's by Holly Goldberg Sloan is a wonderful read containing a tear for every laugh and a laugh for every tear. You're going to fall in love with her complicated, diverse characters who read as though they could step right off the page. It's a little Confederacy of Dunces meets Charles Dickens with the sort of prose Dickens wishes he'd been capable of concocting. Rich, evocative, and deceptively simple, Counting By 7's is a pleasure to read that will leave the reader smiling and wiping their eyes.

I really love this book, Esteemed Reader. If you haven't read it yet, read it. Now let's talk shop.

So, anywho, I was looking over this syllabus of mine and read that I was telling my students three different times in one course that the opening of their story is the most important thing they'll write (though, of course, it's all important). I figure if the reader doesn't get drawn in by your opening, you needn't worry about what a mess chapter ten is:) If you know me (and you're here), you know I prefer grabby openings like, "It was three quarters past four when the mutated badgers ate my parents. It wasn't yet five o'clock when they came for me."

Thankfully, HGS is a great deal more subtle than the Ninja. So let's examine that opening above because it absolutely contains hooks. The first time I read this book wasn't even to review it. HGS hooked me and pulled me in and I read the whole book for pleasure. Nobody's death is threatened on page one (although that comes soon enough), but there's absolutely an effective hook that's so subtle it's easy to miss if you're not paying ninja-like attention, which is the point.

HGS tell us that today, the character, who's name we don't yet know, is in a public place and "not even spying" and she's eating ice cream differently. In Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees, I attempt to hook the reader by opening with a "paradoxical witticism," which is to say I hopefully hook readers with my humorous prose, and then I drop the line: "the day Ellicott Skullworth's life changed forever began just this way."

I only wish I wrote as beautifully as HGS, but on this particular occasion I believe we're operating along the same lines, even if she's playing chess to my checkers. We're both writing about middle grade geniuses of color and we're both telling our readers, "pay attention, this day is unlike others, and something you're going to want to know about is happening." And a few pages later, HGS does write this is a day that I will never forget.

The real hook, of course, is HGS's prose. It's crisp and eloquent with a lot of white space to set the reader at ease while simultaneously placing greater emphasis on her sparse sentences.  HGS's prose isn't exactly poetry, it's not not poetry, and it's a pleasure to read. It's not pretentiously ornate, but it's direct and expressive. I've picked out some favorite passages below as I do with most books, but it was a tougher pick than usual this time around. I highlighted about two thirds of the book.

In my class, I teach that it's better to craft a story that moves and worry about prose afterward, though of course the best books have both a great story and finely turned phrasing. My reasoning is that readers will forgive lousy prose if the story moves (plenty of best-selling examples out there), but the audience for books with meh stories and lovely prose that wins obscure awards is considerably smaller than the audience for mainstream fiction. I read some such books with enthusiasm, but I'm not exactly an average reader. And as I'm not teaching writers in a MFA program with faculty that weighs in on said obscure awards, I steer my students accordingly.

HGS's prose is worthy of all the awards. But she employs plenty of traditional suspense techniques as well, just to be on the safe side, and the result is a novel that reads eloquently and a story that moves. Shortly after the opening, we're told our heroine, genius Willow Chance, calls home and gets no answer, which is extremely unusual, especially since she's left her parents messages previous. And then, the clincher, Willow arrives home to find police officers waiting for her, who pronounce "there's been an accident."

What accident? Are Willow's parents okay? Naturally, HGS doesn't tell us the answer right way. Like the best suspense writers, HGS makes us wait while flashing back to tell us more about our main characters so that we fully feel for them when the mysterious, yet devastating revelations we know are coming arrive. And we care more about the characters we're meeting because we know this bad thing is coming. It's a technique that works wonderfully in horror stories and mysteries and even the occasional romance, and it works very well here as well.

So who is our twelver-year-old heroine, Willow Chance? I see we're already running on the long-ish side and I have a lot of passages I want to share, so why I don't I let Willow Chance herself tell you who she is:

I think it’s important to get pictures of things in your head. Even if they are wrong. And they pretty much always are. 
If you could see me, you would say that I don’t fit into an easily identifiable ethnic category. 
I’m what’s called “a person of color.” 
And my parents are not. 
They are two of the whitest white people in the world (no exaggeration).

With the exception of the color red, I always wear earth tones because I’m blending into my environment. This is important for observation.

These are some very specific, distinctive details HGS uses to tell us who Willow is, but note she also shows us who Willow is through oddball behavior that immediately reveal the truth of her character

I’ve never understood coloring books. 
Either draw a picture, or don’t. But why waste your time coloring in someone else’s work?

I felt compelled to write the following on an index card: 
You need to have a dermatologist perform a punch biopsy on the mole (nevus) on the back of your neck. If it is not too much of an invasion of your privacy, I would very much like to look at the pathology report. I will be taking a taxi next week at this same time. This is important, so please do not take this medical suggestion lightly. 
Willow Chance 
I handed him the message when I got out of the taxi.

Willow can come off as a know-it-all, albeit one who draws a great deal of sympathy from the reader because of the tragic circumstances that befall her. HGS wisely has her heroine doing all sorts of heroic things along the way. And, on occasion, she's as charming as any fictional character could ever be:

We were sitting under one of the few trees out in front of the main school district office when I said to her, in Vietnamese: 
“You are my new best friend.” 
Mai was silent. I knew that she had many friends at school, and that her friend Alana was the one she considered to be her closest friend. 
I was just a little kid, and I realized that I had overstepped. 
What kind of person only knew someone for a few weeks and said something like that? 
So I added: 
“Since I just started at a new school, you’re right now sort of my only friend, so that makes the distinction perhaps not much of a difference.” 
And that made Mai smile.

Nor does HGS's capacity for creating credible characters stop with her protagonist. There isn't a flat character in Counting By 7's. Any of the supporting characters could easily be the protagonist of their own novels. I adore every member of the new family Willow creates for herself, particularly Mai, who is, perhaps, destined to be her mother. That has its ups and its downs, naturally, but one of the ups is Mai's self possession and undeniably effective methodology for achieving any goal.

Mai explained to the woman in the office that there was a family emergency. 
And then she used a trick. She started speaking in Vietnamese. Rapid fire. 
That unnerved people. 
The next thing she knew, she had a permission slip to get Quang-ha out of biology (where he was actually paying attention to a short film on mitosis).

My favorite character is Dell Duke, a high school guidance counselor who isn't a bad guy by any means, but who is allowed to be the most obviously flawed member of the cast. Every character has a flaw or twooffset by a heroic moment, as these are three-dimensional charactersbut Dell's flaws are particularly distinctive

Mr. Dell Duke had a large jar of jelly beans on his desk. 
He didn’t offer me any. 
I don’t eat candy, but I was fairly certain he did. 
I guessed that he had the jelly beans to make it look like he was offering kids a treat, but in actuality he never did and went on his own jelly-bean-eating binges.

Scientists had made the show. It was filled with facts and feelings, two things that Dell could live without. 
If he was going to actually watch a nature documentary, the only kind that he could suffer through was one where a fierce predator took down a wide-eyed furball. 
But he liked it when the furball could see it coming. 
A good chase with a few near misses added tension to the eventual crime scene. 
A male narrator with a deep, husky (almost evil) voice set the stage for the slaughter. The music surged. 
And then Bam! 
The Madagascar show had nothing like that. It focused on a group of monkeys who looked like squirrels in raccoon costumes. 
There was nothing in this program of interest and Dell had fallen asleep to it many times since he came to Bakersfield. 
He would not, could not, recall a single thing from the program other than what he had uttered to Willow at the end of their first session:
“Female lemurs are in charge of the troop.”

I've got one last passage I want to share with regard to HGS's ability to create compelling characters. Again, I have no shortage of highlighted passages to share with you, but you're just going to have to read the book yourself to enjoy them all. Note how HGS characterizes Willow through her observation of Dell, strengthening the reader's understanding of both characters:

I sat in the airless office/trailer and stared at Mr. Dell Duke. 
His head was very round. Most human heads are not round. Very, very few, in fact, have any real spherical quality. But this chubby, bearded man with bushy eyebrows, and sneaky eyes, was the exception. 
He had thick, curly hair and ruddy skin and it looked to me as if he was at least of partial Mediterranean origin. 
I was very interested in the diet of these countries. 
The combination of olive oil, hearty vegetables, and cheese that comes from goat’s milk, mixed with decent servings of fish and meat, had been shown in numerous studies to promote longevity. 
But Mr. Dell Duke did not look so healthy. 
In my opinion, he wasn’t getting enough exercise. I saw that he had a substantial belly under his loose-fitting shirt. 
And weight carried around the middle is more deleterious than extra pounds in the butt. 
Yet, culturally speaking, today men with big butts are considered less desirable than a man with a potbelly, which is no doubt wrong from an evolutionary point of view. 
I would have liked to take his blood pressure.

There's a whole lot more we could discuss about Counting By 7's, Esteemed Reader, but I see we're already running longer than usual, so I'll cut to the chase and let the passages of HGS's prose speak praise for her work higher than any I have to offer. This book gave me a lot to consider, not just as a reader, but as a writer. There are a couple elements that challenged my thinking on storytelling.

The first is HGS's use of coincidence at a few points throughout her story, which is one reason I compared her story about a likable orphan to the work of Charles Dickens. There are a few plot points in the story that if I read them in a different work, I would call bull crap on, and yet they don't bother me in this story. For instance, one character randomly wins a contest that provides him with just the funding he needs to accomplish his goal. Another character has a hidden fortune she has never revealed until the moment in the story when it's most convenient for her to have it.

In the case of the fellow winning the money, he takes significant action that leads to his being in position to win that money, which softens the lucky coincidence, and people do occasionally win contests. In the case of the character with the hidden fortune, it is true to her character that she would squirrel away the money to amass the fortune.

More, despite the elements of tragedy, Counting By 7's is a comedy (in the classical sense), and the rules are different for comedy. In his breakdown of the seven major plots (see what I did there?), Christopher Booker defines a comedy as "Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion." Without spoiling, much, Counting by 7's fits that bill.

Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of sad parts in Counting By 7's (at one point, Willow longs for death), but by the end we want our beloved characters to find happiness and they do. So in the final analysis, the coincidences are not a cheat the way they would be in a more straightforward suspense tale. I want my comedic characters to end up happy and I'm okay with their receiving help from fate because they made me smile plenty of times before.

There's a whole theme of gardening throughout this story we're not even going to touch on because we're running long and there's one last thing I want to discuss instead. It's a very slight spoiler and one that HGS is okay with as she also gives it away in the video below, but if you're planning to read this novel, and you should, you may want to skip the next two paragraphs.

From the beginning of the story, we know that Willow's parents are likely going to die. It is the inciting incident of our story. But we don't know how they're going to die. So it's on the edge of our seats that we read about Roberta Chance learning she has cancer. Jimmy Chance rushes to the doctor's office to comfort her and we see the depth or their relationship. It's a very emotional scene, which is why it's such a shock that they're killed in a car accident leaving the doctor's office, all their despair over a fate they don't actually have to face seemingly beside the point.

I've been turning this scene over in my head for weeks. On the one hand, the scene between Willow's parents as they confront cancer does make me care for them and care that they both die. On the other hand, it's a bit of a cheat to have a whole scene of tragedy that doesn't progress the plot as there's another scene of equal tragedy coming concerning our living protagonist. Of course, just as people really do win money in a contest, plenty of people also win the contest of random death on the road. And the scene absolutely works as I found it quite moving... and yet... ...but it did work...

I think what bothers me about the scene is that I'm not a gifted enough writer to pull it off and HGS is.

And that's where we'll leave it. Read Counting By 7's and come back on Wednesday to see Holly Goldberg Sloan face the 7 Questions (my God, the 7's are everywhere!). As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Counting By 7's:

Life, I now realize, is just one big trek across a minefield and you never know which step is going to blow you up.

All reality, I decide, is a blender where hopes and dreams are mixed with fear and despair. Only in cartoons and fairy tales and greeting cards do endings have glitter.

She wished all of her customers just wanted red nails. Red was lucky. 
But Pattie carried over one hundred shades in their squat little glass containers. 
She put down a bottle of fire-engine red and picked up peacock blue, a new shade that was very popular but carried no good fortune. 
With the annoying blue in her right hand, she looked through the front window and suddenly saw a dusty sedan pull into the parking lot. 
A police car was right behind it. 
Not good. 
Maybe if she had kept the red bottle in her hand, this wouldn’t have happened. She knew that wasn’t logical, but still.

I can still walk and talk and breathe, but there isn’t much point. It’s just something my body is doing.

Pattie hangs up, and right away dials a number. 
Her even disposition is one of her best qualities. And she’s maintaining it. Sort of. 
Maybe that happens when you’ve been through a lot. All of your edges are worn off, like sea glass. 
Either that, or you shatter.

I look up at the apartment house. It appears to be a building constructed by a blind contractor who didn’t use an architect. 
The proportions of the place are all off, and not in a provocative way. 
It looks like someone took an enormous box, painted it the color of serratia marcescens (which is a rod-shaped, pink bacterium that grows in showers) and cut holes in the sides.
I’m somehow not surprised that Dell Duke lives here.

“Are you looking for something?” 
I want to say that yes, I’m looking for anything that could make a world gone flat return to its original shape, but instead I just mumble: 
“No. I’m getting a glass of water. Dehydration is the cause of ninety percent of daytime fatigue.”

The idea of something for nothing is appealing in some visceral way. 
Even if free things are never free. 
The burden of ownership means everything has a price. 
I think that’s why really rich and famous people look so weighed down and glum in most photos.
They know that they have to keep their guard up. They have things other people want.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.