Please join us to discuss everything literary (especially kid literary): good books, the writing life, the people and businesses who create books, controversies in book world, what's good to snack on while reading and writing, and anything else bookish. We welcome your thoughts.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Write a Scary Scene

By Cynthia Light Brown

From LoopZilla on Creative Commons

This month our theme is “Sweet and Scary," so here goes scary.

1. Write what scares you. If you’re not scared writing the scene, we won’t be scared reading it. So think about what terrifies you (write what you know) and write that. It’s best if you choose fears that are universal, but you can choose something peculiar to the main character, as long as you convince us that the mc has reason to be afraid.

Not scared yet? Try doing the actual writing in a setting where you’re feeling the fear. Maybe your basement, in the dark, after everyone has gone to bed. Maybe stay in a cabin in the woods. Write your scary scenes at night.

From Motley Pixel on Creative Commons
2. Tap into the Lizard Brain. Fear is triggered unconsciously in our brains. You know the feeling: your heart races before you even know why you’re scared. Different parts of our brain are involved in our sensing, processing, and reaction to fear. Our old brain, sometimes called our lizard brain (the amygdala) is mainly responsible for triggering a fast response to fear. When something happens – an odd sound, perhaps – your lizard brain sends out a signal out that you need to be ready to fight or take flight. Another part of your brain – your rational brain - can process the input and decide if there’s really cause to be afraid. But all the while, your lizard brain is screaming at you.

If you want to scare the pants off your readers, talk to the lizard brain. You can certainly have the main character’s rational brain try to process what’s happening (and in fact the tension between the different responses is natural and interesting), but it’s the lizard brain that gets the heart racing. What does the lizard brain understand? Not anything rational. Use the five senses:

From Mulling It Over on Creative Commons
·   Make it Dark. Sometimes partial darkness, like at dusk, can be even creepier than total darkness, because the character can see dark images. Increase the darkness as the scene progresses.
·   Unusual Sounds. Try sounds that are at the extremes; either so slight that the mc isn't sure she even hears it, or overwhelmingly loud and oppressive. The sound doesn’t even have to be related to the action. Maybe a dog barks in the distance. Perhaps there is silence at first, then changes to an intermittent tapping sound, then perhaps to something else. Or maybe there’s lots of noise, followed by silence.
·   A whiff of a scent or taste in the air. Smells are visceral, and are a fast-track to emotions. Maybe there is a metallic taste in the air. Or a smell that gives a sense of déjà-vous.
·   Cold and clammy. There’s a reason this triggers fear; because fear actually triggers a shutdown of blood to our extremities, so our limbs feel cold. We all know this instinctively, so a sudden feeling of cold feels fearful. Or you can switch it up and turn up the heat, causing the mc to sweat.

3. Start slow, then build. In scariness, as in love, anticipation is half the fun. Slowly build your scene up to the point where the BAD THING happens (or you can think of it as the SCARE). You might start the scene, or perhaps the end of the last scene, with something that is just a bit “off.” That’s how we experience things in real life, isn’t it? Our brain picks up on things subliminally first. It might be a smell that seems odd. Or just noticing that a door is not quite closed. Or an unusual car parked nearby. Something that our rational brain tells us is not a big deal, but our lizard-brain is already on alert. At that point, you don’t have to be hyper-focussed yet; the character can still be thinking about other things.

But then, the next thing that’s “off,” needs to alert our lizard-brain to start screaming at us. You might show the character still in denial, trying to fend off the lizard-brain. But we, the reader know that bad stuff is on its way.

Ideally, the reader knows – or at least guesses -  a little more than the character. But don’t let the reader know when the BAD THING will happen, or exactly what it will be. If the reader guesses what the BAD THING will be, give it a twist so that it’s something else. The resolution of the movie The Sixth Sense is a great example of a twist on what the viewer expects.

4. Keep us in the moment. This is not the time for reflection or otherwise focusing on other things. Make sure everything is focused on what is happening in the here and now. Getting back to the lizard brain again; lizards react to exactly what is happening right then and there, not what happened last week, or what the meaning of life is.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Create a Character


Dave Amaditz

In the past, I've had some difficulty trying to create my characters, especially my secondary characters. Not their names, or how or where I wanted them to fit into the story, but the specifics of their life, the little details of their personality, the little quirks and nuances that make them real. It would take me a while, but I'd eventually get them, after I'd written many drafts of the story. The process worked, but I was looking for something to make the process a little easier and faster.

A few years ago, at a SCBWI writer's conference, I attended a workshop on "Creating Characters". Among other things, the leader handed out a list of questions, which are listed directly below, meant to help someone better learn about the characters they are creating.

Your character just walked in the door. Is it a man, boy, girl, woman?

How old?

What's he or she look like?

What he or she wearing?

Okay, now give your character a name?

What does he or she like to do? What are his or her passions?

Where is your character? Describe the setting you are seeing?

Someone is very important to your character. Who is it?

He or she has something that is very precious to him or her. What is it?

What is your character smelling?

There is music playing. What kind?

Think of texture of what your character is currently aware. What is it and what does it feel like?

What delights him or her?

He or she has a secret. What is it?

What makes him or her angry?

What does your character fear most?

What does he or she want more than anything else?

I'm not like some who have a clear vision of their story and characters right from the start, so, if you're like me, you might find answering the questions requires a lot of work and a lot of thought. If that's the case, stick with it, because I'm pretty sure you'll be happy with the results. You might find that by following the process, you have saved time and effort, while at the same time having a richer, deeper story right from the opening page.

If you want to use these questions as an exercise, or you are still having trouble creating a character, try printing out a picture from the internet (a random picture will suffice and will probably work better). Hang the picture above your workstation and use it as a guide, as a starting point for your character (or characters). Use the questions above to fill in the blanks about the stranger. Before you know it, you'll not only have created a character, but a story to go along with him or her... And if you're lucky, that story might be the new novel that becomes published.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Next week is Banned Books Week.
I’m going to celebrate by reading “I Am The Cheese” by Robert Cormier
Banned Books Week is the national book community's annual celebration of the freedom to read. Hundreds of libraries and bookstores around the country draw attention to the problem of censorship by mounting displays of challenged books and hosting a variety of events. The 2012 celebration of Banned Books Week will be held from September 30 through October 6. Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than 11,300 books have been challenged since 1982.  :
1. ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle 
Reasons: offensive language; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group
2. The Color of Earth (series), by Kim Dong Hwa
Reasons: nudity; sex education; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group
3. The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins
Reasons: anti-ethnic; anti-family; insensitivity; offensive language; occult/satanic; violence
4. My Mom's Having A Baby! A Kid's Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy, by Dori Hillestad Butler
Reasons: nudity; sex education; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group
5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: offensive language; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group
6. Alice (series), by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Reasons: nudity; offensive language; religious viewpoint
7. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Reasons: insensitivity; nudity; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit
8. What My Mother Doesn't Know, by Sonya Sones
Reasons: nudity; offensive language; sexually explicit
9. Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily Von Ziegesar
Reasons: drugs; offensive language; sexually explicit
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Reasons: offensive language; racism

Thursday, September 27, 2012  
7:00 PM - 9:00 PM

Join the ACLU, CLP and WYEP for this annual banned books celebration at the Frick Fine Arts Building. The free program features:
*Jeremy Braverman,
independent Filmmaker
*Dr. Goddess (Kimberly Ellis), writer, entertainer,entrepreneur, scholar, activist
*Kathleen George & Hilary Masters,
novelists, professors, married…to each other
*Reggie Shuford, Executive Director of the ACLU of PA, reading In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
*Virginia Montanez, aka Pitt Girl, Blogger,"at’s Church, Pittsburgh Magazine columnist
*Gemini Children's Theater, performing a scene from The Wizard of Oz
... and more!
PLUS: ( Avert your eyes! ) A Short History of BANNED ART

Free and Open to the Public
Presented by: ACLU
Frick Fine Arts Building
Schenley Drive

Pittsburgh, PA 15260

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Magic of Letters

Don Fiester
Oct. 12, 1923-Sept. 11, 2012
I love the magic of letters, those combinations of lines, curves, circles that, when grouped in a certain way, arranged in a particular order, have the power to move armies, connect lovers, start riots, give comfort. When I lose someone dear to me I seek out the poltice of poetry, hoping that in someone else's choice and arrangement of the letters I'll be touched where I need to be touched, a cool hand on my heart. I often find it in the following poem by Mary Oliver. It lives in my closet. I pulled it out last week to remind myself that my father was a bridegroom who took the world into his arms.

When Death Comes 

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Thank you, Mary, and all of you who arrange curves and circles and lines into soothing, beautiful expression.

Fran McDowell

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Time-Travel ebooks for MG/YA (Todd A. Fonseca, Kelly Grant, J.Y. Harris, Sarah Woodbury)


The Time Cavern Series
By Todd A. Fonseca
Ridan Publishing, 2009

Poe thinks this is younger MG time travel

First sentence: Aaron felt certain he was being watched.

The creepy opening sets up immediate expectations: mystery, danger. Poe applauds the high-caliber writing and the unusual setting in Amish farm country. Aaron is ten—old enough to camp on his lonesome in the farm field; young enough to bring his oldest stuffed toy along.

The sample on Poe's reading device ends just as Aaron realizes most of the neighbors use horse-drawn buggies instead of cars. But the online sample skips some pages, allowing the introduction of the neighbor kid, Jake (obviously slated to be the best friend and cohort in exploring the mystery in the old barn).

p.s. Jake's a girl.

If your younger middle grader likes mysteries, histories, and a quick read, then don't overlook this title.

By J. Y. Harris
Self-published in 2012

Poe thinks this is MG time-travel/historical

First sentence: The dull murmur of voices could vaguely be heard as they drifted up from the floor below.

The hook is promising. But the sample flouts several of the conventions that tend to draw readers in. The opening scene stars a woman (20 years married), and the teenaged protagonists don't appear until Chapter 2. The teens appear to be high schoolers (one takes Physics), but the simplicity and tameness of the plot (at least in the sample) make the book feel much younger. (Harris' own age range suggestion is young adult or teen.) Finally, the MCs have no plot trajectory in the contemporary world--no goals or situations interrupted by this jump through time; they're on their way to a school-required historical re-enactment, and wander into the past, where all the story will evidently take place.

Fantasy does have rules. Time travel, since it involves history, has more rules than other kinds of fantasy. Poe found this transport through time less than convincing—a sudden fog; a clearing in the woods that keeps its recognizable triangular shape from the 1770's to the present day; the teens' too-quick realization that they've changed time zones. And could two strangers stand on the edge of an Army camp for half a chapter without being challenged?

Still, a young reader's curiosity might be roused by the hint of a spy plot, and the sparkle in the details of place and time.

If your MG reader likes historicals, then give this book the once-over.

The After Cilmeri Series
By Sarah Woodbury
Self-published in 2011

Poe thinks this is YA/crossover alternate history (cum time travel)

First sentences: "How can you leave Gwynedd undefended, my lord? Without you, we can't hold back the English."

The first scene will tell you whether to buy this book. It's dense with exposition, set-up, and Welsh names. Poe judges this more of a crossover book; the only reason it can be called YA is that the time traveling sibs are 17 and 14 years old.

For the most part, the narrative flows smoothly. But Poe's suspension of disbelief was seriously challenged. In a coincidence that beats anything in Dickens, the author gives us two contemporary American teens who happen to be conversant in Welsh and familiar with its history—and who crash back in time and place to a 13th century battlefield in Wales. Poe felt everything comes too easily to the teen travelers, from figuring out where/when they are to being accepted and cared for by the warriors. This is another book in which the teens' contemporary lives seem mere bookends; Poe didn't feel anything except Mom's imagined distress pulling the kids back to their former lives.

Will you be hooked by the plot, the local color, or the characters? The generous sample gives you 160 pages to decide; Poe stayed aboard for only the first 33.

If you love alternate history, and if can suspend your disbelief far enough, then you may get into this series.

By Kelly Grant
Self-published in 2011

Poe thinks this is YA historical mystery (cum time travel)

First sentence: "Do you think he's dead?" Baldwin asked in a quavering whisper.

Mystery, history, and time travel—Poe is eager to read more.

The sample's too short to tell us exactly how MC Simon breaks the time barrier, but long enough to tell us that this is not his first ride around the centuries. We also learn that the third-person narration is flippant, full of surprises, and perfectly edited. That the girl Simon meets is smart. And that there's plenty of humor.

It would be even better if we got a hint of the danger, crime, or mystery to come.

The author's been an archaeologist, museum director, and history teacher, and (docent-like) includes the historical end-note as part of the sample. That's how we know that the setting is the England of Henry II.

A note to the author: Poe recommends deleting the interesting but convoluted set-up info from the book's Amazon sales page. To hook readers, the sales page blurb should zero in on the story's main hooks (time travel, era of destination, mystery)—think elevator pitch, or jacket flap. Ideally, the blurb will be short, sharp, and written in the same tone of voice as the book itself.

Queued for reading by Poe's phony fire this winter.

By Elle Strauss

Poe sampled this light YA time-travel series a few issues back. Read the review here.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Does Your Novel Have Crossover Appeal?

by Marcy Collier

I happened to come across this article http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/life_and_entertainment/2012/09/17/sales-worth-smiling-about.html
this morning in the Columbus Dispatch about children's book sales for the fall. It discusses what many of the Route 19 group has been saying over the last two years. The young adult market is strong, especially if your novel has crossover appeal.

Below is a brief excerpt from the article written by Susan Carpenter of the LA Times:

The young-adult category is particularly strong as a result of blockbuster franchises and strong crossover readership. Many young-adult books are read as much by adults as they are by teens.

The stigma of adults “reading down” with children’s titles is gone, said David Levithan, editorial director of Scholastic Press, which also published the Harry Potter series in the United States.
“Adults have no hesitation at all to buy young-adult (books) anymore, so it’s very easy to cross over,” said Levithan, who anticipates high adult readership for The Raven Boys, a mythological paranormal thriller kicking off a four-book series by Shiver trilogy author Maggie Stiefvater, another Scholastic writer.
To check out the full articles, go to:


Monday, September 10, 2012

Fall Conference Time

by Marcy Collier

The kids are back in school, writers are trying to adjust to a new writing schedule and fall conferences are just around the corner.

I just finished editing the Golden Penn newsletter with all of the information for the upcoming Western Pennsylvania SCBWI fall conference and thought I’d share the details for those of you who live near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania:

Where: Greentree Radisson, Pennsylvania.
When:  Saturday, November 10, 2012
Who: We have a great lineup of speakers and faculty:

Nikki Grimes - keynote
Noa Wheeler - editor, Henry Holt
Carter Hasegawa - editor, Candlewick
Joe Monti -  agent, Barry Goldblatt Literary
Kristin Lewis  -  magazine editor, Storyworks and Scope
Stacy Innerst  -  illustrator and author
Mark Weakland  -  author
Tom Wright  -  author
Laurel Houck  -  author
Nora Thompson  - author and illustrator and WPA SCBWI Illustrator Coordinator

Having a manuscript or portfolio critique is a great way to get feedback on your story. You will also have the opportunity to enter the contest for first pages or a first look for illustrations. All of the details, deadlines and conference information will be posted shortly at www.wpascbwi.com.

So while you get back into your school / work / writing routine, check out conferences in and around your area. It’s a terrific way to network with editors and agents as well as to make some new writing friends.

I’ll leave you with a recipe that I’m making tonight for the Route 19 Writers Picnic and Pitchfest!

Gluten-Free Scalloped Potatoes

8 cooking potatoes
2 cups milk
1 cup Mild Cheddar Cheese, shredded
1/3 cup onions, raw, chopped
3 tbsp Butter
2 tbsp Corn Starch

Peel and slice potatoes. Melt butter in sauce pan over low heat. When melted, whisk in corn starch until smooth. Add salt and pepper. Slowly add in the milk while whisking. Keep stirring until sauce reaches desired thickness. Add in the cheese, a little at a time until smooth. 

Coat a casserole dish with cooking spray. Do three layers of raw potatoes, onions and cheese sauce. Bake covered for 1 hour on 350 degrees and uncovered for a half an hour. Enjoy!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Goldilocks Revisited

    Back in the day, I LOVED watching Fractured Fairy Tales.  For you youngsters, Fractured Fairy Tales were featured between 1959 - 1961 during "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle." These irreverent takes on fairy tales included Cutie and the Beast, and Leaping Beauty to name just two of the 91 which aired.  You get the picture.
Fast forward to Mo Willems and in 2012 we have the fractured fairy tale Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs.  Willems, two time Theodor Geisel Award Winner and one time Theodor Geisel Honor recipient for a beginning reader book, has gone beyond fractured.  Goldilocks, the not-so-dumb blonde, wanders into the giant manse of three dinosaurs, Mama, Papa, and a visiting friend from Norway.  The three have not-so-innocently "wandered" off after having made three bowls of chocolate pudding and leaving a ladder near by the dinosaur - sized table, just in case.  You never now who might unknowingly break and enter. 
What's a girl to do? "The first bowl of chocolate pudding was too hot, but Goldilocks ate it all anyway because, hey, it's chocolate pudding, right?"   Then we have to deal with other dinosaur-sized furniture and possibly returning dinosaurs...how will it end?  Are there any pigeons involved? Who will live happily ever after?  Is there any chocolate pudding left? Please pick up a copy to find out.  I promise you a fractured funny bone, but it will be well worth it.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Labor Day of Writing

by Cynthia Light Brown

Harold Lehman, Renovo post office mural, "Railroad Repair" (1943)
If you’re reading this, you’re a writer, or perhaps an artist. You may not have sold any of your work anywhere, and you may not intend to ever do so. But you are a writer, and it requires labor to bring the writing forth.

Labor, of course, has another meaning - one I’ve been through three times. Labor often comes in fits and starts, especially at the beginning, but it eventually overtakes us, consuming every jot of energy and focus. For nearly all of us, it takes us to the extremity of pain.

I hope your writing is not quite that painful. But I do hope it absorbs your focus and energy, that at least at times, it overtakes you and you’re lost in your characters, setting, plot, theme, that you live there in your sleeping and eating and dreaming and in between spaces in your life.

For my own part, I have been absorbed in the hurly-burly of family life lately – a good thing – but it’s time for me to sink into my writing again.
Ralph Henricksen working on a mural for the Horace Mann's School, Chicago, as part of a WPA project in 1938.