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Friday, December 28, 2012

The Importance of Story


Dave Amaditz

At this year's Western Pennsylvania SCBWI annual conference I listened to our main speaker, Jonathan Gottschall, (The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human) talk about the importance of story. He reminded us that story is everywhere, that it has been with us throughout all of man's history and that it comes to us in many forms. It was told orally in prehistoric times. It was documented on cave walls to help remember, or to perhaps celebrate a successful hunt. Today, having evolved over time, story comes to us in movies, music, television, and advertising. And most importantly, for us as writers, in the form of books.

The speech reminded me I should be constantly alert for story ideas, for the way story is told, and for ways to incorporate these new ideas into my own writing.

Why then was I so surprised, that while beginning research for the ending of my novel on how write an investigative report, one of the first pieces of information the author, Luuk Sengers (The Hidden Scenario: Plotting and Outlining Investigative Stories) conveyed was that underlying all the facts and figures you might uncover while doing research, there must be a story.

A story in investigative writing?

 I shouldn't have been surprised, yet as I thought back on newspaper or magazine articles I had read, I realized they were right. Story was at the heart of every piece. Facts and figures were included, but they would be meaningless without story.

As I proceed with my writing I must keep this in mind. Setting, voice and plotting are all important, but where would they be without story?



Thursday, December 27, 2012

New Feature for 2013

Check out Dave and Marcy’s First Friday – Five Favorite Things – Debut Novel Day. Every first Friday of the month, we will highlight a debut author’s first work by picking five of our favorite things from that novel. On Monday, the author will respond to the same five questions. Look for Slide, by Jill Hathaway on January 4, 2013.

January 4 & January 7, 2013 – Slide by Jill Hathaway
February 1 & 4, 2013 – Freakling by Lana Krumwiede
March 1 & 4, 2013 - Freshman Year and Other Unnatural Disasters by Meredith Zeitlin
April 5 & 8, 2013 – Goblin Secrets by William Alexander
May 3 & 6, 2013 – Personal Effects by E. M.Kokie

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

There's No Predicting the Future

     An interesting truth rang clear to our family this year as we sat around the Christmas Eve table: there's no predicting the future, or where it will take us. 2011's gathering consisted of my husband, myself, our adult daughter, our adult son, his wife, and my elderly father. As I finished up the dishes that year, stuffed the last bit of wrapping paper into the bulging garbage bag, and turned off the Christmas tree lights, I assumed, I'm sure, that Christmas 2012 would look much the same. I had no idea that my father's empty chair would be occupied my our daughter's new, but very significant, other, and that he would come packaged with two lovely children. Or that at the corner of the table, between our son and daughter-in-law, would be a new little grandson, lulled to sleep by the click, click, click of a swing. We veterans of the previous years, though thrilled with the changes (save losing my father), couldn't get over the fragility of our assumptions about the future.  
     I've noticed the same thing in writing a novel. While I like to think that I have a strong story line plotted out, that I know the path my main character will take, that I've decided what the supporting cast will look like, and most critically, that I know what my story is about, the truth is, my characters wander off to places I never knew they would go, with people I hadn't planned on creating, for reasons I had never considered. So, even when I think I can control the story by actually writing it, I find that stories have lives of their own that sweep us along in their current. There's no predicting the future, even when you're the one at the keyboard. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

New Feature for 2013

Check out Dave and Marcy’s First Friday – Five Favorite Things – Debut Novel Day. Every first Friday of the month, we will highlight a debut author’s first work by picking five of our favorite things from that novel. On Monday, the author will respond to the same five questions. Look for Slide, by Jill Hathaway on January 4, 2013.

January 4 & January 7, 2013 – Slide by Jill Hathaway
February 1 & 4, 2013 – Freakling by Lana Krumwiede
March 1 & 4, 2013 - Freshman Year and Other Unnatural Disasters by Meredith Zeitlin
April 5 & 8, 2013 – Goblin Secrets by William Alexander
May 3 & 6, 2013 – Personal Effects by E. M.Kokie 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Mirro Cookie Press: Old and Simple Can Be Better Than New and Complicated

by Cynthia Light Brown

I grew up making Spritz cookies for Christmas. My dad would make several double batches with his 3 little girls dipping our fingers in to snatch some dough with the smell of almond extract wafting through the house and the dog gobbling up any cookies that fell off the table in the chaos. We always made green Christmas trees and rose poinsettias and if we were feeling bold maybe some yellow stars. The trusty Mirro cookie press clicked along for years and years pushing out probably thousands of cookies.

I have tried to make Spritz cookies. I got a cookie press from Williams-Sonoma a few years back for too much money. I tried for 2 years before admitting that the fancy ratchet design was just not working. I always gave up after one tray of cookies. Then I tried a Kitchen Aid cookie press with a somewhat different, but still fancy ratchet design. Still didn’t work. Then last year I tried a cheap cookie press. No comment. Mirro didn’t sell cookie presses anymore.
Ebay saved the day. Last January my new-old Mirro cookie press arrived for about $15. It was old, with a simple turning motion, even a little rusted. I tried it last Saturday and we now have hundreds of lovely, perfectly shaped green Christmas trees and rose poinsettias and even some bold blue snowflakes. I am in almond heaven.

There’s nothing wrong with fancy. I like a fancy dinner now and then, and I love my new-fangled iphone. But if you have a complicated plot, it needs to be based on a simple, solid structure. Original is over-rated if that’s all you have to offer; our favorite stories are ones that resonate in deep ways. Boy meets girl. Stranger comes to town.

There and back again. 

Recipe for Spritz Cookies

1 c. shortening (can substitute 1/2 with butter)
1 c. sugar
1 egg
2 1/2 cups flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon almond extract
food coloring (optional)

Cream the shortening. Slowly add sugar while beating. Add egg and other ingredients. Add coloring if desired. Put in a Mirro cookie press and press to your heart's desire.

Monday, December 10, 2012

There's 'Only One' Marc Harshman

How did I miss this wonderful news? Our own Marc Harshman of Wheeling is West Virginia's new poet laureate.  His appointment was made back in May, at which time Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said, "Whether it's one of his children's stories or a prose poem...", he hoped Harshman would, "...continue to challenge himself and inspire a new generation of writers."  Harshman later replied, "I was especially pleased that the governor's kind words noted my work for children, as I have always felt that there is really no divide between my work as a poet and my work as a children's author." 
This delightful poet and storyteller has written eleven books for children.  "Only One" was a Reading Rainbow review title on PBS TV and "The Storm" was a Junior Library Guild selection, a Smithsonian Notable Book for Children, a Children's Book Council Notable Book for Social Studies, and a Parent's Choice Award Recipient.  He has published three volumes of poetry. 
His poet laureate designation is just one among many: Harshman was honored in 1994 by receiving the Ezra Jack Keats/Kerlan Collection Fellowship from the University of Minnesota.  He was also named the West Virginia State English teacher of the year by the West Virginia English Language Arts Council in 1995.  More recently he was named the recipient of the WV Arts Commission Fellowship in Poetry for the year 2000 and the Fellowship in Children's Literature for 2008.
I belatedly congratulate Marc on this honor and hope anyone who is unfamiliar with his work will take a moment to pick up any one of his creations, and listen.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Reading Therapy Dog isn't a Reading Dog
by Kitty Griffin

I love this picture of my Welsh Corgi (Cardigan Variety) dog, Coriander. She and I belong to Tail Waggin' Tutors because she's a good listener. A very good listener. Part of my daily life now involves climbing into my car with my dog and going to schools and libraries so children can read to her. I don't have to do anything except hold the leash. Oh, sometimes I help out with a word or two, if a child asks, but mainly I'm just there to hold the leash. And smile. I smile because I watch as kids try to hold a book with one hand and pet with the other as they read to not me, but to my dog. There's something remarkable that happens to a kid when a cold nose gently pushes on their leg to encourage them to get to the next word. They might stumble a bit at the beginning, but it doesn't take long and they pick up speed and pronunciation.
It's not complicated, but there is a process each dog and handler must go through. Coriander and I went through intense obedience training. We learned to understand what each of us wanted. Then she went through a comprehensive test, one where she was put in a room full of people who yelled at her, stepped right in front of her, and poked canes or crutches at her. She had to pass by a group of children running and playing and not bark or get excited. She had to obey every command she was given. And she had to sit quietly with a stranger when I left the room. 
Once the test was done, oh no, we weren't finished. She had to be certified by her veterinarian and I had to fill out papers and sign a check to pay for liability insurance.
Then we were ready.
We've been to a psychiatric facility, hospice, hospitals, schools, and libraries, and of all the work she does, she loves the kids the most and they just adore her, so that's what I choose to do. But it still makes me laugh when I tell people I have a reading therapy dog and they stare and say, "Your dog can read?"

Monday, December 3, 2012

An Evening of Stardust, Hope and Secrets

by Jenny Ramaley

Pittsburgh is a great city on so many different levels. Rock solid people, great food, hidden architectural gems tucked into neighborhoods, and an endless bounty of learning opportunities. Of these, my favorite is the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures series featuring children's writers --  “Black, White & Read All Over.” In the past I’ve posted articles on seeing John Green and Gayle Forman. The lectures are great fun. Good writers are generally good speakers and the latest visitor was exceptionally entertaining -- the creatively versatile, inimitable Neil Gaiman. What made the night extra special was that Neil wasn’t on a speaking tour. He knows Dr. Drew Davidson, from Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center, who convinced him to come and talk about the 15th anniversary and re-release of Neil’s book, “Stardust” -- for one night only. The Music Hall at the Carnegie Museum was packed. How cool is it to see authors treated like rock stars?

Neil talked about getting his initial inspiration for the book after accepting an award for his comic “Starman #19” at the 1991 World Fantasy Convention in Tuscon. If you’ve ever spent time in the desert away from city lights, you know what he’s talking about when he tells of seeing a lone shooting star against a “thick black vehement night’ filled with stars. He thought ‘what if it was a blazing diamond streaking across the sky . . . or a girl with a broken leg? (in case you haven’t read the book, I’ll stop here.)
Neil shared a bit about the writing process for the book. He told about buying a new old fashioned fountain pen and notebook, settling in to housesit at Tori Amos’s quirky bridge/house to write, and dictating into a cassette machine so his collaborator could illustrate the story as he wrote. To go from the handwritten word to typing it into the computer acts as an editing step for him, since he refuses to type any sections he feels aren't worthy of the time. After the book was printed and released, the model Claudia Schiffer fell in love with the story and nudged her director husband, Matthew Vaughn, into making a movie. (Robert DiNiro in drag is supposedly fabulous.) The film has done very well outside of the U.S. but Neil says he often ends up apologizing for all the extra ‘stuff’ the movie people added when they ‘mucked about’ with the story.
The audience was also treated to a reading from his new book due out in June (“The Ocean at the End of the Lane”). It started out as a short story, and deals with a few members of the Hemstock family – reoccurring characters sprinkled throughout several of his books, including “The Graveyard Book.” Then the story turned into a novella, then a very long novella, and surprised him by ending up as a novel. Be forewarned. Neil determined by the end of writing the story that although this book focuses on young people, the story is too dark for children. During the Q&A he clarified his thoughts on when a book is for children and when it is for adults. Using his book “Coraline” as an example, he explained that while parts of that story are dark, Coraline was a hopeful character and certainly not helpless (Okay for Kids); the new book gets quite dark and in it the child is truly helpless (Not Okay for Kids). Hope = children. Remember that. And if the youngsters are drawn to this new book, he assured us that the first two chapters are quite dull and will surely turn off any child who attempts to read it. We’ll see about that in June.
Truly an entertaining evening. But here’s the best part. Neil Gaiman told us a secret about an upcoming project. And he asked the hundreds of people to not post this tidbit on line and keep it to ourselves. And, since the packed auditorium was filled with Pittsburghers, I’m betting his secret is safe.
And hopefully he’ll come back.
Sarah Dessen is coming in January. I’ll report on her next month.