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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Are You Asking the Wrong Questions?

by Jenny Ramaley

If one were to grow up with a father who escaped the Nazis in 1939, one might absorb the stories and perhaps grow up with a slightly darker take on the world than, say, someone with a bit less horror in their family background. That someone might grow up to write children’s books filled with sad but resourceful children who survive the alleged loss of their parents and numerous unsavory characters and dangerous situations. That someone might be Daniel Handler. You might know him better by his nom de plume, Lemony Snicket, who has sold more than 60 million books as author of the dreadfully successful “A Series of Unfortunate Events” in addition to other adult, YA and picture books. In case you’ve lost track of Mr. Handler, who plays a mean accordion by the way, he began a new book series last year. In “All the Wrong Questions”, Lemony now fills the roles of main character and author.

Since our Wednesday blogs pertain to ‘writing’, let’s cover what Mr. Handler, who happened to be in Pittsburgh on Friday to speak at the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Kids and Teens Event, says about writing. His love of books is deeply ingrained and by the age of 10 he was quite picky about what he read – choosing to hurl the ‘moralistic treacle that passed for children literature’ across his attic bedroom. He wanted to read about terrible things, about series of unfortunate events or all the wrong questions, but no one was writing those types of stories. Back then, children’s books featured plucky heroes who were unpopular with the (fill in the blank) crowd because of certain differences, but the bullies got their comeuppance at the story’s  rousing end, or plucky heroes dealing with near-death illnesses that they overcome with the help of a dear relative.

Even at a young age, Daniel knew all those stories were nonsense. There will always be cliques that ignore you. Bullies never get their comeuppance. And certain things will kill you whether you’re plucky or not. Horrible things can happen again and again.
With an outlook like that, it’s much easier to see how the Baudelaire youngsters got into such a mess. But what’s even more noteworthy is that even after 13 volumes, their story WAS NEVER NEATLY RESOLVED WITH A ROUSING END. Why? Because Mr. Handler believes questions are more interesting than endings wrapped up with a bow.
That is, as long as you don’t ask the Wrong questions.
When Daniel asked his father, “Don’t you think you were brave to escape the Nazis?”, the father, who always answered a question with another question, asked, “Do you think I was braver than the ones who didn’t make it?” The right question was “Where did Grandma hide the diamonds? The ones that got them across the border and bought food and help.”

The next time you find yourself mired in the middle of a story, frustrated and ready to pull out your hair, stop and think. Are you or your characters asking the Wrong Questions? A slightly twisted perspective may be just what you need.

Friday, October 25, 2013


     I’ve been hard at work writing an early chapter book mystery story and it hasn't been easy! I love a good mystery but I’m finding that to write one you have to stick with a formula, like so many of these books do. The goal is for the reader to follow along with the detective and figure out “who-done-it” before the end of the book. What I like about these series is that they encourage reluctant readers with a quick read and several books in the series to choose from. Here’s a review of just one of the popular Cam Jansen books:

Cam Jansen and the Mystery of the Dinosaur Bones (by David A. Adler, copyright 1981, Scholastic)

The detective: Cam Jansen is a not-so-ordinary fifth grader with a photographic memory and the ability to “click” and record a mental picture that helps her solve the crime. 

Friend and assistant: Fellow classmate Eric Shelton

Setting: Natural History Museum

The crime: Bones are missing from the dinosaur skeleton.

Clues: A milk carton, book about dinosaurs, postcard picturing a dinosaur, milk delivery truck

Suspects: The tour guide and scientist who started the museum

The investigation: An after-hours visit to the museum, home of the perps.

Resolution: Catching the bad guys red-handed as they replace the stolen bones with plaster replicas.

Here are a few more early chapter book mystery series: A to Z Mysteries, A Jigsaw Jones Mystery, A Chet Gecko Mystery and Encyclopedia Brown.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Wednesday...oops, a Thursday's Writing Prompts!

Female Fertility

I took this photo when I was in Ireland. This ancient symbol of female fertility is on a stone in one of Ireland's oldest castles. The guide told us that all a woman has to do is touch it and wish for a baby and one will be granted. He said unless you want twins, don't touch it twice. He also said it could work for others, just imagine their face as you touch the ancient woman.

 Ancient woman is quite contorted. The breasts huge and the spread legs...well, I need say no more.

But perhaps someone will look at this and go, hmmm, what if...and we'll have a story. What if a woman . . . well, you take care of the rest.

Let your mind wander, snap, crackle, pop...sometimes a little spark leads to something wonderful.

Read these, see if anything lights up:

  1. It was the first snowfall of the year and she remembered the warning.
  2. He hadn’t seen her since the day they left High School, did she remember his promise?
  3. The boy held the burning match.
  4. She studied her face in the mirror.
  5. The smell of cookies couldn't hide the other smell.
  6. Why did that woman put flowers there every year on the same day?
  7. The streets were deserted. Where was everyone? Where had they all gone?
  8. This time her boss had gone too far.
  9. Did he realize his eyes changed color when he was lying?
  10. She woke to birdsong.
  11. ‘Shh! Hear that?’ ‘I didn’t hear anything.’
  12. She woke, shivering, in the dark of the night.
  13. The garden was overgrown now.
  14. He’d never noticed a door there before.
  15. His feet were already numb. He should have listened.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


I asked friends to give me a book that they read as a child and that they still can recall today. Number one on that list?
The Secret Garden. Why? Because it was about friendship.

Here is the list:
1. The Secret Garden
2. The Little House Books
3. Nancy Drew Series
4. Anne of Green Gables
5. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe
6. The Little Princess
7. The Black Stallion
8. Up a Road Slowly
9. The Giving Tree
10. Bridge to Terabithia

There you have it! A list of remembered classics.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Joy of Friends

Cheep! Cheep!

How wonderful it was to go into a bookstore on Okracoke Island, North Carolina and see a dear friend. 

Part of being in a writer's group is not just having good writer friends, but having their books as friends. 

I have given "Cheep! Cheep!" many times as a present and I know what the receiver will always say, "We just loved this book." 

It's a tender, gentle, delightful story about welcoming someone into the family. Told with very few words and the cutest birdies, it's a cuddle-up, give me a hug kind of book. 

So, when I saw it on this bookstore on this remote island, I patted it and took its picture, the way you would if you found a dear friend in an unexpected place. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Writing in Real Time: A Wednesday Writing Tip

Posted by Carol Baicker-McKee

We are auditioning a new feature for the blog: Wednesday Writing Tips. And exercises. And maybe the occasional illustration tip too.
Please let us know what you think! We welcome requests for writing-related issues you'd like us to address. And don't hesitate to chime in if you have your own great idea to share.

This week's tip is a simple idea I devised to trick myself into being more efficient and productive.  Right now, I'm working on too many projects - reworking an adult mystery that had gone off-track, trying to finish a first draft of a YA contemporary, and revising a picture book dummy and sample art. I found myself feeling overwhelmed, missing all my personal goals, and wasting more time than ever as a result.

Then one day, the folks ahead of me in line at the coffee shop were chatting about NanoWriMo and the ones behind me were discussing the old TV series 24.


What if I tried writing my novels in real time? That is, what if my daily goal for each novel was to write what took place just on that day? 

It was particularly apt for my situation for a couple of reasons. First, both my novels take place over a fairly limited period of time (about four months for the mystery, and six for the YA), which fit my overall goals fairly well. Second, both begin in the fall, so I could jump right in and be in sync with my stories.

Not only has this work process made me more productive and focused, it's bringing a richness of detail and verisimilitude to both manuscripts that I hadn't expected. The mystery is set in my hometown of Pittsburgh during this year, and writing this way enables me to weave in references to the actual weather and current news (and sports and entertainment). The YA is set in a nearby fictional suburb and a more amorphous year, but it's still a huge help to be keenly aware of important details like seasonal characteristics and the local school calendars.

Writing in real time has also led me to make small plot changes that I'm liking. For example, at one point my mystery protagonist needs to be delayed en route to an appointment. Originally, I had him narrowly avoiding a car accident and then being stuck in the aftermath. But on the actual day in question, traffic on the road he was traveling was for real tied in knots by fans arriving for a Pearl Jam concert. Being surrounded by happy, boisterous concert goers provided a nice counterpoint to my character's dark mood that was lacking before - and even set up a believable save-the-cat moment that I'd been struggling to create in my earlier attempts at the scene. Perfect!

And finally, the time pressure to capture each day in a couple of hours max has given my writing some unfiltered freshness, as well as a sense of immediacy that fits well with teen time-perception for my YA, and an urgency that's just right for the mystery. 

Here are some suggestions to help real-time writing work for you:

Create a calendar for your manuscript 
Use whatever form - paper or electronic - you prefer. On mine (paper), I've penciled in the big events ahead of time. At the end of each day, I note how many words I've written (with bonus chocolate for good progress!) and write in the bones of what will happen the next day (or so), so I can get right to work when I sit down. I use different colors for the main plot line and my subplots, which makes it easy to see whether I'm keeping track of the different strands on a regular basis.

Keep a daily file of background details
I start each day's work with a page devoted to observations that might prove useful (and sometimes add more notes before bed) - stuff culled from news sites, entertainment, the sports world, weather forecast, as well as quirky things I've noticed, like whether the crickets are still chirping in the evening or there's dew on my car when I get up or the cable goes out. Even if I don't use these details in the current draft, they may prove helpful in revisions.

Plan to compress. Or expand. Later
One drawback I've noticed is a tendency to make each day have the same "weight." Or at least length. When I do my next round of revisions, I'm going to have to spend some time thinking about what I don't need in such detail - and what I need more of. Of course, I'm taking advantage of days I miss getting my work done to be the boring ones, where little or nothing happens to advance the plot.

Take liberties
This is fiction after all. Say, the government shutdown would be a headache for your plot - feel free to write it out - or perhaps to write in a transit strike instead, if that would make things run more smoothly (in a throwing-rocks-at-your-protagonist kind of way).

Tweaks for books set in history, far-away lands, and fantasy
You can use the same basic strategy for these novels. Research may uncover considerable detail for even day by day events and weather in history. For far off settings, you can access online local news or even use resources like live webcams (which I'm actually doing to see conditions in the neighborhood where my protagonist lives, since it's located over the "mountain" from my home and weather is often noticeably different there even though it's less than 10 miles away).  And for fantasy, well, you can make up your own conditions day (or imagined time period) by day.

If you give this a try, let me know how it's working out! The biggest thing the system is lacking is a nanowrimo-like support group, but there's nothing stopping us from forming our own. Good luck!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Ten on Tuesday: Bullying Picture Books

 October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and a number of picture books are trying to help children deal with different bullying situations.

Sea Monster and the Bossy Fish
by Kate Messner
A new fish behaves badly because he feels vulnerable.  Despite his abrasiveness, he wants to earn respect and make friends.

by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
A big bull tells a little bull to "Go Away!"  He also calls a chicken "Chicken!" and a turtle "Slowpoke!" until a goat calls it like it is: "Bully!"

Llama Llama and the Bully Goat
by Anna Dewdney
An angry 'bully goat' gets a second chance and a friend who stands up to him and later forgives him.

White Peacock
by Sujatha Lalgudi
A white peacock, who is different from all the other peacocks, learns how to deal with being different.

How Full is Your Bucket? For Kids
by Tom Rath
A book explains to children how being kind not only helps others, it helps them too.

Better Than You
by Trudy Ludwig
Jake is always bragging to his new neighbor Tyler about being better.  But is bragging that you are so much better at everything really just bragging?

Trouble Talk
by Trudy Ludwig
Author Ludwig acquaints readers with talking to others about someone else's troubles in order to establish a connection and gain attention.

Just Kidding!
by Trudy Ludwig
A rare look at emotional bullying among boys.

My Secret Bully
by Trudy Ludwig
A story of the friends Kate and Monica. Monica is the target or relational aggression, emotionally bullying among friends who use name-calling and manipulation to humiliate and exclude.

by Trudy Ludwig
Does an apology count if you don't really mean it?  Jack learns that the path to forgiveness isn't always the easiest.

Friday, October 11, 2013

A SPOOKY TALE--From Book to Movie!

Friday Book Review
by Kitty Griffin

The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch
Greenwillow Books, 2011

With the release of the movie, “Seventh Son” (Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore) I decided to look back at the book that inspired this movie, “The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch.” It's been a while since I've read the first book (now I'm on number 11 in the series) but these aren't books one easily discards. Delaney doesn't give you popcorn, something that passes through and is little remembered. No, he serves a full meal, only the meat is raw, in fact, a bit bloody. These are not characters that one forgets. Not at all.

I came across this series while looking for an audio book for a road trip. Didn’t have much time, read the back matter quickly and went for a ride. And what a ride. From the first chapter on the reader is dropped in the “County” a place where the most important man is a man who folks don’t like to look at. Folks don’t want to talk to him, either. That man is the keeper of the peace. He’s a “Spook.” He takes care of ghoulies, and ghosties, long-legged beasties, and things that go crunch in the night.

            “When the Spook arrived, the light was already beginning to fail. It had been a long, hard day, and I was ready for my supper.”

            With that line, and with the stunning line drawings of Patrick Arrasmith invite you in, the reader learns that the main character, 12 year old Thomas Ward, is the seventh son of a seventh son and he has a destiny. He is to be trained as a Spook. All begins quietly enough, that is, until Alice comes along. Alice, a young gal herself, manages to “trick” Thomas into freeing Mother Malkin, a witch so vile that she could eat Cruella DeVille as a snack before chowing down all 101 Dalmatians, fur, bones, and all.

            This book is suggested for 10-14 year olds, however, make sure that any ten year old who receives it has a stomach for horror, because that’s what this is, an adventure (extraordinary) with a walloping dose of scare. In fact, I’d drop off the 14 year old age limit because I know plenty of adults who’d enjoy this series.

            The trailer for the movie shows a young Tom with a beard. Not the twelve year old in the book. It also shows a dragon and some other monsters that I’m not so sure about. Julianne Moore looks absolutely outrageous as Mother Malkin and Jeff Bridges as the Spook, well, be still my heart.

            So if you have an adventurous kid who enjoys books that push the boundaries, and this kid is pretty well grounded (doesn’t scare easily) I’d definitely recommend this series.

From the Author’s Blog:

Joseph Delaney is a retired English teacher. He has three children and nine grandchildren and is a wonderful public speaker available for conference, library and bookshop events. His home is in the middle of Boggart territory and his village has a boggart called the Hall Knocker, which was laid to rest under the step of a house near the church.

Most of the places in the Spook's books are based on real places in Lancashire. And the inspiration behind the stories often comes from local ghost stories and legends.  http://www.spooksbooks.com/authorblog/

And here’s the link to the book trailers…perfect for Halloween!

Monday, October 7, 2013

First Friday-Five Favorite Things: Charm & Strange

by Stephanie Kuehn

This past Friday, October 4, Marcy and I posted our answers to Stephanie’s debut novel, Charm & Strange. Today, you get to read Stephanie’s favorite's. She's picked some great lines that bring to life some of the amazing characters she's created which will allow you a better understanding of how they think and feel.

1) What is your favorite line or paragraph from the novel as it relates to the main character's development and/or growth?
The attraction part is a given, but maybe opposites really can coexist in peace.

2) What is your favorite chapter ending or cliffhanger?
Chapter 7
I am of the sea.
I am of instability.
I am of harsh, choppy waves roiling with all the up-ness, down-ness, top-ness, bottom-ness, contained within my being.
I am of charm and strange.

3) Who is your favorite secondary character and why?
Keith Winters, Win’s older brother. He is a sensitive, smart boy, burdened by the weight of terrible secrets and a grim sense of responsibility to his younger siblings. Even when he’s hurting, he cares about others. Also, he’s different from Win. He can’t look away.

4) What is your favorite line or paragraph of description?
I don’t rejoin them right away. I let them talk. Maybe it’s the cadence and timbre of their speech or the meaning of their words. Maybe it’s the way the morning sun cuts the swirling valley mist or the way dew beads across the laces of my shoes, but my heart burns like flames lick ice. I am bound between two worlds. I don’t want to die and I don’t think I can live. How can the same God that created all this beauty have created me?

5) What is your favorite line of dialogue?
“No way, Winters. I get to be miserable, too. You don’t get to be the best at everything.” 

Congratulations to Stephanie on Charm & Strange and her second YA novel, Complicit, which will be published by St. Martin’s on June 24, 2014.

From Publishers Marketplace:
Author of the forthcoming CHARM & STRANGE, Stephanie Kuehn’s second YA novel, COMPLICIT, about a young man who is forced to deal with the murky memories of his childhood and confront his dark past when his sister comes back to town; memories that may or may not be real, again to Sara Goodman at St. Martin’s, by Michael Bourret at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management (NA).

To find out more about Stephanie, check out the following links:

Friday, October 4, 2013

First Friday - Five Favorite Things - Debut Novel Day

by Dave Amaditz
and Marcy Collier


Welcome to October's version of - First Friday - Five Favorite Things - Debut Novel Day. In this monthly series, we ask five simple questions about a debut novel that will hopefully entice anyone reading this post to pick up the novel and read it themselves, and/or give them at a glance some insight into the author's writing style and voice as well as how some of the characters might think or act. We do this by presenting, first, answers to our Five Favorite Things, followed by the author's answers in a follow-up post.

This month we're pleased to highlight debut YA novelist, Stephanie Kuehn, and her novel, Charm & Strange. We encourage you to read the excerpts and pick up a copy of the book. You won’t be disappointed!

1) What is your favorite line or paragraph from the novel as it relates to the main character's development and/or growth?

Dave – Winston (Win) (Drew), the main character, knows something is wrong with him. He searches for answers to what is wrong through books, in dreams and memories. This scene is one such memory.

I shifted and whimpered, so confused. I tried remembering everything I could about the wolves, to hold on to them. The image of the beasts and the memory of their touch, with all their power and brute strength, flooded over me. I still felt it. That power. Inside of me. Like a great wolfish flame that sparked and burned, molten hot, at the very core of my being. It's who I was. My nature. I knew it to be true.

I remembered their roughness, too, the nipping and the fear, but Anna's words about my grandmother came back to me.

Love doesn't always look nice.

So I sighed deeply.

And suddenly, I understood everything. Everything.

I knew what the moon had tried to tell me in the woods.

I was not broken.

I was savage.

Marcy The main character Winston always seems to comply and go along with his family as to not make waves. But not this time. This time he takes an important stand. The entire family is going to Crater Lake – a place where there family has gone for generations. Win’s response signifies his growth and ability to change rather than to conform.

Something snapped within me, some internal racket string that’d been wound far too tight, for far too long.

“I’m not going.”


I said it louder. “I’m not going!”

2) What is your favorite chapter ending or cliffhanger?

Dave – I had three cliffhangers to choose from as my favorite. One, the same as Marcy had below, had my heart drop. Since Marcy picked that one, I chose one of the other two. Jordan and Lex are arguing about Winston (Win).

I do my best to tune them out. They're arguing is irrelevant. It is white noise. I do not want or need them. My wolf is in me, so close, and what I need to do now is chase my own destiny. This much is clear.

I break into a run.

I am driven.

I no longer believe it is up to the moon to tell me what to do.

Marcy – Winston looks up to his brother, Keith. Keith is one of the few people he trusts. I won’t spoil this dramatic scene for you, but Winston never would have believed that his brother would have betrayed him this way in this compelling chapter ending.

Drugs hit me hard. Always. I started to drool and shake. Keith wrapped me in his arms again, very tight, and whispered, “I had to. I’m sorry. I told them it wouldn’t be as bad if I did it. Please forgive me.”

3) Who is your favorite secondary character and why?

Dave – My favorite secondary character is Lex. In the beginning he is set up to be such an awful guy, and I expected to hate him. What I found out is that he is a guy like Winston, with problems, too. More importantly to me is the fact he actually cares about Winston. Though I won't tell you what he does in the end, I also like the fact he does it with somewhat a sense of humor, which I hope the following lines will let you see to some degree. In fact, these lines were delivered during some of the most intense scenes in the novel. (Winston, the main character, has been running around naked).

"You've got one bony ass, you know."

"Well, what the hell do you think? That he's just up there naked on that rock for shits and giggles?"

"Do us a favor," Lex calls. He throws something at me. "Put these on, okay? Sunrise means it's time to cover your junk."

Marcy –  Winston meets Jordan at his new school. He’s never met anyone like her. She beats to her own drum and doesn’t care what others think about her. As their friendship develops, Winston becomes more protective over her. The following line shows how Jordan is reacting to Winston’s commendable actions.

Jordan folds her arms and leans away from me. “You don’t get to judge me. My choices are mine, okay? I just wanted to say thank you. For what you did. You looked out for me. No one’s ever done that before.”

4) What is your favorite line or paragraph of description?

Dave – To me, this scene is so visual, while at the same time capturing the main character’s personality. I felt I was there with him.

My bare feet read the forest floor like Braille. I'm heading up the mountain, to the highest elevation possible. The sharp rocks gouging the soles of my feet and the sound of dripping water echoing across the barren talus slopes tell me I'm getting close. I wind higher as the footpath narrows, and as I come around the northern side of the summit trail, rising above the tree line, there's moonlight bouncing off the nearby rock wall, illuminating great sheets of mineral deposits. Sparks of quartz and mica advance in the amber glow, but it's a strain to see real shapes or the trails sudden drop-off. I grit my teeth and slow down. I can move only so quickly given the darkness and the fact that I'm completely naked.

Marcy – Love these thoughts from Winston! It shows so much about his character in the beginning of the story and foreshadows events to come.

From what I can tell, morality is a word. Nothing more. There’re the things people do when others are watching and the things we do when they aren’t. I’d like to believe Anthony Burgess knew that, but then that dumb last chapter of his book went and ruined the whole thing. That made me mad, and so I think the movie version got it right: people don’t change. Their nature, that is. There are other kinds of change, of course. Like physical change.

5) What is your favorite line of dialogue?

Dave – Wow! I had initially put the same line of dialogue as Marcy had picked for my favorite line of dialogue. So now that you know I like that line, too, for pretty much the same reasons as Marcy, I decided to pick two other lines, these both from Winston, lines that I nearly picked for favorite character growth. Winston (Win) is explaining to Jordan how his doctor explains some of his behaviors away.

"He calls it a system of meaning," I explain.

"You're saying something bad happened to you when you were a little kid?"

I'm saying that my system of meaning about life, about death, everything, is sort of messed up. But..."

Marcy – Again, Keith the older brother says this line to Winston. Instead of looking at his siblings as a burden, he takes on the role of caretaker for them. He is accepting of his role without hesitation or regret.

“A long time ago, when you were just a little kid, I promised myself I would always take care of you. Siobhan, too. It’s like, I was put here to protect you two, because Mom won’t. Or can’t. Or isn’t strong enough or whatever.”

To read more about Stephanie Kuehn’s debut novel Charm & Strange, please go to: