Saturday, December 13, 2014

2nd Annual Local Author Fair at Mysteryscape

Today I had the privilege of participating in the 2nd Annual Local Author Fair sponsored by independent bookstore Mysteryscape in Overland Park, Kansas. The event hosted more than a dozen local authors signing and selling their books. I participated in the inaugural event last year and was pleased to be invited back again.

I sold seven copies of my Otter and Arthur books and enjoyed the conversation with other local authors, many of whom I remembered from the year before.

It is wonderful to see a local, independent bookstore supporting local, independent authors. While it seems like an obvious fit, there are times when the former doesn't support the latter. I'm grateful for Mysteryscape and its support of local authors.

Monday, December 1, 2014

National Novel Writing Month Winner, 2014

Woo hoo! For the second time, I've become a National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) winner. For those not in the know, NaNoWriMo is, as it says on its website, "a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing. On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30."

I first dipped my toe into the NaNoWriMo pool in 2012, successfully scribing my rough draft of what became Otter and Arthur and the Round Table, my sequel to my middle-grade fiction Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone.

I gave it another stab in 2013, but came up just short on my word count as I toiled away on Abigail's Atlantis, a still unfinished middle-grade fiction. The story bounces back and forth between a twelve-year-old girl's summer working with her grandfather at a sea turtle rescue center and a twelve-year-old boy's life in modern-day Atlantis. The latter may or may not be all in Abigail's head.

Although I'm not done with that book, when November 2014 rolled around, I couldn't resist taking another shot. I'd been hit with a recent brainstorm - an adult historical fiction based on the real life of blues singer Robert Johnson. Let's hope that 2015 sees the completion of that book, and/or Abigail's Atlantis. In the meantime, thanks to NaNoWriMo for providing the catalyst for me to jump in and crank out rough drafts of my hopefully someday completed novels.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

What I've Learned from Newbery Award-Winning Books

The Newbery award was established in 1922 as an award for outstanding American children's literature. In May 2013, I began a quest to read ALL the Newbery winners. My intent was to learn more about writing middle-grade fiction, having already penned Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone (2012) and, at the time, writing its sequel, the now-out Otter and Arthur and the Round Table.

Having read nearly every winner from the last 35 years, I've learned a little something about how to win a Newbery in the modern era:

1) Write realistic fiction.
2) The main character should be a human, most likely a child from age 10-12, and an orphan.
3) Don't write down to kids.

Anyone who's followed my posts on the Newbery winners is well aware of my opinion regarding #2. It seems absurdly formulaic, but about half of the Newbery winners over the last 35 years have centered around a character who has lost one or both parents. Certainly this is rich territory to explore for an author - but it would be nice to see the Newbery committee branch out a bit in acknowledging more of the vast repertoire of other traumas faced by the under-teen set.

Having said that, #3 is still a very valid point. When I set out on this endeavor, I was slightly concerned about reading "books for kids." However, these are generally books which, while they center around kids, are good reads for any age. Still, in considering point #1, it is surprising that more of these books haven't tapped into a more imaginative spirit generally associated with children's books.

For a list of the Newbery winners and links to reviews of those I've read, click here.


Sunday, August 31, 2014

New Dave's Music Database book: The Top 100 Albums of All Time


The Top 100 Albums of All Time

is available at Amazon.com for $13.95.

Ah, the music list. Music journalists love to create them and fans love to shred them. However, by aggregating hundreds of best-of lists, Dave’s Music Database has stripped away subjectivity in favor of cold, hard numbers. Commentaries about the albums consolidate the views of multiple experts instead of serving up single opinions. It all makes for one definitive, inarguable best-of-all-time list. Okay, maybe not – but here’s hoping you’ll find value in this list, even if that’s in dissecting, disagreeing, debating, or debunking it. Rock on and read on.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Grey King: Navigating the Grey Area Between Love and Hate

image from randommusingsofabibliophile.blogspot.com

I should clarify that I did not hate Susan Cooper's The Grey King (1975), but I also didn't love it. More than anything, I didn't get it. There's a kid named Will who turns out to have some ancient power and he makes friends with Bran, who has a mysterious past. They go see some ancient kings - I'm not clear how that happened - and then get a harp which they are supposed to use to wake the Sleepers. And some bad man shoots Bran's dog.

It wasn't over my head, but it didn't grab me enough to give it the attention it needed for me to catch all the information I needed. I've pondered why this happened and don't have any one definite conclusion, but have developed a few explanations as to why this Newbery-winning book didn't work for me.

The first challenge is jumping into the fourth of a five-book series. It seems odd to give such a prestigious award to what amounts to only part of a greater story. Of course, even books in a series should stand on their own. In that sense, this book does have its own self-contained story with a beginning and end. The difficulty comes in trying to get up to speed with references to events and characters which occur prior to The Grey King.

Another challenge is the genre - fantasy. I loved The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings back in my middle-school and high-school years. After the movies were made, I reread them with my son. They had suddenly become more tedious. A common characteristic of fantasy is to overload the story with references to great gods and warriors and legends - all of which are lifted up as having monumental importance. After a while, the reader is overwhelmed by the levity of it all. I realized one of my difficulties in reading fantasy is its frequent inability to be light-hearted, to have a change in tone which lets the reader relax and not always feel like the world is at stake.

My third challenge in reading this book is essentially one brought on by the first two. In reading a sequel which eludes to great moments of importance, I became less invested in the story almost from the start. Since I already felt like I was behind, I had a difficult time embracing the story enough to want to really grasp what was going on. That meant that a book I should have finished in a week or two stretched out to nearly two months.

The lesson for me to take away from this as a writer is to always put the story first. A book must stand on its own and intrigue the reader, regardless of genre and regardless of whether or not it is part of a greater story.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Shiloh...and the Moral Choices Characters Face

image from barnesandnoble.com

Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Shiloh (1991) is a classic "boy and his dog" tale. This Newbery-winning (see a full list here) book delves into the moral struggles faced by Marty, an 11-year-old boy, when he rescues an abused dog. Because the dog doesn't belong to him, faces the dilemma of having stolen someone else's property and hiding this from his parents (he keeps the dog in a fenced-in area out in the woods).

Naylor does a nice job shaping ethical quandries to which children can relate - and doesn't get preachy about what is right and wrong. Instead, Naylor provides good food-for-thought in contemplating just what are the right courses of action when faced with not-so-easy choices.

In my own writing, I've focused lately on the struggles of pre-teen characters through Abigail's Atlantis. The dual story delves into the lives of Abigail, a 12-year-old girl spending the summer with her grandparents, and Kai, a 12-year-old boy in modern-day Atlantis. While not facing moral dilemmas, both characters struggle with how to fit in with the worlds around them. They end up facing hard decisions about doing what feels right to them.

In that sense, Marty, Abigail, and Kai all face the greatest challenge of all - making hard decisions about what feels right to them. As an adult writer, the greatest challenge in penning middle-grade fiction is to properly capture that dilemma - to accurately tap into that feeling of being too old to still be considered a child, but too young to be considered an adult.


Sunday, June 1, 2014

Flora & Ulysses vs. Otter and Arthur: Which Didn't Win a Newbery?

image from suzyred.com

Okay, I'll acknowledge that one of these books is slightly better known than the other. Kate DiCamillo scooped up her second Newbery Award (given to distinguishd American children's literature, see full list of winners here) for Flora & Ulysses. She is the sixth author to win the prize twice. Stunningly, I have yet to win the award. ;)

Let's see if we can figure out why. Flora is a story of a child who wants a more interesting life and seeks out a relationship with her parents. When she rescues a rodent from certain death, the creature starts exhibiting amazing powers - such as the capacity to communicate with humans - and repays her ten-fold by helping her find the adventurous life she's always sought.

Hey, wait a minute. That's the plot of my first children's novel, Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone. Oh sure, mine's only about a mouse who proves instrumental in giving King Arthur his legendary status while DiCamillo's book focuses on a squirrel who gets sucked up by a vacuum cleaner and then learns to type poetry.

Huh?

That's what I thought. In all seriousness, I the book left something to be desired. DiCamillo populates her series of Mercy Watson books with lovably quirky characters and amusingly silly plots, aided by great illustrations. By comparison, Flora is served by a quirky, but less-endearing cast in a more head-scratching tale. The book has some illustrations, but not enough to lift it the cartoonishly over-the-top, but fun antics of the Mercy Watson books.

I suppose I should concede that Kate DiCamillo is one of the best-known children's authors around. She's even had her books made into movies, including the Newbery-winning Tale of Despereaux and Because of Winn-Dixie. It would be nice to think my little self-published effort could rise above it all and, like the little engine that could or the story of David vs. Goliath, triumph over the big-time works backed by major publishers.

It would be nice, but I'm not counting on retiring on the vast amount of wealth I anticipate accumulating in the wake of my inevitable Newbery win. Sigh.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Tale of Despereaux - and How to Tell More Than One Tale at a Time

image from pingpingo.blog.com

Full disclosure: The odds were stacked against Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux (2003), before I ever cracked it open. How could I give an honest review when I'd seen the movie version first? That wasn't even the biggest problem. The basic story is about a mouse seeking adventure even as his family warns him against it - the same concept behind my Otter and Arthur books.

Then again, this was the winner of the 2004 Newbery medal. In fact, she's one of the few two-time winners, just nabbing the award again in 2014 for Flora and Ulysses. I'd also read her Mercy Watson series with my son and we loved them.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Despereaux is a mouse who neither looks nor behaves like he's "supposed" to. He's unnaturally small, has unnaturally large ears, and has an unnaturally over-sized curiosity. Against the basic mouse code, he interacts with a human - the Princess Pea - and gets banished to the castle dungeon, betrayed by his own family "ratting" him out.

A rat, Roscuro, figures prominently in the story as well. However, one hopes the rat might take a similar path as Despereaux and want to rise above his kind. He doesn't. Similarly, Miggery Sow, a not-so-bright orphan girl who dreams of being the princess, proves to be of less redeemable character.

The book divided into full sections devoted to each of the above characters. This proves its biggest flaw as we care about Despereaux's fate much more than Roscuro or Miggery Sow. While the stories all weave together in the end, the explorations into the latter two characters feels like a distraction initially. I'll have to watch the movie again, but I don't remember this being a distraction for me there.

In my own writing, my Otter and Arthur series focuses in on a mouse whose quest for adventure leads him to befriend King Arthur. However, the story remains focused at all times on Otter, as it is completely told from his perspective.

On the flip side, however, my latest novel, Abigail's Atlantis, weaves two stories together. The challenge is to get the reader to care about two main characters in two different stories. What have I learned about doing so after reading Despereaux? People have to care about the characters. A character who is drawn too unsympathetically can lose an audience. In Despereaux, the reader is curious about what will happen to these characters, but their stories are slightly underminded with a certain sense of "these characters deserve whatever's coming to them." With Abigail's Atlantis, it is important that readers root for both of my main characters. As such, I will strive to craft a story where people care about my characters.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Bridge to Terabithia: Connecting the Real World to Fantasy

image from wikimedia.org

Surprisingly few Newbery winning books have been made into movies. The Bridge to Terabithia (1977), by Katherine Paterson, is one of them. The 2007 Disney movie tweaked the original story. In the book, 10-year-old Jess and his friend Leslie imagine Terabithia as a kingdom in the woods. The book, however, does very little to detail that kingdom while the movie makes it into a more visual, seemingly real place.

The general argument is always supposed to be that the book is better than the movie. However, the book-version of Terabithia leaves something to be desired. There are relatively few scenes which let the reader get any sense of just how magical Terabithia is. I was left wanting full-fledged chapters about the kids' imaginary adventures, but got little more than a few paragraphs sprinkled throughout the book. The movie, however, clearly builds on the fantasy element of Terabithia, as one can see in the trailer alone:

As always, my point in reading the Newbery books (I'm up to 25 now) is to see what I can learn as a writer. What talents in storytelling and style and characterization can I bring to my own writing based on what these award-winning authors have done?

My first lesson is to elaborate on where Paterson fell short. My in-progress Abigail's Atlantis relies heavily on making Atlantis feel like a very real place and that requires enveloping a reader in caring about what it looks like and what happens there. I didn't get that with Terabithia.

On the other hand, the story is more about the friendship between Jess and Leslie. She enters Jess's life as the new girl from the city, a rival - the one person who can run faster. While no one else becomes friends with her, eventually she and Jess unite over their makeshift shed in the woods which they dub "Terabithia." It represents the imaginative and creative spirit which brings the two together as friends - and the place where Jess will go to deal with the tragedy at the climax of the book.

On that note, Paterson does an excellent job of creating real characters which the reader cares about. I root for Jess and Leslie as the outsiders, the artists, the dreamers. I care about these characters in their real-world scenarios and the problems they faced. I just wish I could have fallen in love with the supposed-to-be-magical land of Terabithia which connected them to each other in the first place.


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Love Is a Mix Tape: A Review

image from antonia-monacelli.hubpages.com

I just finished reading the New York Times bestseller, Love Is a Mix Tape (2007) by Rob Sheffield. The book reads like stream-of-consciousness journal entries written by a music fanatic. I can definitely relate. See my reading, Ways to Spot a Music Geek.

As is par for the course, when I review books on my Writ by Whit blog, I am looking for what I can learn as a writer. My closest related work to Mix Tape is my unfinished Music Lessons from the Pit. (See a sample chapter here). The events are inspired by people and events from my coming-of-age years in the 1980s. While highly fictionalized, my goal is to capture real feelings and emotions in the context of the music of the moment. Each chapter comes from a song title, generally under-the-radar indie-rock and alternative-rock hits like New Order's "Blue Monday" or The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go." Check out a sampling of songs referenced in the book here.

Similarly, Sheffield's book surrounds autobiographical events with the music that framed them. Each chapter kicks off with the rundown of songs collected on a mix tape. Sheffield then uses that as a springboard for unfolding his saga, which is mostly about meeting Renée, marrying, and then tragically losing her to pulmonary embolism.

Obviously the death of his wife at such a young age is the overriding theme of the book. However, Rob gives his tragic tale its unique spin by giving the reader insight into how music played into his relationship with Renée - and how he used it to cope with her loss.

Learn more about this book and others written by Sheffield at RobSheffield.com. Here a sample from Mix Tape here:

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dear Ms Cleary - Thanks for Reminding This Writer About Writing in Youth Voice

image from thesmartkitchenblog.org

Sixth grader Leigh Botts has to write a report on an author. Naturally he chooses Mr. Henshaw, an author with whom he'd already established correspondence. When Leigh sends Mr. Henshaw a series of questions, Mr. Henshaw replies back with questions for Leigh.

In Beverly Cleary's Newbery winning book, Dear Mr. Henshaw (1983), the reader is given insight into the mind of Leigh by glimpsing into the letters he writes to Mr. Henshaw and the journal he starts keeping at Mr. Henshaw's suggestion.

Because the entire book is written in this style, it is crucial that the reader believes that a pre-teen boy is writing this and not a well-established author trying to assume a character's voice. Fortunately, it works. Cleary's writes with simplistic language - occasionally with deliberate misspellings - and captures what feel like the real thoughts and concerns of a twelve-year-old boy.

Leigh worries about things that could plague any kid his age - having his lunch stolen, making friends, and when will he see his dad again. The mix of the more trivial with the big issues like wanting a relationship with his largely absentee father give a nice insight into the character.

As always, I read this book with an eye on what I can learn as a writer. While Newbery's typically have a pre-teen at the heart of the story, most don't truly tell the story from that character's perspective. Instead, an adult narrator is telling the story on behalf of the child. As I work on Abigail's Atlantis, my current middle-grade fiction, this is a crucial consideration. While Abigail is not the narrator of the story, she is the pre-teen character at the heart of the action and it is crucial that readers feel like they are truly getting insight into how Abigail thinks and feels.


Saturday, January 4, 2014

Joyful Noise: Except That Books Don't Make Noise

The Newbery winning book Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices (1988) by Paul Fleischman sat around my house for several cycles of being checked out from the library before I'd exhausted my limit and had to return it. The day before it was due, I was waiting for a buddy to pick me up and then we were headed to a Rainmakers concert. I read the entire book before my friend arrived.

I'm not a poet. I'm not typically a fan of poetry. It is significant that I read this book while prepping to listen to a group with a distinct vocalist who has a knack for great phrasing. I can handle poetry as lyrics - words which I get to hear out loud in the voice of the person who (usually) wrote them. Poetry is about the sound of the words when strung together. Poetry is written to be heard, not read.

That problem is compounded by this book, in which instructions are even offered at the onset that the intent is for each poem in the book to be read by two people, one taking the part on the left of the page and the other the right. There are times when both people will be talking at once and other times when only one person is speaking. For example, here's the beginning of the poem "Water Striders":

Whenever we're asked
If we walk upon water
We answer

Then the person on the right replies "for sure" and the one on the left follows with "To be sure." This captures, in essence, the nature of the entire book - poems about nature read in two parts. That's the unifying theme for all the poems in the book. They aren't designed to work together as a story, but individual pieces. You can see the poems here.

Clearly these poems are designed to be read by kids in school. In that context - when heard out loud - the poems are more effective, as you can see here:

Outside of that context, however, the poems feel incomplete. The Newbery Medal showcases excellence in children's writing. That means the work should stand alone as a written piece. While I can see the appeal of Joyful Noise to, say a couple of second grade boys doing an in-class report, the book just doesn't work for me as a work of literary significance. I'd rather "hear" poetry - so I'll stick to going to the Rainmakers' concert and hearing lines sung like "The generation that would change the world is still looking for its car keys."


Thursday, January 2, 2014

Otter and Arthur and the Round Table now available!

You can buy signed copies directly from me by clicking on the button below. Copies are $12.00 each with NO postage & handling charges or taxes.

The book is also available from Amazon, but is priced at $12.95 and will still having postage & handling and taxes added to the price.