Best Books of February


Initial Choice for Best Book of February

All through February, the book I had in mind for “Best Book of February” was The Devlin Diary by Christi Phillips, a double mystery set in contemporary Oxford and 17th century London. However, on February 28, I finished reading Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel.

breakout-novelBest Book of February

Writing the Breakout Novel is a book I have heard recommended at more writing conferences than I can even remember to count. Finally, I have read it, and I understand the raves. This book is about the characteristics that move a novel beyond the mid-list into best seller territory. Maass describes each quality, gives examples, and provides practical advice for working it into your novel. The book is both inspiring and practical at the same time. I would recommend “Breakout Novel” to any novelist, and I know I’ll be reading more of Maass’ books.

Your Turn to Recommend a Book

So, I shared my favorite February read. Tell me, please, what was yours? It could be fiction, nonfiction…any genre. What book did you or maybe your children really enjoy? What book made a major impact on you? Please use the comment space to share the title, author’s name, and just a snippet about your book to whet your fellow readers’ appetites.



NaNoWriMo: The 2011 Challenge

This summer, I decided I would participate in NaNoWriMo this year. What’s NaNoWriMo? It’s both an oraganization that promotes and the actual act of taking part in National Write a Novel in a Month month.

Up until just a week or so ago, I was VERY excited. I planned to write the rough draft of a novel for which I’ve been gathering ideas for several years. (Maybe more than several?) Recently, say the last two years, I’ve been living in Revision World, focusing on revisioning and preparing for submissions novels I had previously been content to stuff in drawers so I could just write another one. But this November, I decided, I would let myself write something new.

Then a funny thing happened. Week by week, day by day, as November 1 has approached—Day 1 of NaNoWriMo— frantic thoughts flash through my mind. “Am I ready? I haven’t developed the character of my protagonist yet! I haven’t done enough world-building! I haven’t made a map—a massively time-killing, awfully fun activity! Yikes! Just one week to go!”

Now here I sit, less than 1 week to go and I’m wondering, “Can I do it? Do I have enough ideas? Can I do a good job?”

Why do I keep forgetting that I usually write my rough drafts in four to six weeks? Why should I feel troubled that I might not get it done by the end of November? Do I have some kind of vindictive boss standing over me with a whip? Have I ever not finished a novel I started and believed in?

Silly, silly me.

I’m going to participate in NaNoWriMo, but a good friend has reminded me quality writing is not quantity of pages finished in x amount of time. Can I write my rough draft in a month? Maybe.

Do I need to beat myself up is I don’t? Nope.

First and foremost I need to serve the story. If I can finish my rough draft in a month, great. If I don’t, it’s not like I can’t keep working on it December 1 and any day I wish thereafter.

Thus, I am at last ready to embark on the writing adventure of NaNoWriMo, and the only thing that matters is that I stay true to my vision for the novel and enjoy the journey.

What about you? Anyone out there going to try their hand at NaNoWriMo?

Spring into Action with SCBWI-OR

I attended the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and illustrators) Oregon Spring Conference this weekend. This is a fantastic conference I usually attend annually and look upon as the launching point into the summer conference season.

As usual, Spring into Action did not disappoint.

Friday I spent with twenty other students in an all-day writing Young Adult novels Intensive (tracks for illustrators, picture book authors, and middle grade authors were also offered). The morning began with “Getting to Know Your Characters,” taught by Emily Whitman, the author of Wildwing (a novel I enjoyed just last month). In this workshop, Emily led us through a number of exercises for helping writers get to “know” their characters. I plan to use a number of these as I develop the main character, Branwyn, for my next novel.

Session two, “The Construction Zone: Building an Authentic & Complete World for Your Story” was taught by Martha Mihalek, associate editor of Greenwillow Books. This too was both a lot of fun and very useful to me as I am also working on developing Branwyn’s fantasy world. Martha ran us through an extensive list of tips and questions to ask ourselves as we create worlds for our novels, be they real or fantasy. She illustrated her points with samples from recent Greenwillow books. In addition to learning a lot, I’ll be adding Heather Dixon’s Entwined, Suzanne Crowley’s The Stolen One, and Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns (not coming out until September!) to my reading wish list.

The day closed with WOW sessions, an opportunity for each person in our track to read aloud the first page of his or her novel and receive a critique from Emily, Martha, and the rest of us. This, as usual, was so fun. It is amazing the range of subjects and genres represented by our group of twenty. I loved hearing what others were working on and their critiques because each critique provided a chance for all of us to learn.

Saturday was the day for whole group keynote addresses and break-out workshops.

Diane Muldrow, Editorial Director at Golden Books (Random House), was the first speaker. She talked about the history of Little Golden Books and in doing so shared the characteristics that make a book a Little Golden Book. She showed books that spanned the 70 years of Little Golden Books. Everyone got a kick out of seeing slides of books they remembered from their own childhoods. I saw a cover of The Saggy Baggy Elephant, a book I still own, and Margaret Wise Brown’s The Golden Egg Book, which I read to my granddaughter just last month. One I didn’t see, but still love is Margaret Wise Brown’s The Friendly Book. I’ve often considered using it as a base from which to launch a writing assignment. By the end of her talk, I realized I do have a manuscript that could be a Little Golden Book. I’ll be submitting it soon.

Bonnie Bader, Editor-in-Chief of Grosset & Dunlap and Price Stern Sloan (Penguin Young Readers), discussed “Writing for the Masses.” She called her publishing house the “Old Navy” of publishing as they put out books that are “cool, but inexpensive.” Grossett… and Price… sell books everywhere—bookstores, grocery stores, department stores… Their books include series and licensed products, and she says she can always use writers who can work fast and are easy to get along with as publishing licensed books is very much a timely and team activity.

For my first workshop, I attended Pamela Smith Hill‘s “Plot, Setting, and Character: The Essentials of Memorable Fiction.” Pam, who recently published a biography, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, used many examples from Wilder’s The Long Winter and Wilder’s correspondences with her daughter Rose to show how plot, setting, and character must be woven together to create the tapestry that is masterful fiction. I bought the book (the biography), and Pam graciously signed it using Wilder’s words that had so inspired her: “Because there are so many ways of saying things.”

For my second workshop, I attended Sandy Asher‘s “Whose Story is This? And Why? And Are You Sure?” For this workshop Sandy took us through a series of exercises based on the research of Abraham Maslow (I’ll bet you teachers remember him), Erich Fromm, and Julian Rotter identifying the core psychological needs of the individual. Based on her exercises, authors can more easily identify who should be the protagonist in their novels, who logical allies and adversaries are and why these characters can fill these roles. She even had us considering whether or not all our characters are even necessary and the qualities that make it possible to combine multiple characters into one. I found working through her exercises in class very useful in evaluating the cast of characters for Branwyn’s story, and intend to put in more time using the core needs approach in developing them.

The final keynoter was Martha Mihalek, with whom I’d spent Friday. Her talk, “Behind the Scenes: The Inside Scoop” examined three phases of the publication process at Greenwillow: evaluating submissions, acquisition, and the road to publication. She dispelled any illusions we might have had that if an editor loves your book she can just publish it. Martha has to consider many questions before taking a novel to an acquisition meeting. She needs to know not just that she likes it, but why. Writers can help her get their books to that all important meeting if their work reflects strong storytelling skills, a compelling voice, realistic characters, a plot that has both an internal and external arc, and a sense of authenticity that reflects what that author is passionate about and believes in. Martha again shared books and her enthusiasm for her work and her authors was contagious. I think every one of us left wishing we could be one of her writers.

There was a final panel discussion which began by talking about this new digital age of publishing. The consensus seemed to be that digital options are not “instead of” options but rather another exciting way writers can reach readers.

The event closed with a drawing. I gave away a free ten page critique, and I won an awesome thesaurus, twice as thick as the one I had at home!

I returned home tired from all the great information I had taken in, and excited. It looks like I’ll be making some submissions soon.

Novel Beginnings: A Tale of Two Starts

Last night I allowed myself to abandon a novel I was reading after getting nearly one hundred pages in and began reading a new one that, by page 30, I know I will stick with until I finish the book. What made the difference?

I picked them both up from the library on the same day. The covers and back matter are of similar quality. They are the same genre, one of my favorites, fantasy.

The settings are similar—both medieval fantasy worlds. As a matter of fact, the setting of the abandoned book was one of my favorites, Arthurian Britain.

The writing itself was of nearly equal quality. Like in most fantasy novels there were a number of strange words and names to get used to, but I did not find it distracting in either book, because as stated above, I love fantasy.

The established plots were both intriguing.

The main characters were likable.

So, what was the problem?

It came down to point-of-view. The first book hopped, not within the chapter, but from chapter to chapter. I’d get to know and like a character, and pfwitt! He or she would disappear from the storyline and another one would appear. I got tired of waiting for someone I could consistently care about, and so I abandoned the book.

The book I began last night started with one character and stuck with him. He, too, is a likable guy, and he’s in a real pickle. I want to find out what happens to him, how his problems do or don’t get resolved, see how he will cope with this difficult situation I find him in. I’ll finish reading this book.

The funny thing is, as a writer and beginning work on a new novel, I had been wondering if I was being too simplistic starting out in limited third person, tight. After this last week’s reading, however, I think I’ll stick with it, until at least page 50 :-)

Oregon Christian Writers’ Conference Report

Last week I attended the Oregon Christian Writer’s Summer Coaching Conference. I, and three other members of my critique group carpooled to the event and shared a cabin at the beautiful Canby Grove Conference Center.

Classes started Monday afternoon, shortly after arrival and didn’t end until lunchtime Thursday (Well, with the exception of having the option to sleep from 9:00 P.M. until breakfast). What a whirlwind time it was! And how informative.

For my coaching class, I opted to take Marcher Lord Press Publisher, Jeff Gerke’s Advanced Fiction Writing Workshop. (I had also submitted a manuscript to him for critique. The very first session helped me to understand the weaknesses in my manuscript and how to fix them, but more about that another day).

Gerke discussed plot driven and character driven writing, and taught us how to develop strong characters and strong plots. We spent a full morning on character development. The next day we learned about plot and three act structure (something I’ve taught to middleschoolers when I was an educator—only nowhere near to the depth Gerke did!) AND, the character development arc that runs parallel to it, which no one had ever taught me before. As we worked through the idea of  applying the plot and character arcs, I was able to practice a step-by-step process of planning on an idea for a novel I’ve been thinking about for some time. Now I can’t wait to start writing it! I think I’ll participate in National Novel Writing Month this year and throw down that rough draft! I’m so excited.

There were afternoon workshops and classes for fiction and nonfiction writer’s, classes on editing, poetry, researching, marketing and many other topics related to writing. Bill Myers’, who created “McGee and Me” gave an awesome three-part keynote address. And I attended a workshop led by James Scott Bell, whose writing advice I’ve been reading for years in Writer’s Digest. My brain felt so stuffed with new information by the end of the four days that I felt like I needed to sleep for a week just to process it.

But believe me, I have no regrets. The conference was fun. It was educational. It was all about writing! What could be better than that?