Friday, December 7, 2012

Maya Apocalypse! Or not?

If you're flitting round Boston today, fly on over to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. Our book launch for Mysteries in the Maya Calendar Museum is today at 3:30. All welcome. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Funky Birdlings

© Lesley Breen Withrow
Check out this delightfully funky bird pattern by illustrator and designer Leslie Breen Withrow, then fly on over to her blog and view her other wonderful work: I'll have a funky bird skirt made of this, thank you very much!

Leslie and her family live right here in Rhode Island, and her husband Steven Withrow is the co-producer of the uber fabulous Library of the Early Mind, a documentary that explores children's literature and its vital importance. If you care about kids' books and kids' minds, it's a must see: It's also very entertaining. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Path to Publication

Image by me.

Very recently, a writer asked me to be honest about whether he should continue to pursue writing or not. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked that question. It always catches me very off guard, but it does make me want to say what follows:

I’m really not the one you should be asking. 

It would be the height of arrogance and stupidity for me—or anyone else—to suggest someone not pursue writing. We all start somewhere, and we all have quite a learning curve. Everybody. If we write, it’s because we are writers. And so we must write (or paint or sculpt or garden or whatever) or shrivel up and die a bitter, strangled creative/spiritual death.

But should we ‘pursue’ it…which I assume really means ‘pursue publication’?

When I was a younger, less experienced editor (and probably thought I knew more than I did, as is natural), I worked with a gentleman who was determined to be an author. He was incredibly eager, earnest, and gung-ho, but he just seemed to be starting in a difficult place. His work seemed a bit… well, unpublishable. But he just wanted to keep trying, no matter what the critique.

And so he did.

We kept working together, multiple drafts of first one book  and then another, both of us learning much along the way. Beneath the unpublishable veneer of what he was doing, there was something wonderful and inspired and rich in what he thought and felt and cared about. But it was just all coming out in ways that were not working at all. In truth, I didn’t think his chances of ever getting published were very good. I was almost certain he wouldn’t, in fact, even though I wanted it for him. But he loved it and wanted it for himself, and that’s all he saw in front of him (or so it seemed to me). So no matter what, he just kept on.

I don’t know what ups and downs he went through on his private journey as a writer, but I guess they’re the ups and downs we all go through. The self-doubt and the frustration, the elation and late nights. All I saw was his consistent drive, the revising, the eagerness, the upbeat attitude, the desire, the focus, and the pleasant, grateful willingness to listen intently, to learn every single thing he could. When he was ready he let go of ideas he’d tried and which he now understood weren't working. He tried new things that incorporated new knowledge. He was willing and ego-free and hardworking.

And he quickly proved me wrong. He grew. His work became good, then really good (in my humble opinion). It was amazing and wonderful to watch. He soon did what I had not managed to do at that point: he found a publisher who wanted his book, signed the contract, and produced a very saleable story with a lovely heart and appealing vehicle. I’ve never seen a writer with such a short journey to (traditional) publication. (Sure, it took years, but not even close to double digits like most of us.) 

He might well have wondered if he’d ever be a published writer. He never discussed that with me. Yet he knew he would, no matter how long or how hard the journey. He was the only one he needed to ask. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Musical Interlude: Take Shelter


Sure, it's been a while. Sometimes, life's like that, isn't it?

Sometimes, one just has to step away a little bit, find a little shelter from all the noise. 

And so, with that in mind, a little music for writing. Wear headphones and turn it up.

I hope you find it as evocative as I do.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

What’s in a Name? Or… With Apologies to Those Named “Milt”

Birthplace of the character formerly known as "Milt"

I don’t usually spend a great deal of time thinking about the names of characters. They usually just seem to fly out of the ether, I insert them, and they stick, or at least that has been my experience.

So when I began the story I’m writing now, I didn’t think too much of it when one of my major characters decided he’d be Milt. I stuck the name in, and kept writing. As time went on—despite growing ever more excited about the story and knowing Milt was going to be quite important—I found myself not that interested in writing the scenes with Milt in them. I rationalized that it was because though Milt is very important, he’s not physically present for a lot of the book.

But as time has gone on, and the first half has taken a more solid shape, I started to wonder if I was actively avoiding him. I had trouble knowing who he was. He was coming across as sniffly. He seemed thin, too tall, too often pushing a pair of glasses back up onto his nose. Oh no, he was growing buck teeth and a lisp and telltale bumps, which would soon be pimples. He was a stereotype of a sidekick, and a weak, uninteresting foil for my MC. I couldn’t get hold of him, and I really had no desire to.   

Then in Australia, on a long train ride in the Outback, though hot little rural towns and vast parched fields spotted with sheep and huge old gum trees, I had a little epiphany. It felt that the character I wanted Milt to be would thrive in this kind of demanding environment. I could see him climbing over the rusted car bodies and water tanks beside the train line, chasing his mates through the bush, roaring like a dragon. He was gravely voiced, shortish, and stocky, tough and quick with a grin—and he most certainly was not named Milt.

Another name began to whisper, to shout, and then take hold. About two weeks ago I replaced “Milt” with this other name (which still starts with M).  It’s one of the best writing decisions I’ve ever made. I know who he is at last and it has opened up new dialogue, new scenes, and unraveled parts of my plot I had no idea about. It has affected the entire project.

What’s in a name?  If my experience is anything to go by, a lot when it comes to your characters. They have to resonate for you—and if they do, I think they’ll have a better chance of resonating for your audience, because you will know them. You’ll better convey who they really are to your reader.

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Novel Update: Flowing

Cockatoo I chatted with in Australia.
See how happy she is?

I am on top of the world.

Sticking to this writing every day routine is doing wonderful things. I’m invested in my work and engaged by it. I look forward to it every day now, because most of the time it’s flowing. I’m sure that has a lot to do with my mental commitment to it.

The evening before last I actually found myself multitasking in a most extraordinary way: I was cooking dinner, Skype chatting with my mum, and writing furiously, all at the same time. That's when I know it's really flowing. Feels amazing.

And I did Something Really Big. I changed a major character’s name. It’s had a dramatic effect on him and on my story. I’ll share my thoughts about that soon.

2+ hours a day (or at least > one). 6+ days a week. It’s key.

Current word count: 31,007 (+4583)

Current state:

  • solid short synopsis
  • clear overarching plot in mind
  • sketches for three illustrations
  • solid beginning (with small gaps) and established voice…but this week it’s grown and changed. The beginning starts in a new place. It’s better.
  • vastly messy middle with large gaps, clearer plot points, a growing number of characters, and various black holes but many fewer toward the end.
  • and an ending! Even final a line!

Goal: A finished solid first draft by January 9th, 2013. 

Friday, March 2, 2012

Novel Update: The Key is Key!

One week ago told you I'd found the key. This week, further proof that the key works. It works, I’m telling you.

Actually sitting in front of a computer and making something go onto the screen every day—yeah, really every day even when you don’t really feel particularly like it but you know you’ve made apromise to do it and you’re accountable to a bunch of people who read your blog as well as yourself and let's face it you're a bit pig-headed about these things anyway so you do it except on your one day off which is at your discretion—actually produces results.

I know! Who would have thunk it? Astounding, but true.  

2+ hours a day (or > one). 6+ days a week. It’s key.

Current word count: 30,092 (+3668)

Current state:
  • solid short synopsis
  • clear overarching plot in mind
  • sketches for two illustrations
  • solid beginning (with small gaps) and established voice
  • vastly messy middle with large gaps, clearer plot points, a growing number of characters, and various black holes but many fewer toward the end.
  • and an ending! Even final a line!

Goal: A finished solid first draft by January 9th, 2013. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Handy Tip: Embedded Comments

Do you use Word’s ‘embedded comments’ feature? It’s a tool I use every day when I am editing, but I also find it extremely handy when I am writing.

I often want to leave a note to myself about a character or a plot idea or some back-story, but not stop to find the place where it fits or break the flow of the section I’m writing. Sometimes it’s a possible rewording I might like for the sentence I’m working on, or just some added info about the scene that I haven’t yet found the right spot for. So being able to quickly throw in an embedded comment with that extra information is a very nifty thing.

Don’t know how to use them? It’s easy:

In Word 2007, select review from the tool bar:

Select the text or place where you’d like to put the embedded comment:               

And then select ‘New Comment’ from the toolbar:

And the comment will be inserted on your text, as well as the comment box opening up to the left (or below if you have your options set up that way). Then just type your comment in:

Comments can easily be removed by selecting ‘delete’:

Even if you don’t have this version of Word, the process is pretty much identical once you have located the editing/review functions on your tool bar.

It makes my writing life so much easier, and I hope you will find it helpful, too! 

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Although it concerns me that spring has come much too early this year (after all, these crocuses have been blooming in our garden since I returned from Australia), I can’t help but feel genuine excitement as I wander around my garden.

It’s always the same during those first garden strolls at the weak end of winter, seeking out the shoots of daffodils, blossom buds, and the first leaves. It feels like reclaiming something wonderful: full wakefulness within the moment, a sense of hope and promise, a pause just to be and really enjoy it.

Budding of the flowering quince

I have a yellow crocus for the very first time.

Lovely snowdrops


Friday, February 24, 2012

A Novel Update: Feb 24th, The Key, Discovered!

Cup of tea (green with lemon and ginseng, special tea cup), 
speakers lilting (see below), 
notebook and pencil (magenta, mechanical, 0.7 mm lead), 
open Word file, 
drawing (4B pencil, Strathmore Drawing Paper) in progress on well-lit art table. 

And... actually doing this at some point EVERY day.

That's what is working for me right now. 

'Moss Garden' by David Bowie

Current word count: 29,180 (+2756)
Current state: 
  • solid short synopsis
  • clear overarching plot in mind
  • one sketches and one half-finished drawing (up!)
  • solid beginning (with fewer gaps) and established voice
  • vastly messy middle with large gaps, unclear plot points, too few characters, and various black holes
  • lots more character and world knowledge
  • nebulous but forming ending. 
Goal: A finished solid first draft by January 9th, 2013. 

Wouldn't you like to join me and post your word count updates in the comments? We're all in this together. It'll be fun! 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Musical Interlude: Ghost Towns, Radical Face

Busy working and writing (passed 29,000 words on my WIP a few minutes ago!), 
but wanted to share my favorite song for writing to this week:


Monday, February 20, 2012


Image Copyright: me. 


Not zipping about on Facebook like a fly in a digital bottle. 

Not madly pinning on Pinterest like an insane seamstress of images. 

Not tweeterwitterwooing on Twitter, whatever that's about. 


Friday, February 17, 2012

A Novel Update

Image credit:

It's been one week, and I have easily kept to my new writing schedule, writing/drawing one or more (usually more) hours per day (except for my one evening off, which I spent working on paid work and wrapping birthday presents for my daughter!). It feels good, and it feels natural now I've made the mental commitment. 

Though progress seems slow in terms of word count, because I'm cutting and reworking as I go, it's gratifying to know I'm doing something every day to peck away at my goal. 

Current word count: 27,786  (+1362)
Current state: 
  • solid short synopsis
  • clear overarching plot in mind
  • sketches for two illustrations (+1)
  • solid beginning (with fewer gaps) and established voice
  • vastly messy middle with large gaps, unclear plot points, too few characters, and various black holes 
  • nebulous but forming ending. 
Goal: A finished solid first draft by January 9th, 2013. 

Please feel free to join me and post your word count or project state updates in the comments. We're all in this together. It'll be fun! 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

POV. Yes, POV!

Well, I’m doing it. I’m throwing my two cents worth into the ring labeled “POV.” It’s something I’ve considered blogging about for a long time, as it’s one of the biggest, gangliest, toothiest, hairiest, wartiest, most frequent, and most significant technical issues I come across when I am editing and teaching. Some of what I am going to say is absolutely personal opinion, but it’s a studied personal opinion, developed over years of being a kid and a reader, a lifetime of reading kids’ books, and many years of editing and teaching.

Ok. So. I rarely feel that an omniscient POV works in books for kids. I am personally not a fan of omniscient POV’s in books for kids. (Note that: books for kids. Bold. Italics. Underline. Fiction for adults is another matter entirely.) BUT, there are notable exceptions.

Reading as the kid I used to be (which is partially how I approach all kidlit) and reading as an avid adult reader of kidlit (as I am now), plus reading as an editor (which I get paid to do), I almost invariably feel a greater connection with the protagonist of a story when scenes in which he/she is present are written in either first person or limited third person. I think I’m far from alone in this, and I’m certain this is why you really don’t see omniscient POV’s all that often in kidlit today, even in fantasy.

POV? Huh? Limited whatsit? Ok, let’s back up a bit.

Point of View, POV for short and when scribbled in the margins of manuscripts, is the technical term for describing who is telling the story and what their relation to the story is. This person, if a character in the story, is called the viewpoint character. The only other person it can be is the author.
     Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft
First Person:  “I” is the viewpoint character. All information comes through “I”’s perspective. We can only know what "I" thinks, feels, sees, hears, etc. We infer what other characters think through what they say, how they behave, and through what “I” thinks about them.

Limited Third Person: “he” or “she” is the view point character and tells the story. Only what they think, feel, perceive etc. is told.  We infer what other characters think through what they say, how they behave, and through what “he” or “she” thinks/observes about them.

Tactically, limited third is identical to first person. It has exactly the same essential limitation: that nothing can be seen, known, or told except what the narrator sees, knows, and tells. That limitation concentrates the voice and gives apparent authenticity.
     Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft
Omniscient: Numerous viewpoint characters. Writer can tell us what anyone is thinking/feeling and interpret that behavior. Sometimes narrator has a strong voice.

Sometimes the omniscient narrator has a strong voice… in fact, unless the narrator has a strong voice, I really don’t feel an omniscient POV works. Yes, that’s my opinion.

In fact, I think POV shifts are fraught with danger and must be done with skill and complete awareness—if at all.

It’s also very easy to slip outside the viewpoint character’s POV without realizing or to hover half-in and half-out—to not be deep enough inside that POV. ALL INFORMATION (unless using omniscient) must come through the viewpoint character’s emotional, physical, cultural, psychological etc. filters. Yep, in my opinion.

I feel that:

·         When your main character is present, everything should be seen through his or her or its limited third person POV. Or first person, of course. Other POVs are acceptable in scenes when your protagonist is not present, but there should be far less of them.

  • To go from protagonist’s POV to those of secondary characters is actually “head-hopping."
  • We may never manage to fully and completely connect with your protagonist. You may relegate your protagonist (whom the reader expects to know inside and out) to a minor character at times.
  • POV changes and many characters’ POVs may make an your story unnecessarily frantic or confusing at times. Your young reader may have trouble keeping track.
  • When you step outside your character and refer to them as the girl for example, that also has the effect of taking us even further outside her POV, away from her experience, as he doesn’t think of himself as “the girl.” She would think of himself (in third person) as “she” or by her name.
  • As a (young) reader, I don’t want to go right into an antagonists’ POV. I don’t want or need to go into minor character’s POVs, and if I do, I may be confused about their importance to the story.
  • I want to stay in the head of the protagonist (when he/she’s in the scene), and that’s where my greatest empathy wants to lie. I want that chance to feel empathy for the protagonist, but it takes contact and consistency of POV (when he/she is in the scene) for me to care about him/her. I want to experience the story through the hero, so I can be the hero for a little while.
  • If you go into the mind of another character when your protagonist is in the scene, you distance me from your protagonist. You don’t give me a chance to see the world, other characters, and the action through your protagonist’s eyes, so I lose that connection with him/her. Just as he/she has to do, I want to be able and should be able to infer what other characters are thinking and feeling by the way they act. If their feelings and thoughts are ambiguous, that forces an even greater empathy with your protagonist, as we are fully immersed in his/her experience—even if his/her experience is one of confusion or lack of full knowledge. We get the chance to be a confused, troubled young person/animal-person/alien creature/etc. under great duress.
  • By extension, I would rather view an antagonist from an external view and make up my own mind about what he/she is thinking and feeling by the way he/she behaves, just as the hero has to do.
  • As a (young) reader I don’t care what most adults think and I don’t want to be inside their boring grown-up heads. I am interested in the concerns of kids my own age. I don’t care very much about politics or grown-up relationship stuff like that unless it’s all part of an exciting plot, which is presented very clearly to me in a way I can conceptualize through my young perspective, without too much boring background or stuff about the weird, boring stuff adults do, talk, and think about. Again, that means don’t let me inside adult heads. I care more about what kids (especially the protagonist) are thinking and feeling.     
In my opinion, this is one of the things that makes Harry Potter so incredibly successful. Rowling (after some interesting POV stuff as she establishes character and voice in the first book) is a master of POV. And she does extraordinary amounts by staying exclusively in Harry’s limited third person POV (except when he is not present in a scene…and that’s quite rare, but she handles the POV change in a separate chapter). We never go into Hermione’s head or Ron’s, but we know what they’re thinking and feeling through Harry’s experience of them. And we especially don’t go into Snape’s or Voldemort’s heads…but that does not limit our understanding or experience of them in any way. It does, in fact, enhance it while keeping the tension between protagonist and antagonist high. 

For a very successful example of limited third person with two protagonists, take a look at the first in The 39 Clues series, The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan. The two characters are a brother and sister and their two POV’s are handled in separate alternating chapters.

If you stay in your protagonist’s POV when he is present in a scene, that means we cannot know what your other characters are thinking or feeling unless they show us by what they say in dialogue, or by what they do physically: facial expressions, movements, reactions etc.

In scenes in which your protagonist is not present, then you might take a more third person omniscient approach, but really I’d aim to avoid what’s called ‘head-hopping,’ even in those scenes, and mainly just show (yes, show, not tell) us how the characters are feeling or what they are thinking by what they say in dialogue and how they act.

Omniscient POVs are VERY tricky to do well, and they’re something you don’t see that often, really. There are some books with omniscient narrators on the market and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a fairly well known example, and then there’s Kate DiCamillo’s brilliant The Tale of Despereaux—at least those are the two which spring readily to my mind. One thing you’ll notice about those books is that the narrator has a very strong and distinctive voice.

If a writer wants to develop an omniscient POV, then they would be (again, in my opinion) advised to develop a stronger narrator’s/storyteller’s voice, but they should be be wary.

Will an added voice detract from the story and style? Is it something that the story doesn’t actually need? Is there already quite enough going on (including a lot of characters and subplot points to keep track of), without needing an additional speaker’s voice into the mix?

I recently posted on my Facebook page an article about head-hopping ( and I expressed my feelings about successful omniscient in children’s fiction, which some very well-known editors and agents immediately went on to share on their pages, agreeing heartily that head-hoping has no place in kidlit. So, as you see, it’s widely felt.

Here are some links about POV in general:

Now, I expect a bit of spirited debate about this. What do you think? 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


No tacky, sickly Valentine's sentiments, just shows it the way it really feels. 
How could I resist?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Musical Interlude: Light Home, Matt Corby

Never thought I'd again hear a voice as haunting and beautiful as the late Jeff Buckley's, but then I went home to Australia and came across Matt Corby. And not just a voice, but lyrics and music, too. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Learning Things

This postcard has become one of my most treasured material possessions, and I have carried it since I first picked it up in a coffee shop in 2002. Wherever I have hollowed out a little space for myself, I have stuck it on the wall at eye level. It’s a good reminder.

I’ve started a list of little learning things I intend to make my way through this year. It’s in keeping with my renewed fervor for goal setting and creativity scheduling—which I’ve promised myself I will value and adhere to as strictly as my paid-work schedule. It’s all an investment in what I truly love, part allowing of more steady forward motion and part swift kick in the posterior.  

For example, because confidently constructing a plot is my Achilles’ heel, I have a few books in my reading pile:

  • Plot by Ansen Dibell (Elements of Fiction Writing series. Writer’s Digest Books)
  • Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell (Write Great fiction series. Writer’s Digest Books).
  • Advanced Plotting by Chris Eboch… an eBook that was recommended by Janet S.Fox, and since I was so thrilled by her talk at NESCBWI's regional last year, I trust that it will be good. 

What’s on your learning list this year? 

Friday, February 10, 2012


Had a lovely time in Australia, and now I'm back. So, this afternoon, I’m about to return to working on my (graphic-ish?) novel in earnest. 

Right now. And I'm getting both nervous and excited. 

2+ hours a day (minimum of one). 6+ days a week. 

Here goes... 

Current word count: 26,424. 
Current state: 
  • solid short synopsis
  • clear overarching plot in mind
  • a sketch for one illustration
  • solid beginning (with small gaps) and established voice
  • vastly messy middle with large gaps, unclear plot points, too few characters, and various black holes 
  • nebulous but forming ending. 
Goal: A finished solid first draft by January 9th, 2013. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Strange, Sweet Homecoming

Rainbow lorikeets, Noosaville, Queensland
It's been a quiet blog start to 2012 and very quiet for me creatively, too, but with good reason. It's funny really how the best intentions in the world (I will write every day, I will journal! Will blog? Oh, will I!) mean nothing when you find yourself in a situation which, though reasonably planned out, was essentially unanticipateable. (Yes, I'm aware that's not a word, but it fits.)  

I'm *home* in Australia, for the first time in five and a half years! It's a strange homecoming, in some ways, but maybe all homecomings are like that a bit. You know just what to expect, but they still deliver copious quantities of the unexpected. Granted, I've had some rather incredibly tedious paperwork-y, dealing-with-personal-effects-in-storage, and medical-ish things to take care of here (while still managing my editing schedule), which have taken lots of time, vast amounts of energy, and which I've more or less just had to grit my teeth to get through. And I'm missing my little girl. 

BUT it's been unspeakably lovely too, to see my family, to see my closest friends (who are also really my family), and to find an exquisite moment here and there to wander along the Australian coastline or through the bush. If you have never been to Australia, I hope you will place her high on your list of places to go. She is stunning and rugged, cultured and caffeinated and foodie, and her people are down-to-earth, warm, and generous on the whole. She'll launch an assault on your senses the moment you set foot on her: the pungency of the eucalyptus trees, the subtle shades of bush-land and the startling aqua-blue ocean, the overwhelming and constant sounds of more birds than you've ever seen in one place.

A few pics of things I've seen so far: 

Mt. Cooroy (one of a number of volcanic plugs), Queensland  

Hell's Gates, Noosa Heads National Park, Queensland

On the golf-course near my mum's house! 

Sorrento Back Beach, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria
I'm hoping to do a picture or two a day for the final two weeks of my stay and things are settling down a bit.