Tuesday, September 19, 2017

I See You By Ann Haywood Leal

Mrs. Rinear.  I've written about her before, but she was so important to me that I'm going to make everyone hear about her again.  She was the one.  The teacher who made me sit up straight and stand tall -- but not in the literal sense.  From the first day of sixth grade, she didn't say it out loud, but she beamed it right into my mind:  I see you.

I had stop-sign-shaped glasses and braces with headgear.  Does anyone still have to wear headgear?  The good kind had two thick wires that attached to a strap around the back of the neck and were inserted into your braces in front.  But I had the other kind.  Mine sat very visibly on the top of my head like the inside straps of a bike helmet.  I didn't have to wear it all twenty-four hours of the day, but I may as well have, because it left lovely imprints in my not-so-thick hair in back.

But I loved Mrs. Rinear and I loved school. I loved learning about the solar system and fractions.  I loved art and music and  of course, reading -- couldn't Judy Blume put out her books any faster?  I had perfect attendance and I couldn't wait to see what Mrs. Rinear was going to bring out next.  Most of all, I loved creative writing.  When I would sneak out the latest story I was working on, she'd quietly come by my desk.  "It looks like you're done with your math," she'd say.  "Why don't you take that story over there to the table in the back where it's nice and quiet?"

She was always giving me extra time to write.  As the year went on, she'd ask about the stories I'd written at home.  She'd ask to see them and she'd take them home and read them to her family.  I can still see her handwriting on my blue notebook paper: Very nice.

Sadly, she moved away after my sixth grade year and I never got to see her again.

After my first book, ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER came out, I went back to my home town to do a writing workshop for teens at my old library--the magical place where I got my first library card.  As can happen to both new and seasoned authors, it was ten minutes before the workshop was to begin and only one teen showed up. But then they all started filing in . . . my first grade teacher, my brother's kindergarten teacher, my junior high English teacher, the principal of my old elementary school, my second grade teacher . . .
"We tried to get hold of Mrs. Rinear," the principal said.  "But we couldn't."

But they were all there, and I was overwhelmed.  I went to the front of the room and got ready to read from my book, but it was difficult to turn the pages, because my hands were shaking.  I realized that I was about to read the story I'd written to the people who taught me how to read and write.  I went on and did it anyway, because their proud smiles and their steady eyes were saying, I see you.

  Two days later I went to the University Bookstore in Seattle to do a reading.  One of my friends couldn't come so she sent her mother, Bev, in her place.  I walked up to Bev to thank her for coming, and she said, "I'm not Bev."  Mrs. Rinear had driven over two hours to be there.  I told her that I couldn't believe she had traveled so far.
"Oh, I would have driven four," she said.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

It Might be Right in Front of You

Every time Spring peeks into New England and starts to uncover itself, I get this overwhelming feeling of possibility--of what could happen . . . what might happen. 

As I was slogging through a weekend run, (I shouldn't really call it an actual run, since my friend's ninety-something mother could beat me in a race, but I'm taking artistic license here, people!), I began noticing  a whole slew of story possibilities.

Don't worry, I won't regale you with a couple dozen blooming crocus pictures, because where's the story in that?

But I will throw in a few settings with definite story possibilities.

What could happen here, for example?

                                                                                Or here?

What about under here?

And the snow just uncovered this story possibility:

So . . . get out there and dig up a brand new beginning!

Thursday, March 2, 2017


It's that time of the year when I just want to march forward into Spring.  I want Spring.  I need Spring.  But even in my beloved home area of Seattle, where it almost never snows, it's refusing to be Spring.
So goes it with writing.  You just want your draft to be done.  You want it to be finished and perfect and wonderful.  But you have to make yourself march forward.  Stomp right through that mess of first, second, and (yes, really!) third drafts and make it even better.  
But how in the world do you do that?  I've got other books to write, you might say.  I can't spend my precious writing time revising! 

And my answer to that would be, Yes.  Yes, you can. You can and should do both.  As difficult as it may be, put that second draft away for a couple of weeks.  And let it sit and simmer while you work on a new book.  Believe me, I know it's hard to do that.  Once you are done with that second draft, you are ready to turn it in.  After all, you've sunk some blood and guts into that draft.  It should be finished.  

But those of you who know me, know that I love a good challenge.  So I challenge you to wait a couple weeks . . .  then do that third draft.  I guarantee you that you will see your book with a fresh perspective, and your third draft will be sure to have a hint of Spring in it.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Claudia, Amira, and a Little Bit of Langston

January.  A new beginning.  I am holding onto that feeling of hope that my writerly and book loving friends are putting out into the world.  Because we all need that right now, don't we?  We all need to feel as if we are okay--that we are going to be okay.  We need to feel as if the world is round again, and we will not drop off a sharp curb into a scary abyss.  We need to drag ourselves up and over that ledge and band together with the extra sticky glue made of kindness and inclusiveness.  Because that's what a middle-grade novel is about, isn't it?  Hope.  Kindness.  Empathy.

So I'm offering up some of my favorite beginnings to begin 2017.

"Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly . . . "
--Langston Hughes  (Okay, I cheated with this first one.  Langston Hughes didn't write middle grade novels, but he was, Langston Hughes, so I get to.)

"Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away.  That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her back.  She didn't like discomfort, even picnics were untidy and inconvenient:  all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes.  Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere . . . "
--E. L. Konigsburg (From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler)

"We moved on the Tuesday before Labor Day.  I knew what the weather was like the second I got up. I knew because I caught my mother sniffing under her arms.  She always does that when it's hot and humid, to make sure her deodorant's working.  I don't use deodorant yet.  I don't think people start to smell bad until they're at least twelve.  So I've still got a few months to go."
--Judy Blume (Are You There God?  It's Me, Margaret.)

"Finally, I am twelve.
Old enough to wear a toob.
As soon as I wake, Muma whispers a birthday wish.
Blessings for all the years to come, Amira.
--Andrea Davis Pinkney (The Red Pencil)

"Lily Mollahan's bedroom was at the top of the stairs, the only one on the second floor.  The top of the house, Gram always told her, the top of the world.
     Lily sank back on her heels to look around at the blue walls and ceiling, and the gold stars pasted on here and there.  Then she stretched up again, working with Poppy's paint scraper, to peel off a star that was almost beyond her reach."
--Patricia Reilly Giff (Lily's Crossing)

"Today is Tet,
the first day
of the lunar calendar.
Every Tet
we eat sugary lotus seeds
and glutinous rice cakes.
We wear all new clothes
even underneath.
Mother warns
how we act today
foretells the whole year.
Everyone must smile
no matter how we feel.
No one can sweep,
for why sweep away hope?
No one can splash water,
for why splash away joy?"
--Thanhha Lai (Inside Out & Back Again)

I had to stop myself, because there are so many beautiful beginnings out there.  Go grab your own memorable beginning.  Open a middle grade novel, or let the words of Langston wash over you with drizzles of hope.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Saying No to No

I have to admit, I enjoy a challenge.  After all, what's the fun in something if you don't have to sweat a little?  Especially with your writing.  If others say no to your work or to parts of your story, treat it as a personal challenge.  I mean do make it personal.  Don't ignore the "no"; pay close attention to it. 

Dig deep.  Fight for your story.  Really look at the comments you are getting from the literary world, including your critique partners.  Ask yourself, Is there a general thread or commonality there?  If so, try incorporating those comments and suggestions into your work.  Then sit back and ask yourself, Is my story now stronger and/or better? 

Making a story work takes work.  Which means that you have to be prepared to say no yourself.  You have to say no to the outside distractions that are fighting to get in . . . like that Netflix series that is beckoning to you to binge watch.  Or that closet that suddenly has to be organized.  But once you have your story all clean, shiny and new,  it will all be worth it.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

What Was That Noise??

My mom couldn't stand the suspense of an unopened gift or an unknown resolution in a novel.  She'd try very hard to resist the impulse, but she'd almost always give in and read the end of that book.

My aunt made the most delicious fudge from a secret recipe that she refused to divulge, and she'd only make it at Christmas.  My mom knew that fudge was arriving at our house around December 20, or so, and she adored and craved that fudge like the rest of us.  We were all shocked one year when the box still lay unopened under the tree on December 25 . . . until my brother opened it and found an entire corner of fudge cut out and missing.

Annie Dillard once said, "Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now."  It's one of my favorite writing quotes.  My mom would have loved that quote, but I'm quite sure Ms. Dillard wasn't referring to suspense.

Suspense has to be stretched out until the rubber band is just about to snap.

What's inside the box?

What's behind the door?

What's around the corner?

Didn't you hear that?

You wake up in the darkness of your room . . . Did you just dream that voice? . . . Or did it come from downstairs?

We have to give it away a trickle at a time, but do give a glimpse to keep the reader wondering and turning those pages.  Give a quick flash of what is around that corner.  Make them want to sneak into that box of fudge.

I leave you with another quote and a challenge from the incomparable Stephen King:

Friday, September 2, 2016

Going Over to the Dark Side . . . Sort Of

Character flaws.  We all have them.  And so should your characters.

Like our children, we want our characters to be perfect, so we naturally want to give them streamlined, worry-free lives where they do no wrong.  But really, where’s the fun in that?  We have to have growth and change in our characters, otherwise, there is no story.  It’s a great big yawner from the first page.

A long time ago I got a handwritten note on my returned manuscript from an editor.  I can still remember it, word for word:  “Your character has no redeeming qualities.”  
Wow.  I guess I went completely to the dark side.  Basically this editor was saying she hated my main character, and not necessarily in a Voldemort Darth Vader love-to-hate sort of way.  

So . . . we need to be somewhere in the middle.  The only way we can do that is to really know our characters.  I used to think I could get to know my character as I schlepped through my story.  But that can get me in a whole world of trouble, sending my character every which way in a confusing story world.  

I will now defer to the late great Ray Bradbury who once said, “Find out what your hero or heroine wants, and when he or she wakes up in the morning, just follow him or her all day.” –THEN start your story.  Some of that information about your character will never make its way into your book.  It will stay inside your head, simmering there as you write.  It will, in fact, affect all of your writing, because what you know about your character will come out in bits and pieces with their dialogue, with the way they walk across the room, the way they interact with the other characters, etc.

I am going to leave you with a writing prompt to get you started:  Darth Vader and Pollyanna had a baby . . . Go!