Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas, or Happy Holidays, to all!

All my Christmas shopping is done - the presents are all wrapped and either under our tree or en route to friends by priority mail, the Christmas cookies are baked and frosted (and sampled), the groceries are in the refrigerator for Christmas meals. As much as I feel triumphant, however, I also feel a bit sad. The preparations for Christmas, the anticipation of how my friends and family will enjoy their gifts - these are what I love best about the holidays, even more than Christmas morning itself and the fun of opening presents. I truly believe this is the season of giving.

I wish I could be a spirit in every household to which I sent gifts - I'd love to watch my friends' children (and my friends) open the presents I sent them. But the best I can do is send some of my spirit with the gifts, and be thankful that my friends are mostly writers, who will write to tell me how those small pieces of my love for them were received. Then I can vicariously share in their holiday joy from afar.

Spend as much of the holidays as you can with people you love. Christmas, more than Facebook or the internet, is about truly connecting with a larger community than your household. I believe we send gifts because we're reaching out to the people we care about, showing our love in boxes and gift bags. We do that many times during the year: on birthdays, at random moments when we just have the feeling a friend needs a lift. But this winter holiday season of Christmas is magical because nearly everyone reaches out to everyone else they know, and even to some people they don't know, through charity, to share that love, at the same time.

Enjoy the holidays. Eat too much and laugh too much and hug beyond your personal space comfort bubble. Let the world in and revel in it. That's my wish for everyone whose spirit I've touched this year, and other years, and for everyone whose spirit has touched me. Give of yourselves, to share this magical season, until your heart overflows.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Genres - Helpful or Hurtful?

Genres tend to mystify me, and I'm not sure they're really doing much of a service to readers, labeling books in the simplest possible terms.

I write novels. I admit I didn't think much about genres when I started publishing - I thought about the target age of my readers, but not the genre of the book I was writing for them. Then, after Counterfeit Son was published, I got a phone call from my editor telling me it had been nominated for an Edgar Award.

Wonderful! But I had to ask her, what was an Edgar Award? She told me it was for Best Young Adult Mystery.

Wonderful! Except I hadn't thought of Counterfeit Son as being a mystery. It was a novel about coming to terms with exactly how much responsibility one person owed another person. I was honored to be nominated, but the nomination was something of a mystery to me.

Then I began thinking about my other books, and I realized that most of them were mysteries - I'd used techniques of mystery to tell the story I'd wanted to write. I was even more honored when Counterfeit Son won the Edgar Award for Best Young Adult Mystery. And the following year Ghost Soldier was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery, another tremendous honor, even though I thought the book was more a novel about knowing when to hold onto family and when to let go, than a mystery.

So genres can benefit writers unexpectedly. But I think genres can also do writers a disservice sometimes. I've recently finished a novel about the need to protect words and books from being twisted and misrepresented. It takes place in our world, perhaps a few years in the future, and I thought of it as sort of a foray into science fiction, or speculative fiction (a term I prefer). But with the current interest in dystopian literature, it's being called dystopian. And editors have rather specific ideas about what they want to see as dystopian. So when they read my manuscript, thinking dystopian, they have problems with it not fitting neatly into the dystopian template they have in their mind.

Not so wonderful. I know genres can help readers find the sort of books they want, but I think that pigeon-holing can also cut readers off from books they might well enjoy if they came to those books without pre-formed expectations. What do you think? Do genres hinder more often than help, or vice versa?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Old Friends

This year I joined a Facebook Group in which all the members are trying to read 100 books in 2010. Every month we all post the titles of the books we read. This has been a fabulous source of recommendations for new books to read, and I'm thoroughly enjoying my participation. While I've discovered many new titles and authors this year, I also find myself returning to old friends, re-reading classics like The Outsiders, and Edward Eager's Magic books, and more modern classics like the Harry Potter books. And there's nothing that give me greater pleasure than receiving an e-mail from a reader who tells me he (or she) has read and re-read one of my books, like Ghost Cadet, and considers it an old friend.

I really love discovering new books which will become old friends and be re-read in their turn in time, but there's no question that I also treasure my time curled up with old friends, especially when life gets difficult. There's nothing more comforting in tough times than a cup of mint tea and an old friend, although these days I more often than not find myself reading my old friends on my new iPad. I'm not clinging to old friends as a way to avoid moving forward in the literary world, either in terms of not wanting to discover new friends, or not wanting to use new technology.

I guess I'm still a Girl Scout at heart, remembering when we used to sing around the campfire:
Make new friends
But keep the old
One is silver
And the other gold.

I'm not sure whether my old book friends are silver or gold, but I treasure both the old and the new. Do you find yourself returning to old friends as you read, also?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Goodbye, Haunted House...

...I'm going to miss you.

Since I write ghost stories for middle school readers, I often get the same question when I visit a school: "Have you ever seen a ghost?" For years I had to answer, "Not yet," which saddened my enthusiastic fans. Then we moved to Bozeman, and my husband found a haunted house for us at 3242 Gardenbrook Lane. He didn't know it was haunted, because the house's ghost chimed, and my dear husband is rather deaf. But I heard it, loud, clear, and irregular enough in its chimes that we often seemed to be carrying on a conversation as I responded in turn.

At first, I'll admit, I was kind of spooked. I'd be minding my own business, writing, watching TV, playing games on my Mac, and then I'd hear this chime. I'd ask my husband, "Did you hear that?", knowing even as I asked that he wouldn't have. He didn't always hear the question. But the chimes seemed friendly, and after a while I started talking to the spirit, and discovered we got along very well. How wonderful it was to be able to tell young readers at schools that I might not have seen a ghost exactly, but I'd heard one in my very own house and we had interesting conversations (even if the chimes sounded without benefit of a translator, we still seemed to understand each other).

Where did the ghost come from? I don't know, and I never minded - we got on well together. Perhaps Keegan, the builder, built on a piece of land where someone had been buried in time long past? It was a new development - no house had been built there before, so someone could have been laid to rest beneath our home. It's possible.

But now we're moving, so I guess I'll never find out. I hope the new owners, Steve Parks and Cristina Boyles, like my ghost friend and are nice to it. Or, if they intend to sell the house, I hope they find buyers who get on well with the ghost. I'm sure if they make it feel welcome, it will welcome them in turn. As for me, I'm left with photos of my old home, and with memories of the ghost who befriended me.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Illegal Downloads of My (and Your!) Books

We all love to read a free book. That's why we have library cards. But these days too many people who love free books have computers instead of library cards and frequent online sites where they can download books for free - books which are for sale in stores - books whose sale should bring authors income they have legitimately earned. I know I've been frustrated to find some of my books available for free downloads. Amy King has written a terrific blog post that nails the issue, so I'd very much like to refer you to her "A Pirate's Dare."

The one thing I'd like to add is that I can understand people who want to have an electronic copy on their ebook reader of a print book they've legitimately purchased and paid for . I have been known to purchase the print book for my bookshelf, the audiobook from for my iPod, and the ebook from Amazon or iBooks so I can have the book with me even when I'm traveling between locations. However - there are some favorites that I cannot purchase because they are not available as ebooks. I can certainly understand why someone would type or scan in a much-loved book in order to have a personal traveling digital version - for private usage, until these titles became available for purchase.

I wish the copyright holders of works by deceased authors who are not in the public domain would contract for their books to be available as ebooks - and I wish publishers would offer fair terms for such ebook editions. Everyone is trying to get as large a piece of the pie as they can: publishers are trying to give the authors as small a royalty as possible, authors are trying to get as large a royalty as possible (and I'm in that group), and readers are trying to amass as many books as possible. The sad thing is the larger the piece of the pie everyone grabs for, the less anyone gets. Unless you go to the library, anyway.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Endorphins and Writing

My husband's work keeps him on the road, away from home way too much of the time - which means there are too many nights when it's just me and my teddy bear trying to fall asleep. Some nights I toss and turn, worrying about things that are beyond my power to control. I've found I sleep best when I lie in bed and think about the book that's currently in progress.

I've heard that writers shouldn't do that, because either it keeps you awake all night or you forget any insights you had by the time you wake up in the morning. I don't find that's a problem for me. I keep my current WIP notebook within easy reach, and my teddy bear doesn't mind my turning on the light when inspiration strikes. As soon as a scene or an insight from my MC comes into focus, I'm sitting up in bed and writing it down, so it's safely preserved for my more wakeful writer persona of the next morning.

And here's my discovery: writing seems to be as good as making love when it comes to releasing hormones! Making good love releases endorphins that activate the body's opiate receptors - in other words, endorphins make you slide happily into sleep. So does tapping into your book's soul. As soon as I've written down my new insight and switched off the light, I slip happily into sleep and have a good night. Okay, being with my husband is even better for a loving night's sleep, but it doesn't increase my word count or my character insights.

Whichever option you have tonight, sweet dreams.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

On Fire

No, I'm not talking about Katniss, the Girl on Fire (though I do already have a cool Mockingjay t-shirt that I can't wait to wear while I'm reading the book, which I've pre-ordered). I'm talking about something a member of my writers' group said after I reported to them on everything I've been up to since landing my new agent, Jill Corcoran. My friend told me I was on fire with writing, now that I didn't have to think about the business aspect of the work.

I think she's right. Ever since I started writing, lo these many years ago, I've worked at submitting all my manuscripts on my own and dealing with the business end of the craft by negotiating my own contracts. But this business aspect has sapped more and more of my creative energy as publishers have made the business of being a writer increasingly difficult. Now that I've found an agent who believes in me and has shouldered that burden with gusto, I feel free to focus on the writing aspect. That doesn't mean I'm ignoring the concept of marketing entirely and writing in a vacuum, because if you're not cognizant of market demand you're not doing your creativity any favors! But I can concentrate on what I want to write, with the idea of how it fits into market requirements as a background to the work, not as the next phase of responsibility I have to take on myself.

So I've worked on planning out three chapter books in a series and started a new YA novel, Fire at Will, and I feel as if I'm fizzing with creative energy and excitement. In short, I feel as enthusiastic as I used to feel when I started writing. I know I'll still have revision work with editors as Permanent Record and other books are sold, and I'm looking forward to it, as I used to look forward to every phase of this craft, but being able to focus on only the creative side of the business is incredibly liberating. My friend was right - I'm on fire with the thrill of writing all over again, thanks to partnering with my agent!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My New Agent

I'm delighted to report that I have just signed with Jill Corcoran of Herman Agency!

For more than 20 years I have marketed my books on my own, and while I enjoyed the excitement of researching new publishing opportunities and was grateful to the editors who approached me, recent mergers and editors moving more frequently from house to house made me decide it was time to seek a professional agent.

Searching for the right agent is a lot like getting engaged! You need to get to know a potential agent to decide whether you'll be able to work well together for a start, and also to decide whether you'll be able to continue working together for a career. I've thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Jill - and it doesn't hurt that she loves my new YA novel, Permanent Record! So we've crossed the threshold and signed the contracts, and I'm looking forward to our new relationship, and to our future books, with enthusiasm.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Politics and the Power of the Written Word

I've been reflecting on the debate among many of my colleagues about whether they should express their political opinions in their blogs or on social networks. Some are concerned that their politics might have a negative impact on potential readers. Others believe that they are their political beliefs, so why not express those beliefs publicly?

I have strong political opinions, but I believe they are between me and my voting booth. However, those opinions do spring directly from my philosophy and my ethics, and those are a matter of record. Every book I write is a public expression of my ethics. Any one of my readers already knows what concerns me, what principles guide me, and what I believe is important, or should be important, to citizens of the 21st century.

So why not go ahead and announce my political leanings? Why not go the whole way and recommend candidates to support in the midterm elections, or the 2012 presidential election for that matter?

Because there's no reason any of my readers should be swayed by my political recommendations. I'm no political pundit: I'm a writer. If a reader of my books finds that he or she agrees with my philosophy, it's very possible that he or she would choose to support a political candidate that I would also like. At the very least, the process of his or her choosing would reflect moral principles that I'd admire.

But I can see real dangers in bluntly announcing my political philosophy, as opposed to showing my moral philosophy. While our ethics certainly inform our politics, it's way too easy to make a snap judgement about someone (and, by extension, about as yet unread books that person has written) on the basis of a hot button issue, rather than judging an author on the larger view of his or her moral principles expressed in their books.

One author I used to admire greatly expressed a political opinion that demonstrated his extreme bigotry in a way that his books never did. I have since been unable to look at his books, even the ones I particularly loved, in the same way. If he had only kept his political opinions between himself and his voting booth, I would certainly have purchased, and probably enjoyed, his new novel. Now I shall probably never read it.

While I am not worried in the least that my politics will brand me as a bigot, I would hate for those politics to chase away any potential reader who might disagree with me on a political issue, but who would discover that he or she shared my ethics if only he or she had the opportunity to be moved by the ideas expressed in my books.

Writers do have the power to move the world, with the fulcrum of our books and the lever of our principles. At the ballot box, each of us is only one vote, but we can inspire thousands and thousands of readers with our books. Why would I ever want to run the risk of alienating a single potential reader who might be at odds with their interpretation of my political stance, but who could be inspired by the ideas expressed in my books themselves?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Is College Required for Writers?

I've just completed the last of my school talks this spring, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was speaking to single class groups, and the terrific thing about that is that I'm able to answer so many more questions from each student. I closed this speaking season talking with elementary school students, but I've spoken with a great many high school students and middle school students this spring, and many of these older students ask me about college.

Some of these enterprising students want to know what they should major in if they want to become writers. Some of them ask me whether they should go to college at all. These are important questions, and I try to answer them honestly.

I tell them:
Don't take creative writing in college. Their teacher will teach students the way he or she writes, not the special way of writing that each student has within him or her. Instead, take classes analyzing great writers - I took classes in Shakespeare, Dickens, Kafka, Milton, and groups of novelists (18th c. American writers, for example, and an overview course in "the novel"). Seeing how other writers have created powerful literature will give students ideas about how they can come up with their own ways of writing moving stories or books.

Write for their college newspaper, because the discipline of meeting deadlines with good copy will stand them in good stead in writing regularly for the rest of their lives.

Don't go to college expecting that a degree will help get a job as a writer upon graduation, because there are no magic courses that will help them sell their Great American Novel. However, if they take as many different types of courses as they can, and open their minds and hearts to the information they can take away from those courses, from the professors they talk with outside the classrooms, from the students they meet and with whom they discuss life, then they'll develop their own unique ways of thinking. If they can think creatively and critically and for themselves, then that will become the soul of their writing. College is useful to broaden minds for writers; it's not a punchcard that will guarantee profitable work.

I never took a creative writing course at Rice University. I majored in English, Political Science and History. I wrote for the student newspaper (Rice had no journalism department) and also wrote four novels before I graduated. College is for studying the world around you and beginning to apply what you've seen, before you have to make a living at it. Three of those books were, well, terrible. They were practice novels, I suppose. But the fourth one had real promise. I kept working on it as I learned more about writing as a published author and finally, 25 years after I completed the first draft in college, Harcourt published SIMON SAYS. To this day, I get more passionate emails from teen readers about that book than any other.

College will give a future writer a handsome degree to hang on your wall, terrific friends you'll never forget, and the experience and intellectual background to see the world around you in a unique way that will forever inspire your future writing. Just don't expect a paying job to greet you on your graduation.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sleep Writing - Part 2

The last piece of sleep advice that conference speakers like to give writers is: "Record your dreams - you may find wonderful stories in them." I resisted this advice for years.

Perhaps I was hampered by a story my mother used to tell me. She had a recurring dream in which she would get out of bed, sit down at a desk, and begin writing by hand. She would write through the long hours of the night and finally stop at dawn, with a stack of manuscript pages to show for her efforts.

At that point my mother would wake up. She always remembered the dream in detail, and she knew she had written a bestseller. The only catch was - she couldn't remember a word of what she had written.This might be an understandable dream for a writer, but my mother wasn't one. In fact, she tried to discourage me from becoming a writer. "Be a doctor," she advised, "and write in your spare time."

I, however, couldn't imagine writing in my spare time any more than I could imagine creating stories from my dreams. They made perfect sense while I was asleep, but they lacked coherence in the light of my computer monitor, and faded into wisps of insubstantial plot and character. So I was astounded to wake one morning from a vivid dream that would not let me go.

I'd dreamed of a boy in a dark, smelly cellar. The boy stood in a small room, in front of the open drawer of a file cabinet, reading through a file of news clippings. And I knew exactly what he was doing. His name was Cameron, and he was the son of a serial killer. His father locked him in the cellar while he tortured and murdered the young boys who were his victims. Then the man made Cameron help him bury the boys in the cellar, but the smell never completely went away.

Serial killers always keep souvenirs from their victims, and Cameron's father kept news clippings about the search for the missing boys in a file cabinet in his cellar. But his son had found them and read them until he knew the dead boys almost better than he knew himself. And when his father was killed in an attempted arrest, Cameron decided to take on the identity of one of the murdered boys, and try to begin a new life with a real family, as an impostor.

That morning, with the dream still fresh in my mind, I wrote what would become the prologue of COUNTERFEIT SON. Six months of research and writing later, the novel was finished. When the book was published, it was chosen immediately for the YALSA Quick Picks list and went on to win an Edgar for Best Young Adult mystery and quite a few other honors.

Do I keep a pad at my bedside these days so I can write down my dreams? You bet I do. Lightning doesn't usually strike twice, but I've since had another vivid dream that I turned into a story called "Gatekeeper" available from iPulp. Who knows what I'll dream tonight? I'm now a believer in making my sleep work for me.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Sleep Writing - Part 1

I love attending writing conferences. I particularly love listening to writers share their techniques for maximizing their writing time. Much of this has to do with sleep. As Snoopy, the world-famous author, often said, "Sleep is life" and we writers often sleep when we could be writing. In fact, speakers frequently advise attendees to get up early and write while their family sleeps. That's probably terrific advice, if you're conscious in the early morning hours.

At 5 AM I'm incoherent. I'm doing amazingly well if I can find the keys to pick out: "I am a writer. I am writing now." But progress on a book at that hour? Forget it. I used to write after my husband went to sleep, since I'm more conscious at night and better able to wake my characters up at late hours. While working on my latest book, however, I've been waking up around 7:30 or 8 (or 8:30 or...), lying in bed and thinking about the book, and getting immediately to work on it without any distractions (do not pass the kitchen, do not eat breakfast, do not watch the morning news).

This is more in keeping with another suggestion conference speakers like to make: "Keep a notepad by your bed. Inspiration can strike while you're sleeping." When I'm deeply in the world of a book, I always try to think about it just as I'm falling asleep. And I'll often wake up with terrific ideas that came to my subconscious while my conscious brain was sleeping.

I rely on this technique when I'm working through a problem with a book. When I was writing Ghost Soldier, I realized I'd done such a good job in the first part of the book of making Alexander frightened of a Civil War ghost and determined not to help him, that I had no idea how Alexander would end up making friends with the ghost so they could work together in the remainder of the book. So I slept on it.

I woke up with the melody of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" running through my head.

I already knew that Alexander spent his evenings sitting on the back porch playing his alto recorder to annoy his father. I realized he was going to start playing "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" one evening, deliberately playing it angrily, to hurt the ghost because he never got to march home to his family. But as Alexander plays it, he hears an eerie, reedy harmony weaving itself around his mellow recorder melody. When he looks around, he sees that the ghost has joined him, playing his own ghostly harmonica. It's a song the ghost knew well because it was popular when he was alive, and it doesn't hurt him at all. Instead, his harmony calms Alexander. Somehow it's hard to be angry at someone after you've made music together. The song opens Alexander up to listen to the ghost, befriend him and agree to help him.

Where did the idea come from? Somewhere in my subconscious as I slept. And sometimes the subconscious can be even more generous in your sleep - but I'll cover that in Part 2.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Remarkable Concurrence of Events

A coincidence is defined as "a remarkable concurrence of events without apparent causal connection." When I lead writing workshops, I warn writers to avoid coincidences that work to the main character's advantage. A malign coincidence that makes things worse for the main character can sometimes be okay, as readers are prone to believe coincidences for the worst much more than coincidences for the better.

But recently I've been thinking about books that rely on coincidence and still work. I reread one of my favorites books, I Am David by Anne Holm (much, much better than the movie!) and it occurred to me in this rereading just how many coincidences there were in it. David's final scene could never have happened without several critical coincidences working to help him. His meeting the artist in order to acquire a vital piece of information always struck me, from my very first reading, as way too convenient. Yet the book works for me.

Right after that (a coincidence?) I read The Line by Teri Hall, and was again struck by the remarkable coincidence that, of all the "Others" Rachel might conceivably meet, she meets a boy who knows someone she has always wanted to learn more about. What are the odds? Yet, again, the book works for me.

Then it occurred to me that some critics have called the end of my own book, Counterfeit Son, a coincidence, and yet it won the Edgar Award, which means it certainly worked for the judges, and it has worked for many readers. And I remembered how I met my husband, Art - a coincidence if there ever was one, that required my coming back to work at my college bookstore years after I had graduated, his masters professor going on sabbatical during Art's last semester so that Art ended up teaching a 300 level history seminar that usually attracted 5-10 students, and Art's having made so many friends among the athletes that 100 signed up for the seminar and he came to the bookstore to order more books at just the right moment for me to see him and fall in love.

Even though fact is always stranger than fiction, and all writers know we shouldn't write anything that really happened in our lives exactly the way it happened as part of our fiction, maybe coincidences aren't all that unbelievable after all. But they certainly are remarkable.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

If Music Be the Food of Prose...

Many writers I know like to listen to music while they write, to get in the mood. Back in college, I used to listen to music while I wrote, but it wasn't so much to get me into the mood of the book as it was to take me out of the mood of the dorm. I'd sit at my typewriter in my own little corner of the room and play Broadway musicals and even sing along while I wrote. I must have been a lot better at multitasking then, because I wrote Simon Says while listening to a lot of Sondheim, and the two have little in common beyond the S alliteration.

These days I work better in absolute silence, which is actually much harder to come by than good music. Somehow, with someone else's perfect lyrics echoing in my head I have more trouble finding my way through to the words I need for the book I'm writing. But music hasn't entirely disappeared from my literary world I love to listen to music when I read, and often when I pre-write. And sometimes my reading points me in the direction of good music.

Last night I finished reading David Levithan Love is the Higher Law, a novel about three teens living through and reacting to 9/11. Two of them see reflections of their complex feelings about the event in the music they listen to and the concerts they attend. After I read the last page I went straight to iTunes to check out the songs mentioned in the book, and promptly downloaded two albums.

As I write this, I'm listening to songs from the Singles album by Travis, songs I'd never heard before because I'd never heard of Travis. Thanks for the introduction, David Levithan.

I guess I can still write to music, after all!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Resurrection is Hard Work

I've just finished going over the final layout pages for the re-issue of my very first book for young readers, Ghost Cadet, about the Battle of New Market during the War Between the States. It's going to be beautiful! But I hadn't expected it to be so much work to bring this book back to life for the teachers who had been clamoring for its return (it's used in curriculum in many schools, and their class sets were falling apart).

I had assumed that it was a simple matter of re-printing the text of the original version, once I got the rights back from the original publisher who let it go out of print. After all, that's what friends have done when they self-pubbed a new edition of one of their books that has gone out of print, or went through one of the Author's Guild or SCBWI recommended publishers to re-issue one of their OP books, usually through Print on Demand. But I figured it would be a better plan to go to a legitimate publisher who actually knew something about children's books and marketing and such important details.

Paula Morrow at Boxing Day Books agreed to bring back Ghost Cadet, on a standard royalty arrangement, with a regular print run instead of POD, which made the cover price much more reasonable for children (and schools, especially given budget cuts). But instead of just re-printing the original text, she reminded me that her job was editing, and she challenged me to actually do some revision, including bringing the text up to date.

At first I wasn't sure about changing a book that had been so successful as it was. I was also concerned that making any changes would make it harder for teachers who probably still used their old hardcover books to read to their students. Plus, it meant more work. But a lot of the points Paula raised made sense. This wasn't a book set in the 1990's; it was always intended to be set in the reader's "now." So I needed to add a generation between the War Between the States (Civil War, to my non-Southern readers) and the present. And, obviously, the twentieth-century had to become the twenty-first century.

Once I started making changes like that, I loosened up and found myself following her guidance and updating and revising many details in the book. There was a poetic sentence I'd always liked, but I'd also always wondered if it really fit the tone of the rest of the book. Without my asking, Paula pointed out that it didn't, so that sentence got cut. There was also a question that students always asked about how the ghost had done something important in the very first chapter - Paula asked the same question, so I made changes throughout the text to answer it this time around.

The new Ghost Cadet isn't a different book, but it's more contemporary book for twenty-first century readers, and it's worth all the time I've taken away from my Work-In-Progress to revise, check the copyedited ms. ellipsis by comma by exclamation point (who knew I'd used so many exclamation points when I was a younger, less experienced writer?!?), work through the galleys, and write lots of e-mails. Ghost Cadet is on its way to the printer now, and Boxing Day Books will have it available by May, in good time for New Market Day. The time spent on this book, and the work invested in it, is a reminder that the writing and revision and publishing process is always hard work - but always worth it.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

What's in a Name?

Whenever I visit a school, I'm always asked how to pronounce my name for the introduction. And more than half the time, the teacher's or librarian's or principal's face falls, as she or he realizes that everyone in the school has been pronouncing my name wrong throughout their entire preparation for my visit. (Not that I would have corrected them unless they asked - if teachers and librarians have gotten the student body enthusiastic enough about my visit to read my books, they can pretty much pronounce my name any way they want and I'll just smile.)

But wouldn't it be helpful for a teacher or librarian to know how to pronounce my name when first introducing my books to students?

The nice people at had me make an audio recording of the way I pronounce my name, and also invited me to tell you a little bit about my name. Click here to listen to it: Elaine Marie Alphin.

Now, as long as you think dolphin when you think about me, you'll never have trouble pronouncing my name again! I really must write a book about dolphins someday, I suppose....

Monday, February 8, 2010

Don't Hold Anything Back

Some writers hold back a little in a manuscript. They don't want to risk leaving their well of ideas empty for their next project. To me, that's like the Indianapolis Colts holding back when they were undefeated at 14 and 0. Their front office didn't want to risk injury because they wanted to guarantee that the Colts could go into the playoffs healthy. So what happens? Dwight Freeney gets injured anyway in the playoffs; in practice, Reggie Wayne worsens the right knee injury that has plagued him throughout the season; and, despite all of Peyton Manning's determination and preparation, the Colts lose dramatically to the Saints in the Super Bowl. Why? The New Orleans Saints never held back. They left everything on the field in every game all season and post season, while they were undefeated, and even when they started losing. They still played with heart. The Colts management played it safe and the players lost heart. Winning - and writing - is all about heart.

Never hold back when you're writing. Put everything you've got into every manuscript you write. More ideas will come for your next project, ideas better suited for that project, but if you shortchange what you're writing now, chances are you (and your current manuscript) will lose heart, and won't be able to go the distance. You have to be willing to risk it all, and put it all on the page. The Indianapolis front office wasn't willing to take risks - New Orleans risked it all on tricky plays like an unexpected onside kick, and today the people of New Orleans are starting their Mardi Gras celebration early with their Saints and the Lombardi trophy in hand. The Colts are going home, having fallen short. Don't let your manuscript fall short because you held something back.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Food for Thought

There's definitely a relationship between what I read and what I feel like eating. A good 25 years ago, I vividly remember sitting in a pizza parlor in upstate New York, reading Jane's House. Every time I've packed that book for a move, unpacked it at my new home, or just seen it on my library bookshelves, I find myself thinking about pepperoni pizza, and longing for a New York slice.

I was reminded of that today. After seeing the film Julie & Julia with friends last year, of course I read Julie Powell's book (I really must read My Life in France, also). I then promptly requested both the DVD of the movie, and Mastering the Art of French Cooking for Christmas. My husband, possibly the best Santa Claus ever, made sure they were both under the tree for me. He even watched the DVD, and loved it. He also wondered when I would start serving him meals from the cookbook. He's out of town on business right now, but I decided to start right in, and experimented with a terrific omelette a la Julia for brunch this morning. I'd never have strayed from my ordinary omelets if not for these books.

Inspiration for food often comes from my reading. When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out, I eagerly attended a midnight release party and enthusiastically swapped theories for hours with friends (and total strangers) in the bookstore. I got my copy at 12:02 and raced home to start reading. At some point it occurred to me that it had been a long time since I'd last eaten. As Harry, Ron and Hermione were on the run at the time, camping out and eating lean, that's probably not too surprising. But they were reduced to eating toadstools - not too appetizing. I read on. Then Hermione found eggs and bread at a lonely farm and made scrambled eggs on toast. Yes! I set the book aside long enough to scramble some eggs and toast some bread, and got back to reading. There are probably still a few crumbs in the middle of Chapter 15, The Goblin's Revenge.

Memorable books provide food for thought in more ways than one.