For Authors: School Visits are a Good Opportunity to Embrace Your Odd


I was shocked to read Shannon Hale’s post about her experiences during school visits, where sometimes only girls are expected to attend, because Shannon writes what are labeled “girl” books. Here’s her post if you haven’t read it:

I don’t have that problem, because apparently I write “boy” books. I get a different sort of reaction during school visits, but more about that later. I didn’t realize there was such a thing as “boy” and “girl” books when I started writing. My first book felt like it should be written from the POV of a twelve-year-old boy, so that’s what I did. It didn’t occur to me as it would be considered an odd choice by some. I wrote my second book from a boy’s POV too. I’ve discovered that for whatever reason, I liked telling some of my stories that way.

I know I don’t look the part of an author who writes adventure stories featuring boys. I sometimes get very surprised reactions during school and Skype visits when I tell the students about myself: how much of a Lord of the Rings geek I am, how I love science fiction and adventure movies, and how sometimes I would rather be outside instead of writing. Apparently, these are boy characteristics in our society, not middle-aged suburban mom characteristics. (Yes, I am a suburban middle-aged mom, not one of the Kool Kidz, but wow, do I click with teachers and librarians, something that seems to escape some marketing considerations.)

After the surprise though, I can see some students out in the audience who light up and become more engaged in my talks. I suspect it’s those who have been feeling like they don’t fit in, for whatever reason. Schools can be hard places for odd kids. Though I loved school, there were some who considered me strange. It didn’t bother me, because I came from a family where quirkyness was normal. (My father was the perfect stereotype of an eccentric inventor.) I know many children find their oddness a burden though. They don’t realize their quirks may be their greatest strength later in life. I know I never would have become a writer without mine.

I’d encourage other authors to let kids know about your own quirks. Don’t try to fit the mold of “successful children’s author who writes _______(fill in the blank)” Show them you aren’t a stereotype. Tell them if you were an odd kid. They’ll find it interesting. Your reader don’t care if you fit a mold or not. I’ve decided that if by sharing things about myself, I can help just one kid to feel a little better about themselves, that’s a good day. My new motto is “Odd is Good.”

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Sidekick Characters – C3PO’s role in Star Wars

c3poI’ve learned so much about storytelling from studying the original Star Wars’ movies-as well as given myself an excuse to watch movies as part of my job-and one of the things I’ve discovered is the value of a good sidekick character. There are many different kinds of sidekicks, and they can serve different purposes. C3PO is great as a sidekick for many reasons. First, he’s not what we expect. Though most of us have no idea what a sentient android would act like, I can bet no one pre-Star Wars imagined one as a nervous fusspot with a bit of an ego. Too often a sidekick is the friend who is there only to give the main character someone to talk to, and that’s just boring. Sidekicks need distinct personalities of their own, and their own goals and conflicts. C3PO certainly has a distinct personality and his goal is to do his job as an interpreter droid, but his conflict is that he is thrown into very dangerous situations that go against his expected role.

Second, a good sidekick can provide an alternative perspective on situations that arise. C3PO acts as a contrast to the brave main characters of Star Wars, who leap into danger without a thought. It’s C3PO who often acts more human than Han, Leia and Luke, something the viewer doesn’t expect. Androids aren’t supposed to experience fear. A good example of this is the scene in which he is afraid to go outside the Millennium Falcon when it’s inside the space slug. When he says, “I think it might be better if I stay here and guard the ship,” he’s not only saying what a normal person would probably want to say, he’s also unintentionally funny. And that’s CEPOs third strength as a sidekick. A little humor can add tremendous value to an adventure, to modulate the tension, and to make the viewers (or readers) want to be part of the action. C3PO doesn’t know he’s funny, and that makes him even funnier. The audience knows he is incapable of guarding anything.

While C3PO particular blend of characteristics couldn’t and shouldn’t be duplicated, considering why the character works so well reminds me to take care in creating my own sidekick characters.

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Great Writing Advice from Kurt Vonnegut

VonnegutI found these two tips from Kurt Vonnegut which really struck me:

  1. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  2. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.(from Vonnegut’s book BAGOMBO SNUFF BOX: UNCOLLECTED SHORT FICTION)

This advice seems so simple, but is so easily forgotten. Tip 1 is most useful when writing a first draft and figuring out the characters. It’s too easy to add in a character to help the plot, but without fully fleshing out that character. I’ve been guilty of this myself. Not anymore!

And for the second tip, what a great thought to keep in mind when revising. Knowing how to revise is a long learning process, and getting the pacing right is vital, so analyzing the purpose of each sentence will cut down on unnecessary bits that drag the story down.

Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction 

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Why I Encourage Beginning Writers to Write Fan Fiction

harrypotterI do frequent Skype visits with classes, and often the students are working on creative writing units. As a parent and a parent volunteer in classrooms, I know creative writing isn’t easy for a large number of students. It just seems overwhelming to some to pull together characters, plot, setting and theme. That’s why I recommend new writers try their hand at fan fiction. Now, I didn’t even know what fan fiction was until about four years ago when I heard other writers discussing it. So for those of you who don’t know what it is either, here’s a brief description: Fan fiction is where you use the characters or world in an already published book or television show or movie, to write stories set in the same world or with the same characters. It’s not fiction to be published, unless the original work is out of copyright, or is something that has never been copyrighted, like fairy tales.

A writer writes fan fiction because they love the world of the story and want to see it continue. It’s also an excellent way to practice writing. Many published writers got their start writing fan fiction. The benefits of it are that a new writer doesn’t have so much to juggle. Using existing characters gives a basis. You know the character’s habits, quirks, friendships, etc., so you can focus on plot. This can take some of the pressure off. And if the world of the story is already a complicated one, like the one in Harry Potter, you can add details but don’t have to embark upon the complicated task of worldbuilding, something else that is very daunting and difficult for new writers.

So if you are a writer, child or adult, struggling with writing, why not give it a try? And keep in mind, writing only improves with practice, it doesn’t ever get worse!

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Spooky Halloween Dinner for Vegetarians – Menu and Recipes

Halloween Dinner

Here’s a very easy menu for a simple Halloween Dinner, vegetarian style.  And as a bonus, at the end of the post is a link to my old-fashioned ghost story you can print out and read aloud at your party to set the mood. I’m not crazy about disgusting-looking food, even for Halloween, so I chose food my family would actually eat. No pseudo-brains! Besides dessert, most of the items can be made at least partly in advance. In fact, it’s best to give yourself some time to cook both the carrots and potatoes so that there is enough time to cool them to finish the preparation.

The menu was printed out on gray textured paper with a couple of Word clip art Halloween themed pictures, and then cut in the shape of a tombstone:

halloweenmenupsThe menu includes:

Dracula Salad

Boil, Boil, Toil and Trouble Soup

Ghost Potatoes

Mummy Carrots

Spiderweb Cupcakes

draculasaladcroppedDracula Salad

1 bunch red-leafed lettuce (I used a spring mix, so I’ve got some green in mine.)

1/8 cup diced marinated beets per salad

1 Tablespoon diced red onion per salad

1 cut up cooked red new potato per salad

1 Tablespoon dried cranberries per salad

Arrange on plate and serve with Italian dressing, and goat cheese (if preferred.)

halloweensoupcroppedBoil, Boil, Toil and Trouble Soup

Black Bean Soup:

3 cans black beans, drained and rinsed

1 can vegetable broth

1 onion, diced

5 stalks celery, diced

1 clove garlic, diced

1 tsp. celery salt

1 tsp. pepper

1 tsp. thyme

1 tsp. oregano

salt to taste

Saute onion, celery and garlic until softened. Place all ingredients in a large saucepan, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for twenty minutes. Makes 5 servings.

halloweenpotatocroppedGhost Potatoes

2 large baking potatoes ( choose long ones with one end more narrow than the other)

1 tablespoon butter, melted

2 tablespoons milk

4 tablespoons sour cream

4 pitted black olives

Cook potatoes in oven or microwave until softened. Let cool until you can handle them. Cut off the more rounded end and set aside for another use. With remaining piece, cut in half lengthwise so you have two ghost shapes. Scoop out potato carefully, preserving skins. Mash potato with milk and butter. Place potato back into skins, smoothing the filling flat. When ready to serve, cut olives into slices for eyes and mouth, reheat potatoes, when hot, spread sour cream on them like frosting, place eyes and mouth and serve. Makes four servings.

carrotmummyMummy Carrots

4 large carrots

1/2 cup orange juice

1 package (4 count crescent rolls)

8 dried cranberries

Cut narrow ends off carrots so that you are left with pieces that are about five inches in length. (Use the cutoff bits another time.) Cook carrots until semi tender in orange juice (i cooked them for about 4 minutes in a microwave.) Let cool enough to handle. Preheat oven according to directions on the crescent roll package. For each carrot, cut one crescent roll into strips and wrap around carrot, leaving a little space near the top for eyes. Bake according to package directions. While the mummies are baking, cut the cranberries down to make the eyes. (Use the extra bits on the Dracula salad.) As soon as the carrots are done, place on a serving plate and put cranberry eyes in place. Enjoy!

I don’t have a good picture of the spiderweb cupcakes, but will try to post one soon.

Here’s a link to the ghost story, BENEATH THE LAKE:

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What do these writers have in common? They taught me how to write.

Jane Austen, Mary Stewart and Martha Grimes

Jane Austen, Mary Stewart and Martha Grimes

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked on school visits is what a person can do to become a writer. The easy answer is to read as much as possible, and to write, write, write. But that’s not all of it. When I first started writing, I had been a voracious reader for a long time, in fact, ever since I learned to read. I also wrote stories as a child, and as an adult, struggled to write full length novels. It wasn’t until I started studying the books I loved, that I took that big step to becoming a real storyteller. I will never stop working on my storytelling technique, because there is always more to learn, but I wanted to talk about those books that first made me understand the nature of pulling in a reader.

blogthe-crystal-caveMary Stewart Merlin trilogy is a set of books I reread at least once a year. The first book in the series, THE CRYSTAL CAVE, is the one I read to remind myself of Ms. Stewart’s writing techniques. She is terrific at world-building, and at bringing the reader in with all the senses. Here are a few sentences from the opening chapter:

“My mother was sitting at her loom; I remember the cloth; it was of scarlet, with a narrow pattern of green at the edge. I sat near her on the floor, playing knuckle-bones, right hand against left. The sun slanted through the windows, making oblong pools of bright gold on the cracked mosaics of the floor; bees droned in the herbs outside, and even the click and rattle of the loom sounded sleepy.”

I’ve always loved those lines because I can picture that scene so clearly in my head, it feels like I could be sitting there as well.

When I’m revising my own stories, I go back chapter by chapter and ask myself how I’ve engaged the reader’s senses. In every chapter there is a way to bring in not only sight, but at least one example of sound, scent, taste, or touch.

blogmanmischiefAn author who helped me understand character development is Martha Grimes, a mystery writer who has been named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. I’ve read all her Richard Jury mysteries, and when I was first struggling with writing, I asked myself an important question: Why exactly do I love Ms. Jury’s books over all the other hundreds of mysteries I’d read?

She’s a master at creating characters so vivid, I want to meet them. Well, at least some of them. The Aunt Agatha in the series is the relative we all hope we never have. Her main characters, Melrose Plant and Richard Jury are both complex, interesting and unique. In the first three chapters of THE MAN WITH A LOAD OF MISCHIEF, the reader learns all about the personality, background, and character of Melrose Plant in a seamless manner woven into the plot. The next chapters switch to Richard Jury and do the same thing. I love the way she describes the secondary characters as well. Here’s her description of a local constable, Constable Pluck:

“Pluck was thin to the point of emaciation, but he had a cherubic, rosy face, made even rosier by winter’s bite, so that he looked like an apple on a stick. But he was a good man, if a bit of a gossip.”

Martha Grimes also uses subtle touches of humor, which I’ve discovered is one of the keys to what makes me love a book. For example, in later books, the constant battle between Scotland Yard Superintendent Racer and the cat that has the run of the place is a nice touch. It highlights the personality of the obnoxious Racer, and it’s fun to read as well.

blogprideJane Austen in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE uses light touches of humor to great effect too, but for me, one of her main strengths is her ability to use dialog to both move the plot along and to establish character. I’ve always loved Mr. Bennet’s lines in the opening chapter when he’s speaking to Mrs. Bennet: “I have a high respect for you nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.” These few lines tell a reader so much about both characters and their relationship with each other.

There is a great deal of dialogue in the book and very little description of things like appearance, clothing and surroundings. I think the important lesson to take from this is that while scene setting is vital, it can also be very spare, depending on the book. Austen was writing for an audience who didn’t need much description to imagine the setting, because it was their immediate world. This is something to think about when writing a contemporary. Unless there is something unusual about the setting, great blocks of description may well slow the book down too much.

I do also have certain books that influence me for a specific writing project. DUNE  was an enormous influence on the first of the science fiction trilogy I’m working on, but that influence is enough for a whole post of its own!

So my advice to writers pared down to one sentence is “Find a book you absolutely love, and figure out exactly why you love it.”

Happy Reading!

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Or “What I Learned about Writing from Watching Movies 1”

One question I am often asked during talks is how I made WILDFIRE RUN seem believable, even though the premise of a President’s son getting trapped at Camp David during a disaster is far-fetched, to say the least. Over the years I’ve studied many books to understand how the authors managed to make thrillers work, but I’ve also learned an equal amount from watching great movies. Analyzing movies has had a great impact on my writing. This post is part 1 of a new series on movie lessons learned for writers.

Quick Summary – In case you haven’t seen one or the other of these movies, here are the plots –

AIR FORCE ONE – While the President is aboard, Russian terrorists take control of Air Force One.

OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN – The President is inside the White House when a group of North Korean terrorists take over the building

Plausibility – the major factor!

Any writer of adventures or thrillers knows even if the scenarios are unlikely, they have to be somewhat believable for the reader or viewer to get fully engaged in the story.

The major flaw for me in both these stories is something too common in political thrillers – the presence of a former secret service agent turned traitor, who is crucial to the bad guys’ success. I don’t buy it. I buy that there are former secret services agents who weren’t great at their jobs, or who don’t share the same political philosophy of the presidents they protect. I don’t believe one would actively work to damage the U.S. government.

So given that each film gets one strike for lack of plausibility, why does Air Force One come out ahead? Let’s look at the other factors.


1. A team of foreign journalists is allowed on Air Force One. At the time the movie came out, pre 9/11, it seemed possible, if unlikely, so maybe half a point taken away for implausibility.

2. The idea of an escape pod on the plane was probably the one plot point that stretched believability the most, but it was one of those elements where a viewer could think, “That would be a good idea!” Given that factor, another half point taken away

3. Lots of gunfire aboard that doesn’t damage the plane – I don’t know much about what a bullet hole would do to a plane’s ability to fly, but I have to believe it wouldn’t help, and there was so much gunfire, you’d think a stray bullet or two would have done some major damage. One point taken away.

4. The ending with the zip line between two planes. Totally unbelievable, but a cool scene. One point taken away, though it was fun to watch.


1. The protective force field on the bad guys’ plane prevents it from being shot down by the U.S. military, giving it time to do lots of damage. Completely unbelievable. This wasn’t Star Wars. One point taken away.

2. The President allows the South Korean prime minister and more unbelievable, the Prime Minister’s staff to go with him into the bunker. The Secret Service allows it. Just no. One point taken away.

3. There are far fewer bad guys than good guys when the White House is first attacked, yet the bad guys prevail. The secret service agents unthinkingly run out the front door shooting at the bad guys, allowing the bad guys to simply mow them down. No. One point taken away.

4. The President orders the Secretary of Defense to give up the missile code because he still has one and he’s not going to tell. Right. One point taken away.

5. At the end, even though officials know the bad guys are all dead, the Secret Service agent helps the President walk out the front door of the White House. No one meets them until they are on the front steps. A dramatic scene, but not very uplifting, and so the ridiculous elements took away any positive from the dramatic elements. Where are the medical personnel? Wouldn’t people rush in as soon as they could? Another point gone.

I could go on, but I don’t need to. AIR FORCE ONE ends up with a negative three, OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN has a negative five.

At some point, if the level of implausibility is too great, no amount of special effects or great actors can overcome the viewers’ (or readers’) disbelief.

There are other factors that weigh in too, not as important, but still worth considering.


AIR FORCE ONE – A good title, probably fairly obvious it’s a political thriller

OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN – An unclear title and a negative one. Olympus could mean many things. Mount Olympus? Even if a potential movie goer realizes it’s a political thriller, it sounds depressing. People watch and read thrillers because they want them to end in some sort of victory. Something that is fallen is clearly not a victory. 

Mood of the Audience

This is not something a writer can control, but knowledge of the general feelings of the population do factor in to what becomes popular and what fails. AIR FORCE ONE  came out in 1997, long before 9/11, when though we knew the world was a dangerous and scary place, we were somewhat removed from it. The bad guys in the movie don’t manage to take over the plane in the U.S.-it happens in Russia, again, very removed from the United States.

OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN came out this year. I, for one, felt a little sick even watching the preview and seeing the White House damaged. I remember 9/11 too well, and I was hesitant to even watch this movie because of that. Timing in publishing is important too. Sometimes readers just aren’t in the mood for a certain kind of story.


Level of Violence versus Character Development

There was lots of violence in both movies, but the number of minutes devoted to violence was far less in AIR FORCE ONE, allowing for more character development. I cared more about the characters in AIR FORCE ONE. And for writers, getting your readers to care about your characters has to be the number one focus of the early part of a story.  In OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN, I wish a little more time would have been devoted to the character development and the relationship between the characters in the beginning of the movie. The boxing scene didn’t anything for me in terms of my view of the characters.

So in summary, here are the important elements I took away:

Keep the plot as plausible, or at least as believable as possible.

The title is important, and consequently, the cover of a book as well.

Focus, focus, focus on making your readers care about the characters.

Judge the mood of your target audience.

Coming next – The great lessons for writers in the movie WAR GAMES


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