Jane Austen, Programming Languages, and Being “That Guy” in the Writing Class

This writer provides insight that made me think about my own experience with writing classes, conferences, and critique partners. It’s so important to find a critique partner and beta readers who can read your language (be it Austen or Blub).

The Incompetent Writer

Did you read the Buzzfeed piece that came out last month, about writing workshops and Pride and Prejudice, by Shannon Reed? “If Jane Austen Got Feedback From Some Guy In A Writing Workshop.”

1436878433_full.png Photo credit: Buzzfeed and Dan Meth

You should. It’s very funny.

Dear Jane,
I don’t usually read chick lit, but I didn’t hate reading this draft of your novel, which you’re calling Pride and Prejudice. I really liked the part where Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle went on a road trip, which reminded me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (also about a road trip — check it out!).

I won’t lie. I like to think I’m not as sexist and priggish as this guy. Still, parts of Reed’s piece made me cringe in self-recognition.

I winced.

In a writing workshop, it’s easy (easy at least for me) to develop the exact tone (superior…

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Clubbing (With Books)


How many book clubs have you been in? C’mon, I could have asked if you’ve been in a book club, but you’re reading this blog. The jig is up. You’re a book club person, am I right? Book clubs are nerd fests, which is why I love them. As a librarian, I’m the ultimate nerd (pushes glasses up on nose). I’m someone who would probably start a book club, which I may or may not have done in the past. That book club might have ended because I had a second child and gave in to the fact that as a working mom with two small children, I was useless after 7:00 pm.

Flash forward three years, and guess what? I joined a book club! Shocking, I know.

At our first (and thus far only) book club meeting, I found myself feeling a bit of pressure. Lady librarian better have some cool recommendations on hand. Don’t worry, I have an excuse why I came to the first meeting without even a cheese plate. As a school librarian, I needed to be ready to recommend books to kids. As a writer of young adult fiction, I wanted to read comp titles. Basically, I have spent six years exclusively reading children’s and young adult novels (with a few exceptions). Therefore, the recommendation well was pretty dry.

As another book club member was fumbling to find a list she had on her phone, I finally came up with a possible title. I’d read an interview with a writer on Cup of Jo. The interview was about health and beauty, I’ll admit, but I later saw the writer’s new book in my beloved local bookstore and read the jacket. It piqued my interest because the setting was Brooklyn and the story sounded modern and humorous. When I suggested it to the clubbers, they jumped on it. Modern Lovers by Emma Straub, sounds great! Gulp. I hoped I hadn’t led them astray.

Then a summer storm struck and a tree fell on my minivan. Yes, I’m a librarian who drives a minivan. Don’t be so judgey. The tree has nothing to do with this story, but it was a pretty exciting end to a book club meeting. I tried not to take it as an omen.

Modern Lovers is a book about growing old and growing up. Two middle-aged couples living in gentrified Brooklyn–Andrew & Elizabeth and Zoe & Jane–are contending with marital discord and existential questions. Andrew, Zoe and Elizabeth were in a modestly successful band in college, but have all gone on to have traditional careers (or, in Andrew’s case, to live off a trust fund). Their marginally talented bandmate, *Lydia, went on to become famous for singing a feminist anthem that was written by Elizabeth. Lydia was addicted to drugs and died at age twenty-seven, and now Hollywood wants to make a biopic about her life. Andrew, Zoe and Elizabeth must decide if they will sign over rights to their famous song. Feelings resurface around their connection to Lydia and their unfulfilled musical careers. The couples are also dealing with typical issues in marriages entering a third decade: waning sex lives, looming empty nests and mid-life regrets.

As the adults flounder, their teenaged children are consumed with the anxieties and passions that accompany coming of age. Harry, son of Andrew and Elizabeth, is an almost freakishly “good kid” who is adored in part because he has never been a nuisance or a concern. Ruby, daughter of Jane and Zoe, is quite the opposite. Straub does an excellent job of depicting Ruby as both spoiled and self-aware. She is a brat sometimes, but she knows it, and has some cause for her resentments. She also displays a strong ownership of her sexuality and her boundaries, even when she is taking risks. As a young adult fiction fan, I appreciated that Ruby is allowed to enjoy and initiate intimate moments with her partners. What I’m trying to say in PG terms is that teenage girls have hormones, too. Thank you, Ms. Straub, for acknowledging that without judgment. And, as the author points out, sometimes teenagers make out in school playgrounds because there’s nowhere else for them to be alone. It’s not all vampires and mossy forest floors out there.

I’m curious if my love of Brooklyn weighed into how much I enjoyed the book. We’ll have to see what the other clubbers have to say. I was kind of ready to get away from hipsters when I left Brooklyn in 2002, but it’s fun to visit, both in real life and novels. I recommend reading this book with a nice cup of kombucha.

I’d love to hear what you and your book club are reading. Nerds, unite!

Photo via Visual Hunt

*I tried to picture someone comparable to Lydia in real life and failed so if you thought of someone, please let me know in the comments.


Fraidy Cat Writes a Thriller

3663663012_c4b06e1e63_bHistorically, I steer away from the horror and thriller genres and tend to read fiction where no one gets sliced, stalked or slowly driven insane. I blame my mother and Jack the Ripper for this aversion.  I grew up the 70s when people commonly had one TV in their home and mini-series were a huge deal (Roots, Thornbirds, *North and South, etc.). There was no way Mom was missing a juicy miniseries like Jack the Ripper. When I voiced my concern about having nightmares, she told me I had two options: watch or go to bed. At the time, I had cause to believe that a vampire lived in the drawer under my bed so I wasn’t going upstairs alone. I was a coward, but I wasn’t an idiot. Therefore, I watched and was scarred for life. My mom thinks this story is hilarious and responds by saying, “Well, you could have gone upstairs. It’s not like we had DVR back then so what did you want me to do, miss it?”

I know from experience as a school librarian that kids adore Adam Gidwitz’s Grimm series. Ten year olds are aghast when I tell them I can’t get past the early scenes where someone’s head gets lopped off. I know what they were thinking: wimpy librarian. I can live with that. I’m thrilled to recommend the Grimm series to students who like their horror served with a head on a plate. Kids seem less bothered by gore, in general. To my credit, I did get through the spooky novel Behind the Bookcase by Mark Steensland, even though it totally creeped me out (as the author intended), and the young horror fans I handed it to were delighted with it. I also frequently recommend Seraphina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty.  Beatty succeeds in providing just enough chills (skin in gloves!) without being inappropriate or gratuitous, and even though I figured out the main mystery pretty early on, there was a later twist that I didn’t see coming. For me, that rarely happens with children’s books, and I thought he did a masterful job of plotting. I look forward to reading the sequel.

Like me, some children frighten easily, so you have to know your audience when you make recommendations. I usually ask kids directly, “Do you like scary books or do they give you nightmares?” They know their limits. Right now, I’m trying my hand at writing a young adult thriller. It was an idea that wouldn’t leave me alone and even though I’m a little scared to write it, these characters want to get on the page. I’m reading both adult and young adult thrillers so I can better understand the elements of this genre, and I started with Sister by Rosamund Lupton. The gore was minimal, but the suspense was gripping. Having a beloved sister, The Bean, I could relate to the main character’s drive to discover the truth. Some of the thrillers and mysteries I read in the past seemed to sacrifice character development in favor of complex plotting. Lupton’s characters were so well developed out that I found myself crying at certain points of the novel. I don’t think even the greatest plot can make you cry unless the writer fully invests you in the characters. I highly recommend reading Sister if you haven’t already.

I’ll write further updates on my foray into reading and writing thrillers. It’s getting late, and I need to check under the bed for vampires.

Photo credit: LuisRaa via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

*I’m pretty sure that when my mother bought me the book version of North and South, she was unaware that it was R-rated. She probably should have surmised it from the naughty bits in the TV version, but I certainly wasn’t going to tell her!

Countdown to PiBoIdMo 2015

In three days PiBoIdMo 2015 begins! The challenge is to come up with thirty picture book concepts in thirty days. My hopes are high. My dreams are big. My time is little. I’m still revising the YA novel I “finished” writing this summer (will it ever be finished???), and I’m developing a MG novel. I also have one picture book draft that needs a whole lot of work. All my writing needs to happen between 9-10 pm because I’m also a full-time librarian with two small children at home. Still, who can say no to PiBoIdMo? I’m going for it.


School Visits: How to Win the Hearts of Teachers and Students

A visiting writer or artist program can be the highlight of a school year. The students and staff are invigorated and inspired by the experience, and the organizers believe that the event was worth every penny. Based on that performance, the writer or artist sells more of their work, gains new fans, and is recommended to other schools.

Unfortunately, visiting writer and artist programs are not always so successful. As an elementary school librarian and former middle school language arts teacher, I have seen presentations that thrilled and others that flopped. Unlike teachers, many authors and artists work alone and have not developed their skills of addressing an audience, particularly one that is young and wiggly. Becoming a skilled presenter for a young audience is challenging and takes practice. The good news is that by knowing your audience, you can turn a mediocre school visit into a memorable one.

  1. Connect with them. Students are excited you are there, and they want to get to know you; however, longwinded, self-involved autobiographical presentations are not the way to introduce yourself. If you reveal information that shows you remember what it was like to be their age, students can better identify with you. Remember that teachers are also part of your audience, and they love it when you inspire students to achieve their potential. Studies have shown that hard work, determination and resilience are crucial factors in students’ success so let your audience know about the obstacles you overcame to get where you are today.
  1. Keep it moving. For students in the K-2 age group, you will need to change things up every 10-15 minutes, depending on the engagement level of your activity. That means activities without audience participation, such as talking while presenting a PowerPoint, should be limited to ten minutes or less. If you are including the audience in a game or a skit, you can stretch the time to 12-15 minutes. Even with older students, you shouldn’t go longer than 20 minutes without switching to a new activity. Most importantly, pay attention to the audience’s energy. If the teachers are yawning and the students seem more interested in each other than in you, it’s time to move on to the next part of the presentation.
  1. Get them involved. Audience participation is key to a successful school visit. An author and illustrator team who recently visited my school played a game that involved the students suggesting things for the artist to draw. We were given the drawing as a gift, and our PTA plans to frame it for the library. In one truly memorable performance several years ago, the authors asked the teachers to eat dried insects they’d brought back from their travels in the Amazon rainforest. (I may or may not have eaten a bug that day.) The more you involve the audience in the presentation, the more attentive they will be.
  1. Include a theme. If you’re not sure what theme you want to focus on, ask the librarian or teacher ahead of time if there is anything they would like you to address. They may suggest that you share your experience with collaboration, overcoming failure, or some other topic that is the focus at their school. The theme can be woven into your existing program, but it shouldn’t be too didactic. If they don’t suggest a theme, create one yourself. People may enjoy your program if it’s just pure fun, but they won’t be inspired unless there is a meaningful take-away message.
  1. Ramp up the energy. The younger the audience, the more enthusiasm needed. I have seen authors speak quietly to young children about their craft as the students not-so-quietly picked at each other, rolled on the carpet, and ignored the presenter. Save the quiet, earnest performances for adults. With the kids, bring on the energy and the big voice and don’t be afraid to move around the room. With small children, you cannot be afraid of looking foolish. They love it when you give the characters voices and tell the story dramatically. For middle and high school audiences, you may want to behave with more dignity and include those witty asides you’re so good at making, but still keep the energy high. Remember the teacher in Peanuts? Wah wah, wah wah, wah waah. That is what students hear if you talk to them in a monotone voice, and no one wants that.
  2. Reflect on your performance. Ask schools to fill out a survey after your performance and tell them to be completely honest so that you can improve your craft. You don’t want to miss an opportunity to receive constructive feedback that will help you improve your performances.

With budgets tight these days, schools want to be sure that they are getting the most out of every dollar they spend. If you are a visiting author or illustrator who leaves the kids cheering and adults singing your praises, you will not only sell more books, but you’ll find yourself with new fans and more engagements down the road.

Weeping, Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth

It all began in grade school when some well-meaning librarian figured me out as a sensitive kid who liked to read and handed me a copy of Bridge to Terabithia. Henceforth, that librarian will be known as the stone cold witch who killed my innocence and made me cry. At the time, I was cool with the fact that many beloved characters–Sara Crewe (A Little Princess), Little Orphan Annie, Mary Lennox (The Secret Garden)–had dead parents. First of all, we never really met the parents so their loss had little impact. Secondly, these orphans were always adopted by fantastically rich people and ended up fabulously happy. Bridge to Terabithia? Not so happy an ending.

I don’t think I need a spoiler alert, but in case you still have Bridge to Terabithia on your Goodreads “want to read” shelf, then stop here and go get it already. It was published in 1977 so you’ve had ample time. I am one of those people who do not remember much from childhood, but I specifically remember reading this book, sobbing uncontrollably, and wondering why, oh why, this stone cold witch who killed my innocence and made me cry thought I should be exposed to such tragedy. Didn’t she know I would be destroyed when Leslie, the young female protagonist, died in a senseless accident? Now, as a librarian myself, I understand that she read the book, recognized its greatness, and wanted to share it with someone. When I think about it that way, it is actually kind of flattering that she wanted to share it with me…or would be if she hadn’t shattered my innocence and crushed my heart. You know a book is powerful if you still remember the story–and your visceral reaction to it–thirty-five years later.

I’m still blubbering over great books, probably more than usual lately. Typically, it isn’t over a character’s death. In fact, I recently read a book where the main character’s best friend committed suicide, but I wasn’t emotionally invested enough to have much of a reaction. Yet, in the following books, I went totally Terabithia. Great writing does that to me.


Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly – I randomly checked this book out of the public library because l loved the cover and the jacket copy. It turned out to be one of the best coming-of-age books I have ever read. Apple Yengko is a badass. She is the only Filipino girl at her school, longs to play guitar like George Harrison, and has just found out she is on the Dog Log at her school. As someone who was called a “dog” in junior high by a boy I liked (Or maybe by his best friend? I can’t remember. I told you my memory is bad.) I related to Apple’s situation. Boys can be cruel. Girls can be worse. Those who survive middle school are warriors, and Apple…she really rises above. After reading this book I almost wanted to go back to junior high and have a do-over. Almost.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell – Friends have been raving about this book for years. I finally got it and when I started out, I didn’t think it was going to live up to the hype. By the end, I was a weepy mess. It’s the underdog love story of the century. Seriously, what book have you ever read where the chubby, unkempt girl gets to be the romantic lead without first getting a makeover? And the male romantic lead is an introspective Asian American boy? Never. Happens. Rowell makes you fall in love with Eleanor and Park, and I’m still making up stories in my head about what happens to the two of them after the book ends. (P.S. Loved this fan art.)

I highly recommend both of the books above if you need a great read and a good cry. See also: Wonder by R.J. Palacio, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech and Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick. Or you can go old school and check out Bridge to Terabithia, but don’t say I didn’t warn you…