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Friday, August 30, 2013

I'm not the next J.K., and neither are you!


I’m not the next J.K. Rowling. Just thought I’d be realistic, and get that out of the way!  Sorry about the snarky comment: "neither are you."  Maybe you are.  All that aside, I am writing children’s books.  To be specific, I write what can be classified as “middle-grade” or “young adult” books. 

Why, when I’m well aware of the fact that I’m not the greatest writer out there, would I even attempt such insanity?  One reason is simple.  I love books.  I love books written for adults, but I also love children’s literature.  Books written with children or teenagers in mind have incredible power.  They shape the interior lives of kids.  Books spark their imagination and can forever affect and even alter the way they see the world. 

In a previous blog post, I mentioned the childhood book that got me hooked on reading.  Friends commented and shared their own experiences and memorable books.   We never forget the books that carve a place in our hearts and minds, and never forget the worlds we enter through the magic of print.  In all honesty, I don’t want to write because I want to be the next J.K.  Or Steven.  Or Jane.  Or whoever.   I’m serious!  That’s way too much pressure for my quiet personality.  But, what if, some day, a book I write creates a world that a kid wants to enter?  What if that world helps shape how she sees herself or inspires her and gets her hooked on books? 

There are other reasons why I write.  One is this:  I can’t get the crazy voices out of my head any other way!  A few years ago an acquaintance told me of coming home and seeing a ghost in her house.  She was dead serious (get my pun) and I began to wonder something:  what would I do if I came home one day and found a ghost checking out the contents of my fridge?  Harley, a girl who finds a ghost in her kitchen, was born in my mind.  As I wrote her story, she came alive in my brain, along with her brother, her mother, her friends, and the ghost.  I love their world, and in a way they are real to me.  More people have popped up in my head, and I write to get them out.  Some of the characters I’ve created I can relate to.  Others are not, and I find myself stretching in uncomfortable ways as I try to form them in my head. 

That’s why I write.  Maybe one day you’ll see a book of mine in print at the library or bookstore.  Maybe not.  Either way, I’m going to keep writing.  More than any other reason, I write because I love to do it.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

I'll have a side of crumpets with my buffalo steak!


Read, eat, and repeat. 
This will not be a “literary” discussion of food in books.  I know many consider the act of eating in a novel to be a form of communion.  Eating or sharing a meal is also considered to be symbolic of other acts; leading to topics that would make me blush.  Whatever.  J  I’m going to take a less serious route, here!
Over the years, I’ve found that I’m fascinated by descriptions of foods that appear in the books I read.  As a child I wished I could get my hands on a crumpet and cover it with clotted cream, after reading The Secret Garden.   I never wanted to eat a liverwurst and cream cheese sandwich, but loved the thought of hot cocoa on a windy, storm-filled evening after reading A Wrinkle in Time.  I was surprised to learn that some people like to eat apple pie with a slice of cheese on top, after reading Farmer Boy.  And who wouldn’t want to eat one of “Willy Wonka’s Whipple Scrumptious Fudgmallow Delights?” 
As an adult, thanks to books I’ve read, I’ve become fascinated with cucumber sandwiches, making the perfect Navajo taco, and wonder where I can get my hands on a good buffalo steak.  I’ve also decided I may never eat chocolate cream pie again.  (Thanks a lot, Kathryn Stockett! ) All that aside, I love reading about what other people are eating, even if I’m reading a work of fiction.  We learn quite a lot about other countries, cultures and time periods simply by reading about what they eat.
Over time, my literary food obsession has led me to a new hobby.  I was so fascinated to read about salt pork in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books that about fifteen years ago, when I happened to find some in the store, I bought it.  I wanted the empirical experience of actually eating salt pork.  Results and observations:  salt pork is disgusting.  And it’s nothing more than fatty bacon.  
This initial experiment has led me to more experiments.  I search for recipes and ingredients so I can recreate foods I’ve read about in books.  I’ve prepared and eaten Bubble and Squeak, trifle, Aloo Gobi, and churned my own butter with my Mom’s glass hand-held churn.   I’ve even made an olive oil cake.
Most of my experiments turn out okay.  Some do not.  But honestly, my world has been expanded. 
What foods do you remember reading about, in favorite childhood books or as an adult?  I’d love to hear about it.
(Now if I could just get my hands on some crumpets!!)


 

Friday, August 16, 2013

I didn't mean to go "all paranormal" on you!

Most people who know me know that I've been writing YA books for the past few years.  I've been obsessing over one of them, a book I've decided to call:  "The French Impressionist." I revise, I revise, I pay for critiques at writer's conferences I attend, revise again, go to plot workshops, revise some more, ask my writing group for help, revise again, send out queries and get rejections, revise once again...you get the picture.  After about twelve rejections by literary agents, I've chosen to revise my first chapter yet again.  At this point, I'm starting to think of myself as "The French Obsessionist," but I can't let this dang thing go!

So, here's the deal.  I'm posting my latest version of Chapter One, hoping that someone out there might tell me what they think, and if they'd want to keep reading.  My latest worry:  that it seems to be a "paranormal" book, when in fact, it's a contemporary novel.  That is exactly what someone wrote as a comment when I posted my first chapter for critique as part of an online writing conference.  Apparently, when the reader gets to the last paragraph and my main character sees light shining through a crack in the wall, my story suddenly seems to be veering off onto some kind of "ghosties and ghoulies" track.  Ack.  Not what I intended.  So,  please read my first chapter and tell me what you think!! 


THE FRENCH IMPRESSIONIST

CHAPTER ONE
 
I’m here because I lied. 

I know it was wrong.  My heart stings inside me, but I don’t care.  I got away. 
The world is no longer black and white.  It’s alive with color. Blues and greens have melted together into a perfect painting of sea and sky.  I smell something that’s sharp and sweet at the same time, like limes or oranges.  It must come from the trees that line the street, quivering in the soft Mediterranean breeze.  I breathe in the scents of hot sun on sand, salty ocean, and a puff of sweet vanilla air exhaled from a nearby bakery.   A tram whirs by and clangs its bell.  A couple passes me, so close the woman’s skirt brushes my bare legs.  She murmurs in the unfamiliar cadences of a foreign language, leaving behind a cloud of gentle laughter.  I start to laugh, too.  I take in my freedom like a drowning person gulps the air.  No matter how many more half-truths or total lies I have to tell, I’ll do it. 
I won’t go back home.

Gripping the handle of my suitcase, I turn around.  “Sylvie’s Dream,” proclaims the sign above the shop door in English.  The shop is on Rue Massena, part of Nice’s old town.  This part of Nice feels old.  When I look up from the street, the pink and gold buildings lean into one another and crowd around me, like they’re curious to see who’s invading their space.  The paint on the buildings is faded and peeling, and there are patches where plaster has completely fallen away, showing bare stone or brick underneath.  Laundry hangs from lines that stretch between buildings, or from little metal frames that stick out under windows.  Towels, jeans and underwear wave in the breeze.

It’s so different from anything I’ve ever known.  I already love it.  I can hardly believe I made it this far.  Now, all I need to do is go in.  At the thought, my heart flutters inside me like a bird is flapping its wings, trying to escape from its cage.

Before I can lose my nerve, I step up to the door.  They’re both here.  Even before I got out of the cab, I could see them through the speckled window of the tiny shop.  The tall one is Sylvie, my new French Mom.  The smaller one is my French father, Émile.  Physically, they are as opposite as any two people could be.  Sylvie is tall and thin, all dark hair and eyes and skin; a warm, melted chocolate brown.  Émile is much shorter, no more than a few inches taller than I am.  Nearly everything about him is light-colored.  He has papery skin and white hair that together make his indigo eyes seem to jump out at you.  When he stands beside Sylvie, he looks like a ghost. 

What will he say?  What will they say?  They didn’t expect me until next Friday, but I’m here, now.

Go, I tell myself, suddenly feeling the need to swallow, hard.  It’s time.

My entire body starts to tremble as I push myself through the tiny brown seashells strung on threads that form a tinkling curtain in the shop doorway.  As I do, the handle of my case catches and I stumble, but right myself quickly and paste a smile on my face.

“Um,” I say, fumbling in my pocket for my carefully crafted note, but then Sylvie sees me and her face lights up like the summer sun outside.

Rosemary, oui?  C’est toi!  It’s you,” she exclaims, and then she chatters a thousand more French-sounding syllables that I don’t understand as her brown arms encircle me and squeeze.  She smells like lemons and coconut; and my mind sees long stretches of pale sand against a turquoise ocean.  A vision of freedom.  My freedom.  And Sylvie is the one who unlocked doors for me, even though she doesn’t know it yet.

She releases me and before I can process anything, Émile is before me, his face level with mine, and his eyes crinkle as he grins.  He takes my hand, squeezes softly. 

Bienvenue,” he murmurs.  “Welcome.”

Merci,” I whisper, and am horrified at how the word sounds as it leaves my lips, but no one seems to notice.  Émile and Sylvie grin expectantly at me, so I finally take out my note.  Sylvie peers over her husband’s shoulder to read as I set my case down and gaze around me, trying to pretend that I’m not terrified; that I’m not desperate that this will work.  That I have somewhere else to go.

 Sylvie’s artwork splashes color across the walls, like a paint factory exploded in here. There’s a battered cooler in the corner with a hand-written sign offering bottles of water and Orangina, ice cream and candy bars.  Stuff is piled everywhere.  Books, necklaces, pottery, a rack of brightly colored skirts. It’s a place that holds the promise of hidden treasures for anyone who wants to look.  Messy, but cozy.  The tiny space seems to extend soft arms that pull you into a warm hug, a lot like its owner.  It’s perfect.

They look up from the note.

“Eh, bien, you are early, but it is not important,” Sylvie says in slow, careful French.  “I am sorry that you have lost your voice.  So happy you are here!  Émile will take you to your room.”

Émile takes my suitcase and gestures for me to follow him, and I do, finally remembering to breathe.  I suck in oxygen while we climb narrow, wood steps that lead up from the back of the shop.

Émile says nothing.  I’m sure it’s out of pity for the fake illness that caused me to lose my voice.  I hope.

We move into a cool, dark hallway and Émile opens a door for me.  I step inside and gasp.  I’ve seen a photo of the room of course, on Sylvie’s blog, but pictures never compare to reality.  This room is warm and alive with color.

Émile smiles.  “I hope you like your bedroom.  It was our son’s.”  With that, he places my suitcase onto the floor and turns to leave, but then he turns back.

“You would like to rest?” he asks me, his eyebrows raised high.  His French is slow, too, even slower than Sylvie’s.  They are so kind to me.  So patient.  I blink, feeling tears that threaten to form.  I want to say something, but can’t seem to make any words come out.  Not a single sound.

Émile shrugs.  “Stay here as long as you like,” he says with a warm grin.  “Or you may join us in the shop, if you prefer,” he adds.  “When you wish.”  And with that, he is gone.

It worked.  It worked!

I gaze around me.  My room, my beautiful new room, has forests and oceans and mountains painted all over the walls.  It has stars and planets on the ceiling.  A mustard-colored woven rug spattered with paint sits on the floor.  On the bed is a vivid quilt that’s a crazy kaleidoscope of colors.  The room has a window that looks out over red tiled roofs and palm trees.  It even has a cat, whose amber eyes glow up at me from the puff of grey fluff resting on the rug.   I’ve never been allowed to have a pet.  I stare at the pile of grey fur for a second, not sure what to do.  Will it chase me from its territory?  But the puffball simply closes its yellowy eyes and goes to sleep.  

I turn back to the doorway, close the blue-painted door, and stare at the knob.  There’s no lock.  On this side or on the other side.

It’s perfect. 

A couple of tears spill down my face, but I swipe them away.  My new life just started, and I’m going to live it.  I’m going to head back down to the shop and get to know my new family.

But when I grasp the doorknob, I stop.  I don’t want to leave quite yet.  I turn to check out the room one more time, straining a little to see the murals as the light from the window changes from bright to dim.  Outside, clouds cover the sun and a summer storm spatters rain onto the glass.  I don’t bother to turn on the light, though.  I know this room well already.  I walk along the walls, tracing the paintings with a gentle finger.  The photo of this room on Sylvie’s blog was what started it all.  It’s part of the reason that I’m here.  It’s part of the reason I chose Sylvie and Émile for my new family. 

The mural at the head of the bed is my favorite.  A trail curves through a forest, then up the side of a steep rock-walled canyon, where it angles back and forth in sharp switchbacks.  Every so often, along the trail, you see a boy who carries a backpack and a walking stick.  The boy, lanky and brown like Sylvie, gradually grows taller.  It’s Ansel, now gone.  He painted himself in miniature somewhere on the trail each year for his birthday.  The painted boy at the very top of the cliff is Ansel at eighteen, heading to Paris.  He smiles and pumps a fist in the air. 

I kiss my fingers and touch them to the painted boy’s tiny head.  “Thank you, Ansel,” I whisper.  I couldn’t be here if he weren’t gone.  I appreciate his sacrifice.  “I promise I’ll take care of the room for you.”

A gleam of light glows on the wall a few feet away.  I jerk my hand back in surprise.  Painted on the other side of Ansel’s cliff is a wide expanse of stormy sky over a dark ocean.   Streaks of bright lightning cross the gloomy haze, but one line of lightning looks strange.  It extends downward in a straight line, cutting through sky and cloud until it plunges into the ocean.  I move closer until my nose is practically against the paint, and stare.  The straight line, of course, isn’t painted lightning.  It’s a crack in the wall, one so deep that light from the next room shines through it.  Then, before I can even begin to wonder, the crack disappears. 

What just happened?
(End Chapter One).

Okay.  Be brutal. Go ahead. I dare you. :-) No, I'm serious.  Also, if you want to know more about the overall story, check out my second blog post.  That's where I posted the query letter I've been sending to agents. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Which book got you hooked?


Which book got you hooked?

Believe it or not, my middle-aged self is still able to recall my first day of kindergarten.  I can see in my mind a dress-up corner, a play kitchen, lots of round tables, and books.  Tons of them on a long, low shelf.  I reached out at random and grabbed a book with some funky-looking illustrations, opened it up, and I was hooked.  The first line:  “Two octopuses got married and walked down the aisle arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm…..”  You get the idea.  I’d found an odd little book, “Arm in Arm,” by Remy Charlip, a writer, director, choreographer, and all around talented guy with a unique vision, to say the least.  The book was filled with tons of great, weirdly fascinating illustrations, poems, short (super short) stories, and even scripts for short plays.

I became obsessed with that book.  My little five year-old self sprinted for the bookshelf each day during reading time so I could snag the book before anyone else.  Now that I think about it, I’m not so sure that the other kids were vying for that particular little gem, but who knows?  J 

Anyway, from that moment on, I was hooked on books!  I must say that it isn’t only Remy Charlip, the author of “Arm in Arm” to whom I owe my gratitude.  I mean, I was able to read the darn thing from Day One of kindergarten, and thanks for that goes to my Mom!  All the while I was growing up, that woman checked out huge stacks of books every single week from the library.  New librarians would question her, telling her she didn’t have enough time to read them all before they were due.  She would chuckle and say:  “They just don’t know me, yet.”

I have long since moved beyond picture books, but I still think with nostalgia every so often of the awesomeness that is the book that started it all for me.  What book started it all for you?