Bookstore Signing—With Flowers

I wasn’t presented with flowers in the traditional sense during my first bookstore signing on the Sherman’s circuit, but I snuck in a visit to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens while I was in Boothbay Harbor, so I did get to see their magnificent display. And so my memories of this day will include the following:

Seeing my book on the shelf (always a fun experience! I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling the little thrill that comes from spotting Drest’s face glaring up at me)…

Drest on the shelf (art by Antonio Javier Caparo). Photo: Diane Magras

…gazing out at the street whilst sitting at my table right in front of Sherman’s…

My view. Photo: Diane Magras

…and chatting with customers about castles both Scottish and Welsh (and Dumfries and more!), the industry of children’s literature, and a great exhibit at the Farnsworth Museum up the coast in Rockland, all while signing books (I’m getting quite good at signing while chatting!).

A quick shout-out to the kind man who took this pic and then fetched me the most glorious cuppa right after (it was a wee bit chilly on the street). Photo: Michael Magras

Then off to the gardens for a tulip extravaganza!

Photo: Diane Magras

With more…

Photo: Diane Magras

…and still more…

Photo: Diane Magras

…and (happy sigh) ferns:

Photo: Diane Magras

It was a lovely day, made all the more special by the Lad’s and my husband’s company. It’s fun being an author, but especially fun to share this with my wonderful family.

Independent Bookstore Day

Bookstores have always meant a lot to me. I grew up in rural Maine (yes, Mount Desert Island is quite rural, especially in the winter), and I was lucky to have an indie nearby: Sherman’s Books of Bar Harbor. I remember walking up the wooden step into the shop and spending a good hour in the stacks. When I began writing seriously at age 14, my parents told me that they wanted me to amass a library of books that would help me become a writer, and so they bought me books, a few every month, up to a certain price. I indeed amassed a library (many Penguin classics in there!) that were to serve me well throughout the years.

These days, bookstores have a new meaning for me. I still love to explore the stacks and pick up a book or two to add my current library (or my son’s). But they’re also places where I see my own book, and experience the quiet thrill of my protagonist looking at me from the cover. I’ve been fortunate to get to know the enthusiastic, eager readers who are bookstore staff, people who have kindly included my book in the stream of fiction they champion to their customers.

One of my favorite bookstores in Maine is Bangor’s The Briar Patch. It’s a tightly packed indie with a great staff and a wonderful selection of past and current favorites, children’s books from picture books all the way up to young adult. They’re also in the process of expanding with an adult wing. I love exploring this bookstore, and I wish I lived closer.

I was delighted when owner Gibran Graham asked if I’d visit for Independent Bookstore Day this year. On April 28, I sat at my table, chatted with customers, read a few chapters, and signed a lot of copies of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter. Here I am, in action.

I’m at The Briar Patch, chatting with an incredible 2nd grader who loves to read. Photo: Michael Magras

Story Bite #8: On Building Stakes

It’s fairly easy when you start a story or a novel to come up with a basic character and a goal. The next part of building a story—the conflict—is a little bit harder, but not bad. And then comes the hardest part: the stakes. This is what’s missing when a lot of people try to describe their plots: a good character, a strong goal, a compelling conflict, but no powerful stakes that make the story move.

Stakes are why everything matters. Here’s an example of what that means.

We’ll start with the character and a goal: A girl who’s the daughter of a hotel owner in St. Agatha, Maine, wants to save enough money to buy a plane ticket for Scotland.

Scotland by plane. Photo: Diane Magras

Now for a conflict: She doesn’t have a lot of money. But one day, as she’s sorting through the storage closet of the historical society (organizing their unsorted collection is her summer job), she discovers that a smuggler from early in the town’s history left a chest of gold coins buried by the lake. Yet just as her enthusiasm rises, a volunteer at the historical society hears her asking permission to use the map, and plans to go after the treasure as well.

Sound good? It could be an exciting story of a hunt for the treasure. Only…why does it matter? Does any reader really care if she gets the treasure and has enough money to go to Scotland? Why anyone would care are the stakes.

Let’s try a few, phrasing it as one phrases stakes, with words like “must” and “if not, then what”:

  • The girl must obtain the treasure because she wants to go to Scotland. If she doesn’t, then she’ll be sad. (Being sad doesn’t make for the strongest stakes.)
  • The girl must obtain the treasure because she has to go to Scotland to turn off a switch linked to a powerful explosive. If she doesn’t, then the world is going to blow up. (Saving the world is in some ways powerful stakes, but it’s too broad, unless we know more about the girl and her relationships in the town, and more about why she has to be the one who must turn off the switch.)
  • The girl must obtain the treasure because getting the treasure will help her escape something that’s crushing her or frightening her or about to disrupt her life in her small town. If she doesn’t, then she’ll be trapped. She’s picked Scotland because she has a cousin there who will meet her at the airport and take her home, but neither of them have any money. It’s really her last hope, because she’s running out of time. (I like these stakes best of all: They’re powerful with a good emotional punch that the end-of-world scenario was lacking.)

For this story bite, think about stakes. I’ll give you a basic premise (or come up with your own), and think about why this story matters.

Here’s our picture for this story bite:

A bridge leading into another dimension, though it appears to be leading just into the woods. Photo: Diane Magras

A boy is facing another world beyond a bridge, a world in another dimension. He’s been over once, and he knows that this world can offer him something important. But if he goes, he must return within a certain amount of time or else he’ll be stuck there forever. Yet it holds something important. What makes him need to cross the bridge?

Is there another character involved? A sibling? Parent? Relative? Good friend? Are they stuck over there, or pressuring him to go, or are they involved in some other way? Why does their role matter?

Is there an item he needs that he can find only in the world across the bridge? How is it worth his risking his freedom to fetch it?

Is he running away from something? Does he hope to hide in that world long enough to escape?

What other possibilities can you think of?

Stakes always add a layer to the plot and a feeling of urgency to the story. As you can see, they can change a story’s purpose considerably. Whenever you’re thinking about stakes, think about the emotional heft. That emotion will make readers really care about your characters and their adventures—and want to keep reading.

Directions:

If you’d like to share your story bite with me, please submit it through your teacher or with your school email address or home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And share them! I’d love to see your students’ work.

Reader-in-House

Over the weekend, I read the entire latest draft of the sequel to The Mad Wol’f’s Daughter to my 11-year-old son (aka the Lad). He was building amazing things in Minecraft (no, not sitting there paying attention to nothing but the book for ten hours—though more than once he paused and just listened). At the end of every chapter, he pointed out what didn’t make sense (I went back that night and tweaked), which parts were slow (I went back that night and rewrote),  and also told me what was working and what the points of tension were.

He also suggested a really clever detail. (He did that with two parts of Book 1 as well.) Neither of us can remember what this clever detail was, but it was a great one that brought elements of the plot together, the kind of detail that ripples through the book and belongs so well that you’d never imagine it’d ever been missing.

I’ve been called “a master storyteller,” and while the Lad says I should take all credit for that, he deserves some of it. He understands what makes plots strong, characters deep, and descriptions lyrical. He tells me when I need to work on something, and when I do it right. And in this stage of editing and revision where I was racing to meet a tight deadline, having an actual reader in the room who knows how to plot and sees connections and evaluate made a world of difference.

I’m lucky to have his help, and his willingness to listen to me read my draft. And his support. We authors struggle to make our writing soar and sing—and it’s not always easy to do that under deadline without the endless raft of time that we had before. But it’s so much easier when there’s a member of our reading audience in the house whose critique will be firm but kindly spoken and whose praise will feel like summer—and who always encourages us to keep going.

Story Bite #7: On Showing Character Through Dialogue

Maybe you’ve heard the old bit of writing advice that tells you to “show, not tell.” That’s an important adage to keep in mind when you’re working on characters. Readers get their strongest sense of a character through what a character does (action scenes!) or says. In this post, we’re going to work on that last part, dialogue.

Here’s our picture for this story bite:

caption: A stone carving at Jedburgh Abbey. Photo: Diane Magras

We’re going to just touch upon our characters’ personalities first. And your characters are the four critters in the bottom two-thirds of this stone carving: the crows and the dog/monkey/rat-like beasties. They’ve been trapped in the stone for hundreds of years.

Pick two of the four beasties to write about, and let’s give them some personality. Answer these questions for each of those two:

Does the creature think it will ever get out of the stone, or not?

Is it happy being in the stone? If so, what makes it content? If not, what does it hate most about being trapped?

What’s the first thing it would do if it were free? (Go find food? Curl up and sleep? Find a safe place to hide? Try to get back in?)

What’s the most exciting/tragic/beautiful thing it has seen while in that stone? (A battle when the abbey was destroyed—and did it worry about its own destruction? Maybe it saw a visitor get lost? Perhaps it observed the way the sun shone over the flowers in the abbey garden, or the rain dripping off the roof, or the smile of satisfaction in the face of the stonemason who finished the carving.)

Do you have a sense of your two characters now?

Now for our story bite: With at least four exchanges between them (one character speaks, the other answers), have them discuss what you’ve just written.

But before you start that, let’s give each of your characters a distinctive voice.

Does your character use full sentences like this? Or talk in brief like this?

Does your character prefer to say “does not” or “don’t”?

Does your character put verbs before or after nouns (a glorious countryside, or a countryside glorious)?

Does your character use a lot of adjectives (in a perfectly ordinary, yet somehow magical, and truly endearing, sort of way), or speak with short tight words?

Choose one or more of those aspects of speech for each of your two characters, and write what you’ve come up with above in that way. This may reach a full page with your four exchanges.

Writing dialogue can be a lot of fun, and I hope this is fun and that your characters surprise you. Thanks for giving this one a try—and giving those stone beasties a chance at life.

Directions:
If you’d like to share your story bite with me, please submit it through your teacher or with your school email address or home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And share them! I’d love to see your students’ work.

Words to My Younger Self

There are moments in my publishing journey where I wish I could go back in time, slip my arm around the shoulders of my 14-yo self, and tell her a few things. One would be to show her the review that was posted today in The New York Times. (To say that it was a bit of a dream is an understatement.)

And I’ll give you some context. When I was a kid, The New York Times was the most prestigious paper around. And the only big one I’d heard of. Yet in my rural town, just our bookstore carried it. Anyone who had it mailed got it two days late. It was a precious newspaper.

When I was young writer, I was always looking for tips on how established writers wrote. And a tip I’d heard one summer was that they read newspapers for ideas. What better paper than The New York Times then, for my young self to pick up and hunt through, article by article?

Every Saturday that summer, I’d get up early, beg a ride from my mom, and we’d drive to town, getting to the bookstore just when it opened. From the sidewalk outside, I could smell the brisk, clean scent of salt water from the harbor, which was just down the street. I’d buy that Saturday paper with my own money, then carry it, careful not to fold it, back to the car. I’d sit with it in my lap in the front seat, my arm across it to keep it from rumpling in the breeze through my open window. I’d sit and wait, not reading anything, not yet.

When we got home, I’d take the paper into my bedroom, set it on my bed where there was room to open it fully, grab my notebook and pen, and I’d start reading. I’d sit there hunched over, writing down random ideas. I wrote down everything that was new, strange, or dramatic.

That’s the young writer self I wish I could speak to just now, hunched over the open paper on her bed. I’d nudge her shoulder and whisper, “Guess what. Your book’s going to be in there one day. You’ll be a lot older, but it’ll be there. I bet you never thought it would happen.”

And my young self would stare back at me, grin, and say, “No, actually, I was pretty sure it would happen. Why wouldn’t it? I’m a writer, you know.”

Presenting in Portland, Maine

Presenting at Print. Photo: Michael Magras

As I’ve said on Twitter, put me in front of a crowd and tell me to talk about A) my book, B) challenging gender roles in middle grade fiction, or C) castles, swords, and anything medieval (especially medieval Scotland)—or all three—and this quiet writerly type will become a presenter.

On March 14, I gave my first bookstore talk at Print: A Bookstore, a fabulous indie in Portland, Maine. The audience was warm and friendly, and I loved their questions and chatting with them as I was signing. One girl asked me if I had any advice about writing for young people. I was asked that at my school talk the next day too. And my advice for both was this: Write what you care most about; read a lot, including outside your preferred genre; and keep a notebook, and take down every idea that comes to you. I hope I helped to inspire young writers; being a writer meant a lot to me when I was their age.

Luckily, our second major snowstorm in that many weeks petered out in the morning, so the roads were clear and this event could go on, and at last I could share my sword and castle and book cookies!

And note that the sword cookies are of Borawyn! She replicated that distinctive pommel so beautifully! Photo: Michael Magras

My launch party the previous week had been cancelled due to the threat of snow, and these fancy butter cookies from Pretty Crumbs had been intended for it. Fortunately, butter cookies freeze beautifully, and I was able to save them for this event. (They were as delicious as they are gorgeous.)

Thanks to everyone who came! It was great to see you all.

What a pretty stack! Photo: Michael Magras

A Launch Party Surprise

If you follow me social media, you’ve probably heard that the threat of snow cancelled my launch party. (That’s part of living in Maine; we get one last burst of winter in March just about every year.) I have another appearance in Portland the following week, so I’m turning that into my launch party. But it was very disappointing to have the original one cancelled. Being the obsessive planner I am, I’d planned it for months as a celebration not just for me but for my community, and there were many surprises on hand for my beloved local audience.

There was also a surprise on hand for me, which my husband gave to me shortly after the cancellation had been announced. He gave this to me in our living room with the formal remarks that would have accompanied it had I received it on stage as intended.

Certificate of Honor from the State

As I said on social media, I love my home state.

 

My Book’s Friends

I wanted to share this picture of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter on its book birthday (yesterday), surrounded by books that inspired me: as I came up with the basic idea of the novel, as I was writing the drafts, and as I was working on revisions. These are my book’s friends, books that mean a lot to me.

The Mad Wolf's Daughter on a shelf of other books

 

Happy birthday, Drest!