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!

Recent Interviews

Yesterday was a big day for me: The Mad Wolf’s Daughter was in bookstores at last! I had a brief television appearance on WCSH’s 207, signed stock in a few local bookstores, and was quite busy on social media.

These two interviews were posted yesterday, and I wanted to share them because they were fun to do, but also are very different:

Beth McMullen’s interview gave me a chance to share some of the books that have meant a lot to me and to ponder where my literary influences really came from.

And the Barnes & Noble blog interview asked me to go in-depth about what I had really wanted to do with this book, what my inspirations were, and how my son had helped me to edit and revise.

I hope you enjoy learning more about how this novel came to be.

Story Bite #6: On Telling Your Own Story

This is an interesting time for me because I’m about to see my very first middle grade book reach the world. As a result of that, a lot of people are asking me questions about myself and how I came to write this book. Writing about yourself is rather different than writing about someone fictional. So for this story bite, we’re going to explore how to tell our own stories, using adaptations of some of the questions I’ve been asked as an author.

As always, here’s a picture:

Here I am, age 18, at Avebury, a Neolithic stone circle in Wiltshire, England. (I probably shouldn’t be touching the ancient stone…) Photo: Patricia Harrison

But don’t use this one as your prompt. Find a picture of yourself. It can be from the distant past, or more recent past, or even from this year. Use that as a starting point.

Now think back to when that picture was taken, and what came before (or after, depending on how old that picture is), and ask yourself:

What is one of my earliest memories? Where was I? Who was with me? What happened? How did I feel?

What was a place I have loved? Where I was born, or where I grew up, or a place I visited? (Where we were born is a crucial part of our lives, but the places that mean the most to us are critical too, so if you wish, focus on them. And the places you love can be a whole country, a state, a town, a forest, a house, or a single room: Think broad, or close.) What did I love about it? The setting? The people? What happened when I was there?

What was my dream when I was younger—or what’s my dream now? What did/do I hope for in my life? Where did/do I want to see myself in ten years? What did/do I hope I’ve done by then?

Each one of these prompts could be its own story bite if you wish, or combine them to make a longer story. If you combine them, just remember to bridge them: Think of something from one that will connect to the next and convey it in a few words or one sentence.

I hope this more introspective story bite was fun!

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 please share them! I’d love to see your students’ work.

“My Audience”—A Guest Post for MG Book Village

Art by Antonio Javier Caparo

I had a lot of fun writing this guest post for the great website MG Book Village, which is dedicated to celebrating middle grade fiction. Here are the opening lines:

“Most authors have some sense of who their audience will be when they write a novel, and I certainly did with The Mad Wolf’s Daughter: I wrote it for me, for my son, and for middle graders who wanted a fast-paced adventure to make them almost miss the bus in the morning.

The Mad Wolf’s Daughter is the book of my heart. It stars Drest, a scrappy 12-year-old girl who takes swordplay, cliff-climbing, and swimming through dangerous seas as her daily exercise. When her warm and loving family—a notoriously brutal father and five vicious brothers—are captured by enemy knights and shipped off to a castle to meet their doom, she goes after them, hauling along a young injured knight as guide and hostage. On her journey, she follows her family’s war-band codes of honor, but also develops her own codes. Oh, and she rescues pretty much everyone she runs across.

Let’s start with why I wrote this book for me.…” Read more

(By the way, only five more days until Drest is out on bookstore shelves…)