Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

The Thing about History

February 15, 2016

About ten years ago I had the opportunity to visit Athens (Greece, not Georgia).  That’s a story in itself, but for now I want to focus on just one impression: Athens is one vast archaeological site.  Even the subways are museums—hurrying from one stop to another you pass glass cases full of artefacts found while digging out the Metro system.  The friend I was staying with told me that digging is a major issue; even scraping up soil for a parking lot is bound to turn up loads of pottery shards and ancient tools and blackened silver.  If they’re in a hurry they don’t even take time to label it all—just plow it in deeper and pave over it.

History is like that: wherever you poke your spade, you’re bound to turn up something interesting.

It was always my favorite subject in school and my favorite fiction genre, and the reason for that was probably—at least partly—my sister Melissa.  While we were growing up, she was always going through some favorite history phase, and since she’s four years older than me (and didn’t consider me a pest or a pinhead) her influence was powerful.  It’s one reason why four of my six published novels are historical.

One of her retirement jobs (are you old enough to know what that means?) is program director at a relatively new historical site in central Texas.  Channel 5 New in Fort Worth did a TV spot on it, and I tried to embed the video, but the embed code wasn’t working for me.  So I’ll have to provide the link instead.



See what I mean about archaeology sites?  There are some good stories in that Robertson County soil, and I may even dig one out some day.

My writer/illustrator friend Cheryl Harness is one of the best history practitioners around: she showers her Facebook friends with famous-people birthdays, tasty tidbits, and fascinating relics every day.  One of Cheryl’s “likes” on my news feed led me to the story of the coat—a 19th-centry frock coat hanging in the display case at a Maine High School.  It was moldering away until a couple of sixth-grade students and their mother did some research and made a plan.

The coat belonged to Albert Bacheler, who served as a Union Soldier in the 12th New Hampshire Bacheler coatRegiment.  During the last year of the Civil War he was captured and sent to the notorious Libby Prison in Richmond.  He was lucky enough to escape with only the clothes on his back, which happened to be a blue uniform. But several slaves helped him find his way to safety, including one family who gave him a civilian coat to cover his sitting-duck outfit.

After the war Bacheler moved to Gloucester, Maine, where he taught at, and eventually became principal of, the high school.  The man is long gone but the school remains—and the coat that may have saved his bacon back in 1864, moldering quietly like John Brown’s Body.  But the King boys and their mom are crowd-funding a project to restore the coat and provide a better home for it.  The boys think it’s cool.

It is cool, to put your spade in the past and see what you dig up.  Most of it—the vast bulk of it—is gone forever.  We’ll never think, feel, or experience like our ancestors did decades, centuries, or millennia ago.  But perhaps we can be a little more considerate about judging them. And we can run our hands lovingly over some of the artefacts.  And we might not be so hasty to slab over their burial ground with the concrete of our premixed assumptions.


Riding Herd on Time

February 1, 2016

tyranny-of-timeBack in the mythical age of young-adulthood, time was everywhere—on my hands, waiting to be killed, never flying unless I had a paper due.  Baby #1 slowed the clock even more: who knew a day could be so long?  That changed with my decision to start homeschooling.  All of a sudden there was never enough time, because it burned at both ends.  “Time is my enemy,” I remember saying savagely. But of course it isn’t the enemy; it just acts that way when you treat it that way.

It’s the great healer, and the ultimate killer.  It brings all things to pass, waits for no man, runs through the roughest day, and bears all its sons away. It’s essentially mysterious: “I know what it is, provided no one asks me” (says Augustine), but weighs heavily on a guilty soul.  “I wasted time, and now time doth waste me,” muses Richard II, the most introspective of Shakespeare’s kings.

And the impatient reader says, “Yeah, okay, lots of profound people have said profound things about time.  So get to the point: how do I find more of it?  Time is money.”

So, has this ever happened to you?  New Year’s Day, or the first day of school, you make a schedule and promise yourself you’ll stick to it.  Maybe it lasts as long as a week, but more often, by day three or four you chuck it.  Things take longer than you thought, or you just don’t feel like doing what the schedule says you must do, or it’s too hard or interruptions get in the way or it’s boring.

This has happened to me over and over, so this year I approached the issue from another angle.  Instead of trying to wrestle time to the grid, I sneaked up on it from behind. What do I accomplish, and what do I want to accomplish better?  Thinking through everything I do, I found these activities fall into four basic categories.  I gave them names: Janie/mom/grandma, Janie Cheaney, Janie B. Cheaney, and J.B. Cheaney.  I drew four columns on a piece of notebook paper, and headed each column with one of those names.


The first category is who I am as a person and family member.  About how much time in a week do I timespend just being a human?  Starting on the far right column, I wrote everything I could think of, plus time spent doing: number of hours sleeping, shopping, preparing food and eating it (and cleaning up afterwards), keeping the house from looking like a pigsty, even talking to my kids on the phone (since they don’t live anywhere close, the little scamps).  I wrote all this and more, added up the total and put that sum directly under the list, as well as on the far left side of the page.

Next, who I am in my community and church.  How many hours a week do I spend actually in church, and how much preparing Sunday school lessons or Bible studies?  How much in volunteer work and lunch with friends?  All of it went in the second column from the right, with the total number of hours underneath and also added to the running total on the left side.

My professional life splits in two, roughly divided between Christian writing and fiction writing (at this point, they’re not the same).  Janie B. Cheaney writes for World Magazine and blogs at; J. B. Cheaney writes fiction for kids and tries to market the same.  There’s a bit of overlap in these, indicated by the little arrows you may see between the two columns.  Both involve some marketing, blogging, Facebooking, and maybe (one of these days if I can ever figure it out) Twittering.  I also count reading time because Janie B. reviews books—nice work if you can get it, but it puts me to sleep sometimes.  Adding up my professional hours showed me two things: 1) I’m going to have to create an additional blog and Facebook page to accommodate them, and 2) I work an average of 45 hours a week.  After all these years, I can prove I’m a FULL-TIME PROFESSIONAL WRITER.  So don’t mess with me.

After adding up all these hours and subtracting them from 168 (the number of hours in a week), I came up with 29 hours and 45 minutes unaccounted for!  That’s more than a whole day!  I’m breathing easier already.

beattheclockThe purpose of all this is not—like scheduling—to see how much activity I can cram into a twenty-four span.  The purpose is to show Time what it’s dealing with (I’m serious, pal).  It also shows me what I can realistically expect from a day.  “Realistically” is key—if you have young children at home or if you let your Doberman make out your schedule, you’ll have to set aside at least six hours daily for Mr. Unexpected to drop by.  Otherwise, given something you might call a “normal day,” you can start assigning your various obligations to blocks of time.

“Blocks,” not linear increments.  Our days don’t flow minute-by-minute, but rather bump-by-bump: periods of single-tasking followed by periods of multi-tasking; times of relative calm interspersed with times of hectic activity. Figure out when you are most productive and/or when you are least likely to be interrupted.  If those hours are not the same, synchronize them if you can, and tackle your most challenging tasks for that block of the day.  Squirrel your less-demanding tasks into those blocks when you’re more available, and arrange the things you can do simultaneously (like listening to an audio book while mopping the floor, or practicing French while driving—though that sounds like it should be illegal).

Of course you will not find yourself automatically doing what your planner says.  Your planner doesn’t understand human nature, much less your individual slacker mentality.  That’s where discipline comes in.  It’s also where standard advice that you’ve heard a million times comes in: whatever requires the most concentration needs to occur when you are best able to focus (for me this is 6-8 a.m.).  Do not check your phone.  Do not check your email.  Do not peek at Facebook, even for one teeny-weeny second.  If you can only set aside one hour a day to work on your novel, whip your attitude into line and tell it you won’t tolerate any backtalk for this one hour.  Do your best to scale back interruptions and streamline routines.  Lay out your clothes and mix the ingredients for your breakfast smoothie in the blender the night before.  When you take a break, keep it to ten minutes or less.  Ride herd on those productive hours, and you can loosen up the reins for the rest.

Case in point: I can do all my serious writing between 6 and 11 a.m. with a half-hour break for breakfast and a quick check of the news–4 ½ hours.  Afternoons are for uploading, Facebooking, research, business and personal emails . . . and everything else.  I don’t have to fill each week with everything on my hour log—self-employed people get vacations too.  And I’m not always going to be as productive as I planned because stuff happens.  (Look on the bright side when it does, maybe you can write about it!)

There’s also this: My times are in his hands (Ps 31:15).  Anyone who’s ever tried to command the hours learns that she’s not the boss.  But at least I know the Boss, and I don’t have to feel destroyed every time the plan goes off the rails.  There’s a bigger plan at work.


Horn Book Reviews IDK

January 15, 2016

I would call Horn Book the  premier children’s-book review journal–what Atlantic Monthly is to horn bookNewsweek, Horn Book is to . . . oh well, I’d better not make any comparisons, because the other review journals have been nice to me.  The magazine is  appropriately based in Boston, the bastion of literacy, and does not include every book reviewed in its annual guide, so I’m honored that I Don’t Know How the Story Ends has appeared in the current issue.  I can’t provide a link but can share the review itself.

And it’s good!  I would change one word, though–guess which one?

When Isobel’s father enlists in the Medical Corps during WWI, his assurance that “bullets won’t get me” offers only uneasy comfort. Seeking a change of scenery from rainy Seattle, Isobel’s mother takes her and her younger sister to visit their ebullient aunt, Buzzy, in Los Angeles. The adults believe that Aunt Buzzy’s thirteen-year-old stepson, Ranger, will be a great companion for the girls, but he’s more interested in making films than making friends. Ranger and his buddy Sam are obsessed with filming a movie intended to catch the eye of D. W. Griffith and create an entrée for themselves into the industry.

While long on technical skill, the boys have only a bare-bones script, so Isobel steps in with rewrites. These end up being unintentionally autobiographical, with the worry about her father never far from her mind. Cheaney establishes setting partly by name-dropping, introducing readers to Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett, and Douglas Fairbanks. But the real sense of the times comes with the freedom of the characters to roam the Hollywood Hills on their own and, like many a movie character from those days, the confidence that they can indeed produce a fine show. There’s plenty of melodrama to both the movie script and Isobel’s real-life situation, but her coming of age rings true.


Did you guess?  It’s in the last sentence and starts with a “b” and I advise parents and teachers never to use it while correcting their students’ writing assignment.  Yep: it’s the word “but,” which makes “melodrama” sound like it’s a bad thing.  Most fictional stories sound like melodrama (or soap opera) when you relate the bare plot, and this story is big on “pathos,” both onscreen and off.  The word but waves a little red flag in the middle of the sentence: beware the melodrama!  Not a complaint, though–there are plenty of  great words like ebullient, real, true, confidence.  So here’s one more: Thanks!

Countdown to IDK: First Words

June 19, 2015

What grabs you about a book, from the first page?  Some readers like getting right into the action, as in

  • Ryan was nearly killed twice in half an hour.  (Tom Clancy, Patriot Games)
  • Renowned curator Jacques Suaniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.  (Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code)
  • None of this that I’m about to tell you would have happened if my mother hadn’t found that squirrel in the toilet.  (J. B. Cheaney, The Middle of Somewhere)

Some want to identify immediately with a character:

  • Call me Ishmael.  (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)
  • I am an invisible man.  (Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man)
  • I didn’t mean to do it.  I just got carried away.  (J. B. Cheaney, My Friend the Enemy)

Other readers like a strong sense of place or time; they want to setting to descend on them like a mist.  For example

  • The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, like the highest seat of a ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. (Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting)
  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . .  (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)
  • Smithfield once blazed with burning martyrs.  An English boy of any learning whatever knows that.  (J. B. Cheaney, The Playmaker)

Other readers are looking for a jolt of mystery or suspense:

  • There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.  (Louis Sacher, Holes)
  • One minute the teacher was talking about the Civil War, and the next minute he was gone.  (Michael Grant, Gone)
  • Last night’s weather forecast predicted rain.  This isn’t rain.   (J. B. Cheaney, Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous)

And others like a shot of emotional adrenaline:

  • What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? (Eric Segal, Love Story)
  • Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.  (Nora Zeal Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God)
  • “Stop! Halt! You’ll kill each other!  (J. B. Cheaney, The True Prince)

(Look at me swanning around on the same page with all these great authors!)

Every author knows that first lines can make the difference between a reader reading or a reader refusing (though most readers will stick around at least for a paragraph).  But more than that: a first line can set the tone for the whole story.  Of course you want to engage the reader with some sense of the action to follow.  Of course you want to surprise and mystify.  The question is how.

For my soon-to-be-published novel, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, I decided to go for voice.  That’s the indefinable quality that makes one person’s style different from another’s.  When you read Call me Ishmael next to You don’t know me without you have read a book called Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter, you know you are in for a sojourn within two very distinct personalities.

I decided to try for that.  Meet Isobel Ransom, the narrator and cover girl of I Don’t Know How the Story Ends (Sourcebooks, Oct. 2015):

* * * * * * * * * * * *

      The first I heard of Mother’s big idea was May 20, 1918, at 4:35 p.m. in the entrance hall of our house on Fifth Street.  That was where my little sister ended up after I pushed her down the stairs.

It wasn’t all my fault.  She pushed me before I pushed her—figuratively, I mean.

She’d picked a bad time to tangle with me, for I was in a drippy, dismal mood, like our Seattle weather that day.  While walking from my room to the stairs with an open book—Jane Eyre, my new most-favorite—I heard a moaning noise behind me, starting low and growing louder: “AhhhhWOOOO!”

I turned around.  “Whatever you’re doing, stop it.”

A cobwebby ghost was creeping up behind me: Sylvie, draped in gauzy curtains she’d somehow pulled down from our parents’ bedroom window.  “AWOOO!  I’m the ghost of the battlefield.  No—I’m Daddy’s lonesome spirit come back to haunt you, and . . . Quit it, Isobel!”

I had smacked her on the shoulder with my book.  She smacked me back, so I pushed her against the banister and she stumbled on the wads of curtain under her feet.  The next moment she was bouncing down the stairs, howling at every bump.

The noise brought Mother from the study and Rosetta from the kitchen.  Both could only stare at first, flummoxed by the noisy cocoon I was frantically trying to unwrap.  Sylvie had made it all the way to the bottom without breaking anything, I was pretty sure.  Father used to say he was going to take her on the road as a scientific curiosity because her bones were made of rubber.  But the fact remained that she had been pushed, and someone had done the pushing.

“Isobel,” my mother said accusingly.

“I’m sorry!  But she was acting silly, as usual, and saying she was Father’s ghost, and we know that Father’s alive and well, but I can’t stand it when she . . .” Et cetera.  And all this time Sylvie was yelling that it wasn’t her fault.  She was just playing, and I hit her before pushing her, and so on.

Rosetta stepped in to lend a hand, and finally Sylvie was standing on her own two feet, both of us waiting for Mother to send us outside for a switch from the forsythia bush.  But she just looked at us, lips pressed together, the silence lengthening like the long shadow that had fallen over us ever since Father left for France.

“That does it,” Mother said at last.  “I’ve had enough of dreary days and melancholy daughters.  We’re going to California for the summer.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

So the adventure begins .  .


Countdown to IDK: Cover Coverage

June 12, 2015

Some of my covers I’ve loved; some I cringed at, just a little.  I got kind of a shock with my first-ever published novel, The Playmaker, which looks like this:

Alternate Title: Revenge of the Theater Nerds!

Alternate Title: Revenge of the Theater Nerds!

First of all, the character, Richard Mallory, looks nothing like I described him in the book.  I’ve heard that artists were supposed to actually read the book to get design ideas, and this artist wouldn’t have needed to read far—the description is in the first chapter.  Second of all, nowhere in the story does Richard attack anyone with a sword.  Third of all, what’s with the font style?  It looks like “Goosebumps.”  (On the positive end, I really like the bear in the background, even though lots of kids guess it’s a dog.)  I did bring up the Goosebumps font with my editor, who explained that the design team was going for boy-appeal.  And in the end I can’t complain, because The Playmaker is still in print—after fifteen years!


Alternative Title: Please Love Me. Please.

Usually the hardcover image carries over to the paperback, but that didn’t happen with my third published novel, My Friend the Enemy.  To your left is the hardback, which quickly made itself scarce.  No wonder; to me this cover says Read me because I’m thoughtful and sensitive and good for you.









On the other hand, here’s the paperback edition, which says Read me because I’m a great story about a girl and a boy and their fraught friendship during World War II.

I might hesitate about reading the first.  I’d pick up the second in a heartbeat.






My first publisher, Random House, always gave me a completed design and basically said, “Here.  We hope you like it.  (And too bad if you don’t.)”  My current publisher, Sourcebooks, asks for my ideas ahead of time and doesn’t use them.  But they also ask for feedback and are willing to make small changes.  So here’s what the cover of my goes-on-sale-in-October MG novel looked like in its first version:


“What do you think?” asked the editor.  Well . . .

Isobel Ransom, the main character in I Don’t Know How the Story Ends (that’s what IDK means, if you’re wondering) lives in Seattle.  The story takes place during the summer of 1918, while America is involved in World War I.  While her father is serving as an army surgeon in France, Isobel and her mother and sister travel to southern California to spend a couple of months with her aunt, who lives in a sleepy little town called Hollywood.  But times are changing fast for Hollywood, soon to become the motion-picture capital of the world, and Isobel is caught up in the frenetic, wild-west age of movie-making.

First of all: nothing in the above design says 1918.  The look is more 1930’s.

Second of all: nothing says California.  The look is more depression-era Kansas.  In fact, a couple of people I showed it to said the first thing that came to mind was The Wizard of Oz.  Since that was also the first thing that came to my mind, surely it’s no fluke.

Third of all: nothing says motion pictures.

I mentioned all this to my editor: the girl’s dress needs to change; her hair should be different; what’s that thing in the background that looks like a broken-down fence; why is the landscape so desolate; and can’t we stick in a few palm trees or something?  And finally, where’s the movie camera?

No movie camera.  The philosophy behind this cover is that the story reflects universal themes and they didn’t want to make the time and setting too specific, in order to appeal to as many readers as possible.  I don’t know about this, since movies are about as universal as we get these days, and the specific subject matter seems to generate plenty of interest whenever I mention it.  But they did take the landscape and costume into account, and here’s what we ended up with:


Still no palm trees.  But it passes for California, and if you look closely you can make out the hazy outlines of the blue Pacific. And the girl’s dramatic pose is a nice touch–even if it makes older readers like myself immediately hear the opening bars of “Tara’s Theme.”

So, what do you think?

Keep watching for reviews, blurbs, first paragraphs and chapters, and more!  You might even find out How the Story Ends!  (And oh yes, you can pre-order here.)

Character Qualities, III

May 29, 2015

Continuing this short series on character interviews . . . If you’re just joining us, I’m exploring the use of imaginary “interviews” as a way for authors to get to know their characters better.  Somebody on this Bus Is Going to Be Famous is a great example of the benefits of this technique, because with nine (count ’em! Nine!) main characters I needed an effective way to get to know them better.  Earlier this week I visited with kids at Montessori Magnet School in Kankakee, and asked them which interview they’d like to see.  The winner:


(She’s not surprised at all.  Just wait until she’s famous–everybody will want to read her interviews!)

What’s your favorite color?cartoon_0025

Silver!  That’s my brand.

What do you consider to be your strongest quality?

My strongest quality is determination and focus.  Is that two qualities?  How about focused determination?  Or determined focus?  You know Roger Foulkes, on American Star Search?  He says not having a focus is like playing darts with a balloon. He means you have to be sharp.  And I guess kind of hard, too.  I can’t think of anybody in my whole school like that except me.  Focus means you have to think about something all the time and set goals for yourself and figure out ways to reach those goals.  The only people I know like that are in the All-City Glee Club.  I’m the youngest member, did you know that?  Luke Springer, our coach, says that I—

What?  Go on to the next question?  Okay . . .

In what area of your life would you most like to improve?

Well, I believe that you don’t focus on your weaknesses; you build on your strengths.  So sure, I want to improve on everything there: voice, volume, breath control, musicality, body stamina, flexibility.  Grades?  Okay, I want to improve on those enough to get into some good performance schools.  Even though, like, how is it going to help me to know when the Civic War was or how to find the area of a circle?  But whatever it takes, I guess.

Who had or has the most influence on you?  How and/or why?

Claire, definitely.  Did you know she was the youngest of six kids, and their dad ran off and their mother had to work all the time and she grew up in Arkansas?  And she made it big singing country and western?  Yeah.  You can find her old clips on YouTube, age 15 or something like that, singing “Wildwood Flower” on an acoustic guitar.  Wearing white cowgirl boots and a shirt with a fringe!  What I admire about her is that she wasn’t afraid to change or, you know, evolve.  She kept the white boots but that’s it.  And now she’s so . . . so . . . just dazzly.  She lights up the whole stage.  She’s going to be in St. Louis in January and I’m dying to go.  But Dad says it’s either that or save the money for camp, so . . . Nobody should have to make a choice like that!

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

Sparkly.  Exciting.  Focused.

What do others not understand about you?

Well, I think everybody understands my goals, and that’s all I care about!

But . . . I don’t think they understand what performing does to me.  I guess maybe they might think I’m just a showoff.  But there’s a lot more to it than that.  Really, a lot more.  Like music.  Music takes me places, you know?  When the music gets inside and starts swirling around it kind of lifts me up and swirls me around, too.  And then I’m exactly who I want to be, not a little Mexican beanpot like Uncle Mike says.  (I guess I used to fart a lot, though I don’t remember.)  He still calls me that, even though my ears fit my face a lot better and my hair got long and thick enough to cover them.  It’s like a big hilarious joke that nobody thinks is funny except him.  He’s a loser, anyway.  But the music, that’s what people don’t get.  The talent show really showed me that.  I know, it was just a little dinky elementary-school show, and when the sound went off I would have freaked, totally, except for the music.  It was inside me—no, it was me, and it made me so much bigger and stronger I could pick up that whole cafeteria full of kids and take them anywhere I wanted to go.  Talk about focused!  I was so there, I never want to be anywhere else.

That’s what I wish people understood about me.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years I’ll be 22.  Claire did her first concert tour when she was 19, her first platinum album at 20, her first Super Bowl halftime at 21.  Does that give you an idea?

What was the happiest moment of your life?

Well, I was going to say the talent show—duh!  But then I thought a little more about this question, and I remembered this funny thing from way back when I was only 7.  M6y grandpa on my mom’s side, Papa Early, he gave me my first showbiz break.  Really.  He was the entertainment chairman of this old-folks group he belonged to, the Golden Gang, and he came up with this bright idea to have a grandkids’ talent show.  He called it Bragging Rights Night, because he told us he got tired of all the old duffers bragging on their grandkids and wanted to see all these wonderkids strut their stuff (he actually talked like that).  He’s the one who talked my parents into letting me sing, because I used to sing for him on the back porch on barbecue nights.  He picked two songs and even coached me a little.  I didn’t think too much about it.  I always liked to sing but never thought about performing.  I didn’t get too nervous, or not too anything until I was halfway through “The Good Ship Lollipop” and noticed all these old people smiling at me.  Really smiling, not like Aw Isn’t She Cute, but like I was making them happy.  And that made me happy.

At the end of the show, Papa Early picked me up and walked around with me like I was, like, three years old.  “Here’s my little star,” he kept saying, like he wanted all his friends to know me.  And all the time they were smiling like they were still in that happy place.

Papa Early died a few months after that.  Heart attack, really sudden.  I wish I could remember him better.

What’s your greatest fear?

Well, if you want to stay focused you can’t think about fear!  So I’ll pass on this one.

If you died tomorrow, what should your epitaph be?

What kind of question is that?!  And what’s an epitaph?  Like, what you put on your gravestone?  Okay, if you want to know how I’d like people to remember me, how about Shelly Alvarez: a Real Shooting Star.

But really, it’s a stupid question.


To see how other characters answered these same questions, here’s Bender and Igor.

Character Qualities – I

May 21, 2015

In my school talks, I often ask the kids what type of stories they like: lots of action, or interesting characters?  Most authors tend to write either plot-driven or character-driven stories, though they may rightly strive for pleasing balance of each.  I’m a character-driven writer.  The story doesn’t really start moving until I know the characters well enough to let them take over the story (even though they don’t, really—the author is always in charge!).  Getting to know them takes time, but one exercise I’ve found helpful is

The Interview

That is, about halfway into the first draft, I  figuratively sit everybody down and ask them a set of  questions, which they must answer directly, as if they themselves were writing or speaking.  Some details of their answers are already in the manuscript; others will never find a place in the story.  To answer these questions, I have to use what I’ve already decided about them, what I’ve come to know, and what I might be able to feel my way toward.  Something always turns up that surprises me!

During a visit this week with fifth-graders at Daniel Wright Junior High, I asked which interview they’d like to read from Somebody in This Bus Is Going to Be Famous.   Several characters got votes, but the majority went to



(You didn’t know that was his full name, did you?  He’s very honored to be picked.  Not to mention very surprised.)

Thank you, Daniel Wright fifth-graders, for choosing my first posted interview!

What’s your favorite color?

Puke.  (Stupid question)

What do you think is your strongest quality?

Survival, baby.

In what area of your life would you like to improve?

What’s to improve?

Who had or has the most influence on you?  How and/or why?

Oh, come on.  Everybody knows that.

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

What friends?

Okay, if I had any, they would say I’m darkly humorous, deeply mysterious and a kick-butt Call of Duty player.  I know that’s more than three words.  I can count.

What do others not understand about you?

Everything!  That’s the story of my life, man: tragically misunderstood.

Okay, if you insist . . .

Everybody assumes I hate my brother.  Or at least that I resent my brother.  Only I don’t.  Resent, maybe a little.  But I definitely don’t hate him.  The truth is, I’m proud of him.  Who wouldn’t be?  And there was a time, I’m told, when he was proud of me.  My mom says he’d always wanted a little brother, and when I finally showed up it was like every Christmas and birthday present rolled up in one.  He was eight then.  Mom says he was the best big brother any kid could ever hope for (like, big surprise).  She was working part-time at the real estate office, and Dad had just accepted the claims-adjuster job, so they were busy.  Thorn was like Dad, junior.  He did everything—feeding, changing, burping—once he even got up at night to walk the floor with me when I was sick (Mom says).  He did all his other stuff, too: top grades, sports, and all, but when he was at home he was all mine.  I’d cry for him when he wasn’t around, and go into paradoxes (is that the word?  Doesn’t look right) of joy when he showed up, because he’d piggy-back me all over the neighborhood and read to me and push me on the swings and stuff.  It’s not just Mom who says so.  We moved to Hidden Acres when I was two, and all the neighbors tell me (and tell me and tell me) that they’d never seen a big brother like Thorn.  I wish I could remember.  But I guess, in some way I do.

Because I don’t hate him.  I love him, probably more than anybody.  And I guess he loves me too but he outgrew me.

He made me laugh, he made me mad.  And sometimes—oh man, I’ve never said this to anybody—he comes close to making me cry.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years I’ll either be hiking through Tibet or working on a shrimp boat out of Louisiana.  What other options are there? Legal, I mean.

What was the happiest moment of your life?

My happiest moment was probably one I can’t remember.

What’s your greatest fear?

My greatest fear is fear itself!

No seriously, my greatest fear is probably finding out who I really am.  I’ve been coasting along as anti-Thorn but that’s not necessarily me.  My grandma—the one who traveled, and died a couple years ago—she was the only one in my family who didn’t look at me through my big brother, and I kinda think that if she’d lived longer she might have had a clue.  It might’ve helped, you know?  A little positive reinforcement.  I’ll find out sooner or later.  But what if I don’t like me?

If you died tomorrow, what would you ideal epitaph be?

Here lies Thorn Thompson’s brother.

Good thing I’m not dying tomorrow, huh?

Who’s your favorite character in fiction?  If you could ask them these questions (or any others you think might be interesting), what would they say?

I’m a Believer . . . in the Oxford Comma

May 8, 2015

My story: I didn’t even know what the Oxford Comma was, but in general, I was against it.

For instance, what’s the difference between these two sentences?

Grandma sent me to the drug store to buy shampoo, toothpaste, and corn plasters.Oxford-Comma

Grandma sent me to the drug store to buy shampoo, toothpaste and corn plasters.

Eagle-eyed readers will immediately see that the difference between these two sentences is one little comma, which appears to have no particular use and adds no additional meaning.  When you are listing items in a sentence, the “and” is a signal that you’re wrapping up the list and the list does not need doesn’t need that sporty little curve with the dot at the top that looks like a tadpole with a ruptured appendix.  It’s redundant.  I hate redundancy.  I take commas out whenever they don’t appear to be needed, and if copy editors put them back in, I will sometimes (if I’m very, very sure) take them out again.

But . . . all the experts said that items in a list must be distinguished by a comma before the “and.”  Much as I hate redundancy, I hate incorrectness more.  How mortifying, to be passed over for the Newbery or National Book Award because I disdained the Oxford comma.  That’s almost like disdaining Laurence Olivier, or telling William and Kate their new baby is ugly.  (Which she isn’t.)

So I accustomed myself to using the Oxford comma without knowing the reason why.  Sometimes it’s wise to obey the rules even if you don’t understand the reason for the rules; else you may end up looking silly.  As I would have, if I persisted in my disdain and wrote something like this:

Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.

This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

Highlights of Peter Ustinov’s global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800 year-old demigod and a dildo collector.*

. . . .oh.  I get it.

Adding the Oxford to items in a list is merely to distinguish it from items of attribution, such as those falsely and ignominiously attributed to Haggard’s ex-wives, parents, and Nelson Mandela.  Notice the Oxford comma in the last sentence: does it appear to be wagging its head and nodding its little head at you?  That means I told you so.

But don’t get me started on apostrophes . . . .

Or elipses . . .

* These examples have been floating around the web for a while and may be apocryphal.  Apologies to Nelson Mandela.

Bits, Pieces, and Memories–What Stories Are Made of

April 8, 2015

The three questions children’s authors get from kids:

  • What made you want to be a writer?
  • Which of your books do you like best?
  • Where do you get your ideas?

When asked in a school setting, authors attempt to answer either seriously or cleverly, but in conversation with peers they roll their eyes and share some of the clever answers.  When you think about it, though, these are profound questions and the answers are deeply mysterious. When someone asks, What made you want to be a writer? They are really asking

What compelled you to sit for hours at a desk, all alone, struggling with self-doubt and fear and blank page phobia (surely there’s medical designation for that), all for the sake of the occasional blaze of satisfaction when you know you’ve expressed a cogent thought in a totally appropriate way, when there may be no lasting spiritual satisfaction from it, much less financial?

The answer: I have to.

Which of your books do you like best? is actually

Which story that you labored to give birth to–suffering discomfort and random interior kicking and fond fuzzy dreams, and that now, in the glare of day, is subject to unfeeling reviews and mass indifference, if not rejection (and that’s provided it got published in the first place; the questioner doesn’t even know about the miscarriages)—do you prefer?

The answer: What do you mean, ‘my books’?  They haven’t been mine since the public got hold of them.

Where do you get your ideas? might seem like the easiest to answer because it’s looking for specifics, not tortured analysis.  But even then, specifics may be elusive, especially when it comes to the grand overarching idea of a book like (just for instance) The Giver.  The relationship between the elements of fiction—or any work of art—isn’t easy to distinguish.  As Dorothy Sayers speculates in The Mind of the Maker, the Idea (or inspiration) is so embedded in the Energy (the execution, or work itself) which both are so impacted by the Power (responses to the work), that separate strands are impossible to tease out. A story begins with an Idea that somehow muscles its way to the front of the author’s mind, but it comes already trailing bits of plot and character and pieces of aha! response.  I attempt a definition:lowry

A story is an artificial bird made of scraps and strands that acquires a life of its own during its making and, when complete, flies away.

Speaking of The Giver (and finally getting around to what this post is about), last week I attended “An Evening with Lois Lowry,” sponsored by our local library as the kickoff event of this month’s One Read program.  The event organizers booked a large auditorium but not large enough.  Those who were late (i.e., 25 minutes early rather than 35), were turned away like foolish virgins (not an insult; see Matthew 25:1-13).  I managed to be 35 minutes early, no credit to me.

Anyone who’s interested in children’s literature, or anyone who is a child who likes to read, is familiar with The Giver, so I wasn’t surprised at the turnout. But Lois Lowry surprised me in the best way.  Her talk did not appear to have any structure—it was sort of like life, where the years go one way and the memories go another and things you study you don’t learn while the unexpected lessons end up making you what you are.   Family began her story, as it should: father, a career navy medical officer; mother, an avid reader; older sister and first reading teacher; little brother who came along late.  Lowry was born in Honolulu in 1937 and spent her first two years on the beach under the shadow of the US naval fleet.  They moved back to the states before that Day that Shall Live in Infamy.  She remembers her mother being lonely during the long war years when her father was deployed to the Pacific, but when peace returned he was allowed to take the whole family to Japan.  Lois, then 11, expected exotic locations, but the family moved into the brand-new all-planned-out neighborhood for military families, which looked just like Main Street USA.  The real Japan was elsewhere, beyond the straight streets and tall fences of her cozy community.

The years fly: back to the States, more moving, high school, college cut short for marriage, four children.  Her parents lived long, but the years did cruel things to their memories: her mother recalled sorrowful events with all the pain as if they’d just happened.  Her father kept forgetting why his oldest daughter wasn’t around anymore (an early death from cancer).  Lois started thinking about memory.  What if memories could be manipulated, or dismissed, or brought back?giver

She inherited an interest in photography, as well as her first camera, from her dad.  It turned out to be more than an interest; for a while it was a profession.  In fact, the iconic figure on the cover of her most famous book has a name: Carl Gustav Nelsen, a Norwegian neighbor.  Lowry herself took that picture.

Her remembered life, non-linear and self-sorting, took its own wavering shape as she talked to us.  She pulled strands of family, memory, photography, and place and wove them back into her stories.  When she first pictured “the Community” of The Giver, where everyone served a preassigned purpose and abhorred the unexpected, it was the all-American navy base in Japan she had in mind.  Likewise, the “elsewhere” outside the community gates modeled the expansive territory her hero Jonas escaped to.  The Community can control its citizens only because collective memory has been manipulated (i.e., eradicated).  Preserving and passing on mankind’s memory, just in case it’s needed, is the Giver’s function. Thus the bird was furnished, and with character and conflict, it came to life.

Of course, she had to talk about the movie.  Two things she liked: the expansion of the Director’s role (obviously Meryl Streep couldn’t play a bit part!) added depth to that character that even the author had not appreciated.  And Lowry thought the way memories were transmitted in the movie was much better than having Jonas lie on a table while his mentor pressed memories through his bare back (slides of some disturbing covers from foreign translations made that point).  Another thing she liked: the 22,000 books that filled the shelves of the Giver’s quarters were purchased new and later donated to schools in South Africa, where most of the movie was filmed.

Outside in the lobby stacks of books were waiting to be signed, so she didn’t have much time for questions.  The reliable Big Three showed up, even though I think she already answered them.

One more thing: an amazing story I’d never heard.  She lived in Japan from the ages of 11 through 13, those classic transitional years so rich for authors who write middle-grade novels.  She wasn’t confined to “the Community”—shortly after moving to Japan, her parents bought her a green bicycle and allowed her to explore “Elsewhere” to her heart’s content.  Tokyo was rebuilding rapidly after the war and prospects were looking up.  Still, she found the Japanese characteristically reserved, and she was not the most outgoing person herself.  But there was one boy who looked to be about her age, whom she saw so often they became acquaintances of a sort.  They never spoke, but always looked, and sometimes nodded to each other.  For some reason, she never forgot him.

Fast-forward 45 years.  The Giver wins the 1994 Newbery Gold Medal for excellence in children’s fiction. That same year, a book called Grandfather’s Journey wins top honors for illustration.  At the awards event that summer, Lowry meets the illustrator Allen Say and shares some of her life story.  On learning that her father was stationed in Tokyo, he says, “Really?  I grew up in Tokyo.”  Obviously his heritage was Japanese.  That’s what Grandfather’s Journey is about—heritage, family, growth and change.  “What year? Where did you live?”  More and more recollections spill out between them, faster and faster, until he asks, “Were you the girl on the green bicycle?”

And some say there is no God.  Story itself, an unpredictable fusion of spirit and flesh, gives the lie to that one.

Teacher’s Lounge: The Search for Delicious

April 3, 2015

In 1969, Natalie Babbitt published The Search for Delicious, in which a king’s quest to discover what food should be the definition of “delicious” in the royal dictionary almost touches off a war between kingdoms.  (Babbitt is best known for Tuck Everlasting–now 40 years old–but Delicious deserves to be reread to a classroom of, say, fourth-graders.)  The title presented itself to me when I was putting together a series of workbooks on creative writing.  Rather it (the title) slipped in through the back door as I was writing a lesson on adjectives.  How many words do we have to describe food?  They say Inuit languages have umpteen words for ice, because ice is so important to them.  That might just be arctic legend, but I know for sure that Americans can lay tongue to dozens of adjectives that can be applied to food, because we have lots, and eat lots.   Food, in its voluminous variety and abundance, makes an excellent motif for teaching about adjectives.


And I don’t mean qualitative adjectives, like scrumptious, yummy, or toothsome.  We throw these around all day–well, except for toothsome–but they don’t actually describe anything except our feelings.  You might have a great day at the beach while your cousin has a great day at the library.  You would get bored at the library; she would get sunburned at the beach, so you would have conflicting definitions of what makes for a great day.  Same with food: what’s delicious in a potato chip is is not so much in a chocolate chip.

Stretch your students’ descriptive vocabulary by teasing their palates.  Bring in 6-8 foods with varying tastes and textures and serve small amounts of each for snack time.  These could be pretzels, grapes, apple slices, tortilla chips, marshmallows, raisins.  Ask the students to think about what makes each one “delicious” and write two or three descriptive adjectives for each.  Some interesting distinctions to make: what’s the difference between tangy and sour?  Crunchy and crispy?  Gummy and chewy?  Spicy and fiery?  And what about words that mean roughly the same thing, but one is positive while the other is negative–like moist/stale, firm/hard, crunchy/dry, tart/sour?

Make a list of “delicious” adjectives ahead of time and write them on the board.  Your students will be amazed!  And so will you.