Should You Be Friends with a Writer?

With writer friends Lindsey Leavitt and Crystal Perkins. Sure, we LOOK harmless enough...

With writer friends Lindsey Leavitt and Crystal Perkins. Sure, we LOOK harmless enough…

Writers are interesting human beings. Most of them are creative, and some of them can tell hilarious stories at parties. Many have an innate understanding of what makes people tick. And if you want someone to deconstruct every minute detail of what your crush’s text really means, we’re usually SO up for that. Overanalyzing language and reading between the lines? Yes, please!

On the other hand, being friends with a writer has its downsides. Continue reading ‘Should You Be Friends with a Writer?’

Writing Instruction: Tone and Mood

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When I was a teacher, it was difficult to get students to understand the difference between tone and mood. It’s understandable: tone and diction are what create mood, so without tone, mood doesn’t even exist. Diction, of course, is the writer’s word choice, while tone is defined by most dictionaries as “the manner in which a writer approaches the subject at hand.” Mood, then, is the feeling evoked in the reader based on the author’s choice of words and his/her tone. It’s a cause and effect relationship. Still, though, these definitions in and of themselves fall short of having any real meaning to students, which is why, when a splendid example of tone and mood comes along, it’s a great opportunity to show instead of tell.

The other day, syndicated columnist Jae-Ha Kim produced a most instructive piece of writing for illuminating tone and mood. If you want a wonderful lesson for your writing class, have them read Jae’s blog post called, “JiSun: Do You Remember My Sister?”  While most textbook examples of tone are merely “sad” or “happy,” Jae’s tone here could best be defined as confrontational or angry–probably a lot more interesting to study. Ask your students how she accomplishes that tone. Have them notice how beginning the piece with a direct address immediately points a finger in the offender’s face. Ask them how that beginning serves the piece differently than if she’d begun, “Once there was a girl who was mean to my sister.” Have them notice the series of one-sentence paragraphs with parallel construction, each beginning with the same word, “maybe.” Ask them to sum up the message to JiSun in one or two sentences. (My take? “My sister’s over it, but my mom and I aren’t. Watch your back.”) What you’re teaching them, then, isn’t just a fuzzy definition of tone, but rather how tone is constructed by the choices the writer makes.

Ask them how they feel after reading the piece. My guess is that they will feel unsettled. And why? Because the writer’s control of tone CAUSED that reaction. Tone CAUSES mood.

Finally, for a fun and educational writing exercise, ask students to write a reply from JiSun’s point of view. After all these years, is she defiant or remorseful? Their use of tone will make it clear who JiSun grew up to be.

MOMS’ NIGHT OUT Would Make a Great Moms’ Night In

I hope I didn't injure the other members of the press when I trampled them in order to stand next to Patricia Heaton in this photo.  LURVE Patricia Heaton!

I hope I didn’t injure the other members of the press when I trampled them in order to stand next to Patricia Heaton in this photo. LURVE Patricia Heaton!

Just got an email yesterday that the movie Moms’ Night Out is releasing on DVD. Such a fun movie!  I had the opportunity to meet the cast and interview the lovely Sarah Drew during filming…you can read her inspiring story here. At the time, I wasn’t a completely sucked-in uber-fan of The Middle, which is probably good because if I had been, I might have screamed, “I love you, Frankie Heck!” and tried to hug Patricia Heaton.  Probably not the most professional of moves, right?  (But how could you not love Patricia Heaton? She’s HI-larious!…Now, lower your head and whisper “HI-larious,” Brick-style.) Here are a few pics from the MNO set. If you’re a mom, I urge you to gather some of your other mom friends and have a Moms’ Night Out movie night.  You’ll love it. It will make you laugh, cry, and feel really, really good about the AMAZING job you are doing!

Hanging with Samwise

Hanging with Samwise

 

Never stand next to anyone as gorgeous as Sarah Drew in a photo if you can help it!

Never stand next to anyone as gorgeous as Sarah Drew in a photo if you can help it!

What I Like about You: Marissa Meyer

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Marissa Meyer, author of Cinder and Scarlet, tells us how she came up with the original and extremely popular Lunar Chronicles.  Enjoy!

How did you get the idea for Cinder?

MM:  I entered a writing contest a few years ago in which the host had listed about ten random prompts and writers had to choose two of them to include in their stories. My two prompts: set it in the future and include a fairy-tale character. My contest entry was a sci-fi version of “Puss in Boots” and I had so much fun writing it that I thought I would try to do an entire series of sci-fi fairy tales! (The ironic part of that story is that only two stories were submitted for the contest—and mine came in second. Ha!)

A couple months after that I was drifting off to sleep when the lightning bolt struck: Cinderella… as a cyborg! I crawled out of bed and spent about an hour brainstorming and jotting notes. That initial flood of inspiration eventually turned into Cinder and The Lunar Chronicles.

Even though your novel is based on the story of Cinderella, you did a lot of twists that were different from the original story–for example, Cinder having to use an old cyborg foot to go to the ball and losing it instead of leaving her shoe behind.  How did you decide when to deviate from the original fairy tale and when to stick closer to it? 

MM:  It was a lot of fun for me trying to figure out how close I wanted to stick to the story, versus how much of my own spin to give it. I started by making a very skeletal outline of what, to me, are the most iconic moments and elements of the Cinderella storyline – the girl treated like a servant, the pumpkin carriage, the ball, the slipper – and then brainstormed ways to futurize them. I also knew early on that this would be a multi-book series that would tell other fairy tales along the way, so I tried to weave in elements of many of them as early on as possible. For example, in Cinder we’re introduced to a new breed of wolf-like soldier that the evil queen is developing. It’s only hinted at in the first book, but those wolves become very important in Scarlet, Book 2, which is based on Little Red Riding Hood.

Prince Kai and Cinder are already falling for each other well before the ball.  Their relationship is more complex than the fairy tale’s “love at first sight” at the ball.  What made you decide to develop the relationship the way you did?  (Or why did you think it was important to do it the way you did?)

MM:  As much as I love fairy tales, I’ve always had a problem with the love-at-first-sight trope that’s so frequently used in them. I just don’t think it’s realistic to meet a guy at a ball, or be awoken from a curse, or whatever it is, and instantly fall in love and go live happily ever after. Relationships take time to build and strengthen, and I wanted the romances in these books to have strong foundations – and also to have to go through plenty of trials and tribulations along the way. I think it makes for a much more interesting story, and hopefully a much bigger pay-off in the end.

You made one of the stepsisters likeable and Cinder’s friend.  Why did you decide to do that instead of having the usual “two wicked stepsisters”?  How do you think that helped your story?

MM:  In the first few drafts of Cinder, both stepsisters were “wicked” and didn’t get along with Cinder. However, there’s a scene in the book in which something pretty awful happens to one of the stepsisters (I say, trying not to give any spoilers!). After reading it, one of my early readers told me that she wasn’t at all upset by this scene that was supposed to carry a big emotional impact. She didn’t like the stepsister so why should she care if something bad happened to her? So I decided to go back and change it so that the stepsister was bubbly and vivacious and one of the few people who cared about Cinder – I want readers to feel as if she’s their younger sister, too.

Did you write the whole novel before you sold it to a publisher?  And if so, how did you know you could end it with a cliffhanger?  How did you know you’d be able to have a sequel to finish Cinder’s story?

MM:  Yes, the novel was completed upon selling it to my publisher, and by that point I also had early drafts written of Books 2 and 3 and an outline of Book 4, so that when we were showing it to publishers I could give them a good idea of where the story was heading and why I’d chosen to end it on a cliffhanger. My idea for this series was always much bigger than could fit into a single novel and it was important to me that my publisher understood where I was taking it and supported my plans for the series. Luckily, Macmillan loved the concept and didn’t give me much trouble about the cliffhanger! I know it was the right decision for the story.

Thanks, Marissa!

 

What I Like about You: Elizabeth Eulberg

I’m always so impressed when a writer can take a classic story and make it meaningful for today’s teens.  A lot of great old stories have been recycled in the past several years, but not always well.  Elizabeth Eulberg‘s Prom and Prejudice, however, is a fun, page-turning take on the beloved Pride and Prejudice.  The best part about it is that a girl could read Eulberg’s novel without having read the original and still enjoy a wonderful story.  (She’d probably love it so much she’d want to read Austen’s immediately afterward.)   But for Austen fans, it’s fun to see how Eulberg reworks the original to make it new and relevant to a modern teen audience.  I seriously couldn’t put it down and had the dark circles under my eyes to prove it! Teachers, it’s safe for your reading list–nothing objectionable for parents to fret over.  Lots of fun, with good chemistry between the protagonist and the love interest. Eulberg’s newest, Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality, comes out this March.  (Props for the irresistible title!)

What I Like about You: Kieran Scott

A good storyteller makes you care about characters who, in real life, might not interest you or cause you to feel connected to them.  A good storyteller makes you care about these characters’ problems whether or not they’re the sort of problems you would normally care about.

Enter Kieran Scott.  I first heard about her novel I Was a Non-Blonde Cheerleader several years ago, but it was only recently that I had a chance to pick it up.  I had immediately loved the title (I’m terrible at creating titles, so I admire a catchy one) but didn’t think I’d be too into the book…cheerleading was never exactly in the cards for me.  When I was about twelve, my own dad ironically nicknamed me “Grace,” based on my unerring ability to routinely hurl myself into stationary objects for no good reason.  (But how cool that my dad taught me the valuable skill of being able to laugh at myself.  That one has come in handy more times than the ability to do a back flip, I’m sure!)  Growing up, I didn’t think cheerleaders had “real” problems; I would have scoffed at the suggestion that they ever worried about fitting in like the rest of us did.  So, I was all set to be immune to the charms of Kieran’s main character, Annisa, who is a short-haired brunette trying to fit in with the blonde Britney lookalikes at her new school.

But you know what?  I’ve got to hand it to Kieran…it wasn’t long before I actually really, really hoped the squad would accept Annisa and that they’d ace their competition and all end up great friends.  Go figure!  I can chalk my reaction up only to Kieran’s skill as a storyteller.  She made me care, and I enjoyed the book.  Fellow writers, read and learn.  Give your readers a reason to relate to your protagonist, and we’ll follow him/her anywhere.  Even to cheerleading competition!

What do YOU think about Kieran Scott’s novels?  Has anyone checked out the He’s So/She’s So trilogy?  On my list….

 

What I Like about You: Lindsey Leavitt

For some time now, traditional princess stories have been under fire:  they teach girls to be helpless and wait until their prince comes to rescue them, they give girls unrealistic ideas about love, etc.  Yeah, I get that.  But here’s what I also get:  an awful lot of girls like princess stories.  I mean really, really like them.  Maybe it’s the pretty dresses; who knows?  But something about princesses resonates with many girl readers.  Lindsey Leavitt, in her Princess for Hire series, pretty much gives us the best of both worlds:  her protagonist, a substitute princess, gets to enjoy the fun of being royal, but she also addresses the pitfalls.  It’s win/win.

What I like about Lindsey is that she’s not afraid to be fun, fizzy, and light.  A lot of agents and editors push authors to be edgy and gritty, but a good story is still a good story.  My own daughters absolutely loved the Princess series, and my middle school students were big fans of Sean Griswold’s Head.

And on a personal note, like Irene Latham, Lindsey is a friend to other writers.  She’s smart, encouraging, and upbeat…a lot like her work.

So, if you’re looking for a nice series for that daughter/niece/etc. for Christmas, consider Lindsey’s Princess books.  Perfect for elementary and middle grade girls.  The covers are so gorgeous, you’re sure to get a squeal or two when they unwrap your gift.

Behold the Coolest Thing EVAH!

So, I’m just sitting at my computer the other day when what should I find in my email but…a wonderful surprise from English teacher Gaylon Tuggle.

One of Mr. Tuggle’s Guntersville High School students wrote a song about Brand-New Emily!

Maddie Arnold, aka THE BOMB (OK, actually, I just made that name up for her two seconds ago, but believe me, it fits), wrote and performed “Gonna Be Brand New” for her class project.  It’s so good I can hardly control my giddiness!  I love the music and the lyrics, and can this girl sing or what?!  Maddie, thank you so much sharing your talent!

Here is the link to the YouTube video.  Enjoy!

 

What I Like about You: Irene Latham

There’s so much to like about Irene Latham, and not just as a writer.  But since this is supposed to be a series about what writers do particularly well, I won’t tell you how poised, lovely, kind, and smart Irene is as a person.  Instead, I’ll tell you why I’ve dubbed her the Queen of Texture.

In creative writing classes, they teach you to “write what you know.”  Irene doesn’t do that.  Well, not necessarily.  Unless she knows what it’s like to be the partially blind daughter of an Alabama sharecropper in the 1930s or what it’s like to be a boy who lives (yes, literally LIVES) at the zoo.  And yet, Irene makes it work.  I can only imagine the amount of research that must go into her books.  When reading (and teaching–I highly recommend Leaving Gee’s Bend for seventh grade English courses) her first novel, I never once felt that Ludelphia Bennett was anything less than 100% authentic.  Similarly, when I read Don’t Feed the Boy, I felt perfectly safe with Whit, who knows everything about the zoo animals.  Fun fact:  which zoo animal would be most likely to kill you?  Think about it and I’ll tell you the answer at the end of this post.  Also, did you know that boa constrictors don’t crush their prey?  Nope.  They squeeze them enough to cut off their air supply.  It’s Irene’s attention to details like these and how she seamlessly works them into the plot that adds such texture to her stories.  Her novels feel so authentic.

Of course, it’s also fun to read Irene’s prose because in addition to her work as a novelist, she’s an accomplished poet.  Her poet’s ear for language and her skill at description and metaphor come into play every so often, much to a careful reader’s delight.  For instance, in Boy, she describes Stella as looking “like she’d be good in a commercial for whole-grain cereal” and Ferdinand the peacock as “stride[ing] along on sunny days, as if he was the lone sheriff of some dusty goldrush town.”

I’d highly recommend Don’t Feed the Boy for fifth or sixth grade English classes.  There are plenty of parallels between human and animal behavior that would give teachers an opportunity to ease students into critical analysis of literature; plus, it’s a story that teaches kids about friendship and has plenty of age-appropriate peril to keep them interested.  (Neither of Irene’s novels will get you any phone calls from outraged parents–and I know from experience how real of a concern that can be for teachers!)

So that’s what I like about you, Irene Latham.  I’d love to know what other readers have to add to the discussion.

Oh, and the zoo animal most likely to kill you?

It’s the elephant.

Whassup, Escobedo Middle School?!!

As part of the Vegas Valley Book Festival, I had the opportunity to visit Escobedo Middle School and spend the day with several English classes.  Props to their teachers–these kids correctly answered all my questions about plot structure!  And because I’m a professional (kids: don’t try this at home!), I made up stories on the spot about several kids in each of the classes.  It was fun!  Best of all, I taught the students a valuable life skill:  how and when to say, “Roll Tide!”  (The answer to when?  Anytime!  Anytime is Roll Tide time!)  Thanks to Mrs. Baca for introducing me to these incredible students!