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Reader’s Block

My job as a sixth grade language arts and math teacher keeps me jumping, and during the school year, I have found it best to shelve all thoughts of leisure-reading. This year, looking forward to winter break, I was all set to hibernate for a few days with Lauren Willig’s The Betrayal of the Blood Lily Product Detailsand Susan Vreeland’s Product DetailsClara and Mr. Tiffany. They were both a little on the thick side, but I was confident that I’d be able to finish them in two weeks.

Around that same time, one of my favorite friends from AgentQueryConnect, Sophie Perinot (a.k.a. Litgal, a.a.k.a. @Lit_Gal), announced that there was a contest on Goodreads to win an advance copy of her debut novel, The Sister Queens. I’d already pre-ordered it, but getting the chance to read it before the rest of the world did was intriguing, so I entered. And then I won a copy. Product Details

When it arrived, I was in the throes of getting ready for Christmas, so I added it to the pile on my nightstand.

Now I had three books to read. I mentally arranged them: Clara and Mr. T looked good, but it could wait because my book group wasn’t meeting until the end of January. A fan of Willig’s whimsical romances, I was tempted to pick up Blood Lily, but Sister Queens had a deadline because I’d told Litgal that I would write an advance review on my blog. The Sister Queens it was.

Despite my sons’ constant arguing over their yuletide haul of small electronics, I managed to get some reading in during the week before New Year’s. I was enjoying the book, and by page 185 was confident that I would finish by the time school resumed on the fifth, with maybe even enough time left over for Clara. And then the Kindle that I’d ordered with my Christmas gift-cards arrived.

Suddenly my interest was fixated on my own small electronic. At first I restrained myself to just figuring out how to use it, but when the purple leather case arrived two days later, I succumbed to downloading many of the titles I’d previously selected with my “Kindle for Mac” app. I couldn’t wait to try it out, but The Sister Queens e-book will not be available until March 6th, so I was out of luck in that department. I tried to satisfy myself by downloading the electronic version of Clara and Mr. Tiffany from the library for later, but I was itching to push those buttons, and really wanted to experience reading in bed using only one hand.

“You are not allowed to use your Kindle until you’re done with The Sister Queens,” I told myself sternly. Five or six times.

“It couldn’t hurt to read just a few chapters of something,” Myself said back. Agnes Grey, by Anne Brontë, it was.

Product Details

Unfortunately, Agnes’s woes of being a governess to a family of singularly unruly children ran in remarkable parallel to a recent classroom management situation of my own, and I couldn’t put it down. And then school started up again.

I still haven’t finished The Sister Queens, although I’m loving it whenever I get the chance. I was only able to get the first chapter of Clara read in time for book group, and Blood Lily has gotten knocked off the table and is under the bed somewhere, waiting for Presidents’ Day.

Will. Finish. Sister. Queens.

Stay tuned for my review…

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Filed under Book Reviews, Critical Thinking, Miscellaneous, Reading, Uncategorized

Best of the Blog I: In Defense of the Adverb

Although life should slow down after June 6th, the time I usually devote to the blog has been extremely limited lately. Rather than let it lie fallow, I have decided to post a few Best-of-the-Blog links. Enjoy.

In Defense of the Adverb

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Filed under Critical Thinking, Miscellaneous, Uncategorized, Writing

Getting Into the Mood

I have heard of many things that authors do to get themselves into the mood to write. They’ll use a special pen, listen to particular music, or eat certain foods that they feel will tempt their muse to come out and play.

I have found for myself that wearing a certain pink bathrobe seems to do the trick. I don’t know why, but when I snug into its cozy folds on Saturday mornings, I want nothing more than to sit at my laptop and write. Wearing this robe, I pounded out the first thirty pages of SECRET AGENT in one sitting, and have been struck with myriad ideas for blog posts — sometimes two or three at a time. I am actually wearing it in my avatar photo, although I cropped it closely enough that (hopefully) no one could tell.

Plum colored flowers on a fluffy ground of Pepto-Bismol pink, a clear lucite zipper pull and patch pockets with braided satin edging combine in a lightweight softness that borders on luxury. The robe happens to be two sizes too large, but it zips up the front so that I never have to retie a sash, and the mandarin collar keeps my neck toasty.

Ensconced in this billowy cocoon, only my hands need venture into the cool morning air, a steaming mug of tea nearby to warm them if necessary. With the cares of the week behind me, no demands other than a toppled pile of laundry and the white noise of my sons’ laughter as they watch cartoons, my mind is able to tune out the world and discern the quiet inklings of my muse.

What gets you ready to write?


Filed under Miscellaneous, Uncategorized, Writing

Conference Highlights/Helpful Hints: Part 1

I promised this for last Monday, but I had a busy week. Better late than never! 😉

The Northern Ohio SCBWI conference was great. It was exactly what I had hoped it would be, a small, well-organized conference with interesting presenters and tasty food. I wasn’t sure how much I would actually learn, because I’ve spent the last year soaking up information about the writing biz, but there were all sorts of things I didn’t know, and I am definitely wiser for the experience. I would highly recommend this conference for writers and illustrators.

Here are a few helpful tips that I picked up over the course of an information-packed weekend:


Agencies will commonly post guidelines for query submissions on their websites. If an author can’t invest the time to check an agency’s website for the proper parameters, why should an agent spend the time to read their submission? Hint: They won’t.

2. Don’t be afraid to be different.

Everybody knows when a trend has been done to death, but no one knows what the next big thing is going to be. Rather than trying to ride the coattails of the latest craze, it’s better to be brave and disregard what other people are writing. One needs to stay mindful of one’s audience, but it’s better to be a maverick than a copycat.

3. Small to medium publishing houses can be the best choice for new authors.

A common fantasy might be to sign with one of the Big Six and get a huge advance with lots of advertising, but in reality, the larger houses tend to focus on their established authors, and the little guy might not get everything he is looking for in terms of marketing or personalized attention. Small to medium houses, however, like the little guy. The advances might not be as big, but they tend to keep things in print longer, which translates into royalties.

4. Not every book has to start off with a bang.

A common recommendation online is that something dramatic needs to happen in the first few pages, or an agent will quit reading. I asked about this at the conference, and the agent replied that although he can pretty much tell if a book will be good by the end of the first page, some books don’t really take off until around page fifty, and that is perfectly acceptable.

5. Read, Read, Read.

Whatever your genre, get to know the market by reading, talking to librarians and teachers, volunteer at the library or get a part time job at a bookstore. When you think you have a good idea of what works, keep that at the back of your mind while you write.

Friday: Conference Highlights/Helpful Hints: Part Two – Attending a Conference


Filed under Critical Thinking, Miscellaneous, Uncategorized, Writing


I had to stop while driving the other day to ask a stranger for directions, and quickly regretted it. The man was willing to help, but after telling me how to get where I was going, he added, “otherwise, you could take a left at the Walmart, go down over the bridge and and then take a right after about two miles. Then you take a quick left over the tracks and it’s just past the frontage road. There are fewer traffic lights that way. The bridge is normally out, but lately there hasn’t been any rain, and it’s open.” (Okay, this is not exactly what he said, but you get the gist of it.)

I thanked him with glazed eyes, trying to keep his original instructions straight in my brain. Amazingly, I got where I was going, no thanks to his confusing directions.

This experience put me in mind of a large number of writing samples that I’ve seen posted online. The story is there, and sometimes it’s not bad, but it is buried in details and extraneous words that require the reader to work to figure out what the author is trying to say.

I made that mistake, when writing the first draft of Jim and Jack. I wanted the reader to see things the same way I did, in order to provide a better understanding of the characters and the story. When I read it over the first time through, I had a lot of trimming to do.

The best way to recognize this “overwriting” is to read the work of authors who are not yet published. When encountered, the issue is so obvious that it is much easier to identify in one’s own work.

Each person has his/her own style, but clarity is something that all writers should strive for. Nothing is worse than having to re-read a passage because it is too convoluted to “get” the first time through. If an agent has to do much of that, the manuscript is going to get rejected.


Filed under Critical Thinking, Miscellaneous, Uncategorized, Writing

So Little Time, So Many Writing Tasks

Is anyone else feeling bogged down with reading/writing activities right now?

(not necessarily in this order)

1. Finish reading the library book that I have been squeezing in between other time commitments, because it is due on Sunday and I’ve already renewed it the maximum number of times.

2. Complete the critique of a manuscript for two critique partners who have co-authored a novel (I’m only on page 35).

3. Rewrite my query letter (again!), this time baldly including the fact that my manuscript is really two stories that alternate throughout the novel.

4.“Attend” WriteOnCon for the next three days.

5. Finish reading Cry the Beloved Country. (My book group discussed it last evening, but I had only managed to get to page 104.)

6. Start reading next month’s book group novel (Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society).

7. Get back to either of the two manuscripts I’m in the middle of working on, which haven’t seen the light of day in months.

8. Read/comment on writer friends’ blogs.

9. Lurk on AQConnect.

10. Write my blog posts for the week.

I have been randomly chipping away at these tasks, but today decided to make a schedule and stick to it, at least until I can get the critiquing and reading under control.

What do YOU do when overload strikes?


Filed under Miscellaneous, Uncategorized, Writing

Time and Place: The Importance of Setting

The two main aspects of setting, time and place, form a matrix that ranges from the time of day to the outer reaches of the universe. Some books, such as The Road, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, are inescapably tied to their settings. Other novels could be set anywhere or anytime and it wouldn’t affect the story much at all. No matter what the genre, care needs to be taken to create a believable atmosphere that will keep the reader engaged.

Fictional settings take advantage of the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. If desired, an author can move back and forth between actual events and embellishment of the facts. The whole genre of Steampunk, for example, is based on taking a generally accepted stereotype of nineteenth century England and molding it to the writer’s will, an “alternative history.” When seamlessly done, the reader is immersed in another world.

Research is important for realistic fiction, because obvious inconsistencies will distract the reader. Authors Rosamund Pilcher and her son Robin use businesses and factories as settings, and their authentic portrayals of whiskey distilleries and woolen mills hook the reader on an intellectual level that lends credibility to their novels.

Historical fiction is largely built on facts, but the author is free to mix them up if the story calls for it. In the final pages of The Help, Kathryn Stockett notes that she moved the existence of Shake-n-Bake ahead a few years to advance some characterization in her novel. (These twists on the facts should be subtle for the best results. If Sacagawea is snacking on Twinkies, it’s going to pull the reader out of the story.)

Fantasy, paranormal and science fiction rely more heavily on a reality created by the author, but whatever the genre, the characters need to be consistent with their surroundings to fully connect the reader. The language used, clothes worn and social conventions of the time are all extensions of the setting. “Young ladies taking exercise by the shore” supplies a completely different image than “babes in bikinis at the beach.”

Setting is not just a backdrop to the storyline. When well constructed, it is the framework supporting a world that the reader can get lost in.


Filed under Critical Thinking, Miscellaneous, Reading, Uncategorized, Writing