Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Conversation with Linda Urban-- Part Four

And here it is—the final installment of writerly conversation between Linda Urban and myself. Today is all about character development and debut year. If you missed any of the first three posts, click the day you’d like to view:    Day 1  Day 2  Day 3 

Me: In The Center of Everything, Ruby is superstitious and wonders if one choice could alter her future. This quote is from your website

"On New Year's Eve, I write down all the things I want to happen in the year upcoming and then stick the list behind my mirror. And guess what? For the past few years most of those things have happened. 

Now, my rational side says that this is because every time I look in the mirror, my subconscious is reminded of what it is I want and encourages me to work all the harder to get it. But the other part of my brain knows it is magic.

This, to me, is a Ruby rationale. I love it. What other parts of yourself have permeated your characters? 

Linda: I don’t know that I can write a character without understanding that character in myself.  Some of those bits are small.  I wasn’t one of the popular kids, but I do remember days when I felt “chosen” by them and how momentarily powerful that felt.  That feeling is in Crooked’s Emma Dent.  I wasn’t desperately shy, but there have been times when I’ve walked into a room and felt both invisible and painfully examined at the same time.  That’s Mattie Breen in Hound Dog True.  I’m not sure how you could write a character who didn’t have some connection to yourself, to things you’ve felt, to emotions you’ve known. Can you do it?

Me: No. Not with my main characters. But my secondary characters often mirror specific types of people that I’ve known—people I’ve observed acting one way or another, people that I have formed opinions or made assumptions about in much the same way my main characters observe the secondary characters and form opinions and make assumptions of their own. As I revise, I’ll add backstory and layers to each character. It’s a process.

Are your characters fully formed before you type the first word, or do you get to know them as you write?

Linda: Oh lordy, no.  I know almost NOTHING about my characters, or even my story, when I start.  They show up and walk around and talk – mostly talk – and I learn who they are.  Actually, that description might be misleading.  It sounds like they are external things and I’m watching them and taking notes.  It’s not that at all.  I’m inhabiting them and writing with them.  Sort of.   

Me: As a debut author, and for all other debut authors, I would love some sage advice. How did you deal with the distractions of debut year? By distractions I am referring to nervously awaiting the arrival of professional reviews, wondering if anyone out there would connect with your book, worrying that you’d never finish another (and knowing full well you wouldn’t if you didn’t stop worrying!). How did you turn off all that noise in your head and get back to writing another book? Or were you the picture of serenity?  

Linda: How did I deal with those distractions?  Poorly.  I was an incessant self-googler. I knew the advice to get working on something else and I tried that, but the book I had been attempting wasn’t working and even though I had an open contract, my editor and I agreed that book was not really to be the next published one. And I had no other ideas.  So for several months I just googled and panicked and googled and worried and googled and tried to convince myself that if I just calmed down, something would come. It did – but it took a very long time.

So, by way of advice I say this:  Try to work on something else.  If you don’t know what that something else is, give yourself a learning project that you don’t intend to publish.  Tell yourself you will write a six line poem a day.  Or that you’ll write a monologue a week, each from the perspective of a kid you see at the mall or at your son’s preschool or in the background of your favorite show.  Whatever it takes to balance your author self with your writer self. 

Oh, and don’t look at GoodReads if you can help it. 

Me: I am sorry, Linda, but I’m relieved to know this. I pictured you serene and laid back. I guess the truth of the matter is, all authors struggle with distractions. Thank you for your honesty.  

Linda: Here’s a question for you: What do you think people in the business forget or don’t even know about what it is to be a debut author?  What do you wish they knew or remembered?

Me: I think perhaps people forget how overwhelming the whole experience can be. You feel like a microscopic minnow in this massive sea of talented authors and seasoned professionals. It’s rather intimidating to try and keep pace with that. Publishers don’t have the time to usher us through the process, and so it can feel like you’re wading out into the waters alone, and you don’t even know how to swim. You’re just crossing your fingers that someone will at least toss you a pair of water wings. 

Being a debut author can be scary and that causes lots of worry. At the end of the day, I put tons of pressure on myself to do everything right. Sounds a bit like Ruby Pepperdine and Lizzie Hawkins. Everything comes full circle.

And that’s it, folks. Linda and I hope you enjoyed this long peek into our even longer email chat. It has been a pleasure chatting with Linda, and it was fascinating to learn that our journeys into the world of kidlit were quite similar. You can keep up with Linda by following her on Twitter and through her blog.

Last, but in no way least, a sincere thank you to Linda for taking the time to talk with me. I am honored and eternally grateful.  

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Conversation with Linda Urban

I’m thrilled to have one of my favorite authors on my blog today, the gracious Linda Urban, continuing the conversation we shared through email several weeks ago. I recently read her newest middle grade novel The Center of Everything and fell madly in love with both the story and the main character Ruby Pepperdine. 

Ruby is mourning the loss of Gigi, her beloved grandmother who was both warm and wise. Ruby believes she wronged Gigi on the day she died and is desperately trying to find a way to make it right. Readers join Ruby for the annual Bunning Day Parade, where she is destined to read her winning Bunning Day essay to the townsfolk. If she gets it just right, and if her twelfth birthday wish comes true, all will be well. But Ruby is afraid she’ll make a misstep and mess everything up…again—just as she has with her best friend Lucy and new friend Nero DiNero. Ruby is sweet, superstitious, and sensitive—traits that made me love her all the more. Aside from Ruby, I was especially fond of Nero, an inquisitive guy with personality and smarts to spare. If you haven’t, do read this book. You won’t be disappointed.

If you’d like to read the beginning of our conversation, head over to Linda’s blog.  

Me:  You mentioned a year's worth of reading middle grade novels in preparation for writing one. I remember taking a trip to my local library after I’d officially given up on picture books and leaving with a stack of middle grade novels. The first book I read was Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis. By the time I’d reached the end, I was thinking, Yes. I want to do this. I want to write books like this. Was there any particular moment or book that served as a sign or strong inspiration for you to tackle writing A Crooked Kind of Perfect?  

Linda: Picture book writer Lisa Wheeler recommended I read Donuthead by Sue Stauffacher as a model. I read Donuthead  and I loved it – but it didn’t change the fact that I thought writing a novel was beyond me.  What it did do was inspire me to read more middle grade.  After all, a lot of great books had been written since I was last caught up in Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Among the books I read were those by Jerry Spinelli, Patricia MacLachlan, Louis Sachar, and Sharon Creech.  Each of those writers was a teacher for me; each of their books, a model.

Me: Oh, I love Lisa Wheeler! She gave a picture book boot camp in Nashville, TN before I began writing middle grade. I made the trip from Birmingham to Nashville to attend. It was fantastic. She wore army fatigues and everything. She’s a great teacher and a true master of rhyme.

Linda: I agree.  Lisa is great.  And she made a great recommendation.

Me:  And in regard to each author you named, that is precisely the way I feel. Their books gave me something to aspire to. They still do.

Linda: I know!  I mean, look how in Granny Torrelli Makes Soup we know who Rosie is on the very first page – we know she’s angry, we know she’s sort of embarrassed by her anger, we can hear her Italian roots in her cadence, and we know she cares a lot about Bailey.  That Bailey.  Most important to me at the time was this:  That first page, that first few lines?  That was the whole chapter!  It was like Sharon Creech had given me personal permission to write in short bits – many no longer than a picture book – and let them add up to a novel. 

Have you seen this article? In it is this quote:  “Beauty breeds beauty, truth triggers truth.  The cure for writer’s block is therefore to read.” Do you read when you’re writing?  Kids books?  Grown-up books?  Fiction?

Me: What a lovely quote. I do read when I’m writing. My editor is the perfect editor for me because she actively encourages me to do so. I know many writers choose not to read when writing because they fear unwittingly plagiarizing another author. I don’t. When I stop reading, my creative well dries up. I glean inspiration from reading. And as you said earlier, experienced authors are my teachers and their works are my textbooks. I learn so much about craft from reading.

The books I typically read while writing are children's books and books on craft—the former for inspiration, the latter for when I inevitably get stuck. My favorites are The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children by Nancy Lamb, Second Sight by Cheryl Klein, and because I’m currently obsessed with plot, ThePlot Whisperer by Martha Alderson. I also adore Martha’s YouTube series. It's wonderful if you want to take a stab at pre-plotting.  

And that’ll do it for now. Thanks for stopping by! Be sure to visit Linda’s blog where she has posted Part Three of our chat: why we write middle grade, how that has changed us, and our first-drafting states of mind. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Blast from the Past

Children's Book Week will soon end, but before it does I would like to pay my respects to children's books by spotlighting the books that I remember reading as a kid. Bear in mind that I began reading during the mid- to late 80s, and these books certainly reflect that era. I also listened to tons of audiobooks on cassette tape. If I'm being completely honest, I would do anything to listen to them once again; however, I didn't have the foresight to hang on to my cassette player. Ebay, here I come!

So here we go, starting with the very first thing I remember reading and ending with middle grade novels.

I learned to read by reading (nope, not books):

Why, oh why, did they have to stop making this cereal? I still have cravings for it. My fave cereal ever!

Cereal boxes!!! That's right. I learned to read by deciphering words on cereal boxes over breakfast. It's a habit I never managed to break. I still read cereal boxes (or cookbooks) at almost every meal. Old habits die hard.

Disney's Fun-To-Read Library books:

Disney's Read-Along books:

Other books on cassette tape:

P.S. These books made me laugh out loud each time I listened to them. Love!

Middle grade novels:

I read Charlotte's Web over and over again. The last line still makes me cry.  Best last line ever. Ever.                        

I have always had a mild obsession with horses, so Marguerite Henry was a winning author in my book. It was Henry's Misty of Chincoteague and King of the Wind that first introduced me to the mysterious "stickered books". Yes, I read Charlotte's Web *after* these.  

My fifth grade teacher read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing aloud to our class. I loved it so much, I checked Superfudge out of the school library. This teacher also read aloud Louis Sachar's Sideways Stories from Wayside School. I loved my teacher and her taste in books. 

I read this book during my sixth grade year. I don't know how familiar anyone is with this book, and I can only vaguely recall the storyline even though I read it twice, but it must've made an impression on me since I still think of it every now and then. I would read a chapter, close the book and stare at the cover, read a chapter, close the book and stare at the cover...

So that's it (or at least all I feel comfortable stuffing into a single blog post)! What books do you recall from your childhood? Let's celebrate with memories. Happy Children's Book Week!

Monday, May 13, 2013


Oh, Lizzie, you’re such a naïf.

I know. It’s sounds like a not-so-nice word, but a naïf in literature is merely a character with lack of experience and lack of knowledge about the workings of the world. The word naïf, at its core, means one who is naive.

At just barely twelve years of age, Lizzie is indeed a naïf. She thinks she can do everything by herself. She believes her daddy will come home and save the day. She sees what she wants to see—namely everyone else’s mistakes, but rarely her own. I believe that most main characters in kidlit are naïfs in one way or another. After all, most children’s books carry themes of growing in maturity or garnering some wisdom about the wider world—essentially a naïf’s journey out of naivety. And, as it was with twelve-year-old me, it is certainly Lizzie’s naivety that gets her into the most trouble.

Did I create Lizzie the naïf purposely? Well, yes and no. Lizzie is barely twelve years old. She holds a largely skewed worldview—a worldview that often seems to begin and end with her. When I was an adolescent, I noticed the things in life that had a direct bearing on me. If the boy I liked talked to someone else, I noticed. If a group of kids were laughing at me, I noticed. If I made a bad grade, I noticed and dreaded the consequences. But if those same things were happening to someone else, I likely didn’t notice, or if I did notice, it didn’t bother me. In short, I thought my life was all of life. I didn’t yet hold the experience or wisdom of adults—I hadn’t “been there, done that” so to speak. I hadn’t gained wide perspective. I knew only a “me perspective”. At twelve, I was a naïf. At twelve, so is Lizzie. So, yes, I created her, but she came pre-wired with certain pre-teen tendencies.

Since adolescents and adults basically occupy to different realities, readers will likely connect with Lizzie on different levels based on their age. For example, I found it quite interesting that a fourth grade girl who recently read Every Day After wanted to know what in the world was wrong with Erin, but many adults who read the story ask what in the world is wrong with Lizzie! You see, the story is being filtered through two completely different worldviews—the first, the worldview of Lizzie’s peer, the latter, the worldview of Lizzie’s superior in life experience. Kids easily side with Lizzie and see Erin as the true villain. Adults can spot Lizzie’s mistakes and see where she continually causes more and more trouble for herself. 

Lizzie’s first-person narration reveals two sides to her story, though she doesn’t realize it. Much in the same way that we retell events with a bias to our viewpoint, Lizzie narrates the happenings in Every Day After with a bias toward herself. But, just as a parent can see straight through the one-sided stories of their child, readers will pick-up on cues and clues from other characters that Lizzie isn’t as faultless or as perfect as she believes she is. And what does this stir in readers who pick up on those cues and clues? Frustration with Lizzie.

But that’s okay! If readers didn’t become frustrated with her at some point during the story, they wouldn’t cheer for her quite as much when she finally wises up. Because as I said earlier, if most characters in children’s literature are naïfs in some way, then isn’t the point of telling their stories to watch them change and grow? I believe so. And that is the precise reason I chose Lizzie to narrate the events that take place in Every Day After. It is Lizzie who experiences the most significant emotional change, and that makes this her story. She may or may not wear on your patience as she makes that journey toward change, but that is the stuff of real life. People get on our nerves, even people we care about.

What are your thoughts on naïfs and unreliable narrators in the world of children’s literature? Are there different types of naïf—those you want to wrap in your arms and those whose neck you want to wring? Just as no two people are exactly alike, no two characters in kidlit should be the same. Each should be unique with a unique story to tell. Different narrators, different naïfs, all with varying levels of likeability and different stories—it all adds up to diversity in literature, and there’s an awful lot to like about that.   

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Teacher Appreciation Week

We're smack in the midst of Teacher Appreciation Week. What a lovely week! To celebrate, I would like to publicly offer my sincere thanks to the two teachers most responsible for the path I now find myself on--the Writing Path.

As a kid, I was in love with books. Writing? Not so much. I read tons. I wrote little. Mrs. Hall and Mrs. Whisenhunt inspired me to change that.

Mrs. Hall was my high school English teacher. Though I was homeschooled from ninth through twelfth grades, I took a group English course with several other students from tenth through graduation. I admit  to resisting my mother's initial efforts to get me to take the class. But she persisted (and insisted), and so I relented.

I loved Mrs. Hall and her class. In the three years I took English/creative writing from her, I don't recall pulling out a single workbook or textbook. She taught through novels and hands on writing exercises. We students worked on writing a group novel titled CLEMENCY. I can still remember scenes and plot lines from that novel. The class would form a semi-circle around Mrs. Hall as she sat at her computer. There we brainstormed plot and scenes. Later, we would find a quiet place to draft our version of the scene we'd discussed. It was fascinating for me to see firsthand how books were developed and came into being. Through Mrs. Hall's hands-on approach, I gained confidence in my writing abilities, and a love for writing itself.

Though Mrs. Hall had helped me to see that writing was fun, I did not want to be a writer. I wanted to be a marine biologist. When it was time for me to begin college, my cousin and I registered at the same institution, moved into a dorm room together, and I began pursuing a major in biology and a minor in marine science. I could see myself floating on a boat out in the ocean blue. wasn't meant to be.

For several personal reasons, I withdrew from college and took a job at a jewelry store in Birmingham. My cousin stayed behind.  Our English professor, Mrs. Whisenhunt, passed a note on to me through my cousin. She was asking me to come back and change my major from biology to english. She believed I had been pursuing the wrong major.

Did I heed her advice? No. I was young, and I was headstrong. I never went back to college.

But her words stuck with me. They stuck with me through marriage, through the birth of my two sons, through the days and weeks and months and years. And now, I am a writer. I have become what I was meant to be. And were it not for two intuitive teachers and their encouragement, I might never have found the right path for me.

So to Mrs. Hall and Mrs. Whisenhunt and all the teachers who work to inspire and nurture and encourage their students, thank you. Words alone cannot express the difference you make in kids' lives each and every day. You may never see firsthand the fruits of your labor, but I promise you, the fruits are there. You hold more power than you know.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

An Interview & ARC Giveaway

Would you like to win an ARC of Every Day After? Be sure to check out my interview on Faith Hough's lovely blog and leave a comment to enter her giveaway. The winner will be notified via email on Monday, May 13th.

I had a wonderful time pondering and responding to Faith's fabulous questions. I hope you enjoy reading them. Good luck!

Monday, May 6, 2013

A New Beginning

We all need a fresh start from time to time. That is why, on this first Monday in the month of May, I've created a brand-new blog. Frankly, I was growing weary of my previous blog. It was too busy and boring, and I wasn't motivated to post there. Bleh. So here I am, starting anew. I hope you like the change.

What's ahead?

Hopefully more content than has been present on my old blog. I have titled this one "Just Write", a quote from the beloved E.B. White. I chose these words as a reminder to do just that--whether I am referring to blogging or my next book.

So here's to new beginnings, to upcoming surprises, and to doing what it is you love to do!