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Monday, June 20, 2016

DIYMFA: A Great Writing Resource

I am, I must admit, a bit of a fiend when it comes to collecting books on writing, a.k.a Craft Books. There's hardly a one I haven't perused, and many of them make it onto my shelves. (What can I say? Buying books is a bit of an addiction.)

Several years ago, I came across the DIYMFA website, the brainchild of Gabriela Pereira. Gabriela had earned an MFA herself, but saw the need to help others who might not have the time or the financial wherewithal to pursue a traditional MFA.

From the get-go, I was attracted by the design of the website, and by the way Gabriela Pereira organized things. (It came as no surprise to learn, while reading DIYMFA, that she has a masters in design as well as her MFA.) Gabriela was big on creating community also, and I enjoyed the conversational style in her regular emails to her blog subscribers.

I jumped, therefore, at the opportunity to join her "street team," and the chance to read her book DIYMFA (Writers Digest books, July 2016). I wasn't disappointed.

DIYMFA is the book I wished I'd had in my innocent little hands when I started my writing journey all those years ago. Organized in three parts--Write with Focus; Read with Purpose; and Build Your Community--it's cram packed with tips, insights and examples from some of my favorite writers. (Is it a coincidence that Gabriela and I share a love for Jane Austen, Harry Potter, and the Hunger Games? I think not.)

This is the meat of the book, where Gabriela tackles motivation, three act structure, creating characters, Point of View, dialogue, and revising in layers. Even if you've immersed yourself in craft books like yours truly, you will still experience new insights--from how to create a mind map, to using the acronym WORST to figure out what your character wants**, to revising in layers--courtesy of the revision pyramid.

**WORST stands for
W = What does your character want? What is her deepest desire?
O = What obstacles are in her way?
R = What will your character risk on the quest for this desire?
S = What’s at stake in your story? What will happen if the character fails?
T = How does your character transform or change on this journey?

When you study for an MFA, you immerse yourself in reading great books. Gabriela gives tips on how to build your own library, gives you permission to DNF a book (c'mon, life is too short if you are finding yourself slogging through a book), and shows you how to read as a writer. I particularly loved her thorough examination of Kate Chopin's short story, The Story of an Hour.

This section of the book is packed with advice about how to maintain a circle of trust, using the acronym CASA:
C = Critique
A = Accountability
S = Support
A = Advice or Apprenticeship

There are tools for how to start a critique group, and how best to critique another's work and accept the critique of your own. Gabriela is also very thorough when talking about crafting your author identity, and how best to  network at writing conferences. (I particularly liked her "Four-Step Networking Formula for Introverts," as "networking" always gives me the willies.)

DIYMFA concludes with a commencement address, including these stirring lines:
Writing is survival. You must stay on the battlefield after everyone
else has given into defeat. “Overnight success” is a myth. The secret is
to persist until everyone has given up and you’re the only one left standing.
Some people say that writers are born, not made, and I agree—but with
a twist. I believe that every single human on this planet is born a writer, it’s
just that most people give up somewhere along the way.
Don’t give up.

In conclusion, I have to say that with the tools imparted by Gabriela Pereira in DIYMFA, it becomes a lot easier to stay the course on the writing jungle gym! I'm eagerly awaiting the arrival of my copy after it publishes on July the 8th!

(Click this link to order it from Writers Digest for 24% savings.)

Monday, June 6, 2016

Middle Grade Mafioso makes the news!

Middle Grade Mafioso hit the big leagues yesterday, with a mention in Oregon's newspaper, THE OREGONIAN. The Don thinks we should rename June the 5th as Mafioso Day.

What is all of this about? Well, I have a friend (our sons are on the same baseball team) who is a journalist for The Oregonian. Knowing I was a blogger of repute, she emailed to ask for summer reading recommendations. I gave her a list a mile long, and she ended up featuring two titles (she had other experts on the case as well.)

The featured titles were Dianne K. Salerni's THE EIGHTH DAY and Kimberley Griffiths Little's THE TIME OF THE FIREFLIES. Both great books.

To see the full list in The Oregonian, go HERE.

Later in the week, I will be reviewing a tremendous writing resource, Gabriela Pereira's DIYMFA. Till then, ciao!

Saturday, June 4, 2016

YA FOR THE DAY: Beth Kephart's THIS IS THE STORY OF YOU, interview and giveaway

The Don and I are huge Beth Kephart fans, and when Chronicle Books invited us to be part of the blog tour for Beth's latest YA novel, we jumped at the chance. (We're taking down all the middle grade wallpaper and being YA for a day! The Don's even allowing himself to smoke a cigar in the press room.)

I've raved about Beth before--on my dearly departed blog THE YEAR OF WRITING DANGEROUSLY--and in reviewing her previous novels, Small Damages and You are my Only, I wrote: "Kephart's stories are full of secrets and hurts, of small and sometimes painful declarations of love, and of what it means to expose one's heart to the joys and sorrows of the world." In this new novel, I stand by these assertions.

This is the Story of You takes place on Haven, a six-mile-long, one-half-mile-wide barrier island. It's linked to the mainland by a bridge, a bridge over which Mira Banul's younger brother, Jasper Lee, must regularly cross to get the infusions that will allow him to live with Hunter Syndrome.

Mira describes herself as "medium everything." She's not going anywhere because, on Haven, she has "responsibilities." These include not only her family, but also her friends--particularly Deni and Eva. Into this 'haven' then, rides a colossal storm. The bridge is out, property destroyed, lives lost. Amid the devastation, though, people hang on. There are rescues, and the rise of a patchwork community. Secrets are revealed.

If there is a more wonderful fashioner of sentences than Beth Kephart, then lead me to her, because in my book Beth is the best. Her sentences sing on the page. They are sinews, and sparkles, and strong undertows. Beth Kephart's writing is proof positive that writing can rescue us, can lead us into dark places and back to the light again. At several points in the novel I cried, and the Don claimed that the cigar smoke was bothering his eyes.

I am thrilled that Beth took time to answer our questions. Here we go:

Middle Grade Mafioso, thank you so much for making room for This Is the Story of You—and for your questions.

1. Do your stories germinate from a "what if?" question, or from a glimpse of a character, or some other inciting factor? Was Hurricane Sandy's devastation the catalyst for This is the Story of You?
Oh, the mysteries of the writing process. I wish I could name all the inspirations, all the influences, but perhaps it is best that some of this remains a mystery even to me. When I am writing I am in a mood. I am hearing voices. I am seeing something far away that is coming closer and closer, so close that now I trap it with words.

I love the Jersey shore. I am devastated by rising seas. I imagine the future.  I study these storms. And I love young people, these kids who survive in the wake of calamity. I love Jasper Lee, my young character with Hunter’s syndrome because I had, as part of my job, twice interviewed a person with this condition and grown to be so fond of him.

But in the beginning, I heard a handful of words. I knew I’d be writing about the sea and storms. My husband and I went to Beach Haven off season so that I could feel that world deeply. I got up before dawn each morning and watched the dolphins and the dogs. And the story began there.

2. You have written many wonderful things. What is the greatest challenge for getting words on the page? What is the greatest delight?
Well, first, thank you. I appreciate your words. And — the greatest challenge for me is finding the time. This past year, I have spent most of my time with my father, sorting out and packing up and cleaning and staging and hoping to sell his home, while helping him move into his new home. There was no room for words in all that until, finally, the silence in my writing head burst and I discovered stories waiting for me. Too many stories, perhaps.

When I began to write again—only for a half day here, two hours over there—it seemed as if I had never written before. And I think that maybe it always feels this way. That the new story is the first story. And, all things being new, I have to teach myself how to write again. It’s all hard. It’s all worth it.

3. What words of wisdom would your current self impart to your younger writer self?
Don’t be afraid of all the time you will (because of family responsibilities, because of your paying job, because of how life gets in the way) spend not writing. Something is churning. Your stories will find you.

4. In This is the Story of You, one of your characters has a rare syndrome. How did you learn about this syndrome, and what steps did you take to research it for your character?
As part of my day job, I have interviewed patients for many, many years. Patients with all different conditions, hopes, therapies. I interviewed a young man with Hunter syndrome and met others with the condition. I wrote about the infusion medicine that helps him for many years. I was deeply inspired. I wrote Jasper Lee to honor those who are living with Hunter.

5. Morning person or night owl? Cheesesteak or hoagie?
Morning person, starting at 4 AM. But since my husband is a night owl, I don’t often go to bed until 11 or later.

Can I have a chicken cheesesteak, please? And if you are visiting my hometown of Philadelphia, I think we ought to talk about hoagies. (MGM: If I ever get the chance to visit Philadelphia, I would love to talk about hoagies, as well as writing and life, with Beth Kephart. Beth, I'm holding you to the hoagie conversation!)

Thanks for taking time on a Saturday, no less, for this very special post. A comment here, or on my Facebook link, will give you the opportunity to win a copy of THIS IS THE STORY OF YOU from Chronicle Books. (US and Canada only, please.) Have a great weekend, cari amici.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: CICI RENO #MIDDLESCHOOLMATCHMAKER by Kristina Springer

CICI RENO #MIDDLESCHOOLMATCHMAKER by Kristina Springer (Sterling 2016)

Somebody raved about this on Twitter (see, Twitter has some uses) and I immediately needed to read it for the tag-line alone: "She's Cyrano de Bergerac in yoga pants..."

I wasn't disappointed.

What It's About (via Goodreads blurb):
Middle school is a test, but Cici Reno has all the answers. She's the go-to girl for advice. She's cool, she's funny, and she's enlightened (thanks to yoga classes at her mom's studio). So when her pretty BFF, Aggie, is too shy to speak to the boy she's crushing on, Cici goes online and does the talking for her. The only problem is, Cici starts to fall for the guy herself! For the first time in her life. she doesn't have a clue.

Opening Lines: 
"Ugh. My nail polish is smudged. I glance around for something to wipe up the blue-green nail polish on the side of my toe. Spotting nothing else available on the pool deck, I decide to use my beach towel. There. Much better."

Things to Admire:
First off, the cover is brilliant--a real snatch-off-the shelfer. This book perfectly catches all the middle school drama, and Cici is an endearing character: quick-witted, intelligent, and a friend to all. Being a yoga fan myself--I have to be, working for The Don and enduring all the stress he puts me under!--I enjoyed the way each chapter began with a yoga-inspired tweet from Cici. (Although I have to say that Twitter, judging from my 7th-grade son's choices, is not the go-to media platform for middle schoolers. That would be Instagram.)

The middle-school voice was pure brilliance--and laugh-out-loud funny at times, from the way Cici bickers with her brother, to the comments she shares with her bestie, Aggie, about their teachers:
"...Mr. Adwell, the gym teacher. Did you know he's dating the school librarian? Guess he's been checking out more than books."
"Ewwww," Aggie says. "They're both, like, a hundred years old."
"Senior citizens need love too, Aggie. Don't judge." 
For writers: If you want to see how to write a fast-paced and humorous book set in middle-school, look no further than CICI RENO!

I was able to get in touch with Kristina Springer and ask her my Notorious Mafioso Questions. Here are her responses:

1) Who are your favorite (middle grade) writers?
Lauren Myracle, Meg Cabot, R.J. Palacio, Sarah Mlynowski

2) What's on your nightstand now?
An advanced copy of Howard Wallace, P.I. by Casey Lyall

3) Pick a favorite scene from your novel, and say why you like it.
I LOVE the scene at the hockey rink in chapter 27. I don't want to say too much but it's a goose-bumpy kind of scene.

4) Fill in the blank: I'm really awesome at.... being a mom. :-)

5) My favorite breakfast is... eggs w/ avocado slices

6) If you could visit any place, where would it be? Italy (MGM: Kristina, The Don says grazie!)

About the Author (from her website):
Kristina Springer is the bestselling middle grade and young adult author of The Espressologist, My Fake Boyfriend is Better Than Yours, the Just Your Average line of books (Just Your Average Princess, Just Your Average Geek, and Just Your Average Celebrity), and the forthcoming Cici Reno #MiddleSchoolMatchmaker (Sterling Children's/April 2016). She has a Masters in Writing from DePaul University and resides in a suburb of Chicago with her husband and children.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: MANIAC MAGEE by Jerry Spinelli

MANIAC MAGEE by Jerry Spinelli (1990)

Since confession is good for the soul, I have to admit I'd never read this Newbery winner until last week, when I took it with me to a beach retreat. The impetus for giving it a look was the book club I heard about, started by Andrew Luck, who is the quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts football team. (The mere fact of a quarterback starting an online book club was so intriguing that the Don and I were sold. The Don's reading this month's adult selection, which is The Boys in the Boat. I can see a lot of sailing in our future.)

I flew through the book, and I have to say: what took me so long?!

What It's About: 
Jeffrey Lionel "Maniac" Magee might have lived a normal life if a freak accident hadn't made him an orphan. After living with his unhappy and uptight aunt and uncle for eight years, he decides to run--and not just run away, but run. This is where the myth of Maniac Magee begins, as he changes the lives of a racially divided small town with his amazing and legendary feats.

Opening Lines (Prologue): 
"They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart a sofa spring."

Things To Love:
This has the feel of a fable to it. It is swift-moving, and deals with important issues (race, neglect, bullying, and loneliness) in a clear-eyed yet humorous fashion. As you can see from the opening lines of the prologue, the sentences sing with a giddy inventiveness. You can open any page of this novel and find wondrous descriptions--Maniac's sneakers are said to be "hanging by their hinges and flopping like dog tongues." The novel also shouts its Americanness unabashedly, with scenes of football and baseball, prizes like a weekly pizza, and a zoo which includes buffalo. I think it would make an exuberant read-aloud, and I can't wait to read it to my soon-to-be 4th grader. I can see why this is considered a modern-day classic.

About the Author:
When Jerry Spinelli was a kid, he wanted to grow up to be either a cowboy or a baseball player. Lucky for us he became a writer instead.

He grew up in rural Pennsylvania and went to college at Gettysburg College and Johns Hopkins University. He has published more than 25 books and has six children and 16 grandchildren.
Jerry Spinelli began writing when he was 16 — not much older than the hero of his book Maniac Magee. After his high school football team won a big game, his classmates ran cheering through the streets — all except Spinelli, who went home and wrote a poem about the victory. When his poem was published in the local paper, Spinelli decided to become a writer instead of a major-league shortstop.

In most of his books, Spinelli writes about events and feelings from his own childhood. He also gets a lot of material from his seven adventurous kids! Spinelli and his wife, Eileen, also a children's book author, live in Pennsylvania. WEBSITE

What other Jerry Spinelli books should I read? (I've read EGGS, but that's it.)

Monday, May 2, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: BOOK SCAVENGER by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

BOOK SCAVENGER by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman ( Henry Holt, 2015)

What It's About (via Goodreads):
Twelve-year-old Emily is on the move again. Her family is relocating to San Francisco, home of her literary idol: Garrison Griswold, creator of the online sensation Book Scavenger, a game where books are hidden all over the country and clues to find them are revealed through puzzles. But Emily soon learns that Griswold has been attacked and is in a coma, and no one knows anything about the epic new game he had been poised to launch. Then Emily and her new friend James discover an odd book, which they come to believe is from Griswold and leads to a valuable prize. But there are others on the hunt for this book, and Emily and James must race to solve the puzzles Griswold left behind before Griswold's attackers make them their next target.

Opening Lines: 
"Garrison Griswold whistled his way down Market Street, silver hair bobbing atop his head like a pigeon wing. He tapped his trademark walking stick, striped in Bayside Press colors, to the beat of his tune."

Things to Love:
Book Scavenger was another middle grade Cybils finalist, and it's very easy to love. Bertman has come up with a super concept--a book scavenger hunt--and who among us didn't love clues and ciphers and treasure hunts when we were young? (I mean, some of us may still do!)

The setting--in San Francisco, one of my favorite cities--is great. (There's even a chase down Lombard Street. How cool is that)

Book Scavenger reminded me a little of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library, but I found the friendship between Emily (the main character), and her neighbor James to be better drawn than in the latter title. Bertman does a great job of describing what it feels like for a 12-year-old to be moving all over the country and the loss of stability that engenders.

Also, if you're a Poe fan, you will really enjoy all the Poe details and allusions. I can't wait to read the sequel (which is scheduled for January 2017!)

About The Author (from website):
Jennifer Chambliss Bertman writes stories with a bit of mystery, a bit of humor, and a lot of fun. Her debut novel, Book Scavenger (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt for Young Readers), was an Indie Next Kids’ Top Ten Pick, a Junior Library Guild selection, and one of five titles chosen for Publisher’s Weekly Best Summer Middle Grade Books for 2015, among other accolades. A sequel titled The Unbreakable Code will be published in 2016, followed by a stand-alone middle grade mystery in 2017. She has an MFA in creative writing and worked in publishing for over a decade before becoming a children’s book author.

Photo by Joseph Jestes

Monday, April 25, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: LISTEN, SLOWLY by Thanhha Lai

LISTEN, SLOWLY by Thanhha Lai (Harper, 2015)

What It's About (from Goodreads blurb):
A California girl born and raised, Mai can't wait to spend her vacation at the beach. Instead, though, she has to travel to Vietnam with her grandmother, who is going back to find out what really happened to her husband during the Vietnam War. Mai's parents think this trip will be a great opportunity for their out-of-touch daughter to learn more about her culture. But to Mai, those are their roots, not her own. Vietnam is hot, smelly, and the last place she wants to be. Besides barely speaking the language, she doesn't know the geography, the local customs, or even her distant relatives. To survive her trip, Mai must find a balance between her two completely different worlds.

Opening Lines:
"I whip my head toward the airplane window as soon as Dad scoots into my row. There's nothing to see except clouds and more clouds, but anything is better than looking at his fakey sorry-to-do-this-to-you face."

Things to Love:
Mai/Mia (her parents have given her one name she can use at home and a more anglicized-sounding name for school) is a completely believable teenager--in that everything in life revolves around her. She starts off huffy and snotty (after all, she wants to spend summer on the beach in California, rather than accompanying her grandmother to grandmother's country of origin: Vietnam.) But once in Vietnam, she begins gradually to appreciate the country, through her experience of village life, in a completely believable way, even to making friends with the oddest girl in the village. Listen, Slowly is many things: humorous, insightful, profound. It is about a journey to understanding one's past and one's present by means of listening, slowly.

Thanhha Lai's debut, Inside Out and Back Again, was a powerful novel-in-verse. In my opinion, her first prose work, Listen, Slowly is just as powerful. I loved it.

(Listen, Slowly was a finalist for the Cybils' middle grade section.)

About the Author (from the book jacket):
Thanhha Lai was born in Viet Nam and now lives with her family in New York. Like the father in Listen, Slowly, Thanhha has been buying bicycles for poor children in Viet Nam since 2005. To learn more about Thanhha and her charity, Viet Kids Inc., visit

Thanhha Lai, photographed by An-Lai Omer