Thursday, September 29, 2011

Nation Book Festival Day 2: Finding Friends within the Pages

This was the first time in its ten-year history that the National Book Festival extended into a second day, and the bibliophile in me couldn't have been happier. It didn't matter that I was being eaten alive my mosquitoes and sunburned and sweating worse than...well, I won't even go there. All I knew is that I was going to meet one of my childhood heroes, the woman who made Arthurian legend come alive: Susan Cooper.

Sure, I got my copy of War Dances signed by Sherman Alexie (he signed my copy of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian a few years ago), and I got to see the Magic School Bus in real life, but it was listening to the men and woman who changed my life—the authors who introduced me to some of my greatest friends—that really made my day.

After Brian Selznick's talk gushing about Hugo Cabret being adapted to film, it was fascinating to listen to Susan Cooper talk about her opposite experience with The Dark Is Rising/The Seeker. But mostly I loved sitting just feet away from one of my writing heroes. Cooper rarely makes public appearances anymore, so I never expected to hear her speak. Her books have an amazing sense of place, and she easily builds relationships with her readers though she writes mostly fantasy. I could gush about her all day, but I'll spare you.
"It's a special connection between the writer and the kids who live within the pages like she has. We've become friends because of the books we've shared."
—Susan Cooper
author of The Dark Is Rising Sequence and The Boggart

I only caught the end of Patricia McKissack's talk, but she was so sweet and delightful. And the way she spoke about her family—especially her husband—made me want to adopt them all.
"You don't have to write memos when you're married to your co-author. You can wake up in the middle of the night and say, 'I've got it!' and he can say, 'Well, get it in the morning.'"
—Patricia McKissack
author of Mirandy and Brother Wind and The Clone Codes

I'm not sure why I was surprised by how much I loved Gary Schmidt, but I think he was my favorite speaker. The way he talked about the importance of books to the development of children literally had me in tears, and his dedication to the writing craft is awe-inspiring. He talk about how we "throw kids away" by not trusting them with the beautiful things in life, and while relationships and love are the most amazing things in the world, "they are not promised." Yet if we provide children with the power of words, they can make sense of the horrors that so often surround us. I'm getting goosebumps just thinking about all the amazing things he said.
"Writing is always about discipline. Gift is great to talk about, but at the end of the day, it's all about getting your butt in the chair and writing... I think a lot of people here know what it's like to have a book that's a friend, and that's why I write."

I love that I live in a country where we celebrate books and literacy. Though we still struggle to help kids understand the importance of reading, and far too often our education system fails to provide young adults with the tools they need for success, events like these give me hope. They fill my well and strengthen my desire to make a difference. I hope you can join me on The National Mall next year to celebrate the wonders of reading.

P.S. Happy Banned Book Week! Exercise your First Amendment rights and read.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

National Book Festival Day 1: Creating Images with Words

More than 200,000 bibliophiles converged on The National Mall this past weekend, and you can bet I was among them. My first stop was Brian Selznick's book signing, where kids ignored the mosquitoes and rain-soaked ground to delve into the pages of Wonderstruck while waiting to get their copies signed. I got there half an hour early and was still about the 200th person in line. Good thing book lovers love to talk books, so I found some great company in the two teens standing in front of me. We talked Sign Language (their father is deaf) and how the small details in Selznick's art makes it so unique. I am now the proud owner of a signed copy of The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

I then found a spot in the teen tent where I spent the rest of the afternoon, basking in the energy of teens who love to read. I only caught the Q&A section of Cassandra Clare's speech, but she had me in stitches the entire time. Apparently she built her writing chops writing Lord of the Rings fan fiction told in the style of Bridget Jones. Priceless.
"Usually characters are a composite of people I know, people in movies and characters in books I've read, and by the end, they're so mashed up the people they're originally based on don't recognize them."
—Cassandra Clare
author of City of Bones and Clockwork Angel

Brian Selznick took the stage next. While he talked a lot about seeing his book come to life thanks to the amazing Martin Scorsese, he mostly talked about how images can give depth to a story. I loved listening to him speak about perspective and connection—how everyone sees the world through different eyes.
"People really like to help you if you ask, especially if they're an expert in something really specific that no one else asks them about."
—Brian Selznick
author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck

The ever-enthusiastic Rita Williams-Garcia closed out the day by treating us to an interpretive dance of her presentation, which consisted mainly of her jumping up and down in excitement and doing a hysterical impression of how her curvaceous mother used to "carry the jazz band with her" wherever she walked. She gave the most incredible talk about the importance of finding and building your own character.
"My friends and people I've met inspire my characters, but it was my family that built my character... It all boils down to building character, to showing character."
—Rita Williams-Garcia
author of One Crazy Summer and Jumped

I honestly didn't want the day to end. Good thing I still had the next day to listen to the inspiring words of some of my favorite authors.

P.S. Happy Banned Book Week! Exercise your First Amendment rights and read.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Fall for the Book YA Author Panel

This weekend I went to a panel discussion featuring Pam Bachorz, Sarah Collins Honenberger, Val Patterson, Jon Skovron and Amy Brecount White, all local YA authors. One More Page Books, local indi bookstore and wine shop, hosted the event, and I think I'm in love with their venue. (The Washington Post recently featured One More Page for their stellar book groups.)

Now on to some tidbits of wisdom from some amazing writers.

On why not getting your book published isn't the end of the world:
"Nothing's wasted—even a failed book is a success... Be kind to yourself."
—Val Patterson

On why YA is the place to be:
"YA breaks all the rules... It took off when nobody was paying attention."
—Jon Skovron

On how to write what you don't know:
"I'm not a teenage boy, I've never been a teenage boy...but I could observe the essence of boy and then channel it."
—Pam Bachorz

On finding motivation even when you don't feel like writing:
"The reason writers write is because they have a story to tell... Write through the garbage."
—Sarah Collins Honenberger
(Sorry, I couldn't get a picture of Sarah because there was a head in my way. But it was a really cool 15-year-old boy who asked good questions and chatted with me about writing and books after the panel, so I didn't mind so much.)

On outlining vs. the "seat of your pants" approach:
"If you try to keep it all in your head, you'll explode... Sometimes if you can see what's wrong, you're that much closer to seeing what's right."
—Amy Brecount White

I've never attended the Fall for the Book Festival before, but you can bet I'll plan to attend more events next year. So thanks to George Mason University for hosting this event and helping build a community of book lovers!

P.S. Look for next week's posts featuring National Book Festival speakers Tomie dePaola, Brian Selznick, Rita Williams-Garcia, Susan Cooper and Gary Schmidt. I'm hoping to catch Sherman Alexie and Toni Morrison as well, but I have some scheduling conflicts. Good thing the Library of Congress archives everything, so you can watch the webcasts or listen to the podcasts within a few weeks of the festival.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Grammatical Quandaries

Split Infinitives: My friend assures me that "only prescriptivist grammarians will harp about split infinitives, and that's because they're basing their rules on Latin where it is not possible to split infinitives" and that it's okay to split infinitives because "we speak a Germanic language, not a Romantic one." Oxford Dictionaries would both agree and disagree: "Avoid split infinitives in formal writing, unless the alternative wording seems very clumsy or would alter the meaning of your sentence." The Chicago Manual of Style and AP Style Manual also recommend not splitting the infinitive unless it is for deliberate emphasis or to avoid awkward construction. Yes, this is what I spend my time debating with my friends.

Capitalization: Doing editing for business professionals is a constant battle in controlling capitalization. They want to personify everything from the name of their company to the business tools they use: "Our Company is here to serve You!" and "Good Synergy is all it take to accomplish your Goals!" While caps indicate a proper noun or the beginning of a sentence, quotation or thought, using them to give nouns emphasis is very Revolutionary (as in 1776, not an idea that has the potential to change the world). If texting has its way, we won't be using capitalization for anything in the next five years. Incidentally, Germanic languages are the pretty much the only languages to capitalize days of the week and months of the year and well as street names, demonyms and the nominative singular pronoun.

End Prepositions: Your sixth-grade teacher might have insisted they were evil, but avoiding them can make you sound pretentious. Yet if you find yourself using them more than once every thousand words, you're probably not using very effective writing. The problem with end prepositions is that they have no object, which means the modifying phrase is ambiguous, which leads to unclear writing, which results in miscommunication, which can cause hurt feelings and wars and big fat "F"s on final papers.

Transitional Conjunctions: If you have never begun a sentence with a conjunction, I praise you for being a good student and listening to your teacher. However, this is another one of those formal-writing no-nos that has become commonly accepted over the past few years. While used for emphasis and to show greater contrast in ideas, it is over used, and I am more guilty of this than most.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Dash of Dashes

Dash: Three types of dashes vary in length. Figure dash (-), or hyphen, joins words or separates syllables. En-dash (–), or minus sign, indicates a range or a connecting relationship. Em-dash (—), or double dash, indicates an interruption, such as a parenthetical thought or sentence cut short.

Slash: Used to emphasize a connecting relationship in place of an en-dash.

Parenthesis: Indicates an interruption in the flow of a sentence, though this is becoming an antiquated punctuation as em-dashes or commas are more often used.

While em-dashes are being used more and more in writing, figure dashes are not used often enough. When two modifiers are equally necessary for clarification, they should be joined by a figure dash. For instance, you see "health care reform" or "healthcare reform" used in newspapers and government reports, but technically "health-care reform" is the appropriate structure. However, this does not hold true with adverbs that end in -ly, i.e. you can say either "commonly used words" or "common-used words" but not "commonly-used words." While Figure dashes are used for compound words like "co-author" or "baby-sitter," if you use a compound word in connection with another modifier, you should use an en-dash to connect the modifiers, such as "multi-award–winning artist."

You can find a great example of the appropriate use of all three dashes in the first paragraph of Blue Bloods by Melissa De La Cruz:
"The Bank was a decrepit stone building at the tail end of Houston Street, on the last divide between the gritty East Village and the wolds of the Lower East Side. Once the headquarters of the venerable Van Alen investment and brokerage house, it was an imposing, squat presence, a paradigm of the beuax-arts style, with a classic six-column facade and an intimidating row of 'dentals'—razor-sharp serrations on the pediment's surface. For many years it stood on the corner of Houston and Essex, desolate, empty, and abandoned, until one winter evening when an eye-patch–wearing nightclub promoter chanced upon it after polishing off a hot dog at Katz's Deli. He was looking for a venue to showcase the new music his DJs were spinning—a dark, haunted sound they were calling 'Trance.'"

Monday, September 12, 2011

Getting Possessive about Pronouns

His • Hers • Its • Yours • Mine • Ours • Theirs • Whose

When using a possessive pronoun, there's no need to use an apostrophe. Because of the title of my blog, I see this mistake often. Not that I'm judging--when I'm typing too fast and not paying attention, I often type "me" instead of "my," and I still have to stop and think every time I use who/whom.

So to help me with grammar and usage, there are a few books I always keep on hand:

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary: I'm particularly fond of this dictionary as it's specific to American English, is updated often, gives detailed word origins and has plenty of usage variations.

The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law: I have a journalism background, so the AP Stylebook is my constant companion. Some of the rules might seem strange at first, but once you begin to understand that media writing is all about getting to the point in the most direct way, it will become second nature.

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers: Lucky for me, I also have a strong background in academic writing. I learned to love this book and its straightforward guidelines for writing. It's also the best resource for citations ever written.

The Chicago Manual of Style: With not much experience in technical writing, I probably use this one the least often. But with the influx of web-based publishing, this book will become more and more important to professional writers.

When Words Collide: A Media Writer's Guide to Grammar and Style by Lauren Kessler: I don't know what to say about this book other than it's brilliant.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White: This is the definitive grammar and style reference book for journalists. Everything I know about writing for papers I learned from Strunk and White. And thanks to this amazing book I read by White as a kid (Charlotte's Web anyone?) I tend to trust them for my fiction writing as well.

Plain English Handbook by Martyn J. Walsh: I know I'm kicking it old school with this one, but I haven't found another grammar books that is so practical, well organized and easy to understand. This book saved me more times than I can count during high school and college English classes.

Don't depend on Wikipedia to answer all of your grammatical questions--it might help when you're in a bind, but it's not always accurate and clear. Keep in mind that grammar and style rules are constantly changing, so update your reference books often. While sentimental attachment comforts the soul, it won't do much for your writing.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Friday Five: The Best Things in Life Are Free

Between now and the end of October, this is the only weekend I have completely to myself. Don't get me wrong, I'm way excited to take my best friend to Chicago for the first time, I'm proud of my role in planning the Virgina Day of Service, I can't wait for the National Book Festival followed by Banned Book Week, and I love helping with the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Fall Conference. But sometimes it's nice to spend a quiet weekend at home.
  1. Read The Gray Wolf Throne by Cinda Williams Chima: I was planning on purchasing this book the day it came out, but I'm still hoping to catch one of Cinda's book signings. Instead, I had to wait until the library processed it and transferred it to my pick-up center. Then there was the rain. Oh, the rain! I was finally able to dash out for a late lunch and pick it up. Then it proceeded to taunt me from the corner of my desk for the remained of the day.

  2. Fold laundry: I know there's nothing overly exotic about doing chores, but my cluttered house is driving me nuts! When my clean clothes are all put away and my floor is vacuumed, my house will be home once again. A friend of mine is also heading to her hometown of Bastrop, Texas, next weekend with a Uhaul of donations for her family's community that have been displaced by the wildfires. This will provide me with the opportunity get together some linens I no longer use and give them to a family in need.

  3. Sleep, blessed sleep: I'm going to take a nap this weekend. I don't know when or for how long, but I'm going to make it happen. And because I have no other plans, I'm going to bed early. And sleeping in. And totally ignoring any phone calls, emails and text between the hours of 10 p.m. and 10 a.m., so don't even bother.

  4. Walk in the rain: I know I just talked about dashing out during a lull in the rain to pick up my book, but it's different when you're in business attire and responsible for the well-being of library property. There's been a ton of rain in this area, and I want to go out and survey the water level of the creek at the end of my block. I want to enjoy the smell of damp earth washed clean by rain. And I want to be outside after sitting at my desk all week long, no matter what the weather conditions.

  5. Listen to an audiobook: It's been forever since I've finished a new audiobook! I'm not sure which one I'm going to listen to yet, but whatever it is, I'll enjoy hearing it while I vacuum my living room and fold my laundry and walk in the rain and laze in bed.
Why am I still typing? I have a weekend to get to!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lions and Tigers and Baseball, Oh My

Holidays in Washington, DC, are the best. Seriously. There are always things to do and people visiting. The city gets this zap of energy that makes everything seem much more alive. Have I mentioned I love holidays? And living in DC?

This year, my friend's sister Katy came to visit. And since I love both Katy and baseball, they invited me to a game. Of course we were in the nosebleed seats, but it's not important where you sit at a ballgame...'s what you eat. And eat we did. Nachos and hot dogs, funnel cake and custard. A Shake Shack opened at the ballpark this season, and while I LOVE their food (especially their shakes), it just doesn't taste the same when it's not in NYC. But that won't stop me from getting Shake Shack when I go to the game this Friday.

We also had some friends visiting form North Carolina. Annie and Tim are some of my favorite people in the world, and their baby Maddie isn't so bad either. I haven't been to the National Zoo in about eight years, so that's where we spent our entire Saturday.

Despite the rain, we got to see pretty much everything. The pandas were being lazy and slept through our entire visit. The apes were being cliche and eating bananas. A friendly monkey came out to greet us from a branch right above our heads. The cheetahs and clouded leopard were a bit difficult to spot until their, well, spots gave them away. And the sloth bear...let's just say he wasn't very polite.

Best of all, the lion was going crazy—we think it was time for his lunch. There was a huge crowd gathered around, but you can still hear him loud and clear.

While Maddie loved it all, she was totally fascinated by the fish. We could have spent the entire day by the tanks and she would have been content watching them. Next time they visit, we'll make sure to hit the aquarium.

It was such a great holiday weekend. And while our apartment it much quieter without a 15-month-old baby and my stomach is begging me never to feed it like that again, I already miss the holiday crowd. Good thing I still have Columbus Day and Halloween and Veteran's Day and Thanksgiving and my birthday and Christmas and New Year's Eve before it all starts over again next year.

Friday, September 2, 2011

SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Conference Professional Panels

Just in case you aren't excited enough about this year's SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Fall Conference, check out the publishing professionals we've got lined up.

Agents Panel: Behind the Scenes at a Literary Agency
Jennifer Rofé is an agent with the Andrea Brown Agency where she handles children’s fiction projects. Some of her clients include Laurie David, Cambria Gordon, Crystal Allen, Kathryn Fitzmaurice, Denise Doyen, Cynthea Liu, Barry Wolverton and Lauren Strasnick. She is also the co-author of the picture book Piggies in the Pumpkin Patch. Jennifer earned a BA in English from UC Davis.

Quinlan Lee has been in the children’s publishing industry for the past ten years as both a writer and an agent. She is currently an agent with Adams Literary. She has published over thirty books, including licensed projects for Clifford’s Puppy Days, Dora the Explorer and the Planet Earth series. A graduate of Tulane University in New Orleans, Quinlan is a member of SCBWI and a founding board member of the Women’s National Book Association chapter in Charlotte, NC.

Editors Panel: Inside Publishing Today
Chelsea Eberly is an assistant editor with Random House Books for Young Readers. An alum of the Columbia Publishing Course, she is the editor of The Project by Brian Falkner, the Fairy Godmother Academy series by Jan Bozarth and It’s Milking Time by Phyllis Alsdurf. She also edits the paperback line of the Magic Tree House series and is working on the graphic novel adaptation of Tamora Pierce’s First Test.

Caroline Abbey is an editor at Bloomsbury where her current projects include Melissa Walker’s Small Town Sinners, The A Circuit by Georgina Bloomberg, Catherine Hapka, Villain School: Good Curses Evil by Stephanie S. Sanders and the middle grade mythology-inspired Pandora series by Carolyn Hennesy. Caroline also manages the Bloomsbury paperback list. She was previously with Simon Pulse.

Abby Ranger is an editor at Disney-Hyperion Books. She has worked with Cinda Williams Chima, Melissa Kantor, Katie Alender, and newcomers like Victoria Schwab and Kiera Stewart. She was born in Colorado, grew up in British Columbia and now lives in Brooklyn.

Ellen Braaf (moderator), columnist and feature writer for ASK magazine, has published fiction, nonfiction, and humor for children and adults. Her six-book Science Detectives series, written under the name Ellen René, was published by PowerKids Press. Ellen teaches for The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, and serves as SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Regional Advisor.

So join us Oct. 22 at the Holiday Inn Dulles in Sterling, Virginia. It will be an event you don't want to miss!

If you haven't gotten the information in the mail, here's a link to the registration form and another for the full conference flyer. If you would like to post the widget for the conference on your blog or website, let me know and I'll email you the html code.

Find out more about the conference's featured speakers here. You can also see what local authors will be at the conference here.