19 June 2012

Book Review: JUST FLIRT

Dee Barton loves to flirt. It’s fun, and she’s good at it. Flirting makes everyone involved, flirter and flirtee, feel good. And a  little fun is exactly what Dee needs in order to forget her sorrows. It’s been a rough fifteen months, with her father dying, her ex-boyfriend dating Sabrina Owens, and the financial strain on the family campground she and her mother are trying to keep up. A little harmless flirting seems to be just what the doctor ordered. But when a blog called the Superflirt Chronicles puts her in the middle of a devastating lawsuit, she’ll have to team up with her biggest enemy, Sabrina, to make things right.

Bowers weaves an intricate story of fun and flirty summer days, riddled with miscommunications and misconceptions that are sure to keep the readers guessing. Touching on tough issues like grief, abuse and deception in a real and fully approachable way, this book is a fun and lighthearted, "summer beach read" with plenty of substance to carry through to the rest of the year.

Disclaimer: I've gotten to know Laura Bowers through my local chapter of SCBWI, and she's an amazing person as well as an amazing writer. But I don't think I'm biased in my review. Read the book and judge for yourself. You won't be sorry you did. :)

12 June 2012

Woo Hoo!

As I promised yesterday, I spent today tackling Challenge #3 from the SCBWI MD/DE/WV blog: As the Eraser Burns. This challenge was another "easy" one that turned out to be not quite so easy. (Are you noticing a trend here? I'm starting to suspect there might be a reason my dear, sweet hubby always accuses me of making everything more complicated than it needs to be.)

The challenge was to take a moment to give yourself a "Woo Hoo!" for all of the things, both big and small, that you've accomplished recently. Too often, when we're doing well, we only focus forward on the next big hurdle. "I'll stop and celebrate after..." But we never stop to celebrate. Once we clear the hurdle, we're looking forward to the next one, and then the next... and the only time we ever stop to look back at what we have done is when we stumble and fall. Then, we only look back and see what we should have done better.

That's the idea behind this week's challenge. We were supposed to take some time to make a list of everything we have done - all of our recent accomplishments - and then take a little bit of time to stop and celebrate. Simple, right?

I set aside the whole day for this challenge!

First, the list:

In the past month, I have:
  * Written a new first draft of a middle grade novel - in 72 hours!
  * Done a full revision on my young adult novel... then sent it to a friend for critique... then started another revision
  * Revised one of  my picture book manuscripts... submitted it to my critique group... had a brilliant brainstorming session with the critique group, where they totally helped me fix my flat ending... revised the manuscript again and sent it back to the group for more feedback
  * Figured out how to add comments and a search feature to my author website... and figured out how to link my blog and my author website together!
  * Developed two new patterns for the Recycle Knit book I'm writing (pictures of the finished products to be posted soon - probably early next week, but maybe sooner)
  * More consistently updated my website and blog
  * Signed up to attend the regional SCBWI conference next month

... and that's just my writing accomplishments! On top of all that, I have:
  * Knitted 2 tote bags, several necklaces, four bracelets and a hat from recycled plastic bags
  * Made 3 wooden decorative signs as end-of-the-year teacher gifts for my daughter's favorite teachers
  * Coordinated all of the medical paperwork/appointments I need to do before we can get clearance for our next assignment
  * Chaperoned an all-day (6am to 10pm) field trip to the Eastern Regional Music Festival with my daughter
  * Attended end-of-year awards assemblies / picnics for all four children (2 of which happened in the middle of my 72-hour middle grade madness challenge!)
  * Volunteered to serve goodies at the elementary school 5th grade farewell
  * Started sorting through things to get ready for our move

... and that doesn't include all of the every day accomplishments, like making dinner, folding laundry and playing referee when the kids are at each other's throats.

I've accomplished A LOT!!

Woo Hoo!!!!

To celebrate, I set aside most of the day today to relax. I went to the Temple this morning (I try to go once a week - it really helps to rejuvenate me and give me the strength I need to get through the busy days), and I planned to spend the afternoon baking bread with my daughters before settling down to watch a movie with the family.

It was a great plan.

Unfortunately, I was running late this morning, so I didn't get to the Temple as early as I'd planned. This set my schedule back a bit, but I wasn't concerned. Still plenty of time to get in lots of relaxing - and I enjoy my time at the Temple so much that I really don't mind when it takes longer than I plan.

But then I got stuck in traffic (all 4 lanes of highway completely closed for some reason for more than an hour) on the way home, and by the time I got through the mess, there was no time for baking bread. And I was planning on using the bread for sandwiches to eat for dinner while we relaxed together with a movie!

I was tempted to grumble and complain and grump about the kink in my plans.... And, yeah, I admit it... I gave into temptation. I grumbled quite a bit before I realized this is NOT what Challenge #3 was all about! The point was to have fun and acknowledge the things I've done, not to have some perfectly coordinated moment I could brag about later!

So, we made whole wheat waffles (with the homemade mix I threw together on Sunday afternoon) instead of bread, and we still had yummy chicken sandwiches for dinner while we watched "Pure Country" - one of my favorite movies from when I was in high school.

Woo Hoo!!

(And one more Woo Hoo! for the fact that I am now ALL CAUGHT UP on the pre-conference challenges. Now, I'm ready to tackle challenge #4 when they post it tomorrow!)

11 June 2012

My Favorite Books: Why Do I Love Them?

As promised, tonight I am tackling Conference Challenge #2 from the SCBWI MD/DE/WV blog. The challenge?
"I want you to make a list of all your favorite children’s books throughout the years: When you were a kid, when you were in middle school, as a teenager, and as an adult.
Then ask yourself. Why do I love this book?...How can I use these elements to improve my current work-in-progress?"

It seems like a fairly easy challenge, but I've been putting it off and kind of dreading it for nearly two weeks now. Because choosing favorite books is like choosing a favorite food. I can't do either one. Sometimes, I'm in the mood for something sweet and soft. Sometimes, I want something a little bit salty. Sometimes, I really need something that has a kick to it. My favorites have always changed from moment to moment, depending on my mood. So to truly pick my favorite books throughout the years, I would have to list 75% of all the books I've ever read.

But of course, I can't list them all. Once again, I'm grateful for the wisdom of the blog administrators who advised: "Set your timer for thirty minutes, dig deep with this one, and have fun!" The timer is set. For the next thirty minutes, I'll walk you through my life in books, and we'll see where it takes us. :)
My very first favorite book was THE FIRE CAT by Esther Averill. I loved this book so much that I wanted to read it constantly! Of course, at four years old, I couldn't read yet. So I would bring it to my big sister and beg her to read it to me - sometimes 7 or 8 (or more) times in a row!! She got tired of it really quickly, and she started skipping words on the page to make the story go faster. Unfortunately, I had the book memorized by this time, and I called her on it every single time she tried to skip a word. So finally, she simply taught me how to read so that I could read the book to myself!

Why did I love this book so much? Pickles, the fire cat, was a character I could identify with. He was a cat that was destined for greatness... but he was a little bit awkward and felt like he didn't quite belong, and sometimes, he made wrong choices, because he didn't know what else to do with himself.  But his friends didn't give up on him, and eventually, he learned to channel his energies into something good.

When I was in 5th or 6th grade, I loved DAPHNE'S BOOK by Mary Downing Hahn. I wanted to be a writer, and I was thrilled to find a book about someone my own age who was a writer too. But even more than that, I felt Jessica's struggle as she tried to be a friend to Daphne, but worried about what the other kids in class might say about her. Jessica wanted to be someone great, but she didn't know how to get there. And so she made choices that hurt her friend. Once again, I connected with an awkward character who wanted to be more than she felt she was capable of. I cried when she chose to shut Daphne out, and I rejoiced when she got a second chance to try to fix her mistakes. Because it's a middle grade book, and not an early reader, the story is more complex than THE FIRE CAT. Things aren't so simple in this book. Not everything turns out perfectly and happily ever after in the end. But once again, a flawed and awkward main character chooses to embrace the greatness she has within.

As I got older, I loved (and still love) ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND by Lewis Carroll and THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain. I loved A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeline L'Engle and THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster. I adored WORD CHANGER by ?? and NIGHTFALL by Isaac Asimov (actually, I'm not sure if that last one is considered children's literature, so maybe I'm cheating...) And one of my newest favorites is SPECTRAL by Shannon Duffy. (You can read my review here.)

I could list hundreds of books... but my thirty minutes are up. Suffice it to say, I've realized that there is one common thread that binds together all of my favorite books over the years. I'm drawn to books with characters who have a seed of greatness within them, even though they may not see it themselves at first. I love characters who are flawed and awkward, who want to do Big Things but fumble and stumble and mess everything up because they don't know how to be the person they want to be. I love to step into their stories and cheer them on as they find the courage to make the hard choices... to become the great people they were destined to be. But I wouldn't love them so much if they were perfect. They are the loveable geeks, the misunderstood and quiet folks that others might overlook, the characters that might someday grow up to be powerful, influential people. But not yet.

Now, I just need to make sure my characters are adorkable, and not simply awkward. As a former adorkable character, I'm ready to take on that challenge!

It's All a Matter of Perspective

It's been a crazy, busy few weeks, but I promised myself that I would do it, so I'm finally playing catch-up on the Conference Challenges issued by the MD/WV/DE chapter of SCBWI. I tackled Challenge #1 last week, but I'm just getting around to blogging about it. (I plan to do Challenge #2 today and #3 tomorrow, so I can be caught up before #4 is posted on Wednesday.)

The first of 8 weekly challenges given to prepare us for our upcoming regional conference was to think about the way a change in perspective alters the voice of the story. We were given the challenge to tell three classic fairy tales, each from a different point of view from the original story. (A 30-minute time limit for writing each retelling kept me from overthinking.)

I will probably post the other two stories later in the month, but for now, please enjoy my retelling of "The Princess and the Pea" from the pea's perspective.

Almost everyone knows the story of the Princess and the Pea. At least, almost everyone knows the story about the shallow, spoiled prince and his domineering, stuck-up mother. Chances are, you already know all about how the pretty, little diva who calls herself a princess “proved” it by feeling a tiny, little pea through a thick pile of mattresses.

But come on, people! The story is called the princess and the PEA, for goodness’ sake! Let’s give credit where credit is due, already! I mean, if it wasn’t for me, that little diva wouldn’t even be a part of the fairy tale.

It all started when Prince Lazybones decided he wanted to get married. Of course, he declared that he could only marry the most beautiful girl in the world, because that’s the kind of thing that princes do.

Queen Bea couldn’t wait to start planning a royal wedding. It would be the perfect excuse to throw a huge party with flowers and balloons and fancy dishes, to which she would only invite the Most Important People. Because everyone knows that the best parties always have a long list of people who are NOT invited, who can watch from a distance, green with envy, wishing they could be a part of the in crowd.

But the more the Queen planned for the ultimate party, the more she worried. She’d noticed a growing trend in fairy tales, where common, but beautiful girls were winning the hearts of princes everywhere, completely messing up the purity of the royal bloodlines. She couldn’t risk allowing Prince Lazybones to marry a commoner. Why, what would her friends think?

So she came up with a great plan. She put me, a tiny, little, insignificant pea, on the frame of the giant bed in the guest chambers and piled dozens of mattresses on top of me. Then, she invited the princesses, one at a time, to spend the night at the castle, in the guest bed.

I was just supposed to lie there, like a lump, all night long. The princess who guessed I was there would prove she was sensitive enough to win Prince Lazybones.

Well, do you know how hard it is to get comfortable when you’re squished underneath a stack of heavy mattresses, topped with princesses who aren’t always as dainty as they look? By the twelfth night, I couldn’t take it any longer. I started rolling around, trying to find a comfortable spot to sleep in.

I guess my tossing and turning woke up the diva, because the next morning, she announced that she’d had the worst night of sleep ever. She said that she couldn’t get comfortable, because it felt like there was something in her bed.

And that’s how I made the diva Princess a star.

08 June 2012

Book Review: Little Kitchen: 40 Delicious and Simple Things That Children Can Really Make

With the kids home from school for the summer, you might be looking for a way to keep them busy. LITTLE KITCHEN: 40 DELICIOUS AND SIMPLE THINGS THAT CHILDREN CAN REALLY MAKE by Sabrina Parrini is a perfect cookbook for summertime, when things are a little less rushed and you have more time to experiment together in the kitchen.

Parrini has compiled a collection of delicious recipes for real food, not just simple snacks constructed from ready-made items, as most cookbooks for children have.  Inside, you’ll find recipes for minestrone, potato croquettes, meatballs, crunchy chicken fingers, perfect potato gnocchi, sticky rosewater dumplings, mini chocolate souffl├ęs, shortbreads, and more.  The recipes are truly delicious, and children learn real cooking skills with real ingredients.  Parrini also includes 2 introductory letters, one written to the children and one to parents, as well as a “safety first” section and a rundown of the kind of ingredients and equipment needed for the recipes in the book.  (I recommend you read these introductory letters with your child, as they contain great advice for using the book. Don't be tempted to skip the introduction and move straight to the recipes.)

The recipes were well-written, with clear instructions that the child could easily follow.  The potentially dangerous steps in each recipe are flagged with the phrase “Ask a grown-up” to remind young children and parents alike of the importance of adult supervision.   This is not, however, a beginner’s cookbook.  While nothing is too difficult for a child to handle (with appropriate adult help), the recipes aren’t necessarily what I would call “simple.”  Parrini warns, in her introductory letter to parents, that you should “plan to cook when you have plenty of time,” and she isn’t joking.  Most of these recipes take at least an hour to prepare, in addition to cooking time, so cooking with children takes patience.  (This is what makes it an ideal cookbook for summer time. We tried a few recipes on school nights, and it made for late nights and grumpy mornings, but in the summertime, you don't have such time constraints!)

The time commitment for these recipes is much more than most cooking-with-kids cookbooks. However, in the end, the kids learn real skills in the kitchen and are better prepared to tackle real recipes on their own as they grow. It's a great way to learn together and a great activity to fill those summer days when kids say "I'm bored. I have nothing to do."

03 June 2012

I Won! (Even Though I Lost)

As you know, last week, I participated in the May Mid-Grade Madness challenge, to write a 20,000-word Middle Grade novel within 72 hours. I completed the manuscript with 38 minutes to spare before my official 72 hours were up. A full first draft of a novel, start to finish, with an actual plot and developed characters and everything. The only problem? I still didn't know whether or not I actually "won" the challenge. I write my first drafts in pencil, so I wouldn't know until I finished typing up my pages if I actually wrote 20,000 words or more. I'd taken time out on Wednesday evening/Thursday morning to type up my pages from the first two days, so I knew I had only about 7,300 words left to write on Thursday... And I'd written more pages on Thursday than I had written on Tuesday or Wednesday, so I was cautiously optimistic. Actually, I was pretty sure I had gone over the required word count, but just in case I hadn't, I started tallying up all of the OTHER things I accomplished during my 72 hours of writing time.

Yes, as always, I had some added challenges thrown into my 72 hours. My original plan, to avoid all other distractions so that I could concentrate solely on the challenge, fell to pieces when my medical clearance interview (scheduled for 9:30 am on Tuesday - 13 hours into my challenge) stretched out to gobble up approximately 5 hours of my time, rather than the 45 minutes I had allotted. Then, my 2nd grade daughter came home to tell me that her end-of-the-year picnic/fun day for school was scheduled from noon to three on Thursday (when I should be finishing up my manuscript)... and then, my 4th grade daughter informed me that her end-of-the-year picnic/fun day was on Wednesday, from noon to three. And I promised my sweet, super-supportive husband that I would not let this challenge cultivate unhealthy habits, so he was really good about telling me to turn off the lights at 10:30 each night (and for once, I was actually really good at listening to him!)

Then, of course, there was the time I had to take to allow the contractor to come take measurements for the new door/windows we'll be installing in the house before the move... and there was the exciting field trip my 7th grade daughter wanted to tell me about when she came home from school... and the video of her latest music competition that she brought home and we had to watch together with the family right away... and there was a crisis when everyone realized that Mommy really meant it when she said she wasn't planning to cook dinner, and no one had planned a menu for Tuesday night (or Wednesday night or Thursday night), so they had to come find me for suggestions...

As I started typing up my final pages, I told myself repeatedly that, just in case I didn't make it, I had plenty of valid reasons why not!

Since I typed the pages from the final day AFTER the 72 hours were finished, I decided it would be cheating to type up my story in my normal way. Usually, I write the draft in pencil, and then, as I type up the pages, I add in a word here, a sentence there... the ideas that hit me after I had already filled the page and didn't have any more room in the margins to squeeze in an extra thought. That way, by the time I type up my first draft, it's not quite at the second draft stage, but more than a first draft - we'll call it draft #1 1/2. But adding to the word count after the 72 hours would be cheating, right? I wasn't sure, so I played it safe. I changed the color of my text (so I'd know where I still had to go back and add the thoughts I'd missed on the page) and typed only the words that were actually written on the page (with the exception of a few spots where I'd written in my own special form of "shorthand" for phrases and thoughts that are common enough to me that I can write a few letters to symbolize the actual words that are supposed to be in the manuscript). And when I was all finished typing....

I was about 500 words short of my 20,000-word goal!! Tears! Devastation! Heartbreak! All of that work, for nothing!!

But wait! It wasn't for nothing!!!

I proved to myself that I could write a full first draft in a three-day period - WITHOUT sacrificing my number one priority: time with my family. And no, technically I didn't win the challenge. I didn't make it to 20,000 words. But I got awfully close, and if I had taken the time to work ONLY on my story during that 72 hours, I would have done it. If I hadn't taken the time to eat dinner with my family, to go to the end-of-the-year picnics (though I admit, I didn't stay for the entire time either day), to watch the video with my daughter... If I hadn't taken the time to take care of the essential items that popped up on the before-we-move checklist... I would have had time to type up those last pages before the 72 hours expired, and I could have added in the extra words as I typed.

But if I had managed to take those extra hours, I would have missed calling my husband's Nana for her birthday. I would have missed the smile on my daughter's face when she saw me walk onto the playground for her picnic. I would have lost, even though I won.

I made the right choice.