Tuesday, November 29, 2011

NPR Backseat Bookclub

I was driving down the road , on my way to the rather mundane purchase of a new toilet, listening to NPR's "Backseat Bookclub" as Norton Juster answered questions and talked generally about The Phantom Tollbooth. Occasionally I glanced up at the geese "v"-ing across the sky.

Juster has an easy-going, down-to-earth way that I could have listened to for miles. But too soon he finished up the interview by saying that sometimes "writers feel like their job is to communicate a specific idea or a finite point of view." [But]"I think the idea rather is to open up a piece of the world to a more creative encounter." That statement was a good unexpected gift and I was satisfied.

But then they announced the next book for Backseat Bookclub-- Breadcrumbs! The NPR website says: "Anne Ursu's big-hearted story about friendship and snowy adventure is perfect for wintry reading."

I swear those Vs of geese re-shaped themselves into "Y-E-A-H A-N-N-E!"

Monday, November 28, 2011

First Pages/Writing Contests

At many writing conferences and writing programs like ours at Hamline, agents or editors will hold a first pages session. The first page of a story is read and first reactions given. As readers, we have our own first page reaction. How many times have you heard someone say, "It just didn't grab me." or "I couldn't get into it?"

Most of us give a story more of a chance than the first 250 words, but in today's competitive publishing market, often the first page is all that is read from the slush pile of manuscripts on the floor of an editor or agent. First page advice: grab the reader, but don't confuse them. Setting needs to be clear, as does the challenge facing the protagonist. Will they be able to act on the problem by the last page, in a way that they couldn't on the first?

First pages are often the last finished section of a revised manuscript. So don't rush getting it perfect when the rest of the story is still evolving.

That said, do you have a first page and enticing title for a YA novel? If so, consider entering the contest below. It seems legitimate. At least it is proof positive that the old world of publishing doesn't work the same way any more.

Serendipity Literary Agency, in collaboration with Sourcebooks and Gotham Writers' Workshop, is hosting its third Young Adult Novel Discovery Competition for a chance to win a one-on-one consultation ("with one of New York's leading YA literary agents!") Part in parentheses is from the contest web site. Some of you know how I hate the use of "!'s"

Submit an enticing title along with the first 250 words from the opening of your original YA novel. If interested, don't wait. The deadline is November 30th.


For those of you writing middle grade novels or picture books, there is another contest, but this one is for full manuscripts. The National Association of School Principals has teamed with Charlesbridge Publishing Company to select two manuscripts for publication and promotion through their organization. The first page will matter on this one, too. First round judges likely won't read past it, if the writing isn't strong.

Part of me hesitates to broadcast news of contests. On the other hand, when your work is ready, you need to find agents and editors for feedback. Anyone out there had good luck with contests? Is it a good way to break in?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Great Day for Nonfiction

I had the honor last weekend of joining an impressive panel of authors and illustrators to speak about writing nonfiction for children. The event took place at the annual convention for the National Council for the Teachers of English; it featured the creators of books that NCTE recognized on its 2011 Orbis Pictus award list, which distinguishes one top winner and five honor books.

Co-authors Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan and illustrator Brian Floca
discussed the intersections of collaboration and inspiration that resulted in Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, which won the top Orbis Pictus award.

Marc Aronson, If Stones Could Speak: Unlocking the Secrets of Stonehenge, spoke about how the challenge of nonfiction—being beholden to the facts—adds to the thrill of writing in this genre, and how there will always be questions that haven’t yet been asked.

I spoke about indulging curiosity and seeking the human connection to scientific topics in reference to Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age.

Larry Dane Brimner, author of Birmingham Sunday, spoke about finding the specific details of history that make a story come to life,

Rebecca L. Johnson shared how a decade of ocean diving led her to write Journey Into the Deep: Discovering New Ocean Sea Creatures.

Michael O’Tunnell spoke about how serendipity and follow-through lead writers to powerful stories such as Candy Bomber: The Story of the Berlin Airlift's "Chocolate Pilot."

Eight panelists spoke and we ended our hour-and-fifteen-minute session right on time. That’s worthy of an award in itself!

Plus I met many of the wonderful educators who have a passion for children’s literature and contribute their expertise and energy to serving on the Orbis Pictus Award Committee.

And as icing on the cake, when perusing the exhibit hall booths, I saw teachers admiring Hamline alumnus Molly Beth Griffin’s Loon Baby at the Houghton Mifflin booth. And they had already sold out of Claire’s Marching with Aunt Susan at the Peachtree booth.

It was a great day all round.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Just In Time For The Holidays

Here's a poem by Richard Newman that I love. It's easy to read, it's funny and it's true to the bone.

Bless Their Hearts

At Steak ‘n Shake I learned that if you add

“Bless their hearts” after their names, you can say

whatever you want about them and it’s OK.

My son, bless his heart, is an idiot,

she said. He rents storage space for his kids’

toys—they’re only one and three years old!

I said, my father, bless his heart, has turned

into a sentimental old fool. He gets

weepy when he hears my daughter’s greeting

on our voice mail. Before our Steakburgers came

someone else blessed her office mate’s heart,

then, as an afterthought, the jealous hearts

of the entire anthropology department.

We bestowed blessings on many a heart

that day. I even blessed my ex-wife’s heart.

Our waiter, bless his heart, would not be getting

much tip, for which, no doubt, he’d bless our hearts.

In a week it would be Thanksgiving,

and we would each sit with our respective

families, counting our blessings and blessing

the hearts of family members as only family

does best. Oh, bless us all, yes, bless us, please

bless us and bless our crummy little hearts.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Mentoring Young Writers--and Yourself

I led a workshop last weekend at the Thurber House, a literary center located at the once-family home of James Thurber, who grew up in my hometown of Columbus, OH. Fifteen or so kids, ranging from 3rd-7th grade showed up to go “Nutty about Nonfiction.”

Participants included:
- two girls who go to each other’s houses after school to write together,
- a girl who writes chapters of fan fiction inspired by the Warriors cat series,
- a boy who said in the first five minutes that he didn’t read or like nonfiction, but he likes to write and so wanted to try different genres. (Good for him!)
- a few kids who were wondering why their parents signed them up for this.

By the end of the afternoon, then all had proven themselves to be true writers. Together, we faced down writer’s block, and each young writer found the story and voice for his or her piece. Their writing was colorful and informative and wonderful. Then during the sharing time, we had the prerequisite apologies for their work. What a bunch of writers! Simultaneously proud to have something, anything at all on the page and disappointed that the words don’t yet live up to their ideal.

We talked about not needing to apologize. They had done good, important work just by showing up and giving their best effort with paper and pencil in hand. That’s what makes today’s writing good. And if desired, a writer can always make good work even better by showing up and doing the same tomorrow.

Then came the parents and siblings and cookies and punch. A good time was had by all.

One interesting aspect of teaching is that we are more likely to be generous on behalf of others than we are on behalf of ourselves. And it's inspiring to see good advice used to good effect by young writers. It's a good reminder of core principles that relate to our own writing lives.

p.s. The boy didn’t like nonfiction said at the end that it was now “less boring.” I’ll take that as a compliment from a middle schooler.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Wordless descriptions

Recently a popular and relatively young man in the Theater Department died of a heart attack. No one saw it coming. The Theater Department majors at Cornell College were given the job of putting on a memorial service. It was interesting to me to see these actors pay tribute to their beloved teacher. As word person, I expected eulogies, comments, maybe even some quotes from some famous plays.

But much of what they did was without words: silently painted an owl on a large sheet by dipping their hands in buckets of paint, to stand for their teacher’s love of owls; turned off all the lights and danced to rock music holding six-inch light sticks, expressing I’m not sure what—perhaps joy in a life well lived (this man received a law degree in 1978, in 1981 he quit the law and went back to his first love—theater). In one little skit two women were dressed in elaborate costume by two other “dressers,” without a word.

The service was very moving. But for a writer everything comes back to writing (How narrow! Sorry.) and it made me wonder if we might find in all this another way into defining our characters. Could we simplify the task so we weren’t writing skits but just ask what one or two objects would stand for our characters—for George B. Schaller, the wildlife biologist in the chiru story, a notebook perhaps, stuck into a pair of hiking boots; for my new character who’s good with gizmos—a jack-in-the box taken apart and reconstructed, balanced on a couple of screwdrivers.

What’s the best collection for a character you’ve been carrying around for a while?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Listen up, Readers!

One of the fun things about having a new book come out is that you learn about new media. Recently I received this email invitation:

"Join our collection so that students and teachers can hear from you when reading your books. You don't need to have a difficult name to participate—just a fun message to help readers get a sense of who you are."

To hear how your favorite fellow authors give their messages their own personal touch, see the entire collection of over 1,300 name pronunciations here.

I did record my own name to be posted soon. But first I took a few minutes to listen to the recordings of some of the Hamline faculty. Did you know that one is named after a game show host and when another one leaves a phone message people sometimes think that two girls have called?

Now I invite any of you out there with books to record your name, too. Or when you truly deserve a break from writing, check these recordings out.

TeachingBooks is an online database of multimedia resources about books and authors and is used in over 26,000 schools, reaching 13+ million students - pretty cool and a wonderful resource.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Stranger Comes To Town

A friend of mine goes to a small church in Altadena where they pretty much use the Earnest Holmes books for all their study groups. They had a speaker a few nights ago and I went. His presentation was basically this: if you don't like the situation you find yourself in, look at the thought patterns that got you there and change them. One example was the bitter husband who raked over the smoldering coals of his divorce pretty much every day and suffered from colitis.

Makes sense, right? If what you thought got you somewhere you don't want to be, change the thought. He proposed a kinder, more peaceful life if we would all buy his book and practice what he preached.

At this point my mind is wandering. I don't want to fight with my wife, but I don't want to bliss out and nod off while she's talking to me, either. And I certainly don't want a peaceful life for my characters.

A stranger comes to town and meets a pretty widow with two charming children. They get along well and have friends in the community. Is that it? Isn't somebody going to come through the door with a gun in his hand? Something has to happen for me to keep reading.

If Ahab isn't freaking nuts when it comes to Moby Dick, he stays on land and practices forgiveness. If Jack doesn't fall down and break his crown, he and Jill just stand there with a bucket of water.

Here's a line from a poem. I forget who wrote it, but I like it a lot:

If we call the fire, it comes.

That's our job as writers, to call the fire. And then use it to burn something down.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Ever watch a candle's flame just before it dies? It flits and flickers, stretching higher, as if pulled by a puppeteer's strings. The flame then lowers, the wick curling down, just above the wax.

But, Writer, that flame's a fighter.

The wick, while lit, casts its promise across your page. A promise to burn. A promise to light your path, no matter how dark...

But you must show up to light it.

Always remember this: That wick--the flame's lifeline--is also its own nemesis. The flame will snuff out. The smoke strings that linger around your eyes and fill your nose, will stay with you.

This smoke, Writer, is a reminder and a promise. A reminder of the flame you'd lit. And a promise that it will return again--if you light it. The wax will harden. And it's up to you to throw it away. Don't look back at it, Writer. Then look back. Look into the dark. Remember it. Then, don't. It'll stay with you, anyway.

Your wick burns for the children who read your work for fun. It burns for the children whose own flames have snuffed out. Writer, you made them a promise the first time you lit the wick. And you made yourself a promise, too.

Put up a fight. Always, always light that wick, Writer. And when you do, follow the light. The darkness is there, too. It will always stay with you. So, follow the light anyway.

Keep writing, y'all! :0)

Friday, November 4, 2011

I Promise This Is The Last P.S.



I understand the link from my site to the VOYA review didn't take. Go to VOYA if you're interested or give me a day or two to see what's what.

In the meantime, they're running at Churchill Downs!


Since I can dish it out (blood runs from the face of the student in workshop as I cut six pages to two), I can take it, too. Check out the VOYA review of NOW PLAYING. It's on my website -- http://ronkoertge.com/rons-books/

I take most reviews with a grain or two of Dead Sea salt. Especially the good ones. And I've never failed to learn something from the poor reviews. See what you think.

By the way, today and tomorrow are Breeders' Cup races. There's money to be made! And I'm sure not going to get rich with reviews like that last one.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Historical Fiction - The Time is Now

I don't know a writer alive who doesn't own a shelf full of books about writing craft and process. But somehow I can never resist adding one more to my library. Recently I read a review and then purchased a copy of The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom. Thom has written historical fiction for decades, mainly about the Lewis and Clark era and other stories set in the early West.

His credo is: ""Once upon a time it was now. Today is now. But three hundred years ago, the 18th century was now. You as a historical novelist, can make any time now by taking your reader into that time. Once you grasp that, the rest is just hard work."

Ah, we know about hard work. But in his excellent book, Thom guides writers with concrete suggestions about how to bring history alive in story, and the ethics of thorny issues like changing real facts and portraying real historical people. I especially appreciated his comparisons to the differences in writing nonfiction history and historical fiction.

I encourage those of you writing history, nonfiction or fiction, to check it out. It is a tremendous resource that fills a gap.