Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Chris Fries -- this post is for you! (Or inspired by you, at least.)

Last week, I posted a blog about "fitting it all in" -- how I juggle a teaching job, a writing career, and a family. Chris commented on how intense it all was and wondered: What do I do to recharge?

Good question, because yes, the burn-out rate has been especially high this year.  This is how I recharge, so that I can keep plugging away at the demands of what has essentially become two full-time jobs:

1. Bike riding with my husband.

2. Walks in the White Clay Creek Preserve with my family and the dog.

3. Watching the fish in our pond.

4. Relaxing in our Pocono Mountain condo.

5. Skiing.

6. Reading.

7. Television.

So, you see, I'm not really a robot after all. However, I happen to know an author who IS a robot.
More on that next month ...

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Lost in Book Three: Ellen Jensen Abbott

When local author and fellow KidLit Author's Club member Ellen Jensen Abbott mentioned that the third book in her WATERSMEET trilogy was releasing this month, I asked if I could host her here at In High Spirits.

In particular, I wanted to pick her brain about the writing of Book 3. Because, as you might know, I'm working on one of those right now. When I read the post she sent to me, I felt relieved. Yes, yes, yes ... this is what I'm experiencing!

Before I get to her post, let me tell you about the WATERSMEET trilogy:

In the Watersmeet Trilogy, readers follow the outcast Abisina as she leaves her village to search for her father and for acceptance. On her journey, she discovers the whole land of Seldara: the dwarves of the Obrun Mountains; the fauns of the western forests; the centaurs of Giant’s Cairn—some friends, some foes. When she reaches Watersmeet, she thinks she’s found the home of her dreams where all of Seldara’s folk are welcome, but soon Watersmeet’s existence is at risk and Abisina finds herself outcast again. Can she save the home she loves? Can she unite the land against a gathering evil? Can she embrace her destiny and become the Keeper of Watersmeet? 

And now I turn the blog over to Ellen Jensen Abbott for Lost in Book Three:

In some ways, writing The Keeper, the final book in my Watersmeet trilogy, should have been easier than writing the first two. I knew vast majority of my characters. I knew my setting, right down to geography, climate, government and religion. I even knew the conflict: the series is about the creation of the nation of Seldara and the coming of age of Abisina, Seldara’s founder. But writing The Keeper was not easy; it was the hardest book I’ve ever written.

Writing a book is like finding a route through a maze of streets. You begin at point A and are headed to Z, but how you get there is the work of the writing. Each time you make a choice for Pine Street instead of Elm Street you have cut off possibilities, even as you’ve opened others.  Sometimes you get within sight of Z and you realize that really, the best way to get there is via Elm, and you have to back up and try again. But maybe by choosing Elm, another route you loved is no longer an option. More backing up. There are going to be wrong turns and backtracking, but eventually you’ll get there.

The process changes, however, when you’ve written a book or two that are out in the world. You are locked into the decisions you made in those books. If your route in Book 1 went through Pine, you will always have to go through Pine and can never go through Elm. Once I placed a mountain range across the land of Seldara in Watersmeet, there was no taking it out for The Keeper. More problematic than geographic features, however, were characters. Our job as writers is to create characters who are so real, they have full psychologies. Like Frankenstein’s monster, they quickly become independent beings who insist on acting in specific ways. Once my main character, Abisina, fell in love with Findlay, she would not look at anyone else. As I wrote The Keeper, I knew that their love had to be challenged, but a love triangle was not an option, hard as I tried to make it one. Abisina was too smart to risk her relationship with Findlay unless she had no other choice, and writing new flaws into Findlay’s character was not an option. He existed already, and he was the one Abisina loved.

There were more than a few times when I thought that I would never, ever get to the end because I had simply made a wrong turn in Books 2 and 3 and now the route was impossible. But it also felt impossible to change the ending. I had been heading toward it for 5+ years! It had dictated all sorts of decisions; what became of my earlier books if Z was no longer my goal?

I never found an easy solution to writing that third book. I had written outlines and summaries of the series early in the process and these helped a little. Outlines and summaries are general by nature, however, and it was usually in the details where things got difficult. Sometimes rereading my former books helped. There were seeds planted in them that I forgot about, or characteristics of geography or character I could exploit to get closer to my goals.  But the most foolproof means of getting to the end was to simply keep writing. And writing and writing and writing. I had to cling to my belief that there are no wasted pages—that even when I have to delete scenes or sentences, I have learned something valuable in those pages.

Finally, what kept me going was the knowledge that I had done it before. Faith in my story, faith in my characters, and faith in my process kept me writing—sometimes with gritted teeth. And now, I have a complete series—a series that ends at Z as planned. I also have files upon files of rejected pages—maps of journeys I have taken to L, W and X—beautiful destinations in their own right. And now that I’m thinking of a companion book to the Watersmeet trilogy, destinations I may still get to explore. 

I have to tell you, my blogging friends, it made me feel a whole lot better to know that Ellen's journey was similar to my own! Like her, the one thing that keeps me going is the knowledge that I did this twice before. Like Ellen, I have to believe I can do it again!  Thank you, Ellen!

Ellen Jensen Abbott lives in West Chester, PA and teaches at the Westtown School. Her debut novel, Watersmeet was an IRA Young Adult Award Notable Book, and was nominated for YALSA’s Teen Top Ten. The adventure continues through The Centaur’s Daughter (Skyscape, 2011) and The Keeper (Skyscape, 2013).

You can meet Ellen at her blog
And you can find the first book in her trilogy, Watersmeet, on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Serial Killers on the Prairie

One of my Facebook friends posted an article about the Bender Family on my timeline this weekend, asking if I'd ever heard of their story before. I'm sure she thought of me because of the connection to Spiritualism. (She read my book We Hear the Dead about the Fox sisters.)

I had not heard this story before, and it is chilling and gruesome.

Because I'm hurting for post topics this week -- drowning in student work to grade -- preparing for parent-teacher conferences -- and trying to make a little progress on my WIP, I'm going to link to the article for your morbid amusement instead of writing a real post.

At first, I was confused by the reference to Laura Ingalls Wilder at the beginning, because these people have nothing to do with the Ingalls family.  But then I got it.

This is a twisted version of Little House on the Prairie, with an evil Ma and Pa, and a little house where visitors were welcomed ... killed ... and buried.

From Mental Floss: The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killers.


Thank you, Katrina Dix!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Fitting It All In

Gotta leave some time for
my new passion: sushi!
People ask me all the time how I manage to fit it all in – writing and family and a full time job teaching.

The fact is, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning, and I can’t get it done. You might be surprised (or maybe not) that it’s the teaching job most likely to make me feel this way … not writing. Last week was a particularly bad one, but I’m not going to write about that. People have asked me how I schedule my time, and that’s what I’m going to share.

One thing in my favor is that my daughters, at age 16 and 13, are self-sufficient. By the time I get up in the mornings, they’re already dressed and getting ready to catch the bus to school. After they leave, I generally have 30 minutes to read and comment on blogs while I have my coffee. I've given up responding individually to people who comment on my blogs, but I try hard to visit theirs as often as I can.

I live 2 miles from the school where I teach, and somewhere over that brief drive, my mind switches from blogs and writing to school-related matters. Teaching can be all-consuming. Usually, I can’t even remember to use my planning time to make a doctor’s appointment if I need to. I have to plan ahead just to use the restroom.

I’m allowed to read my personal email over my lunch break, and sometimes I do. Often, I will try to read a book for pleasure while I eat lunch.

Recess duty is, in my opinion, a gross waste of the tax payer’s money. When Governor Corbett cut the funding to Pennsylvania schools, we lost most of our aides. Now, the highly paid teachers spend 30 minutes of their day watching kids on the playground. I often find my mind wandering to my WIP during this time. You’d be surprised how many plot problems I’ve worked out in between breaking up the game where boys see how close they can run up to the swings without getting kicked in the face.

When I get home after school, I need to unwind before doing anything productive. That’s my social media time – Facebook, Twitter, maybe some more blogs.

Writing takes place after dinner. I'm lucky that my husband will voluntarily cook dinner when he’s at home. When he’s away on business, I do it, but my daughters help. The daughters also clean up most nights.

If I must have certain papers graded before class the next day, I’ll do that in the evening. But most of the time, I save grading papers and lesson planning for the weekend. Weekend is also usually when I write the two posts for my own blog. I almost never watch TV during the week, except for The Big Bang Theory if there’s a new episode.

I can revise a manuscript at any time of the day. But new words come best late at night. So, if the only task ahead of me is writing the first draft of a new chapter, I will probably work on promotional posts (guest blogs and interviews) or family things in the early evening. The Muse generally shows up around 9pm, whereupon I’ll spew words fast and furious across the page until 11pm, when I reluctantly head to bed.

So, that’s a typical week for me. Of course, I’m leaving out some things – driving daughters to and from play practice or attending one of their concerts, days when I flop down on the sofa and read a book cover-to-cover, an occasional encounter with the Bow-Flex … Mostly, it all seems to get done, even if I do have weeks that drive me to tears.

Don’t we all?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Sushi and Other Things I Never Thought I’d Do

If you think the Take Out platter is pretty, you
should see what they serve in the restaurant!
Up until the beginning of October, I would’ve sworn that raw fish would never pass my lips. I mean, it’s fish. And it’s raw. And it’s sometimes wrapped in seaweed. Why would anybody eat that?

I can’t explain what happened to me. Perhaps, because my husband orders sushi regularly at our favorite local restaurant Sake Hana, I just got used to the sight of it.

One night, out of the blue, I asked Bob if I could have a taste. A small one. And then I asked for another.  The next time we went to Sake Hana, I asked him to choose a small sushi appetizer for me. And the next time … we went for the full Sushi Platter for Two.

Now, I can barely make it through the week without craving succulent sushi. Here’s me, dreaming about sushi …

Maybe sushi has something my body desperately needs at my age? I don't know what. Iron? Fish oil? Something!

Now here’s the part of the post where I try to connect this phenomenon to writing. Ahem ...

After writing six historical novels -- yes, six, even though only two have sold (so far) – I never thought I’d write a contemporary fantasy series that featured a teen hero with numerous tattoos who rode a motorcycle and carried an ornamental dagger. Where did that even come from? It is so foreign to my usual tastes and interests.

Back when I was working on the first draft of that novel, I remember blogging repeatedly about how strange a departure it was from my normal writing. I disclaimed loudly and often that I didn’t know if I would finish it. I also shared this graphic to explain what gave me the courage to attempt it … even though I was sure it would be a disaster. (Just like I thought sushi was yucky.)

via Laurie Baum Olson
There are a lot of other things I’m scared to try – like writing an adult novel and sky-diving. But I think the past year has shown me that many things I thought I’d never do have turned out to be my favorite things to do. I can honestly say, I don’t know what I’ll do next.

(Not sky-diving though. I REALLY think NOT sky-diving …)

What have you done that you never thought you’d do?

P.S. Unicorn Bell has Part 2 of my interview up today: How I moved from self-publishing and a contract with a small pub to finding an agent and her first deal for me.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Your Choice: Business or Humor

I don't often do this -- sneak out of writing a blog post at In High Spirits by directing you somewhere else ...

But today I have two posts (hopefully) worth reading elsewhere in the blogosphere, and maybe you'll find a new blog you'd like to follow!

You can find me at Unicorn Bell, where I have the first of a 3-part interview on my journey from a self-published author (back when that was still the Kiss of Death) to a contract with a small publishing house, and from there to representation and a book series deal with one of The Big Six.

If you'd prefer something more light-hearted, head over to Project Middle Grade Mayhem where I take a meeting with the characters in my series and they rip apart my proposed outline for Book 3.

Hope to see you in one place or the other!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

In Which I Make J.D. Salinger Turn Over in His Grave

Last Friday night, I had the pleasure of signing books at Otto’s Bookstore in Williamsport, PA. I was invited by the owner, Betsy Rider, after she read THE CAGED GRAVES. (Betsy also wrote a review for the local paper and did radio spots on my upcoming visit.) I wish I could say I was responsible for the crowd that came into Otto’s on Friday, but the fact is, First Friday in Williamsport is a community event worth seeing!

On the first Friday of every month, the citizens of Williamsport head downtown to celebrate the arts. Stores stay open late to host local artists, authors, and bands. I was seriously impressed by the amount of foot traffic the store got on a Friday night in November.

Otto’s is an interesting store, too. Although for a long time they believed the business had been around (in multiple locations and under a couple different names) since 1877, Betsy and her son recently discovered ledgers proving that it actually dated back to 1841, making it one of the five oldest book stores in the country. It was actually in business at the time Sarah Ann Boone and Asenath Thomas were buried in those caged graves. My fictional heroine Verity might have shopped there! Catawissa is only 45 miles away, and Williamsport would have been easily accessible by train.

Because Catawissa is fairly local to Williamsport, a number of the people who came into the store on Friday had already visited The Hooded Grave Cemetery, or were planning to visit after they read my book. One lady brought photographs she had recently taken there. A mother and daughter stopped by who used to live right down the road from the graves.

But I’ve got to tell you why I owe an apology to J.D. Salinger. A young man came into the store, walked up to me, and asked where he could find The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby. I explained that I was an author signing books and not a store employee, and pointed out one of the staff members. A little while later, he came back to my table, removed his purchased copy of The Catcher in the Rye from his bag, and asked if I would sign it.

I gaped at him. “You want me to sign it J.D. Salinger?”

He shrugged. “You can sign it as yourself.”

I offered to sign one of my bookmarks instead, but he really wanted the book signed. When I admitted I felt strange doing that – and that I’ve never even read The Catcher in the Rye, he offered me The Great Gatsby instead. I lowered my voice to a whisper. “I hated The Great Gatsby when I read it in high school,” I admitted.

He lowered his voice too. “Then you should probably sign the other one.”

So I did. What else could I do?

Monday, November 4, 2013


November is a month for Robins! Our second First Impressions comes from Robin Hall. This is the first page of her MG fiction titled LIFE IS A TONGUE TWISTER:

Ruby woke long before her Hello Kitty alarm beeped. Watching the pink flip-down numbers turn to 5:21, she knocked it from her nightstand. Maybe this time it would crash into a million billion pieces and her brother Brian wouldn’t be able to fix it. Her brain felt like a boa constrictor was squeezing it and that at any second it would forget to tell her heart to pump, her lungs to breathe.
Today was happening without her permission. Today Ruby wouldn’t sit next to her best friend Olivia in the back of Mrs. Newton’s white Durango. Today, she’d ride the Yellow Whale. The bus that swallowed kids whole then spit them out by the cafetorium.
Ruby couldn’t get Brian’s jab out of her mind. “The only place you’ll be okay is sitting with the bus driver.” The one thing she knew for certain was that she couldn’t sit with the driver. If Ruby designed busses they’d have individual seats so no one could sit together, even if they wanted to.
Ruby sat up, the boa constrictor wriggling down to her vocal folds. Her underarms felt clammy. She never remembered to use that deodorant Mom gave her, but today she would lather it on.
Charlie, the neighbor’s hound, started singing his lament. She felt like Charlie, but she doubted her throat would let her talk without stuttering, much less sing. It was the worst day in her life and she hadn’t even gotten out of bed.
Her stomach rumbled, a reminder of last night’s dinner of overcooked spaghetti and slimy canned peas. How she detested those peas. But right now, if she could eat a whole can and never have to ride the bus, she would choke them down—even without the butter. Ruby peeled back the sheets, admitting today might as well start now.
It was weird being the first in the kitchen, turning on all the lights, the table bare, no cereal bowls with grapefruit halves next to each one. Wanting today to be as normal as possible, Ruby set the table herself.
Turning the blinds on the kitchen window, the soft, fuzzy gray sky peeked through. Soon the whole house would wake up. Mom would be glad Ruby set the table and think what a wonderful girl she was. Ruby straightened the spoon by her mother’s bowl and nodded to herself, certain that would do the trick.

The first thing I want to do is take that sentence about the boa constrictor squeezing her brain and move it up so it’s the second sentence in the paragraph. I want to see that emotion first – then have her dash the Hello Kitty clock to the floor. It makes more sense that way, because in reverse order, it seems like she’s upset by the clock. On a grammar note, she knocked the clock off the table after the numbers clicked into place, so starting with the gerund phrase “Watching …” is not correct because the actions don’t happen simultaneously.

I love the sentence Today was happening without her permission. It’s spot on perfect for voice. Of course, I have lots of questions about what’s happening today. Why will she not be riding with Olivia? Is she going to a new school, or just riding the bus for the first time? I think we need clarification on that soon – maybe right in that paragraph.

I also wondered why her brother Brian seemed helpful in the first paragraph (fixing her clock) but seemed to be making her anxiety worse later on by telling her there was no safe place to sit on the bus.

Finding out the answers to those questions interests me more than how she sets the table for breakfast. How about interspersing that action with Ruby’s thoughts about today, so we can get some questions answered while she moves around the kitchen? From the title and the reference to stuttering, my guess is she’s attending a new school for the first time, riding the bus, and anticipating being teased for her speech problem. But I’d like a better idea if I'm right, because there's no mention of a new school, only the bus. 

Character, conflict, and voice is what you want to see on the first page. We've got the character and the voice; I just want a clearer hint of the conflict, especially because this is MG. Since most kids ride the bus every day, they will want to know why Ruby is so afraid of it.  Readers, what do you think?

Robin, thanks for sharing the first page of your MG with us. I know that’s a change from your normal YA manuscripts! Readers can find Marcy Hatch’s critique of the same page at Mainewords and say hello to Robin at her blog, Robin Writes!

Friday, November 1, 2013

First Impressions: OUT OF TOUCH

Today for First Impressions in November, we have a submission from Robin Richards. This is the first page of her Adult Paranormal Mystery/Romance, OUT OF TOUCH.

Until one Saturday morning in July I was only a mildly damaged seven year old kid living in a mostly dysfunctional house.  All of that changed when I went to the Patterson garage sale with my best friend, Franny, and her mom.
Like all self-respecting garage sale junkies, we arrived at the crack of dawn.  All of the good stuff was always gone by 7:30 a.m.  Mrs. Patterson's house was our first stop.   We had chosen it for two reasons:  the merchandise and the gossip were known to be in abundance.  Mr. Patterson up and left Mrs. Patterson about a month ago and tongues were wagging.    Mrs. Fitzgerald's eyes opened round as quarters when she saw the contents on the lawn. 
Franny said, "Do you think there is anything left in the house?"
Mrs. Fitzgerald didn't answer, but she hustled out of the car.  We bounded out after her.  It appeared that the house had vomited up the sum of its contents all over the yard.  I had never seen so much furniture outside of a home.  I didn't have any money, but I still liked to look.
 It was when I picked up the ivy trimmed teacup that my entire life changed forever - and I can't say it was for the better.  A feeling of panic engulfed me and the following scene rolled out like a movie:  I  saw Mr. Patterson drink from that teacup, clutch his throat, while his face turned a mean red, and then he pitched face forward into the table and looked...dead.
The cup slipped from my hands, I started screaming, and I tripped and fell into a wheelbarrow that was parked on the grass and marked with a "For Sale" sticker.  Then it happened again...
This time the feeling was satisfaction.  But not the good kind.  It felt black and mean.  And the image of Mrs. Patterson wheeling Mr. Patterson in the wheelbarrow across the backyard to the garage popped up like I was actually there.  She took a shovel, dug a grave, put his body in it, and parked her Oldsmobile right on top.  Her car, right this minute, was sitting on top of Mr. Patterson. 
That was when it sunk in that I was sprawled where his dead body used to be.   I couldn't get out fast enough.  However, my brain and muscles were no longer working in tandem, so I just flailed around like a beached fish.  Mrs. Fitzgerald yanked me out and we all made a beeline to the car.

Buried her husband under the Oldsmobile, huh? And was going to sell both the teacup and the wheelbarrow? A nasty piece of work, that Mrs. Patterson!

Because I know this story is intended for adults, I assume these events are in the distant past of an adult narrator. But the opening of the story gives me no clue about the time frame. I don’t know who the narrator is, how old she is now, or how long ago this event happened.

I think we need a brief orientation. It could be really brief, as in:

All my problems started twenty years ago at a yard sale with a teacup. (Now we have a reference to the time frame – twenty years ago.)

Or – since I gather from the reference to a dysfunctional household that she already had problems:

I can’t say all my problems started twenty years ago with a teacup, because I was already a damaged seven year old from a dysfunctional household by then, but a whole lot of new problems began the day my best friend Franny and her mother took me to Mrs. Patterson’s yard sale. (Now we’ve got the time frame, plus a little more about her.)

Alternatively, you could show the narrator in the present either using her (I assume) troublesome gift or avoiding using it, and then bring this scene in a little later. But since I don’t know what else is planned for the first chapter, I can’t say whether this is a good option or not.

Finally, I’d like to address the scene itself. If this is not so much a true flashback as a reflection on the day her life changed forever, it could benefit from a more adult voice in the narration. Instead of making us feel like it’s happening right now, give us a sense of the adult narrator looking back on her damaged seven year old self – the one with no money in her pockets who liked to touch the merchandise. Was Mrs. Patterson’s furniture nicer than hers? Did she pretend she was Franny’s sister and part of the Fitzgerald family instead of her own? Did she hope strangers would think that's who she was? Or did everyone in that neighborhood already know all about her? A little commentary from the adult version of the girl in this scene will help us connect to the character and demonstrate her distance from this event in time -- as well as her distance emotionally.

Readers, what do you think? Do you favor a short orientation to place this scene in time, or would you rather meet the present-day character and get this scene later?

Robin, thank you for sharing your page with us! Everyone should check out Marcy’s critique of the same page at Mainewords, and be sure and say hello to Robin at her blog, Your Daily Dose.