My husband and I were reflecting on the year last night. It was our most expensive year since we’ve been together. We had some struggles with unexpected medical expenses and car repairs that have really added up. But we had good things that cost money too: our youngest daughter’s extracurricular activities with band and drama, our oldest got married, and we took a trip to California for my high school reunion. Things in the news brought us down week after week, and we’ve relied a lot on Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert to try to find a light edge so we could sleep at night. It’s easy to look at the last year and feel down, but I am an optimist. I try to focus on the highlights.
As an author, there were definitely some highlights. I published two books: my middle grade novel No One Needed to Know and my 3rd and final Juniper Sawfeather novel Echo of the Cliffs. These books haven’t been big sellers, but they have garnered great reviews, and NONTK has won four awards for its Special Needs Awareness theme. I honestly believe Echo of the Cliffs is the best of the 3 Juniper books, and I hope with the new Juniper Sawfeather Trilogy box set that’s available more people will read through the whole series to get to it.
In addition to the novels, I’ve had stories about Juniper Sawfeather published in the anthologies Kick Ass Girls of Fire and Ice YA Books (April) and Winter Wonder (December). I did a few personal appearances related to my books. My favorites were speaking on panels at the Southern Kentucky Festival of Books and at Nashville Comic Con. I also did a lecture and workshop at the MTSU Youth Writing Camp this last summer, which was a blast. Fingers crossed I get to do more of that kind of thing and school visits in 2018.
I didn’t finish writing the novel I started at the end of 2016. I was interrupted for final edits on Echo of the Cliffs, writing those short stories, and I did a big clean-up of an older work and submitted it to Fire and Ice YA Books. They have accepted On the Water (a young adult contemporary adventure with a ghost story) and it will be released in summer of 2018. I just submitted a story to another Fellowship of Fantasy anthology (publishers of Fantastic Creatures), so fingers crossed. I've also just started auditioning narrators for an audiobook of Cry of the Sea.
I did get back to working on my newest book this week while on winter break from work. It should be finished soon. (Sign up for my newsletter or follow me on Twitter or Facebook to keep up to date with publishing info.)
Another distraction from my writing was that my husband and I got involved in theater again after taking a full year off. We did To Kill a Mockingbird last May with a fairly new theater company in town. (He was Atticus and so amazing). Later, they talked him into playing the lead in Father of the Bride, and I wound up taking over a small role during dress rehearsals. Right after that show opened, we started rehearsals for Miracle on 34th Street, which I directed. (My last post was about that experience.) I know of some great shows happening in the next couple months, and I’d love to participate. But won’t. I want to focus on writing again for a while. I’ve got some cool ideas brewing, including a possible book for grown-ups. We’ll see what happens. My years never end the way I plan them.
As far as reading goes. I’ve read about 45 books this year. I’ve continued to be addicted to audiobooks and tend to get through the better known books and authors that way. I still primarily read indie on my Kindle or hardcovers signed by local authors. I’ve also continued to read mostly middle grade and young adult titles. I discovered Patrick Ness in 2016, and he still reigns as my new favorite author. I read two of his books this year. Many of the best books I read were contemporary dramas rather than fantasy. I also noticed when writing this that I favored thrillers this year, too.
Here are my favorites of 2017.
Best Book I Read All Year: The Sun is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon. I listened to this as an audiobook and found myself driving extra blocks or slowing down so I could keep listening. This story is amazing. It’s about love and fate. It features diverse characters and celebrates their unique traits. It’s both heartwrenching and heartwarming. I loved it so much, I'll probably check it out again. It's YA but will appeal to adults. The audiobook narrators are extremely talented, too, so I recommend listening to it if you can.
Best Book from a Big Publisher: Wonder by R. J. Palacio. This isn’t a new book, but I decided to read it before the movie came out (which I still haven’t seen). I love the way family is portrayed in this book. I love how this story is told from several points of view. I love how friendship is portrayed. It is a book about inclusion, love, and respect. All kids, all grown-ups, everyone should read this book.
(And I will point out shamelessly that if you like this book, you'll like my book No One Needed to Know, which has similar themes.)
My runner ups in this category were: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, More than This by Patrick Ness, The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle.
Best Book from a Small Publisher: Before I Left by Daisy White. This is a new adult thriller. This book was mysterious and frightening with a wonderful look at England in the 60s. I highly recommend it.
Best Self-Published/Indie Book: Mercy’s Prince by Katy Huth Jones. This is an epic romantic fantasy, the first of a 5-book series. I didn’t know what to expect, but it is wonderful with well-rounded characters, danger, adventure, and dragons. I’m eager to read more of her books.
Best Local Author Book: Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner. If you want a good cry, read this book. It’s so moving, with an incredible message about surviving grief. It is one of four young adult novels I read this year about teens dealing with the death of someone to a car accident. This was, by far, the best one. I will point out that Zentner is a bestselling author. We have a lot of these here in Nashville. I keep hoping I’ll catch the magic from one of them.
Best Audiobook: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. This wasn’t my favorite story of the year, although it is a very moving romance between two complicated and wounded young people. The narration, however, is fantastic. I’m sure commuters around me saw me gasping, laughing, and crying in my car.
Best Series: The only complete series I listened to this year was Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard. It definitely drew me in so I would keep listening one book after the other. At times I thought it was a bit over-written and drawn out. I’m about to finish the second book in Stephen King’s Jim Hodges Trilogy, and even though I won't finish the series until 2018, these thrillers have got to take the prize. I’ve been on pins and needles through both books so far. The audiobooks are read expertly by Will Patton (Remember the Titans, The Postman).
Best Grown-Up Book: Shadow Man by Alan Drew. Okay, I’ll confess, I went to high school with this author. But that aside, this is a fantastic thriller. It takes place in a fictional version of my hometown in the 80s and is about a detective trying to find a serial killer and stumbling on a second crime that is much more personal. If you haven't discovered it yet, go out and get a copy. It’s intense, and I highly recommend it.
What were some of your favorite highlights as a reader or author this year? I’d love to hear from you. Have the happiest of New Years!
Whatever her motivations were, Lucy was right when she told Charlie Brown that a great way to get into Christmas spirit was to direct a Christmas play. This year I was asked to direct a stage production of Miracle on 34th Street for Centerstage Theatre, a fairly new community theater company here in Middle Tennessee. I had previously performed with my husband in their productions of To Kill a Mockingbird and Father of the Bride. I like this theater’s mission of being a true community theater, open to performers whether they are just starting out or have been performing for years. I also like their commitment to diverse casting.
We started rehearsals the week after Father of the Bride opened in October. This was not a musical, but I added songs for the store elves to sing and wrote a little “Elf Theater” show for them to do. The elves were played by 12 and 13 year old kids, I had six other children, in the show between 7-11 years old, and two of my "grown-up roles" were played by 17-year-old boys. I have directed shows before but not many. It had been five years since my last time at the helm, and that was a play I wrote myself (Don Coyote).
We had a lovely cast of people who got along brilliantly. I purposely cast several women in roles that had been played by men in the movie version: our judge, the prosecuting attorney, and Kris Kringle’s doctor. Yes, it is easier to find women for community theater than men, but I liked the idea of all these professionals being women from the get-go. If you don’t know the story of Miracle on 34th Street, it is about a divorced mother who is a manager at Macy’s department store in New York. She has taught her daughter not to believe in Santa Claus or fairy tales. But then a man shows up who believes he is the real Santa Claus, and he changes their lives.
I told my actresses that in my mind all of them were different versions of Doris, the mother. The attorney was the hardcore disbeliever, the judge was the one trying to find the sense in it all and make the right choice, and the doctor was the believer. It was fun working it all out. I’m a writer, so sometimes I get caught up in the motivations behind my characters’ actions. I applied a lot of this to my directing of the play. Sometimes I think my actors liked this, and sometimes they cocked their heads and wondered what point I was making.
In the end, the show was quite lovely, and I was very proud of it. It was a lot of fun. Doing a Christmas play is a great way to get into the spirit of the holidays. Sometimes you get a little tired of Christmas by the time it finally rolls along, especially if you start rehearsing early. (I did a blog post a couple months back about how, for me, most of this year has been about Christmas). This year, as the director of a show, my Christmas spirit thrived with each performance. I got to sit back and watch the performances instead of having the stress that comes with being onstage in live theater. It was a nice experience to just enjoy this story coming to life night after night, watching it evolve and take on a life of its own.
I wrote a director’s note for the program. I’m a bit wordy (if you haven’t noticed, ha ha), so they put it in this teeny-tiny font to fit it in, and I’m pretty sure no one read it. I thought I’d share it here on my blog. My thoughts about Santa and belief in magic just in time for Christmas.
I have always loved Miracle on 34th Street, with a particular fondness for the 1947 black and white version. However, this movie always bothered me a little as a kid. I couldn’t fully get my head around whether or not I believed Kris Kringle was, in fact, Santa Claus. Like little Susan, I wanted to believe, but it just didn’t make sense to me that real Santa would be milling about New York in December and didn’t have more important things to do like being in the North Pole making toys with the elves.
Not surprisingly, I became a very practical-minded grown-up, and despite juggling careers as a teacher, entertainer and children’s book author, I don’t allow myself to have many flights of fancy. I relate to Doris and her efforts to shield her daughter from a life of believing in things that can’t possibly be real because I too have been disappointed and let down at times. And yet, is that really the right thing to do? Shouldn’t children be allowed to cling to their innocent imaginations as long as possible? Imagination leads to dreams; dreams lead to hope; hope leads to positive action. So much of childhood disappears so quickly nowadays. We saw that at auditions when I asked every child what they wanted for Christmas, and only one of them asked for an actual toy.
Thirty years ago I played Peter Pan and encouraged all the children in the audience to clap and shout that they believed in fairies so Tinkerbell wouldn’t die. Today, I ask you all of you to open up your minds and believe in Santa Claus. Believe in magic. Believe in goodness and selflessness. Believe in pure joy. I know it’s silly, but believe.
Thank you to the cast and crew here at Centerstage Theatre for taking this journey with Kevin and me. Everyone has worked so faithfully. We’ve done many Christmas shows over the years, and this will always stand out as a favorite memory.
Now I must get back to cooking Christmas dinner. If you have time, please leave a comment, scroll down to read some of my other posts, or poke around the website. I have lots of excerpts of my work posted. I wish you all a Merry Christmas and wonderful holiday season.
As is tradition, the night my family decorated our Christmas tree we listened to holiday music. “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” came on, and my 23-year-old stepdaughter launched into a cynical rant about how that was the WORST Christmas story ever. “Everyone bullies Rudolph because he has a birth defect, and Santa allows it to happen. Then Santa USES Rudolph because of his deformity, and that’s why everyone likes him.” Granted, this criticism was said with a fair bit of wry humor. Still, I balked at her assessment of this Christmas classic.
But over the next few days her cynicism wormed itself into my brain. Was that story really about someone being exploited rather than being celebrated?
Last weekend, I went to see my older stepdaughter perform in a live production of Charlie Brown’s Christmas. This staging was identical to the old cartoon version, complete with live music. All my nostalgia was satisfied.
However, the cynicism from the previous weekend still nagged at me. With skeptical eyes, I watched poor Charlie as Violet informed him that she would never consider sending him a Christmas card. Was Lucy setting Charlie up to fail on purpose when she asked him to direct the Christmas show? Was she anticipating how poorly he’d be treated, between the kids ignoring him while they danced and teasing him when he picked the wrong tree? He mopes away and abandons his little tree. We all think it’s a happy ending because the kids gather around and fix up the tree and then sing Christmas carols, but what is really happening here? They fix the TREE? “All it needs is a little love,” Linus says. But… But… What about poor Charlie? Does anyone ever say sorry to him? Do they hug him and make him feel better. Nope. Not even his dog.
Of course there are bullies in the comedy movie A Christmas Story. It's a large part of the plot. That movie is a poking fun at the Christmas season in an era gone by so we don’t take it too seriously. Still, Ralphie ‘wins’ by beating up the bully. We cheer for him. It’s about time, we think as we watch this happen. Ralphie doesn’t get in trouble because his mother is forgiving and understanding. She doesn’t tell Dad. She’s a good mom. I love this movie so much, but what is this teaching kids? Do we need to have a sit-down with them after the film and talk about the right way to handle bullies? Punching them in the face is probably not the correct solution.
So, now that I’m looking at the world through this lens, I take a moment to consider the Christmas story I wrote this year “Sharing the Spotlight” which is based on characters from my children’s novel No One Needed to Know. In this story, Heidi (12) and her brother Donald (16) have holiday programs at their schools on the same night. In the second half of the story, Heidi has finished her program and is now watching her brother in his choir performance. The choir is doing a medley of carols, and it appears to her that her brother, who is autistic, is being made fun of by his choir teacher. It infuriates her.
Excerpt from "Sharing the Spotlight"
The medley switched from “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, which had featured all the weird figgy pudding lines, to “12 Days of Christmas”. This was my very least favorite Christmas carol. I never understood it. Why were there twelve days of Christmas? Plus, I could never keep track of anything in the list after six geese a-laying. The choir sang it ridiculously fast, and the audience loved this double-time rendition. People smiled and chuckled around me. I shrugged and decided it was all right. I had to admire the choir for what they were doing. I sure couldn’t sing that song that fast. How did they remember all the words? They must’ve rehearsed a lot.
I focused in on my brother, watching his mouth fly over the lyrics. He was getting it. All of it. He wasn’t lagging behind one little bit. Peter had completely given up and was back to staring at his fingers. I turned to Russell, about to point this out to him, when all of a sudden I heard “Five Golden Rings!!!” sung so loud by my brother it was like he was trying to be heard outside.
The audience erupted in laughter and applause. The song paused for a moment. All the blood in my body rushed to my face. I was so embarrassed for my brother.
“Oh no,” I moaned quietly, sinking down in my seat so I could barely see over the head of the man sitting in front of me.
The laughter ebbed. The choir started up again, singing those last four lines even faster than before, as if to make up time. This was the craziest song I’d ever heard. Oh, and then the next verse began. “On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…”
The girls sang, “Six geese a-laying.”
Then Donald. Again. “FIVE GOLDEN RINGS!” All by himself. As loud as possible.
More laughter. More applause. My parents laughed and applauded. Russell and his parents laughed and applauded. Everyone in this auditorium was having a good chuckle at my brother’s expense. Did Mrs. Ambrose plan this? What kind of teacher was she, making a spectacle of my special needs brother?
Next verse. All the boys sang, “Seven swans a swimming” followed by the girls singing “six geese a-laying”.
I dared to peek over the man’s head. Everyone in the choir, including Peter, was smiling now. They were having a grand old time. Their bodies pivoted toward my brother. Mrs. Ambrose gestured to him. He raised his right hand and pointed his finger toward the ceiling like a politician making a point in a debate, and warbled “FIVE GOLDEN RINGS!” As the audience laughed and clapped again, he put his hands together as if to clap for himself.
I put my hands over my face. This was the worst.
Thankfully, the medley shifted after that verse to “Good King Wenceslas”. I’ve always hated that song, too. For this song, the choir made a big thing out of saying “Wenceslas”. The word went back and forth from the boys to the girls, being pronounced different ways, until Mrs. Ambrose stopped them. She didn’t say anything out loud, but her hands gestured the syllables of the word. All the kids said “Ohhhhh” in unison. Mrs. Ambrose began conducting again, and now they got it correct.
“Good King Wence-las once looked down…”
Everyone was laughing again. I just stared at the choir, my mouth hanging open. Was it supposed to be funny?
Heidi eventually finds out that everyone loved what her brother was doing and celebrates him after the show.
Have I written Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Is the teacher like Santa and using Donald to make her show more entertaining? Does everyone love Donald because he’s been exploited in this way?
Or is it the way I intended – Donald is being given a chance to shine. Mrs. Ambrose isn’t taking advantage of him, or making him the object of ridicule, but is giving him a genuine moment to revel in the music and be highlighted for who he is. Heidi’s brother may have some quirks and ticks, but he is all joy. It shows during his performance. Heidi comes to realize that her brother’s spotlight moment in the show isn’t about showing off or being the center of attention, but rather about a pure, honest love of celebrating Christmas.
Two nights ago my youngest daughter’s high school band performed their Winter Concert. She and several of her friends have been volunteering all semester with United Sound, an organization that makes it possible for kids with special needs to learn how to play an instrument. Caylin helped teach a young man with Down Syndrome to play the saxophone. The United Sound group joined the band for one number of the concert. None of them had solos, but they were visible and a big part of the piece. It went great. We gave them a standing ovation, and I was so proud of my daughter and her friends for being part of this great, inclusive experience.
The concert made me think of my older brother who has developmental disabilities and how his friends in the high school choral and drama departments accepted him. It made me think about Heidi supporting her older brother at his choir concert in my story. It made me think about the reindeer welcoming Rudolph to help light the way (not to mention the fact that it was Rudolph who convinced Santa to find homes for all the misfit toys). It made me think about the fact that someone needed to hug poor Charlie Brown and thank him for being the first one to see that that little broken tree could be something special.
My cynicism has fled, and I am once again full of Christmas spirit. This is the time of year to be hopeful for the future and see the good in each other. I hope that you have a wonderful holiday season.
Please comment below if you enjoyed this post. I’d love to hear from you.
“Sharing the Spotlight” is featured in Winter Wonder, a collection of nine stories for readers 9 and older, now available for only $0.99 at Kindle and Nook. It's also available in print.
No One Needed to Know, my novel about autism acceptance and bullying, just won its 4th award – the Gold Medal for Special Needs Awareness from the 2017 Human Relations Indie Book Awards. It’s available in print through Prime at Amazon, so you still have time to order it as a gift for a young reader you know for Christmas.
A couple weeks ago I was on Facebook and Twitter grousing about a bad week. I was dealing with a massive headache that actually caused my right eye to turn blood red, and on top of it I got four rejections in a row: one for an elusive Bookbub ad, two from agents, and one from writing job for which I’d written an audition sample. Needless to say, I was down in the dumps.
I got lots of sympathy from my sweet FB friends, and then I got one reply on Twitter that went, “I like to think that every time I get a rejection someone else is getting an acceptance.” That made me pause and reflect. I like the positive spin. Taking something that makes me feel bad but hoping that it’s something good for someone else. This is the way I want to be as a person. Truly. Not being sarcastic at all.
Now, I know in reality there are far more rejections than acceptances in this business. It’s not realistic to think that every rejection out there for creative types leads to someone else getting their shot. However, someone eventually gets through that golden door of success – and yay for them. I mean it. That’s awesome.
I’m very used to the word “no”. I’ve been a performer since I was a kid and a writer since my early twenties. Clearly, I’m not in the movies or on TV, so you see how that Hollywood stint went for me. I could wallpaper my house with rejections from publishers. Even here in Nashville I occasionally lose out on roles in community theater shows. There are just a lot of talented people who like doing fun things like acting, singing, dancing, and writing. I know so many extremely talented not-famous people.
The theme of my blog is revision, so I’ve decided to revise my position on rejection. Where has rejection taken me? Well, if I’d gotten the movie or TV roles I’d auditioned for back in my twenties, I might still be in Los Angeles. I wouldn’t have met my husband. I wouldn’t have been there for my step-daughters when they needed me. I wouldn’t have become part of the theater community here. I wouldn’t have become part of SCBWI Midsouth. I might not have ever published a book.
If I’d gotten one of my earlier writing works picked up by an agent or major publisher, would it have been any good? Would it have been panned by critics or failed to sell? Would I still be writing today? I’ve looked back at some of my earlier work. It wasn’t great. Time, education, and hard work have made my writing stronger over the years. I hesitate to write this, but I confess that the quality of writing in the last book of my Juniper Sawfeather Trilogy, Echo of the Cliffs (written in 2016) is much stronger than the first book, Cry of the Sea (written and rewritten between 2000-2013).
It does hurt to open that email from an agent and read that my work “is not what we’re looking for at this time.” Weirdly, it’s harder when the agent writes nice things. My latest rejection read, “This is definitely the kind of project I'm interested in.” Yay? No. It was followed with “I’m just not passionate about this manuscript, and I have to be passionate about what I take on.”
How do I deal with that? My book is good, it’s “right”, but it doesn’t rise to the top. I’ve come across that “passionate” word from agents, publishers (and directors) many times. It doesn’t make me feel like I’ve come so close, my book has to be good! It makes me feel like Are you serious, right now? What do you want from me?
I take a deep breath. I consider my options. Do I keep trying for the agent? Do I look to smaller publishers that don’t require agents? Do I remember that it’s 2017, and I can publish it myself if I really want to? What is my goal? I’ll take a moment to look through the book again while wishing one of these nay-sayers could at least tell me what was keeping the book from making them passionate about it. Maybe I’ll get a beta reader or two to help me out.
Then I’ll remind myself that I have been accepted by publishers, received reviews that made me smile, and even gotten a couple awards. I’ve got two stories in a brand new book, Winter Wonder, that came out this month. I’ve got another new young adult novel coming out in 2018. I work with a publisher that is very enthusiastic about my writing. I’m directing a sweet Christmas play with my husband at a local theater full of enthusiastic children and adults just starting out on this acting adventure. My daughters are in a good place – busy with their own shows, jobs, and school. My family is close by. The babies I teach at my day job are fat and happy.
And maybe somewhere out there in the world an author with a great children’s book for boys full of adventure and fantasy got picked up by an agent and is going to make it big. Maybe someday when my book Dragon Surf finally gets its chance, I’ll point to that other book and say, “If you liked -----, you’ll like this too!”
I wish all you writers a happy holiday season and great success! Face down those rejections and write on! I don’t know what the ending to this career looks like, but it’s not over yet.
Please leave a comment if you’d like, scroll through my prior posts, or enjoy my website. It’s full of excerpts from all my published books.
It's October, and everyone is excited about fall and Halloween. This is the time of year when everything tastes like pumpkins, nutmeg, and cinnamon. It's also the time of year when all the Autumn-lovers post their hatred and frustration about Christmas displays being out too soon at stores. "At least wait until November!" they cry out, sharing images and gifs of frustration.
I do understand that, because I love fall as well. I'm not big fan of being cold, and I dread winter weather. This California girl still hasn't adjusted to the freezing temperatures and occasional snows that come with living in Tennessee - even after being here for fourteen years.
That said, my head is already full of Christmas. Worse, my head has been full of Christmas since May.
No joke, the moment I finished my final round of proofreading for Echo of the Cliffs, I embarked on my next project: writing two short Christmas stories for an anthology. Author C. M Huddleston, who has a book blog called Monday Morning Indie, invited eight of her favorite children's authors that she's reviewed to write holiday-themed stories based on the characters from their books. She asked me to write stories based on both my middle grade novel No One Needed to Know and my YA fantasy Cry of the Sea.
The deadline was August 1st, so I couldn't put them off. I came up with an idea for my No One Needed to Know story pretty easily. That novel is about 6th grade girl with an autistic brother in high school. The conflict of bullying in the novel is resolved, so I needed a new problem for them to face. I thought of my own kids. I have a step-daughter 7 years older than my daughter. One night a few years back, the older one had her Winter choir program on the same exact night as my daughter's fifth grade Holiday play. I remember the chaos of that evening trying to attend both events. I decided to use that concept and tell it from Heidi's point of view. That story flowed easily, and I hope with a fair bit of humor.
Here's a little excerpt from "Sharing the Spotlight"
My event was the cool one. We were doing this play about Santa’s workshop where the elves are building the toys, and then all the toys come to life while the elves are trying to wrap them up and put them on the sleigh. It’s pretty funny. My best friend Cathy got the part of the narrator, because she is the best at reading aloud. Jackie, LaQuita, and Stacy had all the girls in sixth grade jealous because they got to play different kinds of dolls. They were going to wear tutus and do a cute dance routine that Stacy choreographed. Everyone kept telling them how awesome and pretty they were and how they wished they got to be dolls. I thought Jackie and her friends were just okay. The dance was my least favorite part of the whole show.
I was an elf, and I had my very own spotlight moment. No lines or singing or anything, thank goodness. What I got to do was juggle hacky sack balls with my feet. Not just one, but two. My soccer skills made me especially good at this activity. No one else in school could do it, and everyone tried. It took a ton of balance. You use every part of your foot, your knees, your shins, and your calves when playing hacky sack, and when you’re learning, you fall a lot. When Mrs. Overstreet saw me juggling the hacky sacks on the playground one day, she added it into the play. She covered the hacky sack balls with red and green felt, though, instead of leaving them yellow and black. I’d been practicing every day so that I wouldn’t mess up. I could juggle way longer than the time they were giving me in the show, so I felt confident I wouldn’t drop any. Everyone had been cheering me on during rehearsals. It was going to be one of the highlights of the whole event.
I had a fun costume, too. My mom put it together for me. I wore some polka-dot pajamas of hers. The top was belted, and the pants were rolled up to the knees. She got me both red and green tights, cut one leg off of both, and then sewed them together so I had one leg of each color. I had to wear my sneakers, but they were mostly white. She also made me a floppy clown hat and put big circles on my cheeks with her lipstick. I looked silly but cute. In my opinion, my costume was way better than wearing an itchy tutu.
I was already in costume while I ate dinner, and I was being super careful not to spill anything. Donald had pizza sauce all over his face and hands, which was why he had to dress after dinner. Mom hurried him upstairs to clean up and get dressed. While they were out of the room, I appealed to my dad again.
“Look, we all know that the high school choir performance is going to be boring. They just stand there and sing. I bet Donald doesn’t even know all the words.” Dad frowned at me. I corrected myself. “I know. Of course Donald knows all the words. But he can’t sing well. Have you ever heard him? I don’t even know why he’s in the choir.”
Dad swirled the ice around in his glass of iced tea. “Are you done?”
I deflated. “Yeah.”
“Now that you got all that out of your system, let me explain something to you. Donald enjoys singing, and that is why he’s in the choir. Good or bad, he enjoys it. Also, it’s an inclusive school, so if he wants to be in choir, they have to let him take the class. There is an auditioned choir for upper classmen, but he’s not old enough for that.”
“Oh, come on, Dad,” I said. “Donald’s never going to be in the auditioned choir.”
He made a sharp sound at me like I was a pet about to steal food off the table. “We don’t use the word ‘never’ in this house, especially when it comes to your brother. He might very well surprise us one day.”
Coming up with a holiday story for Juniper Sawfeather, the leading lady of my YA fantasy trilogy, was definitely the bigger challenge. If you're unfamiliar with the Juniper Sawfeather Novels, they are about a teen daughter of environmentalists who discovers mythical creatures. I'd already written a prequel to the series called "Beneath the Wildflowers" which is in the free anthology Kick Ass Girls of Fire and Ice YA Books. Book 1, Cry of the Sea, takes place in October, while book 2, Whisper of the Woods, begins on New Year's Eve. I decided to set this new short story between those two stories.
There are a few details about how Juniper spent her Christmas in the opening chapter of Whisper of the Woods. Using that information, I decided to write about the very busy day she has on Christmas Eve going back and forth from visiting her grandfather on the reservation, her mother's parents in the suburbs, and then winding up at a logging protest site that night.
There is a taste of the magic and mythology from the trilogy, and a good set-up for book 2. Mostly, though, it is a chance for fans of Juniper to get to know a little bit more about her and her family, or for people who've never read the books to meet her. It took a few revisions, and some insight from one of my dear friends who is a fan of Juniper to help me get it just right.
Here's an excerpt from "Christmas Among the Evergreens"
“Where did you get fresh berries this time of year?” Mom asked, utterly amazed.
I said nothing as I enjoyed the delicious sweet-tart flavor.
Carol grinned, showing off her beautifully straight dentures, “Would you believe I found them right here in the woods?” She gestured with her thumb over her shoulder. “I thought I was going crazy when I saw them. Clumps and clumps of them. I dragged Richard in there to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.”
Richard nodded. “They’re there all right. It was almost magical, seeing plump blueberries in December. We plucked a lot, but there are still some left if you want to get some. That is, if the animals haven’t gotten to them yet.”
“We better hurry then,” Mom said.
Dad said he’d stay and take care of some business with Carol and Richard while Mom and I hiked into the woods to gather berries.
“Well, this is a fun start to the morning,” Mom said to me.
I had to agree. While it wasn’t super bright out, the clouds were high and scattered, and no rain was forecast. The morning sunlight filtered through the tall canopy of trees and dappled the ground with color. The world smelled of pine, my second favorite aroma next to saltwater. We wandered a bit until we saw a couple birds flitting around some high bushes nestled between the trees. Mom clapped her hands and sent them flying.
“There’s some left,” she said.
I held the bowl while Mom plucked the berries. I ate one berry for every handful she dropped in the bowl. Okay, I might have eaten more than that.
“We won’t have any to bring back to your father if you keep eating them,” Mom teased me, but I noticed she plopped a few in her mouth, too.
I handed her the bowl and said, “I’m going to see if there are any more.”
Leaving her to her task, I wandered away, searching for more of the same kind of bushes. Eventually, I emerged from between a couple trees into a small clearing, about ten-feet wide or so. Across from it was the most massive tree I’d ever seen. I recognized it right away as one of the Red Cedar trees, an evergreen known for the umber color of its bark and its incredible height. I noted the red paint mark about seven feet up that signaled it was one of the old trees to be protected. Of course it was old. The trunk was so large it would take at least three, maybe four, people lying toes to fingers to make up the circumference. I craned my neck back and couldn’t see the top of it. I wondered how high up it went and what it would be like to be up that high in the air.
I approached the tree and put my hand on it. The bark was smooth and remarkably warm on this cold day. The logging protest hadn’t been a top priority for me, and I hadn’t taken a lot of interest in it. Looking at this wondrous tree, however, I understood why my parents cared about it. Something as grand as this shouldn’t be destroyed. I patted the trunk and whispered, “My parents are going to protect you. I promise.”
Then I felt the strangest sensation under my palm. It was like the tree breathed. Like it let out a sigh.
These stories now appear in the newly released Christmas anthology Winter Wonder.
Winter Wonder brings you a confection of Christmas stories by an array of well-loved authors featuring characters drawn from their award-winning books. Eleven new stories spanning all ages from the young to the young at heart will whisk you away on a snowstorm of delight to worlds of fantasy, adventure, history, and even outer space with tales celebrating the magic of Christmas or the wonder of winter holidays. Fill your child's holiday reading with stories of adventure, myths - both Greek and Native American, science fiction, time-travel, a lyric poem, mystery, and even a bit of romance. Eleven stories will entertain your middle-grade to teen to young-at-heart readers. We welcome you into our winter holiday wonders with stories guaranteed to entertain, illuminate, and cheer.
This book is a treat for only 99 cents at Kindle or only $8.99 in print at Amazon. (I am told it will soon be available for Nook as well.) I know it's only October, but it's a great time to start thinking about your gift list, and this would be a nice treat for a young reader you know or anyone who enjoys good Christmas stories.
Can I focus on fall and Halloween now? Nope. My head is still wrapped up in Christmas because I've been asked to direct the holiday classic play Miracle on 34th Street at a local theater. I started rehearsals this week.
Someone please bring me a pumpkin chocolate chip cookie and a Chai Tea Latte while I start picking out Christmas carols and staging the show, so I don't miss everything about this season.
Happy Autumn to you! As always, I'd love to hear from you, so leave a comment. Feel free to scroll down to read more of my blog or visit the other pages of my website.
I was a big fan of the game Concentration as a kid. Do you know it? It’s old school. You put all these little cards face down on the table. When it’s your turn, you flip over two and see if they match. If they do, you get to keep them. If not, you flip them back over and the next person takes a turn. You have to pay attention to everyone’s turn, so you can remember where the matches are. The person with the most matches at the end wins. I was good at this game when I was younger. This game still exists. Now it is called Memory or Match-Up. I found a few new versions of it at the store, and I know there are online versions, too. It’s good exercise for the brain.
But what does this card game have to do with writing and revision? Let’s see if I can match up these two subjects.
I’m working on a new novel, and the other day I was writing a phrase and thought to myself, I swear I’ve already written this. I copied the key words of the sentence and stuck them in Find. Sure enough, I’d penned almost the exact line earlier in the manuscript. Even though I clearly had some love affair with this particular string of words, one of these lines had to go.
In the case of this current writing project, I’m glad I caught the mistake early. Sometimes I don’t catch these sneaky repeated lines until well into my third or fourth drafts. A few even make it all the way to the published books before I notice them, and I’ve definitely seen them in other books I’ve read.
A few weeks back I did a post about words that are repeated or used too much, like “look”. I also have an older post about removing unnecessary words like “really”, “very” and “actually”. What I’m referring to now, phrase repetition, is a little different than that. I think it happens when authors are trying hard to make a point about something and feel they need to reiterate it again and again. Maybe restating the line is by design. More often, it seems to happen subconsciously.
I've found that phrase repetition happens the most in the internal thoughts of a character. Sometimes it’s a concept that’s repeated, which isn’t too bothersome but can get old if it’s done too much. When entire lines or passages are repeated verbatim, it’s annoying.
I recently finished reading King’s Cage by Victoria Aveyard. She is an exceptional author, and I do enjoy her series. As readers, we are inside Mare’s (the main character) thoughts, and I have to say her rambling on and on about her guilt, worries, fear, and anger gets long. In my opinion, the book could be a third shorter if Aveyard trusted that we understood what Mare was feeling. In this case, she isn’t necessary using the exact same words to explain things, but there are sentences and paragraphs that definitely made me think, You’ve already told me this, and I’d skip ahead.
Sometimes repetition happens in descriptions of character appearance, setting, or maybe a quirk of a character. This doesn’t bother me as much. I’m okay for an author to remind me of that lopsided smile, the color of his eyes, the length of his hair. I’m currently reading The Sun is Also a Star. The author, Nicola Yoon, is often repeating descriptions of the characters, but it works in her book because they come at poignant moments or from different points of view. For example, at one point Daniel describes his own eyes, and a little later Natasha describes them similarly. What’s different is that he’s describing them as a fact, and she’s describing them tied to how they make her feel. These reminders not only aid the plot and add to the emotional intensity of the novel, but they also help me get back on track to picturing the main characters accurately. The key is making sure your repetition of description isn’t exactly the same each time and serves a purpose to the story.
When I was in rewrites on my latest Juniper Sawfeather book, Echo of the Cliffs, I found a number of repetitive lines particularly having to do with June and her mother. I decided it was acceptable to repeat actions such as her mother always brushing June’s hair over her shoulder and how fast her mother reapplies makeup to freshen up. These are character traits that run through the entire series, things that both annoy and amaze June about her mother. On the other hand, three times I wrote something to the effect of “I sometimes forgot how important my mom was” when meeting people who were already familiar with her mother. Well, that made no sense. We know from the first chapter of the first book in this trilogy that Juniper’s parents are well known in the environmental activist world. Maybe June can be caught off guard once that someone would know her mother or father, but not three times. I had to cut all but one of those repetitive lines out.
This is where the game of Concentration begins. I have to remember where the phrases are. I have to hunt through my manuscript. Find works sometimes for this task. Sometimes it leads me astray. It is definitely a challenge to locate those lines and if they match, pull them out. Unlike the card game, I sometimes have to replace them with something else, and I win when the book has no matching or repetitive lines remaining.
What do you think about repetition of phrases in a book? When have you seen it work? Have you seen it fail? Do you struggle with this in your writing? I’d love to hear from you, so please leave a comment. While you’re here, feel free to scroll on down and read some other posts, visit the other pages on my website and read some excerpts, and join my mailing list.
How did a class about CPR, depressing and dire as the subject may be, give me some insight about writing? It’s all in the presentation.
In addition to being a writer, I’m also a teacher. I work at an early childhood development center in Nashville. I’ve been doing this job for twelve years. Every other year we have to get re-certified for CPR and First Aid, so I’ve had this same class with the same Red Cross instructor six times. I’ve seen this man go gray and gain fifty pounds over the years. (He would’ve seen me go gray too, but I dye.)
This instructor takes a very no-nonsense approach to this subject. He makes it quite clear, repeatedly, that the point of CPR isn’t to bring a person back to life. It’s to keep oxygen going to the brain until the medics arrive. He says this so we won’t feel responsible if someone dies. That’s very kind of him. The man is serious and rarely cracks a smile. He does his four-hour class without aid of a Power Point or an easel with big card illustrations. We just have a stapled handout with some instructions to keep in our classrooms in case we need a reminder.
Usually our CPR class is scheduled at the end of a work day, but this time it was scheduled at 8:00 am. I anticipated being drowsy and drank an extra cup of coffee. Here’s the thing, I don’t know if it was the caffeine high or what, but the CPR man kept me fully engaged the whole time. I was riveted. You know why? He is a great story-teller.
I swear to you, this man had an example for every point, and an anecdote for every example. So many, in fact, that he could derail the whole class if we asked him a question, and we had to rush at the end to finish up. I’ve heard a few of these stories before, but this year he shook it up with some new ones. He’s been in the real world of resuscitation and had some real-life moments to share with us. He also told stories he’d heard about from colleagues. Car crashes, electrocutions, drownings, and fires. Some were horrific, because he wasn’t shy about talking about blood or the reality of a situation. He wanted us to know what we might be facing if we encountered someone who needed CPR or if our hands were needed over a wound to stop the gushing blood. Yes, he deftly described the difference between dark blood that oozed from a vein and bright red blood that pulsed and arced out the body from an artery.
He painted a vivid picture of why we need to evaluate the setting of an accident for danger, like live wires, furniture that could fall, or fire. If we were not going to be safe, we were not to help the victim. “Get out of there,” he insisted, trying to relieve us of feeling the need to be heroic. He said it was not helpful to the firefighters and ENT folks if we added to the list of people who had to be carried out of the scene. He then told us of a horribly sad story where the person trying to help died in the process, and then the firefighter died because he had to save two people instead of one and didn’t have time to get out of the building. Ah!
It was harsh sounding, but he reminded us over and over again that if a person isn’t breathing, that person is dead. “You can’t hurt dead,” he said when showing us the right placement of our hands over the sternum and making it clear that if we did the compressions right, we would most likely break some ribs. “And if he groans or complains of pain, then stop. He’s not dead anymore. You can fix a broken rib, but you can’t fix dead.”
One of the most interesting asides he had for us was when he told us that even if the person is clearly dead (and probably too far gone to be resuscitated) to do CPR anyway if there are family members present. “Make them feel like you tried and it will help the survivors to know someone made an effort to help. It’ll help your conscience, too.” The writer in me already got to work imagining this tragic scene. When can I put it in a book?
His stories and vivid descriptions weren’t all he regaled us with. He also had these crazy analogies that painted a perfect, if sometimes weirdly hilarious, picture of how the body works. For example, instead of just telling us the order of how a body shuts down when faced with an injury and going into shock, he described the body as having an electric breaker box inside. He said there is a little leprechaun in there shutting off the breakers one by one. The leprechaun knows what are the most important and least important things drawing energy out of the body. So, he shuts down the flow of blood to the appendages (fingers and toes) first, which is detectable by pressing on the tip of a finger and seeing if blood returns to the fingernail bed. Then he shuts down the skin, causing someone to go pale. Then he shuts down the digestive system because it uses too much power – why we vomit. And so it goes until all the power is going specifically to the heart and brain, the only organs that matter in the battle for life and death.
He mentioned that clever and devious leprechaun so many times that by the time the class was over, I was convinced there are actual leprechauns living inside us. I named mine Sid because I’m pretty sure he’s the one wreaking havoc on my acid reflux condition.
So, here’s the point I’m making. Sometimes stories are serious. Sometimes they are too “to the point” or factual. If this instructor had just come in and said, “Here’s how you do this. Here’s how you do this. Blah blah blah…” I promise you, I would have zoned out, and I would not have retained anything he said. What makes a story come alive are the details that change words from being informative sentences to words that make a connection. Adding in a character’s memory, an extra thought about how they feel about what’s happening to them, or even a strange but accurate metaphor can really spice up a scene and help the reader understand what’s happening better.
At a recent speaking engagement, a teen writer in the class asked me, “How do you make your novel long enough? My book is really short.” I told her to do what this man did at my CPR training class. Fill the plotline with examples – how your character feels, reacts, remembers.
In my Juniper Sawfeather Novels, I often have June flash back to a memory of her younger childhood when her environmental activist parents taught her some valuable skill during their protests that she is now putting to use. I do this show how she knows how to do something and also to remind the reader how long she’s been living this crazy life. This is from Whisper of the Woods – book 2 in the trilogy – when she is trying to get herself into a tree boat (a kind of hammock) that’s been assembled for her 170 feet up in the branches of a tree.
Deepak finished tightening the tree boat into place. When he was finished this small thing that looked like little more than a sleeping bag was dangling in the air, held in place with black vinyl straps, metal clips and rope. “That doesn’t look super safe to me,” I told him.
“It’s fine. Watch.” And he gingerly lowered his body from the tree limb he’d been standing on until he was lying flat inside the boat. It looked a little like the same combination of moves to climb into a floating kayak. Thing was, I was never good at that. There was a trip to Pacific City and Tillamook Head in Oregon that my parents took me on where we were going to kayak around to coves and look for signs of pollution hurting the sea life and vegetation, and every time I tried to get into my kayak it would tip over. They both wound up having to hold it for me, and even then it tipped over before I got all the way into my seat. Eventually they told me to stay at the cabin and wait for them to get back. I was ten then.
“I don’t know about this,” I told him.
Does this take a pause in the action for second? Yes. But it also shows that she is not good at this particular skill, and that raises the stakes a bit. This hammock is supposed to keep her safe, but not if she can’t get into it in the first place. If she fails, she will fall to her death. The memory winds up helping the reader understand June’s trepidation more than if I’d just written, “She was nervous about getting in the tree boat.”
When working on your current project, think about layers of story-telling. How can you change a lifeless “this is what happened” passage to something with a pulse? Give it a try. If it makes your story too long or is too much, you can always cut it down. You can’t hurt dead.
As always, I'd love to read your comments. Feel free to post them below or add your name to my mailing list.
I recently finished a novel by a bestselling YA author. This blog post isn’t to knock her writing by any means, which is why I'm not mentioning her name or the book title. The book was entertaining contemporary teen fiction. It didn’t have a big plot, but it was full of interesting, loveable characters interacting with each other. While it’s not my favorite kind of book, I didn’t dislike it either.
The reason I bring up this book is because of something in the writing that surprised me. This author used the word “look” a lot. So much. All the time.
I just looked at her.
She looked at me and said…
He gave me a look.
I looked at him, feeling…
Why is this a big deal? Well, I’ve been writing for a while now. With writing comes lots of workshops, classes, reading books about writing, critiques of my work, etc. Something that came up early on with an editor of my work (and continues to show up in articles about how to write well) is to limit the use of non-descriptive words like “look”. Other words in that ranking are “turn” and “said”. These are words that are used too much and don’t offer a lot to make a work sparkle with lovely prose.
If two people are in a conversation, I feel it’s unnecessary to write that they are looking at each other. They should be looking at each other. That’s a given. What is more interesting is when someone looks away.
He looked at her and said, “I love you.”
is much less interesting than
His gaze dropped to the ground, and he kicked at a pebble before saying, “I love you.”
Or maybe returning his gaze to her might be interesting, if he’s been looking elsewhere.
After being fixated on picking at his fingernails, he raised his eyes to look directly into hers and said, “I love you.”
Now, in our everyday vernacular, we use the word “look” all the time. It’s easy. Teens and young adults especially use it. I hear my daughters all the time telling me about how someone gave them “a look” and that usually means something bad. I myself have said to my 16-year-old, “Wipe that look off your face” or “What is that look supposed to mean?” So, it’s okay to use the word once in a while in your fiction to make it ring authentic. It’s overuse that bothers me, especially when used without any qualifiers to spice it up.
I strongly feel that a word this bland should be avoided or used sparingly. The book I mentioned above was an audiobook, and it didn’t help that the narrator almost emphasized the word “looked” every time it was used. It got to a point that I would chuckle.
And each time she specifically said “he looked at me” or “she looked at me” I would start singing. Why? Because a while back I wrote a song called “He Looked at Me”. It was something I wrote when an actor in the show I was in glanced at me in the middle of his song, possibly indicating that he just might have a little crush on me. I wrote this song about how I obsessed over it. There’s a second verse about how I completely misconstrued that look, and it really meant nothing. Someday I hope to put this song in a musical.
Yes, this is a video of me singing make-up-less and a cappella in my car. No, I wasn't driving.
Okay, tangent over… back to the book by the famous author.
Surely, this had to be one of this author’s first books. Nope. I researched her and found that it is one of her most recent books after about a dozen. Not indie or self-published, either. All with Penguin/Random House. So, this makes me wonder if her editors are less ‘hands on’ now that she is super successful and didn’t push her to rethink the excessive use of this word. Or did she simply like it this way and insist on leaving all of them?
For fun, I thought I’d do a little challenge. I went through my Juniper Sawfeather books and No One Needed to Know to see where my first use of the word “look” shows up.
Okay, embarrassing… Cry of the Sea, literally the first line: “You ready to see how the next big change in your life is going to look?” I use the word five more times over the next 12 pages, always as an action, such as: “Terrific. When I get back next week, we can look it over together.” All right. This was my first book as D. G. Driver. Let’s see how I do with more recent work.
Whisper of the Woods, first use of the word ‘look’ is again on page 1: My dad agreed that the protest was a more pressing issue than finding the lost mermaids, but it would be concluded soon and maybe we could look into tickets for Hawaii over Winter Break. The first time I use it the way I’m arguing against above, however, is on page 12: “I didn’t think anyone would leave before the New Year started.” He looked back at me. “Guess I was wrong.” I should point out that that there are three people in this conversation, and he was returning his focus to Juniper.
Echo of the Cliffs. Page one - again: He was coming after me, but I didn’t look up to see his progress. On page 10, I wrote this: I gave her a sharp look to try to get her to shut up about it. I’m pretty sure I thought that by adding the adjective “sharp” made a difference. Not sure if it did. Maybe I could have used a different word choice altogether.
No One Needed to Know. Last line of page one (I almost made it): “Getting closer every second. Looks like he’s going to ram us. Shoot him quick or brace for impact!” On page 3: Donald looked at me and adjusted his glasses is followed by a paragraph describing Donald’s complicated facial expressions that are caused by his Autism.
Am I defending my writing too much? Possibly. I do make a point during revisions to use my ‘find’ and ‘replace’ buttons to seek out all my uses of “look” or “looked” and replace them with something more interesting or that convey more information. For example, instead of “I looked at him” might be “I gawked at him.” I may work harder at this for future projects.
Okay, so let me extend my challenge. I’m going to pull a couple bestseller YA novels off my shelves and find the first use of the word ‘look’.
Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys, page 15: I couldn’t stand to look at her, at the streaks of dead Russian splattered down her sleeve. A few pages earlier she uses the word ‘scanned’ as opposed to ‘looked’.
Mosquitoland, David Arnold, p. 5: “You can go on back,” said a secretary without looking up.
Vanishing Girls, Lauren Oliver, p 8: I set it down next to a platter of cold pigs in blankets, which look like shriveled thumbs wrapped in gauze. A couple pages earlier she writes, Dara’s eyes flick to mine instead of using the word ‘looked’.
The Serpent King, Jeff Zentner, p. 3: Dill set his jaw and looked at her. “I don’t want to. I hate it there.”
In conclusion, here’s what I think. In some cases ‘to look’ is the right verb for the sentence. I feel like this is especially so if surrounded by other descriptors or included in a compelling sentence or paragraph. In most cases, however, this dull word choice could be replaced by something much more interesting. I definitely feel like having it used too often sounds repetitive and takes away from a story. Look at your WIP (see what I did there?) and see where you might consider some changes.
I’d love to know your thoughts. Comments are always welcome.
I had the opportunity to read and review a wonderful little picture book called Unlikely Friends. It is written by David Dilsizian and illustrated Mykyta Harets. I’ve been following David on Instagram for several years because he is a talented singer and often posts videos of his performances. When I learned that he had put out a children’s book about Ella Fitzgerald, one of the great singers of the golden era of jazz music, I was intrigued. I’m a bit of a singer myself, jazz standards being the genre of music I love to sing the most, and Fitzgerald is among my favorite singers.
Unlikely Friends is very short, 14 pages from beginning to end. It tells about one instance in Fitzgerald’s life – when Marilyn Monroe, the most famous female actress of the 1950s, became a fan and helped promote Fitzgerald’s career to the next level. Despite an economy of words, this book is about big themes, such as friendship, being supportive, overcoming racial barriers, and perseverance. Dilsizian relates this story simply, in a way that young children will be able to understand. The illustrations are colorful and are a perfect match for the story.
These days we hear the word “influencer” used a lot. It is well known amongst creatives (artists, musicians, actors, writers, designers) that the way to really get onto the fast track of success is to be discovered by someone who already has a wide following. If a famous actress tweets that she likes a blog, people will follow that blog. If a famous author touts a book by an unknown author, that book will sell copies. If a famous model is photographed in a boutique shop, that shop will get new clients. If a famous singer shares a youtube video of an up-and-coming talent, that kid will get a recording contract.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, even though “influencer” is the current word to describe those people of acclaim generous with their praise and support. It also only works when the person being helped is genuinely talented in their own right. Unlikely Friends is a reminder that “influencers” existed back in the 1950s, and that support from someone with a foot in the door is invaluable. It also makes clear that Ella Fitzgerald was a rising star in her own right before Marilyn Monroe’s help and continued to soar with her talent after this experience.
Personally, I would like to see Dilsizian write more of these stories, each one featuring a different jazz era person of color. Surely there are interesting anecdotal tales about other prominent musicians like Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Billie Holiday, etc. I imagine a classroom set of eight or ten of them to be used in 2nd or 3rd grade classrooms or for elementary school music classes.
I liked Unlikely Friends so much that I asked to interview David Dilsizian for Write and Rewrite.
This is a short story about a pivotal moment in Ella’s career. How did you learn about this important relationship between her and Marilyn?
David: I have been a fan of Marilyn for a very long time. If you read about Marilyn (even a little bit) the name Ella Fitzgerald comes up over and over. She was Marilyn’s favorite singer. Marilyn even tried to mimic Ella’s singing in her movies. So, ironically it was because of Marilyn that I started listening to Ella.
Most children today will have no idea who these two women are. What inspired you to write this book for children?
David: In February of 2016 while shopping at Target, they had a little display of children's books for Black History Month. It was then that I remembered the story about Ella and Marilyn. I thought the story of their friendship was still very relevant. I also thought it would be a great way to introduce these two wonderful women to a new generation.
What do you hope children will take away from this book?
David: I hope they learn that anything is possible, and to stand up for others that are being mistreated.
I know that you are a talented singer and often are singing standard jazz songs. Could you tell a little about why this style of music appeals to you?
David: I think my love for jazz music has slowly evolved over the years. My latest album is all jazz standards. I always thought I would end up working in musical theatre. Through studying theatre I fell in love with old Broadway musicals. Most of the music from the musicals of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s went on to become what we now call jazz standards, so it was kind of a natural progression.
Do you have a favorite song recorded by Ella? A favorite movie featuring Marilyn?
David: I love Ella’s version of “Summertime”, her voice is like velvet on that song! My favorite Marilyn movie is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
A side note: I used to have Gentlemen Prefer Blondes memorized and could do a fairly decent Marilyn impression.
Is this your first book or attempt at writing for children? Did you enjoy it? What were the challenges?
David: I’ve started many books before this, but never finished any of them! I never thought I would write a children’s book. I always thought I would write something more autobiographical. However, I loved creating a children’s book. When creating for children, the sky is the limit to where you can let your creativity take you. My biggest challenge has been figuring out the right marketing campaign. Most people don’t think of children when they think of jazz music and Marilyn Monroe! I’ve had to convince many people that the lessons in this book are universal.
The illustrations by Mykyta Harets are lovely. Was this a project you came up with together or did you hire Mykyta to illustrate for you? How did you two connect?
David: I found Mykyta online, I spent a few months just thinking about this book. I finally wrote it out and did some rough sketches myself. I thought it was something I would do down the road. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew my sketches weren’t good enough, so I started looking for a professional illustrator. When I saw samples of Mykyta’s work, I knew she would be a perfect fit for this project.
Do you plan to write other stories like this or create a series?
David: Probably not with these characters, but I have thought about writing about other jazz legends.
Yay! I hope you do.
This book is multicultural and speaks to the African American experience of racism the 1950s. I notice that both you and Mykyta have names from other cultures. Would you mind sharing what your heritage is and how it might have factored into writing a book about overcoming racism?
David: My heritage is Armenian. My great grandparents moved here to escape the Armenian genocide, so cultural and racial divide are a large part of my family’s journey. I don’t want to speak for Mykyta, she lives in the Ukraine (where she was born and raised), and to be honest I don’t know much about her heritage.
As far as why I wanted to share the story, I feel like in recent years we as a country have taken several steps backwards in regard to racial relations. I feel like we need to teach the next generation about our mistakes so they can learn from them. If we teach love and acceptance at a young age, hopefully it is something they will take with them throughout their life.
Do you have a website or page where people can learn more about your music or writing?
David: For more information on my music you can find me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/daviddilsizianmusic/
For more on my writing, check out our official Instagram for the book www.instagram.com/unlikely.friends.book
Where can people get a copy of Unlikely Friends?
Please feel free to leave a comment for David Dilsizian or myself below. Do you have any favorite movies stars or singers from the 1950s? Tell us about them!
Oh, and hey! Don't forget that the 3rd and final novel of my Juniper Sawfeather YA fantasy trilogy, Echo of the Cliffs, releases on Tuesday, June 6th. Make sure you preorder your copy before the price goes up! For more info, scroll on down to the previous post, or visit www.dgdriver.com/echo-of-the-cliffs.html
In honor of Mother’s Day (a day late because my internet service bailed on me), I thought I’d share some thoughts about my process in creating a mom character in a young adult fantasy series that is believable and important to the plot.
Meet Natalie Sawfeather, the mom in my Juniper Sawfeather Novels trilogy. When reviews for Cry of the Sea (the first book in the trilogy) started coming in, I noticed there was not a lot of love for this pushy, demanding, impatient environmental lawyer.
“I wasn't fond of Juniper's mother, she was pretty over bearing and didn't have many redeeming qualities.” I Loves 2 Read
“The mom sounded a bit fake to me who really wants glory and not just this cause she was fighting for. Then at the end she suddenly became a very dear mom who's very supportive of her daughter.” Versus the Writer
And the thing is, these reviews didn’t upset me. They actually made me happy, because, being that the book was written from 17-year-old Juniper’s point of view, I didn’t want people to like Natalie that much. She is over-bearing. She has high expectations for her daughter while at the same time not letting her be her own person. A constant issue throughout the series is Juniper wanting to leave Washington to go to a school in California, while her mother wants her to go to the same college as her, have the same major, follow in her footsteps, and fight the same causes. Juniper admires her mom for all that she has done for the environment, but she also can’t stand her and wants to get away from her to find her own path.
That’s when my mom said it. Those words that said everything about how much my mom cared about the environment and how little she cared about me. Because if I didn’t want to grow up and be just like her then nothing I wanted to do would be good enough. “You don’t have the slightest idea what you should do with your life!”
And that’s when I said my equally hurtful words. “No, I know what I want. I want to get away from you!” (Cry of the Sea, chapter one)
When the going gets tough for Juniper, she leans on her father instead of her mother. There is a moment ¾ of the way through the book where some genuine feelings by Natalie are shown, and at the end she is clearly trying to be more loving. Still, it isn’t a solid mother/daughter relationship.
When I began writing book 2, Whisper of the Woods, I thought a lot about the power struggle between Juniper and her mother. I wanted it to develop further. There were a couple things I focused on. One, Natalie never saw the mermaids (except in a video) in the first book and, despite everything that happened, is still a bit on the fence about magic being real. Two, how will someone as no-nonsense as Natalie handle her daughter getting trapped in a tree? I can tell you without spoiling much, she doesn’t handle it well. Worry and concern don’t sit well on this woman. Neither does not being able to control what is happening to her daughter.
“I am also happy to know that while things don’t seem to be exactly great, Juniper’s relationship with her mother seems to be improving from where it left off in Cry of the Sea, and I feel like the third installment of this series will probably be a big one for the both of them.” Anita Loves 2 Read
I decided that Natalie needed a character arc just as much as my protagonist. She goes through some emotions and changes in this novel. While I don’t think 18 years of being difficult and dismissive is waved away, and they’ll be painting each other’s nails and having mommy/daughter days, you can definitely tell that love is there, and respect is building. In the end, I hope Natalie comes across as more authentic and real, if still somewhat difficult to love.
“We aren’t bad parents,” she choked. Mom dropped to her knees on the carpet in front of me and put her hands on my legs. She locked her eyes on me in that uncomfortable way where she shifts her gaze from one of my eyes to the other, like she couldn’t quite bear to look at both of them at once.
“Are we, June? Are we bad parents? Am I a bad mother?”
“No, of course not.” She was frustrating, over-bearing, pushy, and critical. She was also brilliant, driven, passionate, and inspired. I despised and idolized her in equal parts. “You’re a great mom. You guys are great role models.” (Whisper of the Woods, chapter sixteen)
Now there is book 3, Echo of the Cliffs (scheduled for release on May 23rd), and I’ve done something rather unusual for a young adult novel. I have Mom – and Dad – actively participating in the entire story. Juniper goes on quite an adventure in this novel, and her parents are tagging along.
What? No! Juniper is 18! This can’t be! Everyone knows parents are supposed to die, divorce, vanish, abandon, or be negligent, unaware, awful, distant… Yes, I know. I did a blog post about the absence of mothers in children’s and YA books a couple years ago. You can read it here. http://www.dgdriver.com/write-and-rewrite-blog/where-are-the-moms-in-ya
The thing is, while the main story of these novels is about Juniper’s connection to the mythical world and unraveling its mysteries, there is also a theme about her finding her own identity as separate from her parents. They are important figures in the environmental activist world, but Juniper has a voice and strength, too. Instead of having an adventure and coming back to tell them about it, I felt like she needed to show them herself. She needed to be the leader, tell them what to do, and prove that she is worthy of their respect. I also wanted to show that Natalie loves her daughter more than the readers suspected. Despite it all, she doesn’t want to see her daughter in danger or pain. She’s not great at expressing it, but the feelings are powerful and deep. Perhaps, by the time you’re done reading this book, you’ll see that Natalie has gone through an emotional journey right alongside her feisty, determined daughter.
Another thing, too, is that when I was in the throes of writing and revising Cry of the Sea, my daughter was quite young. She was in middle school as I worked out Whisper of the Woods. She is in high school now, and my relationship with her is more strained than it used to be. As a teenager, she is more secretive, keeps things to herself, has many moments of her life with her friends that I don’t know about. She and I have similar interests, theater in particular, and she’s not super open to my advice or ideas. She wants to do things her own way, and I have to learn to respect that. So, maybe Natalie has a little more of me in her than in the earlier stories.
“Everything will wait,” Mom said. “My daughter has been almost killed in a tree and drowned in the ocean in just the past month. If she’s determined to put herself in danger again, I’m damn well going to be there if she needs me. I’m not sitting on the sidelines. I’m not going to hear about it later. I will be at her side.” She ran her hand down my hair and then flicked it back behind my shoulder. “Besides, I still haven’t seen a mermaid. I was promised.”
“Yes, you were, Mom,” I said, reaching out an arm and pulling her to me for a very rare hug. “Yes, you were.” (Echo of the Cliffs, chapter eight)
So, Happy (belated) Mother’s Day to Natalie Sawfeather. If she were real, I’m sure she’d be nibbling at a veggie burger, drinking some herbal tea, and reminding her daughter not to kill a tree for a greeting card. I can hear her saying, “If you really want to do something for me, go fill out that college registration form I put on your desk. It’s overdue.”
If you’ve read Cry of the Sea or Whisper of the Woods, what are some of your feelings about Natalie? Feel free to share. If you haven’t read these books, this is a great time to get started. Spend your summer with Juniper.
Do you have any other moms from YA or children’s books that you love or hate? Why? Comments are welcome. And please, sign up for my mailing list.
D. G. Driver
Author of Young Adult books Cry of the Sea and Passing Notes.