When I was a kid, I loved books more than almost anything. They filled my waking moments, and shaped the person I was to become. I read constantly, obsessively, so much so that when I got in trouble, I was grounded from BOOKS.
What’s changed? Well, not my love of reading! But now that I’m an author, I have been on the receiving end of some of the most glorious, heart-breaking, truth-filled and touching letters from young readers, telling me how my books have shaped their lives. It’s one of the great gifts of writing, and I am so grateful for every reader who reaches out.
And now I’m grateful to have a small part in promoting the Letters About Literature program, hosted by the Texas Center for the Book and the Library of Congress. Books have the power to change lives, and this contest for young readers might change the life of someone you know as well… if you share it with the teachers, librarians, and kids you know.
I hope you will share this contest with every kid and teacher you know! (And if you read one of my books, and write to me? I promise to write back… and I promise you will be the reason for my smiles that day. Happy reading!)
I am utterly delighted to welcome to my blog today my friend, fellow Texas Sweetheart, and debut Middle Grade author, Christina Soontornvat. I had the great pleasure of reading her novel, The Changelings, long before the incredibly clever folks at Sourcebooks snapped it up. I love this book so much, I blurbed it!
“The Changelings is charming! Perfect for readers who love stories full of magic, adventure, mystery and fairies, topped off with a satisfying and very happy ending. Soontornvat’s debut sparkles and delights!” –Nikki Loftin, author of The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy
Here’s a quick description of Christina’s amazing debut:
All Izzy wants is for something interesting to happen in her sleepy little town. But her wish becomes all too real when an enchanting song floats through the woods and lures her little sister Hen into the forest…where she vanishes.
A frantic search leads to a strange hole in the ground that Izzy enters. But on the other side she discovers that the hole was not a hole, this place is not Earth, and Hen is not lost. She’s been stolen away to the land of Faerie, and it’s up to Izzy to bring her home.
But inside Faerie, trouble is brewing—and Izzy is in way over her head. A ragtag group of outlaw Changelings offers to help, and she must decide whether a boulder that comes to life, a girl that’s not quite solid, and a boy who is also a stag can help her save Hen before it’s too late.
You and every kid you know is going to want this book. But it’s not on sale until September 6! Fortunately for you, Dear Readers, I have a signed copy of an ARC ready to mail out to one of you. So read on, leave a comment with your email address, and in two weeks, on August 28, at midnight CST, a fairy will appear in my computer to choose a randomly selected winner… whose reading life will be Changed forever.
It’s such a thrill to be guest posting on this blog. Nikki Loftin has been my publishing sensei, my own Mr. Miyagi (if Mr. Miyagi was an adorable brunette with a wicked dry sense of humor). Nikki asked me if I’d like to write about my process, or my publishing journey, or craft. And so I’m going to mash it all together and tell you how I go about writing first drafts.
When I first started writing down the words that would eventually become THE CHANGELINGS, I didn’t imagine that I would ever publish a novel. I was an engineer. I worked at a science museum. I loved to read, but I had never studied literature beyond what was mandatory in school. I loved to tell stories, but I had never written any of them down.
But then I became an aunt. Aunties are special. They play fun games. They give candy on the sly. And they tell good bedtime stories.
THE CHANGELINGS started as a story for my two nieces. The first time I told it to them, they were 5 and 3 years old. I remember that they were both sitting on my lap near the Christmas tree, when I began: “Once upon a time, there were two sisters who loved each other very much. One day, the little sister disappeared into the woods and no one could find her…” My youngest niece cried. Her big sister told her to go to bed, and begged me to keep telling the story.
Sadly, we live across the country from each other, so in order to keep the story going, I had to write it down and send it in the mail. They were little, so I didn’t send them too much at one time – 8 pages, maybe 10. And because they were so little, I didn’t want to make them wait too long between letters. So I tried to send them a little bit more of the story each week. It wasn’t until months later, when I had sent my last letter, that I realized what I’d done.
I had drafted a novel.
I would never have done anything with it if I hadn’t happened to be in a work meeting, talking to a Chemist named Brian Anderson, who also happened to be an Austin kidlit author. Brian told me to come to an SCBWI meeting. I pretty much owe everything to Brian. My publishing journey is pretty average: 8 years of rewriting, revising, workshopping, querying, revising, rejections, acceptance, revising, submissions, rejections, revising, submissions, book deal. Piece. Of. Cake.
We sold THE CHANGELINGS as a 2-book deal, with the second book a sequel to the first. When I signed my contract, I already had an outline for a sequel, so I wasn’t worried about writing the next book. But when I sat down to draft, I got nowhere. Writer’s block, sophomore slump, burnout, whatever. I was totally stuck.
I tried my first approach: writing a bit of the story in a letter for my nieces. But I didn’t even have enough material to send them. I did NanoWriMo, but a cruddy manuscript doesn’t get less cruddy just because you type it out faster.
This rut went on for a month. By this time, I had children of my own. One morning on the way to school, my 5 year old said, “Mommy, tell me the story you’re writing.” And so in fits and starts, one scene at a time, I started telling her what happens in Book 2.
I learned that something amazing happens when I tell a story out loud. My brain creates details, characters, plot points right there, on the spot. They come out of nowhere. The less I worry about which words are coming out of my mouth, the faster they come. Something that’s impossible to achieve when it’s just me and my laptop alone in a room, becomes easier when someone else is listening.
Getting the first draft down on paper is the hardest part of the writing process for me. There are endless ways a story can go – or go wrong. Every few pages I want to give up because that first draft is so god-awful that it’s difficult to see how it could ever be molded into something worthwhile. But every time I’ve told a story to my nieces, or my daughter, or her friends, they don’t notice the flaws. They want me to keep going. They whine when I stop. “Just tell us what happens next. Please?”
I used this same storytelling technique to draft another middle grade novel, separate from THE CHANGELINGS series. And I’m now working on a fourth, telling both my daughters the story on the way to and from summer camp. I don’t just tell my own stories, either. I tell fairytales and myths. I retell books (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and kids’ movies (The Goonies). I’ve learned so much about pacing and suspense from telling children classic tales and watching their reactions.
We’ve all heard editors and agents say: “Don’t tell me you tried this book out on your kids (or any kids, for that matter), and they loved it”. I know what they mean. Children can’t and shouldn’t serve as your critique partners. And this drafting method of mine doesn’t mean I get to skip the agonizing hours of butt-in-chair time, writing and rewriting. But at least it gives me something to start with.
And on my really low days – which all writers have, lucky us – sometimes the only thing that keeps me going is the image of my daughter or my nieces, eyes wide, listening, waiting to learn what happens next.
Isn’t she lovely? To win a signed ARC of The Changelings and “find you what happens next,” leave a blog comment below (with a valid email address), and wait for the Blog Giveaway Fairy to contact you!
Happy August, friends! I’m a Texas girl, so I AM happy. I love the heat – even in August. 100+ degrees? I’m cool with that. (Especially since Central Texas has some of the best watering holes around – close enough for me to take a dip.)
Hamilton Pool, photo courtesy of my amazing photographer husband, Dave Wilson. Totally copyrighted. Don’t steal it. Only I am allowed. 🙂
I’ve been reading through my TBR pile. Well, “pile” isn’t really apt. It’s shelves upon shelves of books I have purchased or been given, every one of which I have been told by people I know and trust is a Worthwhile Read. Almost all of them are MG, YA, or adult nonfiction. (Research FTW!)
The TBR tower is simultaneously a thing of great delight… and terror. How will I ever get through all those books? How will I resist buying even more before I read the ones I already have? (Spoiler: I won’t. I am addicted to buying books.) And most importantly… will I LOVE the books I read next?
Last week, the answer was a resounding YES three times in a row. And so, without giving spoilers – because I might not have chosen these three if I had known what the subject matter in each was, precisely – I found three new, amazing MG reads.
Trust me: Move these to the tippy top of your TBR tower! You’ll thank me.
Swing Sideways by Nanci Turner Steveson
The Wild Robot by Peter Brown
The War That Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Happy summer to you, friends! I’ve been mostly AWOL here, because I’ve been vacationing (yes, living Real Life! In Santa Fe and other lovely places) and finishing a draft of what I hope will be my next novel. Which means I’ve been crying a lot, and revising a lot, and trying to keep all the new and old plot threads straight in my head. Brain fog time!
And then, today, out of the blue, came a happy email! Last year, my book Nightingale’s Nest won the Writer’s League of Texas MG/YA book award. This year, I was overjoyed to be selected as a finalist… and to wish the very warmest of congratulations to Jackie Kelly, who won for her glorious The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate.
It’s a real honor to have my Wish Girl sitting alongside my friend K. A. Holt’s heart book, House Arrest, and Brian Yansky‘s Utopia, Iowa, and Margo Rabb’s Kissing in America… and so many more.
Need some new books for your end-of-summer reading slump? Any of these will knock your socks off!
Thank you again to the Writers’ League of Texas for the recognition, and for supporting Texas authors in so many ways. You rock!
Hi, y’all! I know writers and readers from all over check in here from time to time, but this post is particularly for my local Central Texas writers. I am teaching three FREE writing workshops in the next few weeks, and I’d love for you to join me!
This Thursday, June 23 at 2 pm at the Dripping Springs Community Library, I will teach a NEW workshop on writing flash fiction. Kids in grades 6-8 are invited to Fast and Furious Fiction. I promise there will be gruesome, funny, and magical stories written at the speed of a candy wrapper! Um, and there will be some candy, too. Sign up here! Or just show up. 😉
On Thursday, June 30 at the Westbank Library in Austin, Texas, you can catch my Special Spiders workshop at 3 pm. Sign up here! This is for kids 1-6 grade. Sign up here!
Can’t make it to Westbank? On Thursday, July 7, 3-5 graders who live near/can get their parents to drive them to Dripping Springs can catch the Snowflakes and Spiders workshop at the Dripping Springs Library. Sign up is open here.
I hope some of you can make it! I promise it will be fun and funny and worth your time.
I spent the last hour reading an incredible bundle of thank you letters from a class in Chicago I Skyped with a few weeks back. Their letters were wonderful to read, especially since the whole group have recently published their own books! They had so much to share about their stories, their writing journeys, and the process of becoming published authors.
SO MANY LETTERS!
There were also a few questions I felt I should answer, and I’ll do it here, just in case anyone else has those same questions at a time when I’m too busy meeting deadlines to answer them all.
Your writing process sounds very frustrating. How do you know what words to type?
I don’t at first! And yes, that can be very frustrating – to have to trust that my brain will somehow start pumping out good words, words I might like enough to include in a real book. Sometimes I throw away whole chapters… or whole books. But that’s okay, it’s all practice, all writing, and I love it. And even though I never really know what words to start with, I know that I’ll have many more chances to go back and change the words on the page. Revision, you know. It’s painful, sure, but it’s where good words can become great words.
How do you write so much?
I avoid pants. No, really. I stay in my pajamas as long as possible, so I can’t possibly go outside or do anything social. And then I wander into my writing room, open up the document… and there’s my work in progress! No pants, might as well write a few chapters… and when I look up, there’s a bunch of new words on the page! I try to get dressed before my kids get home from school. Just in case.
Have you met James Patterson?
No, but if I do, I will tell him thank you for giving all that lovely money to libraries and indie bookstores, and writing so many fun books for kids!
What breed is your dog?
He is a mutt! All my dogs are rescue dogs, saved from shelters. I firmly believe in giving homes to good dogs who deserve them, no matter what breed they are. The best dog editors are those who deeply appreciate the nice soft carpet on the floor where they listen to me read my work out loud. 🙂
Have you tried bacon chocolate?
I have and it made me sad for weeks. How can two beautiful things, taken together, become so repulsive? Oh, the humanity!
And now, back to work! I have the pajamas on, and a new first chapter… I wonder if today’s words will be keepers? I hope so!
As an author, I am frequently asked to contribute copies of my books to charity events, or schools in need, or to Skype to a class or book club, etc. I am totally delighted to do such things when I am able! (Another post someday: how I actually buy all those donated copies with my on money, and pay to mail them. So, yeah. My ability has limits.)
Sometimes the recipients of such gifts of time/talent/treasure are very gracious, and say thank you in charming ways. But a writer friend wrote a blog spot on the very BEST ways to thank an author! It was so spot-on, I’ll link to it here:
One of the coolest things I get to do as an author is read other favorite authors’ books before anyone else. In the case of phenomenal MG author Rebecca Behrens, that means I was able to read her debut novel, When Audrey Met Alice, early enough to blurb it! So, when I saw she had another book coming, I begged my agent to snag me a copy. (Thanks, Suzie! SO glad I begged.)
I loved Summer of Lost and Found. It was so many of the things I gobble up in a MG read: mystery, adventure, ghost story, and cool historical treasure trove.
Here’s the description from Goodreads:
Nell Dare expected to spend her summer vacation hanging out with her friends in New York City. That is, until her botanist mom dragged her all the way to Roanoke Island for a research trip. To make matters worse, her father suddenly and mysteriously leaves town, leaving no explanation or clues as to where he went—or why.
While Nell misses the city—and her dad—a ton, it doesn’t take long for her to become enthralled with the mysteries of Roanoke and its lost colony. And when Nell meets Ambrose—an equally curious historical reenactor—they start exploring for clues as to what really happened to the lost colonists. As Nell and Ambrose’s discoveries of tantalizing evidence mount, mysterious things begin to happen—like artifacts disappearing. And someone—or something—is keeping watch over their quest for answers.
It looks like Nell will get the adventurous summer she was hoping for, and she will discover secrets not only about Roanoke, but about herself.
Don’t you want to read it now? If so, read the five questions Rebecca kindly answered, and leave a comment. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be one of the lucky folks who gets to lay hands on this gem before the May 24 release date!
Rebecca Behrens. That gleam in her eyes? Pure Talent.
Interview with Rebecca
1. Describe your most recent book, Summer of Lost and Found, in three words.
History, mystery, discovery
2. So far, you have written amazing books about First Daughter Alice Roosevelt and the lost colony of Roanoke. Have you always been a history buff? What other past stories do you have your eye on for future books?
Thank you! I have always been a history buff. After class, I used to write notes to my fifth-grade teacher telling her about what I loved reading in our textbook and what else I wanted to know. She gave me an endless supply of MG historical fiction that nurtured my interest. My parents are also both history-lovers, and our family road trips made stops at every plaque and historic site along the way. They taught me that not only is the present world a beautiful and complicated and fascinating place—the past is, too.
My next book, The Last Grand Adventure, is set in 1967 and it’s about a twelve-year-old girl whose spunky grandmother takes her along on a planes, train, and automobiles journey back to Kansas—where the grandmother is convinced she will find her famously missing sister, Amelia Earhart. So I am getting to explore the ’60s and Amelia Earhart’s life—both topics I love learning more about.
3. The Historical Fiction Police are a real thing. When writing about past events, do you ever find yourself nervous you’ll get an important fact or detail wrong? Have you ever gotten any “fan mail” correcting your research?
I have a love-hate relationship with the Historical Fiction Police. I am nervous about them knocking on my door, but at the same time they motivate me to do my best at getting facts right. For me, the trickiest part of writing historical fiction is deciding when it’s okay to stray from the historical record and make things up. Sometimes you have to, because information isn’t available; sometimes you need to, because you are first and foremost trying to tell a good story. But that story needs to stay plausible, if not completely accurate.
I’m lucky in that so far, I haven’t been alerted to any big mistakes by readers. I can thank my copy editors for that! For Summer of Lost and Found, I worked with a historian from Roanoke Island. She reviewed the entire manuscript and pointed out places where I was either wrong or ought to clarify information. She taught me a lot about the history and people of Roanoke Island—I’m so grateful for her help and expertise!
4. What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
I love revising, especially those aha! moments when a piece of the book puzzle unexpectedly fits. I also love the research that happens while working on early drafts: The Internet is often my first stop before moving on to more formal sources, and there is something really fun about falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole when looking into a topic. You think you’re just going to look up what kinds of birds live in a place and the next thing you know, you’re reading about a passenger pigeon that escaped a pie recipe.
5. What’s the best book (or two) you’ve read this month?
I just read Jen Malone’s The Sleepover, which is a middle-grade reimagining of the movie The Hangover. And it is truly hilarious. I’m longing to dig my Pac-Man sleeping bag out of storage and invite my best friend over for a night of shenanigans. Now I’m in the middle of an adult historical fiction book: The Marriage of Opposites, which is about the life of painter Camille Pissarro’s mother. The protagonist, Rachel, is strong-willed and passionate, and I’m loving the lush setting: the island of St. Thomas in the 1800s.
Thanks, Rebecca! And congratulations on another stunning book.
Remember: Leave a comment below! Details: North American entries only, please! Contest ends on Friday, May 20 at midnight Central.
I was super excited and humbled to be invited to participate in TLA’s Spirit of Texas Middle School list this year. Texas librarians know how to make an author feel loved – and this list makes it clear that teachers should be feeling the love, too, since the “goodies” that come along with this list are for teachers and their students!
Years ago I was a teacher, and I would have LOVED to have material like this already prepared. It thrills me to think that teachers might be able to use my books more easily in the classroom, now that this material is out there.
Thank you so much to the entire Spirit of Texas committee, and Uber Librarian Amanda Galliton in particular! Texas’ motto in Friendship, and you sure know how to show that to a home-grown author.