Dear Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

I’ve been writing love letters to books that shaped me, as a person and as a writer, and for this month, it’s Karen Foxlee’s Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy. I so enjoyed this book, a dreamy and beautiful retelling of the Snow Queen. What I want to talk about today, though, is how it influenced my writing.

I write contemporary fantasies, and love to come up with sumptuous settings and vast and daring adventures. When writing my first book, though, I kept getting feedback that readers weren’t connecting with the main character. I tried all the tricks for character development. I wrote questionnaires and character sketches galore. I composed backstory that would never see the light of day, and even drew pictures. Nothing.

When I met Ophelia, it finally clicked. The story is just the kind I like, with a heartbreak at its center, and an epic battle to save a beloved driving it on. But this character was so likeable. I devoured it for the story, but I studied it for the technique. How did she do that?

A few things, I decided. Done so quickly that they could easily be missed, but crucial in establishing character immediately. Consider the title of chapter one: “In Which Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard discovers a boy in a locked room and is consequently asked to save the world.” That is followed swiftly by the first line: “Ophelia did not consider herself brave.” Right away we know both that Ophelia is going to have to do something very important, and that she is not going to be thrilled about it. That makes me curious, and it makes her seem self-effacing. I like that.

Ophelia’s reluctant bravery is a characteristic carried throughout the story. Every time that marvelous boy locked in the room asks Ophelia to do something, she says no. Then, grudgingly, she does it anyway, because she can’t just leave him locked in that room. She takes on incredibly scary tasks, but hems and haws and complains the whole time, which certainly seems relatable to me. I wouldn’t want to go walking through rooms of ghosts, either.

Foxlee also gives Ophelia a few idiosyncrasies that help us to see her more clearly, and that show us Ophelia’s fear without her having to remind us. Ophelia makes lists to distract herself. She tugs on her braid when she’s worried, and when she gets really scared, she has to take a puff of her inhaler. Isn’t that perfect?

I began to think anew about other characters I love. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we see the Dursleys’ horrid treatment of Harry, and then one of the first things Harry does is free an unhappy snake from its cage. He is an underdog, and he wants to save other underdogs. In The Golden Compass, we see Lyra hide and eavesdrop, but ultimately come clean and risk punishment to protect her uncle. She is sneaky and has a strong sense of self-preservation, but also a redeeming moral code.

It isn’t merely about fleshing out character, I realized. Lists of their favorite ice cream flavors and the like weren’t helping, because they didn’t reveal what the reader needed to understand about the character for this story. Ophelia’s inhaler sure did, though. I now believe that the key to a good characterization is to understand the character’s defining quality that drives the story, then give a clear early example of it and a few tics or traits that show it throughout. For that understanding, I will always be grateful to Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy.

Favorite quote:

Ophelia had never been prophesied before. It made her feel annoyed.

Kate Hillyer writes stories about brave girls who fight for what they love. She blogs here and at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. She currently serves as a Cybils judge for Poetry and Novels in Verse. You can find her on Twitter and at www.katehillyer.com. 

SaveSaveSaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSaveSaveSave

SaveSave

Dear The Phantom Tollbooth

Oh, this strange, wonderful, wise book. Every month, I’m writing a love letter to a book that has shaped me, and this month, it’s The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

For those poor souls who haven’t yet read this classic, it’s the story of Milo, who comes home from school one day to find a tollbooth addressed to him. He drives his toy car through it and enters the magical Kingdom of Reason, where he discovers two warring kings, Azaz the Unabridged, who believes words matter more than numbers, and his brother, the Mathemagician, who is equally certain that numbers are more important than words. Milo embarks on a quest to reunite the kings and save the land by rescuing the twin sisters of the kings, Princess Rhyme and Princess Reason, who have been exiled to the Castle in the Air. Joining him on the journey are Tock, a dog whose belly is a huge watch, and the Humbug, a gruff and self-important beetle.

The language is absurd and delicious. Juster excels at word play and puns, and each sentence can be unpacked for layers of meaning and added delight. Here are a few gems:

“Whether or not you find your own way, you’re bound to find some way. If you happen to find my way, please return it, as it was lost years ago. I imagine by now it’s quite rusty.”

“If something is there, you can only see it with your eyes open, but if it isn’t there, you can see it just as well with your eyes closed. That’s why imaginary things are often easier to see than real ones.”

You want to linger over each sentence, but Juster pulls you along with Milo and his crew to the next adventure, which is bound to be even more fantastic and silly than the last.

Hidden in amongst the bizarre and the playful, though, are some real nuggets of wisdom. For instance, Milo learns on his journey that one can easily jump to the island of Conclusions, but the only way out is a long, hard swim through the Sea of Knowledge.

When Milo finally makes it to the princesses, he laments, “[W]e would have been here much sooner if I hadn’t made so many mistakes. I’m afraid it’s all my fault.”

Princess Reason responds, “You must never feel badly about making mistakes…as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”

I recently read The Phantom Tollbooth to my nine-year-old. I was pleased to find that as an adult I felt the same delight I had as a child, luxuriating in Juster’s language. My son’s guffaws made clear that this book, now more than fifty years old, holds up well.

More surprising, though, was to realize how much the book had shaped me. The Phantom Tollbooth introduced me, a devoted rule-following kid, to the joys of a journey with lots of side trips and missteps, and to playing around with language just because it is fun to do so. It is a lesson I am still learning.

I also believe that it is due to The Phantom Tollbooth that I view the greatest and most moral of skills to be the fair and peaceful resolution of disputes. As a child, I wanted nothing so much as to be the lovely, kind, just, and intelligent princesses. I think I became a lawyer because of them.

I still feel a catch in my heart at their description: “They were dressed all in white and were beautiful beyond compare. One was grave and quiet, with a look of warm understanding in her eyes, and the other seemed gay and joyful.” Rhyme’s laugh was “as friendly as the mailman’s ring when you know there’s a letter for you.”

Wouldn’t you want to be them? Don’t you?

And while I know that I will never achieve their heights of calm wisdom and lighthearted reassurance, this book taught me that it is worthwhile to strive for those things. It taught me that reason and compassion can save almost anything.

Favorite Quote:

So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.

Kate Hillyer loves reading aloud, mostly because of the guffaws. She writes middle grade stories about brave girls who fight for the things they love. She blogs here and at From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. You can find her online at www.katehillyer.com and on Twitter as @SuperKate. She also has a book blog, www.kidbooklist.com, and lucky dog, she gets to be a Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. 

SaveSave

SaveSave

Dear Skellig

This is the second love letter in the series we’re doing about books that shaped us, as individuals and as writers. Last month, I wrote about a book that formed me as a person. This month, it’s the book that inspired me to write middle grade. I discovered Skellig, by David Almond, as an adult. I fell into it by accident, intrigued by its strange title and lovely cover. I finished it in two days, deciding almost immediately that it was the perfect book.

Skellig tells the story of a boy named Michael who moves into a new house and discovers, in the broken-down barn there, a grumpy, old, arthritic man who maybe has wings, is maybe an angel. Michael also has a baby sister who was born too early, and may not survive. “Sometimes I think she’s never quite left Heaven and never quite made it all the way here to Earth,” Michael’s mother says. “Maybe that’s why she has such trouble staying here.”

It was Skellig that taught me what contemporary fantasy can do in middle grade. It can use magic to illuminate and elucidate hard truths—the things that children know, intuitively, but do not have the language to express. I love middle grade because it is the cusp where magic is still not entirely impossible, but the harder aspects of reality are visible, as well. Middle grade contemporary fantasy mines this fleeting moment in life.

The story is gorgeously spare. I cannot tell you what any of the characters look like, except Skellig, vaguely. I am unsure where it takes place, though the use of “bloody” and “blinking” as curses tells me somewhere in Great Britain. The time period could be anything over about a century, post-automobile and pre-cell phone. There are no literary acrobats, no lingering descriptions or laugh lines. It is as hard to get my hands around as a dream. But, like a dream, the feeling it evokes lingers deep within.

This is the book that inspired me to write. In the comments, if you like, I would love to hear your inspirations.

Favorite Quote

“What are you?” I whispered.
He shrugged again.
“Something,” he said. “Something like you, something like a beast, something like a bird, something like an angel.” He laughed. “Something like that.”

Kate Hillyer continues to search for magic in the everyday. She writes middle grade stories about girls strong enough to save the things they love. You can find her at www.katehillyer.com and on Twitter as @SuperKate. She blogs here and at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors, and also has her own book blog at www.kidbooklist.com. 

SaveSave

SaveSaveSaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Dear Anne of Green Gables

Welcome to a brand new series on The Winged Pen!

Here, we write love letters to our favorite books—the ones that shaped us, as writers and as people.

First up is the book that inspired me to start this series: Anne of Green Gables!

In case you haven’t read it, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables is the story of an orphan girl who, after being shipped to various abysmal foster homes, lands with an older couple (actually brother and sister) on an idyllic farm on Prince Edward Island.

I am an Anne girl. I get a glow just holding the book (especially the lovely edition from Puffin and Rifle Paper—yum!). My red-haired daughter is named Lucy, after Lucy Maud Montgomery.

There are a few things that made this book so influential to me.

First, Anne is not perfect. She tries really hard to be good, but she loses her temper, she messes things up royally, and she is given to fits of despair. I was a kid who worried all the time about doing the right thing, and seeing Anne’s horrid mistakes and tantrums gave me a gleeful thrill, and permission for my own imperfection. (Imperfection is good! I wrote a whole post on it.)

Second, L.M. Montgomery taught me about writing description. Here is how she describes the road to Anne’s new home, when Anne first sees it:

The “Avenue,” so called by the Newbridge people, was a stretch of road four or five hundred yards long, completely arched over with huge, wide-spreading apple-trees, planted years ago by an eccentric old farmer. Overhead was one long canopy of snowy fragrant bloom. Below the boughs the air was full of a purple twilight and far ahead a glimpse of painted sunset sky shone like a great rose window at the end of a cathedral aisle.

Isn’t that lovely? Oh, it makes me sigh every time.

Montgomery elevates the scenery of her beloved home while also being so specific that I can picture it. I see it perfectly, and I feel the same awed reaction that Anne experiences in that moment. I strive in my own writing to make descriptions that not just make a place real, but make it magical and inspiring.

Finally, Anne loves with her whole heart. Her joy at her new home is palpable. She takes the time to feel every moment and savor it. She doesn’t dwell on her unhappy background, but she is constantly amazed at her good fortune to end up in a place so enchanting. May we all be so grateful for the good in our lives!

Here’s my favorite quote:

“Dear old world”, she murmured, “you are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you.”

In the comments, please share yours!

Kate Hillyer writes middle grade novels in the D.C. area, but is certain she’s going to make it to Prince Edward Island someday. Look for her in long red braids soon. In the meantime, she blogs here and at From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors, and maintains her own book blog at Kid Book List. She’s also a 2017 Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. You can find her on Twitter and at www.katehillyer.com. 

 

 

SaveSave

SaveSaveSaveSave

SaveSave

Interview with Adrienne Kress

Adrienne Kress is so cool. She’s an actor, playwright, filmmaker, and director. She teaches drama to kids, and she has her own production company. Most importantly for our purposes here, she is an author, of fantastical middle grade adventure stories with daring girls and careful boys, absurd predicaments and narrow escapes. I first came to love Adrienne’s work when I read her book, ALEX AND THE IRONIC GENTLEMAN, about a girl who sets off to rescue her favorite teacher after he is kidnapped by pirates.

Adrienne’s new book is THE EXPLORERS: THE DOOR IN THE ALLEY. Here is the description:

This is one of those stories that start with a pig in a teeny hat. It’s not the one you’re thinking about. (This story is way better than that one.)

This pig-in-a-teeny-hat story starts when a very uninquisitive boy stumbles upon a very mysterious society. After that, there is danger and adventure; there are missing persons, hired thugs, a hidden box, a lost map, and famous explorers; and also a girl on a rescue mission.

The Explorers: The Door in the Alley is the first book in a series that is sure to hit young readers right in the funny bone.

Doesn’t that sound fun? It is. I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of THE EXPLORERS, and quickly fell in love with the witty language, the exciting plot, and the main relatable main characters, careful Sebastian and daring Evie. Adrienne agreed to answer a few questions for The Winged Pen.

  1. Your books are so wild and fun. What do you do to get in the right mindset to let your creativity flow?

Thank you! I’m very happy that you find my books so engaging. What you’re asking is how do I get inspired. And that changes constantly. These days, though, it’s not about getting into any kind of mindset, it’s sitting down and getting to work. I used to find I could only create when my imagination was on fire with ideas, but as I started to write more, it became necessary to learn how to treat writing like a job. I remember the first time I “forced” myself to write. It was a struggle and I worried so much that the effort was going to show on the page. But I was stunned when I reread the work later and found that it came across much in the same way as those bits written out of pure inspiration. So it’s a combination of inspiration (because you still have to come up with the ideas, etc.) and getting down to it. And, it’s a very good feeling, really, knowing you can write without the muse constantly sitting on your shoulder and whispering in your ear. It’s still not easy, but it is very freeing.

  1. Was this always written with two points of view? Why did you decide to write it this way? What did you gain or lose?

I actually started with just Sebastian while I was planning out the book. But pretty quickly I realized I wanted to write about a girl as well. I had written from several points of view before in my YA book THE FRIDAY SOCIETY so I had some experience in this area. And I don’t really think I lost anything by making that choice. I feel like I gained a great deal by adding another perspective. Evie’s connection to the team makes the adventure personal right from the start rather than just something interesting to an outsider. Sebastian starts as kind of the person on the outside looking in, almost in a way representing the readers themselves, but as Sebastian gets more involved, the situation becomes more personal to him too. Sebastian’s development gives another dimension to the story. So I gained the opportunity to engage with the readers in more ways.

  1. Was there anything particularly challenging about writing this book? Or particularly fun?

Figuring out what they were searching for was oddly difficult. I knew it had to do with that mysterious exploration, and I knew all five members of the team had to be involved somehow. The key was not the first thing I thought of, though it definitely was the best choice once I thought of it.

As for fun, well, I always love writing animal characters. So I got very excited every time that opportunity presented itself. Of course, since the story all comes from my brain, I made sure to present such an opportunity to myself as often as possible. As you may have noticed . . .

  1. What other projects are you working on now?

I’m currently finishing up copy edits on the second book in THE EXPLORERS series, and will be shortly starting to write the third. And I am acting in a Fringe play this summer here in Toronto, a fun parody of Shakespeare called MACBETH’S HEAD.

  1. What’s the best writing advice you’ve heard?

It isn’t specifically writing advice, but I like to turn to Dory from Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming.” There are so many things out of our control as writers. There are even things that are just pure luck. But the one thing we can do is just keep writing. That’s what we can take ownership of.

  1. What were your favorite books when you were a kid? And how about kid books that you discovered as an adult?

As a kid I was a big fan of both Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. I also enjoyed the Encyclopedia Brown detective books a lot. And The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. My dad read me some grown-up books too. Lord of the Rings really stayed with me. And he also introduced The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to me as well. That book changed everything about how I looked at writing – and kind of life as well. As a kid I fell in love with the absurdity.

As an adult, well, I mean I guess I have to say the biggest kid book I discovered as an adult is probably the most obvious as well. I’m a huge Harry Potterphile. But can you blame me??

 

Katharine Manning now wants to make teeny hats for her cats. Anyone with miniature millinery skills, please get in touch. You can reach her here and at Mixed Up Files, as well as on Twitter, Instagram, and at www.katharinemanning.com.

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

My Month of Poetry

I recently found myself in a writing rut. A hectic home life, a stressful and stressed-out world, and somehow writing became both trivial and inaccessible. I could not connect with my creativity, and it felt self-indulgent even to try.

Over dinner, a wise friend suggested a poetry challenge. Write a poem a day for thirty days, to clean out the spiders of doubt and despair, and to get my creativity flowing again.

Huh, I thought. Poetry.

I’ve written poetry off and on since college. I’ve never let anyone read it, not even my wife. But this wouldn’t need to be shared. This was about healing, not productivity or entertainment. And April, being National Poetry Month, certainly seemed an appropriate time for it.

I quietly decided to give it a try. The only rules I set were that each day I had to write a poem at some point before midnight, and that I was not allowed to read it after I closed the document.

I wasn’t sure how it would go, and so for the first week, I didn’t tell anyone that I was doing it. As the days stacked up, though, I became more confident. And then I began to have fun. Poems allow for such freedom to play with language and with white space. Amazing things came up. I would open the blank document expecting to write about one thing, and almost immediately, something entirely different came to my fingers. That’s what I’m worrying about? Who knew?

Some days were harder, particularly as I happened to choose the month we were moving back into our not-quite-fully renovated house. So, sometimes the poems were really short. On the day we moved, I wrote a haiku. Other days I wrote longer and more nuanced pieces. The topics varied. Some were intense, others light. The key was that I didn’t judge myself for what I wrote—for how good it was, or how many words I got down. I allowed myself to experiment and to explore my thoughts.

I started this in late March, so my thirty days are up today. It’s been both fun and illuminating. I’ve gotten back into the groove of daily writing, which feels wonderful. I have a moment each day of reflection and creativity, which I don’t believe I will be able to relinquish. My creativity has been primed, and I have a few new ideas for stories and writing projects. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve found a way to remember that writing is, for me, healing. I know that writing is a business, but that’s not all it is. It is a sacred practice, a way to connect with myself. And if I allow it to, it can save me.

For those looking for more ideas about writing and reading poetry, Laura Shovan, the wise friend who started me on this journey, has a wealth of information on her blog, including, this month, an amazing lineup of interviews with verse novelists. And if anyone is inspired to try a month of poetry, here are some prompts to help you get started.

Katharine Manning blogs here and at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. She writes middle grade stories about strong, brave girls who sometimes make mistakes. She was thrilled to serve as a 2016 Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. You can find her online at www.katharinemanning.com, on Twitter, and on Instagram. Her book blog is KidBookList.

Behind the Scenes: My Experience as a Cybils Judge

This winter, I was able to serve as a judge for the Cybils, an award for children’s and young adult authors and illustrators. Established by bloggers, the Cybils recognize work that combines literary merit with popular appeal.

I’d been following the Cybils for a few years, and knew that it was a well-respected award. I’m a book blogger, too, at Kid Book List, and when I saw the call for judges, I thought I’d give it a try. I hoped it would be a good opportunity to discover some great books and meet new people in the kid lit community.

It was both of those in spades. I was chosen to be a second-round judge in the Poetry category. Lucky me! I am a big fan of novels in verse and kid poetry anthologies.

Anyone can nominate books for consideration in any of the categories; the only requirements are that they have been published in the United States or Canada in the year under consideration. Each Cybils category has first round readers who go through all of the nominated books. They narrow the nominations to a group of five to seven finalists for the second-round readers, who then choose a winner.

That’s where the fun began for me. We had a fantastic and incredibly diverse set of finalists in the Poetry category, which made our task both exciting and difficult. Our finalists were:

BOOKED by Newbery Award winner Kwame Alexander, a middle grade novel in verse about a soccer-obsessed boy whose parents are separating;

FRESH DELICIOUS, written by Irene Latham and illustrated by Mique Moriuchi, an upbeat and colorful poetry anthology for the preschool and early elementary set, celebrating the joys of the farmer’s market;

GARVEY’S CHOICE by Nikki Grimes, a spare and lovely middle grade novel in verse told from the perspective of an overweight boy who struggles to win his athletic father’s approval;

GUESS WHO, HAIKU, written by Deanna Caswell and illustrated by Bob Shea, an adorable picture book in poem form centered on a barnyard;

THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY by Laura Shovan, a middle grade novel in verse told from a remarkable eighteen perspectives and in an array of poetic forms, about the last year of a school that will be torn down;

TO STAY ALIVE: MARY ANN GRAVES AND THE TRAGIC STORY OF THE DONNER PARTY by Skila Brown, a young adult historical in gorgeous and unflinching verse;

WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES: POEMS FOR ALL SEASONS, written by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Julie Morstad, a beautiful anthology for early elementary readers that celebrates the garden through the seasons.

Once the finalists were in, we got to work. First we gathered the books from the library (or our bookshelves!), and a few that we couldn’t get in time were sent from the publisher. Our reading load was lighter than the first round’s, and I was able to get it done in the time we needed without too much trouble.

The great sweep of books in this category made it challenging to compare them, but after some email discussion, we decided that Laura Shovan’s THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY was “the most appealing in its diversity, its capturing of the emotional lives of children on the brink of adolescence, and its poetic acrobatics.” See here for our write-up about why we chose it, and to read about the winners in all of the categories.

You can find out more about the Cybils here. If you’re interested in nominating a book, the deadline is generally in October. And if you want to apply to be a judge, the application is due in September. Follow the Cybils account on Twitter to make sure not to miss any announcements.

I’m so glad I was able to participate in the Cybils process. I discovered some fantastic books, analyzed what makes for a successful book of poetry for children, and met other dedicated readers of poetry and novels in verse.

Katharine Manning is a middle grade writer who spends her lunch hours reading poetry. She blogs here and at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. You can also find her on her websiteTwitter, and Instagram

Bullet Journals for Writers

Life has gotten really full. There are emails to answer, phone calls to make, and have you signed the kids up for summer camp yet? Enter the bullet journal. It’s basically a notebook into which you pour all of your appointments, tasks, plans, goals, lists, musings, and memories. And once you have it written down, you’ve captured it. That little thing that you’re afraid you’ll forget? You can let it go, because it’s in the book.

Bullet journals are completely customizable. You set it up exactly as you need to for your own quirky mind and habits. If you need two pages for a single day, go for it. If you want to see an entire month at a time, in vertical list form, it’s all you. You need a special column for your mom’s doctor appointments? No problem.

Bullet journals are especially appealing for writers, because they involve all the things writers love—paper, pens, stickers, penmanship, obsessing over minutia. The downside is that the journal can be time-consuming to establish and maintain, especially if you fall deep into the rabbit hole of perfecting the pages. DO NOT OBSESS OVER HOW PRETTY THE PAGES ARE.[1]

Here is a rough overview of how to get started (for the full story, see the video here).

The Book

First, you need to pick a notebook. Here’s my preferred bullet journal. It has thick numbered pages, two ribbon bookmarks, a pocket in back, and isn’t it so lovely? I am devoted to mine, but I must admit that a multiple-notebook binder like this one has some appeal, as you could choose to have one notebook for appointments, another for sketches, or your work in progress, or your many lists. You can also go for something cheap and easy to start and see if you like it, and there are websites where you can have a custom journal set up for you, if you don’t like filling in the pages yourself.

The Index

What bullet journalers call an index is really a table of contents,[2] and it’s crucial. This part really blew my mind. How many notebooks have I filled in my life? And why did it never occur to me to include a table of contents? I now use them for all of my notebooks. For instance, if I’m going to a writing conference, I’ll use one notebook for my class notes, follow-ups, and critique notes, and leave a few blank pages at the front for my table of contents. Then, three months later when I’m trying to remember Wendy Mass’s incredible talk on blueprinting your novel, I pull out my New England SCBWI Conference journal and flip right to the correct page. So satisfying.

The Schedule

It takes a little while to perfect your system. I have monthly and weekly calendars, all in the front half of the book, and the back half blank for my lists. My advice is to look around at the endless bullet journal boards for ideas, and try a few things out before you commit to filling in an entire year’s schedule.

The Lists

This is where the bullet journals really shine. You can use your blank pages for all the things that you need to pour out of your brain, and you can also use them for inspiration, to help you reach your goals, and to amuse you. The possibilities are endless, but here are a few types of lists that are particularly useful for writers.

Productivity

There are a million ways to track your productivity through a list. I do a little chart in the corner of my weekly calendar where I track writing days, as well as exercise and overall steps toward world domination. Specific pages for word count, scenes or chapters written or edited, pomodori completed, or blog posts written, can also be useful, as can a submissions tracker or chart of your various works in progress. It is so satisfying to fill in those little boxes, let me tell you.

Brainstorming

Corral your ideas for stories, snippets of dialogue overheard (I can’t be the only one eavesdropping during field trips), character traits or habits, inspiring books or movies, found images and metaphors, and great names.

Work in Progress

I actually do this in a separate notebook (with a table of contents!), but you can do it in your bullet journal, if you’d rather have it handy. I include my outline, themes and story questions, titles, character sketches, scene planning, and anything else that strikes me. Some other ideas that might be fun are sketching out your dream cover, or drafting a dedication and acknowledgements page for your work in progress.

Reading

If you’re like me, you have a towering to be read pile and are constantly encountering more books that you want to add. You can track what you’re reading or want to read, as well as your impressions as you’re reading, and reviews written.

Fun

Make some room for delight, as well. Consider including a spot for words you love,[3] writing prompts, six-word stories, doodles, and inspiring quotes. I have my favorite poems, for easy perusing when I’m in the mood.

Good luck! In the comments, I’d love to hear how you use your bullet journal, or your ideas for lists that writers would appreciate.

For more inspiration on productivity, check out Richelle’s post on Writing Goals, and we have a fantastic start to your to-be-read craft books list here.

Subscribe to THE Winged Pen and never miss a post, including our monthly #FourOn400 writing contest for middle grade and young adult. Click to SUBSCRIBE!

Katharine Manning may never master calligraphy, but she makes a darn good cake. She is a middle grade writer and mom who lives in Washington, DC, home of the uber-productive. She blogs here and at From the Mixed Up Files…Of Middle Grade Authors and is thrilled to be a 2016 Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. You can find her online at www.katharinemanning.com, on Twitter, and Instagram.

 

[1] Please note that I am currently trying to learn calligraphy so I can make my pages prettier. I am terrible at calligraphy.

[2] Don’t mind me, just obsessing over minutia.

[3] Isn’t “hush” wonderful? I love that word.

SaveSave

Author Interview–Julie Leung

mice-of-the-round-table

We are thrilled to have on the blog today Julie Leung, a debut author whose middle grade novel releases on October 4th. MICE OF THE ROUNDTABLE: A TAIL OF CAMELOT is an epic new middle grade series in the tradition of Redwall and Poppy, based on Arthurian legend and told from the perspective of Camelot’s most humble creatures: mice. Young mouse Calib Christopher dreams of becoming a Knight of the Round Table. For generations, his family has led the mice who live just out of sight of the humans, defending Camelot from enemies both big and small. But when Calib and his friend Cecily discover that a new threat is gathering—one that could catch even the Two-Leggers unaware—it is up to them to unmask the real enemy, unite their forces, and save the castle they all call home. The book has received positive reviews from both Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal!

“A winning new adventure featuring a stalwart warrior mouse, heroic knights, and magical Camelot.” (Kirkus) “Leung employs classic language, with regal terms to re-create the timeless feel of Camelot.” (School Library Journal)

What drew you to this story for a retelling?

I grew up on a steady diet of the Redwall series. I checked out every book from the library and savored every feast scene and battle. And like most fans of fantasy fiction, my first taste of it came from tales of King Arthur and his knights. So when Paper Lantern Lit approached me with the project for Mice of the Round Table, I knew this was the perfect fit for me.  

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of retelling a story?

My favorite thing about writing an Arthurian retelling is that I can bake in references and literary Easter eggs that will hopefully pay off when the reader continues to explore the legends in their own right. On the flip side, I have to ensure that my story arc follows the trajectory that everyone expects—for the most part at least, I like to throw in some surprises. 😉

How much research did you do?

My research was twofold. I did a lot of digging into Arthurian legends themselves. But I quickly found that the versions we have come to know as canon have also been modified and tweaked through the ages. Different authors left in their own details and flourishes which I found fascinating.

I also refreshed myself on a lot of “rodent-as-hero” stories like Poppy, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and other classic tales. One of my biggest challenges was to correctly scale mice in a world built by humans.

What are some details you included to evoke the time period?

I tried to place the story in a timeless and familiar fairytale setting. That meant excising any words or terminology that sounded too modern and paying attention to the descriptions food and clothing to make sure they felt grounded within historical reason.

Why do you write middle grade?

The books that truly turned me into an insatiable reader for life were read when I was 8-12 years old. I wanted to write for this age because I could incorporate a sense of innocent wonder and adventure but at the same time introduce more complex themes.

What was your favorite book when you were a kid? 

Ozma of Oz by Frank L. Baum

How about a favorite middle grade that you’ve discovered as an adult?

I read the Tale of Despereaux for a college class and have been craving soup ever since.

What is your favorite piece of writing advice?

Write like you’re running out of time, adapted from the Hamilton musical. To keep myself focused on the goal of finishing a manuscript, I cultivate this sense of urgency in the back of mine: No one can tell your stories but yourself, and you owe it to your stories to see them to realization.   

julie-leung

JULIE LEUNG was raised in the sleepy suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, though it may be more accurate to say she grew up in Oz and came of age in Middle-earth.

By day, she is a senior marketing manager for Random House’s sci-fi/fantasy imprint, Del Rey Books. She is also the mother of FictionToFashion.com, where she interprets her favorite books into outfits.

In her free time, she enjoys furtively sniffing books at used bookstores and winning at obscure board games. Her favorite mode of transportation is the library.

You may accost her in the following formatsTwitterInstagram, and Goodreads.

Katharine Manning has a soft spot in her heart for mouse stories, dating back to third grade when she first read about Ralph and his motorcycle. She writes middle grade stories about brave girls, friendship, and occasionally, magic. She blogs here and at The Mixed-Up Files, and is thrilled to be a 2016 Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. You can see her middle grade book recommendations at Kid Book List, and can also find her at www.katharinemanning.com and on Twitter and Instagram

SaveSave

SaveSave

Summer Road Trip Read Alouds

road trip

It’s summer road trip season, and in our family, that means I’m on the lookout for great books for reading out loud. That’s our favorite way to while away the hours speeding down the highways and back roads.

Not all books are great for reading aloud. To me, the key is that the plot has to be relatively straightforward (in case someone zones out for a bit, looking for the world’s largest ball of twine) and it has to move at a good clip (to keep the interest of those who might otherwise start kicking their sisters). Bonus points if it’s exciting, funny, and has silly names.

Here are some we’ve loved recently.

princess bride

The Princess Bride: If you’ve seen the movie, the book, which reads almost verbatim, will crack you right up. Everyone has his or her own favorite lines. In our family, the surest way to make someone laugh is to say, “Anybody want a peanut?” This is one of the rare instances in which I would recommend seeing the movie first, because the fantastic actors and settings make the book come to life as you’re reading.

snow treasure

Snow Treasure: This was one of my wife’s favorite books as a kid, but I’d never heard of it. It’s the fascinating true story of Norwegian children who smuggled $12 million in gold out of their country on sleds after the Nazi occupation in WWII began. We were all on the edges of our seats to find out what happened, and I especially love the kid power message here.

tumtum

TumTum and Nutmeg: These are fantastic for younger kids, who may not be able to follow a longer plot yet. It’s a series of long-ish short stories starring a fussy husband and doting wife mouse couple and their trouble-causing, pompous best friend, General Marchmouse. The stories are entertaining, but not too scary, and everyone is polite and trying to be good. It definitely has fun-to-say names.

hp

Harry Potter: To me, these are the quintessential read alouds. My wife and I actually read these to each other before we had kids, even over the phone when we were long distance. The stories are gripping, and get better as the series progresses. It has the best names of any books out there. Hufflepuff! Dumbledore! Rowena Ravenclaw! Plus you get to try out fun British-isms like “snogging” and “bloody.” You really can’t get better than this.

wizard of oz

The Wizard of Oz: Another one where the fantastic book gets overshadowed by the movie, I like this for a road trip because it’s the story of a journey and trying to get home. The books (there are five of them) read more like a series of connected short stories, so it’s also nice for bedtime stories, or where you can’t read it all at once.

fortunately the milk

Fortunately, the Milk: So silly and funny. A dad goes out for milk, takes too long getting home, and comes back to tell the kids the fantastic tale of where he’s been. It’s a quick read, and will have you all howling with laughter.

Okay, your turn! I’ve got a looong road trip coming up at the end of this month. What do you recommend? What have you loved?

Katharine Manning is a middle grade writer who is working on her British accent. You can see more of her middle grade book recommendations at Kid Book List. You can also find her at www.katharinemanning.com and on Twitter

SaveSave