Favorite Books of 2015

jacket image for GoAsk me about my favorite book, food or color, and I’m likely to freeze. A lot of it has to do with what’s going on in my life.  My favorite food? Something I’m craving now. Color often depends on recent yarn purchases. My favorite book?  It changes as I read more great books.  Still, here are my recommendations from 2015.

The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum. Adult narrative nonfiction, this book tells about the creation of forensic science — ferreting out who was murdered vs who died by accident and what poison was used to do the criminal deed.  Teens would love it and it is a good exercise in “exciting ways to use what you are learning in school.”

Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design by Chip Kidd.  This is nonfiction as it’s finest.  Even if I wasn’t interested in graphic design, I’d love this for Kidd’s cheeky delivery.  He informs without talking down to the reader.  Instead he treats them as irreverant equals.

On a Clear Day by Walter Dean Myers. A lot of the fiction that I love is really complex. This book is no exception. It isn’t post-pocolyptic but walks right up to total disaster. The C-8, eight mega-businesses, control everything from food to health care.  The white and wealthy live in suburban gated communities.  The poor struggle in crime infested neighborhoods and no longer attend school.  This book speaks to teens who will nod in agreement at the parallels in our own society.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater.  Another amazing complex story.  This one features a cast of five teen characters.  This is a contemporary fantasy with a main plot (finding the burial of a Celtic king), but also numerous subplots that deal with the characters’ personal lives and families.  Throughout this series, the characters grow and change.  It isn’t as complicated as the world of Harry Potter but the characters are much deeper and the story is intense.  Again (did you see this coming) I wish I had written it.

The Safest Lie by Angela Cerrito.  It doesn’t take long to figure out that I have a thing for sf/f but this one is historic fiction.  As with all the books I love, the characters are well-drawn and three-dimensional, but that’s now why this one is on the list.  This is a book about World War II and the Jewish experience which means it could easily be “ho hum, that again?”  But it is fresh and knew and feels like nothing I’ve read before.  I want to write a book like this one day.

Bug in a Vacuum by Melanie Watt. Don’t preach.  Teach your lesson through story.  That’s one of those bits of advice that we hear but know it is hard to do.  Watt does this in a book all about the stages of grief.  The story could easily be ho-hum as we follow a character through grieving for a loved one.  Instead Watts shakes things up by giving us a character grieving his loss of freedom.  Loss of a loved one is a subplot with another character told only through the illustrations.  Wow.

And what do all of these books have in common? I wish that I’d written them.  What are your favorites from 2015?



Writing in the Cell Phone Age

smartphone-friends-internet-connectionThe fact that everyone has cell phones changes everything.”

I’ve heard this said more times than I can count at writers conferences, retreats and critique groups.  The commonly held belief is that because so  many people have access to cell phones, they are no longer in danger or out of touch with parents or other authority figures.  It means that your character and her parents can always reach each other.

Sorry.  I don’t buy it.  Why?  Because it isn’t true.  With cell phones, we may feel safer and more connected, and to an extent we are more connected, but we are not as universally collected as we like to believe.

The reality is that cell phones are fragile creatures.  I have known phones that were destroyed by falling into the toilet (2), falling into a lake (1), being dropped (I have no idea how many), being run through the washer (1), being dropped into the fry cooker (1), and being flung across the room by accident (1).

They are temporarilly misplaced when left in jacket pockets, on chargers or in cars.

They are lost when they fall off the roof of the pickup truck.

They go dead when the battery runs out.

Then there are dead zones.  At least one local high school is intentionally blacked out so that students can’t use their phones.  My son’s school is iffy at best.  He normally waits until he’s outside to call me because of this although I’m not certain what causes the problem.  My father’s apartment complex is the same way but I know what the issue is here.  Many of the residents wear fall monitors that are electronically tracked.  The level of electronics in the building interferes with the phone signal.

Although many people have cell phones, it doesn’t mean that your young character, or their parents, cannot be out of reach.  It is simply up to you as the author to determine how this might come about and use it for the betterment of your story.


Merry Book-mas

Part of my recent Amazon order.

I’d love to say that I got several new books for Christmas but it didn’t quite happen that way although I did give books.

My husband got the latest Kitty Norville book.  My son got Enemy at the Gates.  My cousin’s daughter got two Fancy Nancy books.  Another cousin’s new son got No, David! and Jamberry.  A third cousin’s granddaughter got two Olivia books.  Although I didn’t intend to give my niece books, she was going on about how much she loved Maximum Ride and she hoped she could get all of the books in the series with her $50 Barnes and Nobel gift card.  I knew it would be close since there are 9 books so I came in here and went through my shelves. I only had the first two but I sent them home with her.

That will help make space for the books that make their way here after I spend my gift cards.

I  may not have gotten books, but I did get two gift cards.  One of my editor’s always treats us to Amazon gift cards.  My in-laws claim that I am impossible to give books to because I read so many from the library.  They feel like scoping out my shelves is almost useless because they don’t want to buy what I just took back to the library. I can see their point and will gladly use the Barnes and Noble card they gave me.

That said, I find gift cards difficult to use.  If I buy X then I can’t buy Y or Z.  It takes me forever to make a decision.  The Amazon card will be relatively easy to use.  A friend of mine, Marella Sands, publishes through Word Posse, a small publisher created by her critique group.  Their books are distributed through Amazon.  I’ll buy one of Marella’s (Restless Bones) and one of Rett’s (Sleeping the Churchyard Sleep).

The Barnes and Noble Card? That’s going to be a much hard to use.  I might buy the Sarah Addison Allen book coming out in January . . .

What would you buy?


Writing Real

don't write downDon’t write down to your reader.  It is a piece of advice that sounds simple but applying it can take many different forms.

Don’t oversimplify vocabulary.  Not every word in a picture book has to be short or simple.  Some could in fact be deliciously complicated. Rich, specific vocabulary makes a manuscript sing.  For example, which word paints a picture? Dog or afghan.  Duplex or house.

Don’t oversimplify characters.  Characters that are overly simple become two-dimensional. Your cheerleader is perky and upbeat.  Your nerd loves role playing games and hates sports.  Protagonists are as pure as pure can be.  They drink their milk, respect their parents and always use proper grammer.  Antagonists are evil with hearts as black as coal. They loathe puppies and kittens and contemplate mischief, mayhem and cruelty at every turn.

But these overly simple characters don’t feel real to your readers.  They are just too simple. A proud hard-working person may also be an egomaniac who never makes time for her friends.  An honest person may be judgemental.  But a bad person, the charcter who smokes and drinks, may also be the character who is prepared to accept the protagonist when she falls from grade.  This character isn’t 100% bad after all.

Don’t oversimplify dialogue.  When you write dialogue, it shouldn’t be like a ping pong match.  Character A speaks.  Character B replies.  Character A speaks.  Character B asks a question.  Instead, have your character say one thing and mean another.  Or Character A might ask a question and although Character B responds, it isn’t actually an answer to the question.  Shake things up.

Situations are also seldom black or white.  Your character may be faced with two bad choices.  There may be no “high road.”


Don’t oversimplify plot.  In a simple plot, your character faces good choices and bad choices.  But what if there is no clean cut, good choice.  What if both choices are in some way undesirable?

Don’t write down to your reader.  It’s good advice, but remember to take it beyond simple word choice.



Merry Christmas

Grandma Bradford's Christmas Angels.

Merry Christmas!   To those of you who celebrate, I hope you are having a peaceful and love filled day.

My son has been off school all week and has next week off as well.  Although I’m blogging and reading contest entries, I doubt that I’ll get much else done but that’s okay.  We all need down times so that we have experiences about which to write and the energy to do it.

I know the house will be full of boys at least once but we’ll have others here and there throughout the week. They’ll inspire me in many ways, which is fortunate, but I’ll also have to feed them!  As grandma would say, they eat like a mess of field hands.

I hope you all get to spend some time with the field hands, boys and loved ones in your life.  Read, play games, cook, do whatever recharges you and readies you to write.

That way you’ll be ready to get to it in 2016.


Feeling Creative?

creative wonderDo you feel creative when you write?  Not productive.  Not skilled.  Creative. It’s something we tend to lose track as we learn to effectively adult.

This was really brought home to me when I taught Bible school.  The program ran in the early evenings and included adults and children.  I taught the adults but got to see the kids at work as well.

A friend of mine was teaching the craft session and on the night she couldn’t be there her son took over. We were drawing quilt squared so all he had to do was give out instructions. When he gave the instructions to the kids, there were the usual mixed reactions.  Some immediately reached for the fabric markers.  Some sat there for a minute before they got to work.  As they worked, parts of the group chatted and laughed.  Others focused intently on what they were doing.

Last but not least, he had my adult class. Again, he gave the instructions.  No one reached for the markers.  No one gazed into the middle distance. Instead, they peppered him with questions.  Can I do this?  Is this okay?  Question after question.  It quickly became clear that the adults weren’t going to just jump into this. They wanted parameters.  They wanted to know what was right.  They were determined to find out what would win approval.

Sound familiar?  All too often that’s how I approach my writing.  That’s why sometimes I need to shake things up.  I need to try something just to see how it changes things.  I need to be creative.

Sometimes, I write a poem.  I’m not a poet so I generally need a nudge which I get from In the Palm of Your Hand, which is something of a print poetry workshop.

Sometimes I rewrite a scene.  How is that creative?  I change POV characters. I change it from 3rd person to 1st person.  I change the setting/time period.

Other times I brainstorm picture book ideas.  I either use the weekly prompt at Illustration Friday or a check out the latest photos on Pexel.

These things help me tap back into my sense of creativity — enjoying creation for the sake of creation and not worrying about getting it right.

So, let me ask you again — do you feel creative when you write?  If the answer is no, what are you going to do about it?



Reading the World: More Challenging then you might think

One of the reading challenges that I decided to take up for next year is Reading the World.  I want to read reading the worldbook with a variety of viewpoints and what better way to do it then reading books from every country in the world?

Challenge #1 is deciding what constitutes “from that country.”  I started out by googling “Afghanistan books” or something equally brilliant. Low and behold, 100% of the books that came up were written about Afghanistan by western authors.  Hmm.  Seeking out books by authors from that country suddenly felt that much more important.

Next, I followed a link to a Goodreads list of Aghan-fiction.  Khaled Hosseini. I adore Khaled Hosseini.  Well, I adore his books. I don’t know him.  But he was what I needed to verify so I did another search.  Hosseini’s father was a diplomat and when he was 11 they moved to France and from there to the US.  I’ve already read his books, maybe I could find someone who lived in Afghanistan and wrote children’s books.

Another search revealed Idries Shah.  The library has three of his picture books, so I did another search.  Shah was born in India and grew up in England.  Yes, I’ve requested his books but seriously can’t I find someone in Afghanistan?

I mentioned this project to a local librarian and she is already on the search.  Still, I think I have some decisions to make.  Do expatriots count?  Did  the book have to be published in that particular country first? I begin to feel like I’ve set up a truly crazy scavenger hunt for myself!

I finally discovered that you could find authors by googling “Turkish authors” or “Afghani authors” but I want to focus on children’s books.  Genius that I am, it finally hit me.  Start with the ALA Mildred Batchelder Award.  Yep.  Books in translation.  Books not published in the US that are available in English.  I will not admit how long it took me to arrive at this thought.



Writing: Don’t Focus on the Little Things First

big pictureWhether we are critiquing someone else’s writing or working on our own, I’m often surprised at how often we focus on the small stuff.  “You don’t need this comma.”  “Use powder instead of talc.” “How should I format my header?”  “Firefly or lightening bug?”

We let these small issues bring us to a halt but never focus on the big issues.  What do I mean by big issues?

Does our opening scene somehow reflect the larger issues at stake in the story?  Instead of coming up with an opening that represents the larger story in some meaningful way, we start with something big and action packed.  That’s fine if you’ve written an action/adventure and a chase features later in the story, but it if doesn’t come up with a better beginning.

Are our characters truly three dimensional?  Even if our characters aren’t cardboard, they often aren’t as deep as they could be because we never go beyond the typical.  Instead of focusing on obvious emotions, we should dig down deeper.  Instead of leaving room for subtext, we hash everything out in dialogue.

Do our subplots mirror the plot in any meaningful way? Too often our subplots involve different themes than the main plot.  Instead, we should use them to stregthen the main theme, exploring a different facet or reinforcing the main plot in a meaningful way.

Is the setting a character?  Instead of developing our story so that it could only take place in one particular time and place, we set it generically in the “Midwest” in the “1980s.”  Get specific and bring your reader there.


Before you focus on issues of grammar or word choice, make sure that you’ve smoothed out any “big picture problems.”  After you’ve done that, you’ll have time to fiddle with word choice and proof reading.


Reading to Fuel Your Writing

fuel your writingOne of my writing buddies and I have been comparing notes.  When she writes, she reads things that are similar in tone, theme or subject to her work-in-progress.

Because I do a lot of research when I write, I read things that match my subject before I begin.  I need to have a certain amount of information before I begin.  As I draft, I leave blanks with notes to myself.  WHAT WOULD THEY HAVE EATEN FOR BREAKFAST?  TRAIN OR BUS? After I finish one draft, I’ll do the reading necessary to fill in these blanks.

But things that are similar in tone or voice? Nope.  I avoid anything like that while I’m writing a particular project.  This means that when I’m writing middle grade fantasy, I don’t read middle grade fantasy.  Sometimes I avoid young adult and adult fantasy as well if the individual piece is too similar to what I’m writing.  If I don’t, my voice skews towards what I’m reading or at least away from how it should sound.

When I’m writing picture books or nonfiction, I’m much less cautious about what I read.  A picture book is much less likely to skew my picture book voice than is a middle grade novel.  A piece of nonfiction isn’t going to effect my own nonfiction voice?

Why the difference?  A picture book is short and easy to hold in my head.  I’m not having to hold on to that voice day after day, week after week.  I can throw down a draft in an afternoon and then walk away from it for a few days.

Nonfiction, I think, is simply my comfort zone.  I’ve written so much non-fiction that I’m secure in my voice and can find it without too much trouble.  That’s not to say that I never lose it but it is much easier for me than fiction.

Reading does fuel my writing but I never know what will inspire me.  Because of this I like to read diversely.  That said, it is easy to fall into habits.  To find out how I’m stepping outside my reading comfort zone in 2016, check out yesterday’s post on the Muffin.


Stretching to Write

I didn’t realize how much time I spend sitting at my desk until last spring when it started to bother me.  Not that I realized it.  It wasn’t until I had full-blown sciatica that I put two-and-two together.  The good news is that my sciattica isn’t bad and yoga has been a been a huge help.  In part, yoga has helped because it has made me more aware.

It has made me aware of the fact that when I have a deadline to meet, I sit at my desk.  A lot.  Duh.  That’s kind of obvious.  But take a moment to observe.  Sit as if you are sitting, working at your desk.  Your legs are pulled in close to your chair.  Your arms are angled to type.  You’re in a tight little ball with a tiny little range of motion.

I tend to realize this on Monday and Wednesday mornings when I go to yoga and I’m as flexible as a saltine.  Still, there are poses that help and, not surprisingly, they are the one that require a big stretch — triangle, warrior, pigeon (yes, pigeon), and, as much as I loathe it, downward dog. The above video shows the pigeon — the version we do in class is shown at 2:16.


I know yoga may not be your cup of tea but I hope that each of you has something that forces you to reach and stretch.  Don’t wait until there’s a problem to begin sorting it out.

To find out how the yoga focus on “honoring your body” has made me more aware of honoring my writing, pop over and read today’s post at the Muffin.