Lot’s of time spent driving my son and his friends too and from the pool so not as much reading done as I would like. But I did learn a thing or two about backstory, especially as it applies to a series.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the term, backstory is anything that happens before page 1 of your book.
One of the tricky bits about writing a series is having to work in the backstory. Because it is a series, you can’t count on the reader starting with book #1. This means that the backstory that you told in book #1 may need to be repeated in book # 2, and book #8 and so on. Add to this the fact that things that happen in books #1 and #2 actually form some of the backstory in book #8 and you begin to see the problem.
One of the books on my list this month started with a truck load of backstory. I listened to it as an audiobook on CD and actually double checked to make sure that this was disc #1. When I realized that it was in fact disc #1, I then decided that this must be some kind of series summary. Nope, it was actually the first page or two of the first chapter. Backstory and no present story. If I’d been reading it, I would have either put the book down or flipped forward several pages. I was washing dishes so I was something of a hostage.
Your readers may need to know what happened before your story, but don’t give it to them on page one and give it to them a tiny bit at a time. Otherwise, they’ll be looking for a handy escape route!
See my actual reading list for the month of July below my signature.
- A Rock is Lively by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long (Chronicle Books)
- Love, Lies, and LIquor by M. C. Beaton
- Crazy Horse’s Vision by Joseph Bruchac (Lee and Low)
- Fat Angie by E. E. Charlton-Trujillo (Candlewick Press)
- Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein
- File M for Murder by Miranda James (Berkley Prime Crime)
- Librarian on the Roof by M.G. King (Albert A. Whitman)
- Every You, Every Me by David Levithan (Alfred A. Knopf)
- The Witch of Little Italy by Suzanne Palmieri (St. Martin’s)
- I Can Hear the Sun: A Modern Myth by Patricia Polacco (Puffin Books)
- Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco (Philomel)
- One City, Two Brothers by Chris Smith, illustrated by Aurelia Fronty (Barefoot Books)
- Vicious, True Stories by Teens about Bullying edited by Hope Vanderberg (Free Spirit Publishing)
- Sister Bear, A Norse Tale by Jane Yolen (Marshall Cavendish Children’s)
Here’s my reading for November. You’ll note that its almost ten items shorter than my list for October.
- Avi, Seer of Shadows.
- Baskin, Nora Raleigh. Anything but Typical (Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers)
- Brunt, Carol Rifka. Tell the Wolves I’m Home.
- Doyle, Marissa. Betraying Season (Henry Holt)
- Dyckman, Ame and Dan Yaccarino, Boy + Bot (Alfred A Knopf)
- Flagg, Fanny. I Still Dream about You.
- Gelman, Rita Goldman. More Spaghetti, I Say (Scholastic)
- Grossman, Bill. Timothy Tunny Swallowed a Bunny (A Laura Geringer Book: HarperCollins)
- Jansen, Tiffany. Mary’s Holiday Story (self published)
- Lin, Grace. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Little, Brown and Company)
- Santat, Dan. Sidekicks (Arthur A. Levine)
- Smallcomb, Pam. I’m Not (Schwartz and Wade)
The list is shorter in part because November was a really busy month. At least that’s one excuse. I’m always really busy and I’ll ignore all kinds of things to read “one more chapter” if I’m in love with a book. While I was reading Where the Mountain Meets the Moon requests from my family were often met with a “stop right now” hand single. “Can you at least let me finish this paragraph?” Lin hooked me and I just had to find out what happened.
I also loved Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Loved. LOVED. In spite of this rampant affection, I would bolt away from it at a moments notice. “Let me do that for you! You really shouldn’t be using such a sharp knife.” Never mind that my husband built a fort and cabinets and all kinds of things that require power tools. I did not want to get to the part of this book where bad things happened. And, as an adult who lived through the 80s, I knew what was going to happen. Yes, I’m dodging telling you what happens because you might want to read it for yourself and spend endless amounts of time dodging upcoming Bad Things, just like I did.
Wow. To be able to create such warring emotions in a reader — you have to read on because the characters are like family. You want to hug them and feed them and keep them safe. But you also see wicked things ahead and do you really need to go through it? So you put the book down and then pick it back up and put it back down…
That’s power of a sort that not all author’s have. Hats off to Carol Rifka Blunt who kept me coming back even when I wanted to hide under the bed.
Here’s my reading for the month of October. A bit more impressive than my ho hum September list of 12 items. Hint: Bulk up your “books read” list by spending 30 minutes reading picture books. Nuf said.
- Angleberger, Tom. The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda
- Black, Michael Ian. Illustrated by Debbi Ridpath Ohi. I’m Bored (Simon and Schuster)
- Catrow, David. The Fly Flew In (Holiday House, I Like to Read Series)
- Collins, Billy. The Trouble with Poetry (Random House)
- de Haan, Linda and Stern Nijland. King and King (Tricycle Press)
- Doiron, Paul. The Poacher’s Son.
- Doyle, Marissa. Bewitching Season (Henry Holt)
- Emberly, Rebecca and Ed Emberly. Mice on Ice (Holiday House, I Like to Read Series)
- Fforde, Jasper. The Eyre Affair
- Freedman, Russell. The Boston Tea Party (Holiday House)
- Kleypas, Lisa. Dream Lake.
- Lewis, J. Patrick and Jane Yolen, illustrated by Jeffrey Stewart Timmins. Last Laughs: Animal Epitaphs (Charlesbridge)
- Long, Ethan. Pig Has a Plan (Holiday House, I Like to Read Series)
- McCarthy, Mary. A Closer Look (Greenwillow)
- McPhail, David. Sick Day (Holiday House, I Like to Read Series)
- Milway, Katie Smith and Eugenie Fernandes, Mimi’s Village: and How Basic Health Care Transformed It (Citizen Kid)
- Peretti, Frank E. The Visitation.
- Ruben, Adam. Those Darn Squirrels Fly South (Clarion Books)
- Stevens, Janet and Susan Stevens Crummel, Find a Cow Now! (Holiday House)
- Wilce, Ysabeau S. Flora’s Fury (Harcourt)
- Yolen, Jane, illustrated by Mark Teague. How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah? (Blue Sky Press)
- Yolen, Jane, illustrated by Mark Teague. How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? (Blue Sky Press)
- Zarins, Kim. The Helpful Puppy (Holiday House)
In addition to learning how to bulk up a reading list, I learned something about reader expectations. It might just be me but the novels The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde and The Visitation by Frank Peretti were both hard to classify. The first is part alternate history but also urban contemporary fantasy. Confusing? Yes! But it was still an awesome book due in part to the author’s voice which is raw and rude and oh-so-matter-of-fact.
Peretti’s book is listed as Christian fiction and we picked it for the church book club. Christian Fiction. I was expecting spiritual fluff* until I got a look at the cover. Christian fluffy horror? The level of confusion was bit off putting and I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
Sometimes turning your reader in a direction they don’t expect works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I’m not saying don’t do it but if that’s your chosen path, you need to do it well.
*No whining. Fluff is good when it is what you need. But it doesn’t nourish. Think marshmallow vs apple.
- Allen, Sarah Addison. Garden Spells.
- Barretta, Gene. Timeless Thomas: How Thomas Edison Changed Our Lives (Christy Ottaviano Books)
- Brockmann, Suzanne. Born to Darkness.
- Browne, Renni and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print (Harper)
- Collins, Suzanne. Catching Fire.
- Coury, Tina Nichols. Hanging Off Jefferson’s Nose (Dial)
- Engle, Margarita. Hurricane Dancers (Henry Holt)
- Grennan, Conor. Little Princes (William Morrow)
- Hartman, Rachel. Seraphina.
- Lukeman, Noah. The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile (Fireside)
- Markel, Michelle and Amanda Hall (illustrator), The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau (Eerdmans)
- Robbins, Trina. Lily Renee, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer (Graphic Universe)
Not as much as I usually manage to read in one month but I also read a lot of articles, magazines and manuscripts.
The big surprise for the month came from Conor Grennan’s The Little Princes. I read this one for the book club at Florissant Presbyterian Church. Before I picked it up, I knew it was nonfiction about child trafficking in Nepal. In short, I was expecting a bummer book.
But that isn’t what I read. I read an engaging piece of nonfiction. It hooked me from the very beginning and kept me turning pages until the end. I laughed out loud. I read passages to my husband and to my son. Those of us in book club actually talked about the book before the meeting. We chatted it up at the library. We managed a quick discussion in Bible study and choir rehearsal.
And all of this came about because of the author’s voice. Grennan is a natural story teller, in part because he pokes fun at himself. These are the parts that kept us all laughing hysterically. Sure, some of the parts about the kids were funny too but all of the funny parts involved Grennan — his inability to tell them apart, his inadequacies as a teacher, and his having to learn just what made these kids tick.
Because the self-deprecating humor pulled us in, we stuck it out through a really difficult topic. There is nothing about poverty, warfare and giving up your children in an effort to save them that is easy to read, but it was made bearable because of Grennan’s humor.
Voice and humor. The two went hand in hand to make a tough topic one that we wanted to read about and couldn’t wait to discuss. How can you use these elements in your own story?
Here’s my reading for the month of February. Sixteen books in January. Seventeen in February. People are going to think that I don’t do anything but read. That’s not quite true. In addition to reading and writing, I knit. Selections 4, 5 and 15 are audio books. Selections 2, 3, 6, 8, 11-14, 16 and 17 are picture books. But I still read a lot. Call it an occupational hazard.
- Allen, Sarah Addison. The Peach Keeper (Bantam).
- Anderson, Laurie Halse. Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving. (Simon and Schuster Books)
- Bierdrzycki, David. Ace Lacewing, Bug Detective: The Big Swat (Charlesbridge).
- Bradley, Alan. The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag (Delacorte).
- Colasanti, Susane. Something Like Fate (Viking)
- Ditchfield, Christin. “Shwatsit!” (Golden Books).
- Fagan, Deva. Circus Galacticus (Harcourt).
- Ford, Christine and Trish Holland. Ocean’s Child (Golden Books).
- King, A.S. Everybody Sees the Ants (Little, Brown and Co.)
- Meyer, Marissa. Cinder (Feiwel and Friends).
- Muldrow, Diane. We Planted a Tree (Golden Books).
- Plecas, Jennifer. Pretend (Philomel).
- Robinson, Sharon. Jackie’s Gift (Viking).
- Rusch, Elizabeth. For the Love of Music: The Remarkable Story of Maria Anna Mozart (Tricycle Press).
- Ryan, William. The Holy Thief (Minotaur Books)
- Staake, Bob. The Donut Chef (Golden Books).
- Staake, Bob. The Red Lemon Tree (Golden Books).
What did I learn from this big stack of books? Sometimes a lesson stands out. (I do not like books written from the perspective of inanimate objects. It seems like every female character in teen chick lit has a gay best friend, etc.) This month’s less was a little vaguer.
I think we need to write the story and not obsess about the rules. Several of these books seem to blur boundaries or ignore rules.
Stay in one character’s head. Allen’s books always have multiple POV characters. Since I write primarily for young readers, I’m used to the “one or two POV characters” rule. In this book, she had . . . I think it was 5. But when she does it, it works.
Your reader needs to have as much as possible in common with the character. When you write for children, this means no adult POV characters. Yet the same doesn’t hold for adult books. Bradley’s protagonist is only eleven years-old. But she’s sassy and brainy and independent and I adore her. She looks down on her peers, yes, but no more so than she does adults to its just how she is.
Stick to one genre. The marketing department needs to know where to place a book. So a chick lit mystery or a paranormal romance space opera might be a bit much. Yet Cinder has a distinct steam punk feel to it. Its definitely science fiction but I swear I could hear the hissing of steam pipes in the background while I was reading this one. Just a feel that I could never quite put my finger on.
The over all lesson. Write your story. Give it what it needs to shine. If it works, you’ll find an editor whose going to help you make it even better.
Joy for Beginners by Erica Bauermeister
The Demon’s Surrender by Sarah Rees Brennan
Into the Fire by Suzanne Brockmann
Puss in Boots by John Cech
Cinco de Mouse-O! by Judy Cox
Wiener Wolf by Jeff Crosby
A Gentleman of Fortune: Or, The Suspicions of Miss Dido Kent by Anna Dean
I Love Bugs! by Emma Dodd
The Daughter of Siena: A Novel by Marina Fiorato
In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
Woolbur by Leslie Helakoski
The Humblebee Hunter by Deborah Hopkinson
The Seven Seas by Ellen Jackson
Hourglass by Myra McIntyre
That Darn Yarn! by Tony Millionaire
Knitting Nell by Julie Jersild Roth
A Blue So Dark by Holly Schindler
What have I learned as a writer from all of this reading? If you want to be original — have your albino be handsome, well-built and kind. A good guy. Not creepy or cruel or shunned. Yes, there are going to be certain physical traits that you must necessarily accept, but shake things up a little. Don’t give us the character we’ve already seen in someone else’s book.
This doesn’t mean that all of your characters need to be 100% warm and fuzzy. They can be self-centered. They can be flaky. But have reasons for these traits. Make them acceptable to us in some way and we’ll still love your characters and want to share their stories with them.
Don’t do this, and we’ll flip to the end, see if you’ve surprised us enough to make us read the whole book. And that’s a good day.
On a bad day, we’ll just close the book, drop it back in the library bag and take it back to the drop box.
I’m just saying.
I’ve done a ridiculous amount of reading since I last posted about my reading on March 2nd.
Death Threads by Elizabeth Casey
Beaks! by Sneed B. Collard III
Teeth by Sneed B. Collard III
Wings by Sneed B. Collard III
Maybe This Time by Jennifer Crusie
Sivu’s Six Wishes by Jude Daly
Apple Turnover Murder by Joanne Fluke
How to Knit a Love Story by Rachael Herron
Quicksand by Iris Johansen
Undecorate by Christiane Lemieux
Every Bone Tells a Story by Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw
Traveling Man: The Journey of Ibn Battuta, 1325-1354 by James Rumford
A Quick Bite by Lynsay Sands
Nox Dormienda: A Long Night for Sleeping (An Arcturus Mystery) by Kelli Stanley
Bobcat: North America’s Cat by Stephen R. Swinburne
Lots and Lots of Zebra Stripes: Patterns in Nature by Stephen R. Swinburne
Wings of Light: The Migration of the Yellow Butterfly by Stephen R. Swinburne
Animals in Camouflage by Phyllis Libacher Tildes
Lost Boy: The Story of the Man who Created Peter Pan by Jane Yolen
What have I learned from my reading?
Grip the reader and don’t let go. When I was sick, I read two novels and a picture story book in one day. I didn’t read every word of the picture story book and skips large parts of both novels just because the picture book was shorter. It was more interesting. Every word counted. The novels wandered. They poked along. They could have been MUCH shorter. Seriously, when someone can read the first four or five chapters and the last four chapters and be perfectly happy that they have experienced all that your book has to offer, that means you’ve done something seriously wrong. Your ending wasn’t in the least bit surprising. If it had been, I’d have to go back and read the middle. Would. Have. To. But I didn’t.
But if you tell a gripping story, I’ll read a book cover to cover about a subject that I thought would make me yawn. You see, I may feel compelled to try a book that was a gift, but I am a fickle pickle when it comes to reading. Bore me, and I’m gone. Surprise me with a character that I feel for and want to see win and I’m with you to the end.
Ok, it probably would have been more accurate to subtitle the post “Confessions of a List Junky.” To do lists, lists of Christmas presents to be bought and already bought, grocery lists and more can be found scattered around my desk, on top of the microwave and on both bulletin board and frig.
But here’s one I didn’t have to compile.
And aren’t lists of books that kids are reading the best? Sure, award winning books chosen by librarians are good, adults after all buy the books more often than not, but I love to hear what kids are gravitating towards. Lucky for me that School Library Journal asked several middle school librarians what their students are reading and pulled it all together into one tidy article (see here).
It didn’t surprise me to see Rick Riordan or J.K. Rowling on the list but I got a pleasant surprise when I saw this book cover heading up the article. It is the cover for none other than Tales of the Cryptids: Mysterious Creatures That May or May Not Exist by Kelly Milner Halls, Rick Spears, and Roxyanne Young (Darby Creek, 2006).
This has long been one of my son’s favorites. He has the tween boys’ fascination with cryptids, ghosties and things that go bump in the night. Kelly is also one of my favorite nonfiction authors and an all around generous soul so I was super happy to see her book on the list. Given that the title has been in print for five years, that is quite a coup for her and her co-authors.
Congrats to all of the authors whose books made it onto the list. My son and I have read some of Jeff Smith’s Bone comics and I’ve seen but not yet read The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. Admittedly, I wasn’t familiar with some of them so I’ll be printing this up for my son and I to use on our library jaunts over Christmas Break. After all, what’s two weeks off school without Christmas cookies and several trips to the library?