Thursday, December 30, 2010

History, sexypants-style

I recently learned about the impending closure of the Broadway show Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. The title suggests the musical is another case of vampires attacking a historical figure, but it's actually a show that attempts to make history—a subject notoriously known for its dullness to most Americans—exciting, sexy, and relatable by portraying the seventh president as a rock star.

I've never seen Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, but I love the concept. Die-hard Jackson buffs probably cringe at the idea of the guy belting out emo rock tunes in "sexypants," but I think the modernized take is a brilliant way to lure the history-hesitant masses into a lesson about the past.

I'm all for public education, but let's face it: high school history textbooks are boring and watered down. So many bizarre and intriguing footnotes to history don't ever get mentioned, and juicy tidbits about historical leaders, rebels, and everyday folk get edited out. My love affair with the past started with novels, classic movies, biographies, historical sites, and Disneyland (yes, Disneyland), but even I HATED memorizing and spitting out dates and names for tests.

I tip my hat to anyone who can create a clever way to bring history to life. It's unfortunate Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson's Broadway run was such a short one (the economy is said to be the culprit), and I hope it finds welcoming off-Broadway homes in the future.

I'm trying my own hand at using a unique way of resurrecting a bygone era in my novel-in-progress, which is another reason why I appreciate the efforts of others. When my agent first chatted with me about Blackbirds, she told me she didn't feel like she was reading historical fiction, which she meant as a compliment. My goal all along has been to tie the story to modern events, and the time period I chose to write about is such a bizarre one that I've found it easy to portray the history as science fiction. We'll see if the final result will go anywhere, but I'm having fun in the process.

Here's to digging up the past with alternative shovels!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A holiday wish before the winter break hits. . .

(The image is a distorted photograph of San Diego's Balboa Park, one of the settings in Blackbirds. Thanks, Photoshop!)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Revising again

I chatted with my agent about Blackbirds this morning.  She loves the book and the particular way I've portrayed the past (more on that later, for those of you who haven't yet read the novel).  But, as all fantastic agents do, she offered suggestions for making the book stronger.

Some alterations in the beginning will be tricky, but I think I can work them out with some tweaking and finessing.  I have too much flashback in the opening that needs to be moved into the main meat of the story.  Not impossible, but it'll definitely keep me busy over the next month or so.  As I've mentioned before, I love looking at plots as if they were jigsaw puzzles.  Sometimes the pieces need to be altered or moved to a different position to work just right.

Thanks for your input, Barbara!!  And thanks again to everyone who gave me suggestions before she read it.  Some of the aspects she liked best were the result of other readers' input.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Smart grrrlz

My sister recently sent me a link to a Girl Scout social media fact sheet that discusses the ways girls portray themselves on sites like Facebook and Twitter. The study found that "girls downplay several positive characteristics of themselves online, most prominently their smartness, kindness, and efforts to be a good influence." Moreover, "the most frequent words girls use to describe how they come across based solely on their online profile are fun (54%), funny (52%), and social (48%)."

I'm really not surprised girls downplay their intelligence—online and offline—but it's still such a sad comment about society's expectations of what makes a cool, attractive female. When I was in middle school, someone gave me the nickname of "Brainiac," and I hated it. I started resenting my intelligence, and I even let my grades slip until I started hanging out with other advanced students and realizing how foolish it was to ruin my education over a nickname.

Thankfully, today's world is full of smart grrrl role models I never had while growing up. I'm from a time when Madonna was the woman young teens wanted to be—and that was long before anyone revealed she had a high IQ.  Here are five reasons why it's cool to be a girl with brains nowadays.

Natalie Portman, who played Padme in the Star Wars prequels, graduated from Harvard and once told The New York Times, "I don't care if [college] ruins my career. I'd rather be smart than a movie star."  She's beautiful and successful—yet she values her brains.

A recent Entertainment Weekly issue spotlighted Emma Watson's quest for a college education. Not only does Emma play Hermione Granger, a character who makes intelligence look like a vital tool for undertaking an adventure, but in real life she attends Brown University. She says of her post-Potter university days, "I'm just...happy." 

I recently finished reading Jacqueline Kelly's The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and absolutely loved it.  The heroine of the 2010 Newberry Award-winning novel is an eleven-year-old girl who develops an interest in science and finds encouragement from her eccentric naturalist grandfather.  The problem: Calpurnia lives in Texas in 1899.  She's not supposed to be interested in science; she's supposed to be preparing to become a wife.  Her struggles against resigning to a non-academic life of domesticity are both entertaining and heartbreaking—and Calpurnia is proof that a smart literary heroine doesn't have to be the nerdy sidekick in glasses.

Once upon a time Danica McKeller played Winnie Cooper on a 60s-set TV show called The Wonder Years.  She grew up, had a tough time transitioning from child star to young adult actor, but instead of becoming washed up and drug addicted, she graduated summa cum laude from UCLA with a degree in mathematics.  Furthermore, she authored two bestselling smart grrrl math books: Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail and Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who's Boss.  My husband keeps both books in the high school math classroom where he teaches.  Girls tend to lose interest in math around the fourth grade, so it's fantastic that Danica has come along and written these books that show a hipper, non-threatening side of the subject.

If literary intelligence is your strength, check out Sarah Utter's line of "Reading Is Sexy" mugs, magnets, T-shirts, etc., available from She also makes "Future Librarian" items, among other designs. If you think guys will laugh at you for flaunting the sexiness of reading, do you really want those particular guys? Many males are book nerds, too, so there's no need to waste one's time, smart grrrlz.

Nothing bothers me more than a movie about a bookish woman in glasses who loses her specs and intelligence to get the man in the end. My top recommendation for smart grrrl cinema is Real Women Have Curves.  Not only does the protagonist, Ana (played by Ugly Betty's America Ferrera), embrace her less-than-perfect body image, but she fights for her education in a family that's pushing her to stick to tradition and work in a sweatshop.  I plan to show this movie to my daughter in a year or two.  It's young female empowerment at its best. 

There's no shame in having brains.  I'm proud of the fact that I just turned in a manuscript with a smart grrrl heroine, and my hope for my own daughter is that she doesn't feel any embarrassment about her intelligence. Thank you, modern role models, for showing girls there's more to life than surface beauty.  Here's to the females with brain power!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Thank you, critique partners!

Two family members, three critique partners, and one young adult fiction editor have now read Blackbirds (the editor read the first ten pages; everyone else read the entire manuscript). My last reader, Ara Burklund, posted the following lovely words about Blackbirds on her website:

"Every chance I got this week, no matter how small, I rushed to my computer to keep reading. Her story questions had me right where they wanted me: stuck in their pages, frantic to find out what happened next. And the ending? It delivered. Big time. Totally didn't see it coming but in retrospect, it left me thinking, Of course! Just the way a good ending should."

Thanks so much! I just read Ara's YA contemporary manuscript, which deals with heavy issues in a story packed with page-turning tension, and had a blast switching books with her. Thanks also to my other readers, Kim Murphy and Francesca Miller--two fellow historical fiction writers.

I'm going to make some final revisions and read through the manuscript one more time, and then I think I'll be sending Blackbirds to my agent. I originally planned to wait until 2011, but I think I'm at the point where I'm ready for her input. I'm hoping to send the book her way by the end of November.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Blackbird artwork

I finished the latest batch of revisions and sent the manuscript off to my final critique partner yesterday morning (thanks, Ara!).  She and I are swapping manuscripts, and the break from obsessing over my book's ending is much needed.

I've come across some artwork to help inspire me when writing Blackbirds.  As I've mentioned in past posts, dark birds now play a larger role in the plot than when I first started out, so it's been fun tracking down images of blackbirds, crows, and ravens.

Sitting next to me while I work is a postcard of Anne-Julie Aubry's painting My Only Friend, featuring a dark-haired girl and a blackbird on a moonlit night.  Her artwork is beautiful, whimsical, and gothic.  You can see her entire gallery at

I also found the following crow wallpaper, which I absolutely love.  It's become my new Twitter background.   

Crow Wallpaper by ~Tiger-tyger on deviantART

Friday, October 29, 2010

Movies that remind me of Halloween: #3, Ed Wood

Family medical issues, book revisions, and Suburban Vampire interviews have kept me from posting my favorite Halloween movies throughout the month like I originally planned, but I wanted to make sure I squeezed in this next one.

Movie #3: Ed Wood
Stars: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau (who won an Academy Award for playing Bela Lugosi), Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Bill Murray
Director: Tim Burton

Essential Halloween-ish elements: Recreations of monster and sci-fi films created by "The Worst Director of All Time," Edward D. Wood, Jr.; classic TV star Vampira; an aged and drug-addled Bela Lugosi reliving his Dracula days, beautiful black-and-white photography.

When I first saw it: Opening night 2004.  My (brand-new) husband and I loved the TV ads so much that we were certain there'd be a huge crowd, so we got to the theater early.  Aside from the other couple we went with, we were the only people in the audience.

Most memorable line: There are so many quotable lines in this one.  Let's go with "Pull the strings!  Pull the strings!"

Best character names: Bunny, Tor, Criswell.

Bottom line: Burton's homage to movie director Edward D. Wood, Jr., debuted long before Depp gave us Jack Sparrow and Sarah Jessica Parker became Carrie, which makes it all the more a hidden gem.  The movie is hysterical and heartbreaking at the same time, and it's a lovely tribute to Hollywood and dreamers.  One of my favorite Burton films.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

At least it's the right season to be revising a ghostly mystery

My ghostly Maine photo.
I haven't had an abundance of time to work on revisions due to my kids being home from school for conferences, a birthday party with thirteen children in my house, and a sick daughter, but when I have sat down to work, I've been fiddling with the mystery aspect of Blackbirds.  I love books with satisfying twists and don't want to deliver anything less with my own work, but it's been a challenge trying to figure out how to make my ending as surprising and fulfilling and possible.  Some new ideas have popped into my head this week, and hopefully they're leading me down the right path.

At least October is the perfect time to be writing about ghosts and dark mysteries.  I've been scaring myself by watching shows like Ghost Adventures late at night and listening to Kristen Lawrence's Halloween Carols in the car with my kids.  Here's a video for a song of Kristen's I've been using to get myself into the Blackbirds zone.  It's called Dark Glass, and the chorus is absolutely beautiful and dreamlike.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My chats with two authors branching out to YA fiction

I've been busy with interviews over at Suburban Vampire this month, and my two current guests are award-winning authors who have decided to venture into the realm of young adult fiction.

Today's Suburban Vampire guest is Marta Acosta, author of the Casa Dracula series.  Her young adult gothic novel, The Shadow Girl of Birch Grove, will be published by Tor in 2012, so keep an eye out for her as an up-and-coming YA author. I asked Marta eight random scary questions to celebrate Halloween and to promote her newest release, Haunted Honeymoon. She's also offering a giveaway package that includes a free signed Casa Dracula novel. READ THE INTERVIEW & ENTER THE CONTEST HERE.

Today also marks the release of Sophie Littlefield's young adult thriller, Banished. Last week Sophie gave me the inside scoop about her new novel, and her Suburban Vampire contest for a free signed copy of Banished is still open until Thursday, October 14. Sophie is known for her adult crime novels, A Bad Day for Sorry and A Bad Day for Pretty.  She and I also share the same phenomenal literary agent.  READ THE INTERVIEW & ENTER THE CONTEST HERE.

Thanks for chatting with me, Marta and Sophie!  You're both fabulous.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Movies that remind me of Halloween: #2, The Watcher in the Woods

Movie #2: The Watcher in the Woods
Stars: Bette Davis, Lynn-Holly Johnson (the Ice Castles girl), Carroll Baker
Director: John Hough

Essential Halloween-ish elements:  A foreboding British manor located in sinister woods with rustling trees, ghostly phenomena that affect two young girls, Bette Davis wandering around with her chilling voice and black clothing, menacing mood music, scenes that make you jump out of your seat.

When I first saw it: I was around ten, and I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED it. I showed it to my daughter last year when she was ten, and she freaked out.  One scene literally caused her to scream and burst into tears.  I told my younger sister about my daughter's reaction, and she said, "Don't even mention that movie!"  I guess that says something about my obsession with ghostly horror from a young age.  P.S. This is a Disney movie.

Most memorable line: Narek--spoken by a girl temporarily possessed by something.
Best character names: No dark or clever names stand out in this particular movie.  The missing girl is Karen, and the main character is Jan.  Pretty typical for a film from 1980.

Bottom line: Perfect for the Halloween season, despite some early-eighties hairstyles.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Movies that remind me of Halloween: #1, Something Wicked This Way Comes

Whenever October hits, I feel the urge to watch six or seven films that most remind me of the Halloween season.  This month I'll be randomly spotlighting them and detailing why they make me think of dark autumn nights and huddling under my covers.

Movie #1: Something Wicked This Way Comes
Stars: Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, and Diane Ladd
Director: Jay Clayton
Based on the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Essential Halloween-ish elements:  A circus sideshow run by a sinister man named Mr. Dark, curious young kids who become too curious, lightning rods, a scene with hundreds of spiders crawling over a boy, a circus parade that sounds more like a funeral march, and small-town citizens lured to the dark side.

When I first saw it: As a kid, but it's just as creepy when viewed through adult eyes.

Most memorable line: By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.
Best character names: Mr. Dark, Jim Nightshade

Bottom line: If you're afraid of clowns and spiders, this movie just might give you nightmares--but isn't that part of the fun of Halloween films?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A book recommendation for writers. . . and readers

I keep forgetting to recommend a book I received for my birthday: Scout, Atticus, & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird by Mary McDonagh Murphy.  If you enjoy Harper's Lee's fifty-year-old classic, I think you'll find Murphy's tribute to be an entertaining look behind the scenes of the novel's creation, the making of the 1962 movie, and the life of a private American talent who called it quits on the publicity machine and never published another title.

The bulk of the book consists of essays written by people as diverse as Oprah Winfrey, Mary Badham (Scout from the movie), James Patterson, and Harper Lee's 98-year-old sister (who still works at the Lee family's law office!).  While the essays themselves don't always consist of exemplary writing, they offer lovely nuggets of wisdom about how to write an outstanding novel that will stand the test of time.  Some of the essayists describe the cleverness of To Kill a Mockingbird's opening paragraph.  At least two authors cite one of my favorite paragraphs as being a model use of sensory writing (it's the paragraph that describes the ladies as being "like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum").  Others discuss characterization and the bravery of tackling taboo subjects.

Scout, Atticus, & Boo is also a tribute to the art of writing a stand-alone novel, which is becoming a rarity in today's era of sequels and series.  I personally feel there's a great deal to be said about an author who's able to tie up all her loose ends within the pages of one book.  It's not always easy, but it's something to be admired.

As a writer, what I found most inspiring was the story behind Lee's original, contracted version of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was a far cry from the completed novel we see today.  Editor Tay Hohoff said of the first version, "There were dangling threads of a plot, there was a lack of unity."  It took two years of Lee rewriting the book before Mockingbird became publishable.  As I'm tearing into my own manuscript and rewriting major scenes, I keep thinking of the story behind To Kill a Mockingbird and reminding myself that revisions can be well worth the time and effort.  Even celebrated authors don't get it right the first time.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Celebrating with Christopher Walken and Edgar Allan Poe

Poe's Raven Crow Art Large Zippered Canvas Tote BagInspiration hit me as I was ridding the house of sick-kid germs today.

In my last post I mentioned I was rethinking my title, Blackbirds, because my latest critique partner said the blackbirds references are too subtle. While the vacuum was humming this morning, the gears in my head were spinning, and I figured out a beautifully creepy way of incorporating my theme of dark birds into a crucial part of the plot. I can't reveal my idea yet, but I'm doing a happy little dance as I type (well, not really, but I'm dancing on the inside). I love it when inspiration strikes me like that!

In celebration, here's a clip of Christopher Walken reading Poe's "The Raven":

Thursday, September 23, 2010

How my novel, my websites, and I will be spending our autumn

I received suggestions from another critique partner (thanks, Kim!), and now I'm back to revisions for the rest of the calendar year. I feel like this stage resembles the challenges of assembling a jigsaw puzzle: scenes that I thought belonged in one place turn out fitting better in another, pieces of the story that I didn't even know existed show up, and some characters fit better when I view them another way.

I'll primarily be tackling character adjustments with my edits.  I worked on my ghost over the summer after he wasn't quite working right, and I think I've strengthened him as a character, but other folks now need some tweaking.  However, as daunting as the revision process seems when first starting out, I always find a tremendous sense of satisfaction when everything falls into place.

I've been debating altering my working title (Blackbirds), because it's currently too subtle.  I have another, longer one in mind, although my agent mentioned that sticking to one-word titles seems to be the preference of editors of young adult fiction.  What I think I'll do is increase the significance of blackbirds in the novel to keep my original title as a running candidate and see how I feel once I'm ready to submit.

BanishedIn addition to hunkering down with revisions, I'm busy interviewing guests over at Suburban Vampire. This week I chatted with novelist Denise Verrico and Vampire Mob creator Joe Wilson. In the coming weeks, I'll be hosting Jasper Kent, Marta Acosta, David Michael Slater, Jonathan Maberry, Janice Gable Bashman, and Sophie Littlefield, the latter of whom shares my literary agent, Barbara Poelle (and Sophie happens to be making her debut in young adult fiction with a novel called Banished in October!).  I'm also hosting several giveaways.  Definitely visit.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Their right: its time we had better spelling and gramar

The "Readings" section of my local newspaper just featured two guys who must share the same copy editing side of my brain: Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson, authors of The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time.  I know not everyone in the world bristles at the improper use of an apostrophe or the wrong spelling of a word, but for a person who majored in English, briefly taught high schoolers, worked as a copy editor and proofreader, writes for a living, and was born under the sign of Virgo (we're perfectionists!), typos grate on my nerves like nails on a chalkboard.  We all make slips now and then--no one is perfect.  But when you hang up a sign for your business or send a note home to your students, a quick check of the old apostrophes would keep people like me from wanting to whip out our red correcting pens.

If you're also a person who believes in the "Typo Eradication Advancement League," definitely check out Deck and Herson's book and their website,, especially their Join the Hunt page.

And, yes, the title of this post was misspelled on purpose. If you find other typos, feel free to let me know immediately.