Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Conrad Wesselhoeft, Author of DIRT BIKES, DRONES AND OTHER WAYS TO FLY, Talks About Place.

When I read Conrad Wesselhoeft's DIRT BIKES, DRONES AND OTHER WAYS TO FLY - if you haven't read it, do it NOW - I had to know how my friend, fellow author, and Seattle dweller was able to pull off a New Mexico setting so spectacular, I felt like I was riding on the back of his bike racing over those dusty trails. So I asked. His answer inspired me and taught me a great lesson on what makes a setting work. It's sure to inspire you. Thank you, Conrad! Got an extra helmet? Let's go for a ride.

In Praise of Place: Why fiction writers should light out for personal territory

By Conrad Wesselhoeft

In my mid-twenties, I fell in love with northeast New Mexico—the high plains, broken mesas, torn shadows, and rich, drifting light. I lived for two years in the town of Raton, working as a journalist for the local newspaper.

Working for a small-town paper meant doing every job in the newsroom: writing and editing stories; laying out the paper on a composing table; and taking and developing photos.

I took thousands of photos, criss-crossing the county with my sturdy Pentax K1000 camera—later moving on to a more nimble Canon AE-1.

The vistas of northeast New Mexico enthralled me. Much of the time, they looked flat and dull, but at certain times of day, under certain light, they exploded with beauty.

I’d reach for my camera, and all would go quiet.

Several years ago, when I started writing my young-adult novel Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly, I wanted to re-capture that special landscape—both the look and feel.

I started by creating a fictional town and calling it Clay Allison, after the 19th Century gunfighter who had lived in that area. I jotted these notes:

“Clay Allison is a town in northeast New Mexico located in the high desert snug up against Colorado’s mountainous ass. ‘Clay’ has a rusty, shoddy, past-its-prime look and feel. In reality, it has never experienced a prime.”

The surrounding landscape, I noted, “is a hundred muted shades. Nearby are Eagle Tail and Burro mesas, and to the north, the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains. Many small mesas are carved with dirt-bike tracks, an insult to Mother Nature, but a playground for Arlo Santiago and his friends.”

Arlo is the novel’s 17-year-old adrenaline-junkie narrator. He loves to blast across the mesas on his Yamaha 250 dirt bike, hitting the bumps and flying high.

I stretched my vocabulary when I wrote:

“The story unfolds under the cerulean emptiness of New Mexico’s slow-fuse sky.”

My goal was to have Arlo fit organically into this landscape. I wanted him to respond—consciously and otherwise—to the monotonous-one-minute, staggering-the-next horizons, just as I had. If he could do this, then maybe readers could, too. That was my hope anyway.

Whether I pulled it off is not for me to say. What I did learn, however, is how important setting can be to a story—so important, in fact, that it can become a galvanizing character in its own right, one filled with moods and fancies, passions and mysteries.

Writers often overlook setting in favor of more obvious characterization tools— for example, action or dialogue.

The result is that New York City appears no different in the mind’s eye than Portland, Oregon, and the Grand Canyon exudes all the gravitas of a touched-up postcard. Hasty writers like to locate Denver in the Rocky Mountains when, in fact, “the Queen City of the Plains” is located just east of the Rockies.

It’s as if the writer had carelessly stuck a pin on a map and said, “I think I’ll set my story here.”

But when setting works—when a writer taps into emotions associated with a place—it can be glorious, as in Huckleberry Finn (the Mississippi River), The Old Man and the Sea (the Caribbean), or To Kill a Mockingbird (small-town Alabama).

It’s no coincidence that Twain, Hemingway, and Harper Lee lived and worked where they set their stories, or that they acquired far more than an eyeful of land or water. By the time they embarked on writing their novels, they had mingled their souls with those places.

And therein lies the beauty of “place” or “setting” in fiction.

When a writer dips into his or her own life and bares emotions connected with a place the result can exalt a story and illuminate the characters.

Scott O’Dell’s love for California’s coastal islands shimmers on every page of Island of the Blue Dolphins, his 1960 young-adult novel about a girl left on a remote island to fend for herself. You more than hear the gulls cry, waves crash, and wind blow. The island on which Karana lives seems alive. You hear it mourn for all that is missing from her life, just as it rejoices in her victories over storms, hunger, and wild dogs.

Lois Lowry’s ambivalent memories of growing up on military bases darken the stark, regimented world of her 1993 dystopian novel The Giver.

C.S. Lewis based his sweeping Narnia vistas on the Mountains of Mourne in Northern Ireland. About them, he wrote: "I have seen landscapes . . . which, under a particular light, make me feel that at any moment a giant might raise his head over the next ridge.”

In every case the writer traversed a personal geography to inform a fictional one. His or her emotional connection to a real place grounded the reader in an imagined place.

Contemporary young-adult fiction writers traversing this personal geography include Molly Blaisdell, whose Plumb Crazy makes small-town Texas taste like a sweet-potato pie glazed with dust and peppered with grit; Louise Spiegler, whose historical novels capture the damp majesty of Puget Sound country; and Holly Cupala, whose Don’t Breathe a Word gives the midnight alleys of homeless America a heartbeat.

When a writer soaks up the spirit of a place—whether it’s a town, city, mesa, or just about anywhere else—that place can inspire a profound fictional setting.

A great story puts you there, so that you see and feel the landscape around you. Writers get there by digging into their personal geography—and listening for the heartbeat.

Conrad Wesselhoeft worked as a tugboat hand in Singapore and Peace Corps Volunteer in Polynesia before embarking on a career in journalism. He has served on the editorial staffs of five newspapers, including The New York Times. He is the author of the young adult novels ADIOS, NIRVANA (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) and DIRT BIKES, DRONES, AND OTHER WAYS TO FLY (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). His ancestors were doctors to Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. His three children are in various stages of university study or job searching. He lives in West Seattle with a poodle named Django (the "D" is silent). Druid Circle cookies (from Trader Joe’s) are his weakness.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Happy Birthday to Me, an NYC Editor Critique for YOU, and the Gift of Literacy for ALL!

Happy Birthday to me ... 8 months late. But no matter, I'm still 55 and it turns out that 55 is a very special number.

It was the highest speed limit allowed in the United States between 1974 and 1986. So slow!

It is the largest Fibonacci number to also be a triangular number. Whatever that means!

Most importantly it's the cost to prescribe reading and provide new books to a child from 6 months to 5 years old.

$55! That's all!  

Reach Out and Read Colorado does just that. 

Reach Out and Read prepares Colorado’s youngest children to succeed in school by partnering with doctors to prescribe books and encourage families to read together. Reach Out and Read trains doctors and nurses to advise parents about the importance of reading aloud and to give books to children at pediatric checkups from 6 months to 5 years of age with a special focus on children growing up in poverty. By building on the unique relationship between parents and medical providers, Reach Out and Read helps families and communities encourage early literacy skills so children enter school prepared for success.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently recommended "that pediatric providers advise parents of young children that reading aloud and talking about pictures and words in age-appropriate books can strengthen language skills, literacy development and parent-child relationships." This is particularly important for bridging the education gap for kids at risk. That's why the AAP supports Reach Out and Read.

And that's why I'm so very proud to serve on the board.

It's a prescription for literacy and it works. It's that simple. But if you need more convincing:

Friends, I'm only 55 for a few more months,  so here's how I'm celebrating ...

For every $5 you donate to Reach Out and Read Colorado you receive one entry to win your choice of:

A critique of the first 5-pages of your picture book, middle grade or young adult manuscript from amazing Bloomsbury New York Editor - Brett Wright
A classroom gift pack from me, which includes autographed books, coloring sheets, bookmarks, a Skype visit and more. 
An autographed set of my books plus a $100 gift card to the bookseller of your choice.

Any donation, big or small, has a chance of winning!

It's easy to enter. Here's how:

2. Forward your e-mail receipt to me at

3. For every $5 donated you'll receive one entry into a random number drawing for one of the prizes above.

4. Then, on September 26th at high noon (here in Colorado we like such things) Mountain Time, I'll pick a winner!

5. If you're my winner, I'll e-mail you to let you know. And if you pick the critique as your prize, you'll have 48 hours to send me your 5-pages. Then I'll send them on to Brett. So make sure they're polished long before 9/26. You only have one chance at a first read.
So celebrate with me and support early literacy for every child.

Thanks so much for stopping by!


P.S. And if you want to get weird, there's always this:

Monday, August 18, 2014

3 Critique Questions with Author Parker Peevyhouse

Recently, on the SCBWI Forum, a new children's writer posted her doubts about her ability to critique manuscripts. My agancy-mate and fellow author Parker Peevyhouse offered her wise advice, which spoke to me as a critiquer and a writer. So I invited her to expand on her thoughts for my blog.

I hope it speaks to you.

3 Questions a Good Manuscript Critique Answers by Parker Peevyhouse

Manuscript critiques have been the greatest tool for improving my writing. But it’s not only getting a good critique that has helped me improve--I’ve learned just as much from giving critiques. Whether I’m giving or getting a critique, I’m thinking about story choices, and that kind of analysis hones my story-telling skills.

When I give a critique, I find myself focusing on three particular questions--questions that explore character, plot, and the intersection of the two:

1. Plot: Where do I feel like I can't make sense of what’s happening OR I don't believe what's happening would actually happen?

Sample comments I might write on a manuscript:

How did the dog get out of the yard if the gate was locked?

It’s hard for me to believe that a tree branch would break the fall of someone dropping from outer space.

2. Character: Where do I feel like I don't like (or am not interested in) the main character (or other characters)?

Sample comments I might write on a manuscript:

Darren complains about so many things--I’m starting to feel like he’s a whiner.

Why doesn’t Petunia speak up for herself when her sister blames her for spilling the milk?

3. Plot + Character: Where do I feel like the character doesn't actually have a reason to do what he/she is doing in the plot?

Why does the kid try to nab the thieves himself instead of calling the police?

So Winnie walks into the villain’s lair even though she knows he wants to steal her ruby wand?

Not only do these questions help me focus my critiques, but they also help me interpret comments I get on my own manuscripts. For example, a comment like “I can’t believe he won’t help his own best friend!” makes me think, My character is losing likeability here (#2). A comment like, “Why does she bother to figure out who created the virus?” makes me think, I need to strengthen this character’s motivation (#3).

I hope you find these critique questions helpful. If you want to hear more from me, you can follow me on Twitter @parkerpeevy or sign up for my occasional newsletter right here! 

Parker Peevyhouse lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family, where she teaches part-time. Her debut YA science fiction novel, FUTURES, will be published by Kathy Dawson Books/Penguin in 2015.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Secret and Sensational Opportunity for Kidlit Writers Coming in Late August!

Whether you write picture books, chapter books, middle grade or young adult, stay tuned. I have a chance of a lifetime coming in late August. But I'm not ready to spill the beans quite yet. So polish up your favorite manuscript (Oops - now there's a hint!) and hang on. August will be here before you know it.

Friday, July 11, 2014

All In a Day's Walk

One of my Top Ten Super Secret (so this one's no longer a secret) Writing Tips that I share with students is

As in,
  • Step Away from the Computer, 
  • Unplug
  • Shoot Some Hoops
  • Take a Shower
  • Go For a Run
  • Get a Massage
  • Strike a Yoga Pose
  • Meditate
  • Go For a Walk

And I mean it.

I've learned to build this kind of time into my day. It's been proven to me again and again that my best ideas come when I'm away from the page. I keep my story with me. Inside my head. Dangling there like the carabiner hooked to my backpack. I let it dangle, and inevitably, ideas surface. 

Two walks from the past two days yielded:
  • Two universal truths
  • Two endings
  • Five funny lines
  • One story arc
  • One final scene
  • A whole new character
  • Three illustration ideas
Need more convincing?

Try it! For thirty minutes -


Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Hooting About My 2-Book Deal!

Hoot! I'm beyond excited about my latest book deal.

From Publishers Weekly.

"Virginia Duncan at Greenwillow has acquired two picture books by Too Purpley! author Jean Reidy; the stories feature Specs, a not-so-clear-sighted young owl who explores the world with his friends. Book one is scheduled to release in summer 2016; Erin Murphy at Erin Murphy Literary did the deal for world rights."

Friday, June 6, 2014

Novel Epiphanies Part 3 - From the Author of SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS, Jeannie Mobley

Ask and you shall receive.

When I asked fellow novelists for help understanding and writing novel epiphanies, one of the first to answer my call was middle grade historical fiction novelist, Jeannie Mobley. What a gal!

As a matter of fact, I was reading the ARC of her latest book SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS (September 2014 from Margaret K. McElderry Books) when she responded to my question. Jeannie crafted this crystal clear epiphany primer, complete with Disney examples - she obviously understood who she was dealing with.

So please welcome celebrated author Jeannie Mobley.
I was intrigued by your recent blog post in which you asked fellow authors about how the epiphany moment was set up in their books, because I never really thought about my books having an epiphany moment. When I first read it, I actually felt a little stupid, like, "oh, great, I've been writing MG books for years and haven't even heard of this part that I'm supposed to have." Then I realized, it isn't that I don't have that moment, I just think of it differently. I prefer to think of it as the climax of the character arc, and the key moment that ties the character arc to the plot arc. Thinking of that moment as the climax of the character arc makes the question of how to set it up a bit of a non-question. If it is part of an arc, then just like with the plot arc, that climax comes out of the natural progression, flow, development of the entire story 's action up to that moment. If your book is well plotted, then you wouldn't say, "I've got this whole story, but now I have to set up three chapters of action to make a climax happen." The plot builds and builds from page one until you've got a situation that's taken on a life of its own by half way through the book and the characters are propelled along to the climax.

Likewise, the character arc should chart out the same way. Whatever the character has to resolve in the character climax (find inner courage, realize they love the guy, see who the real enemy is, outsmart the bad guy, etc.) that should be building all the way through the book. Say the epiphany moment has to be the moment the character overcome her self-doubt. In that case, the reader should see self-doubt holding her back at the beginning of the book. Because it holds her back, it causes the next thing to happen, and the next, and by 1/2 way through the book, she's struggling against it but can't quite overcome it, or she tries to overcome it and fails. Then, at that pivotal moment, the darkest moment, the do or die moment, the bad guy taunts her and says she's too weak to win, and she realized (in one or two sentences) that it's nasty voices like his holding her back, not anything inside her, and from that she puts away her self doubt, finds her courage, and rushes off to save the day. But the reader should have seen her reaching and struggling, and falling back from her self doubt all the way through the book. She doesn't see she has self doubt, but we the readers do, and so when she faces it, we all nod sagely and don't need pages and pages to fill in the details.

I'm thinking about the movie Beauty and the Beast, just because when my daughter was little I had many, many opportunities to analyze the story. The "epiphany moment" would be when the Beast is stabbed and dying, and Belle, realizing she is going to lose him, says "I love you." That's an epiphany to Belle, forced out of her by the belief that she's losing him. But to the rest of us, it is totally believable without any set up in that moment, because the whole movie has set it up. We've seen her throwing snowballs and feeding little birdies, and eating oatmeal, and dressing up and dancing and reading books with him. We've seen her tell Gaston, "He's not the beast, you are!" and Gaston replies, "If I didn't know better, I'd think you have feelings for this beast." We've seen her gaze lovingly into the mirror that shows him and heard her voice go all tender when she says "He's my friend." She's the only one who can't see that she's in love. She also doesn't know that admitting the love will break the spell, so the viewer is kept in suspense--we don't have any suspense about whether or not she's in love, we just don't know whether or not she will realize it and utter the words before the last rose petal falls.

My upcoming book SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS (McElderry Books, Fall 2014) has a bit of a mystery element in it, in that they are (believe it or not) searching for the truth about Silverheels--a legendary dance-hall girl that lived in the area sixty years earlier. She is also dealing with people who are accusing her friend Josie and her family of sedition during the early months of World War I. She has an epiphany for both plot elements--she has to realize that the boy she likes is really unlikable and find the strength to tell him to shove off, even if he is considered the best catch in the county, and she also has an epiphany where she sees what she's been missing the whole time to figure out the truth about Silverheels. To avoid a BIG spoiler, I am not going to tell you about that second epiphany. But the first one, finding the strength to break up with George, is set up like this:

All the way through the book, both Josie and Pearl's mom have been telling her she has to stand up for what she believes in, and we've been seeing her wrestle with that issue. This is her main flaw. The epiphany comes when Pearl's friend Josie, a suffragist, gets arrested for standing up for her rights, and George belittles her sacrifice. This isn't a big spoiler, because the reader can see that George isn't right for Pearl, and increasingly, that George isn't a very nice guy. But Pearl can see it, she's blinded by love, or more accurately, by her unrealistic, dime-novel ideas about what love is supposed to look like. She's been confused by things like her first kiss to George, which doesn't feel all sweet and wonderful like she expected, and by him putting her in an awkward position, which she justifies away. It's this last straw moment, when George is so awful to someone she cares about, specifically because that someone has done the one thing Pearl most needs to do, that makes Pearl see what we've seen all along--the guy isn't worth it! But in the scene itself, the epiphany unfolds across the scene with a few short sentences--when George tries to put his arm around Pearl's shoulder to calm her and she steps away. When she finds the strength to tell him to leave, and realizes being strong is a good feeling. No big set up or internal pondering, just a subtle shift, a straightening of her shoulders, a new determination that makes us cheer.

So to anyone wondering how to set up an epiphany, my advice would be, look at it as the climax of an arc rather than an epiphany. Plot out the emotional element that has to come together at the climax: make sure there are scenes from the beginning that point to that pivotal moment. Let them build, double back on themselves, change directions, keep building, just like you would plot elements. Then throw in a crisis that forces a decision without waffling--a decision the MC is ripe for making (stab the Beast in the back. Or get her best friend arrested).If you've done all that, then the "epiphany" will be just that--a quick flash of self-discovery that drives us into the climax of the book, needing no big awkward set up scenes added in.

Thank you, Jeannie.

Now, fellow novelists, go have some fun with your epiphanies. And don't forget to add SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS  to your "to read" list.

In her small Colorado town of Silverheels, Pearl spends the summers helping her mother run the family café and entertaining tourists with the legend of Silverheels, a beautiful dancer who nursed miners through a smallpox epidemic in 1861 and then mysteriously disappeared. According to lore, the miners loved her so much they named their mountain after her.

Pearl believes the tale is true, but she is mocked by her neighbor, Josie, a suffragette campaigning for women’s right to vote. Josie says that Silverheels was a crook, not a savior, and she challenges Pearl to a bet: prove that Silverheels was the kindhearted angel of legend, or help Josie pass out the suffragist pamphlets that Pearl thinks drive away the tourists. Not to mention driving away handsome George Crawford.

As Pearl looks for the truth, darker forces are at work in her small town. The United States’s entry into World War I casts suspicion on German immigrants, and also on anyone who criticizes the president during wartime—including Josie. How do you choose what’s right when it could cost you everything you have?

Related Posts:
Novel Epiphanies Part 1: That part with all the dramatic music and amazing scenery ...
Novel Epiphanies Part 2