Friday, February 26, 2010

Review: RUBY HOLLER by Sharon Creech

Published by:  Joanna Cotler Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 2002
310 pages

First line:  Dallas leaned far out of the window, his eyes fixed on a bird flying lazily in the distance.

From now on, I will include the first sentence of any book I review. We are told as writers that the job of that first sentence is to hook the reader so that they have no choice but to continue reading. By the time the reader finishes the first page, the hook should be deeply embedded in the gristle of the reader's jaw. That just didn't happen with this book.

As a child, I found myself reading a lot of first pages before tossing the books aside when those first pages failed to tantalize. At some point around junior high, I decided that was unfair and began reading the first one hundred pages before deciding whether or not to continue. So I did with this book.

Ruby Holler is a book of characters. I hear you. You're saying, "Sharon, all novels have characters." That's not what I mean. These people--on and all--are, to quote Merriam-Webster Online, people "marked by notable or conspicuous traits."

The protagonists are a set of orphaned twins, Dallas and Florida, who were abandoned as infants, left in a box on the steps of an orphanage operated by a couple named Trepid (think Miss Hannigan, Carol Burnett's character, in Annie). The Trepids treated all children in their care cruelly, but they especially disliked Dallas and his sister Florida, whom the Trepids called "the trouble twins."

If a line can be drawn between sympathy and pity, I drew that line, for I felt sorry for the twins, but it took awhile to truly sympathize with them. They were unlikable children who seemed bent on destroying everything around them that could be destroyed.

When Tiller and Sairy Morey, a couple of "old people," arrange for the trouble twins to spend the summer with them, Dallas and Florida expect more of the same treatment. They're astounded that the Moreys seem prepared to forgive any mischief they do.

Usually the foster parents (all of them quite bizarre)--and certainly the Trepids--dole out cruel punishments for misbehavior: hours of solitary confinement in dank, dark cellars with nothing for company but hairy spider, lizards, snakes, and "putrid" rats; scant rations of tasteless, meatless food; and days of back-breaking, heavy labor such as well-digging. The kids are baffled by the love the Moreys give them. There seems to be no limit to forgiveness, even when the children break two precious, hand-carved objects, split the railing of the front porch, cut down Tiller's favorite maple tree, and hack a "window" hole in the barn "to let in more light."

Love and forgiveness are streams that run through Ruby Holler. Though no one ever says, "I love you," it is expressed by the things the residents do for one another, even the trouble twins.

The book ends leaving a lot of questions unanswered, inviting a sequel. For example, who is Z, a character who jumps in and out of the story, gaining prominence toward the end? Are his suspicions about Dallas and Florida correct? Where is the twins' mother? Why did she desert them?

Ruby Holler can be understood on several levels, making it an excellent choice for multi-generational book discussion groups. In my days as a classroom teacher and gifted/talented facilitator, I often lead such groups that were made up of both the students and their parents.

Sharon Creech is the author of the Newbery Medal winner Walk Two Moons and the Newbery Honor winner The Wanderer.  Ruby Holler was a Young Hoosier Book Award winner in 2005. Creech has written many other books, as well.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Taking a Breather--Well, Not Really

I haven't posted anything for a few days, but I've been busy with writerly work, nonetheless. Even though my first manuscript was "complete," I gave it one more perusal before hitting the "Send" button, making a tweak-tweak here and a tweak-tweak there. Of course I continue to write on my WIP, and I'm getting ready to lead  "The Essential Five-Paragraph Essay" workshop for a group of home educators and their students. (I always ask that the parent who teaches English attend and participate in this one.)

Recently, I read my first ARC, and I plan to write a review for it this week. Please stop back to read that. After today's trip to the library, I have three middle-grade novels to read: Ruby Holler by Sharon Creech (Joanna Cotler Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers); Sweet By and By by Patricia Hermes (HarperCollins); and North by Night by Katherine Ayres (Delacorte Press).  Can't wait to start turning those pages!

Write on!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Oh, the Places You Will Go!

A beehive oven like the one in my story's summer kitchen

Today is a great day. As I start this entry, it is 8:30 a.m. and already so much has happened. The day began with a request from an editor for a full of a manuscript. Hooray! Then I got started on some research into Federal-style architecture and furniture, hoping to find some good photos to help in the development of my setting of place (see earlier post). Whereas I have the lovely home I can visit, it's nearly an hour's drive, and I wanted references I could keep handy. I found online exactly what I needed, including a video of Bob Villa's tour through "my house." I bookmarked it so I can walk through with Bob any time I wish.

The cellar door to "my house," though mine has a latch

Last night, or rather, very early this morning, I found some old Civil War correspondence online. What a great way to familiarize oneself with the language, phrases, idioms, events, and customs of the day!

Research is a wonderful thing. One never knows in what diverse directions it will go.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Comments, Please! I Just Love Comments!

Thank you so much for visiting my blog. Be sure to read the comments that other guests leave. I do, and I always learn something new. While you're on the "Comments" page, go ahead and share your own ideas and experiences. Write on!
Because of Christ,

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Sense of Place

My friends live in my house. Actually, they own and live in the home that is the model for Aunt Becky's house in my work-in-progress. I've tweaked the layout a little to conform to the needs of the story, since, as far as they or I know, there are no hidden passageways in their house. Further, in my story, the summer kitchen is still standing, whereas the one that once stood behind the c. 1840s Federal-style brick home was destroyed by a storm years ago, long before my friends bought the place.

With much love and care, these friends of mine have created garden spaces around the property, places to 'light 'n' tie, dream, imagine, and contemplate the beauty of God's Creation, so as I altered the house to suit my WIP, those lovely gardens worked their way into the story.

As important as it is for me to thoroughly know my characters (see blog entry for Sunday, Feb. 14), I should also know the setting inside and out. If I don't have an actual house to reference, I sketch rough house or building layouts and maps of the landscape. Though I'm no artist, I sometimes draw a scene, as well. If I cannot see it, hear it, feel it, smell it, and sometimes taste it--experience it--then I probably will not be able to make it real to my readers. Taking such measures in the pre-writing process helps to keep things straight. In the case of my WIP, the library is on the west side of the house that faces north. I dare not forget that and put it where the parlor is.

Like historical romance writer Ramona K. Cecil, if at all possible, I go to the location that I'm researching--or one similar to it if it is fictiional--and walk the area, listen to the birds sing, smell the air, study the physical features, and feel the earth of that place beneath my feet. Early in my writing, I heard that if western writer Louis L'Amour said that a particular boulder stood at a certain fork in the road, it was there, unless someone had moved it since he visited the place. He ascertained that he knew his setting well. He conveyed that to his readers. Even if the setting is a total fiction, I should be as familiar with it as Tolkien was with Middle Earth and Lewis was with Narnia.

Fellow scribes, to what lengths do you go to know your setting? Click on "Comments" below to share.

By the way, my friends are the proprietors of New Creation Daylilies, located at the heart of a triangle formed by Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Louisville. Click the link embedded in this paragraph to learn more. I thank them for granting me permission to post some of the photos above. 

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Getting to Know You, Getting to Know All about You

Leah Bright Maxwell and Trevor Aldrich Logan

That's real characters, as opposed to real people. But they're real to me, now that I've interviewed them.

I happen to be blessed to know author Ramona K. Cecil (Sweet Forever, Everlasting Promise, and Charity's Heart--all from Barbour Publishing's Heartsong Presents). We both are members of Southern Indiana Writers' Salon and American Christian Fiction Writers. On multiple occasions, Ramona has adjured SIWS writers to interview our main characters. I did that with my latest WIP and was amazed at the difference it makes in the writing. It shows.

If a writer has not taken the time or made the effort to get to know his characters well, that shows, too. It's hard to write in deep POV if one doesn't know what that POV would be or how the character views the world.

In the case of my protagonist, Leah Bright Maxwell, I knew her pretty well; much of her is me. Whereas I interviewed her, I didn't uncover any major information. Some minor things, but nothing big. On the other hand, I didn't know much at all about the neighbor boy, Trevor Aldrich Logan. His personality was ambivalent. He showed up, spoke a line or two, half-smiled, and stepped into the background. Then I interviewed him. Everything changed. Now, he will have a much larger role in the plot. He will be a co-conspirator.

Here is the interview I conducted with Trevor:

SKC:  What is your full name?
Trevor:  Trevor Logan.
SKC:  Middle name?
Trevor:  Aldrich. It was my gramp's name, but everyone called him "Al." [I didn't know this before.]
SKC:  That's a good solid name. Do you know what it means?
Trevor:  Mom looked it up once. She said that the Trevor part means "large village." Aldrich means "old king." Some place else said it meant "spear wielder."
SKC:  So you're the old king of a large village who carries a spear? (chuckle)
Trevor:  (smiles) I guess. A soldier. Like my dad. And my gramp.
SKC:  Is your gramp still living?
Trevor:  No. Neither is my dad.
SKC:  Oh, Trevor. I am so sorry. How did they die?
Trevor:  Gramp was old. He had a stroke and died. [I didn't know this.] I was a little kid. Dad was a brave warrior.
SKC:  Oh?
Trevor:  He died in Iraq. He. . .
SKC:  I know it is hard to talk about. You don't have to--
Trevor:  No. I want people to know, because I'm proud of him. He threw himself on a grenade to save his buddies.  [Nor did I know this before the interview.]
SKC:  Oh, Trevor. He was a very, very brave man.
Trevor:  Gramp died shortly after we heard about Dad dying. Mom says Gramp died of a broken heart. 
SKC:  What about your grandma?
Trevor:  Grammy lives with us. [This also surprised me.] Actually, we live with her. It's her house. She and Gramp built it a long time ago. The front part used to be a little gas station, back before Gramp decided to retire. It's kind of an odd house, with old gas pumps still out in front. [This was all news to me.]
SKC:  It has character.
Trevor:  (chuckles)
SKC:  So how did you and your mom--what's her name?
Trevor:  Wilhelmina. But no one calls her that. She might bop 'em if they did. Everyone calls her "Willie."
SKC: So how did you and your mom come to live here? Where did you live before?
Trevor:  North Carolina. After Gramp died, Grammy called Mom and said, "Wilhelmina, why don't you and Trevor come to Indiana and live here with me? We'll take good care of one another." So we did.
SKC:  She's your father's mom, isn't she?
Trevor: Yep.
SKC:  Are your other grandparents, your mom's folks, still living?
Trevor:  Yeah. They live in Illinois. Close to the Mississippi River.
SKC:  What's your Grammy's name?
Trevor:  Fern. I like that name. The woods around here are full of ferns, and I think they're really pretty.
SKC:  I like ferns, too. Have you met the girl who is spending the summer up on the hill?
Trevor:  With Miss Becky. Yeah.
SKC:  What do you think of her?
Trevor:  I don't know her much. She's from Chicago, so she's probably uppity.
SKC:  "Uppity"?
Trevor:  Yeah. You know. Snobbish. Big city. Miss Becky said her dad's a college professor or something like that.
SKC:  Her name is Leah. You and she have some things in common.
Trevor:  Like what?
SKC:  Well, she's only a little bit older than you. And she has lost a parent, too. Her mom was killed in a car wreck. She was hit by a drunk driver.
Trevor:  That's sad.
SKC:  Yes, it is. Do you know Miss Becky well?
Trevor:  Yeah. We go to the same church. She was my Sunday school teacher in third grade. I like her a lot. I go up to her house a lot. She let's me help out. Do chores. That kind o' thing.
SKC:  Don't you have a garden at your house?
Trevor:  Yep. We all three work in it. But I really like to grow things and take care of them, so I help Miss Becky, too.
SKC:  I would think that would keep you pretty busy.
Trevor:  Yep. But I like to be outdoors, so it's fun for me. Dad did, too. He was a first-rate woodsman. He taught me all sorts of things about the woods and how to survive in the wild. Like Brian in Hatchet.
SKC:  Oh, so you've read that book?
Trevor:  Yep. Pretty good, too.
SKC:  Do you read a lot?
Trevor:  Not really. That was a book we read in school. Mostly I read to find out stuff. You know. Not made-up stories. Books about nature, an' stuff like that. Dad used to get me them kind o' books just about every birthday. I have a bookshelf in my room--well, it's part of my bed--that Mom calls my Lewis and Clark shelf. You know. After the explorers. [All of this is new to me.]
SKC:  Yes. I've heard of them. So what kinds of books are on your Lewis and Clark shelf?
Trevor:  Dad got ma a lot of books about how to identify stuff. Trees, wildflowers, medicine plants, birds, mushrooms, butterflies, insects, snakes, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, dragonflies--you name it.
SKC:  I might not be able to name it.
Trevor:  Then we'll look it up in a book.
SKC:  Those are important things to know.
Trevor:  Yep. [He says "Yep" a lot.] I know the woods around here real good.
SKC:  You miss your dad a lot, don't you? I can tell. When do you miss him the most?
Trevor: When I'm out in the woods and I see something special and I want to show it to him or ask him about it and I can't 'cause he's not there. And at night. He used to read to us from the Bible and we'd talk about it. What it meant. That kind o' thing. Sometimes we'd talk a looooooooong time. Till Mom said I had to get to bed. Oh, and when the mailman comes. I know there's no need expecting a letter from Dad. There's another time, too, when I really miss 'im.
SKC:  When's that?
Trevor:  When Mom cries. When she misses him so much she just cries. And I don't know what to do to make her feel better.
SKC:  Do you cry?
Trevor:  (almost inaudibly) Sometimes.
SKC:  Trevor, may I ask some not-so-serious questions?
Trevor: Yep.
SKC:  These are about your favorite things. What's your favorite color?
Trevor:  Green.
SKC:  Ice cream?
Trevor:  Butter pecan.
SKC:  Meal?
Trevor:  Grammy's homemade chicken 'n' noodles with mashed potatoes and corn-on-the-cob and tomatoes from the garden. Watermelon for dessert.
SKC:  Subject in school?
Trevor: And science. I like social studies pretty good, too.
SKC:  Book?
Trevor:  Well, Hatchet. And I really like the Chronicles of Narnia, too. Are we about done, 'cause I got some things I need to do?
SKC:  I think so, unless there's something else you'd like to tell me.
Trevor:  Nope. I want to go see if I can help Miss Becky.
SKC:  Thanks for talking with me.
Trevor:  You're welcome. See ya later.
SKC:  Count on it.

Want more on the subject? Visit Linda Glaz' blog.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Why the Tough Skin?

The safest thing for a writer to do would be to protect her manuscript from all of those prying eyes and "Track Changes" buttons. Keep it pressed tightly against her bosom, as she would a newborn baby, with her arms crossed over it. That action guarantees that the baby will never be examined, never be critiqued, never be published.

Undoubtedly, the writer already has edited, revised, and edited again, but when she sits in front of the computer screen with her finger poised on the mouse, ready to click "Attach," her breathing becomes shallow, her pulse races, and the palms of her hands drip sweat. Sending an MS to a critique group is risky business. The writer can stake her life savings that those heartless critiquers will delete this, change that, add a comma here, yank an exclamation point there, and scream, "Show! Don't tell!" [Delete those two exclamation points, Sharon. You've already said 'scream.'"] At the end, they'll add a soothing comment and tell you how much they really like your story and look forward to the next installment. Thing is, they mean it. Just as the writer does when she's in critiquer mode.

One must develop a skin as thick and tough as a rhino's--get used to critiques, embrace them, discern which comments will improve the work, and be grateful that someone cared enough to be honest.

Once the MS is as good as the writer can make it, she sends it out. That rhino skin will come in handy again because agents and editors will critique the work from their perspectives. If they accept the work, it will undergo more editing and revision. To read how three agents regard such, visit the following links:

BookEnds, LLC  A Literary Agency

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snowy, Snowy Day

If indeed a picture is worth a thousand words, why should I write anything about this road not taken in winter?

But, on the other hand, being a writer, I can hardly resist the opportunity to pen a bit of haiku.

Wending, wandering
snow-covered lane through the woods
to--I wonder where.

Now it's your turn, gentle reader. With the above photo (by R. Ford) as inspiration, write a haiku in the "Comments" section. Pen as many poems as you wish, but please use a new comment for each.

Just to remind you, haiku is a Japanese form consisting of three lines with a syllable count of 5-7-5. The subject usually is some aspect of nature captured in fleeting moment. In this case, I've provided the photo.

Monday, February 8, 2010

It's Warm in the Kitchen

When I get to cooking in the kitchen, things heat up pretty fast, expecially if I have bread in the oven. The rest of the house may be as cold as the devil's own heart, but the kitchen will be cozy. The more I bake, the warmer it gets. Add a couple more chefs--say, one simmering a big pot of vegetable beef soup and another putting the tea kettle on for some Earl Grey--and it can become uncomfortably warm. But stick around. Soon you'll have before you a steming bowl of soup, a slab of warm bread with butter melting into each crevice, and a fragrant cup of tea.

It's a little bit like a writers' critique group. Each member has a pretty good idea of what he is doing. Each has favorite recipes. Each writer works hard to arrive at the most savory results. And all contribute to the heat level of the kitchen.

There is nothing easy about any of it. For the bread to rise to its highest and lightest, conditions must be just right. It has to be kneaded properly for eight to ten minutes to develop the gluten. A warm kitchen certainly helps, but the yeast must be lively, and the flour should be the right kind. The humidity in the air plays a part. The vegetable soup is tedious to prepare, with all of its paring, chopping, and dicing. It takes time. Even the tea has it's own requirements for brewing.

When a writer submits a chapter to the critique group, it's a risk. Our writing is our favorite dish. We've chosen the finest organic ingredients available and put it together according to an original recipe. We've timed and measured, folded and beaten, sifted and stirred. And now we offer a serving to a cadre of tasters. What? They say it's too salty? Oh, but one thinks it could use a little more salt. Another says that a dash of this spice or that extract would make all the difference. Still another says, "Bam! Kick it up a notch." [LR, you know whom you are.]

That's when we must pray and use our God-given discernment. Who's right in the case of a contradiction of comments? Ultimately, it's the writer's call. It's the writer's work, after all. If multiple critiquers make the same or similar comments about a particular element of the work, the writer might be wise to seriously consider their comments. If the writer works in a different genre from the others, he likely is more familiar with the nuances of that genre than his colleagues, since he surely has read and researched it more. Further, every critiquer has her own strengths. I've been an English teacher and an editor; therefore, I tend to pick at punctuation, mechanics, and word usage. I've been told by editors and critique partners that dialogue is another of my strengths. I have a cp who often adjures me to "show, don't tell," and "lose the exclamation points." I'm getting better at both . . .I think.

I have learned so much from my critiquers, because God has blessed me with the best. For example, the hooks at the end of my chapters are stronger. I've learned that I don't have to struggle to come up with a powerful hook; I just need to end the chapter at the point of such a hook. I now tend to be more wary of tags, using them only when necessary, opting instead for action beats.

Thanks to some tough critiquers, my writer's skin is thicker. I can take the risk and accept the criticism. If it ever gets too hot in the kitchen, I'll just crack a window and let some fresh ideas blow in. I'll not be leaving.

"Dear Lucky Agent" Contest at Guide to Literary Agents

MG and YA writers, get ready. . .get set . . .submit! Hurry because you only have 13 days left to enter as of this writing. Come St. Valentine's Day, it's over! Done! Finished! So run, lope, gallop, trot, scurry, race, canter, sprint, jog, dash, rush, bound, clip, bolt, hotfoot it, scramble, hustle, skedaddle, or just click over to to enter. Mine will be on it's way in about three minutes.