Category Archives: Write Up Our Alley

Write Up Our Alley: Inspiring the novelist within me

From: Write Up Our Alley
August 14, 2012 at 02:56PM

I remember the feeling I got the first time I read E. L. Konigsburg’s The View from Saturday. It was a combination of pleasure, respect, and inspiration. “I want to do that,” I thought.

The book combines the stories of four sixth graders and their teacher, weaving each kid’s experiences with an Academic Bowl tournament—a version of Slumdog Millionaire set some 12 years earlier, in Upstate New York, among middle schoolers. It is heartwarming and brilliant.

After reading the book, I knew I wanted to be a novelist.

E. L. Konigsburg’s work has always been an inspiration to me. She’s not afraid to take risks. She’s written for all age groups; has focused on multiple genres; and is a true craftsman, willing to bend forms and try something new. Even if one of her stories does not grab me entirely, I still know that what I’m reading is well written.

The View from Saturday  in particular was a revelation. It taught me that a children’s books can follow multiple view points, weave a complex plot, and adults can play a role. It can also be literate, intelligent, and sometimes pull at your heartstrings. And more than anything else, it can be wonderful.


Write Up Our Alley: Sticking to it

From: Write Up Our Alley
July 02, 2012 at 01:31PM

I sat on the porch of our cabin in Quebec, admiring the view with my father.

He was an old man, then, ailing. Although we did not know it at the time, this would be his last visit to the lake. Professionally, it had been a trying, depressing time for me. I had been submitting manuscripts to editors for years, and other than one short story for Ladybug Magazine, no one seemed interested in what I was writing. But on that sunny afternoon, we were happy, quiet company, glad to sit and breathe and spend time with each other.

“Alice,” he said, “did I ever tell you what it was like when I first started working in Montreal?”

Papa was poor: he had arrived as an immigrant with almost nothing. There were days when he survived on a single meal. He took up a job selling tools to hardware stores. He was given samples by the company, and he went around Montreal, from store to store, hoping to make a sale. Every day he’d make sure to visit as many stores as he could fit in, show his wares, and move on the next one.

“I didn’t sell anything. But as long as I was going from store to store, I was doing my job.”

One day, he arrived at a store he had visited a few times before, and spoke to the owner.

“You know,” the owner said, “I won’t buy what you’re selling. I get my tools from another manufacturer, and I like what they make. But you’re a nice man. So let me tell you about the store a few blocks that way. They’ll be interested in what you have to show.”

My father thanked him and went to the store the owner had told him about. He made his first sale that day.

“After that, I didn’t make lots of sales right away. But I made more. And I stuck with it because that was my job. I think I did okay in the end.”

We each have our heroes. Papa was one of mine.

Write Up Our Alley: “As you probably noticed, I went away forever.”

From: Write Up Our Alley
June 21, 2012 at 09:56AM

It seems I knew by around age five, that I wanted to be Maurice Sendak when I grew up. I penciled my name in right next to his on this book that he illustrated for Ruth Krauss in 1952, which is one of my most treasured possessions and has been with me always. Over the years I’ve become an obsessive collector of his work and words, which have taught me just about everything I need to know about writing and illustrating for children. What more can I possibly add to all that’s been said about Sendak, who died on May 8th at the age of 83?

Just that it was incredibly humbling and inspiring for me to hear Sendak’s friends speak about him at a memorial service last week, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.* Lynn Caponera, his assistant and friend since her childhood, closed the tributes perfectly by quoting a letter “from his favorite book”, Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More to Life:

As you probably noticed, I went away forever. I am very experienced now and very famous. I am even a star…. I get plenty to drink, too, so don’t worry…. If you ever come this way, look for me. Jennie”

Dear Jennie, I will certainly look for you. Love, Debbie.

*This drawing of Sendak’s beloved dog Jennie was on the cover of the program that day. Small parts of recent interviews were shared then as well; for those of you who haven’t seen or heard them yet, the interviews are incredibly moving and not-to-be-missed– and I hope you will watch or listen from beginning to end.

Fresh Air Remembers Author Maurice Sendak, interviews with Terry Gross, including the last one, in September 2011.
Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak, a documentary by Spike Jonze and Lance Bangs. Excerpted here.
Art Spiegelman Discusses Maurice Sendak, including a comic strip collaboration between Spiegelman and Sendak.

Write Up Our Alley: Dialogue in Poetry

From: Write Up Our Alley
April 17, 2012 at 02:08PM

I had an encounter this winter with a poem called “A Measuring Worm” by Richard Wilbur that reminded me of a friend’s poetry, so I sent her a copy.

Imagine my joy when she sent me the April 2012 issue of Poetry, the 100th year anniversary edition.

As a result, my little family recently had a poetry night. I read from the Poetry journal, my husband read poems written by Marion Darling, and my son, so eager that he upped the number each of us could read to four, read from Shel Silverstein, who has done much to advance the cause of poetry to the hearts of children.

There’s a pause that poetry invites that I yearn for in a hurly-burly daily frenzy of activity and lists. There’s an unexpected grandeur, a quality of spaciousness that comes with sharing poetry, a quality of attentive listening that slows things down long enough for me to be where I am, and that’s a respite.

Since tweeting and facebooking don’t come easily to me, yet I wish to stay in touch, I’m thrilled, that at least with this friendship, sharing poems will do the job.


Write Up Our Alley: Writing the Winds, er Class 5 Rapids of Change

From: Write Up Our Alley
March 29, 2012 at 11:37AM

I feel like I’m in an April Fools time warp. My fortieth children’s book, DINOSAUR PETS, comes out this Tuesday. It’s a funny little book for early readers and its birth date completely surprises me. I hadn’t heard a thing from its publishers, Sterling Books, for almost two years and didn’t even know it was going to be colorfully, accurately, whimsically illustrated by one of the top paleo-artists of our time. Last I heard, dusty old-timey black and white prints from the American Museum of Natural History archives were supposed to “enliven” my playful text.

Roll with it, I comforted myself. We live in exciting times, where things move too fast to keep abreast of it all. The cover even says “Free activities & puzzles on line!” Who knew? (I checked, and they are wonderful fun for kids. Who created them, I wonder?) At the end of the book is a big splashy photo of – not your long-time Naturalist and the actual author of the book – but a top Dinosaur scientist, Mark Norell. I admire him endlessly and am flattered by association with his name, but I look nothing like his picture.

So the book doesn’t come out until Tuesday, but hardcovers and paperbacks are already on sale at and at amazing discounts from their already reasonable prices. Not only that, but they are for sale there already used and at an even more horrifyingly deep discount. This is horrifying only to this time-warped author who earns only pennies from discounted books and nothing at all from the sale of books somehow read and returned to the marketplace almost a week before the publisher releases them. Roll with it, I tell myself.

I already knew that dinosaur science is moving ahead as fast as scientists like Mark Norell can pull new fossils out of the ground. It seems that almost daily startling new findings are announced. Last week it was the discovery of a forty-foot long Titanoboa who appeared within a few million years (a blink of the geologic eye) from the fall of dinosaurs. Three years ago, the scientific world was buzzing with the discovery that a whole family of dinosaur-birds had feathered wing-y things attached to their front legs as well as to their hind legs. A few months ago, scientists proved that and these four wing’s feathers were glossy black and iridescent, flashing purple-green-blue in the sunshine.( exactly like today’s grackle’s.)

Uh, oh. Those new findings are not reflected in the multi-colored illustration ion page 28 of my new book. Those gorgeous illustrations, oh, time-warped readers, do not exist on paper or canvas anywhere. They were entirely created on and printed from a computer by the famous artist, Julius Cstonyi, using the most up-to –date information he had at the time.

I have run into this before: in my book for older elementary readers, BOY WERE WE WRONG ABOUT DINOSAURS (Dutton, 2005.) The whole point of that book was how every branch of science changes, discovery by discovery. What we accepted as absolute facts in the 1800’s (and even the 2000’s) are no longer true.

Simply “Roll with it?” No, I love the dynamic nature of knowledge. It is exhilarating to be alive now. As an artist or a scientist, trying to keep track of all the changes, from books discarded a week before they are published to dinosaurs illustrated completely in computer bits in colors already disproven before they can be printed. This is wild ride – and fun!
Many people today are terribly uncomfortable with change. They want their truths absolute, unchanging, and black and white.

To maintain their illusion of safety from the great churning rapids of progress swirling around us, some folks climb up onto the banks and declare that they do not “believe” in change at all. “Climate change is a hoax.” “I don’t believe in evolution.” “Don’t teach today’s science in the schools.” These folks would rather we teach what we ‘knew’ to be facts a hundred or five hundred years ago, or better yet, several thousand years ago.

I’m out here, running the rapids – and writing about them as I go. Come on in – the water’s fine!

Write Up Our Alley: Happy birthday!

From: Write Up Our Alley
February 28, 2012 at 12:21AM

Today is Gil Marsh’s official release date, which is both very exciting and, well, boring. It’s exciting because, after months and months of build-up, the book is finally available on shelves and folks can purchase it. (Yay!) The boring part is that nothing else happens. (Ho hum.)

Which is why authors have release parties—someone has to celebrate!

Come join me and other celebrants at the Alphabet Garden Bookstore in Cheshire, Connecticut on Saturday March 10 at 11:30 a.m. I’ll read some from the new book, answer questions, and we’ll generally have fun. (Yippee!)

Write Up Our Alley: Writers Dig Power – And How!

From: Write Up Our Alley
February 01, 2012 at 02:24PM

Writers dig for the motherlode, the enormous power at the center of themselves, their stories, and their characters.

How do we do that? This week is Ground Hog Day, a silly American tradition. Why does it last? A writer might dig deeper.

Pennsylvania farmers brought the old holiday from Germany, where countryfolk watched for badgers or hedgehogs to come out of their burrows on Candlemas. If the animals saw their shadows, it predicted 6 weeks more wintery weather. What is candlemas? Keep digging.

On the 1st or 2nd day of February, the Roman Catholic Church blesses candles for future use at a special mass. Ah. But why that date?

Feb 2 is exactly half way between the first day of winter (Dec 21, the Solstice) and the first day of spring (Mar 21, the Equinox.) The ancients at Stonehenge and before knew this from studying the sky, naming the day Imbolc. Originally, tradition had a serpent rising from its burrow to foretell the weather.  In Celtic traditions, Imbolc is a day of fortunetellng sacred to the goddess Brigit. In her maiden form she stands for new beginnings, purification, and fire.  The Roman Catholic Church later canonized the pagan goddess as St. Brigit and renamed Imbolc, St. Brigit’s day.

At the core of the Groundhog’s tradition, then,  the writer find millennia of power, Goddesses, Druidic priests, ancient ceremonies, holyness and The Roman Catholic Church. Who knew?

Dig that deep in your writing to find wellsprings of meaning and resonance. What does your main character’s name mean? In what culture? How does that inform who he is? What are his family’s traditions and superstitions? What are yours? Is there a history of unspeakable violence or clever invention to your chosen setting? Dig deeply to tap into ancient forces. Will today’s kids recognize every bit of allusion and history, the forces of culture and history? Not likely. But it will infuse your writing with that power and confidence, something no child will miss.

Write Up Our Alley: Trust informed instinct

From: Write Up Our Alley
January 10, 2012 at 10:09PM

Since I’m the one who used to live in Brooklyn, I was the guide on a recent trip to NYC with my husband. When it was time for dinner, I led us by subway to Union Square and then meandered toward the East Village. I had no idea what to eat, but was just meandering.

“Where are we going?” My husband asked.

I said I just wanted to show him the street of Indian restaurants, and sure enough, soon found one Indian restaurant after another. He asked if I wanted Indian food.

“Not exactly,” I said, although I supposed it would do.
Then suddenly I had a whim, a hankering for Ethiopian food.  “I wonder where an Ethiopian restaurant is,” I said.We walked, I kid you not, a few feet, and my husband chuckled.
“Right here,” he said. “How did you know that?”
And right there, was Awash, an Ethiopian restaurant where we had a delicious dinner (red honey wine is very sweet).

Back home and back at work I’ve struggled desperately to impose control on  a novel I’m revising. It’s not the first novel I’ve written, but you’d think I’d never even read a novel from how befuddled I’d become. I felt lost and went to all the rules you read about and the checklists people suggest and the “must-haves” from teachers and workshops –  in other words, I applied all the logic I could think of. In the process I became more and more confused and overwhelmed and it showed in my revision.

Finally, I had to let go of all those helpful hints and tips and tools and remember my story, trust the story, and trust someplace deep inside me, where, after all, the story came from to begin with. And I remembered the shape of my story.

I say trust your instinct when writing.
With a caveat: Trust informed instinct. Something in me knew to where head for Indian food.

Write Up Our Alley: Archives

From: Write Up Our Alley
January 09, 2012 at 08:28PM

I visited the Morgan Library and Museum in NYC a few weeks ago where I saw the Charles Dickens at 200 exhibit. Among the displays were pages from Dickens’ manuscript of Our Mutual Friend, handwritten with pen and ink, in small, crowded cursive. Words, sentences and paragraphs had lines drawn through them. New text was written over, or in the margins, or below. It was a reminder that one of the most prolific and successful writers of the English language did it by hand.

But more to the point, the manuscript survived—flaws and all—some 150 years later.

Back when I started writing with an eye to professional markets, I used a computer, and took heed of the advice to back up everything. I copied my manuscripts onto the most advanced technology of the day: floppy disks.

I no longer own a machine that can read them.

Fortunately I have always had a Luddite streak, and I print out anything I really want to keep. As for what I haven’t—well, then it’s gone, or will be when the next advance in technology takes over my most recent electronic back up system.

Does it matter? I’m not Dickens, after all. Should a future generation ask me, “What did you write?”, I’ll be able to point out the books that were published on old-fashioned paper and, of course, the paper copies that I’ve kept. My archives.

Don’t get me wrong. I could pay someone to have my floppy disks converted into another format. And then arrange to have it converted to yet a newer one, when my current one becomes obsolete. Or I could invest in a cloud archive—where my information is kept by some other entity, safely I am told. Let them worry about the formats.

But that’s work, time and expense. And I am not convinced that 150 years from now any of these methods will still be in use. Paper, on the other hand, can still be read. And if it’s lost, well, I’m not Dickens, after all.

Write Up Our Alley: It’s Resolution Time!

From: Write Up Our Alley
December 26, 2011 at 06:00AM

Is this true? I don’t know.
But even if hard work doesn’t make us lucky, it does make us better writers…
don’t you think?

If you could write your own fortune for 2012, what would it be?

And how will make your fortune? What’s your writing resolution for 2012?

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