Retreat! Retreat!

 The Writing Retreat

A tricky plot, I’ve lost my thought

I need to clear my head

My characters stink and I can’t think

My muse needs watered and fed

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So I’m off, down the road, take a right at the lane

To a fireside ‘cross the bay

Gonna clear my noggin, and quick my sloggin’

Gonna breath, and write all day

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Good friends, good food, and a bottle or four

Close the door, shut it tight, lock and latch it

The first draft needs words, and a problem to solve

The revision just might need a hatchet.

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I’ll wrangle and tangle my story until

A thin ray of hope starts to rise

And that night I’ll drink deep from the well of content

My eyes will be back on the prize

*****

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Far from a cry of defeat, the word retreat actually can mean a purposeful movement towards sanity.

Making a conscious effort to give your goals a solid chunk of attention is a very powerful way to tell yourself, and others, what is important to you right now.

For the next four days, I’m off to the Fireside Retreat – a writing getaway of my own design. I’ll be surrounded by peace and quiet and the occasional laugh from the talented friends who are joining me. We’ll also be meeting with Newbery Award winning author Cynthia Voigt who has graciously offered to share her time and insights with us. And all of this is because I had an idea, and asked for some favors and some help.

Maybe it’s time for you to plan a girl’s or guy’s weekend so you can focus on treasured friendships. Or, perhaps you crave a prefab or self-designed retreat for writers, crafters,  fitness junkies, spiritual seekers, or whatever is your current passion.

Make the time, make the arrangements, make you a priority! Retreat!

I’m Thinking of You

 

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My husband never talks about his patients with me. (He’s the poster boy for the HIPAA law.) But when a call from the hospital comes in at night, sometimes I am privy to his side of the conversation. I might hear snippets such as the person’s age, or what tests they need to have done. I’ve learned which key words will lead to me sleeping alone that night (ruptured, perforation) and which will keep him snuggled next to me (elective, antibiotics).

Within thirty seconds of the phone call ending, my husband will be back to sleep. It’s a self-preserving skill he learned in residency.  But for me, it’s not that easy. Now I’m up. And now I’m thinking about this person who I know nothing about, beyond the fact that they are, say, 66-years-old and have a high fever and need an ERCP, whatever that is. Now that I know about them, and I’m awake, I do what I can for them. Which isn’t much, but I hold them in my mind, and I wish them well. I like to envision a little bit of the comfort I’m sending to them actually finding it’s way to the ER, or the ICU, or their room. It’s improbable, but it’s possible. So I go there.

Many, many nights, phone calls or not, I hold my husband’s hands in mine and offer a straight-up prayer. First it’s a thank you for all the times his hands have been safely guided to help in the past, then it’s a prayer for continued guidance and strength in the future. If my husband knew any of this, he’d be doing an eye-roll/gagging noise combination. He’s a man of hard logic and science. We’re quite a pair.

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Sometimes, one is on the receiving end of good thoughts. Two years ago this weekend, Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, CT experienced the unthinkable. The news trickled first into our local consciousness and then onto the national and international stage. And while I struggled with shock and fear and that sickening too close-to-home feeling, something strangely comforting started happening.

First, a phone call from my sister, 3,000 miles and two time zones away. When her first patient of the day asked, “Isn’t it terrible about what happened at that school in CT?” her stomach dropped, and she thought of me. Then a steady stream of friends, from all over the country, from all phases of my life, started checking in.

I heard the news, and I thought of you. Are you okay? Are the kids okay? 

I heard from people I hadn’t been in touch with for years, from close friends, and from Christmas-card-only friends. All wished me well and expressed relief that today, this time, the tragedy was not ours. In the weeks that followed, sadness would wash over me in waves. But the comfort of being thought of and wished well by so many always pulled me to a safe shore.

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We can never know how many people are thinking of us, maybe right now, and wishing us well. It doesn’t take an anniversary for me to think of the Newtown families. A face, a name, or an image will come to mind, and in that moment I’ll wish them love and comfort. Imagine, for every time someone pops into your mind, or you hold someone in prayer, meditation, or good light, someone else could be doing the same for you!

Maybe the husband or wife of the doctor you visited last week is at home, doing chores, and sending you strong, positive vibes. And if you’re reading this, consider yourself pinged with positivity, because at this moment I could very well be thinking of you, and wishing you all good things, including….

best wishes for a happy and healthy holiday season.

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The Book Aunt’s Gift-Giving Guide 2014

If you’re casting about for gift ideas for your friends and family, I suggest you consider giving BOOKS! You might not steal the show at the holiday gathering, but later, when you have tired kids who want to curl up with the original hand-held escape, the glory will be yours. When the mid-winter relatives have cabin fever, and the book you gave is their salvation, you will be thanked. (If you’re worried about giving books as gifts in case they’ve already been read, just be sure to include a gift receipt!)

There are SO MANY great choices out there. This is a small sampling of some I’ve come across in 2014. In each case, I suggest a “pair with” gift and a profile of who the book may be best suited for. Happy shopping!

Picture Books (ages 0-5+)

Flora

FLORA AND THE PENGUIN by Molly Idle. This is a seriously adorable wordless winter tale of a friendship on ice. Young kids will enjoying “reading” it themselves, over and over. Great for kids who like interactive (lift-the-flap) books, ice-skating, and/or penguins. Pair with a stuffed penguin or a coupon to take the recipient ice skating.

Novak

THE BOOK WITH NO PICTURES by B.J. Novak. On the flip side to Ms. Idles wordless book, this book is pictureless. Perfect for the “little devil” on your list, the book goads the adult reader into saying silly sounds and words because “Everything the words say, the person reading the book has to say.” Pair with a whoopie cushion.

Middle Grade novels (ages 8-13ish)

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THE DIRT DIARY by Anna Staniszewski. The first in a series, this book introduces us to Rachel, whose imperfections make her perfectly lovable. Rachel is a girl who loves to bake, but to help out her mom, must clean toilets instead. Great for the kid who always seems to have good intentions that lead to bad results! Pair with a cookie sheet and baking mix.

Hattie

HATTIE BIG SKY by Kirby Larson. Another first in a series, this is perfect for Little House on the Prairie type fans. Hattie is a 16-year-old who leaves Iowa to prove up on her late uncle’s homestead claim near Vida, Montana. Pair with a pair of warm socks and/or a cat.

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DIARY OF A WIMPY KID, THE LONG HAUL by Jeff Kinney.  Kids simply can’t get enough of this series! A natural choice for reluctant readers, text and pictures intertwine to tell the latest adventure of Greg Heffley and his family as they set out on a road trip. Pair with one of the DIARY OF A WIMPY KID book journals – a combination of blank pages and journalling suggestions – to get kids writing as well.

Young adult novels (ages 12 +)

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THE FIFTH WAVE by Rick Yancey. This book is perfect for your older sci-fi loving kid. In brief, it’s a classic “alien’s attack and take over the world” scenario, with fantastic pacing and lots of layers. I read it because I was vetting it for my own kid, and was surprised how much I liked it. There is a smattering of profanity, but it is used as needed, not gratuitously. Pair with an air-soft gun.

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ALL THE TRUTH THAT’S IN ME by Julie Berry. I thought this was going to be another sci-fi story, due to the setting being a town called Roswell Station. But this haunting book is actually historical fiction. The main character, Judith, is unable to speak, yet you will never forget her voice. Perfect for older kids who will understand the nuance of mentally imbalanced adults, and the importance of sometimes sharing secrets. Pair with tickets to a local colonial village.

Fiction and Non-Fiction for the grown-up set

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UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand. This is the incredible story of olympian-turned WWII Lieutenant Louis Zamperini. Recently made into a movie, this book will appeal to the avid runner and/or history buff on your list. Pair with a WWII documentary, or movie tickets to see Unbroken when it opens.

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CASTING OFF by Nicole R. Dickson. This book tells the story of Rebecca Moray, who comes to an island off the coast of Ireland to research a book on Irish knitting, and how she and her daughter interact with the people there. Perfect for the knitter on your list. If they’re Irish, extra points. Pair with knitting needles/yarn.

I’m sure you know of several more books in each category that you’ve loved and could give as gifts! This year, I encourage you to do just that. Happy holidays, and happy reading!

A TIME TO DANCE – Interview with author Padma Venkatraman

 

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Have you ever read a story and wished you could ask the author questions about it? That is what happened to me while reading A TIME TO DANCE by Padma Venkatraman. And guess what? My wish came true! A hearty welcome today to Ms. Venkatraman, who graciously agreed to give us a behind the scenes peek at how this beautiful book came to be.

First, a bit about the story itself. Here is an overview, from Goodreads:

Padma Venkatraman’s inspiring story of a young girl’s struggle to regain her passion and find a new peace is told lyrically through verse that captures the beauty and mystery of India and the ancient bharatanatyam dance form. This is a stunning novel about spiritual awakening, the power of art, and above all, the courage and resilience of the human spirit.

Veda, a classical dance prodigy in India, lives and breathes dance—so when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee, her dreams are shattered. For a girl who’s grown used to receiving applause for her dance prowess and flexibility, adjusting to a prosthetic leg is painful and humbling. But Veda refuses to let her disability rob her of her dreams, and she starts all over again, taking beginner classes with the youngest dancers. Then Veda meets Govinda, a young man who approaches dance as a spiritual pursuit. As their relationship deepens, Veda reconnects with the world around her, and begins to discover who she is and what dance truly means to her.”

Bharatamatyam is a classical dance form of South India. Here’s an example:

As I read A TIME TO DANCE I was especially carried away by the description of the dancing itself. So, the first question I asked was:

Nancy: What is your experience with Bharatanatyam dance? As I was reading, I was guessing you must have personal experience. Am I right?

Thank you for your time and for sharing your process with us, Padma! I encourage all readers to make time for A TIME TO DANCE. It’s gorgeous.

 

Halloweensie: Snip, Snap, Crack

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It’s time for Susanna Leonard Hill’s annual Halloweensie contest!

Rules:  write a 100 word Halloween story appropriate for children (title not included in the 100 words), using the words pumpkinbroomstick, and creak in any form.  

Here’s my entry:

 

SNIP, SNAP, CRACK

 

In a deep dark corner, an old lady sits.

She cackles, and snarls, and frantically knits.

 

Click clack go her needles.

Snip snap go her bones,

As she rocks and she creaks

and her kitty cat moans.

 

She conjures up spiders, and pumpkins, and ghosts

All spun from her yarn –

“I’m so wicked!” she boasts.

 

Don’t dare approach her,

She’s all trick and no treat.

What are you doing??

Come hither, my sweet.

 

Get away from that broomstick! Skedaddle! Shoo!

You’re tiptoeing closer??

Snip

Snap

Crack

BOO!

 

Please visit Susanna Leonard Hill’s blog, because there will be tons of fun and scary weensie short stories for Halloween. Or play along and add your own!

 

NO IFS, ANDS, OR BUTTS – What to do when your BIC becomes a PIA

Jane Yolen is a prolific writer of children’s books and poetry. On her website, she answers some FAQs, including this one:

“Do you have a secret that makes you so productive?

Want to know my secret? BIC.

That’s right. BIC. Butt in chair. There is no other single thing that will help you more to become a writer.

William Faulkner said: “I write only when I’m inspired. Fortunately I’m inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.”

BIC.”

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Whether you are a writer or not, so many of our “productive” accomplishments require sitting down and focusing on the task at hand.

Still haven’t organized photos from two years ago? You need to get your BIC. Catching up on a mountian of email? BIC. Deadline at work? BIC. Writing a novel? Certainly BIC.

So what happens once you have overcome all the procrastination trolls that life throws at you? When you actually sit down, with BIC, and do the work?

For one thing, stuff actually gets done. (Huh! It works!).  For another, you may experience a problem I encountered when I finally sat myself down and wrote a novel-length manuscript.

My BIC became a big pain in the aspirations.

My solution involved an orthopedist and a physical therapist, but if you start early and take care of your assets, perhaps you can avoid this route.

Here are some things that worked for me:

1) Pull out the old baby stuff.  Who else has a “Boppy” in their closet? It makes a great soft seat and can help encourage a more upright posture.

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Also, an old nursing stool can be the perfect height and angle for a foot rest under a writing desk.  Adjusting my leg positioning seems to help; you may want to give it a try, too.

2) Beyond the Boppy, I tried several sit-upons that at least provided temporary relief.

IMG_2050This is a memory foam pillow that probably never guessed the impressions it would be made to support.

IMG_2051This is a classically designed posture pillow.  I was surprised that something “seen on TV” actually worked. But it does!

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The big ball! So much fun, so good for your back and bum. Mine is a little short for my desk, and I do find my concentration is not as great when I’m bouncing around. But for the end of the day tired tuchas, nothing beats the ball.

Except…

3) The standing desk.

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Many writing friends of mine have gone so far as to build treadmill desks, which I think are fantastic. But try just looking around your house until you find a counter surface or table that’s a good height for you. (I am fortunate that the bookshelf in my writing nook has a cupboard door that opens to the perfect height for me.) You will burn more calories while standing, but also, you will be able to keep working!  Added bonus points if you have a squishy gel mat you can move to your standing area.

4) If things are already to the point of pain, try this simple exercise:

Stand on one leg. Now, try to close your eyes and balance for 30 seconds. You will need to squeeze your standing-leg butt cheek very hard to keep from falling. Repeat several times a day to minimize pain and get “maximus” power.

5) When all else fails, get a dog. I guarantee you will not be able to sit still for more than an hour at a time without being encouraged by your little friend to get up and go for a walk!

You done with that blog post yet?

You done with that blog post yet?

I wish you a happy, healthy, productive day!

Book Bravo: The Meaning of Maggie

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Have you ever wondered what Clementine, Ramona, or Junie B. would be like in middle school? I hope they would stay spunky and turn out a lot like Maggie Mayfield, the main character in Megan Jean Sovern’s THE MEANING OF MAGGIE (Chronicle Books, 2014). In any case, I know they’d be friends with her!

Maggie is someone I was rooting for from the minute she wished her hospitalized dad would wake up so they could split a Little Debbie. (She’s willing to eat the whole thing herself, but she’d rather share). Then, I just – plop – fell in love with her when she was describing how amazing her first day of sixth grade was, including this:

“And lunch was the best because I got a whole table to myself so I spread out my notebooks and went to town on a stack of syllabi.”

She’s quirky, she doesn’t fit in, and she doesn’t care! She has much bigger things on her mind, such as her report on Sandra Day O’Connor, and her new friend, Clyde, “the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen.”

Underneath this layered, interesting character is a story of family bonds that are tested by parental illness.  From the jacket flap:

Eleven years old. The beginning of everything!

For Maggie Mayfield, turning eleven means she’s one year closer to college. One year closer to voting. And one year closer to getting a tattoo. It’s time for her to pull herself up by her bootstraps (the family motto) and think about more than after school snacks and why her older sisters are too hot for their own good. Because something mysterious is going on with her cool dude Dad, whose legs have permanently fallen asleep, and Maggie is going to find out exactly what the problem is and fix it. After all, nothing’s impossible when you’re future president of the United States of America, fifth grade science fair champion, and a shareholder in Coca-Cola, right?

Maggie’s position as youngest child and her own personality leave her somewhat oblivious to the true reality of her dad’s worsening struggle with multiple sclerosis. She doesn’t have much time for her “hot, but not on a school night” older sisters, Layla and Tiffany, but we as readers can see how they  help shelter her from their dad’s illness and mom’s return to work.

This is a serious book on a difficult topic, but the author makes you laugh out loud along the way. Maggie’s inner dialogue, highlighted by footnotes, made me feel like I was visiting with a real kid every time I picked up the book.  And there is a clever connection at the ending, which made this a “clutch it in your arms and sigh when you finish reading it” kind of book for me.  I recommend this book for kids in grades 5-7 ish, (or anyone who loves realistic middle grade novels.) It will  be especially meaningful to readers who have been touched by MS. Ultimately, the unpredictable and relentless nature of the disease is woven into a story of strength and hope.

Don’t miss MAGGIE!

*Special thanks to  Alyson Beecher and her wonderful book-based blog, Kid Lit Frenzy, for offering a copy of TMOM as a prize via Chronicle Books.*

 

 

What’s your “always”?

Tomatoes

“You always have tomatoes on your windowsill.”

“I do?”

“Every time I’ve been here, there’ve been tomatoes up there.”

Huh.  I’d never thought about that.  But to one of my nieces, who usually visits during tomato season, it is a truth universally acknowledged.

I wonder what else is an “always” in her eyes?  Hopefully it is that I always light up when I see her. And that I always remember to put a little sweet treat on her pillow and have all the fixin’s for s’mores on hand. And that I always have time to listen to her stories and take her berry picking.

A friend pointed out that a lot of our “always” memories from childhood probably stem from occasions that only happened once, but were memorable. I’ve tested this with my own family:

“Didn’t we always go to Disneyworld, every time we went to Florida?” (Truth: more likely only 2-3 times).

“Grandma always took me out for lunch, and we always got Reubens.” (Truth: one time).

“We always sat down as a whole family for dinner, every night.” (Truth: not exactly).

The fact is, you never know when one special trip, one special moment, or one windowsill of tomatoes is going to become someone’s always. 

It’s a very encouraging thought that even in the face of life’s imperfections, we all have the power to make our always something beautifully memorable.

What is your always?

 

Win a Doodle! Win a Doodle! Win a Doodle!

If you’re interested in kidlit, writing, and/or like to laugh, my friend Mike Allegra has you covered! He’s also a talented doodler. Check it out!

Hey, Look! A Writer Fellow!

Who will be the lucky winner? Who will be the lucky winner?

In March, I hosted a contest. The grand (and only) prize was an official, original, custom-made Mike Allegra doodle.

Despite my doodling ability, the number of people who entered this contest was pretty large. This surprised me.

What also surprised me was that some of you reeeeally wanted that ding-dang doodle. In fact, a few people threatened to sic their cats on me if I didn’t do another doodle contest post haste.

To these people I say settle down because here’s another chance to win a doodle!

IF YOU WIN, I WILL DRAW WHATEVER YOU WANT!

Don’t believe me? Here’s proof:

Jenion (the winner of the March contest) wanted a drawing of a bicycle racer. So I drew her a bicycle racer.

Ta daa! Ta daa!

But here is real proof: I am not fond of cats. (I am horribly allergic and keep rodents as pets.) But, once…

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THE PRANK LIST; Interview with children’s author Anna Staniszewski

Welcome Anna Stanizewski, whose latest novel, THE PRANK LIST (Sourebooks) will be released July 1, 2014!

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Anna is the author of many books for children and young adults, including:

THE UNFAIRY TALE LIFE SERIES

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THE DIRT DIARY SERIES

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..and two upcoming picture books from Henry Holt: POWER DOWN, LITTLE ROBOT (2015) and DOGOSAURUS REX (2016). 

Needless to say, Anna is one busy writer! However, I’m happy to say she had the time to answer a few of my questions about herself, her writing, and THE PRANK LIST.

To start, here’s a little history (some dirt?) from Anna’s website on book one in The Dirt Diary Series, THE DIRT DIARY (Sourcebooks, 2014):

Eighth grade never smelled so bad.

Rachel Lee didn’t think anything could be worse than her parents splitting up. She was wrong. Working for her mom’s new house-cleaning business puts Rachel in the dirty bathrooms of the most popular kids in the eighth grade. Which does not help her already loser-ish reputation. But her new job has surprising perks: enough dirt on the in-crowd to fill up her (until recently) boring diary. She never intended to reveal her secrets, but when the hottest guy in school pays her to spy on his girlfriend Rachel decides to get her hands dirty.

And now, the wait is nearly over to find out what trouble Rachel gets into next, in THE PRANK LIST. Again, from Anna’s website:

Rachel never thought she’d fight for the right to clean toilets, but she has to save her mom’s business. Nothing can distract her from her mission – except maybe Whit, the cute new guy in cooking class. Then she discovers something about Whit that could change everything. After destroying her Dirt Diary, Rachel thought she was done with secrets, but to save her family’s business, Rachel’s going to have to get her hands dirty. Again.

Nancy: Congratulations on your latest series, The Dirt Diaries! How do you approach writing a series?  That is, how much is done on the sequels before book one is even sent out?

Anna: The timing of a series can make your head spin! With the Dirt Diary series, the second book was done before the first one was published and the third book is in copyedits right now, a couple of weeks before the second book comes out. It can be a little confusing to jump between writing one book, promoting another, and planning out yet another, but it’s also really exciting.

Nancy: Your main character, Rachel, seems like the kind of girl that would be easy to relate to. I think we’ve all had times when our good intentions were misconstrued, or flat-out backfired.  How much of Rachel comes from your own experiences?

Anna: The antics that Rachel gets up to are purely fictional. (I’ve always been far too much of a rule follower to pull pranks on people!) But Rachel’s emotions and quirks are based on real life. I was very shy when I was young, and I always felt like I was doing and saying the wrong thing. I took those feelings from middle school and exaggerated them for Rachel’s story.

Nancy: Again, like many people, Rachel seems to have trouble resisting requests from cute boys. A couch potato at heart, I once went on a weeklong hike (and lost many toenails) because of a crush.  Do you have your own “what was I thinking?” story that stems from wanting to please someone?

Anna: Haha, I cringe even thinking about this, but I once pretended to be into a whole type of music because I thought it would impress a boy. I bought CDs of bands I didn’t like and forced myself to listen to them. Luckily, my ears couldn’t take it after a few days and I gave up. 🙂

Nancy: Rachel works as a house cleaner to help out her mom’s new business.  I’ve done that job, and it was hard, and kind of awful. What was your first job? What has been your hardest/worst job?

Anna: One of my first jobs was at a bagel place where I worked the registers, toasted bagels, and helped make sandwiches. During lunchtime, there was literally a line out the door every single day. I liked the people I worked with, but I would come home exhausted, reeking of coffee, and totally sick of bagels. I also worked for a temp agency during college, and at many of my temp jobs (doing data entry, answering phones, etc) people would talk about me right in front of me as if I wasn’t there. It was mortifying and belittling. I have a feeling both of those jobs have worked their way into my books. 🙂

Nancy:  When you were in eighth grade, what were your favorite kinds of books?

Anna: In eighth grade I went through a huge Stephen King phase. I tore my way through The Dark Half, The Shining, etc. The darker the better! I still enjoy a good dark read these days, but I think my taste in books has lightened up a bit since then.

Nancy: If you could time travel, and you had two minutes with your eighth grade self, what would you tell her? (I know for me, I would take at least a few seconds of that time to say for heaven’s sake, enough with the perms!)

Anna: Haha, yes, I think I would have some words for bad hair and fashion, too! But I think ultimately I’d tell my eighth-grade self that it’s okay to be weird. When I was young, people would tell me I was a weirdo (because of my sense of humor, my non-permed hair, etc) and I would let it cut me down. Now I realize that weirdness is an asset. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to write the books I do!

To find out more about Anna Staniszewski (including how to say her last name!), her books, and her writing process,  visit her gorgeous and fun website, www.annastan.com.

THE PRANK LIST is available for pre-order via AmazonB&NPowell’sBook Depository, and Indiebound

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Bio:

Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna Staniszewski grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. Currently, she lives outside Boston with her husband and their crazy dog. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. She is the author of the My Very UnFairy Tale Life series and the Dirt Diary series. Her newest book, The Prank List, releases on July 1st from Sourcebooks. You can visit Anna at www.annastan.com.