Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Eve of NaNoWriMo

OK, so I'm really going to do this! I am going to write a novel in a month! And isn't it appropriate that the eve of NaNoWriMo would be Halloween--that time of year when we seek out the object of our fears for the fun of it! Very much akin to NaNoWriMo.

So, starting tomorrow, I will join thousands of writers across the world, each on a personal quest to write 50,000 words over 30 days for National Novel Writing Month. That's nearly 1700 words per day!

I am taking this brief opportunity to notify my very small audience of followers that my blog entries will be sporadic at best over the next 30 days. I will attempt to post updates and observations on my experience with NaNoWriMo, as I believe they will be full of folly and fodder. I promise not to bore you, but to instead entertain you through small doses of my escapades in novel writing.

I just took a break from working on my book outline. My first step in that process was to create a "character arc." (see below)

I will refer back to the character arc throughout my writing to make sure my main character is experiencing a sufficient amount of turmoil and drama throughout the story. It's sort of like a roller coaster ride--for the character and me!

For my freakishly observant followers, yes, this version of the character arc is backwards. I took the roller coaster pic using PhotoBooth on my MacBook Air. I know...I think it's cool, too!

And this is my work space -- evidence of the organized chaos I've just welcomed into my world. Can you say glutton for punishment! To do what I do, this space and these tools are my bare essentials; though, their individual order of importance shifts depending on my mood--it's my prerogative.

1. MacBook Air laptop (my electronic love)
2. Journals (yes, multiples)
3. Greta Garbo writing instrument (a reminder to do all things with confidence)
4. Book In A Month guide (my crutch)
5. Writing Children's Books for Dummies (my guide)
6. COFFEE!! (my lifeline)
7. Snacks (see yogurt cup sandwiched between laptop and pens--no explanation necessary)
8. My ceramic baby doll with one lost shoe (my muse)
9. A large supply of post-it notes (say hello to my little friend)
10. Books, books, books, and more books (my inspiration)
11. My new Flip cam for the occasional video posting describing my NaNoWriMo experience. WARNING to potential viewers--it might not be pretty ;-).

I hope you'll stop by during the next month to check my pulse and my caffeine intake, or to just witness the wonder of writing for an aspiring author. And if you're curious about NaNoWriMo, find out more on the website at Enjoy!

Always, Athena

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Top 10 SCBWI Observations--I Found My Tribe

Last Saturday, I attended my first children's book writers conference in Northern Virginia. I was nervous and exhilarated all at once. There were published authors, self-published authors, aspiring authors, illustrators, publishers, agents, editors, all eager to connect and learn more. My top ten initial observations were as follows:

1. This is clearly an industry dominated by women. Two thumbs up!
2. Everyone was genuinely friendly and eager to share experience and advice.
3. There was no overt sense of competition.
4. We like to eat--all kinds of food!
5. Of all the attendees, approximately 10 were men; one African-American.
6. Of all the female attendees, approximately 15 were minority women--diversity is craved and welcomed.
7. Many of the participants appeared not to be inclined to join the digital age; many that were joining were "kicking and screaming" their way into it. **Of course, I jumped in head first with a website, Twitter, and a blog--I was the unofficial digital advocate throughout the conference.**
8. Getting a book published doesn't make a lot of economic sense but offers an overdose of profound accomplishment.
9. Once you publish a book, it belongs to the reader.
10. Finding time to write is NOT indulgent; it is the bare essential that nurtures your craft.
BONUS: In the words of author Lisa Yee, "I found my tribe."

Stay tuned for posts on my MS feedback (including a pic with my author/advisor), notes from the funny and insightful keynote speaker, and advice on seeking out an agent--straight from the mouths of agents.

Always, Athena

Friday, October 22, 2010

SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Fall Conference

Tomorrow I'll join hundreds of children's book authors and aspiring authors for my first writer's conference. I will meet with Mary Quattlebaum, author of 18 award-winning picture books, poetry books, and middle grade novels, and she will give me feedback on my first manuscript, Flower Girl Princess. Needless to say, I am nervous and excited. So, I'm spending the evening crafting my pitch, revising my manuscript (again), and researching the faculty for tomorrow's fall conference. I will be posting a recap of my first conference experience in a couple of days--who I met, what Ms. Quattlebaum advised, and what I learned. Wish me luck...happy reading!

Always, Athena

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Tackling White Mind

What the heck is white mind? Is it the opposite of black soul? Is it a new game? Or maybe a new political affiliation?  No, no, and no.

In the current issue of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Bulletin, there is the final installment of a three-part series in the Illustrator's Perspective column that "...examines what illustrators can do so that all kinds of children can see themselves reflected in our books." Boldly titled "White Mind," I have followed this column and the author's blog, Coloring Between the Lines, with curiosity, some angst, and a thirst for answers. On her blog, Anne Sibley O'Brien, tackles issues of race and culture as they relate to children's literature, and with great precision delves into what she considers white conditioning.

As an African-American woman writing stories for children, characters of various cultural backgrounds are born in my imagination. Admittedly, most of them are children of color. But interestingly, when I begin to write, I envision and treat my characters as "every child." They are not usually identified as "ethnic," just simply as girls or boys. This small fact probably won't surprise O'Brien.

But I cannot help but wonder what editors and publishers will see...what they will assume about my writing and my characters. I wonder, but I don't worry.

One of my goals as an aspiring author is to normalize racial differences and grow the presence of children of color in picture books, early readers, and middle school chapter books. Children of all nationalities should browse the shelves in libraries and open the pages of books to see themselves depicted as princesses or pirates, wizards or witches, mermaids or munchkins, vampires or valedictorians. Yes, I too have a dream.

In the final installment of "White Mind," O'Brien asks, "What if all races of children got auditions for all picture book roles that didn't require particular racial identities to tell the story truly?" Imagine a Cinderalla of Asian descent. A Nigerian Harry Potter. An African-American Little Mermaid. Or Hispanic Hardy Boys. Same characters, same plot, just a different appearance.

I was an adult before I became acutely aware of my racial identity. I had spent my entire life surrounded by faces that looked like mine. Sure, I had the odd teacher or administrator or librarian that was white, but that was the extent of my brush with diversity.

After graduating from college, I became immersed in a professional world where I was the only one that looked like me. Navigating through curious stares, awkward questions about hair, and intellectual discussions about nationality with my white counterparts, we all became both teacher and student.  Our epiphany was our glorious "sameness." We explored our differences and discovered we were more alike than different. Children's literature has the power to do that for young minds; writers and illustrators have the awesome responsibility of being the conduit for that power.

I am grateful to writer/illustrators like O'Brien, who tackle tough issues to make a difference. "White Mind" doesn't just happen in children's literature; it happens in many corners of society. Acknowledging its existence and providing roadmap to the atypical path of diversity is a great start. Thanks, Ms. O'Brien.

Always, Athena

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Knuffle Bunny Free

If you haven't indulged in the work of Mo Willems, your time has come. With the recent release of Knuffle Bunny Free, Willems closes what began as a cautionary tale with an unexpected diversion. Told with sincerity, sentimentality, and style, Knuffle Bunny Free is a touching tale of letting go and sharing happiness.

Knuffle Bunny is a trilogy about a little girl, Trixie, and her closest inanimate friend, a stuffed bunny with floppy ears. In the first story, Knuffle Bunny, Trixie misplaces her companion and like all toddlers, is unable to articulate her loss. Written and illustrated by Willems, this story was a runaway success that continues to feed our fascination with a musical rendition, Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical. It debuted to Kennedy Center audiences in May 2010, and the traveling tour kicked off in Prince George's County, Maryland and continues through late spring 2011. If you can get tickets, it's sure to tickle your fancy. And even better, my sister-in-law, Paige Hernandez-Funn,  is the choreographer!

In Knuffle Bunny, Too, Trixie is off to her first day of school with Knuffle Bunny and to her surprise, her classmate also has a very similar companion, and what ensues is tender chaos and warm acceptance.  And finally, in book three we meet an even older Trixie in Knuffle Bunny Free, and with a tinge of sadness witness the release of her life-long companion.

These stories are perfect for the children in our lives that grow and mature before our very eyes, leaving behind the symbols of their development. Sometimes these symbols move from the bed to the toy chest to the garage and ultimately in the arms of other children. And sometimes they stay behind, relics of the past, trapped on canopy beds or in wooden toy chests, waiting and hoping that their owners return and include them in their new lives. Mo Willems has captured the spirit of growing children and the adults that watch, participate, and steer the bittersweet development of children. I hope you enjoy the Knuffle Bunny series and share it with the great children in your world.

Always, Athena

Friday, October 8, 2010

Young At Heart

I've always considered myself young at heart. I buy Barbie dolls. I build doll houses. I play games with children. I read children's picture books. I use my stepdaughter as an excuse to see all the new kids' movies. I adore Spongebob Squarepants. I was married in Disney World with Mickey and Minnie as our special guests. I epitomize what it means to be young at heart.

So, it was only logical that I would proclaim my intent to write stories for children. This proclamation reminded me of my very first children's book, written when I was a 13-year old junior high student. 

To fulfill an 8th grade creative writing requirement, I selected the creation of a book-- a picture book. My story was written in rhyme and illustrated by my classmate and friend, Ronald Woodard. I designed the cover and hand bound the book with laminated pages, staples, glue, and wallpaper scraps. Upon completion, I promoted my book to my audience of one--my teacher. At the tender age of 13, I was self-published and introduced to the world the story of Little Lisa.

Fast forward 30 years and my talents and dreams are coming full circle. I am reviving my creative writing. My imagination is stirred. My confidence growing. 30 years ago, a young girl felt no fear and wrote from her experiences and her heart. It has taken three decades for that young girl to reconnect with her adult self. My writing and I have come full circle. Why should I fear failure when I've already accomplished my goal?

Do you remember your first work of art? How old were you? Does the person that you were then compliment who you've become? Can the two work together for a better result? Are you young at heart?

All relevant questions with fascinating answers. I hope you'll share!

Always, Athena

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Good Ol' NaNoWriMo

November is National Novel Writing Month. This year, I am taking off the proverbial gloves and am comitting to writing 50,000 words in one month with NaNoWriMo. It's "thirty days and nights of literary abandon!" To give you a taste of my participating counterparts, check out the YouTube parody below...and then pray for me!

If you've ever felt the literary tug of becoming a novelist, join me in this all-consuming quest! I would love to have a partner in crime!

Always, Athena

Monday, October 4, 2010

Set the Scene, Set the Tone

This week I'm working on settings for my stories. I have a flower girl princess in Hawaii. A young pianist in SoHo. Five tween girls in Atlanta, GA. And four little girls in an imaginary land that's sugary and sweet.

In our real lives, where we live plays a role in who we are, positively or negatively. It's a contribution to who we are and who we want to become. It can define or defy us.

In fiction, it is very much the same. Setting adds context to character, and the characters drive the story. When a new story idea begins to form for me, I first envision the character and then where they live. For example, imagine the story of a preteen boy contemplating running away from home:

Jacob lives in a large urban city, in a cramped two bedroom apartment with his parents, grandmother, and three younger siblings. His afternoon walk from school can be more dangerous than walking down a dark alley. He sees the same thing every day: broken glass and broken spirits. Fractured sidewalks and fractured dreams. Crumbling school buildings and a crumbling education. Each day brings him closer to escape. But he's desperate and inpatient. He can't wait, refuses to wait another six years. After what happened in the school courtyard today, he knows he can never go back.

Suddenly the reader understands Jacob's desire to runaway. It's not through dialogue, but through the description of his neighborhood; it adds context to his story.

Setting is simply what surrounds the character or where the action occurs. A house. An apartment. The classroom. The bathroom. The kitchen. An amusement park. A haunted house. A stairwell. A garden. Taking it a step further, it also includes the elements within the setting. Dancing teapots. Paintings with roving eyes. Singing tulips. Blinking night lights. Squeaky doors. Leaky faucets. Spinning chairs. A magic lamp.

In addition to the setting and its elements, there's also the meaning of place. Is it incidental to the story? Does it help or interrupt the flow of the story? Are you adding something measurable to the context of the story? Is it an exotic location? Does your action happen in multiple locations? Addressing the questions strengthen the use of setting, and can also shield from overuse.

When I begin selecting a setting, I of course "Google;" but I also pay close attention to the mundane activities in the life of children: doing homework, after-school activities, reading, eating dinner, setting the table, folding clothes, and other chores. And then I apply the mundane to the extraordinary. My character doesn't just do homework, but she's transported into a different school book every night. Or, my character isn't just putting clothes away, but she's gobbled up by her messy sock drawer and becomes trapped in a maze of tights, socks, and footies. The books and the drawer are my setting and play a pivotal role in the advancement of my character's action.

Setting appears in the early sentences, paragraphs, and pages in all well-written literature. It plays a pivotal role to the character and the plot. It requires research and attention to detail, and it's one of my favorite elements. In the near future, you'll read more about what it's like for a tween girl growing up in SoHo, five little sweethearts spreading their sugary love on Icing Lane, or five tween girls navigating life in Atlanta, GA. Stay tuned!

Always, Athena

Sunday, October 3, 2010

New for Young Readers: Keena Ford

Second-grader Keena Ford is back, and this time there's a mix-up with her secret journal. The trouble starts when Keena accidentally leaves her journal at the apartment of her mean classmate, Tiffany. When she discovers her mistake, she panics. She's written things in her journal that aren't so nice about her friends and family. When her mom refuses to take her back to Tiffany's to get the journal, she knows there's going to be trouble. The next day, Tiffany informs Keena that she's read the journal and is going to tell all of Keena's secrets! Well, unless Keena does everything Tiffany says, of course.
With a little help from her brother, a friend, some classic fables, and a visiting author, Keena discovers what she must do to stand up to Tiffany and apologize to her friends. This is a first edition, hard cover, early reader chapter book with wonderful pencil sketches scattered throughout the book. It's perfect for children ready to jump into "bigger kid" books but are not yet ready for middle-grade topics or length. The vocabulary is easy enough and includes some challenging words to improve a young reader's skills. This is the third book in the Keena Ford series. I recommend all three books for your young readers, girls and boys: Keena Ford and the Second Grade Mix-Up, Keena Ford and the Field Trip Mix-Up, and Keena Ford and the Secret Journal Mix-up.

About the Author and Illustrator: 
Melissa Thomson is an elementary school teacher who lives in Arlington, Virginia. Frank Morrison was awarded the 2005 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Greta Garbo & Me

There's something mysteriously special about a fountain pen. The exquisite nib, delicately sculpted to resemble a work of fine art. Externally it's smooth; internally, a bit temperamental. If you write with a fountain pen, then you know that you are actually in a relationship with your writing instrument...selecting the width of your nib, perfecting your unique writing position, choosing ink colors, filling and refilling, cleaning and polishing. It is all very romantic and fulfilling.

My favorite writing instrument is the Mont Blanc special edition Greta Garbo Writing Instrument. It "authentically reflects the remarkable style and glamour of a woman who set her own standards to become a legend, not only in her own time but for many generations to follow. This Edition is also dedicated to the women of today who, in the Garbo tradition, believe in the fulfillment of their own visions." Wow! Those are high expectations for a pen!

My Greta Garbo fountain pen was a gift from my husband, and therefore carries sentimentality along with its ink. It is described as a "Barrel made of black precious resin, cap made of cream coloured precious resin. Clip set with one white, round Akoya pearl. Platinum-plated fittings. Cap ring embellished with the 'Greta Garbo' signature."

Its outward beauty is second only to its writing perfection. When I put pen to paper with my Greta Garbo, my words are smooth and sensual. Each letter is gloriously pronounced, causing me to search my vocabulary for the most exotic phrases worthy of such an intoxicating experience.

The dramatic art of writing -- not typing or word processing, but actual writing -- is becoming a relic amongst our affair with technology. I admit to writing on my laptop; it's quick and efficient. But my best work is captured in my journals and notebooks when I lay glorious pen to paper. 

I love the art of writing. And thanks to my husband, I have an instrument that speaks and writes volumes about the woman that I am--full of spirit with a restless energy to pursue my personal happiness. I found an unlikely kindred spirit in Greta Garbo:  a woman of humble birth who became the ultimate fashion and trend icon, a symbol for all those who challenge normal expectations in search for better ones. She believed in women fulfilling their visions; I believe and am attempting the same. High expectations for me and my pen!

Always, Athena