I was 50 pages into my first writing project, a YA fantasy novel, when I picked up a book about writing for children.
In the first chapter, the author explained that a new writer should never start with a novel instead of a short story or write fantasy instead of realistic fiction.
But my story had a hold on me and I was not about to stop. Three books and over a thousand pages later, I’ve realized what that author meant. For a beginning writer, it’s hard enough to struggle with character, plot and setting. But fantasy and science fiction require something more—world building.
World-building is a labor of love for any writer, but a novel set in present day Boston begins with a geography, climate, social structure, and government. A fantasy or science fiction writer can set her story anywhere in the universe.
Freeing and exciting, but where do you begin? It’s a rush at times to play the role of god, but the stakes are high. Like characters, worlds need to be three dimensional and ooze verisimilitude.
When I started my current series, The Watersmeet Trilogy, I saved myself some of the angst of world building by setting it in some version of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
Once I knew I was in the rocky soil of a New Hampshire-like place, I knew my characters were doing subsistence farming or hunting and gathering. Small farms led naturally to villages and towns rather than cities.
With towns came artisans: blacksmiths, wood cutters, tanners, and shepherds. From the first decision about geography and climate, I gained an economy and social structure. My world was fleshing out.
The New Hampshire setting also dictated the flora of my world. My main character, Abisina, is a healer and needed plants for tinctures, teas, and infusions. I picked up Peterson’s Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs, which covers more than 500 plants. Overwhelming—but I was only interested in plants that grew in a northern climate. Plenty of invention was still necessary.
I found what sounded like a delectable root for my dwarves to roast—Solomon’s Seal. But the name “Solomon” threatened to pull the reader out of a world where the Green Man is a central deity. So I renamed the root “Blister root.” No reader will recognize my blister roots as Solomon’s Seals, but basing them on a real plant gave them a reality my imagination couldn’t.
Sometimes that moon has to be gibbous!
I’ve worked hard and had a lot of fun making my world 3D, but I wasn’t prepared for the sense of loss I feel now that the trilogy is complete. Finishing the series means leaving behind my own private Genesis—the Obrun Mountains, the River Couldin, and Giant’s Cairn.
This may be why, in a recent conversation with my editor, I pitched two Watersmeet companions. I don’t want to work on them yet—there’s a cranky fairy demanding to have his story told first—but a time may come in the not too distant future when I’ll want to go home.
Ellen Jensen Abbott thinks that life would be perfect if she could move her home, her job, her friends and her family to the White Mountains of New Hampshire where she grew up.
Until she can convince everyone to join her, she’s content to be writing, teaching English at the Westtown School, and living with her husband and two children in West Chester, PA.
In the Watersmeet Trilogy, readers follow the outcast Abisina as she leaves her village to search for her father and for acceptance.
On her journey, she discovers the whole land of Seldara: the dwarves of the Obrun Mountains; the fauns of the western forests; the centaurs of Giant’s Cairn—some friends, some foes. When she reaches Watersmeet, she thinks she’s found the home of her dreams where all of Seldara’s folk are welcome, but soon Watersmeet’s existence is at risk and Abisina finds herself outcast again.
Can she save the home she loves? Can she unite the land against a gathering evil? Can she embrace her destiny and become the Keeper of Watersmeet?
Enter to win the Watersmeet trilogy--Watersmeet (Skyscape, 2009), The Centaur's Daughter (Skyscape, 2011) and The Keeper (Skyscape, 2013) and a Kindle Paperwhite from Cynsations at Blogger. Publisher sponsored. U.S. only. Enter here.
Last Sunday, I brought the awesome kiddo named THE EMSTER back to college, which is about five hours away in normal driving times. But last Sunday was not normal driving times. Last Sunday was a day where:
1. A train derailed in Brooklyn killing people.
2. There was a 70-car pile up in Worcester, Mass.
3. About 50 cars went off the road on the turnpike I was driving on.
4. It took eight hours to get home instead of five.
And I was feeling pretty good about the whole thing. I got the Emster down to college without going off the road or even slipping. I got out of Cambridge, Mass. without getting stuck in traffic any where. But once I was back in Maine, things got crazy again. It sleeted. It rained. It snowed. It hailed. It wasn't super bad weather, really, but it wasn't nice. The first few cars I came across all had tow trucks or state troopers helping them. Then there was the guy in the pick-up truck who was in the center median. His front grill was smashed into trees. I pulled over and so did another guy in a truck. I ran across the highway, which was kind of fun because it was like that old video game FROGGER and since I wasn't flattened by any semis, I totally made it to the next level. I tried to remember all my first aid. But the guy in the smashed-up pickup was totally fine and already calling for help. I got back in the car and drove more.
Another state-trooper covered accident.
Another accident without a trooper. But they were okay, too.
And then there was the Maine State trooper car that was smashed up, which seemed like a kind of bad sign.
And then there was a sudden stopping of all the cars on the highway.
"It is the apocalypse," I texted once the car was stopped. "Or maybe just an accident."
My friend texted back, "BE ALERT FOR ZOMBIES!"
And I wondered if he meant real zombies or people who become zombie like when a turnpike turns into a parking lot.
According to the truck driver in the Ames Hardware Store 18-wheeler, who was the source of all turnpike knowledge, there was a multi-car pile-up and we would be stopped for about an hour. That hour became two. Which was totally okay with me because it's nice to not be dead or have your car off the road.
And it seemed to kind of be okay with everyone. People got out of their cars, stepped into a darkness only illuminated by headlights. They stretched. They made friends. They walked into the woods in the middle of the highway and stumbled out again. Okay. That reminded me of zombies, honestly. They talked.
At one point, the truck driver came out of his truck with a mallet/sledgehammer type thing, which was kind of freaky, but he just used it to smash snow or something off his tires.
At one point, a woman sang Christmas carols off key as she walked between the cars. Thankfully, she stopped. This reminded me that one nice thing about a zombie apocalypse is a lack of off-key singing because zombies don't sing. Score one for zombies, honestly.
At one point, a man came around offering water bottles. They were not spiked with zombie virus. They were just Poland Spring water bottles.
People turned off their cars. People eventually stopped texting. People talked to each other (and not just about the off-key caroler, I swear). They talked about being stuck in the dark and the snow. They talked about their trips, their destinations, whether or not they should turn off their cars to save gas.
And at one point, cars started moving and everyone who was out of their cars sprinted back, which was humorous because the road way was slippery.
And then we all moved again, past tow trucks, past the accident scene, past other accidents, and home.
I kind of miss those people and Mr. Truckdriver (who would be totally handy in a real apocalypse) and I really hope the people in the accident weren't hurt, but what I love is how kind all these strangers on the turnpike were to each other and how quickly community can be built if you want it to be.
*SCORE! TWO BLOGS IN ONE DAY! - I feel all triumphant. *
So, I was thinking about why I never blog any more and I decided that I am too scared to blog.
"You? Carrie Jones? The blabber mouth? The person who blogged pretty much every single day from 2007- 2011? You are afraid to blog?" Imagine my brain saying this to itself or something like that, okay?
And I was like, "Yes, Brain that is talking to itself. I am indeed afraid to blog."
And Other Part of my Brain was like, "Um… why?"
It's like this:
1. Blogging used to be easy and fun because nobody read it and when people did read it they were ultra-supportive.
2. Blogging isn't like that any more.
Blogging is almost like an invitation to argue for some people, and I am super conflict-averse. How conflict averse? You could basically say every major mistake in my life has happened because I was afraid of yelling or fighting back on behalf of myself.
So… one day I had a blog about how guns were not the issue in an episode of mass violence, but that it was deeper than guns. The event that I blogged about involved a lot of people instantly guessing the gunman's motives. I said that wasn't cool. I also said that mental health issues and societal mores are just as important as guns when trying to prevent massive violence. And I writer I respected became very upset with me. I explained to that writer that I had to delete his comments because they were full of swears and back then my publisher paid for my website and my publisher was not too keen on swears, but he could totally post his opposing opinion again without the swears. The writer took this as censorship. We have not been friends since and I pretty much dread seeing him.
And I know half of you are all like, "Dude, be the bigger person and go reach out the hand of friendship."
And the other half of you are like, "Dude, do NOT talk to him again. He went cray-cray on you."
This is sort of the issue. I feel like every time I post, every time I speak, it could invite conflict and right now I am so anti-conflict. In the past two years my nana, my mom, and my dad have died. I don't have a lot of energy left to invite cranky into my life. And there is something essentially vulnerable in the act of blogging that is more frightening than the act of writing stories about pixie apocalypses or aliens or cross-dressing spies. When you write fiction you get to hide behind your characters and if your soul peeks through in those made-up sentences, it isn't as big a deal. But when you blog it's more like writing a poem in a weird less beautiful way - You are there. Right there. Naked.
Don't imagine me naked. Not pretty.
But at the same time, I don't want to be a total wimp and I understand that blogging is pretty important to writers.
So… I am going to try.
Be warned all my blogs are probably going to have to do with:
1. My dogs
2. Dog fur
4. Cat fur
6. Writers' block
7. Dogs with Writers' block
But most likely they will just be random pictures of one of the seven above things. At least until I feel brave again. Sorry!
So, in the picture above ^^^^^^^^^^^^^
I am at friends' house having Thanksgiving where I am most likely giving thanks for dogs, dog fur, firefighting and people who read my books. Thank you! (Also, I am second on the left)
Grumpy and frumpy, witchy and weary, frail and forgetful—none of us expects to be that kind of older person, and in reality this does not often describe normal aging.
But negative stereotypes of age, such as older characters in decline and needing help from a child, are too often the norm in books for kids.
In actual fact, late life is generally a time of great satisfaction.
Teaching empathy is important, but the images of aging we show children in books are of vital significance—to them and us. Ageism is evident in pre-schoolers. Even children who admire their own grandparents speak negatively about growing old and about older people.
Research also tells us that taking in negative stereotypes shapes us and even shortens our lives. We will become what we think as we get older. We all need and deserve a positive vision of our future.
Books that share positive messages about aging benefit both kids and adults, and they more accurately represent our diverse world of young and old.
Ageism—pure and simple. Just like racism, ageism steals away recognition of our abilities, strengths and individuality.
In the words of Rosemarie Jarski, “We will all get older, so ageism is like turkeys voting for Christmas.”
We plan for a long life, so why is it so hard to recognize we stereotype older adults?
You can hardly blame us—our society surrounds us with words and images worshipping youth. But getting old is not a failure to remain young and it should be celebrated as the triumph of strength and survivorship it is.
What can we do to balance other media and add more realistic and positive images of aging to books for young people? As writers and illustrators let’s challenge ourselves to:
- Provide older role models by creating interesting, complex characters and avoiding one-dimensional stereotypes such as poor, sick and sad. And let’s remember—dementia is not a part of normal aging.
- Share the knowledge and strength older adults have acquired because of their age and experience. See My Teacher by James Ransome (Dial, 2012).
- Highlight creativity and lifelong growth. Include a wide range of abilities and interests. See It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw by Don Tate, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Lee & Low, 2012).
- Normalize aging and changing by showing it is a lifelong process. See Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney (Viking, 1982).
- Show satisfaction with late life—research tells us people grow happier as they age.
- Avoid the freaky and foolish in both text and images, and choose our words carefully. “Old” is not a bad word and should not be used as such in any of our writing.
- Include older characters that are working, volunteering, or making a difference in the world. Highlight the strengths often masked by an aging body. See Grandmama’s Pride by Becky Birtha, illustrated by Colin Bootman (Whitman, 2005). Show what people of all ages have in common.
- Share the positives of intergenerational relationships, including those outside the family. See Mrs. Katz and Tush by Patricia Polacco (Doubleday, 2009).
Let’s try visualizing who we want to be as we grow older—both words and pictures carry powerful images.
And lastly, in the interest of full disclosure—the grandmother in my latest manuscript? She knits. But that’s not all she does...
Cynsational NotesVisit Lindsey's Blog, A is for Aging, B is for Books, and like A is for Aging on facebook.
by Ellen Jensen Abbott
I grew up doing regular hikes in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, but I had never done any winter hiking until I met my husband, Ferg. When I met him, Ferg had climbed Mount Washington—renowned for the most severe weather of the lower 48—x times in winter. There is a harrowing story about he and a friend getting caught on the mountain as the sun was setting, exhausted and unsure of the way down, but most of his ascents were successful. That’s why I was willing to put myself in his hands for my first winter hike—Mt. Chocurua, a 3490 ft. mountain with a wonderful view of Squam Lake. (The blindness of love my also have been involved; we were newly engaged.)
We hiked Chocorua in late December. There was not a lot of snow on the ground and much of what had fallen had been blown off the mountain. We were well outfitted, and the hike kept us warm. There were few other people on the trail and the bright blue sky and the sun on the snow made the day breathtaking. As we hiked, I added new images to my dreams of married life: we would be an adventurous couple, dashing off to climb up and then ski down Mt. Washington’s Tuckerman’s Ravine, hike in the Rockies, conquer Mt. Ranier and Mt. McKinley.
Then we reached Chocorua’s peak, and my fantasies turned to fear. For some reason, being on top of that mountain in the winter—a mountain I had climbed several times in July—completely undid me. On the summit’s rock face we had no shelter from a stiff and whistling wind. The air felt thinner, the cold more intense as my body heat rapidly evaporated. The sky, rather than impressing me with its vivid blueness, impressed me with its vastness. Standing under that sky made me feel small, vulnerable, and exposed.
We were supposed to have a picnic, but I couldn’t sit down. I knew in my head that there was no risk whatsoever at that moment, but I was terrified. Ferg tried to lead me a sheltered place to eat—the poor guy must have been starving!—but I paced until finally he gave up and we started down. One-hundred yards off the summit, the fear disappeared. Back in the embrace of the trees, sheltered from the wind, and with branches instead of the thin atmosphere over my head, I relaxed. We sat down, munched on our sandwiches, and chatted. I don’t remember if we talked about my irrational fear. Ferg did not rethink our engagement, though we never have climbed Washington, Ranier or McKinley.
As I think back on this experience, I can’t help but compare it to the experiences of my main character in the Watersmeet Trilogy. She faces many moments of similar vulnerability and exposure, but for her the risks are real: she is kidnapped by centaurs; attacked by reptilian leviathan birds; carried against her will up a waterfall and through a rock tunnel by naiads. I’ve used my irrational fear on Chocorua many times to bring a sense of real fear to Abisina. Though I feared only the openness of the sky—nothing compared to the shape-shifting evil Abisina faces—my fear was just as real as hers; and it’s the work of the writer to use whatever material the universe presents—even if it means that the writer will forever view Mt. Rainier from the base.
Ellen Jensen Abbott thinks that life would be perfect if she could move her home, her job, her friends and her family to the White Mountains of New Hampshire where she grew up. Until she can convince everyone to join her, she’s content to be writing, teaching English at the Westtown School, and living with her husband and two children in West Chester, PA.
The Keeper is the most recent book in the Watersmeet series. In The Keeper, Abisina is ready to embrace her destiny and become Keeper of Watersmeet. But can she unite this divided land to fight the gathering evil? Can she be the leader that everyone needs?
Cheers to your upcoming series, The Haunted Library (Grosset & Dunlap, 2014)! Could you tell us about it?
It's a chapter book mystery series, just like my Buddy Files series (Albert Whitman). But instead of a canine protagonist, my main character Kaz is a ghost.
He's spent his whole life (and he is "alive"...this is a chapter book series so my ghosts aren't dead people, they're simply transparent people with superpowers) living with his ghost family in an old, abandoned schoolhouse.
But when the "solids" come and tear down the schoolhouse, Kaz and his family are separated as they blow away in the wind. Kaz ends up in a city library, where he meets a solid girl named Claire. Claire can see Kaz when he's not "glowing." She can hear Kaz when he's not "wailing." No one knows why.
Kaz and Claire form a detective agency to solve ghostly mysteries and help Kaz find his family.
What are the challenges of writing chapter books? How about writing a chapter book series?
I hear a lot of parents say, "my child is reading chapter books."
What do they mean when they say that? Do they mean their kids are reading Frog and Toad? Yes, Frog and Toad has chapters, but it's an easy reader. Are they reading A Wrinkle in Time? That's a middle grade novel. Or are they reading The Magic Tree House? Those are chapter books!
You can't go by the age of the child...kids learn to read at different ages. Though, if pressed, I would say most chapter book readers are between ages 7 and 10. They're able to read and comprehend easy readers, but they maybe don't have the stamina to stick with a middle grade novel yet.
Chapter books tend to have spot illustrations, large type, lots of write space. Chapters are short. So are paragraphs. Sentences tend to be simple, but not too simple. Main characters are spunky and fun, and plots are fast-paced with lots of action. You don't see a lot of explanation and description in chapter books. Everything moves along at a good clip.
What advice would you give to writers interested in creating a chapter book series of their own?
First, read some chapter book series. I don't think you can write one if you've never read one or if you haven't read one since you were a kid.
Read a bunch of them. Get a feel for chapter book characters, plot, and pacing. Get a feel for how series are put together. That will help you as you craft your own series.
Keep in mind that each book in a series should be a stand-alone story, but it should also advance the series arc. Create a series character and/or concept that's interesting enough to follow through multiple books. Readers like series because they connect with a character and want to follow that character into other adventures. Give yourself enough to work with.
I love the cover art! I'm usually pretty happy with the covers of my books, but these may be the best covers of any of my books. I think Aurore really captured the personalities of the ghosts and she makes the books look fun.
I'd pick these books up if they weren't already mine.
For years I hosted JoNoWriMo+1.5, in which we all set goals and checked in to keep accountable. Do you know how many books I finished/revised thanks to this challenge? A lot. And I know many of you did, too. :-)
Then I signed up for the Couch to 5K challenge, and managed to get my sedentary butt moving and moving and moving! It was a miracle. And the great thing was, a bunch of my friends joined me and many of us ran farther than we have our whole lives. What an amazing feeling!
It seems I stick to my goals when I join something like this, which requires me to share my progress in public, but also to cheer on people who are going through the same thing with me! I guess I don't like doing this stuff alone. I love to encourage my friends to reach their goals as much as I love to meet them myself. There's something so special about doing something good for you TOGETHER. Know what I mean?
Recently, I did the 30-Day Plank Challenge. I printed out the schedule and put it on my refrigerator. Every day when I completed the task, I got to scribble it out and it felt SO GOOD to do that. :-) I also checked in with friends both on Facebook and Twitter and several of us managed to complete it. Yay!
My writing partners and I check in with each other every day and share our word-count or revision goals and cheer each on until we reach them. I know if it weren't for checking in with my friends on many of these days, I would accomplish nothing. Instead, we work together and make a ton of progress.
Do I rely too much on others to help me stick to my goals? Maybe. But I love not being alone. I love feeling like my success feeds their success, just as much as theirs feeds mine.
Now that I know how well this all works for me, I've made my own challenge for December. I've posted it below in case you'd like to join me. If this seems too easy or too challenging, you can tweak it to fit your own needs. In fact, this is your Monday-Morning Warm-Up! I've added my writing goals as well, and I encourage you to do the same. :)
I hope you'll join me!!
1. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups
2. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups, run at least 1 mile; write 500 words
3. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups; write 500 words
4. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups, run at least 1 mile; write 500 words
5. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups; write 500 words
6. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups, run at least 1 mile; write 500 words
7. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups
8. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups
9. 2.30 min plank, 15 sit-ups, 7 pushups, run at least 1.5 miles; write 1,000 words
10. 2.30 min plank, 15 sit-ups, 7 pushups; write 1,000 words
11. 2.30 min plank, 15 sit-ups, 7 pushups, run at least 1.5 miles; write 1,000 words
12. 2.30 min plank, 15 sit-ups, 7 pushups; write 1,000 words
13. 2.30 min plank, 15 sit-ups, 7 pushups, run at least 1.5 miles; write 1,000 words
14. 2.30 min plank, 15 sit-ups, 7 pushups
15. 2.30 min plank, 15 sit-ups, 7 pushups
16. 3 min plank, 20 sit-ups, 10 pushups, run at least 2 miles; write 1,000 words
17. 3 min plank, 20 sit-ups, 10 pushups,; write 1,000 words
18. 3 min plank, 20 sit-ups, 10 pushups, run at least 2 miles; write 1,000 words
19. 3 min plank, 20 sit-ups, 10 pushups,; write 1,000 words
20. 3 min plank, 20 sit-ups, 10 pushups, run at least 2 miles; write 1,000 words
21. 3 min plank, 20 sit-ups, 10 pushups,
22. 3 min plank, 20 sit-ups, 10 pushups,
23. 3 min plank, 25 sit-ups, 13 pushups, run at least 2.5 miles; write 1,000 words
24. 3 min plank, 25 sit-ups, 13 pushups; write 1,000 words
25. 3 min plank, 25 sit-ups, 13 pushups, run at least 2.5 miles
26. 3 min plank, 25 sit-ups, 13 pushups; write 500 words
27. 3 min plank, 25 sit-ups, 13 pushups, run at least 2.5 miles; write 500 words
28. 3 min plank, 25 sit-ups, 13 pushups
29. 3 min plank, 25 sit-ups, 13 pushups
30. 3 min plank, 30 sit-ups, 15 pushups, run at least 3 miles; write 500 words
31. 3 min plank, 30 sit-ups, 15 pushups; write 500 words
|Check out the Penguin Cha-Cha Storytime Kit!|
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations
Look through your shelves of picture books (does everyone love picture books enough to own shelves of them?). Do you notice any differences between the books that were written and illustrated by the same person versus the books that were written by one person and illustrated by another?
My first picture book as both author and illustrator, Penguin Cha-Cha, was published recently by Random House. I loved illustrating my own story, but I also love illustrating other authors’ books.
I’ve illustrated a handful of those, including the upcoming Pretty Minnie in Paris, written by Danielle Steel, about a teacup Chihuahua in the fashion world of Paris - Oh la la!
I approach illustrating someone else’s manuscript differently than when I illustrate my own.
I can deepen the story by adding elements, and sometimes even characters, to the illustrations that aren’t mentioned in the text. For example, in the picture book, Cora Cooks Pancit (Shen's), I added in a dog that wasn’t in the text and used him to echo the main character’s feelings with a problem of his own – all through the illustrations.
But even though I can deepen the story and be creative through the illustrations, the fact remains that the text was written before the illustrations, and I can’t change the text.
Penguin Cha-Cha started as a portfolio illustration. The great thing about portfolio pieces is that you can draw anything you fancy. I was in a Latin-and-swing dance group and I liked penguins, so I drew dancing penguins.
Art directors and editors kept asking if I had a story to go with the illustration. They could see just by looking at the dancing penguins that I had fun drawing them.
When that joy shines through an illustration, it’s time to start thinking about making a book.
So I began writing stories about dancing penguins. Learning the craft of writing picture books, of course, took time and many tries.
My editor had me add in a bit more text after the dummy was acquired, but mostly we stuck with the original dummy.
Many of us author-illustrators tend to start as illustrators and therefore are more visual than wordy. We can show part of the storyline in the illustrations, so perhaps not as much text is needed.
Check out the picture books on your own shelf and see if you can tell if the same person wrote and illustrated them.
Cynsational Screening Room
Enter to win a signed copy of Penguin Cha-Cha, a bookmark, a sticker and a magnet at Cynsations at Blogger. Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only. Enter here.