Thursday, January 29, 2009


So Kirie, whom I completely adore, over at 3 Little Chickies , tagged me for this fun little romp through the photo files. Instructions are to open your fourth folder, then post the fourth picture.

And what's this, you're asking? A snapshot of the first page of my youngest son's Diary. Er, Book of Secrets. Pretty adorable, huh? And I love that he journals. All HIM, let me tell you. He inspires me on a daily basis.

Now. To pass it along to four others:

Chelley Cat (an awesome photographer -- can't wait to see what she posts!)
Rachel (budding photographer and daughter of a most beautiful person also known as Four Angels Momma)
River Garden Studio (where I've been lurking lately because of all the amazing things this gal does with color and texture. Oh and she also has really excellent taste in music. Talk about inspiring!)
DysFUNctional Mom (Another secret hideout... her motto is "Just smile and nod." How can I not love that?!)

"Go and wake up your luck."

- Persian saying

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Someone told me once that there are three parts of a book: the beginning, the end, and everything in between.

Trouble is, you can't get to parts two and three without a really excellent part one. Truly, a story or poem or book is nothing without a great start.

We may think "once upon a time," and all stories do start there, but of course it's not what we write. And clearly the days of “It was a dark and stormy night” are long gone in a society that craves action and lots of it. So as writers, we’ve really got to get in there and get moving FAST. Which, for me, usually involves razing the Front Porch: gotta clear out all that backstory and provide the reader with a wide-open front door.

Here are a few of my favorite beginnings:

All children, except one, grow up. Peter Pan - J. M. Barrie

In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. Madeline - Ludwig Bemelmans

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him "WILD THING!" and Max said "I'LL EAT YOU UP!" so he was sent to bed without eating anything. Where the Wild Things Are - Maurice Sendak

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, "and what is the use of a book," thought Alice "without pictures or conversation?" Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll

"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. Charlotte's Web - E.B. White

When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett

"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. Little Women - Louisa May Alcott

For many days we had been tempest-tossed. The Swiss Family Robinson - Johann Wyss

The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. Black Beauty - Anna Sewell

Once, in a house on Egypt Street, there lived a rabbit who was made almost entirely of china. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane - Kate DiCamillo

A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and little girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. Little House on the Prairie - Laura Ingalls Wilder

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of threes steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

It was a pleasure to burn. Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. Gone With the Wind - Margaret Mitchell

Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventh-first birthday with a part of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton. The Fellowship of the Ring - J.R.R. Tolkien

And because Amy asked, here’s the beginning of my very own The Witches of Gee’s Bend:

“Mama always said every quilt tells a story.”

If you’ve got favorites, I’d sure love to hear ‘em!

Saturday, January 24, 2009


Last night as I was at the stove trying to make magic with chicken and onions, my father called, from the hospital, where he has been since Wednesday.

He seemed to be in a good mood despite the discomfort and boredom of the hospital room and was pleased to give me the latest doctor's report. Then he shared with me a poem he had just read: "Preservatives" by cowboy poet Baxter Black. He read the poem to me with accent and all, as if he WAS Baxter Black, sitting beside some small fire on an open prairie with horses snorting and coyotes calling.

I thought, this is a moment I don't want to forget. This is why I chose LISTEN for my one little word. There is nothing more important or beautiful or necessary than the sound of a father reading to his grown-up daughter over the phone.

"Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness."

- Chinese proverb

Thursday, January 22, 2009


As Oscar nominations are set to be announced in just a few minutes, I wanted to share this little bit of trivia I recently read: Actors who receive Academy Awards outlive their less-honored peers by four years (on average), and actors who receive multiple Oscars live an average of seven years longer.

So. Turns out validation from one's peers has a very positive effect on longevity, and I would imagine, quality of life.

I wonder if it boils down to the level of stress? Like maybe it's all that STRIVING that wears a person down? I mean, once you've got one of those lovely statuettes for your mantel, I guess you can relax a bit while all the little people come to YOU...

"Acting is all about honesty. If you can fake that, you've got it made."

- George Burns

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


How do you judge a book? I mean, when you walk into a bookstore and pull a book from the shelf, what is it about the book that ultimately makes you reach for your wallet?

My selection method goes something like this: I see a title that intrigues me. Here I'm looking for words alone. THEN I look at the cover art and the book blurbs and the inside jacket. Many times the book goes back on the shelf at this point.

But if I'm still interested, I flip through to a random page and read a few sentences. Does it make me think? Feel? Do I like the tone and voice? Do I want to know more?

I flip again to another random page and repeat the analysis. And that's when I know if I'm going to buy the book or not.

The great news is that there are so many books out there these days -- truly, there is something for everyone.

What's your process in deciding which one to bring home?

"Real success is finding your lifework in the work that you love."

- David McCullough

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Yesterday my friend Teresa sent me to Nathan Bransford's blog where guest blogger Adrienne Kress answers the above question. And it got me thinking about my own answer to the question.

Here's my unedited e-mail response to Teresa:

"I think my (catty) answer would be: why not?

My long answer I owe to those MG authors I grew up loving, first and foremost Laura Ingalls Wilder. Heck, I STILL want to be her when I grow up.

This writer [Adrienne Kress] said "whimsy," but I would say "innocence." I like simple story lines, ones that address the basic human needs/desires for love, before they get all complicated by sex and money and politics. There is a clean sweetness to those stories that really appeals to me."

Now that I've had the chance to sleep on it and further ponder Teresa's answer to the question, and I realize I didn't quite say it right. Because, as Teresa pointed out, all love is complicated. Because humans are complicated. This I believe with my whole heart.

So I think what I was trying to say is, for me as a writer writing for children, I can explore those complexities more simply, more powerfully, without the distraction of sex and money and politics. You know, by writing about the primary loves in a person's life -- for parent or sibling or pet. Everything that happens before romantic love. Everything that prepares one for romantic love.

Does that make any sense?

Anyhow, it's a great question. Thanks, Teresa for your thoughts!

"Dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate."

- Sigmund Freud

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


So you're asking yourself, do I really need an agent?

All I can do to answer this question is share my own experience.

When I started really working hard to improve my fiction skills, I had this dream: I wanted to be that golden treasure some unsuspecting editor unearthed from the slush pile. I wanted to have one of those magical stories to tell about getting discovered. Amazingly, children's literature and poetry are two genres where this actually happens. But it didn't happen to me.

After submitting various manuscripts to various editors, all of whom I "met" at SCBWI Southern-Breeze conferences, and getting very warm feedback from editors at houses like Tricycle and Jump at the Sun/Hyperion and Milkweed... BUT still not getting any offers, I was feeling a bit impatient and wondered if perhaps I had chosen the wrong fork in the road. So when the registration form came in for Writing and Illustrating for Kids 2006, I marked a session entitled "Agent and Author: the road to representation." Or something like that. Honestly, I can't recall. But what I do recall is how much I liked agent Rosemary Stimola and her brand-new client Hester Bass. Ro (as I've learned to call her) also represents much-admired authors like R.A. Nelson and Suzanne Collins, knows the business inside and out, is a straight-shooter AND is super quick to respond to e-mail (my preferred method of communication). So, I thought, okay. Maybe.

About a week later, I got brave enough to send her my manuscript, which was a story set in Gee's Bend but told in verse. (Poetry is SO my comfort-zone, and wow, have you read Out of the Dust??) She shot me an e-mail right back that said she was interested in the story but already had a novel-in-verse sitting on her desk that she'd been unable to sell. In short, thanks, but no thanks.

So. What did I do? I re-wrote the darn story in prose. Then I shared it with a writing buddy who shredded it. Absolute total annhiliation. Or at least that's the way it felt. I wanted to give up. I wanted to throw the whole story in the garbage and never look back. And I almost did.

But then I had a lightbulb moment. I suddenly knew what to do with my story: Change the boy main character to a girl (who was a minor character in the earlier version) AND switch it to first person. Major, major changes, right? Ones that take sweet time. But when I finished that first draft (can I still call it a first draft??), I knew I had turned a corner. I knew THIS was a story worth writing.

So what did I do? Oh, impatient impulsive me. I zipped off that first draft to Rosemary Stimola. My raw, chapped poor little newborn who was still recovering from surgery. I didn't bother to mention that I had previously submitted a manuscript to her -- I just sent the thing straight-up, as if I had never ever contacted her in the first place. (Like if I didn't mention it, it hadn't happened?? Something like that.)

This one she liked. This one she said, yes, I think I know just the editor for this story. How 'bout I send it out?

Which she did, of course, and after some drama I'll save for another day, I had an agent and an editor and a book contract wonderfully negotiated by a real live professional who is so worth her commission. Who knows how much longer it might have taken me to get a contract without her?? And now I have her sheperding through the whole process, and I couldn't be more grateful.

So to those of you wondering about agents, I say YES. Go for it. Maybe it doesn't have as much magic as a slush pile miracle, but it's still pretty amazing.

"One's own self is well hidden from one's own self; of all mines of treasure, one's own is the last to be dug up.”

-Friedrich Nietzsche

Sunday, January 11, 2009


First Day of Winter
“All secrets are witnessed.”- Barbara Kingsolver

Somewhere glaciers that haven’t
moved for hundreds of years
shift ever so slightly, give
birth to currents only lantern fish see.
Somewhere the last leaf drops
unnoticed from the limbs of a dogwood,
lands square on the back of a beetle
who stills at the sudden shade.
At the same time a tropical storm
rises anonymously in the Gulf of Mexico,
geese fly through sheets of ice pellets
that never make it to the ground,
rain floods island lowlands,
mud crawls down a mountainside
swallowing a house whole,
the only witness a lost llama,
teats swollen and weeping milk.

Here the rusty chimes wake me
from dreams of sailing
together across glassy water,
I warm my hands on a coffee mug,
watch thunderclouds roll
across the sky in a pattern I’ve never seen
while your unborn daughter
sends tidal waves up her mother’s spine,
still deciding if conditions are right for travel,
and when you call to tell me,
your voice crackles on the line--
I know there must be lightning
but the clouds are so thick I can’t see it.

- Irene Latham

How 'bout that illustration? A wonderful artist Jeff Faulk, who goes by Monk, penned this one, and it appears in my book WHAT CAME BEFORE. Love it!

Somehow I missed the most recent first day of winter, but I did, in fact, write this poem on an actual first day of winter. It's one of those pieces I'm not sure I completely understand myself, so I am especially interested in how others interpret it.

How mysterious, the birth of a poem...

“Birth and death are not two different states, but they are different aspects of the same state. There is as little reason to deplore the one as there is to be pleased over the other.”

- Mahatma Gandhi

Friday, January 9, 2009


1. I am so inspired by this jar of buttons. The glass was a gift from my mother (it originally held daylilies from her garden), and the buttons I've collected over many years. How cheerful they look in their new home!

2. Here is a stack of mending that must be tended to, now that I've got my sewing machine back from the repair shop. Turns out it was just a cord that needed replacement (after being chewed by my cat). The repair guy remarked that before Christmas his shelves were empty, but in the past week, he has taken in 40 machines for repair. Then yesterday I saw an article that said sewing machine sales are through the roof. The thinking is that with the hard economic times, people are trying to be more self-sufficient and are planning to make their own curtains and clothes and stuff. Sounds rather hopeful to me... sewing is very much a trial and error thing... how many times have I had to go back to Hancock's and buy MORE fabric??

3. I just finished this book, and as you can see by the yellow post-it paper, I marked quite a few pages that contain passages I want to re-visit (and possibly work into future poems). I really liked Will and Claire, and all the delicious longing found here.

4. This is my new research method: index cards and a recipe box. I got the idea from Barrie Summy, author of the new MG I So Don't Do Mysteries. She uses it in a slightly different way while plotting a novel, but I have employed it as a way to organize research data for My New Idea. Thanks, Barrie, and your book sounds awesome!

5. How cute is this bag? I won it for showing up for Jazzercise 3 times a week during the busy holiday months (November and December). What's funny is, I was just about to quit Jazzercise... then they started the bag promo. (Turns out I'm one of those people who needs a lot of incentive to keep on the exercise track.)

"First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do."

- Epictetus

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


You know, sometimes it's the little things in life that put a little bounce in my step. Like ABC's The Bachelor. Yes, this is my number one guilty pleasure, and I am just thrilled to see Jason trying again for love (after divorce and getting dumped by last season's Bachelorette). I hope he finds The One. Because he deserves it. As everyone does.

One thing I've learned over the years of watching The Bachelor is how different people are, how we want different things in relationships. Yet we all want the same thing too: to be loved and cherished. It's just interesting to me how that formula can be reached (or not) by so many different combinations. It's a real study in human relationships. And it's fun. So there. :)

So far I like the widow-mom from Huntsville. We'll see...

"The final mystery is oneself."

- Oscar Wilde

Monday, January 5, 2009


So, thanks to fellow Tenner Kay Cassidy (whose YA book THE CINDERELLA SOCIETY sounds awesome!) I've been thinking about goals.

What do I want to accomplish this year? And how will I do it?

Here are my major writing goals for 2009:

1. Acceptance and Delivery of THE WITCHES OF GEE'S BEND (soon, very soon!)
2. Submit and sell book 2, ESCAPE FROM FIRE MOUNTAIN
3. Write book 3, THE RED LIST (more on this later!)
4. Write (and revise!) 40 new poems by October 1 (deadline for coffee table book)
5. Develop supplemental material to be used in 2010 for Teacher pages on website, book discussion/activity pages AND for school visits (GEE'S BEND)

Yep, it's gonna be a busy year. But that's just how I like it.

"Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So... get on your way."

- Dr. Seuss

Friday, January 2, 2009


So I've been thinking about this word thing.

Last year, JOY came right to me, without thought or consideration. I knew instantly it was the right word at the right time.

This year the same thing happened. The word popped into my head, and all those other might-have-beens (like HOPE, which turns out to be far too passive) sprouted wings and flew right away. Don't you love when that happens?

So, my one little word for 2009 is LISTEN.

This works for me on a whole bunch of levels. Writing, as you know, tends to be very visual. This word will encourage me to remember the sounds.

Also, it will help me to slow down. I have this niggling little character flaw... what shall we call it?? Okay, there's no other word for it: I can be really impetuous. I like to get things DONE, to move on to the next thing. And occasionally, to achieve that, I make a really bad (quick) decision.

This year I vow to listen longer to that little voice in my head. And to other voices as well. This year I just want to pay better attention (in general and in the specific) to the here and now.

And then there's music. I LOVE music. All sorts, but most especially Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and other dead guys who knew how to generate emotion out of woodwind and brass and strings. This year I will LISTEN to more music.

So that's MY word. What about yours?

"One must talk little and listen much."

- African proverb

Thursday, January 1, 2009


Welcome, 2009! Bring me what you've got. I am here, ready with my crisp calendar and fresh appointment book and reams of white paper.

First thing on my list: find my one little word for the year.

Second thing: take the kids to see Marley and Me or Tale of Despereaux?

I'll let you know. :)

"Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen."

- Ralph Waldo Emerson