Monday, March 12, 2018

You Heard it Here First: OOTHAR THE BLUE by Brandon Reese and a Giveaway!

Congratulations to Linda Phillips who won the ebook copy of Rebecca Petruck's new book, BOY BITES BUG.

You know how I love sharing fellow writers good news--particularly for those who are debut authors. When I read on the SCBWI-Carolinas Pals group that Brandon Reese's first picture book was coming out in May (Lion Forge) I knew this was a story I wanted to share here. Since Brandon is the author/illustrator--you get to hear about his publishing journey AND see some of his great illustrations!

CAROL: What was the inspiration for OOTHAR THE BLUE? I love his name! How did you come up with it?

BRANDON: As with most of my stories, Oothar started out with a sketch. I keep a sketchbook and try to draw in it everyday. If I’m lucky, those drawings become the seeds of a story. 

To be honest, I’m not really sure how the name Oothar came about! I wanted something fantastical and Scandinavian sounding and Oothar just popped into my head.

CAROL: This is your debut picture book, but you have illustrated others. Can you share about how you went from illustrator to illustrator/writer? 

BRANDON: Being an illustrator/writer has always been the goal. I knew I needed to strengthen my writing. So I worked on it by regularly attending SCBWI conferences and just making myself work through a story. 

CAROL: Tell us more about your path to publication. 

BRANDON: I drew constantly as a kid. My mom read somewhere that if you wanted to foster creativity in your child you shouldn’t give them coloring books. Instead you should give them blank pieces of paper to draw and color on. So, blank sheets of paper were never in short supply!

I went to the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale where I took some art classes but not a lot. The focus was on graphic design. After graduating I eventually got a job art directing and designing a small children’s magazine. I would assign myself illustration jobs for the magazine. It’s there where I honed my illustration skills... or at least started to. 

OOTHAR with Fettle the Wizard
CAROL: What role did SCBWI have in your life?

BRANDON: SCBWI is a great organization. I wish I had joined years ago! It wasn’t until after attending my first conference that I started to get some traction in the publishing world. 

CAROL: What role has your critique group played in your development as an author/illustrator?

BRANDON: The most beneficial thing I’ve done to help my writing is join a critique group. You know right away if something is working by the reactions. Nothing is better than hearing a critique partner giggle their way through your manuscript. Well, a humorous book, that is! I suppose it would be a bit of a nightmare if a reader is laughing their way through a serious project. Illustrating and writing are mostly solitary endeavors. It gets lonely. It’s great to have a group of artists who understand your struggles and cheer your successes. 

Brandon created his artwork using digital painting in Adobe Photoshop
CAROL: What was the process of getting your publisher?

BRANDON: Connecting with Lion Forge and ultimately selling Oothar to them was a bit of a surprise. I had some down time and I was looking for comic book illustration work. I worked up a mock Oothar cover and sent it to a list of publishers I found online. Andrea Colvin, the executive editor at Lion Forge, wrote back right away and said that unfortunately she didn’t have any illustration work at the moment but wanted to know if I had any manuscripts she could read. 

I’m still thinking she wants comic book or graphic novel stuff, so I sent her three stories I thought would translate well to that format (Oothar being one). It wasn’t until she wrote back to say she loved Oothar and wanted to take it to an acquisitions meeting that I found out she was looking for picture books. So I quickly sketched up some extra sample art for her to take to the meeting.
The poster Brandon sent to publishers.

CAROL: When did you get your agent? Did you query several before signing?

BRANDON: I signed with Jennifer Mattson from Andrea Brown Literary in February. I still have that new client smell! I queried maybe 15 other agents. I had other offers but I ultimately felt Jennifer was the best fit for me.

CAROL: What are you hoping your young readers will take away from OOTHAR?

BRANDON: Feeling blue or depressed is a normal emotion. It is an indicator of something askew in our lives. If something isn’t bringing you happiness anymore, you can make a change!

Remember what I said last week? One way we support authors is by preordering their books. Click on over to Amazon and preorder OOTHAR now!

To enter the giveaway for your copy of OOTHAR, please leave a comment along with your email address if you are new to my blog. Share this on social media (please tell me what you do) or become a new follower of my blog and I'll enter your name twice. Winner will be chosen on March 16.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Boy Bites Bug: A Review and an E-Book Giveaway!

Congratulations to Rosi Hollinbeck who won BACKFIELD BOYS from last week's blog. Rosi is my California counterpoint since she reviews and gives away books too. You might want to follow her blog!

Many of my faithful blog followers have read about how Rebecca Petruck has mentored me while I've written Half-Truths. She's guided me through countless revisions with an amazing talent to see the forest and tell me which trees need to be felled.

Rebeca can do this, because she's a gifted author. (Here's my review of her first middle grade book,  Steering Toward Normal.)

Now I have the privilege of introducing her second book, BOY BITES BUG (Abrams, May, 2018)

Although you might look at this amazing cover and fun title and think this is simply a humorous book for boys. But I can assure you that the story takes the reader on a much deeper journey than that.  And of course, girls will enjoy it too!


Seventh grader Will Nolan has a problem. In fact, he has more than one. Stinkbugs have invaded the school library "bobbling like weather-worn boats on a calm sea." (p. 5) His best friend, Darryl, decides to squash them using Will's copy of Wrestling for Dummies. 

Knowing the stench that would produce, the new kid, Eloy, intervenes with, 
"Are you crazy?!" 
"No one asked you, cholo," Darryl snapped back.
Will inhaled sharply. It felt like the world went into slo-mo. (p.6)

Will is caught off guard. There are other Hispanics in their Minnesota school, but Darryl's attitude makes Will uncomfortable. Things go from bad to worse when the boys start daring each other to eat a stinkbug. When Darryl responds with,  
"Me? No way. Dare the Mexican. I've seen stuff on TV--they eat bugs all the time." 
"Dude, I'm from Rochester," Eloy said. 
Will didn't say anything. His tongue was frozen in shock at hearing the friend he'd known since kindergarten talk like that. The Mexican?... He knew better than to talk trash about people because of where they came from. (pp. 9-10)
Will takes the heat in order not to look like a prejudiced redneck, tosses the stinkbug into his mouth, and "Bug Boy" is born.

But not without serious fall-out.

Rebecca skillfully portrays Will's journey of self-discovery and figuring out who his friends are in the events that follow like falling dominoes. This serious theme is against the backdrop of Will's development as a wrestler and the humorous interplay and drama of boy vs. boy. 

In this snippet, you'll glimpse how Rebecca accurately captures the boy's voices and Will's internalization. This scene takes place after Simon, one of Will's friends, anonymously sends him 1000 crickets.
Back at school Monday morning, Will unloaded books from his backpack. 
And freed half a dozen crickets.
He banged his forehead on a locker door, repeatedly.
"Bug Boy strikes again!" Simon said. He nudged a cricket that hadn't taken off yet and hooted when it arced through the air. He poked into Will's backpack. "What are you doing with the others?"
Will froze, head still pressed against the metal lockers, cold seeping into his brain. He turned slowly. "So it was you?"
 "A thousand crickets? Of course it was me! So what will you do with them?"
Will imagined "nudging" Simon and watching him arc through the air. "Why didn't you warn me?"
"Are you kidding? I wish I could have seen your face. A thousand crickets are funny!"
"Not when they escaped in my house and I had to kill them!" 
"What did you do now, losers?" Darryl leaned against a locker, acting extra casual.
Will darted an instinctive glance toward Eloy's locker, but he wasn't around, which was strange but for the moment kind of OK.
Ever since Darryl had stomped off to the library last week, he and Will had been weird together but trying to act normal until they got back to normal. Calling one another losers was an ordinary thing, a razz just because.
But after killing all those crickets, Will felt like a loser for real. He tried to shrug it off. (p.116-118) 
As I mentioned, Rebecca has helped me dig deeper into Half-Truths. As I read BUG, I realized that Will's journey into discovering his own subtle prejudices was similar to what Rebecca encouraged me to probe about Kate Dinsmore, my protagonist.

With the risk of including a spoiler, towards the end of the book, Will has the following "Aha!" moment:

Eating grasshoppers wasn't exactly part of Eloy's day-to-day life, but it wasn't weird, either. It was even ordinary when he visited his family in Mexico. But Will had treated it like it was weird and worse than weird, a trick to get back at someone. 
Eloy had put up with Will a lot longer than Will would have if the situation was reversed. The only person who had done anyone a favor was Eloy. He'd given Will the benefit of the doubt, trying to make him see. (p.198-9)

As I teach my writing students, figurative language, or Muscle Words, are the engines that drive good writing. Here are three of my favorites. Can you guess what the first one describes?

Brown-and-beige banded antennae twitched at Will from a too-small head resting on extra-wide shoulders. It looked like a miniature football player in pads. Speckles like dimples on a golf ball dotted its brown body and thick outer wings. (p.9)
The day had started so normal. But it had gotten chased around the mat and pinned like a lightweight taken down by a heavyweight. (p. 30)  (Note: I love how Rebecca used the wrestling theme to highlight what Will was feeling.)
When Mr. Taylor took attendance, Will felt as if someone were pulling his belly button through his back. (p.136) 
There are tons more examples in the book--you'll just have to get a copy to discover them yourself!

For fans of STEERING TOWARD NORMAL, the ending of BUG ties neatly back into Rebecca's first book. And since a book on entomophagy would be incomplete without recipes, Rebecca has included three that are from The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook  by David George Gordon.


I asked Rebecca why she chose wrestling as the boys' sport. She responded: "I fell into wrestling simply because I wanted to do something I don't see as often as other sports in books, and then it ended up being perfect for the story. Wrestling is all about the mindabout committing to those six minutesYou can lose a match before ever stepping on the mat if you don't believe in your skills or yourself. It's a wonderful metaphor for Will's journey because he's made a commitment to not only Eloy but also to himself and the kind of person he wants to be, and he has to see it through. On one hand, it is him alone on the mat, but he also has the support of his coaches and teammates so he's never alone, and that's true for Will off the mat, too."


One way we support authors is by pre-ordering their books. You can find BOY BITES BUG on Amazon or on Bulk Book Store if you want to order it for your classroom. It would make a great classroom resource to open up conversations about prejudice as well as ways to feed the planet in the future!


I can't give away my arc because the book is "on tour" and goes to the next reader. 
Rebecca encouraged all readers to write
comments in the arc. What a great idea!

But, Rebecca is giving away an e-copy. Leave a comment by March 9 and I'll enter your name. Share this on social media (and tell me what you did) and I'll enter your name twice. If you are new to my blog--welcome!--and please leave your email address.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Backfield Boys: A Football Mystery- Audio CD Review and Giveaway

True confession. I am not a football fan. I don't know one play from another and when dragged to a high school game by my husband, will patiently wait until half-time and then beg to leave. (Let's hear it for the marching band!)

But after listening to BACKFIELD BOYS (August, 2017 Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) by sports journalist John Feinstein, next time I watch a game I'll pay a little more attention to what is actually happening on the field. Yep. This young adult book for boys (although female football fans will also enjoy it) is that good.

A short prologue sets the stage for the book when a member of a defeated touch football team says to Jason and Tom: "You two should make history. How many great quarterback receiver combinations have the black guy throwing to the white guy?" From that opening premise, John Feinstein spins out the adventure of best friends Jason Roddin and Tom Jefferson--two New York freshman who rock the world of an elite sports-focused boarding school--and the nation. 

Written in an omniscient point of view, the reader is primarily privy to Tom and Jason's thoughts as they navigate the practice fields of the prep school. Tom, an African American, is the "Bullseye" quarterback. Jason is nicknamed "White Lightening" because he's a fast wide receiver. When they get to school and attend their first practice, they're surprised when their positions are switched. They protest, but to no avail. Soon, they and their two buddies--Billy Bob a white boy from Alabama; and Anthony, a huge black lineman who loves to eat--suspect that there's some heavy duty racism going on behind the scenes.

Despite plenty of realistic obstacles, the boys figure out what's going on at the school, who is behind the racial discrimination, and how the coaches are covering up the story. In the course of the book the four boys make friends with the Hispanic student athletes (who fill them in on some of the political realities of the school) and four female athletes (conveniently, two are black, and two are white). The truth of how deeply racism runs in the fictional Virginia prep school is revealed at the school dance when the inter-racial couples are told to stop dancing with one another.

Although some readers may find the ending predictable, I couldn't stop listening to it. Published in 2017, this contemporary book might startle readers from ages 12-18: the roots of racism still dig deep into our American consciousness. 

I appreciated narrator Mike Chamberlain 's clear reading of Backfield Boys but I felt like his portrayal of Billy Bob--the tall southern boy with a deep drawl, was the most accurate. Although the hispanic secondary characters sounded authentic, I think Anthony, the southern black boy, was not as effectively portrayed. Click here for an audio snippet. 

Even if you're not a football fan, you'll still enjoy this book and want to pass it along to the young male (or female!) reader in your life. Leave me a comment and I'll enter your name. Share on social media or follow my blog, and I'll enter your name twice. PLEASE make sure to leave your email address if you are new to my blog. Winner will be drawn on March 2.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Upcoming Writing Classes

I'm pleased to announce three writing classes beginning in March; one at the Bobby Pearse Community Center in Greenville, and two at the Fine Arts Center of Easley


Fiction 101 is geared towards the serious adult or young adult who has dreamed of writing fiction but didn’t have the tools to pursue that goal. Each class will include a short lecture, writing activities, feedback, and discussion. In a fun, informal manner I provide a blend of information and hands-on learning experiences. Students will leave excited to work on their story.

The course will meet at the  community center for six weeks from 1- 4 PM. Class begins on March 3, skips March 31 because of Easter break and ends on April 14. Each class is $45.00 for City of Greenville residents and $50.00 for non-City residents. If you sign up for the entire course, you will receive one free class. City of Greenville residents: $225.00; non-City: $250.00.  Registration caps at 15 so hurry and sign up here (under “Adult” programming).

March 3    Muscle Words, Revision, Genres, Characterization
March 10   Sensory Settings and World Building
March 17   Plot and Structure
March 24   Beginnings and Scenes
April    7    Suspense, Tension, and Endings
April   14   Organization, Research, Your Path to Publication

A great space for a writing workshop!


Fiction Genre Writing for Kids
Do your kids dream up stories about space aliens or unicorns conquering the world? Do they enjoy mysteries and wonder how to write one? Does the past capture their imagination and they create stories about lords and ladies? Or, do they prefer sports fiction and want to create a dream team of their own?

If these scenarios describe your kids, then they will love my genre writing class in which they create a mini-story in each genre. Although emphasis is on creative writing, students will learn skills that they can apply to expository writing.

$100/month for a 90-minute class beginning Grades 4-10. Beginning March 6; class runs from  4-5:30 PM. Fine Arts Center of Easley. (Click on "Sign Up" button and the registration form downloads to your computer). Or call 864-442-6027. Family discounts available.

Adult Writing Class- Part I
For beginning and intermediate writers. Students will be introduced to the building blocks of short fiction. Each 2-hour class will include a short lecture, writing activities, feedback, and discussion.

March 6: Characterization and point of view
March 13: Sensory settings
March 20: Conflict and Tension
April 3 Plot and Structure

Class is $100/a month for adults and young adults. Fine Arts Center of Easley. (Click on "Sign Up" button and the registration form downloads to your computer). Or call 864-442-6027. Family discounts available.


Monday, February 19, 2018

Four Writers and Four Writing Stages--Part II

As I mentioned last week, this is the second post in a two-part series on the variety of stages writers go through when producing a book. Thanks to Jean Hall who said that she is "always in the middle of creation or revision of picture books." Julian Daventry said, "I'm about to start editing my trilogy, after getting all three books drafted. There's still much to be done, but reaching the 'all books are drafted' is a nice milestone. I'm ready for the next step!" Gray Marie contributed, "Sadly school has been detaining me, but I hope to speed up my progress this summer. I am currently outlining and writing out a few of the scenes in my attempt to piece together this puzzle of a story in my head." Sheri Levy wrote, "I am writing the my first draft of the third novel in the Trina Ryan series, For Keeps. My ideas are moving in the story, and I'm trying to write to the end before I start restructuring the plot. This part of writing is fun, but a long process."


My book, DRIVE, (a story of twins, NASCAR, the Cold War, and competition) is in the design phase so it came back to me recently formatted by a typesetter.  At this point my task was to read through in search of typos, misplaced quotation marks, spacing issues, etc.  Of course, we writers are always tweaking so I slipped in quite a few requests for other small changes.

I began writing DRIVE in August 2016 at a Highlights workshop with my editor, Carolyn Yoder. Since it’s part of a series, I submitted a query and received a contract within a few months. I submitted it within seven months but should have allowed more time in my contract because writing two viewpoints is so hard!  I revised and resubmitted in July and it went through another round of revisions after that. All told – about a year and a half.

My first draft was a mess. Someone died who I decided not to kill after all. Also the twin protagonists weren’t attracted to the same boy and in the final version they are. Polio figures into the final version more than it did previously. The final version feels much more cohesive and I think the twins are more differentiated. Hopefully you still won’t know who to pull for.

After the latest changes have been applied by the typesetter I’ll be rereading again for nitpicky formatting issues. I’m quite certain if I ask for other changes my editor will disown me.

Here is the opening of DRIVE:
As terrible as it sounds, I wanted to rip the ribbons right off my twin sister’s drawing. First place in still life and grand prize! 
Ida stood beside me in the hallway at Mountain View School. She wasn’t saying much even if she was thrilled—which of course she was. But I knew she felt guilty about me only winning honorable mention in my category. For some reason I’d thought a portrait of Dwight D. Eisenhower would help me take first place. 
“I’m sorry, Ellie,” whispered Ida. 
“It’s okay,” I said. But I had to bite my lip to keep it from trembling. 
“Maybe you should’ve submitted that drawing of the red high heels. It was really good.” 
“No,” I said. “Because that would have been a still life and I wasn’t about to compete in the same category as you. But of course you beat me anyway.”

In her award winning BLUE, Joyce told the story of her hometown’s compassionate response to a polio epidemic. The characters of this quiet neighborhood took up residence in the hearts of readers so that now Bakers Mountain Stories include AIM, BLUECOMFORT and the forthcoming DRIVE. When Joyce isn’t writing, researching, or speaking about her books she is usually living the quiet friends-and-family lifestyle exemplified in her stories. She does, however, enjoy travel because the world is actually so much bigger than where she is from!  


Last June I switched over to writing Half-Truths from Kate's POV. That required digging deeper into Kate's backstory, re-thinking, moving chapters, writing new ones, and deleting a lot of material. I'm now close to the end of that draft. Next, I'll print the  manuscript and read it out loud. I'll fill in details that I hadn't taken time to research, check character arcs, hunt down cliche's, tighten, and polish. It will then go to a few beta readers, my two critique partners, and Rebecca Petruck, my wonderful writing coach. After that...I hope it'll be time to start querying agents! 

As some of you know, it has taken me over ten years to get to this point. Although the story takes place sixty years ago, I hope the themes of friendship, racism, and generational legacies will inspire introspection and communication among today's readers.

Here is a snippet from one of the ending chapters. This follows Kate's conversation with her grandmother about their family history:
I ache for my grandmother. For the little girl who was ripped away from her mother and grew up with half-truths fencing her in.  
Half-truths like long spindly fingers that reached out from the grave and strangled us all.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Four Writers and Four Writing Stages-- Part I

I recently hung out with three other writers for several days of writing, critiquing, eating chocolate and yummy food. (What is it about writers who must have the latter two to validate the first two?) Since each of us was at a different place in our manuscript, I thought it would be interesting to share a few of the stages writers go through when writing a novel. 

I asked each writer to describe the present draft, how long she has been working on her novel, what the previous draft looked like, and what she was expecting to do next. I'm sharing two writers' stories this week and two next week. 


I would consider this to be my third draft. The first two drafts were different POV’s. I finally decided on John’s POV in the first person. It seems to be working better for the story.

I have been working on this book for about five years (off and on). My goal is to get John’s story about his pirating days out to the many adventurous readers out there.

I had two previous drafts that were just not working – the story was flat and the characters lacked motivation. When I switched to John’s first person POV, this breathed new life into an otherwise “blah” manuscript.

I continue to delve into John’s motivations and deepen his character. John and the runaway slave will set aside their differences later in the story.

Here is the pitch and a snippet from Barbara's book:

In "The Brotherhood of Pirates," young John King sets sail on a journey that will forever change his life. Set in 1716 and based on true events, when John's ship is attacked by pirates, he is compelled to run away with them and live the pirate's life.

Brotherhood of Pirates
November, 1716 

What ten year old boy wants to travel with his mother? Not me. But what did it matter now? I am already sailing on the Bonetta with her and have been for several weeks. This is the final leg of our journey as we head home to Antigua. 

“John King! Get down from there right this instant!” 

“Yes, Mother.” I jumped down from my perch, a rickety brown crate, and dutifully stood beside her. Her lips were moving but I paid her no mind. All I heard was endless chatter, the kind that could give a lad quite the headache. 

“Stand right here,” she said, pointing to an imaginary line on the deck. “I will return momentarily.” She adjusted her sunhat with one of her white-gloved hands and wagged the finger of her free hand in my direction as a warning. She walked away, her high heels clippety-clopping on the deck, like horse hooves on cobblestone.

Barbara lives in Hickory, NC and works with her husband in their two businesses. She enjoys writing in her spare time and is anxious to send Brotherhood of Pirates out into the world of readers looking for new adventures.


I'm on the home stretch of what I call the first hard revision. I'm working to fill in the plot holes, timeline gaps, and overall inconsistencies that I try not to get too distracted by when I'm pushing to get a rough draft onto the page. The hard revision takes me awhile--I've been working on this one for almost three months and I still have about 38 pages to tackle. It's also a tougher draft, in many ways than the rough--because I have to go back and actually make all the big, creative leaps of the rough draft fit into a reasonable plot and narrative framework. But once this pass is complete, revisions become much more joyful and manageable. 

I let an idea roll around and compost in my brain for awhile before actually putting my fingers on the keyboard. So I'd say the initial idea occurred to me about a year and a half ago. I really got started on rough drafting almost exactly a year ago. The start-to-finish rough draft took me from September--late November of 2017 and I've been in revisions ever since. 

First drafts, in my opinion, are pretty much always awful--or at least mine are. This may not be the case for more skilled writers! The challenge, I think, is to give yourself the freedom to not get too distracted by first-draft crumminess. You're just laying the track at the point for better things to come in subsequent drafts. 

I hope to push through the rest of the hard revision in about 1-2 weeks. Then the manuscript will go out to 2-3 of my regular critique partners. Once I receive and incorporate their feedback into another 1-2 (much lighter) revision passes, I will seek out someone who hasn't read any of my early drafts or heard anything about the story. Fresh eyes are very important at this stage of the revision. I work with several trusted critique partners, who know my work well and have offered invaluable thoughts and feedback on all stages of the draft. When I (and they) feel like the manuscript is getting close, that's the time to find a reader who hasn't heard a thing about the story. 

Originally from upstate New York, Monica now lives in central South Carolina, where she, her family, and their honeybees own and operate Old Swamp Apiary. When she isn't beekeeping, Monica travels between the Alaskan bush and southern Belize as a physical therapist. Her first novel, Thaw, was published by Front Street Books and was a Cybils finalist. 

Those of you who are writers know that it seems as if there are an infinite amount of drafts and revisions before reaching "The End." What stage are you in? Brainstorming? Outlining? A messy first draft or a final-before-I-send-it-out-into-the-world draft? Are you querying agents? I'd like to hear your comments--and maybe I'll incorporate your answers into a future blog!

You Heard it Here First: OOTHAR THE BLUE by Brandon Reese and a Giveaway!

Congratulations to Linda Phillips who won the ebook copy of Rebecca Petruck's new book, BOY BITES BUG. ******** You know how I love ...