Category Archives: The Writing Life

Why Middle-grade?

My tenth book, STREETCAR TO JUSTICE: HOW ELIZABETH JENNINGS WON THE RIGHT TO RIDE IN NEW YORK, will be my first for middle-grade readers. Other than one picture book back in 2003, all of my books have been for adults (although, interestingly, they are appropriate for YA – young adults – and have won awards in that category.)

Why middle-grade for STREETCAR TO JUSTICE? Because it’s the right audience.

And, yes, I had to adapt my writing style, but that’s a subject for another blog post.

For years, librarians, teachers, and parents have asked me to write a nonfiction book on a topic that would appeal to middle-grade readers. This is the age group, variously described as somewhere between 8 and 13, that is between two worlds. They have outgrown picture books but may not be ready for some of the content found in young adult books.

The story of Elizabeth Jennings seems perfect for them. I’d been researching this forgotten story and the immense historical context of the era, New York in the 1850s, as a hobby of sorts for many years. (Yes, this is a journalist’s idea of a hobby!) Elizabeth Jennings is an inspiring character whose story was similar to Rosa Parks, although it happened a century earlier and in the North.

It was over lunch with an author-friend who writes middle-grade books that the idea of turning boxes of research on Elizabeth Jennings into a book took root, however. When I mentioned my ongoing research, my friend set down her fork. “You need to wrap that up and get it published!” she said. “People need to know that story. And it’s perfect for middle-grade!!”

I went home and got to work. It took several months to write the proposal but my agent was able to sell it quickly. This was followed by a year of writing, locating historical images to go with my text, coming up with a title – and so on.

In January, the book will be published. I’ll always be grateful to the librarians, teachers, parents – and especially my author-friend – for giving me a nudge!

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How to Stay Focused During Times of Great Change

The news has been breaking at an astonishing pace since Donald Trump won the U.S. Presidential election. Whether or not you agree with Mr. Trump and the Republican Congress, it’s a time of turbulence. If you’re an artist of any sort, it can be distracting.

At the same time, it’s vital that we all pay attention. As an American citizen, I know that’s part of my responsibility.

What helps me to maintain my focus is deliberately tuning out the noise, because that’s what a lot of it is. There’s a whole lot of shoutin’ going on, and although I want to stay informed, much of what passes for public discourse is pointless and hurtful.

I avoid public places, such as certain restaurants, that have a television turned on all the time. Who needs that? Doctors’ waiting rooms can be a problem, though I’ve learned that if you ask, the staff will often let you turn it off or change the channel, especially if you consult with others in the waiting room first.

It helps to remember that some of the commentators on radio and television are not journalists but agitators. They are there for one purpose: to make money. By stirring us up they are using us.

Social media is another place where over-the-top, disturbing language has increased tenfold. I’m interested in different viewpoints. I will stop reading posts that aren’t civil, however. Anger and strong feelings are okay but if you bully people, I’m not interested, and if I get too upset, it ruins my muse!

Newspapers are still the best place to find good, solid information. Plus, you can absorb that information at your own pace.

But one last suggestion from personal experience: Don’t read the newspaper before going to bed! The speed of change is unsettling right now, regardless of your political views. You’ll end up tossing and turning instead of getting your much-needed REM sleep, and your writing process the following day will be disrupted.

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My Word of the Year for 2017

A friend just posted that her personal word for the new year is “confidence.”

I’m not sure if she’s feeling confident or hoping that she will. Either way, that would not be my word for 2017.

Mine is “resolute.”

Resolute is a great word. It means purposeful, determined, and unwavering.

The image that comes to mind when I think of “resolute” is the way my dad used to describe being a young soldier in World War Two. All you really want to do is go home but in the meantime, you have to make a conscious effort to be strong. Determined. Unwavering. Resolute.

My dad died last fall, and I had several other losses last year as well. I’m grieving for my father, and for all of the problems of the world, some of which seem quite hopeless at times.

I’m determined to keep moving forward, however. As Dad used to say, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!”

May you find peace, love, and happiness in 2017. (Or, at the least, may you be resolute!)

Best wishes to you,

Amy

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How to Show Support for Your Favorite Authors

I don’t have a new book coming out on the Spring or Summer schedule but I know many, many authors who do. A word on their behalf: There are ways you can help.
1) Pre-order the book. Publishers factor in the number of pre-orders when deciding on the print-run and preparing a book tour budget. The more pre-orders, the better.
2) Don’t buy a book second-hand. You may save yourself a buck or two, but remember that the author receives no royalties.
3) Buy the book in paper. Depending on a lot of factors which are too complex to mention here, many authors currently receive less money for an electronic book than a paper book.
4) Post a review (an honest, fair-minded review) on Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, Goodreads, and other online sites.
5) If you love the book, buy a second copy for a friend rather than loaning it.
6) “Like” the author’s Facebook professional page and subscribe to her newsletter if she has one.
Some of these tips may be obvious; others, not. I’m writing this because I know authors who are really struggling. Some of them are young writers who are just getting started! It’s important for our culture that they stay in the game.

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Five Questions for Audrey Vernick, Author of Books for Young Readers

I met author Audrey Vernick fourteen years ago when she was working on her first book, BARK AND TIM: A TRUE STORY OF FRIENDSHIP, written with her sister, Ellen Glassman Gidaro, and illustrated with the paintings of Mississippi folk artist Tim Brown. Since that book’s publication her career has exploded: There are now a baker’s dozen of Audrey Vernick books with more on the way. She will be among the faculty this July in Helen, Georgia at a week-long WOW Writing Retreat. http://www.wowretreat.net/

Q. You have two new books in the stores right now – THE KID FROM DIAMOND STREET (Clarion Books, March 29), which is nonfiction, and a fiction picture book with the delightful title, I WON A WHAT? (Knopf, April 12). Would you tell us a little about these two very different books and how they came about?

A. I am a fan of baseball history, but not in a statistics way. I love the stories. THE KID FROM DIAMOND STREET is my third nonfiction book about baseball. The second was titled BROTHERS AT BAT, a true story about a team comprised of the 12 Acerra Brothers of Long Branch, NJ. When I was working on that book, I was in touch with the director of research at the Baseball Hall of Fame who mentioned something about an all-sister softball team. When I asked for more information on that, the file was nowhere to be found! But he suggested I check out the Bobbies, a Philadelphia women’s baseball team (named for the hairstyle all players shared).
Edith was the team’s star player. When she was only ten years old, she was playing shortstop on a professional team! She was a true phenom, grabbing all the headlines from her much older teammates (which was not her intention. That girl just loved to play). It’s possible I became a tiny bit obsessed with Edith when I saw a photograph of her. I remember when I showed it to you, you said she looked like a cross between Scout Finch and Mary Pickford. Thinking about Edith’s fierce determination consistently impresses me and fills me with awe. I could talk about her all day.
I WON A WHAT? is a story about a kid who has always wanted a pet. He talks his parents into letting him keep whatever he wins at the goldfish booth at a carnival. And then he wins a whale. I remember having the idea for this one–written as “Kid tries to win goldfish but wins whale–which may be the best synopsis I have ever written. (It’s not my strong suit.)
The challenge came on, say, page five. He won a whale. Now what?
I needed a little spark of inspiration to help me find the rest of the story. So I started reading about people’s experiences interacting with whales. Many people wrote, in describing whale-watching expeditions, of having the feeling that they were being watched carefully by the whales. Somehow, that little observation was a spark for me—it helped me understand the friendship, based primarily on watching and understanding and thinking, between the boy and his pet. And I got lucky with this book—the ending (which can be such a hard thin) just came out my fingers without me even thinking about it. And I think it’s my favorite ending of all the books I’ve written.

Q. What is it about writing for young readers that appeals to you?

A. I am sure it has to do with the connection I felt to the books I loved as a child. My love for those books—Ursula Nordstrom’s THE SECRET LANGUAGE, Louise Fitzhugh’s HARRIET THE SPY, France Hodgson Burnett’s THE SECRET GARDEN and many others—was akin to the love you feel for a real best friend. I was a serious re-reader in those days. I have always been one to read purely for pleasure, never analytically, but I believe a brain begins to sort things out, to understand structure, when you reread books, particularly when you’re young (and your brain isn’t yet cluttered with lyrics to every Beatles song). Without having to give it thought, you start to understand, intuitively, how a story is told when you reread books. But I digress. I wanted to say that with THE SECRET GARDEN, I must have read the scene in which they first discover that garden hundreds of times, awed by the way words created magic.

Q. I’m aware from writing a picture book myself that there’s more to creating a book for young readers than many people might realize. It takes a special skill set. What are the easiest, as well as the most challenging parts of the process for you?

A. I can hold an entire picture book in my head, something I cannot do with novels (though I’ve met people who can). The easiest thing I think is that it is not impossible to go through the entire writing and revision process pretty quickly. I’ve had that happen maybe three or four times. It’s a great feeling. Of course, I also have some books started that I’ve been unable to finish. Because there is a precision to good picture books—nothing extraneous. No room for fat. Beginning, middle and end, just like with any book.
With my nonfiction picture books, I always talk to kids about the responsibility of taking a whole life–one in which something happened to the subject every day of her life, for many, many decades–and boil that down to a 32- or 40-page book with many big pictures. It can be daunting. You write nonfiction too, so you know the sense of responsibility that comes with writing about real subjects. It’s a formidable task.

Q. If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you would be doing for a living?

A. If my sister Beth hadn’t gone to law school, I think I might have—but I saw how miserable it made her and ruled it out. I did public relations for public schools and libraries as my last full-time job. I didn’t mind the writing but I really didn’t care for the part that felt like sales. There’s a good chance I’d be a teacher—there are many in the family, and on my school visits it’s kind of like being Teacher for a Day.

Q. I’ve never met an author who didn’t have pets. Can you tell us about your two dogs?

A. Rookie, our 15-year-old dog, is officially a miniature labradoodle but he’s not that miniature. He has lived more than a cat’s nine lives, having ingested so many things—especially socks—not intended for dogs. He has had surgery for sock removal, wears a brace on walks now for the CCL he tore last winter, and is notorious for finding my purses and eating whatever he finds contained therein. He’s a bit of a grumpy old man but oh, does he love the people he loves.
Hootie’s four and one of the most affectionate dogs I’ve ever known. She was a rescue near death (parvovirus) when we adopted her as a puppy. She’s three-quarters poodle and one-quarter golden retriever. She’s very funny but lacks short-term memory which can lead to extended barking riffs when people she doesn’t know reenter the room they were just in. She’s my daily walking buddy. When Rookie comes along, it’s more like grazing. They both love to eat grass.
Thanks for inviting me to visit, Amy! It was fun!

To learn more about Audrey, visit her website at http://www.audreyvernick.com/
She’s also on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/AudreyVernick
and Twitter @yourbuffalo

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When It Comes to the Creative Use of Language, Southerners Steal the Show

“Mrs. Conroy was nervous as a rat terrier.”

“Mrs. Bailey White was ten years older than God.”

“That there is a sorry excuse for a road.”

These are a few of the “Southern-isms” from my latest novel, Miss Dreamsville and the Lost Heiress of Collier County. When it comes to creative expressions, there’s no question about it: The South wins. As a writer, I am forever grateful that my parents moved us from Up North to South Carolina when I was six years old, and that I later lived in Florida, and that I acquired all kinds of delicious Southern expressions along the way. Here’s a few more that I share in my novel:

“She was screeching like a banshee on a coconut-milk binge.”

“Ugly as a toad’s hindquarters.”

“We talked that ol’ topic to death and right into the next world.”

“Just when you think you got enough grit in your oysters….”

“She was gussied up.”

The preacher has “a voice deep as a bullfrog’s in mating season.”

She moved “faster than a Chihuahua that smells a chicken bone.”

“He is plumb jack crazy.”

Can you tell that I had fun? While I hope my novel provides some deep insights into life in a small Florida town in 1964, part of the motivation for writing it was, quite simply, the joy of creating characters who speak in the colorful language that is uniquely Southern.

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Five Questions for Author Jen A. Miller

From time to time I like to feature a writer on my blog and social media pages to help him or her get the word out about an intriguing new book. I call this “Shared Space.” Today on Shared Space I am focusing on Jen A. Miller, the author of a brand-new memoir, Running: A Love Story, published by Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Miller, 35, lives in a small New Jersey town across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.

Q. You’ve said that you didn’t plan on being a writer, and you didn’t anticipate becoming a running enthusiast, either. What did you expect you would be doing at this point in your life?

A. I don’t want to sound too depressing, but I figured I’d try the writing thing for a few years and when that didn’t work out, that I’d get a boring office job. I never thought I’d have stuck it out with freelancing for more than 11 years, or write a book like this (or: convince someone to pay me to write a book like this). It’s a pleasant surprise.

As for physical activity, that was a bit fuzzier. I maybe saw myself having something to do with walking or hiking with dogs. Which hey I do right now anyway!

Q.Clearly, your book is intended for a wide audience, not “just” running enthusiasts. Who do you envision as a typical reader of this book, and why?

A.Anyone who has been somewhere dark and come out on the other side. It’s a lot about perseverance, and also the changing roles of women and how, because I found a lot of strength in myself, I was able to make the right decisions, even if I was course correcting for wrong turns.

The book is being marketed female – which makes sense since more women read than men and more women finish road races in the U.S. than men – but it’s gender neutral, I think. While I was writing it, a male friend who was just coming out of a divorce read it. He had the same reaction that a lot of women had. I’ve had non-runners read it too and told me it was just a good story. That was really the goal: to tell my story in a way a lot of people would understand and maybe see a bit of themselves too.

Q. Writing a memoir is notoriously challenging because it’s so personal and revealing. How have your parents, siblings, and former boyfriends reacted to the book?

A. I spoke to family members individually about what was coming. In some cases, I didn’t want them to be surprised. In others, I wanted to clarify details since memory can be fuzzy. My parents – that was the hardest part. My mom read through it in four hours. I told her she would decide if my father should read it (and she said yes!). I should point out that my parents are divorced. I’m lucky they’re still friends.

No word yet on the former boyfriends (though a few were interviewed at length during the writing process). My current boyfriend read it when it was still a Word document – though we weren’t dating then. So he knew what he was getting into!

Q. In the book, you seem especially close to your mother. Why does she inspire you?

A.She’s an incredible person. I don’t know any other way to describe it. It’s not really a spoiler alert to say that by the end of the book, my mom is running too. She picked it up at age 58. She wasn’t allowed to run in high school because she was a girl, and now she’s run 15 5ks, a 10 miler, done two triathlons and will be running her first half marathon in May. That’s the kind of determination this woman has. Almost everyone has cried at the same moment in the book, and it involves her. I cried writing it too.

Q.In addition to your mother, there’s another character in the book that has seen you through thick and thin – your dog, Emily. Does Emily run with you, or does she show her support in other ways?

A. Oh Emily! My little 14-year-old Jack Russell Terrier with a patch of fur the shape of a heart on her side. Emily used to run with me before we found out she has a heart murmur, so that was the end of that. Now she enjoys lying outside in the sunshine and long walks in the park near my house. Every night around 5 p.m. she forces me to stop work, walk her, then sit down so she can sit on my lap – and for that I am grateful. Emily’s first owner beat the heck out of her, and my goal has been to give her the life she deserves. Ten years and counting, and I think I’ve done just that.
To learn more about Jen, check out http://www.runningalovestory.com
or http://www.jenamiller.com. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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