Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Burn

Last week we had a good friend over for dinner. He is someone who I respect as a poet and person. After dinner he told us about how he and another friend had gotten together and decided to do a “burn”. It's not what you might be thinking.

He explained that they gathered their early manuscripts, notebooks, revisions and anything earlier than the last three years of writing, built a fire and then burned their work.

I asked a ton of questions like: Did they sort it? Did they read through it first? Was there any particular order to the burning? All of the answers were no. He stated that it was just a fire and two guys burning what needed to be shed.

What a concept, I thought. Especially for me who has boxes of hard copies, years of notebooks and back-up USB drives to my back-up files online. I wondered if I could do some burning.

It wasn't until I received my latest rejection letter that I put the thought into action.

What was I holding onto all this stuff for anyway? I wasn't planning to wallpaper a room with my rejection letters; they were in a box in the basement. And I am pretty sure that even if I become a bestselling writer, no one is going to buy any of my early manuscripts.

So I started the process and after three days of digging and sorting I ended up with two boxes and a milk crate full of writing. I kept the notebooks and journals from 2009 to now (seven to be exact), a couple critiques, and my very first book of poetry I wrote (in 8th grade) but everything else had to go.
Extraneous stuff that needs to go.
My husband, Tim, was kind enough to help out by clearing a place in the snow and collecting some wood (albeit wet). I carried out the milk crate of paper and I started burning.

We sat around the fire and put in page after page, notebook after love letter after manuscript. And it took longer than I thought. In fact we didn't even get to the other boxes.
Aftermath of "The Burn".
But I can't even begin to explain the catharsis. It was even better than I had imagined. Unlike my friend, I read some stuff aloud and some quietly to myself. And though it was interesting to see where I used to be as a writer. It was amazing to realize how much I have grown as a writer.

My husband said that it was a great example of living in the now. And he proceeded to gather up some old photos.

We have another burn planned. And we might make a party of it. Invite some friends, drink some wine and burn collectively.

I encourage you to give it a try. Even if it's just one page, just one sentence.

Regina Gort

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Orson Scott Card: Marketing Genius?

So I finished Ender's Game, and wrote a brief review of it for Goodreads because I'm curious what books will get recommended to me once I do my 20 reviews. I gave it five stars.

Homo- or paederotic? Really?
I knew my stepson liked the book. He's the one who recommended I read it. So, thanks to the wonder of Facebook, I messaged him in his apartment at FSU asking him to rate the book and tell me what he liked best about it. Here's what I got back about thirty minutes later. I liked it. I'd give it 4 stars. It was a bit of a heady and political book, which gives it controversy, but the story is very good, and that's what it should be about. Plus he's remarkable about describing battles in 3D.

After I posted my review, I scrolled through a few of the other 11,000 reviews and 213,000 ratings. Seriously. And I quickly realized something. People are deeply polarized by this book. The majority of reviews are positive. The bulk of negative ones talk about the book's "one dimensional cardboard cut-outs," "infallible, mostly emotionless and paper thin protagonist," "side stories that didn't add to plot development," primitive writing", and "pathetic New Age garbage." One reader said, "I threw my book across the room after I finished it."

But then I stumbled on criticism that made me do a double-take. "Bizarre homoerotic subtext....It creeped me out and I'm gay." "Creepy pedophile vibe." "I believe the author's conceit and prejudice played a big part in my being unable to enjoy this book [throwing] homo or perhaps even paedo-erotic undertones into starker relief."

Huh. To me, the author's mention of boys in various stages of undress as they prepared for bed or showered, wasn't as weird as how the lone prepubescent girl in the barracks was naked right along with them. But this was a tiny part of the story and I moved on to embrace larger concepts.

The sex reference criticisms made me wonder, so I did a little checking on Orson Scott Card. He appears to be a very opinionated man. And a very religious man. He writes a critique column in his local newspaper: Uncle Orson Reviews Everything and blogs his opinions freely: The Ornery American. He wrote a rambling diatribe in 2004 proclaiming that marriage is a sacred institution between one man and one woman (as well as stating that men and women are inherently foreign to each other.) He spent an awful lot of time explaining how gay people can marry: all they have to do is make their marriage a sham  by marrying someone of the opposite sex. He seems to be endorsing closet homosexuality. Is outrage over this article the genesis of reading sexual overtones to what I viewed as simple scene descriptions? 

The controversial and beloved Orson Scott Card

Whatever the answer is, I figure the way he gets his name out there and the fact that he doesn't shy away from expressing himself probably attracts more readers than repels them. Even if someone's expressing outrage about him, they're saying his name. I bet people have read the book just to check out the sexual overtones themselves. I mean the guy's got 11,000 reviews written about this book just on Goodreads. And I personally don't care what anyone privately thinks if they can write a good story.

What about you? Would you ever refuse to read an author's work of fiction if you disagreed with his/her personal philosophy? Do you think your disagreement with the author's personal philosophy would color your reading of his story?

Kim Van Sickler

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Gloria Steinem

By Juliet C. Bond

I am the child of a feminist.  
One of my earliest memories is of being plopped onto a wide summer lawn alongside my sister, watching as my mother joined a group of women who chatted and adjusted their signs.  I remember the warm sunshine and the eager energy around us.  The women's faces lit up with the joy of feeling powerful; a rare experience during a time when women still couldn’t get a credit card unless it was in their father or husband’s name.  In fact, there were so many things women couldn’t do in the seventies that we take for granted now.

·       In junior high, girls took home economics and boys took shop, 

·       Babies were automatically given their father’s name at birth.  If there were no father, the certificate was stamped, “illegitimate.”  

·       There were few childcare centers available to women who needed to (or wanted to) work.

·       In elementary schools, virtually all of the teachers were female.  In fact, there are a few states where it is actually illegal for men to teach grades lower than sixth, on the basis that it’s unnatural or dangerous.

·       The National Honor Society kicked girls out if they “got themselves pregnant” (this one is still true today.)

·       Only two percent of the military were female, and those were primarily nurses.

·       Women workers could still be fired or demoted for being pregnant.

·       Women made about fifty-two cents for every male dollar.
      Over the next twenty years, women fought and won the right to end sex discrimination in hiring.  They went to battle to win the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, Title IX, housing discrimination protections and won the right for married women to legally access contraception. They even pushed so hard for the Equal Rights Amendment (first proposed by Alice Paul in the 1920's) that, for the first time in fifty years, it passed through congress.

But it didn't pass the ratification process.  

The Equal Rights Amendment is now in it's 112 year before the senate, still unratified, and its supporters are still fighting for the simple words, "equality of sexes," to be added to the U.S. Constitution.

Growing up, I learned that all of these issues were still, in many ways, problems for the women of my generation.  I faced my own repeated experiences of sexual harassment and even assault.  I found myself belittled or ogled at by male employers and I constantly got into arguments with my male friends when they made sexist jokes.  

    (My little brother, me and my sister.  I'm about 17 years old here 
and just coming into my own as a feminist.)

In college, I chose classes in gender studies because the second wave made those classes a reality.  And while working as a social worker, I was keenly aware that the welfare system was the literal bottom of the barrel for America.  This was the place where poor women and children scraped and scrambled for bare bones survival.  I remember a client who lost her baby’s formula when the state found out she had a live-in boyfriend.  After all, a male presence automatically assumes that women have a secondary form of income and no longer need the state to be, "her man."  Of course, without food, the children became officially neglected, placed in foster homes and fell into my lap.  Another client had so many roaches in her cheap, government subsidized housing, that they were crawling in waves across the kitchen.
After fifteen years of working within this system I needed a break and began teaching part time while I raised my three children.  My first classes were solely Social Work and Justice Studies but I got a call one day.  Would I be willing to teach a class on Women in US Society?  I jumped at the chance.
I have been teaching this class for almost six years.  We go over women's history before moving into contemporary issues and my students are enthusiastic and outraged when they learn about the long hard fight women have been waging for over one hundred years.  Most of the time, my students have never heard of the first wave feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ida B. Wells, Mary Wolstonecraft or Francis Willard.  

They have no idea that women traveled the country for years fighting for voting rights, that they legislated for the right to divorce and were even tortured in their efforts to gain the legal freedoms we enjoy today, And to my students, even the second wave leaders like Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem or Dorothy Pitman Hughes are only vaguely familiar names with no knowledge of their accomplishments to back up the name recognition.  It's not their fault.  These women, their battles and achievements, are not in their high school textbooks.

I teach my students about these women.  I'm proud to do that.  I'm excited to walk into class and share their stories every day.  I not only owe it to women like my mother - who fought so I could be hired as a college professor and even make the same pay as my male colleagues - I owe it to my daughter and her contemporaries too.  I love the looks on my student's faces, their righteous indignation and their sunlit expressions as they rev up their engines.  They will be the next generation of strong leaders who make the world a less hostile place for women.  
So when I got an email from a colleague with the question, would you be willing to have the writer/activist Gloria Steinem in your class next semester?  I nearly fell off my chair.  

                  Gloria Steinem the Gloria Steinem, is coming to my class!

                  I called my husband.
                  "Wow," he said.  "That's like Buddha visiting a Buddhism class…"
                  I laughed out loud.  Yep, I thought.  That's exactly what it is.  
On February 7th, I will host the most famous and arguably, the most influential, living feminist leader.  This time, I'm no little girl sitting in the grass.  This time, I get to join the group of women standing on the lawn, preparing for the protest.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sharing the Love

A big bloggy thank you to Dawn Malone over at Here's the Story for passing on the Liebster Blog Award to us. The award is designed to recognize blogs with under 200 followers. It appears that recognized blogs are supposed to spotlight five blogs who should get the award next and so on. In the spirit of Liebster Blog then, here are some promising sites we at Swagger enjoy, and encourage you to visit:

Hands on Books: Nonfiction for Kids with Fun Activities
Tasha Seegmiller
Juliana L. Brandt
YA Fusion
Smack in the Middle

"Liebster" in German means beloved. So was this award created by a German blogger? Does anyone know?

Swagger Writers

Saturday, January 21, 2012


When I planned to take my elderly aunt to an event on the riverfront, I wanted to drop her off close to the entrance before I parked my car, but the entrance wasn’t set up for that. I was put in touch with a woman in charge, who told me a place to drop my aunt, and offered to meet us there, with a wheelchair if necessary. She said she’d sit with my aunt while I found a parking space. I recognized this nice woman’s name, though my married name was unfamiliar to her. We went to kindergarten together—and I hadn’t seen her since.


Years ago, my parents visited my uncle on an army base in D.C. Uncle was an Air Force Colonel. He had tasks to finish before he could give them a tour of the base, so he assigned a young corporal to take them for a snack while they waited. The corporal turned out to be a neighbor, who had grown up down the street from us.


More recently, my brother took a trip and ran into a cousin of ours in the airport—in Germany!

More coincidence.

Coincidence. Happenstance. Serendipity. Whatever word you use, we see it all the time. But when we write a fictional story with coincidence, we are told it doesn’t seem realistic.

I asked a workshop instructor about this, and he said, “While coincidence does happen in real life, when we see it in fiction, it feels contrived.”

If I write about Wesley, a young Pennsylvanian, who visits relatives in the South when the Civil War breaks out, and I have Wesley join the Confederate Army with his Southern relations, can I write that Wesley is killed during the Battle of Gettysburg only a stone’s throw from his northern home?

Too contrived?

I can write this story as non-fiction because Wesley Culp’s story is true. He died on Culp’s Hill, land named for his family. Yes, history is full of coincidence, but fiction isn’t allowed to be.

What are your feelings on coincidence in fiction? Too contrived for your taste?

Kathy Cannon Wiechman

Thursday, January 19, 2012

You are a Success!

As I  look back at my goals for 2011 and look ahead toward new goals, it is easy to become discouraged. I decided to post a poem by Marge Piercy that reminds me to keep my perspective of what success really is.


Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.

Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don't have a baby,
call you a bum.

The reason people want M.F.A.'s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else's mannerisms

is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you're certified a dentist.

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

Regina Gort

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Books that 14-year-old Girl Scouts love :)

Imagine how thrilled I was when my daughter, who would rather be texting or playing games on her iPhone (bought for her by my ex-husband, not me), read a book I suggested, AND clamored for more. Not only did she cry over it, bemoan the MC's fate, and talk to me about the characters like they were actual people, she wrote a book review for Amazon. (I wrote the title for her.) Here it is.

5.0 out of 5 stars
Fourteen-Year-Old Reluctant Reader Couldn't Put My Beginning Down.
December 27, 2011
by Claire Omerza
This review is from: My Beginning (Paperback)

My mom's always trying to get me to read and I also have to read for school. Usually when I read, I set goals, like finding a page I'm going to read to or a chapter I'm going to finish. But when everyone in my family read the Hunger Games books, I did too. I really liked them. And when I read Melissa Kline's My Beginning, I felt the same suspense I did for the Hunger Games series.

To be completely honest, when the story started, I felt like I was Ivory and Aidan was my boyfriend. When bad things happened to them, I cried. When things were good with them, I was happy. So even though the story is set in the future and that makes it interesting, the idea of Ivory wanting to find happiness with a guy she likes, and then all of the problems they have to overcome to be together, is something I really relate to.

As soon as I finished the book, I texted my best friend Emily that she's got to read it.

Claire claimed she is Melissa Kline's Number One fan and that makes me happy, since Melissa's a fellow Swagger and a terrific author and person. But then I started thinking about the other Cadettes in my Girl Scout troop. Some of them are readers and some of them aren't. What books excite them?

Girl Scout Troop 71009 weighs in on their favorite books

Nicole, an award-winning poet, rattled off dozens of books that make her swoon. But when I pressed her for her absolute favorite, she settled on The Sister's Grimm series by Michael Buckley. Nicole loves long books AND series because she says they give her more time to hang out with the characters she's bonded with.

Tina, a non-reader, had no interest in recalling a favorite book. "I don't read except what I have to for school," she says. But, she is writing a screenplay for a movie. It's probably full of slapstick humor because this former monosyllabic speaker has morphed into a physical comedy kind of gal. I think her stints as Magenta in our troop's "Rocky Horror Picture Show" re-write and as Chef Male in our original production of "The Mystery of the Missing Meatball" changed her life forever.

Megan R., said Lauren DeStefano's Wither is her favorite book. It's the first in a series and it's about young girls kidnapped and forced into polygamous marriages. This shocked the hell out of me. Megan is a quiet girl who raises guinea pigs for show. I didn't even think she liked boys. I thought her favorite book would feature animals.

Megan W. also surprised me with her great taste. Not that she doesn't have taste. I just didn't expect it to be so classic. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien is her favorite book.

Amy, our tomboy, gave her highest mark to Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian (Book Five) by Rick Riordan. Proof that readers do devour the entire series!

Carli, our quiet, sensitive girl, unhesitatingly told me that Hiding Edith by Kathy Kacer is the best book she's ever read. Part of a Holocaust Remembrance Series, this Diary of Anne Frank-like work is a non-fiction account of Edith Schwalb going into hiding after the Nazi invasion of France.

Bethany, a Power of the Pen writer and unabashed Christian, loved Soul Surfer, the real story of surfer Bethany Hamilton, the girl who lost her arm in a freak shark attack. When I asked her about the book, she launched into a detailed account of how Bethany's positive spirit has helped so many other accident victims.

Gillian, a jokester, liked Freak the Mighty, by Rodman Philbrick, a book about the unlikely friendship of a slow learner stuck in the body of a teenage giant, and a tiny Einstein in leg braces. It was made into the movie Mighty.

Finally Kathryn, a middle schooler born with the soul of a (nice) schoolmarm, could not stop raving about Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, a book about a former student who reunites with a favorite college professor after the teacher's diagnosed with cancer.

An impressive array of titles representing multiple genres. My girls make me proud.

Kim Van Sickler

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Highlights Magazine's "The Timbertoes"

One of my favorite tasks is writing The Timbertoes each month for Highlights. The little wooden family was created by John Gee many years ago (he did the writing and illustrating; I just write), and the comic strip has appeared in just about every issue of the magazine for more than 60 years.

I believe I'm only the fourth person ever to have the byline. Gee did it until this death, and then writer-illustrator Sid Quinn took over for a long stretch. My former colleague Marileta Robinson did a wonderful job with the strip until her retirement a couple of years ago, and I was honored when I was asked to take her place. Each strip includes 12 panels and a total of less than 60 words, so it requires a very tightly written story.

And that's the key: the story. There isn't much room for character development or plot, but there has to be some of that. Most important, is an element of adventure or surprise. In this month's story, for example, Pa Timbertoe makes musical instruments for the family (he's a carpenter). They play very badly, but they enjoy it, so they keep playing and get better at it. Lots of noise. And the dog joins in by howling.

If I can make myself laugh a bit each month, I figure I've accomplished my goal for the script. It's a long, proud legacy to live up to, and I don't take it lightly.

Rich Wallace

Thursday, January 12, 2012

10 Questions For Every Writer in 2012

We often start a new year by re-evaluating our lives in general, but have you ever re-evaluated who you are as a writer? Why not start the year by checking in with your inner writer and see if your likes/dislikes, goals, or writing preferences have changed. You might be surprised! Here are some helpful questions to get you started. Answer spontaneously and have fun with it!

1. How do you define "writer"? Do you consider yourself to be one?
2. What is your passion when it comes to writing? (novels, non-fiction, poetry, short-stories, children's books, journaling, etc.)
3. What do you read as a writer? What types of books have you read in the past six months?
4. Do you write what you read or would you consider it?
5. What two genres stand out in your mind the most?
6. Do you write for others, or is your writing strictly private?
7. Would you like to share your writing with others someday?
8. What is the biggest gift that writing has given to you?
9. What keeps you motivated to write?
10. What writing goals have you set for yourself in 2012?

Happy Writing! ~Melissa Kline

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Nowhere to hide in three-word sentences

A couple of words about the book I read, Thinking About Memoir by Abigail Thomas. It was short and chock-full of good advice. I found the following exercise challenging but interesting: “Take any ten years of your life and reduce them to two pages. Every sentence has to be three words long - not two, not four, but three words long. You discover there’s nowhere to hide in three-word sentences.”  How true!

I am currently reading a book I received as a gift on Christmas morning coming out of church. It’s a spiritual memoir, My Life with the Saints by James Martin, SJ.  Thus far, I really enjoyed the chapter on Thomas Merton. I have 14 chapters to go. I don’t know why, but I’m really drawn to this book. It seems to be just what I need at this particular time in my life. I've heard it said, "God works in mysterious ways…"

Graziella Buonanno

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Kelly Milner Halls on "Girl Meets Boy," Free Speech and The Writing Process

By Juliet C. Bond

On the first night of my first writing workshop, I attended a barbeque.  It was a beautiful summer evening.  A tent had been erected on a wide back lawn located on the lip of a lake.  Some of the writers were taking boat rides, others stood in circles getting to know one another in the gentle breeze.  
I wandered around making small talk, smiling like I was comfortable when I wasn’t yet. At dinner, I took my plate and sat across from a genuinely smiling woman.  Maybe she doesn’t know anyone here either, I thought.   I introduced myself, proudly sharing that I’d recently had a picture book published.  She said her name was Kelly and told me that she wrote non-fiction picture books.  I can’t remember why, but I shared with her that my favorite children’s book author is Chris Crutcher.  I confided that I’d even sent him an email once telling him how much I admired his stories.
“Really?” She laughed.  “He’s my boss, and one of my best friends.”

It turned out that Kelly Milner Halls was on the faculty of that writing workshop and that she is Chris Crutcher’s assistant.  Chris Crutcher, the only writer I have ever felt compelled to enough to put on my dork hat and send a fan letter to, and I sat right down next to one of his best friends at my first dinner with other writers.  That had to be fate or something even better.  
It also turned out that Kelly is one of the nicest people I have had the pleasure of getting to know.  She has a laser sharp wit, a heart as big and warm as any working hot tub and she's an immensely skilled writer herself.
In fact, Kelly’s own list of publishing accomplishments are too long to tackle!  She’s written thirteen picture books, numerous craft, career and science books and over 1,500 articles, bylines and reviews. Her latest book, Girl Meets Boy, is a series of short stories in pairs that vary from the female and then male point of view.  It’s YA fiction and she contributes her own important piece alongside some of the greatest writers in YA fiction today, including Chris Crutcher. 
Since that first meeting, Kelly and I have become fast friends.  She's given me writing advice, we've debated political issues and we even of shared another mind-blowing meal with other writers when she came to Chicago for ALA.

A few weeks ago, I picked up an ARC of Girl Meets Boy at the NCTE conference.  Kelly was eager for my feedback but, after I read it, I realized that this book is far more than a series of fun stories.  The depth of the issues each character grapples with and their scathingly real voices blaze right through the reader's skin.  They also invite a host of questions I was dying to ask Kelly.  So I did. 

Me: You said in the introduction of Girl Meets Boy that, “truth is subjective.”  In the book, the reader is allowed into the minds of both the boy’s and the girl’s head in a series of short stories by various (awesome) writers.  How did you direct the authors ensure that points of view varied in their subjective truths but stayed authentic?

Kelly: One author, in each pair, took the lead and created the first story.  I asked them only to write a story with a male/female relationship of some kind featured.  It could have been anything -- love, hate, friendship, infatuation, healthy or unhealthy, as long as one boy and one girl were impacted by the turn of events.  I also encouraged them to write the story they've always wanted to write, no holds barred.  I think the writers did a fantastic job in creating diverse scenarios, independent of one another, as well as stories with deep emotional commitment and meaning.

Me: So I just want to jump into the meat of yours and Chris’s story because it was compelling and because I struggled so with the female protagonist.  I know she was damaged by a series of painful experiences but she read as almost ruthless, even when I arrived at her point of view.  In fact, one reviewer described her as a “dangerous girl,” and in your introduction, you described her as “toxic.”   What motivated you to write this girl?

Kelly: I knew a girl in high school who had been molested by her step father.  She talked about how she used her power over him to get the things she wanted.  She was so open, about it, so calculated -- it blew my mind, even then.  She didn't show that angry edge, but I kept thinking how angry I would have been if the people I was supposed to trust exploited me.  So I gave Wanda that edge.  She was dangerous because she felt she had nothing to lose.  She was, in her own mind, ruined -- unworthy of love.  So lust was all she had left.  And there are so many girls out there who fear the same things are true in their lives.  She was toxic, but that was her survival skill.
Me: I was also intrigued by the fact that Wanda wanted to have sex.  I am the advisor to a group of feminist students at Columbia College (called The F-Word) and we’ve just begun to embrace the concept and envision activities around the “power of yes.”  By that I mean, the necessity of girls and women feeling unashamed of their own desire.  There is so much confusion for young men and young women in a sexual exchange because “good” girls are supposed to say no even if they want to say yes.  This tends to put the boy in a situation where he has to push in order to find out if “she really means no.”  For girls who really don’t want to have sex, the exchange can escalate to date rape.  For girls who do want to have sex, they have to pretend they don’t in order to avoid being seen as “slutty.”  So I liked that Wanda was unafraid and unashamed of her sexuality – or was she?

Kelly: No, you're right.  Wanda loved and fully embraced her sexuality.  It was the one place she felt safe and sheltered from her own sense of worthlessness. She didn't have to wonder if she was good at it, because the response was so immediate and so easy for her to recognize.  And in those physical moments, she had power over her body and, in many ways, over her partner's body, too.  She knew she had her sexual strengths.  It was love she doubted.  

Me: The cover of the book is eye-catching.  There is something all consuming about the way the couple is draped over the tree looking as though they are completely exhausted and removed from the world. Did you have any input in the cover of this book?

Kelly: Chronicle Books created that cover and revealed it to me.  So I had no input at all, but I really love it. 

Me: I also thought it was wonderful to include the story of a transsexual character.  There are also mixed race couples, couples whose gender constructs are flipped (the girl is the protector and pursuer if the smaller boy) and a gay character.  You have a link on your web page about your commitment to free speech, any concerns that this book will be banned due to the transsexual content (or any of the conceivably “divergent” content for that matter.)

Kelly: There is not a doubt in my mind, if the book is widely read, it will be widely challenged.  That's not what we set out to do, but after working for Chris for so long, I know it's probable.  Telling the truth so often draws fire.  Sara Ryan and Randy Powell's story about a transgendered character could make it more likely, but I love the story.  I think they handled the awkward quality of some personal relationships in the lives of transsexual people with compassion and candor -- without apology.  It hope it rings true for other kids trying to traverse those waters.  I hope it helps them feel a little less alone.

Me: You have been working with Chris Crutcher for over ten years, how do you think his writing has influenced your own?

Kelly: Of course it has, but not because I work for him -- not because we're friends.  His work influences mine because he is my favorite author, apart from our friendship.  He says I can't be objective, but he's wrong.  I am a tough, tough reader.  My patience for fiction that is less than authentic is almost non-existent.  But when I read Crutcher's books, I am always astonished by how honest he is in crafting his characters and their challenging lives.  He's been accused of stacking hardships against his protagonists to build sympathy, but anyone who has worked with at-risk kids knows he could double the trouble without leaving the realm of possibility.  When it rains, it pours in the lives of troubled teens because one thing leads to another and another and another.  He tells the truth, and I hope I do too.  If I can't, I won't put it out there.  In so many ways, his courage sets the benchmark for all YA authors hoping to write realistic fiction.
Me: What’s your writing process? Do you have to get into a special zone, time or place to write?

Kelly: Mine is a little weird because I am known for my nonfiction for much younger readers, and I love those books too.  So I tackle my nonfiction deadlines first, because nonfiction interviews are easier to arrange in traditional working hours.  Then I work on fiction at night.  In a way, nonfiction is my day job, while fiction is what I do after work.

Me: I have a friend who gave me a couple of tiny gremlin-heads I keep by my desk with the quote, “It is not our task to eliminate the gremlins of self-doubt but to educate them.” Do you have any advice for keeping away the gremlins of self-doubt?

Kelly: My daughter, Kerry is also a writer.  The three of us -- Kerry, Crutcher and I -- had breakfast not too long ago.  Kerry had hit a rough patch on her work-in-progress and Chris offered to help.  As she described the doubts she had, her fears, I kept trying to reassure her, to take the sting out of her confusion.  Chris shot me that, "Hush!" look, and it confused me, but I trust him, so I shut my trap.  Later, he called me and I asked why he'd had that reaction.  He said, "Kelly, stop trying to alleviate her discomfort.  It's necessary.  It's part of the writing process." 

To me, the trick is to balance or embrace the fear and to write through it -- to recognize almost everyone's first drafts are pretty bad, but writing is truly a process.  Write the rough first draft, then revise to a smoother second draft.  Stick it out through the third draft, the fourth draft, the fifth draft; whatever it takes to produce the final work that makes it look so easy and natural, once people read it.  

Fear isn't your enemy.  It's a part of the process, so relax and let it be. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012


Show, don’t tell. The writer’s mantra. I prefer to say Don’t tell me, take me there. There’s more to accomplish than showing. We need to be in our characters' heads and see what they see, but we also need to hear, touch, feel, smell, and taste.

Since much of my writing is historical fiction, I read volumes to learn what my characters experience. I try to go to locations where my characters would have been. Those places are different now, but it helps to get a glimpse of a real place.

Whenever I can, I go a step further to make my details authentic. A current WIP takes place during the Civil War. Before I wrote a battle scene, I talked to firearms experts about the weapons of the day. I asked my experts about the smell of black powder, but couldn’t get a satisfactory answer. So I told my husband to ask some friends.

Word got around about what I needed, and a friend showed up with a black powder muzzleloader. He not only let me smell the powder, but he let me hold the gun and feel its weight in my hands. He taught me to load it and fire it. (Thanks, KB and Jim D!) I now know what it feels like to fire my MC’s weapon. I know the smell of black powder both before and after it’s fired. I know the kick to my shoulder and how frustrating a misfire is. At least I wasn’t facing down the barrel of an enemy when that happened!

When my character had his arm amputated as a result of the battle, I talked to amputees. But when my MC was going to be in water, I had to take that further step once again. I had my husband tie my arm—and I went in the water to see how it was to swim with only one arm. I had him time my swimming with both arms and again with one arm to see if and how much it slowed me down.

Taking these extra steps not only gives me authentic details for my stories, it’s a real kick—and not just to my shoulder!

What do you do to ensure you're providing authentic details?

Kathy Cannon Wiechman

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Best Movies of 2011

Here's Swaggers last "Best of 2011" posts:

Let me say right now that I don't get out to movies much. My kids would say that RIO and Rango topped the chart. And I totally didn't see H.P. First one I didn't see in the theater (my priorities have changed a bit). I also had no intention of going anywhere near Breaking Dawn.

For me in 2011, the movie highlights were The Help and The Muppets. The screen adaptation of The Help was so true to the book and well done. And really it didn't get any better for me than a comeback by my favorite gang of weirdos in The Muppets movie. Bringing "The Rainbow Connection" to a new generation was priceless for me (especially when my three-year-old left the theatre singing "Mahna Mahna").

But now that it's 2012, I have to say I'm planning on making time to watch Hunger Games.

What movies inspired you in 2011? Which ones are you looking forward to seeing in 2012?

Gina Gort