New Author Visits For New Times

Teachers, librarians, and parents of homeschooled kids – I’ve revised my “Speaking” page to reflect the fact that I won’t be traveling for a while. I hope you’ll check out my offerings to breathe a little “authorly” depth into your school program.

It seems that life has changed for us all, and isn’t going to go back to normal for a long time.

In response to this new normal, I’m revising my author visits and presentations, and going “all virtual”. You’ll see on my speaking page that I’ve generated a set of packages that will hopefully meet your class or library group needs.

I’m open to modifications, as we all need to be flexible. But I hope you’ll contact me. Let’s build a better world for your students together!

Here is a video of me reading from THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE. Enjoy!

A Respite in Yellowstone

In these troubled times, I hope this brings you some respite, as a tiny mini-vacation. This video is especially suitable for young kiddos, ages 5-9.

I live not far from Yellowstone National Park. It’s a special place to me. My son and I spent many days when he was little wandering through the Park’s thermal features, watching the animals from a safe distance, and enjoying the natural beauty and wonder of the place. My first novel, FAITHFUL, is set in Yellowstone.

And so is my first picture book: VOLCANO DREAMS: A STORY OF YELLOWSTONE.

I know that lots of you may have had plans to visit Yellowstone this summer, and now you can’t because of the pandemic. I made a short video to show you some of the beauty of Yellowstone, and take you on a mini-vacation.

I hope you enjoy this partial reading of the book, with its wonderful illustrations by Marlo Garnsworthy, and some of the photographs I’ve taken in the Park over the years.

You can learn more about Yellowstone, the super volcano, and do some fun activities here. Also check the book page for downloadable resources.

Big Picture Story Coach – Now Open

This may seem like a strange time to open a business. Social isolation, social discord…it’s confusing, horrifying, often overwhelming. And we all feel helpless, much of the time.

Creating a Safe Space For Readers

But I think so many have so much to say, whether in story form or memoir, fiction or non-fiction. As a writer I use the deep well of emotions that come from responding to times like these to frame stories that I hope will help. As a writer my life’s mission is to create a safe space for children to deal with complex issues and emotions of their own.

I think it’s a natural extension of that mission – to create a safe space – that I decided to take on another role, and learn to become a book coach. Thanks to everything I’ve learned (and am still learning) from Author Accelerator, I’m opening a business, Big Picture Story Coach.

Creating a Safe Space For Writers

If you are a writer who is struggling with a manuscript, or a wishful writer wanting to begin to express your ideas on the page, book coaching may be for you. Book coaching is holistic, developmental, and my mission as a coach is to create a safe space for you as a writer to either learn the skills or conquer your current project.

Take a look at the link above to my coaching business, and feel free to contact me with questions.

Using insight and a dose of magic to change the world, one book at a time.

An Interview with Angie Smibert

I’m delighted to host Angie Smibert, whose next spooky book, THE TRUCE, is out today! I’m going to dive right in…….

Please give us a brief summary of THE TRUCE.

This is probably a bit more set up than summary. (Don’t want to give away any spoilers.)

In the third book of the Ghosts of Ordinary Objects series, it’s December 1942 in the small coal mining community of Big Vein, Virginia. By now, Bone Phillips (12) is growing accustomed to her a Gift, a family Gift, as her Mamaw calls, and maybe even begun to embrace it. Bone can see the stories or ghosts inside ordinary objects. But there’s one object her beloved Uncle Ash has forbidden her to touch: his dog tags from the first World War. He came back from that war a changed man, and every year about this time, he needs to escape for a while. He packs up the truck and his dogs and asks Bone to declare a truce with her dreaded Aunt Mattie while he’s gone. Reluctantly, Bone does. However, the truce is soon threatened by a discovery in the mine:  a body—wearing Uncle Ash’s dog tags. Bone has to use her Gift to solve the mystery. And that’s all I’ll say for now…except there is a ghost dog involved.

I love the premise of Bone’s gift. And Bone is such an interesting character. Tell us how you think of her – is there a bit of you in there?

The story started with a sense memory of swimming in the New River as a kid, much like Bone does in the beginning of Bone’s Gift, the first book in the series. I remembered the feeling of being that kid who didn’t want summer to end or to particularly grow up and be the ‘little lady’ that other people expected. Bone was born out of that feeling.

This is the third novel in the series. Will there be more?

That’s it for now! I’m playing around with a short story, though.

These three novels are set in rural Virginia, where you live. How do you feel about the connection to place in your writing?

Actually, I live in a city—Roanoke—in Southwest, Virginia. However, I grew up in Blacksburg, a small college town west of here. And my mother’s family is from McCoy, a rural area outside Blacksburg along the New River, where there were coal mines until the 1950s. One of them was called Big Vein. My grandfather and his brothers were miners there—until he got hurt. Then he took over his father’s store. In fact, I kept that store in the books. In many ways, writing these stories has been an exploration of this place that I came from. And as Eudora Welty wrote, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.”

You weave folklore into the story. Talk a bit about that.

Appalachian folklore is part of the place, the characters, and even the plots of the books. Bone loves stories, from folktales and legends to movies and books. However, she doesn’t like real-life stories—so, of course, that’s why I gave her the Gift of being able to see those.

In each of the books, Bone or one of the other characters—like Uncle Ash—is always telling a folktale or ghost story from the region. Plus I also used a particular story as the “spine” (for lack of a better word) of the plot. For instance, in Bone’s Gift, Bone’s life mirrors a story she’s telling called “Ashpet”—the Appalachian version of Cinderella. In Lingering Echoes—which is set at Halloween—the ‘spine’ tale is Stingy Jack, the origin story of Jack O’Lanterns. At the heart of The Truce, there’s a ghost dog story.

Ghost or spirit dog stories are popular in the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. (And also found in many other folklores.) A ghost dog might come to warn someone about an impending death. Or the big black dog might actually be there to claim a wicked person’s soul. However, in a few stories, the dog is protecting someone or some thing, such as a fabled silver mine. And as I said, in the Truce, there is a ghost dog and he/she might be near a mine.

The Truce is set at Christmas, which might not seem like a time for ghost stories. But it is! (Think A Christmas Carol!) An old Appalachian custom (as well as old Celtic/British one) was to tell ghost stories, particularly on Christmas Eve. (I won’t get into the whole Old Christmas day thing here!) This is probably a holdover from pagan Winter solstice practices of telling scary stories and making noise to drive away the spirits. So, of course, Bone is excited to tell some spooky tales for Christmas, but she also gets to live one involving a ghost dog.

For more on folklore and history in the series, please see my resource page:

What’s up next for you?

I’m working (slowly) on a spooky magical realism-type story set in the early 1970s in Appalachia that involves (so far) an old resort turned into an artist commune and a ghost or two. I’m also still teaching writing. That takes up a lot of my time lately. 😉

Thanks, Angie!

What I’m Learning When Starting Something New

In my last post I wrote about how I’m opening a new business, Big Picture Story Coach. This is the first time I’ve even thought about becoming a business owner. I know this might be a strange time to be starting something new but I’m excited. (Fortunately, this business is freelance and home-based.) I’m learning a few things along the way that I thought I’d share, as you might like some of these resources.

Taking a Course

Taking the Author Accelerator course was the most important step on this new path. For one thing, there’s a tremendous amount of craft-based knowledge in the program, so even if I hadn’t decided to become a book coach, I got my money’s worth. But Author Accelerator also provides templates for building a coaching business, everything from how to handle client needs to what to/how to charge. I took the additional Business course for an even deeper understanding, and I’ll be signing up for future masterminds and other add-ons. This was the most expensive investment I’ve made so far, but it’s already paying for itself in client fees.

Building a New Web Presence

My new business needed a URL, so the next thing I did was go to GoDaddy (where I have an account already for my other website URLs) and look up several possible names to find one not taken. I settled on Big Picture Story Coach because it said everything about my new business – that I am a story coach (not an editor) and that I work on the holistic side (not copyediting or ghostwriting). Purchasing that domain cost almost nothing.

I’m also a writer with a long-standing website in my own name, and I didn’t want to have to manage a brand-new extra website, or pay to build one. It turns out that I just need to add a page to my existing site, and link that URL to the existing site. That happens this week, with my favorite web designer Websy Daisy.

Managing the Business

After conferring with my accountant I decided to obtain a state LLC for the business, which gives me some protection and separation from my personal finances, and doesn’t cost much at all. As soon as I can get back to my bank (thanks, coronavirus) I’ll open a separate bank account and manage it through QuickBooks.

Designing For Fun

Nothing has to be fancy. You don’t need a logo. Hiring someone to design you a logo can cost a lot of money. I’m sure that if I went to the designer I use for my bookmarks, etc. he’d do a spectacular job. It’s a local business, by the way, and I love them and their quality results.

My homemade logo

But to save myself the hundreds of dollars and still have something fun, I made my own simple logo using Canva. Because my URL/LLC name doesn’t have a good visual, I added Fox Tales to my business name, and was able to create a logo by using my existing fox logo (that fox is an image that came from my husband’s family). I used the fox’s tail to represent a quill feather and added a drop to represent ink. Simple and clean, and Canva made it easy. I use Canva for all sorts of things, from Twitter posts to Facebook headers to posters.

From there I could design a letterhead, business cards (I love Moo for their quality and price), and templates for the forms to send to clients.

There are lots of other business tips and tricks that Author Accelerator taught me, and I can’t say enough good things about this group. If any of the things I’ve shared here helps you at all, let me know!

Stay well, be safe.

Books Have Never Been More Essential

Books are essential. I’ve always felt this way.

I was an avid reader as a kid – it was a family joke. If I couldn’t be found it was because I was hiding with my “nose in a book”. I’ve wanted to be a writer since third grade, when my teacher sent a poem I’d written into the town paper and I saw my name in print for the first time.

So it’s no surprise that I stuck it out, through many, many rejections, through many, many years learning the craft of writing, through going back for my MFA in writing, through the ups and downs of publishing, through changing agents, through books that failed and books that did well, through books that went out of print, to books I’m deeply proud to have written. I believe in the power of story to affect lives.

I believe in books.

And I think now that books – stories, whether true or imagined – are more essential than ever.

Last fall I embarked on something that came to me from out of the blue. I enrolled in a course with Author Accelerator that would teach me how to become a book coach.

This speaks not only to my love of reading, but also to my love of teaching. For many of my writing years I’ve been teaching at conferences and in workshops, on a monthly basis in my local SCBWI group, and I’ve taught language arts at the middle and high school levels. With book coaching I feel I can use all my skills in one-on-one interactions that are both greatly satisfying to me – and also to those I coach.

Book coaching is a bit like developmental editing. It’s reading and working with a client on a manuscript from start to finish, and helping that client reach their personal goal for their work.

I’m thrilled that after six months of taking the course, and completing the Practicums, I’ve been certified through the Advanced level of Author Accelerator’s Book Coach Certification Program.

In a few weeks I’ll be opening my business – Big Picture Story Coach – right here, as part of this website. Please check back after June 1, and do let me know if you’re curious about what I’ll be doing.

Making Trouble (For Your Characters)

This writing craft tip might feel a little too uncomfortably familiar at the moment. I know a lot of writers right now can’t find focus, and I hear you. Some days it’s like walking through wet cement. Navigating a terrible situation requires processing.

I hope this post helps you when you’re ready.

Our Stories, Ourselves

As I’ve said repeatedly in my craft discussions, the best stories are those that come from deep emotions, and the deepest emotional well is the one we tap from inside ourselves. But that task carries a conundrum.

As we connect with our characters in order to tap our own emotional resource, we tend to feel tied to those characters, and we can become protective. We don’t want Belle to suffer, so we build a wall around her. We keep her from getting hurt. We don’t let her do anything dangerous – she marches through the things that happen on the page and comes away unscathed and not responsible. We won’t let her heart be broken by that cute guy. We won’t let her be the murder suspect. We won’t take away her family, or drop her unarmed on that alien planet, or push her headlong into the dragon’s lair.

We sure won’t let her feel the effects of a pandemic.

And while that makes for the life we all want (especially right now), it makes for very poor fiction.

What Readers Need from Fiction

Readers search for a number of things when reading fiction. Escape, certainly. We want to leave the world behind for a few hours, get lost inside a world that is not our own. Language, often, as we enjoy the beauty of articulate construction.

But we also search, albeit mostly without realizing it, for lessons.

Why do you suppose that a lot of people right now are gravitating toward pandemic fiction? Albert Camus’s classic The Plague has risen from the past, and the more recent Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel recounts a viral epidemic much like our own, though deadlier than our own (we hope). Readers finding these books are looking for answers. They need to know how to behave, what to do, what to expect, and how to feel for those going through these difficulties.

Fiction is fiction, but the best writers who tackle subjects like these do extensive research and think broadly about the “what-ifs” and potential outcomes and emotional impacts. And that’s why their stories are so good.

Writing Tough Topics for Young Readers

Because I write for young readers my approach to writing about a difficult subject is tempered. I don’t want to terrify; but I do want to inform. Informing means making trouble for my protagonist because only by getting her into trouble will readers see how they can get themselves out. And just as importantly, they will feel empathy for a protagonist in a tough situation they have not experienced.

One approach to a tough topic for young readers might be to create a metaphorical story, which is one reason kids like “scary” or “spooky” stories, and mysteries, and fantasies, and science fiction. But we can’t lay off the difficulties our protagonists must face. If we do, we run the risk of not only creating a boring story but more importantly a story that cannot inform.

When you go back to writing, or if you’re fortunate enough to be writing now, do keep making trouble for your protagonists. You will connect with your readers, and they will find what they need from your stories.

How are you doing?? Are you able to write? What do you think will be the right topics for young readers?

We Can Change the World*

Last week I wrote about how artists struggle to work in the face of something terrible like this global pandemic. This week I want to write about a broader artistic issue. And don’t worry, I’ll get back to the minutiae of craft soon! But the world feels too…big right now. So please forgive my “big” talks.

Making Purpose-Driven Art

Last week I wrote:

Artists need to make art that will make people think – think about these disparities, think about the astonishing lack of governance from our national leaders, think about this economic division that has been a long time coming and we haven’t fixed it. We need to make art that will make people feel – feel empathy, feel guilt, feel motivation.

We need to make art that will shake the very ground on which we stand.

Here’s Eric Clapton to listen to while you read the rest:

The Generous Spirit

Writing from a place of emotion and empathy – making purpose-driven art – requires that we artists walk the walk.

I’ve been reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, and she talks about all manner of things but this one struck me. In her list of creative exercises/how-tos is one called “How to Be Lucky”.  And her answer is, be generous. It struck me because all of the “lucky” talented people I know – the ones who have made the best seller lists, found the right agents, reached audiences – the ones that many aspiring artists look up to – are truly, deeply generous.

By that Ms. Tharp means, when you are giving of your creative self, you are giving away good fortune. You are manifesting good karma. And good karma has a way of ricocheting back to the benefactor.

Mind you, I’m not suggesting that artists sacrifice their income by giving away hours of hard work and thoughtful effort. We all need to live in this world. I do school visits and I coach writers to supplement my income, as do so many colleagues. The kind of generosity Ms. Tharp is talking about (and I hope I can relate this truly) lies in the small moments. Directing someone to an article that speaks to their craft issue. Looking a child in the eyes and smiling and engaging as they hand you a book to sign. Being there for a colleague who needs encouragement or boosting. Small moments that add up to big movements.

I think what Ms. Tharp is talking about is kindness.

An Empathy Movement

There’s a lot going on today in the world that sucks away kindness. We are a world divided on many issues, some all too real, some wildly misguided. As artists we can have a role in changing the world.

I think the world has never been more fragile.

…i.e., the world has never been more ripe for change.

Art is powerful. By reaching into deep emotions – by building story lines that raise questions – by creating purpose-driven art – yes, we artists can make a difference.

An empathy movement is one in which we, artists, open the doors to reflection. We set choices before our audiences and let them decide. We create safe spaces for audiences to enter that allow them to examine themselves and societal constructs, without condemnation or evaluation.

An empathy movement has the power to go the distance.

An empathy movement also connects artists to one another, and I think that’s one of the best things that I’ve observed happening in the face of this current crisis – artists coming together to support one another and the world at large.

If you are struggling, I hope you will reach out. I hope you will find comfort. I hope you will be able to work – especially, to work, because we need your work – and to live.

For, all of us together, we artists, we generous and kind spirits, we have the power to change the world.

*With credit to Eric Clapton.


Out of Balance

When things are so out of balance, what happens to creativity? And what is the role of the artist?

On the Edge of Nowhere

Nothing like this pandemic has happened in our lifetime. In our country, 9-11 is the closest we can come to such social upheaval, or New Orleans after Katrina in the way this pandemic is affecting people of color. We’d all have to go back to World War 2 to feel it – but we’re on the edge of losing that generation. The Depression, the 1918 flu pandemic – ancient history. And in those past events we were able to come together, grieve together, try to fix it together, hold one another close, and then get back to work – together.

The lucky ones among us can sit tight. We have enough resources tucked away. We live in places with outdoor spaces that allow for relative freedom. We live in single-family homes. We can look at this stretch of time as time to create – no meetings, no appointments, no social engagements, no random shopping to interrupt the flow. Why, we can bake bread or cookies, and still get that novel written! Write a short story! Learn to draw! Play the guitar that’s been gathering dust forever!

But creativity doesn’t sit easily beside fear. The muse shies away from clamor and confusion. This is why so many of us, unburdened, still can’t find the strength or will to pursue our art.

More importantly, there’s a bigger issue lying in wait, and if we don’t see it yet, we will.

Art and Social Justice

The worst thing about this pandemic is that it has forced us into our own corners, even more than we’ve been cornered over the past four years. It will create a huge economic disparity that will drown the world.

People with few resources can’t afford to be out of work. Social distancing in a crowded apartment complex filled with multi-generational families is a joke. The health care system that has denied a segment of the population proper care is over-burdened by those who’ve been left out.

But working right now is dangerous, so how do people choose? Do I go to work for Instacart or Amazon and bring in enough money to feed my hungry family, or do I go to work and bring home death?

This is where the artist – especially those of us who have the luxury – can do something. Anything. We need to become socially conscious. We need to look up from the bread bowl and get angry. Really, deeply, in-our-bones angry.

And then we need to translate that anger into art.

Purpose-driven Art

Artists need to make art that will make people think – think about these disparities, think about the astonishing lack of governance from our national leaders, think about this economic division that has been a long time coming and we haven’t fixed it. We need to make art that will make people feel – feel empathy, feel guilt, feel motivation.

We need to make art that will shake the very ground on which we stand.

But to do that, artists need to know how to make people think. We need to understand how to make people feel. Inciting emotion is a subtle art, built on a bridge between artist and audience. For the writer, creating deep emotion on the page that is a call to action is a carefully-thought out process of building resonance with characters who express those emotions, and story lines that raise questions. Creating this kind of art is not a dictate but a dance. Purpose-driven art allows the audience in, lets it question and self-examine and choose.

Let’s make that kind of art.

We also will need – desperately – to support artists who come from those communities that suffer from economic disparities, because emerging from this time, with the world in tatters, it will be hard for underrepresented artists to gain footing.

The muse shies away from clamor and confusion, but she is battle-ready and waiting for the artist who feels purpose.

Please take care of yourself, and, when you’re ready, let’s get to work.

And here’s your next two chapters of ARK, my sci-fi young adult novel.

What’s At Stake?

Continuing the posts from a month or so back, when the world was a different place. But I still want to write, and share craft, so here you go.

Finally, a great story – and a great character – need stakes.

Stakes are raised through adding tension at both a macro and a micro level.

Take the Macro…

At a macro level, your story needs to be about something compelling. Note that compelling does not necessarily mean over-the-top, in-your-face action. It means that the character is emotionally invested in the outcome. It means that tension is exacerbated each time the character misses the mark, by ignoring obvious errors, by not understanding what’s happening, or by moving in the wrong direction and/or making poor choices.

As an example, consider any good romantic novel. The premise is always that the lovers will go through a series of push and pull moments. When boy loses girl, it’s usually because he has done or said something stupid, and he has to win her back. This is not action/adventure, but it must be “high stakes” for the couple in question. After all, it‘s about their future, their happiness – and if you are Jane Austin, it’s also about the happiness of their families and possibly even their friends, and maybe even the good of society at large. Those stakes are heightened when the writer heightens the romantic tension by withholding a good outcome until the last possible moment.

As Donald Maass says in Writing The Breakout Novel, high public stakes (“we will all suffer”) go hand in hand with high personal stakes (“I will suffer”), and it is the writer’s job to tap into the emotional heart of what is happening and present it to the reader.

And the Micro…

At a micro level, stakes are raised through diction and syntax. Short, punchy sentence structure produces a reaction in the reader’s brain, and the reader feels tension, anxiety, and dread. Word choice can also affect the reader’s response, as hard consonants create the feeling of abrupt or brutish action. And don’t forget that the right verb can create a punch in the gut sensation (just consider the verb “punch” versus the verb “hit”).

A careful writer will, at some point, spend time going through a novel slowly for just those moments, to heighten tension by changing words or sentences. This writerly skill is sometimes intuitive, but it can also be learned, and if you practice it, you’ll find it comes more naturally with time.

For more on this, see James Scott Bell’s Conflict and Suspense.

Writer Brain, Reader Brain

What this comes down to, as all the posts I’ve written in this series have made clear, is the emotional connection that must be made between reader and writer. The sensation of being lost in a book is brought about when the reader is no longer aware of the machinations of the writer but is, at a lizard-brain level, aware that “something big is going on” in the text.

Heightening the stakes in your work means paying attention, during later drafting/revision stages, to how and where you’ve created “high-stakes” moments, and to making things worse, if necessary. But it also means balancing those moments of high drama with moments when the reader (and the characters) can take a breath before moving to the next level of tension. Tension plays best in opposition to its release.

But best not to release for too long. Modern readers expect that moments of ease will be followed pretty rapidly by an increasingly higher-stakes game. And never let the reader forget the risk your character is taking by relaxing.

So, to repeat, a character’s emotional responses are always at the core of creating a great character, and thus a great story.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and questions.

And, as promised, here are the next two chapters of my YA sci-fi, ARK.