Don Quijote with Kids

During an incredible summer with the Spanish half of our family, we did our best to bring Don Quijote de la Mancha to life for our seven-year-old twins. Step one of the indoctrination had them learning how to properly recite the first line: “En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor.” Check!

Once that was accomplished, there are a lot of Quijote activities in and around Madrid. Stops for us included the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. You can only enter the library on a guided tour, but the library also houses a free museum with some really cool bookish attractions, especially the kid-friendly Quijote room.

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We also hit passed by a bit of the Ruta de Don Quijote in Toledo, but perhaps the coolest event we found was a free walking tour through Alcalá de Henares (the birthplace of Cervantes) with actors playing the parts of Quijote and Sancho. Our girls will not soon forget that experience!P1060778
This was a pretty Quijote-heavy trip, but we had also wanted to get back to Granada to visit the houses where Federico Garcia Lorca lived (one in the city and one outside of town), but unfortunately, there simply wasn’t time this visit. At least we paid FGL a visit at his statue in Madrid:

P1070207Finally, the best tribute to Don Quijote and Cervantes is reading. We found so many beautiful books throughout the trip! Some of us might have cried about the books we had to leave behind, but at least we brought a nice stack home:

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Fall of Poppies Cover Reveal and Giveaway

As a World War I history buff and big fan of historical fiction author, Heather Webb, I’m thrilled to participate in the cover reveal of Fall of Poppies (William Morrow, March 2016), a collection of short stories about loss, longing, and hope in the aftermath of World War I. The collection features bestselling authors such as Hazel Gaynor, Jennifer Robson, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig and is edited by Heather Webb. I for one can’t wait to get my hands on this book!

In case my excitement isn’t enough, a few quick teasers about some of the stories:

A squadron commander searches for meaning in the tattered photo of a girl he’s never met…

A Belgian rebel hides from the world, only to find herself nursing the enemy…

A young airman marries a stranger to save her honor—and prays to survive long enough to love her… The peace treaty signed on November 11, 1918, may herald the end of the Great War but for its survivors, the smoke is only beginning to clear. Picking up the pieces of shattered lives will take courage, resilience, and trust.

Within crumbled city walls and scarred souls, war’s echoes linger. But when the fighting ceases, renewal begins…and hope takes root in a fall of poppies.

And now for the big reveal of this beautiful cover!

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Finally, if that’s not enough, there’s also a giveaway! Enter here for a chance to win print copies of After The War is Over, A Memory of Violets, and Land of Dreams to celebrate the release of Fall of Poppies.

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Making the Most out of PitchWars

It’s almost that time of year again, and as a proud member of the 2014 PitchWars mentee family, I thought sharing my experience from last year might help 2015 PitchWars hopefuls decide whether or not to enter and how to make the most out of it.

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First off, this contest is truly different from other contests. Most online contests help you get your work in front of agents, and yes, this contest does that too, but that’s only the final–and honestly least important–part of the process. While a crazy-high percentage of the 2014 PW family is now agented (with several book deals already announced!), most of us got our agents through traditional slush. (See my own agent story here.)

If you decide to enter, you’ll see that PitchWars, like many other aspects of publishing, depends a lot on timing. The point of the contest is to devote two months to revising the novel, so having a complete, polished (but not too polished) manuscript is key. Basically, if the project needs so much work that two months won’t be enough time to finish revisions, or if it’s so close to ready that it doesn’t need an overhaul, PitchWars probably isn’t for your manuscript. Likewise, while it’s great if it’s a completely unqueried, virgin-to-the-trenches manuscript, having sent out a few queries isn’t going to get in the way of a successful PitchWars stand.

The chance to be paired with an experienced writer (mine was the amazing Sarah Guillory) who hasn’t read your project is a gift, and the time and effort of the mentors to help you get your work ready is without a doubt the best part of the contest. When I entered, I had two goals in mind: to make my particular manuscript better, and to learn more about improving my writing in general. There’s nothing like one-to-one attention to achieve goals like those!

Another huge benefit of the contest is the writing friendships formed. You might have noticed I called the other members of the 2014 group my “PitchWars family” in the first paragraph, and it couldn’t be more true. Many of us connected from the contest in an online, secret group, where we have a safe place to pick each other up, ask questions, and cheer successes. It hasn’t been an easy road for anyone, and we’re there for each other like crazy.

So while the agent round is fun and exciting, and PitchWars is absolutely one of the best contests out there, do it for the right reasons, and the 2015 group will be just as awesome as the 2014 one. GOOD LUCK!

 

Summer Reading: Beyond the List

I have to admit it: getting the suggested summer reading list from my twin girls’ school district is kind of like nerd Christmas for us: fondly remembering some books on the list they’ve loved (Little Bear and Frog and Toad series), glancing over ones they’ve read but are kind of done with (Fancy Nancy and Amelia Bedelia series), and discovering fantastic new titles (Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle and the Lulu series).

However, I’m always looking for additional diverse reads for my kids, and Lee and Low Books offers great lists broken down by grade that really fit the bill. My girls read and really enjoyed Under the Lemon Moon by Edith Hope Fine and The Hula-Hoopin’ Queen by Thelma Godin, and they’re already looking forward to more summer reads like these. Also beyond the list are books that empower girls to be all they can be. Mine loved The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires, an excellent story about persistence and failing better (as a writer, I certainly identified with the heroine, too!).

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Our favorite series this year, The Sisters Eight by Lauren Baratz-Logsted, has likewise enthralled us with its resourceful set of octuplets making do without their parents, who have disappeared (or died). We’re reading one book a month to correspond with the month of each book, and I don’t know who’s more excited that July begins on Wednesday, my girls or I!

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I’m so curious to hear what other recommendations others have about summer reading beyond the list, so please do share any tips, tricks, and lists!

 

Writing News, or “A Bucket of Barf, Oodles of Gratitude, and a Side of Hope”

This post is for you, dear writer, as you struggle through the querying trenches year after year (after year, after year), revised-to-the-guts manuscript in one hand and trusty barf bucket in the other. Querying is not for the weak. You, who soldier on in spite of rejection, striving to improve your craft and find the right word, the right genre, the right story, are brave. You, who willingly embark on such torture with each new manuscript, clinging to each new shred of hope, are the young poet to whom Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?”

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Yes. Of course you must.

People told me that this story would be an inspiration to other writers someday. A lesson in persistence. Because mine is not one of those amazing enter-one-contest-and-get-five-offers stories. Nor did this happen after completing two, three, four, or even five manuscripts. No, my first taste of success has only come after twelve long years working on six manuscripts and four long years of querying.

If I can do this, you can do this.

Over my years in the trenches, I queried (or got contest/conference requests from) agents 176 times, netting 71 total requests. This might sound like a lot, but unfortunately a request doesn’t always lead to an offer of representation. I first queried my agent (*pause* my agent!) in 2013 when she tweeted an #MSWL that matched my fifth manuscript. I was thrilled that my first pages piqued her interest back then, but it was hardly a done deal. While she made her way through her reading pile, I was hard at work writing and revising my sixth manuscript. She ultimately suggested revisions on my fifth manuscript and signed me after reading the sixth, almost two years after my original query. So to echo what countless others have said before me, keep learning, keep submitting, and above all, keep writing!

I certainly couldn’t have done this alone, and honestly, I’m filled with so much gratitude to have reached this stage that I simply can’t take full credit. I’m so thankful to my wonderfully supportive family, of course, as well as the children’s writing community as a whole, and my own little circle in it. My amazing critique group, my plethora of fantastic critique partners and beta readers, and my lovely writing friends. The publishing professionals giving time at conferences, workshops, and retreats, the agents and editors reading all those queries and all those manuscripts–for nothing in return! Kind-hearted souls setting up and running contests to get writers’ work in front of agents, and my personal mentors who have helped me bring my work to the next level. You all know who you are, and I can’t even begin to express how grateful I am for your help, your time, and your faith in my work.

While giving up writing along the way wasn’t an option, I did consider giving up querying on more than one occasion. One particularly dark moment came only a few months ago, after having gotten really close yet again only to be turned away. I happened to receive this beautiful notebook from my cousin, Amanda, that very same day:

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I choose hope! I burst into maniacal laughter-tears upon receiving it, of course. As one does. And yet, according to my wise critique partner, Monica, choosing hope was the only option, and so—albeit grudgingly at the time—I did.

And now for the sentence I never thought I’d be able to write: I finally have an agent! Me. I’m thrilled to be represented by the incredible Roseanne Wells with the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. I couldn’t have found a more perfect match for my work, and I’m so very eager to take my next steps down this strange and terrifying path with her in my corner. Thank you, Roseanne, for believing in me!

Celebrate National Poetry Month

April might be well underway, but it’s certainly not to late to celebrate National Poetry Month! Last year, I wrote a short essay to defend my personal favorite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. This year, in keeping with the theme of 5 we’re celebrating over at YARN: the YA Review Network to celebrate our fifth year of publication, I’m sharing 5 ways to celebrate the spirit of the month.
 
1. Read poems! Read something by your favorite poet, discover a new poet, or read poems to children in your life. Some of the oft-read books in my household include these.

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2. Attend a local poetry event. Poets.org has a handy search feature to track down events in your area.
 
3. Write your own poem. Even if you’re not Shakespeare or Rilke, you might surprise yourself by what you come up with. My own contribution for the month:
 
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I open the window
and breathe
the clean air of spring
all sunlight and blue sky
and the slightest hint of azahar.
 
The morning is
café con leche,
pan con tomate,
and the sweet-salty bocado
of chocolate con churros.
 
Red, yellow, yellow, red
the flag salutes
from the highest point
of the Real Maestranza
flapping above its red walls and yellow sand.
 
Hands clap and heels tap
as bailaoras swirl and swish and thump
to ferocious rhythms
that bleed through the floor,
ole.
 
My hands are a bowl
and I catch
five orange blossoms and
cradle them, tiny doves,
in my palms.
 
4. Enter a contest! The #yarn5 poetry contest at YARN calls for any and all riffs on the number 5, and includes some pretty fantastic prizes, so be sure to enter by the 4/20 deadline.
 
5. Follow the #npm15 hashtag on twitter to learn more about poetry, poets, and how to celebrate the month in style.
 

Favorite Books of 2014!

It’s that time of year again! I love looking back at the books I’ve read over the year, and this one was a particularly good one for me as a reader. There were a lot of 2014 debut authors I wanted to check out, and many of them were among the 76 I read books this year. Most books I read were YA, but a fair chunk this year were books for adults, too. I only had time for a few MG books (alas!), but I might have to do a separate post about some of the great PBs and chapter books I read with my little girls. Without further ado, my top ten favorite books of 2014!***
 
10. AN UNTAMED STATE by Roxanne Gay (Adult). The graphic details in this book aren’t for everyone, and definitely had me cringing, but I don’t think I will ever forget this story. Amazing, visceral writing.
 
9. THE SECRET HUM OF A DAISY by Tracy Holczer (MG). I didn’t read many MG books this year, but this one will definitely stay with me. Beautiful writing and a slowly unraveling mystery keep the reader turning pages.
 
8. GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE by Andrew Smith (YA). The frank, open voice of the MC had me laughing out loud. It’s a really over-the-top story with such real, believable characters that I simply couldn’t put it down.
 
7. PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG by Anne Blankman (YA). The chilling setting of Munich as the National Socialists come to power is enough to grab my attention, but the compelling family backgrounds and love story of the characters kept me hooked.
 
6. LIES WE TELL OURSELVES by Robin Talley (YA). This masterful piece of historical fiction opened my eyes with its incredible, horrible details about what it must have been like to live through desegregation, as well as told a beautiful love story filled with hope for two girls who couldn’t be more different.
 
5. LEXICON by Max Barry (Adult). This language-based thriller was definitely up my alley and pretty near impossible to put down.
 
4. LOVERS AT THE CHAMELEON CLUB by Francine Prose (Adult). This is such skillfully-written historical fiction. The author’s characters are based on some very real people, and the world she draws is so richly filled with details that it all seems impossibly true. The multiple points of views add such depth and kept me hungry for more.
 
3. VANGO by Timothée de Fombelle (YA). The gorgeous writing in this story grabbed my attention from page one, and there was something TinTin-esque about the main character’s escapades that kept me hooked to the finish.
 
2. BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jaqueline Woodson (YA). This novel in verse won the National Book Award and I would not be at all surprised if it goes on to win other awards. Such gorgeous writing! The author did such an amazing job pulling us in to what it was like to be a brown-skinned girl at that time.
 
1. THE STRANGE AND BEAUTIFUL SORROWS OF AVA LAVENDER by Leslye Walton (YA). This fantastical novel is as strange and beautiful as its title and I loved everything about it. I’m a sucker for both historical and magical realism, so the blend of those genres together with the uniqueness of the story pretty much made me swoon.
 
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As a bonus, five more YA books I read and loved this year that came out before 2014:

  • SMALL DAMAGES by Beth Kephart. Set in Spain, the beautiful writing in this story pulled me deep into the character’s pain as a scorching Spanish summer helps her heal in ways she never expected.
  • THE WICKED AND THE JUST by J. Anderson Coates. I can’t believe I waited so long to read this book, but it’s definitely a great pick for historical fiction lovers. So well-written, with such amazing details that come across completely differently in both points of view.
  • RECLAIMED by Sarah Guillory. Another masterpiece in multiple points of view, this book is filled with surprises that have the reader guessing until the very end.
  • ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE by Benjamin Saenz. This book has all the feels! The perfect combination of friendship, love, and the deeper meaning behind it all.
  • SILHOUETTE OF A SPARROW by Molly Griffin. This slim little book packs a punch with a great historical setting and a forbidden love story between two teen girls.

***A disclaimer: I had a list of 20 YA 2014 debuts that I was looking forward to reading, and I haven’t gotten to them all yet. One problem is that I purchased some of them, and unfortunately, library books must come first! Two that I’m still particularly excited about reading are NO PLACE TO FALL by Jaye Robin Brown and BLACKFIN SKY by Kat Ellis. I hope to hit them very soon in the new year! In the meantime, happy reading to all!

PitchWars Blog Hop: Why I Wrote This Manuscript

First off, huge thanks to C. M. Franklin, fellow PitchWars mentee, for organizing this blog hop, the amazing Brenda Drake, for organizing and hosting the PitchWars contest, and of course Sarah Guillory, author of the YA novel, RECLAIMED, and the best dementor a girl could ask for.
 
Writers are often asked to sum up their stories in a sentence or two, so it’s best to be prepared with an answer to the question, “What’s your book about?”
 
In my case, THE MOST DAZZLING GIRL IN BERLIN is the story of an unlikely friendship between two desperate girls at a queer cabaret in Berlin in 1930.

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artwork by Gwen Katz

The inspiration behind a story is something that often doesn’t get asked right away, but “Why did you write this story?” is such a great question. This is when it gets personal. It’s your chance to show the reader why you were the perfect person to write it.
 
I have a myriad of reasons for mine: a fascination with this time and place, a burning desire to write about diverse characters organically, and a head start on the necessary research back from my days studying and reading for my Ph.D. in German Literature.
 
Still, there was one particular moment when it all came together for me.  It was after seeing the fantastic 1930 film, PEOPLE ON SUNDAY. This slice-of-life silent film chronicles a group of twenty-somethings as they break away from their everyday lives in Berlin for a day off at the Wannsee beach just outside of the city. You can see the entire film (it’s in the public domain) here.
 
A couple of months after seeing the film, I was brainstorming new manuscript ideas, and I put stars next to two scribbled lines in my notebook:
 
*People on Sunday retelling with teens struggling through the uncertainty of the Weimar Republic Era in Berlin.
 
*A girl working in a queer cabaret?
 
Apparently I ran with the idea from there. Just under these lines is my character list, scribbled notes on queer cabarets at the time in Berlin, followed by notes and more notes from some of the non-fiction books I read. And so it began!

Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1998-012-36A, Potsdamer Platz

As part of the blog hop, make sure to check out the amazing posts by the other PitchWWars mentees on what inspired each of them to write their stories:
 
Carleen Karanovic: HOPE ON A FEATHER
Heather Truett: RENASCENCE
Tracie Martin: WILD IS THE WIND
Susan Bickford: FRAMED
Rachel Sarah: RULES FOR RUNNING AWAY
Amanda Rawson Hill: GRIMM AND BEAR IT
Charlotte Gruber: CODE OF SILENCE
Mary Ann Nicholson: CALAMITY
Nikki Roberti: THE TRUTH ABOUT TWO-SHOES
Anna Patel: EXODUS
K. A. Reynolds: LE CIRQUE DU LITERATI
Susan Crispell: WISHES TO NOWHERE
Ron Walters: THE GOLEM INITIATIVE
Rosalyn Eves: THE BLOOD ROSE REBELLION
Ashley Poston: HEART OF IRON
Mara Rutherford: WINTERSOUL
Janet Walden-West: Damned If She Do
Kazul Wolf: SUMMER THUNDER
D. Grimm: WITCHER
Kelli Newby: THORNVAAL
Tara Sim: TIMEKEEPER
Elliah Terry: POCKET FULL OF POPPIES
Alessa Hinlo: THE HONEST THIEF
Rachel Horwitz: THE BOOTLEGGER’S BIBLE
Whitney Taylor: DEFINITIONS OF INDEFINABLE THINGS
Lyra Selene: REVERIE
Natalie Williamson: SET IN STONE
Robin Lemke: THE DANCE OF THE PALMS
Stephanie Herman: CLIFF WITH NO EDGE
Shannon Cooley: A FROG, A WHISTLE, AND A VIAL OF SAND
Ruth Anne Snow: THE GIRLS OF MARCH
Elizabeth Dimit: PHOEBE FRANZ’S GUIDE TO PASSPORTS, PAGEANTS, & PARENTAL DISASTERS
Elliah Terry: POCKET FULL OF POPPIES
Gwen C. Katz: AMONG THE RED STARS
Jennifer Hawkins: FALSE START
Kelly DeVos: THE WHITE LEHUA
Gina Denny: SANDS OF IMMORTALITY
Natasha M. Heck: FOLLOW THE MOON
Esher Hogan – WALKING AFTER MIDNIGHT
D.A. Mages: THE MEMORY OF OBJECTS
Kirsten Squires: INCEPTO

Twofer Tuesday: Giveaway Edition!

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Twofer Tuesday shout-out to some of my favorite reads, so this week’s includes a giveaway of both books!
 
This summer, I read two YA debuts that I loved and want to share with other readers.
 
ONE, TWO, THREE by Elodie Nowadazkij is a contemporary novel with equal parts of ballet, romance, and friendship. I first read a draft of this novel when it was a wee baby, and I can’t even begin to express how impressed I am with the final product. Elodie decided to self-publish this book, and spent so much time and effort making it shine. Natalya has to deal with the dark side of dance when she’s plagued by an injury–every dancer’s worst nightmare. This struggle is the perfect counterpoint to Nata’s budding–and difficult–romance with Tonio, a passionate soccer player trying to break free from alcohol. Fans of the performing arts will love this story!
 
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ESSENCE by Lisa Ann O’Kane was published by Strange Chemistry right before they made the decision to shut down operations. I for one was thrilled to be able to at least get the chance to read Autumn’s gripping story as she navigated her futuristic post-cult world by falling into another cult. Mental and physical challenges await Autumn as she learns to slackline (you’ll want to read about this!) and decides whom to trust. A great read for armchair thrill-seekers!
 
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Just comment below to win one of these incredible books. US only, please! Also, these stories are quite different, so if you have a preference, please note which one you’d like in the comments, and I’ll put your name in the appropriate hat. If you’re excited by both, that’s cool, too. Into both hats you go!
 
As always, happy reading!

PitchWars Plan B

I’m a huge fan of contingency plans. In writing, life, menu choices. It’s always good to have a backup plan. Keep your hopes up! Channel that energy somewhere positive! When you find out there’s no Sachertorte, at least Linzertorte is an option!
 
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This weekend, with the PitchWars mentors making their final picks, it’s hard for mentee hopefuls NOT to think about the contest, so instead I decided to devote at least some of my time to thinking about my Plan B for what I’ll do if I don’t get selected, and I came up with the following.
 
I already know I want to revise this manuscript once more. I haven’t sent out any queries at all yet, and I don’t want to shoot it off too early. It’s close, but it’s still a little jiggly and can use some firming up. While I’m crossing everything that I’ll get to work with one of the fantabulous mentors, I figured it would be a good idea to map out my strategy in case I have to wing it on my own.
 
I got to thinking about what I might have to change and what’s really important to the story. This in turn got me thinking about what editor extraodinaire, Cheryl Klein, had said at a revision workshop I attended. “You get one thing,” she’d said, “Maybe two.” She was referring to those things that we as writers feel are so important to the manuscript that changing them would endanger the manuscript’s core.
 
So I started to write down my manuscript’s strengths, and I wrote down two things (being generous to myself) that I’m not willing to change. Luckily for me, these things seem to be what piques people’s interest in my story in the first place, heh heh, so I don’t think I’ll be asked to change them. Still, it was a good exercise.
 
Then I started to think about my manuscript’s weaknesses, and I wrote down a list of potential changes I’ve been contemplating. Things I feel in my gut that might need work. Things that might hold someone back from falling in love with it. I got some great feedback from writeoncon and from some new writer friends, so I definitely have somewhere to start.
 
What about you? What’s your Plan B?
 
Besides Linzertorte. Because Linzertorte.