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A Sleeping Baby, A Finished Manuscript

A Sleeping Baby, A Finished Manuscript

Today my daughter is one month old, and I’m exhausted.

The other night, I had just drifted off to sleep when the baby woke up. Of course I’m used to this by now. She only sleeps for two-hour stretches, so she wakes up multiple times in the night.

Before she could get into full-force crying mode, I pulled her from her bedside bassinet and nursed her. Then I woke up my husband and sent him off to change her diaper while I used the bathroom, refilled my water glass, and changed out of my sweat-soaked pajamas. (Why, by the way, does no one tell you about post-partum night sweats? They’re the worst!)

I re-swaddled the little bae and nursed her until she got sleepy. Then I rocked her in my arms until her limbs went slack and it appeared she had fallen asleep. I gently deposited her in her bassinet, tucked her blanket around her, and counted to fifty before oh-so-agonizingly-slowly slipping my hand away from her soft little head in hopes that she wouldn’t realize she was no longer nestled safe in Mommy’s arms. I rocked the bassinet for a few minutes for good measure, and it seemed like she was fast asleep.

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Baby in her swaddle.

 

Relieved, I flopped back into bed and pulled the covers up to my chin, excited to get another two hours of sleep. That’s when I heard the baby grunt. I stayed put, hoping she was making noises in her sleep. But no, now she was starting to whine and thrash. I sat up in bed and grabbed the side of the bassinet, hoping I could just rock her back to sleep. But soon enough her little eyes popped open, and her face screwed with displeasure. I tried slipping a pacifier between her lips, but she wouldn’t take it, and she let out a giant, heartbreaking wail.

“It’s okay, little baby,” I crooned while my husband moaned in his sleep. I picked her up and started to nurse her again. I went through the whole routine – nurse, rock, put in the bassinet, rock some more. But again, mere minutes after I lay her down, she started to cry.

On the third try, I held her in one arm, and with my free hand I checked my email on my phone. One of my emails turned out to be feedback from a beta reader who had just read the most recent draft of my novel. She had some good things to say about it, but she also pointed out many flaws and gave me suggestions for improvement. She had showed me some very real problems, and I was grateful for that, but the email also made me feel tired. I was going to have to start all over  with the novel, giving it a total revision from head to toe.

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Little bae is very good at sleeping during the day!

 

As I rocked the baby in my arms, wondering if she was deep enough asleep to not notice a transfer into the bassinet, it occurred to me that getting a newborn back to sleep isn’t so different from revising a novel. Just when you think you’re done, you have to start all over again from the very beginning. It’s time consuming, it’s tiring… and yet, you love this baby of yours, whether it be a book baby or a human one, and somehow you find the patience not to throw it out the window.

Annoying as revisions may be, I’m looking forward to having the time and energy to revise this novel.  I know it might take awhile, and I know I this might not be the last revision, but it’s my baby.

Finally, the human baby was fast asleep in my arms. I gently placed her in the bassinet and had begun to move my hands away from her head a fraction of an inch at a time when a loud, wet, squelching sound came from her behind. And then another. A moment later, her eyes blinked open and she began to wail. I woke up my husband and sent him off to do yet another diaper change. It was two a.m., and I could tell we were in for a long night.

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Me and the little bae.

 

I Am Drums by Mike Grosso (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

I Am Drums by Mike Grosso (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

I AM DRUMS by Mike Grosso

Published by Clarion Books, September 2016

Suggested age range:  10 – 12

 

SUMMARY:

Sam knows she wants to be a drummer. But she doesn’t know how to afford a drum kit, or why budget cuts end her school’s music program, or why her parents argue so much, or even how to explain her dream to other people.

But drums sound all the time in Sam’s head, and she’d do just about anything to play them out loud—even lie to her family if she has to. Will the cost of chasing her dream be too high?  

 An exciting new voice in contemporary middle grade, Mike Grosso creates a determined heroine readers will identify with and cheer for.

-from Amazon

 

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:

Communication.  It can be difficult to express what you’re really feeling or what’s really going on with you in a way that others can understand, BUT it’s necessary in order to be fully yourself and to participate fully in relationships with people you care about.

 

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Eva & Meagan.  You can read more of our middle grad book reviews here.

 

So what did we think?  

Eva:  There are a lot of things to like in this book.  I like that Sam is a strong female protagonist who wants to play the drums — despite the fact that she gets made fun of for her interest.  I like that we learn a lot throughout the book about the specifics of drumming.  (This would be a great book for a kid who is interested in drumming or percussion.)  I like that Sam has to work hard to get what she wants and that things don’t end perfectly — very realistic.  

 

Meagan: I enjoyed this book, too.  On a purely personal note: I was once a middle school girl in the percussion section of concert band.  Sam’s experience of it as a “boys’ club” as well as the goofing-off-antics that occur back there definitely rang true to me.  Unlike Sam, however, I really didn’t care about drumming or practice very much.  It wasn’t my thing.  But it’s neat to read from the perspective of someone who thinks differently than you and has her own unique passion.  I appreciate the showing-not-telling Mike Grosso has done to help me get into Sam’s head. Instead of just telling us that she wants to be a drummer, he shows how she has rhythms running through her head all the time and observes the world around her through the lens of drumming.  

 

Eva:  This is Mike Grosso’s first novel, and it seems like he crafted it in the way all the advice books and blogs suggest.  He starts with a very clear inciting incident (Sam’s school is getting rid of the music program!) and a very clear desire (Sam wants to take drum lessons, but her parents won’t let her!)  Sam takes action, but a series of roadblocks keep getting in her way.  Things go from bad to worse until we get to the climax and the “core emotional experience.”  The structure of this novel is exactly what agents tell writers they want a novel to be.  

 

Meagan:  Yep, I agree.  Mike Grosso gets a gold star for textbook execution of how to plot a middle grade novel.  

 

Eva:  Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading so much about how to write MG books, but it was sometimes too easy for me to see the innerworkings of the plot and predict what would happen next.  I doubt a younger reader would pick up on this, but I do wonder if the book will hold the attention of kids who are not so interested in drumming.   

 

Meagan:  I think what he did works (it kept my attention, and I feel sure there are kids who will enjoy this book), but the plot is not the wow-factor here.  It’s very effective, but not surprising or intriguing really.  I think character, rather than plot, is his strength in this book.  We get a window into the mind of a person who has a musical way of thinking.

 

Eva:  Right.  The book actually has a metaphor for that “window” into Sam’s head.  Sam starts out the book by wishing she had a headphone jack in her head:

“With a headphone jack in your head, you could let anyone plug right in and listen to your thoughts, especially the complicated stuff… I want people to understand me when I can’t say what’s on my mind.”  

It’s a cute idea and shows up throughout the book as a very obvious theme.  At the end of the book, Sam sums everything up by going back to her favorite metaphor:

“…I love drums.  It might not be the headphone jack in my head I’ve always wanted, but it’s kind of the same thing when you think about it.  It lets you say something you can’t express any other way.”

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Meagan:  The other thing that I think this author does well regarding character development is get me to identify with a basically sympathetic main character and then lead me down a slippery ethical slope as she does more and more wrong things in pursuit of her goals.  Even though some of her actions are pretty bad and things I would not have done as a kid, I totally believe that she does them, and I get why.  Believable motivation can be a difficult thing to nail, so I went back to the book to try and pick apart what he is doing to achieve it.  

One of Sam’s early wrong decisions is deleting a phone message intended for her parents.  As she listens to the message from the school administrator she worries about how her dad will react.

“–oh man, you don’t want him mad.  You lose pretty much every privilege you can imagine, even if it’s only a little bit your fault.  Even if you just lost control for a split second.  Even if you felt totally humiliated.”

So we’ve got both emotion and rationalizing here.  But she doesn’t go right for deleting the message.  She thinks through her options.

“I pull the phone away from my ear and try to come up with a way to explain this to my dad…”

And then before she takes action, the voicemail system gives her a prompt she can act on without thinking.

“‘Press nine to delete this message.’

My hand shakes, but I slowly bring my index finger down.  It lands on the number nine.

In the moment of action she’s trying to distance herself from the action by describing her finger as the actor.

“I hang up the phone and run back upstairs, trying to forget the message ever existed, because as far as anyone besides me or Dr. Pullman knows, it never really did.”

More rationalizing and distancing.    

I think it can be tempting as a writer to describe your character taking big actions and making big decisions, just assuming that your readers will get where your character is emotionally or why a person might do something like that.  I know I have been guilty of that at times–just assuming it’s obvious.  And it is a fine line.  No reader wants too much explanation.  But I think Mike Grosso does a good job bringing us along for the ride with Sam’s bad decisions by using her interior voice.  He provides both the rationalization and the emotional basis for her choices and we get to be in her head and she makes them.

 

Eva:  That’s a really good point.  In previous posts we’ve talked about how interiority — a character’s interior thoughts — can really help us understand character motivation, and this book does a great job of that.  

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Author Mike Grosso is a musician and a 4th grade teacher.  Here is his author website.

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Eva:  When I was a kid there was a time when I was obsessed with Olympic gymnasts and wanted to be one, despite the fact I wasn’t even taking gymnastics lessons.  There was this very short novel (I can’t remember the name of it) that I used to read obsessively when I was about eight years old.  It was about a girl gymnast.  I couldn’t tell you anything else about the book, and I don’t think there was very much to it other than her challenges on the balance beam.  And yet I LOVED it because I loved gymnastics.  

I can see kids who are interested in playing the drums (or playing in a band) being interested in I Am Drums in the same way I loved that gymnastics book as a kid.   

 

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • A clear inciting incident and character desire.
  • A main character who takes action to get what she wants
  • Strong use of interior voice (interiority) to ground character motives
  • A character with a unique way of thinking

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  A sweet and well-executed book though it did not quite knock my socks off.  On the other hand, if I Am Drums encourages any little girls out there to become rad female drummers like Patty Schemel or Meg White, I’m ALL ABOUT IT!  

Meagan:  In realistic fiction (like this book), the escapism aspect of reading relies heavily on character.  There’s no magical fantasy world for your reader to get lost in.  Instead, use your character’s unique interior voice to invite your reader to get lost in the mind of a person different from him or herself.   

 

Our Birth Story: Timing is Everything

Our Birth Story:  Timing is Everything

I wasn’t expecting her to come early. My due date was February 4th, and I’d been told that first babies always come late. I planned on having a few more weeks to polish up a draft of my current manuscript, not to mention to make freezer meals and organize the nursery.

My husband and I were planning on having a home birth, and everything with my pregnancy was normal and healthy. But then, about a month before the due date, my feet started getting itchy. Like, really itchy. It was so bad I couldn’t sleep. One night, while not sleeping, and with cold packs wrapped around my feet for relief, I googled “itchy feet during pregnancy.”

Turns out, itchy feet is one of the only symptoms of a very rare and very serious condition called cholestasis of pregnancy in which the pregnancy hormones cause the mother’s liver and gallbladder to stop functioning properly. It can cause severe problems for the fetus, including death.

Naturally, I freaked out and called my midwife the next morning. She told me cholestasis was extremely rare but I should get tested to make sure. So I went to get my blood drawn.

Unfortunately, Labcorp botched my first blood draw, and I had to go back for a second time two days later. They then took their sweet time (nearly four days) getting the results back.

“If they hadn’t messed up my blood work the first time, we’d know by now,” I grumbled to Paul. I’d convinced myself that I didn’t have cholestasis and that everything was fine, but I still wanted to know for sure. The cure for cholestasis is delivery, so if the blood work came back positive, I would likely go to the hospital to be induced, thus putting an end to our dream of an intervention-free birth at home.

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I didn’t make it past 38 weeks…

 

Well, to make a long story slightly shorter, guess when I found out that I DID have the beginning stages of cholestasis… About twenty minutes after my water broke!

“It looks like your body is taking care of business on its own,” the midwife said when we called her. Then she came over to talk to us about our options.

She told us it would probably be fine to have the baby at home, but cholestasis is so rare that in her twenty-five years of practice, she’d only ever had one other patient with the condition, and the outcome had not been great. “There’s not a lot of information about it out there,” she said, showing us an article in a medical journal that had only managed to round up thirteen cholestasis patients for the study. “I think, to be safe, you should go to the hospital where they can give you an external fetal monitor.”

“When should we leave?” Paul asked. “Should we take showers first?” (Everything we’d read about labor stressed the importance of not going to the hospital too soon.)

She gave him a strange look. “Um, I think you should go right now.”

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Here I am having a contraction in the squatting position.

 

So we headed to George Washington University hospital in downtown DC, which has a midwife practice within the hospital. And we brought Kathy, one of our home birth midwives, with us to be our doula. By the time we arrived and got checked in, my contractions had gone from mostly painless to the worst period cramps ever. Baby was on the way!!

It was a bit annoying being in the hospital. (The room was cold, they made me get an IV port, and the nurse had to adjust the fetal monitor every five seconds – often while I was having a contraction.) But otherwise, it wasn’t too different from home. We listened to music and dimmed the lights and Kathy suggested different positions. The GW midwife left us alone for the most part to labor in private.

We labored all night and into the morning – for about ten hours – and then I was ready to push. “The NICU team is going to come in,” the nurse told me. “But as long as they hear the baby cry, they won’t take her away. They just want to make sure she’s healthy and then they’ll leave you both alone.”

So there I was, pushing out a baby with Kathy, Paul, the midwife, two nurses, the NICU doctor, and a handful of medical students standing around watching.

“Um, how long is this going to take?” the NICU doctor asked. “Should we come back later?”

That’s when I gave a final grunting push, and my daughter (all 6 pounds 13 ounces of her) was born. The nurses placed her on my chest, and she looked up at me, cooing. Only a few minutes old, and she was so alert! It hadn’t happened like we planned, but it had happened all the same. And I can still hardly believe it. Two weeks later, I still look at her from time to time and say “I have a baby. This is my baby and I love her so much.”

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Baby is only a few minutes old here!

 

I keep telling people that the birth was the best possible hospital scenario – no drugs, no interventions. We got to have the birth we wanted, just in a different location.

And weirdly, I owe it all to Labcorp’s incompetence. If they had gotten the lab results back in a timely manner, I probably would have gone to the hospital for an induction, and my birth story would be totally different.

It reminds me that sometimes the things that seem like annoyances, setbacks, failures, or heartbreaks become the things we are thankful for in hindsight.

I lost my literary agent a while back, and I’ve had trouble finding a new one.  At times it feels like a major setback for my writing career, but I’m hoping that hindsight will prove it was a good thing after all: I’ll realize he wasn’t the right agent for me, or that it’s better in the long run that this new manuscript I’m working on be my debut novel. I’ll realize it was all in the timing, and that it just wasn’t the right time for me to be published.

As my daughter proved to me, timing is everything, and in the end it doesn’t so much matter when or where or how something important happens, just that it happens at all.

 

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2 weeks old

Baby!

Baby!

Loyal followers of this blog (there are some of you out there, right??) may have noticed I didn’t post a blog entry last Wednesday. It’s because last Wednesday I was giving birth to my daughter.

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I had every intention of writing a post for this week, telling you (my loyal followers?) about the birth, and perhaps relating it somehow to writing and the creative life. However, it turns out that caring for a newborn is an all-consuming task that leaves very little time for anything else. For example, yesterday at 2:30 in the afternoon I realized I had yet to brush my teeth for the day. And I haven’t worn make-up (or, full disclosure, deodorant) for the past week.

But, every day my husband and I learn a little better how to take care of the baby (and manage to still take care of ourselves). The first few nights, I got essentially no sleep. Now I’m up to getting as much as four and a half hours at night with a nap during the day. I’m hoping this week will be a little less crazy and sleep-deprived than the last, and I’ll be able to find the time to write a little post about the birth and/or my new life as a parent.

I know I’ll have very little time for writing for the next few months. But I also know that my beautiful baby girl is going to give me so much to write about.

Stay tuned…

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If I look tired in this picture, it’s because I am!  I am also un-showered.  No judgment.  

Writing & Math: The Magic is in the Discovery

Writing & Math: The Magic is in the Discovery

This is my last week of tutoring before I go on maternity leave for the rest of the school year. As much as I’m ready for a break (and as much as I want time to prepare for the baby), I know I’ll miss my students.

The other day in both of my tutoring sessions I got to do one of my favorite things as an educator: make my students discover the answers on their own. When I was a full-time math teacher I tried to do this as much as possible, but with classes of students at varying levels and a long list of standards to “get through” before the end of the year, it wasn’t always realistic. In one-on-one tutoring, however, the “discovery” method is often the way to go.

I’m always telling my students that this is what real mathematicians do: they solve simpler problems and see if they can apply those ideas to more complex situations; they look for patterns and make theories; they test their theories and try different methods.

What I try to impress upon my Internet-age students is this: It’s okay if you don’t know the answer right away. It’s okay to try things that don’t work. That’s how you end up discovering what does work.

It’s similar to what I have to remind myself as a writer: it’s okay if my writing isn’t perfect on the first go-round. It’s okay if I write a whole chapter only to end up cutting it. (Or a whole book only to end up hiding it in a drawer.) It’s okay to take my time in order to discover what works.

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Here I am at my baby shower two weeks ago.

 

The other day I came home and my physicist husband was bemoaning the fact that no one does math anymore – they’ve forsaken it for computer simulations that, he says, don’t always have as much meaning as old-fashioned pen-and-paper proofs.

“I don’t know if this will make you feel any better, but…” Then I told him about how I made both of my students discover the answers to their homework questions on their own.

“And when he figured it out,” I said, talking about my ninth grade student, “he got excited and was like ‘oh I see it! I see the pattern! That’s cool!’ He had a little light bulb moment, and those are the moments that make kids love math.”

“I guess that makes me feel a little better,” he said.

My husband loves math. Not only is it what he does for a living, but he actually reads math textbooks for fun. Sometimes I feel bad that I can’t talk to him more about his interests. I minored in math in college, so there was a time when I knew Multivariable Calculus and Analysis. But most of that has fallen out of my brain by now, and besides, Paul has a Masters in Applied Mathematics and a PhD in Physics. His knowledge of math is way deeper than mine ever was, even at the height of my mathiness.

Luckily, he likes hearing stories about my students and how I teach them math. One day I was telling him about a student of mine who is smart but always making careless errors. As I was describing him, Paul said, “I know exactly what his problem is – I used to do the same thing as a kid.”

Paul said when he’s working on a problem (both when he was in high school and now), he often intuits the answer long before he understands the nitty gritty of why it works. “I’ll be thinking about the problem, and then I suddenly see the answer, and my intuition says it’s right, but I have to figure out how to actually prove it.  And that’s where I end up struggling and making mistakes.”

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I do a lot of fractions with my students..  Not exactly the same sort of math that my husband does on a daily basis.

 

It occurs to me that the way people do math is not so different from the way people write. A few years ago I wrote a middle-grade novel. I knew how it would begin, and I had a very clear sense of how it would end, but I didn’t quite know how to get from point A to point B. Like Paul, the middle — figuring out the nitty-gritty details —  was where I struggled.

Other times, I start out with a character or situation or inciting incident and have no idea where the story is going to end up. Like a mathematician, I try different things, writing scenes and doing character studies. I think about what might be possible for the story, I write and write and write to figure out what I’m trying to say, and then one day I have a flashbulb moment where I put the pieces together – I finally see the climax or conclusion I was searching for.  Those moments are what can make writing so exciting.

In the end, the most important thing to remember in both math and writing is that it’s okay to make mistakes.  Instead of being discouraged if you don’t get it right at first, learn from your failure and keep trying.  The delight is often in the discovery at the end of the tunnel.

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Paul, me, and our soon-to-be-born baby!  (Painting by Heather Renaux.)

 

 

The Voyage to the Magical North by Claire Fayers (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

The Voyage to the Magical North by Claire Fayers (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

THE VOYAGE TO THE MAGICAL NORTH by Claire Fayers

Published by Henry Holt & Co., July 2016

Suggested age range: 8 – 12 years

SUMMARY:

Twelve-year-old Brine Seaborne is a girl with a past–if only she could remember what it is. Found alone in a rowboat as a child, clutching a shard of the rare starshell needed for spell-casting, she’s spent the past years keeping house for an irritable magician and his obnoxious apprentice, Peter.

When Brine and Peter get themselves into a load of trouble and flee, they blunder into the path of the legendary pirate ship the Onion. Before you can say “pieces of eight,” they’re up to their necks in the pirates’ quest to find Magical North, a place so shrouded in secrets and myth that most people don’t even think it exists. If Brine is lucky, she’ll find her place in the world. And if she’s unlucky, everyone on the ship will be eaten by sea monsters. It could really go either way.

-courtesy of Amazon

 

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  

Themes include history (What counts as history?  Who writes it?) and stories.  Also there are pirates and magic.

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Eva & Meagan. Read more of our opinions about middle-grade books here!

So what did we think?  

Eva:  There was so much to enjoy in this imaginative book.  I love the way magic is described in Brine and Peter’s world:  

“The magician takes a quantity of magic, forms it into the correct spellshape, and releases it.  The process appears mysterious because most people cannot see magic.  All they see is the magician’s hand moving and the flash of light as the spell is released.”  

I was tickled by the notion of a “magical north,” which is like the magnetic north pole except with magic.  I also liked that the famous and heroic pirate, Cassie O’Pia, is a woman, and that there is an island library where no men are allowed.

 

Meagan:  Yeah, there’s a lot of interesting detail in the imaginary world the author created.  The role of fish and birds as magical minions was funny.  I also liked that the librarians and the pirates both functioned as essentially “good guys” but neither were perfect.  They all did some wrong things.  

 

Eva:  Fayers earns an A+ for imagination and world-building.  I’m not so sure about the point of view she chose to use, however.  I suppose we can call it omniscient narration, but it wasn’t really.  It was more like close third — hopping from one character’s POV to another’s, chapter by chapter, as it served the story.  In some ways this is good — readers can choose to identify with Brine or Peter or even the pirates.  But because of the POV-switching, I had some trouble getting fully invested in any of the characters, and I didn’t always understand their motivations.   

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Meagan:  I had a hard time with character motivation as well, especially with the changeable relationship between Brine and Peter.  They were friends one minute and rivals the next.  That could be okay, but it often didn’t feel properly motivated.  In a given moment, I couldn’t predict whether they were going to work together or against each other until the author told me.  It’s like their motivations didn’t really grow out of the story, but rather were there to facilitate what needed to happen next in the story.

 

Eva:  I agree.  Character motivation can be really hard to show in writing.  One way to do it is through interiority — the character’s internal thoughts.  We definitely got some interiority in this book, from Peter especially, but maybe getting more interiority from him about his feelings towards Brine would have helped us understand their relationship.  

 

Meagan:  My favorite parts of the story were the scenes between Peter and the evil magician Marfak West.  Without giving too much away, it felt totally believable that Peter would be drawn to learning from Marfak West even though he knew he shouldn’t trust him.  This made for great tension because I never quite knew what Marfak West’s plan was, and I didn’t know how far Peter would go in aligning himself with Marfak West.

 

Eva:  Those scenes were interesting, and definitely a large source of tension in the book. My favorite parts were the little book snippets at the beginning of each chapter that gave us insight into Brine and Peter’s world.

I also really liked the beginning two chapters — they totally sucked me in.  But, they were also problematic in light of the rest of the story.  I remember hearing an agent talk about the “promise of the first page.”  Essentially, if you introduce a mystery or question on page one, it should be answered by the end of the book.  

On page one of The Voyage to the Magical North, we get this:  

“[Brine] had one clear memory of waking up in a rowing boat three years ago, surrounded by people, and that was all.  They’d asked her her name, and she couldn’t remember — she couldn’t remember anything.  So they named her Brine because she was crusted head to foot in sea salt.”   

Immediately, I was intrigued, and I assumed that the book was going to be about figuring out the mystery of who Brine is and where she came from.  But instead, Brine and Peter take up with some pirates and journey to the magical north.  It’s a grand adventure, but I was confused because it wasn’t the journey I was promised.

Towards the end there are some hints that Marfak West knows who Brine really is, and it seems like perhaps the sequel is going to be about Brine’s journey to find out about her past, but in some ways I felt tricked — I got invested in a mystery that was barely addressed.   

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Will we learn about Brine’s mysterious origins in the sequel?

 

Meagan:  You make a great point about the “promise” of the story.  It reminds me of the concept of Chekhov’s gun.  If you place a noticeable detail (such as a gun) in a scene, the detail must be essential to the story (someone has to fire the gun later), otherwise leave it out.  I think the same goes for statements like “she couldn’t remember her name.”  The reader is going to implicitly trust you that you intend to either reveal her name, or at least reveal why she can’t remember it.  All they must do is keep reading.  In fact, hooking readers with interesting mysteries is one of the major ways to get them to keep reading, BUT you gotta keep your promises in order for your reader not to feel cheated.

 

Eva:  That being said, I’m sure there are a lot of kids out there who will enjoy this book and not care a hoot about “the promise of the premise.”  As I’ve mentioned on Middle Grade Bookshelf before, sometimes it’s hard for me to reconcile my adult sensibilities with what I liked as a kid.  This is a very imaginative story with lots of adventure — sea monsters, pirates, magic.  Fun stuff that kids tend to like.  
THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Meagan:  I haven’t read the Pippi Longstocking books since I was a kid, but are those kind of similar, aren’t they?  Light, humorous, episodic adventure.

Eva:  I haven’t read them since I was a kid either, but I can definitely see that as a parallel.  They include some sea-faring adventures as far as I remember.  And I LOVED the Pippi Longstocking books as a kid.  I’m beginning to think that kids are much more accepting of episodic stories than adults are.  Maybe adults want a plot that culminates whereas kids want a story that just keeps on going?  Something to ponder…

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THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • Imaginative world-building
  • Inverting tropes (i.e. female pirate, a boy who has to disguise himself as a girl)
  • Building tension

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  For me The Voyage to the Magical North didn’t fulfill the promise of the first page, and ultimately I was not as invested in the characters as I would have liked.  On the other hand, the world-building was incredibly fun and imaginative.  Kids who love adventure will certainly love this book.  

Meagan:  There can be a lot of successful anchors for story.  A story can be primarily character-centered, plot-centered, theme-centered, setting-centered, etc.  A story needs all of those things, but not every story is going to be equally strong in every area.  It seemed to me that this story was anchored in its setting.  The unique world and its fun details seemed like the freshest and most inspiring aspects of the novel.  They were enough to keep me reading, but not enough to push this book onto my personal favorites list.  

 

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Transitioning: In Writing and in Life

Transitioning: In Writing and in Life

It’s the beginning of a new year. A time for reflecting on what’s past and preparing for what’s to come. A time of transition.

My husband and I are in a very clear state of transition right now. We are going from being a childless couple to brand-new parents. Our baby girl is due February 4th. Among many other preparations (taking an infant CPR class, gathering supplies, creating a birth playlist), we are currently transitioning my office into the nursery.

Although, as it turns out, we don’t have enough space in the living room for my desk and filing cabinet and book shelf, so the room will have to be office on one side and nursery on the other. We’ll see how that goes. I don’t picture myself doing a lot of work at my desk for the first few months anyway.

As a person who loves order, it’s a little maddening to live in this state of transition. On the nursery side of the room, there are baby things in boxes and storage crates that need to be sorted and washed. We need to figure out where to put everything and how to decorate. I’m still doing work at my desk, but I’m hyper aware of the baby clothes and children’s books on the other side of the room.

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Office on the left, nursery on the right

 

A few years ago my friends Rob and Edith, who I hadn’t talked to in a long time, called me and said, “we did something interesting the other day… We had a baby.” I hadn’t even known that Edith was pregnant, and I sat there sputtering on the phone for a few seconds trying to decide whether or not they were joking (they weren’t). To me this is proof that there’s a good reason to post a few pregnant photos of yourself on facebook– so that people don’t go into shock when you one day show up with a baby in your arms.

Rob and Edith recently had another baby, but this time they told me about the pregnancy several months beforehand, and then I actually saw Edith when she was eight and a half months pregnant. When their birth announcement came in the mail, it was a lot easier to comprehend.  I didn’t need week-by-week belly pictures or anything, but knowing Edith was pregnant was helpful.

In other words, we need time to transition so that we can understand that things are changing, that we are moving on to something new and different.  This is helpful, both in our lives, and in our writing.  You don’t want to jump forward in time or skip to a new topic in your writing without giving the reader any warning.  It’s as jarring as being presented with a baby when you didn’t even know the mother was pregnant.

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Okay, okay, I’ll give you a belly picture.  This was taken on Christmas Eve, when I was 34 weeks pregnant.

 

I recently read the book Losing It by Emma Rathbone and was particularly impressed by a simple transition in Chapter One.

The main character, Julia, decides to quit her job in D.C. and take some time off. Her father suggests she go to North Carolina and stay with her eccentric Aunt Vivienne for the summer. Julia thinks this is absurd. “No. Nope. I’m not going there,” she says to her mother on the phone. “There’s no way I’m doing that.”

Then there’s a space break, and the very next line is, “One month later I drove down a thin driveway, gravel popping beneath the tires, towards a house with white columns in the distance…. I looked at the piece of paper on which I’d written Vivienne’s address: 2705 Three Notched Lane.”

I LOVE this transition because it’s very clear what’s happened, and yet we don’t know exactly how it happened. In that one month, Julia has obviously changed her mind about Aunt Vivienne’s, but we don’t really need to know the nitty gritty of her decision-making process.  I love that Rathbone cuts out everything else and hops us right to the catalyst moment. She bridges the gap from Julia quitting her job to Julia arriving in North Carolina with nothing more than a space break and the words “one month later.” Transitions are important, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be short and sweet.

This also shows us that a transition can be used to skip over trivial information. We don’t need to know what Julia did in that one month because it’s not part of the story Rathbone is telling, which is the story of Julia’s summer with her Aunt Vivienne. Good storytelling means skipping over all the boring and non-important parts, and good transitioning is what makes that possible.

In real life, we can’t skip over all the boring/messy/difficult in-between stuff. We’ve got to handle the decision-making and the organizing and the to-do lists before we can get across the bridge from one thing to the next. The story of how I sorted and washed baby clothes might not be a compelling one, but I don’t mind doing it. It’s helping me with my own emotional transition. Handling these little baby things, finding a place for them in my home – maybe that will make it easier to comprehend that there’s a freaking baby in my belly and that in one month she’s going to be in my arms.

If I were writing a book, here’s how it would go:  At the end of December, my husband and I started turning my office into an office/nursery. One month later, the drawers were filled with clean clothes and diapers, the books were lined up neatly on the shelf, and the walls were decorated with circus-themed art.  We were ready to meet our new baby.

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Paul and I commissioned a painting from artist Heather Renaux to commemorate the birth of our baby.  It’s not on the wall yet, but here it is.  Adorbs, right?