Saturday, March 31, 2012

Books--Bridging the Generation Gap

Whenever I visit my local library, I always stop in and check out the used section. It's fun to pick up something new, or even an old favorite, for $1. We live in a small town, and there's an "honor" box secured to the wall, where we put our money. But on lucky days, there's an elderly woman who sits in there, knitting, and welcomes people like me who come to peruse the selection.

Speaking with her always brightens my day. We chat about our favorite authors, and our favorite books. Just a couple of days ago we discussed the upcoming Nicholas Sparks movie, The Lucky One. She's reading the book right now, trying to finish it before the movie comes out. I've read it before, and want to re-read it before I see the film. We're generations apart, and yet we share wonderful conversations about stories.

My son is a freshman in high school, and we carpool with a beautiful girl his age. She's a fellow bookworm, and I enjoy talking with her. We compare stories we've read, and how we feel about movie adaptations. We talk about books that made us laugh, made us cry, and made us think.

The woman at the library, the teen girl, and myself--each of us from different generations--have all read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Besides reading a beloved book, I can't think of something else where we'd all three experience similar emotions. Maybe music. Maybe art. But to me, books are unique in this way. There's a certain thrill that comes from talking about our favorites with fellow book lovers, despite a generation gap.

I suppose I have no real point except to say that I love chatting about books with all of you. It brings joy to my life, and I'm grateful.

So thanks for stopping by, and thanks for chatting about books.

Have you ever discussed books with someone from a different generation? Did you share similar opinions or emotions about a classic? Were you wildly off track? I'd love to hear your stories.

And to all you brave A-Zers, good luck to you during April. I look forward to reading your posts!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Writing lessons learned from HEIST SOCIETY

Thanks to the advice of Laura Pauling, I just finished Heist Society, by Ally Carter. What a fun, fast-paced adventure! My favorite description is "Ocean's 11 for teens," but here's a longer blurb from Amazon:

When Katarina Bishop was three, her parents took her on a trip to the case it. For her seventh birthday, Katarina and her Uncle Eddie traveled to steal the crown jewels. When Kat turned fifteen, she planned a con of her own--scamming her way into the best boarding school in the country, determined to leave the family business behind. Unfortunately, leaving "the life" for a normal life proves harder than she expected.

If you read and write YA, and you love a fun caper, this book is a gem. Here are some of the many writing lessons I learned from Heist Society:
  • When writing kid lit, create a realistic reason why the kid is doing the story's heavy lifting--In this case, the author deftly set it up where Kat's dad had just done another "job" in Paris, and was being followed by Interpol. The villain accuses Dad of stealing valuable paintings, but Dad is unable to get himself out of the pickle. Enter Kat and her merry band of thieves to get the job done.
  • Get to the point...literally--The characters in this book hopped from New York to France to Italy to Austria and to England. But the author didn't bore us with long lines at the airport, security checkpoints, and traffic to and from hotels. No, she jumped ahead to the part in the story that mattered, and left all the unnecessary details behind.
  • Remind readers of the deadline--Every few chapters there was a reminder page that simply read "Thirteen days to deadline," and so on. This reminded me that Kat was running out of time, and added tension.
  • Add a deep layer--I was already invested in the story because Kat's father's life was at stake as retaliation for stealing valuable paintings. But the author took it one step further. Kat learns the paintings in question are not just any paintings--they had been stolen from Jewish families during the Holocaust, and presumed lost. This detail added depth to what the characters were trying to accomplish. Not only would Kat save her father if her plan succeeded--these paintings could be returned to the rightful families.
  • Your character breaks the law? Add charm--For Kat, stealing is the family business. We can't hate her for doing what she was raised to do. Hale, the love interest, is a billionaire who steals for the fun of it. But he's charming, and we like him anyway.
  • When the reader least expects it, add a new character--The plan was in motion. The crew was ready. But when I least expected it, Kat bumped into a pick pocket, Nick, and invited him to join her crew. Nick added friction with Kat's love interest, Hale, and also added complications with the final job.
  • Hint at familiarity--Kat and her hunky billionaire friend, Hale, have a storied past. They hint at it, such as botched jobs and what they've learned from them, but we aren't bored with long flashbacks about those previous jobs. We learn just enough to keep us interested, and then it's back to the main story.
Heist Society was a fun read that dug deep into family history and loyalty. I highly recommend it!

Have you read this book? If so, what was your opinion? Can you share any of the lessons you've learned from a great book?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

What makes The Hunger Games so awesome?

(my niece is #teampeeta, so this one's for you, Amanda!)

The Hunger Games movie opened at midnight on Thursday night, and eager fans (my niece included) bought tickets early, waited in long lines, and packed crowded theaters to see their favorite story come to life on the big screen. Yes, it's Hunger Games hoopla time!

In honor of the movie release, I thought I'd join the frenzy and discuss one of my favorite books. Keep in mind, I'm not a huge fan of dystopian stories. But my buddy, Lisa Green, encouraged me to read this book, and I'm so glad she did. (BTW, Suzanne Collins is a genius, and if she could bottle that talent and sell it, I'd buy a truck load)

What made this story so awesome? Here are my thoughts:

Amazing Characters

No doubt Katniss, Peeta, and Gale are beloved characters who carry the entire series. Katniss is smart, strong, and rebellious. Peeta is sweet and protective. Gale is loyal. Add a love triangle, and we're hooked.


Katniss sacrifices herself for her sister. Peeta sacrifices himself for Katniss. Gale helplessly watches the girl he loves and wishes he could sacrifice for her. These acts endear readers to the characters, and we root for them all the way.


The threat of death is constant in the story, and all along we wonder how in the world Katniss and Peeta will escape death "this time." We learn early on that there can only be one victor, and we worry about these characters throughout the entire novel.

Live TV

In a sick twist, the Hunger Games play out for the nation on live television. This adds to the tension, but also affects how the main character plays the games. She knows people are watching, and she uses this to her advantage.

How about you? If you've read the book, what do you think made it so special? Are you Team Peeta or Team Gale? If you've seen the movie, did it live up to the hype? And if you haven't read the book yet, what are you waiting for??

And just for fun, my buddy, Leslie Rose, shared a cool link on Facebook. Click here to see what district you're from, and how you met your demise in the Hunger Games. Enjoy!

"May the odds be ever in your favor"

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Believability & Bending The Law

My sister and I sat in the front row of a packed theater, watching Mission Impossible. During one scene, which involved a speeding train, a narrow tunnel, and Tom Cruise's strong fingers, my sister cried out, "Oh, come on!" She just couldn't help it. The movie had morphed from entertaining to completely unbelievable.

Another example of unbelievable? Los Angeles firefighters on television and in movies who rush into burning buildings without wearing their breathing apparatus. It doesn't happen that way, as my firefighter husband will tell anyone within listening distance.

Believability matters to most people, and I learned a big lesson in this recently. I wrote the first draft of my current wip after doing light research. I reached a point in the story where the plot relied on a certain police procedure with juveniles, but I didn't stop to research it thoroughly.

After the second draft, I knew I needed to confirm this procedure with an expert. I emailed a police officer friend with a list of questions, and promptly learned I had made a big boo boo. The way I wrote a certain plot line could not happen the way it was written.

What's a writer to do? Well, I could have tried to bend the law to fit my story, but why? If I'm striving for believability, I'd lose it for sure. I chose to re-write the last thirty pages of the manuscript.

Here's what I learned from my blunder:

Mistake #1
If a plot point depends on an official procedure, stop and ask an expert before traveling down the wrong road. Had I fired off a quick email to the police officer at this point in the first draft, I would have saved myself a lot of trouble.

The Solution
For several days, I brainstormed alternate plot points. I wrote them down, followed threads to the end, and then chose my favorite. I'm still in the process of re-writing those final pages.

Mistake #2
Rules of law differ between adults and juveniles, and vary depending on jurisdiction. Los Angeles, New York, Chicago. City, county, state. We can't assume the same rules in Los Angeles County apply to Los Angeles City.

The Solution
When reading through the second draft, I created a list of plot points that should be discussed with a police officer. And not just any officer. My story takes place in the city of Los Angeles, so I relied on an LAPD officer.

Mistake #3
Sure, there are certain plot points that could happen, even if it's only on leap year days at the turn of each century. But that doesn't mean it's likely. In my opinion, bending the law to fit my story would chip away at my credibility.

The Solution
Just because a plot line is believable, doesn't mean it has to be predictable. Hopefully my solution surprises the reader, just like it surprised me. And hopefully when others read it, they won't say, "Oh, come on!"

Have you ever followed a plot line, only to realize it couldn't happen the way it was written? How did you solve the problem?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Writers Achieving Their "Personal Best"

My son runs track, and one of the lessons his coach taught him has made a huge difference. Coach said, "Don't always race against the guy in the lane to your left or to your right. Race against yourself, and your own time. Aim to beat your own Personal Best."

My son isn't the fastest runner, not even close, but that doesn't get him down. He keeps track of his own time, and strives to beat that. Even at high school, where there's so many distractions--good and bad--my husband and I remind him to "run his own race." Academically, athletically, and socially.

As I've taken this glorious writing journey, I've raced, stumbled, fallen, ambled, jogged, and cleared hurdles. I've kept one eye on my own race, and the other eye on my fellow runners.

You see, our fellow writers are in the lanes beside us. Some of them will reach the finish line first. They'll be the rabbits we chase after--the writers who inspire us to do more and become better. Some writers will achieve come-from-behind wins. Others will run at a slower pace, and we'll cheer them on as they finish strong.

Runners feel their competition at their backs, or watch them in their peripheral vision. They see them in front, and nip at their heels. For writers, this can become a distraction, and when it does, it's helpful to remember my son's coach's advice.

Each time my son beats his own time, he's moving forward. Same with us. Each time we improve, we're moving forward. Each time we reach a milestone, we're moving forward. The other guy might be faster or slower, but as long as we're moving forward and beating our own time, we're achieving our own Personal Best.

In her post, Know Your Own Writing Journey & Go at Your Own Pace, Jody Hedlund wrote these wise words: "The pace isn't as important as much as the fact that we don't stop moving forward." I love that, don't you?

Have you ever heard this advice? Are you ever distracted by the achievements of other writers? How do you strive to achieve your own Personal Best?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Writing lessons learned from A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN

I recently finished A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. From Goodreads:

The beloved American classic about a young girl's coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith's "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years.

I'm not gonna lie...I thought I'd never finish this book. Maybe it was because I've become accustomed to reading fast-paced thrillers and YA. Maybe it was because the point of view hopped from head to head. Or maybe it's because this book was originally published in 1943, when authors could take their time telling quieter stories. Whatever the reason, I'm so glad I stuck with it and finished. It was a wonderful story.

Despite the generation gap, I learned many writing lessons from this book. Here are a few:
  • Story world, no matter how small, feels big to the main character. Francie Nolan lived in Brooklyn, and although bodies of water weren't far away, she didn't see the ocean until she stood on a rooftop at 13 years old. Her world consisted of different neighborhoods within Brooklyn, and the shops, tenements, and people that populated it.
  • Draw from our own unique experiences. At the back of the book, there was a section that discussed the author and how she'd grown up in Brooklyn, much like her main character. I wasn't surprised to learn this. Betty Smith created rich character and setting details from her memories. The poverty, the struggle to survive, the neighborhood politics--this was all beautifully and painfully memorialized by an author who had lived through what her main character was living through.
  • Choose a symbol to represent the main character. A sturdy tree grows deep roots. It has strength and perseverance even in the harshest conditions. So did Francie Nolan, the main character. I loved the parallels between the strong symbol and the equally strong main character.
  • Memorable characters have quirky and/or distinctive details. Francie's aunt called her boyfriends or husbands "Johnny," no matter what their real names were. Francie's father was mellow when he was drunk, and boisterous when sober. Her mother spoke the truth, whether you wanted to hear it or not. Her uncle considered himself a failure, became a one-man band, and ran away from his family. These unique details had staying power, and added to the richness of the book.
  • Create a strong visual where the character realizes there's more to life than what they've known. From the rooftop, Francie finally saw the river and wondered what excitement lay across the bridge. While venturing into another neighborhood, she saw a nicer school and conspired with her father to attend this school. This showed her there were other attainable goals she could reach. The reader experiences these wonders along with Francie, and we root for her to branch out and see more of the world.
I'm glad I won my battle with my short attention span and finished A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It's one of those memorable stories I'll always carry with me.

Have you read this book? What was your impression? And if you're read any of the classics, which one is your favorite?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Passion + Commitment = #Winning

One day I was channel surfing and came across a show called "Scouted." The New York Times describes Scouted as a human treasure hunt that "...focuses on regional scouts who look for girls at malls and track meets and anywhere else the could-be-beautiful young people congregate."

I got sucked in to watching this show where scouts pluck girls from obscurity and decide whether or not to sign them with a modeling agency. And hidden deep within the photo shoots, heavy make-up, and hair-blowing-in-the-wind, was an important lesson.

The episode I watched pitted two would-be-models against each other. Let's call one Pouty Edgy Girl (PEG), and let's call the other girl The Other Girl (TOG).

Pouty Edgy Girl was a natural. Her photo shoot was perfect. She nailed every pose, and the photographer loved her. She had a pouty attitude and edge, and the scouts and agents cheered her on. But PEG wasn't sure modeling was her dream. Her uncertainty and lack of passion shone through.

The Other Girl wasn't a natural. Her walk was clunky. Her poses lacked confidence. The scouts and agents shook their heads with worry. But for TOG, modeling was her dream. She was passionate, determined, willing to improve, and considered herself "blessed" to have this opportunity.

You probably know where this is headed, right? You guessed it. Pouty Edgy Girl was not signed. The agents loved her, but they weren't willing to take a chance on a model who lacked passion and commitment. The Other Girl's winning attitude caused the agency to want to work with her and shape her career.

It was another reminder that all the stars can be lined up...talent, luck, connections. But if we lack passion for our work, and the commitment to see it through to the end, whatever that end may be, we're missing the winning ingredients.

I found a quote by an unknown author that sums this up perfectly. "When work, commitment, and pleasure all become one and you reach that deep well where passion lives, nothing is impossible."

Pouty Edgy Girl was an artist, and art was her passion. She'll be just fine. As for The Other Girl, we might see her on the cover of a magazine some day.

What are your thoughts on passion and commitment? Are there days when you're lacking one or both? How do you get it back?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Article Writing 101 (Part 2--Organization, Writing, & Markets)

Last week, in Article Writing 101 (Part 1--Ideas & Research), we discussed some of the basics of writing articles.

If you've thought of a focused idea, and you've done your research, it's time to organize, write, and search for markets. Like I said before, each writer works differently, but this is the process that's worked for me.


Once you do your research and speak with an expert on your subject, you'll likely have pages of data to work with. Now it's time to organize. When you go through the research process, it's helpful to think of an outline as you go. This way you can organize facts into groups, which creates your outline. I use a standard outline, like this.

I choose colored pencils to represent each section of the outline. As I sift through my notes, I color code each fact in the margin, noting where it'll fit within the article.

Writing the Article

Opening--Some ideas for openings include an interesting fact, a personal story, or a question your readers will want answered. Then let readers know what they can expect in your article. There's a saying about articles that goes something like this: open with what you're going to tell them, then tell them, then summarize what you've told them.

Paragraphs--Use the middle of your article to share all those fun facts you've collected about your subject. Consider adding a unique spin to spice up the piece. In my article A Spoonful of Laughter, I opened each paragraph with a silly riddle. Write your article using language that works for your target audience. Word choices will differ based on whether you write for preschoolers, teens, or adults. With smaller children, break your article into easy-to-read sections.

Closing--Wrap up what you've shared, and leave a parting thought or image with your reader. Are there fun activities associated with your subject? Add those, too. With my article We Saw It!, about the International Space Station, I added links for kids to track the ISS, view it from their home, and host viewing parties.

Bibliography--Most places I've submitted to preferred the Chicago Manual of Style (click here for examples), but check guidelines to be sure.

And as with all writing, revise, revise, revise until you get it right.

Market Search

In some cases, it's helpful to already know the target magazine or e-zine before you start writing. That way you can structure your article and word count to meet their submission requirements in the early stages. If you're unsure where to start, Funds for Writers is a great place to search for markets. If you write for kids, consider subscribing to Children's Writer newsletter. It's cheap, $15 per year, but it's packed with writing tips, editors' needs, and markets.

If you choose your target magazine after the article is written, look at past issues of the magazine and revise your piece to meet their needs. Research their submission guidelines and follow them exactly.

Whew! We're done!

If you venture into writing articles, I hope these steps will help. And if you're still awake after this long & tedious post, and if you have further questions, feel free to ask in the comments or email me at julie (at) juliemusil (d0t) com.

Have you written nonfiction? How does this compare to your process? Any tips you'd like to add?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Love Stories, The Bachelor, & Romantic Suckers (like me!)

I'm one of those crazy persons who watches each season of The Bachelor. I know, I know. *hangs head in shame*

Why do I do it? Why do relatively normal people invest time and emotional energy into love stories that are doomed from the start?

Well, I sat myself down for a therapy session and this is what I learned:

In love with love

People like me are suckers for love stories. Even if I read a political thriller, there's nothing like it when a forbidden love story is thrown in the mix. YA stories? Yep, I love the love angle there, too (Katniss-Peeta-Gale triangle...oy!). Historical fiction? Don't get me started! (The brooding and misunderstood Mr. Darcy, anyone?)

In love with drama

I don't consider myself a drama mama in real life, but in romance stories, I love it. If the girl gets the guy without rumors, misunderstandings, and cat fights, where's the fun in that? Maybe romance stories give ordinary people the thrill of drama, without having to experience it first hand.

In love with possibility

Love stories involve lots of road blocks before the embattled couple finds happiness. But the possibility of love...ah, that's what keeps readers reading and movie viewers digging into buttered popcorn until they're sick (raise your hand if the sick-tummy-from-popcorn thing has happened to you, too).

In my opinion, romantics are hopeful. And hope is what keeps bringing me back to The Bachelor, even after many seasons of failed couples. I keep hoping that this is the season where the couple will find true love through unrealistic dates and strange group hot tub scenes.

For an in-depth post on romance, check out Jody Hedlund's post Why Romances Are a Valid & Important Form of Literature.

Are you a sucker for romance? Do you read it or write it? And do you watch The Bachelor, or am I the only crazy viewer out there?

(If you're watching this season, who do you think Ben will choose? IMHO, I think it should have been Kasie B., and I think Ben is on the fast track to heartbreak. *sigh*)