Behind the Book: IRISES by Francisco X. Stork

Earlier this year, the ARCs of Francisco Stork's latest novel, Irises, went out with the letter below. It's about the best introduction I can give the book, I think, so I decided I'd just reproduce it here. . . . Irises is in stores starting January 2012 (and there have already been sightings in the wild), and Francisco will be at ALA in Dallas later this month. Thank you for reading it, if you do.

Dear Friend,

As Francisco X. Stork’s editor, I often face a unique challenge:  how to summarize the stories of his extraordinary novels without making them sound totally cheesy. “A young man with Asperger’s syndrome investigates the meaning of suffering”? It seems unlikely, but that was Marcelo in the Real World, which became one of the most acclaimed YA novels of the past few years. “A cancer patient and a boy planning a murder become friends”? Oh, please—but The Last Summer of the Death Warriors just won ALAN’s Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award. In both cases, the marvelous reality and honesty of Francisco’s characters, his fine, spare writing, and his bravery in probing these profound spiritual topics resulted in novels that were so much more than the summaries of their plots, and were embraced by critics and readers alike.

And now you’re holding Irises, in which—deep breath—“Two very different sisters must deal with the death of their father and the life of their mother, who is in a permanent vegetative state.” “But wait!” I want to grab you and say, because again it’s about so much more than that: Kate has ambition and dreams and drive, but how does she weigh the needs of her deepest self against her responsibility to her family? Mary is an artist because she can’t be anything else, but what can she do when she’s lost her own light? Both girls wrestle with the weight of love, for each other, for their mother, and for the three very (very) different young men in their lives. And while none of this is easy, Kate and Mary are so real, our sympathy for them so deep, that this ultimately becomes a book about connection more than division, and about finding new depths of love, vision, and sacrifice.

I believe that Irises will speak not just to Francisco’s many fans in the YA community, but to lovers of books like My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult or The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold:  novels about young women facing life-and-death decisions, for people they love and for themselves. And in these fast-paced times, I truly appreciate you picking up a book that goes beyond easy summary to the very heart of our human dilemmas . . . which sounds cheesy, I know, but what can I do? It’s Francisco X. Stork, and it’s wonderful.

Thank you again for reading Irises, and for sharing it with your fellow readers.

With all best wishes,

Cheryl Klein
Senior Editor

Five Quotes, Three Announcements, and One Link

"Power always thinks it has a great soul." -- John Quincy Adams

“Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change. . . . What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” -- Martin Luther King, Jr.
"It is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating. Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes." -- Gustave Flaubert
"In writing, punctuation plays the role of body language. It helps readers hear you the way you want to be heard." -- Russell Baker

"'The cat sat on the mat' is not a story. 'The cat sat on the other cat's mat' is a story." -- John LeCarre


1. The winners of the StarCrossed/Liar's Moon/Second Sight giveaways were Lindsay Mead, Rachel Stark, Cathy C. Hall, Pat Esden, and Leslie Jordan. For those of you interested in giveaway strategy, both Cathy and Lindsay took full advantage of the opportunity to enter multiple times, and it clearly paid off for them. Congratulations to all!

2. If you live in New York and you're interested in supporting the Occupy movement:  My awesome church, Park Slope United Methodist, is housing protesters in the sanctuary each night, and we're looking for volunteers to sleep overnight there as hosts. (You do not have to attend the church to volunteer.) I did it on Thursday, and it was actually quite lovely -- not the most sleep I've ever gotten, certainly, but an opportunity to chat with some really interesting people devoted to building a better world, in their very particular way, and to give them a place to lay their heads, as the carol goes. If you'd be up for it, e-mail me at the address on my website and I'll put you in touch with the coordinator.

(My friend Rachel, being mischievous, asked me if we would put up Tea Party people as well should they ask for shelter; and I'd like to think we would, though I also think most Tea Partiers would be too horrified by my church to want to shelter there. A soup kitchen, an all-inclusive marriage policy, a Christmas pageant that included "Occupy Bethlehem" jokes, an emphasis on social and economic justice . . . The Koch brothers' heads would implode! (I admit the glee I take in that idea is neither particularly welcoming nor becoming. It's a process.))

3. Registration opens on December 22 for my March 3, 2012 Master Class on Plot in Spokane, Washington, via SCBWI Inland Empire. Details: here.

Finally, if you saw "Breaking Dawn," you also need to see this: "Breaking Dawn" in 15 Minutes.

Behind the Book: Three Things Writers Can Learn from Liar's Moon, Part III

Again: If you are here for the giveaway, scroll on down!
If you are here because you're interested in the $2.99 e-book of
StarCrossed, yay you! Click here for details about where to buy it.
And if you are here for writing craft stuff, read on.

3. Recognize the Power of a Damn Good Outline. 

As anyone who’s read Second Sight knows, I love a good outline (or a bookmap, as I call them there), and as pretty much all of my authors know, I am sort of insane about using them. That’s because an outline allows you both to see the action of an entire book laid out in just a few pages, and to break down how that action and the characters involved are developing scene by scene . . . what's changing, what’s not feeling necessary, what maybe should be added, how I as a reader am reacting to the characters and events as we go along. Sometimes I will ask authors to outline their book at the same time I’m doing it, and it’s always fascinating to compare what I as a reader am taking away from each chapter versus what they see in it.

Anyway, because the narrative structure of Liar’s Moon was so complex, I ended up outlining it in four different ways at various stages in the process, and I thought it might interest you all to see those various drafts. In the first one, my Basic Bookmap, I outlined the events in detail in the order in which they unfolded in the plot, in which Chapter 2 was described like this:
Ch. 2/11 – Durrel helps her clean up. He’s there because they think he murdered his wife Talth Ceid by a poison called Tincture of the Moon. Only people against him = Talth’s family. Account of murder night on p. 17. Raffin Taradyce has joined the Acolyte Guard. Someone has bailed Digger out, and she leaves. Durrel asks her to take a message to his father.
(The “11” was the page number on which the chapter started.) That helped me wrap my head around the basic events of the book, and I made notes in bullet points underneath or sometimes within those descriptions. The first draft of this outline is just for me, but later, after I’ve processed all my reactions to the book and determined what’s most necessary and helpful for an author to hear from me at this stage, I’ll often edit both the chapter descriptions and the notes and send this outline to the author as part of an editorial letter.

Once I had the whole book in my head this way, I broke this down into my second outline, a Mini-Map with just the key events of this chapter, to wit:
2 – meets Durrel, learns about murder of Talth
 A Mini-Map is useful for quick reference—answering questions like “Okay, now when did she find that dead body again?”—especially in long or plot-dense novels like this one.

The third version, the Plot Points Map: I went through and identified where each of the many mystery plots started, labeling it in bullet points and all caps under each chapter. Then I added any LIES told in the chapter, or any TRUTHS UNCOVERED, to help keep track of what Digger knew was true when; and polished it off with a SETS UP, so I knew what the reader was expecting to happen based on the action of this chapter, and I could be sure that the later action of the book followed up on that and paid it off. (I also sometimes added TO ADD if there was information we needed earlier, TO MOVE if something was going elsewhere, or TO CUT if something wasn’t feeling necessary.) That changed the look of this Chapter 2 outline to this:
2 – meets Durrel, learns about murder of Talth
    •    MYSTERY: Who killed Talth Ceid?
    •    LIES:  Durrel says that he doesn’t know how the poison got into his room
    •    SETS UP:  expectation that Digger will go by Charicaux and talk to Ragn
    •    UNDERSTOOD THREAT & MOTIVATION:  The Ceid are out for Durrel’s blood in revenge for Talth’s death.
Finally, because this is a mystery novel, and mysteries move forward in part by digging backward, I created a chronological list of events that started a couple of years before the action of this book began—before the murder was even committed, in fact. This “Backwards Outline” chronicled all of the complex series of events leading up to the murder, and also narrated the events of the night of the murder itself. That way we could be sure that the backstory structure was sound by seeing that all of its events were there; and once that backstory structure was in place, and events arrived at the point at which the action of the book actually began, we could concentrate on when to reveal those backstory events in the frontstory for maximum effect. While revealing any of that backstory would be spoiling you for the reveals in the book itself, here’s where the action picks up with the book’s beginning:

TWO MONTHS LATER (when the book begins)
    31.    (Ch. 1) Digger, pickpocketing, is roughed up and arrested by the King’s guards.
    32.    Taken to the King’s Keep, she is thrown into Durrel’s cell and (2) they talk about the murder.
             a.    MYSTERY:  Who killed Talth Ceid?
    33.    Digger’s friend Rat bails her out (courtesy of a note attached to 50 crowns) and she leaves the Keep.
             a.    MYSTERY:  Who sent the note to bail Digger out? And if this was arranged on Durrel’s behalf, who got her sent there in the first place?
    34.    (3) Digger asks Rat to track the paper of the note. (4) She decides she will investigate the murder.
             a.    Digger’s belief:  Durrel is innocent; no idea about other suspects.
    35.    Digger goes to Bal Marse and finds it abandoned and empty, but with traces of magic about.
             a.    MYSTERY:  How is Talth tied to magic?
Here, you can see, I started numbering the events so that it was easy to refer to them later—for instance, later in the outline, after Talth’s murderer was revealed, I noted in the outline that that SOLVED MYSTERY 32a. Such a strategy helped me keep track of all the plot threads flying in the wind and making sure there weren’t any loose ends we didn’t intend to leave dangling. (Some we intended.) And when Elizabeth and I were having editorial conversations about the book, it was very easy to say, “Okay, so let’s move events 45-49 to Chapter 8 so that we don’t reveal that information too early in the process.” If I can speak as a proud editor for a moment, the fact that I could make a Backwards Outline for this book is precisely what makes Elizabeth such a great writer: how densely and completely she’s imagined and written the world she’s created, and how well she brings it to life. 

Lesson for Writers:  I am completely agnostic on whether writers should outline their books before they do a first draft: That’s up to the writer and their working style and their relationships with their stories and characters. But once that first draft is done, do consider making an outline like one of the ones above, tailored to your own manuscript’s needs, to help you see the book afresh in both its component pieces and as a whole.

And did all this work on Liar’s Moon pay off? Well, check out these reviews:
  • Leila Roy at Bookshelves of Doom and Kirkus Reviews: "The first time through, you’ll concentrate on figuring out the world and meeting the characters and following the story. But when you read them again, you’ll notice how multilayered they are. You’ll notice hints and subtleties of character and plot, and you’ll notice just how carefully they are crafted. You’ll notice that the characters are fully realized people—so much so that it’s easy to forget that they’re fictional creations, even if they do live in a world with three moons."
  • Publishers’ Weekly Children’s Bookshelf Galley Pick of the Week: "It's a very versatile story—perfect for a display of mysteries, fantasy, adventure, or novels with powerful heroines. Liar’s Moon will definitely be one of my very favorite handsells for the fall and holiday seasons, particularly for my fans of Patricia Wrede, Kristin Cashore, Tamora Pierce, and Megan Whalen Turner."
  • VOYA: “As with StarCrossed, Bunce excels in weaving together several plot points and characters without weighing down the novel. Fan of [Kristin] Cashore’s Graceling will greatly enjoy Digger’s unique voice and strength of character, along with Bunce’s ability to fully immerse readers in a finely crafted world.  This book, along with its prequel, should be on most library shelves as both have a wide appeal….”

The Giveaway Runs Through Midnight Wednesday!

I wrote earlier about the terrific deal we’re offering on the digital version of StarCrossed, which continues through the end of the month. But there is no time like the present to get the word out about it! To that end, I’m having a giveaway here, with the chance to win a signed hardcover set of BOTH StarCrossed and Liar’s Moon, OR a signed paperback copy of my Second Sight . . . and I’m offering five prizes in total, so your odds are very good! To enter:

If you’re on Twitter, retweet this message between now and 11:59 p.m. next Wednesday, December 14:
Elizabeth Bunce’s STARCROSSED is now $2.99 on e-book—RT for the chance to win a hardcover + LIAR'S MOON! @chavelaque
Or you can post about this on your blog or LJ (with a link back to this blog post) and leave the link to your post in the comments below, also by 11:59 p.m. EST on Wednesday the 14th. Or both! Each individual tweet or blog post counts as a new entry, so each one increases your chances. (They’re like tesserae in the Hunger Games!) (A link on Twitter to YOUR blog post does not count toward the giveaway, though.) Once all the comments and RTs are in, I’ll pick three names out of a hat and announce the winner on the 16th.

So to do this legal-style:
  1. How to Enter via Twitter: Using your Twitter account, follow @chavelaque and then re-tweet my original tweet of “Elizabeth Bunce’s STARCROSSED is now $2.99 on e-book—RT for the chance to win a hardcover + LIAR'S MOON! @chavelaque” Please note that the phrase “@chavelaque” MUST be in your message or your entry will not be counted. Tweets must be retweeted between 12/7/11, 9 am EST and 12/14/11, 11:59 pm EST (the “Entry Period”). You can tweet as many times as you like in the Entry Period.
  2. How to Enter via Blog/LJ: Post about the $2.99 sale or this giveaway on your blog or unlocked LJ, then leave a link to your post in the comments below. Your post MUST include a link to this post. Also, you MUST leave your own link in the comments on this post between 12/7/11, 9 am EST and 12/14/11, 11:59 pm EST or your entry will not be counted. Post as many times as you like during the Entry Period.
  3. The Prizes: Three (3) winners will each receive one (1) hardcover copy of both StarCrossed and Liar’s Moon (Approximate Retail Value $35.98). Two (2) winners will each receive (1) copy of Second Sight (Approximate Retail Value $16.99). Everyone will receive my undying gratitude.
Thank you for participating, and I hope you win!

Black Bean and Sweet Potato Chili

One more for my personal-blog-recipe file. . . . There are surely other recipes for this, but I love this one for its extra tang of cocoa and lime. Note:  The recipe is very black bean-heavy as written, so you could easily drop a can or double the sweet potatoes and red peppers to even out the proportions.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1 28-can diced tomatoes
4 15-ounce cans black beans, rinsed and drained (or 6 cups freshly cooked)
1 jalapeno chile pepper, seeded and chopped
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cocoa powder
1 lime, cut into wedges
1 cup chopped cilantro leaves, washed and dried
  1. Warm the oil in a large pan over medium heat and add the onion, red pepper, garlic, and salt. Saute until soft, about 4 minutes.
  2. Add the sweet potato and lime zest, and cook 10 to 15 minutes more, continuing to stir occasionally.
  3. Add the tomatoes, black beans, jalapeno, lime juice, cumin, chili powder, and cocoa, bring to a simmer, cover, and cook for 10 minutes.
  4. Serve over brown rice, if desired, with lime wedges and cilantro, or with corn bread, biscuits, or taco chips alongside.
Serves 6.

Behind the Book: Three Things Writers Can Learn from Liar's Moon, Part II

Again: If you are here for the giveaway, scroll on down!
If you are here because you're interested in the $2.99 e-book of
StarCrossed, yay you! Click here for details about where to buy it.
And if you are here for writing craft stuff, read on.

2. The More Readers Find to Be Interested in a __________, the More They Care, and the More They’ll Read

The blank above could be filled with “Plot,” “Character,” or ultimately “Book”—but here I’m going to talk about character, because really what I want to discuss is stakes, and the best stakes an author can create is the reader’s interest in the characters. If readers want to hang out with your protagonist, because he or she says or does interesting things, then they’ll just generally go along with stuff for a while, I think, even if they’re a little puzzled or nothing seems to be happening. More importantly long-term, readers will experience all the action that happens to your protagonist the same way the protagonist experiences it, as well as the joy, the fear, and the pain that goes along with it—and as the creation of emotion is the highest goal of an artist, having your reader be interested in your characters is a significant first step.

Liar’s Moon had an advantage here in that it was a (standalone) sequel to StarCrossed, so a fair amount of our readership would be coming to us from the previous book, and they’d already be interested in Digger, the sneak-thief who pretended to be an escaped nun, got caught up in a rebellion, and then fomented religious civil war.* But when you have an Act I like that in StarCrossed, you need a pretty spectacular Act II; and that means making readers care not just about Digger, but the people around her and the action she’s pursuing.

In this book, as established on Wednesday, that action is a mystery—a murder investigation. Readers get invested in mysteries because they care about (A) the abstract idea the mystery represents (in this case, justice), (B) the victim of the mystery, if there is one, (C) other people affected by the crime, or (D) what’s in it for the detective . . . though really I don’t think readers ever really care about (A) until it’s played out in (B) or (C). With (B), the murder victim here is Talth Ceid, Durrel’s much older wife, who wed him in what was acknowledged by everyone involved to be a marriage of convenience, uniting her wealth with his noble name. Digger never met her personally, so everything we know about her we get from the people Digger talks to -- and Talth’s pretty quickly established as a woman whom no one liked, including Durrel.

That leads us on to (C). In Liar’s Moon’s case, the primary “other person affected by the crime” was Durrel, who was being framed for Talth’s murder. So we had to make readers care about Durrel -- a guy whom Digger had met briefly, and liked, at the beginning of StarCrossed, but who was then absent for four-fifths of the book.** Since the mystery of Talth's murder structures all of this book, and the mystery is driven by Digger’s connection to and interest in Durrel, we had to get Digger to like him again and feel pretty invested in him tout suite once the story started. Fortunately, they're very quickly thrown into contact (literally), as Digger gets picked up on the street (also literally) and tossed into Durrel's jail cell for unknown reasons.

I have a list on my bulletin board at work of fourteen qualities that make characters attractive to readers (or at least to me, I suppose). As I reread Digger’s first encounter with him now, Durrel quickly fulfills #9, Kindness, in the way that he immediately is concerned about Digger when she appears in his cell:
     “What’s going on? What are you doing here?”
     “I don’t know,” Durrel said. “This is very odd. You’re injured.” I touched my face, which was streaked with blood from the cut under my eye. “Let’s get you cleaned up, at least.”
#11, Humor/Wit, in that he has a sense of (black) humor about his situation:
“They think I murdered my wife.” . . . Durrel saw the expression on my face and gave an attempt at a wan smile. “It surprised me too.”
And most especially #8, Jeopardy, because all the circumstantial evidence points to him:
“Isn’t it always the husband?” A twisted smile tried to form itself on his lips, but died prematurely. “They found vials of the Tincture in my rooms. But it wasn’t mine—” He turned back into the shadows. “They’re going to execute me, Celyn.”
As their conversation goes along, it warms up, as Digger rediscovers her appreciation of his company:  “Something about Lord Durrel made him too easy to talk to.” He becomes more optimistic about his situation in talking to her as well (#10, Positivity):
    “We’re left with a puzzle,” Durrel said, and there was a lively spark to his voice that seemed all out of place.
    “Pox,” I said. “I hate puzzles.”
And thus Digger discovers her own (D) above, what’s in it for her to investigate this case—both a personal mystery, in finding out who would have arranged for her to be thrown in with Durrel, which is surely not a coincidence; and a personal desire, that she likes Durrel (and maybe even starts to "like­-like" him), and doesn’t want to see him executed. Thus, by the end of Chapter 2, the plot is set; Digger and we readers care, so the stakes are set too; and the book is well on its way.

Lesson for Writers:  Cheryl’s Fourteen Qualities of Attractive Characters***:
  1. Newness (someone I haven’t seen before)
  2. Viewpoint (the POV character)
  3. Desire (the character wants something)
  4. Expertise
  5. Friends (the character likes or is liked by people the reader likes))
  6. Enemies (the character is disliked by people the reader dislikes, so we like the character -- Harry Potter being hated by the Dursleys is the classic example)
  7. Action (the character does something)
  8. Jeopardy (being in it)
  9. Kindness
  10. Positivity (a good attitude in general)
  11. Humor/Wit
  12. Enthusiasm (passion for one specific thing)
  13. Complication (meaning that while they have at least one likeable element, as per #9-12 generally, they do experience darker & deeper emotions)
  14. Mystery (the character is keeping secrets, even from the reader)
This is by no means an exhaustive list -- I actually added two more qualities today in talking about it with Elizabeth -- and it's mostly a first-impressions list, too, as the qualities I find attractive in a character at the beginning of the book are different from the ones I expect to have developed by the middle, somewhat. But as a rule of thumb, the more of these qualities your characters demonstrate, the more readers will be inclined to be interested in them, and the more they’ll be invested in the action of your book as well. And if someone tells you they don't like your protagonist (and you want them to), or they find him boring or bland, see if you can develop some of these qualities in her, or place her in circumstances that create these qualities, and go from there.

On Monday, Part III:  Outlines, outlines, outlines!
* Yes, Digger is that awesome. And hey, don’t you want to read StarCrossed? It’s $2.99 on e-book right now…
** Since we knew Durrel would play a major role in this book, we were at pains to keep him present in the reader’s mind throughout StarCrossed, which Elizabeth accomplished by having him give Digger a present she used throughout that book.
*** I will be talking about these qualities in more depth at the Florida SCBWI conference over Martin Luther King Day weekend, if you’re looking for a January break.


The Giveaway Is Still Going On!

I wrote earlier about the terrific deal we’re offering on the digital version of StarCrossed, which runs through the end of the month. But there is no time like the present to get the word out about it! To that end, I’m having a giveaway here, with the chance to win a signed hardcover set of BOTH StarCrossed and Liar’s Moon, OR a signed paperback copy of my Second Sight . . . and I’m offering five prizes in total, so your odds are very good! To enter:

If you’re on Twitter, retweet this message between now and 11:59 p.m. next Wednesday, December 14:

Elizabeth Bunce’s STARCROSSED is now $2.99 on e-book—RT for the chance to win a hardcover + LIAR'S MOON! @chavelaque
Or you can post about this on your blog or LJ (with a link back to this blog post) and leave the link to your post in the comments below, also by 11:59 p.m. EST on Wednesday the 14th. Or both! Each individual tweet or blog post counts as a new entry, so each one increases your chances. (They’re like tesserae in the Hunger Games!) (A link on Twitter to YOUR blog post does not count toward the giveaway, though.) Once all the comments and RTs are in, I’ll pick three names out of a hat and announce the winner on the 16th.

So to do this legal-style:
  1. How to Enter via Twitter: Using your Twitter account, follow @chavelaque and then re-tweet my original tweet of “Elizabeth Bunce’s STARCROSSED is now $2.99 on e-book—RT for the chance to win a hardcover + LIAR'S MOON! @chavelaque” Please note that the phrase “@chavelaque” MUST be in your message or your entry will not be counted. Tweets must be retweeted between 12/7/11, 9 am EST and 12/14/11, 11:59 pm EST (the “Entry Period”). You can tweet as many times as you like in the Entry Period.
  2. How to Enter via Blog/LJ: Post about the $2.99 sale or this giveaway on your blog or unlocked LJ, then leave a link to your post in the comments below. Your post MUST include a link to this post. Also, you MUST leave your own link in the comments on this post between 12/7/11, 9 am EST and 12/14/11, 11:59 pm EST or your entry will not be counted. Post as many times as you like during the Entry Period.
  3. The Prizes: Three (3) winners will each receive one (1) hardcover copy of both StarCrossed and Liar’s Moon (Approximate Retail Value $35.98). Two (2) winners will each receive (1) copy of Second Sight (Approximate Retail Value $16.99). Everyone will receive my undying gratitude.
Thank you for participating, and I hope you win!

Behind the Book: Three Things Writers Can Learn from Liar's Moon, Part I

If you are here for the giveaway, scroll on down!
If you are here because you're interested in the $2.99 e-book of
StarCrossed, yay you! Click here for details about where to buy it.
And if you are here for writing craft stuff, read on.

Three Things Writers Can Learn from Liar's Moon by Elizabeth C. Bunce

1. Know What Sort of Story You're Writing.

This was Elizabeth’s and my third book together, after the Morris Award-winning A Curse Dark as Gold and the acclaimed StarCrossed. It was also her third mystery novel. But we had a significant advantage in approaching Liar’s Moon editorially: We knew it was a mystery novel from the beginning!

You see, if either one of us had had to describe Curse or StarCrossed early on, we would have called them historical fantasy. They had magic, they were each rooted in a sense of a specific time period and place (though both exist in fantasy versions of that place), and most of the historical details were accurate to that time and place. But in the course of working on both books, we realized that while the clothing on these books was most definitely historical fantasy, the skeletons beneath them were Mystery plots -- where our heroine needed to uncover a piece of information -- twined with Conflict plots, as forces or people worked to keep that information from her.

And this changed our approach to both books, because mysteries require so much advance setup: the creation of a coherent backstory that established the thing that’s a mystery to our heroine; the laying-in of the clues; scenes dramatizing the discovery of those clues; red herrings, and the demolition of those herrings; the creation of obstacles both passive (a giant castle to be searched, say) and active (a relative who wants to keep the information hidden); a climax dramatizing the revelation of the answer . . . all paced properly and carefully interwoven with the other plotlines. And as a result, we had to go back and invent new scenes, hide new clues, even add or delete other plot threads to give those central structuring Mysteries their proper weight. This is all part of the novelist’s job, of course, and Elizabeth pulled it off beautifully in both books. But we definitely experienced small but significant moments of brain-shift when we said: “Oh yes: Mysteries”

Liar’s Moon was by far the easiest editorial process of the three books so far, partly because we always knew it was a mystery novel: Digger’s friend Durrel Decath has been imprisoned for murdering his wife Talth, so Digger sets out to prove his innocence, which also involves proving someone else’s guilt. These questions spring up straightaway:
  • When and how did Talth die?
  • If that method of death requires skill or particular equipment (in Liar’s Moon’s case, it’s a rare poison called Tincture of the Moon), who has access to that skill or equipment?
  • Who did she interact with before she died?
  • When and by whom was she found?
  • Who might want Talth dead?
  • Why would they want Talth dead?
  • Who could attest to her relationships with these people? 
  • What was Durrel's relationship with Talth in particular?
  • Is he an innocent bystander, or is he being framed? If the latter, why?
  • Is anyone hiding anything? (Answer in this book’s case: Oh hells yes.)
So by the end of Chapter 2, Digger has about thirty things to do for her investigation, and the game’s afoot, and the action in the novel is flying forward. And that is why mysteries are so useful in novels, and worth all the complications involved in setting them up:  because the payoff in terms of intriguing the reader and making things happen is so huge and immediate.

Lesson for Writers: Once you have the story of the book down, figure out what the underlying skeleton of your plot is, and rethink your book accordingly. An easy way to determine the nature of that skeleton is to look at the climax. . . . To immodestly quote a formula from Second Sight:
  • If your story’s climax involves a big fight and someone wins and someone loses, that’s a Conflict.
  • If it involves a piece of information being revealed, that’s a Mystery.
  • And if two characters get together, or the character can achieve something they haven’t been able to before—that’s probably a Lack plot.
On Friday, Part II in this series: How to make a murder matter.

And now: GIVEAWAY!

I wrote earlier about the terrific deal we’re offering on the digital version of StarCrossed, which runs through the end of the month. But there is no time like the present to get the word out about it! To that end, I’m having a giveaway here, with the chance to win a signed hardcover set of BOTH StarCrossed and Liar’s Moon, OR a signed paperback copy of Second Sight . . . and I’m offering five prizes in total, so your odds are very good! To enter:

If you’re on Twitter, retweet this message between now and 11:59 p.m. next Wednesday, December 14:
Elizabeth Bunce’s STARCROSSED is now $2.99 on e-book—RT for the chance to win a hardcover + LIAR'S MOON! @chavelaque
Or you can post about this on your blog or LJ (with a link back to this blog post) and leave the link to your post in the comments below, also by 11:59 p.m. EST on Wednesday the 14th. Or both! Each individual tweet or blog post counts as a new entry, so each one increases your chances. (They’re like tesserae in the Hunger Games!) (A link on Twitter to YOUR blog post does not count toward the giveaway, though.) Once all the comments and RTs are in, I’ll pick three names out of a hat and announce the winner on the 16th.

So to do this legal-style:
  1. How to Enter via Twitter: Using your Twitter account, follow @chavelaque and then re-tweet my original tweet of “Elizabeth Bunce’s STARCROSSED is now $2.99 on e-book—RT for the chance to win a hardcover + LIAR'S MOON! @chavelaque” Please note that the phrase “@chavelaque” MUST be in your message or your entry will not be counted. Tweets must be retweeted between 12/7/11, 9 am EST and 12/14/11, 11:59 pm EST (the “Entry Period”). You can tweet as many times as you like in the Entry Period.
  2. How to Enter via Blog/LJ: Post about the $2.99 sale or this giveaway on your blog or unlocked LJ, then leave a link to your post in the comments below. Your post MUST include a link to this post. Also, you MUST leave your own link in the comments on this post between 12/7/11, 9 am EST and 12/14/11, 11:59 pm EST or your entry will not be counted. Post as many times as you like during the Entry Period.
  3. The Prizes: Three (3) winners will each receive one (1) hardcover copy of both StarCrossed and Liar’s Moon (Approximate Retail Value $35.98). Two (2) winners will each receive (1) copy of Second Sight (Approximate Retail Value $16.99). Everyone will receive my undying gratitude.
Thank you for participating, and I hope you win!

Book Giveaway Contest Winners + Spring 2012 Video Preview

In a post last month, I highlighted some similarities among my three marvelous Spring 2012 novels, and offered to give away a copy of each to three random commenters. The winning commenters are:
  • Susan Adrian, for Irises by Francisco X. Stork (which now has a starred review from Publishers Weekly)
  • Uniquely Moi, for The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin (which Kirkus called "a smashing debut" in its starred review)
  • Gail Shepherd, for Above by Leah Bobet (about which one person on Goodreads said, "I'm jealous of my week-ago self because he still gets to read Above for the first time")
Winners, please e-mail me your addresses at chavela_que at yahoo dot com. And everyone, thanks for participating! You've encouraged me to do more such giveaways in the future.

If you would like to learn more about these books, as well as my fabulous Summer 2012 titles, please check out the Scholastic Librarian Preview. If you view it by age range, in Picture Books, I'm at minute 1:00 with the charming Zoe Gets Ready by Bethanie Deeney Murguia; in Middle Grade, I'm at 13:46 with the uber-fun Gold Medal Summer by Donna Freitas; and I kick off the YA section with the three books listed above.Watch closely and you'll see me toss a feather boa around my neck with bonhomie and savoir faire. Voila!

Q&A: Joanna Pearson, Author of The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills

This past summer, we published The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills by Joanna Pearson, a funny, smart novel about sixteen-year-old (guess who?) Janice Wills, who styles herself as an anthropologist of life in Melva, North Carolina (a.k.a. the Livermush Capital of the World). Joanna amazed me by revising the book while she was in first medical school and then an internship -- part of a joint MFA/MD program offered by Johns Hopkins University. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where she is completing her residency, and she was kind enough to answer some questions for me here.

In an essay called "How to Rid Yourself of Poetry--Almost," you wrote:
Writing poetry, it seems, is one of those habits that, at least among most members of polite society, one is expected to have outgrown. The fact of one’s persistent poetry-writing makes others uncomfortable—like wearing pantaloons and a feathered hat in the supermarket. You are either a throwback, a weirdo, a Renaissance Festival enthusiast, or someone who never fully exited adolescence. “Oh, you write poetry!” some well-meaning soul says. “I write poetry too! At least I used to! In ninth grade, I had a whole notebook chock-full of poems!” To this, you must nod politely, although you will secretly be saying, No, you don’t understand! Everyone had a notebook full of poems in ninth grade. What I write now, this is Poetry For Real! This is Serious Business! You will never actually say this, of course, because, first of all, no one would believe you, and, second of all, it would only make you look weirder.
I think you could switch out the word "poetry" for "children's/YA books" in the above, and many, many writers would recognize the same condescending tone from their own conversations. What drove you to write a YA novel, despite such disapproval, and what keeps you coming back to poetry?

Hmm. That's such a smart observation--one I''ve never considered! To be honest with you, when I first began working on this book, I actually chose to delve into YA because it's so completely different from poetry. I started what would eventually become Rites and Wrongs during the summer after my first year in my poetry MFA program. At the time, I was feeling exhausted from writing poetry and wanted to do something that would be really fun and light and totally different. I can now say officially that the process of writing YA and the process of writing poetry ARE indeed completely different. Utterly, wholly, completely different. I love poetry because I love sound and meter and form; I also love playing with language's accumulated resonances and meanings. It's precision work--like working on a tiny, jeweled box. Although there is definitely still storytelling involved, it's often more subtle, and more in the suggestion. Writing YA feels so much broader, like working on a large mural. And I think that when writing YA, one must tap into the adolescent part of one's brain, whereas when writing poetry, tapping into this part of one's brain is usually is a recipe for disaster.

I guess the dominant "respectable" genre will always be literary fiction (and don't get me wrong--I love this too!!), but both YA and poetry are backed by such ferocious, fervent communities.  YA and poetry are the underdogs--maybe that's the main similarity, that underdog charm.

Where did this book start from for you, particularly the anthropology concept?

This answer is easy: the book started with Janice's voice. Everything else grew out of that. Janice is, in a way, the purest distillation of adolescent insecurity and hyperawareness. She's the ur-teenager, if you will. And her interest in anthropology is really an outgrowth of this. How good an anthropologist Janice is throughout most of the book is definitely open to debate. I'd say she's a pretty good misanthropologist, though.

One of the things I loved about the manuscript was that it paired that teenage emotional instinct to analyze and critique everything with an academic/intellectual discipline made for it -- which is of course also very teenage, to get wrapped up in some giant system of seeing the world. What systems did you subscribe to as a teenager? Do any of those linger in your worldview today, and how?

Huh. Good question. I guess the main system I subscribed to as a teenager was simply the binary system of cool/uncool. Of course, this is made more complicated by the addition of the parallel pseudo-categories of "cool"/"uncool." By this, I mean that "cool" people tend to do very uncool things. This elegant binary system still remains very tempting to me--to almost everyone, I think. (Except for maybe my dad, who has transcended all notions of coolness, and is therefore, perhaps, the coolest of all.)

How did the manuscript change in the course of the revision process?

Whew--it changed a lot.  At the very beginning, I thought that to make a good YA novel, it was mandatory that one include either several paranormal boyfriends or a dystopian combat scene, or else throw in enough intrigue for an entire season of The O.C.  So Janice was there from the beginning, but there were also some ghosts, blackmail, a mysterious car crash, people in disguises... And I don't think it made a lot of sense.  Then, a couple of very wise people (including one very wise editor) helped me to pare all this away and really focus the story on Janice and her voice.  So, yeah--the biggest challenge in revision was finding that viable structure.

How does it feel to be a published author—as opposed to being an author whose book had been accepted for publication, but not yet out, or an author whose work was just on submission? Has it made any difference in your life at all?

Things are not different in a major way, although I've now learned about new types of book-related anxiety. It's both thrilling and terrifying to have something that exists out in the world, particularly in a world in which people have so many venues to respond. The coolest thing has been getting the chance to meet a few adolescent readers who really loved the book. That's amazing--the reason I think most people write, really, is for that ideal reader, or readers. Still, it's a very anxiety-provoking thing to put yourself out there like that.... I have new respect for all the writers who have been doing this for years--and for pageant contestants across the land!

You have an incredibly busy schedule as a newlywed, a medical resident, a published author, a poet. . . . How do you make time to write? Do you have any self-disciplinary strategies you'd be willing to share?

Oh, man. I wish I did! Right now, it's been very difficult to find writing time. Last year, while I was an intern (which means I was basically working a thirty-hour shift in the hospital approximately every fourth day), it was basically impossible. My schedule's slightly better this year, so I'm starting with small things, like sonnets, just to get back into some kind of writing discipline. I have the beginnings of an idea for a second YA draft, but it's been kind of on the backburner. Right now, my husband Matthew and I consider it a victory when there's not a mountain of dirty dishes in our sink!

So the bad thing about my day job is that, particularly in the short-term, it's incredibly time-consuming. The good thing, however, is that my day job is the sort that always puts things into perspective and is, at various moments, frustrating, stressful, eye-opening, exhausting, interesting, and inspiring. I can't wait to have just a little more time for writing, though!

What is your favorite dance move?

That I can do, or that I can't do?? Since I can't do that many awesome dance moves, I'll name the one I most admire: the Worm.  People who can do the Worm are amazing to me.

What are you reading now?

I'm sort of in-between books at this second.  I just finished reading a bunch of great short story collections. Among them all, I really liked Mattaponi Queen by Belle Boggs and Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans and This is Not Your City by Caitlin Horrocks. Next on my list is The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. YA-wise, I'm definitely reading Shine by Lauren Myracle next.

Be honest:  How do you really feel about livermush?

I feel like everyone should just go try it first. I don't want to spoil any surprises!

"The Ballad of Erica Levine" by Bob Blue

I always enjoyed singing this song at Carleton's Folk Sing (consider your snarky remark about folk singing acknowledged here), and I post it now in honor of both "Breaking Dawn" and smart young feminists like Erica Levine, and with sincere wishes for you all to have a life like the last two lines.

When Erica Levine was seven and a half
Up to her door came Jason Metcalfe
And he said, "Will you marry me, Erica Levine?"
And Erica Levine said, "What do you mean?"
  "Well my father and my mother say a fellow ought to marry
  And my father said his brother, who is my Uncle Larry
  Never married and he said Uncle Larry is a dope---
  So will you marry me?" Said Erica, "Nope."
"My piano teacher's smart, and she never had to marry
And your father may be right about your Uncle Larry,
But not being married isn't what made him a dope.
Don't ask me again, 'cause my answer's 'Nope'."

When Erica Levine was seventeen
She went to a dance with Joel Bernstein,
And they danced by the light of a sparkling bobby sock,
'Cause the theme of the prom was the history of Rock.
  And after the prom, Joel kissed her at the door,
  And he said "Do you know what that kiss was for?"
  And she said "I don't know, but you kiss just fine."
  And he said "What it means is that you are mine."
And she said "No, I'm not!", and she rushed inside
And on the way home, Joel Bernstein cried
And she cried, too, and wrote a letter to Ms.,
Saying "This much I know: I am mine, not his."

When Erica Levine was twenty-three
Her lover said "Erica, marry me.
This relationship is answering a basic need
And I'd like to have it legally guaranteed.
  For without your precious love I would surely die
  So why can't we make it legal?" Said Erica, "Why?
  Basic needs, at your age, should be met by you;
  I'm your lover, not your mother---let's be careful what we do.
If I should ever marry, I will marry to grow,
Not for tradition, or possession or protection. No!
I love you, but your needs are a very different issue."
Then he cried, and Erica handed him a tissue.

When Erica was thirty, she was talking with Lou,
Discussing and deciding what they wanted to do.
"When we marry, should we move into your place or mine?
Yours is rent-controlled, but mine is on the green line."
  And they argued and they talked, and they finally didn't care
  And they joined a small cooperative near Central Square.
  And their wedding was a simple one, they wanted it that way.
  And they thought a lot about the things that they would choose
     to say.
"I will live with you and love you, but I'll never call you mine."
Then the judge pronounced them married, and everyone had wine.
And a happy-ever-after life is not the kind they got,
But they tended to be happy more often than not.

Lyrics via;ttELEVINE.html

CLEOPATRA'S MOON Chat Transcript

Earlier today, my author Vicky Alvear Shecter and I chatted about her novel Cleopatra's Moon on Twitter -- a fun conversation that covered how the book came to me (indirectly via SQUIDs!), the vetting process, my acquisitions interests right now, our ancient Roman names, and sundry other topics. You can read a transcript of the conversation after the jump.
We ran into one peril that I mention as a cautionary tale for future Twitter-chatterers:  I had failed to verify that #CMchat would be a unique hashtag for us, and as a result, we were repeatedly interrupted by country music fans, several of whom expressed their annoyance that we were horning in on their chat. (And to be fair, they did have the hashtag first.) I've deleted their tweets (and RTs of relevant tweets) from the conversation below. 

(I wonder, has anyone yet written a country music song about Twitter? The song titles for this chat could be "Cleopatra, Come Back to Me"; "Let's Retweet, Not Retreat"; and "You Stole My Hashtag -- and My Heart.")

Click to read the whole conversation.

@chavelaque: .@valvearshecter & I will be chatting about CLEOPATRA'S MOON, the acquisitions process, etc. in 5 min! Follow us at #CMchat for the moment.
November 14, 2011, 5:27 pm 

@valvearshecter: I'm there another #CMchat? What's theirs?n #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:29 pm 
@chavelaque: Well, theirs is a Country Music chat. Want to change to #CLEOchat for clarity? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:29 pm 

@chavelaque: Anyone who doesn't want to be part of the conversation may want to unfollow me for the next hour. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:30 pm 

@chavelaque: @valvearshecter Well, we're here, so let's do this now. Country music fans, you can all blame me. Or you can read CLEOPATRA'S MOON! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:31 pm 

@valvearshecter: I suggest the latter! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:32 pm 
@dulemba: Read it - love it! :) e #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:32 pm 
@valvearshecter: Thanks, e! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:33 pm 

@dulemba: I'm also listening to the audio in my car. Don't need air conditioning - it gives me chills!! :) #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:33 pm 

@chavelaque: So just to get started here: I'm Cheryl Klein, & I edited the lovely CLEOPATRA'S MOON by Vicky Alvear Shecter (@valvearshecter) #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:33 pm 

@valvearshecter: And I'm Vicky Shecter, author of Cleopatra's Moon. This is my first twitter chat--are there any rules or somesuch we should discuss? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:34 pm 

@chavelaque: If you all have any questions for Vicky or me, feel free to ask them during the chat, & we'll answer them starting ~ 1:15. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:34 pm 
@dulemba: That must have been a fun job! (editing CLEOPATRA'S MOON). #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:35 pm 
@valvearshecter: It was fun but also slightly terrifying for me, esp. since this was my first novel.n #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:37 pm 
@chavelaque: It was VERY fun for me to edit & to work w/ Vicky, who was SO enthusiastic... We first got in touch via query letter, right, Vicky? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:38 pm 
@dulemba: Cheryl, Did CLEO coincide with your book Second Site? I'm trying to recall which came first. Did one influence the other? #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:39 pm 

@valvearshecter: Yes, I had queried you for my midgrade biography of Cleo...after it got acquired you sent a ltr saying you were interested.n #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:40 pm 

@LauriCorkum: Was the book nearly perfect when you first submitted it? How much rewriting/revising was required? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:40 pm 

@valvearshecter: Which gave me the chance to tell you about the novel in progress. So I kind o came in thru a side door. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:40 pm 

@chavelaque: I remember really liking the ENERGY of your bio of Cleopatra, & I thought Cleo was awesome, obvs. But we don't do a lot of nonfic. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:41 pm 

@valvearshecter: @LauriCorkum It was finished, but nowhere near perfect! I did a fair amount of rewriting. Okay, a lot more than a fair amt. ;-) #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:41 pm 
@chavelaque: ("We" being "Arthur A. Levine Books.") So I was excited to hear about a novel with this untold story of Cleopatra Selene. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:42 pm 

@sally_apokedak: Vicky Alvear Shecter and Cheryl Klein are discussing CLEOPATRA'S MOON right now at #cmchat.
November 14, 2011, 5:42 pm 
@chavelaque: So I responded that I'd love to see the novel, and then your agent @cmiller-callihan sent it to me -- six months later? A year? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:42 pm 
@valvearshecter: I queried you w/ your Squib (or Squid?) account. Do you still use that? Also it took about 6 months to get it to you. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:43 pm 
@LauriCorkum: Vicky, did Cheryl guide the direction of the revisions? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:45 pm 

@chavelaque: Most of my unsolicited subs come through confs these days, so I don't use SQUIDs anymore, no. Kind of sad, really! They were fun. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:45 pm 

@dulemba: I love how REAL the religion feels when reading CLEO. You get a true sense of their belief system at the time. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:45 pm 
@valvearshecter: @LauriCorkum Yes, Cheryl def guided the direction of the revisions. But always with a discussion and collaborative intent. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:46 pm 

@valvearshecter: @dulemba The ancient Egyptians wouldn't have seen "religion" as something separate. It was REALITY, esp with pharaoh as divine. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:47 pm 
@chavelaque: I bought the ms. at auction, which was v. exciting. Scholastic really got behind the book. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:47 pm 
@dulemba: RT @chavelaque: I bought the ms. at auction, which was v. exciting. Scholastic really got behind the book. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:48 pm 
@valvearshecter: What set the book apart for you, Cheryl? Or any book, really. What grabs you and motivates you to go for a manuscript? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:48 pm 

@dulemba: Cheryl, was there an element of the story that especially spoke to you? #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:48 pm 
@cathychall: @valvearshecter and @chavelaque discussing CLEOPATRA'S MOON at #CMCHAT now. Read and learn!
November 14, 2011, 5:49 pm 
@chavelaque: CLEOPATRA'S MOON had a lot of the qualities I look for: 1) Awesome story that I hadn't heard before (all the cooler b/c it was TRUE) #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:50 pm 

@chavelaque: 2) Great characters (again, awesome b/c true) 3) Cinematic, you-are-there writing w/ wonderful scenes so I felt emotionally involved #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:51 pm 
@chavelaque: & 4) a BIG IDEA at its heart, so it was more than just a retelling of history or a romance -- it was a real exploration of an idea #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:52 pm 
@valvearshecter: Cheryl, do you think there is more interest in YA historical fiction these days? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:52 pm 
@dulemba: Truly, the setting of CLEOPATRA'S MOON was EPIC! I felt like I was THERE. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:52 pm
@cathychall: I loved the mother-daughter dynamic of CLEOPATRA'S MOON. Did it start out that way @valvearshecter ? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:52 pm 
@chavelaque: In this case, what is free will, and how much do we control our own destinies? Big Ideas explored well always get me excited. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:53 pm 

@valvearshecter: @cathychall Cathy, absolutely! The mother-daughter thing is what attracted me to the story. I mean, Cleo as "Mom?" It blew me away. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:53 pm 
@dulemba: And of course the issue of Free Will was so prominent. Was Selene fated to follow her Mom's path, or choose her own? #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:53 pm 
@dulemba: So often during the story I said "You GO girl!" I LOVE Selene's strength. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:54 pm 
@chavelaque: Vicky, I think there's def. interest in it, tho there may be fatigue w/ individual periods -- harder to sell topics covered a lot #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:55 pm 

@sally_apokedak: Vicky, you had Scholastic, Arthur Levine books, even, bidding on your book at auction? Did you talk to all bidders before deciding? #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:55 pm 
@chavelaque: Vicky, as you wrote the book, what was your benchmark for deciding what to include & what to leave out? What guided you there? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:56 pm 
@valvearshecter: @sally_apokedak Yes. I talked to the other editor. I wanted a collaborative rela' w/ an ed.; The other one didn't think it needed... #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:57 pm 
@chavelaque: @dulemba You asked about timing of CM vs. 2ND SIGHT -- I think I bought Vicky's book about a month before I announced my own. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:57 pm 

@valvearshecter: @sally_apokedak ...much editing and I KNEW better! LOL Plus, I mean, c'mon--who can resist working with Cheryl Klein? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:58 pm 
@cathychall: CLEOPATRA'S MOON required a lot of vetting. Were you involved in any of that as an editor, @chavelaque? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:58 pm 

@dulemba: I learned so much from 2ND SIGHT, I would have loved that by my side while working on revisions if I were Vicky! #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:58 pm 
@valvearshecter: Re: what I left out--there were several real charac's in history that just confused things. For ex, ANOTHER son of Antony's by prior #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:59 pm 
@valvearshecter: ...wife. Actually two sons. It just got too confusing with so many of his kids (Antony was a busy guy). #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 5:59 pm 
@sally_apokedak: I also think that dealing with suicide is timely today. I liked what Selene chose with her free will. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 5:59 pm 
@sally_apokedak: @valvearshecter ha ha good choice #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:00 pm 
@valvearshecter: @sally_apokedak Well, you can't escape the fact that both her parents--Cleopatra & Mark Antony committed suicide. Poor kids! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:01 pm 
@dulemba: Truly, she must have been old beyond her years with all the loss she experienced. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:01 pm 

@chavelaque: Vicky, how did you decide what to invent? For instance, Cleopatra Selene's visit to the Jewish quarter obvs. aren't in his. record. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:02 pm 
@dulemba: I wish you could all get a guided tour through the Carlos Museum with Vicky as Docent. The stories she tells are amazing! #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:03 pm 

@valvearshecter: On inventing: It struck me that this took place a generation and a half before the beginning of Christianity. Free will would soon.. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:03 pm 

@sally_apokedak: @valvearshecter Yes, I liked the way you dealt with it. That she could make her own choices. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:03 pm 
@valvearshecter: ..take hold thruout the West. It made sense to have her grapple with it around the time of the birth of Christianity. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:04 pm 
@valvearshecter: @dulemba Thank you, e! The ancient world is so funny and strange. Also holds up a mirror to our time. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:05 pm 
@chavelaque: Vicky, what advice would you have for other authors of historical fiction? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:05 pm 
@valvearshecter: I would focus on finding the emotional point that readers TODAY could relate to rather just on facts (You, Cheryl, helped me w/that! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:07 pm 
@dulemba: They didn't Have hashtags back then, but sentiments weren't so different! What would have happened to Cleopatra's rep on twitter? #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:07 pm 
@valvearshecter: Re: the question of vetting--4 Egyptologists/professors vetted the Cleo biography, which is the platform for the novel. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:07 pm 

@sally_apokedak: @dulemba ha #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:08 pm  

@valvearshecter: @dulemba Oh, Cleo's rep on Twitter would have been awful--esp if the Romans controlled it! Can you say, "Flame War?" ;-) #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:08 pm 
@valvearshecter: Cheryl, are you looking for anything in particular these days in submissions? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:09 pm 

@chavelaque: @valvearshecter @dulemba That was one of the coolest things re: the book for me -- learning how the Romans ruled history's telling #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:09 pm 

@cathychall: @dulemba HA! Yeah, Vicky, tell us about that Cleopatra smear campaign. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:10 pm 
@chavelaque: Vicky is very, very passionate about the subject of the biased Romans and how much they hated strong women, esp. Cleopatra! :-) #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:10 pm 

@chavelaque: Which is great. LOVE an author with both passion & knowledge, & the ability to tame both for his/her fiction. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:10 pm 
@RhodeSoft: @valvearshecter Did you have to pay for vetting or does the publisher pay? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:10 pm 

@dulemba: "History is defined by the winners" - which is why Cleopatra Selene's story needed telling! #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:11 pm 
@valvearshecter: @cathychall Smear campaign was amazing. Octavian claimed Cleo drugged Antony and sexually enslaved him. He'd lost his "manhood" etc. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:11 pm 

@Scholastic: Editor @chavelaque is hosting a chat with author @valvearshecter -- follow #CMchat to participate! #yalitchat #cleopatrasmoon
November 14, 2011, 6:11 pm 

@valvearshecter: @RhodeSoft No I did not pay for the vetting. One classicist from Yale wanted payment but the British Egyptologists jumped in happily #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:12 pm 

@chavelaque: I'm looking for the same things I always look for -- the 1-2-3-4 qualities listed earlier about characters, writing, & big ideas. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:13 pm 

@dulemba: The irony being, strong women still face uphill battles in today's society. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:13 pm 
@chavelaque: Also, I tend to say, "A plot we can sell" -- a story whose conflict/mystery/lack has clear stakes & meaning for readers. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:14 pm 
@valvearshecter: @chavelaque So as long as the manuscript covers those qualities, it doesn't matter what genre? Fantasy? Paranormal, etc.? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:14 pm 
@chavelaque: Agewise, I have a lot of YA on upcoming lists, so I'd love some more great middle-grade. I <3 all genres, pretty much. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:15 pm 
@cathychall: @valvearshecter Do you think that's typical? Not having to pay for vetting, I mean? Or are Egyptologists just really nice? ;-) #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:15 pm 
@valvearshecter: @cathychall Depends on indi's involved. Bio pub told me they often go to British experts cuz they don't expect $ like Americans #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:17 pm 
@valvearshecter: Cheryl, what are you reading for pleasure right now? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:18 pm 

@chavelaque: I just finished THE LAST LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPE by @maureenjohnson, which I loved -- she writes such good & complex teen-girl books. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:19 pm 

@dulemba: Vicky - What are You reading? Don't you read a gazillion books a year? #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:19 pm 

@sally_apokedak: @valvearshecter I was also interested because the story took place just before the time of Christ. You painted the world so well. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:20 pm 

@chavelaque: I once heard "literary depth" defined as "a sense of the complexity of reality," & I'd say that's another thing I look for in mss. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:20 pm  

@LaFabuliste: @chavelaque You told me once "People read a book for plot, people LOVE a book for its characters." That, I think, is most wise. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:20 pm 
@valvearshecter: Right now I'm reading THE PERICLES COMMISSION by Gary Corby. Fun, fun historical fic set at dawn of democracy in ancient Greece #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:20 pm 

@cathychall: @valvearshecter Would CM have been a different book with a different editor? Wondering about editors' style of well, editing...#cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:20 pm 

@chavelaque: & @maureenjohnson always has that, for all her books are packaged to look like chicklit (understandably, from a pub perspective). #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:21 pm 
@RhodeSoft: @valvearshecter @chavelaque Cheryl-How should we pitch to u? Email/snail mail? Whole manuscript? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:21 pm 
@valvearshecter: @cathychall Absolutely. Cheryl really helped shape the book with me. It was an awesome process. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:21 pm 

@chavelaque: @RhodeSoft My submissions guidelines are at, though I'm officially closed right now. So much to read! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:22 pm 

@valvearshecter: @chavelaque @maureenjohnson I love her books too. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:22 pm 
@chavelaque: @cathychall I'm very big on characters DOING things & action plot matching emotional plot, so I tend to push my authors toward that #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:23 pm 

@dulemba: Cheryl, Can you turn off the 'editor' and just read for fun? #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:23 pm 

@chavelaque: @cathychall (Not to say other editors don't!) #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:23 pm 

@chavelaque: We're signing off in five minutes, CLEOPATRA'S MOON fans -- any last-minute questions? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:24 pm  

@valvearshecter: There are lots of wild Egyptian facts:Pharoah Pepi 1 had slaves dipped in honey so the flies would leave him alone & go after them! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:24 pm 

@valvearshecter: Just had to slip a weird fact in! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:25 pm 
@dulemba: Buy the book and share it with your mom/daughter book clubs - it is perfect! #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:25 pm
@chavelaque: @dulemba Oh yes! Love reading for fun. But I will put books down if they're not satisfying my editorial standards. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:25 pm 
@valvearshecter: @chavelaque How often does that happen with pubbed books? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:26 pm 
@chavelaque: Vicky, given that Romans named their daughters after their dads, no matter what -- what would your Roman name be? :-) #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:26 pm 

@cathychall: @chavelaque That match-up is what makes CLEOPATRA'S MOON so strong. Vicky nailed that! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:27 pm 
@valvearshecter: My Roman name would end up as Ernesta or Ernestina! Ack. What would your Roman name be?n #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:27 pm 
@chavelaque: @valvearshecter Hrmm. . . . About once every 3-4 books? #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:28 pm 
@chavelaque: @valvearshecter That's hilarious. I'd be Alana the Elder -- my little sister Alana the Younger. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:28 pm 

@chavelaque: @cathychall Couldn't agree more! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:29 pm 

@cathychall: @valvearshecter That is why I love you on Facebook--among other wonderful qualities. But yeah, the weird facts are awesome. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:29 pm 
@dulemba: You don't even want to know what mine would be. Some weird Roman/Bavarian thing with too many syllables. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:29 pm 

@valvearshecter: @cathychall Thanks, there's a never ending supply of weird ancient facts! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:30 pm 

@dulemba: I adore History with a Twist at - Vicky talks about more weird facts. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:30 pm 
@valvearshecter: Oh yeah..I would be Ernestina the Younger. Forgot that all sisters carried the father's name (sigh). #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:31 pm 
@LauriCorkum: Great chat Vicky and Cheryl! Quite informative; thanks for taking the time out of your day to answer our questions. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:31 pm 

@dulemba: And her Friday Funnies are always hilarious! #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:31 pm 

@chavelaque: It's 1:30 here, so it's time for @valvearshecter & I to sign off. Ditto @dulemba's praise for Vicky's blog: #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:31 pm 

@valvearshecter: @dulemba Thanks! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:31 pm 

@chavelaque: Thanks very much for stopping by, all! & thanks again for your forbearance, country music fans. #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:32 pm 
@dulemba: Thanks to the CMchat community for your patience! Back to your regularly scheduled programming... #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:32 pm 
@cathychall: Thanks, @valvearshecter and @chavelaque I can always use a little Egypt fun during lunch! #cmchat bye!
November 14, 2011, 6:32 pm 

@sally_apokedak: Yes, thanks both of you. I don't get twitter, but this was pretty cool. #cmchat
November 14, 2011, 6:33 pm 

@valvearshecter: Thank you Cheryl Klein. And thanks all who dropped in. And to the CMchat folks, thanks for your patience/won't happen again! #CMchat
November 14, 2011, 6:33 pm 

Copyright 2011 TweetReports  


I have a longer post planned here, but it is taking some time to come together; and every day I do not post about this is another day that you may be missing out on this excellent bargain and novel.

SO. For a limited time only, you can buy a digital version of Elizabeth C. Bunce's wonderful StarCrossed -- an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, praised by Megan Whalen Turner and Tamora Pierce and Bookshelves of Doom, as satisfying and twisty and densely woven as your favorite sweater -- for $2.99. $2.99, people! That is a coffee at Starbucks! A smoothie at Jamba Juice! Three packs of pretzel M&Ms! And the pleasure of this book lasts much longer than any of those (especially anything involving wheatgrass). Plus this digital edition includes an extensive excerpt of the sequel, Liar's Moon, which came out just this month in both hardcover and digital versions. You can buy StarCrossed for:
  • the Kindle
  • the Nook
  • Google Reader -- To buy the Google edition from an independent bookstore, go to your favorite independent-bookstore-participating-in-the-Google-eBooks-program's website; click on the Google Books link; and complete the purchase through them. I suggest The Flying Pig in Vermont or Rainy Day Books in Kansas City.

As the book trailer shows, this features a girl thief who's pretending to be a noblewoman, trapped in a snowbound castle, with secrets and conspiracies and entanglements galore. As such, it is the perfect book to snuggle up with under blankets this winter, or to get lost in during long travels to visit friends-and-relations. And I daresay it would be even more delicious with a pack of pretzel M&Ms, because everything is; but I can't help you with that. Enjoy!

The Quote File: Character/s

Character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life – is the source from which self-respect springs. – Joan Didion

It is fortunate to be of high birth, but it is no less so to be of such character that people do not care to know whether you are or are not. – Jean de la Bruyere

Every man possesses three characters: that which he exhibits, that which he really has, and that which he believes he has. – Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

The measure of a man's real character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out. – Thomas Babington Macaulay

One can acquire everything in solitude except character. – Stendhal

Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars. – Kahlil Gibran

We are all of us more or less echoes, repeating involuntarily the virtues, the defects, the movements, and the characters of those among whom we live. – Joseph Joubert

Seven blunders of the world that lead to violence: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice, politics without principle. – Mahatma Gandhi

Another flaw in the human character is that everyone wants to build, but no one wants to do maintenance. – Kurt Vonnegut

A language is an exact reflection of the character and growth of its speakers. – Mahatma Gandhi

In words are seen the state of mind and character and disposition of the speaker. – Plutarch

Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin. The talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities and have them relate to other characters living with him. – Mel Brooks

The best morals kids get from any book is just the capacity to empathize with other people, to care about the characters and their feelings. So you don't have to write a preachy book to do that. You just have to make it a fun book with characters they care about, and they will become better people as a result. – Louis Sachar

Our schools are filled with kids who have been treated badly all their lives. They don't tell anyone, because there is shame in being treated badly. Many – girls and boys – have been sexually mistreated. Still others struggle in fear with sexual identity. They respond with eating disorders, cutting, suicidal thought or action. I can't tell you how many letters I've received from kids who found a friend in one of my books, a character who speaks to them. And if I get those letters, think of the letters Walter Dean Myers, or Lois Lowry, or Judy Blume get, thanking us for letting them know, through literature, that they are not alone. In light of all that, there's really only one thing to say to the censors. Shut up. – Chris Crutcher

Stories give us access to otherwise hidden, censored, unsayable thoughts and feelings now shiftily disclosed in the guise of plot and character... The hungers of our spirits are fed by sharing in the glimpsed interiority of others. – Ron Hansen

The writer by nature of his profession is a dreamer and a conscious dreamer. He must imagine, and imagination takes humility, love and great courage. How can you create a character without love and the struggle that goes with love? – Carson McCullers

Literature doesn't have a country. Shakespeare is an African writer.... The characters of Turgenev are ghetto dwellers. Dickens's characters are Nigerians.... Literature may come from a specific place, but it always lives in its own unique kingdom. – Ben Okri

To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battle and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. – Michel de Montaigne

Twitter Chat on 11/14 and Q&A Now with Vicky Alvear Shecter

Reader, I want you to pretend it is the end of last July. The weather is hot; the drinks are cool; the movies are highly enjoyable (if you're not sobbing your eyes out); President Obama and the House Republicans are trading jabs about the debt ceiling; and I'm about to do a Q&A with Vicky Alvear Shecter regarding her wonderful novel Cleopatra's Moon, which will be published August 1. . . . Plus we're doing a great Twitter chat in a couple of weeks. Welcome, Vicky!

How has the experience of writing a novel differed from that of writing nonfiction? 

First, let me say thank you for having me here. To answer your question, what surprised me the most about writing fiction was how vulnerable and exposed I felt. With nonfiction, the facts don’t change, so the only part of “you” that shows up is how you communicate those facts. But with fiction, I poured a lot of my emotional self into it. The emotional distance that I could (sort of) maintain with nonfiction was blown to smithereens.

When I started writing Cleopatra’s Moon, I attended a talk by author Deborah Wiles, who recommended digging deep into the emotional truths of your story. I was really moved and inspired by her vision and how she works, so I began to look at every scene with an eye toward not just what happens, but what emotions were engaged. I think (hope!) this helped move the story from one where events are recorded (like nonfiction) to where they are experienced.

Where did this book start for you?

After working on a biography on Cleopatra for middle-graders, I just couldn’t get over the fact that out of Cleopatra’s four children, only her daughter survived. Yet most people had never heard of her. How could that be?

And then when I tried to imagine what it must have been like to have Cleopatra as a mother, the story just wouldn’t let go. I imagined that Cleopatra Selene identified very closely with her mother when she was younger (as most girls do). But then when her world imploded and she no longer had her, she still had to work out who she was as her own person and emerge from underneath her mother’s considerable shadow. It just seemed too rich!

If you could travel back in time to any culture and time in history, when and where would you go? If you had the same gender and family income at that time that you do now, what would your social position be? 

Tackling the second question first, I imagine that in ancient Egypt, my family may have been part of an educated class—perhaps of scribes.

But that’s the thing—even though I’d love to go back to Rome or Egypt, I would never go back as a girl or woman. The truth is, it was a hard life for women, especially in Greece and Rome, where women were virtually sequestered away. At least in Egypt, women had a few more rights, but still. I would only go back in time if I could go as a wealthy, male citizen!

You said once that seeing classical Greek statues inspired your love of the ancient world. What about them spoke to you? Did you study those cultures in school?

I don’t know how to describe my reaction to those statues except to say that it was like some sort of awakening—I hadn’t been aware or conscious before that people could create such beauty. The elegance, grace, and sensual lines of the work just blew me away. 

I didn’t have a lot of exposure to ancient history in school. I think I had AP World History in the tenth grade, but that was about it. Fortunately, I’d found author Mary Renault, so I just immersed myself in her novels as a way to feel as if I was really there.

What is your writing routine like? Your process?

I don’t really have a routine; I just fit writing around my work as a docent at the Carlos Museum and my kids’ school hours. Though it still feels partly pretentious to say that I have a “process”(!), I’ve learned that I need to know the opening and the ending before I can begin writing a word.

Also, I’m not one of those writers who starts typing in order to find out “what happens next” (much to my chagrin because that seems totally awesome).  I have to see a scene unfold in my head like a movie. And then I write it down. But I could never just stare at a blank screen and start writing. I have to get up and pace or walk to see the scene and then I can go from there.

What is the biggest change you feel in the book as a result of the revision/editorial process? Or what about the editorial process most surprised you?

In the beginning, the biggest challenge for me was understanding what you meant when you insisted that my main character have some “agency.” At first I just didn’t get it. You explained that it was too easy to fall into the trap of allowing a main character to observe the action around her rather than leading it.

But, I countered, the people Selene was observing—particularly Cleopatra and Mark Antony—were so dang fascinating! Why wasn’t it enough to have her observe their antics?

But you kept insisting (nicely, of course) that I find something over which Cleopatra Selene had some mastery or control. At one point you threw out a suggestion—perhaps it was dancing in the Temple of Isis—which helped me understand that it didn’t have to be a huge thing. Still, I remember even then having the sense of “knowing” Cleopatra Selene well enough to understand that there was no way dancing was going to be it.

I experimented with her learning some nifty science tricks from her mother’s lead astronomer at the Great Library of Alexandria, but even there, she was still following, not leading. After some trial and error, I finally ended up having her express agency through a Roman ball game her father taught her, as well as through her deep faith in Isis and her ability to call upon Anubis during a crisis.

Arthur, Vicky, and I walk like Egyptians.

What is your favorite passage in the final book?

It’s always hard to look back on my own writing because inevitably I want to continue editing! However, some of my favorite passages have to do with Cleopatra Selene’s deep attachment to and love for her home in Egypt’s Alexandria-by-the-Sea:
My mother’s lady and I moved into one of the side gardens ideal for private conversations. Date palms ruffled in the breeze, gray and mysterious in the dark. Occasional gusts of wind, rich with the smells of the sea, teased the scents out of sleeping lotus, jasmine, rose and honeysuckle blooms. I never again smelled a combination so achingly beautiful—the cool salt of the sea intermingling with the heady perfume of Egyptian blossoms.
And in this scene, after the Roman occupation, Selene and her brothers have been allowed to climb their beloved Lighthouse of Alexandria:
     My brothers and I sprinted up the first tier of the Great Lighthouse. I had forgotten how hot the airless stairwells grew in the summer. We crashed out into the open terraces, sighing as the sea breezes cooled the sweat on our faces. I put my arms out. The crackling flames above us pulsed like a heartbeat. How I had missed Pharos!
    …It had been so long! I ran to the edge and looked out over the glittering bay, drinking in the invigorating smell of saltwater and sea life. Birds squawked and flew around our heads. Ptolly laughed and chased them.
    “The birds are hungry,” said a food stall owner from behind us.  “Few visit Pharos now that the Romans have come…”
Those were two of the scenes I loved too -- they really got across your What are you reading now? Working on next?

I am reading a lot of research books right now on Roman women and religion. I’m working on another historical fiction novel set in ancient Rome during the period right before Cleopatra Selene is sent away. She’s not the main character in this story, though I’ll likely have the two meet at some point.


Now, reader, it is unfortunately November again. But the happy news now is that Vicky and I will be having a Twitter chat on Monday, November 14 to discuss Cleopatra's Moon, how we connected and I acquired the book, Vicky's three favorite crazy facts about the Egyptians (and trust me, she knows WAY more than three!), and sundry other topics. The details:

Who:   Vicky, moi, anyone who's read the book or is interested in doing so, and anyone who just wants to hang out
What:   Twitter chat
When:   Monday, November 14 at 12:30 EST
Why:     To discuss Cleopatra's Moon

Our Twitter feeds are at @valvearshecter and @chavelaque. If you'd like to follow the conversation easily, look for the hashtag #CMchat in or the Twitter client of your choice; if you'd like to skip it entirely, block us for the day on A transcript will be posted on one of our blogs afterward. Thank you for tuning in!

Butternut Squash and Black Bean Chili

A confession:  I occasionally use this blog as my private recipe file for dishes I fix and love, but whose recipes I found on the Internet and fear losing. To that end, I'm pasting this in now -- courtesy of The Splendid Table the first time I made it and this site today. It's a perfect mild fall chili, with many of my favorite ingredients, and it reheats deliciously.

Butternut Squash and Black Bean Chili (serves 6) 


2 pounds pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and seeded
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 jalapeño chile, minced
One 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
One 14.5-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 cup water
1 cup apple juice
4 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 cups cooked or canned black beans, rinsed and drained if canned
  1. Cut the pumpkin or squash into 1/2-inch chunks and set aside.
  2. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and jalapeño. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the reserved pumpkin (squash), diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, water, apple juice, chili powder, salt, and cayenne, and stir well. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover, and simmer until the pumpkin is tender, about 30 minutes.
  3. Add the beans, and more water if the chili is too thick for your taste. Cover, and continue to simmer about 15 minutes to blend flavors. Serve hot.

A Walk Up Greene Street, with a Little SoHo History and Class Warfare Thrown In

Second in a series on the fascinations of wandering New York.

We had another lovely day here in New York on Sunday, so I decided to go back to Occupy Wall Street and donate some apples -- redistribution of income at work! I arrived right at lunchtime, and was impressed by the pasta and salad the protesters were serving to anyone who wanted a bite. It was just as nice a meal as those offered by the soup kitchen that my church runs (Sundays at 2 p.m. in the church basement, should you need a bite), and all prepared without a real kitchen, as far as I could tell. I also saw the library, full of books on all subjects for all ages:

I missed seeing Screwy Decimal, but she has a picture of the children's library sign specifically. 

A block north stands the Freedom Tower, also known as One World Trade Center. It will be the tallest building in the United States when it's completed, at 1,776 feet. I don't feel particularly enthusiastic about this, nor do most New Yorkers that I know (who are not Larry Silverstein). But Mr. Silverstein must needs be satisfied, and so up it goes:


From there I walked north to SoHo. "SoHo" is an abbreviation for "South of Houston Street" (the street is pronounced "How-ston," not "Hew-ston," for anyone who wishes to sound like a local), and roughly covers the area between Houston Street to the north, the Bowery to the east, Canal Street to the south, and the Avenue of the Americas to the west. It has been through many, many iterations as a neighborhood, beginning in the Victorian era, when most of its famous cast-iron buildings were constructed:


As manufacturing moved out throughout the twentieth century, artists moved in, spreading south from Greenwich Village and taking over the light-filled lofts for studio space and cooperatives (that link is worth reading if you're interested in nutty artists or New York history):


Where artists go, galleries open; where galleries open, rich people come; and where rich people come, luxury shops follow. And as a result, forty years after Fluxhouse closed, Soho is one of the best neighborhoods in New York to shop for European clothes and modern furniture design -- if you're in the 1%, as the good stuff doesn't come cheap. I loved these coffee-cup sculptures, each one bigger than my head, at Adriani & Rossi (a mere $250 each):


Across the street was a doubled reminder of the neighborhood's origins:  a sign over the receiving door of the long-gone Baker Brush Company, presumably from when brushes were manufactured in SoHo; and a piece of fascinating street art over it -- a totem-like collage face: 


At the corner at 89 Grand Street stood Ingo Maurer, a lovely lighting design store. Wouldn't it be fun to have this exploding-dishes chandelier over your table at a dinner party? It would make your guests feel like anything could happen.


More street art on the next block:


And in an alcove in front of an empty storefront:  a carefully arranged pile of plastic and some sheets, meaning that this is probably someone's bed.

That someone sleeps on the sidewalk on the same street as a $250 coffee cup sculpture, or this Gaga-worthy fur coat at Isabel Marant, is the same kind of injustice that has led the Occupy Wall Street protests to exist.


At the same time, I confess I love the goofiness of this coat (and the chandelier, and the coffee cups) -- not as something I'd wear or need to own myself, but as a beautiful thing that gives delight. So I don't really want all these things to go away. . . . Only for that sleeper on the sidewalk, and everyone, to have proper housing, and a job, and regular meals, and medical care, before a woman actually spends over a thousand dollars on a coat that makes her resemble a yak.

How to solve this problem equitably, I do not know.

So. More haunting graffiti, on the base of a lamppost:


And just like Crosby Street, Greene Street is paved mostly in brick:

Right across the street from Isabel Marant is one of my favorite places to window shop:  SICIS Next Art, an Italian furniture maker that is frankly, joyously crazy -- the interior-design equivalent of Agatha Ruiz de la Prada.


My favorite thing I've ever seen there was a mosaic bathtub shaped like a high heel, where the bather sat in the toe and water poured down the arch.

At 107 Greene is another favorite place to browse -- the Taschen bookstore. Taschen makes gloriously nutso, beautiful, and huge art books. (Also art-porn collections, should that be your thing.) I go there to marvel at the specs of their books -- the size of the bindings, the quality of the paper, how no expense is spared in foil or glossiness or embossing. The shop functions almost like a book museum, as you can see:

Magda Sayeg likes to wrap things in knitting. You can see her work right now outside the Apple Store (currently undergoing renovation) at the corner of Prince & Greene. 

There's also a knitted bicycle at the base of Greene Street, outside the ACNE clothing store. (Yes, that's the brand's real name; it stands for Ambition to Create Novel Expression, and it's a Swedish line. Presumably they didn't know what it meant in English.)

If you look up from the tricycle, you can see another wonderful piece of art, the marvelous trompe-l'oeil ironwork at 112 Prince Street:

And here's the view back down Greene St. from Houston -- which you all know how to pronounce now, yes? Yes.

I really enjoyed doing this -- the walk, the pictures, the sheer pleasure of looking for and at beautiful and interesting things, all on a sunny, crisp autumn afternoon. Thank you for sharing my stroll!

Mini Me

In early September, I left my wallet and my iPod nano on a flight home from California. In my defense, I had been seated in a row with twin eighteen-month-olds, and after six hours of enduring their squirming and squealing (and being grateful that I was not their endlessly patient mother) -- not to mention having been away from New York for three weeks, one of them inadvertently thanks to Hurricane Irene -- I was desperate to get off the plane, back to my apartment, back to my real life; and I practically ran out of the row without checking the area around my feet. I discovered the wallet was missing when I took a taxi home to Brooklyn, reached into my bag to pay the driver, and could not; the iPod news sunk in a day or two later, when I wanted to go for a run and realized I'd have to do it sans tunes. The airline was no help at all; both items seemed to have disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle beneath the seat in front of me. And while the missing wallet was an annoyance -- a few dollars cash, several cards to replace or cancel -- my lost nano was a real absence, a friend and companion with whom I had faithfully passed the hours, now missing from my life for good.

But after a week or so, I remembered: I still had an iPod -- my old mini. I had been given the little pink brick for Christmas 2004 (you can see what I wrote about it soon after here -- one of the very first entries on this blog), and it had been my primary music source for almost four years, till my thirtieth birthday in 2008, when it was replaced with the nano. So I dug it out that night and plugged it into an iPod dock to play while I was cooking dinner, just letting it sing out whatever I had last listened to four years ago. . . .

And a Dixie Chicks shuffle came on: "Wide Open Spaces," which I took as a personal anthem after moving to New York (a slightly ironic anthem for this city, obviously); "Cowboy Take Me Away," a love song that always almost overwhelms me with its longing -- not so much for the cowboy, but for the real wide open spaces of the plains, and the simultaneous freedom and anchorage they promise; "Long Way Round," which became another anthem for me as I moved into my late twenties, experienced the standard difficulties, and tried to keep going. I hadn't listened to the Chicks very much in the years since I moved in with James, so it was a pleasure to find I could still yowl along with most of the lyrics, and that the ladies held up just as well as they always had. When I went running the next weekend with the mini, I clicked on my 2007 Running playlist, featuring Kelly Clarkson! And Liz Phair! And other people I'd listened to obsessively, but not for four years! Every song took me back to a specific place or person -- a mixtape exchanged here, a secret hotel-room boogie there.

I realized then that what I had discovered with the mini was a whole time capsule of my life in a certain four-year period, more powerful than any photo album because it had been more present with me every day. The "Moulin Rouge" soundtrack played as I washed dishes. Patty Griffin sang "Peter Pan" in the darkness as I learned to let go. Stevie Wonder reminded me of all the joy in the world, and the "Theme from Shaft" got me down the unshaded West Side Highway on the thankless final miles of the New York City half-marathon. I could even regard John Mayer with amusement as a feckless youthful peccadillo. (I still like the Goo Goo Dolls, dammit, but the only thing about Mr. Mayer that has improved with our ages is his guitar playing.) Those years took me through the development of my own identity as an editor, the start of this blog and my website, work on Harry Potter 6 & 7, several breakups and more confusion, the beginning of the relationship I'm still in today, all the thinking about plot and character and publishing that led to my book this past March. . . . My self solidifying into myself, altogether, in the course of a few good and tumultuous years.

So while I've thought about cleaning out the mini to add all my new music since 2008, I think I'm going to leave it alone and buy a new nano or Shuffle, preserving the late-twentysomething Cheryl in its AAC files. Its name has always been Nutmeg of Consolation, after the wonderful Patrick O'Brian novel, but if I could rename it at this juncture, I'd call it Rosemary for remembrance. . . . Pray, love, remember.

I Swear I Just Noticed This Today (+ Book Giveaway Contest!)

My Spring 2012 list is pretty amazing, if I do say so myself. Five Creatures-style, the three books can be classified as:
  • Three YA novels
  • Two incredible debuts and one strong return
  • One fantasy and two realistic contemporaries
  • Two first-person and one third-person
  • One author born in Mexico, one in the U.S., and one in Canada
  • Two books that use split timelines and the telling of a story as motifs and one that does not
  • One male narrator and two female perspectives (three, really -- Irises's POV alternates between its sister protagonists)
  • Two books set in cities and one in the deep wilderness
  • One male author and two female authors
  • Two (three) narrators of color and one Caucasian
  • Three romances 
  • Three books that will inspire both arguments and deep thoughts
  • Three really powerful, resonant endings
  • And -- here's the part I just noticed today, to my amusement -- three gorgeous covers that focus on girls' backs:

Above by Leah Bobet falls under debut, fantasy, first person, Canada, split timeline, male narrator, set in a city, female author, and narrator of color. Out in April.

Irises by Francisco X. Stork can be classified as return, realistic contemporary, third person, Mexico, does not, female perspectives, set in a city, male author, and narrators of color. Out in January.

The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin is a debut, realistic contemporary, first person, United States, split timeline, female perspective, set in the deep wilderness (Idaho), female author, and a white narrator. Out in February.

And they are all quite, quite genius, and I love them madly, and I love their covers too. I hope you do as well.

Giveaway! If you'd like to win a galley of one of them, leave a comment below using one or more of the titles in a sentence, and three winners will be chosen at random (one for each book). 

A Visit to Occupy Wall Street (Plus a Small Ramble on Economics)

We had crazy beautiful weather in New York today, so I went into Manhattan and visited Occupy Wall Street, the protest/live-in at Zuccotti Park (at the corner of Broadway and Liberty Street). It seems to be a combination of an extremely uncomfortable but good-humored slumber party and a mass Speakers' Corner for all kinds of liberal causes, including:
  • Wall Street reform
  • Corporate reform
  • Electoral reform
  • Constitutional reform
  • Ending the Federal Reserve
  • Globalization (the link is about Steve Jobs, but it ties in)
  • Stopping fracking in upstate New York
  • Bringing an end to nuclear power
  • Freeing Leonard Peltier
  • The environmental movement in general
  • Marxism (with a table handing out The Internationalist)
  • Anarchism 
  • Fox News (a sign:  "Fox News:  I Don't Care About You Either")
  • Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.
I saw a man holding a sign that said "I'm 48 and this is my first protest," and many, many young people who could probably say the same. But the overall mood was cheerful, not angry or violent. A group sang "We Shall Not Be Moved." A drum circle inspired dancing. People shared their cookies, literally. And I came away really admiring the people who are there, bearing witness to their causes and their belief that what they're doing makes a difference. It reminded me most of the Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington at more or less this time last fall -- that same sense of humor and even pleasure among the protesters, enjoying a beautiful day and the presence of like-minded people; but also with an underlying edge, not yet at but perhaps approaching desperation, in everyone's sense that the systems are broken, in the deep-seeded desire for change. . . .

The best witness to this need is perhaps the Tumblr associated with the protests, We Are the 99 Percent. If you have any measure of human sympathy in your soul, the stories there will hurt your heart -- and you perhaps have one of your own to add.

Naomi Klein gave this speech at the protests yesterday. It is powerful, and you should read it.

At the same time, I fear the movement's insistence on remaining leaderless and specific-demandless will end up undermining it in a media world that demands stories, meaning characters and plots. (Which may also just be human nature.) Nicholas Kristof's excellent column last week spelled out what the Occupy Wall Streeters should be asking for.

I work for a corporation. I believe in capitalism, because it seems like the best method yet devised to channel human beings' inherent self-interest into an economic system, and because all the communist experiments we've seen up to this point in history seem to have run aground on that self-interest, and then often crashed right over the rocks into repression and horror. I also believe in strong government regulation of capitalism and corporations; a social safety net; single-payer health care; public education; and paying taxes to support all of these programs. And globalization lets me have cheap electronics, clothes, shoes, and mangoes, and I love mangoes.

But I -- we -- have to look at the consequences of all of these things; and we also have to remember that change begins with our own desires, and to regulate those desires, as little as we like to do so. I often think about this quotation from Confucius, which appeared in a July Quote File on government:
To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.
If we could all want only what we need, and not more; if we could recognize that we shouldn't have mangoes, honestly, because getting them here is pretty terrible for the environment; if corporations across the board could agree that demonstrating growth every quarter isn't the most important thing, and instead value being a good corporate citizen and supporter of its workers; if there were some way to make American manufacturing costs the same as Chinese ones, without sacrificing environmental regulations or worker rights; if I spent less time on Twitter or playing Scrabble, or even "virtuous" activities like reading or writing, and more time volunteering or working for social change; if I could be willing to do what's best for all (environmentally, economically, altruistically) instead of what's just best for me at any moment . . . In a lot of ways, if we could not be America, and I could not be an American, with our historic, almost inborn emphasis on individual liberty and free will -- our genius and our curse.

It's easy to blame the 1%, and God knows they deserve a lot of the blame for the current economic mess and should be called to account. Things can and should be more fair. But 100% of us are responsible for how we spend our money and our time. I admire the protesters on Wall Street for providing a model that runs so idealistically against the grain of our present American life, and I hope their protests continue. Because however debased our president's carrying-out of his ideals may be at the moment, these words remain true:  We are the change we have been waiting for.

Wake Me Up When September Ends

. . . and maybe I'll remember to post these interesting things. Because I haven't been doing much besides working, thinking, and keeping up with friends, this is, I'm afraid, a completely self-absorbed list; but hey, it's my birthday month. (Or you can attribute it to the evil influence of Eat Pray Love, which I'm reading right now and really liking. Here's to women who know what they want and go after it, I say.)
  • Jordan at the Rusty Key kindly interviewed me about working on the Harry Potter books. (Hermione's and my joint Virgoness pleases me deeply.)
  • A picture and one-line quote from me appears in Psychology Today magazine this month! It's as part of their "Person on the Street" feature, which is entirely appropriate, because it came about because of a stroll up my beloved Crosby St. I was walking to work one day, and at the corner of Prince and Crosby, a woman with a clipboard said to me, "Would you like to be in a photoshoot for Psychology Today magazine?" This seemed like a pleasingly random opportunity, so I said yes, answered a question, and posed in a strange position, which is of course the picture they chose for the magazine (in a spread of other people similarly strangely posed). It's not online, I don't think, but if you are exceedingly bored and near a periodicals rack at some point soon, you can look it up. 
  • And Sue Lederman LaNeve talked with me about self-publishing and Second Sight in her Tampa Bay Children's Book Writers and Illustrators newsletter, available here.
  • (I've sold well over half my stock of Second Sight, for the record -- thanks to all of you who have purchased it or helped spread the word!)
  • That interview also contains an announcement of another fun upcoming conference for me -- Florida SCBWI over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, which I am already excited about. Wouldn't you like to spend a three-day weekend in January in Miami talking writing and children's/YA books? I think you would. 
  • If you disliked The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, as I did, you have to read Manohla Dargis's brilliant review of the movie, which is also spot-on for the book. (Thanks to my friend Ronnie Ambrose for introducing me to this review.)
  • Make your own S'mores Pop Tarts! Yum yum yum.

Knock Knock. Who's There? 33 Years. 33 Years Who?


Okay, so that punch line isn't really funny. But 33 years did indeed come knocking for me on Thursday, and in lieu of birthday gifts, I solicited jokes on Twitter, promising one random respondent a copy of Second Sight. Today I compiled all the jokes here and asked for a random number between 1 and 29 on Twitter, and @Knockknockjoan (appropriately enough) replied with "14." So the 14th person on this list won the book -- congratulations, Kerry O'Malley Cerra!

The jokes, for your enjoyment:
  • Heather Hoag --Knock knock... Doctor... hahahahahahahahahhahahah *nerd joke*
  • Mardou Ledger -- Knock knock! Who's there? Says! Says who? Says me, that's who! 
  • Laurie Taddonio -- Where does the king keep his army? Up his sleevy.
  • Joanna Marple -- TEACHER: How many books have you read in your lifetime? PUPIL: I don't know. I'm not dead yet.  
  • Michael Northrop -- Why did the bicycle fall over?
  • Lindsey Billingsley -- Why did the tomato turn red? Because he saw the salad dressing.
  • Sarah Bewley -- A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says, "Why the long face?"
  • gail shepherd -- What is a superhero's favorite part of a joke? The PUNCH line!
  • Emily Chapman -- Two hydrogen atoms walk into a bar. One says "I've lost an electron." "Are you sure?" "I'm positive!"
  • Marilee Haynes -- What did the taco say to the burrito? Where have you bean?
  • Karen Rivers -- Q: How many writers does it take to change a lightbulb? A: But why do we have to change it? (stolen from ) Editor's Note (literally): This was especially pertinent as Karen was in the middle of a revision for me when she sent this (which has now been turned in, yay her!). For my own list of writing/editorial lightbulb jokes (with agents in the comments), click here.
  • tk read -- Stephen Hawking’s latest book about anti-gravity is so good - you can’t put it down.
  • Sara Danver -- There are two muffins in an oven. One turns to the other and says man it's hot in here. The other screams Ahh a talking muffin!!
  • Kerry O'Malley Cerra -- Q: What did one hot dog say to the other? A: "Hi, Frank."
  • Kellye Crocker -- What's brown and sticky? A stick!
  • Emily Jones -- What did the hot dog say as he crossed the finish line? I'm the wiener! 
  • Pat Zietlow Miller -- What did the salad say to the refrigerator? "Close the door, I'm dressing!"
  • Kevin Lohman -- If at first you don't succeed, skydiving may not be for you. 
  • Susan Adrian -- Knock knock. Who's there? Interrupting cow. Interrupting co--- MOOOOOOOOO. 
  • D Morrow -- How do you catch a unique rabbit? You 'neak up on it. How do you catch a *tame*, unique rabbit? Da tame way. You 'neak up on it.
  • Christina McTighe -- Have you heard about the new pirate movie coming out? It's rated AAAARRRRGGHHHHHH!!!!
  • Jennifer Clark Estes -- Knock, knock! Who's there? Lettuce. Lettuce who? Lettuce in, it's raining out here!
  • Lindsey Alexander -- Knock, knock. Who's there? To. To who? To WHOM! Happy birthday!
  • Melissa Fox -- Knock knock. Who's there? To. To who? No... To *Whom*. (stolen from )
  • Jess Morrison -- The past, present and future walk into a bar. It was tense.
  • Erin Thomas -- Knock knock - Who's there? - Under - Under who? - Underwear! (It's a hit with the grade 3 crowd)
  • Philipp Goedicke -- Why do elephants lay on their backs with their feet in the air? To trip the birds.
  • Janet Reid -- Q: What is a twack? A: A twack is what a twain wuns on. 
  • Lisa Schroeder -- Knock knock? Who's there? Botany. Botany who? Botany good books lately?
Thanks very much to all the kind joke tellers. And if you kind blog readers have great jokes of your own, I'd love to hear them in the comments!