FicFest 2017

So I am a mentor, picture book category, for FicFest 2017. I applied because I thought the contest this year was great — I got some wonderful feedback from the agents who requested my manuscript. Now I’m in pay-it-forward mode and excited about the idea of helping other writers.

(I’m told I need to name an assistant. I’m sort of stumped on this. If anyone’s interested, please ping me. I’m nice, I swear.)

I’ll be sharing further updates about FicFest both here and on Twitter, @mdcroft, where I also make fun of typos on packaging and occasionally post links to my day-job writing. Best of luck to all those who enter!

Harry Potter camp and worldbuilding 101

My son recently attended Harry Potter camp. He got a Hogwarts acceptance letter. He IMG_1886.jpgwas told to bring a broom and a companion animal. Alas, we had no Crookshanks, so Nimbus here would have to do. (His sister owns a giant stuffed owl but was not lending Owlie out for camp purposes.)

After all the campers were sorted into houses, they spent the week playing Quidditch, making wands and trying to figure out who was secretly cursing the campers and counselors. It turned out to be the headmaster, possessed by an evil spirit, which could be driven out by a coordinated water gun attack. (I’m not actually sure this was originally part of the plot for the week. The headmaster said something about the kids taking the lead.)

On the camp’s last day, we Muggle parents were invited in to judge as each house acted out a story from “The Tales of Beedle the Bard.” The house that got the most applause — Gryffindor, in this case — also won the House Cup. My son was one disappointed Slytherin, but at least his house won Quidditch.

I was secretly delighted all week by how much the kids got into the spirit of things. Many campers showed up wearing their own robes and carrying official Nimbus 2000 brooms. There were earnest discussions about how some Slytherins are good and Gryffindors can be kind of mean sometimes.

I love the books too — me and every other adult I spoke to who said, “Hey, *I* want to go to Harry Potter camp!” — and I’ve always been a little sad that I didn’t get to grow up with the books the way younger kids did. But now I’m getting to watch my own kids grow up with them, and that’s fun. We just finished reading “Sorcerer’s Stone” together and have launched into “Chamber of Secrets,” and the kids keep trying to read ahead when they think I’m not looking. Or my son sneaks peeks at “Cursed Child” on my bedside table. I warned him he’s got six other books to get through first. (Side note: I did not hate “Cursed Child” as much as the entire Internet apparently does. Yes, one scene seems out of character for Harry. Yes, the plot wobbles a little. But some scenes work very well, and I love Scorpius, and that’s good enough for me.) The downside is that the kids spent weeks playing Peeves: grabbing people by the nose and yelling, “Got your konk!” So I’m probably going to have a couple of Dobby wannabes pretty soon.

 

 

What writer-me keeps thinking is that the books are a wonderful example of world-building. Readers (of all ages, clearly) want to go to Diagon Alley, they want to visit Hogwarts, they want to hang around and explore all the little details. Part of why the books work so well is because the setting is so inventive and interesting. And it speaks to their long-term appeal that kids today, who weren’t born yet when J.K. Rowling first became a literary phenomenon, are reading them with the same passion as the kids who went to those original midnight release parties. So this is the thing to strive for, as a writer: not to accomplish what Rowling did — because that seems unlikely — but to put as much loving detail into your creation as she did, to make the story really come alive. At least that’s what I’m striving for.

Side note: It’s possible to succeed too well. I got the kids boxes of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans for fun, and they won’t touch them. They’re afraid of eating an earwax bean.

Road trips and reading

IMG_1873.jpg

View from hotel room. The falls were extra-misty that morning. 

We recently headed up to Niagara Falls for a quick vacation. There are two things I’m willing to concede about Niagara: The falls are way more impressive on the Canadian side than on the U.S. side (just because you can see both sides of them from the Canadian side, vs. a corner-pocket view from the U.S. side), and poutine is way better than disco fries (this is a big admission for a Jersey girl). Though the nice woman at the hotel info desk seemed a bit embarrassed that we asked about poutine: “Oh yes, poutine, our contribution to cuisine, yes, that’s it, that’s all we’ve got.” Don’t be sheepish, info desk lady. My state is most famous for pork roll.

The town is a bit Vegas-ish, if Vegas were more family-friendly, so that’s either your thing or it’s not. The giant Ferris wheel offers a great view of the falls and just about the whole town, plus the slightly unsettling feeling that you’re sitting on top of a giant Ferris wheel and it’s a long way down. Highly cool.

Naturally, I bought books. As one does on vacation. I couldn’t resist this one: IMG_1881.jpg

Because I love Munsch-Martchenko books. We have the Canadian duo’s “The Paper Bag Princess” and “Smelly Socks” here and they’re both hilarious. And this one is about a moose! How much more Canadian could you get?

What I especially love is that Robert Munsch gets story ideas from kids who write to him, and then puts them in his stories. So a boy named Luke wrote to Munsch about his tree house, and Munsch wrote about a boy named Luke who finds a “large, enormous moose” next to his tree house and, after his parents fail miserably at scaring the moose away, decides he’d rather keep the moose for a pet instead. Too funny.

And then I found this one:

IMG_1882.jpgAnd had to get it. Canada has its own superhero? Is he friends with Captain America? Do the two of them meet for coffee, poutine and apple pie and then go fight intergalactic bad guys together?

Captain Canuck, apparently, has been around since the mid-’70s, but it’s an indie comic and hasn’t always been published regularly. This is a rebooted version, and there’s an animated series and supposedly a film in the works somewhere. This particular issue, as you can see, is from 2014 but was still for sale in the souvenir shop I was in. I don’t know if that means the regular series is defunct again, or what (didn’t see a comics store downtown, though I wasn’t looking too closely). I hope it’s still going strong. Every country deserves its own superhero.

So I thought these two were cooler than the usual sort of souvenir, and the kids seemed to agree, because they immediately got to reading.

It was a great trip, even though I didn’t have time to read the book I’d brought with me: “American Gods.” Irony!

Summer reading

It’s been brutally hot outside, making it perfect weather for staying in and reading a book. Right now we’re in thunderstorm mode, complete with darkened sky and flashing lightning, making it also perfect weather for staying in and reading a book. Any weather is book weather.

I’m trying to nudge the kids along to “Harry Potter,” because I think they’d enjoy it, and also because my son is going to a Harry Potter camp and I want him to bone up on the basics. You don’t want to be the only kid at Harry Potter camp who can’t cast a simple “Accio wand!” spell. You want to know which house you want to be sorted into. (Okay, maybe I’m the one who should be going to Harry Potter camp.)

But first we need to finish “Sideways Stories at Wayside School,” because we’re halfway through it and the kids refuse to put it down until we’re done. They’ve had lots of giggle fits with this one. I’m fascinated by how thoroughly Louis Sachar can switch up his tone; “Sideways Stories” is nothing like “Holes” is nothing like “There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom!” (I actually kind of hate the title of that last one because it has very little to do with the book, which is thought-provoking and moving. The ex-teacher who gave me my copy said she used to tear up when she read the book with her students; sure enough, when I read it, I teared up too.)

Other discoveries this summer have been David Wiesner’s “The Three Pigs,” which mixes up 2-D and 3-D style art and might be my favorite retelling, and Mac Barnett’s “Chloe and the Lion,” which thoroughly obliterates the fourth wall and makes fun of itself the whole time. So we’re being fairly meta around here.

When not reading to the kids, meanwhile, I’m re-reading “American Gods,” because it’s been a while. This decision may or may not have been influenced by seeing the preview for the Starz series based on the book. (Ha.) I don’t even get Starz and I’m excited. I will find a way to watch this, oh yes.

I’m sure we’ll get some more books in before the summer’s over. At the very least, I’m looking forward to returning to Hogwarts.

Two announcements

*taps mike* *readjusts* Good morning! I just thought you should know that the submissions of all the finalists and alternates for the first-ever FicFest contest (okay, including me) have been officially posted for the next round. Check it out here. I like a lot of these submissions and hope to be buying the books someday. FicFest has been a good experience — in revising my submission per my (extremely nice) mentor’s suggestions, I even went a little bit further, and ended up with a much-improved manuscript. Revising has been a difficult thing for me to get a handle on, so getting a revision to work well is kinda empowering.

Also, Kidlit Summer Schoolbadge-final-4x4-brighter-heart.jpg officially starts tomorrow. I signed up for this online series last summer and really enjoyed it — the Nerdy Chicks, who are all fabulous writers and/or illustrators, offer really useful, in-depth writing advice, plus writing exercises, Twitter writing prompts, webinars and giveaways. I was even reading these posts during vacation so I could keep up (don’t tell my husband). If you write kidlit, come and be my “classmate.” Also: signing up is free. Also again: How cute is this chick?

This concludes our announcements. Please enjoy your Sunday.

Things I’ve learned

  1. Devoting a weekend to your craft is always worth it.

My belated thoughts on NJSCBWI: It was a fine conference and I got encouraging words on two manuscripts, which I’m certainly happy to hear. We’ll see what happens next. Ginger Clark is absolutely the agent you want to talk about contracts with, because her workshop on the topic was incredibly detailed and honest. Kurestin Armada made a great suggestion about querying: Run your query past someone who hasn’t read your book, to see how well it lands. (Blake Snyder says the same thing in “Save the Cat!” which I recommend highly.) Michelle Witte’s session on voice gave me a whole new to-read list.Wendi Silvano gets extra credit for giving us a detailed handout on how to write a picture book text to account for the eventual illustrations (for instance, using words and phrases that set up the artwork to show what happens next) — and sending the handout around ahead of time so we could follow along.

Oh, and keynote David Wiesner was funny and relatable (we’re fans of “Mr. Wuffles!” around here), and closing keynote Suzy Ismail, explaining why diversity in books matters and how to address it, was wise and occasionally heartbreaking.

2. Be careful what you wish for.

I wanted my kids to learn more about American history, since they don’t seem to be getting it in school yet, and since we live in a state that is teeming with historic sites. And yeah, okay, since I’ve been obsessively listening to the “Hamilton” soundtrack. That too. So I found this picture book at the library:51uJJMpSx5L.jpg

Which, funnily enough, cites as one of its sources the same Ron Chernow book that Lin-Manuel Miranda used to write the musical. (Side note: Must read Chernow book.) It’s well done — it doesn’t include every detail, obviously, but it does a good job of showing the parallels between Hamilton and Burr, and how the duel destroyed both their lives. The duel is handled fairly tastefully as well.

I left the book out for the kids to discover, and they were both fascinated by it, especially when they found out Hamilton and Burr were real people. And we all agreed that duels are stupid.

And then the kids took sides.

My daughter said Burr was the better guy. My son sided with Hamilton. They argued about it. I swear they came to blows in the back seat of the car.

Well, I did want them to care about history.

3. Stories matter.

This is more of a reminder to myself. I’ve been so upset and horrified by the news of the past week that it’s hard to fathom how anything I could write could make a difference amid so much sadness. But I have to think that it does. I know every story I read when I was young made a difference to me, taught me something. (Including comic books, incidentally, which taught me that with great power comes great responsibility. Not at all a bad thing to learn.) If the stories we tell ourselves determine who we are as people, then we need as many good stories as we can get. If I can be a part of that in some way, then — apologies to Eliza — that would be enough.

Where things stand

Busy. Things are busy. I will never complain about being busy. But I might skip a post or two.

So apart from the day job, I am revising a story for FicFest, because I am a finalist. (*ahem* Whoo hoo!) The finalists in other categories have novels to rewrite; I have a picture book. So, definitely they’re churning through more words per second, and they have my admiration. My version of rewriting is, change a few words, put it down and contemplate it, change a few more, put it down, etc. Intense in its own way. My mentor offered some helpful feedback, and I’ve got a good feeling about this story, so we’ll see how it goes.

Also, the NJSCBWI conference is coming up, and that is always a whirlwind of instruction and fun times with friendly fellow writer people. So I’m excited and nervous and already planning my outfits because this is what I do.

My other work-in-progress is close to done, and there are already about a thousand things I’m planning on changing in the next go-round. But that’s fine. First drafts are supposed to be messy. I started it as more of an experiment than anything else, so I’m glad the experiment seems to be sort of working out-ish.

And I’m debating whether to drop this pen name and just go with my real one. (Which probably means a new website, but oh well.) There was a point where, professionally speaking, it made sense to separate day-job me and writer me, but I don’t think that’s the case now. Though I think I’ve been pretty open about the fact that both me’s are, well, me.

I’m looking forward to the next few weeks. And if any friends are heading to NJSCBWI this year, I’d love to see you.