Looking for me?

Of course you are! Find me at my new site, marlainacockcroft.com. I’d love to see you there.


Where have I been?

Creating a new website. That’s where.

Also the holidays and then family vacation and the work I needed to catch up on after the family vacation.

But I’m hoping to launch the new site — minus the old pen name — soon. I’ll leave this one up for a bit, and I do hope you all will be kind enough to follow me to the new site, when it’s up and running. In the meantime, I continue to tweet interesting things (and occasional links to my day-job articles) at @mdcroft. Friendly waves are welcome.

One small note: I’m delighted that “The Girl Who Drank the Moon” was one of the Newbery winners this year, because I loved that book. It’s a proper sort of epic.

Another small note: It seems to me that books that feature compassion, and kindness, and celebrating differences might be especially needed this year. I’ll be seeking them out.

The DIY writer’s retreat

OK, I realize some people plan a getaway to, I guess, go to a spa or sit on a beach or get in some serious shopping. I planned a getaway to sit in a room and write. It was glorious.

I had three picture book manuscripts I wanted to revise and a novel whose direction I hated hated hated. Basically I wanted to junk the novel and start fresh with the same characters. But I never seemed to have enough uninterrupted time to do it. And real writers’ retreats, though they sound lovely, are not cheap. So I thought, why not just go find a nice hotel room somewhere, hang out there and call it a DIY retreat?

I settled on Frenchtown, because it’s a lovely little spot with a walkable downtown, cute shops and restaurants, aka everything I need for occasional diversions. Also, it has a fantastic little indie bookstore, where I finally bought my own copy of “Big Magic”; Elizabeth Gilbert is an occasional resident here, so it seemed appropriate. (I’d call “Big Magic” one of those essential books for the creative and would-be creative, right up there with Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird.”)

Things I didn’t take into consideration:

  • It’s a small town. So if you’re hanging around it by yourself for several days running, that will be noticed.
  • If you set your retreat in a small town during the week, you might just be the only guest in the entire hotel. You will find this vaguely creepy. (Even if the manager is nice.)
  • Meals. You will be bringing a book to every single one. Which is slightly more awkward during dinners, when the tables around you are clearly full of couples.

That said, the days went pretty well. I took some nice walks around town, did some shopping (well, no way I was skipping that), then holed up in my room and wrote. Just having uninterrupted time to myself, with nothing and no one to intrude on my thoughts, made all the difference. It was unexpectedly peaceful. Net result: thorough revisions on all three picture book manuscripts, plus I got a good chunk written of the new version of my novel. So I call that a win.

In fact, I’m already thinking about where to go for my next retreat. Though I might consider bringing some groceries next time.

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


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.