Thursday, July 25, 2013

Thank You, Mr. Falker and Mrs. Pauline Porter

I read Guideposts magazine every month. It's my antidote to all the negativity on the evening news. There's an article in the July issue called, "Lauren's Moment." What really caught my attention was the photo of Lauren reading Patricia Polacco's picture book, THANK YOU, MR. FALKER.

Lauren is dyslexic, and THANK YOU, MR. FALKER is her favorite book. When Lauren's mom read it to her second grade class, Lauren interrupted and said, "I have what she has. I have dyslexia. I am just like Patricia Polacco." She went on to say, "but I am very smart and I am going to grow up to be a writer."

Though I am not dyslexic, I did have trouble learning to read, and a special teacher helped me. Like Patricia Polacco, I went to see my teacher as an adult to tell her how much she had meant to me. This is a picture of my teacher, Mrs. Pauline Porter:

A great teacher can change your life forever, and great books like THANK YOU, MR. FALKER, can too.

Friday, July 19, 2013


I keep a copy of the FLIP DICTIONARY on my desk. Let's say I'm writing a dance scene. If I look up "dance" in the FLIP DICTIONARY, it gives me nearly a half page of dance terms. To narrow it down further, let's say my characters are country folk. Within dance terms, I come across "folk dance: belly, fling, hoedown, hornpipe, hula, jig, morris, reel, square, streathspey, sword." The FLIP DICTIONARY can't be beat for finding just the write word for an article or story.  

The other book I keep on my desk is THE EMOTION THESAURUS by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The table of contents starts with adoration, ends with worry, and has nearly every emotion you can think of in between. For every emotion listed there are a couple of pages dealing with that emotion. It works like this: let's say my character is agitated. THE EMOTION THESAURUS gives me nearly a page of physical symptoms for agitation: a reddening of the face, a sheen of sweat on the cheeks, chin, and forehead, rubbing the back of the neck, a wavering voice, avoiding eye contact, and on and on. 

Both THE FLIP DICTIONARY and THE EMOTION THESAURUS make my writing more varied. They keep me from overusing certain words and gestures and help me find just the right way to get my point across.

I own lots of books on craft, but I use these two books nearly every time I sit down to write. Have you used either of these books? If so, do you agree they're indispensable? Or do you have other books on writing to recommend?

Thursday, July 11, 2013


It all starts with the question: What's your book about? I used to say THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL was about tuberculosis, that's it's based on a family story, and about a young girl's first love. While all of that is true, it took me several rounds of revision to discover the theme, and when I discovered it, I rewrote the beginning.

Sometimes when the kerosene lamp casts shadows, I think I see Ma's ghost. If she were still alive, she'd say, Jessie Pearl, you keep on studying. Not everybody is cut out to be a farm wife. We'll find a way to pay for teachers' college. Leave your pa to me.

The theme for THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL is "follow your dreams." Life throws lots of obstacles in Jessie's way, but she doesn't give up on her dream.

The novel I'm working on now is tentatively titled CAROLINA GIRLS. An editor recently posed the dreaded question to me: What's your book about? I said that it's about an accident, that it takes place in 1969, and has a subplot that deals with school integration. But as I've continued to revise, the theme has gelled. This book is about "courage." My protagonist, Sarah, sums it up very nicely:

Courage is doing hard things when you're most afraid, like saying you're sorry, or being friends with a colored girl.

In its essence, Sarah is on a journey to become a brave girl.

Discovering a book's theme is finding its heart. What's the heart of a book you're writing or currently reading? It's a question worth exploring.