New Website and New York

As I’m sure you can tell if you’re reading this post on my website, the site’s gotten a bit of a facelift in the past few days. I think it’s absolutely beautiful, and I hope you do too! My writer-and-illustrator friend Ingrid Sundberg drew all the illustrations, and WebsyDaisy designed and built the site. Please check out more of their work and get in touch with them if you’re ever in need of a new or updated site–they are both wonderful and talented!

A quick note about the artwork: If you scroll down to the bottom of this page, you’ll see that the aliens are eyeing a stack of books made up of some of my favorite titles: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Half Magic by Edward Eager, The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Some of the books in the stack don’t have titles visible–I imagine those are the books the aliens chose, and I’m not entirely sure what their taste is like.

I had a great trip to New York at the end of May, speaking on a middle grade panel at BEA and signing galleys for lots of lovely booksellers, librarians, and readers (and parents of readers). Thanks to everyone who came by to say hi or grab a copy of Magic Marks the Spot! We ended up running out of galleys at the signing, so if you were waiting in line and didn’t get one, I’m really sorry! I hope you got lots of other excellent books to tide you over.

During my couple of days in NYC, I got to meet lots of the wonderful people at HarperCollins who are working behind the scenes on my book and the rest of the children’s list. It was very exciting to meet them, especially since I’m not at all used to meeting people who have actually read the book. (Usually, if I start talking to strangers about pirates and gargoyles, they give me funny looks and edge away slowly, but these nice people did no such thing.) I also got to spend time with some good writer friends, and at the end of my trip, my lovely host Kathleen Wilson indulged my inner tourist and showed me around Central Park and Rockefeller Center. I have been catching up on sleep ever since.

Let me know how you like the new website, or if anything’s not working the way it should. Hope everyone’s summer is off to a brilliant start!


At the end of May, I’ll be in New York City to attend Book Expo America, where Magic Marks the Spot is featured as a middle grade buzz book! There will be advance copies of the book available at the HarperCollins booth, so if you’ll be at BEA, you can find out what happens to Hilary and the gargoyle three entire months before the rest of the world does. (You’ll also get a peek at the wonderful interior art by Dave Phillips.)

For expo-goers, here’s the handy list of VNHLP-related events at BEA. All these events will take place on Friday, May 31:

  • 11:00-11:50 a.m. Middle Grade Editor Buzz Panel, featuring my brilliant editor talking about Magic Marks the Spot
  • 1:00-1:30 p.m. Middle Grade Author Panel, featuring me talking about Magic Marks the Spot and five other authors talking about their upcoming middle grade titles
  • 3:00-3:30 p.m. I’ll be signing advance copies of Magic Marks the Spot at Table 9 in the autograph area. Please come say hi.

The Most Useful Thing I’ve Learned (So Far) About Writing a Sequel

(originally posted at Through the Tollbooth)

For the past several months—or possibly the past several centuries; it’s sort of hard to tell—I’ve been writing the second book in a trilogy. If you’re wondering whether writing a sequel is easier or more difficult than writing a stand-alone novel, I am here to tell you with complete confidence that I have no idea. The only thing I know for sure is that no book comes easy, and this one hasn’t been much of an exception.

To be fair, writing a sequel does have its perks. When I sat down to write the first draft, I already knew my main characters and their world. I was intimately acquainted with everyone’s personality quirks, backstories, neuroses, and food allergies. I didn’t have to worry about figuring out the story’s magic system, since I’d already hashed that out in the first book, and I knew exactly how long it would take my characters to travel cross-country via train, horse-drawn carriage, and pirate ship. I even knew where my plot was headed, since I’d done my best to set my characters up for further adventures at the end of book one.

Emotionally, however, I was stumped.

I mean, my emotions were okay—or at least as okay as the emotions of a debut author writing a second book under contract can possibly be. But at the end of book one, I’d brought Hilary, my protagonist, to a stable and happy emotional place. She couldn’t remain stable and happy all throughout the sequel, could she? No; that would be boring, and it wouldn’t give readers a reason to care about her adventures. Would I have to tear Hilary down again? Would I have to undo all the emotional strength she’d built up in the first book? That didn’t seem right, either; I didn’t want to write the same story twice or cancel out everything good that had happened in the series’ first installment. Just as I’d designed the plot of book two to build and expand on the events of book one, I wanted my characters’ emotions to build and expand in a natural way. But I had no idea how to accomplish this.

At this point, for probably the millionth time, the superheroic community of Vermont College students and alums came to my rescue. Even though I’m no longer a student, I still rely on my MFA program friends to offer smart perspectives on the craft problems I’m wrestling with, so I handed off the question to them. “Hey,” I said (more or less), “I’m working on this sequel, and I have no idea what to do with my characters’ emotions. Should I give them something new to struggle with? Should they just repeat the same old struggle they overcame at the end of book one? Can I please, please, please write a book in which no one has any emotions at all? ‘Cause that would be much easier.”

I got lots of great responses, but there were two in particular that helped me see the emotional trajectories of multi-book series in a new and really helpful way. Val Howlett mentioned that in some of her favorite series, the characters’ emotional struggles aren’t fully resolved at the end of each book. Take the Harry Potter series as a familiar example: Harry is constantly wrestling with the loss of his parents, though that wrestling match takes a different form in each of the seven books. “In all the series I’ve loved,” Val said, “there were these emotional needs that were big enough to grow and shift, but remained at the heart of the series.” In other words, a good series has an emotional core that runs through each of its books. That emotional core is part of the connective tissue that holds all the books together and unites them as a larger work.

Val’s response helped me decide that I needed to return to the core of Hilary’s emotional struggle in book one—her desire to earn her dad’s respect—but I still wasn’t sure how to do that without making my sequel repetitive. Jessica Leader gave me a great solution, though, when she said, “When the author pans back to show the reader and the character the bigger problem, it mirrors the process of maturation: at first, you can only see your world, but gradually, you gain the ability to think about your place in it, and then the world itself. So there’s built-in character development at the ready!”

That’s when it clicked for me: Each book in my series could focus on the same core emotion, but it could look at that emotion in increasingly broad contexts. If the emotional core of my series was Hilary’s desire for respect, maybe she’d search for that respect first (in book one) from her family, then (in book two) from her immediate community, and finally (in book three) from the community at large—and from herself.

This concept of an emotional core that expands in scope from one book to the next has been incredibly helpful to me as I structure my series. I know I’ll be able to apply it to future stories, and I hope it’s useful to other writers, too. Most of all, though, it reminds me that a writing community is priceless, and that when we don’t have the answer to a tough writing problem, it’s not the end of the world. It’s probably just time to start brainstorming with our friends.

An Entirely Honorable Cover

I am so happy to be able to share the beautiful cover art for the US edition of The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates: Magic Marks the Spot, coming from Harper Children’s in September 2013:

Magic Marks the Spot

I don’t know about you, but I am completely in love with this cover. The cover artist is the brilliant Yarrow Cheney (check out some of his other work here), and the designer is HarperCollins Senior Art Director Amy Ryan. I’m so grateful to them for dressing up my book in its fanciest finery! They’ve done a wonderful job of capturing the spirit of the story, and I love all the little details the artist included, from the name of the pirate ship (the Pigeon) painted on the hull to the pet budgerigar, Fitzwilliam, flying alongside the sails. I highly recommend zooming in on the gargoyle’s adorable expression as he sits in his Nest at the front of the ship–just click the image for a larger version. And check out that hand-lettered title!

Here’s some of the jacket copy (that bit on the inside flap that tells you more about the book):

Hilary Westfield has always dreamed of being a pirate. She can tread water for thirty-seven minutes. She can tie a knot faster than a fleet of sailors. She particularly enjoys defying authority, especially if that authority orders her to wear a petticoat. She wouldn’t be caught dead eating tiny, crustless sandwiches, and she already owns a rather pointy sword. There’s only one problem: The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates refuses to let any girl join their ranks of scourges and scallywags.

Girls belong at Miss Pimm’s Finishing School for Delicate Ladies, learning to waltz, faint, and curtsy. But Hilary and her dearest friend, the gargoyle, have no use for such frivolous lessons— they are pirates! (Or very nearly.)

To escape from a life of petticoats and politeness, Hilary answers a curious advertisement for a pirate crew and suddenly finds herself swept up in a seafaring adventure that may or may not involve a map without an “X,” a magical treasure that likely doesn’t exist, a rogue governess who insists on propriety, a crew of misfit scallywags, and the most treacherous—and unexpected—villain on the High Seas.

Will Hilary find the treasure in time? Will she become a true pirate after all? And what will become of the gargoyle?

I hope you love this cover as much as I do! I’ve also discovered that if you’re feeling so inclined, the book is now available for preorder from Barnes & Noble and Amazon (and from other places soon–I’ll post the links on my Books page as they become available).

How I Plan a Story

(originally posted at Through the Tollbooth)

I spent the weekend reading Reflections, a collection of essays and talks on writing by the children’s fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones. Diana touches on all sorts of topics in her essays, but my favorite passages are the ones in which she describes her writing process: how she grabs ideas out of thin air, plans them out, and sets about turning them into full-fledged stories. I’ve always loved learning about other writers’ processes, which seem so magical and veiled in mystery even when you are a writer yourself, so with the hope that you also like to learn about other writers’ processes, I thought I’d tell you about how I plan my stories.

I don’t think anyone will ever be able to adequately explain where story ideas come from, but for me, they usually arrive when I’m standing at the kitchen counter eating crackers out of the box and letting my mind wander all over the place. As it wanders, it stumbles over a strange or silly thought, and I sort of laugh to myself and say (with a mouth full of crackers), “That would be a good idea for a story.”

Usually, it is not a good idea for a story. Usually it turns out that I’m just standing in the kitchen talking to myself like someone who really should not be left alone for long periods of time. But sometimes my brain starts to tingle in a particular way, and I abandon the crackers and run to my computer, where I open my file of story ideas. This is a Word document full of phrases and sentences and paragraphs describing every idea I’ve ever had that’s made my brain tingle in that particular way. Moving quickly, before the idea dies, I find a blank space in the document and write it down. I usually don’t write more than a sentence; for my book Magic Marks the Spot, I wrote, “A girl tries to enroll in Piracy but her application is forwarded to Young Ladies’ Finishing School.” (Actually, this is still more or less the elevator pitch I use when people ask me what my book is about.)

Then, once the idea is safely recorded, I forget about it for a very long time.

I think this is the most important part of my process. The idea needs time by itself to ripen, and if I hover over it and poke at it too much, it won’t develop properly. I let the idea sit in my subconscious mind, soaking up everything I read and learn about and experience in the meantime, and every so often I’ll realize that the idea has grown a new sort of tendril (“the pirate girl has an adorable sidekick… maybe a talking parrot? A talking rabbit? A talking… something else?”). I write that tendril down in my story idea file and go back to not thinking about it for a while. Though it’s not always possible, I prefer to let a good story idea ripen for at least a year while I write about something entirely different. I had the idea for Magic Marks the Spot about a year before I started writing the first draft. The idea for my second book was only allowed to ripen for eight months (I was on deadline), and it was still a little green around the edges. And I have another idea that’s going on two years of ripening now, though I haven’t yet started to write it.

An idea is ready to be written about when I know a few crucial things about it. First, I have to know what Diana Wynne Jones describes as “the taste, quality, character—there are no words for it—nature of the book itself, a sort of flavor” (Reflections, 117). This flavor could be the subject of its own blog post, but it usually arrives at the moment of inspiration and grows stronger during the ripening period. Next, I have to know how the story begins. I like to know exactly what happens for at least the first twenty pages, since once I’ve written that down I am firmly in the story, and I’ve given myself enough momentum to keep going. I also need to have some idea of what the story’s climactic scene will be, so I know what I’m aiming for. I will usually know two or three scenes that take place along the way, though that’s not absolutely crucial; they will have popped up during the ripening process, and they may be subject to change if the story takes twists and turns I don’t expect.

Finally, I need to plan out my protagonist’s emotional arc. I’m the sort of writer who gets so caught up in plot that I forget to let my characters feel things, so I plan this emotional arc very consciously and deliberately; if I don’t, I will utterly fail to include it in the story. At this point, I try to ensure that my protagonist’s plot arc and her emotional arc will intersect at the climax of the story—the place that my VCFA advisor Franny Billingsley called the crossroads. Creating this crossroads, where plot and emotion intersect at their peaks, can feel awfully academic, but I’ve found that taking the time to do this solidifies the story’s structure and gives me the freedom to play around with the story without fearing that it will all come toppling down around me.

After that, I start writing. I’m a planner by nature, and it terrifies me not to know what happens next, so I’m often tempted to plot out every scene in advance. To paraphrase Diana Wynne Jones, though, overplanning can kill a story. Since my work in progress is partially a mystery story, I had to plan it in a lot more detail than usual, and I think all that planning made the book much more difficult to write; it squashed some of the spontaneity and playfulness that I’ve come to believe makes for the best writing. I usually do make an outline about halfway through the first draft, when I have a pretty good idea of how the rest of the book will go, but I don’t require myself to stick to it. Not knowing what will happen next may be terrifying, but the scenes that come out of nowhere, unplanned, always turn out to be my favorites.

That, in exhausting detail, is how I’ve planned the stories I’ve written so far, though I can’t guarantee it’s how I’ll write the next one. I’d love to hear about your planning process, too—just accost me at a cocktail party or, failing that, drop a note in the comments.