Big Stories from Small Spaces

(Originally published at The Lucky 13s.)

If you walked into my house and took a look around the living room, one of the first pieces of furniture you’d see would be the IKEA sofa.

You know the one. You probably own it. Everyone seems to own it. It’s small; it’s squat; it’s most politely described as “functional.” It has a wrinkled, stained slipcover hastily disguised with throw pillows and a big, rainbow-colored afghan. In short, this sofa is twentysomething furniture at its finest.

I’m telling you about this sofa because it also happens to be the place where my first book was born. When I wrote the first draft of Magic Marks the Spot, my husband and I were living in a loft apartment just big enough for two grad students and a few standard pieces of IKEA furniture. The room upstairs was my husband’s workspace; the room downstairs (which was office, living room, kitchen, dining room, and entryway all in one) was my writing space. I had a tiny desk, but I hated it, so I mostly worked from the sofa. If I sat at one end, I could look out the window at the convenience store across the street; if I sat at the other end, I could glare at the dirty dishes in the sink.

Honestly, I wasn’t crazy about this writing space. Because the sofa was not only my writing space but also my dinner-eating space, TV-watching space, and afternoon-napping space, sometimes I wouldn’t move from it for weeks at a time. It wasn’t exactly ergonomic, and my back hurt. I indulged in long, lazy daydreams about a writing room of my very own, with a big window and a big desk and a door I could close while I wrote. I told myself that no one could possibly write an entire book while sitting on an IKEA sofa. It was distracting; it was uncomfortable; it was (I suspected) not where Jonathan Franzen would sit if given the choice.

But I wrote the entire first draft of Magic Marks the Spot on that sofa, and I’m pretty sure you can’t even tell.

About a month after I finished that first draft, my husband and I packed up our tiny apartment and moved to a new city and a new house. We bought a big, beautiful sofa that’s truly comfortable. At last, we had a separate kitchen, dining room and living room, and we began to declare victory over our twenties. For me, the biggest victory was my new office: an entire room where I can read and write and imagine to my heart’s content. It has a big window that looks out on a lawn populated by animals who’ve hopped straight out of a Beatrix Potter book. It has a big desk that used to serve as our kitchen table in our tiny old apartment. It has bulletin boards and calendars and bookshelves. I have a new ergonomically friendly chair, and my back no longer hurts. I can walk inside my office, close the door, and write. Maybe it’s not quite my dream writing space–the door doesn’t close all the way, and the carpet smells a little weird from previous generations of renters–but for now, it’s pretty much bliss.

We parted with a lot of our old furniture when we moved, but I have to admit that we kept the IKEA sofa. It sits in our living room, far enough away from the newer, nicer sofa to keep it from feeling embarrassed. It gets great sun, especially in the mornings, and a few days ago I had to laugh at myself when I found myself curled up on it as I drafted my next book. Old habits die hard, I guess, and it doesn’t really matter where you write; that sofa can transport you into the world of your story just as smoothly as your dream office can. Stories can come from anywhere, and they can be written nearly anywhere, too. The size of your apartment in no way limits the size of your imagination.

(But please, please, if you possibly can, get yourself an ergonomically friendly chair. You have a long writing career ahead of you, and you really don’t want to mess up your back.)

Howl’s Moving Castle: An Appreciation

I mentioned a while ago that I wanted to write a couple of blog series: one about the books that inspired Magic Marks the Spot, and another about my favorite middle grade novels. Today I’m going to start things off with a bang by writing about a book that is both an all-time favorite and an inspiration: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.

I can’t remember exactly when I started reading Diana Wynne Jones’ books, but I was probably around 8 or 9 years old, and I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that Diana shaped my reading and writing life. Her books transported me; they captivated me; they made me laugh. The endings didn’t always make sense (and sometimes the entire book hardly made sense–it took me many years to wrap my mind around Hexwood and Fire and Hemlock), but it didn’t matter to me. No one could create a wonderfully imagined world and then drag you into it like Diana could, and I was heartbroken when she passed away last year.

I’m not sure if it’s possible for me to pick a favorite Diana Wynne Jones book, but one I love without reservation is Howl’s Moving Castle. The plot treads familiar fairy-tale territory (enchantments, disguises, seven-league boots, and wicked witches), but the wonderful characters and Diana’s trademark humor make the story both classic and fresh, both timeless and utterly new. I could list the specific parts of Howl’s Moving Castle that I love the most–the doorknob that will take you to different cities depending on which way you spin it, the hilarious chapter titles, the John Donne poem, Calcifer the fire demon–but I’d end up spoiling the book for you, and the whole point of this post is to send you off to the library or bookstore to claim a copy for yourself. So I’ll just say that Howl’s Moving Castle is one of the most joyfully written books I’ve ever read. It’s the sort of book that reminds me how much I love to read and how much I love to write.

In fact, Howl’s Moving Castle is indirectly responsible for the very existence of Magic Marks the Spot. In early 2011–a few weeks before Diana Wynne Jones passed away, as it turned out–I was in a writing funk. I had just put aside the draft of a novel I’d spent five years writing; it had deeply entrenched problems that I didn’t know how to solve. At one point, I’d thought it might be my first published book. It was the book I’d spent most of my MFA program writing. But all at once, it was gone, and I needed to start writing something new.

I was miserable, and I didn’t want to write. I hated writing. And I was afraid that I’d never be able to write another book, that I’d never be able to sell a book, that I’d never be able to have the career I’d always dreamed of. But I had an MFA deadline to meet, and if I didn’t write at least 75 pages of something new, I wasn’t going to graduate, so I couldn’t let myself sink into a melodramatic funk (as Howl himself is prone to doing, it turns out). I let myself wallow in despair for a few days, and then, because I knew it was too soon to start writing, I started to read.

I chose Howl’s Moving Castle because it always made me feel good, and I needed a laugh just then. I remember sitting on the deck outside our old apartment in Baltimore; it was unusually warm for February, and I read half the book there in the sunshine. As I read about Sophie, Howl, and Calcifer, I forgot to hate writing. I forgot to feel sorry for myself. I remembered for the thousandth time that I wanted to be a writer of books like these, books that kids would love and laugh with and turn to again and again as they grew up. I wanted to write a joyful book. More specifically, I wanted to write a middle grade book with lots of humor, lots of adventures, and characters you wouldn’t mind sharing your cookies with. I wanted to have fun with my writing.

The next day, I started Magic Marks the Spot, and everything got a whole lot better.

I don’t know if Diana would have liked Magic Marks the Spot, but I hope she would have. I don’t know if it will cling to readers’ hearts the way Howl’s Moving Castle clings to mine, but I hope it will. I know that Calcifer shares a few strands of DNA with my gargoyle. And I know that all the books I write will owe their existence in part to the phenomenal books I read as a kid. Those books are part of my own DNA now. They influence my writing, of course, but they also remind me to follow the writer Jane Yolen’s advice and take joy in my storytelling. When I forget why I write, I read Howl’s Moving Castle, and I remember.

This week on The Lucky 13s blog, some of my writer friends and I are giving away copies of the books that have influenced our writing, and my contribution to the giveaway is Howl’s Moving Castle. Please head over to the blog to enter!

If you don’t win the giveaway and you haven’t read Howl’s Moving Castle, I recommend that you do so as soon as you possibly can. Visit your local library for a copy, or purchase it from Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, IndieBound, Amazon, or your favorite bookstore.

New Digs, and an Interview

If you’ve found me here, you’ve already noticed that I’m moving into my new home, (Sort of a mouthful, I know. But will get you here, too, if you prefer it.) I’ll be sprucing things up and putting together a new look for the site as the release date for Magic Marks the Spot approaches, but for now, I hope you’ll enjoy my circa-2001 web design skills.

Many years ago (like about 5), when I worked as an editor at a textbook development company, I was overcome with jealousy when my coworker Shoshana Flax left the company to pursue an MFA in writing for children at Simmons College. When Shoshana left, I realized how desperately I wanted to do exactly the same thing, and a few years later, I earned an MFA of my own. In addition to being an amazingly talented poet, writer, editor, and bookseller, Shoshana is also a blogger, and I’m interviewed today on her blog. Please visit Walk the Ridgepole to learn a little bit more about my path to publication, and stick around for her excellent book reviews, interviews, and thoughts about the world of children’s lit.

Six Stupendous Series

(Originally published at The Lucky 13s.)

Today I’m revealing a not-so-secret truth about myself: I love books in series. I also love books that stand alone, of course, but isn’t it great when you reach the last page of a wonderful book, only to discover that there’s another wonderful book where that came from? Another book set in the same world, possibly featuring the same characters, possibly even picking up where that first book left off? Some books don’t demand sequels or companion novels—they’re strongest on their own—but other stories pull us into their worlds and refuse to let us go, compelling us to stand in line at our local bookstore at midnight to get our desperate little hands on the next book in the series.

It’s true that I’m a little bit biased when it comes to series: My 2013 debut is the first novel in a planned trilogy. But my love of series books began long before my book deal. In my elementary school library, I checked out all of James Marshall’s Fox easy readers and read every Bobbsey Twins mystery I could find. After that, I found the Little House books, and the Alice books, and the Wayside School books, and (much later, not in my elementary school library) the Millennium Trilogy…. I could keep listing favorite series, but my hands would cramp up before I came anywhere close to telling you abou t all the books I love. Instead, though it kills me to be so selective, I’ll share with you three ongoing series I can’t wait to finish and three classic series you shouldn’t miss.

Three Ongoing Series I Can’t Wait to Finish:

1. The Montmaray Journals by Michelle Cooper
This historical YA trilogy by Australian writer Michelle Cooper follows the FitzOsborne family—royal teenagers from the imaginary island kingdom of Montmaray—as they cope with adventure, politics, and romance at the outset of World War II. The first two books, A Brief History of Montmaray and The FitzOsbornes in Exile, are out now in the US, and the final book,The FitzOsbornes at War, comes out here in October. Fans of I Capture the Castle will love the main character, Sophie, and her friendly narrative style.

2. The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
I’m cheating a little here, because this brilliant and sweet middle grade series about a family of four sisters is partially a homage to another favorite series of mine, the magical adventures by Edward Eager. The three books about the Penderwicks don’t  have magic, but they do have spunky characters, humor, and plenty of good old-fashioned coziness. According to Jeanne Birdsall’s website, there will be 5 Penderwicks books in all.

3. The Cahill Witch Chronicles by Jessica Spotswood
We interviewed Apocalypsie Jessica Spotswood a few months ago when her debut novel, Born Wicked, came out, and I’m already dying for the next book in the series. I’m guessing that, like their predecessor, the sequels will involve witchcraft, fancy dresses, and True Love. Hurry up and get here, 2013, so I can find out what happens next!

Three Classic Series You Shouldn’t Miss:

1. The Hall Family Chronicles by Jane Langton
How is this series out of print? The Diamond in the Window and its sequels are fun fantasy adventures that were some of my favorites growing up. I hope you’ll be able to find them in your library or at used bookstores if you haven’t read them yet.

2. Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry
The Anastasia books are some of the funniest I’ve read, and I wish I lived next door to the Krupnik family. Anastasia pretends to own a sloop, color-codes her gerbils’ heads, accidentally signs up for tap-dancing lessons, dyes herself purple… you get the idea. Lots of people love Lois Lowry for The Giver and Number the Stars—and rightfully so—but her Anastasia series will always be my favorite.

3. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede
Patricia C. Wrede has written many series, and all of them are fantastic, but if I absolutely had to pick a favorite, I think I’d pick this one. The first book, Dealing with Dragons, introduces us to Princess Cimorene, who runs away from her boring kingdom and horrible suitors to become assistant and chef to the dragon Kazul. The four books in the series are perfect for anyone who likes to laugh, or for anyone who likes to eat Cherries Jubilee.

If you’ve read any of these series, or if you have a favorite series of your own to recommend, please let me know in the comments.

April News & Updates

Here’s how I know it’s really spring:

  1. The sun is out. In Pittsburgh, that’s a big deal.
  2. Yesterday, I bought a 3-month supply of allergy medicine.
  3. My yard is basically paved with robins. They must be having some sort of convention. (That would explain the nametags around their necks and the little drink vouchers tucked under their wings.)
  4. I finally sent my pirate book revisions back to my editor. And then I slept for 13 hours straight.

So! Now that I’m no longer buried under a pile of manuscript pages, I have a bunch of things to catch up on. First off, I wanted to let you guys know that I’ll be participating in Crits for Water this year. Organized by author Kat Brauer, Crits for Water raises money for charity:water by auctioning off manuscript critiques with authors, agents, and other publishing professionals. The auctions have already started, so check out the list of guest critiquers and bid on a critique of your own work if you feel so inclined. I’ll be offering a guest critique of a middle grade or YA fiction excerpt on June 17th, along with fellow debut authors Peggy Eddleman and Stephanie Kuehn, so please keep an eye on the Crits for Water site if you’re interested.

Second, I have a couple of blog post mini-series planned. Over the next few weeks, I’ll tell you a bit about the books that inspired me to write Magic Marks the Spot. Then, in what will probably be a longer-running series, I’d like to share the love for classic and new middle grade fiction by recommending my favorite middle grade reads and asking for yours. If you have a favorite middle grade book that you think I should read, please let me know in the comments!

Happy spring, and remember to watch your step when you go outside. It would be a pity to squash the robins.