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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | Blog

First Impressions: UNTITLED

fortune-cookieThis month we have a First Impressions submission from a seventh grade writer. This story was written for a class assignment, and she’s seeking feedback from a wider audience.

***

Tightly clutching a twenty dollar bill in her hand, 23 year old Maya approached the counter at an Asian takeout restaurant.

“Uhm, could I have an order of spring rolls?” she uttered.

“Is that all?” The woman at the counter inquired.

Maya nodded. 

“That will be 11 dollars.” The woman added.

Maya handed the woman the twenty dollar bill and received her change. She situated herself on one of the red leathery cushions positioned throughout the wait area. She had heard good things about this restaurant, and was hoping that it would live up to the rumors. It was strange, really. The place just appeared one day out of nowhere. A different employee (a man this time) tugged on a short string connected to a bell, making a shrill ring that grabbed the attention of all the customers. He then placed a grease soaked takeout bag marked ‘spring rolls’ on the mahogany countertop. Maya stood and paced over to the countertop and grabbed her food. She peered up at the man at the counter when she realized he had been staring at her the entire time she was here. He winked at her then continued staring. What a creep… Maya thought to herself and hurried out of the building. She shivered. That’s definitely a drawback. This place better have amazing food. Maya weaved through the bustling crowds of people out on the terribly paved streets of Vladivostok.

 A chunk of her ash blond hair slid into her face, covering one of her bronze-colored eyes. She ducked into an alleyway, pulled her hair away from her face, and continued walking down the alleyway. Her nose caught whiffs from the white paper bag in her hand, and she could almost taste the crispy, almost sweet parcels filled with a variety of vegetables. She navigated through a labyrinth of alleyways until she got so far out she came to an entrance to a forest. Maya loved this getaway from the busy life in the town. She would come here almost everyday now for some peace and quiet. The thick treetops were comforting, as they reminded her of her childhood that was full of adventure. Pulling back some blooming branches to create an opening, she entered and began to wander around. 

Following  the sound of a trickling stream, she came upon an old, eroded wooden bridge that was surrounded by lush underbrush. She maneuvered around the shrubs and sat down on the side of the bridge. The bridge was still damp from the morning dew. Maya slipped her flats off of her feet and set them next to her, swung her feet over the side of the bridge and opened her bag. She scarfed down the spring rolls (which really were as amazing as people said they were) and went to roll up her trash in the bag. I almost forgot. She pulled out a fortune cookie encased in a transparent plastic, tore away the wrapper, and snapped the cookie open. Setting the slip of paper holding her fortune to the side, she ate the cookie. When she picked up the slip of paper and read her fortune, she suddenly felt sick to her stomach. This must be some sort of a joke. Her mind was racing. The paper read ‘Your life’s in danger. Talk to nobody about this. You must leave to a different country immediately’. Maya quickly gathered her trash, slipped her shoes on and ran all the way back to her flat that overlooked the ocean.

***

There’s a lot of lovely description in this piece. All our senses are engaged – sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. We’ve got the mahogany countertop, the greasy bag, the shrill bell, the scent of the spring rolls, and the damp bridge – just to name a few examples. Not only can I picture the setting, I experience everything that Maya experiences, which is a tricky thing to do in third person. Well done!

I also like the early clues that “something is not right” leading up to the fortune cookie warning: the restaurant that appeared one day out of nowhere and the man behind the counter who was staring at Maya. That’s definitely a drawback. This line made me laugh.

One thing I would suggest is dropping some of the physical descriptions of Maya. Rather than state her exact age in the opening sentence, let us guess her age based on some detail in the story – for instance, maybe she is stopping at this restaurant after work, or between college classes.

Likewise, this sentence pulls us out of the story: A chunk of her ash blond hair slid into her face, covering one of her bronze-colored eyes. The reason is, the writer has done such a good job making us see and feel what Maya sees and feels that we are very connected to her. But if a piece of hair falls into a person’s eyes, they don’t usually think to themselves: My hair is ash blonde and my eyes are bronze. Therefore, we know that the author is inserting that description. It’s not really what Maya’s thinking. Even in third person, the writer should stay very close to the main character’s thoughts. (I didn’t know this until I worked on revisions for The Caged Graves with an editor at Clarion/HMH. She made me drop physical descriptions of Verity unless they were pertinent to the scene; ie, when Verity compared herself to a photograph of her deceased mother.)

Overall, this is an excellent beginning to the story that needs only a little tweaking. Thanks for sharing it with us! I really want to encourage this talented young writer to keep honing her craft.

Readers, please check out the feedback from Marcy and Krystalyn – and leave your own comments below.

The Evolution of a Story: Interview with S.A. Larsen

Happy Halloween! Today, Sheri Larsen is visiting us to talk about her new release, Motley Education, and how it evolved over time.

motleyedhighresForget having a lively after school social life, Ebony Charmed is fighting to keep the entire afterlife alive.

Ebony’s less-than-average spirit tracking abilities are ruining more than sixth grade at Motley Junior High: School for the Psychically and Celestially Gifted. Her parents argue so much her dad’s moved out. And, even though he’s scared of his own shadow and insists on bringing his slimy, legless lizard everywhere they go, Ebony wouldn’t survive without her best friend, Fleishman.

When Ebony’s Deadly Creatures & Relics’ project goes missing she learns her missing project is one of the keys to saving the spirit world. Now Ebony and Fleishman must battle beasts from Norse mythology to retrieve her project before spirits are lost, the Well of Urd dries up, and Ebony loses all hope of reuniting her family. But someone lies in wait, and he has other plans…including creating a new world of spirits without them in it.

1. What was your inspiration for Motley Education?

I’d have to say my youngest child, twelve-year-old CJ, for two reasons. Firstly, he’s an avid reader and major mythology buff – two things we have in common. We could sit for hours chatting up mythological creatures and coming up with variations of our own. And secondly, once I knew the world I wanted to create and who my main character was going to be I knew ‘she’ had to hold a complexity of struggles vs. successes, self-doubt vs. confidence, and the outer self vs. the searching inner self.

2. I recall you talking about an MG project on your blog some years ago, and I believe it was this one. Can you tell us a little about the evolution of the story?

sa-larsenYes, Motley was one of those stories that had to sit on a shelf in my brain left to permeate until it was ready to be told. When I felt it was time, I actually began writing it as a young adult tale with Ebony, my main character, a male hero not a female heroine. Slowly but surely, the more the story tapped off my fingers and onto the screen of my laptop the more it felt middle grade and my main force in the story felt like a girl. I’d always had this image of a female middle schooler with dark funky hair, a quirky fixation with graveyards, and a unique sense that she was different but must fit in somewhere – kind of the tween I had wanted to be back in the day. Pondering elements that would accentuate this main character’s voice and posture, I decided to paint her world with psychic and celestial brush strokes mixed in with mythological elements. Once the name Ebony ‘Jade’ Charmed was born the rest of the story just flowed.

3. What surprises did you encounter in the writing of this book? (Characters who didn’t behave as planned, plot twists even you didn’t see coming, etc.)

Love this question! My main antagonist, who never set out to be a problem for Ebony – I can’t say much because I’ll give a twist away. He’s two in one and really not a villain…sort of. Also the real goal of the story’s main villain didn’t come to me until after my first draft. This is when I knew that this was going to be a series. We’re looking at three books, but hopefully a total of five to end the world journey.

4. Motley Education includes a little Norse mythology. What kind of research did you do on this topic, and how did you put your own spin on it?

I did a ton of research and I enjoyed every moment of it. I love history, any history at all that gives us pause and reason to look into my own evolution, communities, cultures, countries, etc… For a while when I was younger I looked into becoming a sociologist. Can you tell?

I definitely put my own spin on the Norse world, adding in a little steam & cyber punk, mechanics, and little known mythological characters/creatures. These elements will definitely grow in the next book.

5. What’s next for you?

Currently I’m working on book II for Motley Education, initially titled The Shifting Hollow. Think Sleepy Hollow creeping around the world of Sleeping Beauty. 😉 I’m also in the midst of edits for my young adult novel, Marked Beauty, which is set for release March 28, 2017. Lastly, I’m finally writing a YA contemporary novel that has plagued me for years. It’s pretty heavy – the subject dark about a teenage girl struggling to survive her life living with a parent suffering from severe depression/mental illness.

Congratulations, Sheri! Motley Education is available at:

 

 

 

Heading into the Climax without (Much of) a Plan

sorca-head-tilt

Say what now? No plan for the climax?

Yup. That’s me. Facing the climax of my WIP and wondering, “What’s going to happen?”

I know it makes me seem like the worst sort of pantster, progressing 5 months and 56k words into a story and still not knowing what’s supposed to happen in the climax. Believe me, I’ve been beating myself up over it for weeks. How can this story have any sort of cohesiveness if I don’t even know how the conflict will be resolved – or what form that resolution will take?

Luckily, I have the history of my other, published works to remind me that this is all part of the process and if I give myself the head space and time, I will work it out.

The climactic scenes of The Caged Graves came to me all at once in the shower one day, just as I was about to launch into a completely different climax that was, by comparison, lackluster and unsatisfying.

Entering the climax of The Eighth Day, I had no idea how the good guys were going to defeat the bad guys. They were out-manned, out-gunned, and about to be sacrificed at the top of a pyramid, for pity’s sake.

I expected the climax of The Inquisitor’s Mark to be an all-out, guns-blaring battle between Riley’s clan and the Dulacs. Instead, it turned into a battle of wits for the custody of Jax.

In The Morrigan’s Curse, I knew going into the climax that Jax, Dorian, and one of the bad guys would perform certain actions. But where this would happen, how to get them to that point, and what everyone else would be doing remained a mystery to me right up until I was writing it.

So, I guess it’s not so bad if the current plan for my WIP’s climax is: The Big Bad appears and wreaks havoc (of what kind, unknown). The protagonist learns something startling (this part, at least, I do know), and this ends up (somehow) being the key to defeating Big Bad.

I can work with that. Right?

Reverse Outlining

So many people commented on Yvonne Ventresca’s strategy of reverse outlining last week that I decided to share my techniques for “post draft outlining.”

By the time I type THE END on a first draft, I know all the things that are wrong with it, which may include:

  • Important information I never found a place to insert
  • Important information I inserted in several places, not sure which place would be best
  • Plot holes
  • Unnecessary side plots, characters, or clues I never ended up needing
  • Inconsistent details in setting or world building
  • Wavering character motivation
  • Pacing
  • Character changes (In the first draft of The Caged Graves, the character of Beulah Poole started out as a teenage girl. I realized about two thirds of the way through the first draft that I needed her to be an old woman!)

Immediately after the first draft, I create a side-by-side outline to guide my second draft revisions. In one column, I list the important events in each chapter. In the other column, I note what changes I’ll need to make. These include all the things I listed above, as well as events to delete or re-order and chapters that need to be combined or split apart.

side-by-side-outline

In the case of The Caged Graves, a historical murder mystery, I also created an even briefer outline of the events in each chapter and color coded them: purple for the mystery of the graves, yellow for Verity’s romance, blue for the mystery of the Revolutionary War treasure. This helped me adjust the pacing and make sure that the main mystery remained in the forefront of the story, with the romance providing a counter-point and the secondary mystery appearing often enough to not be forgotten. If I found that one color took over an entire section of the story, or if one color disappeared for too long, I made notes on how to fix it.

caged-graves-color-outline

 

 

 

Anyone else have an outlining (pre- or post-) to share?

 

Black Flowers, White Lies: Interview

Today I’m hosting Yvonne Ventresca, author of Crystal Kite Award-winning Pandemic and the newly released Black Flowers, White Lies. Yvonne is a writer friend I actually know in real life. We’ve hung out together at tons of book events: NJASL Fall Conferences, Collingswood Book Festival, B&N Events, and plenty more — sitting behind our little tables, chatting with each other while trying to make eye contact with potential book buyers without scaring them away.

blackflowerswhitelies-cover-finalBlack Flowers, White Lies Synopsis:

Her father died before she was born, but Ella Benton knows they have a special connection. Now, evidence points to his death in a psychiatric hospital, not a car accident as Mom claimed. When strange, supernatural signs appear, Ella wonders if Dad’s trying to tell her something, or if someone’s playing unsettling tricks. As the unexplained events become sinister, she finds herself terrified about who—or what—might harm her. Then the evidence points to Ella herself. What if, like Dad, she’s suffering a mental breakdown? Ella desperately needs to find answers, no matter how disturbing the truth might be.

1. I’m really looking forward to reading this book! Black Flowers, White Lies seems like a cross between a gothic mystery and psychological suspense. Would you say this is an accurate description?

One of my favorite classes in college was Gothic Literature! Black Flowers, White Lies does have the mystery and psychological suspense, but because it’s set in contemporary Hoboken, New Jersey, it’s not quite gothic. I briefly thought about setting the story in an abandoned castle or a creepy old boarding school, but since Ella (the main character) feels safe at home, I felt that if bizarre things happened there, it would create a scarier effect.

2. When were sitting behind our respective tables at NJASL last year, you described this book to me as a YA version of Gaslight. What was the inspiration for the story (besides Gaslight, that is)?

This novel has evolved over the years, so it has a few inspirations. My early versions were about a teen girl who needs to rescue her kidnapped mother. In the final version, Ella, doesn’t need to rescue her mother–she needs to save herself. This shift in focus really brought the story together for me, because it clarified her journey as a strong heroine.

yvonne-ventresca-author-photo3. Based on the synopsis, it seems like Ella might be an unreliable narrator. I’ve been fascinated with unreliable narrators since I read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle when I was a young teen. Do you have any favorite books where the protagonist’s view of the world is skewed, muddled, or not to be counted on?

I loved Liar by Justine Larbalestier, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, and Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.

4. Tell us about your creative process. Are you an outliner, a pantster, or something in between?

I’m a ducks-in-a-row kind of person in general, but surprisingly, I don’t outline. I usually have a sense of the main character and some of the key events when I start a story. After I finish a draft, I create a reverse outline to get a handle on what I’ve written. Making the outline after I’ve drafted the story allows me to see flaws in sequence, pacing, etc. It’s definitely my favorite technique.

5. I also outline after the first draft is written! Great minds think alike! Were there any surprises for you in the writing of this novel? Plot twists you didn’t expect? Characters who didn’t behave as planned?

One of my favorite characters started as a female but worked better as a male. This meant a major rewrite, but once I started the revision, I could tell that it was taking me to a better creative place.

FUN FACT: During the writing of Black Flowers, White Lies, Yvonne asked her Facebook friends for their cat names, and was able to incorporate many of them into the story. Except for Petals, all of the animal shelter cats are named after real animals.

To buy Black Flowers, White Lies: Indiebound | Amazon | B&N | AmazonUK | BAM

Bio: Yvonne Ventresca’s latest young adult novel, Black Flowers, White Lies was recently published by Sky Pony Press (October, 2016). BuzzFeed included it at the top of their new “must read” books: 23 YA Books That, Without a Doubt, You’ll Want to Read This Fall. Her debut YA novel, Pandemic, won a 2015 Crystal Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for the Atlantic region.

To connect with Yvonne: Facebook | Twitter | Blog | Instagram | Pinterest | Goodreads

 

I Wasn’t …

I wasn’t …

luna-wainscoting

hanging from the artwork

drinking milk out of Bob’s cereal bowl

climbing the curtains

knocking  books off the shelf

rubbing my butt on Gina’s homework

licking the plates in the sink.

 

I didn’t …luna-in-the-bookshelves

walk across Dianne’s laptop and delete a page of her manuscript

stick my whole head in Marie’s glass of soda water (the bubbles were startling, but then I kind of liked them)

unlock the front door

steal Bob’s sunglasses

take the drain stopper out of the sink and carry it down the hall

photobomb Dianne’s Skype visit with a classroom

sneak into Sorcia’s Cone of Shame while she was sleeping and terrorize her.

luna-water-glass

*

*

*

Yes, she did.

Yes, she did.

Things To Do: None

Keeping it short here today. This past weekend was Parents Day at my daughter’s college. Bob and I drove over 4 hours to visit Gabbey at school. When we arrived, the school had planned some activities, but none them appealed to us.

Field Day for Parents? Pass. I am a grown up. No one can ever get me into a Potato Sack Race again.

Football Game? Gabbey said, “Heck no.”

We checked TripAdvisor for local attractions, and this is what we found:

nothing-to-do

Yup. Things to Do is grayed out. Gabbey’s college is located in the dictionary definition of BOONDOCKS. The Potato Sack Race was looking better and better.

At least we got to spend a couple days with Gabbey.

gabbey-and-dianne

When I’m at home, our local attractions are:

  • Longwood Gardens (pretty famous)
  • Brandywine River Museum of Art (original Andrew Wyeth paintings, he was a local)
  • Brandywine Battlefield (re-enactment once a year)
  • Go Ape Zip Line and Treetop Adventure at Lum’s Pond (awesome, but now infamous, see earlier post)

If we go a little further afield, we can reach Hershey Park, Hershey World, Lancaster (Amish Country), and anything in Philadelphia.

horse-and-buggy-pennsylvania-problems

We live on the southern edge of Amish Country. Getting blocked in by a horse and buggy is not a daily event, but it happens.

What are the local attractions in your neck of the woods?

 

The Scribbling Notebook

I’ve been spending a lot of time with my scribbling notebook this month.

scribbling-1

This is the place where I work out plot problems. Some people use white boards, some use index cards or Scrivener. For me, working it out visually and long hand is the way to go.

I hang on to my notebooks after the book is written. It’s reassuring to remind myself that, even with some of my most successful stories, I didn’t know what I was doing at the time but eventually figured it out. For example, here’s the thought process that led to me deciding who would rescue Riley Pendragon from his cell in the Dulac basement in The Inquisitor’s Mark.

scribbling-2

Some lessons I have learned from my scribbling:

  • The obvious path is the least interesting. Complications and reversals make for a better story.
  • Cut the things that delay information getting to your characters and readers.
  • Whichever path provides the most pain and trouble for your protagonist is the one you want.
  • Sometimes I’m asking the wrong question, and that’s why I can’t move forward.
  • The thing I thought was going to happen next is the wrong thing to do, and my subconscious knew that all along, which is why I ended up in the scribbling notebook in the first place.

scribbling-3

What’s your brainstorming method?

Finding Your Family

life360_logotagline

An interesting conversation has come up several times recently with friends and family members, and I was wondering what my blogging friends thought.

Is it okay to track the locations of your family members by their phone?

Our family uses Life 360, an app that lets you locate the members in your circle. My husband and I are in the circle, along with my daughters, and we added our German daughter as soon as she arrived. Bob reports that some of his co-workers who have seen him using the app thought it was “invasive” and “a little creepy.” A family friend said that he had qualms about using the app with his college-age daughters, but eventually decided in favor of it. My sister, meanwhile, said, “What’s the name of the app? I’m signing up!”

Life 360

We use the app daily to answer such critical questions as:

  • Did Gabbey leave work yet?
  • Is Gina’s band bus on the way home from their competition?
  • Has Bob left for the airport, or is he still at work?
  • How long till Dianne gets home so Bob knows when to have the cold martini ready?

Checking the app for someone’s location is safer than calling or texting them while they’re driving. Gabbey and Gina aren’t allowed to have their phones with them at work or band practice, so if you text them, they can’t answer. And although we might ask the girls to “text us when you get there,” they sometimes forget.

The only time I felt the slightest qualm about using the app was when Gabbey went away to college, and then it did feel a little like spying on her. I asked her about it, and she just shrugged. “I don’t care. Where am I going to be that I don’t want you to see?” I’m glad she feels that way. If she’s going to be taking a bus to the airport every time she comes home from school, it will ease our minds if we can track her progress.

What do you think? Is a family tracking app a technological blessing — or, as my husband’s co-worker called it, “creepy?”

Summer Recap

It’s been a whirlwind summer for me, and from what I’ve been seeing on your blogs, the same is true for most of you. Don’t you think we all need an extra summer to recover from the regular summer? (Maybe a secret summer? Like a secret extra day? Wink, wink.)

  • My summer started off with a Memorial Day cookout at my house for friends and family which culminated in a text from my recently married brother asking if he could call because he had “some news” to share. We were all pretty sure what that news was going to be, and yes! — I’m expecting a new niece or nephew in December!
  • I attended the first annual Chesapeake Children’s Book Festival in Easton, Maryland which started off with a fantastic crab feast for the authors on the night before the event. Many of my fellow authors had never eaten whole crabs before, so I conducted a tutorial at my table on how to open them up and get the good stuff out.
Crab Feast

With Tara Lazar

  • In not so great events, my father unexpectedly had to have a pace maker installed in July. It was kind of an emergency, but everything went well, and he is feeling much better now. So all’s well that ends well.
  • My oldest daughter landed a plumb role in our community theater production of GREASE. She was Marty, one of the Pink Ladies. The show was a heck of a lotta fun, although it was disconcerting to take her grandparents to a show where Gabbey cursed, smoked, drank, flipped the bird, and adjusted her cleavage on stage. Nevertheless, she nailed her solo, Freddy My Love, so all was forgiven.

Compact in bra

Drinking and Smoking

Dance

Pretty

  • No sooner had the two week production of GREASE ended than we were off to St. Croix for a fabulous family vacation and diving adventure.
  • Then of course, there was the contractor fiasco and a two-week scramble to get the bathroom finished by ourselves. We did get it done just in time to dash off to the airport and greet our German daughter. She’s been here over a week now and is starting school with my younger daughter today. Last week, we had fun showing her around the town. I attended the first football game of my life on Friday (no, really, it’s true) because she wanted to see our high school team play. Since our team trounced the other team, it was actually pretty fun.
  • Unfortunately, we had another awesome event planned for her that got abruptly cancelled. You may have seen news stories about the woman who died on a zip line course in Delaware last Wednesday. Well, my husband and the girls were scheduled for the zip line the following morning, but the company called Wednesday night to cancel our reservation. They didn’t explain why, but it was all over the news, so we knew. According to witness accounts, the woman disregarded the safety instructions and disconnected both her safety lines at the same time. My daughters and my husband, who have been on the course before, say they can’t imagine why anyone would need to do that. The trainers drill the correct procedure into the heads of all participants before they enter the course. I suppose we’ll never know what caused this woman to make that tragic mistake. It was very sad, and my heart goes out to her family, especially those who were there when she fell — and I’m also relieved that my girls weren’t there on that day. There’s been some grumbling about “more regulations being needed” since the accident. I do hope the company is allowed to keep the course open and running because sometimes an accident is just an accident.
Zipline

My girls and their friends on a previous excursion to Go Ape Zip Line and Tree Top Adventure

  • Last but not least, Gabbey left for college. So we added a daughter, subtracted a daughter, and the net result is a status quo of two teenage girls in the house.

I wish I could say that things will quiet down this fall, but looking at my calendar, that’s not going to happen. So I’m kind of feeling like this:

George Jetson