Sunday, August 31, 2008


Every year over Labor Day Weekend, the MSU Pavilion hosts Lamafest. (Yes, it's spelled with one L.)

There is something about llamas' peaceful, cud-chewing expressions that warms my heart. Once again, I avoided spending WayTooMuchMoney on an exquisite, hand knit alpaca sweater. The checkbook is safe for another year.
A nice woman from Moonshadow Llamas let us photograph the girls in the picture. They are Moonlight Serenade (front) and Aurora (back).


Photo by me

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Read This Book


by Jay Asher

Razorbill, 2007

Amy Huntly wrote an excellent review of this book over on Write Brainers, so I'll defer to her.

I'd like to emphasize how important it is for high school students, teachers and administrators to read this book. The consequences of our actions can be long-range and unexpected. If misdeeds can end in disaster, could simple acts of kindness have the opposite effect?

Friday, August 29, 2008

All Smiles

Today I'm smiling along with Debbie Diesen, Dan Hanna and Mr. Fish.

The Pout Pout Fish is a New York Times Bestseller!!!
Maybe I'll sing and dance a bit too. Congratulations!
Click here to see Mr. Fish turn his frown upside down.

The Pout Pout Fish was published by Farrar Straus Giroux, 2008.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Drowned Maiden's Hair

A Drowned Maiden's Hair
A Melodrama

by Laura Amy Schlitz

Candlewick Press, 2006

I enjoyed this book! And it teaches a strong lesson in creating real and memorable characters.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

"Query" Is More than a Good Scrabble Word

I'm taking a break from the old WIP to work on my query letter. Writing queries is easier than it used to be because there is so much excellent information on the web. The websites of some literary agencies (Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Folio Literary Management and Liza Dawson Associates) state exactly what they are looking for in a query. Nathan Bransford of Curtis Brown, Ltd. puts has a ton of useful information on his blog.

As I labor over my three-sentence summary, scratch it out, and try again, I push aside a pang of nostalgia for the days when I summarized my work with a 250-word scientific abstract. Right now, 250 words seems like an embarrassment of riches.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


What is it about the conflict in some books that keeps me turning pages far past my bedtime? Other books strike me as endless hand-wringing, and I return them to the library before I get past 100 pages.

Perhaps the difference between conflict and hand wringing is in the eye of the beholder. Every published book has a slew of backers who thought the concept and its execution were well worth the time and money required to publish and market it. I’ll also admit here, before all of cyberspace, that of the books I’ve recently put aside, one was a NYT Bestseller and one was written by a Nobel Laureate. We could assume that I don’t know:

1) anything about literature,
2) what I am talking about,
3) a good book when it slaps me in the face.
And we might be right. But since this is my blog, I’ll voice my opinions.

For me, the difference between interesting conflict and tortuous hand wringing often falls in one of three categories.

I don’t like the characters enough to care about their problems. The idea that the protagonist should be appealing is specific to children’s and youth literature. Books intended for an adult readership often show no compunction to create congenial characters. Why should I spend leisure time with people I don’t like?

The solution to the problem is obvious, yet the protagonist can’t or won’t see the answer. In these cases, the protagonist is in love with dithering. Give me a plausible reason for ignoring the solution.

An extended internal conflict has no relief from action. Mentioning the third category puts me on a slippery slope. I am the first to admit that ambivalence and guilt are a writer’s best friends. For me, internal conflicts are the most interesting, but when I’m faced with page after page of internal monologue from characters I'm not fond of, I tend to reach for another book.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The War of the Roses

Do you remember in Rapunzel how the prince fell out of the tower and was blinded by a thorn bush? That plant lives in my yard. I can blame no one but myself as I ordered several of these monsters from a catalog.

They were called fairy roses. Doesn’t that sound sweet? The catalog described them as a bush rose that will cover itself with blossoms all summer long.

They didn’t say anything about the thorns. Even the deer won’t touch this plant.

After the first bloom, the bushes are covered with ugly dead flowers that need to be trimmed away, and pruning often makes the plant angry enough to flower again. Plant lovers shouldn’t worry, though, the fairy roses gave as good as they got.

I also whacked back our attack rose. This is a new dawn rose that I planted on the same trellis with purple clematis. When the two bloom together in June, the effect is lovely and romantic. Unfortunately, the new dawn rose has ambitions that far exceed its habitat. It extends long vicious canes over the front walkway to protect our house against visitors. Who needs a guard dog with a plant like that?

Photos by Z.F. Burton

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Everyday Experiments

Yesterday evening as I was driving through our little town, a pickup truck pulled into the lane ahead of me. The truck was piled with furniture, including a mattress. To be on the safe side, I changed lanes. Then the mattress fell out of the truck. The young woman driving pickup, backed up (in the street) to retrieve her mattress. I assumed she was a University student who was taking advantage of the plentiful seasonal garage sales to furnish her apartment.

Apparently, this student hasn't taken Physics yet.

The experiment was partially controlled. On the way home from my errand, I saw another pickup carrying a box spring, but this driver had tied down the load. The box spring stayed in the truck at least as long as I traveled near it.


Photo by me.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Smelling Danger

If I came across the phrase “smelled danger” in a manuscript, my cliché alarms would blare. But there may be some truth to the idea that fear has a distinct odor – other than sweat.

When an animal is threatened, a specific set of physiological responses occur to help the animal defend itself or escape. This is known as the fight of flight reaction. In addition, many organisms release chemicals known as alarm pheromones that are believed to warn other members of the community of the presence of danger.

Recently, a collection of nerve cells (the Grueneberg ganglion), located in mammalian noses, have been shown to detect alarm pheromones. Unfortunately, the pheromone molecules have not yet been identified, and nothing is known about their molecular receptors. The truly interesting stuff is yet to be discovered.

For more information see the New York Times Science Page or the Aug. 22, 2008 edition of Science. (I’ll add the exact reference to Science when that edition of the journal finds it way home from my husband’s laboratory.)

Friday, August 22, 2008

Overheard #22

"Just because I'm finished doesn't mean I'm done."

Parallel Play

My critique group's writing retreat inspired a few of us to get together for writing days or writing afternoons. I met with Kay two weeks ago, and Ruth and Lori got together a couple times. This afternoon, I'll meet with Ruth. I hope to finish several chapters of my current nit-picky read-through of my WIP.

When I met with Kay, I was reminded of a term I hadn't thought of since my boys were little. Toddlers don't really play with other toddlers, but if a child will play near another child without friction, child development experts call this a developmental milestone. The word for it is parallel play.

Today, I'll escape the telephone, errands and the washing machine and meet with a like-minded friend. Her diligence will inspire me as we work side by side on different projects, in our version of parallel play.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Summer is Ending

The signs are all around me.

The sky is still dark when I get up. The sky is already dark when Write Night is over. High school registration was today, and the first preseason football scrimmage is this evening. Probably the clearest sign of impending autumn is the return of the university students. Green T-shirts abound.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Glad I Caught That!

This morning in an email to a school administrator, I intended to write, Thank you for your rapid response.

As I attempted to type "rapid" rapidly, my left index finger somehow landed on the v instead of the r.

Fortunately, I caught it before I hit send.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Overheard #21

"The best-laid plans get waylaid."


Photo by Z.F. Burton

Friday, August 15, 2008

Draft #6

In answer to the Write Brainer's Olympic Challenge, I finished the 6th draft of my WIP.

At this point, my house is going feral, my garden is a jungle and the stack of my mom's paperwork resembles Mount Everest. After I deal with all that, I'll read my WIP, fiddle a little, and ask if any of my pals will critique it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Those Irksome Repeated Phrases

One of the real boons of having interrupted writing time is being able to see the same banal groups of words popping up page after page.

Or am I the only writer who does this?

Maybe I shouldn't admit it.

Too late now.

If I revise my manuscript chapter by chapter instead of in larger chunks, those overworked phrases scurry into hiding. In response to the Write Brainer's Olympic Challenge, I have ignored most other responsibilities to work on draft #6. My sustained effort has allowed me to identify many redundancies.

Perhaps I should refer to it as Project Eradication.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tuba Camp Reprise

Photo by A. McGrath

Here's the photo I should have taken for the Tuba Camp post.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Wasn't This Supposed to be a Writing Blog?

Originally I claimed I'd write about writing, reading, math and science. Lately I've been blathering on about teacups, tubas and telephones.

In case anyone is wondering, I am writing. My revisions are going well, thanks to my critique group's retreat. Maybe I only write about writing when I'm discouraged.

I signed up to attend the SCBWI-MI Fall Conference. I'd love to meet Paula Morrow of Boxing Day Books. She once gave me a wonderful paid critique on a nonfiction manuscript.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Photo by Z.F. Burton

Saturday, August 9, 2008


I recently received a beautiful teacup from my cousins who thought I’d like a memento of their mother, my dear Aunt Gracie, who passed away last spring. The teacup reminded me that I had inherited two other lovely teacups from my Aunt Bib’s collection. (Aunt Bib was one of Gracie's older sisters.)

During one of the more exuberant phases of my sons’ development, I had packed away all the fragile objects in the house and stored them in the basement. I thought it might now be safe to take out the teacups. I opened the carefully labeled box and found … sunflower seeds? At some point, mice had raided our birdseed then set up housekeeping among the china. I pulled a wad of packing paper out of the box and dusted off the debris. Inside was Aunt Bib’s tiny porcelain mouse.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Argh, Me Hearties!

I heard (third hand) that students at MIT can earn a Pirate’s License by taking four physical education classes.
pistol shooting
rock climbing

I was unable to confirm this rumor on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology website.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Note Added in Proof

My mother is mad at me for withholding my brother's telephone number.

When my mom moved into her assisted living facility, I printed (in 48 point type) my home and cell numbers and those for my brother. I encased the page in plastic and put it by her phone.

In the vagaries of memory loss, she is convinced that you can't dial an out-of-town number without telling the operator the city and state you are trying to reach. I explained about area codes, but she didn't believe me. Today, in exasperation, she said, "All telephone numbers start with a word."

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Tuba Camp

Today was my day to volunteer at marching band camp. I signed up for 2 hours and ended up spending about twice as much time there. I'm exhausted even though I didn't have to stand in the sun, march, or carry a 35-pound Sousaphone.

I used to be a Regional Co-Advisor for SCBWI-MI, and since then, I've tried to limit my volunteer hours. Some of the moms I met today used a week of vacation time to work at band camp from 8:00AM - 9:00PM, Monday-Saturday. I admire their dedication. The marching band could not perform at its current standard without their help. Volunteers everywhere deserve more recognition than they get.

However, volunteering is not completely selfless. Watching the high school girls gave me several fashion tips for my WIP.

Overheard #20

"If I liked eggplant, I'd still be married."

Monday, August 4, 2008

What I Learned

1. My WIP is in better shape than I thought. The next draft will be more like housecleaning than remodeling. Note: the last draft was a major overhaul, and some construction debris need to be removed.

2. Whining will not get the novel written. Everyone has challenges in their writing life. My problems are minor. I should close my mouth and open my computer files.

3. I need to get a handle on my insomnia. When it flairs up, I tend to be depressed, unrealistic and error-prone. I don't have time for any of that. When all else fails, create an Excel file. I've started keeping track of behaviors (and beverages) that may affect my sleep patterns.


What a wonderful, productive time! I loved spending time with my best pals, having uninterrupted writing time and seeing a falling star.
Not only that, I've mostly (not absolutely, but mostly) completed my summer writing goals. Let's do this again.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Outta Here

The World's Greatest Critique Group departs today for our first writing retreat. We hit the road, as soon as I:

1. finish packing
2. deliver my younger son and his Sousaphone (oh yeah, and his percussion-playing friend) to the high school
3. visit my mom and my brother who is very temporarily in town (30 hour layover)
4. pick up the younger son and friend, but maybe not the Sousaphone which I hope will be left in the band room
5. feed two hungry teenagers, possibly three or four
6. pick up Ruth from the community center where her youngest is performing in a play.