Archive for October, 2009


October 28, 2009

Last week, I received a phone call from my editor at Peachtree.  She called to let me know that she was just about ready to give me some feedback on my YA mystery, STAND-IN FOR MURDER (working title).  It now has a tentative place on the schedule: Fall, 2010!  She asked me to read through the manuscript in order to prepare for the discussion. 

I did.  Since it’s been quite awhile since I submitted the manuscript, I was able to see any number of things that I’d do a bit differently.  My editor also let me know that she’d like me to pay close attention to the emotions of the various characters.  In order to track them, I’ll be using Darcy Pattison’s shrunken manuscript technique that she describes in her revision workbook, Novel Metamorphosis.   In a few days, I’ll probably have the majors arranged on my living room floor so I visually see how things are working.

I’ll still be working on my other major revision a bit everyday.  I’ve learned that it’s important to keep a character’s voice  in my head.  Otherwise it can take a long time to get back it back.


A Semi-Polished Draft of Chapter 4: Done!

October 27, 2009

Whoa!  I knew that Chapter 4 would move pretty fast since I did have the bones of the biggest scene written.  But I didn’t expect it to take less than two weeks. 

I have now just about reached the point where my previous draft of this novel began.  I’ve added 37 pages and perhaps 7000 words.  And all happened in about 17 hours of my main character’s life. 

So working with Chapter 5, my former Chapter 1, should be interesting.  I already cannibalized (in the engineering sense) certain sections of my old opening chapter for earlier scenes.  That has shortened it considerably.  But I’ll definitely be needing to add new things in that reflect my main character’s new reality.

In some ways, revising a novel is a bit like going into one of those alternate Star Trek universes where people look very much the same, but have slightly different histories and priorities.   I’ll have a little more to say about first chapters in an upcoming post.

A Ruth McNally Barshaw Original

October 23, 2009

During the first weekend of October, the Michigan SCBWI put together a lovely conference at the Yarrow Golf Course near Augusta, Michigan with a number of talented speakers from the children’s publishing world.  I noticed that  several other participants had specially decorated nametags, and I recognized the artwork.  It came from the distinctive pen of Ruth McNally Barshaw, the author/illustrator of the Ellie McDoodle books.   I couldn’t help myself. I begged. And, lo!  My  wish was granted. 

Kris Card

Believe me, I wouldn’t have had the audacity to beg if I wasn’t acquainted with Ruth.  I’m a person who used to have to leave the room during the television show MURDER, SHE WROTE whenever some young, earnest writer asked the best-selling author Jessica Fletcher for feedback on a novel.  But I’ve been lucky enough to have a chance to get to know Ruth when we’ve presented at some of the same events around Michigan. And I’ve watched her sketch.     It’ s amazing.  She is a big hit at school visits. 

I would have shared my new treasure much sooner, but was having a few scanner issues. If you’d like to see some of Ruth’s sketches of famous authors, go check out her website:

Behind the Scenes of Saving the Griffin: The Illustrations

October 22, 2009

Typical authors don’t get a lot of say in what their covers look like.  And frankly,  award-winning authors often don’t either.  For example, I heard that Richard Peck was less than excited about one of his covers. And that came after the Newbery win for A YEAR DOWN YONDER! The people in marketing had made their decision.  But here’s what I thought when I saw the cover for SAVING THE GRIFFIN: If people judge my book by its cover, I’ll be a very lucky woman. 

griffin cover

Artist Yoshiko Jaeggi made my griffin both adorable and dangerous.  Grifonino had the tawny fur and downy feathers  as well as the sharp claws and beak that made those deep scratches in the Wiffle ball.  The statue of a dragon with half of its wing broken off looked like it could have very well come from the Prince Orsini’s gardens at Bomarzo.  And the villa had the beautiful lines that I’d seen so often in our travels.  Uaou!  (The Italian version of ‘wow’ with more of the oo sound on either side.) 

Ms. Jaeggi also did the sketches for the “spot art” at the beginning of each chapter.     I loved the ones at for Chapters 16 and 17.  The sketch that started Chapter 19 was properly horrifying.  But my favorite sketch has to be the one on the title page.  While I’d seen some of the other art during the final edits, I hadn’t seen that picture until the day the book arrived.  I’m afraid that my delight was a bit too much for my teenage son.  “I’m really happy for you, Mom,” he told me.  “But I can’t quite share in your excitement.”  

Many writers don’t get to meet  the person who illustrates their cover.  But Yoshiko is also the illustrator for two of Peachtree’s picture books: MY DADIMA WEARS A SARI and MONSOON AFTERNOON.  I had the pleasure of meeting her at the 2009 American Library Association conference in Chicago.  Yoshiko

Behind the Scenes of Saving the Griffin: Working with an Editor

October 17, 2009

Back in early 2002, I was one of the volunteers for the Missouri SCBWI and had the assignment of picking Lisa Banim (now Mathews) up from the airport for our fall conference.  At the time, she’d had the manuscript for DEFENDING IRENE for a little over a month.  (The history of that is another story altogether that I may post at some point.)  I was really hoping that she’d have some feedback for me on my story about a girl playing on an Italian boys’ soccer team even she decided against acquiring the manuscript.  Naturally, she’d be quite busy on the day of the conference, so I invited her to dinner on the Friday night that she flew in.  I gave her an “out” in my email by letting her know that I’d completely understand if she wanted to go straight to her hotel and crash.

But she agreed to dinner.  After we chatted for awhile, she let me know that she was taking DEFENDING IRENE to the acquisitions meeting on the following week.  Frequently, she doesn’t let authors know that because she knows how stressful it can be for them to know when the fateful day will be. Well, that was exciting and it clearly demonstrated where the old cliche of “breath-taking” came from. 

A little later, I told her the story of how I found  my stone griffin in Siena.   It was one of my standard tales that friends, relatives and even  strangers usually found a bit amusing.  When I finished it, I mentioned how I’d actually written a novel about the griffin. 

I had been babbling on about all this without the least degree of self-consciousness because I knew that Peachtree didn’t publish fantasy novels.  So I wasn’t trying to pitch the project. 

“Why don’t you send it along?” Lisa asked. 

Well, for the second time in one evening I was well and truly breathless.  For a hard-working writer with no published novels to her credit, the idea of having an editor interested in not just one but two of my novels was amazing.  And I’m sure that I couldn’t stop myself from saying something like, “But I didn’t think Peachtree did fantasy.”    But I think that Lisa had recognized that this project was a contemporary fantasy with the accent on sibling relationships.   Plus, it had a mystery going on inside of it and Lisa had edited numerous mysteries. 

I wrote about the long, difficult editorial road for Darcy Pattison on her revision blog, which is now Fiction Notes under the title of Revising the Griffin.  But it was certainly worth all the hard work.  My name might be on the spine, but Lisa was the one who pushed me to produce the book that’s now in print because of her knowledge of what mysterious adventures needed. 

Often writers are asked to write something for the “about the author” section on the back flap of a book.  Lisa remembered my story about discovering the griffin in Siena and asked me to put it in.  My first version was a bit long.  Lisa recommended a few cuts and this is what came out:

KRISTIN WOLDEN NITZ first spotted a griffin while visiting a stonemason’s shop in Siena, Italy.  How much for that griffin in the window? she wondered.  Too much, she feared.  But her husband, who usually specializes in rude remarks about “dust catchers,” said, “You’ll never know unless you ask.  So she did.

Ms. Nitz, who is also the author of DEFENDING IRENE currently lives with her husband, three children and one stone griffin in southwest Michigan. 

One stone griffin

One stone griffin

A Semi-polished Rough Draft of Chapter 3: Done!

October 15, 2009

Every writer has a different way of attacking a project.  I like to write scenes by hand in a cafe first.  I follow Natalie Goldberg’s strategy that she shared in her book, WRITING DOWN THE BONES.  This is my shortened adaptation of her technique.  I go to a local coffee shop like the Main Street Beanery in Zeeland and buy a  mocha.  That is how I rent one of their tables for a few hours.  As much as I love my laptop, it stays home because it holds too many distractions with Wi-fi and so on.  Then I begin to write following Goldberg’s instruction to keep the hand moving at all times.  That’s when my characters start talking to each other.  While I’ll fine tune these conversations as I bring together what I call a semi-polished rough draft, the basic flow of the dialogue usually stays in. 

When possible, I like typing these scribbled scenes into the computer on the same day that I’ve written them.  That’s when I can all the internal editor to say some of the things that I suppressed during the writing session.  These scenes are mostly dialogue at this point although there will be some fragments of action and description.  I can almost guarantee that I won’t have a single transition.  I find them enormously difficult to write. 

After writing my script, I put my inner cinematographer to work. She’s one of the weakest links on my project’s design team, so I help her along with photos and films.  For this latest project, I’ve also been watching Jane Austen’s PERSUASION, which is set in a similar time period.  I hope to rent AMADEUS someday because that really fits the setting for this fantasy: late 18th century Vienna.  I worked in details about the thick glass and the floorplans of townhouses.  And here’s where I follow the advice of Sharon Darrow, who suggested in a lecture that writers  choose details that the character responds to. She also recommended not expecting too much too soon from a draft.  I try to take that to heart. Unfortunately for my productivity levels, I usually have to bring things to a certain level in order to know what my character has thought and experienced before I move on.  And that point is what I call the semi-polished rough draft.   

I already have quite a bit of dialogue written already for Chapter 4 from a cafe session. Now it’s time to build the scenes and pound out a few effective transitions that will get Katrin from point A to point F after stops at points B, C, D and E.

Behind the Scenes of Saving the Griffin: Signora De Checchi

October 13, 2009

  “Signora De Checchi came around the bend a few seconds later with a leash in her hand.  In her black leather jacket and blue and gold silk scarf, she looked almost too elegant to be walking a dog.”

As a casual Midwesterner, I couldn’t believe how nicely some of the other parents dressed to pick up their kids from school.  And they weren’t even necessarily on their way to work.  Italians believe in something called the “bella figura.”  It wouldn’t matter that Signora De Checchi might not meet anyone on her walk.  As the owner of the Italian estate where Kate and Michael were staying, she would always have to look fabulous. 

Signora De Checchi also belongs to the generation that still uses the formal way of speaking.  There’s really no equivalent in English these days.  The closest that I can come would be from the Lord Peter Whimsey books, which were written in the 1930’s by Dorothy Sayer.  Sometimes questions would be put to Lord Peter in something similar to this: “Would his Lordship like to try my current wine?  It’s very good this year.”  But in place of “his Lordship”, older Italians would use their formal word of you: Lei. It’s like the Usted in Spanish. 

 I’d like to share how to pronounce Signora De Checchi’s  name through this short scene:

     “I love Signora De Cookie’s statues, don’t you?” Michael asked.
     “You mean Signora De Checchi,” Kate said, correcting his pronunciation.
     Michael shrugged. “De Cakey. De Cookie.  I was close, wasn’t I?”

I loved Signora De Checchi's statues, too!

I loved Signora De Checchi's statues, too!

Checchi really does sound quite a bit like Cakey.  It’s an Italian spelling convention.  Despite a few things that are a bit tricky for English speakers in the beginning, Italian is an incredibly phonetic language.  In fact, my middle child could read it beautifully out loud back in first grade without having the first idea what she was saying.  This both impressed and puzzled her teachers in the Italian public schools.

(Update: I’m afraid that I got a bit distracted by Italian spellings when I started writing about pronouncing Checchi.  Here’s what you’d need to do to give the word the proper Italian flare.  First say CAKE-key.  You’ll need to make both kuh sounds.  Next say cake to yourself.  Notice how in English that there’s a bit of a dipthong.  Listen for the hint of a long e sound after the long a sound.  It’s there in English, but not in Italian. )

Signora De Checchi speaks English extremely well, but I let her her Italian come through in her choice of words in sentences like “But the odor of your shoes seems to interest her.”     She was doing a word by word translation of an Italian sentence.  For example, since “odore” is an Italian word, she’d be more likely to use that than smell.

The Truth About Truman School

October 6, 2009

Well, I suppose that I ought to start with the truth.  I had the pleasure of reading and commenting on an earlier version of THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUMAN SCHOOL because Dori Butler and I are in an on-line critique group together.  Here’s what I wrote then: 

“Would you believe that I read the whole thing already?  I’m afraid that I didn’t read it carefully.  I read it like a reader, wondering about the mystery of who did what to whom and when.  I wound up making about five comments and then giving up and just reading.  I can attach the file, so you can see just about when you really set the hook and I stopped worrying about punctuation and so on. ”

So I clearly thought that the earlier draft was pretty fabulous. Yes, I did share a few concerns about plot, characterization and so on even after that glowing opening paragraph.  Plus,  I actually did go back and do a line edit for Dori about a week later.  So I wound up reading this story about cyber-bullying at least twice at that point. 

When Zebby and Amr launch a news site for their middle school, they do it with the best of intentions.  Zebby is so frustrated with having to produce the perky, positive articles that her school paper’s advisor insists on that she winds up quitting.  To get the truth about middle school out there, she only has two rules for her site:

“Rule #1: Whatever you post had to be your original work.
 Rule #2: Whatever you post had to be the truth. The truth about our school as you see it.” 

So ‘What is truth?’  as one official from ancient Rome inquired.  Zebby and Amr get both more and less of it than they could ever expect as someone targets a student named Lilly.  I found the use of  multiple viewpoints to be gripping and persuasive.  While I never found the “mean girls” in this book to be sympathetic when they shared their angle of events, I could see that they were still just as worried about their place in middle school society as anyone. 

When I bought a copy of this book during Dori’s signing at the American Library Association National Conference in Chicago over the summer, she seemed a bit surprised.  “You’ve already read it,” she said. 

Dori Hillestad Butler at ALA

Dori Hillestad Butler at ALA

She was right.  But as a writer, I know that the story isn’t locked in until it’s printed.  Dori and her editor did add some things and took out others. And so I wound up getting caught up in the story again when I held the bound copy in my hands because I wasn’t sure what would happen to all the characters until the last pages.

Reading the Griffin…Out Loud

October 1, 2009

Perhaps one of my favorite writing tricks of all time is to read every single word out loud. I do this for short stories and articles, cover letters and query letters, nonfiction books and novels.  Any novelist out there might be thinking that this would take a lot of time. Too much time in fact.  But I honestly can’t think of a better way for any writer to smooth out prose and catch mistakes.  While your eyes can skim right over your all too familiar words, but your lips and tongue will slow you down and really see things.  Your ears will catch stilted, unnatural prose.  

I probably read various versions of SAVING THE GRIFFIN out loud to myself six or seven times.  I did it when I finished the first draft as well as right before sending it to an editor who was looking for it.  (There’s something both delightful and terrifying to know for a fact that your entire book will be read by an editor after years of submitting to the anonymous piles of manuscripts known as slush.)  I read the project before sending this editor two more drafts.  Finally, I read each chapter out loud one last time as the final copy edits came whirling in. 

All of this reading out loud seems to be making for a good read-aloud. The BookLady of the Provo City library feels like it could make a good family read-aloud. (I’m guessing that one reason for that is that younger kids will identify with Michael.)   Another blogger at Reading Treasure Chest feels that it’s definitely a good read-aloud with fantasy, adventure and a hint of danger.  Click on this site!  If your scroll down, you’ll find a great video featuring Siena’s Piazza del Campo and the Torre del Mangia. A key scene from SAVING THE GRIFFIN takes place here.  I felt a rush of nostalgia–as that word is used and pronounced by Italians. (no-stall-GEE-ah)  In fact, I could just see Grifo, Kate and Michael sitting on the piazza during one section.