Thursday, December 29, 2016

What Should I Write Next?

image by haraldr via Flickr
When I first started writing, my brain was bursting with stories to be told. I never had to worry about what to write next—I had to hurry up and finish the manuscript I was working on so I could dive head first into the next shiny, new world.

Jump to today: I've just sent my current WIP to my critique partners. So now's the perfect time to start lining up what I want to work on next. But whether it's having written eight manuscripts or the personal stress of the past two years or just learning more about what works and what doesn't, I'm kind of stuck.

So I thought I'd share my methods for finding a new story to work on.

The first thing is my "story ideas" Word document. I've been jotting down ideas here for years. When I reviewed it yesterday, I was delighted to see the single paragraph description for the story that got me my agent.

Here's the final pitch, if you're wondering how the original idea metamorphosed into a full-fledged novel-length story.

Some of the ideas in my story idea file are interesting, but none bowled me over with that must-have impulse, so I tried another method. I cut scratch paper (recycle/reuse!) into pieces and jotted down topics that were on my mind, whether they're from the news today like health insurance, propaganda, and civil disobedience or items that strike my fancy like magic forests, bio technology, or secret societies.

Then I started grouping the cards. Which ideas could turn into a story? Which card group ignites that spark in my mind?

I'm still working on this, but I just had another idea, and that is to combine the two methods. Take a line from my story idea list and see which cards would work well with it.

Once I know the general premise of my story, it's on to creating long lists of What If questions to detail it out. I'd planned on providing a picture of a What If list, but ithat would be too spoilery. ;-)

If you're a writer, what method do you use to come up with story ideas?

all pictures by me unless otherwise specified

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

My Personal Top Five in 2016

Honestly, almost no one I know loved 2016. From deaths of famous and beloved people, to an election that deepened the already existing wedge between people in America, to scenes of suffering around the world, many of us will be glad to leave this year behind in hopes that next year will be better.

But not everything was horrible and it's important to remember that. So here are my personal Top Five Great Things from 2016:

1. Last year around this time, I blogged about my hopes for 2016. The most important one came true: a family member with a years-long illness is doing much, much better. This alone was enough to save the year for me.

3. We adopted this adorable little guy from a shelter! Thanks to him, I get exercise in all kinds of weather. Plus he's a very talented cuddler.

4. I pulled myself out of a writing slump, and my current work in progress will be ready to send to critique partners within days.

5. In the spring, the family and I had a quick trip to the Bonn/Cologne area. She here, here and here for some fun pictures! A few months later, we enjoyed our summer vacation in the beautiful Bavarian Forest.

How about you? What wonderfulness came out of 2016 for you personally?

Bonus picture: surprising view on my walk with the dog when I took a path I'd never been on last week. Yes, that's a skull.

All images by me.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Advent Calendar - Christmas on a Wet Spaceship

It's the end of November, which means it's time for an advent calendar in story form again!

Starting on Dec 1, feel free to read some each day to your kids, pets, spouse or just enjoy it yourself. Distract yourself, and it will be Christmas in no time.

Don't know what an advent calendar is? I tell you all about them here.
If you'd like to see what our calendar looks like (hint: there are socks), look here.
And if this year's science fiction Christmas story just isn't doing it for you, you could select a different one from a previous year—they're all listed here.

image by Robert Günther via Flickr

And now, without further ado, I hope you enjoy...

I love this title :-)


According to the captain, if the spaceship continued to have no technical problems, Lissy and her big brother Zane would be back on Earth in time to celebrate New Year's Day 2575. They had just over a week to go. Which brought a big problem to Lissy's attention. Tomorrow was Christmas. And her parents said it was absolutely impossible to celebrate Christmas on this wet spaceship.


Some spaceships were wet and some were dry and some were half and half. This one was, oh about 95% wet. Lissy and Zane's parents had been on a diplomatic mission to the water planet Marina for the past four years. Now, the four of them were the only human passengers on this ship. Since humans can't breathe underwater, a small cabin had been dried up for them. The rest of the ship, like Marina itself, was flooded with water for the Mariners aboard, all 180 of them. A huge window separated the two sections of the ship, but allowed the passengers to greet each other.


"Why can't we have Christmas on the spaceship?" asked Lissy after dinner, as they watched the Mariners swim up and down and back and forth.

Zane bumped her with his shoulder and waved to one of his friends swimming by. "You've asked that 300 times."

"I have not!" She bumped back.

"You have too!"

"Kids, enough," said Lissy's mom, before the fight could escalate further. "We'll have a nice Christmas celebration after we reach Earth. Grandma and Grandpa have invited us. They already sent pictures of their beautiful tree."


"See?" Lissy's mom said. She held up a tablet with a picture of a tall fir tree, sparkling with white Christmas lights and glittery ornaments. In front of the tree stood their grandpa, stuffing a humongous bite of whipped cream-topped pumpkin pie into his mouth.

Zane sighed with longing. "Pie..." They hadn't eaten pie in four years.

"Pie..." Lissy echoed.

"Pie..." said Lissy's dad, his voice breaking.

"Oh, you guys." Their mom huffed and rolled her eyes. "It's not long now."


For Lissy, a week after Christmas was much too long to wait. "But it's Christmas tomorrow. The real Christmas. Why can't we celebrate?"

"Why?" asked Lissy's mom. "How about"—she began counting on her fingers—"1. no decorations, 2. no tree, 3. nothing but freeze dried rations in tin foil, and we're down to the ones everyone has refused to eat for the past three months, 4. no presents, and 5. most importantly, no family or friends."

That was a lot of good reasons. And sometimes having a mom who was very organized was a pain.


That night, Lissy lay in bed listening to the constant hum of the ship. She leaned over the side of her bunk and whispered to Zane, whose bed was below hers, "Zane, I know what mom said, but I think we should still celebrate. Let's organize all the stuff for Christmas tomorrow."

"What? Shut up and let me sleep."

"I mean it," she said. "Just because we can't have a fancy Christmas doesn't mean we shouldn't celebrate it at all."

For a moment, Zane was silent, then he said, "I hate to admit it, but I think you're right."

A flame of excitement ignited in Lissy's chest. "So you'll help me?"


"Yeah, I'll help you. Now be quiet so I can sleep."

Lissy lay back on her pillow with a smile. Now they only needed to come up with a plan.

Bright and early the next morning, Lissy jumped out of bed. It was Christmas morning! The tiny room she shared with Zane only had enough space for their bunk beds and a small dresser with their clothes. Lissy dressed, waited impatiently for Zane to start moving, then finally gave up and poked him in the nose until he groaned.

"What's that for?" he snarled at her, swatting at her hand.


There was no time to lose. "Number one on the list was 'no decorations.'"

Zane groaned again, but he climbed out of bed and threw on his clothes. "Decorations...we'll have to make do with something we already own." From his drawer, he pulled out a handful of colored pencils left over from when they were in their dry apartment on Marina. Since they didn't have any paper, Lissy thought they were kind of useless.

"I'll make a star." Zane said. He cut long strips of tape and stuck the pencils together until he had a six-pointed star.


"Wow!" Lissy said, as he started making a second one. Now it was her turn. She rummaged through all of the drawers, pulling out every article of red or green clothing she could find. Then she braided them together. "Look, I made garland!"

Zane nodded in approval. They decided to surprise their parents, so Lissy hid the decorations under her blanket. They'd bring them out later, when everything was ready.


"What was number two on Mom's list?" Zane asked.

"A tree," Lissy said.

"Hmm." Zane looked at Lissy uncertainly. She looked back at him. They were in the middle of space. How in the universe were they going to find a tree?

"How about we stack some chairs on top of each other? And drape your garland on it?" he asked.

Lissy's lips curled downward. "Even with garland, a stack of chairs isn't the right shape. Chairs just aren't very Christmasy."

"Yeah," he agreed. "I know."


"Too bad we can't get one of those monster-sized pyramid kelp plants from the Mariners," Lissy said. "They may need to live underwater, but at least they're alive and big and green."

Zane nodded, but then he sat up straighter. "Wait. We don't have to actually get one out here where it's dry. We can move a table next to the big window. Then we only have to ask one of the Mariners to bring it to their side of the window where we can see it."

"That's a great idea!" Lissy said.


"I'll go ask Mina if she can arrange for it." Mina was Lissy's friend. They spent hours dancing together on either side of the window or sometimes playing computer games.

"While you're gone, I'll work on number three: food. I'll bring everything left in here, then we can sort it out together."

Lissy went to the hall and put in a ship call to her friend. It took her a little while to explain the concept of a Christmas tree, but Mina agreed right away to get some helpers and move one of the nine-foot pyramid kelps to the window.


By the time Lissy skipped back into the bedroom, Zane was just tossing a final armful of rectangular silver packets onto the floor. "There are 52 meals left. The four of us only need 28 if the trip goes smoothly, so we can use extra for the feast if we like."

Lissy plopped down next to him, and they began sorting. Yum went on the left, yuck went on the right. Zane shoved three packets of liver to the right. Lissy pushed a lone macaroni and cheese to the left.


And so they went on and on until they had six packets on the Yum side and all the rest on the Yuck side.

"Dad doesn't mind liver," Zane said.

Lissy pushed one silver packet to the left. "At least he'll have more to choose from," she said.

"Okay, so the food's all set. We just have to wait until later to rehydrate them."

"Yep. That means we're ready for number four on Mom's list. Presents."


For a moment, excitement sent their hearts pattering. Presents! But both kids remained silent as they realized they had nothing to give. There was no such thing as a store on the ship, and garbage was recycled immediately, so they couldn't even use old wrappers and paper to draw a picture or make a craft.

"I just don't know," said Lissy with a sigh. "I can't think of even one thing we could give Mom and Dad."

"Me neither. We'll just have to keep working on it. Let's skip to number five," suggested Zane. "Family and friends."


"That's not so bad," Lissy said. "We're already here. And we can turn on the picture of Grandpa! The one where he's eating the pumpkin pie."

"Pie..." said Zane, with longing in his voice. "Too bad there's no freeze dried pumpkin pie."

Lissy chuckled. "Hey, I can ask Mina if she wants to come. If we're eating by the window, the Mariners will see us anyway. And Mom and Dad both like all three of Mina's mothers."


"Great idea! I'll ask Izza if she'll come too." At least five times a day, Zane and Izza raced each other the length of the window. With Izza's powerful tail, she almost always won. Lissy suspected Izza let Zane make it to the finish line first occasionally so he wouldn't feel so bad. "Maybe Izza could bring her moms also."

"Yeah! Then we'll have family and friends!"

Hours later, Zane and Lissy dragged a table and four chairs out in front of the window. Zane propped the picture of Grandpa up against the glass.


Lissy strung up her garland around the handrails on the wall opposite the window. Zane hung his pencil stars in front of the garland.  In a flash, they rehydrated the food and warmed it up.

The Christmas kelp wasn't set up yet, but the kids knew from experience if they didn't eat right away, the food would turn to gelatinous mush. They weren't about to ruin their last yummy meals.

"Mom, Dad!" Zane called into their bedroom, where both lay down reading. "We have something special to show you!"


Lissy's mom and dad laughed at the creaks in their bones as they stood up. But when they entered the hall in front of the window to the Mariners, their eyes went round and their jaws dropped.

"I made the garland!" Lissy called.

"And I made the stars!" said Zane. "We both got the food ready."

Beyond the window, there was suddenly a flutter of flowing leaves and swishing tails as four Mariners swooped in with the huge green kelp. And someone had even draped reddish brown seaweed garland around it.


"A Christmas tree!" breathed Lissy's mom. Her eyes got a little misty.

"You guys arranged all this?" asked their dad. He gave them each a pat on the back.

The two kids beamed. "And Izza and Mina's moms are here too." On the other side of the glass, the eight Mariners floated back and forth, waving little pieces of kelp. Maybe they thought they were like little Christmas trees. "Hello, human friends! Thank you for inviting us to celebrate your holiday with you!" they called through the loudspeakers.

Zane gave them a thumbs up, and Izza returned the gesture.

"Oh no! I forgot about food for the Mariners," Lissy said.


"Don't worry. We brought our own snacks," said Mina. She distributed little shiny pink things Lissy didn't recognize to the other Mariners.

In her years on Marina, Lissy had learned that it was sometimes better not to know what they were eating, so she just said, "Great!"

As the Mariners gnawed on their pink treats, Lissy and her family sat down and dug into the last yummy packets of food. Considering how they'd eat only from the Yuck Pile the next few days, today's meal was a real treat. When they were done, Zane cleared his throat.

"Now is normally time for presents," he said.


Zane's eyes darted back and forth as he struggled to come up with something, and fast. "I know! My present for you is"—he made a drumroll sound with his fingers on the table—"my jokes!"

"Oh, that's wonderful," Lissy's mom said.

"Okay," Zane said. "First one. What do snowmen like to do during the holidays?"

The Mariners looked perplexed, but Lissy's dad said, "I don't know. What?"

"Chill out!"

Before the three other humans could stop laughing, Zane asked, "What do you call Santa when he stands still?"

Lissy's mom shook her head and shrugged.

"Santa Pause!"

Lissy laughed, "What a great idea, Zane!" she cried. But her palms were beginning to sweat, because she still didn't know what present she could give.


"All right," Zane said. "One last joke. What do you get if you cross a bell and a skunk?"

Lissy's dad held up his hand. "Wait, I know this!" He opened his mouth, but a couple of blinks later, he said, "Um, um, okay, I guess I don't know it."

Zane raised his eyebrows. "Jingle smells!"

Everyone clapped for Zane, even the Mariners, although Lissy was pretty sure they didn't get any of the jokes. Human and Mariner humor didn't translate well.

Lissy's mom and dad looked to her. It was her turn to give a present. It should be something festive and Christmasy. Something she didn't need anything for but herself—just like Zane and his jokes.


Lissy had it! She'd sing for them. The Mariners loved singing too, so hopefully they'd enjoy it also. First Lissy performed Silent Night. When she started Frosty the Snowman, her entire family sang along. Finally, she began one last, special song: Oh, Christmas Kelp—instead of Oh, Christmas Tree—and that made everyone laugh.

The Mariners wiggled their little kelp pieces and called "Merry Christmas!" Lissy and her family waved and called "Merry Christmas to you!" back to them. The evening wound down as the Mariners swam-danced in front of the window, as a kind of present to Lissy and her family.  Everyone thanked each other, over and over.

That night, as Lissy's parents tucked them into bed, they all agreed that this Christmas in the 95% wet spaceship was the most special, most memorable Christmas they'd probably ever have.


I hope you enjoyed this year's Christmas story! In case you're looking for more, I found Zane's jokes on these two websites:

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Middle Grade Crusade

Imagine you're a writer and your brother mentions off-hand that he's looking for books his daughter might like to read.

You might take that on as your next crusade.

I tweeted this yesterday, and the fabulous Twitter writing community came through.

Within hours, I had a nice, long list of recommendations. And since there's nothing better than sharing books, I've listed them below for anyone who enjoys Middle Grade* or is looking for something for their kids to read.

You might want to check for them at your local library or any bookstore. I've linked to amazon for simplicity's sake, so you can read the teasers.

Happy reading!

All of the books by Anne Nesbet, for example The Cabinet of Earths or Cloud and Wallfish.

Amber Lough's The Fire Wish and The Blind Wish.

The first two Warrior Cats series by Erin Hunter, beginning with Warriors #1: Into The Wild.

The Redwall series by Brian Jacques, beginning with Redwall.

Last in a Long Line of Rebels by Lisa Lewis Tyre.

The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand and the sequel by Jen Swann Downey.

The Case of the Missing Moonstone and the sequel by Jordan Stratford.

Megan Jean Sovern's The Meaning of Maggie.

A Snicker Of Magic by Natalie Lloyd (what an amazing title!).

Lynda Mullaly Hunt's Fish in a Tree.

Kristin Levine's The Lions of Little Rock.

The Girl Who Drank The Moon by Kelly Barnhill (omg, another cool title!).

Angie Sage's Magyk and the rest of the series.

Sarah Prineas's The Magic Thief series.

The Ascendance Trilogy starting with The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen.

The Thief and the rest of that series by Meghan Whalen Turner was recommended twice!

Jaleigh Johnson's The Mark of the Dragonfly (*swoon* I think I'm a fabulous-title-junkie)

My Seventh Grade Life in Tights by Brooks Benjamin.

Susie Salom's Kyle Finds Her Way.

Rae Ann Parker's The Devil's Backbone.

Any book by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, for example, The War That Saved My Life or Jefferson's Sons.

Shannon Hale's novels, including The Princess Academy.

Several books by Jessica Day George, like Tuesdays At The Castle.

Gail Carson Levine's stories, for example Stolen Magic.

Patricia C. Wrede has written several books and series. Here's one: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles.

And by far, the most recommended author was Tamora Pierce.
·         -Some suggested The Circle of Magic books. The first is Circle of Magic: Sandry's Book.
·         -Some recommended the Song of the Lioness books beginning with Alanna: The First Adventure.
·         -Some said "everything Tamora Pierce ever wrote."

I will admit I haven't read some of these books, but my Twitter friends generally have amazing taste.

Have suggestions of your own? I'd love to see them in the comments!

*Middle Grade's target audience is approximately 8-12 years old (but I've really enjoyed some of these too!).

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Bavarian Forest

At the tail end of summer, just before school started, the four of us (plus our new dog!) squeezed in a week-long trip to the Bavarian Forest.

Spoiler: it was beautiful!
Our first stop was the Waldwipfelweg (Tree Top Sidewalk). It's a wide, gently sloping wooden pathway that takes you up 30 meters (98 ft), to the top of the trees. I was also very brave and walked over an extra section of hanging bridge, which wobbles as you tread on it.

While searching for things to do, I found that there are twenty-five castles or castle ruins within 50 km (30 mi) of our hotel. So, obviously, we had to check some out. These are ruins of a 12th century fortess in Runding.

A couple of days later, the morning news was full of reports of a group of people who got stuck in gondolas on their way up to the Mont Blanc. Yikes! So of course, that's the day we decided to go up on a mountain ourselves: the Grosser Arber. Granted, this mountain was not as high, but we did have to get into gondolas and pretend we hadn't just seen the stunned vacationers stumble out of their 12,000-foot-high, nighttime prisons.

The Grosser Arber is technically part of the Bohemian Forest, but some claim it for the Bavarian Forest.

The dog did surprisingly well at climbing the last bit to the summit. We think he's part mountain goat.

I think that's the Czech Republic in the distance.
Next, we made it safely down the mountain and had a wonderful walk around the Grosser Arbersee.

What looks like dry grass is a floating island (aka Schwingrasen). See below for more details.
When you walk around the lake, you're repeatedly warned about the dangerous trees.

Trees may strike without warning.
If that sign didn't convince you, here is proof: a boulder-eating tree.

But the most fascinating thing about the two glacial lakes, Grosser Arbersee and it's sister, Kleiner Arbersee, has to be the natural floating islands. Plants called Schwingrasen have grown off the shoreline onto the lake.

What's Schwingrasen? Definitions from LEO

In the case of the Kleiner Arbersee, these mats of Schwingrasen have even detached, forming floating islands between 3 and 9 feet deep and sturdy enough that spruce trees grow on them. When there's a storm, the islands are literally blown around the lake.

During our trip, there was one missed opportunity. Our apartment was in Bad Kötzting, which is only a few miles to the Czech border, so I thought we'd take a day trip there. Nope. Turns out you can't cross the border without having everyone's passport. The four humans had theirs, but we'd left the dog's at home. True story.

You thought I was kidding, right?
If you're in Germany and looking for a nice place to spend with family, I'd highly recommend the Bavarian Forest. Our apartment even had free daily entry into a nearby spa/water park, good for kids and adults!

Bonus shot! My 9-year-old's dream: a life size toy, still in the box.

All pictures by me or my family members.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

I Blogged about Twitter for SCBWI!

A colleague at the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) was asking about Twitter - what it is and how it works. So I blogged about it. 

The recommendations of who to follow are geared specifically toward writers, but the rest is generic, so feel free to stop by if you're interested in finding out more.

Click here for Social Media in 140 Characters (Twitter, Tweetdeck & Co).

Thursday, August 25, 2016

I Miss You

When someone you love dies, the grief in your heart can be so powerful, so loud, it's with you no matter what you do. After a certain amount of time, sadness becomes background noise that you may not even hear over the clamor of everyday events and appointments. You don't forget, but for the most part, normal life takes over again.

But I'm finding that grief comes in cycles, and it's been hitting me hard the past month or so. Lately, I miss so much.

I miss standing in front of the house as I watch my kids play and talk to you on the phone. And suddenly, an hour or two have gone by.

I miss how adventurous your cooking and baking was (Banana split bread! Zucchini pie!).

I miss how you could love ten "different" shades of paint, although every one of them was beige to me.

I miss how you bought armfuls of Halloween costumes for the kids for 75-90% off after the holiday was over.

I miss shopping with you. It was a family activity often done after 9:00 pm. It was like going on a treasure hunt, but with coffee.

I miss how you'd say, "Let's go to show," when you wanted to go to the movies.

I miss having someone in my family (except my dear husband) who likes science fiction and fantasy.  If only I could have showed you that I would write sci-fi and fantasy someday.

I miss your advice on being a parent.

I miss your confidence in me, and I'm so grateful for it, because it made me who I am today.

I miss being with you.

I miss you, Mom. 

Related posts:
The Ring...A Puzzle
I Love...Cookbooks

Picture by me

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Not Your Average Renaissance Festival

I live in Germany, and every summer, my town holds a Middle Ages Festival.  Many of you have been to Renaissance Faires before. The coolest things about my town's festival are:
  • Location
  • Authenticity
I'll show you what I mean.

First, the location: right downtown. In my town, Main Street is littered with historical buildings and two wonderful old towers as it is. Add a few stands and people in costume, and the centuries-old look is complete.

As you can imagine, if it just takes place on Main Street, there's no way to charge admission. The festival's free the entire weekend. You only pay for things you buy.

Next, the authenticity.

There are two stages. For those who want more party and less authenticity, there is one "real" stage with a band and amplifiers. But the other stage is basically an empty square on the size of the cobblestone street. It's for jugglers, acrobats and minstrels you need to get close enough to hear. There is no loudspeaker.

Need more attractions than that? How about ye ole' hand-crank carousel?

The food: don't come looking for chicken nuggets, curly fries or ice cream. We bought a delicious, dark onion bread, fresh from the wood-burning oven, so warm we could barely eat it without burning our fingers.

I didn't have the patience to stand in the long line for a type of Transylvanian cake, baked over an open fire, but it looked amazing too.

Of course you can buy things besides food.  Glassblowers make ornaments. My daughter bought a child-size bow and arrow (with suction-cup "points") that she's been shooting at the living room door ever since. I'm grinning and bearing it.

My son bought a small earthenware mug from this stand. He looks very medieval as he drinks his orange juice in the mornings now.

The blacksmith sold scissors he made himself.

Woven baskets are still used pretty regularly in Germany, for small shopping trips or to transport a minor amount of things. So this stand could be useful. The timbered house in the background is a restaurant.

The festival even sports a camp behind the town's castle, where costumed people live in tents during the two-day festival, cook over open flame, lounge and practice fighting. They looked so much at home, it would have felt intrusive to take a picture.

So our festival might not be as big and spectacular as the Renaissance Faires you're used to. But it has its charm. I'll close with a look back down the street at the second tower, flying the town's traditional black and yellow flags late in the evening.

Interested in more on my town?
Bet you didn't realize signs could be this beautiful.
Why my town's called The Town of Bent Necks.

All pictures by me.