Love Sun

This has been a crap year for me.

My marriage of 24 years ended painfully, as such things often do. The side effects caused by this, especially for my kids, have compounded and multiplied, and I don’t see an end to the trauma anytime soon.

I’ve had to dig deep to find more and more strength to keep going through some very dark days. Many times, it was my friends that helped me through.

I am terrible at asking for help or unloading my crap on others, so forcing myself to share what was going on with me was tremendously uncomfortable – almost painful.

I also have a tendency to go radio silent when things are at their worst.

I know I made the conscious (and again, extremely painful) effort to stay busy, to be social and to not stay home on my couch in the dark. I made the effort to answer the phone when friends called to check up on me, because they knew I was going through a tough time , and needed to talk (even though I really, really, REALLY didn’t want to talk to anyone), but I also know I wouldn’t have made it through without the support of my friends.

Even though things still suck monumentally right now, things won’t suck forever. I will get through this.

Because of them.

It’s the season of giving thanks, and to all of you who helped me make it this far, I love you and I am forever thankful.

Love Sun

Book Review – CRAZY BRAVE by Joy Harjo

Crazy Brave

I came across an article celebrating a female poet from Oklahoma winning a great poetry honor. She was from Tulsa, and I had read some of her poetry in a collection of Oklahoma poets, so her name was familiar. I read on and learned this award was the Academy of American Poets highest honor, the Wallace Stevens Award, for proven mastery in the art of poetry. How exciting! I knew right then I had to read this book.


Crazy BraveCRAZY BRAVE by Joy Harjo

Published by: W.W. Norton &

Release Date: July 9, 2012

Genres: Autobiography, Memoir, Poetry



Plot Summary:

In this transcendent memoir, grounded in tribal myth and ancestry, music and poetry, Joy Harjo, one of our leading Native American voices, details her journey to becoming a poet. Born in Oklahoma, the end place of the Trail of Tears, Harjo grew up learning to dodge an abusive stepfather by finding shelter in her imagination, a deep spiritual life, and connection with the natural world. She attended an Indian arts boarding school, where she nourished an appreciation for painting, music, and poetry; gave birth while still a teenager; and struggled on her own as a single mother, eventually finding her poetic voice. Narrating the complexities of betrayal and love, Crazy Brave is a memoir about family and the breaking apart necessary in finding a voice. Harjo’s tale of a hardscrabble youth, young adulthood, and transformation into an award-winning poet and musician is haunting, unique, and visionary. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)

The writing is nothing short of mystical. I connected with it as an artist right away, but in a way that was not easy to define. It all just made complete sense to me. Harjo was speaking my language. I was entranced by her story, and I weeped at the end when she found her way back to poetry.

I couldn’t stop crying. It may have had more to do with where I am in my life right now, but I was still very moved by her story.

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning :


East is the direction of beginnings. It is sunrise. When beloved Sun rises, it is an entrance, a door to fresh knowledge. Breathe the light in. Call upon the assistance you need for the day. Give thanks.

East is how the plants, animals, and other beings orient themselves for beginnings, to open and blossom. The spirit of the day emerges from the sunrise point. East is also the direction of Oklahoma, where I was born, the direction of the Creek Nation.


Once I was so small I could barely see over the top of the back seat of the black Cadillac my father bought with his Indian oil money. He polished and tuned his car daily. I wanted to see everything.

This was around the time I acquired language, when something happened that changed my relationship to the spin of the world. It changed even the way I looked at the sun.

This suspended integer of time probably escaped ordinary notice in my parents’ universe, which informed most of my vision in the ordinary world. They were still omnipresent gods.

We were driving somewhere in Tulsa, the northern border of the Creek Nation. I don’t know where we were going or where we had been, but I know the sun was boiling the asphalt, the car windows were open for any breeze as I stood on tiptoes on the floorboard behind my father, a handsome god who smelled of Old Spice, whose slick black hair was always impeccably groomed, his clothes perfectly creased and ironed. The radio was on. Even then I loved the radio, jukeboxes, or any magic thing containing music.

I wonder what signaled this moment, a loop of time that on first glance could be any place in time. I became acutely aware of the line the jazz trumpeter was playing (a sound I later associated with Miles Davis). I didn’t know the words jazz or trumpet. I don’t know how to say it, with what sounds or words, but in that confluence of hot southern afternoon, in the breeze of aftershave and humidity, I followed that sound to the beginning, to the birth of sound. I was suspended in whirling stars. I grieved my parents’ failings, my own life, which I saw stretching the length of that rhapsody.

My rite of passage into the world of humanity occurred then, through jazz. The music was a startling bridge between familiar and strange lands. I heard stomp-dance shells, singing. I saw suits, satin, fine hats. I heard workers singing in the fields. It was a way to speak beyond the confines of ordinary language.

Not the typical beginning for an autobiography, and yet, it was the perfect voice for Harjo’s life story. In between the storytelling, I found a brutally honest examination of a life, with no excuses, and a deeper understanding of humanity. And above all, a way through, with bravery.

Needless to say, this book has found a special place in my heart, and I know it will touch yours as well.


Learn more about Joy Harjo here.

Follow Joy on Facebook here.

Subscribe to Joy’s YouTube Channel here.


Fan That Spark OK SCBWI Fall Retreat – The Recap Part II




Day One of Our Fall Retreat for Oklahoma SCBWI last month had something for everyone, with specific tracks for novel, illustration, and picture book that allowed you to focus on your area of interest. Day Two found us in the capable hands of Linda Urban, children’s book author and mad genius when it comes to dissecting what makes a book work.


LindaUrbanLinda Urban – Linda writes picture books and middle grade novels from subjects as varied as an angry mouse expressing emotion (MOUSE WAS MAD), a red-headed boy searching for independence (LITTLE RED HENRY), a girl who dreams of playing pianos only to end up with a wheezy organ (A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT), and a girl who tries to fix a horrible mistake with a birthday wish (THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING). Urban’s characters are written with so much heart, yours will burst while reading about them.

The focus of her revision intensive for the day was on voice and point of view.   Of course, what is it that agents and editors always say they want in a story, and the one thing that everyone says is all but unteachable?


Linda showed us how making the right choice with point of view can affect the voice of your story. Some POV choices bring readers in closer, while some give more distance and offer more flexibility.

Not all YA books have to be in 1st person, and not all Middle Grades have to be in 3rd person. Surprising, I know. Making a more thoughtful choice for your story is essential to giving it the greatest impact.

One specific example Linda gave to show how these two ideas work together is to consider if your character changes the way they express themselves in a moment of crisis. If so, how does POV shape this expression?

Interesting question, right?

Linda teaching us about voice and POV.
Linda at our Fall Retreat teaching us all the good stuff.

Linda also talked about using mentor texts – examples of good writing to be studied and imitated – to help you learn rhythm and sentence structure. You can tear apart these stories and study them; figure out how they work. (Another reason to be reading!)

Here are some great examples she used:

1st Person POV

clementine_book1CLEMENTINE by Sara Pennypacker

In this first book of the series, Clementine tries to help out her friend Margaret, but ends up in a lot of trouble for it. Things get worse each day of the week, until finally she’s worried that Margaret is right: Clementine’s parents might consider her “the hard one” in the family. They’re up to something mysterious…are they thinking they’d be better off if they only had her little vegetable-named brother…”the easy one”?



book thiefTHE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak

It’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. . . .

Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.



vera with printzPLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ by A.S King 

Eighteen-year-old Vera’s spent her whole life secretly in love with her best friend, Charlie Kahn. And over the years she’s kept a lot of his secrets. Even after he betrayed her. Even after he ruined everything.

So when Charlie dies in dark circumstances, Vera knows a lot more than anyone—the kids at school, his family, or even the police. But will she emerge and clear his name? Does she even want to?


2nd Person POV

blink and cautionBLINK & CAUTION by Tim Wynne-Jones

Boy, did you get off on the wrong floor, Blink. All you wanted was to steal some breakfast for your empty belly, but instead you stumbled on a fake kidnapping and a cell phone dropped by an “abducted” CEO, giving you a link to his perfect blonde daughter. Now you’re on the run, but it’s OK as long as you are smart enough to stay in the game and keep Captain Panic locked in his hold.

Enter a girl named Caution. As in “Caution: Toxic.” As in “Caution: Watch Your Step.” She’s also on the run from a skeezy drug-dealer boyfriend and from a night- mare in her past that won’t let her go. When she spies Blink at the bus station, Caution can see he’s an easy mark. But there’s something about this naive, skinny street punk, whom she only wanted to rob, that tugs at her heart, a heart she thought deserved not to feel.


book-whenyoureachme_f2WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead

3rd Person POV

Mouse MotorcycleTHE MOUSE AND THE MOTORCYCLE by Beverly Cleary

In this imaginative adventure from Newbery Medal-winning author Beverly Cleary, a young mouse named Ralph is thrown into a world of excitement when a boy and his shiny toy motorcycle check into the Mountain View Inn.

When the ever-curious Ralph spots Keith’s red toy motorcycle, he vows to ride it. So when Keith leaves the bike unattended in his room one day, Ralph makes his move. But with all this freedom (and speed!) come a lot of obstacles. Whether dodging a rowdy terrier or keeping his nosy cousins away from his new wheels, Ralph has a lot going on! With a pal like Keith always looking out for him, there’s nothing this little mouse can’t handle.


KeeperKEEPER by Kathi Appelt

Keeper was born in the ocean, and she believes she is part mermaid. So as a ten-year-old she goes out looking for her mother—an unpredictable and uncommonly gorgeous woman who swam away when Keeper was three—and heads right for the ocean, right for the sandbar where mermaids are known to gather. But her boat is too small for the surf—and much too small for the storm that is brewing on the horizon.


harry-potter-and-the-philosophers-stoneThe Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling


Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy. He lives with his Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia and cousin Dudley, who are mean to him and make him sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. (Dudley, however, has two bedrooms, one to sleep in and one for all his toys and games.) Then Harry starts receiving mysterious letters and his life is changed forever. He is whisked away by a beetle-eyed giant of a man and enrolled at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The reason: Harry Potter is a wizard! The first book in the “Harry Potter” series makes the perfect introduction to the world of Hogwarts.


Omniscient POV

ManiacMagee500MANIAC MAGEE by Jerry Spinelli

Jeffrey Lionel “Maniac” Magee might have lived a normal life if a freak accident hadn’t made him an orphan. After living with his unhappy and uptight aunt and uncle for eight years, he decides to run–and not just run away, but run. This is where the myth of Maniac Magee begins, as he changes the lives of a racially divided small town with his amazing and legendary feats.


bk_realboyTHE REAL BOY by Anne Ursu

On an island on the edge of an immense sea there is a city, a forest, and a boy. The city is called Asteri, a perfect city that was saved by the magic woven into its walls from a devastating plague that swept through the world over a hundred years before. The forest is called the Barrow, a vast wood of ancient trees that encircles the city and feeds the earth with magic. And the boy is called Oscar, a shop boy for the most powerful magician in the Barrow. Oscar spends his days in a small room in the dark cellar of his master’s shop grinding herbs and dreaming of the wizards who once lived on the island generations ago. Oscar’s world is small, but he likes it that way. The real world is vast, strange, and unpredictable. And Oscar does not quite fit in it.


Feeling overwhelmed by all the choices? Here’s one final thing to consider:

“Part of deciding point-of-view is knowing the experience level of your readers.” – Linda Urban

I’ve barely brushed the surface of everything we learned. It was enlightening and educational, to say the least. If you get an opportunity to take in a workshop taught by Linda Urban, I highly recommend it.

Learn more about Linda by visiting her website:

Follow Linda on Twitter @lindaurbanbooks.




Fan That Spark OK SCBWI Fall Retreat – The Recap Part I



Our Fall Retreat for Oklahoma SCBWI last month had something for everyone, with specific tracks for novel, illustration, and picture book that allowed you to focus on your area of interest. The theme “Fan the Spark” encouraged all to turn those beginning creative sparks into fully developed stories.

I attended the Novel Track.

(I heard rave reviews from everyone I spoke with who attended both the Picture Book Track taught by Janee Trasler, and the Illustrator Track taught by Tim Jessell.)

The first speaker had a background in theatre arts and showed us how writers could learn from actors when developing their characters. She also stopped by this blog prior to the retreat to introduce herself. Click on this link to get a more detailed view into her background..

Ginny SainGinny Sain – with more than 20 years experience as a working director, choreographer, playwright, theatrical designer, performer , and theatre arts teacher, she has worked as an artist in residence teaching theatre arts workshops in Arkansas and Oklahoma schools as well as teaching and directing all classes, workshops, and productions for over 18 years with the very successful Stages Theatre for Youth program.

“Generality is the enemy of all art.” – Stanislavski

When creating your characters, you want to move from the general to the specific.


By paying attention to the inner lives and motivations of your characters in every scene. And this should be done FOR EVERY CHARACTER.

When an actor prepares for a new role, they get to know their character intimately – what motivates them, how they move about in space, what they like and don’t like – they slip into their character’s skin to portray them in a believable manner. The actor inhabits every inch of that character’s psyche. And they do this before they even step foot onto the stage.

This can feel like a daunting task. Impossible even.

So how do they do it?

They break down the play into moments – or beats – and figure out what’s driving their character’s behavior from moment to moment. Beats are manageable chunks even smaller than scenes. Some obvious beats include when a character enters or exits a scene or when there’s a shift in conversation, or when new information has been revealed. Once the beats are identified, the actors then decide what the character’s objective, obstacle, and action is for each beat.

Objective – What your character wants. Each character has one main “superobjective” that spans the entire work and many smaller objectives that lead toward the “superobjective”. The path a character takes as they move through these smaller objectives is called the “through line”. Each character should have an objective for every beat they are on stage. The objective should be active and directed toward the other characters.  Objectives seek to change things.

Example: “I want to get away from him and leave this room.”

Obstacle – What is keeping your character from getting what they want. Obstacles can be internal or external. Or both. This struggle is what makes the story interesting.

Example: “I can’t leave because he locked the door.”

Action – What your character does to overcome his or her obstacle. There are usually three possible outcomes: the character will give up, overcome the obstacle, or plow through and ignore it. How they react to obstacles shows what characters are made of – reactions reveal a lot about character.

Example: “I jump out the window.”

Focusing on what each character wants as you write each moment – which may be completely opposite/opposing things – can make for much more interesting writing.

Learn more about Ginny by visiting her website: HeARTsong Creative Center.


The next speaker was no stranger to our OK SCBWI group or to the previous speaker (being her mother). She gave a talk about how to write emotion into your story without crossing the line into sentimentality.

AnnaMyersphotoCAnna Myers – This award-winning Oklahoma author has published 20 books to much critical acclaim. She has won the Oklahoma Book Award four times for SPY!ASSASSINGRAVEYARD GIRL, and RED DIRT JESSIE. She was also awarded their lifetime achievement, the Arrell Gibson Award, in 2012. She writes historical and contemporary fiction for young readers. She also had her first picture book, TUMBLEWEED BABY, published in 2014. Most importantly, she was our Oklahoma SCBWI Regional Advisor and fearless leader for 14 years.

Anna’s talk focused on helping us see the difference between emotion and schmaltz, the Yiddish word for sentimentality or literally, chicken fat.

“Novels aren’t real life. They need to be sharper.”

Emotion needs to be stronger.

Yet, this doesn’t mean readers want to see characters spill their guts out when grieving. Crying is too easy.


It’s the struggle that’s most interesting. Readers want to see how characters deal with problems – this is where the emotional connection lies.

So, what can you do to show this?

Think of an action to show the emotion.

Anna gave the example of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. This was a devastating time for the entire country. And yet, the most moving image wasn’t of a widow grieving, it was of his young son saluting his casket.

Photo credit: Stan Stearns/UPI
Photo credit: Stan Stearns/UPI


This would not have been as touching if he’d been crying. This is utterly heart-breaking. We feel the loss so much stronger. (While researching, I also learned that this picture was taken on John Jr.’s birthday. Seriously. Where’s the kleenex?)

Of course, tears do have their place, but don’t rely on them, or any other bodily expression, as a crutch for showing your character’s emotion. Focus more on that action that expresses their sorrow.

Learn more about Anna by visiting her website:


The next speaker lead us through a visualization exercise to help us overcome blocks in our creative process.

Pati Hailey PicPati Hailey – Over her career, Pati has written state legislation, online training for large corporations, lesson plans for teachers, and literature for children and adults. She is a frequent speaker at conferences and schools. Pati’s articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines, including Cricket and Hopscotch. Her contribution to this series, TE ATA: Oklahoma Cultural Treasure, is her first published children’s book.

I always find these visualization exercises helpful and I always learn something surprising about my manuscript or my character. Pati walks us through a simple relaxation before taking us through the visualization exercise. During the visualization, we are to focus on a part of our manuscript that is giving us trouble and look at it from a different perspective, paying attention to surroundings in more detail, and thinking about our characters in different ways, even asking them specific questions.

These visualizations allow your brain to relax enough to use your subconscious and solve story problems. You can try these on your own, too. While writing, think about getting up every 30 minutes or so to give your subconscious time to work on any story problems you might have.

Follow Pati on Twitter @PatiHailey

Follow Pati on Facebook here.


After lunch, we had a First Pages Critique Panel



The wise Panel Members: Anna Myers, Tammi Sauer, and Sonia Gensler share their insights.
The wise Panel Members Anna Myers, Tammi Sauer, and Sonia Gensler share their insights. (Photo credit: Regina Garvie)


a Speaker Autograph Party

Autograph Party 1
Some of our fantastic speakers signing their books. (Photo credit: Regina Garvie)


and then dinner…

We took over the Rock Café in Stroud. (Photo credit: THE Jerry Bennet)
Many of our group took over the Rock Café in Stroud. (Photo credit: THE Jerry Bennet.)


…before the final event of the day.

The Inspirational Keynote from LINDA URBAN! YAY!!!

LindaUrbanLinda Urban – Linda writes picture books and middle grade novels from subjects as varied as an angry mouse expressing emotion (MOUSE WAS MAD), a red-headed boy searching for independence (LITTLE RED HENRY), a girl who dreams of playing pianos only to end up with a wheezy organ (A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT), and a girl who tries to fix a horrible mistake with a birthday wish (THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING). Urban’s characters are written with so much heart, yours will burst while reading about them.

Linda encouraged us to be open to inspiration and new ideas throughout the weekend.

She told us the story about when she first felt that spark, that joy from writing. She put her heart on the page and loved that feeling. Then one day the good feeling stopped. A boy called her writing weird, and said she was weird. She felt horrible and stopped writing for a long time.

When she came back to writing, it was a slow, painful process. Once she let herself find that spark again, that feeling of joy, she needed to define the “spine” of her work. “Why do I do it?”

For her, she wants to write about small things that matter to kids in a big way.

“All I need to be successful is to be true to my spine.”

What is YOUR spine?

Inspiration in spades!

Learn more about Linda by visiting her website:


Stay tuned for The Recap PART II to read all about what Linda Urban had to teach us during the revision intensive on Day Two!


2015 TBR Challenge – DIE FOR ME Review

Die for Me cover

2015tbrbuttonMy ninth review for the Official 2015 TBR Pile Challenge is DIE FOR ME by Amy Plum.

The goal of this challenge is “to finally read 12 books from your ‘to be read’ pile within twelve months”. To qualify for the challenge, books must be read and reviewed before the year is over, and all selections must have publishing dates from the year 2013 or older. (Here are the books I’ll be reading this year.)

What a fitting title for this time of year, eh? I won this book last year after participating in an online chat with the Colleen Houck Book Club on Goodreads. We talked with Amy Plum about the first book in her latest series, AFTER THE END. (It is also fantastic, and I highly recommend it, too.)

On to the review!


Die for Me coverDIE FOR ME (Revenants #1) by Amy Plum

Published by: Harper Teen

Release Date: May 10, 2011

Genres: YA, Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Paranormal

Plot Summary:

When Kate Mercier’s parents die in a tragic car accident, she leaves her life—and memories—behind to live with her grandparents in Paris. For Kate, the only way to survive her pain is escaping into the world of books and Parisian art. Until she meets Vincent.

Mysterious, charming, and devastatingly handsome, Vincent threatens to melt the ice around Kate’s guarded heart with just his smile. As she begins to fall in love with Vincent, Kate discovers that he’s a revenant—an undead being whose fate forces him to sacrifice himself over and over again to save the lives of others. Vincent and those like him are bound in a centuries-old war against a group of evil revenants who exist only to murder and betray. Kate soon realizes that if she follows her heart, she may never be safe again. (Plot summary from author’s website.)


When I first read the flap copy, I was a little hesitant because it sounded more like a run-of-the-mill romance. This is so not that! Besides there being so much more sword-fighting and ass-kicking of epic proportions going on, Kate is no damsel-in-distress. She is very much a girl making decisions about her life – good or bad. And the revenants are so fascinating! I love the detailed design of their world, how they crave to sacrifice themselves for someone, almost like an addiction or sickness, until it becomes overwhelming – so interesting. And let’s not forget the setting! Plum really brings it to life. While reading, you feel totally immersed in this gorgeous city.

Here’s a brief excerpt from the beginning to whet your appetite:

There’s nowhere I’d rather be than Paris in June. Even though I’ve spent every summer there since I was a baby, I never fail to get that “‘Paris buzz” as I walk down its summer streets. The light is different from anywhere else. As if pulled straight out of a fairy tale, the wand-waving brilliance makes you feel like absolutely anything could happen to you at any moment and you wouldn’t even be surprised.

But this time was different. Paris was the same as it had always been, but I had changed. Even the city’s sparkling, glowing air couldn’t penetrate the shroud of darkness that felt superglued to my skin. Paris is called the City of Light. Well, for me it had become the City of Night.

I spent the summer pretty much alone, falling quickly into a solitary routine: eat breakfast in Papy and Mamie’s dark, antique-filled apartment and spend the morning entrenched in one of the small dark Parisian cinemas that project classic films round-the-clock, of haunt one of my favorite museums. Then return home and read the rest of the day, eat dinner, and lie in bed staring at the ceiling, my occasional sleep jam-packed with nightmares. Get up. Repeat.

The only intrusions on my solitude were emails from my friends back home. “How’s life in France?” they all started.

What could I say? Depressing? Empty? I want my parents back? Instead I lied. I told them I was really happy living in Paris. That it was a good thing Georgia’s and my French was fluent because we were meeting so many people. That I couldn’t wait to start my new school.

My lies were meant to impress them. I knew they felt sorry for me, and I only wanted to reassure them that I was okay. But each time I pressed send and then read back over my email, I realized how vast the gulf was between my real life and the fictional one I created for them. And that made me even more depressed.

Finally I realized that I didn’t actually want to talk to anyone. One night I sat for fifteen minutes with my hands poised above the keyboard, searching for something even slightly positive to say to my friend Claudia. I clicked out of the message and, after taking a deep breath, completely deleted my email address from the internet. Gmail asked me if I was sure. “Oh, yeah,” I said as I clicked the red button. A huge burden lifted from my shoulders. After that I shoved my laptop into a drawer and didn’t open it again until school started.

Now that is disconnecting from the world. Sad to say, I’ve actually been in that headspace. Things take a very interesting turn for Kate very soon after this. No spoilers here. You need to pick up this book to find out what happens.

This was such an intense, fast-paced and heart-felt read. I tore through this first book and continued on through the rest of the series in less than a week. Such wonderfully developed characters and rich story lines, it was a wonderful world to get lost in for awhile. I just loved it.


Learn more about Amy Plum here.

Follow Amy on Twitter here.



Jennifer Mathieu and Julie Murphy – Joint Author Interview

Today I may have to cut down on the caffeine intake because I’m already buzzing enough with excitement over my two guests. Jennifer Mathieu and Julie Murphy both had extraordinary debut novels that made quite a splash in the world of contemporary YA fiction. (I seriously raced through them in record time. Loved loved LOVED!!!) And now, they are putting all of their fabulous talent together to host a workshop this February for Madcap Retreats. (Yes, THAT Madcap Retreats. The brainchild of Natalie C. Parker.)

One lucky reader will win $100 off this workshop! Stay tuned to enter!


Jennifer Mathieu PicAbout Jennifer

Jennifer Mathieu is an English teacher, writer, wife, and mom who writes books for and about young adults. Her favorite things include chocolate, pepperoni pizza, and the super hilarious 1980s sitcom The Golden Girls. She can basically quote every episode. Jennifer lives in Texas with her husband, son, one rescue dog, one fat cat, and another cat that is even fatter than the fat cat.

When it comes to what she reads, she loves realistic young adult fiction (obviously), creative nonfiction, super scandalous tell-all memoirs, and anything that hooks her attention on the first page. She is the author of THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE (2014) and DEVOTED (2015). Her debut novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE, won the 2015 Children’s Choice Book Awards’ Teen Choice Debut Author Award.


About JulieJulie+Murphy+Author+Photo+copy

Julie Murphy is a potty-mouthed Southern belle who was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, but found her home in Fort Worth, Texas. She’s never seen Star Wars, but has yet to meet a made for TV movie she didn’t love. When she’s not writing, Julie can be found cruising Costco for free samples, watching Sister Act 2, stalking drag queens on instagram, obsessing over the logistics of Mars One, and forever searching for the perfect slice of cheese pizza. She lives with her bearded husband, two vicious cats, and one pomeranian that can pass as a bear cub.

Her debut novel, SIDE EFFECT MAY VARY (2014) was a NYT Bestseller. Her second young adult novel, DUMPLIN’ (Sept 2015), received glowing reviews including two stars from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, and in less than a month after its release, hit #1 on the NYT best seller list for YA Hardcovers. The film rights for DUMPLIN’ have been optioned by Disney.


The Interview

Valerie Lawson: You both have written stunning debut novels, which received much critical acclaim. Tell us about life as a debut author. What was the most surprising experience? What lessons did you learn?

alice_finalJennifer Mathieu: To be honest, I’m still surprised that I wrote a book and it got published.  It took me seven years to publish my first novel. My first two manuscripts got very close but never sold. So I spent my debut year sort of in a haze that THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE was not only getting published but was getting a very warm reception. 

I’ve learned to approach this writing career with enormous gratitude. It’s my childhood dream come true. It’s so easy to get sucked into the worry cycle or the gossip of the industry. But the bottom line is that once my debut novel hit the shelves, I became a published author. Nothing can ever happen that can take that away from me.

Side Effect CoverJulie Murphy: First, thank you! I am that horrible type of person who believes they can handle anything no matter how many times and how many people have warned them that the road ahead is difficult. There were so many incredible highs, but there were also so many lows that I never believed I’d actually experience or thought I was more emotionally equipped to deal with. I’ve learned that no matter how sane you are, planning a wedding or large family function can turn you into a special kind of crazy. That’s how the debut year is. You’ll be yourself, yes, but it may not be a version of yourself you’ve ever met.

The good news is: you are not alone. You will make fast friends with fellow debuts, because no one else can relate to you like they can. I would have to say the friendships were the most surprising experience and I’d go through it all over again to for these women if I had to. I poured so much of myself into SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY that I felt like I had nothing left to give and that this was my one and only chance, because I would never be able to recreate this magic. But that’s not true. My second book just came out and I love it just as much. I’m working on my third and am contracted for a fourth. There will always be more books. Sometimes publishing them won’t be so easy, but you will write another book.


VL: Gratitiude, yes. And realizing you’re not alone sounds especially important. I love how supportive this writing community can be.

How was the process of writing different for you when you wrote your second novel?

devoted_cvr_revealJennifer: I will say writing my second novel, DEVOTED, was very difficult for me. I really had that classic experience you hear about where your debut is warmly received and you feel total paralysis with the second book. I ended up completely throwing out the first draft of DEVOTED and rewriting it from scratch. I was incredibly late on every deadline which is so not me. I cried multiple times. 

Fortunately, my amazing editor at Roaring Brook, Kate Jacobs, talked me through it and in the end, I’m so enormously proud of my second book. I stretched myself as a writer and I’ve had multiple readers tell me that they can see my growth as a writer in DEVOTED. That makes me feel so good.

CoverReveals_F15_DumplinJulie: I was totally blind when I wrote my debut. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong or what I was doing right. Because of my huge ego, I assumed that if it didn’t feel off, it must all be perfect. DUMPLIN’ was an eyes wide open experience.

I knew my flaws. I knew the mistakes I’d made in my first book. For me, that knowledge was almost crippling. I knew what a published book looked and felt like and nothing about those early drafts matched those expectations. I had to learn to forgive myself of those mistakes and explore the narrative.


VL: Throwing out an entire draft? How terrifying! 

Learning to forgive your mistakes and explore the narrative – love that. 

You are co-hosting an intriguing Madcap Retreat this February entitled “More Than a Beach Read”, how did you come to be a part of this project?

Actual location for upcoming Madcap Retreat event - workshop with authors Jennifer Mathieu and Julie Murphy.
Actual location for Madcap Retreat “More Than a Beach Read” with authors Jennifer Mathieu and Julie Murphy.

Jennifer: Well the lovely Julie Murphy approached me and told me about Natalie’s plan to create Madcap Retreats. I immediately wanted to be involved. I think there’s so much to be gained from working intimately on your art with other artists in a concentrated period of time. I’m a huge fan of Julie’s work and Natalie’s work, and I knew I just wanted to be a part of anything they were involved with.

Julie: Natalie Parker is my partner in crime in many ways and when she floated the idea by me, I said I’d think about it. When she said it would be on the beach, I couldn’t say no. I knew I wanted to do something voice and critique intensive, and I knew that would be a lot to carry on my own. When we began to discuss bringing another author on, Jennifer was my first and most obvious choice. I have so many writer friends that I love and respect, but our styles and approaches really click. We both love contemporary and have the same type of values when it comes to storytelling. Let the record show: if I dropped dead tomorrow, I would have faith in Jennifer to finish my work in progress.


VL: That is a stunning compliment, Julie! (Please don’t drop dead.) That does speak well to how you must compliment each other.

What can you tell us about the workshop? What special programming do you have in mind?

Jennifer: Julie and I have been working on the agenda and we are looking forward to having roundtable workshop-style critique sessions as well as one on one time with each writer. We’re also planning on bringing in guest authors to tackle different topics. Julie and I really aim to focus on voice and building your writer voice. Some say that voice can’t be taught. While I do believe most writers have an innate ability to craft some sort of voice, I believe there are techniques and strategies you can use to strengthen your ability to make your work really come alive.

Julie: We actually just finished the whole agenda! Jennifer did a great job answering this one, so I’ll just add that the attendees will spend their morning with us really focusing on voice and in the afternoons while Jennifer and I (yes, we’re both reading each attendee’s submission), and supporting faculty members will help paint a broader picture by discussing critique, revision, and plot. In the evenings we’ll also be doing casual but themed panels to discuss our dealings in publishing and the business aspect of all of this.


VL: That’s a wealth of knowledge crammed into five days. And so much focus on voice! Wonderful. I know several authors who’d jump at this opportunity. 

You both come from different occupational backgrounds – one an English teacher and one working with teens in public libraries – where you have worked intimately with young people. What has this experience added to your writing?

Jennifer: For me, the teaching feeds the writing. I mean, I basically get paid to do my research. I’m surrounded by the rhythm of adolescence on a daily basis, and it’s so energizing and inspiring. I hear snippets of teenage conversation all around me at all times. On a daily basis I’m reminded of the heartbreak and excitement associated with being a teenager. Of course, my plots are fictional, but my students certainly help me create what I hope are realistic characters.

Julie: Like Jennifer, working with teens hugely impacted my writing. I think it’s easy for young adult writers to romanticize the lives of teens, but seeing them every day, you are reminded of their limitations. The same limitations you most likely experienced as a teen, too. On the other hand, I was constantly reminded of how each generation is defying the boundaries set by those before them. I really miss working with my teens!

VL: Being surrounded by your inspiration. Excellent!

Your workshop focuses on enhancing character and voice in manuscripts. What can you tell us about your writing process that helps you bring these two elements to the forefront in your own work?

Jennifer: For me, the characters become real in my mind. I think about them all the time. I miss them when I’m done with the book and still think about them after the book comes out. For me, I believe crafting a character you almost believe actually exists out there is key to writing a memorable novel. 

For the first time ever I struggled with that when writing DEVOTED. I was writing a story about a young woman in a very insular and conservative religious sect. I’d done all this research on the sect and was just information dumping throughout the entire book, but the truth is, I didn’t know my main character Rachel at all. My editor was like, “Who is she really?” and I realized I didn’t know. 

That was such a terrifying experience because in my first novel (and in subsequent novels) my characters came into my mind fully-formed. I spent a full weekend fixating on Rachel, doing all these exercises like imagining what she kept in the drawer of her nightstand. Finally, she started to come alive for me and the book became much easier to write. I really do believe it all begins with character.

Julie: Voice and character are huge for me, and yet they never come first in my writing process. I never start with a detailed plot, but I always have the pitch and premise and from there is how my voice and character evolve. I usually like to hammer out setting as well since it’s such a huge contributing factor. I like dissecting the situation and deciding what type of person might exist inside the premise and setting.

But when it comes to actual writing, I can’t start anything in earnest until I have a fully formed character. That character and your voice are sort of like a lantern in a dark tunnel, especially in contemporary. You will get lost–and sometimes it’s even helpful to get a little lost–but as long as you’ve got that lantern, you will eventually find your way.

VL: Oh, that’s good!

So if you don’t know your character inside and out, maybe spend some time getting to know them better. Your story will thank you.

Tell us a little about your teen years growing up. What was the most embarrassing thing you experienced? What was the most memorable adventure you had with your friends?

Jennifer: Freud would have a field day with me. I hated high school so much and looking back I can see I was actually fairly depressed throughout my high school years. And here I am teaching high school and writing books for and about high school students. It must be some form of catharsis. There is no one singular embarrassing incident. I was embarrassed constantly, and most of it was over silly stuff I’m sure no one noticed. I ran with a very good girl crowd. I would say my most memorable adventure would be staying up all night at a sleepover and eating too much raw cookie dough. Honestly, that’s as crazy as it got for me.  

Maybe the most embarrassing thing for me happened after some girlfriends and I went to see that movie The Bodyguard starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner. They were all so moved by the film they were sobbing hysterically as they walked out of the movie theater and everyone was staring at us and I wanted to die. And all I could remember thinking was, “That was one of the stupidest movies I have ever seen.” I loved old black and white movies from the 50s and 60s like The Bad Seed and The Last Picture Show. I thought there was something wrong with me. I just hadn’t found my tribe yet, but eventually in college, I did.

Julie: Those were some wild years. I was a horrible student. You know those videos of cats knocking things off tables? That was me and rules. I carried myself with this false but impenetrable confidence, so even if embarrassing things happened, I played them off as jokes no matter how mortified I really was, so I can’t think of anything in particular.

But I really did have great friends who on very rare occasions I was even vulnerable with. We always went on great mini roadtrips or had ridiculous parties or even went to some amazing concerts, but what I remember most is just hanging out at home with my closest friends, rolling around on the floor laughing and creating inside jokes. We were all theater kids though, so we were constantly performing and cracking jokes.

VL: Ha! Fantastic stories.(I’m really partial to The Bodyguard one. I can so relate to feeling like that!)

What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?

Jennifer: Well I adored Julie Murphy’s DUMPLIN’ of course!  I remember her reading a few pages from it at a retreat she and I went on over a year ago now, and I was so excited for the book and I loved it even more than I thought I would. 

There’s another book I want to mention that I had the opportunity to blurb. I read an advance copy this year, but it won’t be out until March 2016. It’s called SAVE ME, KURT COBAIN and it’s by Jenny Manzer. She and I share the same wonderful agent, Kerry Sparks. I loved this book so very much.  It’s fresh and nostalgic all the same time. Gorgeous, lyrical writing and a plot that kept me guessing until the very end. I think she’s going to be a voice to watch.

Julie: Sadly, this has been such a dry reading year for me. I’ve bought so many books, but time hasn’t allowed for me to start most of them. (Here’s looking at you, DEVOTED!) However, I am listening to the audio of SIMON VS THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA and the voice is incredible! Simon is someone I would have been friends with in high school and that makes for an authentic reading experience if you ask me.

VL: More fab books to add to the TBR collection. Nice.

What can you tell us about what you are currently working on? 

Jennifer: I have my third book coming out with Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan on September 20, 2016 and I am having the most infuriating time coming up with a title. But I can tell you it’s told in dual POV and it’s about two teenagers, Ethan and Caroline, and how their lives are linked by a tragic crime. It’s about healing from trauma and finding a soul-saving friendship in the most unexpected place.

(Update: Julie has a title! Her 3rd book has been christened AFTERWARD, and it comes out 9/2016.)

Julie: Sort of. Kind of. Maybe. Ha! I’m working on my third novel, which is currently titled RAMONA DROWNING. It’s about a too tall lesbian who lives in a trailer park with her well-meaning dad and pregnant sister. All is sort of okay until Ramona realizes she’s falling for a friend, who happens to be a boy. It’s a story about sisters and friendship and sexuality and the labels we assign to ourselves. I’m still drafting, so I’m sure it will end up being about more things. My publisher is referring to it is a YA Chasing Amy, which seems like a fair assessment.

VL: Ohh! Both sound exciting! Can’t wait to read more from you ladies!

Thank you both for sharing with us, today. It has been an honor and a great pleasure having you here on the blog.


The Giveaway

To entice you further to try out Madcap Retreats, we are giving away $100 off the cost of Jennifer & Julie’s upcoming workshop, “More Than A Beach Read“!


ENTER HERE!!!  ➤➤➤  Madcap Retreat Rafflecopter giveaway

(If you really, really want to enter, but are Rafflecopter-shy, you can post a comment below – along with your email address – and I’ll manually add you to the giveaway.)

Congratulations to the winner, Elisa J! 


Learn more about Jennifer Mathieu here.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter here.

Follow Jennifer on Tumblr here.

Follow Jennifer on Instagram here.

Follow Jennifer on Facebook here.

Learn more about Julie Murphy here.

     Follow Julie on Twitter here.

     Follow Julie on Tumblr here.

     Follow Julie on Instagram here.

    Follow Julie on Facebook here.

Learn more about Madcap Retreats here.

Natalie C. Parker – The Art of Critique and Madcap Retreats – Author Interview

I met Natalie while attending her Critique Camp a few years ago. She really helped me learn how to dig deeper with my critiquing skills. I am now able to be more specific with my suggestions, and tie them in to direct examples from the manuscript instead of making vague statements like, “the pacing is too slow” or “I can’t identify with this character”.

Natalie’s suggestions for my own manuscript pages were insightful and direct. She really knows her stuff. And such a delight to work with!

This year, she was one of our first guests for SCBWI OK’s monthly Twitter chat, #okscbwichat. Natalie talked about the art of critique. She so was fantastic. (You can read the Storify version of that chat here.)

Before we get to the interview, let’s learn about Natalie’s debut novel:

Beware the WildBEWARE THE WILD written by Natalie C. Parker

Published by: Harper Teen

Release Date: October 21, 2014

Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy, Paranormal


Plot Summary:

It’s an oppressively hot and sticky morning in May when Sterling and her brother, Phin, have an argument that compels him to run into the town swamp — the one that strikes fear in all the residents of Sticks, Louisiana. Phin doesn’t return. Instead, a girl named Lenora May climbs out, and now Sterling is the only person in Sticks who remembers her brother ever existed.

Sterling needs to figure out what the swamp’s done with her beloved brother and how Lenora May is connected to his disappearance — and loner boy Heath Durham might be the only one who can help her. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

So fantastic! Natalie infuses her story with a thick layer of bayou atmosphere and local folklore that sets a fantastic stage for this eerie tale. It took me no time at all to care for Sterling, the main character, and I never got tired of the language. Such a fantastic read from beginning to end. I couldn’t put it down.

The Interview

NCP1hires_crop-195x300Valerie Lawson: You provide many fantastic services for your fellow writers – Critique Camp, Agented Author Hookups, and your latest project, Madcap Retreats – what inspired you to take on these projects? What can you tell us about them?

Natalie Parker: The writing community has been so supportive of my journey that anytime I find a way to give something back, I try to make it happen. That’s how each of the services you listed above came to be — I saw a need and decided I could do something about it.

We are told over and over again to find critique partners, but figuring out how to be a critique partner is a skill that can take years to develop. Critique Camp is a 2-week online course meant to help writers hone their analytical skills.

The Agented Author Hook-up is just that. I have a public application form for writers who are in that weird in-between space of having an agent and no sales. It’s a truly strange time in a writer’s life. When I have 10(ish) names, I connect a group and send them off to form a new, small, supportive community.

Ah, and Madcap Retreats. Well, frankly, I love writing retreats and my career would not have advanced quite as quickly without them. So much of the writing process is and needs to be solitary, but we also need places were we can come together and pool our wisdom about both the craft and the business. That’s what I’m doing with Madcap — creating space for writers to meet, network, and grow.

VL: I honestly wouldn’t have thought about an awkward growing stage. Who would, really, until you’re in it? We’re all so focused on getting to that agented level. So wonderful that you did. 

Putting together a writing retreat sounds like a monumental 

Actual location for upcoming Madcap Retreat event - workshop with authors Jennifer Mathieu and Julie Murphy.
Actual location for upcoming Madcap Retreat  – workshop with authors Jennifer Mathieu and Julie Murphy, “More Than a Beach Read”.

undertaking, where do you start?

NP: I start with the goal of the retreat. If it’s going to be loosely structure (mostly free writing time with a few group activities), then I go for a house with a beautiful view; if it’s going to be highly structure (mostly content-driven activities with a little free time), then I go for maximum comfort in the working spaces.

VL: That’s really smart. You’ll get the most productivity and enjoyment out of your environment either way.

Tell us about the road that led to your working with social scientists studying climate change. How do you balance this work with your writing? Has this career impacted your work as an author?

NP: That was sort of an accident…. I was restless in my job and cruising through openings at my same institution. The climate change job wasn’t advertised as such, but as a research administration position. When I interviewed for it and heard the kind of work they’d be doing, I knew I was in the right place.

Balancing that kind of career with a writing career has been difficult. The thing that’s been the hardest to learn is that one of them has to move more slowly and for all the usual reasons, that’s the writing for me. But I love all of my work and I want to love all of my work so slow is okay with me.

VL: Dealing with the slow pace of the publishing world is always challenging. It’s good that you’ve been able to accept that element.

Your first book, BEWARE THE WILD, was so delightfully creepy. I loved the spooky atmosphere the rural Louisiana setting provided, and the tale of vanishing and forgotten loved ones kept me up late reading to the end. What was the scariest thing that you ever experienced as a kid? Were you ever afraid of the dark, of anything under your bed or in your closet?

NP: I loved being afraid as a kid. But I think the scariest thing I every experienced was the movie Little Shop of Horrors. *shudders* It’s still deeply unsettling to me.

VL: That’s surprising. Some wouldn’t consider that a very scary movie. For me, I was traumatized by the movie version of Oliver! Some scene where he almost died? Really stuck with me when I was twelve. Guess it’s all about perspective.

Coming from a military family, you must have lived in many different places. Talk about the most interesting place you have ever lived. What did you like/hate most about it?

NP: We didn’t move as much as many military families. I was in Virginia for 12 years as a kid. Then, one day my mother made sushi and asked me how I’d feel about moving to Japan.

“Not great,” I answered, thinking surely she was just musing about the food.

“Well,” she said, and she said it very carefully. “Well, we are moving to Japan.”

So, the thing I hated most about it was moving there my freshman year of high school. But it’s where I met my best friend and partner, so I really can’t complain.

Also, once I got there, I loved EVERYTHING about it.


(Translation: I love Japan!)

VL: Ha! That would be quite a culture shock! So wonderful that you were able to embrace it.

Tell us a little about your teen years growing up. Like what was the worst job you ever had? Or what was the most embarrassing thing you experienced? Or what was the most memorable adventure you had with your friends?

NP: I should preface any stories I tell about my teen years with this: I am both a Sagittarius and a Gryffindor and I do not always make the safest choices.

But here is one.

Once, I was backpacking through Europe with my best friend and we were young college kids with no money. We were in Greece and we needed to get to Italy and to accomplish this feat required money. So we pooled our shrinking handful of coins and found a ship that would take us across the Adriatic Sea if we agreed to sleep on the deck out in the elements where the wind might sweep us overboard without anyone the wiser and we would be adopted by mermaids and never seen again…..

So, of course we did.

VL: OMG! I love that! Such great story fodder, and all because you just took a wild chance. 

What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?

NP: I’m sort of ridiculous about Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie. It’s gorgeous, complicated, genderqueer science fiction and I cannot WAIT to read the other two.

VL: I absolutely loved your debut novel, BEWARE THE WILD. Tell us Behold the Bones coverabout your latest book, BEHOLD THE BONES, the second book in the series. How does it differ from your first book?

Ah! Well, BEHOLD is a companion and switches narrators from Sterling to her best friend Candy who has an incredibly low tolerance for anything that looks even remotely like hogwash, so when ghosts appear in Sticks and everyone can see them except for her, she’s both frustrated beyond belief and determined to get to the bottom of things. It’s very much in conversation with BEWARE, but with a bit more bite.

VL: Ooh! Skeptic gets mixed up in the supernatural. And more bite? Yes, please!

What can you tell us about what you are currently working on? 

NP: Mostly Madcap Retreats. And I’ve just sold an anthology called Triangles: The Points of Love which will include 15 new stories from YA authors all featuring some variation/ complication/ exploration of the love triangle trope. All the juicy details are at this link ;)

As for novels, I’m working on two young adult novels — one that deals with greek myth in the contemporary world, and one that’s set in my home stomping grounds of Gulfport, Mississippi.

VL: That all sounds exciting. I love a good anthology! And look at all of those great names! Should be interesting to see their different takes on the topic. 

Thanks so much for sharing with us, today. I look forward to your next book, and to spending some time at a Madcap Retreat in the future!

Learn more about Natalie C. Parker here.

Follow Natalie on Twitter here.

Follow Natalie on Tumblr here.

Learn more about Madcap Retreats here.