Thursday, July 2, 2015

Writing Advice from Inside a Dog

Last March, I guest-blogged for the State Library of Victoria, Australia's groovy blog for YA readers: Over the course of the month I wrote eight posts about writing. Enough time has passed that I should repost them here, with links to the original. Enjoy!

Where in the World is Julie Berry? 
"Why do we do this? Do you have the same crazy appetite that I do to chuck three-dimensional, ultra high-definition reality for the hazy murk of a fictive world? To disappear like a drop of ink soaking into paper into an altogether imagined place? ... Writing is just as immersive as reading. it's the same kind of deep dive, the same thrill, the same high. Only with a lot more grumbling, and revision, and deadlines."

Creating from Chaos
“As far as I can tell, creativity springs from chaos. The universe swirled into being via a colossally explosive mess. Life begets life in a similarly messy way. The artists and writers I know can’t always find their calendars or their keys, but something loud and messy is generally brewing inside.” 

“I’m going to die in here.” Loraine didn’t realize she was thinking out loud.

“I had so many more meals I wanted to eat,” said Phil. “Sandwich meat to steal. Who knows? Maybe, someday, start a family.”
Loraine gasped. A guy who valued the simple things...

This little piggy went to market. This little piggy stayed home ... 

"Revision, people seem to think, is the Dark Side of writing, the necessary evil, the cross to bear. Making a story could be fun, they concede, but fixing it is like surgery without anesthesia."

“When I was a kid in school, I hated group projects. I begged my way out of them whenever possible. “I’ll do twice the work,” I would plead. “Three times. Four. Only don’t make me collaborate, pleeeeeeze!” The truth was, I was a bossy little snobby-pants who didn’t like compromising. I didn’t want somebody else to miss a deadline and lower my grade. Bottom line: I didn’t play nicely with others.”

“The impulse to protect the character is strong, and not just for beginning writers. I thought I was immune to it. In all my classes, I preach the gospel of suffering. But in the book I’ve been working on most recently, it took me about four passes through to succumb to all the hard things I needed to do to one particular character. Some part of me knew it, all along, but I wouldn’t admit it.”

“You must know your characters as fully as you can, in order to bring them to life on the page. The overarching lesson about knowing is context.  To know someone, we must know where they’re coming from, and what they’re coming from. Not just Bosnia, but a refugee camp. Not just the suburbs, but a dysfunctional, abusive home there. Not just Manhattan, but a penthouse suite, with maids and chauffeurs. Not just high school, but a military school where you’re tormented for being gay.”

Sunday, February 22, 2015

On rest, on sleep, on Sabbath love

When I was a young (so very young!) bride-to-be, the women at my church threw me a bridal shower. Among the dishes, towels, and utensils I received from this coven of kind and knowing women was a gift that did not seem to fit--a slim, beige volume of poetry: Sabbaths by Wendell Berry, published in 1987 by North Point Press, San Francisco. The friend who gave the gift was undoubtedly making a little joke about what my name would be when I married Phil Berry. I confess that at the time I didn't appreciate this gift fully; we were poor college students, grateful for every spoon. I'd never heard of Wendell Berry. To be sure, I loved "literature," whatever that meant to me then, but my first glance through the book didn't grab me, and I had impending marriage on the brain, agitating and addling it.

This week I will celebrate my twentieth wedding anniversary. The towels have frayed, and the dishes broken, but two marriage gifts have remained with me: this little volume, and Phil himself. Time has polished and elevated them both in my estimation. Here's Athena the Cat with my original book.

Marriage and maturity both settle down with time, like the moldering leaves in Wendell Berry's Kentucky woods. Neither can stay in the flighty, angsty, hormone-crazed place in which they begin. They settle in time into a Sabbath peace. I needed to grow up into these poems, just as I have grown up into life with Phil. I never was an adult without him; perhaps we haven't become adults yet. Just tired adolescents with adolescents of our own.

When I reach for Wendell Berry, it is usually on a Sunday, when I search, so often in vain, to infuse a bit of Sabbath rest into my sabbath. Mr. Berry the poet spent seven years embarking on a similar search. From 1979 to 1985, he spent Sabbaths in solitary reflection in the woods and fields near his home in Kentucky. From his meditations came this book of poetry. It's out of print now, replaced with an updated and expanded book called This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (2014, Counterpoint). His Sabbath musings and writings have become a lifelong labor of love, and how lucky we are for it. I shall treat myself to the new edition as an anniversary present for me. (I could give it, ahem, to Phil, but he might as well buy a chainsaw for me. We are neither of us fooled by such tricks at this point.)

There are several poems I'd love to share here, but to preserve Mr. Wendell Berry's copyright, and to entice you to lay hands upon this collection if you can, I will content myself with a few teasing snippets. Oh, but they're a butchery; each piece demands its whole.

On Sabbath rest, from the end of poem II, 1979:

The mind that comes to rest is tended
In ways that it cannot intend:
Is borne, preserved, and comprehended
By what it cannot comprehend.

Your Sabbath, Lord, thus keeps us by
Your will, not ours. And it is fit
Our only choice should be to die
Into that rest, or out of it. 

These two stanzas are all the sermon I will ever need.

Here's all of poem X of the same year, a poem that speaks as much to farm work as to the work of art, and to the work of building a life, a love, a family:

Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat. 

And yet no leaf or grain is filled 
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we're asleep.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good. 

All we've ever grown, or built, written, performed, or birthed is contained in this graceful piece. Phil and I have learned to work well together.

Finally, tucked away in 1982 is poem VIII, "To Tanya," a poem on the occasion of their twenty-fifth anniversary. Some excerpts here:

Our household for the time made right,
All right around us on the hill
For time and for this time, tonight,
Two kernels folded in one shell,

We're joined in sleep beyond desire 
To one another and to time,
Whatever time will take or spare ...

... In faith no better sighted yet
Than when we plighted first by hope,
By vows more solemn than we thought,
Ourselves to this combining sleep

A quarter century ago,
Lives given to each other and
To time, to lives we did not know
Already given, heart and hand.

Would I come to this time this way
Again, now that I know, confess
So much, knowing I cannot say
More now than then what will be? Yes. 

This week I must leave Phil on a business trip, and though I travel often, I'll be a piece demanding its whole. Sabbaths are more than a day in the cycle of seven to rest, though that itself is more than a gift. A sabbath is a place, a time, a space, a person in which we find our heart's rest. To live, to die, to sleep, to rise into the rest I find with Phil has been and will forever be my wedding gift.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Los Angeles, France, Scandalous Sisterhood, oh my!

Here’s an overdue bulletin of all that’s been happening with me lately (and why I’ve been so behind in my blogging!).
1.     This year we managed an epic cross-country move from suburban Boston to suburban Los Angeles. And all in a relatively short time, too, from final decision to final arrival. It’s been a somewhat harrowing adventure, including home renovations, yard sales, getting rid of tons of stuff, packing, unloading vehicles, buying new vehicles, flying family plus cats across America, arriving, unloading our PackRat container (little ad here: if you need container storage/moving, THESE are the ones to use, I promise), buying loads of IKEA furniture, and gradually settling in to our new lives in sunny LA. There’s a lot I miss about the Northeast, especially during the fall, but we’re making new friends and having grand adventures in California, so all is well. And, fortunately for me, book promotion means I get to travel a lot and visit all my old haunts, so I don’t feel cut off from my old life.
 All theTruth That’s in Me came out in paperback this year, sporting a fetching new cover.  It’s had a great year, shortlisting for the UK’s Carnegie Medal (and winning the Shadower’s Favorite honor, which is sort of a reader’s choice award for the thousands of teen Carnegie participants, or “shadowers”), and winning Australia’s Silver Inky prize for the top YA novel written by a non-Australian. Very exciting.
  3.       This year I researched and wrote a new novel, a YA to be published by Viking, and currently set for a fall 2015 release. It’s set in 13th Century Southern France, and I got to take a marvelous research trip to Toulouse with my sister Joanna this past spring.
With the gargoyles (Obviously!) at La Musee des Augustins, Toulouse

Carcassonne just before twilight

Julie with coquelicot
I’d always dreamed of visiting France and getting to use my high school French. To my great surprise, there was still a fair amount of it rattling around in my head after 20 years, and much of what I’d forgotten came back to me. This book, as yet untitled, tells the story of a medieval mystic girl who runs afoul of the inquisition period that follows the Albigensian Crusade, and her unlikely friendship with an earthy peasant girl who runs a tavern and plays local matchmaker. This has been a wonderful book to research and write, yet also a very challenging project, because I had so much to learn about this time period. I still do. The book is in the revision stages now, and I’m still reading new books and re-reading the ones I’ve read already, to try to understand all that I can about the context of this fascinating world.
4.       This fall I launched a new title, The Scandalous Sisterhood of PrickwillowPlace, published by Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of Macmillan. This farcical Victorian murder mystery will be published in the UK by Piccadilly Press, as well as in Germany, Brazil, and Japan. I’ll do another post about it soon, and about all the traveling I’ve been doing to promote it, but for now, here’s a glimpse at the animated book trailer:

My blogging may have lagged, but life’s gone on at a breakneck pace. I have so much to be thankful for – above all, my family, safe, healthy, and happy on average. : I look forward to wrapping up revisions, turning them in, being lazy through the holidays, and developing new projects in 2015. Happy fall to you! 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Create Bravely: Thoughts on the 2014 NESCBWI Conference

Last weekend was the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference in Springfield, MA. I attended on Friday and Saturday, and gave a presentation Saturday afternoon with my editor from Viking Children's Books, Kendra Levin.

I attended my first such conference in 2006 in Nashua, NH. Since then the conference has outgrown one venue after another. I remember that first conference vividly. I had signed up for a critique for the first ten pages of the very first novel I ever wrote, which I called The Wassergeist. It means "the water ghost" or "water spirit," or so my German friend assured me. He may have been pulling my leg. The editor who critiqued the manuscript didn't whip out her checkbook on the spot, but she had encouraging things to say (as well as critical things), and said she'd be interested in seeing it again. I left flying high.

At that same conference, I listened to a joint presentation by an author, Kimberly Newton Fusco, and her editor from Knopf. They described the process of working together on Kimberly's debut, Tending to GraceIf I remember correctly, they had met at a NESCBWI conference via a manuscript critique. I was completely starstruck in such proximity to an actual author and her actual editor. I promised myself that someday I'd be where they were.

But attending these large conferences as a first-timer is daunting, and I imagine it's all the more so today. The sheer size of the group was overwhelming. If so many hundreds of writers were committed enough to shell the money and attend such a conference, how could I hope to make an impression in the industry? They were shiny, their hair was neat, they smelled pretty. Surely their lives and their prose were correspondingly superior. Were they my competitors? I didn't know a soul, but they all seemed to know each other, and to know so much more than I did.

Linda Sue Park was the keynote speaker that year. She said many wise and wonderful things, but the one that has stuck with me to this day was, "Just try it." When readers and critiquers suggest a revision strategy, don't resist it, just try it. You never know. If you don't like it, flush it, but try it. It takes no more energy to try it than it does to resist it.

I did one smart thing that first year, which was putting my name on the list of volunteers to help out the following year. It seemed like a good way to get to know people and learn more about the organization. For the next several years I was an active member of the conference planning committee.

At the next year's conference I returned with a few things. 1. A submission to the First Pages Panel. 2. A new novel in the works. 3. A warm rejection letter in hand from the editor I'd heard speak the year before. 4. A volunteer's badge, and now, many familiar faces. This time, my critique was unremarkable. The editor wrinkled her nose and said she didn't "do" fantasy. But an agent on the First Pages Panel said very nice things about my first page, so I ambushed her in the hallway. That was my agent, Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group, and that first page was the start of All the Truth That's in MeThe novel I critiqued was the opening to The Amaranth Enchantment

This weekend, when I arrived at the Springfield Sheraton, there was none of that first-time bewilderment or loneliness. An onlooker might have suspected a family reunion, albeit a huge one, for a family that wears name badges and euthanizes most of its males. Hang around this writerly community long enough, and true friendships form. Over the years, many NESCBWI members have gone from cheery acquaintances, to writerly colleagues, to critiquing and writing retreat partners, to close friends, whose lives and homes and families I know, and they know mine. Others testified this would happen at that 2006 conference, but I didn't fully believe it.

The workshop Kendra and I presented Saturday was titled, "Write What You Don't Know: A Workshop on Fleeing Your Comfort Zone." We had 140 people in the room, and it was marvelous. You might say it was another slant on Linda Sue's "Just try it" advice. Once again I was amazed by the size of the group, the energy, the willingness to learn, and the commitment level. With each writing prompt and exercise we assigned, the group fell into a reverent hush. The only sounds were scratching pens and typing fingers. The creative energy in the room so thick you could smell it. I felt embarrassingly, goopily, maternally proud of everyone there, and wanted to echo Jo Knowles's sentiments from her lunchtime remarks, accepting the Crystal Kite Award: "Don't give up. I believe in you."

Though I stand in a different place now, I'm still in awe of SCBWI, and specifically the New England chapter, for how it fosters creative drive, industry professionalism, and a profound sense of belonging to something both personally fulfilling, and much larger than any one of us alone: the crazy tribe of devoted souls supplying our generation's children with stories.

Colossal kudos and thanks to this year's organizers, and to those brave enough to pick up the torch for future years. I wouldn't be where I am today without SCBWI, and I expect to remain part of it for life.

*** Postscript:

I promised I would post the three titles we used as resources in our slides. They are:

Fiction Writer's Workshop, by Josip Novakovich, 2008, Writers' Digest Books, Cincinnati.
Creating Fiction, edited by Julie Checkoway, 1999, Story Press, Cincinnati

The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner, 1983, Vintage Books, New York

Monday, December 23, 2013

Books I’m gifting to kids on my list this year

These books were gifts for nieces and nephews, ranging from 3-12, and I’ve already given them, so there’s no harm now in me sharing my choices here. Last-minute shoppers, if you’re hitting your bookstore and looking for ideas for great reads, you might want to look for these. (And what, I ask, is the purpose of school vacation, if not to read read read?) 

Use the links under each title to see if your nearby indie has them in stock. If not, you can order them. 

Picture books

Monstergarten by Daniel Mahoney, illustrated by Jef Kaminsky. Adorably funny and monstery. 
Petey and Pru and the Hullabaloo by A. J. Paquette, illustrated by Joy Ang. My kids (who are much older than the neices & nephews I gave this to) adored this book and read it over and over before wrapping it. A delightful, playful use of big, juicy words, and a great choice for a brother with a sister or a sister with a brother. 
Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown. How can I not gift a book about stripping one's clothes and roaring a bit? 
Big Mean Mike by Michelle Knudsen, illustrated by Scott Magoon. Really, really funny, and surprisingly fluffy, in the best of ways. Loved this. 
Please Bring Balloons by Lindsay Ward. I was delighted to find this beautiful, nostalgic, magical story, with such exquisite illustration. I'll be gifting this again. 
Very Hairy Bear by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Matt Phelan. Confession: I bought this book because I love Matt Phelan, but Alice Schertle's text is delightful. A winning combination. 
Library Lion, also by Michelle Knudsen, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. Every child on my list gets a copy of this classic, and because I often forget when I've given this book or not, they often end up with two. 
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. I always like to gift Keats, and if they're too young for John, we start them on Ezra Jack. Another classic every library needs. 


Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein. I fear I'm going to have to buy myself another because I didn't have time to read this. 
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan. For more on how I love this book, visit this other blog post. This title was named Amazon's #1 Middle Grade title for 2013, and you should keep an eye on it come Newbery announcement time. 
The Real Boy by Anne Ursu. I'm hearing such good things about this title; may have to buy myself another one of these as well. 

The Nine Lives of Alexander Baddenfield by John Bemelmans Marciano, illustrated by Sophie Blackall. I own a copy that I haven't read yet, but the dark humor looks delicious. A perfect nephew book. 

If you gift them, read them first! Enjoy. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Seven Superfluous Reasons to wrap All the Truth That’s in Me up with ribbon for someone you love

1. It’s shiny.

2. The cover has Christmas colors.

3. Mistletoe is romantic. So is the book. 

4. Sprinkle it with seeds and water, and it becomes a ChiaBook.

5. Before you wrap it, you can read it. She’ll never know unless you spill nacho crumbs.

6. It helps digest Christmas dinner. Flop on the couch with book and Tums.

7. “Crumbs” rhymes with “Tums.”

If you tweet a photo of your new book (at the store! coming out of the package!) and tell where you got it, I will mail you a signed bookplate, possibly smeared with salsa con queso.

 ¡Feliz Navidad! And happy shopping. Don’t forget to love your indie store.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Blog hop: Sarah Albee > Julie Berry > Carol Lynch Williams, Sara B. Larson, & Cal Armistead

A few years ago I attended Kate Messner’s Swinger of Birches writing retreat on Lake Champlain for the first time. Many authors I met there have become writer pals for life. One who leaped out at me (figuratively! Ahem.) was Sarah Albee. Smart, funny, clever, talented, and kind could describe every writer there, but there was something so cool about Sarah. (Don’t you want to hang out with the author of Poop Happened? I do!) She’s a rockstar writer, a jock, a scholar, a fascinating blogger, a living Pantene commercial (check her gorgeous hair), she worked for Sesame Street, and, for kicks, she knows *everyone.* I mean everyone. She’s dined with diplomats and celebrated with celebrities. She puts Kevin Bacon to shame. Next to her, I grew up under a rock. But she didn’t mind meeting maggoty me. I’ve been so slow in joining her blog hop that I’m, perhaps, a blog flop, but here goes.
Sarah Albee is the author of dozens of books for children, across ages, genres, and even names – she writes under several pseudonyms. (Learn why here.) She writes fiction and nonfiction, and she even gets to write about celebrities (told you she knows everyone) like Elmo, Dora the Explorer, Diego, and SpongeBob. Her nonfiction works, including Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up (Walker Books, 2010) and her forthcoming Bugged: How Insects Changed History (Walker Books, April 2014), ingeniously blend insightful social history into deliciously disgusting subject matter. Don’t let the comics fool you; Sarah is a rigorous and incisive historian. Check her blog for thrice-weekly doses of the same magic.
Find Sarah elsewhere online: Twitter, Facebook.
Thanks, Sarah, for inviting me!
The rules of this blog hop are that I now need to answer Sarah’s four questions, then pass the baton onto three more writers I love, whom you should get to know. Here goes.
Sarah: What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a new YA for Viking, set in medieval France. It’s got passionate romance, arranged marriage, burning heretics, vengeful clerics, a mystic, a matchmaker, a fortune teller, and a cat. There should always be a pet. I’m also finishing copyedits for my upcoming middle grade called TheScandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place (fall 2014, Roaring Brook).
Sarah: How does your WIP differ from other works in the genre?
The particular chapter in history on which my YA (currently nicknamed Mystique) is based is one that hasn’t been written about much in young adult literature, or, for that matter, adult literature. I’m excited about that aspect of it. But also, I believe the format and voice I’m attempting to use will be, yuk yuk, rather novel.
Sarah: Why do you write what you do?
Mainly because I love to. I feel fortunate in my work in that respect. I get to write the sorts of books I’d like to read. I especially love the research involved. I think I would have enjoyed an academic career. Writing allows me to delve into, learn about, and research any topic that interests me, put my findings to creative use, and then, when I’m done, move on to another interest, possibly one entirely different.

Sarah: What is the hardest part about writing?
Finding time to do it can be really hard. I have four sons, a house to neglect, and an otherwise busy life. I also spend a great deal of time visiting schools, traveling, and speaking at conferences and writing events. Those things can become consuming. Creative inspiration is a fickle thing, too. While I’m a firm believer in writing regularly and not waiting for one’s muse to show up, I do admit that the spark that brings writing to life can be elusive. The challenge is to press on anyway.
Enough about me. It’s time to meet three fantastic authors I adore!

Carol Lynch Williams and I met at Vermont College of the Fine Arts in the same incoming class group, and we bonded instantly. She’s raw, real, and hilarious, combining the kindest heart with an uncensored wit. She calls it like she sees it, which I love. She’s prolific, and more importantly, she’s good. Good good. A masterful storyteller with a pitch-perfect ear for honesty in voice.

Carol Lynch Williams is the mother of five daughters and the wicked step-mother to more than 30 books for middle grade and young adult readers. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Adolescents from Vermont College, teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University and runs Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers (, in its 14th year. Her novels include THE CHOSEN ONE, MILES FROM ORDINARY, GLIMPSE and WAITING with four titles forthcoming in 2014: THE HAVEN, SIGNED SKYE HARPER and two titles in the Just in Time series written with coauthor Cheri Pray Earl. You can read about Carol and her newest book sale on her blog You can also find her on Twitter.

After my first novel, The Amaranth Enchantment, released, I met a pair of bloggers from Utah who wrote to me enthusiastically about it. I traveled to Salt Lake City to do a signing, and Stacey Ratliff and Sara Larson joined me there. We’ve stayed in touch ever since – in fact we now have a traditional dinner date every time I come into town. It’s thrilling to see Sara Larson now on the brink of releasing her first novel with Scholastic, DEFY.

Sara B. Larson can’t remember a time when she didn’t write books, although she now uses a computer instead of a Little Mermaid notebook. Sara lives in Utah with her husband and their three children. She writes during naptime and the quiet hours when most people are sleeping. Her husband claims she should have a degree in “the art of multitasking.” On occasion you will find her hiding in a bubble bath with a book and some Swedish Fish.

Sara is represented by Josh Adams, of Adams Literary. Her debut YA fantasy novel, DEFY, will be published by Scholastic in January of 2014.

Find Sara online:  Twitter, Facebook.

[Back to Julie] One of my favorite local bookstores is Willow Books in Acton, MA. They take such good care of me there and always have plenty of my signed books in stock. I remember meeting Cal Armistead years ago there, and her telling me she was shopping for an agent. Then she had one. Then she’d sold Being Henry David. Then it was in stores, and earning glowing reviews. It couldn’t happen to a nicer person. Here’s Cal:

Cal Armistead has been a writer since age 9, when she submitted her first book, The Poor Macaroni Named Joany to a publisher. Sadly, this literary gem did not make it to print. But Cal continued pursuing her lifelong passion, and wrote copiously for radio, newspapers and magazines (Cal has been published in The Chicago Tribune, Shape Magazine, Body & Soul Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, Chicken Soup for Every Mom’s Soul and others). Although it took years for Cal to try her hand again at fiction writing, her first young adult novel (Being Henry David) was published by Albert Whitman & Co. on March 1, 2013. Cal holds an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine, works at an independent book store, is a voice-over actress, sings semi-professionally, and lives in a Boston suburb with her amazing husband and a dog named Layla.

Find Cal on Twitter and Facebook.

Check out these brilliant authors and their brilliant books. Thanks again, Sarah!