Monthly Archives: April 2013

The alphabet and anxiety

Today’s myth: elementary school kids don’t worry. More accurately stated: they have no real problems to worry about. They just slog across the snowy playground in boots thinking about how to escape carrots at dinner and negotiate extra TV time.

In my books, kids worry. They worry about grades, about their parents’ problems, about their friends’ problems, about their electricity being cut off, about whether their moms might start drinking again.

In my life, my child worries. My eight-year-old wants to know what will happen to Nana when she dies. She wants to know who started the divorce. Mom? Dad? She wonders if kids in war zones can drink milk. She’s scared her friends in Mankato will forget about her. She wonders if her older, pregnant sister will stop playing with her once the baby is born. She’s sad she doesn’t see her stepbrother, who lives in Seattle. She wants to know why that guy shot Martin Luther King and will someone shoot President Obama?

Her friend worries about her brother, who’s a cancer survivor with lingering health problems.

Another friend, a first grader, wonders if Mom will marry the nutty guy, the one who makes Mom cry.

Another friend wonders whether she’ll live with Mom next year, or will it be Dad?

A child in my family wonders if she’ll have to sleep on the couch when she visits Dad, because the couch smells like cat pee and she found mouse turds under the cushion.

We know a kid who no longer wants to visit Dad and his new wife because there are too many whisky bottles on the table.

Last year, my daughter’s classmate died during heart surgery a few days before school ended. The first-graders wanted to know if they needed heart surgery, too, and would they die? Why do kids die?

We know a child who’s afraid to eat grapes because a girl in the neighborhood choked to death on a grape.

I don’t want my books to be filled with despair. Despite these terrible things, kids still laugh and eat cookies and build snow forts and tie ribbons on their bikes and love silly hair day at school.

I want my books to be real. And funny. Because life is the strangest mix of joy and heartbreak, a mix of anxiety and silliness.

Kids know that. They know so much.

Shelley’s technology manifesto … from a non-techie

Commenter Ewan had a great question about aspiring writers entering the tech world: how do you start? What options should you consider?

The truth? I still feel like an aspiring writer. I still feel like an aspiring techie. But I’m happy to share my experience and lessons learned. Other writers – aspiring or otherwise – may completely disagree. So find yourself a grain of salt. And let’s begin.

Web stuff

Until you’ve got a contract or some cash, use a free platform. WordPress is great because it works beautifully as a blended web site and blog. And it’s free unless you upgrade. Be careful about spending a lot of money on technology until you’re getting writing contracts or paychecks. Instead, I’d spend my money on conferences and classes and books. Keep all those receipts for tax time.

I tried GoDaddy, the company that takes care of my domain name, but I felt like a crop duster on the space shuttle. Hours of frustration. The company’s sites are wonderful, but trying to construct one made me want to toss my precious laptop through a window. I also have a private Google blog with my writing group, but overall, Google blogs have limited functionality.

I guess Tumblr is the latest web toy. It synthesizes the microblog, web site, macroblog; and it’s easy to use and follow. Check out my friend and author Rachael Hanel’s Tumblr site.

I wouldn’t do a full web site unless you’ve got creative endeavors to showcase.


If you’re trying to build an audience, a pre-book audience, blogging is a great way to go.

Content is everything. Fresh content. I’ve Googled subjects, clicked on blogs, and see the last post was 2012. I won’t be going back there. My goal for this site is blogging every weekday with weekends off. I consider blogging part of my writing job, so it’s actually more than a goal. It’s an assigned task.

That said, the first thing a potential blogger should do is open a Word document. Trying writing (mostly) meaningful posts three times a week for a month. Can you do it? Or do you feel dry after week three? If you can’t keep up the practice run, you probably will struggle to post fresh content. (Remember, if your practice posts are good, you’ve got 12 posts in the vault.)

Know you’re audience and write mostly for them. I narrowed my subjects, and I suspect my audience is primarily book industry people, including librarians, teachers, and other writers. I have wonderful friends who follow me. I hope adult readers will find this blog, too. Yours might be the life of an aspiring writer. Research other blogs and see what you like.

I’m not trying to attract teens and tweens. I don’t think they’re interested in reading about the writing life, unless they love to write. I do plan, however, to make parts of my blog interesting to tweens and teens – book trailers, for example.

Bloggers build their Google position, and therefore audience, with “search engine optimization.” Google that phrase because I haven’t figured it out.

See? My own dirty dishes!

See? My own dirty dishes!

The bigger tech world

You probably already have a Facebook page. You’ll need a separate author page on Facebook when you publish, plus a Twitter account. It’s pretty easy to connect subjects on all three.

I’ve neglected Twitter. I’ve spent blog space making fun of Twitter. I don’t completely understand it, but I’m back to my Twitter account and giving it a good try.

See? My own lamp!

See? My own lamp!

Take lots of photos and keep them in a separate folder. Pictures you think you’d never use, pictures of yourself, pictures of books. Tons of pictures. I’ve managed to use photos of my overflowing stack of dirty dishes and even my living room lamp. You need art on your blog, especially if your posts get long. Copyright on Internet photos is something you have to consider.

That’s my tech advice. If anyone has time to add to it, or disagree, please comment.

Read our very short book rev—

A feature in the Ladies Home Journal: “Fifteen Second Book Reviews.” (Hey, I was at the doctor’s office. It was LHJ or Fishing Weekly.)

Fifteen-second book reviews. Is that all a book is worth? Fifteen seconds? Why include book reviews at all? Why not just say, we think you’re too dumb to read.

I know the deal. Today’s popular magazines have one or two long stories, a bunch of quirky short copy, and lots of tidbits. The trendy design involves pages broken into blocks of color, and editors need copy to fill those boxes. Like makeup tips. Kim Kardashian never leaves the house without Cover Girl Lash-Building Mascara! Because we’re supposed to believe Kim spends $2.99 on drugstore make up. Or diet tips. Madonna kicks those chocolate cravings with kale!

But books in 15 seconds … That’s not enough time to tie your shoes, to blow your nose, to find the expiration date on yogurt.

Fifteen seconds. The amazing essayist Diana Joseph has a book title that can’t be read in 15 seconds: I’m Sorry You Feel That Way: The Astonishing but True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother, and Friend to Man and Dog. Buy it anyway. It’s hilarious and poignant.

Fifteen seconds.

Luckily, my middle-grade novel, The Graham Cracker Plot, can be described in 15 seconds: Daisy and her sometimes friend Graham plot to break her father out of prison. But can it be reviewed with any insight in 15 seconds?

What about dense, classic literature? What about complex modern novels? What about challenging nonfiction?

The LHJ version:

East of Eden by John Steinbeck, a dead guy. Kinda long but pretty darn good.

The Corrections by the guy who dissed Oprah. Also long but pretty darn good.

The Graham Cracker Plot by someone new. Kinda short. Might be for kids. But pretty darn —

Damn. They ran out of seconds.

Hudson’s Chapter2 Books: One, Two, Ten

Brian, meet Little Rock Girl. Little Rock Girl, meet Brian.

Brian, meet Little Rock Girl. Little Rock Girl, meet Brian.

I recently brought copies of Little Rock Girl to my local indie bookstore. I met Brian, the owner, and we talked about doing a reading or presentation in the store.

First, the store. Chapter2 Books in Hudson. It’s my family’s favorite place. My daughter thinks she’s savvy because she can visit the store, read a chapter of the same book each time she’s there, and then she doesn’t have to buy the book!

I asked her, how would you like it if nobody bought my books? You wouldn’t get an allowance. (Or food, but no reason to scare the kid, right?) And if people don’t buy books from Brian’s store, his kid doesn’t get an allowance either!

She said, Oh. Okay. Then how about I read the first chapter to see if I like it and if I do, you buy the book.


Check out the Chapter2’s web site. It lists book club events, author visits, and other fun stuff. I love the book chains, too, but there’s nothing like hanging out in an indie bookstore. It’s like chatting with friends at the coolest place in town while inhaling the scent of books. Nirvana.

Second, I’m finally trying that press-the-flesh meet-and-greet marketing with Little Rock Girl.

My career in public relations was based on promoting other people and policy positions, not me. Marketing yourself is an uncomfortable experience for Midwesterners. We’re raised to aww, shucks our accomplishments and then chalk it up to luck and never speak of it again, lest we be the worst thing a small town girl can be: a bragger.

Thankfully, my friend Mike came along, made introductions, and said nice things about my book. All I had to do was smile and shake hands. Let’s just say the next coffee round with Mike is on me. (Hey, you can find Mike’s books on his web site here. He’s the author of Haunted Heartland, Haunted America and more.)

So, Step1 at Chapter2 was a Rating10.

Statements that turn me into the Hulk. Can’t … stop … it

  1. The price of kids books is outrageous! And for nothing! Twenty pages of a bunny saying, Blue. Green. Red. Anyone could do that.

    You don't want to see me when I'm angry!

    You don’t want to see me when I’m angry!

  2. You’re a good writer. Why don’t you write a real fiction novel for adults?
  3. You got a lot of books out. Since you’re the millionaire, how ‘bout you buy lunch?
  4. Why don’t you call the Oprah show about your book? You’d probably sell more.
  5. I have a great idea for a book. Maybe you could write it and we’d split the profits.
  6. Why don’t you just publish it yourself?
  7. Who is this Little Rock Girl anyway?
  8. Kids books should teach a lesson.
  9. I can’t believe it took a year to write that.
  10. My kids would rather see the movie than read the book.

And now I’m big, muscular and green; throwing chairs out of windows and punching holes in walls. Damn lab experiment.

Let it snow!

As another Wisconsin snowstorm descended last night, I watched the brown muck in the yard turn white again. And I thought, bring it on!

I’d been sorting my bookshelf, and I realized I had the entire Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But one is missing, The Long Winter. Finding it is today’s top priority. It’s amazing plot development that  heightens the stakes with near perfect pacing.

In late summer of 1880, an Indian chief warns Laura’s father to prepare for seven months of blizzards. Pa moves the family into the pioneer town of DeSmit, South Dakota, where he’d built a small building.

Yes, sir! Long and cold.

Yes, sir! Long and cold.

Immediately the wind begins to howl. Residents aren’t worried because the supply train will come with food, kerosene, coal, and everything they’ll need. Except it doesn’t come. Buried by blizzard after blizzard, the train master decides they can’t make it past the town of Tracy until spring.

And spring that year doesn’t come until early summer.

Wilder’s book is one of the most tension-filled novels I’ve ever read. She pulls readers into the despair: loneliness, fear, the howl of blizzards, and cold so severe the reader needs to cuddle with a blanket. Wandering out of town is a life-threatening journey.

When the coal is gone, Laura and Pa twist hay into sticks that burn quickly, throwing just enough heat to keep them from freezing. Other families burn furniture. The town’s lumber baron burns his livelihood.

Then the town runs out of food. The Ingalls grind coarse wheat in a coffee mill and survive on tiny meals of bread.

The heroes’ journey begins.

Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland risk their lives on the frozen prairie. The young men, both friends of Laura, heard rumors that a man living about fifteen miles from town has a huge supply of wheat. With no map, and no sense of direction because the landmarks are covered, they take off with two horses and an empty sled.

As another blizzard blinds the town, the young men return, nearly frozen, with bushels of wheat; enough to sustain the town until the trains can run. Like any good novel, there’s more bad luck. The June flooding is so intense, the train can’t slog through the muck.

I’ve vowed there will be no more winter complains from me. My furnace keeps the house at a toasty 70 degrees, and my refrigerator is full, mostly with food rotting in Tupperware.

No complaints except for one: the missing copy of The Long Winter. I’ll have to be satisfied with living it.