Category Archives: Novels

Ha-ha and tee-hee

My first YA novels – all unpublished – were heavy: a guy in jail, a school shooting, a cancer story.

My high school buddies listened politely to my plot summaries. They even read the guy-in-jail book. Then they said this: We think you’re funny. Why don’t you write something fun? Something funny?

That’s friendship code for these stories aren’t working.

So I took a stab at humor. It’s an intimidating writing style. There’s nothing worse than trying to be amusing and falling on your face – and not a ha-ha slapstick fall. An awkward, ugly fall.

People who’ve read The Graham Cracker Plot say it’s funny. Kids laugh when they read it. And a respected publishing house (Roaring Brook) bought it, so there can’t be too many awkward, ugly falls.


The release date is eight months away. My fingers are crossed for middle-grade giggles. Parent chuckles would be a bonus.

I’m not confident enough to blog something like, “How to Write Humor for Middle Grade.”

Someday, perhaps. But not today.


I’ve had two book-buying frenzies this month.

The first: The Friends of the Library book sale. I’m a new member. I volunteered to sell books at the sale which is to say I emptied my wallet at the event.

The second: Indies First, a national event bringing authors to local bookstores on Small Business Saturday. I appeared as a local author which is to say I emptied my wallet at the event.

Chapter2Books in Hudson, Wisc., hosted four authors: Mike Norman, Stephanie Stuve Bodeen, Dan Woll and yours truly. There’s no better way to spend a Saturday than hanging out at a bookstore talking to other readers. We had a blast.

The titles in my shopping bag:

  • A Star Wars father-son collection of postcards. (Darth Vadar to Luke: No, you can’t play with Han Solo, and that’s final!)
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Nothing else needs to be said, right?
  • Who is Bob Dylan? This is a kid’s book with one of those life lessons: Yes, you won’t like his music – at least not now – but you need to know him. You’ll never win a trivia game if you don’t.
  • Where the Red Fern Grows.
  • Tree Spirited Woman by Colleen Baldrica. I met Colleen at a planning meeting for a Minnesota reading series and heard about her fantastic book. Now it’s on my shelf.

Here’s hoping your Christmas list has a few books on it. Check it twice, and be nice, for goodness sake.

Cronn-Mills stirs up YA market

Also featured at Barnes and Noble!

Also featured at Barnes and Noble!

My friend and YA writer Kirstin Cronn-Mills is featured in today’s Star Tribune. The entertainment section headline: “Two transgender YA fiction titles by Minnesotans up for Lambdas.”

The Lambda is the most prestigious prize in GLBT literature. There’s a ceremony Monday in New York, so I’ll be sure to provide an update.

Her book, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, is challenging, but it’s not an “issue” book. The character just happens to be a girl who’s really a boy. Is it funny? Wait until you read the scene where Liz/Gabe orders a MANGO online. Then Gabe attempts to use a man’s restroom for the first time. MANGO. Get it?

Congrats, Kirstin.

The Greatest Gatsby

Dear Director Luhrmann and Author Fitzgerald,

Thank you for crafting both a novel and a movie with masterful dialogue. I’ve used many of your words in the following apology, because your words are better than mine. Clearly.

Many thanks,

Shelley T., author of the forthcoming novel The Graham Cracker Plot.


To: Baz Luhrmann, The Great Director

Dear Baz,

There was a green light flashing in the mist. It represented hope – my hope. Weeks ago, I’d hoped your interpretation of The Great Gatsby would stink and sink. I couldn’t fathom an American classic being twisted into a 3D rap music video. I couldn’t stand the thought of our Jay Gatsby – yes, he’s one of us, one of the dreamers and believers – being played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s working so hard for his Lifetime Achievement Award.

I was wrong, a silly little fool. That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, Baz, a beautiful little fool. But it takes two to make an accident like this: me with my prejudgment and you with the black cloud of Moulin Rouge.

Cheers, Leo. Cheers.

Cheers, Leo. Cheers.

Baz, your Gatsby was a triumph. There’s something very sensuous about it – overripe, as if all sorts of funny fruits were going to fall into my hands right there in the theater, right next to the popcorn.

And so I apologize to you, Baz. (And to Leo, who’ll get that lifetime award if he ever looks older than 30.) Understand, Baz, that sometimes I’m a careless person, smashing up things and creatures and then retreating back.

Gatsby lovers, believe in Baz’s green light. It represents his hope and dream to make a better Gatsby, to, in fact, make the Greatest Gatsby.

Realized dreams are so rare, yet we chase them. Baz understands dreams elude us, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. We beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Many apologies,

Shelley T., author of the forthcoming novel The Graham Cracker Plot

Books worth another look

After I posted about classic lit and plot amnesia, I came across this list from Publishers Weekly, “10 Classic Books You Read in High School You Should Reread.”  Writer Kevin Smokler picked the ten classics “where I found that useful thing I missed the first time around.”

That’s why I’m re-reading Catcher in the Rye. What would I take from it now? What can I learn from it as a writer? And the top reason: I can’t remember the plot.

Here begins Smokler’s list.

Smokler's number one. And he means read it, not go to the 3D disaster.

Smokler’s number one. And he means read it, not go to the 3D disaster.

Number One. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Fast cars, huge houses, a raised martini glass and a love that cannot be. No wonder F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third novel gets credit for both naming and embodying the most glamorous era of the 20th century. I had forgotten that Nick Carroway tells the story of Gatsby and Daisy in flashblack, a eulogy to a romance and an era that are gone. The novel’s unforgettable closing passages are as much about acceptance as longing, as much about the pain of age than forbidden desire and American dreams.

The full article is here.

The pre-rant rant

Great Gatsby ... in 3D! Just as Fitzgerald imagined.

Great Gatsby … in 3D! Just as Fitzgerald imagined.

I’m holding back my rant about Great Gatsby being remade in 3D. I guess you should see a movie before you bash it to pieces. Look for me to bash it to pieces soon.

It’s fair, however, to note the following:

  • GG is directed by Baz Luhrmann, who made Moulin Rouge. The movie has a cult following, but so does Scary Movie 5. Moulin Rouge is an explosion of the ridiculous. It’s LSD on meth.
  • Even the previews show Baz has jackhammered every nuance Fitzgerald so carefully placed in the text.
  • Why 3D? To make the audience duck because a martini glass appears to shoot from the screen?

I’ll follow the reviews and note all the bad ones. Feel free to use the comment section to tell me I’m full of crap.

Hi, Holden. I’m Shelley. We’ve met, right?

I blogged yesterday about buying Catcher in the Rye to get reacquainted with Holden Caulfield. I read the novel in high school. The years have flown by, and they’ve taken my book memories with them.

All I remember about Catcher in the Rye is the following: I liked it, the main character’s name is Holden, and maybe he’s in a hospital.

My house has bookshelves full of forgotten stories. I simply don’t remember plot lines or characters from classic lit I read in high school, college and, yes, sometimes voluntarily.

When I go to author receptions, parties with literary types, or take a writing class, I either stutter my way through classic book discussions or take a sudden interest in the food table. Another glass of wine also helps.

Here are some of those books and what I remember.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Some people on a bridge. The bridge collapses. Other things happen.

Don Quixote. Crazy guy and windmills.

Antonia who?

Antonia who?

My Antonia. My Amnesia.

The Red Badge of Courage. War. I think.

A Separate Peace. Did one kid jump on the branch, which caused another boy to fall, or was it an accident?

A Tale of Two Cities. Can’t remember either city.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A river, a boat and two buddies.

Great Expectations. A poor kid does some stuff.

A Doll’s House. Amnesia.

Tender is the Night. Partying in France.

A Farewell to Arms: A war and a dead baby.

The Odyssey. Huh?

The Canterbury Tales: Someone farted.

Candide: Funny.

Last of the Mohicans. I remember the movie with Daniel Day Lewis, especially when he spits as he passionately urges Madeline Stowe to be tough. “I will find you! Stay alive. No matter how far, no matter how long, I will find you.”

All is not lost. I have fond and detailed memories of a few from the canon. To Kill a Mockingbird, Age of Innocence, East of Eden, Lolita – assuming these are part of the canon. And should canon be capitalized? I forget.

Second Novel Syndrome

I was talking to my friend Mike yesterday about writing the second novel in a two-book deal. It’s exciting and terrifying, but my enemy Self Doubt hovers. Will my sophomore performance be as good as book one? What if my editor hates it? What if my readers hate it? What if I hate it?

Everyone knows that sophomore year sucks, right? The novelty’s gone. Now you’re just an older geek, stuck behind the juniors and seniors.

And parents simply don’t love their second child as much as the first. (An inside joke with my little sister Cheryl.) Better stated: Parents don’t pay as much attention to baby two because baby one has already dazzled them with performances. Rolling over in the crib. Sucking on  toes. Smiling. Puking and peeing and pooping.

With the exception of Empire Strikes Back – which I saw 28 times in one summer – sequels rarely live up to the first story. Revenge of the Nerds II, Ocean’s 12, Speed II: Cruise Control, Staying Alive.

Mike’s advice: Just write. Write and write and write. Let other writers read it; then write more. And that’s what I will do.

But first, here are some quotes from writers about Second Novel Syndrome.

I started a second novel seven times and I had to throw them away.

Amy Tan. Second book: The Kitchen God’s Wife

No one is waiting for you to write your first book. No one cares if you finish it. But after your first, if it goes well, everyone seems to be waiting. You’re suddenly considered to be a professional writer, a fiction machine, but you know very well that you’re just getting going. You go from having nothing to lose to having everything to lose, and that’s what creates the panic.

Jeffrey Eugenides. Second book: Middlesex

The problem with a second novel is that it takes almost no time to write compared with a first novel. … If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23, and my second novel takes me two years, which have I written more quickly? The second of course. …The first took 23 years, and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of that lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.

Stephen Frye. Second book: Moab is My Washpot

A second book is jittery-making, because chances are it’s been sold on a one-page outline, when you weren’t entirely surely what was going to happen. You don’t know if anyone’s going to like it. It might sprout off in unintended directions. It might develop Excess Plot Syndrome or Prologue-orrhea …

Claire McGowan. Second book: The Lost

Off to slay Self Doubt. Then work on novel two.

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.

I bow before them

It’s a good exercise for a writer, or any artist, to think about the artists who’ve influenced his or her journey. In tough times, it’s reminded me of how far I’ve come. It reminds me to pay it forward. And I feel warmth and support from the circle of love in the writing community.

So I’m writing about a dozen people who made a powerful impact on me. Six today; six tomorrow. Some are dear friends, some are aquaintances. They share one thing in common. I probably wouldn’t be here, publishing my first novel, if it weren’t for them.

Six artists/writers I know who’ve influenced me – in no particular order.

A Bunkert from my dining room. The photo doesn't do it justice, especially the flash.

A Bunkert from my dining room. The photo doesn’t do it justice, especially the flash.

1. Denise Bunkert. She’s a lifelong friend who never deviated from her dream to be a fine artist. She’s the first I knew who walked out of corporate life and plunged into her dream. She learned quickly how to treat her work like a business that could pay her bills. Her beautiful pastels can be found here.

2. Terry Davis, author of Vision Quest, among others. (My favorite Davis novel: If Rock and Roll were a Machine. Next line, it’d be a motorcycle.) I call Terry the Godfather of Mankato’s writing community. As a professor, he helped students (including me) improve their craft, search for agents, and land publishing deals – often at the expense of his own writing time. If Rock and Roll were a Writer, it’d be Terry Davis. Find him here.

3. Rebecca Fjelland Davis. Becky is Mankato’s Kevin Bacon. She’s somehow connected to everyone. An avid cyclist, she’s also Mankato’s hottest grandmother. Becky revises, revises and revises. She’s taught me tenacity. Her first wonderful novel, Jake Riley: Irreparably Damaged, took seven years to find a publishing home. Before I knew Becky, she asked my stepdaughter to read Jake so she could understand a teenager’s reaction. I grabbed it first and couldn’t put it down until

Chasing AllieCat, an on-the-edge-of-your-seat YA novel by my friend Becky Davis.

Chasing AllieCat, an on-the-edge-of-your-seat YA novel by my friend Becky Davis.

I’d finished. My stepdaughter had the same experience. We loved it and couldn’t stop talking about it. More about Becky here.

4. Nick Healy. When I took an MFA fiction seminar with Nick, I knew he could be running the class. He was already that good. Nick is also one of those brave writers who quit a cozy PR job to enroll in Mankato’s MFA program. His short stories have won awards, and recently his collection It Takes You Over was published by New Rivers Press. He helped me land my life-changing gig, Little Rock Girl. He’s modest and doesn’t have a web site, but you can read this MinnPost article about Nick here.

5. Steve Shaskan. I knew Steve’s talented wife Trisha from Mankato’s MFA program. I met Steve later at writing conferences in Minnesota and New York City. I’d sit next to Steve, who brought a notebook everywhere. He’d hunch over and doodle these amazing characters. He landed an agent, parted ways with the agent and sold his first picture book himself. He held firm, too. He was the illustrator and the writer or he was walking. Now that’s a guy with guts. His book is the popular A Dog is a Dog. And there’s more to come. Find him here.

6. Roger Sheffer. I’ve taken writing classes, workshops and seminars. I’ve attended at least a dozen state and national conferences. Yet I learned most about writing style and tone from Roger’s MFA class, Form and Technique. He’s a genius teacher and the bravest writer I’ve ever met. He’ll try anything just to challenge himself. He once sent me a story where not one word was longer than three characters. And he made it work. His only web presence, as far as I can tell, is his Minnesota State University, Mankato professor’s page.

Six more next time. Happy Friday, everyone!