Don’t sleep tight — unleash creativity through dream awareness

Welcome to the Middle Grade Blog Party!

Author Lisa Lewis Tyre (Last in a Long Line of Rebels) is hosting a blog party featuring authors of middle-grade lit. We’ll be blogging about the writing life, the creative process, writing tips, and all things middle grade.

To get to Lisa’s blog and see the full menu of blog topics, click here.

For the party, I decided to write about my favorite activity – sleeping.

Sleep is not just the time for restoration. It’s a creative sweet spot, especially those bizarre moments when sleep intersects with our awakened state. That’s when you find yourself thinking about mundane things like did I turn off the garage lights? When’s my dentist appointment? Did I miss my dentist appointment? I think we’re out of milk! As you slowly slip from reality to sleep, you fall into strange thinking patterns. The thought about the dentist appointment twists and turns, and suddenly you’re at the store buying milk with your dentist who’s reminding you the garage light is still on, and, for a moment, you’re aware that sleep is intruding on your consciousness.

This is the sweet spot. You’re not exactly dreaming, but you’re definitely not awake.

It’s much like lucid dreaming, which is being in a complete dream state, becoming aware of the dream state, and changing it into a story, as though you’re directing a movie.

Bizarre? Not entirely. You can find a mountain of books, and even scientific journals, about lucid dreaming. Each year there’s a workshop in Hawaii that teaches lucid dreaming techniques. The workshop is run by sleep expert Steven LaBerge, who researched dream states at Stanford University. (The New York Times wrote about it here.)

It takes practice, but you can learn to tap that pre-dream state and capture your creativity when it’s most pure.

Go to bed thinking about your story. (This works with naps, too. What a great excuse to rest in the middle of the day!) Push away thoughts about milk and dentist appointments. Focus only on your story and your characters. As you fall asleep, hopefully you’ll notice your writer’s mind firing ideas.

It’s essential to keep a notebook next to your bed. If you return to awareness, you must jot down what occurred, even if it seems ridiculous. Later, when you’re writing, that crazy thought might trigger a thought that’s not so crazy or, perhaps, an idea for your next project.

Finding the sweet spot takes patience and practice. Most nights you won’t get there. But when you do, and when it works, it unleashes creativity.

Let’s address the obvious concerns.

I need to actually sleep when I sleep. This sounds like insomnia.

Trying to be semi-awake when you’re semi-asleep can interfere with your sleep patterns, especially at first. But you won’t know until you try. Make your first efforts during the weekend when you know you can grab an extra half hour of sleep.

About that notebook … I’ll wake up my partner by turning on a lamp.

There was a time when I could tell myself, hey, remember this idea in the morning, and I would. As I get older, that’s no longer the case. I once read a tip for improving nighttime memories without having to become fully awake so you can write notes. Take something from your nightstand – a box of Kleenex, for example, and throw it on the floor. Then you don’t have to wake up completely. When you get up in the morning and see the Kleenex, it’ll trigger your memory. I tried it, but Kleenex tossing didn’t work for me. My fiancé wanted to know why there was a box of Kleenex in the middle of the bedroom. So did I. All I knew was the box represented a memory, but the idea was lost.

My favorite writing tool is a “pilot’s pen.” When you press the pen on paper, the tip lights up so you can see what you’re writing. Your partner won’t even roll over. Here’s an example from Amazon.

I tried it, and the pre-dream state is bizarre rather than helpful.

Sometimes that’s the case. I was at a point in a story where I basically had my character backed in a corner, and I didn’t know how to get her out. In that dreamy state, I came up with what seemed like a great idea. The character could turn into a pickle! It was completely depressing to wake up and realize my brilliant idea wasn’t so brilliant. That’s okay. I unleashed the creative, idea-producing part of my brain. That’s an achievement. And eventually I came up with a solution that didn’t involve pickles.

I fall asleep the second my head hits the pillow.

Lucky you. As someone who suffers from insomnia, I’d trade this creative process for consistently getting uninterrupted sleep. Since I’ll never be that person who immediately sleeps, I’m happy to turn a negative into a positive. I consider it a turning-lemons-into-lemonade strategy.

This might be the strangest writing tip you’ve ever heard. That’s okay. Writing is strange. Writers are strange.

Take it from sleep expert LaBerge, who says, “Not all lucid dreams are useful but they all have a sense of wonder about them. If you must sleep through a third of your life, why should you sleep through your dreams, too?”

Read more about LaBerge here.

Goodnight and sleep (mostly) well.


The Hunger Games

I’ve avoided The Hunger Games. Call me sentimental and soft, but I couldn’t get past the horrifying concept of kid-on-kid violence. I suppose it’s hypocritical because I watch zombies devour humans every week on The Walking Dead. But the mother in me struggles with stories about kids suffering, no matter how well told.

A few weeks ago, my daughter checked out The Hunger Games from her school elementary library. I  knew she’d want to read the series at some point – it’s a phenomenon, after all – but I wasn’t expecting her to discover it in fifth grade.

Let me backtrack in case you’re unfamiliar with the story. The Hunger Games is the first novel in a trilogy by Suzanne Collins about a dystopian future in which 24 tweens and teens are forced to kill each other in what’s basically a reality TV show. Only one kid gets to go home. Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss, the main character, in the blockbuster film adaptations.

If my daughter was going to read it, then I was, too. I know some parents wouldn’t allow a fifth-grader to read The Hunger Games. (In fact, it’s among the most banned books, according to the American Library Association.) My daughter is a strong reader who’s ready to explore more complex themes. I knew she’d put it down if it was confusing, uncomfortable, or too advanced. I think it’s important to let kids read controversial material in the open, guided by an adult, rather then make it forbidden fruit.

The Hunger Games, I decided, would be a “teachable moment.” It’s been that and more. My daughter and I are having lively and thoughtful conversations about politics, censorship, greed, oppression, and totalitarianism. We compared events in the book to real life. In the world of The Hunger Games, for instance, districts are surrounded by fences to control people. Sounds a lot like the Berlin wall, doesn’t it? We talked about parents’ fear that violence in books and movies might be romanticized, that our kids might lose empathy.

Then there’s our conversation about the incredible writing: setting, characters, plot, pacing … the kind of stuff that makes writers geek out. The New York Times called The Hunger Games “brilliantly plotted and perfectly paced.”


Adventures From the Middle — a recap


We’re already deep into October, and I realized I haven’t blogged about my recent book tour with author S.A. (Stephanie) Bodeen.

We paired up our new middle-grade novels (Stephanie’s Lost and my Finders Keepers) and did a DIY tour we called “Adventures From the Middle.” We made it a “drivable” tour – no budget-busting plane tickets. We had a trial run at Chapter2 in Hudson, WI, where Stephanie celebrated her book launch. Then we hit the road.

We logged about 1,200 miles total, going to stores in Minnesota (Barnes and Noble in Mankato, Content Bookstore in Northfield, Red Balloon in St. Paul) as well as bookstores in Wisconsin (A Room of One’s Own in Madison, Book World in Rice Lake, Books and Co. in Oconomowoc.) After those, we did three school visits in Milwaukee.

I tip my hat to …

  • Stephanie Bodeen. A week before our tour, I got an inner infection that causes severe vertigo. Propped up with steroids and meds for nausea and dizziness, I made it through the tour thanks to Stephanie driving, handling all the logistics, coordinating the schedule, hauling my stuff, taking the lead on the presentations, and much more. Bottom line: I didn’t puke in front of 100 students, and we made all our appearances with no delays.
  • All the teachers, students, and bookstore owners who graciously hosted us, in particular John Sanchez from Fernwood Elementary in Milwaukee. Not only is he the school’s principal, he managed to fix our technical difficulties in the auditorium, a process that involved the circuit breakers and bad batteries and cords plugged into the wrong slots.
  • Phoebe at Boswell Books in Milwaukee. She flawlessly organized our school visits and, it turns out, shares one of our guilty pleasures: HGTV’s “Love It or List It.”
  • Starbucks for caffeinated energy.
  • GPS for keeping two directionally challenged writers on time. It failed us only once when it announced we’d “arrived” at a school when in fact we’d “arrived” at a random house.

And some lessons learned:

  • Be wary of staying at a hotel located on a street called “Lovers Lane.” You might discover the building across the street is a strip club. It was, and no, we didn’t check it out.
  • Don’t eat the “eggs” from a hotel’s free breakfast buffet or the pizza-like substance from Speedway Gas. Just don’t.
  • Schedule some free time to celebrate, because you never know when you’re going to hear your book has been optioned for a movie. That’s exactly what happened to Stephanie. Her awesome new YA novel, “The Detour,” has been optioned by Legendary Pictures. Our celebration consisted of racing to a bank to sign, notarize, and fax the contract before our next appearance.
  • Travel with someone who shares your definition of a relaxing evening. Turns out we both like to put on stretchy pants, have cheap food delivered to the room, and read books before turning off the light around 9 p.m. No nightclubbing.

We hope to tack on a few more events before the year ends. I’ll keep you posted.

Fun times in Eau Claire


I get to make an appearance with two amazing authors at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26 at the L.E. Phillips Public Memorial Library in Eau Claire. We all have new books to celebrate. We’ll do a Q & A, have book-related crafts for kids, and serve some treats.

I met W.H. Beck through an email conversation in which we discovered our families have cabins less than a mile apart on Whitefish Lake near Hayward, Wisconsin. This happens to be the setting for my novel Finders Keepers, so we had lots to talk about. Her new book is called Malcolm Stars.

I haven’t met Julie Bowe yet, but we share a publishing home — the Minnesota-based Capstone. The company published my award-winning book for kids called Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration. Julie’s book is the new edition in her Victoria Torres series called Pompom Problems.

I lived in Eau Claire when I was in kindergarten, so I’m excited to revisit out the town. Since I was young, my memories are pretty limited but include these:

  • There was a restaurant called something like “Jolly Trolls” or “Happy Gnomes.” They had these robotic troll-gnome things, so my sister and I wanted to eat there just to see these things move. None of us liked the food, but who cared? They had robotic troll-gnomes!
  • We used to go to a gas station we called the “stinky store.” They had the best slushies, but the whole place smelled like rotting cauliflower.
  • I went to St. James Catholic School. I don’t remember anything about the school except I walked there each day with my friend Amy. My mom used to follow us in the car to make sure we didn’t get lost. I always wondered why she didn’t just drive us.
  • The first movie I remember seeing played at one of the city theaters — “Peter Pan.” The neighbor boy came with and screamed and ran up and down the aisles and threw popcorn at people.

And now I’ll have a new memory. I hope you’ll come by and share it with me.

Another round: Stephen King’s Finders Keepers vs. Tougas’ Finders Keepers

I’ll admit to obsessing about Stephen King and his best-selling thriller Finders Keepers, which happened to come out a few weeks before my not-as-best-selling kids book Finders Keepers.

Then talk show host Stephen Colbert added insult to injury. Colbert’s first week on The Late Show featured none other than the King himself and a huge news development. President Obama had just bestowed King with the National Medal of Arts.

But don’t weep for me. I had previously been bestowed with my own major award — Best Mom Ever.

You can have the book sales and the gold medal, King. I’ll take the paper-and-crayon medal every day of every year for the rest of my life.

Best Mom Ever Award

Best Mom Ever Award

National Medal of Arts

National Medal of Arts

Stephen King vs. Shelley Tougas

The King-Tougas Title War continues. He got the title Finders Keepers first for his thriller; then came my Finders Keepers for my cute kid book.

Amazon reports the current results:

Finders Keepers, Stephen King, Amazon sales rank: 561

Finders Keepers, Shelley Tougas, Amazon sales rank: Not so good.

But like Rocky, I’m going the distance, Mr. King!

Saturday afternoon fever aka my book launch

Please join me in St. Paul at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Red Balloon Bookstore for my book release party and official launch of Adventures From the Middle, a tour I’m doing with friend and writer extraordinaire S.A. (Stephanie) Bodeen.

We’re doing some fun contests at Red Balloon and, of course, serving cake. A book launch without cake is like a book without words or pictures.

In addition to my second novel “Finders Keepers” entering the world, Stephanie’s book “Lost” recently landed in bookstores. It’s the second book in her exciting Shipwreck Island series. So there’s a lot for us to celebrate.

Hope to see you there! Watch for tour dates for Adventures From the Middle. I’ll post more soon.

Gonna party like it’s my release day … because it is

Happy day!

Happy day!

My second novel, Finders Keepers, enters the world today, exactly 364 days after the release of my debut novel The Graham Cracker Plot. It’s like having back-to-back children, only childbirth was easier.

There’s a joke about being a mom to multiple children. It goes like this: When your firstborn drops a pacifier, you wash it in special sanitizing soap and then boil it for an hour before giving it back to your baby. When your second baby drops the pacifier, you rub it on your jeans and pop it right back in baby’s mouth.

You could look at it two ways. Are you learning and applying those lessons to the next baby? Or are you just overtired and lazy?


Here’s what I learned from my first literary baby, The Graham Cracker Plot:

1. Googling your name and/or book is like eavesdropping. You’re going to discover some mean stuff.

2. Constantly checking your sales rank/book scan totals on Amazon’s Author Central does not actually increase those sales. It also does not increase your self esteem.

3. You have very little control over what happens to your baby once it leaves the laptop.

4. The one thing you can control is your productivity. Stay off the Internet and get typing. That’s how the next book gets into the world.

5. The book world operates on seasons. You get a few months to shine. Then it’s on to the next batch of releases. So enjoy it.

6. You’re a writer, so write. You can – and should – promote your book, but you’re not a marketer, not a distributor, not a sales person, not a Search Engine Optimizer (whatever that is). Write. Keep writing.

7. Lean on your writer friends. They understand the ups and downs, the joy and the heartbreak, and the endless frustration. Everyone else just wonders when you’re getting the movie deal.

8. Thank your agent and editor, because they’re your partners. In my case, that’s agent Susan Hawk (Jenny Bent Agency) and editor Kate Jacobs. They’re brilliant and lovely, and I wish they lived in the Twin Cities instead of New York. Then we could have coffee and be a trio.

There’s more, but it’s my release day, and I’ve got some celebrating to do. Thanks for checking the blog.

And if you’re kind enough to buy Finders Keepers, consider your local indie bookstore. Those stores are the heart of publishing.

My lucky star

I hate author blogs – including mine – when they turn into little bulletin boards, full of brag-brag-bragging about their books.

So I’m going to brag about my book.

Finders Keepers got a starred review from “Booklist.” If you don’t follow publishing, you’re probably not over the moon about this news. “Only one star?” Someone asked me in an apologetic voice. “On a scale of one to what?”

No, it’s not like that. There’s no scale. There are bad book reviews, so-so reviews, good reviews and great reviews. Then there’s a star. Getting a star is like getting an A+++. The difference between a good review and a star is like the difference between a pat on the back and an extra-long hug with flowers and chocolate.

Here’s what “Booklist” has to say:

The only time 10-year-old Christa feels she belongs is when she is at her family’s cabin in Wisconsin. But to her dismay, this will be their last summer on Whitefish Lake, because her father has lost his job and they cannot afford to keep the cabin. Next door, a boy named Alex has just moved in, and the two team up to do some sleuthing and treasure hunting. Rumor has it that Al Capone once hid a suitcase of cash in the area, and if they can find it Christa’s family might be able to hang on to their cabin. Tougas, known best for her historic nonfiction (Little Rock Girl 1957, 2011), has crafted a charming story of family history and personal connections (both lost and found) that is reminiscent of Blue Balliett and the Penderwicks’ adventures. Christa is a delightful protagonist—spunky, witty, and self-confident, in spite of her lack of social graces—and her companionship with Alex is well drawn. More thoughtful than most mysteries, this novel addresses serious issues (financial challenges and strained family relationships, in particular) without bogging down the narrative, and its resolution is both rewarding and poignant. Christa and Alex prove a winning duo, whose quest for Capone’s lost loot will keep readers glued to the page.

And now I’m done–but not without a picture of Finders Keepers.


Laura Ingalls: The Missing Year

After touring Rocky Ridge in Missouri, where Laura and Almanzo Wilder lived for 40-plus years, we road tripped to Burr Oak, Iowa. This little town is never mentioned in the Little House series even though the Ingalls lived there for a year. Laura was about 10 years old.

If you watched the TV show, Iowa is where the Ingalls family adopted Albert, the fictional boy who burned down the school for the blind (killing Mary’s baby) and developed a morphine addiction. The Ingalls’ real lives were dramatic but not dramatic enough for actor/producer Michael Landon. He wanted a soap opera, and Laura’s books became Days of Our Lives on the Prairie.

Anyway, I speculate Laura left Iowa out of the books because her stories are about optimism and perseverance. Iowa was anything but optimism and perseverance. They moved there out of desperation. Grasshoppers had destroyed a promising crop in Minnesota, and Pa was offered a job helping run a hotel in Iowa. He had few options. Ma loved their home in Walnut Grove, but they couldn’t stay. On the way to Iowa, the Ingalls’ infant son died. The family rolled into town on a wagon filled with loss.

Their experience in Iowa was a nightmare. Money didn’t work out the way Pa planned. (It never did with that man!) Ma cooked for more than 20 people three meals a day. Then she had to do all the dishes without the aid of a dishwasher or even lavender-scented Dawn. Laura had to empty chamber pots. (Did Mary ever help with anything?!) The family of five lived together in one tiny room. The hotel drew mostly male travelers, and there was drinking. And card playing. And swearing. Eventually the saloon next door burned to the ground, and Pa was happy to see it go.

Pa moved the family out of the hotel because it was too rough for kids. They lived above a grocery store and then in a small rented house where Grace was born. Once again, Pa couldn’t pay the bills. The landlord threatened to take Pa’s horses. After that threat, Pa packed up his family in the middle of night (literally), and they scrambled out of town.

It’s hard to picture Michael Landon doing something like that, right?

Amazingly, the original Masters Hotel in Burr Oak still stands. So much in the Laura world has been recreated – the little cabins in Pepin and Kansas, the shanty outside of De Smet, the house in Walnut Grove – that this hotel is truly a treasure. It smells and creaks just like an old building should. If you close your eyes, you can picture Ma kneading bread dough and Laura sweeping while Mary drinks lemonade and drunk travelers demanding more salt pork.

Unlike the Rocky Ridge Farm, you can take photos. So I did:

I knew a 1800s hotel would be small, but the Masters Hotel is really, really small. It's about the size of a house.

I knew a 1800s hotel would be small, but the Masters Hotel is really, really small. It’s about the size of a house.

Don't complain about your uncomfortable hotel bed until you've slept on a straw mattress propped up by rope. Also, your 25 cents didn't buy you a room at the Masters Hotel; it bought you a space to sleep. You might have to share a small bed with two strangers, and chances are they didn't spring for the cost of a bath, which was extra.

Don’t complain about your uncomfortable hotel bed until you’ve slept on a straw mattress propped up by rope. Also, your 25 cents didn’t buy you a room at the Masters Hotel; it bought you a space to sleep. You might have to share a small bed with two strangers, and chances are they didn’t spring for the cost of a bath, which was extra.

An example of the famous twisted hay that fueled the Ingalls' stove during the long winter. Laura and Pa twisted hay day and night to keep the fire burning while Mary, I guess, was drinking cocoa.

An example of the famous twisted hay that fueled the Ingalls’ stove during the long winter. Laura and Pa twisted hay day and night to keep the fire burning while Mary, I guess, was drinking cocoa.

Laura emptied a lot of these while the family ran the hotel. Tell your kids that when they complain about bringing their cereal bowls to the sink.

Laura emptied a lot of these while the family ran the hotel. Tell your kids that when they complain about bringing their cereal bowls to the sink.

Ma's hanky - her REAL hanky, not a replica. If this excites you as much as it excites me, then you're a geek, too. It's pretty fancy as far as nose-blowing devices go, so maybe this was a Sunday hanky.

Ma’s hanky – her REAL hanky, not a replica. If this excites you as much as it excites me, then you’re a geek, too. It’s pretty fancy as far as nose-blowing devices go, so maybe this was a Sunday hanky.

Here's what Ma did every single day without the help of a bread maker or microwave or even a nonstick pan.

Here’s what Ma did every single day without the help of a bread maker or microwave or even a nonstick pan.

Finally, the requisite selfie.

Finally, the requisite selfie.