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Book Blog - Likely Stories, by Keir Graff - Booklist Online

Likely Stories

A Booklist Blog
Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

Thursday, February 13, 2014 9:55 am
Book Trailer Thursday: Romance Is My Day Job
Posted by: Annie Bostrom

In the spirit of wholeheartedly embracing that equally loved and loathed mid-February holiday arriving on our doorsteps tomorrow, BTT turns to–who else?–a Romance editor for some wisdom this week. Harlequin editor Patience Bloom shares her real-life love story via the well-known characters and plots of classic romances in Romance Is My Day Job (Dutton). (Dangerous stacks of books AND abdomnial muscles featured in the trailer below.)

But first–if you think a date with a book sounds pretty good, well, so do we! Check out the Twitter hashtag #bookvalentines, see the loving/clever/heartbreaking submissions and tweet one of your own to @ALA_Booklist. We’ll be featuring them in an upcoming blog post!

Love is “a lot of reading, re-reading, revising, and negotiating.” Actually, I think that just about sums it up.

Friday, February 7, 2014 9:45 am
The Long and Short of Writing Longhand
Posted by: Daniel Kraus
Yes, those are shotguns on the wall.

          Yes, those are shotguns on the wall.

That’s me, age 10, working on Foul Play, a novella about an evil pro baseball team. I’d been writing stories, longer and longer ones, for a good five years by then, and though my pencils, sharpener, and spiral-bound notebooks had held me in good stead, I could not transition quickly enough to our family’s brand-new, futuristically taupe-colored Apple IIe computer. Gone were the notepads with their blue-lined cages; gone was handwriting with its multitude of flaws. (I was literally sick the week they taught cursive.)

Back then, the computer screen was black, the typeface green. But the blinking cursor — that impatient “Well, what are you waiting for?” — has not changed much in the subsequent decades. Over the past two years, I’ve been fascinated to see a small but noticeable number of authors going back to longhand. It is a process so physically and emotionally different from typing in front of a screen that it almost must produce different results — and from a writer’s perspective, that’s exciting.

I haven’t had the guts yet to try it, but the below authors have. It’s impossible to read their comments and not want to give it a shot. I especially urge you to stick around for Joe Hill’s essay at the bottom. It’s a bit longer than the rest, but well worth the read. And he wrote it, of course, longhand.

Joshua FerrisI write longhand on graph-lined Rhodia pads — specifically Bloc Rhodia No. 38, the pages of which are long and wide — and write with Pilot Precise V7 roller ball pens. I’ve worked this way for as long as I can remember. The Rhodia allows me to move around at will, as if on a computer, so that if I get stuck, I can just scoot over and start something new elsewhere. But because I’m still writing on the same page, I can always reference what I’ve abandoned, in case I want to crib from it a sentence or a thought. And if I have a random thought, I can jot it down somewhere else and then come back to it — and there’s room for that.

Writing longhand allows me to sit and think without a screen blinking at me. I need that. The long blank page reminds me that I’m not likely to write an entire novel in a day, so why not just calm down and concentrate on the sentences. Why not try to make the sentences — a few of which I can finish in a day — as good as they can be?

The only drawback to writing longhand is its secret strength. It slows me down.

–Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End

Melissa Marr

The choice is simply a matter of convenience for that day’s location. If I’m in my house, I type. If I’m outside or in flight, I go longhand. Most of my books are written through a combination of the two.

The two freeing aspects of the longhand part of a book are that 1) I am disconnected from tech disruptions (email, Twitter), and 2) it enables me to write without revising.

When I type, I revise as I write. It’s cleaner, but slower. Longhand is faster — annotated, arrows, dashes, scratch-outs — and often it reads more like scene direction or rough idea than actual prose.

–Melissa Marr, Wicked Lovely

Peter Straub 2

From the beginning, from the time of my first novel and before, when I wrote poems, I have preferred to write my initial drafts by hand, in big journals with lined and numbered pages. The draft goes on the verso, its revisions and corrections on the recto, where they have plenty of room.

For about two decades, I wrote this draft in pencil, and was fetishistic about the brand. (Early on, Staedtler, which are German, tough, and hard-working; more recently, Palomino Blackwing, which are Californian, gentle, and more or less perfect.)

More recently, I use pens, fountain and rollerball (Visconti, Italian and elegant), which allow me to vary the color of the inks. I like the “made by hand” quality of these manuscripts, the record of micro-change they leave behind, and the way they permit an extra layer of revision during the process of typing up the mss.

–Peter Straub, A Dark Matter

Kelly Barnhill

I am a longhand writer. Not for every project, mind you, but my most recent books (one out, one pending, and two in their trial-by-fire before landing on my editor’s desk) began their existence in the quietness of paper, the intimacy of covers that close with a snap.

Writing longhand, for me, is far more sensual than typing — which, more and more, seems cold and detached to me. Like kissing a robot. Writing longhand turns the writing process into a touchy, loving thing, and I am a touchy, loving person. Always have been.

Also, I love walking into my office with no electronics, no distractions. Just slippers on my feet, tea on the desk, and a story in my fingers. I love the scritchy sound of the pen on the paper. I love the fact that I am forced to slow down — to breathe as my characters breathe, to worry over my inscrutable handwriting after a long day of writing, and to unwind the story like a long, tangled thread.

–Kelly Barnhill, The Mostly True Story of Jack

Antoine Wilson

Over the years, I’ve come up with lots of reasons for writing longhand. It feels freer. I can doodle. I get an extra round of editing while transcribing. More than anything, though, it comes down to the fact that my handwriting is poor enough to hamper re-reading as I write. This keeps my attention focused where it should be: on the next word.

–Antoine Wilson, Panorama City


Kat Howard

Even before I became I writer, I always wrote things longhand — I even wrote all the drafts of my dissertation longhand. I have always felt like a blank page is comfort and possibility, whereas a blank computer screen, with that damn blinking cursor, is judgment: “Have you written anything yet? Now? How about now?” Ugh.

But also, as physical act, I prefer the sensation of writing longhand. I like the feel of a pen in my hand, the way it moves over the paper. I like being able to choose the right color ink for the story, or to use variations in ink color to mark progress, revised sections, things that happen in different timelines.

I like the way writing longhand slows me down just enough to think about word choice, to hear the way the words sound together in a way that gets obscured by the clinking and thud of the keys as I type. (Though if I know I need to write a scene that is particularly difficult for me, I do sometimes draft that on computer, because I can type faster than I can reflect on what it is I’m typing, and sometimes that’s useful.)

Things are less gone when I write by hand — I’ll put a line through sections that aren’t working, but there’s no click to delete. I get the benefit of the first edit being the transition from notebook to computer, and I get the benefit of stories being only thing being accessible in my notebook — it’s the low-tech equivalent of Freedom.

–Kat Howard, “Painted Birds and Shivered Bones”

Kiersten White

I had been working on different versions of what would become The Chaos of Stars for 18 months. Typically I finish first drafts in weeks, not months, and definitely not years, so it was a challenge. In order to force myself to pay attention, I needed to be cut off from everything. I’d take my notebook, sit outside while my kids played, and write by hand.

With nothing between myself and the page, the story finally spilled out the way it needed to. No editing, no second-guessing, and no internet. When I’m truly stuck, pen on paper always frees up words in a way a keyboard just can’t.

–Kiersten White, The Chaos of Stars

Steve Brezenoff

I came to longhand thanks to a member (Kelly Barnhill) of my writing critique group extolling its virtues at just the same time that I needed something to change, to freshen up (in my mind) a MS I’d let stagnate far too long.

I found quickly that writing longhand slowed me down — it let my hand and my brain breathe a little easier as I worked, detached me from a frantic electronic pace. Also, with my pen scratching lightly across a surface, I felt immediately connected to the words I was writing, more “inside them,” more present in every sense: I had an easier time envisioning setting and action.

Pragmatically, I love the idea of having a spiral notebook or two and a very good pen that I can have with me all the time — it demands no power supply, no table (my knees work fine), and no coffee shop, like the laptop I’ve counted on in the past for drafting. As you’ll see from the attached photo, there is the drawback of my horrendous penmanship.

–Steve  Brezenoff, Brooklyn, Burning

Joe Hill

For years I did all of my work on the computer, going all the way back to my high school days, when I wrote on a Mac SE/30, using Microsoft Word 5.1 (the last really reliable version of Word). The practice of writing all my first drafts longhand kind of snuck up on me over a period of a few years.

I was in Italy and wrote a story called “The Devil on the Staircase,” working by hand because I had left my laptop at home. A while later I dashed off a comic script, “Open the Moon,” for much the same reason; I was stranded in a foreign land without my cocoon of electronics. Those were both weirdly satisfying experiences: jobs that didn’t feel like jobs, work that felt like play. They flowed. It was less like writing, more like turning a faucet, only instead of water I got words.

Other things happened. My girlfriend got me rich, creamy stationery and asked me to write her old-fashioned letters. I did and it was fun, I liked it. My friend Neil Gaiman is evangelical about working longhand and encouraged me to give it a try. He made it sound like automatic writing. I came across a review my father had written longhand for Entertainment Weekly and was struck by how effortless it was: how funny, clear-eyed, unadorned, and totally him.

Finally, though, mostly . . . a part of me has started to hate screens a little. The electronic cocoon sometimes feels more like an electronic shroud. I know that’ll probably sound odd coming from a guy who tweets a frillion times a day, but more and more I find myself turning all the way on only when the machines are turned off.

For I don’t know how long, my favorite part of the day has been the half hour I give myself at 4 o’clock to drink the last cup of tea and read (a book of paper, ink, and glue, not a phone, not a device with a battery in it). I think at some point I decided that’s how I wanted to feel when I’m writing, too: relaxed and plugged into my daydreams instead of a piece of software.

Last year, when I went on tour for NOS4A2, I consciously left my computer at home, and took some pens and a notebook with me instead. When I came home a month later, I had a new 28,000 word novella spread across three notebooks (and a paper placemat), and I knew I was done writing my first drafts on the computer.

Possibly because handwriting is slower work than word processing, you counterintuitively wind up writing stories that move faster. You tend to only write the scenes that matter and you write them with less ornament, less conscious efforts at a style. The tools of word processing software encourage cutting and pasting, deleting, tweaking, and the creation of beautifully written filler. Writing by hand, there’s less to distract you. All you have is this line to fill, and then the next line to fill.

When you’re writing with pen and paper, you’re working in the same direct mode you use to tell a story to children, and for a first draft, that’s maybe not a bad thing. I don’t think it’s any surprise that most of the best known authors of children’s novels — Beverly Cleary, Urusla LeGuin, J.K. Rowling, and Neil — have all written their most famous stories by pen. You see it in the calm, straight-forward lucidity of their prose and in the way every scene naturally follows from the one before, the next domino in the line tipping over.

Finally, in a notebook, you’re stuck with yourself. You’re cut off from your games, the internet, Twitter, Facebook. The only thing you have to entertain you is your own imagination. Thank God there’s still a place you can go to be alone and work on your own private dreams for a bit.

–Joe Hill, NOS4A2

Thursday, February 6, 2014 10:15 am
Book Trailer Thursday: A Tale for the Time Being
Posted by: Annie Bostrom

The 2014 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction longlist titles were announced yesterday! While we wait to see which six books make the shortlist before two winners are announced in Las Vegas this June, I plan to periodically feature trailers for these exciting titles on BTT. Which brings me to Ruth Ozeki’s honored offering: A Tale for the Time Being. I haven’t read the book, and I like how just a handful of opening words already tips what notions I had of its title, and the book itself.

Thursday, January 30, 2014 11:18 am
Book Trailer Thursday: One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories
Posted by: Courtney Jones

I’m abandoning my tireless coverage of James Franco’s frightening march toward world domination to alert you, dear reader, to this triumphant release by a different funny person we like a little more. B.J. Novak writer/ actor of TV’s “The Office” and BTT curator favorite “The Mindy Project”, has released a delightful, clever trailer featuring fellow TV funny person Mindy Kaling. It went viral last week, but in case you missed it, have a look:

C’est bon, non? Be sure to read Donna Seaman’s wonderful starred review of One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014 1:08 pm
2014 ALA Youth Media Awards
Posted by: Keir Graff

ALA Medals and Seals: Best Bling EverEight a.m., Monday morning and ALA’s 2014 Youth Media Awards were being announced to an overflow crowd of enthralled librarians and book lovers in Philadelphia. And where was I? I was in Philadelphia, too—in my hotel room, watching the proceedings on a frequently failing feed, tweeting my fingers off, trying to keep @Booklist_Keir separate from @ALA_Booklist while simultaneously finding links, making them public, and dutifully remembering to add the #alayma and #alamw14 hashtags to every tweet. Meanwhile, back in Chicago, Sarah Hunter was dutifully sharing on Facebook, then compiling the awards, linking them to Booklist reviews, and tagging the reviews in the Booklist Online database. Don’t let our toil be in vain—please, follow these links to read our reviews of these award-winning books, audiobooks, and videos!

Newbery Medal
Newbery Honor
Caldecott Medal
Caldecott Honor
Printz Award
Printz Honor
Morris Award
Morris Honor
Sibert Medal
Sibert Honor
Coretta Scott King Award
Coretta Scott King Honor
Pura Belpré Award
Pura Belpré Honor
Stonewall Award
Stonewall Honor
Odyssey Award
Odyssey Honor
Carnegie Medal

Thursday, January 23, 2014 4:00 pm
The 90-Second Newbery — NOT the 92nd Newbery
Posted by: Keir Graff

90 Second Newbery

At 3 p.m. on February 1, at the Vittum Theater in Chicago, while the world continues to bask in the glow of ALA’s Youth Media Award announcements—including, of course, the ninety-second annual Newbery medal and honor books—I will be co-hosting the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival.

Yes, I misheard that the first time as well, and, yes, it took awhile for the adrenaline to subside when I learned I would not, in fact, be introducing the 92nd Newbery Awards this summer at ALA’s annual conference. But I am still excited. (If you hurry, you might get one of the last tickets.)

Now, I am reasonably often invited to speak at libraries, schools, bookstores, and the inaugurations of towering skyscrapers in Chicago’s financial district. Actually, the last one has yet to happen, but I live in hope. (If you’re reading this, Rahm, my schedule is quite flexible.) Most such requests arrive via the traditional routes: email, U.S. mail, or in a locked briefcase, handcuffed to the wrist of a man whose scarred face bespeaks an intimacy with violence. The invitation to co-host the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, however, arrived via a parchment scroll clutched in a falcon’s talons—a falcon also armed with a small, gleaming sword. Needless to say, this raised questions in my mind about the festival’s founder and other host, James Kennedy. As soon as I had stanched the bleeding from where the falcon attached itself to my arm, I sent my response to Kennedy: a yes, conditional upon his answering a few important questions. The following exchange took place via carrier falcon over some of the coldest days in the history of Chicago.

In 90 seconds or less, what is the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival?

It’s an annual video contest in which kid filmmakers create movies that tell the entire stories of Newbery winning books in 90 seconds or less. Next question!

Answered with 82 seconds to spare. Are you an inherently efficient person?

My debut novel (The Order of Odd-Fish) came out in 2008. I haven’t published any books since. So you do the math.

Why, or how, did the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival get started?

James Kennedy

I was working at the University of Chicago as a computer programmer. I was in a meeting, my mind was wandering, and I sketched out some ideas for a really short film that would tell the story of A Wrinkle in Time. A few weeks later, I got my niece and nephew and their friends together, we shot the video, I edited it, and I put it online.

WIth the help of kidlit superblogger Betsy Bird, in a matter of days the video had been viewed more than a hundred thousand times. Word got around, and the rest is 90-Second Newbery history.

I gather that you’ve since become something of an expert on the Newbery. What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about this venerable award? Can you bust any myths for us?

Perhaps the most pervasive myth is that children’s books are all written by harmless old ladies with three names. (That’s no knock on harmless old ladies with three names, by the way. Love ‘em. As for harmful old ladies with three names: BRING IT ON. I AM NOT AFRAID OF YOU ANY MORE, MOTHER.)

That is to say, many authors of Newbery winning books have lived colorful lives, an indeed have spent a fair amount of time in the slammer! You may have heard how in his misspent youth, the Newbery Medal winner of 2012, Jack Gantos, spent 15 months in the federal pen for smuggling 2000 pounds of hashish from the Virgin Island to the U.S.

So I decided to investigate other Newbery winners to see if they also had unsavory pasts. Many of them did! Can you guess the answers to the questions below?

Ella Young

Will James

William Steig

Paula Fox

Answers: A, B, B, and C. All true!

What about Newbery the man? What is the second-most-important thing we should know about him?

Just in the same way that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, John Newbery was neither new, nor a berry. But a man. He was just a man. Think about it.

For me, the selection of A Wrinkle in Time epitomizes what the Newbery is good for: to make a place in the canon for a book that has great merit, but needs help finding its audience.

Do you have a favorite Newbery medal or honor book? A least favorite? Is there one that fails to instill you with any emotional response whatsoever?

My favorite Newbery Medal book will always be Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. It’s rare to find a book that is so grippingly emotional while also being so unrepentantly weird. For me, the selection of A Wrinkle in Time epitomizes what the Newbery is good for: to make a place in the canon for a book that has great merit, but needs help finding its audience. Maybe that’s why I decided to inaugurate the film festival with a 90-second version of a A Wrinkle in Time. [An EMBED! Via carrier falcon!—Ed.]

A least favorite? I would not be so ungentlemanly as to cop to a least favorite Newbery winner, although I’ve read some real howlers. And not just those old racist Newbery winners, or the overwritten trudges from the 1920s or whatever—there are a couple of utter stinkers scattered among the winners from the last 10–15 years of Newbery history, too.

Instead of harping on that, though, how about a shout-out to one of the most whacked-out, puzzling Newbery Honor winners—that is, the 1929 Honor winner Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag? This is allegedly a picture book for small children, but at the climax, in a jealous rage to be chosen by an old man to take home, “millions and billions and trillions of cats” literally tear each other to pieces and devour each other until not a trace is left! That’s pretty much the plot! If you consider simply the sheer scale of the killing involved here—”millions and billions and trillions of cats” ARE GRUESOMELY TORN APART BY EACH OTHER within the space of minutes—it becomes clear that this is one of the BLOODIEST BOOKS EVER WRITTEN.

What standout videos have you seen over the years in previous festivals?

There have been so many, but I’ll keep it to three. A stop-motion clay animation of the very first Newbery Medal winner, The Story of Mankind by Hendrick Willem van Loon:

An amazing Muppet-style version of Frog and Toad Together:

Margi Preus’ Honor Book, Heart of a Samurai, done in Japanese, in the style of an Akira Kurosawa movie:

Finally, about the festival itself. What can attendees expect? A librarian friend said that, in performance, you are like Tim Curry in the movie Clue—I guess that makes me Michael McKean?

I’m more like Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And you, honey, will be Susan Sarandon.

Seats for the Chicago screening are going fast—reserve yours right now!

Thursday, January 23, 2014 10:00 am
Book Trailer Thursday: A Street Cat Named Bob
Posted by: Annie Bostrom

It’s not news that Bob, the ginger (“orange,” in American) heart-stealing, life-changing cat has sat cozily curled on best-seller lists near and far for some time. (He stole Brad Hooper’s heart, for one, back in April.) It is news, however, that over the pond they’ve been enjoying The World According to Bob, which picks up where ASCNB left off, since last summer. Quelle injustice! Look for the Booklist review this spring and, in the meantime, get to know Bob’s on-screen persona a little better. Knit him a scarf, if you have the time.

Can you count the high fives?

Friday, January 17, 2014 9:30 am
Don’t miss Booklist in Philadephia!
Posted by: Keir Graff

ALA Midwinter Meetings and Exhibits 2014 PhiladelphiaIf you read my “Great Reads: The Mean Streets of Philadelphia,” you may be considering changing your travel plans to a destination such as, oh, say, Disney World—but, rest assured, the aisles of the Pennsylvania Convention Center will be 100% free of murder, skulduggery, and the visible effects of a troubling legacy of systemic economic inequality. (There may be a little backbiting and the occasional mean-spirited remark, but trust me, it will be safe for us bookish types.) If you do brave the unpredictable skies to attend, you’ll find it well worthwhile. And the folks in marketing inform me that I would be remiss if I didn’t share these essential appeals for a tiny bit of your time . . . .

  • Attend the ERT/Booklist Author Forum! Tonya Bolden, Brian Floca, Kadir Nelson, Steve Sheinkin, and Melissa Sweet join fellow author and Booklist Books for Youth senior editor Ilene Cooper to discuss award-winning nonfiction for youth. Friday, January 24, 4 p.m., PACC, Grand Ballroom A.
  • Take advantage of an amazing subscription offer! Stop by the booth, tell us how Booklist makes your job easier, and we’ll give you an additional 10% off the already reduced conference price. That’s a 30% discount on a new subscription! Booklist booth #821.
  • Avail yourself of free copies of Booklist and Book Links! Get your complimentary copies of the Editors’ Choice and Lasting Connections issues of your favorite go-to resource. Booklist booth #821.
  • Get acquainted with Booklist Online! Take a tour of the 135,000+ reviews, features, and articles in our archive, get a demo of powerful search capabilities, and set up the online access that comes bundled with your print issues. Booklist booth #821.

Safe travels, and I’ll see you at booth #821!

Thursday, January 16, 2014 5:00 pm
2013 Story Prize Finalists
Posted by: Tim McLaughlin

Each year Story Prize announces their choice for the best work in short fiction, and the winner of this year’s prize will be announced March 5th. The Booklist reviews can be found here, and for more information, check out Story Prize’s website.Archangel, by Andrea Barrett

Archangel, by Andrea Barrett
Bobcat, by Rebecca, Lee
Tenth of December, by George Saunders

Thursday, January 16, 2014 12:08 pm
Book Trailer Thursday: This Dark Road to Mercy
Posted by: Annie Bostrom

Apparently, when you’re a writer who has a funny brother, you should let him be funny in your book trailer–no matter what the book is about. Michael Cart wrote a great review of Wiley Cash’s serious second novel This Dark Road to Mercy, calling the thriller, “a fine example of reader-pleasing southern storytelling,” with interest for suspense-loving teens as well.

The light-as-air trailer has Cash funnily answering questions from readers, with a “testimonial” from his real-life brother Cliff. Trailers that match a book’s tone can be art in their own right, but Cash proves that laughter is a currency that can go far in Trailerland, too.

“I always knew he was going to be a writer, ever since he told me he had a book coming out.”

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