Sunday, June 29, 2008

Awesome Austin Writers' Workshop

So. It's eight o'clock at night and the house feels oddly quiet. (For one thing, Cynthia is asleep :-)). For the past three days, the place has been overflowing with energy, excitement, and creativity. This past weekend, Cynthia and I had the privilege of hosting a workshop for advanced writers in our house.

It was the culmination of a month-long process that started when twenty-seven Austin area children's authors submitted up to ten pages of manuscripts to be read and critiqued by every other participant and Cynthia, who moderated the forty minute sessions.

Participants included Brian Anderson, Varsha Bajaj, Chris Barton, Gene Brenek, Shana Burg, Anne Bustard, Tim Crow, Betty X. Davis, Meredith Davis, Alison Dellenbaugh, Erin Edwards, Debbie Gonzales, Helen Hemphill, P.J. Hoover, Varian Johnson, Julie Lake, Lindsey Lane, April Lurie, Mark Mitchell, Jane Peddicord, Liz Garton Scanlon, Jo Whittemore, Phil Yates, and Jennie Ziegler. (Brian Yansky and Frances Hill submitted manuscripts but unfortunately had to drop out at the last minute).

The manuscripts were amazing, fresh, and fun. The level of discourse was extraordinary - thoughtful and spirited, but never mean-spirited.

Carmen Oliver and Donna Bratton worked as "pages," arranging and picking up breakfasts, fresh fruit, soft drinks, ice, snacks, and generally performing all those indispensable behind-the-scenes tasks without which an event of this scale could not possibly happen. They were tireless, thoughtful, diligent, and performed above and beyond with a wonderful verve, aplomb, and humor.

Julie helped collate and deliver packets; Brian and Frances, Gene, Tim, and Shana provided extra chairs; Tim additionally provided serving platters, ice, and coolers; Meredith ran invaluable errands; and Helen opened up her condo for the Saturday night party. Many thanks to everyone for their help (and please forgive me if I haven't specifically mentioned a contribution).

The weekend on site began early Friday morning with a continental breakfast of kolaches, fresh fruit, and yogurt. We then kicked off the work part of the workshop with five sessions of forty minutes each, with five minute breaks in between each session.

We then sent the group out for lunch, and followed up with another five sessions to end the day. Delighted and exhausted after the first days' work, a number of us then went out to dinner and margaritas at Maudie's, Too.

The next morning, the pages arrived early with bagels and muffins from Einstein Brothers. followed by another days' worth of sessions and discourse.

That evening, we headed over to Helen's for the party. She and her husband, Neil, were extremely gracious and generous hosts. Many thanks for their hospitality! (Catering was through Pascal's [fantastic!] and included shrimp, empenadas, stuffed mushrooms, crab cakes, beef canapes, salmon cups, and small pastries).

Donna and Carmen dived into the final day of the workshop by arriving in style (and in costume - I'll let you go to Cynthia's blog to see) and with breakfast tacos (also from Lone Star Kolaches). And by this point, everyone was feeling a bit punchy... :-).

Finally, at noon, after our last five sessions, the pages surprised us by presenting us (!) with a gift basket of delicacies. And then, Jane Peddicord and the rest of the participants presented Cynthia and me with some extraordinarily gracious words, a library bird house, and a gift certificate to Book People.

To the pages and participants: We are incredibly humbled by this generosity. Thank you for everything and for your roles in making this weekend a success.

Now get back to writing. :-).

UPDATE: See Cynsations, with more pictures, for Cyn's account.

Monday, June 23, 2008

DAEMON HALL, by Andrew Nance

DAEMON HALL, by Andrew Nance (Henry Holt, 2007)(ages 10+). Best-selling horror writer Ian Tremblin is holding a short story writing contest for teens - the winner will get to have his or her story published.

The catch? The five finalists must spend the night with Ian in Daemon Hall, the infamous haunted mansion whose builder killed his entire family, then hanged himself in the study. The five arrive at sundown, per instructions, without phones or flashlights and accompany Ian upstairs, where they read their stories aloud. At the end of the night, Ian will pick the winner. If any survive...

DAEMON HALL is a fun yet seriously creepy novel. The individual contestants' stories are themselves engaging and the over-arching framework successfully works to build the suspense, as the reader is caught up in the mystery of what is going on and who, if anyone, will make it through the night.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

THE FLOATING CIRCUS, by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer

THE FLOATING CIRCUS, by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer (Bloomsbury, July 2008)(ages 8-12). Thirteen year old Owen and his eight year old brother Zachary are orphans in 1852 Pittsburgh. Not long after the pair are to be sent west on an orphan train (in the hopes that they will be adopted by farm families), Owen falls out of an elm tree and breaks his arm. Fearing he'll be crippled for life, and knowing that under such circumstances he'll be useless as a farm hand, Owen concludes that the only way for Zachary to be adopted is if he leaves.

Owen absconds from the train as it's departing and ends up on a giant circus river boat. There, he's befriended by Solomon, a freedman who works as an animal keeper and general custodian/maintenance man. As the boat travels south to New Orleans, Owen is exposed to unexpected cruelties and kindnesses, and his eyes are ultimately opened to the realities of the itinerant circus life (as well as the horrors of slavery), as he comes to realize where he fits in in the world.

In this superb and bittersweet novel, Zimmer gives readers an unvarnished and textured glimpse into the world of 1852, as Owen encounters yellow fever, storms at sea, freaks, slave catchers, and auctioneers. The friendship between Owen and Solomon feels real and the characters are developed with virtues and vices alike, as the story builds to a poignant, yet hopeful, conclusion.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

NIGHT ROAD, by A.M. Jenkins

NIGHT ROAD, by A.M. Jenkins, (HarperTeen 2008 )(ages 12+). Cole is a "hemovore," a virally-infected being who subsists on blood and who is apparently immortal (hemes heal rapidly from almost any injury, although exposure to sunlight can result in permanent mental disability). To all outward appearances a teen-ager of about 18, Cole is really more than a century old, which has given him perspective: On how to combat the Thirst and avoid killing when drawing blood from "omnis" (as mortal humans are called); on how to avoid becoming too attached to particular omnis; and on how to stay below the radar of omni authorities.

For years, Cole has held himself aloof from the community, but now he's called back to handle an "accident:" an accidentally-created and newly-formed heme named Gordo. Together, Cole and his easy-going friend Sandor take Gordo on a cross-country expedition to teach him how to become a heme, without killing any omnis or inflicting eternal, debilitating injuries upon himself.

In NIGHT ROAD, Jenkins provides a rich and atmospheric urban fantasy world and artfully juxtaposes Gordo's and Cole's experiences coming to terms with being eternal. NIGHT ROAD is another winner from the author of the Printz honor book REPOSSESSED.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Perfect Crime...

Remember that old joke that goes something like "A plane crashes on a state line. Where do you bury the survivors?"

Well, I recently came across a pair of articles by Brian C. Kalt, a professor of law at MSU, that address a far more interesting question: Is it possible to commit the perfect crime in the non-Wyoming portions of Yellowstone National Park? In other words, could you commit murder and get away scot-free (no matter what) due to one or more constitutional loopholes? Kalt argues the answer is "yes":

Here's the premise: Let's say you're in the western sliver of Yellowstone National Park (the part in Idaho) and you want to kill someone, say, a fellow hiker. You pick up a rock, bash his head in, and are ultimately arrested by the federal authorities (The feds have exclusive jurisdiction over Yellowstone). Ordinarily, you'd be hauled to the federal courthouse in the state in which the crime was committed, in this case, Idaho. However, Yellowstone National Park has been assigned to the District of Wyoming, so you'd be sent to Cheyenne to stand trial.

Now, Article III of the Constitution provides that "[t]he trial of all crimes...shall be by jury; and such trial shall be held in the state where the said crimes shall have been committed." This then is the first problem: Wyoming is not the state in which the crime was committed. You'd think that this would be easily remedied, of course: the feds could just take you to court in Idaho, right?

Sure. But, the Sixth Amendment includes a jury vicinage clause, which states that "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where in the crime shall have been committed..."

This is the second problem: In this case, the jury has to be from the Idaho portion of Yellowstone National Park (Because it has to be drawn from the state of Idaho and the District of Wyoming). The difficulty arises because the Idaho portion of Yellowstone National Park has a population of precisely zero. Therefore, no jury is possible and, since no jury is possible, no trial is possible. Don't let the courthouse door hit you on the way out. Fun, huh?

The original article apparently made quite a splash a couple years ago (i.e., it was covered by NPR, the BBC, and the National Enquirer); a follow-up article that describes Kalt's attempts to get Congress to fix this loophole was recently published by the Georgetown Law Journal and is available here.

What does this have to do with fiction writing? Well, the idea was also used as the basis for the best-selling novel Free Fire, by C.J. Box.

Monday, June 09, 2008

THE UNDERNEATH, by Kathi Appelt

THE UNDERNEATH, by Kathi Appelt (Atheneum 2008)(ages 10+), is a gripping story of cats, dogs, cruelty, love, and ancient and contemporary evil.

A pregnant calico cat is abandoned by the side of the road in the piney woods and swamps of east Texas. Before long, she comes upon Ranger, a bloodhound who's been chained to a stake by his cruel master, Gar Face. Despite Ranger's warnings about his master, they become the only friends each has known in years. The cat gives birth to a pair of kittens, Sabine and Puck, who are likewise instructed to stay "underneath," i.e., beneath the porch so that Gar Face won't ever catch them. But, of course, kittens are curious...

A thousand years ago, "Grandmother" Moccasin, a giant lamia, was captured and placed into a jar buried beneath a giant loblolly pine. Today, she is seeking to escape and wreak vengeance on those who captured her and stole her daughter...

In THE UNDERNEATH, Appelt expertly weaves these seemingly-disparate threads together in a compelling and highly satisfying fashion. Told in a voice that resonates with the rhythms and timbres of east Texas, THE UNDERNEATH is sometimes dark, yet is also heart-warming and profound.

COMMENT: THE UNDERNEATH is a Writefest novel; Cyn and I are deeply honored that it was dedicated to us.
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