Category Archives: Inspiration

Interview with Author Donna Gephart — and a Giveaway for Teachers and Librarians!

I’d like to welcome one of my favorite middle grade authors and one I am happy to call my friend:  DONNA GEPHART!

2934511Donna Gephart’s first novel, AS IF BEING 12-3/4 ISN’T BAD ENOUGH,MY MOTHER IS RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT! won the prestigious Sid Fleischman Humor Award.  Her second novel, HOW TO SURVIVE MIDDLE SCHOOL, received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal and landed on these state reading lists:  Texas, New York, Louisiana and Illinois.  Donna’s new book, OLIVIA BEAN, TRIVIA QUEEN, about a girl determined to get on the TV quiz show Jeopardy!, received a starred review from Kirkus!
 
 

Donna’s books are hilariously funny. They make people laugh. They make people cry. They touch your heart.  Her first three books are all fabulous:

                     

I am thrilled to be able to share her latest book with you. It’s called

Death by Toilet Paper! 

Fans of How to Survive Middle School will welcome the adventures of a contest-crazed seventh grader who uses his wits and way with words in hopes of winning a big cash prize to help his family avoid eviction.
 
Benjamin is about to lose a whole lot more than good toilet paper. But even with his flair for clever slogans, will he be able to win a cash prize large enough to keep a promise he made to his dad before he died?

 

“Gephart’s generous view of humanity’s basic goodness shines through, and she leavens her characters’ difficult situation with plenty of humor. . . Readers can’t help but enjoy this heartening book about hanging in there.”–Kirkus Reviews

“Ben is a character kids will root for, and he’s surrounded by family and friends who help him see things will be okay, a message that may comfort readers facing similar circumstances.”–Publisher’s Weekly 

Here’s where we find out the genius behind the creation:

Donna, tell us about your latest book. Was it fun to write?

Locating facts about toilets and toilet paper that head each chapter was fascinating and fun.  Did you know the first stall in a public bathroom is the least used, therefore, the cleanest?  I got to study books like, Sarah Albee’s Poop Happened!:  A History of the World from the Bottom Up and call it research.

 

 Your books are hilariously funny, but they also have a thread of real-life, and you cover difficult topics at times, such as divorce, separation and even death. Why do you feel the need to do this?

I love reading books that make me care enough to cry . . . and laugh.  That’s my aim when I create books – humor and heartbreak — so my work can also serve as an emotional roadmap for readers.  In Death by Toilet Paper, Ben Epstein figures out how to navigate the impossible stages grief and ultimately move forward with hope.

 

Where do you get your ideas?

Trader Joe’s.  Seriously, I LOVE that store.  When Trader Joe’s is closed, though, I get my ideas from paying attention to unusual names, hobbies, jobs, conversations and stories.  Podcasts, like This American Life, are great ways to get my mind thinking of story ideas.  Reading the Sunday newspaper usually gets me thinking as well.

 

What is your writing process? Do you have a set time to write every day? 

Every day . . . except when life gets in the way, which it sometimes does.  Most days, I exercise outside then make a big cup of hot tea before I begin writing.  I use the Pomodoro Method, which is a program of set times for work and breaks.  I found a free Pomodoro timer online, and it has increased my productivity and kept me off the Internet while writing.

 

Why did you decide to become an author? 

When I was ten and bored, I wrote a story about a horse, although I knew NOTHING about horses.  My mom read my story and made a big fuss.  That’s when I decided I’d be a writer.

But the drive to write probably hatched years earlier in the children’s section of the Northeast Regional Library in Philadelphia.  That place was a life-changer for me in the best possible way.  I was lonely and bored and found excellent company on the shelves.  A Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes resonated with me back then . . . and still.

Can you name one teacher that inspired you to write or had an affect on your life? 

Heck yeah!  My 10th grade teacher, Myra Durlofsky, inspired me with her creativity and energy.  She was a great role model.  I put her in a couple of my novels, and I still keep in touch with her!

Also reconnected last year with my childhood librarian, Miss Irene.  I walked into the main library in Philadelphia with my niece and there she was – Miss Irene – looking very much like I remembered her thirty-five years before.  That was a happy reunion!

 

  Donna speaks at elementary and middle schools, book festivals, libraries and conferences, including the S.C.B.W.I. National Conference, the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, F.A.M.E., the Conference on Children’s Literature, etc. She also does Skype visits to connect with schools across the U. S. and internationally. 
 

You do Skype visits for your books, what does that entail?

I LOVE doing Skype visits.  They’re so much fun.  After my interactive presentation with lots of show-and-tell, students ask questions.  And I ask them questions about their favorite books and authors.

 

How do you interact with the students during a Skype visit?

Sometimes, I do a Jeopardy!-style quiz with the students, which gets them totally engaged.  I ask questions and have them guess the outcomes as I tell stories.  There’s no substitute for in person school visits, of course, but Skype visits come close and they are good for the environment – no travel involved.  (Also, I may or may not wear bunny slippers during Skype visits.)  http://skypeanauthor.wikifoundry.com/page/Donna+Gephart

 

What is your favorite part about being an author? 

The creative responses to my books that I receive from both educators and young readers.  I’ve gotten freshly baked lemon squares, paintings, drawings and sculptures of characters and book covers, student-created videos, etc.  And I treasure the letters and emails I get telling me how my story resonated for a particular reader.  The connections I make with readers are what I really value.

If I could tell the lonely, bored girl choosing books from the shelves at the Northeast Regional Library that she would someday grow up to have a literary life, filled with reading, writing and people passionate about literature, I think she’d be quite pleased.

 

Anything else that you’d like to add:

For funny videos, word games, trivia, reading/activity guides, writing advice, etc., check out my site:  www.donnagephart.com.

Thanks for joining us Donna and giving us a peek into your creative process. :)

Donna has graciously donated a very special PRIZE !!

An  educator/librarian prize pack — a signed book, reading/activity guide and a couple dozen bookmarks

To enter, simply leave a comment below. In the spirit of the Donna’s latest book  let us know your funny encounter with toilet paper OR how you would  use a bunch of money you won in contest!  You have until December 10th to enter.

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Words

So I was watching this video while working out at the gym the other day:

(Okay, I obviously wasn’t working out that hard, but hey, sometimes I just like to get on the elliptical and do some thinking between bursts of cardio…).

Anyway, watching all The Fault in Our Stars quotes stream by, I was reminded why I’ve always loved books so much. I mean, I’ve always been a sucker for a good story whatever the format, but books offer something more, something magical:

Words.

I know that seems sort of obvious. But all my fellow book lovers understand what I mean. There’s nothing quite like being immersed in a good book and coming across a turn of phrase so perfect it makes you stop in your tracks and catch your breath, just due to the sheer beauty of how the words come together. Sort of like taking a walk and being captivated by how the sunlight hits the leaves in the trees — a simple and fleeting reminder of how wonderful it is to think… To feel… To be alive and connected to the world.

When I was a tween and teen, I dog-eared countless books, marking words that spoke to me. Some quotes made it onto the covers of my notebooks or into the yearbooks of friends. Some just rattled around in my head, making me think. Maybe that’s why I’ve always been drawn to writing for this age group — words held such power for me back then, shaping me, helping me see things in new ways and understanding I wasn’t the only one who felt a certain way.

Of course, I still love words and continue to highlight phrases that speak to me — reading them over and over, rattling them around in my brain, making myself think. A couple of my recent favorites:

As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once. — John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

It’s as if someone vacuumed up the horizon while we were looking the other way. — Jandy Nelson, The Sky is Everywhere 

(Huh, looking back at those I clearly have a thing for books that reference the sky in the title somehow…)

So how about you? What are some of your favorite quotes (or quotable authors or books)? What makes you stop, catch your breath, and read something again? Tell me in the comments below!

Tips for November Writing Challenges

It’s almost November—do you know what that means? Many writers are getting ready for fun challenges, like NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). The goal is to write at least 50,000 words of a novel in November. When I first learned about NaNoWriMo, I didn’t think I’d be able to participate because I was finishing a revision on a middle grade novel. On November 7th, I completed my revision and thought of a shiny new idea. By the end of November, I ended up with over 60,000 words! As awesome as that was, I’ve learned that it’s better to have more than just an idea. Fleshing out my concept and making sure I have important plot points in mind really helps (even though it’s possible they’ll change as I get to know my characters better). Some people love to outline, but I’ve never been a huge fan of it for my work. My favorite tool is Joyce Sweeney’s Plot Clock. Here’s a post about it, and here’s another post that shows a picture of the Plot Clock.

ywp_logo-NaNoWriMo

Calling all teachers—did you know that there’s a NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program? Check out their Resources for Educators, where you’ll find their free classroom kit, lesson plans, and Virtual Classroom how-to. You can also find out how to connect with fellow educators.

If you want to participate in NaNoWriMo, but don’t know what to write about yet, here’s a post that can help you come up with new ideas.

Here’s a link to a helpful interview with author Dorian Cirrone. She has fantastic advice for brainstorming high concept ideas, how to come up with a great beginning, plus a writing exercise. Check out Dorian’s blog for her series on Ten Ways to Generate Ideas.

A lot of middle grade novels are way less than 50,000 words…so how can you write a middle grade novel and still be a NaNoWriMo winner? Well, I think anyone who makes great progress on a novel is a winner. Reaching the end of a first draft in one month is definitely a reason to dance around the room and treat yourself to some kind of special celebration (maybe delicious chocolate, a fun outing with family members you haven’t spent much time with because you were so busy writing, or possibly a massage to un-hunch your shoulders after all that hard work). After celebrating, I like to dive back in and hit that 50,000 mark. Here are a few ways that I’ve accomplished that:

  1. My first drafts used to have lots of dialogue, but only a small amount of description. To beef up my word count and add important sensory details, I’ve looked for areas that could use fleshing out and added more description to them. I’d often have to cut a lot of it in the first few rounds of revision, but loved how many gems I was able to keep. Find what you often lack in your first drafts (maybe it’s dialogue, you don’t increase tension enough, etc.) and see where you can add it into your draft.
  2. If you think a sequel could work for your story, jump in and start writing it to reach your 50,000 word goal. Just try not to get too invested in it, because any changes you make to the first novel could cause huge changes to any future ones—but it can’t hurt to play around with it. You might find ideas that could enhance your first book!
  3. Beginnings are so hard to get right, that I’ve gone back to write a bunch of different beginnings. Don’t be afraid to start in a completely different place. If you’re not sure which one is best for your novel, polish your favorite beginnings up after NaNoWriMo is over, then share them with your critique group or writing friends and see if there’s a clear winner.
  4. You could also start a new novel! Hopefully, you’ll have some ideas fleshed out and ready to go.

If you get stuck while working on your new project, here’s a link to Tricks to Defeat Writer’s Block.

For those of you who also write picture books, check out Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) where the goal is to come up with at least thirty shiny new ideas during the month of November. Then, you have plenty of ideas to choose from whenever you want to write a new picture book throughout the year.

If you have any tips to share or questions to ask, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you. Good luck with whatever goal you’re working toward this November. I hope the words flow!

Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle grade novels with heart and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her two daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer mix who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s TwitterFacebook, or blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.