Rules for writing

This fabulous compendium of writerly wisdom from The Guardian …

Ten rules for writing fiction

… got me to thinking about my own rules for writing.  Here’s my top ten list:

1.  Get a dog.  Writing is a solitary job.

2.  When stuck, walk the dog.  Works like a charm every time.

3.  Try not to check email until noon.  When you cheat (as you inevitably will), promise yourself that you’ll do better tomorrow.

4.  Turn the ringer on the phone off while working.

5.  Take yourself seriously, even if nobody else does.

6.  Not too seriously, though.  Remember in The Wizard of Oz, when Hickory boasts that “Someday they’re going to erect a statue to me in this town,” and Aunt Em retorts, “Well, don’t start posing for it now”?    Stay humble.

7.  Silence the inner critic.  With duct tape, if necessary.

8.  Duct tape is also useful for taping oneself to the chair.

9.  Allow yourself the freedom to write embarrassingly awful first drafts.  Get it all out first before you revise, revise, revise.

10.  The best remedy for a looming deadline is a box of Junior Mints.

Do you have any rules for writing?  I’d love to hear them if you do, so feel free to comment below.  Best entry wins a box of Junior Mints!

Pie-of-the-month club – Toni Buzzeo

In celebration of a pair of pie-related books I have coming out later this year (Babyberry Pie and Pies & Prejudice see related post), I’m hosting a “pie-of-the-month-club” here on my blog.  Throughout 2010 I’ll be serving up a stellar selection of new books by some of my favorite authors and illustrators .  Oh, and pie is on the menu, too, of course.   Enjoy!


Toni Buzzeo with the home-grown makings of her favorite pie

What have you been cooking up for readers, Toni?  Tell us a bit about your new book, and how it came about.

My brand new book is a candy-colored little gem entitled No T. Rex in the Library.  It’s illustrated by the brilliant Sachiko Yoshikowa in bright primary colors with wild forays into the imagination.

By the way, I’m launching this book with a story writing contest for kids in grades PreK to 6.  All submissions must be postmarked by March 13, 2010, and you can download the contest rules and submission forms from my website here.

As to how the story came about, I’m a school librarian by profession, and in October 2003, on my annual fall writing retreat with friends, I completed work on my work-in-progress earlier than expected and had time to dream a little about a new project when, from out of the blue, came this line: “No T. Rex in the library!” I was instantly intrigued.  A T. Rex in the library?!  How funny would that be?  Before dinner that evening, I had a silly romping rhyme that began:

No T. Rex in the library.

No T. Rex through the door.

No T. Rex in the lobby.

No T. Rex on the floor.

No T. Rex in the kids’ room.

No T. Rex through the gates.

No T. Rex at the checkout.

“T. Rex, no stamping dates.”

My editor at Dial took me through a couple of revisions but ultimately she passed on the manuscript.  It then landed on Emma Dryden’s desk at McElderry, which is where the text was divested of its rhyme and gained the character of Tess, a little girl whose rambunctious behavior causes her mom to put her in a time-out chair.

It’s Tuesday morning in the library.


Tess is out of control.

“TIME OUT!”  Mommy shouts.

“No beastie behavior in the library.”

Tess snarls.  She snorts.

“Just ten quiet minutes, Little Beastie,” says Mommy.

“And then I’ll be back for you.”

Now really, what’s a girl to do in a situation like that?  Tess kicks over a book cart, causing a dinosaur book to fall open on the floor—and as nearly always happens under these circumstances, a T. Rex claw rises from the page.  Does Tess pull that dino out of the book?  Do they rampage through the children’s room, encountering pirates, knights, cowboys and a stairway to the stars?  You betcha they do.

Sounds like dino-sized fun, Toni!   How about your favorite pie-in-the-sky moment as a writer?  Does anything pop into mind?

I was so excited to learn that both Dawdle Duckling and Little Loon and Papa were selected for the Dolly Parton Dollywood Imagination Library.  What an honor to think that thousands of copies of those titles would land in the hands of preschool children in participating communities across the country.  To date, Dollywood has distributed 391,000 copies of Little Loon and Papa alone!

Has there ever been a moment in your career when you had to eat humble pie?  (I did, big-time, when as a fledgling, clueless author I showed up at a major chain bookstore for what I thought was just a signing and found to my chagrin was educator night – dozens of teachers waiting for me expectantly, and I hadn’t prepared any remarks…)

Oy!  My most challenging moment came in November 2004, when I was slated to offer two workshops on the first day of the TASL (Tennessee Association of School Librarians) Conference in Chattanooga and the keynote the following day.  On the morning of that first day my computer was stolen, and I was left to fend for myself for the rest of the day without my PowerPoint!  The humble pie enters into it when I tell you that I had not backed up my keynote on a flash drive. (What can I say on my behalf?  I was still tweaking the presentation—and hadn’t thought to save successive drafts!  Of course, that discounts the fact that I had an unsaved novel revision on that computer, too…)

The following day, I managed to deliver that keynote by cobbling together images I had available on the flash drive for my school visit presentations.  I learned several lessons on that trip, which I ended up incorporating into my talk:


  1. Always do a complete backup before you leave home on a cross country trip—or perhaps before leaving your DESK!
  2. Sometimes your obsessively safety-concerned husband of 34 years, 11 months and 9 days is NOT crazy.
  3. No matter how far you think you are from the final draft on your revised manuscript, send it to your critique partners for safe-keeping.
  4. You CAN do a two-hour workshop without PowerPoint—WHO KNEW?
  5. TASL members are the most sympathetic people in the continental United States.  If you have to lose something, do it in Tennessee!

Now let’s REALLY talk pie.  What’s your favorite kind?  Do you have a favorite pie memory?  How about the recipe you’re sharing – can you give us a little background on it?

Hands down, pumpkin pie is our family favorite.  That goes back to early days here in our colonial farmhouse (likely built during the pre-Revolutionary War period).

Toni Buzzeo's home in Maine

When we escaped suburban life in metropolitan Detroit and headed for Maine thirty-one years ago, my husband Ken and I knew we wanted a very different sort of life.  We bought this big old farmhouse on 25 acres of the original farm and began to cultivate a huge garden.

Over the years, we’ve had to streamline it a bit, but we do always plant pumpkins.  Some years the weather gods cooperate and we get lots and lots of orange beauties. One year we grew gorgeous “Cinderella pumpkins” shaped like Cinderella’s carriage [see photo above].

Other less weather-agreeable years, we head down the road a mile to buy our pumpkins at our beloved local CSA farm, Snell’s.  Either way, we carve jack-o-lanterns (my son Topher’s birthday is Halloween, so it’s a major holiday here at our house) and cook down the remaining pumpkins to freeze for pumpkin pie year round.

In fact, I so love pumpkins and pumpkin pie that I included them in my first picture book, The Sea Chest.  After Seaborne washes ashore at the lighthouse island in a sea chest, she is adopted by Maita and her parents.  One of the annual pleasures of the two sisters involves pumpkins:

When the pumpkins ripened on the vine

in sunburnt autumn,

we carried them across the island

and baked pumpkin pies with Mama.

We like to use the Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk brand recipe because it makes a wonderfully textured pie, especially when made with homegrown pumpkin.

Toni Buzzeo’s Favorite Pumpkin Pie

1 (15 oz.) can pumpkin (about 2 cups)

1 (14 oz.) can sweetened condensed milk

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 (9-inch) unbaked pie crust

Heat oven to 425°F.  Whisk pumpkin, sweetened condensed milk, eggs, spices and salt in medium bowl until smooth. Pour into crust.

Bake 15 minutes.  Reduce oven temperature to 350°F; bake an additional 35 to 40 minutes or until knife inserted 1-inch from crust comes out clean. Cool.  Top with whipped cream if desired.

Wild Geese Guides

Attention, teachers, librarians, book club members, parents, and everyone else interested in literature for young readers!  My good friend Tracie Vaughn Zimmer has uploaded ALL of her amazing teacher guides onto her new blog, Wild Geese Guides.

Discussion questions, suggested activites, multiple intelligence projects, quiz questions and more abound for over 250 books (including several of mine).  This is a fabulous resource — stretching from preschool to high school — and one to bookmark, save, follow, tweet and re-tweet (I’m a twit, but Twitter-less), and share with friends.

Cheesy TV

Thrifty souls that we are, my husband and I recently dropped our cable subscription, opting instead for free internet TV.  With a laptop hooked up to our television and a Playstation 3, plus the likes of Netflix, Hulu, and PlayOn at our fingertips, we’ve been amazed at the variety of things available to watch, from movies and current first-run TV (we’re big “24” fans) to cheesy shows from our childhood like this one:

Gotta love those groovy ’60s graphics.

The Time Tunnel is a real howler, with ridiculously low-budget sets and special effects, plots with more holes than Swiss cheese, and buckets of earnest over-acting.  It’s gloriously fun.

Each episode sends Tony and Doug, our two heroes, hurtling to a new destination in time.  Somehow, they always manage to land right in the thick of things, whether it’s the Titanic on the night it hits the iceberg, the eruption of Krakatoa, or the Battle of Gettysburg, to name just a few.  And somehow, though the scientists back at mission control are unable to retrieve their colleagues, at the end of each show they manage to rescue them just in the nick of time and send them spinning on to new adventures.  Lots of somersaults are involved in this process, but despite whatever explosions, altercations, or upheavals they’ve just been engaged in, the pair emerge at each new destination looking remarkably fresh, with hairdos unmussed and dapper outfits (hip avocado green turtleneck for Tony; suit and tie for Doug) unsullied.  Impressive.

Spotting the frequent anachronisms is one of our favorite pastimes– for instance, who knew that ancient Jericho used plastic ’60s beads for room dividers?

Last night we watched “Chase Through Time,” a wonderfully goofy episode featuring a young Robert Duvall as a bad guy bent on destroying the tunnel.  At one point, our heroes catch up with him a million years in the future, where Duvall chews up the scenery with a silver colander on his head.

TV doesn’t get much better than this.

Pie-of-the-month club – Jane Kurtz

In celebration of a pair of pie-related books I have coming out later this year (Babyberry Pie and Pies & Prejudice see related post), I’m hosting a “pie-of-the-month-club” here on my blog.  Throughout 2010 I’ll be serving up a stellar selection of new books by some of my favorite authors and illustrators .  Oh, and pie is on the menu, too, of course.   Enjoy!


Jane Kurtz, signing books -- and other things -- in Chicagao

Here to kick off pie-of-the-month-club is Jane Kurtz. What delicious new treat have you been cooking up for readers, Jane?  I’d love to hear about your new book, and how it came about.

Lanie is the new character I invented for American Girl, and she has two books: Lanie and Lanie’s Real Adventures.  Okay…she’s also the doll of the year and she also has ACCESSORIES.  Pretty fun.  I never expect to walk down Michigan Avenue in Chicago, again, and see a huge window display of a character that popped out of my imagination.  I’d written for American Girl once before when they tried a line called “Girls of Many Lands” and contacted me to write a historical novel about a girl in Ethiopia, where I spent most of my childhood (and where many of my books are set).  I was doing an author visit in Indonesia in spring 2008 when the editor got back in touch and asked if I’d consider writing the books for the doll of the year.  Would I!  They wanted some kind of theme related to ecology.  I proposed a girl with outside genes, born into a family with inside genes, jealous of her best friend who is off in Indonesia helping save orangutans, who ultimately discovers the wide wonderful world in her own backyard.  Along the way, I learned all kinds of things about milkweed, monarchs, and Boston birds.

Do you have a favorite pie-in-the-sky moment as a writer?  One of those “I never dreamed it would happen to me” experiences?

I helped start a nonprofit, Ethiopia Reads, that has planted 43 libraries for children in Ethiopia.  In 2008, the founder, Yohannes Gebregeorgis, was named one of the Top Ten CNN Heroes, and I got to go to Hollywood and sit in the Kodak Theater while he was honored.  Afterwards, I said to Vanessa Redgrave, “Thank you for coming.”  She gave me a deep, earnest look and said, “No, thank YOU.  Thank you very much.”

Almost as sweet was when I was signing the new Lanie books in a bookstore in Boston.  A girl came in who only had money for two books.  She asked if she could read some of mine to decide.  (A tense audition if there ever was one.)  She came up to me a while later and said, “This is the best American Girl book EVER,” and bought it.

Has there ever been a moment in your career when you had to eat humble pie?  (I did, big-time, when as a fledgling, clueless author I showed up at a major chain bookstore for what I thought was just a signing and found to my chagrin was educator night – dozens of teachers waiting for me expectantly, and I hadn’t prepared any remarks…)

I used to say I knew how many people rejected me when I was trying to get my books published.  I just didn’t know how many were waiting to reject me after my books started to get published.  Probably the worst was when my first book, Fire on the Mountain, won an award and I went to New York City, all shiny faced, and hardly anyone showed up for the ceremony.

Now let’s REALLY talk pie.  What’s your favorite kind?  Do you have a favorite pie memory?  How about the recipe you’re sharing – can you give us a little background on it?

My dad was quite an outside guy.  He had a huge garden in Ethiopia and, once he moved back to Portland, Oregon, grew all kinds of berries in his back yard.  When he died just before Christmas, we opted not to serve the usual foods at the memorial and had pie instead.  Oh my… did my dad love pie!

The recipe I’m sharing is related to Lanie’s story.  Her little sister Emily will only eat things that can be cast as pizza.  (This was a set-up so the girls could plant a pizza garden later.)  So I’m sharing my favorite recipe for pizza pie!

Jane Kurtz’s Pizza Pie

1 package of yeast

1 cup of lukewarm water

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. sugar

1/4 tsp. basil

1/4 tsp. oregano

2 T. oil

1 egg yolk (optional)

2-1/2 cups flour

Put the package of yeast into a bowl with the cup of water, salt, and sugar.  Stir until the yeast dissolves.  Let the mixture rest five minutes.  Add the rest of the ingredients, slowly stirring in enough flour until the dough isn’t sticky.  Let it rest another five minutes.  Knead about fifty strokes.  Spread pizza sauce on top.  Cover with mozzarella cheese.  Add whatever pizza ingredients you like.  Bake at 425 degrees for 20-25 minutes.

Jane’s grandchildren love to help make pizza pie!

A pearl of a film

I’m donning my movie critic hat again here briefly to let everybody know about a FABULOUS documentary we watched over the weekend:

A Man Named Pearl came out in theaters in 2006, so obviously I’m behind the times here.  If you are like me, however, and missed it, you must go IMMEDIATELY to the video store (or Netflix, or the library) and track it down.  It’s one of the most inspiring and uplifting movies I’ve seen in a long time, and as empress of the world (well, OK, of this blog), I’m hereby designating it required viewing for artists everywhere.   Heck, for everyone, everywhere.

The son of a sharecropper, Pearl Fryar bought a home on the outskirts of Bishopville, S. C., a couple of decades ago, only to learn that because he was African-American, residents didn’t think he would keep his property up.

Boy did he prove them wrong.

Pearl taught himself topiary and worked night and day in an effort to win the local garden club’s “Yard of the Month” award.  The result (which has now spilled over into downtown Bishopville and many other destinations) is a visual delight, filled with whimsical creations that have been described as “Dr. Seuss meets Edward Scissorshands.”  Pearl’s garden draws tourists from all over the world and has elevated him to the ranks of horticultural and artistic genius.

Part sculptor, part gardener, part philosopher, part philanthropist, Pearl Fryar is one of those rare human beings who lights up not only the screen, but also the corner of the world in which he’s been planted.

But I’ve given too much away already.  Watch it.  Please.  Trust me.