I had the opportunity yesterday to participate as a faculty member at Writespace’s Writers’ Family Reunion. Writers of all stripes from all over Houston (and beyond) gathered at Silver Street Studios to meet, greet, and learn about the writing process — from how to get started, through how to keep going and included the multiple paths now available for publication.
Meeting a writer new to Writespace, who was warm and wonderful. So glad to know you Hilda Davis!
Speed Dating for Writers: I am sorry I did not climb up on something to get an arial view of this activity. Michael put down a masking tape map of Houston on the floor of the warehouse, handed out a survey for everyone to fill out that would help them network. He first grouped writers by their home location to say “Howdy, what do you write? Wanna meet up sometime? Here’s my contact info.” Then he moved them to about five different groupings, including genre, experience level, and several other fun options, leaving them enough time to say again, “Howdy, what do you write? Wanna meet up sometime? Here’s my contact info.” Brilliantly done — and fun to boot.
Then on to browse the sponsor tables and play writerly games.
The neverending story was hilarious. Pull a slip out of a hat and write a sentence inspired by your slip that builds on the previous line in the story. Try working “fern” into an intergallactic story that includes a squished alien caterpillar.
Poetry building included meg-size magnet words on a sliding metal door. Pretty soon we were scavenging each others’ haiku for enough words to complete our own verse.
First page critiques were a lot of fun. The energy of a new writer is something that fuels my fire for writing. Pam and Richard at our table both had so much going on that I really wanted to read more! (There was one other woman whose name I didn’t catch who wrote a wonderfully evocative scene!) K.J. Russell and I combined forces to provide critiques for these three aspiring writers.
Then on to breakout sessions. Over the next two hours, panels of local published writers discussed:
My Journey as a Writer: What I Wish I Knew When I Started
Writing Your First Novel
How to Create (Or Join!) a Great Critique Group
Publishing 101: An Overview of Options for New Writers
Reading Like a Writer
The Benefits of Promiscuous Art-Making: How Exploring New Creative Mediums Can Vitalize Your Writing
Now I can’t wait for Writefest the first weekend in May when I get to gather more fuel for my writing engine.
It took me a long five years to write BURNED, the Pony Club-based middle grade equestrian mystery now available from ShopPonyClub.org and Amazon.com(Be sure to use the SMILE program and designate Pony Club as the recipient!) Even during the first draft of the book, I knew that capturing Sophie’s voice was going to take a lot of effort.
I have been a twelve-year-old girl, but that was a long time ago. Fortunately, there are a lot of Pony Club members I could use as example of how that age thinks and speaks. Many people think that writing a children’s book is easier than writing for adults. I’ve done both. I can say definitively that writing a child’s point of view is much harder to capture once you’ve gotten to full adulthood. It was discouraging, to write that first draft and find that I had to toss the entire thing. Despite my best effort at the time, Sophie sounded too old for the audience, and not at all like someone I would have liked as a friend. Then there was the story itself.
The original problem I set for Sophie was one that I thought all horse kids would relate to: the possibility of losing her horse, Cricket. She was supposed to figure out how to raise the money for her partial lease, something I know in my heart a Pony Club kid could do. (For one thing, Pony Club families support one another, and I suspect her Club or Center would help her through that financial spot in her life.) But when I pitched that story to editors, many of them said they didn’t believe a 12 year old could raise that kind of cash. Little did they know the support of the horse community, or the resourcefulness of a horse-crazy young woman.
After a Big House editor told me that the problem needed to be world-changing, I faced a choice: toss yet another draft of the book and quit, or try a third time.
I went home and burned down the barn. Not literally of course. I’m rather attached to my barn. But one of the barns in the book caught fire. As much as it hurts me to admit it, that pesky editor was right. It made my pulse race to write that scene. Hard work to write the book from the beginning again, but worth it. BURNED is a much more exciting read with that kind of danger added.
Once I made that change in the plot, instead of raising money being the sole problem, Sophie must also grapple with the question of adults behaving badly. When her mother is accused of wrongdoing, the very real threat to Sophie’s relationship with Cricket becomes secondary to her anxiety about her mom. Fortunately, Sophie has great friends, and the full support of her Uncle Charlie, and her father, even though he lives all the way across the country from Sophie’s home in Maryland.
Sophie is smart, and strong, both outside and in, just like the Pony Club members I work with as a Chief Horse Management Judge. Horsemanship teaches all kinds of mad skills, and I gave Sophie many of the ones I see most: ability to put together facts and come out with a logical answer, resourcefulness, and I also added the loyalty to friends that serves so many of our barn families so very well.
As part of the story, I had to test Sophie. I did that by leaving enough clues about several possible bad guys so that she had to work for the solution to her mom’s problem. When I got to the end of the book, it was a relief to find that she was up for the job.
At my recent signing at Championships in Kentucky, several young riders came up to tell me how much they enjoyed the book. They liked Sophie’s resilience and her ability to pick herself up and get back on the horse no matter what happened to her. Just like writing this book three times before I got it right, Pony Club kids try, try, and try again until they succeed.
This Blog post originally ran on the Pony Club Pizza, where Pony Club piles on the knowledge.
At Pony Club Rallies, I sometimes work with young riders who come to their safety check not knowing what bit is in their horse’s mouth, or why their trainer has told them to use it. (Just like when flying in an airplane, Pony Club requires a courtesy safety check before any rider gets on the horse. Some of the kids tell me riding feels like flying, so I love that that we too offer a safety check!)
Why is it important for the child to know what bit they have in their horse’s mouth? For one thing, it gets them thinking about how the equipment they use affects the horse’s comfort and compliance.
If they have a simple loose ring snaffle in the horse’s mouth, it’s pretty forgiving of young hands that may tug against the bit even when they don’t mean to. That is considerate of the horse’s comfort and will help keep a gentle horse listening to their rider.
However, if they are going cross country and the horse has a tendency to run through the rider’s hands, then something with better braking power, such as a kimberwick, may be in order.
Below is a puzzle I put together for young horse-lovers to help them learn the names of different bits. Enjoy!
I am so pleased to be sharing a signing with Kay Finch at Murder by the Book on June 10, 2017, 4:30 pm. Kay and I are in a critique group together, one that has been in existence for 25 years. Kay has been more constant than I, since my -trying-to-quit-writing stage took me away from the group. (Quitting didn’t stick for me — too many ideas!) Trying to find a good theme to tie together her lovely adult mystery, The Black Cat Sees His Shadow, and my middle grade mystery, BURNED, was giving us fits, we hit on the critique group as the constant between us. I have belonged to several critique groups over the years, and each and every one of them has had something good to offer me.
Other published authors in our critique group are:
Dean James writing as Miranda James, author of the Cat in Stacks mysteries
Anne Sloan, author of several historical mysteries set in Houston Heights
There have been a good many more over the years (I am not the only one who came and went, either graduating from the group for one reason or another) And there are two actives who write a mean book who have not yet made a sale. (But they will. I know it’s just a matter of time.)
With just a month to go before my middle grade novel featuring a trio of horse-crazy kids who have to come together to solve a mystery is released, I figured it’s time to release the cover art. I kinda love it and hope kids do too.
Oconee Spirit Press
138 pages Trade Paper $9.95 Ebook 3.99
Pub Date: June 2017
Sophie would be the happiest girl in the world if she could spend every day with her friends Yasmine and Tanner, riding her beloved horse, Cricket. But she stands to lose all of that and more when her mom is accused of theft and arson. As the evidence piles up, and friends turn away, Sophie scrambles to clear her mother’s name–and soon finds herself in the middle of a hot mess.
Julie Herman is the author of the Three Dirty Women mysteries and as a Chief Horse Management Judge for the United States Pony Clubs.
“For mystery lovers, horse-mad readers or those who enjoy a good story about friends and family, this is the book for you.”
Sara K Joiner
author of AFTER THE ASHES
“BURNED, Julie Herman’s new middle-grade mystery, is a horse-lover’s dream, with a suspense-filled story that moves faster than a racehorse. Twelve-year-old Sophie is a strong female character who’s determined to uncover an injustice, even though she may lose her favorite horse, Cricket—and possibly her life. Couldn’t put it down!”
Author of award-winning THE CODE BUSTERS CLUB series.
I had the pleasure of talking with talended set and costume designer Michelle Ney about her designs. If you are from the Austin area and have the chance to see one of the shows she’s designed — run get tickets!
Thanks to Mary Saums for inviting me to post on the Femmes Fatales blog today. News! I have a middle grade mystery BURNED. Sophie Allen is a horse-crazy girl. When a local fire threatens her family, her barn-friends team up to help her solve the mystery.
I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing a talented set designer for Arts & Culture Texas. The full interview with Ryan McGettigan is in this month’s edition of the magazine. Go poke around the issue. There are some really terrific articles this month!
Most Patient Husband and I just got back from a wonderful National Geographic trip to Cuba. For a woman who spent most of her childhood hiding under her school desk for five minutes once a week in emergency-we-might-get-bombed-by-the-Soviets-who-have-a-toehold-in-Cuba, this was a big deal.
We don’t often get to go on big trips like this. It’s hard to leave the farm, but my terrific “little” brother came down from Ithaca to be on standby for Dad – and to farm-sit for us so that we could travel worry-free.
I suppose because I was one of those children who had too much imagination, while under my particle board desk it occurred to me that the Cuban children had desks too, and they probably spent time under them wondering, as I did, if they were strong enough to deflect bombs. So when Cuba opened up for cultural exchanges, I thought I’d better go find out.
Right now official travel from the US to Cuba is restricted. You can’t hop a flight from Houston and sip the ubiquitous welcome cocktail at Hemingway’s favorite bar an hour later. Right now you have to go prepared to learn through a cultural exchange that requires a 40 hour-a-week program. (The tour guide said that they have to document attendance and that the only reason for absence from the sessions is for illness. But there are plenty of welcome cocktails!) Or you can fly to another country that allows travel to Cuba and fly in and out from that location. But not officially. (OK, so as of 3/15/16, right after I posted this, the law changed. Stay tuned, more changes to come, I’m sure.)
So, we flew to Miami to catch the charter flight with the rest of our group. Once there, we had the opportunity to catch up with some extended family, who happen to be Cubanos in exile. These family member’s baby brother was our brother-in-law. (Sadly, we lost our brother, Ralph, and their brother, Mike, many years ago.)
These two, brother and sister, also still hate Fidel with such a passion that it transforms them when they talk about all that they lost in the revolution. It is hard to me to imagine how, in one day, the family went from privileged to pariahs. Their father was arrested and hauled off, and the family home and his medical practice became community property. Aside from one impassioned short outburst, neither wished to discuss what they had gone through beyond expressing gratitude for the Catholic church, which got them out through a program that helped to transport 1,000 children to America. The sister said that she prefers to dwell on the good life she’s had here, and the fact that she worked hard and was successful in that work. They no longer have family in Cuba itself, and have no wish to go there while “The Monsters” are in charge.
With this in mind, Cuba was a revelation. Or, as our tour coordinator, Carol, said, “In Cuba, everything es complicado.” The people there, far from appearing to be under the heavy fist of a Monster, looked happy. The free health care, minimal subsidized food rations, and excellent free education in a wide-range of subjects were frequently mentioned during our tour. The fact that there are long lines for everything and that there are shortages thanks to the 60 year-long economic blockade were also mentioned multiple times. Our guide, Rigoberto, “Rigo” for short, was amazingly open and honest with his answers to some pretty tough questions our group asked him. While even five years ago his answers to things like, “Are there shortages?” would have resulted in a response of, “I love my job,” now he is able to respond honestly with, “Yes.”
In his early 30’s, Rigo lived through what the Cuban’s euphemistically call “Período especial” or the Special Period in Times of Peace. This began in 1989 when the Soviet Union’s economy went boom. Imagine a world in which there was no gasoline, not much food available, and that your immediate neighboring country had a blockade in place that prevented many other countries from coming to your aid. It was dire. Rigo joking said he would have been over six feet tall if he had been able to have adequate nutrition. But it’s not funny because it’s probably true. I imagine that Rigo’s generation will exhibit many of the traits that children of the depression era here in the US have. When he mentioned that many of the animals in the zoo were airlifted out of Cuba because they were starving, my heart leapt. “Oh good. They saved the animals!” Then I realized that standing before me was a boy who was not saved. A boy who was not sheltered from that deprivation and who indeed had suffered greatly. This very child grew into a young man who is willing to work taking tourists around Cuba because he recognizes the difference between governmental policy and the people who live in the country which wielded it. Such is the spirit of the Cuban people.
We went to several schools and after-school programs, both government-supported and private, where the arts flourish.
Music is everywhere. The Little Beehive is a government sanctioned after-school dance and singing program for youth who are interested in becoming dentists, engineers, teachers and other professionals. (We asked.)
The Benny Moré Art School in Cienfuegos is a feeder school for the professional colleges. The program we saw there featured second grade dancers who choreographed their own really cool contemporary dance piece, an eight year old guitarist who nearly made me weep, and paintings done by school children that were so good I couldn’t take my eyes off of them.
One private arts organization in Havana had taken over a former municipal water tank and created a community arts center with free arts and music classes. Their education system works.
Can’t speak personally for their medical system because happily we did not need it. But…free health care. Not rationed. They send medical teams throughout the world to both teach and provide health care and they do it for free. Gotta say, that sounds better than good to me.
And music. Every single restaurant we enjoyed had people singing. (And getting a living wage for it! Imagine that.) The sound of music was on every street corner and people danced everywhere.
Our last night was truly special. A rooftop farewell party at the hotel. Then down to the street to go to a Paladar for supper. Our guide surprised us with a fleet of colorful Buicks, Fords, Chevys and even a fire engine-red Edsel (our ride!) We cruised the entire length of the Malecón and back again. We arrived at our destination, a crumbling specimen of the architectural grandeur that is Havana.
Up we went, following an Italian marble staircase through a once-grand receiving room, and up to the top floor where a bustling restaurant serves elegant 5 star cuisine from a very modern commercial kitchen. Keeping in mind that four buildings a day collapse in Havana, (Note: My wonderful brother, an engineer, pointed out that this was probably an exaggeration. 4×365 is a lotta buildings going boom. So, while I did hear this statistic while in Havana, it’s probably four a month or four a year rather than four a day.) I was happy that this one at least seemed to be sturdy, even if the windows lacked glass, the marble handrails had fallen into disrepair and that most of the decorative details on the walls desperately needed varnish or a coat of paint. The photo I took of our group enjoying this feast summed up Cuba for me. Cuba’s buildings may be decaying, it’s people may have suffered heartbreaking loss and deprivation, but they are strong, and celebrate what they have rather than what they have lost.
While I never remembered to ask about the desks, and how sturdy theirs were, I learned quite a bit.
For goodness sake, ignore media blathering about what’s going on down there. Go. See it for yourself. Make up your own mind about what Cuba is and is not. Heck. Go anywhere and do the same. Learn stuff. Think for your own self. You’ll come home with a new appreciation for what home means and how very lucky we are to live where we do.
Vonna from my SCBWI group has been after me to get some news up on my website. So here is a new blog post to fill the gap between my last bylined article and news about BURNED, my upcoming Middle Grade book about a young equestrian who solves a mystery and saves her mother.
But until I have FIRM news, a blog post awaits my fingers.
Most Patient Husband turned to me one evening this week during a particularly interesting television show that had more plot twists than the Longleat Hedge Maze (In Wiltshire, England. Go, get lost, it’s great!) and said, “You do this. How do you come up with those crazy twists in your work?”
I recognized the question as a variant on one of a writer’s most frequently heard questions: Where do you get your ideas?
I used to answer, “Woolworth’s.” I stopped when the average person asking the question no longer knew what a Woolworth’s was. (So sad to remember things that others never experienced. The soda fountain counter. The candy racks. The rack of 75 cent paperbacks by the cash register. As usual, I digress.)
I tried to answer, but wound up just happily soaking up his admiration because it came at such a great time for me. The answer is complicated and admiration thin on the ground just now, so it seemed best.
Then I ran across a photograph I took at the Austin Cathedral of Junk and I realized. That’s my brain! I construct ideas out of bits and pieces of life that other people toss off and leave behind. The woman in the coffeeshop who exclaimed, “There’s Italians in my blood!” The alleyway I walked along going to school as a child. The broken doll a toddler wouldn’t let go of in the grocery store. All of those converge in my imagination and create a story.
Writers are good at making connections. Connect the Italian family with a broken doll under the arm of a petite princess and send her down a dark alley and you’ve got an interesting story waiting to happen. Give it a whirl. It’s kind of fun.
Just to let everyone know that SOON, there will be news of a happy variety. Patience is a virtue.