Stories that are More

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss

Movie Katniss: 100% better than Book Katniss

a drawing of a monster robot sculpture

Erik’s Donna Russell: 100% better than my description of Donna Russell

When is a story More than itself?  This question intrigues me.  CAN a story be More than itself?  I think so.  A story is always More when someone reads it, since the author and the reader are collaborating to make meaning, but I find it very intriguing to experience a story through more than one medium.  That’s a whole new kind of More.

In early January, I went to see CATCHING FIRE, the second installment of the HUNGER GAMES trilogy. Let it be known: I do NOT like these books.  Too bleak, too sad, too much negativity (I’ve never been a fan of dystopia, though). But, I have to grudgingly admit, I like the movies. A lot. Because the movies make the story More.

I don’t like Book Katniss. She’s cold and harsh (understandably so), and really mean to Peeta. But I like Movie Katniss–she grows and changes, and she can see what she’s doing to Peeta. When you add sensory dimensions (people, emotions, sights, sounds) to the images on the page, you increase the empathy factor about a thousandfold, and the fact that the HUNGER GAMES movies are wildly visual makes things even better. Dare I say I’m glad Suzanne Collins wrote the books, just so the movies could be made?  As an author, I cringe at that statement.  But at the same time, if someone ever made a movie about Gabe or Morgan, the story (in my opinion) could become More, because of the sights/sounds that the filmmaker would add to what already exists.

(This is not to say that movies *always* make books More.  Very often, movies of books are sucky, and reduce the impact of the story (making a story Less, I’d say)).

ORIGINAL FAKE, the novel I wrote last year, is an illustrated YA novel, and the illustrations make the story More. To me, that was the coolest part of working with my illustrator, Erik Johnson.  I’d write a scene or a character description, and Erik would draw what he saw, with his own ideas about the story and his thoughts about what readers did (and didn’t) need in a drawing.   It’s the wildest thing ever, to literally see your story.  I love it immensely.  And, in my opinion, the story is now More.  It’s also not just mine anymore—it’s Erik’s story, too.

Two others stories-made-More that I love: the films for both FIGHT CLUB and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST.  Both are excellent books, but the films add layers of meaning that enhance the books.  What about for you?  What are your experiences of stories that are More?  Maybe films, maybe graphic novels, maybe TV?  Please share with us.

Posted in books, help me, writing life | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Virtual reading to celebrate the Lambda Literary Awards–please join us!

Literary Event On Air
Four Minnesota authors who are finalists for the national Lambda Literary Award will be holding their local reading online using Google Hangout’s On Air feature. Readers can tune in from anywhere in the world and attend this live event or choose to watch an archived copy later on YouTube. The live event will be broadcast on Wednesday, May 22 at 6 p.m. For more information or to RSVP, go to Facebook event,, or Minnesota authors who have made the finalists for a Lambda Literary Award are:

Lambda Literary Finalists

Lambda Literary Finalists

  • Ellen HartRest for the Wicked, Minotaur Books. The latest Jane Lawless mystery has been called by Publishers Weekly, “Absorbing. . .A host of complex characters—all living full, rich, and dangerous lives—bolsters the brisk, suspenseful story.”
  • Kirstin Cronn-MillsBeautiful Music for Ugly Children, Flux Books. From School Library Journal, “Elizabeth Williams knows he has always been a guy, and if he can only get through graduation in a few weeks, he can begin his new life as Gabe.”
  • Molly Beth GriffinSilhouette of a Sparrow, Milkweed Editions. A historical lesbian young adult novel described by Publishers Weekly as, “Laced with evocative period details that give readers a taste of what it was like to come of age during the flapper era.”
  • Rachel GoldBeing Emily, Bella Books. The first young adult novel to tell the story of a transsexual girl from her perspective, described by Kate Bornstein as, “Powerful and empowering, with an optimistic message that we all need more of in our lives.”

Using Google Hangout’s On Air feature, the authors will read live and take questions via YouTube and Twitter.

“We’re delighted to be Lammy finalists with such a diverse offering of fiction and we wanted to make sure as many people could attend this reading as wanted to,” said Rachel Gold. “Holding it live and online means we can reach a greater audience but still keep the feeling that you’re sitting right in front of us as we read from our books and answer your questions.”

The Lambda Literary Awards ceremony will be held in New York City on June 3.  Click here for more information about the ceremony. For the full list of readings around the country, click here.

About the Lambda Literary Foundation

The Foundation nurtures, celebrates, and preserves LGBT literature through programs that honor excellence, promote visibility and encourage development of emerging writers. LLF’s programs include the Lambda Literary Awards, the Writers’ Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices, and our web magazine.

# # #

For more information or to schedule an interview, please contact  Deb Balzer  at You can also contact the authors directly at:

Ellen Hart:
Rachel Gold:
Molly Beth Griffin:
Kirstin Cronn-Mills:

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Rubber(s) and the road

a man wearing a body-covering condom wrapper

an interesting job to explain to others, yes?

He comes up next to me, opens his arms and says, “Give me a hug.”

Because I am his mom, I do.

And he shoves my head in his armpit, which makes both of us laugh until we can’t talk.

Thank god he uses a lot of Axe, and thank god he’s not too smelly yet, or it would be torture, which he still thinks it is.  I jab him in his ribs, and he lets me go, but we’re both still laughing.

I can see any of my guy narrators doing this same thing to their mothers, and I like that my kid is as random and quirky as they are.  But as a writer, I also put those narrators into funky situations—they drink, have sex, are shitty to people—and I don’t want my kid to go there.  I’m a complete hypocrite.

So far, my kid’s worst teenage problems are bad grades, rude behavior, and shutting out his parents, which are less serious things than STIs or recreational Adderall.   But things get confounding very quickly, no matter what’s going on.  More than once recently, I have stared at my kid while my brain skipped like a 45:  der der der what now der der der oh shit der der der.  It is not comfortable to be clueless.  It makes me feel like a fraud as a mom and a double fraud as a writer.  Shouldn’t I know what to do?  I’m supposed to understand teenagers, aren’t I?

Ha. Ha. Ha.

YA writers tend to include a lot of overreaction in their books, because it really happens and it’s also good writing.  We blow things out of proportion so the resolution is that much more satisfying.  But that kind of overreaction and tension sucks righteously in regular life.  I am guessing the stress with my kid will not wrap up as a book might, with a little relief in the negativity, a little hope in the darkness.   And what happens if there’s jail, addiction, or suicide?  It’s one thing to write it.  It’s another to live it.

It’s such a weird double life, to be the kid in the writing and the parent in real life.   And my kid and I are at the point where the rubber(s) meets the road–it’s his time to start behaving like the characters in my books, whether I like it or not.  When things are dark, I hope I’ll be strong and steady despite the anger and frustration, just like I want the parents in my books to be.  I’m 105% sure I’ll fall short of that ideal.  We get to revise book people, and life doesn’t have an edit button.

I also keep wondering if I’m taking his side enough.  Maybe not.  My son’s success at being obstinate is a biological trait he inherited from both sides (I especially see my dad in him), so it’s not like I didn’t expect him to Stick It To the Man.  It just sucks when I have to be The Man.

Really, I should have been a fantasy writer.  Maggie Stiefvater will never have to worry about her kids becoming Celtic water horses.  My kid was always going to become a teenager.


(Side note: we have condoms at our house, for him and any of his friends.  I may be a hypocrite, but I’m realistic, and very much into safety.)

Posted in adolescence | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Morrissey and graveyards: guest post by Rachael Hanel

photo of author Rachael Hanel

Photo by Nicole Helget

I met Rachael Hanel way back when–like WAY back when–when I was new to Mankato and she was new to my husband’s forensics team.  As soon as I met her, I thought, “This woman is a force to be reckoned with” (Rachael has no idea I thought that).  After she left the team, we didn’t have contact for many years–we were both busy doing our thing, which for her included journalism and an MA, and for me included a Ph.D. and a kid.  Then, in 2004, we were brought together as part of the same writing group, and I thought, “Wow, this woman is even more powerful!”  That statement has been proven true a zillion times over the last nine years, and her new memoir, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down, is proof positive of her tenacity, her spirit, and her ability to tell a really fantastic story.  I’ve learned so much from her!  I’m glad she’s here today.

I asked her to guest post about her musical muse (who also appears in BMUC), and why he matters to her.  I love her reasoning.


One of the many pleasures I got from reading Kirstin’s Beautiful Music for Ugly Children was the many mentions of music. Not only is BMUC a great story, but it also offers that little “extra” bonus for music fans. I’d imagine many of her readers latch onto and identify with the great songs Gabe plays during his radio show.

For this guest post, I thought a natural topic would be the writer’s use of music. My book, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, does not mention any music per se. Well, there are references to the piano and organ, but my family did not listen to popular music. We didn’t have anything against it: we were just more TV and talk radio people, with the CBS Evening News and WCCO-AM broadcasting into our southern Minnesota house in the 1970s and 1980s.

It wasn’t until I was in high school in the early 1990s that I entered the world of pop music. My best friend, Heather, and I listened regularly to KJ104 out of Minneapolis, which was an alternative music station. Through KJ and MTV’s 120 Minutes, I discovered Morrissey.

My book doesn’t even mention Morrissey, but I consider him an influence upon my writing nonetheless. If you don’t know much about Morrissey, music critics like to refer to him as the “pope of mope.” I disagree with that statement because I think it’s a surface proclamation, but that can be saved for another blog post. Morrissey—a member of The Smiths in the 1980s and who later launched a successful solo career—is known for singing about misery, heartbreak, and rejection. From him we get song titles such as “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and “The Last of the Gang to Die,” and lyrics such as “My one true love is under the ground” and “Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head.” What people see as dark and mopey, I see as based in reality.

It makes sense that I latched onto Morrissey’s music in 1993 and haven’t looked back since. My attraction to him wasn’t conscious—I didn’t think, “Wow, I love how much he sings about death.” But for a girl who grew up in cemeteries, whose dad was a gravedigger, who wandered graveyards and wondered about the people buried there, Morrissey’s music is a natural fit.

It took me 13 years to write my memoir. Morrissey was a constant companion during that time. I can’t help but to think that his musical sensibilities filtered into my writing. His lyrics settled into me, soaked through my skin, became an integral part of me.

I wanted to use these lines from The Smiths’ “Cemetry Gates” as an epigraph for my book, but Warner Bros. denied permission. (Boo, hiss!). I can’t think of anything better that perfectly captures the spirit of my book:

So we go inside and we gravely read the stones

All those people, all those lives

Where are they now?

With loves, and hates

And passions just like mine

They were born

And then they lived

And then they died

It seems so unfair

I want to cry  

* * *

We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, is now available from the University of Minnesota Press.

Rachael Hanel blogs at Find more information at her website,

Posted in books, epic-ness, literary greats, music, readers, writing community | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Guest blog post: Shelley Tougas on shifts between genres

photo of author Shelley Tougas

The smart, hilarious, wise Shelley Tougas


Friends, you need to make the acquaintance of Shelley Tougas.  She is wonderful in many ways, also very wise, and she writes in many genres, which contributes to her wiseness.  She is also the award-winning author of Little Rock Girl (when you see the photo, you’ll know who I mean) and Birmingham 1963 (same link as above), plus several other nonfiction texts.  Check out her thoughts about transitioning between genres, specifically edgy YA and middle grade.  Wise, I tell you.


Thanks, Kirstin, for the invitation to guest blog about leaping from writing for young adults to writing for middle grade kids.

The age of characters – as well as the readers – isn’t the only difference between YA adult and MG. Edgy is the four-letter word. The YA market has room for edgy books. MG is far more complicated.

I’ve written both genres, but so far, I’ve only published middle grade books. When editors read my YA novel, Unbecoming Grace, this was a typical response: Loved the book, but it’s too dark. One of the editors who called Unbecoming Grace too edgy was a panelist at a childrens book conference. During the panel, I raised my hand and asked how she felt about edgy, dark YA novels. She said, “Bring it on!”

So I brought it on. Apparently I brought it on too hard. Over and over, I heard it: Too edgy, too dark. Too dark, too edgy.

Now I’m writing for the middle grade market. I’ve published two MG nonfiction books involving the civil rights movement, Little Rock Girl and Birmingham 1963. The official level of interest for these books is grades 5-9. Civil rights obviously is a topic with plenty of darkness. While the editor didn’t want overly horrific descriptions, she wanted kids to understand it was horrific treatment. I think the books accomplish that goal.

Editors and librarians don’t expect – or want – MG to be a bunch of sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. Tween readers have diverse lives and a solid sense of the world’s problems. They like stories with characters facing real challenges. They have friends facing real challenges.

But the exploration of those issues requires a lighter touch. My new (still unpublished) MG novel deals with single parents, prison, kids in trouble, and poverty. There’s a lot of humor, though, and the issues are sketched instead of fully drawn. Bad things happen in the book, but, if you think about it like a movie, they mostly happen off screen. The scenes played candidly in the novel are the characters’ reaction and their journey.

Every rule has its exceptions. I’m certain readers could identify many MG novels with edgy characters and dark stories. Bridge to Terabithia deals with death. Coraline gave my daughter nightmares—for weeks. I just stared reading When You Reach Me. The first pages, and the marketing copy, suggest it’s a dark plot. Just how dark? I’m about to find out.

The point, I think, is to respect the age group and not burden it. For those middle-grade kids, the world is smaller while their minds are wide open. Write your story without limitations. Then go back through it with your finger on the delete key.

Posted in adolescence, audience, readers | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

The 12 Gifts of YA, #12: joy

a gold record

BEAUTIFUL MUSIC hits it big!

See this gold record?  It’s BEAUTIFUL MUSIC FOR UGLY CHILDREN and my Sisters In Ink (my writing group) gave it to me.  Know what I felt when I opened this gift?  Pure joy.


british fans outside a book store with HP 7

See those Harry Potter fans?  That’s joy they’re holding in their hands.  Nothing else you could call it.

Maybe it’s cheesy to say, but writing is joyous to me, as are the people that come with writing (imaginary ones, librarians, readers, colleagues, etc., see also the rest of the 12 Gifts).  It’s my own way to make magic.  Yeah, it’s hard, and the book biz is hard, but it’s still my ideal job, and it’s exciting and new every day.  If I had a better descriptor than “joyous,” I’d use it, but I don’t.  Joy is the bedrock of all 12 Gifts, and joy needs to be celebrated.

Happy holidays, friends. Thanks for doing your part to help me enjoy the 12 Gifts of YA.  What makes *you* joyous? Leave one last comment for a chance to win some books–I’ve got a lot to share. Winners, you will hear from me!

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The 12 Gifts of YA, #11: solitude

photo of a lake, with dandelion seeds

Big Stone Lake, standing in SD and looking at MN

Welcome to the final gifts of the 12 Gifts of YA!

Writing is an activity that can happen anywhere, right?  At coffee shops (absolutely), writers’ retreats (I like those too), and kitchen tables (sure thing)—all those times are great, because the activity around me makes my book active, too.   Want to know what’s *really* fantastic?  Lighting a candle, shutting the door, turning on the music, and not seeing anyone for six hours at a time.  I love the solitude that writing gets me.  I’m really not alone, because all my imaginary people are there, but sometimes they’re the best company of all.   And they’re easier to shush (sometimes) than living, breathing people.

When I’m alone, sometimes I imagine myself walking around with my characters while they go places.  Sometimes I shout with Morgan on her hillside.  Sometimes I just close my eyes.  After the events in Newtown, CT on Friday, I have been spending my solitude sending healing, peace, and love to all involved with the Sandy Hook violence.

And if you ever doubt the power of books, check this fact from a CNN report:  “Janet Vollmer, a kindergarten teacher, locked her classroom doors, covered the windows and read a story to her 19 students to keep them calm.”   What else had even a chance of holding their attention until they could get to safety?  Such quick thinking on her part.

How are you and solitude?  Do you get along?  Let us know.  And please take a moment and send some healing thoughts toward all affected by Friday’s shooting.

(photo by the talented Adri Lobitz, who has her mother’s photographic eye)

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The 12 Gifts of YA, #10: stories


photo of Jake and Elwood Blues

Jake and Elwood Blues, the Sausage Kings of Chicago
(oops, that’s another favorite story)
(but I’m sure that sign isn’t an accident)

OK, raise your hand if you like stories.  See?  All of you.

I became an English major  because I liked to read (a fiscally irresponsible/dumb reason to choose a major). I haven’t made a lot of cash at it, but I get to read stories and teach stories as part of my JOB.  How fantastic is that?  Stories are my JOB.  And now I get to write them.  It’s kind of like winning the nerd lottery.

I have come to believe that humans need stories like we need water.  Think about how we surround ourselves with them, on every kind of device and screen (and some of us still love a paper page).  And, of course, some of them we cherish over others—we read/watch/listen to them over and over again. I secretly think that’s why I write:  I want my book to be someone else’s cherished story.  I want someone to think, “this book kicks ass.  I need this story in my life forever.”

See that story up there?  I discovered that film in high school, with my first friend (my brother) and his buddy, and I haven’t let go of it yet.  Why is The Blues Brothers one of my cherished stories?  1) It’s full of music; 2) it’s hilarious and random; 3) it was a gift from my bro.  I’ll love it until I die.

How about you?  What stories are gifts to you?

Come back next week for the final two gifts of the series!

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The 12 Gifts of YA, #9: book spotting


a book on a shelf

SKY on the shelf!

There are probably writers who get tired of seeing their book(s) in the wild, but that’s not me.  When it happens, it’s a giant surprise, partly because my books had smaller publishing runs so there aren’t that many around, and partly because it’s just surprising!  There’s a crazy sense of accomplishment that goes with it (for me), a “holy crap, I did that!” feeling.  It’s a huge, huge gift.

When I write a book, I don’t think about the reality of what will happen to it.  But once a book is launched, it *goes* somewhere, onto a shelf or into a book bag, and this fact is both disconcerting and beautiful.  When you send that last draft to your editor, your work is no longer yours.  Your words join up with the book peeps’ work and the product begins to live and breathe and do things all by itself.  Very weird.  So when you see that book in the wild, it’s slightly freaky.  You know it, but you don’t.  And you don’t know what adventures it’s had–or will have.

Book spotting in a library is a doubly huge gift. That photo came from Mankato West High School, where my kid goes to school.  If anybody ever takes it off the shelf, I pray they don’t know him, because he will flip his lid if someone says “Hey, I read your mom’s book, and it had sex in it!” He wouldn’t speak to me for a month.  Maybe longer.  And while that might sound like a good thing once in a while, it would suck after about 3 hours.

Do you engage in book spotting for your favorite authors (or for yourself)?  Tell us about it!

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The 12 Gifts of YA, #8: Pandora

the four horsemen of the apocalypse

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—
producing writerly angst since biblical times

When you’re a grown-up, you understand emotions differently than you do when you’re 15 (which is a good thing, lord knows).  But you have to hang out with the Four Horsemen of the Teenage Apocalypse as often as you can if you want to write a believable novel.  Who are those Horsemen?  Anger, Sadness, Anxiety, and Love.  If your protagonist is a teenager, the Horsemen must ride along with every single move your character makes.  (Let’s call the Four Horsemen a bonus gift of the 12 Gifts–they’re a pretty good present, too.)

There’s one trick with the Four Horsemen: you have to find a way to get back to your *own* apocalypse-bringers, not anybody else’s.  You need a method to find them.  Know what mine is?  Music, of course (for more on this idea, all you need is this, but you could also read this, too).  Specifically, it’s listening to this man:

photo of phil collins

The 80s version of Phil Collins

My Phil Collins Pandora station gets things galloping every time.  Phil is crossed with every sort of 80s pop I can think of (Thompson Twins, Eurythmics, Van Halen), and my teenage years come flooding out of my computer speakers whenever I click it on.  Thank god for that, because (despite my last post), some days my teenage version of those Four Horsemen are far, far away.  So thank you, internet gods, for Pandora.  I need it.

How about you?  How do you get your Horsemen moving?

Posted in 12 gifts of YA | 4 Comments