Author Archives: andyspandy2012



The other day I went to a tapas restaurant with friends. (I know, I know. I should have been home getting my blog post in on time). One of the offerings was Brussels sprouts with crunchy garbanzo beans. This was the winner, the first thing we agreed on as a menu choice and the dish we enjoyed most. Later the extreme weirdness of this hit me. Who could ever have expected the revival of the Brussels sprout? In my childhood the sprout (by which we meant the Brussels sprout and not the alfalfa sprout) was associated with British dreariness, with chilblains and boiled wool and The Two Ronnies. It was the last vegetable I would ever have expected to make a come-back.
So what’s next? Blancmange? Steamed puddings? Vegetable marrow?
More to the point, what is the Brussels sprout of children’s books? What was once a staple and then fell out of favor and disappeared? I think it’s the full-length biography. Back in the days before the Dewey Decimal System abandoned the number 921 the biography section of a children’s library was chock-full of booklength, cradle-to- grave biographies for the middle grade reader. Some of them were in series (I was particularly fond of those orange ones when I was a kid) but many were one-offs, written by somebody who did rigorous biographical research and crafted a version of a life that was likely to resonate with young readers.
What happened? My impression is that we now consign biography almost entirely to picture books or easy reads. I checked this out in the latest Hornbook Guide. There are 58 biographies. Only five of them are longer than 150 pages.
One of the things that was wrong with the Brussels sprouts of my youth was that they were presented as good for you. Maybe that’s what happened to biography. It became good for you. Inspiring. Aspirational. Soaked in adult approval.
What was the secret of the recent Brussels sprout revival? Reviewing current recipes I have come up with the answer. Bacon. It’s time for a full-length biography renaissance. What’s the literary equivalent of bacon? I leave this question with you.


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Plot on a Peg

In April Susan F. talked about how each book needs to find its own way.  I found this comforting.  Finding our stories.  Does it ever get any easier?  Are there really writers who find the one true way and stick to it? The desire line approach, the colored pencil diagramming, the stick-it-all-in-a-blender strategy.   For me every book seems to demand its own working method.  When I’m done with a solid first draft I think, “Okay, now I’ve got it.  I know how to write a novel.”  However when all the hurlyburly’s done and I’ve started a new project I can’t even remember what worked before.

So.  Last month I was in the Museum of London.  They have an exhibit about the Rose Theatre.  The Rose was built in 1587 and was the first place that Shakespeare’s plays were staged.    One of the artifacts in the museum is a document that hung on a peg backstage.  It was a list of entrances, exits and props.  What was this called?  The plot!

This discovery has led me to inventing a new idea about plot.  What about an outline that simply listed the characters and the objects in each scene?  What would be revealed from such a bare bones listing?  What would happen to a plot were one to introduce an alpine chicken orchid or a shingle froe to a stage?  I’m going to call this writing approach “Start With The Stuff.” You heard it here first.

Sarah Ellis





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Book to Screen

How I Live Now:  the movie

I’m probably the kind of movie-goer that film makers detest. Original script?  I’m putty in your hands.  Based on a novel? Not so much.  While I theoretically understand that films have different conventions and possibilities than novels I’m so loyal to the books I love that I approach their film incarnations with my shoulders weighed down by chips.  Therefore I went to see How I Live Now (Oct. 2013, UK, Saoirse Ronan from Atonement) with trepidation. The novel by Meg Rosoff is one of those books that I would give a minor limb to have written.   But director Kevin Macdonald won me over in about two minutes. The movie is smart, searing, tightly plotted, thoughtful, and paced for the non-hyper viewer. It trusts its story. The acting is convincing, with Anna Chancellor in the small role of Aunt Penn being particularly spot-on.

It got me thinking, though, about taboos in fiction and in film.  Three elements from the novel are omitted in the film, only, as far as I can figure, because they are controversial.

The first is that Edmond, a fourteen year old English schoolboy, and unlikely male romantic lead, smokes.  Narrator Daisy tells us this detail in a hilarious run-on sentence on p. 3 of the novel. She’s shocked by it but she also finds it a bit cool.

Second difference is that in the novel Daisy and Edmond are real cousins.  The film goes out of its way to assure us the relationship is that their mothers were close friends, not sisters.  Why does this matter?  Daisy and Edmond fall in love and have sex.  Is this regarded as incestuous? Marriage between cousins is legal in Britain (and indeed Canada) but not in many American states.

The third detail I noticed is that in the novel Aunt Penn leaves her family of four (eldest sixteen years old) alone for a few days while she goes on a work trip.  Aunt Penn assures Daisy that the “children” will take good care of her.  It’s all very easygoing.  In the movie a character called Sally is introduced, as someone who is going to come and babysit.  (Sally never turns up.)

The final difference works the other way.  In both novel and movie Daisy has a gun.  In the novel she fires one shot, to put a wounded animal out of its misery.  In the movie she uses it in self-defense to kill an attacker.

My conclusions?

In movies it is not okay to show smoking, sex between cousins or a parent who leaves her children unattended overnight.  But in movies it’s okay to show a child killing someone with a gun.

On a lighter note, it is also not okay in movies to have a male lead who looks, and I quote Daisy’s description in the novel, like he cut his hair himself “with a hatchet in the dead of night,” has arms as thick as a dog’s leg and generally resembles “some kind of mutt.”  My Edmond doesn’t look like George MacKay, but that’s probably just me.\

And Happy Boxing Day.




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Wee and Free


This is our neighborhood little free library.


  I built it, with help and from a kit, after getting home from the July residency.  After all that intensive thinking, talking and listening I sometimes feel the need to get my hands on some non-metaphorical tools.

In the two weeks since its gala opening the collection has turned over almost 100%, on the” take one leave one” circulation principle. It is now multimedia (there are a couple of dvd’s) and multilingual (there’s a French book).   I think that’s a mark of success, as are the conversations that I overhear from my study window as passersby discover it.

 The librarian pleasures of this project are obvious.  I get to be architect, contractor, CEO, collections librarian, head of the friends of the library and janitor.  The writerly pleasure is a reminder of the durability of printed books.  Long after our books are off the radar, out of print even, they live on, in the secret underground world of used books. They have stopped appearing on our royalty statements but they are still, as Martine put it in the previous post, one soul speaking to another. 

 What I’d really like to tackle now is a treehouse but I suppose there would be liability issues.  I guess I’ll stick to libraries.


For more information on the little free library movement see:



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Grab Bag by A.M. Jenkins

Note:  This is Amanda’s post, not Sarah’s.  Sarah is merely the conduit.

As I work away on The Novel That Is Beyond My Capabilities But I’m Damn Well Going To Write It Anyway, I find myself very much looking forward to the upcoming residency. Why? The lectures given by graduating students. Grad lectures are always a juicy grab bag of writing topics; it’s like getting to pick the brains of 20+ very smart writers who have read and thought about things that I either haven’t gotten around to, or am completely unaware of.


I remember in July 2012 sitting in Noble Hall listening to Mary Winn Heider’s lecture on the use of dreams as a narrative tool. At this point, TNTIBMCBIDWGTWIA had a single dream stuck in there somewhere around the one-quarter mark. I say “stuck” because it stuck out like a sore thumb, and when I thought about it I had a lump in my stomach knowing that it was just plain dumb, a cheap way to shoehorn in backstory. But as I listened to Mary Winn, it began to occur to me that the dream (which I loved very much, although I was embarrassed about it) could actually be used to deliberately drive the story forward.


So here I sit a year later, with four dreams in the story, each one serving the triple purpose of providing backstory, raising stakes, and cranking up the emotional tension for my MC (and, it is to be hoped, the reader). 


And as I finally (finally!!!) reach and pass the tipping point of understanding TNTIBMCBIDWGTWIA, so that I am now merely floundering in the usual writing sense rather than in desperate, give-it-up-you-fool-you-will-never-be-able-to-write-this-book panic, I recall with much gratitude Ingrid Sundberg’s mind-blowing lecture on the architecture of story (you can read some of Ingrid’s ideas at her blog: One of the keys that has helped me move past my ms’ tipping point was seeing my story as not as one plotline, but two–two questions/hooks that have to be kept in the reader’s mind, two that can have their own (perhaps multiple) “threshold scenes” as the book moves into the middle and beyond. 


Here’s Ingrid, bringing to our attention a quote by John Truby, from The Anatomy of Story:


Three act structure and Aristotilean terms (i.e. rising action, climax, denouement) “are so broad and theoretical as to be almost meaningless…they have no practical value for storytellers…[They are] surprisingly narrow…extremely theoretical and difficult to put into practice…Three act structure is hopelessly simplistic and in many ways just plain wrong.”


To this I say, “Yeah. Yeah! Thank you, Ingrid!”


I never know, going into residency, which lectures will have a seed that sparks an idea for me, or gets me over a writing hump, or introduces me to a new writer, or affirms an instinct I was leery of trusting. Sure, we get a list of lecture titles and descriptions beforehand, but you never really know. The deliciousness of the grab bag lies in the range and depth of its surprises.


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This spring the garden got away on me.  In this west coast rain forest if you glance away for a couple of nanoseconds in April the gangland boss aka morning glory marshals the forces of dead nettle, buttercup and dandelion and declares that the wild rumpus shall start.  An early and repeated exposure to The Secret Garden instilled in me a fondness for weeding.  But even so, I was daunted by the task that awaited me in late May.  I set aside an entire day, suited up, grabbed my trowel and set to.  The pile of weeds grew and grew and by mid  afternoon my spiritual kinship with Mary Lennox was wearing thin. Then a word popped into my head.  Biomass.  This is a word that I have only recently encountered and embraced.  Biomass, I said to myself.  I’m certainly generating a lot of biomass today.  Wonder if this biomass will fit into the compost bin.  It was oddly comforting. I was reminded of a moment when I was reading a collection of monster poems to a preschooler.  This kid kept peeking at the monster illustration on the cover of the book and then slamming the book open so as to hide it.   It obviously both frightened and intrigued her.  Then one of the poems included the word “ogre.”  She closed the book again and pointed to the cover.  “Is he an ogre?”  “Definitely,” I said.  Her whole body relaxed, the monster put firmly in his place by naming. It seems as if finding the precise word is as good a coping tool at 61 as it is at 4. Maybe our fundamental job as writers is as simple as this: finding the right word and passing it along.


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         Image   A couple of weeks ago I got an invitation from the Smucker’s Jam Company. They were launching a “Breakfastime Story Promotion” and they wondered if I would like to write a five page, 250 word story for an in-store booklet.

             I was tempted for four reasons. I like jam.  I always enjoy the challenge of writing to a strict formula. As a cereal box reader from way back, I’m in favor of insinuating narratives into unlikely places.  And, finally, you’ve got to hand it to a company that bravely continues to call itself Smuckers.  (I noted right away that they did not want the story to be in rhymed verse.)  So I sent away for more information and guidelines.

The story was to feature a six or seven year old girl.  Easy-peasy; these are my people.  It was to include a reference to Smucker’s jam.  Well, duh.   Two to three sentences per page. Okey-dokey.  Three of the five scenes were to include a “special moment.”  This was getting a bit tougher.  I’m allergic to the word “special,” but hey, I can pop an antihistamine.

             Small print:  they would retain copyright in the universe in perpetuity.  Well, all right, I just won’t tell the Writers’ Union of Canada.  The writer might be asked to make television and/or live appearances.  Steady on!  For a 250 word story that will be sitting on the edge of a grocery story shelf??  Isn’t this being a bit grandiose? But the possibility is also kind of kicky. I’ve never been on a genuine talk show.

             But then, dear reader, I hit the wall.  It was this line:  “The story should be brief but meaningful and resonate with moms of children aged 6-7.”  What about the children?  Shouldn’t it resonate with the children?  Not a mention. 

            Of course, silly me.  This is not about children at all. If you’re clever and lucky when you write a picture book you can do an end-run around the commercial popularity of mom-stroking and mom-reassurance and actually write for the child but not when you’re writing a shelf-ender. I bailed.           

            By the way, I was telling this story to a friend in the grocery business and she told me the name of the product ads as pictured above.  They are called “wobblers.”  Don’t you feel enriched knowing that?


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