Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Strangely Quiet

All is quiet and strange here in South Brooklyn after the storm.  I woke today to find our street untouched but for a few broken tree limbs.  Then I walked our neighborhood to find enormous trees overturned, Red Hook boarded and broken, trapped under water, and the toxic Gowanus canal overflowing.

Today I feel very fortunate.  We live on the waterfront, tucked in between the New York harbor and that canal.  It is a wonder that the ground slopes just right, to leave us elevated enough to reside in "Zone B", to escape what so much of this city has not.

Our offices are uncharacteristically silent and unreachable. Water has filled the subway tunnels. So the underground veins of New York City, it's lifeline, are empty.  There is no coming or going.  There is no timeframe for repair because there is no precedent.

My window looks out towards the harbor. In the distance I can see downtown Manhattan. Tonight, it is  completely dark.  

I am thinking of those who have lost so much.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Dreaming Still

So maybe, these weeks, I've been dreaming. Desperate to avoid news coverage, all the election shouting and slinging and an unimaginable tragedy on the Upper West Side.  

And it's possible I've been walking through my days with a singular focus, a steady determination to finish each task and move on to the next one without looking around me at all.  

And maybe it's been a bit like holding my ears, shaking my head, and la-la-la-ing, as I've needed to retreat, retreat, and ignore.

Now a Sandy storm is raging, wake up, Melissa, wake up. 

But before I do. Look. This statue in the Boston Commons.  And the famous Little Miss M fluttering through her living room. And, in a way, me.  Lighter and free-er and less worried and more like someone I used to be.

Friday, October 26, 2012

In Love with 'Humans of New York'

I'll never know how this site escaped me for so long but Humans of New York is my latest obsession.

This site, for me, IS New York City.  Photographer Brandon Stanton sees my city exactly as I see it. Heart-swelling. Pulsing. Complex. Alive.

There are a million places to go in New York and, yet, when people visit, I never know where to take them.    Maybe that's because the heart of New York is, above all else, its people. Brandon figured that out.

I am IN LOVE with this video. Such a romantic, perfect tribute to the city I love.  I hope you'll click on it (it won't let me share it here.)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Guest Post: Let Setting Emerge From Character

The lovely and talented Laurel Garver is taking over the blog today!   She's going to talk about one of my favorite topics, setting, and how she worked with it in her novel Never Gone.  

Setting is a key element of my novel, Never Gone, about a teen who is grieving the death of her British father, and must somehow build a life with her workaholic American mother. Danielle’s trip from the US to England becomes a catalyst for her to get to the bottom of family secrets. Setting also undergirds the story flow, as one of my reviewers on Amazon picked up: "From the sky-scrapers of New York, to the hills of England, Garver brings you on a lyrical journey that rolls with highs and lows, full of valleys of tenderness."

Thanks, Melissa, for the opportunity to talk about how I chose some of my settings and used a mix of research and imagination to bring them to the page.

The opening of Never Gone is set in New York City. Why not Philadelphia, since you live there?

My story decisions usually develop out of the characters, rather than the other way around. As I got to know my protagonist Dani’s parents, Graham and Grace, it became clear that no other place would work for them. Grace is a driven advertising executive who would never settle for working outside Madison Avenue. Making a living as a professional photographer—which is Graham’s career—requires proximity to the most potential purchasers of this kind of service, like ad agencies.
Honestly, though, New York City is only two hours away, and we have friends there who’ve been a great help answering my questions about family life in the city. I did five trips (combined with family fun) to chose Dani’s neighborhoods and gather sensory details.

How much are your New York locations real, and how much a fabrication?

Dani’s homes in Park Slope Brooklyn and the Upper West Side are based on real buildings. I was able to find real estate listings for her UWS high rise, including floor plans, which I adapted slightly.
Dani’s school Rexford Academy is a fabrication based roughly on a private school on 91st, though I place it in the West 70s. Her church is riff on All Angels in the Upper West Side, mixed with several Anglican/Episcopal churches I’ve visited in the US and Britain.

I think it’s important to make your fabrications realistic by drawing details from real places.

A majority Never Gone takes place in a rural English village, Ashmede. How did you choose the location? How real are your British settings?

I wanted the time that Dani spent in her late father’s hometown to challenge her strong identification with him. The setting had to be a big contrast from her very American, very urban home, so her dad is not only foreign, but rural.

I’d originally planned to set the story in the Cotswolds in the southwest near Wales, where I lived for a semester in college. But while I was researching and drafting, friends invited us to visit them in Durham, which is up north. When I discovered that folks from northern Britain face deep prejudice in the south, it made Graham’s back story even more compelling. He’d have a hard time breaking into photography in London because of his accent, and would more easily find work in the US. Americans don’t understand or really even hear regional differences among British dialects.

So that visit turned into a major research trip. I invented Ashmede (a popular name for streets, but no village bears it) from places I visited then, and a North Yorkshire village I stayed in during spring break as a student. Durham Cathedral, a real location I fell in love with on my research trip, is the backdrop for several chapters. I also set a chapter at Kings Cross Station, where all the northbound trains leave London. It worked nicely on a couple of levels, including Dani’s love of Harry Potter.

What advice would you give other writers about setting?

Remember that where you come from shapes who you are. Start with your character and do your best to follow logically where such a person would come from and where he or she would naturally chose to go from there.

Second, there is no substitute for real, on-the-ground research. Even if you choose to invent a town like I did, you need authentic details from that geographic area. What is the weather like? What unique topographical features (mountains, forests, deserts, etc.) affect daily life? What is local cuisine and how does it taste? How does the area typically smell and sound? Is the culture informal and inviting or uptight and suspicious? What do the locals do for fun? What slang expressions are typical? You can’t get any of that information from Google street view.
Laurel Garver is the author of the Never Gone, a young adult novel about a grieving teen who believes her dead father has returned as a ghost to help her reconcile with her estranged mother.

Add it on Goodreads. It is available at Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, CreateSpace.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

(Not Nearly) Wordless Wednesday: Something Inside Me Stirs Enough

I saw this little girl the other day and when I took this photograph it felt like stealing. I don't know. Look at her. She's stars and hearts and purple and sparkle.  All the things you can not possibly take.

It reminded me of something I wrote a while ago. A manuscript that lost its way.  The moment you fall in love with something you can not keep.

I wake up in the window, tucked in the corner of the sill, like a house plant you forget to water. The glass has become a pillow, the only place I can actually rest my head and sleep.  My cat curls up on the old blue shed across the way, in someone else's yard, under a canopy of bare trees and electrical wires.  I call him mine but, of course, he isn't.  He belongs to a stranger.  I haven't known him until now, until I stopped attending school, stopped spending afternoons in practice rooms and evenings with Graca as I played and she paced.

But now I see that he is there each day unless it rains.  He is fat, which means he's well-fed by this stranger, and he bunches himself up on the same spot of sun for hours. He has claimed it and I have claimed him.  Something inside me stirs enough to feel as though I've fallen in love. 

I place my hand against the glass, try to feel the winter cold in my palm.  I wonder if he is as numb to the cold as my hand is, how he endures such long hours in frigid temperatures, if the swelling sun is enough to keep him warm. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


I enjoy reading and owning physical cookbooks.  I can spend hours in a bookstore running my fingers across glossy photographs of food, thumbing through pages of measurements and ingredients.  I also enjoy the small stories that come with them. Sometimes I crave the story more than the food.

Ina Garten, whose recipes have never failed me, wrote at the beginning of Barefoot Contessa: How Easy Is That? about dinner parties:

Your friends have come to see you -- not to critique your cooking skills.  I'm asked all the time, "How many hors d'oeuvres do I need to make before dinner?"  

"None," is my answer.

I think of this often.  Not only when it comes to cooking but when it comes to life.  Sometimes I ask too much of myself. I invent obligations. In sorting through what matters, sometimes I fail to see what doesn't.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


I wanted to share some photos from my birthday.  At the very last minute, we escaped for a few hours to the legendary town of Sleepy Hollow because I wanted to see the foliage.  Then Tyler surprised me with dinner and jazz at Smoke.  

I walked a blue-sky day with someone I love. I closed my eyes and was moved by the sound of music. I continue to feel lucky. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Sunshine Fish and Birthday Celebration

Today I am joining quite the celebration in this land o' blogs.  The famous Lenny Lee turns thirteen!  Lenny is a writer, reader, animal-lover, and hugger supreme.  He writes some of the most thoughtful and informative blog posts.  He wrote an amazing picture book with Sharon Mayhew and I felt privileged to be able to read it.  He sends me the most beautiful notes in the mail.  And though I've never met him, I always imagine him smiling, and every note, every word and story from Lenny, makes me smile too.

Along with all the love Lenny shares with me, I am beyond lucky because he and I also share a birthday.  So it makes this day even more special for me.

So, happy, happy, birthday to my birthday twin. Despite the, uh, age difference, we can still be twins right? (Humor me, Lenny, humor me.) 

In honor of the fact that we also share a love of swimming any time, any place, anywhere, (as Lenny says, he is part fish) I give you this Lenny Lee Sunshine Fish, swimming all over the world! 

Happy Birthday Lenny!

 Photo Credit: Sharon Mayhew

Friday, October 19, 2012

Mix Tape

I'm reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower and I'm nostalgic for the days of the mix tape.

I found this post about the comeback of handwritten notes from verysincerely and it so happens I received two hand-written notes today and, along with one, a photo of how it used to be.

Even though that used-to-be is somewhat later than the used-to-be of the mix tape, I smiled. I closed my eyes.  It became easier to imagine lying on the rug, listening to the radio, waiting for the song, that song, the only song.  I'd hit the tape deck, slap record and it would be mine.

From then on, I'd know all the chords, all the words except for those first few notes I couldn't capture in time.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


This morning I feel weary.  I did not watch the debate last night (these spectacles don't interest me) but it seems the noise found me anyway.  And I feel the way I do when there are sirens, when the subway screeches into the station.  I feel like a child, who has to stop wherever she is and hold her hands against her ears.

Growing up, I lived next door to a woman who has been the subject of many exasperating, now tucked-away stories and essays.  She did not leave her home and, as far as we could tell, she did not have any visitors. It has never been clear to us how she survived because a car sat dead in her driveway.  

Through rumor, I heard she had once been a scientist.  The mystery surrounding her became even more strange and fascinating when, one summer, we discovered that she had kept turtles marked with red dots on their shells because dozens escaped, or were let loose, from her yard. 

Through the years, it seemed the two of us were in a mysterious argument without words. While other kids in my group walked away with sweets, she silently refused to give me candy on Halloween.  In retaliation, I took pickles from a jar and, one by one, threw them at her window while she stared back at me from behind the screen. One morning I stood on a lawn chair to peer into her jungle of a backyard and she marched to the fence, sprayed me in the face with a hose.  The shock of it sent me falling to the patio and I ran away with bloody knees.

When she died, her house was emptied.  And by this, I mean, that multiple dumpsters the size of a U-haul were filled with nothing but books.  In all the stories I have tried to write about her, I have never been able to express the sheer magnitude of books that were relieved, gasping, from her home.  Just close your eyes.  Picture thousands, toppling over one another in massive heaps.

I think of her today because of this shut-my-eyes, hold-my-ears reaction.  It's hard for me to imagine shutting people out of my life the way she did.  But in the midst of all this noise, I can imagine wanting to be with stories and words and books, to sit huddled among them, instead of witnessing the tremble of the real world.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Make Your Own Weather

I was given this advice today:

Make your own weather.

It struck me.  Our ability to choose the way we see a situation, to decide how we walk through a day. A choice to simply react to our worlds or be proactive. I'm trying to make this the blue I walk under.  I want to feel this sun. I want to experience the way the land opened up to give me this morning in Spain.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Say Yes To Puppetry

Yesterday, I attended a Puppetry workshop with John Tartaglia (of Avenue Q fame.)

When I signed up through the Children's Media Association (CMA) I did not expect to be thrown into a situation where I had to stand alone before a group of twenty strangers, in front of a television monitor, with a mop of rags on my arm.

But there was no time to think. I had to come up with a voice (I took a cue from many of the cooking shows I watch: low and slow) and a character (I decided, in the 30 seconds I had, that his name was Mo) and just...go.

Many of you know I write at a snail's pace. I wait for words that never come. I sigh. I stare at blank pages. I dream.  This is not to say I don't finish things. I do.  But, while everything else in my working life is now, NOW, or yesterday, my writing life is much, much slower.

All this to say, when it comes to imagining words and character, I am not accustomed to improvisation, to winging it.  This was a stretch for me. I stumbled and sweat and worried.  And when my minutes of 'fame' were over, I couldn't even tell you what I said.

But there's something about not thinking or over-analyzing.  I had to remain unedited and both undone and done at the very same time. It was the most fun I've had in a long time.  I don't think I stopped smiling for the two hours I was there.

If ever in your life you are faced with the question: Should I take this puppetry class?  Say yes.  I know you're thinking you will never be faced with this question. But you never know. I was.  And I'm thrilled I answered correctly.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Really Writer

I've written of this before, how the word writer feels strange on the tongue. I am, I have discovered, after all these years, a children's writer, because I write for children every day.  My written work is not always visible, it is more often audible, through toys and games, inside ebooks and mobile apps.

For years, I have tacked on the role of producer to my title.  I am a writer and producer, I will say, at dinner parties and networking events.  It is what you see in the sidebar of this blog and in the lines of my business card.  Because producer is more marketable. It is easier explained.

At a doctor's visit a few weeks ago (just an annual checkup), my new doctor asked me what I did for a living.  Perhaps it was because I sat naked under a gown that wouldn't stay closed, perhaps it was because she held tight to a needle and would soon draw blood, but I did not, could not, hide. I'm a writer, I said. Not a producer in sight.

She asked me what I write and I rattled off the list of preschool brands, the toys and games, and all the etceteras. Again, perhaps it was because she'd just weighed me naked, then plunked me down on that  papery mat, but I went on to tell her something I rarely tell anyone. I told her I really write books.

I'm not sure what made me say this.  What I really do.  And what it even means to really do anything at all.

I knew what questions would come.  I knew I would have to explain myself out of that hole. I would have to share awkwardly rehearsed plot synopses. I would have to answer the genre questions and the labels, explain my way through the success of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.  Then I would have to say the words I hate saying, that, no, I am not published, and, no, you can not read my work anywhere. And my head spun thinking, Why, why, did I dig this deep? Why did I place myself here?

I wish I could say that our conversation did not go there.  I wish I could say it ended and I knew what it meant to really write, that calling myself a writer is the first step in a journey of self discovery and satisfaction.

But she asked me all of those questions.  I answered dutifully. She made me say ahh.  She listened to my heart beat.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Amid All the Noise

Lately I feel there's a lot of noise out there. I'm browsing through my twitter feed and it seems that everyone is up in arms about, well, everything.  I don't want to perpetuate the ugly sound by lamenting my frustration here but I just wondered...do you hear it too?

I'm trying to maintain an almost meditative focus these days -- on the words I'm writing and the words I'm reading. I'm reimagining my days. 

On Sunday night, I sat on the subway.  Having already finished a book, I was involved in a children's math game on my phone  (I was multiplying.  For real.) A young man stepped on the train to ask for money and food for his daughters, his grandmother, himself.  Unlike the many panhandlers I see and hear each day, he was well-spoken and well-dressed, his speech rehearsed but sincere.  A middle-aged woman, who sat across from me, said to him, When you're finished collecting money, come speak to me.

I'll admit.  I was curious.  I strained to listen while I multiplied but their conversation was intimate, thoughtful, the depth and concentration of it, almost mystical.  When I got off, they got off, and as I waited to transfer to my next train, they stood beneath the stairs in the heat of this conversation.

I wasn't meant to hear their words but I overheard snippets, the work of her rehabilitation, the daughters he loved, an education somehow lost and then found, for both of them.  And in the end, an exchange of information between them.  

In all of my years living in New York, of the thousands of people (it has to be thousands, after all these years) I see begging on the train and in the streets, I have never in my life witnessed anyone reach out in this way. To tell a story.  To listen to one.  I see something in you, I heard her say.

I wondered what the gift of this moment could mean. For both of them. For me.

Sunday, October 7, 2012


It's time I admit I look for purple everywhere.  I found these dreaming leaves and a tempting mushroom in Cockaponset State Forest this weekend (the photos are untreated.) In stores, I scan clothing racks and my gaze snaps to shades of purple.  If I have to choose game pieces, accessories, or cell phone covers, purple is my default.

My college application essay was about 'being purple' and I recall my advisor reading the first paragraph out loud to me just before graduation, in my final week at Cornell, because he thought it would be amusing to look back. I promptly ripped the pages from his hands in embarrassment.  When I left the office, I tossed the essay in the garbage.  I'm a little disappointed I didn't keep it because I have forgotten its contents and now I don't know what it means to be purple.  I'd like to know.

Despite all this, I don't think of purple as being my color.  I actually think of it as being my grandmother's.  Maybe that's why I look for it wherever I go.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Banned Books Week and blocking the 'Exchange of Souls'

In honor of Banned Books Week, I point you to this essay by Haruki Murakami (translated to English by RocketNews24.)

This essay is a response to the controversy surrounding the Senkaku Islands and rising tension between Taiwan, China, and Japan.  It's about how we set boundaries and the way we draw lines and borders.  Murakami compares the anger swelling from territory disputes to getting drunk on cheap liquor. He warns us of the resulting hangover. 

While not the focus of the essay, it is worth noting that, in protest of Japan, some Chinese booksellers have removed books by Japanese authors (including Murakami) as well as books about Japan from their shelves.

Murakami's final words, his plea, are powerful.  I urge you to read the essay in it's entirety.

But we should not block the exchange of souls that is cultural communication. We should not destroy the paths that so many have given so much to establish. So from now on, however we may be wounded, we must seek to maintain this path and to continue to leave it open.

I love the idea that sharing books is an exchange of souls.  I don't like building walls.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Next Big Thing

The fabulously talented Janet Sumner Johnson tagged me in this blog game: The Next Big Thing.

What is the working title of your book?
Rabbit Island (Yes, I'm still working on Rabbit Island. No, I can't believe it either.)

Where did the idea come from for the book?
After learning about the historic Dreamland fire in Coney Island, I started to wonder what it means for a place called Dreamland to go up in flames.

What genre does your book fall under?
Oh the dreaded label. Contemporary YA.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Seeing how long it is taking to write the book, never mind get it published, never mind sell the film rights, I am hopeful that a young, amazingly talented friend I work with in children's media will be old enough, by that time, to play the lead role.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
When Rabbit Island's glittering amusement park, Dreamland, burns to the ground, sixteen year old Adelaine Cross searches for new life in her broken world.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Represented by an agency.  I am hopeful.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? May we see an intro?
The first, first draft took four months. The second first draft (yes, you're reading this right) is taking about the same.  Revisions are endless...

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I don't like to compare books to one another.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Wandering through Coney Island in winter.  The ocean. Judy Garland.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
There are underground canals, swan boats, kissing in concrete meadows, old theaters, midnight swims, a Bridge of Laughs, music (Nirvana meets Gershwin), and Luna Lovelorn, who you do not know, but who you will want to know.  

I am tagging some of the next big things:
Sharon Mayhew
Angela Cothran
Amy Mackechnie
Meredith @ Fairy Tales and Cappuccino
Jennifer Pickrell

Rules of The Next Big Thing:

*Use this format for your post
*Answer the ten questions about your current WIP (work in progress)
*Tag five other writers/bloggers and add their links so we can hop over and meet them.

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:

What is your working title of your book?
Where did the idea come from for the book?
What genre does your book fall under?
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? May we see an intro?
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

Include the link of who tagged you and this explanation for the people you have tagged. Be sure to line up your five people in advance.