Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Free presentation on getting boys to read!

Did you know that...
·      The majority of reluctant readers are boys
·      An estimated 40% of boys are reluctant readers
·      On average, boys are 1.5 years behind girls in language skills, into their teens
These are big concerns, and that's why I've been offering free presentations* to parents through PTAs, PACs, public libraries, literacy organizations and other parents' groups. The talk is aimed at parents of boys ages 7-17, and it's based on my book  Jump-Staring Boys: How to Help Your Reluctant Learner Find Success in School and Life.
ISBN: 978-1-936740-39-0 (Viva Editions, 2013), available at any bookstore

The free seminar includes discussion of...
          Why do boys struggle more than girls?
           7 things parents can do
           How to connect boys with reading
           Easy ways to instantly increase his confidence & performance

With this upbeat seminar, parents can stop despairing and start working with their child to help him be the best he can be.

Travel expenses apply unless I'm in your area. Note that I'm passing through Seattle, Portland, Eugene and points between next week. And I will be in the San Francisco Bay Area through most of October and November, except the third week of November, when I will be in Honolulu.

I'm giving this presentation twice this week:
Sept. 23, 7-8 p.m.
West Point Grey library
4480 West 10th Ave
Vancouver, BC, Canada

Sept. 25, 5:30-6:30
University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada:

Note: The presentation lasts 60 minutes including Q&A time unless otherwise arranged.
*To book this presentation, go to: http://www.pamwithers.com/contact
Hope to hear from you!

Friday, September 19, 2014

How to skate through the writing process (without going OTB)

It won’t surprise anyone to know I’ve never skateboarded in my life, so how did I manage to write a teen skateboard novel that skateboard superstar Tony Hawk read and liked?

I searched for and found a skateboard instructor willing to be my “consultant.” I found him on the internet; he was kind enough to reply to my email.

His name was Kevin Kelly, and he told me he’d taught more than 3,000 kids over the years, and organized more than 40 skateboard events.

I took him out to lunch and asked him a dozen questions or so, including how to build skateboard constructions. (Since my character Jake builds them, I as Jake’s author had to know how they’re built.)

When I told Kevin that one aspect of my outline’s initial plot was two groups of skateboarders that didn’t get along, he looked at me sternly and said, “All skateboarders get along. But they don’t always get along with BMX bikers.” So that’s how the BMX bikers ended up in the book. (I still don’t believe that all skateboarders get along, however. :))

After our lunch, Kevin took me underneath skateboard constructions and had me crawling around under them to show me how they were built.

Then, as I wrote each chapter, I sent him paragraphs with blanks in them for him to fill in. This involved not only names of tricks, but choreography of tricks and skateboarder jargon. (One of his suggestions for jargon, which I rejected, was pimpin'.)

How else but by incorporating an expert's input would I have known to describe a kickflip Indy grab, or use the term OTB (over the board), identify a frontside boneless as “old school,” or feature loogies (spit on the wall!)? Of course, even to prepare the questions I asked him I needed to read books on skateboard tricks, watch skateboard videos and occasionally hang out watching kids at skateboard parks.

Kevin was super to work with all the way through the process. I paid him a modest honorarium and gave him autographed copies of the book when it came out, of course.

I work with at least one expert on each and every novel that I write, because it’s important to me that the characters and plot are authentic, even if it is fiction.

Other trivia about writing Skater Stuntboys:

• Booksellers raised a stink about the front cover photo featuring a skateboarder without a helmet. My publisher and I persuaded them that the book adamantly emphasized the need for helmets in indoor parks, but that wearing helmets outside was not so common (and the photo was an outdoor shot).

• The first three books in the series noted that protagonist Jake’s father had disappeared with no explanation one day, something that ate away at Jake all those first three books. This, the fourth in the series, features the reunion of father and son, but with a twist. The “twist” required quite a lot of research on head injuries, including time spent in a rehab center with a social worker and her head-injury clients.

• At one point, my characters Jake and Peter decide to tease a skateboard park maintenance worker with the old science trick of putting baking powder and vinegar into his cleaning bucket to make it foam up. As I was trying to think up practical jokes they could play on him, I checked with my science-writer friend Shar Levine (author of numerous science books for kids: http://www.sciencelady.com/); she was the one who suggested that particular trick.

• Oh yes, how did I manage to get Tony Hawk to read Skater Stuntboys? I sent it to his assistant and she reported that he liked it. When he suggested I arrange that a portion of the proceeds of Skater Stuntboys go to the Tony Hawk Foundation, I was more than happy to comply. It’s a nonprofit organization that promotes and provides funds for high-quality public skateboard parks in low-income areas: http://tonyhawkfoundation.org/

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The stunning sport of canyoneering

I’ve done and written about a lot of adventure sports in my time, but imagine being swept away by a “new” one I’ve only just discovered existed!

I don’t like to give things away ahead of time, but I am in the middle of writing a new young-adult adventure novel based on this sport: canyoneering.

It’s all about descending canyon drainages, which is like combining three sports: climbing (as in rappelling down), caving and whitewater navigation. It involves everything from down-climbing waterfalls as they pound your body with water, leaping into pools beneath falls, and squeezing through tunnels or between boulders and logs. It involves trying not slip on mossy rocks, searching for natural anchors and drinking in (sometimes literally) the stunning natural beauty of canyons.

It’s way too early to tell you more about my novel-in-progress, but I want to share the most thrilling adventure film I’ve ever discovered, produced by a canyoneer who is serving as my consultant on the project: Francois-Xavier De Ruydts (http://www.deruydtsphotography.com/)

Here it is, available as trailer or full download. It’s well worth the money to check out the full download, trust me!


Friday, September 12, 2014

Spying on teens for teen dialogue

My third novel, Adrenalin Ride (you’ve realized by now I’m working my way through my 17 books with anecdotes about writing each), was inspired by my son. At the time of writing, he was 16 and heavily into mountain biking, which he went on to teach. He still lives on his bike at age 26!

Anyway, I was a “generous mom” in that I offered to occasionally drive him and his mountain biking pals across the city and up the mountain so they could ride down. It so happened there was a public library at the bottom of the mountain, so I could nip in there and write, and they could show up, fully mud-spattered, to tap on the window when they were ready to go home. (I sat near a window, figuring the library would never allow them in!)

But my generosity was a little bit self-serving, because I got to “spy” on these teen mountain bikers as they sat in the car chatting. It helped me build my teen dialogue and my plotting.

To set it in Cathedral Provinical Park on the British Columbia/Washington state border, my family and I went up there on a camping trip. As I sat in a camping chair in front of the tent, occasionally disturbed by chipmunks and deer, I wrote these creatures right into the book I was creating.

My son and I also did mountain biking trails together that year – as in, he did them as I hiked under the spectacular labyrinth of elevated rides built in the forest.

Then there was Cam McRae of North Shore Mountain Biking (http://nsmb.com/). When I first launched my website, and long before I actually had decided to write Adrenalin Ride, I let him know I had included his website as a link on my website. He, in return, took the initiative to email me and let me know he was a former teacher and would be happy to serve as a sounding board if I were ever to write a novel in the adventure-novel series on mountain biking.

Needless to say, I roped him in as a reader/consultant as I started Adrenalin Ride, and I (as well as my son) continue to admire all he does for the mountain biking community.


More trivia about writing Adrenalin Ride:

• The guy on the cover photo wrote me shortly after the book was out and said, “I was sitting in my university library the other day and looked up and saw myself on the cover of your novel. I had no idea the photographer had sold those photos. Can I please have an autographed copy of the book?” Of course I sent him one right away, very pleased he’d written!

• To learn more about drug smuggling over the U.S./Canadian border, and the potential value of the drugs that were to go in the boys’ bike packs, I interviewed a police officer.

• To ensure the aspect of the plot about forest fires was authentic, I interviewed a former firefighter, and also a staff member of the North Cascades Smokejumpers Base. From them I learned about the “ten o’clock concept.” To quote from the novel: “Firefighters dread it,” said Peter. “That’s when humidity drops, temperatures rise, and winds pick up all at the same time. It turns smouldering bits into flames. That’s when most wildfires start, especially after dry lightning storms.”

• Finally, I was browsing through a beautiful (sad but beautiful) coffee table book on forest fires to help me describe the scene. In that book was a poignant shot of a firefighter who’d picked up a bird’s nest with still unhatched eggs. From that photo came the scene where Peter did the same before climbing into the rescue helicopter. And a naturalist confirmed it was just possible the eggs might hatch as he landed!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The second novel syndrome

Everyone says one’s second novel is the toughest, and I certainly found that to be true with Peak Survival. A first novel is generally written on speculation, no contract or deadline or editor applying pressure. Not to mention that you probably have not yet been through a full critique (unlike on your second), so you soldier blithely on. By the time you’ve been through that critique of the first, you’re aware that there are techniques and skills you now have to incorporate. In short, the second novel is the big learning curve!

Also, I wrote my first novel to keep myself out of trouble while unemployed for a year. By the time I started Peak Survival, I was working fulltime again (as an editor), raising a rambunctious boy with my husband, and trying to come to terms with the fact that the first novel had turned into an assignment for a series. In other words, I now had to produce a novel every six months until the series was finished (that turned out to be five years) “in my spare time.” It was a lot of stress. After I finished Peak Survival I decided I had to cut back on work in order to start the third book in the series; it was too hard on my family life trying to do so much.

On the other hand, Peak Survival was fun to write in that I took up snowboarding specifically to help write it. Quite a change from cross-country skiing, which I had enjoyed for years. My son (age 11) gave me a homemade gift certificate promising me snowboard lessons (from him). We went up to the ski area and he watched me for ten minutes, offering encouragement and tips. Then he gave me a thumb’s up and said, “You’re good, Mom. Have fun. I’m outta here.” And off he went.

So I spent the next hour watching a young Chinese guy teaching his girlfriend in Chinese. I could not understand a thing they said, but I mimicked all she did, and eventually learned enough to get myself down the hill. At which point I realized I had to ride the lift up, and did not know how to get onto a lift with a snowboard! I humbled myself enough to ask a teenage boy ahead of me in the line-up. He smirked and mumbled something about “goofy,” not that I knew what that meant! I somehow managed to get on and exit the lift without making the operator stop the lift!

Here’s some other trivia about Peak Survival:

• To write up the disasters of the helicopter crash, avalanche and the fall into a crevasse, I interviewed a friend who owned a helicopter service, read helicopter accident reports, read books on avalanche safety and interviewed someone who had survived a fall into a crevasse.

• I won a helicopter ride from a charity auction, and was thrilled to add that to my hands-on research.

• My husband helped me with the wolverine encounter write-up, based on a wolverine sighting he’d once been privileged to experience.

• My character Fiona remains my favourite girl character, although my editor told me she initially “overshadowed” my main characters, Jake and Peter, and so I had to “sand her down” somewhat before publication.

• She has “pale blue eyes” because in the first version of the manuscript she gets snow blindness (and people with pale blue eyes are the most susceptible to this), which my editor had me remove because “you have too many disasters in the book, even for a Jake and Peter adventure.”

• I wrote up the snow-cave construction scene after reading a book on the topic. Then I handed it over to a search-and-rescue friend to edit. He laughed and edited it heavily. All of which proves that first-hand experience is far more important than by-the-book, and a writer must always be aware what they don’t really know.

• Fiona is claustrophobic because I am claustrophobic (and know that condition all too well).

• The ghost town they encounter is based on the preserved historic mining site known as BC Museum of Mining in Britannia, British Columbia); I basically “airlifted” it a number of miles northwest to place it in my story.

• I named most of the characters in the book after my nieces and nephews. I thought they’d be pleased until one (Neal) said, “How come my sister gets to be Jake’s sister, and all I am is a dead pilot?”

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The story of writing my first novel

I wrote my first novel, Raging River, 16 years ago, just to keep myself out of trouble while I was unemployed for a year. I wrote much of it in chilly hockey rink arenas while my then 10-year-old son was at practice. I read each chapter to him as his bedtime story. He used to say, like any kid delaying his bedtime, “Mom, won’t you read me just one more chapter?” And I’d reply, “No, because I haven’t written it yet.”

It took me four months to write Raging River, then three years for eight publishers to reject it. A ninth accepted it and said the contract was in the mail, and assigned me an editor who edited the entire book (and deleted Chapter Three) without that contract ever arriving. Still, my husband, son and I went out to a nice restaurant and toasted my success.

At the time I was working fulltime as an editor at a high-tech consulting firm, when suddenly I was notified I was being laid off. I was cleaning out my desk my last day and thinking, “At least I have my first novel accepted,” when the phone on my desk rang. I wondered if I should answer it, since I didn’t technically work there anymore. Well, I did, and it was the editor letting me know that there had been a change in management and they were not going to publish it. The contract never had arrived in the mail.

A few months later, Whitecap Books accepted it (the version as just edited). My new editor thought “something seemed to be missing” between Chapters 2 & 3. So I delivered the chapter that the previous editor had deleted, and she was happy to put it back in. 

I had (rather boldly) proposed that Raging River be the first in a series of novels on extreme sports, and Whitecap called my bluff and assigned me to carry on (delivering one novel every six months for the next five years). Whoa, how intimidating was that?! Luckily, I had started doing school talks and the students were more than happy to suggest sports to cover. I actually took votes from them to determine the next nine books.

Other trivia about Raging River:

• I wrote it with no outline; I just knew that a waterfall plunge would be the climax. (I’ve learned since to always outline; I definitely do NOT recommend writing without an outline, because it takes twice and long as doesn’t turn out as well.)

• Names of characters were taken from the kids in my kayak club at the time.

• Having been a whitewater raft guide, kayak racer and kayak instructor, I found it easy to write about my sport, and Nancy (the raft company boss) is more or less based on me.

• This remains the novel that was easiest to write, only because I had no idea what I was doing. Once I knew more about plotting and writing, and what I had done wrong, writing became more challenging!

• The Cattibone River is fictional, but I’ve had readers tell me they tried to find it on a map. It’s based in part on my experience kayaking the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

• The grizzly bear attack, beaver dam experience and heron attack are all based on real-life incidents of friends with whom I’ve paddled.

• Sam Miller, owner of Sam’s Adventure Tours, has my pre-married last name, and his headquarters resembles the rafting headquarters of a California outfit for which I used to work.

• I set the book in Chilliwack, B.C., Canada, because it’s a long-time training center for both American and Canadian kayak racers; I spent much time there during my kayak racing days.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

“Where do you get your ideas?”

It’s probably the most-asked question I get, and I always reply, “From my twisted imagination.” And kids laugh, because most of them can relate to having twisted imaginations; it’s as adults that we too often lose touch with this creative capacity.

But in truth, ideas are not as important as readers think. It’s what you do with ideas! Ideas for novels rain on me all day long. I only need to choose one every few months to take and run with. But again, a droplet of an idea is just that. It’s how you grow it, nurture it, develop it into a full-blown readable, hopefully gripping, story that counts. My best tip for developing an idea is to immerse yourself in one or all of the following books and CD: Weekend Novelist, Writing the Breakout Novel, or The Hero’s Two Journeys. Then develop your own template for drawing an outline out of your original idea.

For me, the hard work is outlining, the fun part is writing. And I figure I have to “earn” the fun part by doing the hard work. Yes, some writers write without an outline, but my experience is that doing so means the writing takes twice as long as doesn’t turn out as well. And yes, writing can be hard work too, but so often when one is stuck during the writing process, it’s because the outline wasn’t thorough enough, or because it needs some tweaking.

In future blogs, I’ll reveal how I took and ran with some of the ideas that fired my twisted imagination.