Thursday, April 16, 2015

Portland, Oregon Aug 7-9, 2015

Hello, Portland! I've just been informed I will be offering two presentations at the highly respected 46th annual Willamette Writers' Conference 2015 August 7-9, as well as doing one-on-one manuscript evaluations for selected attendees.
It's my second time as a speaker there, and who doesn't love Portland?
So this is just a head's up that registration opens on May 1. Check out the following website then for the full lineup of workshops, presenters and activities. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

My new novel is hot off the press, and here's the inside story of writing Andreo's Race

My Bolivian researcher Richie

Hot off the press tomorrow!! My new young-adult adventure novel set in Bolivia: Andreo's Race. For the story of how it came to be, read on...

Summary: Just as sixteen-year-old Andreo, skilled in death-defying ironman events in wilderness regions, is about to compete in rugged Bolivia, he and his friend Raul (another Bolivian adoptee) begin to suspect that their adoptive parents have unwittingly acquired them illegally. Plotting to use the upcoming race to pursue the truth, they veer on an epic journey to locate Andreo's birth parents, only to find themselves hazardously entangled with a gang of baby traffickers. Never suspecting that attempting to bring down the ring would endanger their very lives, the boys plunge ahead. Compelling, poignant, and heart-stopping, Andreo's Race takes readers on a perilous quest to discover the true meaning of family.

To order a copy of Andreo’s Race from Amazon:

     The seed for Andreo’s Race came from reading an article on black-market adoptions in my favorite magazine, Foreign Policy: “The Lie We Love” by E.J. Graff, Nov./Dec. 2008:
My mind immediately gravitated to the adopted child’s point of view: What if a boy who has always known he was adopted, learns that the adoption may have been illegal? A typical teen might fantasize that his birth parents are ever so much nicer than his adoptive parents – maybe even that his birth parents have been searching for him for years. What if he had the opportunity to track down his birth parents, or decided to run away from home to do so? But what if, instead of being nicer, they’re actually quite evil?
My first challenge was deciding what nationality my teen would be. After extensive reading on black market baby rings, I narrowed it down to several countries, including Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Guatemala and Bolivia. Since I speak Spanish and the possibility of visiting Bolivia was far more realistic than Cambodia or Kazakhstan, I chose Bolivia. Since it’s no longer easy to adopt from Bolivia, I was “lucky” that my teen would be just old enough to have been adopted back before laws tightened up.
I then immersed myself in reading up on international adoptions and black market baby rings, seeking out personal accounts by the adoptees themselves where possible. Some of the books were sobering indeed. I also watched a heart-touching documentary of an international adoptee seeking out and meeting her birth parents, who basically advised her to love her adoptive parents.
Next I immersed myself in reading up on adventure racing, and found an adventure race organizer to interview and consult with. Then I started wondering where exactly to set the novel in Bolivia, and which sports to include in the adventure race.
As a subscriber to a website that matches individuals who wish to exchange language practice, I started scrolling through those subscribed from Bolivia. I paused when I came across Richie from Cochabamba, given that he listed his hobbies as bicycling, mountain climbing and running. I contacted him to see if he’d like to exchange language practice, and was delighted when he responded.
He was way more competent in English than I was in Spanish, but what amazed me more was to learn, within our first conversation, that he volunteered for a children’s literacy organization. It seemed like we were made for partnering on this project. So I mentioned that I was an author of teen adventure books, and hoped to set one in Bolivia.
“How can you set a novel in Bolivia if you’ve never been here?” he challenged me.
“Well, I hope to visit Bolivia this coming spring, and I also hope to find a researcher there to work with me. Maybe you could help me find a researcher, or maybe you’d be interested?” I asked.
There was a short pause on the Skype line. Then he shouted, “Me! Me! Me!”
So, I explained adventure racing to him, sending him lots of sites to look at.
“This will be my next passion!” he responded.
I asked him where he thought I should set the novel, and he quickly sold me on Cochabamba, for its proximity to national parks and outdoor activities. I asked him if he’d ever been caving at nearby Toro Toro National Park, and he said no, but that he’d be willing to go. I booked him a three-day tour.
And so we began to work together, emails flying back and forth as we agreed on the sports and race route. I named him my “adventure race organizer,” and we continued to concoct the details of our fictional race for months as I began to write the novel.

He named most of my characters. He took a super-bumpy five-hour bus ride to Toro Toro and went caving there, keeping a diary and taking more than eighty photos he sent to me. The diary included minute details of peoples’ dress, market scenes, geography and geology. On a trip to Villa Tunari, he did the same. When he read the first-draft scenes I wrote up of these places later, he asked, “How could you describe these places so accurately without having been there?”

I replied, “Duh! Your diaries and photos!"
When I told Richie about how the protagonist had a hand-knit baby hat, which was his only link with his birth mother, he promptly sent me an internet photo of a colorful hand-knit baby hat:

     He also told me he was an adoptee himself, and had a baby outfit from when he was handed over. Seriously, how perfect a match was Richie as my researcher? 
     In March, I flew to Cochabamba. Meeting Richie after months of skyping with him was so fun. It was like finally stepping through the computer screen and shaking hands. He showed off his city with great pride, organized a driver for us to visit some of the sites in the novel, and read through what I’d written, correcting where appropriate. We visited a village market together, Mercado La Cancha, and he helped me negotiate good prices on sweaters and a woven wall hanging.
Meeting Richie for the first time in person (I was jetlagged and altitude sick)

When our driver got stuck in a four-hour traffic jam, Richie jumped out and jogged miles down the road to bring back news of what was happening. When we got stuck at an airport for 11 hours, we sat down with the manuscript and worked on it together. He helped me with my Spanish, and I gave him tons of English practice. We became great friends, and continue to correspond.
More than any novel I’ve written in the past, I feel I “partnered” on this one. Richie was an integral part of it, from beginning to end.
 I can’t resist sharing a few paragraphs of his Toro Toro diario (with his permission):

Being inside the bus was like being in a continual earthquake, always shaking. At night I could see many hills surrounding us, some of them really high and dangerous. It was around midnight that I saw a welcome sign at the entrance of town. We passed by the main square and I saw a big dinosaur in the middle of it. Everyone was tired because of the trip. I took a shower in the hotel, went to bed and slept tight. I set my alarm to wake up at 6 and start the adventure earlier than the others.
The air was so pure and the weather was cool. I ran wherever my feet took me. I saw a church up one hill, then went down to the river. I crossed the river to the next hill, went up again and ran. There is not a lot of vegetation this time of year. But the clouds touching the highest hills and the mountains made it look like paradise.
I returned to the town. People were smiling, working, waking up, washing clothes, going to the market. I felt happy to be surrounded by humble people who offer you a smile or a wave even if they don’t know you.
I drank my tea fast and met with the others. The next bus was a 21km trip, two and a half hours, the road really rough. The earthquake inside the bus was even worse than on the bus from Cochabamba.
We finally arrived around 11:30; our bottoms really hurt. All around us were hills, big rocks and some tufts of grass. We walked half a kilometer to reach the tunnels.
The guide told me there are 21 caverns in the zone of Toro Toro. The tunnels were spectacular, really high and shaped by wind and water. One of them is prepared for people who want to get married. We saw stalactites, one called the Virgin (a mother with a baby in her hands), a tree and Christmas tree. There was sandstone and gypsum.
Many years ago there were bats inside the caverns but with tourism they have migrated to other caverns. It was humid and warm. We descended with a rope in some parts, slipping in slippery parts, always holding something not to fall down. There was water going through the cavern, but not much. Deep in, we were like soldiers dragging ourselves through small, narrow cavities. I never was in such a place. I loved the experience. The guide told us to turn our lanterns off and keep silence in the darkness for two minutes. I could listen to the beats of my heart. A nice cascade formed a lagoon where blind fish live. 
The humidity was intense. I was sweating a lot!
After a lot of climbing we finally saw the sun’s rays. I could not see straight because my eyes were used to the darkness. Finally I was up, and totally happy. I screamed out “libertad!”

Helping research Andreo’s Race

by Ricardo (Richie) Borda
January 2015
One day, like any other -- during my normal routine of studying, exercising and developing my English skills -- I received a reply from one of the many language exchange websites I subscribed to. It was from a lady named Pam. I quickly answered back and we scheduled a Skype conversation in order to exchange English and Spanish language practice.
Finally that day came and during our Skype conversation we got to know each other better. We began talking about our respective countries and our dreams of the future.  I have always wanted to cycle around the world and to experience different cultures, but being from Bolivia, that dream requires a lot of effort to accomplish. Pam in turn spoke of some of her favorite aspects of Canada and the work that she does.  I was amazed to hear about everything she has done during her lifetime.  She introduced me to her world of books, with all the adventures that they bring. 
After talking for a while, she proposed that I might be able to help her with a book that she had been thinking of writing for a long time.  This was a great opportunity that I couldn’t resist. I knew it would be interesting and also challenging but I was ready to face whatever came. 
A couple of days later we started to get organized about the work we would do together. Pam put me in charge of the investigation details and provided me with some instructions on what and how I should develop my work.  I started out trying to find an ideal setting for where the novel would take place and the possible routes to get there.  The novel required places where our protagonists and antagonists can have extreme adventures, like cycling, canoeing, trekking and caving.  We had to also take into consideration the distance, weather and what obstacles they could face.  Some days later we reached a final decision to select my hometown, Cochabamba.  It is where my knowledge can be put to best use and it is also a beautiful region with lots of mountains and a varying climate throughout the region.  Most of my work was focused on a province named Toro Toro, partly because there you can find a National Park filled with the remains of dinosaurs.  It is quite arid, mountainous and sparsely populated but rich with culture.  To help Pam see for herself, I took many pictures to flesh out the details of the story along with an accurate report of all the information I had collected.
Now that the preliminary part of the novel was finished, it was time to work on the story.  Pam has an amazing natural talent to create stories, and the short amount of time it takes her is impressive.  It was a great pleasure to help her work on the novel.  I can say that I learnt a lot from her experience and wisdom. As a final point I would like to thank her for everything.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The fourth-grade slump syndrome

Your kid loved reading books until he hit fourth grade. Now it’s a royal pain getting him to pick up a book or magazine at all. He says reading is boring. He says school is too hard. If that rings true, join the club.
Forty percent of kids between the ages of five and eight read every day, but by fourth grade, that drops to twenty-nine percent.
It’s called the “fourth-grade slump,” a term coined by Jeanne S. Chall, a Harvard Graduate School of Education psychologist, writer and literacy researcher for more than fifty years.
There are many reasons why a child might start resisting reading around the age of nine (actually, anywhere from the end of second to the middle of fifth grade), but here’s the simplest explanation: That’s when schools expect children to go from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Suddenly, it’s not good enough to simply sound out words. The child has to make sense of the context in ever more difficult textbooks. Whether or not he has the motivation, maturity, or physical capacity (including brain development) to do that, teachers will now throw more and more sophisticated reading materials at him, along with expectations that he’ll do plenty of reading outside of school hours.
In other words, children struggling with reading prior to fourth grade will be left in the dust unless they receive help, understanding, and encouragement, especially at home. They’ll have increasing trouble keeping up. They’ll get ever more frustrated. They’ll read less and less. And eventually they’ll decide reading isn’t important and develop attitude about everything connected with reading.
How to counteract that? It may be as simple as parents reading up on the topic of reluctant readers or arranging a reading buddy for him. Or it may involve testing for anything from eye to hearing problems.
The point is that failure to intervene at an early stage means a less-than-keen reader will suffer academically, which impacts his self-confidence (even if he hides it well) and potentially puts him at a disadvantage for life.
Somewhere around fourth grade, too, smart reluctant readers learn to “fake read,” which means neither parents nor teachers may catch on that there’s a problem. (If you’ve ever read a foreign language
phrase aloud without actually knowing what the words
mean, you get the idea.)
Cris Tovani, author of I Read It, But I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers, has two terms for fakers: “resistive readers” (they can but choose not to read) and “word callers” (they can read aloud by sounding out words; they just haven’t learned to “get” what they’re reading yet). Fake readers survive by listening to the teacher, copying the work of others, and laying low when someone wants them to read. They cope temporarily, sometimes even right through high school, but it
drags down their academic self-confidence and eventually catches up with them.
Tovani’s book can be a helpful resource for dedicated parents who want to identify and turn around a fake reader of any age. Other options are literacy coaches and reading specialists (twenty percent of U.S. schools have the former and sixty percent the latter) and more effort on the part of parents to role model reading and designate family reading time. Nip it in the bud and gift him with a tool he needs for life.

Excerpted from Jump-Starting Boys: Help Your Reluctant Learner Find Success in School and Life, by Pam Withers and Cynthia Gill (Viva Editions). All references contained in the book's footnotes.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A whacky winter-to-spring transition

When I came across the You Tube clip below, I couldn't resist sharing it. Winter is for skiing, spring is for kayaking. What better way to celebrate the transition than doing both at the same time?! Even though I rarely kayak anymore, after a lifetime of doing so, I fully appreciate the exuberance of shots like this:
Happy springtime, everyone.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Inside story of writing Going Vertical: Life of an Extreme Kayaker

A world record-holder with his 98-food descent of Upper Johnston Falls in Canada, extreme kayaker Tao Berman will thrill you with the riveting story of pushing himself to the unthinkable edge. He also shares tales of a childhood spent running wild in the mountains of eastern Washington, which ultimately led to his becoming a whitewater wunderkind -- a reputation forged on guts, training, persona and maybe even a little luck.

His parents were genuine back-to-the-earth hippies; he grew up on a mountain in Washington state without electricity or any other niceties of life. His entertainment was jumping from tree to tree, or tearing down the mountain on a junker bike. He loved those growing-up years.
     That's Tao Berman (, an extreme kayaker who broke world records and learned the art of self-marketing to the point that he managed to live off the proceeds of roaming around the world jumping off waterfalls in his whitewater kayak. My favorite photograph in our book is of Tao in his kayak, leaping out of a helicopter into a rapid that feeds into a waterfall. Don't try it, kids, but feel free to vicariously live the life of an extreme sports athlete by reading Tao's life story.
     Why did I agree to ghost-write his autobiography? Because it was fun, and it fit in well with my novels on extreme sports for teenagers.
     The whitewater kayaking world is small, and as a longtime kayaker, I knew of Tao long before I met him. My pre-teen son idolized him, as did many young kayakers at the time. When I contacted him through a friend to ask if he'd do a testimonial for my first novel, Raging River, he agreed. Then we started chatting about publishing, and he said he was looking for someone to help him with his autobiography. I said I'd be happy to be that person.
     We emailed, phoned and skyped for a couple of weeks to establish the outline and do some interviews for the first chapters. Then we got a contract and I flew down to spend a few days with him in White Salmon, Washington (near Portland, Oregon). We put in long hours doing interviews, me typing at high speed on my laptap as he spoke. In fact, after each session, before hitting the town to find tacos or burritos, we'd both guess how many words I'd captured during the session, and whoever got closest had their lunch paid for by the other. By the end of several days, I had 40,000 words.
     Of course, it was his autobiography, so as ghostwriter I had to take his word for everything. Once he was telling me about how he rarely got drunk at parties, when the doorbell rang. A very cute young blonde was at the door. As she greeted him with enthusiastic hugs, she exclaimed, "Hey Tao, haven't seen you since you got really wasted at that party!"
     He looked at me with an embarrassed smirk, and I teased the young woman, "Do tell me more."
     Finally, I flew home and started writing, and he edited or embellished on the chapters as I finished them. It was a treat interviewing his family members, especially his lovely, athletic and personable mother. I also interviewed his sister, brother, father, grandmother and several friends.
      Again, it was pure fun because he was fun and easy-going; he gave me a lot of latitude in the writing, and was very open in his story-telling. He has certainly led an unusual and adventurous life, and I hope readers have enjoyed getting immersed in it.
     He has since announced his retirement, but here is a YouTube of his last stunt:;_ylt=A2KIo9UofR1VcC8Au2UsnIlQ;_ylu=X3oDMTByZWc0dGJtBHNlYwNzcgRzbGsDdmlkBHZ0aWQDBGdwb3MDMQ--?p=tao+berman+youtube+2012&vid=78e97c33a7a9f563f1a74541169fa9bd&l=5%3A35&

Going Vertical on Amazon:

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Celebrate the Gulf Islands, western Canada! ... and hear about my new book, hot off the press

Located just off the west coast of British Columbia, Canada, a few hours northwest of Seattle, Washington, the Gulf Islands are some of the prettiest places on earth. And that's where I am doing my first talk on (and reading from) Andreo's Race, which officially comes off the press April 14.
Join me at the first annual Active Pass Festival on Mayne Island, B.C., 9-10 a.m., Sunday, April 19 at the Mayne Island Library. And partake of the many other activities of the festival too:

Because Andreo's Race is set in Bolivia, and I visited Bolivia as part of my research, I am also showing some slides from my Bolivia visit. (For those who can't pop into the festival, I will feature some of those photos and release a blog about writing Andreo's Race later next month.)

More information on the Gulf Islands:

April 14, 2015 12 and up 7 and up
Just as sixteen-year-old Andreo, skilled in death-defying ironman events in wilderness regions, is about to compete in rugged Bolivia, he and his friend Raul (another Bolivian adoptee) begin to suspect that their adoptive parents have unwittingly acquired them illegally. Plotting to use the upcoming race to pursue the truth, they veer on an epic journey to locate Andreo's birth parents, only to find themselves hazardously entangled with a gang of baby traffickers. Never suspecting that attempting to bring down the ring would endanger their very lives, the boys plunge ahead. Compelling, poignant, and heart-stopping, Andreo's Race takes readers on a perilous quest to discover the true meaning of family.
to order Andreo's Race:

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The (sad) tale behind writing Paintball Island

Twelve-year-old Max and his younger sister Marie love having an unspoiled island all to themselves. So when they learn it's being turned into a paintball park, they're torn between enjoying their schoolmates' envy, and worrying about the game wrecking their home. It's time for them to rally their friends and put all they've learned about paintball strategy and teamwork into protecting their land and its wildlife.

Write enough books and one project is bound to fall into the category of a nightmare. Welcome to my story behind writing Paintball Island.
This was originally assigned as the first in a new series of outdoor-sports novels that would be called The Thrill Island Series.
To begin with, I initially decided – idiotically – to make Paintball Island a fantasy. Trouble is, I have never written fantasy and I don't read fantasy, so I couldn't pull it off. When my husband read it on completion, he told me to ditch the fantasy part. Stubbornly, I submitted it anyway. My publisher told me to ditch the fantasy. So I did. That was rewrite No. 1.
When I resubmitted it sans fantasy, my editor – one with whom I'd been working for years with no problems at all – told me she could not edit it because she felt that paintball is a war game and promotes violence, something against her beliefs.
Fine. I found another editor – a well-respected male – and asked my publisher if I could work with him. Permission granted. He had no problem with the topic, but delivered a list of recommended changes to improve the writing. A long list. That was rewrite No. 2.
Just as I completed the changes, my publisher decided to get out of the children's book business, and notified all authors with children’s or teen’s works in progress that they and their projects were kaput.
(I had by then already outlined and partially written the second in The Thrill Island Series, a book I am now converting to a stand-alone; it will of course go to another publisher.)
Dismayed that my publisher would no longer fund the editor with whom I’d been working to assess whether my rewrite had met his expectations, I opted to pay him out-of-pocket myself (thereby squelching any possible profit on the book). He said “good job,” but of course that made no difference to the book’s status, which was back to square one.
My agent shopped it around and found a publisher who said he was interested if I cut its length by about thirty percent. Ouch. After no further responses from other publishers, I proceeded to cut my work to the bone: rewrite No. 3, and the toughest one at that (even with the generous help of my agent).
After reviewing the new shorter version, the publisher informed my agent that, sorry, it wasn't what he wanted after all.
By now, I was convinced that Paintball Island was cursed. I considered shredding it, cutting my losses. But my agent persuaded me to self-publish it, and I even got to choose the cover photo, which is one of my favorite covers. (Adrenalin Ride’s cover is my other favorite.)
On a more positive note, the book was originally inspired by a deaf interpreter I met at a publishing conference, who commented that there were almost no books for teens with deaf characters. I took her business card, met her later for coffee and ended up working closely with her in creating the character of Tony.  I also had local teachers help me find two deaf students to vet Tony’s character after the book was written.
Other trivia regarding Paintball Island:
  •        Garth the goat was inspired by my cabin’s next-door neighbours’ goats, which I got to watch frolicking every day.
  •        I played paintball as part of my research, got hit by friendly fire and returned home with a quarter-sized bruise on my backside, which my husband thought was hilarious. This was despite the fact that I wore my son's hockey padding under my clothing.
  •        Marie's chemistry experiments were vetted by my chemistry professor husband, Steve.
  •        The island, the hot springs and the antagonist’s name Impagliazzo were inspired by a vacation with my family on the island of Ischia, near Naples, Italy. Of course, Paintball Island was also inspired by Mayne Island, British Columbia, where I spend much of my time -- although there are no coyotes there.
  •        I had to read lots of paintball books as part of my research, and had several paintball experts help as well.
  •        The fantasy element I deleted: The hot springs had magical properties.
  •        Once I’d slashed the length by thirty percent, I left it at that for the final version.
  •        This is the second book in which I have featured night-vision goggles. BMX Tunnel Run was the other one.
  •        Do dogs really have an equivalent to catnip? My portrayal of stinking goosefoot weed as “dog nip” is not to be taken too seriously. Likewise, don't try turning bath beads into paintball pellets in real life.
 To order Paintball Island as a paperback or e-book: