Monday, September 26, 2011

Are you smarter than a fifth grader?

I’ve been a fan of puzzles and codes since I was a kid. I used to talk to my friends in Pig Latin, write the secret notes in Alpha-Numeric Code (each alphabet letter matches a number), and learned the American Sign Language Manual Alphabet so I could communicate with my friends in class without the teacher knowing.

After writing several mystery series for adults, I wanted to write a mystery for middle-grade kids, and thought it might be fun to include a code for the readers to solve in every chapter. THE CODE BUSTERS CLUB: SECRET OF THE SKELETON KEY was just published last week and it’s full codes for fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders to solve, such as Morse Code, Braille, Fingerspelling, Alpha-Numeric, Caesar’s Cipher, and even Semaphore. Each reader I meet gets a code-busting kit to go with the book.

While most codes have been around for centuries, one of my favorite codes is called the LEET Code, also known as 1337 Code. It’s a recent high-tech creation based on computer keyboard symbols—and it’s just as challenging for adults as it is for kids! 

Try to decode the following message in LEET Code. If you can’t, read hints below. If you can solve it, then you’re welcome to join the Code Busters Club, where you’ll find more codes to solve (

Here goes:

( 4 /\/   \|/ () (_)   ( |2 4 ( I<   + # 3   ( () I) 3   ?

For some people, this is as easy as ABC to decipher the code, but for others, it looks like nonsense. If you’re having trouble reading the sentence above, here’s a hint: Each letter of the alphabet has been replaced by a keyboard symbol that resembles the letter. For example, the parenthesis  (  becomes the letter C. Now can you see what’s right before your eyes?

Still stuck? All right, here’s the key:

A = 4     B = 8      C = (     D = |)     E = 3      F = |=   G = 6     H = #      I =  !       J = _|    

K = |<     L= |_    M= /\/\   N = /\/    O= ()    P = |*      Q = (,)    R= |2     S = $      T = +    

U=(_)     V = \/     W= \/\/    X = *     Y = \|/     Z = 2

I hope that was fun. Now you can communicate with your friends via email, using the LEET Code—and all you need is a computer keyboard!


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Summer's last hurrah?

What is it about a holiday weekend that compels us to leave behind our comfy homes, with all the accessories we could ever need, drive in traffic for hours, and then live in a vehicle the size of a refrigerator box in the middle of nowhere for four days?

It was Labor Day weekend and that meant we had to participate in the last-day-of-summer ritual of leaving town, despite the price of gas, the lack of money, and the blazing heat. So we packed up "everything" we thought we'd need for four days in the wilderness, including four grandchildren and their parents.

Two hours later we arrived at the Gold Country Campground, where we were directed to a slot the size of our home driveway in the RV section of the park. There, under an even hotter sun than we'd left behind, we set up shop. Which meant we closed up all the windows and turned on the air conditioner.

To cope with the heat, we headed for the water park, where the grandkids were sprayed with giant sprinklers and doused with tipsy buckets of cold water while we watched them scream. Then we hit the pool, which was filled with glacial runoff and billions of kids who think cannonballing -- repeatedly -- is the best way to enter freezing water.

By the time I got used to the arctic pool water, it was time to move on to the next activity: miniature golf. Exhausted from the "fun," I opted to hike back to the RV -- a half-mile straight uphill -- and tried to take a nap surrounded by

miniature dogs who kept yapping about their territorial rights.

The bikes we'd brought were useless, because what goes downhill must come uphill and there was no way I could pedal that thing up a mini Mount Everest. Instead, I took full advantage of the folding chairs, placing them in the slivers of shade between RVs, and watched the heat waves bounce off the pavement.

When nature's furnace finally died down and most of the bugs had made their marks and left, we barbecued hamburgers (but forgot the ketchup), drank wine (until we ran out), and listened to conversations from RVers parked only steps away ("Frank! The alarm bell's going off!").

I'd hoped to spend some of the time away from home distractions working on my book, but I found it harder to concentrate in the forested surroundings than in my own family room, where I have access to TV, the phone, three hungry cats, and the sound of neighbors' lawn mowers.

There's something about being under a bunch of trees that's disconcerting to a suburbanite like me. It's too quiet (aside from the yapping dogs), there's too much fresh air (I miss the smell of cat litter in the morning), and it's just too relaxing. I must have a touch of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, because I need to be doing something -- in fact, doing 10 things -- while I "relax." (Oh, look, a squirrel!)

Next year I'll just park the RV in my own driveway, set up my deck chair on the front lawn, and turn on the sprinklers. And when I get tired of the great outdoors, I'll go to the mall.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Outlining vs Winging It

My new middle grade book just came out and it's been a long road to publication. What started as a basic outline soon eventually became a detailed story of four thirteen-year-old kids who create and crack codes to solve a mystery.

When I gave a talk about the book the other day, the question arose--as it always does--Do I outline my story before you write it? While the other writers often write “organically,” I need a map. Seriously. I get lost going from one place to another, and if it weren’t for my GPS, I might never make it to my destination.

So I use a sort of GPS/outline when creating my stories that includes how the book begins, all the way through who dunnit. That doesn’t mean I don’t take a wrong turn now and then, or deliberately go off the main road to explore an unfamiliar neighborhood. But it helps to know that I have a backup plan in case that left turn into Timbuktoo leads to a dead end.

Here’s an example of how I might outline a book on “How to Get your Book Published.”

       A.   Outline book

       B.  Actually write the book

       C.    Or just think about writing the book but don’t actually do it.

II.     Finish The Book

       A.    Send it to… 

                I.    Relatives
                       1.    Gets lots of praise
                       2.    Write thank you notes to relatives

               II.    Agents
                       1.    Get lots of rejections
                       2.    Wonder what’s wrong with agents

              III.    Publisher
                       1.    Get more rejections
                       2.    Consider giving up

      B.    Give up or keep sending…

                 I.    Bury the book in the backyard and wallpaper bathroom with rejection slips

                II.    Drink bottle of wine and keep sending out the book

     C.    Finally get agent representation…

                 I.    Celebrate with rest of bottle of wine

                II.    Be thankful you’re avoiding the slush pile

               III.    Consider proposing marriage to agent

     D.    Get a publishing contract…

                  I.    Make a good advance, thanks to agent’s negotiating skills

                 II.    Give 15% to agent and wonder why

                III.    Work with editor/publisher who wants you to rewrite the book

                 IV.    Work with copyeditor who wonders if you’ve taken any English classes

     E.    Spend the next year…

                   I.    Working with art director on cover

                  II.    Working with editor on back cover blurb

                 III.    Working with publicist on reviews

                  IV.    Preparing promotional materials at your expense

                  V.    Arranging your own book tours

                 VI.    Doing media events, blogs, websites, Jerry Springer

                VII.    Spend entire advance on the above

      F.    Book publication date arrives

                  I.    Book is a bestseller

                          1.    Sell movie rights to Hollywood
                          2.    Appear on Oprah Network
                          3.    Begin next blockbuster
                          4.    Be worshipped

                  II.    Book just sells through

                          1.    Barely make back advance
                          2.    Appear in local newspaper
                          3.    Begin new midlist book
                          4.    Don’t quit day job

                 III.    Book goes to remainder pile

                           1.    Sell book door-to-door
                           2.    Handout coupons for deep discount
                           3.    Begin updating old resume
                          4.    Apply to Burger King

III. Write new outline...