Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Writing Life

New Year’s Resolutions 2012!

Oh, no, here we go again. Can any subject be more predictable or, let’s be honest, boring? Anyway, why bother? My New Year’s resolutions don’t change much from January to January. 1) Write more. 2) Revise better. 3) Accept criticism. 4) Remember: rejection = learning. 5) Whine less. Does that mean I don’t accomplish anything year to year? Or, maybe my goals aren’t clear enough and reaching them can’t be measured?

Actually, none of the above.

I realize, as I look back over this past year’s writing life, that I have moved forward even if some of the progress is subtle. In 2011, I might not have written more, but I wrote better. I might not have revised better, but I revised more. I learned from constructive criticism; the improvement in my work is testimony (and it has definitely improved). I accepted rejection as a signal to move on to other, perhaps better places to submit my work. Did I whine less? Perhaps not. But nobody’s perfect.

So, for 2012, rinse and repeat: 1) write better, 2) revise more, 3) learn from criticism and 4) view rejection as a pass, not a stop sign. Evaluate. Return to step 1.

How do you measure progress in your writing life?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What is great writing?

Lana writes in her post on story sense (Dec. 9) that a writer always needs to ask ‘is this the best way to tell this story?’ Expanding on this idea, Lisa Schwarzbaum writes in her column, “A Second opinion” that a great movie distinguishes itself because the “story has integrity, originality and a sharp intelligence. The characters are distinctive and fully formed. The action [plot] unfolds organically, driven by those characters, rather than arbitrarily, driven by writerly cleverness.” These criteria hold true no matter what genre, whether the story is written, on film, or spoken by a story teller, and no matter the age of the intended audience, picture book through adult. Both Lana and Lisa present us with criteria against which we can measure our own work and move it to greatness. (See Lisa’s review of “Bridesmaids,” in the December 23rd issue of Entertainment Weekly.)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Bits & Bytes: 90 Secrets of Best Selling Authors

Jessica Strawser at Writer's Digest has compiled an inspiring list of 90 (I know, why not 100?) Top Secrets of Bestselling Authors. The advice is broken into categories from Finding Ideas to Revising to Connecting with Readers. My favorite quote is:
“I don’t believe one reads to escape reality. A person reads to confirm a reality he knows is there, but which he has not experienced.”
—Lawrence Durrell
Check out these great quotes and let us know if one speaks to you.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Heart of a Shepherd

Getting in step with a frequent topic for this time of year, I present my favorite Christmas story. Actually, it’s one of my favorites because I can never choose just one. It also isn’t exactly a Christmas story although the title of the book is suggestive. What makes it evocative of the Christmas season is its core message of giving and receiving gifts. In Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry, eleven-year-old Ignatius “Brother” Alderman, a cowboy-in-training, is left to take charge of the family ranch, along with his grandparents. His father has gone off to war and his older brothers are away at school. The future is full of foreboding, the burdens overwhelming. But faith is strong in Brother’s family life and in the life of the surrounding community. Brother finds gifts nestled within the deepest loss and unexpected possibilities in the midst of change. For me, his coming-of-age story embodies the spirit of Christmas and the wonder of the season. (Heart of a Shepherd, by Rosanne Parry, Random House Children’s Books, 2009).

Friday, December 9, 2011

Author Skill Set: Story Sense

"The universe is made of stories, not atoms."
                    -Muriel Rukeyser

Storytelling is probably the oldest form of entertainment on the planet. Stories play significant roles in the human experience: It's how we learn, share, persuade, plan, dream, communicate, and make sense of the world. Indeed, the human experience IS story.

As technology has evolved over the years, new forms of storytelling have emerged. Books, radio, recordings, movies, video games, and electronic media each offer a new way to experience story. Whatever medium a storyteller chooses, a strong story sense is essential. Story sense, in my head, means this: the ability to create a satisfying story arc with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Many people have an innate sense of story, but I believe it is something that can be learned as well. There are many books about the theory of story structure, which are quite interesting. However, it comes down to that critical word, satisfying.

As I wrote my first novel, I rearranged the sequence and the pacing and the order of the scenes many times. I kept asking myself, "Is this the right way to tell this story?" Even after reading said books regarding storytelling theory and structure, I wasn't sure. When I changed the question to "Is this a satisfying way to tell this story?" I was able to feel confident about the choices I had made about my story structure.

What are your thoughts about story sense? How is it strengthened? How is it weakened? We'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Funniest Thing About...Writers Groups

The funniest thing about writer’s groups is how priceless they are. There are so many services available to writers – for a fee. You can buy writer’s guides, writer’s markets, online subscriptions to industry newsletters, conference registrations (with additional fees for one on one critiques), writing classes, etc. And all these things have varying degrees of value, even if not proportionate to their cost. But ironically, the greatest investment you can make in your writing career is the one that doesn’t cost a thing!
Joining a writers group is free, yet priceless. For just a small commitment of your time, you get personal attention to your writing. You get emotional support for the ups and downs that come with the writer’s life. You get free therapy for all the everyday things that happen between your creative outbursts. And over time, you get to see your writing clearly and dramatically improve.
It’s a funny dynamic. You sit down at a table with four or five people you’ve never met, and you dare to bare your soul through your writing. You secretly hope that they’ll burst out in a spontaneous standing ovation for your literary genius. Instead they offer dry comments about your use of passive voice and give a few suggestions for improving the pacing. You smile politely and thank them for their comments. You politely offer your feedback on theirs. Then you go home and vent. How could they not recognize your brilliance? How dare they make corrections? Who do these people think they are? Then you settle down in a day or two and reread their comments only to realize they were right! How could you have missed such obvious errors in your writing? Next time you meet, you listen more closely to their comments, eager to take notes. After a few meetings, you’re hoping they’ll have suggestions to add. After a few months, you wouldn’t dream of showing one of your manuscripts to an editor without running it by your group. Your group of strangers has transformed into a circle of friends.
Aside from your common literary interests, you’ve become interested in each other. Each person in the group has come to know your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. And because they applaud your strengths, you trust them to correct your weaknesses (and in their presence, you can finally admit you DO have weaknesses as a writer.) You take their suggestions and make revisions, and over time you find they have fewer and fewer suggestions for improving your work. Then comes that magical meeting when, unprompted, they say “I love this!” or “this one is ready to submit to editors!” And the praise you initially wanted from strangers means so much more now, coming from friends. I’m proud to say that I’ve become a better writer because of my writers group. I’ve been fortunate to receive two book publishing offers this year, and I know without doubt, that my writer’s group helped to make that possible. I only hope I’ve been able to give them the same support and encouragement in return. If I don’t tell my friends in my writers group often enough, I’ll say it here now – you guys truly are priceless!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Illuminations From The Illustrator

The Emotions of Color: Yellow

What color do we see when we look at the third longest wavelength (580 – 550) of the visible light spectrum? Yellow. Yellow is high in value (it’s bright) which is important to keep in mind when using it in illustration.

Yellow wears two faces, like the Roman god Janus. The Egyptians and Mayans worshiped yellow because it is the color of the sun. Yellow is the color of eastern philosophies and is considered by some to be the color of positive social relationships. However, the west uses yellow to symbolize caution, cowardice, prejudice and persecution. Yellow also plays roles in the animal kingdom. Yellow combined with black is a warning. Many of us have had run-ins with yellow jackets, to our cost!

So, considering all this, how does an illustrator make good use of yellow? In art, yellow is stimulating, energetic and optimistic. In The Yellow Boat, by Margaret Hillert, illustrated by Ed Young, Young uses the color against blue, along with complementary purples and greens, to push yellow to center stage. Even the white of the tiny boat’s sail supports rather than upstages the yellow form beneath it.

In The Boy from the Sun, written and illustrated by Duncan Weller, yellow contrasts with the grey, smog-covered urban environment of three sad children. It is the only color that appears on the first five pages of this picture book. As other colors are introduced they are muted against the brilliance of the luminous yellow that commands the reader to ‘follow me, come see what I have to show you.’

Yellow can also be used for its iconic associations. Yellow tells stories all by itself, no words needed: a bus, even if simply drawn and painted yellow, immediately suggests a school bus to most readers; a yellow tape tells us to be cautious or to keep away; yellow painted on a curb tells a story of who is allowed to park in a particular spot and who is not. What other color, painted on a light bulb, tells us bugs will stay away?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Fun with Literary Turducken

You know about turducken, right? A chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey? I tried to find a picture to post, but I have to be honest and tell you that none of them looked appetizing. Instead I have something much appealing (and calorie free!).

Literary Turducken!

Courtesy of twitter and book nerds everywhere, these triple mash-up titles gave me a chuckle. And now, without further ado about nothing but the truth, I give you my top ten picks.

The Memory Keeper's Daughter of Smoke and Lovely Bones

Play Misty of Chincoteague for Me and My Gal

The Lion, the Witch and the War of the World According to Garp

The Man Who Mistook His Reliable Wife for the Cat in the Hat

Stuart the Little Prince Caspian

Charlie and the Chocolate War and Peace

The Joy of Cooking the Very Hungry Caterpillars of the Earth

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Philosopher's Chamber of Secrets

A Time to Kill a Mockingjay

Ender's Hunger Game of Thrones

(If you have an appetite for more, search #literaryturducken on twitter.)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Why do you write for your chosen age group?

Why an author writes for the age group s/he chooses is a question that comes up often at seminars and workshops. Why do you write picture books? Middle grade? Young adult? Reasons are as varied as writers themselves. For myself, I often decide what form the work will take from the voice that brings me the story. This is because when a story idea begins to form it comes with a point of view, a tone of voice, a setting, and a problem or concern that needs a solution. These elements, taken together, tell me who the story is meant for. Sometimes the subject matter and the problem to be solved fixes the story as a picture book, or older. Sometimes this matching of story to audience is dynamic; a story that, at first, seemed most whole as a picture book can evolve into a middle grade novel, and vice versa; the book can even age up or down several times. So I would have to answer this question with ‘because that is who this story needed to be written for.’ Not very helpful, I have to admit, but it’s really true.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bits and Bytes: Writer's Block Revisited

A while back I wrote a piece on writer's block and recommended facing it head on. Writer's Digest recently posted an article advising the opposite approach. Sarah Maurer suggests taking a break and achieving a Zen state of mindlessness is the answer. So now you have both sides of the story (I'm sure there are many more!) What strategies have worked for you in overcoming writer's block? We'd love to hear them!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Author Skill Set: Persistence

Persistence: The ability to keep working when initial efforts don't pay off right away. If you're a writer, you need it. This is particularly true if you are seeking publication. The only way to learn writing is to write, which means that you are writing through the learning curve. And it can be a pretty long curve.

Most writers try to get their work published before it's ready, but that, too, is part of the learning process. You'll need to learn how and where to submit your writing and become accustomed to the ups and downs of the submission experience. There will be plenty of rejections, and you can learn important things from them. I have a different word for rejection letters: certificates of courage. Because getting past the fear of rejection and criticism is crucial in order to improve your writing.

A writer who continues to improve while simultaneously getting his work out for people to read--that is a writer who will (eventually) get published. If you stop improving, or stop submitting or stop writing all together, that's when publication doesn't happen. When you are moving up the learning curve, you will reach the point where everything comes together--the writing, the writer, the market, the timing. And good things will happen.

What motivates you to keep trying?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Author Skill Set: Creativity

I aspire to the be a writer who is constantly improving, pushing myself to take risks, see things a different way, and learn from the incredible people and world around me. In my attempts to do this, I've made a list of ten skills that I want to work on. The first (though the order is not important) is creativity skill. I define it this way: the ability to recognize, combine, and develop good story ideas.

Every author event that I've attended, someone asks the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" and the answer is always some variation of the concept that ideas come from everywhere. 

It's true. Story ideas, like interesting pebbles, are all around us, just waiting to be collected. Creativity skill comes into play as we learn to recognize them, pick them up, and know what to do with them. The idea for my novel came from a friend of mine who told me that she never visualizes anything when she reads. She might hear the dialogue and the sounds in her mind, but she never forms any mental images. I was astounded. I thought every reader visualized like I do. I still think most readers do, but since then I've met others who don't visualize. 

I began to think about this over and over.What other tasks might a non-visualizer have trouble with? Taken to the extreme, could the inability to visualize be considered a handicap? What kind of society would pose problems for a person who can't visualize things? That led me to conceive of a world in which telekinesis (the ability to move things mentally) was commonplace, which in turn led to the characters and plot of my novel which will be released Fall of 2012. 

One of the things I do to exercise creativity skill is to keep an idea box. Anytime I see something that triggers a story idea, I write it down or draw it or cut it out and put it in the box. The box is not organized at all, just a jumble of snatches of things. When I need an infusion of new ideas, I go through the mess in the box and invariably find something that sparks a new direction.

What do you do to sharpen creativity?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Illuminations From The Illustrator

The Emotions of Color: Red

What color do we see when we look at the longest wavelength of the visible light spectrum? Red. Red is visually dominant which explains why we respond to red as we do and how it can be used effectively in illustration.

Neurological studies have shown that humans react to colors at a primal level; red stimulates and attracts, makes us more alert, even aggressive. In a group of colors, we see red first. In many cultures red is considered the color of good fortune, luck and prosperity. Red also plays roles in the animal kingdom. The poison-dart frog from Ecuador and the Texas coral snake both use variations of red in their body color to signal danger. Ever wonder why bright orange is worn by hunters? Deer cannot see red or its variations but it allows hunters to more easily see each other.

So, considering all this, how does an illustrator make good use of red? One way is to clothe the protagonist in red. In Last Night, by Hyewon Yum, red is used sparingly, barely present in a story that takes place at night. But the little girl wears a red nightgown thus preserving her leading status even when other creatures are drawn much larger or dominate the action on the page.

In The Three Questions, written and illustrated by Jon Muth, red is used so sparingly that at first it only appears in the brilliant red kite that the boy flies as he plays. It symbolizes wisdom. Near the end of the book, red is used in the boy’s shirt, appearing simultaneously with the text that tells us the boy is learning the lessons the old turtle has been teaching him. Red visually binds the boy to what he has learned.

Red can become a character all its own as it does in the illustrations of Pamela Zagarenski for Red Sings from Treetops, by Joyce Sidman. In this book, red is not only the cheerful harbinger of spring, it is the brave, buoyant, hardy spirit that transcends all seasons, never quite fading or disappearing completely from the winter landscape. It reappears the next spring as the snow melts, symbolizing a wonderful resurrection.

On a more direct level, red can be used to alert the reader that the action is about to move faster or become more emotionally intense, even explosive. We see this when red is used to visually represent anger or rage.

Do other colors have a range of emotions this wide or deep? I’ll explore the contributions of other colors in later posts. Keep watching!

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Funniest Thing About...

The funniest thing about writers’ conferences is the panel Q&A. At every conference I’ve attended where they have a panel of successful authors, eventually someone will ask how they got started in children’s writing; what was their big break? I have heard writers begin their answers to that question in the following ways: “my husband’s agent…, while I was working at Scholastic…, the publisher of my adult romance novel…, a friend of mine who knew Jane Yolen…, after being an agent for ten years…” I have NEVER heard a single author say, “They pulled my manuscript from the slush pile and called me.” For all the assurances I hear from editors and agents at these panels that they read and consider every manuscript they receive, it seems odd that the (admittedly anecdotal) evidence suggests that having a friend in the business is still the quickest route to publication. But fear not! You do have a friend in the business. If you’re at a writers’ conference, look around. Talk to the person next to you. Everyone there at the conference is “in the business.” They all care about children’s publishing. Many of them have already been published or know someone who has. Talk with them. Reach out to them. You never know when a, “Hey, I like your sweater,” comment can turn into a, “I write in the same style, I think my agent might be interested in your work,” moment In addition, the agents and editors that attend these conferences WANT to find someone to publish. They want to make their weekend speaking engagement worth giving up a trip to the beach or the mountains. They want to connect, not just with a manuscript, but with an author – face to face. Take advantage of these opportunities and sign up for the one on one consultations and evaluations. Chances are, they won’t fall in love with your first submission, but you will have made another connection with “someone in the business.” Who knows, maybe you will end up on one of those wrters’ panels answering a question with, “My friend the agent…”

Pebbles of Writing Wisdom

I love going to writers conferences. It's not so much about what I learn, although that alone is valuable. It's more about hanging out with writers, catching their energy and passion, and thinking about my own writing in a new way. Let me illustrate by sharing a few pebbles of wisdom from the recent James River Writers Conference. Unfortunately, my notes did not include the names of the persons who dropped these gems in my lap, which means I can't give proper credit to the speakers.

- Write to the hole in your heart.

- Writers have to deal with ambiguity. It's your own truth that you bring to the muddle that clarifies it.

- Plot is the tracing out of a character's desire, the laying out of what the character wants versus what the character gets.

- Write the way Otis Redding sings, with rhythm, emotion and voice. His music emulates desire.

-When someone is reading my book, that person is in my care. The whole point of literature is to make you feel more human, and it's the writers responsibility to make that happen.

Everything about the conference feeds my writer self. What awakens the writer in you?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Do Audio Books Talk to You?

One of my favorite ways of reading is to listen. I have heard those critical of audio books say that listening isn’t really reading. But that is how reading often begins. As a child, I loved being read to. Even now, stories come more alive for me when a voice adds to the images spilling out with the words. Reading through listening is both a very old and simple medium (the story-telling tradition goes back thousands of years) and a sophisticated, complex, modern phenomenon thanks to computer technology. Today a single story teller can reach untold thousands, even millions of listeners through the magic of digital media. I have a hunch that the nomadic story-tellers of old would be delighted.

My passion for listening/reading has had one unexpected result. My rate of reading has increased. I choose a wider variety of books and I read more constantly. I have also developed a list of favorite narrators alongside my lists of favorite authors, books and movies. At the moment, Jim Dale, narrator of the Harry Potter books, is at the top of my narrator list. People I know who are challenged by reading text, the visually impaired, blind or dyslexic also read constantly and voraciously, thanks to the magic of audio books.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Getting Kids into Books

My daughter is perhaps the most picky reader I know. She likes fantasy, but only a certain type of fantasy. She likes mystery, but only a certain kind of mystery. You get the idea. Sometimes I'll give her a book I think she's going to love and she's only lukewarm about it. In spite of that, we keep trying because when she connects with a book, she is IN LOVE with it.

Her latest book crush is a little-known middle grade book called Abby Carnelia's One and Only Magical Power by David Pogue. She is dumbfounded as to why no one else she knows has read this incredibly awesome book. I suggested she write what she likes about Abby Carnelia's story and I could post it as a review on Amazon.

We also found the author's email address on his website and decided to send him a message. I told her we might not hear anything back because this author is a busy man who writes a column for the NY Times. A few days later, we got an email back. He told her that she is exactly the kind of person he hoped would read his book and like it. She felt like a rock star reader!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Favorite Fall Books

My absolute favorite book about fall is Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree. I have always loved Halloween and from my first exposure to fellow Richmonder, Edgar Allen Poe, I have always been drawn to tales of the supernatural. This book combines both elements as seven boys race through time and space to save the life of their very ill friend. In the course of their adventures with the mysterious Moundshroud, they learn the very roots of the Halloween celebration – past the original Hallowed ‘eve of the Catholic church, past the Mexican Dia del Muerta, past the Celtic New Year, past even the Roman fall festivals, all the way back to ancient Egypt and beyond. This is that rare blend of cultural and historical facts woven seamlessly with excellent story telling. This book precisely captures the mood of my favorite part of my favorite season.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Favorite Fall Book

My favorite Fall book really focuses on the colors of all four seasons. Fall is devoted to the glories of brown. No color, other than orange (to my mind, linked more to Halloween) denotes the closing of the agrarian year with more resonance than brown. But I have never particularly liked brown. However, the way Joyce Sidman writes about brown in Red Sings from Treetops (a Caldecott Honor book in 2010), whimsically illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, guarantees that I will never look at brown in the quite the same way again. Listen:

fat and glossy,
rises in honking flocks.
Brown rustles and whispers underfoot.
Brown gleams in my hand:
a tiny round house,
dolloped with roof.

The last phrase, a powerful description of the promise of an acorn, is pure delight.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Favorite Fall Books

Hooray for the pumpkin pie! Fall has arrived and in the next few posts, we'll be sharing our favorite books about autumn delights: pumpkins, leaves, spooky fun, and family feasts.

Luckily, one of my favorite picture books of all time happens to have an autumnal theme. Fletcher and the Falling Leaves, by Julia Rawlinson (illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke) is everything a good picture book should be. It's funny. It's beautiful. It's simple yet meaningful on many levels.

When Autumn arrives, a young fox becomes concerned when his favorite tree changes colors and dropping its leaves. Something must be wrong. Fletcher tries to help his tree, but to no avail. Not to worry, for a happy ending with a twist is in store. Fletcher and the Falling Leaves is not just another autumn-themed book. It's a story about friendship and the acceptance of change.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Reading for a Record

Our own Lana Krumwiede and Brian Rock are teaming up with PBS Sprout and Learning Care Group to help break the record for most people reading the same book on the same day. Sadly, the book is not one by either Lana or Brian (maybe next year!) They will instead be reading the enjoyable, Llama, Llama, Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney. The purpose of the record breaking attempt is to help make reading a priority for at risk preschoolers. According to the Learning Care website, "Millions of children in low-income neighborhoods are at risk of school failure before they even start Kindergarten. Led by Jumpstart, “Read for the Record” is a program that mobilizes adults and children to close the early education achievement gap. In cooperation with Jumpstart and Sprout, we are proud to stand up and read together as one voice to demand that all children receive the quality early education they deserve."
If you'd like to join Lana and Brian in setting the record, you can play along at home by joining us on Facebook at either 7:30 p.m. ET, 7:30 p.m. CT or 7:30 p.m. PT, when our own Dr. Heather Wittenberg will read the book live.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Kevin Nesbitt's Scary Good Poetry

To help get everyone in the mood for Halloween, children's poet Kevin Nesbitt is posting a funny Halloween or monster themed poem on his Facebook page every day in October. Don't miss out, Kevin's poems are a real treat! Here's a peak at today's poem:

My Father Looks Like Frankenstein
My father looks like Frankenstein,
my mom looks like Godzilla,
my brother looks like Dracula,
my sister, Vampirella.

My family is the scariest
in this entire city.
I really can't explain how I
turned out to be so pretty.
--Kenn Nesbitt

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Funniest Thing About...School Visits

The funniest thing about school visits is the teachers. It’s amazing how teachers can still make you feel like a little child. After a pleasant greeting and possibly a few minutes of “getting to know you” small talk, the teacher will turn to her class and demand attention. I’m well past my school age years, yet whenever I hear teachers go into that stern “listen up…or else” mode, I quake in my shoes. Even the 50% of the time when I’m not doing anything wrong! To make matters worse, I like to write humorous works for children so I like to get the students riled up and ready to laugh. I like to have them interact with me; I like to know they’re coming along for the ride. And nothing can turn my raucous hayride into a somber ride of shame faster than a teacher’s raised eyebrow, “I see what you’re doing and you’re going to pay for it later” look. Sometimes I have to engage in a stealth battle of wills with the teacher. We play a sort of unspoken tug of war with the attention of the children. I try to get them loud and boisterous, the teacher will remind them of the rules. I’ll ask them silly questions that have no correct answer, the teacher will make an educational allusion to something they’re studying in class. I’ll zig, she’ll zag. I’ll bob, she’ll weave. All the while, the children will feel the unspoken tension between fun and education. And then we’ve got them! Because in the end, that’s the goal – to remind kids that learning can be, should be, and often is FUN!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

bbgb, a Richmond landmark

bbgb books – Repeat the letters rapidly five times, and you’ve got a tongue twister to beat them all. Try to crack the code, and you have a pleasant brainteaser.

Buy books, Give books!

Bring back great books!

Beguiling, beautiful, glittering books!

Badgers, beavers, gerbils, bats – Well, why not? Animal books are great fun!

The possibilities go on and on. Jill Stefanovich and Jenesse Evertson, owners of the only children’s book store in Richmond, wanted a name that kids could play around with and enjoy. They bought the store, then called Narnia, about a year ago when previous owner Kelly Kyle decided to retire. The dynamic duo had less than a week to make their life-changing decision. In the end, however, it all came down to their love of children’s books. “We couldn’t stand for Narnia not to be here,” says Jill.

Each with their own area of expertise, Jill and Jenesse complement each other professionally. Jill has a head for figures and the background necessary to keep a company afloat. Jenesse, who has a master’s degree in children’s literature and PhD in literacy, provides the educational background.

“What completely sets us apart [from other book stores],” explains Jill, “is that we match the reader with the book.” It’s a process I watched with admiration when I recently had a chance to chat with both owners. It was a fairly busy afternoon. Jill and Jenesse greeted parents and kids alike with easy familiarity. They enjoy sharing new titles and recommending old favorites as much as the customers, young and old, enjoy browsing the packed shelves. A trip to bbgb is an adventure. As a long-time customer myself, I can vouch for the carefully chosen selection. There are books at bbgb that you won’t find anywhere else in Richmond.

The “shop kids” get in on the act too – Jill’s seven year-old twin daughters and Jenesse’s seven-year-daughter and six-year-old son. They have their favorites which are spotlighted for customers to see.

And then there are what Jill calls their “secret weapons,” Diane and Julianna. There’s very little that these long-time veterans of children’s bookselling don’t know. And they enjoy sharing their enthusiasm with everyone. Through the years, I’ve come to know them and appreciate them well. Frankly, it’s lots of fun to talk books with them.

Time flies quickly when you’re visiting bbgb. So do words when you’re writing about it. I’ll have to save Jill and Jenesse’s future plans and book recommendations for the next blog. But don’t wait for that to visit bbgb (on Kensington down the street from the Historical Society). It is THE hot spot for children’s books in Richmond.
And don't miss Michael Buckley at bbgb on Tuesday, September 27th from 3:30-5:30!

Bits and Bytes: Straightforward Path to Publishing

Writer's Digest online has a nice article entitled, "Your Straightforward Guide to Publication." In the article Brian Klems identifies time wasters that can slow down your path to publication. He also gives some signs when publication may be just around the corner. Ultimately, Brian encourages authors that publication is often a case of mind over matter. He says that if you feel, "I couldn’t stop writing even if someone told me to give up, then you’re much closer to publication than someone who is easily discouraged. The battle is far more psychological than you might think. Those who can’t be dissuaded are more likely to reach their goals, regardless of the path they ultimately choose."

Friday, September 16, 2011

Illuminations From The Illustrator

How Do I Get My Picture Book Illustrated?
Part II

In August I wrote about the advisability of not getting your picture book illustrated (unless you are a writer/illustrator) if you are trying to get your book published traditionally.

What if tradition is not your thing? What if you are interested in self-publishing? The options for print or e-publishing your books are plentiful and expanding exponentially. There also many possibilities for getting your book illustrated. In this case you, the author, will need to research and contact the illustrator directly and go from there.

How do you find an illustrator? The web makes this easy. Google “children’s book illustrator” and see what comes up. Look through focused web sites such as the Children’s Book Insider and SCBWI for examples and ideas. Many times illustrators have posted examples of their work. If you have a college of art near you, call and talk to one of the professors. Perhaps there is an interested student looking for a project or a professor willing to consider extra credit for a student who wants to illustrate a picture book.

For the self-publishing author, finding an illustrator takes just as much research as finding a publisher. But the upside is that you retain ownership of the process that fired you up when you wrote your book in the first place. That’s a win-win all around.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Bits and Bytes: Agents

Since I wrote about the perils and pitfalls of finding an agent on my last post, I thought it would be fair to give the other side of the story. Writer's Digest has an interesting article called How These Writers Got an Agent. It's filled with success stories from individual authors, like David Kazzie who used the animation site xtranormal to attract the attention of an agent. If you're not familiar with xtranormal, you can check it out here. Hopefully after reading their stories, you'll have better luck landing an agent than I have (so far!)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Funniest Thing About...

The funniest thing about agents is that (at least for picture book authors) it’s easier to find a publisher. The conventional wisdom is that you need an agent to get published, but in many cases you now need to get published to get an agent. For instance, I had an agent at the Ronnie Herman agency agree to represent one of my titles. She was very supportive and gave great advice for polishing my work. I was so excited to have somebody handle the business part of writing and represent me to the major houses that I immediately began work on my next title. Exactly two weeks later, this same agent emailed to inform me that because picture book sales were “tight” she wanted to devote more time to her existing clients and would no longer be able to represent me. (Not exactly funny, ha! ha! but certainly funny, peculiar!)
But because I’m determined, I kept submitting to agents. A few months later I received a promising email from an agent at Muse Literary. I had sent a blind query and this particular agent replied back saying that my book was “very appealing” and showed “great promise.” She had taken the time to make a few notes and said that she “looked forward to working with me.” Again, I was so excited I sat down and began revising immediately. I made about 70% of her requested revisions and kept the other 30% as it was with notes explaining my reasons (pacing, plot, character development, etc.) I was looking forward to a wonderful creative partnership. A week later I received an email from this agent saying “children wouldn’t be interested” in my book and that she would not represent me. Really? My book went from “very appealing” to not interesting in one week? Apparently when an agent suggests changes, you should make ALL the changes without question. But what if that changes the tone of your book?
As I pondered this whole agent business, I received an email from a publisher (I had been submitting to publishers and agents at the same time.) Tiger Tales wanted to publish one of my picture books! Over the course of several weeks, I corresponded with my editor (who is wonderful by the way.) She suggested changes. I made most of them (what can I say, I’m a slow learner.) She listened to my defense on changes I did not want to make, and we worked TOGETHER to polish my manuscript till it shined! I’m so excited (for real this time!) and can’t wait for the release of my book next fall. So while you’re knocking yourself out trying to get the attention of that career changing agent, don’t forget to submit to publishers!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Ask an Author: What's your favorite children's book?

Hazel: This is a difficult question for me because I’m rather like the child who names as his best friend whomever he has just been playing with. Lately I’ve enjoyed Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series, Rick Riordan’s The Olympians series and Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Series (can you see a pattern here?). But my favorite book(s), at the moment, are the Harry Potter books. I return to them again and again, for inspiration, entertainment and sheer wonder at the breadth and depth of J. K. Rowling’s boundless imagination and her ability to make the richness of the wizarding world she created come alive in the words of her books.

Brian: I love A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. I love the way Milne introduces us to a hapless stuffed bear who tries to think of a better way to come downstairs as he’s being dragged by the feet, head bumping each stair, on his way to his own stories. I love Milne’s dry, understated humor. I love the poems he gives Pooh to recite throughout his adventures. And I love the way Milne creates suspense and drama without any real conflict – a remarkable feat (and I think a hallmark of great children’s literature). In my early adult years Benjamin Hoff reintroduced me to Pooh and friends in his amazing book, The Tao of Pooh, and I came to appreciate the depth of A.A. Milne’s masterpiece on an even deeper level.

Lana: I'm with Hazel--it's so hard to choose one. I have a long list of favorites, but I think I'd have to say The Giver by Lois Lowry. That book works on so many levels. The spare writing is perfect for the character and the theme. The ideas really make the reader think and question. Even the open ending, which I normally don't like, was perfect for this story. This is the kind of book that you either love or hate, and I definitely loved it.

What about you? What's your favorite children's book?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Illuminations From The Illustrator

Mix Up Your POV! by Hazel Buys

What’s this? Point of view belongs to content, not the image makers. Think again. Point of view is very much the concern of illustrators. Mix it up, you say? Heresy itself!

Point of view, for an illustrator, is the angle and the distance from which the scene is viewed. Unlike the rule for writing content for a picture book, the rule for illustrators is: change is good!

Ask yourself: is your reader looking straight at the scene, looking up from below or down from above? Do your illustrations bring the reader up close to the scene where he is right on stage with the actors? Perhaps you have kept the reader at the edge of the stage, looking at each player in the scene from the same middle distance. Or is he far away, looking at a scene that is being played out off in the distance?

Be sure to mix the different points of view, straight on, looking from above and looking from below as well as the distance from the scene, close, middle and far, throughout the illustrations. It won’t help to have an interesting point of view if it is static from the beginning to the end of the book.

Be aware that these decisions must be made as early as possible in the design process for the illustrations. A scene designed to be viewed up close might need to be framed by scenes that explain or expand on a tight viewpoint because a very close view also crops visual information, some of which might be crucial to understanding what is going on.

Close-ups are great for highlighting expressions, such as intense emotions, that could not be offered in a middle distance or in a view from far away. On the other hand, views from a distance are great for showing context, such as environment or parallel plot points, that are developed visually to enrich the story line.

So mix it up and your illustrations will be livelier, more interesting and much more successful!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Whaddaya think?

We've added a new feature of the Richmond Children's Writers blog. Check out the poll on the right sidebar and click in your response. Add a comment if you like. We'd love to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Author Interview: Amanda Cockrell

Richmond Children’s Writers: Amanda, thanks for sharing your insights with our blog readers. Thanks also for writing a YA novel that doesn’t feature vampires or zombies!
What was your inspiration for What You Keep Is Not Always What Will Stay?

Amanda Cockrell:
It started out because I thought that sainthood might take a person by surprise, so to speak. And all the various wars had been on my mind, and I thought the saint might have some battle scars of his own.

RCW: I couldn’t help but notice some similarities between the book’s main character and yourself. Both have writer parents, a California childhood, and similar physical traits. How much of you is in this book?

AC: Angie is a much more together teen than I ever was. But I did draw on my own adolescence for the setting, and for her parents to a limited extent. The book is kind of a love letter to Ojai, California, the town I grew up in. It was a wonderful place. I could ride my horse all over the valley and there was a hitching post outside the town library. Still is. I called it Ayala instead of Ojai so I could change things – like keeping the church in use. It’s actually a museum now.

RCW: You do a wonderful job bringing both your adult and teen characters to life in this book. How do you manage to create realistic teen dialogue?

AC: I think the key is to listen to people talk, and not to try to be too trendy. For one thing, you’ll get the slang wrong and look like a goon, and if you don’t get it wrong it will be dated in a few years anyway.

RCW: Your adult characters are supportive of your teen heroine, but they don’t solve problems for her. They are loving, but also flawed. What advice would you give aspiring novelists about the role of adult characters in YA novels?

AC: The adolescent has to solve her/his own problem, to the extent that she can. Otherwise it’s not her story. But adults are there – they are a part of any teen’s life, and the way that teen interacts with those adults is going to be important. I think it’s a mistake to just leave them out. Some things I read, I find myself thinking, where are this kid’s parents? And the adult characters need to be as well developed as the adolescent ones. Using Generic Mom and Generic Dad is wasting characters that could make your story richer.

RCW: Han Nolan praised What You Keep Is Not Always What Will Stay for its “deft use of magical realism.” I would say that your story is more “spiritual realism,” with references to Christianity, Judaism, Kabbalah, and reincarnation. Is there a spiritual lesson you wished to convey with this story? Or did you just want to introduce general concepts to teenage readers?

AC: I wasn’t really trying to introduce anyone to any particular concepts – they were just part of the story. But I do think any teen thinks about those things and wonders what in heaven or earth is going on. I do think it’s a good idea to see the connectedness between faiths and in that sense I like Angie’s family because they manage to do that successfully.
In any case, as Ursula K. LeGuin said so well, “I don’t speak message, I speak story.” What the reader takes from your story will differ with the reader and that’s as it should be. Tell your story and don’t try to teach anything. What we learn from story is subtle and can’t be forced.
Personally, I kind of subscribe to Helen’s idea that the theoretical ends of theology and physics get closer together all the time.

RCW: Did you gain any new insights in creating these diverse characters and watching their stories unfold on your pages?

AC: I learned, as I do with every story I write, that they will go their own way and be their own people, and you had better let them. I always like to get in the heads of my difficult characters. It gives me a sense that even unpleasant people may be doing the best they can. You don’t have to like your difficult characters but you do have to understand them.

RCW: In your story you talk about “shared dreams,” is there really such a thing? If so what research did you do in this area?

AC: I did some research on dreaming. There have been some experiments done on lucid dreaming (knowing you’re dreaming as you dream and being able to influence the dream) and people dreaming the same dream (at the same time, which apparently does occasionally happen) and this is what Helen is talking about. There is no record of anyone having someone else’s recurring dreams, the way Angie does though. Google “shared dreams” and you’ll find some interesting stuff.

RCW: A lot of times a story can take on a life of its own. Were there any moments when your characters surprised you as the story evolved?

AC: Well, Lily (Angie’s best friend) turned out to be gay. She just was. I didn’t change her character at all, but we took that revelation out because my editor thought there were too many subplots.

RCW: Many of our readers are aspiring writers. Could you share with them how you secured your contract with Flux? Was it a conference connection or through an agent?

AC: it was through an agent, but I also know another writer who got a contract with Flux just over the transom, so it can still happen that way too.

RCW: How long did the revision/editing process take once you’d completed the first draft?

AC: Arrgh. Forever.
A friend had me send it to her editor, who liked it sort of, but wanted revisions. I made them. She wanted more... I made those, some of them reluctantly as they took out some of the magical realist element. Then her publishing house was bought by another house and the whole project just fell out of her sights. Then I sent it to Sarah Davies at The Greenhouse Literary Agency.

Sarah asked for revisions, some of which added back the magical realist things that the editor had wanted changed, which pleased me. But the main thing was in strengthening Angie’s relationship with Jesse and I blew it. I think I just didn’t want to put her through all that. So I revised, and not very well, and she turned it down. Long thoughtful period of thinking about not having been willing to tackle the tough stuff. Contrite plea for one more chance. Gracious permission. Five months of taking the entire middle apart and rewriting it. Then my editor at Flux wanted some revisions as well, but they weren’t huge. Sarah had been right in making me get it in the best possible shape before it got sent out.
And if there is one thing I have learned from that experience, it is that if you get to a scene or scenes that you just don’t want to write because they make you uncomfortable, that is a sure sign that they touch on the heart of your story and you had better write them.

RCW: In addition to being a talented writer, you are also the director of a master’s program in Children’s’ Literature at Hollins University. With that double dose of insight, what advice would you give to someone starting their career writing for children? And how should someone contact Hollins to find out more about their master’s program in Children’s Literature?

AC: I would say to read in the genre you want to write – the more you read, the better.
Join SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, )
The more you write the better, but don’t write in a vacuum – find a creative writing class that will give you good feedback; or a writers critique group; go to SCBWI conferences and show your work to the editors and agents who do manuscript critique there; if you really want to study your craft in depth, take a look at an MA/MFA program like Hollins’.
You can find out a lot on our website: . Once you look at that, if you are interested and have specific questions about the program, please contact me: or 540-362-6024.
And I have to put in a plug for our new graduate-level Certificate in Children’s Book Illustration, for any artists reading this!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Business of Writing

How Do I Get My Picture Book Illustrated?
Part I by Hazel Buys

There are really two questions here. How do I get my picture book illustrated and, very importantly, should I get my picture book illustrated?

In this post I’ll address the question, should I get my picture book illustrated? In September’s post I’ll address the question of how to go about getting a picture book illustrated, if that is the answer for you after reading today’s post.

You need to ask yourself the question, should I get my picture book illustrated, if you want to publish traditionally, as opposed to self-publishing. Traditional publishing means submitting to an agent or directly to an editor at a publishing house who will hopefully offer you a contract to publish your book. Illustrations are such a big part of a successful children’s picture book that it is not surprising that authors of such books are very interested in how their words will be translated into pictures and feel some ownership of that process. If you wrote the words, how can you be expected to keep your hands off the images that will expand on those words and bring your story to (visual) life?

But you must. If you want to publish traditionally, that is. When submitting a picture book manuscript to a publisher or agent, do not, repeat, DO NOT submit illustrations. In this instance, you get your picture book illustrated by letting the publisher who contracts with you to publish your book arrange for the illustrations as part of its publishing process.

This is the case because publishing houses have a branded approach to matching images to words and want to choose from illustrators with whom they have worked before. This approach means publishing houses have a “look” that is associated with their product (picture books, for example) and they have a stable of illustrators that have been vetted for compatibility with their brand. Sometimes, there is also a marketing strategy at work, e.g., pair a new author with a well-known illustrator to enhance recognition in the market place.

A “sometimes” applies here, if, and only if, you are also a professional artist/illustrator. Then you can illustrate your picture book yourself and submit the work as an author/illustrator package. But even for those who can wear both hats, be sure to research your submission targets thoroughly. Publisher websites or other sources will usually tell you if author/illustrator submissions are welcome.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Writers' Round Table: What is your most exciting moment as a writer?

Some people think being a writer sounds glamorous while others might think it dull. The truth is that writing is like any other job: it has exciting moments and mundane moments. Today we're sharing exciting moments (we'll keep the dull bits to ourselves).

Lana: About three-fourths of the way through writing my novel, I was in the middle of a key scene. Something was nagging me, tugging at my brain, like I had gotten it wrong. I went into free-write mode and one of the secondary characters surprised me with an unexpected plot twist. It was exactly what the story needed. When I went back to revise the earlier chapters to make the plot twist possible, I realized that I didn't need to revise. The plot twist was already in place in previous chapters, but I was unaware of it. Crazy!

Brian: I’ve had many exciting moments as a writer. Seeing the smiles on children’s faces every time I do a classroom reading is still way up there for me. But my most exciting moment was holding my first published book in my hand. I was no longer wishing to be a children’s writer or thinking I might be a children’s writer – I WAS a children’s writer from that point on! And that one moment is what led to all the other wonderful moments reading in front of children.

Hazel: I get most excited about writing when I get a new story idea I think will really work. Letting my imagination go to fill in the new idea is truly a “rush,” as I paint it with broad strokes and work it
just enough to confirm its viability. On a par with a new story idea is the thrill of figuring out just the right plot twist to solve a story problem or get me out of some hole I’ve written myself into. These ‘aha’ moments keep me coming back to my keyboard, luring me along when I’m most stuck and encouraging me to keep going.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Story Elements Series: Setting

by Lana Krumwiede

"When you choose setting, you had better 
choose it wisely and well, 
because the very choice defines--
and circumscribes--
your story's possibilities."
- Jack Bickham

A sign of a great story is one that couldn't happen in any other place.
Could Harry Potter have grown up in Waco, Texas? Um . . . no.

I feel like setting never gets enough credit. I hear writers talk about agonizing over characters and wrestling with plot, but what about setting? Imagine, for example, a story about a missing child. Now imagine that story taking place in the dust bowl of Oklahoma during the 1930's. This time imagine a missing child story that takes place in an urban, contemporary setting, say New York City. Now make that New York City in September of 2001. What about a child who goes missing in a lunar colony in the year 2109? Or in the jungles of Vietnam in the 1970's? 

Each of these missing child stories would be very different. Setting has a huge effect on characters, their roles in society, the choices they have, the resources they have access to, their attitudes and sensibilities. It also circumscribes, to use Mr. Bickham's verb, the playing field for the plot. Setting will dictate things like transportation, communication, weather and climate, geography, flora and fauna.

Use setting for all it's worth. If you get stuck, take close look at your setting. It can bail you out. It can present new courses of action. It can provide interesting details to will draw readers in. It can inject energy into the story. Here are some specific examples of what setting can do:

1. Advance the plot. Changing the setting (or some aspect of it) can give the story a sense of movement and progression. Even if it's the same room, you can change the lighting, the time of day, the weather, or some such thing. 

2. Challenge and shape a character. Think about the places that played a significant role in your childhood. How did these places influence the person you have become? The same is true for the characters in your story.

3. Increase tension. Settings can create obstacles, things that frustrate your characters and complicate their attempts to solve a problem or accomplish a goal. Setting can also introduce something that demands immediate attention. 

4. Reflect a character's state of mind. A rainstorm can be a source of healing and calm or it can be ominous, depending on how your character reacts to it. A writer can use the setting to reveal the character's thoughts and feelings. 

What are some interesting ways you've seen writers use setting? 

Friday, July 29, 2011

Book Trailers - Why and How

by Hazel Buys

It has been argued that making a trailer for a book is an oxymoron. A trailer, after all, is a staple of the film industry and films are moving pictures. A book is, well, not moving. But the most cursory review of marketing advice for writers includes the caveat, when announcing your book launch, include social media. And there is no better way to engage social media than a video on YouTube.

How on earth do I go about creating a book trailer, you ask? What do I need? How do I get what I need? There are many resources to help you on the web. Just google ‘how to make a book trailer.’ You’ll be amazed!

Here is a summary of the main points to consider. First, take a pass on ‘I don’t know how to do that.’ (See above.)

1. You’ll want to keep it simple – that’s encouraging isn’t it?
2. Decide on the software you want to use (again, see above).
3. Look at lots of book trailers to get ideas. There are bunches on YouTube and other sites.
4. Write a script; this includes deciding on how long you want your video to be. The best book trailers are short, a minute or less. Good news, right? Writing the script is probably the hardest part, honest.
5. Decide on images and sound you want to use. There are many places to get free and/or inexpensive image and sound files to use. Your software will allow you to import these files and place them in your video wherever you choose.
6. Match your images/sound to your script and play around with the sequence and special effects.
7. Don’t forget to include all important information, e.g., your title, name, ISBN, etc. After all, it’s supposed to make viewers want to buy your book. Include a link to a point-of-sale location if you can, for example, your page on Amazon.
8. Preview your book trailer with friends and family. It’s easier to correct things at this point than after it’s already playing on the internet.

When you’re ready to go, upload it to any site that hosts videos consistent with your subject matter or genre, add it to your email signature, put it on your web site, tweet about it, feature it on your blog, use it wherever and whenever you can. It’s a wonderful advertising tool and you created it!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Writers Are Readers Too!

Here's a sample of what we've been reading lately:

Hazel: The Spell Book of Listen Taylor by Jaclyn Moriarty, is a book brimming with quirky characters and difficult adult themes, treated with a lightness of tone that is absurd except in the world of the Zings. Their response to problems that are as old as mankind is twisted but inventive and novel. If you haven’t discovered the Zing family, take a look!

Lana: Horton Halfpott: Or, the Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor; or the Loosenling of M'lady Luggertuck's Corset is the newest title by Tom Angleberger, who brought us The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. From the very first sentence, this book enchants the reader with pseudo-Victorian goofiness. Fans of Lemony Snicket will love this.

Brian: The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog! by Mo Willems

In addition to writing children's stories and writing for the blog, I have a full time job, so my reading time is severly limited EXCEPT for reading time with my daughter. This is one of our favorites. Mo Willems creates a comic, emotional tug of war between two birds of different feathers. The duel of wits is funny for both children and adults; and the simple text allows young readers to particpate in the silliness. I never grow tired of hearing my daughter read the Pigeon's "Can you believe this guy?" line with her impeccable Brooklyn accent (Don't blame me, after seeing the movie Bolt, all piegeons have Brooklyn accents!)

What are you reading now (besides our blog, that is)?

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Funniest Thing About...

The funniest thing about writer’s block is that so much has been written about it. A quick Google search for the term yielded 10,700,000 articles. That’s a lot of words to describe a lack of words! 

Although some of the articles simply describe the wretched condition, the overwhelming majority of them offer advice on how to overcome writer’s block. Like cures for hiccups, there are many remedies that are varied and creative. But, also like cures for hiccups, their effectiveness is debatable. Some suggest writing grocery lists to get the creative juices flowing, some suggest drawing pictures to tempt the muses, others recommend getting up and going for a hike to clear those mental cobwebs.

 My personal favorite remedy is to just tackle the problem head on. Just sit and write, “I have writer’s block because…” and let it all out. Exorcise those demons of self doubt, mental fatigue, work or family pressures, etc. The very things that are causing you writer’s block may actually be a good source of material for the characters you create. Of course, if none of these strategies work for you, you can always go to Barnes and Noble and buy one of the 124 titles they have on the subject – or one of the 357 titles available on Amazon. 

And if all else fails, take comfort in this bit of wisdom that American poet William Stafford offered his students: “There is no such thing as writer’s block for writers whose standards are low enough.”

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ask An Author: Where do you write?

Today we have exclusive, untouched, never-before-seen photos of real writing spaces. Have a gander . . .

Here's where Brian writes. He calls it the Fortress of Squalitude.

Hazel takes advantage of the view from her window, perfect for day-dreaming and asking herself "what if?" While she most often writes at her computer, she also likes to keep old-fashioned paper and pen handy for thoughts on the go.

Over the years, Stephanie's writing place has moved from room to room. Here’s the spot where she’s settled for now – all freshly neatened up for its blog debut! Her desk fits snugly between two windows. She like to have LOTS of light! Stephanie's fantasy writing place would be a glass tower in the back yard.

Here's where Lana does most of her writing, although she has been known to frequent Panera when a change of venue is necessary.

Tell us about your writing space . . . or your fantasy writing space.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Location, Location, Location!

by Pat Tabb

I once heard a writing instructor mention that writing is about fluency.  And fluency finds its impetus in momentum.  “The secret,” she said, “is to keep your work moving, even if you have to try something quirky to fool yourself into staying with it.”
This advice came to mind much later, when I switched from writing shorter works to middle-grade novels.  As with any writing project, I began well.  The keys just seemed to tap away for me.  Then, somewhere in the long middle of it, I was in a writing rut.  I needed to shake things up, “fool” myself into seeing it to its finish, but how? 
A writer friend of mine mentioned that she changes location regularly to keep herself interested and involved in her projects.  Really?  I never considered that I had to move myself just to keep my story moving.  In fact, I thought that my study, set up for writing, was the best place to stick to my routine.  “Even if I can’t get out,” she said, “I’ll change rooms during the day.”  Maybe she had a point.  Was I slowing down from just staying in the same place too long? 
I tried changing rooms, but I was still stuck.  Then I picked up my writing and “took a hike.”  A brief writing session at a Starbuck’s, where folks were obviously on the go, seemed to kick up the verve in my story.  A quiet spot in the library where others were reading, studying, and writing, worked wonders.  Encouraged by their industriousness, I set to work.  Oddly, even while driving out and back, I found my mind clicking with scenes and dialogue.  Any outing provided the impetus I needed, whether writing in a new spot or back at home, too.  Who would have thought it?  (Other writers, it seems; for example, Emily Bronte, who wandered the moors of Yorkshire and Joseph Addison, who trudged a footpath along the River Charwell in Oxford.)  So now when I’m stuck, I change to another location to move the writing along.    
How about you?  What kind of writing atmosphere or location works best for you when you need writing momentum?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Light Bulb Lab: Trust your cluster!

I love writing poetry for children. I love the way an unexpected rhyme can take a linear story and turn it on its ear. And the best way I’ve found to tap into my poetic muse is with a strategy called clustering, as developed by Dr. Gabriele Lusser Rico. To cluster, you write a single word in the center of a blank page and circle it. Then as fast as possible you draw lines outward from that word and write as many related or rhyming words as you can think of, circling each one. After a minute or two of brainstorming, stop and assess your page. See if you can make connections between the numerous circled words in seemingly random array on your page. For instance, my poem “Fishful Thinking” began with the single word fish. From that word I “clustered” the related words ocean, shark, fishing pole, and swim. I also clustered the rhyming words dish, wish, swish, fishes, delicious. Looking at my clusters, the finished poem practically leapt off the page! Dr. Rico explains the relationship between the right and left hemispheres of the brain as the key to clustering. Her book, WRITING THE NATURAL WAY explains the process in greater detail and I recommend it heartily for anyone seeking to channel their poetic muse.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bits and Bytes

6 Things You Should Know about Publishing:
Writer's Digest has a quick list of things you should know about publishing. Although it's by adult author Karin Slaughter, the list applies equally to children's publishing. Point number six is especially relevant: "Publishing is an uphill battle, so enjoy what you're doing." So just forget about sales and marketing and six figure book deals and simply lose yourself in a good story.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Author Spotlight: Rhonda Lucas Donald

Today we are shining the local author spotlight on Rhonda Lucas Donald. Rhonda has written more than a dozen books for children and teachers including her most recent title: Deep in the Desert. Her articles and stories about science and animals have appeared in "Ranger Rick" and "Your Big Backyard" magazines. As a kid, Rhonda fell in love with science. Now she writes about science, weaving it into verses and songs as a way to make it fun. We'll be giving away a copy of Deep in the Desert this week to one lucky reader. All you have to do is leave a comment on any of the posts this week. On Monday, we'll choose a random winner.

Rhonda, tell us where the idea for Deep in the Desert came from. Was it something from your imagination or did it come from your life experience?

I always loved music as a child and sang along with nursery rhymes and all the familiar kiddy tunes. This paid off later when I wrote the parent pages for Your Big Backyard. Every month, I wrote new lyrics to familiar tunes about one of the animals in that issue. I really enjoyed it, and the songs were quite popular with the readers. When I was searching for a new book idea, I found that Sylvan Dell Publishing was looking for books about deserts. I thought it would be fun to write about different desert plants and animals in song. Luckily, they agreed!

What about the illustrations? Did you have any input there?

I had no direct contact with the illustrator, Sherry Neidigh, but did see several iterations of the spreads. I saw sketches first, then full-color paintings. Sherry did a tremendous amount of research to make sure every plant, bug, and bird was native to the desert environment she was illustrating. I had a chance to make suggestions or corrections, but I found absolutely nothing to change! She did a fantastic job, and I was truly fortunate to have her illustrate the book. I was terrific to work with the editor at Sylvan Dell, Donna German. She always kept me in the loop. 

What was your biggest challenge with writing this book?

The hardest part was organizing the sheet music to go with the songs. Donna (the Sylvan Dell editor) felt that it was important to have the sheet music available online for each song. So I became a composer for a couple of weeks! I know how to read music, but I was rusty and had never really done anything like this before. Thankfully, I have a friend, Laura Scoble, who is a musical genius. She went over all of it with me to make sure it was pitch perfect!

Tell us a little about your next writing project.

I have several books in various stages of completion. A few are circulating, which can take many months. A few are percolating, which can also take many months. One is a picture book, Lop-Eared Lily, about a funny, lovable dog with a penchant for licking. I also have a couple of dinosaur books, which will be nonfiction. I'm always up for writing more songs!

What do you like to read for fun?

I like to read novels, particularly by English authors. Right now, I'm reading The Red House Mystery by Winnie-the-Pooh author A.A. Milne. It's a great period piece. One of my favorite books of all time is The Once and Future King by T.H. White. Of course, I'm also a huge Harry Potter fan, and am mourning the end of the series. Can't wait for the final movie!

Thanks so much, Rhonda! Later this week, we'll have a review of Rhonda's book. Please leave a comment for a chance to win a copy for your bookshelf.