Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Writer's New Year's Resolution

We are perched on the precipice of a new year, not just a new year, but a new decade. 2010! Think back to where we were a decade ago. We were worried our computers would crash with a Y2K virus. Facebook, My Space, and Twitter did not exist. None of us had web sites and none of us blogged. Now in 2009 many of us cannot make it through the day without connecting on the internet. Personally, when my internet goes down, I feel lost, out of touch, alone.

As many of you know, I am a bit of a Luddite when it comes to social networking. My critique mates dragged me, not quite kicking and screaming, but at least hesitantly, into the world of blogging. With the publication of my book, I was compelled to launch my personal web page, which you can visit at I have been resistant to committing to anything more. But now, when Friday morning dawns and I am faced with a new decade, I am resolved to take on at least one new form of social networking. How many of you will join me?

That's right. My New Year's Resolution for 2010 is to join either Twitter or Facebook. Yikes! I also need to learn how to use Power Point and Scriviner (which I think has the potential to be really, really cool and helpful, but with which I keep having difficulty).

I hope you all have a very Happy, Healthy, and Safe New Year. I hope you all make resolutions that mean something to you. And I hope you stick to your resolutions beyond February - which is about when I'll start asking myself, "why did I promise to do this?"

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

My First Semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts

Last week I sent off my last packet of work for the semester to my advisor Sharon Darrow. If anyone had told me how fast this semester would pass, I would never have believed them. If someone else had told me how much I would learn in a five month period, I wouldn't have believed them, either. If yet another person had told me (and I think people did tell me this) how much I would learn from writing critical essays and how I would come to enjoy them, I would have thought that person had drank too much Kool-Aide. But the truth is, the semester flew by, I learned more than I could have imagined, and yes, I do love writing critical essays!

People, VCFA alums, told me the program would change me, not only as a writer, but as a person. I know I have changed as a writer. So here is a brief summary of what I learned.

First, I'll get those nasty critical essays out of the way . . .
I am not lying when I say I came to love them. I really learned how to read as a writer. So much so, that it is now difficult for me to read anything without picking it apart. And you might ask how I, a lowly newbie in the published world, can have the chutzpah to criticize well-known, successfully published authors? I do it because not every book appeals to every reader. (Which is another thing I learned and I'll get to it later in the post.) For the books I loved, I picked them apart to find out what it was I loved about them, what did the writer do to pull me in, how did she create a main character that I cared about, worried about, and subsequently, went on a journey with? With books that I did not love so much, I look at what it was I didn't like? What worked, what didn't. This is the heart of a critical essay. Learning what works for you as a writer and a reader, examining that closely and then applying what has been learned to your own work.

A sub-lesson in all this reading (FYI - I read 52 books this semester) is that it is impossible for one book to appeal to all readers. Which is why there is currently a surge of vampire, wizard, faery, magical nether-world books. Some people LOVE Stephanie Meyer's TWILIGHT series (I didn't) while others love Cynthia Leitich Smith's YA gothic fantasies TANTALIZE and ETERNAL (I did). Both have love stories with immortals and humans, both have characters who must exert blood sucking restraint. But they are very different and beyond being in the same genre cannot be compared (unless it's in a critical essay, which maybe I will write next semester). So, the lesson I learned from this is that it doesn't matter if an idea has been done before. The trick is to make it your idea, with your emotions, characters, and situations. It doesn't matter that ghost stories have to done to death (no pun intended) my current wip is different.

I also learned this semester to plumb the depths of my soul for my characters' emotions. The story I am currently working on is more personal than most of my other works, but, the emotions of my character are not my emotions. Still I must feel them. Even with my historical works, while I have never watched a heretic burned to death, I can feel the revulsion my 15th century character, Rat, feels as he watches. I need to find my own emotions, turn them, twist them, and make them Rat's. Emotion pulls a reader into the story. Emotion makes the reader care.

But the greatest impact on me this semester was learning about POV. Simple. Basic. Everyone who thinks they are a writer should know about point of view. Yes, everyone should know, but it's much more complex than I originally thought. POV is more than through whose eyes the story is told. It sets the tone of the story and the limits in which the story can be told. If you're using first person, everything has to be through that character's eyes. Even with the more lenient third person, a writer must stay in one character's eyes at a time. Yes, in third person, you can shift from one character to another, but while in one character's pov everything is through their eyes - so all those words like "felt", "saw", "thought", "believed" are not necessary. If you're in your character's head the reader knows it's them seeing, thinking, believing, and feeling. And that gets into the whole notion of showing not telling!

I could go on about what I've learned about objective correlatives, psychic distance, and establishing rules for a magical world, but this post is getting long. So let me suffice it to say that I have learned more than I thought possible.

Yes, one semester at VCFA has changed me as a writer. I can't wait to see where I'll be after three more!

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Monday, December 21, 2009

How Do You Write and Still Enjoy the Holidays?

I hate to admit it, but I’m feeling a little Grinch-like this year. Usually, I’m a very Who-minded individual, merrily rolling along, singing holiday tunes, baking cookies and buying presents that I know people will love. One trip to Toys R’ Us and this disgruntled “bah humbug” feeling seeped into my pores. Even Starbucks peppermint hot chocolate can’t chase it away. Children laughing? People passing? Greeting smile after smile? Hardly. Tantrums, fighting over parking spots, and long, long, lines is much more my reality.

When you’re playing Santa to a six year old, it’s hard to feel this way. My daughter still very much believes in the magic of Christmas time. And I know somewhere deep in the recesses of my grown up façade, I do too. There have been moments the malaise has lifted and I got caught up in the season. We’ve had tea with Mrs. Claus. Watched a delightful stage adaptation of “If You Take A Mouse to the Movies.” And filled a shopping bag full of holiday meal groceries for a family less fortunate than our own. In those moments, no matter what the activity, the underlying element was spending time together.

Being cruise director for the holidays can take its toll on even the most robust Christmas spirit. In my spare moments, when I’ve had time to ruminate over why I felt so unsettled one thing kept coming up. And as selfish as it sounds…I haven’t really given myself anything. A break. Time. A moment to feel and appreciate the reason for the season. I’ve been running, running, running and ignoring all the activities that usually keep me on course. And one of those activities is writing!

My writing has been boxed up until after the holidays. Particularly heinous since I caught fire in a new WIP and have editing to do on an almost there manuscript. I’ve had a rather lovely writing year and I’m inspired, but pissed off that I can’t dedicate more time to it at the moment. I have Christmas to enjoy, darn it! I think that, even above the ‘I can’t find a dang, toxic Zhu-Zhu pet under $100.00 anywhere’ craze, is what is making me unbearable to be around this holiday season.

Time management is not my strong point – something to work on, dare I say, maybe a resolution? In the meantime, my big question to all of you prolific, talented and wildly successful writers out there is how do you manage to work through the holiday season?

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

An Invitation

Tired of the lonely writing life? If you're looking for a congenial, supportive, knowledgeable children's lit critique group and if you live within commuting distance of Madison, N.J., we may have your solution. The paperwait bloggers/critiquers are searching for new members. In the last year of so, we've lost some people due to changes in their lives. We'd like to welcome a couple of committed writers.

We meet on the first and third Fridays from 10:00 to 12:00 in the Madison Public Library. Our sessions have helped members produce prize-winning manuscripts, secure agents, and develop the published books pictured below on the right. Yes, we work hard, but our atmosphere is jovial and we love celebrating writing milestones.

If you email us at, we'll reply with more information.

Best wishes to all for successful writing in 2010!

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Ally's the Next Stephenie. But Who Will Be the Next Ally?

Did you read the news in Publishers Weekly about Ally Condie, the YA author who just inked a seven-figure advance on a three-book deal with Dutton? Wow. She’s being heralded as the next Stephenie Meyer. Well, that’s what her agent, Jodi Reamer at Writers House, said anyway. According to Reamer, reading Condie’s first book in the deal, Matched, reminded her of the first time she read Meyer’s Twilight. Double wow.

But wait, that’s not all Condie has in common with Meyer. Did anyone else notice? Their backstories are surprisingly similar. To wit:

1. They both attended Brigham Young University in Utah.
2. They both have three sons.
3. They both wrote their big-ticket books as stay-at-home moms.
4. They’re both Mormons.
5. They both have Reamer as their agent.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you may have noticed that my fellow Paper Waiters have been dropping like flies lately; landing agents, selling books, and winning writing contests. And then there's me, still in the hunt for my first agent/book deal. So I'm sure you can understand why I’m willing to try anything at this point, including selling my soul to He Who Shall Not Be Named.

And now Condie and Meyer’s mega-deals have given me a stupendous new idea: I’m going to stop revising my manuscript ad nauseum and revise my personal backstory instead. It's radical, I know, but, it can't hurt. Here’s my plan:

1. Move my family out west and get a master’s at BYU. There’s great skiing in Utah, anyway, so that’s fine by me.
2. Have a third son. I already have two, so I’m already two-thirds of the way there. My older son even happens to be named Gabe, just like Meyer’s oldest son. Is it a sign?
3. Quit my job as a college writing instructor/freelance writer to become a stay-at-home mom. If we’re moving out west, I have to quit work anyway, so again, I'm halfway there.
4. Change my religion. I suppose this means that glass of wine with dinner has got to go. Grr.
5. Land Jodi Reamer as my agent.
6. Update my author's photo (shown). I suppose it couldn't hurt to look a little less simian, more simmering.

Wait. Is that the sound of cyber laughter I hear? Is that an agent, shaking his or her virtual head, saying, "Don’t be redonkulous, you nit, you can’t sell a manuscript based solely on a good backstory. You have to write a stellar manuscript too. I mean, duh."

Fine. Call me desperate. Call me whatever you like. Just call me. And don’t forget to use my new number. In Provo, Utah.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Agent Appreciation Day

It’s Agent Appreciation Day! This tribute to hard-working, word-loving, plot-scrubbing, contract-scouring, career-building literary-matchmakers is the brainchild of writer Kody Keplinger. So today, I’m joining other writers in offering a great, big thank-you to my agent, who happens to be Steven Chudney. Here’s why:

1) He loves my work, and his input makes it even better. His encouragement to dig deeper and pull the heart out of each character shaped my submission and now influences my WIPs.

2) He makes me “Blink.” Every conversation leads to an ah-ha moment. Steven just makes sense – about my writing, about submissions, and about the state of the industry.

3) He is amazingly quick, responsive and decisive.

4) He’s also calm, patient and understanding.

5) He loves his dogs and much as I love mine.

So, thanks for a great beginning, Steven. I look forward to a long and happy partnership navigating through this publishing maze!

If you would like to see other postings for Agent Appreciation Day, check out Lisa and Laura Write

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Writing Jewish Kids Books-- My Top Four Conference Takeaways

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the Jewish Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Conference at the 92nd Street Y. It was an incredibly jam packed day, and if you want a wonderfully detailed summary of the highlights of the day, be sure to check out Stacy Mozer's wonderful blog post!

Since Stacy did such a wonderful job of summarizing the day, I figured I would do something a little different. Below are four of my top takeaways from the day:

1. It is A LOT of fun to be in a room of people who truly "get" what you do. A room full of kidlit people is awesome! And a room full of Jewish kidlit people is definitely awesome! Everyone in the room really gets the unique excitement and challenges of this specialized genre. (Plus, it's just really fun to be at a conference where phrases like tikkun olam(repairing the world) and mishpacha(family)are casually bandied about!)

2. There are lots of great editors out there looking for books for the Jewish market. Some of them, like Scholastic's Dianne Hess are looking for "stealth Jewish books" and others, like Kar-Ben's Judye Groner, our own Meg Wiviott's awesome editor, suggested an "original approach to a traditional subject" mentioning upcoming books including "A Tale of Two Seders" about a child of divorce and a future Purim book written as a Reader's Theater version of the story. Margery Cuyler of Marshall Cavendish even got specific and noted a "big need for good Jewish mysteries and time travel" as well as a need for "contemporary Jewish stories". But, no matter what they're looking for exactly, the point is that they're looking! As writers of books for the Jewish market, that is definitely heartening to know!

3. There are as many ways to get a Jewish children's book published as there are Jewish authors. Each path-to-publication story told by a member of the new author panel showed the value of persistence and honing one's craft. (And, of course, this panel was incredibly inspirational. These were real people with real stories of how they got their Jewish book published! Wouldn't it be fun to join them up there some day? :o))

4. For me though, this final point was probably the most transformational one: What editors are looking for today isn't what the same as what they were looking for twenty years ago or even ten years ago. As Judye Groner said, "The Yiddish speaking, stay at home Bubbe is not the grandma of today's kids" and "the appetizer they serve may be sushi and not gefilte fish". Similarly, Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media challenged us as writers to create Jewish fiction in the age of Twilight. I left the day inspired to go in fun new directions in my Jewish writing just like I do in my secular writing!

And, on top of these more "official lessons", there were all the other wonderful benefits of attending the conference:

*getting a chance to meet and talk with wonderful writers from Verla Kay's Blue Board who were previously only screen names-- (Hi HollyB and SMozer!)

*meeting up with a mother of one of my former Kitah Alef first graders and saying to each other, "YOU write for children?" (Looking forward to some fun writing conversations next time I see her at synagogue!)

*casually chatting with wonderful authors and illustrators and remembering, once again, that they are real people too. Sitting at a table with Judye Groner and author Norman Finkelstein was such a pleasure! I was lucky enough to sit right next to Norman and he was so modest, funny and encouraging! Plus I chatted with Carolyn Yoder and Andrew Gutelle (both of whom I had met years ago at Chautauqua) while on line for lunch. What lovely, friendly people! (Hopefully I'll have an appropriate manuscript ready for critique by one of these many insightful authors or editors next year!)

So, I'm curious, how have the conferences you've gone to shaped you as a writer?

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Friday, December 4, 2009

A Work of Art

Who would walk up to a work of art by Cezanne or a Rembrandt say, "Well, if he'd just added a little more white here, or turned the figure in the other direction, it would be a much better picture." I just finished critiquing the manuscript of one of our group members. She's an excellent writer, and except for noting the occasional typo, I think very carefully before making a suggestion, because like a Cezanne or Rembrandt oil painting, a good writer's work is indeed a work of art.

But the challenge for writers is different than for artists. One or two words in the wrong place can confuse or lose the meaning of a sentence. And if the sentence doesn't work, neither does the paragraph. If a character rages on every page, the reader stops caring, and if nothing much has happened in three chapters, the reader may may not bother to read the next three. Yes, artists can paint over their work, but at some point the picture cannot be changed. Luckily for writers, words can be added, dropped and moved.

I was facinated by the picture in today's New York Times showing the many, many revisions Dickens made to "A Christmas Carol." I read Dickens with great pleasure, never finding him dated or tiresome. Only today did it strike me that this is because he understood revision.

So my present to myself this December is to take the time with my own writing that I take with the work of others. Revision itself is a work of art, and thank goodness, I'm not writing with oil paint.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

To NaNo or Not to NaNo -- That is the Question

So I didn’t “win” NaNowriMo. I finished the month just shy of 20,000 words, which is not significantly more than I would have in a normal month of solid writing.

The difference is, I completed those 20,000 words in two weeks, not four. And most of those words bore me to tears.

Let me be honest. I was a NaNo cheater. I didn’t care if I wrote 50,000 words. I wanted to complete a novel that was already a third of the way into a first draft; I had 25,000 words under my belt before the month began. But when November rolled onto my calendar, I needed to finish revisions for my middle grade novel. I couldn’t start NaNo until week two. And a freelance load kept me away during week three.

So, how did I like this frantic writing pace? Not much.

I got a lot of words onto paper, but I didn't feel very good about them. With the focus on output, there was no time to think things though. My plot completely stalled. My characters talked about everything and nothing. They bored me.

All was not bad. Writing quickly did make me connect more with my main character’s internal thought. He told me how he felt about everything. And I mean everything. It’s important information, but information I’d rather gather through journaling.

So would I do it again? Maybe. But only under the right conditions. I would have to begin with a tight, chapter-by-chapter outline and completed character sketches. I would spend a significant amount of time journaling as my main characters (and that counts toward NaNo totals). And I would spend a few minutes thinking through what I wanted to accomplish with each writing session before my fingers hit the keyboard.

But one thing about NaNo that has changed me forever! Scrivener. If you write on a Mac, buy this program today. It makes writing and revising so much easier.

So tell me, fellow NaNo-ers. Did you "win?" Did you like it? Do you use Scrivener?

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Monday, November 30, 2009

Listening to Other Voices

In the NEW YORK TIMES' Saturday Art Section there was a fascinating article about Colum McCann, author of LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, who just won the National Book Award. McCann spoke about delving into other peoples' lives for a glimpse of significant but small events that were large influences in their lives. He listened to many voices as he traveled around the country, seeing each story, whether it spoke of generosity, terror, sadness, nastiness or love, as part of a larger story or novel.

McCann talked about "listening to other voices," part of the research a writer does in developing the story - children's authors and adult novelists.

So yesterday as I was reading the article I was sitting on a plane, confined for several hours. There were a lot of small children on board and I started to listen again to other young voices. Some didn't want to sit still, others wanted FOOD, and others settled in to read their books or watch a video. There were many voices and as things quieted down, I listened.

What do we notice when listening? When there are many voices? What do you concentrate on?

It was a shining and clear day and I listened to the four-year-old two seats away by the window. As the plane lifted off from Newark Airport we looked down at the Port of Newark/Elizabeth and at the ships at the loading docks next to the giant cranes filling up their cargo holes in preparation for setting out to sea. We watched small pleasure boats on New York Bay leaving white wakes in their paths, and as we headed inland a bit, she exclaimed at how green it was! Yes, I said, that's our Garden State!

She had many interesting insights and I listened for all I was worth. Someday a fragment of the voice will make it into a children's story. I'm going to keep listening - and writing.

What are the voices that you notice, concentrate on or collect?

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Interview with Rebecca Barnhouse

Rebecca Barnhouse and I first met at Rutger’s One On One Conference in October 2007. We were placed in the same Five on Five group with our editors. Both of us wrote historical fiction and both of us had manuscripts set in 15th century England. When the session was over Rebecca and I spoke for a few minutes I discovered that she teaches medieval literature at Youngstown State University in Ohio! Wow! She is a real medievalist and I’m just a history buff.

After One On One, Rebecca and I emailed occasionally – mostly I emailed her asking for references – and then we “met” again on Verla Kay’s Blueboards, where I learned Rebecca had sold her manuscript to the editor she’d been paired with at One On One.

I pre-ordered Rebecca’s The Book of the Maidservant and as soon as it arrived I curled up with a blanket and the book and read it in one sitting. I enjoyed the story and was mesmerized by Rebecca’s ability to make her medieval characters and their world come to life. Johanna’s voice is original, spunky, and made me laugh out loud.

Rebecca and I are both hoping that 15th century historical characters become the new vampires!

I was thrilled when Rebecca agreed to be interviewed for this blog.

1) When did you fall in love with history and, particularly, medieval history?

When I was a teenager, I did a lot of calligraphy and spent time pouring over photos of hand-lettered books. Later, in graduate school, I found out I could actually take courses—for credit!—about medieval manuscripts. I was hooked. Studying medieval books allows you to delve into so many other subjects that help you understand why a book was made and for whom, how it was put together and how it was used, where it traveled, and how it ended up where it is now.

2) What was your favorite childhood book and why?

So many! How can I name just one? But with that understood, I will mention the Little House books. I loved hearing about what I called “olden times,” but I also loved the fact that my fourth-grade teacher read those books to us every afternoon while we drew or dozed or listened, rapt. Then she’d pull out her ukulele and we’d sing. Now the books and the reading and the singing have all melded together in my memory.

3) You’ve written several scholarly books on medieval history, what made you decide to try your hand at writing for young adults.

As I was writing the scholarly books, I was also writing for young adults—I just wasn’t getting published. In fact, I wrote my first YA novel long before I wrote anything scholarly, and several more contemporary YA novels followed. All of them have been consigned to the scrap heap of history! Some of my academic publications focus on the way the Middle Ages are portrayed in young adult literature. Writing those books and articles gave me the impetus to go from writing contemporary YA novels to historicals.

4) Dame Margery Kempe was a real historical person. The Book of Margery Kempe is considered the first autobiography written in English. Can you tell us what made you want to write a “companion” piece to her story?

I teach Margery’s autobiography, and like my students, I have conflicting opinions about her. She’s fascinating but also frustrating. One of the things that particularly bothers me about her is the way she treats other people, especially her maidservant, about whom Margery said some unkind things. When she made it sound as if her servant wanted to cook and clean for all the other travelers on their pilgrimage, that was it! I had to know how the servant would have responded to Margery’s words.

5) Johanna is a wonderfully original and appropriate character for her time and age. How did you discover her voice?

When I first decided to write this novel, I was overwhelmed with work from my job as a college professor. For several months, I simply had no time at all to begin writing—yet, I was telling myself the story in my head all along. Without really realizing it, Johanna’s voice started to seem real to me. I could particularly hear her every time I crouched in front of the fireplace to build a fire, something Johanna spends a lot of time doing. When summer finally came, giving me time to write, her voice was ready to be gotten down on paper.

6) Can you describe your writing process? What is your day like?

During the summer, I try to write every day. Wordcounts help me along: I can generally write 500 words without too much trouble, and if the words aren’t coming easily on that particular day, I’m allowed to take a break before writing another 500. I tend to start at the beginning and keep writing until the end without a lot of outlining, although I take lots of notes. Once I have a draft, the real work begins: outlining, looking for repeated scenes, examining character motivation, and all the other things that go into rewriting.

7) I write historical fiction and I love doing the research. Sometimes, in fact, I love doing the research so much that I don’t want to stop researching and start writing. How do you know when you’ve done enough research to start writing?

I understand your problem! I, too, am sometimes tempted to let the research get in the way of the writing. But I usually start writing knowing I’ll do more research when I get to a place in the novel where I need more information—I have to see what my characters are up to before I find out what I need to know. To keep the rhythm of the writing going, I leave blanks in the manuscript where there are topics that I need to research further.

8) Your second novel, The Coming of the Dragon, (due for release by Random House in Fall 2010) draws on the legend of Beowulf. Like Johanna in The Book of the Maidservant, Rune stands on the edge of the Beowulf legend. What can you tell us about him and how you came to tell his story?

Again, the novel springs from a text I teach. The last part of Beowulf is my favorite section of the poem. It’s definitely the part that evokes the most emotion. Just like with Maidservant, I had a hankering to hear the story—about the dragon attack on old King Beowulf’s realm, and the desperate battle to save the kingdom—from the perspective of a teenager who was part of it. Although it’s set in 6th-century Scandinavia, the novel is historical fantasy. But I was halfway through writing it before I realized I was writing fantasy because I was still thinking of it as history. History plus a dragon, that is!

You can learn more about Rebecca and her books by visiting her website. Rebecca Barnhouse

Thank you, Rebecca, for your time.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

Revision 9-1-1

You know you have one. Admit it.

A manuscript that’s sitting somewhere untouched with dust so thick you could etch your name in it. Maybe you shelved your picture book because the gaggle of geese which deftly honked out the meaning of life in iambic pentameter just didn’t fit the market. Or your YA characters dressed flashy, talked trashy but didn’t do much of anything else. For whatever reason you shelved your piece, it’s there, either waiting to be discovered post mortem or dying the slow death of manuscripts that just don’t work.

Enter Cynthea Liu and her Revision 9-1-1 Workshop.

When I found out Cynthea was giving a workshop in my area, I jumped at the chance to attend. So many conferences solely focus on networking and subbing your work that craft often gets overlooked. This was an opportunity to focus on revision for four delicious hours. I dusted off my beloved manuscript, the one that I shelved because it was “too quiet” (still wondering if in editorspeak it simply meant – it stinks!) and went, coffee in hand, to find out how I could revive it.

Cynthea began by having us go through our manuscripts and circling –ing words. Using too many -ing words can give your work an “echo” and make YOU, the writer too obtrusive. I have to admit I was a bit surprised at how many –ing words my ailing manuscript had.

Hmmm…really, I sent it out this way!!??

She also touched upon characters – and how to make the generic “Hot Guy” or “Soccer Mom” leap off the page. One word - specificity. (say that ten times fast, I dare you) Surely my manuscript didn’t suffer from that…oh, wait, eek! It did. While I know I saw my characters having depth and being unique, a quick read of my first ten pages didn’t exemplify that. How could I make my protagonist’s version of what was going on different than any other funeral scene? Seeing the world through her own unique filter is how and while I know that’s what I always try to do when I sit down to write, looking back over my work with an objective eye – really helped hit that lesson home.

There are far too many other tips to list in one blog post, so I’ll leave you with my favorite. One – which I suffer from a little bit more than I’d like to admit – is if you’re working on a scene and you feel like it’s something you could see on television, CHANGE IT. Turn it on its head – do we first meet “hot guy” leaning up against a locker? How can you make it different? Maybe hot guy rides a bicycle to school because he’s a budding environmentalist. Or we first meet him barfing up his lunch behind the bleachers. Anywhere but the locker.

I have to say, when I first left the workshop I felt a little bummed – very caught up in the “I really sent this out like this?” blues. Then something great happened. I got a vision of how the opening scene could work better, how my character could come to life – how I could turn my story on its head and work on it again to make it a truly unique. I’m once again psyched to work on it. So thanks Cynthea!

Cynthea Liu is so generous with her writing expertise and loves to talk shop! For more great tips you can visit her website.

And now – if you leave a comment, you will be entered in a drawing to win Cynthea’s YA novel The Great Call Of China. You have until Sunday to leave your comment. It will be random so don’t worry about being witty, just join in the conversation!

So what are some of your favorite tips when handling revision? And how do you feel about it – love it or hate it!

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Who Should Tell The Tale?

I'm always looking for folklore to retell. Recently, I purchased an old volume - INDIAN LEGENDS OF AMERICAN SCENES, published in 1939. Before buying it, I checked the background of the author/reteller. Well, Marion E. Gridley lived on reservations, produced dramatizations of legends with Indian actors, was an officer in a national organization devoted to Native Indian interests and welfare, and was adopted by different tribes in name-giving ceremonies. She published widely about Native Americans and was the wife of Whirling Thunder, an Indian chief. But Marion E. Gridley was not a Native American. Neither am I.

Is it important for the author to have the same background/heritage as the folklore being retold?

I am not Turkish, French, British, Venezuelan, or Finnish, but I've published folktales from those countries. I've also retold Native American tales. I do research to find more than one version of the tale and consider my sources carefully. Even then, I suspect there might be some Native Americans who would say I should not be retelling their folktales. I haven't LIVED their traditions.

Are folktales and legends fair game for anyone to retell? Or should there be exceptions? What about Jewish, Hispanic, or Black folklore?

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

LinkedIn for Writers and Agents?

I’m still in submission mode--querying agents; sending requested partials or fulls; receiving helpful or form rejections; sometimes hearing nothing more than crickets. Along the way, I’ve realized how inefficient the whole darn process can be; as I see it, anyway. Querying multiple agents can be nothing more than a time-sucking duplication of effort for writers like me. And for agents, sending countless rejections is just another royal waste of time and effort. There must be a way to streamline the process, for all involved.

Which got me thinking. Why isn’t there some type of networking site, a la LinkedIn or Facebook, specifically for writers/authors and agents, so they can hook up?

As I see it, every writer could have his or her own page, with a photo. (Heck, if you look like the next top model, it couldn’t hurt your odds of being picked an agent, I mean.) On the rest of your page, you could upload your manuscript’s (or manuscripts’) logline, query letter, first page, partial, and full manuscript, as separate links, for agents to click on as desired.

Agents would find you through a key word search. Suppose Agent X was desperate for a manuscript with the following specs: a high-concept, middle-grade fantasy about a boy protagonist who morphs into a dung beetle at night, but only when his mom attends PTA meetings, and his dad plays bocce ball. He or she would simply type in the search words, et voila, find the lone three writers worldwide--you included, woo hoo!--with the exact same key words on their networking pages.

Agent X would then request a page viewing from you, the writer/author. If granted, Agent X could view as many of your links as desired, and either reject your logline, query, ms., etc., or offer representation--yippee!--by clicking on the appropriate box. Of course, you’d be notified immediately by e-mail, and given the opportunity to accept or reject the offer of representation, say, within two days.

Writers could search for their perfect agents the same way. They could even set up the terms of what types of agents they'd like to include in their search terms, for example, include only agents from New York City. Agents would also have the option to block certain writers or types of writers from contacting them, due to, say, a prior rejection or other mismatch situation.

Of course, a small fee would be required to participate. But it would be well worth the savings in time and effort for writers/authors and agents alike.

So, gentle readers, what do you think? And what other elements would you like to see added to the site?

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Getting my Stiletto in the Door

One of my first posts on this blog was about rewarding myself with a pair of shoes when I had completed a full draft of a novel. I think it’s fitting then, that this same manuscript, LANDSCAPE OF LITTLE DRAMAS just won Best of the Best in the 2009 Get Your Stiletto in the Door contest run by Did I mention it’s hard to do the Happy Dance in stilettos?

When I got the "you won" phone call on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, it was one of those surreal moments where you can hear what the person on the other end of the phone is saying but your brain kind of explodes like a Christmas cracker. I’d actually been working on another manuscript when the phone rang and BAM just like that I found out I could still do a hitch kick.

After doing several more leaps and punches in the air (luckily neighbors didn’t see this or authorities would have been called in) I went inside to tell my husband the news.

First he smiled and told me he was proud. (Awe)

Then said “Guess you’re not making dinner.” (Babe, like my brain could handle cooking right now.)

And then…

“What does this mean?” (Imagine the sound of a needle skating across a vinyl record)

That question haunted me through my celebratory Margarita and into the night. And even when I woke up in the morning, there was that question sitting right next to my alarm clock as I hit the snooze button.

What DOES it mean?

For one it means I have claim to a really chic sounding contest title – me! – I’m the 2009 Stiletto winner.

It also means I wrote a story that the judges enjoyed reading and deemed Best of the Best. (hope I’m not starting to sound obnoxious)

As the afterglow of winning fades I also realize that what it truly means is that there is work to be done! Now that I have my stiletto is in the door - I’d like to keep it there.

First things first – I’m going to get a pedicure.

A huge thank you to all the volunteers at who ran this amazing contest!

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Monday, November 9, 2009

It All Starts With An Idea

When I first started getting serious about writing, the part that often seemed the trickiest to me was coming up with a great idea. I would focus on each story or poem as though it might be my last because I could never imagine coming up with an idea as good as my current one.

Recently, I've tried to be more proactive about coming up with ideas, and I think I've gotten better. But this month, fellow children's writer and blogger, Tara Lazar, has come up with an awesome challenge for those of us who "write too short" for NaNoWriMo.

The idea of Tara's challenge is to spend the month of November generating picture book ideas. One idea per day to be exact. It's a challenge, but it's do-able. And you can join in at any time. (So don't worry that the month is part gone!)

What's really great about this challenge is that it's causing me to look at the world around me much more actively. Everything is a potential idea. And by the end of the month I'm going to have an amazing list of story possibilities. (Actually, it's already looking pretty inspiring.)

So, to add my part to PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month), here are a few of my favorite ways to "catch a new idea":

*DO SOMETHING NEW-- for me it was studying cello and taking a jazz class. I'm not at all talented as a musician, but the experience of learning something new as an adult seems to stimulate my brain. (And maybe being such a novice helps to give me a bit more of a kid's perspective.)

*LEARN FROM MY CHILD'S PASSIONS-- Okay, I never thought I'd write a book about trucks, but after living with a truck obsessed three-year-old, I've got two truck manuscripts in the works.

*LET FRIENDS AND FAMILY "CATCH" IDEAS FOR ME--There are those times when I say something in a joking way, and my husband or my mother says, "You should write that.". And, on at least two occasions, they were right!

So, those are a few of my favorite techniques. Where do you get your ideas?

P.S. Don't forget to check out Tara's blog for all sorts of amazing posts about how to generate great picture book ideas!

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Scratch, Scratch

At present my thoughts on writing are not positive. For the past two weeks I have been wondering why I am doing this at all. Two novels completed and circulated; none accepted. Two or three others in progress. I am a competent writer, but I think in today's market, writing that is catchy and sarcastic, with an enormous plot engine bursting with action is what is needed. I can't do this.

My characters are standing in the wings waiting to be called on stage again. But why should I let the curtain rise if all they are going to hear are boos and hoots from the audience?

I look at the bookshelf where one of my current manuscripts sits, each chapter in a separate colored folder. If I chucked the pile it it would give me more space...for books, someone else's books, of course. Is that what I want?

And then I hear a mouse scratching in the far wall. We live in the woods and a mouse or two always slips in for the winter. Should I set a trap tonight and catch it, ending its story too, or do I ignore it, at least for now?

Scratch, scratch. That is what a writer's characters do. They join us on walks, meet us coming around the corner, or they are lying in the bed when we go to make it. They won't leave. Ridding the house of mice is easier.

So, I have to live with them, the characters, not the mice. But can I continue to commit them to paper?

I'll think about it.

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Sunday, November 1, 2009

NaNoWriMo Take Two

On November 1, what else can a writer blog about but NaNoWriMo? And yes, I'm going for it again this year. I will confess though, I'm cheating. I plan to finish a WIP rather than start a new manuscript. I already have over 25,000 words down on my YA, but I'm tossing out two plot threads, so I figure that brings me down to somewhere between 15,000-20,000. I'm aiming for a 60,000-word first draft, so who knows? I may hit that magic 50,000 word mark after all.

I've got around 40 buddies so far, but if any of you readers are taking the NaNo challenge, buddy me -- we're all in this together! I'm Judy P at NaNo.

Now, let's get started!

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009


We've just returned from a glorious trip to Turkey where we were enthralled with the vibrancy of modern Istanbul and the richness of their ancient cultures. We saw wondrous Hellenistic and Roman sites, amphitheaters and temples. Overlaying all was the deep sense of history and the memory of the story of those who had walked there before.

As I prepared for the trip, I read Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk's book, Istanbul, Memories of a City. The book is memory - autobiographical, looking at Pamuk's childhood and family life with the backdrop of his Istanbul as he saw it, with the soul of a city saddened by the decline of their former empire symbolized by signs of decay of the once proud mansions lining the Bosporus, sinking under their peeling paint and sagging frames.

Pamuk weaves memories as he draws in the reader into the middle of his family's living room and dinner discussions. What an incredible job he does in setting the scenes and recalling the personalities present, whiffs of fragrant foods served and swirls of conversations.

The details - can we do the details as he does?

What details he slides so smoothly into the story that set the readers in the immediacy of the place. What a great example for writers to see his art. I have been mulling over his techniques, trying to conjure up such depth of memories from childhood - lunch meals, picnics, chores, interactions of family and friends, the color and sound of the time and place.

I found Pamuk's example fascinating. Digging for details of memory. When writing for children how do you dig for details of your childhood? Details that are common to children now as well as back in your time? Perhaps- excitement in the house, happy or tense, fear of being left at home, out of things, of really being left and having to stay with other relatives, as almost cast off, as Pamuk, times of great fun with a circus coming to town or being taken sledding in the winter with frost bitten toes or to a big game in the summer or hide and seek on a hot evening when you would have liked to have hidden from the mosquitoes.

How do you dig for memories and with what do you dig?

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

I'm SO Excited!

Can you guess why? Here is the cover for my upcoming picture book Benno and the Night of Broken Glass. I don't have a release date yet, but I've been told he'll be in bookstores by mid-April.

Needless to say, I'm so excited! Thanks to Josée Bisaillon for the wonderful illustrations.

I'm not kidding when I tell you that I can stare at this photo and not get enough of it. It's like looking at a picture of one of my children.

I guess Benno is my baby (though his gestation period was more like nine years instead of nine months). It's hard to believe that it's finally happening. I think the wait will be worth it though, given how beautiful the illustrations are.

I've dedicated this book to my sister, and in her honor I will be donating my royalties to The Bone Marrow Foundation. If you don't know what this wonderful organization does, please check out their website. It is a charity that is near and dear to my heart.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Calling All Lurkers--Let Your Voices Be Heard!

One of the reasons I love blogging is it caused me to go cold turkey on online lurking. I was a virtual long-time listener, first-time caller when we began the Paper Wait well over a year ago. I fervently followed a number of blogs, sopped up tips and traumas from Verla Kay's Blue Boards, and breathed agent and editor preferences in and out better than any Lamaze coach. But my internet voice was, well, silent.

Fast forward to today, and I can't believe it took me so long to speak up. I love being part of different online communities (most especially this one) and I find that commenting on blogs or on the Blue Boards makes me think more deeply about the issues under discussion.

Adding my opinion to any blog roll or forum was intimidating at first. And sometimes, it still is. But I like being part of the conversation.

So tell me, how did you come to tame your inner lurker?

Photo: Ian Britton

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Step Right Up For Creative Writing 101

I have a bulging miscellaneous folder in my file cabinet. It's where I throw odd pieces of information, interesting interviews, story ideas, short stories I admire, etc., etc. Every now and then when this file grows so obese it crowds the whole drawer, I go through it searching for things to throw away. I weeded this week and what did I find?

A gem: a page from an old Cornell Magazine with a selection from Kurt Vonnegut's (class of '44) book BAGOMBO SNUFF BOX in which he lists eight rules for his "Creative Writing 101."

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things - reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them - in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with the suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, the where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I'm mulling over what he means in #7. Is he saying you should write for yourself?

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Query Don't?

A wonderful agent from a top New York agency called me the other day.

Nope, it wasn’t “the call.” I’ve never queried this agent. He doesn’t even know I’m shopping a manuscript. In fact, his phone call had absolutely nothing to do with publishing. So why the call?

His young son and mine happen to be budding bff’s and we were simply setting up their next playdate. (Got you to take the jump, though, didn’t I? Heheh.)

This brings me to my quandary. Should I spill the beans? Tell him I’m in the hunt for an agent? Ask him if he’d be willing to take a look at my unbelievably [insert hyperbolic adjective here] manuscript? What if he said, “Sure, send me the full,” then passed? Um, can you spell “awkward”?

Fearing this, should he be off-limits, a Query Don’t? You know, just my kid's friend’s dad; someone to talk Little League with; filed under: Don’t mix business with parenting?

I confess, I tend to shy away from using my industry contacts, this one included. I’m just a whole lot more comfortable cold querying editors and agents—-whatever the outcome. This is why I was heartened to read agent Nathan Bransford’s recent post saying that 62 percent of the first-time authors he polled landed their agents through cold querying. On the other hand, I also know how contacts can open doors in any industry.

So I ask you, gentle readers, am I crazy? Is any potential contact fair game, no matter the relationship? And do you take full advantage of your contacts—-or prefer going cold like me?

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

When Is It Time To STOP?

I have a friend who has been working on an historical novel for almost six years. Her research took more than a year and then she began writing. During the last five years, she has attended conferences and been awarded a place in numerous competitive writing residencies all over the country. Each experience has given her an editor's or mentor's opinion about her book - sometimes an opinion based on one chapter, a few chapters and a synopsis, or a larger chunk of the manuscript.

What advice has she received?

Conflicting advice. Some said delete the flashbacks. Others liked them. Some said she needed a first person POV. Some said she needed an omniscient POV. She's heard that her structure of chapters that move from one character's POV to another detracts from the narrative tension. She's heard that her changes in POV are compelling. Some wanted more history. Some wanted less history.

So when is it time to stop collecting conflicting advice and start the submission process with an agent or editor? How do you know when enough is enough?

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Let Your Writing Roar!

Yesterday, my son and I checked out LIBRARY LION by Michelle Knudsen,illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, from the library. What a wonderful book! It all starts when a lion shows up at the library and wants to listen to story time-- a fun and fascinating premise.

As I read this book aloud, I thought about the trend toward fun and fascinating picture book premises that I'd noticed when I scanned my son's bookshelf before last night's bedtime story.

Here are just a few:

LITTLE PEA by Amy Krouse Rosenthal,illustrated by Jen Corace-- the story of a pea who doesn't want to eat his dinner (candy!)

KITTEN'S FIRST FULL MOON by Kevin Henkes-- the story of Kitten who thinks the full moon is a bowl of milk and tries to drink it

CLICK, CLACK, MOO: COWS THAT TYPE by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin-- the story of cows who get hold of a typewriter and start typing Farmer Brown demanding notes.

I could keep going here, but noticing these books and their incredibly cool premises made me think about our incredibly challenging job as writers. Most of us want to write books as unique and memorable as LIBRARY LION and the others I've listed. But writing books like this takes... the courage of a lion!

What will people think of my crazy premise? we may wonder. Is it too different? Can I really pull this story off and make it work?

The other day, I got tempted back to a "safe" story. My husband read it and yawned. He knows and loves my best stuff, and this, he told me, wasn't it. It was too sappy, too boring, too predictable.

I sulked for a bit. But then I went back to a fun, quirky idea that really fascinated me. And I tried to take it to its fun and quirky ultimate extreme.

I'm not sure how I did with it yet. That's one of the hardest parts of writing, I think. Believing in what you did before we get "the call" validating our efforts. But, at least I know that I took a risk. And that risk might just let my writer's voice roar.

I'm curious, what books do you think roar like a lion? How do you find the courage to let your own writing roar?

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Views on Point of View

I have just finished Carl Hiaasen's SCAT. The book is compelling, and quite a page turner. It's a good "read" for a middle grader, and even for a reader few decades older.

Why was SCAT compelling? Well, I really cared about the main protagonist. I didn't agree with all his thought processes, but he came across as sincere and honest, and he had a big problem to solve, one that got more complex at the plot developed. The supporting characters were well drawn, but did not diminish the main character.

And what about the "villains?" Hiaassen had sections devoted to just them and their nefarious machinations. Technically, a children's writer sticks with just the protagonist's point of view. Hiaasen breaks this rule, successfully, I think.

So, I'm asking myself, and anyone who's reading this, which technique is more attractive to the young reader, strict single point of view, or a chance to "get behind the scenes," going where the protagonist cannot go?

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Friday, October 2, 2009

Nuances of Character

Recently a beloved uncle of mine passed away. Since I live so far away from my family it was easy to keep the grief and shock of the situation at bay and go about the business of preparing to attend the services. It wasn’t until I read his obituary – deftly crafted by my first cousins – that I felt an acute sense of the person they (and we) had lost. One line in particular – He loved the New York Yankees, New York Giants, Notre Dame football, Frank Sinatra and a good cigar – drove me to tears because it painted such a vivid picture of my uncle. It was perfect and fitting but at the same time (because let’s face it, the writer’s mind never shuts off) I wondered why, of all the facts about my uncle in his obit, did those make me really Feel?

My guess is because our likes and dislikes make us human. It’s what connects us. They are nuances of character.

The simple facts bring us deeper into the core of a person. Maybe reading the above sentence didn’t have the same effect for you it had on me because you didn’t personally know my uncle. And while it doesn’t paint the complete picture – if you look beyond his particular tastes I think you can get a sense of who he was as a person.

Even if I didn’t know him, what I can gather from that sentence is that he was a man of tradition. Family and roots meant something to him. He loved kicking back to watch a great game (and would be thrilled with the Yanks nabbing the AL East woohoo!)and enjoyed the finer things in life. He was also a bit of a romantic.

Pretty powerful stuff to glean from what appears to be a list of sports teams and taste in music.

How then, do we as writers use this information to make our characters live and breathe and pop off the page?

Creating a character notebook with a laundry list of likes and dislikes always seems daunting to me, not to mention extra work. I envy writers who can pull that off. I’m more of the mind that the character is “out there” waiting to be discovered if I can only shut-up long enough to listen. It’s when I listen, that I usually get a sense of the character but this process doesn’t always present the “likes fried chicken, hates Coke, plans on dyeing hair purple in a month” details that pull a character into focus. Sometimes I have to play around a bit, get to know them before their likes and dislikes are apparent.

While these minute details may sometimes seem pointless and get overlooked (or over-used) in our writing, they are an integral part of making a character three dimensional.

So who are some of your favorite pop off the page characters? And what was it about them that made you identify with and/or remember them?

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Music's Inspiration

I'm looking forward to seeing some wonderful opera tonight by Puccini. And, I'm anticipating watching to see and hear the action and the music reach crescendo and climax with drama and soaring sound. Whether the music is folk, jazz, rock, reggae, hip hop, house, choral, symphonic or grand opera, I'm always reminded of story - writing the story - and taking the story to its grabbing and enticing heights of tension.

The overture offers strains of the coming sections of music, fragments of the happy and triumphant parts of the characters lives and dark and foreboding tones of the tragedy that may unfold. Like the composer who weaves through the symphony or opera the threads and clues to the characters' fates, so as story tellers we include suggestions throughout the story or novel that draw the reader in and propel the characters and plot forward.


I and most writers may not write with the mastery of the genius Puccini but the study of music can help illuminate for us skills to improve our writing and to bring the story to a high point of tension.

What is your favorite music style? Does it help guide you with plot, character development and crescendo?

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Monday, September 28, 2009


I have champagne-worthy news! I have an agent. I am now officially represented by Steven Chudney, and I couldn’t be happier.

It’s been journey to this point; one I’m glad I took. I began writing this manuscript seven years ago. I was already a writer, but a business writer. I was also an avid reader. But when my boys began reading novels, something clicked inside me. I read the books they were reading, and fell in love with middle grade.

I joined SCBWI and found my wonderful critique group. I dug into the process of novel writing, taking classes, going to conferences, and reading, reading, reading.

In 2007, I sent my MG out into the world and got a bunch of “good” rejections—a decent share of partial and full requests, even a trip to an editorial meeting at a major publisher. But I couldn’t figure out what was missing. What it was that made agents and editors ultimately say no.

So I gave my manuscript a time out—some drawer time for a year or so—and continued working on a second novel.

When I finally took my MG out of the drawer (or out of its Word file, really), I could see flaws that had been invisible the year before. I revised, ran it through my critique group again (and bless ‘em, they never said—again????), revised again, and last July, after carefully researching agents, sent off some targeted queries.

Two months and one revision later, my drawer time paid off. I now wait while Steven takes another read. When he deems it ready, out to publishers it goes.

I have to say, this feels really good. But what will feel even better, is getting a phone call and hearing, “I sold it.”

Photo: Ian Britton

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Friday, September 25, 2009

To Read or Not To Read Part 5: Morbid Inspiration

My husband and I have been spending a lot of time in cemeteries lately. Not because anyone we know has died (thank goodness), but as tourists. That might sound ghoulish, but it was not our intention.

In the last month we've been to Arlington National Cemetery, Christ Church Burial Grounds in Philadelphia, and Lafayette Cemetery, pictured above, in New Orleans.

Comparing the three cemeteries is like comparing apples and oranges. Arlington National Cemetery is 200 acres of pristine and uniform graves. It provides a snapshot of our national history. Did you know that the property once belonged to Robert E. Lee? I particularly enjoyed the section where the nurses are buried. Hundreds of women who served during war time. Their names alone are worth the trip - Phoebe, Constance, Betty, Gertrude. In comparison, the Christ Church Burial Ground is 2 acres with some 4,000 graves, including five signers of the Declaration of Independence and victims of the 1793 Yellow Fever outbreak (I've added Laurie Halse Anderson's FEVER to my TBR list). The Lafayette Cemetery in New Orleans is unlike any other cemetery (well, any cemetery above sea level). In New Orleans, tombs are used. So walking through the cemetery is like walking through a town - row upon row of tombs dating back to 1833.

So, what the heck does our morbid fixation with cemeteries have to do with writing?

I've been reading a lot of ghost stories lately. As part of my work for VCFA, I have to read roughly ten books every four weeks. For the last packet, I read all ghost stories. For the packet due in October, I'm reading stories that have Death as a character. Why? My current WIP is a ghost story and I've never written a paranormal story before. So I need to learn how others have done it.

Some of the books I've read in the last month are:
GHOSTS I HAVE BEEN by Richard Peck
GHOSTS OF KERFOL by Deborah Noyes
RUINED by Paula Morris (which prominently features the Lafayette Cemetery).
SKELLIG by David Almond (not really a ghost story but a GREAT book)

What I've learned from all this reading is that there are as many types of ghosts floating around in writers' imaginations as there are writers, and comparing them is like comparing cemeteries - apples to oranges. Some ghosts are menacing and scary and kept me up at night (THE GHOSTS OF KERFOL), some are loving and kind (THE GRAVEYARD BOOK), some are helpful (THE KILLER'S COUSIN). What it means is that I can have my ghost be any kind of ghost I want her to be. The only rules that exist for ghost stories are the ones created by the writer for their specific world. The ghosts must be true to that created world.

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll know that I've had a change of heart when it comes to reading YA. I never used to read it. Now, it's ALL I read. I read with a highlighter in one hand and stack of post-it-tabs in the other. When I'm done with a book it's marked all up and has all kinds of papers sticking out of it. I learn something from every book I read, even the ones I don't particularly like. The really good ones inspire me. And, the cemeteries have inspired me as well - through the ambiance of their hallowed ground and the voices of all those souls. After visiting all these places it is easy to believe in ghosts.

So I wonder, if I find inspiration from graveyards and ghost stories, where do other writers, whether you're writing contemporary, historical, sci-fi, whatever, get their inspiration? What are you reading and what have you learned?

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

In the Writing Zone

I've been amazingly productive this month. Now that my son is back to catching the bus at 6:46 a.m., I'm at my computer, coffee in hand, by 6:50 a.m. (Or he misses the bus at 6:47 a.m., I drive him, and don't get that first cup of coffee until after 7:00 a.m. Grrrr.)

Either way, I've been kicking #@% keeping butt in chair. But what makes me even happier than the work at the keyboard, is the work everywhere else. I am in the writing zone.

I am so in the zone I finally figured out the mucky middle of my YA WIP and I haven't touched it in six weeks. My solid plot took twists and turns that that led straight into dead ends. But as I revised and polished my MG manuscript every morning until it's spit-shined, a funny thing happened every afternoon. My thoughts turned to my YA as I took care of all of life's other business. And I figured out where the plot went wrong.

I can't wait to dig back into my YA--I even have a new name for my MC--something that has driven me crazy since I wrote my first three pages.

Fellow writers, has this happened to you? When you take the pressure off, do the answers come?

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

As The Wheel Turns - Or Stops

Sometimes I picture my writing life as a spinning wheel. As I turn it, my ideas and words fill the spindle a thin strand at a time. Three weeks ago, I had an idea for a story and as I worked the wheel, the bare spindle slowly gained girth. Then the strands snapped. The wheel spun to a stop. I was plunged into a crisis of 24/7 care-giving. Forget fiction. Reality ruled.

How did I start to regain my writing life when the crisis was over?

My critique groups came to the rescue. This week I read and critiqued sections of two novels - an excellent way to reconstruct my writing frame of mind. Reading clever dialogue and vivid descriptions as I rooted for appealing three-dimensional characters inspired me. Thanks, fellow writers, I'm ready to return to writing.

Critique groups support you in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. Right?

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Next Top Content?

If you’re a Google-based blogger, you probably know about Google Analytics, a nifty site that lets you track your blog’s stats. If you’re a newbie, to find it, go to the Google home page, click on My Account, then click on Analytics.

Et voila. Stats on top of overlays on top of stats. You can see where your visitors come from (Hong Kong? Wow!). You can see who referred visitors to your site. We love our visiting blucboarders from Verla Kay. And, hey, thanks for the tweets, Tara Lazar! Of course, we love all our followers and subscribers too, and are so glad you've stopped by, whether it's to join in the conversation or just do a little lurking.

Of all the stats, my perennial fave is Top Content, which tells you which posts were viewed the most over the past month. Since we launched our blog in March 2008, we’ve put up 164 posts, including this one. To my surprise, one of those posts, put up seven months ago, in February 2009, has had incredible staying power. Seven months later, it remains our most-viewed post, taking the top content prize month after month.

Here’s a little multiple choice question for you:

Is the title of our perennial top content post…a) How We Do It, Critique, That Is; b) There Could Be Gold on Them Thar Shelves; or c) How Long Does It Take to Write a Book?

If you guessed c) How Long Does It Take to Write a Book, you’re right. It’s amazing how many people Google that question and wind up on our site. As the post said, the answer is, there is no answer. A book takes as long as it needs. Even so, I guess I’m not the only writer who felt like she was taking too darn long to write her book.

Because the post did so well--and I’m a sucker for good traffic--I’ve decided on the title for my next one: How Long Does It Take to Find an Agent? Maybe that one will keep bringing in the hits too. Stay tuned.

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

I've Got An Idea--Now What?

I hope to begin drafting a new novel soon. I'm nearing the finish line for one WIP, so it's time to pull out the idea file and decide what to work on next. I've been tossing light bulb moments in a file folder for the past five years as I've worked on two different novels. So here's my question: How do you take a great idea, and figure out if it will make a great book?

My completed MG began with a problem and I built a plot around how my MC would solve it. My YA WIP, however, began with a setting and an idea for three friends within that setting. I then created a problem and kept writing until my MC figured out a solution.

Right now, I'm letting several ideas simmer. I hope in a month or so, one of them will demand my attention. But to my fellow writers, I ask, do you have a more structured process to developing your ideas into books?

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Sunday, September 6, 2009

My Changing Vision of Revision

Recently I've been revising a manuscript, and it's been a lot of fun.

Fun? Revision? That got me thinking.

When I first started writing "fun" wasn't a word I would ever have used to describe revision. "Torture" was more like it.

I hated cutting a paragraph from a treasured piece of prose. I hated changing my opening page. But, most of all, I hated being told my beloved first draft (or second or third or fourth) wasn't perfect.

So, what made me change?

The more I think about my change in attitude, the more it comes down to having a real vision for my manuscripts. The word vision isn't in revision by accident, I realized. When I really know what kind of changes I want to see in my revised manuscript, making changes to it is fun instead of painful.

Those changes can include making more varied poetic forms in a poetry collection or allowing the readers to get a better sense of my main character in a picture book manuscript.

I think the most frustrating part of revision for me now is when I know that a manuscript needs a change, but I can't figure out what. I've got a manuscript like that now, and it's driving me crazy. But, at least now it's driving me crazy because I want to revise, not because I don't.

Sometimes putting a manuscript aside gives me the distance to find a new vision for it. And, of course, wonderful critiques can always help to challenge me to bring a manuscript to the next level.

So, how do you find your vision for revision?

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Friday, September 4, 2009

A Detour in the Journey

After six weeks with three grandchildren, ages 10 to 16, my husband and I left on a long-planned trip. I had no preconceived notions about the journey. I was just happy to be going where I didn't have to cook for three weeks!

The subject and location of the journey were complicated, but as it turned out, we were lucky to have a guide who brought tremendous perspective to what we saw. Three days into the trip, the writer in me was screaming "article." The trip focussed on a subject that is little discussed and yet very important in today's world. When we returned, the article was half written in my head. Now I'm doing the research to support my ideas.

However, I'm already halfway through my current novel. Letting the novel's manuscript sit will certainly cause me to lose momentum. Perhaps the non-fiction writing will help the fiction writing. We'll see.

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

#@%*#@%*! Synopsis

If you are a writer, odds are at some point you’ve been asked for a synopsis of your work. After months, maybe even years, of crafting a novel, writing a synopsis sounds as easy as making cupcakes for the drama club’s bake sale. Then you sit at the computer and realize that maybe you underestimated the task at hand, feeling as though you’ve just been informed that those cupcakes for the bake sale must be red velvet cake with cream cheese icing and oh yeah, made from scratch, without sugar or gluten and they still have to taste like heaven.

Not so easy.

Writing a synopsis is shrouded in mystery. Ask ten editors and agents and you’ll get ten different answers. One page. Ten pages. Shorter is better. Must include the beginning, middle and end. Should read like jacket flap copy. Shouldn’t read like jacket flap copy. Must see character arc clearly. Best if written with the same flavor as the novel. Is your head spinning yet? Mine is.

I recently had the the much, much, boiled down, then reduced again, 2 page, sound bite of my 65,000 word novel critiqued. The feedback was not all that glowing – the general consensus being the story was underdeveloped.(I can feel you shudder with me) Yes, it was helpful, but the sort of helpful that required going back to the drawing board for more than a ten minute fix. I now have about five different versions of my synopsis. Super-short to way too long. My favorite one stands at a hefty seven pages. The one I will most likely use is five pages. Some of you are probably shaking your heads thinking, “Dear, that’s about four pages too long.” But if an editor wants to see how your story is developed – I mean, really developed not the "a couple of really cool things happen, the character grows and it's all tied up in a big red bow" version – how can that be done in one page?

So I’m opening it up to you – what are your best tips for writing a synopsis? Any good references or definitive answers out there? It would be nice to have a reference point.

Or at least know I’m not the only one driving in the torrential rain with one headlight.

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Back to School

Those lazy, hazy days of summer are winding down and soon the yellow bus will take the children back to school. And that unique, mind-expanding, dreamy time with less structure, just playing in the back yard, taking trips to the beach, mountains and natural wonders like canyons, no homework and more freedom, will be over for another year and children will go back to their work of schooling.

Writers often catch a little summer down time too if they're lucky - watching waves wash endlessly on the shore, kayaking quietly on deep green lakes or watching fire flies flit through the dusk of evening, until they too return to the desk and screen.

But in the last days of this wonderful season...

...the writer, even with summer work hours, and the child, with structured learning pursuits of sports, science, art and music camps, have the luxury to see new things or old ideas anew, imagine different possibilities, and to dream.

I just returned from a short vacation to Cape Cod where I did watch waves lapping and gulls wheeling and let my thoughts wander. I watched children look through telescopes far out to sea to catch an adventure on the deep and saw them examine sea life up close at the Woods Hole Aquarium. What wondrous life there is on land and sea -- I just let the thoughts flow -- and then grabbed a pen and started jotting them down. And then began organizing new ideas and story lines. After all, we writers start back to our school of discipline too.

I want to be ready. Are you?

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Internet Diet

I'm on a diet - an internet diet. I had to cut back the hours I spent surfing the web in search of insightful and creative blogs and sites for writers of children's literature. With my current work load, I don't have the time.

This is a picture of my desk. It's a mess. It's always been a mess. If I had taken a picture of my whole office you would have seen piles of books on the floor and chair, piles of papers on the piles of books, and a two nearly empty bookcases because of all the books piled on the floor and chair. Usually, when I start a new project, I clean my office. I start files, shred unwanted printouts, organize the mess that is my desk. But right now, I don't have time to clean my desk. I am working on revising two critical essays, writing two new critical essays, revising the first four chapters of my current wip, and reading at least 10 books every four weeks. AND this blog (which I don't care how many people claim it's supposed to be spontaneous and off the top of your head, I plan my blogs, give them considerable thought, and write them several days before they are due so I can obsessively re-write them).

This photo alone explains why I need an internet diet.

I need to get organized. I need to manage my time more efficiently.

I love the internet, though I am a bit of a Luddite. I don't facebook, twitter, and I am not linkedin to anything. I spend time, too much time, on a select few sites. I enjoy these sites, and I enjoy "meeting" people on them, chatting with them, commenting with them, exchanging support and ideas with them. But I've got to stop, or at least cut back.

Going on an internet diet is the same as going on any other kind of diet. You can't eliminate the carbs completely from your life, other wise you'll find yourself in the back of the closet eating a loaf of stale Italian bread (or at least I will). I have to limit my carbs and limit my internet time.

In the last month I've been successful on my diet. Every morning I boot up my computer, check emails, check this blog, and then allow myself a quick peek at the VCFA Student Forum site. If nothing new is posted, I leave it. Immediately. I do the same with Verla Kay's Blueboards (of course, there's always something new posted there, so I have to be VERY selective). I don't go searching for threads I haven't read filled with suggestions for MG books with protagonists who love dogs, or insights into extended metaphors, or details on response times for agents I haven't submitted to (all of which could be extremely helpful, IF I needed it. I don't. Right now). And that's the point. The internet is there when I need the information but as interesting as all of it can be, what I need right now is discipline - which I've never been good at.

So I apologize to those whose blogs I used to follow and comment on more regularly. It's not that I no longer enjoy the blogs, it's that I enjoy them too much. The flip side of this sad internet diet is that it's working. . . or should I say, I am working. I am meeting my deadlines, cranking out the critical essays, trying new techniques, and literally vibrating with creative ideas. Isn't that cool?

I don't know if you need an internet diet, maybe you're more disciplined than I am. . . I sure hope so.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009


One of the features that drew us to our new home was the beautiful backyard garden. Just the sight of it invoked visions of me sitting, feet up, sipping something delicious and writing longhand while inspiration poured into me from my natural surroundings. My own private oasis. A welcome retreat from the rest of the world.

No one told me I would have to take care of it.

I am a reluctant gardener. I’m not sure if it’s from sheer laziness or the fact that I’m a born and bred city gal. Whenever a gardening urge would hit me, I’d buy one of those window box kits – the kind you can grow herbs or wildflowers in – and it would end up collecting dust in my closet. I dreaded the Mother’s Day plant sale at school. I’d politely tell my kids that while I appreciated the thought they didn’t need to get me a plant. Inevitably, a kind hearted PTA member who thought they were doing a good deed would loan my kids some money to buy Mommy a pretty plant. Little did they know, the plant was doomed. I had a decidedly burnt umber thumb.

Then I bought a garden.

Over the last year, I’ve learned to enjoy the process of tending a garden. While there are times it is downright tedious, most of the time there’s a quiet bliss that comes with weeding and pruning. Of all the tasks in my garden that mystify me, pruning tops the list. You mean, I just CUT THIS? And it’s okay? The first time I pruned, it felt barbaric.

Okay Robin, that’s nice, but this is a writing blog…what’s the point? There are so many metaphors that can be drawn between gardening and writing, it could fill a month’s worth of blog posts. Pruning is what I identify with most. After pouring heart and soul into a novel, watching as your word count mounts and your story takes shape,cutting does seem barbaric. Some scenes are easy to cut. Cutting other scenes,those parts of a story that made you laugh or pat yourself on the back at your own cleverness, can bit a bit harder.

Cutting, like pruning, is necessary for new growth. It fosters air (or idea) circulation. And it can even lead to new discoveries about your work. Last fall when I cut back a particularly tenacious rose bush, I discovered a Tom Knudsen Camilla that had been hidden, not getting enough sunlight or attention. Likewise in my own work, when I cut scenes or characters, I’m continually amazed at how ideas seem to come into focus, rearrange themselves and pieces of the puzzle fall into place. It’s a part of the process I’ve learned to love.

So how do you feel when it comes to pruning your work?

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Hey, Kids, Let's Write A Novel Together!

In "Bologna Book Fair," by Susan Salzman Raab (2009 July/August SCBWI BULLETIN, pg. 17), a consultant to the Book Fair named Carla Poseio, "sees the blogosphere as a useful starting point for a book and as a mechanism that can serve the author by providing the chance to see if there's an audience for a given book and helping to establish a base before the book is published. At times the audience has the opportunity to play a larger role by helping influence the direction of the story and by providing feedback on what is and isn't working."

Marketing trumps professional craft?

Could be. So before you write your novel, you blog about your ideas and if they don't catch on, do you ditch it? Or do you try to keep your ideas afloat and work out problems by inviting suggestions from your young audience about what they like and don't like? These young bloggers aren't following a format as they do when playing Rock Band or Guitar Hero. They're helping create a new piece of work.

Maybe this collaborative idea appeals to those writing high-concept fiction, but I think authors forfeit their most valuable asset - unique creative vision.

What do you think?

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Meet Me at the Watercooler

I’m back in manuscript-submission mode, so wish me luck. To help me choose the best agents to query, I’m pouring over the forums on Verla Kay's "Blueboard", Absolute Write, and QueryTracker. If you’re launching a targeted agent search too, and you haven’t checked out these sites yet, you really should.

Verla Kay and Absolute Write are watercooler sites that are full of forums, with plenty of agent-related threads. Posters comment on agents’ likes, dislikes, and response times; agency openings and closings; new agents and what types of manuscripts they’re looking for; and a slew of other helpful topics. QueryTracker has a comments section where writers compare notes on particular agents. These forums are not only full of insider information, they’re also supportive, motivating, and easy to join. I find them essential when I’m querying and submitting.

Part of the fun of using these sites is stumbling on submission-story gems like the one below:

“Keep it up everyone, the bestseller, The Power of Positive Thinking, was rejected so many times that the author gave up and threw it in the trash. He told his wife not to take it out, so she snuck the whole trash can to one last publisher and he accepted it.”

Or this comment about a weird-but-good experience a writer had with an agent (I’m not revealing the agents’ names here but you can find them on QT):

“I sent an e-query to Agent X on 4/27. She rejected it on 5/17. Yesterday, I emailed Agent Y in the same agency since she now accept e-queries (according to AQ) and now lists YA as one of her genres. I got an email from Agent X today saying that Agent Y forwarded her my query thinking it would fit her list better. She said if I was okay with a switch, she'd like to see a partial. Agent X requested a full after I alerted her to an offer of representation from another agent.”

And I just love comments like the one below, where a writer revealed her query stats before finally landing an agent:

“9 Pending, 1 Partial, 1 full (and subsequent offer), 10 No Response, 12 Rejections, for a total of 33 queries. Keep submitting! Never give up!”

So tell me, what helps you when you’re in submission-mode? Websites? Books? Conferences? Red wine? All of the above?

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