Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Reports of the PB's Death....May be Exaggerated

Mark Twain so famously wrote, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

So too perhaps the reports of the death of the PB may be magnified beyond current market realities. I wrote about this topic in October on this blog on a post titled "Digitized!" after a NEW YORK TIMES article suggested that the e-world was drawing the shroud over the PB.

Just several weeks ago the PW Children's Bookshelf had a lead article titled "Don't Write the Obit for Picture Books Yet." They wrote that some children's publishers seemed shocked that the TIMES would make this declaration since market data showed that PBs were about the same percentage of children's book sales in 2009 as in 2005 - approximately 11% (10.8 and 10.7%).

For my post in October I had interviewed several librarians - randomly scattered around the country - NJ, NC, FL and Oregon - who said that they had been buying just about as many PBs this year as in the past and that the public seemed as interested in them as usual. And, as that librarian said, the PB doesn't need to be plugged in or need extra batteries!

This is the happy news for those of us who write PBs and who, in the constructing the story, envision the child reader holding the book, touching and feeling the pages and seeing, hearing and reading the story, and anticipating with each turning page, the promise of the adventure continuing on the next page.

But the new media is here - and every type of communication and organization is involved in trying to keep up with it and harness it for their endeavors. The future of the iPad is often discussed too. Anecdotally, the iPad was the most popular gift in our family this Christmas with a number of people surprised at giving one as a gift and then receiving one themselves. It's here so we writers can continue writing for our hard back books and hope that children and parents will still like to feel the book in their hands but also adapt to the iPad and construct books that can at the same time adapt to that e-format as well. A concern, though, is that a PB remain a book and a form of literature versus a cartoon type presentation on a screen.

Writing for two versions at once - but better that the obit. How would you plan to construct a PB for both presentations and keep books for children literature?

Read more!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Being Critical - In a Good Way

The above photo is of my desk. For some reason it doesn't look as messy in the picture as it does in real life. I have my piles -- VCFA packet pile, top left between lap and computer screen; 2nd wip pile, directly in front surrounded by research books and coffee cup; VCFA Workshop readings, pile to the far left. These are the essentials to my work. And I have been working!

I just completed my third semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts. During this past semester, as a requirement for receiving my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I had to write a critical thesis on a topic of my choosing relating to the craft of writing for children. To say this was an arduous endeavor would be understatement. But I did it. I struggled through it with the assistance of my fantastic advisor, Shelley Tanaka, and several skype sessions with fellow VCFAers who were in the same critical thesis boat as I.

I truly disliked writing the thesis. But I must admit that I learned a lot. Not only about the topic I chose, which is closely related to my wip, but also about reading and writing critically. So, during this season of giving, my "gift" to fellow writers are my ever evolving thoughts on reading and writing critically.

For anyone who has been following this blog since it's inception knows that I am a reading convert. Going back to May 2008 I confessed that I didn't read children's literature. Now, two and a half years later, all I read is children's literature. My friends who used to ask me for book suggestion are disappointed when I suggest Suzanne Collins's The Underland Chronicles , Jennifer Donnelly's A Northern Light, or Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice by Phillip Hoose. They look at me, roll their eyes and ask, "Aren't you ever going to read real books again?" Let's skip my response to them, because THAT could be a whole other post.

The title of my critical thesis is "The Appeal of the Ultimate Bad Boy: The Personification of Death in Books for Children and Young Adults". I looked at four books -- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt, Mort by Terry Pratchett and Keeper of Soles by Teresa Bateman -- that present Death as a main character. I chose this topic because in my current wip, Death shows up at high school to pursue the sister of a girl whose soul he's just gathered. What I wanted to learn was how did Zusak, Leavitt, Pratchett, and Bateman make their Death characters likeable? And why did they do it? What I learned is that there are a variety of devices writers use to make characters, even stereotypically bad characters, likeable and even human. By the end of all these stories the protagonist/reader roots for Death. So, which devices work best? Which can I employ in my own writing? As for the Why? writers present Death as likeable, I'll simply quote Gregory MacGuire when he spoke at VCFA's Summer Residency in July 2010 when he said, "The Why is as personal as prayer."

But beyond the craft of writing, I learned about myself as a writer - How I write. I am an impatient writer. I don't like to plan or outline. I just write. That leads to many, many, many revisions. I'm not saying that writing organically isn't good. I do that. But once I've got the basic premise down, once I know where the story's going, I need to slow myself down and think about pacing and plotting. When writing the thesis I knew what I wanted to say and just sort of vomited it out onto the page with little organization. Which meant I had to do major rewrites. Organization is not my strong suit. But being aware of a weakness in your writing only makes you a stronger writer. I also repeat myself (as my honest fellow Paper Waiters know). I write a scene and then explain it. They've been telling me this for years. I was aware that I did this, but didn't quite get it. Somehow, in writing the critical thesis and working simultaneously on my creative work I got it. It was that light bulb moment -- Ah, ha!

So, as much as I disliked the critical work VCFA forced me to do. I will not discount its value.

My point is, that as a writer of children's books. I must read children's books. And I can't just read them the way I read adult books. For fun. I have to pick them apart. I have to examine each level of writing from plot, to character, to pacing, to white space, sentence structure, and word. I have to discover what works for me (because what works for me, might not work for someone else) and what doesn't. What does the writer do that allows me to suspend believe and fall with Gregor and his baby sister Boots through the grate in their laundry room into the Underland, or root for Mattie Gokey as she struggles to be true to herself in 1906 Upstate New York, or to be grabbed by a long-ago, and nearly forgotten, event in history when I already know what's going to happen?

I'm not expecting too many comments on this post - it is Christmas - but if you have the time, just list a book that's helped you with your writing.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Read more!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bob Dylan - Must Be Santa

Last year a friend of mine who does a weekly music e-mail, sent out this offering of Bob Dylan "Must Be Santa" for Christmas. At first, I was like...huh? But this song and video never fail to make me smile.

So why include it here, on a writing blog?

First off...in case you haven't noticed there are only 4 shopping days until Christmas!!! (When did that happen?)

Secondly...I'm going to challenge you to use it as a writing prompt.

Yep. Here's your mission if you choose to accept it.

1. Find your sense of humor. I know mine is upset with me at the moment.

2. Go get a drink that warms your cockles. Coffee, Tea, Hot Chocolate with a mountain of whipped cream. Wine. Tequila. Disaronno.

3. Press play (if you've already done that, don't worry, you can still follow along)

4. Watch!

5. Comment. Have fun with it! Forget about wrapping, baking, visits, deadlines, bills, and hangovers. I mean, really I WANT to be at this party! Why does Bob change his hat so many times? Who are all those people? Who's the guy (or gal) passed out outside? And why...WHY do those three guys go tearing through the house?

I have my ideas...how about yours?

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Kathleen Duey - Writing Tip of the Day

I ditched my first draft and am rewriting now, and I have to say, I totally agree with this advice!

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Monday, December 13, 2010

Guess the Christmas Gifts

What gifts are under the tree for these nursery rhyme characters?

1. Wee Willie Winkie.
2. The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.
3. Little Miss Muffet.
4. Little Boy Blue.
5. Jack and Jill.
6. Humpty Dumpty.
7. Doctor Foster.
8. Bobby Shafto and his girl friend.

Give up?

1. A Razor scooter.
2. The Pill.
3. A can of Raid.
4. A watch with an alarm.
5. A bottle of Percocet.
6. A parachute.
7. Waist high waders.
8. Skype.

Can you think of more characters and gifts?

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Shaking it Up

Sometimes a piece gets stuck. I see it one way. I've always seen it that way. And I can't see it any other way.

But then an editor writes back and says she'd like to see it a different way.

First Reaction: Excitement!!! She'd like to see it!

Second Reaction: Terror! How can I change it??? It's been the first way so long, I just can't see how.

That's when a great critique group comes in handy!

They read my stuck words and see where action is needed. What scenes are critical? What scenes aren't? Where is the tension good? Where is the tension missing? Where do I need to shake things up?

After a round of feedback like that, I admit I can sometimes feel overwhelmed. But then the possibilities begin to percolate in my brain. What if I cut that character? What if I changed that ending?

And suddenly I'm scribbling away and I can't stop. I revise once. Then again and again. I'm unstuck and I can't stop! Hurray!

Thanks, guys!

So, how does your critique / revision process work?

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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Comfortable Words

Under the weather recently for a few annoying medical problems, I found myself picking comfortable reading, low on dramatic action and high on colorful conversational cadence, books that invite you to pause and reread a sentence or two just because it sounds good, and you wish you could write like that.

One of my favorite authors in this vein is Rumer Godden, who wrote for both children and adults, passing away at 98 after publishing over 70 books. Years ago I discovered her book, Episode of Sparrows. The title itself invites the reader to sit and look...perhaps out the window or across the garden. One does not read about the protagonist, Lovejoy; one actually joins her and her friends in their quest to make something in their grubby lives beautiful.

When I mentioned this, a British friend described what she called her "poorly books," books that she read when kept in bed by a childhood illness. One, she said, was Little Plum by Rumer Godden.

It's a great gift to be able to write an action-packed story that keeps the reader flipping the pages to the end. Perhaps it's a greater gift to write a novel where each sentence is savored. "A poorly book."

Read more!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Killing Your Darlings

Whenever I write a first draft, my main character is totally selfish. It’s all about him, him, him (since I tend to write about boys). Oh sure, he has friends, family, maybe even a love interest. But in that first draft, my MC thinks solely of himself and his problems. But in that second draft, secondary characters have to steal a little thunder, and the layering begins.

As I work through that second draft, I begin to listen more to what the secondary characters have to say. They’ve got goals to fill and problems to solve, too. Sometimes the MC knows about them, sometime he doesn’t. But they always affect the emotional arc of the story. Each important character should touch the MC in a meaningful way.

In that delirious first draft rush, I sometimes create characters that must be killed off in the second draft. They really aren’t needed to tell the story. But why did that first draft mindset kick them into the story at all? While I never regret deleting a character, I do often take their main character trait and add a dash of it to another character. Maybe the character wasn’t necessary, but something about her was.

I’m currently working on a YA and I’ve killed off a number of darlings. The original idea for the novel began with a kid working his first job. As I revise, the job is still there, but is not as important as it was originally. So I’ve killed off a number of customers. The creepy customer plot thread is completely gone. But the boss absorbed a bit of the creepiness. The eccentric old lady kicked the bucket. But the girlfriend now has a grandmother with some eccentric qualities. And Dad? Well, he was in a lot of scenes in draft number one. In draft number two, I shipped him off to Italy.

We’ve all had a hard time killing a darling or two. So tell me, for whom do you still pine? Have you killed off a character that you swear will rise from the ashes of your computer and morph into a new manuscript? Have you written anything with a saved darling?

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Space...and Room to Grow

I climbed the stairs to the second floor, hearing the sounds of the exercise class instructor calling cues and the music of the dance class pulsing upwards. The Writers Group is meeting on the third floor said the Community House member. I tramped up the now narrower stairs to the third floor to find myself in the dark. Fumbling around I found the light switch and flipped it on and navigated into the only room that looked like it would accommodate the writing group. A fairly stark room - with two large lunch tables and about ten chairs - and the faint sounds of the first floor activities in the background.

It was different from the large and spacious room at the local library, which they had been generous to let us use, and which had been a good place to meet for over ten years, but now their schedule and ours just didn't match.

When the group arrived and we started our scheduled critiques of several members' work - one chapter of a MG novel and a PB manuscript - we seemed to melt into our space comfortably. No other groups were on our high third floor but the sounds of activities from the lower floors in the distance provided comfort and ambient background noise for our discussions. Once we're underway of course, we really don't hear anything else.

We are concentrating on the work and seeing the plot and characters we have been dealing with in prior versions and chapters come more fully to life. Now that we actually know the characters in these two respective manuscripts we speak of them as if they are real and living people, who we think would act, think and speak in a specific way. No, Sam would probably say this....Stella might behave like this instead....

By the end of the first evening, we were very comfortable in our attic meeting room, and I think that our literary characters were too. The space filled with thoughtful consideration - and it seems that the plainer the space the more room there is for growth and for thought to expand.

Certainly the physical place shouldn't matter and a writer could compose with just a pen and paper or keyboard, but in practical terms, a place with room to grow is a positive.

Our old space, comfortable and attractive and sometimes adorned with a local art exhibit, saw a number of books and magazine articles published and awards received, and I am hopeful that the new space will help frame the support for more good work.

Does the space where you write or group critique help mold your work or add to the atmosphere and is it helpful and conducive to the development of your work? I think our new critique meeting room is an ideal space for ideas to grow, thoughts to be exchanged and manuscripts honed into future books.

Read more!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Writing Lessons from the TV Series "The Vampire Diaries"

One of the first bits of advice we writers who wish to be more prolific receive is to cut waaaaaaaaay back on our TV watching. For the most part, I don’t have a problem. I’m not into soaps, haven’t seen an episode of Oprah in years, but at night I will admit to unwinding in front of the flat screen. I can take the high road and say I only watch NatGeo or TLC (which can be a pretty bizarre trip into voyeurism) but if you’re looking for me on a Thursday night at 8:00PM - I’m usually curled up in my favorite chair with a cup of something warm anxiously waiting to travel to the fictional town of Mystic Falls to watch the Salvatore brothers get themselves into more trouble.

Did I mention the Salvatore brothers are vampires?

If you’ve taken leave from the planet for awhile you might not be familiar with The Vampire Diaries. First a YA novel series written by L.J. Smith (published in 1991, btw) and now a television series developed (and often penned) by Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec.

The Vampire Diaries on television follows the story of Stefan and Damon Salvatore, brothers from Mystic Falls, Virginia, who were ‘turned’ in the late 1800s by a vampire they both fell in love with named Katherine Pierce. Fast forward to modern day, Stefan returns to his home of Mystic Falls only to fall in love with Elena Gilbert, a young girl he saves from a car that had swerved off a bridge and into a river. Elena happens to be the spitting image of Katherine. Stefan enrolls in high school so he can get to know her. Elena is immediately intrigued by the smokin’ hot and brooding, Stefan. Soon after Stefan’s bad-boy brother Damon comes to town, with his own agenda, part of which is to make Stefan miserable and baboom!– instant intrigue.

My goal is not to summarize the series for you, but to point out some writing tips I’ve learned along the ride. And yes, this is an absolute justification to completely enjoy my guilty pleasure, but I’ve learned a lot.

Vibrant Characters – All of the main characters on the show are multi-dimensional, but for my purpose I’m going to focus on Damon Salvatore (played with sigh-worthy brilliance by Ian Somerhalder). Damon is described as the bad-boy. The pure evil boy might be more like it. One moment he will charm you, the next, rip out your heart. And I mean that…like…literally. And yet whenever the softer side of Damon is shown – you can’t help but fall in love with him. When he professes his love for Elena, even though he knows how many times he’s wronged her, it’s with genuine emotion, so that when he compels her to forget that he told her he loves her…you are just left heartbroken and rooting for him. Even ‘good boy’ Stefan isn’t all good, especially when he drinks human blood, which he’s sworn off of, even though it’s what makes him stronger. And it turns out innocent human Elena can pull a few deceitful tricks out from her sleeve in order to protect her man, um, er, vampire, as well. No one is either all good or all bad. It’s truly an awesome lesson in character development.

Well developed ensemble cast – The supporting characters are equally as intriguing and layered as the main triangle. There’s Bonnie, Elena’s best friend and yes, witch who helps her friend out of a myriad of tough situations in spite of having an intrinsic dislike for vampires. Jeremy, Elena’s brooding little brother (a character created for the television series) whose legacy is to be a vampire hunter and yet he can’t help befriending some of the bloodsuckers. And there's Caroline, Elena’s other BFF, often misunderstood and in Elena’s shadow, who becomes a vampire quite by accident. (yes, you read that right). I could go on and on, even with one-episode-only players, but I could fill the page. The lesson here is to make your supporting cast as interesting as your main cast so when they interact, your story is that much richer.

Triangles - There’s Stefan-Katherine-Damon, Stefan-Elena-Damon, Damon-Katherine-Mason, Elena-Bonnie-Caroline, Caroline-Damon-Caroline’s Mom (which is not as creepy as it sounds), Elena-Matt-Caroline, Bonnie-Jeremy-Luka, etc. etc. Having triangles – ever shifting and changing - keeps things interesting. Having trouble with a ho-hum relationship in your book? Throw another character into the mix, preferably one who will shake things up, and you’ll see sparks fly.

Keep upping the stakes – There’s barely a moment on Vampire Diaries that is NOT without life and death peril. And just when you think the story has slowed down or the characters are safe…another variable is brought in. How nice – Stefan and Elena are finally going to get some couple time, WAIT, in walks Katherine. Look - Elena has the moonstone in her grasp…oh no, watch out for those SNAKES! Whew –Damon staked the evil uber vampire Elijah…but wait, he’s not really dead, dead. He survived the staking and is now coming after Elena. Upping the stakes, and placing your characters in further peril equates to page turning plots.

All of this and more is why although I enjoy watching The Vampire Diaries, I consider it a master class in great story. Makes me feel a little less guilty enjoying my guilty pleasure. Kind of like knowing that dark chocolate is loaded with antioxidants. A win-win situation!

So tell me Paper Waiters, have you found sound writing advice in the not so usual places?

The Vampire Diaries is on the CW, Thursdays at 8. For a more detailed episode guide, producing/writing credits and info on the gorgeous and talented cast, go here.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

BIG News

I am jumping the queue in our regular posting schedule because I have some BIG NEWS!

My picture book, Benno and the Night of Broken Glass just made School Library Journal's Best Books 2010: Picture Books.

I had been thrilled with the starred review I got from SLJ. To be included on the list of Best Picture Books of 2010, with the likes of Mo Willems and David Weisner, is more than I could have hoped for.

I would never have gotten to this point if it weren't for my fellow Paper Waiters who brutally and honestly told me that my first version of this story stunk, but encouraged me to find the right voice. Thanks, PWers! I couldn't have done it without you.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Genre Confusion

I don’t know about all you fellow kidlit writers out there, but I’ve been stumped by at least one publishing term that an agent or editor has attached to my w.i.p.

Here’s an example. At one conference I attended, after pitching my manuscript to an editor, she smiled at me and said, “Hmm. It sounds very high concept.”

High concept? Um, okay. Was this a compliment or a thinly veiled insult? Having no idea, I simply smiled back and said, um, nothing.

After some frenzied, post-pitch googling , I was still stumped.

Luckily, Nathan Bransford posted about this meaning of this very term on his blog a few months ago. For those of you who don’t want to click on the link, here’s the nutmeat of what he wrote:

"High concept means that a novel’s plot can be described very succinctly in appealing fashion.”

Great, I thought. I have an appealing plot. But after reading further, I wasn’t so sure. As Mr. Bransford went on to write:
“High concept is very often misunderstood because what it sounds like it means and what it actually means are basically completely opposite. It doesn't mean sophisticated (opposite), it doesn't mean cerebral (opposite), it doesn't mean difficult to describe (opposite). And it's very important to know what it means because although high concept is often a term used derogatorily, I am hearing from more and more editors that they want high concept novels, even for literary fiction.”

Hmm, maybe not so great. Maybe she thought my plot was unsophisticated, non-cerebral, and facile. Ouch.

But his post ended on a high note.
“And it's very important to know what it means because although high concept is often a term used derogatorily, I am hearing from more and more editors that they want high concept novels, even for literary fiction.”

Okay, so maybe my first instinct—it was great!—was spot-on after all.

Or, maybe not.

I guess I’ll never know. With a term like "high concept,” it could go either way.

Recently, I heard from a writer friend that an agent had called her manuscript too “commercial” to take on. At the time, I didn’t get it. Since when is being “commercial” a bad thing? Isn’t that the point, to sell as many books as possible?

Since I’m already over my word limit, I won't even begin to dive into my current state of genre confusion. To wit, is my fantasy w.i.p.…

a) straight fantasy
b) science fiction
c) urban fantasy
d) paranormal
e) high fantasy


f) steampunk (just kidding, I know it’s not that)

…since it contains elements that relate to all of the above (except "f"). Of course, in my query, I could always go with…

g) science fantasy (a nice hybrid term)

...or, as one editor called it…

h) a fantasy/mystery/adventure (a really nice hybrid term)

Frankly, I like “h” best, because it opens up more pitching possibilities. Maybe if I called it “a high urban paranormal science fantasy,” I’d hit the pitching jackpot.

Fellow Paper Waiters, are there any publishing terms or genres in kidlit land that have stumped you? If so, please share them. And it you have the proper definition, by all means, be sure to share that too!

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Friday, November 12, 2010

dePaola, Picture Books, & Cake

In honor of PiBoIdMo, I give you Tomie dePaola interviewed by Lin Oliver.
You're not an artist?
Well, writers, listen for his definition of a picture book. Illustrations are as important as the words that spring from your ideas!

So who has the best deal in this author/illustrator collaboration - the making (baking) of a picture book (cake)?

Is it the author who writes a recipe, lights the oven, gathers the ingredients, and whips up the batter; or is it the illustrator who bakes and decorates the cake?

Is it harder for the writer to worry about whether the cake will be perfectly baked and beautiful, or is it harder for the illustrator to worry about whether the recipe is pleasing and the ingredients have been measured correctly enough to produce a delicious cake?

Authors? Illustrators? How do you see it?

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Monday, November 8, 2010

PiBoIdMo: Electric Ideas!

In my last post, I was getting excited for Picture Book Idea Month. Now it's here, and I thought I'd post about how it's going.

If you had asked me after the first few days, I would have said pretty good. I came up with some cute ideas, but none of them were grabbing me quite yet.

Then came yesterday...

with not one but two really exciting ideas!

So, if you asked me how it's going now, I would definitely say, fantastic!

As I compared yesterday to the days before it, it's interesting to me to see how my idea gathering process works.

There are some ideas that I get and they go onto my list. I like them. I really do. And maybe someday I'll put in the effort to grow them into books.

Then there are other ideas. The ideas like the two I had yesterday. The moment I think of them, it's almost like a current of electricity runs through me. My mind can't help but start trying to figure out how I can transform this idea into a first draft. (And yes, by yesterday evening I had started to write a first attempt at both books.)

Now the first kinds of ideas sometimes do grow into books for me. Sometimes they collide with other ideas I've got and become something even more interesting.

But the second kind of idea. Now those are the ones that almost always turn into something interesting for me. They often take a very long time to complete, beyond the excitement of that initial spark. But that excitement for the topic seems to sustain me throughout.

So, why gather thirty ideas you might ask. Why not only gather the ones that send a jolt of electricity through you?

But it's only through regular conscious idea gathering that I was open to "catching" both of yesterday's ideas. I knew I was looking for ideas, so everything I saw became a potential idea.

Plus, it's interesting that yesterday's ideas really draw on two of the PiBoIdMo blog posts on Tara's site. One is about something little-- or at least not big (Thanks, Brandi Dougherty!) and the other is a list (Thanks, David LaRochelle!). I wasn't consciously trying to do either of these things, but I'm sure that subconsciously the blog posts stuck with me. (It is so great to hear how other people generate ideas!)

So, that's how PiBoIdMo is going for me. And I'm pretty excited about it!

How's your writing November going for you? PiBoIdMo? NaNoWriMo? Drafting? Revising? Editing? Waiting???

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Monday, November 1, 2010

Bubble Past the Guilt

I am so guilty.

Guilty of getting dragged into volunteering yet again at my kid’s school. Guilty of answering the phone when I should be focused on my writing. Guilty of checking my email every time it beeps. Guilty of surfing just one blog/website/forum. Occasionally, I’m even guilty of Oprah.

So I’m climbing into the bubble.

The bubble as described by Deborah Heiligman, author of Charles and Emma, and this year’s keynote speaker at the Rutgers One on One Conference. In between lots of laughs, Deborah doled out some exceptional advice. Some of her advice I already follow, like always carrying a notebook. But I do thank Deborah for the handy dandy all-weather notebook that now graces my shower. Who knew they even existed? Now no idea will escape me!

But Deborah’s bubble talk is what really got to me. She laid it out. Pick your time. Let’s say, from eight to one. That would work just fine for me. That’s writing time. Time when phones go to voicemail, the old information highway turns into a parking lot, and the only breaks taken are the ones that help spur the writing on.

So who’s with me? Who will stand with me against the time sucking internet behemoth and write in a bubble? Who will echo, “No. I can’t, I work during that time.” Come on, writers! Climb into the bubble!

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Digitized !

Articles, surveys, studies, publishing facts, individual preferences and anecdotal tales come fast and furiously in news print, TV and Internet news cycles on the Future of the Book and the Death of the PB - "Picture Books, Long a Staple, Lose Out..." (NYT), (thepaperwait -October 13, 2010). The decline of the hard copy and printed page, increase in e-books and e-reading devices, "The ABC's of E-Reading," (WSJ), as well as one of the most pertinent articles for writers from the WSJ, "Authors Feel Pinch as E-Books Upend Publishing," bring an unknown future to authors.

In the midst of the many articles cited here and many others published over the last several months, I received a letter for a contract change from Sleeping Bear Press, publisher of my book, G IS FOR THE GARDEN STATE, one of SBP's 50 state alphabet series.

We are being digitized!

SBP was recently approached by an e-retailer to convert their books to digital form to be used with school smart boards. The smart boards are great interactive tools, with students often using handheld responders to write or give answers. SBP will monitor the publishing and financial success of the venture.

This development is exciting. I can sense what interesting information can be presented in this form, how intrigued the children could be at using information in this new manner, and how many children can be reached with this technology.

The report in the NYT on 9-29-10, titled "In Study, Children Cite Appeal of Digital Reading," describes a study by Scholastic Publishing. About 57% of the children between 9-17 said that they are interested in reading an e-book, while 25% said that they had already done so. A Scholastic officer said that "this was a call to action."

Parents and teachers, concerned that children are so immersed in computer games, testing and the speed of technology that they may not have the interest or time for reading, can take heart. If e-books entice them to read, it would be positive.

The future and technology is moving fast (one tech article suggests that the laptop is dying, being replaced by much smaller and faster equipment). Many publishers, librarians, teachers and writers can't see through the cloud in the crystal ball. One of the major parts of this new mix for writers is the declining revenue produced by e-books. One article mentions that authors of e-books receive about 50% of the return they were paid for hard back books.

A question for children's writers - - will you continue to write, or be able to afford the time to write for children, with such declining profits? We are children's writers because we love it, but people also need to support their families. How will the economies of digitization affect your writing life?

I am pre-posting this article by two weeks, so when the post is first up, I'll be visiting the great site of Machu Picchu in Peru. Perhaps in the intervening two weeks more news flashes on the health of writing and books will be published, making this post outdated - like print books and laptops?

Several bright spots in the ball - the Scholastic study says that even though the children surveyed want to read e-books, they also don't want to give up their real, hand held, print books. One of the librarians I interviewed about this said, "Well, PB and print books are still popular and comforting...and they don't have to be plugged in or need batteries!"

Read more!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Keeping it in Perspective - Part 3

It has been over two years since I've written about perspective, but given the events in my personal and writing life in the last few weeks, it's time to remind myself that everything has to be kept in perspective.

Life for me has been pretty darn good lately. I'm in my third semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I will graduate in July with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. My picture book, BENNO AND THE NIGHT OF BROKEN GLASS, published in January 2010 by Kar-Ben, has received starred reviews from both School Library Journal and Jewish Book World. I have five Author Visits lined up between now and the end of November for Jewish Book Month. A few weeks ago I learned that BENNO will be going into a second printing. And I learned last week that BENNO was awarded a Gold Medal in the Multicultural Picture Book category by Moonbeam Children's Book Awards. Life is pretty darn good! So why do I need perspective? Because as good as my writing life has been, my "other" life has been, both, even better, and profoundly sad.

Last week my daughter got married. It was a glorious weekend. Probably the happiest weekend of my life (so far). All our friends and families were together to celebrate. It doesn't get much better than watching your children grow up - whether they're heading off for their first day of kindergarten, starring in a high school play, graduating college, or walking down the aisle. Life's events are to be cherished and enjoyed. Two days after the wedding, I got on a plane to Florida to say good-bye to a cousin of mine who is dying of colon cancer (PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE - if you are over 50 get a colonoscopy!). We had hoped that she would make it to the wedding, but that was not to be. After deciding to stop treatment in early August, the doctors expected her to have six months and with pain medication they were to be a good six months. But life doesn't always work out the way we expect it to.

And that's where perspective comes in. Yes, My writing life is great right now. My personal life is great right now. But all of it can change in an instant. Getting published is not the be all and end all of our lives. Yes, some of you may say, "Well, that's easy for her to say. She's published." But I truly believe it. Writing is a part of my life. It is not my life. My full life is a combination of friends, family, activities, hobbies, and beliefs. Not one thing defines me. I think that keeping perspective keeps me on an even keel. No one could have been happier at their daughter's wedding than I was at mine. And no one could have been sadder bidding farewell to a loved one than I. But by keeping a balance of what's good in our lives with what's bad, makes it all easier.

So, the next time a rejection arrives in the mail - and there will be rejections - throw a hissy-fit, threaten to stop writing, say nasty things about the editor or agent who turned down your gifted prose, eat a box of chocolates, drink a bottle of wine, and then remember the good things in your life. Drag yourself back to your desk and send your masterpiece out again.

Oh, yeah, and when I get my next rejection. Remind me of this post!

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Leaping out of my Creative Comfort Zone

A week or so ago my neighbor asked me to join her team for the Ultimate Fitness Challenge at our local YMCA. It’s a program designed to challenge you to keep weight off through the tough holiday months. Since I’ve already been wrestling with the Snickers/Milky Way/Twix miniatures assortment that I purchased for trick-or-treaters two weeks ago on sale at Target (where Halloween began sometime in August), I was like “I’m so in!”

And knowing I’m a writer, she asked me if I’d consider coming up with a name for the team.

Like, zoinks, Scoob!

I get stage fright when asked to be creative on demand and coming up with something catchy, that others like too, makes my knees buckle. This is why I write novels. Not that I don’t want my novels to be catchy or have people like them (I do!), but writing a novel is like going on a nature hike – there are moments you grapple with the elements, scale sheer heart-thumping mini cliffs, narrowly miss stepping in a pile of animal dung and sometimes feel as though you’ve lost your way on the path. A hike can be long and at times arduous. Then there are those moments, when you slow down and take it all in and realize there’s a magnificent vista in front of you, beauty that’s so overwhelming it’s hard to contain and all the effort on the journey was worth it.

Being asked to come up with something on the fly is like a sprint – using a completely different set of muscles and mind set. Heart pounding for sure, but quick and if you stumble on your starting block you’re pretty much out. In the writing world, I’m a hiker. So being asked to sprint – no matter how lighthearted the task – immediately put me out of my comfort zone.

Writing is such a solitary (and sedentary!) activity that it’s easy to get used to sitting in your chair, creating your world the way you want it, without having input from anyone – at least at the onset. This required immediate approval. A vote. I tossed some ideas around and kept coming back to one in particular. It was catchy, fierce, fun. I e-mailed the group, they voted and we became the Cardio Ninjas. When we signed up with our name, the receptionist noted “That’s a name to live up to”. Um, yikes, maybe , but better to be a Cardio Ninja than a Cardio Schlepper.

Next we wanted a logo for team shirts. I immediately thought of a pal of mine who happens to be one of those multi-talented, double threats – he can write and illustrate. I wasn’t sure if he’d be available but I knew the ninja thing would be right down his alley. I e-mailed him and asked politely (begged) if he could help us out. He said sure. I told him our name, a little bit about the challenge – and the tag line my neighbor came up with “You’ll never see us coming”. He took it and ran with it. And the logo above is the finished product! So now not only do we have to live up to the name Cardio Ninjas, but the awesome logo my friend Austin created.

Asking someone else to help out was also out of my creative comfort zone, but not in my wildest dreams would I have come up with a logo as impressive as the one above. If I had imposed my own vision on this it would have been much different. My envisioned ninja was not nearly as sleek, fun and kick ass as the girl, wait WOMAN, ninja above. This may be the closest I get to an author/illustrator collaboration, and it was rather inspiring to see another person’s vision add that much more to two simple words and a tag line.

So, Paper Waiters, how are you going to get out of your creative comfort zone this month? Try it. I DARE YOU.

*Logo credit: the fabulous author/illustrator and fellow Writing Barracuda, Austin Light

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Listen Up, Everyone. It's Read Aloud Time!

"So, what to choose when a family truly of 'all ages' wants to read a book together? What can satisfy a six-year-old, a ten-year-old, and their eccentric middle-aged uncle and formidable grandma all at once?"

Horn Book editor Roger Sutton asks this question to introduce "What Makes a Good Book for All Ages?" in the September/October issue.

His question is answered with seventeen recommendations from ten H.B. reviewers.

The variety of the suggested titles surprised me: from classics like Kipling's "Just So Stories," to "Dying to Meet You: 43 Cemetery Road," by Kate and M. Sarah Klise, published in 2009; from Hoban's "The Mouse and His Child," to "Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man," by McCloskey; from Peterson and Audubon field guides for birds and trees, to Steig's "Sylvester and the Magic Pebble."

One reviewer concentrated on books about families, mentioning (among others) : "The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963," by Curtis, "A Long Way From Chicago," by Peck, and "Harris and Me," by Paulsen.

I wonder how many extended families read aloud together these days. I suspect it's a lucky minority.

Has anyone had this experience?

What title(s) did you read?

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

R.I.P. PB?

Hey, all you PB writers out there, I bet you read—or at least heard about—last week’s downer of an article in The NY Times, “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children.” According to Julie Bosman’s article, a poor economy aside, parents are another big factor in the growing pb sales slump. As Bosman writes, feeling pressured by the kid-eat-kid world of standardized testing in schools, parents are “pressing their kindergartners and first graders to leave the picture book behind and move on to more text-heavy chapter books.”

As a result, more pbs are collecting dust on bookstore shelves. This shift away from pbs toward older kid genres—from chapter books on up, in particular, those blood-thirsty YAs—was confirmed by some key booksellers and kidlit publishers, who say they’re buying fewer pbs because of it.

Of course, cyberspace was abuzz with reactions from anyone who had any connection to the pb world, from school teachers to booksellers to parents. Most defended pbs for their challenging vocabulary and ability to “force an analog way of thinking,” among other traits.

But here’s my question for you PB writers: After reading articles like this, writing for and landing sales in the pb market sounds more challenging than ever. Does discouraging news like this make you think twice about continuing to write for this genre? Does this article make you want to jump the sinking ship Picture Book and swim over to the YA lifeboat? Or do you just try to ignore whatever The Old Gray Lady and her fussy friends say about the state of kidlit, so you can keep on doing what you do best, writing and hopefully selling your next and best PB?

Read more!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Getting Psyched!

As I'm sitting down to write this post, I'm feeling pretty exhausted. Ridiculously exhausted in fact. The past month has not been a good one for my writing productivity. (A Jewish holiday every week for four weeks straight didn't help. :o) )

Right now what I need is a good kick in the pants to get my writing back on track.

And, thanks to Tara Lazar (author of the upcoming picture book, THE MONSTORE), that kick in the pants is coming. Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) is right around the corner. Hurray!

For PiBoIdMo, Tara challenges us picture book writers to come up with one idea a day. And she provides lots of inspiration on her blog to help us come up with those ideas.

Last year,it was exactly what I needed. And this year, I think I need it again too.

For those people who participate in NaNoWriMo-- Wow! What a challenge! I don't know if I could do it.

PiBoIdMo is much more my speed. I loved the list of ideas I had by the end of the month. It has provided me with a lot of inspiration throughout many months of writing.

Now I'm ready to be inspired again. So I'm signing up for PiBoIdMo!

Anyone signing up with me? (Or will you be participating in any other exciting writing challenges this November?)

Let's cheer each other on all month long!

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Monday, October 4, 2010

The Paper Whip

A couple of days ago my son plopped the latest version of the Kindle on the kitchen counter. "Take a look," he said. "I'm reading "Siddartha" in German, and when it drags on too much, I toggle over to English. Feel how lightweight it is. And no back light. It looks almost like paper."

I was impressed. Easy to use. Lightweight and transportable. Great for reading in bed.

My son is like me. He gets shaky if he doesn't have a novel going. I'm happy with a tattered paperback; he was a hard cover addict. It took him two years to go electronic, even though he works with computers for a living.

I'd just finished an article in the Wall Street Journal on the decrease in payouts for authors due to the Kindle and its competitors. Like so many, I see doom in the distance; paper books will be tomorrow's buggy whips. Fewer writers will make it economically.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Old Library at Trinity College in Dublin, home of the Book of Kells. In the library's vaulted hall, 200,000 books stand on the shelves like sculpture. One wanted to climb up and examine each one. Images of the many hands that have fondled these covers sprang to mind. Later, we visited a private library that held queen Elizabeth the First's Irish grammar book (She actually tried to learn the language, at least enough to say, "Let's converse in Latin.") Imagine touching that book!

By the time I publish, if ever, the paper page may be relegated to the antiquities department. Like this blog, everything I write will reside somewhere in cyberspace, only available to someone with a Kindle. Now I treasure even more the picture I mentioned in my last blog installment, of children sitting cross legged on the store floor, immersed in a picture book. Like the buggy whip, will that too be a thing of the past?

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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Leading Readers to Turn the Page

How important are chapter endings? Really, really, really, really important. As I work through my first round of revision on my YA, the round where I focus on plot, I pay particular attention to how I end each chapter. My goal is to make the reader want to -- scratch that -- need to -- turn the page.

Not every chapter ending needs a traditional cliffhanger (but having a few of those helps). But every chapter needs tension, and every chapter ending should somehow deepen the tension. A chapter could end with a character experiencing true love for the first time, but the reader knows from prior chapters that the love will be short-lived. Or a character could make a decision and accept that it will lead her into grave danger. If the reader is hooked, the page is turned.

So, as I write, and I look for ways to keep that forward momentum, I keep in mind the big "what if?" When I get to the end of the chapter, I ask, what if she slams the door in his face instead of inviting him in? What if he sucker punches him instead of shaking his hand? What if the dog drags a body part out of the woods (gruesome, I know) rather than hovering by his master's side?

I may not change the action of the scene, but by shaking up my initial impulse, I come up with chapter endings that ratchet up the tension. Sometimes these new directions lead me to completely rewrite the scene, or add another plot line, or introduce another character. That's all good. That's revision. And I love revision.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Books Alive !

We, as writers, slog away at the keyboard, writing and researching our books for children in a somewhat solitary way, so what a wonder it is to see your own book come alive with an audience of several hundred children.

Early this month, at the end of the first week of school, I visited the Milltown School in Bridgewater, NJ to see the unveiling of a huge mural depicting a page, the "J is for Jersey" page of my book, G IS FOR THE GARDEN STATE (Sleeping Bear Press). The dedicated staff at the school had transformed their large lunch room into an internet cafe with computer stations in several of the corners and decorated the room with the grand new mural.

When we arrived for the unveiling of the 12 x 10 foot mural, a depiction of the map of the state of New Jersey complete with pictures painted on it of some of the important people, places (T - Trenton, the capital), parks, historical events (W-General Washington in Morristown in the Revolution), inventions (E -Edison, light bulb), industries and farms, resorts (Atlantic City), outdoor sports, environmental aspects and foods (T -Jersey Tomatoes!) and more, the mural was covered by a large panel. I was anxious to see the mural since the talented illustrator of my book, Doris Ettlinger, (www.dorisettlinger.com), and two muralists had worked in the heat of the summer to produce this great work of art so the unveiling could kick off the year for the children in the new internet cafe.

Well, the children poured into the room with the babble of high energy and curiosity. The principal held up his hand for quiet and silence descended. The curtain panel was pulled off the mural with ceremony and there was great applause. The children will see this bigger than life map of their state every day as they munch their lunch and work on the computers.They were excited to see the size and story of New Jersey before them in detailed living color.

What a reward for me as the writer, and I'm sure even more so for Doris as illustrator after such back breaking work, to see the reaction of the students and to know that this work will remain here for quite a while. Often a book that took a year to write is read once but here we are thrilled to see that this page will be open for a long time to come.

So, I came home pumped to get back to the keyboard to write again. It was such inspiration to see all these wired and excited kids using my work, so now I'm hard at work on several projects. What have your experiences been with school or library visits with children and how have they reacted to and used your work? How has that helped you in your writing?

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Friday, September 24, 2010

What's in a Name?

Someone I know from VCFA is about to have her second book published. (She gave me her permission to blog about this as long as names were omitted). Her first book, which I loved, is a YA with a male protagonist. This second is a middle grade, again, with a male protagonist. The publisher/sales department of the second book (different from the first) asked if she would consider using her initials instead of her full name on the cover for marketing reason. They assumed/thought/suspected that "impulse" buyers would be more inclined to pick up a book about a boy if the gender of the author were not blatantly female.

My gut reaction was "Heck, yeah!" But when you stop and think about this, the ramifications are huge.

So, was the publisher thinking that boys won't read books written by women? Or that girls won't read books written by men? I think someone needs to stop and explain that boys are certainly reading books by Kathryn Lasky, Lowis Lowry, and Cornelia Funke. And girls are certainly reading books by Rick Riordan and Eoin Colfer. (But, oh, never mind, we shouldn't worry about girls because girls read everything . . .?) And are they assuming that young male readers or "impulse" buyers can't figure out that sometimes "J.K." is code for - "I'm really a woman, but am using my initials so you boy readers out there don't know it"? And what does it say about female writers - that we should hide our identity? That we should encourage boys to only read books they suspect are written by men? And what should a writer do - Stand on their ego and refuse to change at the risk of not selling as many books? Or be a team player despite the ugliness of the situation and the idea of it making their guts roil?

Personally, I still think I would use my initials if asked, or write under my middle and maiden names, which sound fairly androgynous. (With a last name like mine, it would be pretty hard to think if I suddenly started using M.B.T. Wiviott instead of Meg Wiviott that someone wouldn't it figure out). I think it's a personal decision. Some people just like their initials! And other's don't.

I could go on, but I won't. I'd like to hear from you all. What do you think? I'd especially like to hear from people who write under their initials? (J.A. and J.L.???) Why do you choose to use your initials?

Oh, yeah, and my friend . . . she's going with her full name and her editor backed her up 100%.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

First Page Critique - My Achilles Heel

This weekend I’ll be attending my first SCBWI writer’s conference since I moved to North Carolina. It’s been far too long and I’m really looking forward to some serious writer chat, attending workshops and snagging something sweet to counter the inevitable three o’clock downslide in between breakout sessions. What I’m not looking forward to, what I’m really quite indecisive about is if I’m going to plunk down a first page for critique.

I might schedule a Brazilian bikini wax for that time frame instead.

I know what you’re thinking…Critique WUSS!


Let me tell you a little something about myself…I don’t have a p-p-p-poker face. More like heart on my sleeve. I break out in welts. Bite my lip. Do that toe tapping/knee jumping thing that can make objects near me shake uncontrollably. In short, I’m a mess – and this is while I’m waiting! All of that worry just in case my page gets picked to be read, and then oh, the horror – if it does? It is not a learning experience for me it’s more like taking a shot of espresso with a Red Bull chaser and then sprinting around the block three times. Yes, seriously folks, it’s that much of a physical discomfort for me. And I stay flushed for hours.

Not pretty.

Which is why I don’t do them – even though, yes, I know it’s the coward’s way out. And yes, once upon a time when I was a fresh faced noob – I did participate.

When I first joined SCBWI at the turn of the century, I aspired to write picture books. I had quite a few manuscripts and one pretty close to my heart – about the Man in the Moon. (I bet you’re shaking your head and getting that “oh, ick! I see where this is going” feeling right about now)

There were no talking moon animals. I did not try to tackle this in rhyme. I thought I was completely clever. Fresh. Original. Enter the firing squad of the first page critique session. Dun, dun, DUUUUN. After it was read out loud, the editors sat there stony faced for a very, long, uncomfortable second. The editor who was unlucky enough to be holding the microphone had the expression of someone who was left holding the hot potato as the music stopped. No one wanted to take this one. Murmurs and quiet laughter through the crowd ensued. It was awful – even though it was anonymous. I think someone finally did take the mike, made a comment that was mercifully tactful and the next first page was read.

The few people from my writer’s group who did know the page was mine, rallied around me and said nasty things about the naysayers as any good friends would but the damage had been done. The Man in the Moon and I parted ways, never to see each other again. And yes, the world is probably a better place for it. But still…

A writer’s conference should be a place where we leave inspired not defeated. That first page session happened to be at the end of the day, and wow, I wanted to quit. Truth is the editor was right in her comment. The story, at least at that point, was plot less but after that not so warm reception – I had no desire to see it through and went on to work on something new. So maybe I did learn something, albeit the hard, humiliating way – not all ideas are going to fly and sometimes you just have to move on.

Years later, I’m concentrating on longer fiction. My heart feels right in YA and I keep looking at the first page of my new WIP and wondering…should I? Or am I just once bitten, twice shy? What would you do? And how do you feel about infamous “first page sessions”?

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Picture That! Writing a Rebus

Ever try to write a rebus for a magazine? You need to tell a story with a defined beginning and middle, plus a delightful surprise, or twist, at the end. You have roughly 100 words to do all this. It helps to include some suspense, and you must make sure every line has a few words that can be represented as pictures. Some of the pictures, often nouns, need to be repeated throughout the story, but the repetition can't make the story as dull as "See Spot run." Here is a sample rebus story by Mike Carter from Highlights.

Have I tried to crack the rebus?

You bet. I have a folder full of rejected rebus stories. The rebus has the charm of a puzzle easily solved - for the reader, that is, not the writer. My weak spot is plotting that surprise ending and writing it with punch, but I persevered because I loved these stories as a child and they're still favorites with beginning readers.

My most recent rebus tells the story of a girl putting a favorite book in a special place so she'll remember to take it on vacation and then -you guessed it- she forgets where, and searches for the book when it's time to leave.

Highlights is buying it for their rebus page! Smile.

Maybe you've never tried to write a rebus, but what do you struggle with? Plot? Dialogue? Description? Backstory?

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Monday, September 13, 2010

Lost in Cyberspace?

Here’s a question for those of you who are familiar with the, um, challenging process of querying agents: What do you think about agents’ “no-response rejections,” which seem to have grown in popularity over the years?

Do you think they’re a necessary evil, given how bogged down agents can get with unsolicited queries? Or do you think this don’t-sell-don’t-tell policy is unfair to writers, who, after hearing only crickets for weeks or months, may be left wondering if agents even received and/or read their e-queries to begin with? Who knows? Maybe they got lost in cyberspace or the spamosphere (the queries, that is, not the agents)?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with this particular type of rejection (lucky you), here’s the gist. According to some agents’ submissions guidelines, if you haven’t heard back within a certain period of time after querying them, say eight weeks, you should take it to mean they’re not interested in seeing a submission from you. Once that amount of time passes, you should go straight to your agent query list, maybe on querytracker.com, and select the “query closed/no response” box. Done. Grr.

But here’s what troubles me. Recently, I caught a few posts from agents, some of whom follow the no-response/rejection policy, which gave me pause. In one post, an on-line interview with an agent, the agent invited anyone who’d e-queried him but never heard back during a certain time period the prior year to resubmit. He bravely admitted he’d been so bogged down, he’d fallen hopelessly behind, and had been unable to get to all the e-queries he’d received during that time. Now that he was finally caught up, he wanted to give those queriers a second chance. I just hope they caught this interview, or read it elsewhere, so they knew about it.

Another agent recently blogged that he’d been having computer problems so if writers hadn’t heard back within two weeks of querying to feel free to re-query. I hope his queriers caught his post, too.

Because electronic and human blips like these happen from time to time, does anyone wish that agents would ban the non-response policy, and respond to every query with at least a form rejection, if only to make the rejection official? Or is this simply asking too much of them?

Now, before anyone jumps down my throat, let me clarify: I’m not taking a particular side. Frankly, I’m torn about this issue. I would, however, love to hear what our Paper Wait readers think.

Before I close, a little anecdote. A few years ago, I attended an NJ-SCBWI conference. During the agent panel portion of the morning, after giving their submission wish lists, most agents added that they would only respond to queries if they were interested. The last agent, however, gave her list then added, “Oh, and we respond to every query we receive.”

The entire room broke into applause.

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

How I Read

Ever since I got serious about my writing, I have found myself reading differently. At first, I made a conscious effort to read like a writer, but now I can't help it. I just do.

I recently realized though that there are two main ways that I do this.

The first way is really purposeful "writer reading". This type of reading happens when I'm faced with a challenge and I don't know how to solve it.

My favorite example of this type of reading was when I was first starting to write rhyming poetry and all my poetry fell into an ABAB rhyming pattern. I knew my poetry needed more variety, but I didn't know how to do anything other than what I was doing.

So I scoured the pages of Cricket and Spider and Highlights for wonderful poems. Then I figured out how they varied their rhyme, and I imitated their rhyming patterns.

After a few of these, I must have internalized how to vary my rhyme. After that intense reading and purposeful writing, my rhyming poetry no longer felt so similar. Hurray!

But not all my reading like a writer is quite so focused. A lot of times I'm just reading. Often something that has seemingly nothing to do with the kind of writing I tend to do.

For example, right now I'm immersed in "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society". It is pretty far from the wacky picture books and sweet easy readers I tend to write. But I still read it like a writer.

As I read, I can't help thinking that I want to write a book in letters someday. That I love a book that plants clues so slowly in the beginning that I have to really work to figure out what's happening. I wonder how much I could challenge my much younger readers like this before they would give up reading in frustration. (After all, I went through several false starts before I could get past page 5.)

Maybe these ideas are just that, ideas. Maybe they'll never become part of my writing. But maybe they will.

After all, for years, I read all sorts of poetry-- rhyming and non-rhyming. I loved how subtle some of it felt and wished I could write that way. But I didn't know how. Then one day, I started a poetry collection that had a very different feel. I'll never know exactly where my new voice came from, but I was very excited to find it in me. Somehow, it must have come from all that wonderful "purposeless" reading.

So, I read like a writer no matter how I read. Please share, how do you read like a writer?

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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Bring Them In

In these busy days before school starts, it is common to see shopping moms with two or three kids in tow. Inevitably, if there's a rack of books nearby, one of the children grabs a book and for minutes, despite the forest of adult legs around him, sits cross legged, flipping the pages. He or she is lost in another world.

How many of us remember as children, creeping off into a corner out of anyone's line of vision and opening a book...for an hour or three. Maybe it's not as frequent in these days of electronic entertainment, but my "survey" shows it's still happening. Writers, you're still needed.

So my task this month is to write and rewrite...and rewrite the first chapter of my manuscript to create the world in which my reader wants to step, and a main character he or she wants to befriend. Like the wardrobe in Lewis' beloved book, I have to make the first paragraph the door (why open it?) and the second paragraph the wardrobe (what's it like in here and do I want to push these coats aside?) and finally make the third paragraph the clincher (I think I'll just step into this cold world for a few minutes...)

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Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I'm deep in revisions for my WIP and OMG, reach for the red pen -- how it has changed. While the basic premise remains, and it has the same cast of characters and settings, almost everything else is different. And, hopefully, richer and much deeper on every emotional level.

I drafted this novel in fits and starts. Some days I thought I would zoom along and finish the darn thing in a week. Some days I couldn't open the file. And it wasn't until I began revising that I understood why. I was not connected to my main character emotionally. I liked him. A lot. But I wasn't letting him hurt. He was so strong initially. So sure of himself. I had to remind myself that it's okay if he shows the rest of the world strength, but my most important job is to let my characters speak the truth to themselves and to let the readers listen.

My favorite books are ones that put a knot in my stomach or a lump in my throat. Preferably both. And my goal as a writer is to deliver lots of knots and lumps. Because if writing doesn't ring true emotionally, can it succeed?

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The elusive HOOK

A few months back a writer pal of mine sent this video of author Erin Dealey’s The Writer’s Rap to me. If you’re not familiar take a look! I love this for so many reasons (you will be singing it all day), but it brings up one of those writing terms for me that sometimes feels a little sketchy (not unlike edgy) - having a hook.

What is “having a hook” exactly? The one sentence blurb that makes you want to run out and buy the book? The artfully done cover? The idea? Voice? The magic combination of it all?

I’ve been thinking about it a lot because the last two books I read didn’t “hook me in” immediately. I wasn’t sold on the opening paragraph or even the first page. I’m not even sure I was hooked after the first chapter. I committed myself to reading the books as a bit of an experiment. Could I stay with them, put myself in the writer’s hands and experience their vision?

The first book, Lynne Rae Perkins’ 2006 Newbery winner Criss Cross, did NOT hook me in from the first page. It intrigued me and the writing, in a word, was mouthwatering, but I didn’t have trouble putting it down. I did however look forward to picking it back up. For some reason it took me awhile to finish it. While reading, I couldn’t really answer the question “where is this going?” but I didn’t care because I truly fell in love with the voice. And I trusted this voice would take me to a place that would be satisfying. And it did. Can I tell you in one sentence what the book was about? No. I loved it anyway.

The other book, Tombstone Tea by Joanne Dahme also did not hook me from page one. I was intrigued, for sure, and the writing was superb, but I didn’t feel the need to tear through it. Again, I can’t tell you in one sentence what it was about, but I would certainly recommend it to a tween who enjoys reading paranormal stories.

Hook seems to be one of those agonizingly subjective terms. What hooks one reader, editor, or agent might not hook another. And while you might think a hook is great – teen vampire falls in love with clumsy, ordinary girl whose blood he can’t resist – there’s probably another person who could care less. And if you can’t put a hook into a one sentence sound byte – does that mean there is no hook at all? And while we’re at it, just how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?

Kidding aside SCBWI homies - I’d really like to know, what’s your definition of hook? And is it something you think about before, during or after you sit down to write?

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Book Review: TIME TO PRAY by Maha Addasi

Maha Addasi's Time to Pray, published by Boyds Mills Press, is set to hit bookstores on September 1st. Maha is a recent graduate of Vermont College of Fine Art's MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and although that is how I know Maha, it is not why I decided to review her book here, although it didn't hurt. I am pleased to review Maha's book because it is beautifully written, lusciously rich in culture, and (dare I say it?) educational, at a time when we all need to be more educated.

Time to Pray is a beautiful picture book aimed at children ages 7 to 9, which tells the story of Yasmin's visit with her grandmother, Teta. Not only is this an endearing story of a loving relationship between a girl and her grandmother, it is a primer on the traditions of Muslim prayer. The story follows as Teta makes Yasmin her own prayer clothes, buys her a prayer rug, and teaches her how to prepare herself to pray five times a day. When Yasmin returns home, she finds Teta has sent along a special gift which reminds her, not only of the mosque near her grandmother's home, but also the time to pray. It is a story of prayer, but also a story of burgeoning spirituality, of family traditions, and family love.

What Addasi does particularly well is draw the reader into this world, even if the reader is completely unfamiliar with a world of morning cinnamon buns, bustling market places, delicious upside-down rice, and the calls of the muezzin. Addasi's simple text and Gannon's lush illustrations create a believable and loving relationship between Yasmin and her grandmother, which should be familiar to any reader regardless of their cultural roots. Additionally, Addasi provides an explanation of prayer times at the end of the story, which explains some of the traditions of Muslim prayer and the five daily required prayer times. The corresponding Arabic translation, by Nuha Albitar, provide yet another layer to the depth of an already complex picture book, even if one can only admire the looping calligraphy.

This picture book would make an excellent gift for any Muslim child who is curious about the traditions of her own faith as well as for a non-Muslim child who is curious about other faiths.

Let's share our favorite multi-cultural books: What are they and why do you like them?

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Triumph and Tragedy

"Every now and then - maybe two or three times in a decade - a book comes along that's so good you want to buttonhole strangers on the street, show it to them, and say: 'Read this! It will fill you up and make you glad you're alive!'" Stephen King.

" . . . a good half-dozen of the richest fictional characters I've encountered anywhere . . ." Richard Russo.

Wow! What praise! What a triumph for the author! So where's the tragedy?

Beverly Jensen, the author of THE SISTERS FROM HARDSCRABBLE BAY, the book eliciting such praise, died at forty-nine of pancreatic cancer in 2003. She never saw any of her work in print.

Beverly's experience as a actress helped her produce crisply defined characters on the page. "She liked to say that if a character carried a purse but never opened it, the actress still needed to know everything inside." (A familiar idea, writers?)

A collection of stories covering seventy years, the novel features Idella and Avis Hillock, who escape their stark childhood on a barren, wind-swept Canadian homestead. As Idella, dutiful and cautious, and Avis, combative and wild, seek economic security and affection, their lives diverge.

Idella marries the first man who courts her and in spite of Eddie's affairs, sticks with him. Avis, the prettier sister, attracts a series of flashy lovers and grifters and lives "big and loud" before marrying Dwight, a nonentity. Idella, quieter and thoughtful, plays peacemaker among her dysfunctional in-laws, and when threatened with a hold-up, befriends the armed and desperate boy.

Scenes between the sisters spotlight their differences, but they're linked forever by haunting childhood memories of their mother's early death and their father's drunken unhappiness. A brother, Dalton, is hopelessly scarred by his time at home after the girls leave.

Hilarious - Idella and Avis at the opera, or getting drunk on cherry cider. Heartbreak - Idella declaring she'll no longer iron the shirts Eddie's mistress gives him, or Avis serving jail time. And then there's the densely emotional story that begins with, "Good God Almighty. We've lost the damned body." Avis and Dalton are transporting their father's body by train back to Canada, where Idella waits with relatives and neighbors - held captive in the church by an ice storm.

Okay, okay, I know, this blog's about kidlit, but have you ever postponed reading the end of a book because it's so beautifully crafted you wanted to laugh and cry with the incandescent characters a little longer? I did with this one.

Has this happened to you lately? Which book was it?

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why Do You Write For Children?

Did anyone else catch Pamela Paul’s terrific article in The New York Times Sunday Book Review about the growing ranks of grown-ups who are hooked on reading YA? She cited the stat that nearly 20 percent of 35-to-44-year-olds say they most frequently buy YA books…for themselves.

I loved some of the reasons her interviewees gave as to why they’re YA addicts…

1. “Adult literature is all art and no heart.”
2. “Good YA is like good television…there’s a freshness there; it’s engaging.
3. “YA authors aren’t writing about middle-aged anomie or disappointed people.”
4. “…YA is one of the few areas of literature right now where storytelling really thrives.”
5. “….the books have this wonder in everyday things that isn’t bogged down by excessively grown-up concerns or the need to be subtle or coy.”
6. “There’s an immediacy in the prose.”

This got me wondering: Are these similar to the reasons why I choose to write for children? I’m not sure I agree with number 1, but I’d definitely add numbers 2 through 6 to my list.

I have other reasons, yes, but they’re not nearly as interesting as those given by Isaac Bashevis Singer, when he accepted the National Book Award in 1970, which I found online.*

“Why I Write for Children” by Isaac Bashevis Singer

There are five hundred reasons why I began to write for children, but to save time I will mention only ten of them.
Number 1. Children read books, not reviews. They don’t give a hoot about the critics.
Number 2. Children’ don’t read to find their identity.
Number 3. They don’t read to free themselves of guilt, to quench their thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation.
Number 4. They have no use for psychology.
Number 5. They detest sociology.
Number 6. They don’t try to understand Kafka or Finnegan’s Wake.
Number 7. They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff.
Number 8. They love interesting stories, not commentaries, guides, or footnotes.
Number 9. When a book is boring, they yawn openly, without any shame or fear of authority.
Number 10. They don’t expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know that is not in his power. Only the adults have such childish illusions.

Some list, huh?

So, Paper Wait readers, I’d love to know: Why do you write for children?

*Reprinted in Nobel Lecture, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978.

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Sunday, August 8, 2010

Through the Muddle of a Middle

First things first-- The Paper Wait readers are incredible!

A few blog posts ago, when I was sitting there intimidated by the very idea of starting a novel, people gave me the most amazing encouragement. And it worked! I got started and I had a great time writing my novel's opening chapters.

But then life intervened and I lost some of that wonderfully inspiring momentum. Now I'm staring ahead to my muddle of a middle and I'm getting nervous again. It feels like I'm a sprinter trying to run a marathon.

With a picture book, I would be revising by now. With a novel, I'm barely started.

I'm trying to remember to take it in small chunks. To aim for fifteen minutes a day (and I'll usually end up writing more). And, most importantly, not to think about the enormity of it all.

But maintaining momentum through the many, many twists and turns that are needed to make up a novel is still a challenge. So, I'm asking for advice again. How do those of you who write novels keep your momentum going through the muddle of a middle?

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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Get to the Point, Fast!

In today's story telling, we don't have the luxury of the long, spun out tale. In movies and TV novellas, the action has to splatter onto the screen in the first five minutes. Daddy's left the family, or murderer is lurking close by, or lover is already lurching toward someone else. All right up front. It's the same in books; no more delicious descriptions of scenery, no languorous chapters detailing the daily lives of the characters before trouble bubbles up. So I have to get with the program, like it or not.

But something can be learned from earlier authors. I am presently reading Dodie Smith's "I Capture the Castle" (1948) and am studying how she introduces backstory. She uses the device of a teenager's journal. An early entry describes how they came to live in the castle. In "Bridge to Terabithia," Katherine Paterson inserts salient background facts throughout the first chapter, where the plot is prompted by a new family's move into the neighborhood.

Backstory is problematic in my novel now under revision. As the book is heavy on family history, I need to insert more of it to explain the tension between the main character and the supporting characters. Why is the main character so frustrated with the supporting characters? Why does she react the way she does? I've experimented with changing the voice, but that's not going to solve the problem of motivation.

One solution might be to have the first chapter take place at an earlier time, maybe five years before the plot actually begins. In this chapter I think I will introduce the two characters who ultimately give my main character the most grief, but who will be, in fact, part of the solution to her problem, which, I know, I know, she must really solve herself.

And I know, I know, I've got to stop planning it and get to the point of writing it down!

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Monday, August 2, 2010

In Search of Character

In college, I acted in a production of Luigi Piradello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. I played the Child, the youngest member of a rather disturbed family searching for an end to their story and hoping to find it within a certain theater company. While I had no lines--the Child is mute--others in the family had plenty to say, especially about character development. They complain that the actors don't look like them and get the story wrong. When the Manager refuses to allow the Stepdaughter to tell the story of her affair with the Father, she is enraged. Her story can’t be told without it. In the final tragic act, the characters moan that the actors cannot possibly recreate the proper emotion.

As I work on my second draft of my YA WIP, my characters are as insistent as Pirandello’s that I listen to them and get it right.

My first drafts are very heavy on dialogue and not so much on inner thoughts and real character development. When working on first drafts, I try to stifle that inner editor and just get it down. I chop away in my second draft, losing more than fifty percent of what I originally wrote. I lose even more in later drafts.

But what I add in second drafts is character development. I look for places to let my MC think and feel. To give voice to what is deep within him. I’m not too focused on my secondary characters yet, but I find that in deepening my MC, I find additional motivation for those around him. Once I feel a true emotional connection to my MC, the rest of the work flows much more easily.

Right now, my MC still asks me for more. To dig deeper. To get down to the raw, real feelings he bottled up a long time ago. And unlike the six characters in Pirandello’s play, I hope my characters will be satisfied with their conclusions.

Characters become so real for the writers creating them. Have you ever, like Pirandello’s Manager, felt the truth was too powerful for your story? Particularly in writing for children and teens, have you ever felt the need to tone it down?

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Imitation and learning from the experience of others is, as the old proverb says, the most sincere form of flattery. Learning from experienced writers and studying their habits is good training, and, complementary. Hopefully what we work away on and produce will be well-received so that important writers are pleased and flattered.

Recently I was viewing writers' websites and was fascinated with Jane Yolen's. As an author of over 300 books and noted as one of the best children's authors of our time, Jane noted on her journal/blog that she was currently working on at least six WIPs, at the same time. Wow - busy, prolific and hard working. What an example.

Jane's writing is also an inspiration for me - her style and mastery of poetry and sense of imagination of children. Look at the wonder of Owl Moon. With her smooth ease and expertise of language coupled with her love of nature and the environment, Jane brings adventure to the life for children. Her work day is committed, too - committing to and controlling five to seven WIPs with different manuscript lives at the same time.

Who are your favorite children's authors - past or present - and how do they inspire you to imitate them? Reading about Jane has re-inspired me to really commit the time as she does and to get to concentrated work - on a number of my WIPs. Maybe someday some one will be flattering us through imitation.

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Who Needs Brad and Angelina?

Paparazzi follow them, fans stalk them, sightings are reported, and rumors are circulated. My question is, Who cares? Why should I be interested in what Brad and Angelina, or any number of other movie stars or sports heros, are up to when in the world of children's literature, we have our own stars! And I can't recall a single time when any of them have made a headline for doing something illegal, ill-advised, or down right stupid.

I have recently returned from my third Residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program for Children and Young Adults. A sense of euphoria, giddiness, ecstasy filled me the whole six hour drive home. Was it because I was thrilled to be going home - to be returning to my own bed and bath, where I didn't have to sleep atop my sheets in a sheen of perpetual sweat or perform feats of contortion to shave my legs in a 3 1/2 x 3 1/2 shower cell? Or because I was returning to food I could cook myself - mashed potatoes that didn't taste like a salt lick or scrambled eggs made from eggs laid by chickens and not some unidentifiable powdered substance that tastes like rubber? Or, was is because of the magic that is Vermont College of Fine Arts? I have my suspicions.

The Theme of this Residency was Fantasy! We read Frank L. Baum's The Wizard of Oz and books by the visiting faculty, Holly Black and Gregory Maguire, both notable creators of fantastical worlds. Also appearing at the Residency were VCFA's own M.T. Anderson and Jandy Nelson. Who needs misbehaving rock stars when you've got people like this to admire, stalk, and drool over? (And I did drool over M.T. Anderson. What could be more attractive than a man who wears plaid shorts and high top sneakers and sings the State Song of Delaware from his book Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware? And I thoroughly embarrassed myself when meeting Jandy Nelson - if you haven't read her book, The Sky is Everywhere yet, do so immediately. Blathering on about loving her book, the title of which I couldn't even remember in the moment. Was my momentary memory lapse because of the heat, lack of sleep, or my raging case of pencil envy? Again, I have my suspicions.)

I am entering my third semester at VCFA, during which I must write a critical thesis. A year ago, as a fledgling first semester, the mere thought of the critical thesis was enough to send my anxiety level to Oz. But now I feel ready, prepared by my first and second semester advisors, and psyched to be working with my new advisor Shelley Tanaka.

With the stars that shine the night sky of children's literature, and VCFA in particular, I wonder why I should need to look elsewhere for my heros. As Dorothy would say, why go looking for something when it's in your own backyard?

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