Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Highlights Workshops and Other Conferences

I’m a big fan of writing conferences, especially the Highlights Foundation Workshops. The faculty is always experienced, knowledgeable, approachable and friendly.

Some workshop topics include learning how to write board books, picture books, novels, fairy tales, mysteries, poetry, nonfiction, how to market your book, school visits and many others. 

Questions to investigate when considering a writing conference: Is the faculty scholarly? Do they write or have expertise in the subject of their workshop? Are they published in that subject? 

Reading their bio critically will answer most of these questions. If there is no educational history listed, check their website for school(s) attended or prior jobs. If publishing credits are absent, do an Amazon search.

What is the format? Lecture or hands-on-workshops? Peer critiques? Panel discussions? Pick a format that meets your current needs.

Writing conferences abound and many are excellent. Do your research, ask others who have attended them or trust your gut.

Click the link below to see a full list of Highlights workshops with descriptions.
This link is to an upcoming Highlights picture book workshop on June 7 - June 10, 2018 with Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison.

30 Conferences for author, bloggers and freelancers

A state list of conferences (not all inclusive, but a mix of small conferences with larger ones).

Bonus link!
Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison have posted a list of 9 Picture Book Topics to Avoid.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Tips for Observing and Using Body Language

As writers, we frequently hear that one of the best ways to make our characters more three-dimensional is to observe people. There are the usual public places: malls, playgrounds and sporting events, but what if you can’t leave your house. The cable guy is coming, the car’s in the shop or inclement weather.  

Watch cable news. Since they are all news all the time, they have a variety of guests that provide ample opportunity for viewing different people and their body language.

Tune into MTV. Their reality shows usually have eccentric characters and they’re typically younger than the cable news’ guests. Besides their body language, listen to their speech and note how they are dressed.

For the fun of it, watch a TV minister. They are frequently dramatic with bouts of weeping, kneeling, shouting and even fancy footwork.

Observe your own family and friends. How do they walk into the room? Do they shuffle? Stride in like they’re on a mission? Head held up or down? What do they do with their hands? How do they sit? Where are their feet? Are they kicking you?

Consider having your characters interact with their environment. You can manipulate the setting, so they can touch or move something that is important to them, distressing to someone else or heightens the plot.

You can also influence how the reader feels about a character through body language. Suppose you don’t want the reader to like the character, you don’t have to give him negative personality traits (abusive, rude, ill-mannered, etc.) which could be cliché.

Give him disgusting body habits: he eats his own ear wax, picks his toe nails at the dinner table or sneezes on his hands and then wipes them on the furniture. Gross, right? I’m immediately detached from this character just from writing it.

For writers, researching body language is easy.  All we have to do is train ourselves to watch people critically.

Monday, February 26, 2018


GEMINI by Sonya Mukherjee is a sensitive, authentic and mesmerizing dual voice novel about conjoined twins who wrestle with thoughts of separation (and the inherent complications of surgery) or staying together.

Clara longs to be single, to be able to move independently of Hailey, to have privacy, to pursue her own goals, to live where she wants to and do things that everyone else takes for granted: driving a car, flying in a plane or making her own decisions instead of always compromising or sacrificing.

She doesn’t like to attract attention to themselves. She doesn’t want to see the stares or hear the comments from onlookers. Her biggest fear is being alone.

Hailey can’t imagine life without her sister, her constant companion. She wants to travel and go to art school outside of their small, cloistered community. Hailey’s attitude is more courageous. She doesn’t worry about being in a relationship or finding love. If someone can’t get past their conjoinedness, they aren’t worthy of them.

She is outspoken and will stand her ground and stand up for Clara. If someone wants to look at them, let them look. Hailey even draws attention to herself with her pink hair, heavy eyeliner and tattoos.

The challenge to writing a dual voiced novel is giving each character a different personality with well-defined goals, dreams, desires and fears and, probably the hardest to achieve, two distinct voices.

I won’t spoil the ending, but will say the author writes with honesty when presenting all sides to surgical separation, the emotional ups and downs of being a senior in high school and keeping the reader in suspense, not knowing what Hailey’s and Clara’s decision will be. 

MAMA LION WINS THE RACE by Jon J. Muth is a delightful picture book. The story is about a race with Mama Lion and her Tigey, the Flying Pandinis, the Knitted Monkey Crew and Bun Bun. During the race, Mama Lion points out the world is beautiful and friendly. Suddenly, Tigey swerves to avoid an obstacle in the road. No one is hurt, but the car is damaged. The pandas stop to help, but later have their own car trouble. With unknowing help from the monkeys, the pandas solve their problem. Mama Lion and Tigey are in first place, but make a decision in the name of friendship that will affect the race.

I love so many things about this story. Mama Lion and Tigey (a tiger) are a mixed family, characters are praised and encouraged, they demonstrate helpful behavior and generosity and Tigey learns the true meaning of friendship.

Children will enjoy the bright color palette, the facial expressions of the animals, the whimsical monkeys and the different styled cars.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Questions to Think About Before Writing Your Story

I recently read that many writers, new and seasoned, spend too much time revising their rejected picture book manuscripts (guilty). Maybe we change the setting or characters or POV hoping that revision will lead to an offer from an editor or agent. But who can blame us? To discard a story that we've invested time in without exploring every avenue or possibility is akin to saying we knew it wasn't any good to start with!

Other reasons why we refuse to ditch our old manuscripts: 
1. We know this is a subjective business. (Just because several editors or agents didn't like it, doesn't mean the next one won't!)
2. We’ve all heard stories about an author being rejected hundreds of times until he hit the right agent or editor.
3. We know agents or editors can be brutal when they’re trying to clear their inbox before a vacation or holiday. (One editor told me she gives each query 3 seconds to make her fall in love with it!)

The truth is, as much as we love our story, the reason it’s not being accepted is probably because the concept is not strong enough or absent, or the idea is not unique or marketable. The other truth is, we need to let go of the old stories and focus on better ideas. 

I've posted a link to a blog post by picture book author Tara Luebbe. She explains how to consider the market before even writing your story. https://taralazar.com/2018/01/21/storystorm-2018-day-21-tara-luebbe/

Savvy Book Writers has a blog post with more questions to consider before you even put fingers to keys.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Time Frame for Revising a Manuscript

Signing up for your first or twenty first novel critique from an industry professional can be both exciting and frightening. You frequently check your inbox and then one day, there it is. The critique. But when you open the email and see six pages of notes and comments, you’re shell shocked. 

You didn’t think the manuscript had that many problems. You read the notes and disagree, maybe even think she doesn’t get it. After a few days of pondering the suggestions and rereading the email, the sting is gone and you’re ready to start the revision.

You may not know where to start. Some people use Post It notes or different colored highlighters to track each character's thread, plot lines, complications, climax and resolutions. Once the manuscript is marked up, some writers address one problem at a time while others take it one page at a time.

Once you’ve figured out how you’re going to tackle the revision, you plunge in and start the process. At some point, you start to wonder if you’re taking too long, if you’re doing it wrong or even how long should it take.

Below is the link to a blog post from Tracy Marchini, agent at BookEnds Literary and children’s author. She explains why a revision takes time and answers the question: How long should it take?

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Picture Book Reviews

In THE ONLY FISH IN THE SEA by Philip C. Stead and illustrated by Matthew Cordell, Amy Scott gets a goldfish for her birthday and announces to everyone that “goldfish are boring!”  She marches to the dock and drops the fish into the sea. Sherman worries about the fish being all alone and floating away. Sadie is apprehensive about the dangers that lie ahead in open waters.

Sadie names the fish Ellsworth and with Sherman's help, she plans to rescue the fish. They secure a boat, fishing gear, balloons, a bucket of paint, headwear and with a crew of monkeys, set sail. They encounter rough waters and sea creatures. They wait patiently and find Ellsworth drifting in troubled waters. They bring Ellsworth home and give him a nice place to live, and friends who will feed him and keep him company. But Amy Scott will not be as lucky.

Everyone will delight in the pen and ink illustrations of the monkeys and their antics. Readers will enjoy following the monkeys through the story as much as they'll root for the other characters.

I particularly like that Sadie names the fish, Ellsworth, it humanizes the fish, it has value and should be saved. Sherman and Sadie empathizing and showing concern for the fish is powerful. Later, Sherman sees Amy and says hi to her, even though she threw away the fish, he acknowledges her, and asks about her in the closing scene.

The take-away is about bullying and knowing that that you can count on your friends to help you.

I recently read the latest Duck and Goose picture book: Duck & Goose Honk! Quack! Boo!! By Tad Hills. In the opening scene, Duck and Goose discuss what they will be for Halloween. Their friend, Thistle, tells them there will be a swamp monster and to be cautious! Goose is afraid and has difficulty sleeping, while Duck admits he doesn’t like monsters, he still closes his eyes and sleeps.  

The next day, Duck and Goose dress as a scary ghost and a brave superhero, respectively. During trick-or-treating, a friendly daisy tells Duck and Goose a swamp monster is looking for them. When they see the monster, they run and hide in fear, but the swamp monster finds them. Together, Duck and Goose are scary and brave and save themselves. After discovering who the swamp monster is, all three continue trick-or-treating. In the closing scene, Duck and Goose share their candy and tell Halloween stories about a superhero, a ghost and a swamp monster. 

Children and adults will enjoy the lively illustrations, the amusing banter between Duck and Goose and how they solve their problem.

In this story, we learn that on Halloween we can be whatever we want to be or wish we were.


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Guilt Free Writing

Sometimes, writers feel guilty or are made to feel guilty for not spending enough time on their writing. The most frequently heard “right way to write” is butt in chair, 8 hours a day, your writing is your job. But what if your writing is not your day job? (This girl needs a regular paycheck!)

The truth is everyone has different writing practices.

Some writers have a day job, take care of their kids after work then write for several hours after they’ve gone to bed. I tried that, but I realized I’m not creative at the end of the day, but drained.

Other writers wake up early and write before work. I tried that, too, and was late for work every time and by day three was exhausted and had co-workers ask me if I was sick.

I’ve read other writers write 15 minutes a day or on their days off or weekends.

What I’ve learned is every writer must figure out what works best for them.

First, consider your work schedule and/or family commitments, then ask yourself when are your creative juices flowing. Embrace that time. Don’t compare yourself to other writers. Don’t beat yourself up because you feel it’s not enough writing time.

Here’s the secret: words become sentences which turn into paragraphs which lead to pages. Pages become chapters..Chapters become a novel.

My best writing time is in the morning. I write on my days off or the weekends. The time may vary from an hour to all day.

Closing note: I did have a writer make me feel guilty. I was at a local book fair talking to a guest author. She asked me what I wrote and how often. After I told her, she replied if I was a real writer, I’d be writing eight hours a day! When I said I had a day job and a family, she said “that's no excuse.”  

I was shocked and discouraged. After a few days, I gave myself a pep talk and decided it didn’t matter what she thought, I had to do what worked for me. And you need to do what works for you. 

Believe in yourself, be patient and persevere.