Sunday, December 12, 2010


TONIGHT YOU ARE MY BABY is a beautifully illustrated picture book that tells the nativity story from Mary's viewpoint. Though the book was originally published in 2008, HarperCollins has released a board book edition just in time for the holiday season.

If you're looking for the perfect gift for a little one in the 2-4 age group, pick up a copy at your favorite bookstore or order it from

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dreaming Of Chautauqua?

I have never been to Chautauqua, but I try and attend at least one Highlights Foundation program each year. At no other conference, have I received the sort of one-on-one editor feedback available through their programs.

Below is an email from Jo Lloyd about scholarships available to attend Chautauqua:

Hello Highlights Foundation Friends,

Wishing you a happy holiday season. Since you have mentioned one or more of our programs in recent blogs, I wondered if you might pass along information about our 2011 Chautauqua Scholarship Program via a blog or some other social-networking means?

You may know someone who is hesitating to pursue his or her Chautauqua dream due to finances. The Highlights Foundation offers scholarships and now is the time to find out more.

A lot of children’s writers dream of the Highlights Foundation Writers Workshop at Chautauqua. “Next year,” they promise themselves. “Next year I’m going to Chautauqua!” Then reality sets in. The drive and talent to support the dream are there, but the finances . . . maybe not.

Please encourage your writing friends to stop dreaming and start planning! Pass along our scholarship newsletter. Scholarships will be considered in two groups. Early applications will be accepted through December 15, 2010.(Final scholarship deadline is February 11, 2011.)

Please feel free to forward this e-mail to others who might find it of interest, paste it into your blog, or spread the news on social-networking sites.

Thanks so much,

Jo Lloyd Program Assistant
Highlights Foundation, 814 Court Street
Honesdale, PA 18431
Phone: (877) 512-8365 (toll-free) or (570) 251-4557
Fax: (570) 253-0179

Friday, December 3, 2010


Some days are like that for writers. You pour your heart and soul onto the page and end up feeling like crap. Luckily, I am part of a group of talented writers known as "The Goal Buddies."
Our fearless leader is the talented Barbara Krasner and our resident humorist is Mary Morton Cowan, winner of the National Outdoor Book Award for CAPTAIN MAC.

This past week was a difficult one for THE GOAL BUDDIES. Things didn't go according to plan for some members and Mary posted this cartoon to make us all smile.

If I have one bit of advice for other writers, it is this: Surround yourself with other people who share your passion. They'll cheer at your good news and coax you over the bumps.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


For someone who can't carry a tune in the proverbial bucket, I love music! My newest addiction is the television show GLEE. Since I spend most of my time writing for teenagers, I justify this addiction as research.

My favorite episode happened last week with Gwyneth Paltrow playing a substitute teacher. I've watched two of the videos over and over on YouTube. It's impossible not to sing along to these tunes:

Umbrella/Singing in the Rain

Forget You

What do you think? Are you a GLEEK too?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Turkey at the White House

Just in time for Thanksgiving, my critique partner Jeannine Norris, has an article in the November issue of Highlights for Children.

"A Turkey at the White House," describes how each year the President pardons a turkey in an official ceremony. Jeannine writes, "The pardoning of the turkey dates all the way back to President Lincoln."

Check out the article to discover the rest of the story and to see President Obama pardon a 45-pound turkey named Courage.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Cyn Balog’s first novel, FAIRY TALE, was published in 2009 by Delacorte Press. Her second novel, SLEEPLESS, is set for release in July. And Cyn’s news gets even more exciting: she has two additional novels scheduled for publication in 2011 and 2012!

I read on your blog that you have two small children.

Yes, I just had a baby in July of 2009, right after FAIRY TALE was released, and I also have a three-year-old who doesn’t nap. It is chaotic. I find that I was actually able to get more work done when I was working full-time out of the house, because I would set aside my lunch hour to write. My daughter was in daycare so I had no interruptions.

What tips do you have for other parents who are trying to write with kids underfoot?

Write after they go to bed. I am not a night person but I have had to force myself to stay awake at the computer.

All of your books are paranormal romances. What draws you to this genre?

I didn’t set out to write paranormal romances. I liked them, and I’d read a story about a girl who learned she was a fairy princess. It seemed like there are so many books about girls who learn they are fairy princesses, and I thought, “That’s boring!” because the girl is lucky! She’d be the envy of all her friends. Not so if it was a boy learning he was a fairy prince. I thought that would be more interesting, so I wrote it. And then I had the idea for SLEEPLESS. Afterwards, I was kind of branded a paranormal author. I tried writing a realistic book, but my editor wanted me to stay with the paranormals, so I added a paranormal element to it. It’s cool, doing paranormals, though. I get to make really wild stuff up!

Describe your agent search.

I was very lucky finding an agent. My critique partner loved my work and then sent it off to her agent, who loved it as well and signed me. I hadn’t really been looking for an agent for very long so I maybe garnered only two or three rejections at that point. But don’t kill me! I had my share of heartbreak…the manuscript didn’t sell.

Tell us more about that experience.

My agent submitted to a handful of editors and like I said, they all swiftly rejected it. Meanwhile I’d been working on another book, FAIRY TALE, and my agent was so certain that should be the one I debuted with because she felt it was much stronger. She was right. She submitted it as soon as I finished and I had a pre-empt six weeks later from Delacorte.

Who is your editor and will you be working with the same editor on all four books?

Stephanie Lane Elliot is my editor for all four books…she’s wonderful to work with. I have heard editor horror stories and have been lucky that Stephanie is such a pleasure.

What promotional tools have you found to be most effective in reaching your target audience?

I have to say that promotion for FAIRY TALE went down the toilet last year considering I was nine months pregnant upon its release. I had to limit signings and events to once a month. I did find producing and handing out bookmarks to everyone I knew was a huge help. I also made use of Facebook and really relied on my online friends for their help.

How did you celebrate your first book?

The day FAIRY TALE came out, I went waddling along to every bookstore in a twenty mile radius of my house and just said, “Hey this is my book, want me to sign stock?” That was so exciting. Well, for the most part; a few nervous bookstore workers were like, “Um. You’re not in labor yet, are you?” But I will probably do the same with SLEEPLESS. Well, minus being pregnant, thankfully. There is something so exhilarating about going into a bookstore and seeing your book there. It never gets old.

Can you give us a preview of SLEEPLESS?

SLEEPLESS is about a Sandman who falls in love with a mortal girl whose sleep he controls. I wrote it in three weeks while seven months pregnant so that’s really all I remember about it. I’d had longer to write the book, but the first draft I turned in, which was written when I was going through the worst morning sickness, was so hopeless and dreary Stephanie asked me to rewrite it. It took everything I had to open up the document and start again. But I kept telling myself that being a writer was my dream; I hadn’t come this far just to give up. So I redid it in three weeks so I could keep it on schedule.

What tips do you have for aspiring novelists?

Don’t stop writing. While you’re submitting to agents, keep writing your next book. While your agent is submitting to editors, keep writing. If you are stuck on something, skip over it and write the next chapter. Write something else. Do not stop. There is a lot of discouragement in this business and if you let it stop you from writing, you’re sunk. If you keep at it, eventually it will pay off. I have a lot of writer friends, and I can place them into one of two groups. There are the ones who dwell on every little word in their manuscript or every little rejection and eat cartons of ice cream and mope. I call them Complainers. And then there are the ones who are positive and keep going no matter what. I call them Published, because eventually, that’s what they all became!

Shannon Hitchcock is represented by Mary Grey James at East/West Literary. She has her fingers crossed that one of her novels will sell!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Tips for A Good Writing Day

I attended a workshop led by author Kathleen Duey. She said, "If you have a good writing day, find out why. Try to duplicate it." That advice caused me to ponder my work habits. Here are tips from my journey:

1. Discover what time you're most productive. For me it's first thing in the morning. If I can write from 6:30 am until about 10:00 am, then my output increases.

2. Tune out distractions. That means I write offline. It is very tempting to check email, Facebook, and Twitter, but they take my focus off of the task at hand.

3. Enjoy the journey. Comparing my career to other more accomplished authors does not lead to better writing, only frustration.

4. Exercise. It improves my mood. Besides who wants to be an overweight, out-of- shape author?

5. Take Breaks. Books, travel, and spending time with friends all provide material for my writing.

How does your writing process differ from mine? I'd be interested in hearing what works for you.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

To Kindle Or Not To Kindle?

I caved. I recently purchased my first electronic book. For me it was a hard choice. There are few things I enjoy more than holding a book in my hands...but you should see my house. I hoard books. I have three floor to ceiling double bookcases, and yet I'm out of room for books.

I read JOEY PIGZA SWALLOWED A KEY on my Kindle. I enjoyed the story immensely, but there were a few negatives:

1. I missed seeing the cover art.

2. There were a few parts that I wanted to reread but it was too aggravating to find them.

3. My Kindle needed to be recharged in the middle of the story.

So now I've reached a compromise. I will buy electronic books when I'm pretty sure that it's not a story I will read again and again. But I can't give up on traditional books. It would be easier to quit eating chocolate!

Friday, July 9, 2010

How I Found My Agent

The January/February issue of The SCBWI Bulletin had the following blurb:

"Mary Grey James former lead book buyer for Ingram Book Company joined East/West Literary Agency (EWA) as a partner literary agent, personal interest in Southern women and their stories; serves as the vice president/president-elect of the Women's National Book Association (WNBA) and chair of the WNBA Pannell Award Committee that honors two bookstores each year which excelled in bringing books and young people together."

The words personal interest in Southern women and their stories jumped out at me. I grew up in rural North Carolina and most of my stories reflect that. Might Mary Grey James be the agent for me?

The article didn't list any contact information so I fired up Google. I located Mary Grey James and her email address through Linked In. I sent Mary an email query and she requested the full manuscript. About six weeks later, I signed the contract. Two things worked in my favor:

1. I write what Mary is looking for: Southern stories.
2. Mary is a new agent. It's easier to break in when an agent is actively building his/her list.

Mary has my first novel out on submission. It's an exciting time for me and I'm waiting. Waiting for the right editor to sprinkle blood, sweat and tears so that together we can turn my manuscript into a published novel.

Are you looking for an agent? Or do you already have one? I'd love to hear your story.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Writers Need Patience

I've found that nothing in publishing moves quickly. A writer needs the patience of Job, not only to revise the same story again and again, but to wait while agents and editors evaluate our work.

My minister sent out his weekly email blast this morning, and I think he's talking directly to me:

“Strong people wait a lot. It’s the kind of patience that holds onto a dream when everything seems to be stacked against it; patience that continues to believe..."

I continue to believe that my writing dream will one day result in a published book, and to be thankful for yet another magazine sale. I recently received my fifth contract from POCKETS magazine. Look for my article, "Paul's Project," in the November 2010 issue. And for a dose of inspiration, check out Paul's website.

Friday, May 28, 2010

SSYRA Novels Announced for 2010/2011!

I've been reading the middle grade novels on the Sunshine State Young Reader's Award list for the past two years, and I have yet to read a bad book. The librarians who work to select these novels do a fantastic job!

I will be reading and blogging about the following novels beginning late summer:

1. The Seer of Shadows by Avi
2. The Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
3. Taken by Edward Bloor
4. Diamonds in the Shadow by Caroline B. Cooney
5. Football Hero by Tim Green
6. The Great Wide Sea by M. L. Herlong
7. Do Not Pass Go by Kirkpatrick Hill
8. Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen
9. Billy Creekmore by Tracey Porter
10. Lost Time by Susan Mauphin Schmid
11. The Mailbox by Audrey Shafer
12. Changeling by Delia Sherman
13. I. Q. Independence Hall by Roland Smith
14. Mercy on These Teenage Chimps by Gary Soto
15. Smiles to Go by Jerry Spinelli

Have you read any of the books on the list already? If so I'd love to hear your opinion.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Florida Kids Vote For Their Favorite MG Novel SSYRA Program!

And the winner is RUNAWAY by Wendelin Van Draanen!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Analyzing The Sunshine State Young Readers' Award Books

I recently read and blogged about all 15 middle grade novels on The Sunshine State Young Readers' Award List. I grouped the novels into categories to see what they have in common.

1. Contemporary or Historical? - Eleven books on the list have a contemporary setting and four are historical fiction.

2. Humorous? Three of the books are humorous: THE MISADVENTURES OF MAUDE MARCH, AIRBALL MY LIFE IN BRIEFS, and SCHOOLED.

3. Multicultural? Four books deal with different cultures: LA LINEA, HOT, SOUR, SALTY, SWEET, THE ENTERTAINER AND THE DYBBUK, and GABRIEL'S HORSES.

4. Elements of Fantasy? Though it varies widely, seven of the books fit this category. ALL THE LOVELY BAD ONES and THE ENTERTAINER AND THE DYBBUK are ghost stories. FIRST LIGHT and GO BIG OR GO HOME are science fiction. DRAGON SLIPPERS and INTO THE WILD are more like fairytales, while FOUND is action/adventure.

5. Problem Novels? Three of the books fit this description: WING NUT, LA LINEA, and RUNAWAY. These are the books that I will long remember because they caused me to think about hard issues and see the world outside my own experiences.

All of the books have great writing in common. Though I enjoyed each and every one, my three favorities are THE MISADVENTURES OF MAUDE MARCH, LA LINEA, and RUNAWAY.

Congratulations to the authors who have a book on the list!

Friday, May 14, 2010


The cover art of this middle grade novel first caught my eye. We have three boys with oversized feet, skinny legs, and all wearing funky boxer shorts. I immediately knew this book would make me laugh!

I read an interview with L.D. Harkrader in which she said the inspiration for this story came from The Emperor's New Clothes. How cool is that.

Our protagonist is seventh-grader, Kirby Nickel. Kirby has very little natural athletic ability, but in a small Kansas town, he makes the basketball team anyway. Everyone does.

Coach is determined to turn this no-talent team into champions. He gives them STEALTH SPORTSWEAR, which in reality means the boys are playing in their underwear. But then a strange thing happens: the boys actually play better in their underwear.

This book is humorous and it has heart. Kirby learns a lot about himself as he becomes a decent basketball player. In the end, Kirby finds what he wants most in the world, and most importantly it wants him too.

Monday, May 10, 2010

FIRST LIGHT by Rebecca Stead

FIRST LIGHT is the debut novel of Newberry Award winning author, Rebecca Stead. The book has elements of fantasy, science fiction, adventure and mystery.

Peter joins his parents on an expedition to Greenland, where his father will study global warming. The trip should be an adventure, but on the ice cap, Peter is troubled with headaches and visions.

Meanwhile Thea has never seen the sun. Her people live deep inside the arctic ice. When Peter and Thea's lives collide, they discover a secret connection between their families. Time is running out for Thea's homeland. The teens need a plan to save the people of Gracehope.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


Author Steve Weber gives lots of tips for online marketing in PLUG YOUR BOOK. Some that I found particularly helpful include:
1. Find readers in your target audience and give them your book. Ask them to post an honest critique on Amazon.
2. Correspond with readers who enjoyed your book, and ask if they could spare the time to write a review on Amazon.
3. Target specialized magazines and trade publications.
5. Go on a blog tour.
6. Add your book title to your Amazon pen name so that it's displayed when you post reviews.
7. Offer book excerpts or sample chapters PDF download from your website.
8. Use these pointers for writing an effective press release.
9. Auction a single copy of your book on eBay in one or more subject categories.
10. Pursue affiliate sales on websites that specialize in material related to your book.

Monday, May 3, 2010

RUNAWAY by Wendelin Van Draanen

Twelve-year-old Holly runs away from an abusive foster home and makes her way cross country to California. Her life is a continual struggle to find food and shelter. Holly's story unfolds as she writes in a journal given to her by her teacher. The journal becomes Holly's lifeline - her most precious possession.
Author Wendelin Van Draanen researched this book by sneaking into the cargo hold of a bus, staying in a homeless shelter, and camping in the wilderness without supplies.
This book made me stop and think about the problems faced by runaway teens. Is there a significant homeless population in the place where you live? Have you taken the time to REALLY notice?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

HOT, SOUR, SALTY, SWEET by Sherri L. Smith

The novel HOT, SOUR, SALTY, SWEET all takes place in one day - Ana Shen's eight grade graduation day. Ana is salutatorian of her class and just as she starts her graduation speech, something very unexpected happens and the rest of the ceremoney is canceled. But Ana's problems are just beginning.

Ana's father is Chinese American and her mother is African American. The two sets of grandparents don't get along very well and always compete for Ana's attention. When the whole family takes over the kitchen to cook for Ana's graduation party, it's a recipe for disaster. Especially since her arch rival shows up unexpectedly, the boy she's crushing on comes with his bigoted father, and her grandmothers are ready to slug it out. Still the hot, sour, salty, and sweet meal shows Ana that different flavors and different heritages can blend together perfectly.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Ann Whitford Paul gives great tips for choosing a book title in Chapter 16 of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS.
While not every title will contain all of the characteristics, these tips are a smart place to start in evaluating possible choices. Is your title...
1. Brief
2. Catchy
3. Unique
4. Straightforward
Does it...
5. Express the Mood of the Book
6. Hint at What the Book Is About
7. Create Suspense
8. Give the Artist an Idea for the Cover Illustration
9. Include the Main Character's Name
10. Use a Catchy Line From Your Manuscript
Make sure...
11. The Title Doesn't Give Away the Ending
12. That A Child Can Easily Say It Out Loud (for picture books)
I selected my contest winner using these characteristics. WHEN SARAH WASN'T LOOKING is unique. A quick check of shows me that it hasn't been used before. That's important because I want readers to be able to find my book without searching too hard. WHEN SARAH WASN'T LOOKING also delivers on #'s 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 11.
All in all I think it's a great title choice. Thanks to all of my contest participants and to Barbara Krasner who suggested the winning title.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

And The Contest Winner Is...

Barbara Krasner! Barbara suggested the title: WHEN SARAH WASN'T LOOKING. I think readers will immediately want to know what happened when Sarah wasn't looking and keep reading to find out.

The random drawing winner is"theartgirl." Congratulations to both of you and please let me know which book you'd like to receive. Choices are TONIGHT YOU ARE MY BABY by Jeannine Norris, and DOG GONE or BUCK FEVER by Cynthia Chapman Willis. Also please email your shipping information to

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Sometimes the right title for a book or magazine article just pops into my head. But not this time. I'm having a problem coming up with the perfect title for my first novel. So I've decided to run a contest to choose the name. Here are the rules:

1. Read about the novel's plot below.

2. Choose your favorite from the titles listed or come up with a completely new title.

3. Post your title choice on my blog.

If somebody comes up with a completely new title and I decide to use it, then I will send you a free copy of either TONIGHT YOU ARE MY BABY by Jeannine Norris or DOG GONE or BUCK FEVER both by Cynthia Chapman Willis. (Your choice)

In addition, I will put the names of everyone who posts on my blog in a hat and select a random winner. I will also send this winner a free copy of either Cindy or Jeannine's books.

Here's the storyline:

Twelve-year-old Sarah Willis is babysitting her five-year-old sister when her sister wanders into the street and is struck by a car. From that point on Sarah wishes for two things: first she wants her sister to be good as new, and though her second wish is impossible, she wishes it with all her heart. Somehow she wishes the accident hadn't been her fault.

Possible titles include:

Inside Beauty

Don't Tell

Keeping Secrets

The Summer Sarah Beth Willis Grew Up

Summer Break

SCHOOLED by Gordon Korman

I had never heard of author Gordon Korman, but a quick check at his website tells me that he has published more than 55 books with over seven million copies sold. Mr. Korman has written several series as well as lots of stand alone titles.

I loved reading SCHOOLED and found myself chuckling during most of it. Our protagonist Capricorn (Cap) Anderson grew up on a commune. His hippie grandmother, Rain, homeschools him and he has little contact with the outside world. When Rain falls and breaks her hip, Cap is forced to live with a middle school guidance counselor and attend middle school.

Because of Cap's weirdness, (he's never handled money, watched TV, doesn't own a cell phone, and dresses straight out of the 1960's), he is elected class president as a prank. What follows is both hilarious and heartwarming.

Tip for writers: The book is told from the viewpoints of several different characters. Each chapter starts out like this Name: Capricorn Anderson, Name: Mrs. Donnelly, Name: Hugh Winkleman. It's an effective way to get the inside scoop on all the major characters in this story.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


For readers interested in "boy books" let me introduce you to the novels of author Will Hobbs. He's published seventeen of them and I just finished his latest GO BIG OR GO HOME.
The action starts when a meteorite crashes through the roof of Brady's house, tears through his mattress and lands underneath his bed. Brady can't wait to share the excitement with his cousin Quinn.
Quinn comes for a visit and the boys show the rock to a professor at a nearby museum. He wants to study the rock, hoping to prove that there is life on Mars.In the meantime, Brady and Quinn go mountain biking, camping, and caving. The boys are stunned when Brady is suddenly able to perform athletic feats that he's never been able to do before. But Brady also develops symptoms of a terrible illness. He wonders if the meteorite is responsible for both his new athletic abilites and his sickness.
GO BIG OR GO HOME is chock full of action as the boys race to save Brady's life.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


I'm always curious about an author's background and what led him/her to write a particular story. Ms. Jaramillo's husband is a lawyer who focuses on helping migrant workers, and Ms. Jaramillo is a teacher with students of Mexican origin. She says, "La Linea is fiction, but it is based on real events."

Of course I've watched lots of news reports about Mexicans crossing the border illegally, but until reading this book, I didn't realize the grave danger they face to do so. When fifteen-year-old Miguel and his sister leave Mexico, they are robbed, cling to the roof of a train, trek across the desert, and traumatized when their guide is shot by vigilantes. I'm disturbed that this story is based on actual events.

Ms. Jaramillo includes lots of facts about illegal immigration at the end of her book. Many immigrants lose their lives trying to cross the border. They die from dehydration, hypothermia and violence. Still the number of undocumented people in the United States is estimated to be over 10 million.

Kirkus Reviews calls La Linea, "A nail-biting real-life adventure." I agree and it's thought provoking as well.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Carolyn Yoder's Alumni Retreat

For the past three winters, I've attended Carolyn Yoder's alumni retreat at Boyds Mill. That's me standing in front of my cabin...the perfect place to write when snow is coming down.
I've learned so much from Carolyn, especially about historical picture books. We worked together on a manuscript, HENRIETTA'S PASTEL TREASURES, about the first professional female artist in the American colonies. Prior to working with Carolyn, I'd been told that it read like a magazine piece. Here's how Carolyn helped me turn it into a picture book.
1. Picture books have rhythm when read aloud. I read my manuscript over and over, cutting excess words until I found the beat.
2. Picture book are written in scenes. I took scissors and cut my manuscript into distinct scenes, making sure that each spread gave the illustrator something to draw.
3. Lots of picture books come full circle. I worked on my last spread so that the ending was reminiscent of the beginning.
4. I wrote it again and again and again. Great writing is all about revising.
What makes the Highlights Foundation Workshops so special is the amount of individual attention given to each writer -- that's why I'm a regular.


I love historical fiction and always turn to the back matter first, hoping to learn from the author's process. Alison Hart says in her bibliographical note that to research and write GABRIEL'S HORSES, she read more than two hundred books. The novel also contains a wonderful section on the actual history behind the story.

GABRIEL'S HORSES is set in 1864, and Gabriel is a slave boy, born to a free black father and a slave mother. His father, Issac, is one of the best horse trainers in Kentucky, and that's what Gabriel wants to do when he grows up.

The war complicates Gabriel's life because Confederate raiders are terrorizing local farms, especially looking for thoroughbred horses. To make matters even worse, Gabriel's father joins the Union army, and is replaced by a cruel horse trainer. Now Gabriel must find a way to keep the beloved horses safe, not only from the raiders, but from his white boss.

I would recommend GABRIEL'S HORSES to animal lovers, Civil War buffs, and readers interested in African American stories. The book is part of a trilogy and the other two are GABRIEL'S TRIUMPH and GABRIEL'S JOURNEY.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

ALL THE LOVELY BAD ONES by Mary Downing Hahn

The New York Times Book Review says, "Spooky...A fine scary tale for a campfire." That is a perfect description of ALL THE LOVELY BAD ONES.

The book reminds me of a Barbara Michaels' novel, but for middle graders. There's no gross horror like a "Friday The Thirteenth." Instead it's creepy with supernatural elements.

When Travis and his sister are banned from camp, they're sent to spend the summer with their grandmother. She runs a Vermont Inn that has a history of ghost sightings. Travis and Corey decide to stir up some mischief, and the pair of them get WAY more than they bargained for.

A Tip for Writers: Study the voice of the ghosts, particularly Seth. The author does a brilliant job with characterization.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Richard Peck and Me (Part 2)

I was ecstatic when I discovered that Richard Peck would be critiquing my manuscript at SCBWI Miami. Several people asked me if I was nervous. But no, I never was. I knew Richard Peck had been a teacher, and in my experience teachers are generous with students who genuinely seek to learn.

I walked into my critique carrying his latest novel, A SEASON OF GIFTS, so that I could get it signed. He had "rock star" status at the conference, and his line was always too long during breaks.

"Finally we meet," he says. Be still my heart! I love his voice. He hands me a two-page typed critique. He likes my work. He REALLY likes it.

It helps that I have written a novel set in the 1920's. His written critique says, "Moreover, your subject matter is my own favorite: rustic nostalgia (with an edge) to reveal a little history to a generation not learning any at school."

Since Mr. Peck had only read the first ten pages, he asked me to walk him through the rest of the plot. My novel had a midwife and a second older woman called Cousin Rachel. He told me those two characters sounded remarkably similar. He asked me if they could be combined. I stopped and thought about it for a moment. "Yes,!" I said. "Yes, that is absolutely brilliant!" I have since combined those characters, and it makes a huge difference in the novel.

He asked me to justify why my character had two sisters. Would one sister suffice? In this case, I needed two sisters for the plot, but he asked me to think through my cast of characters, to make sure each one was vital to the story I was telling.

I told him that my character would have a choice to make: whether to stay on her family farm or make her way into the world. My character is head-over-heels in love with her farm boy so I thought she would probably stay. Mr. Peck points his finger at me, "She must go!" he says in that wonderfully deep voice. And that's when I knew exactly how my book would end.

My critique with Richard Peck was a crash course in plotting a novel. I've been critiqued many, many times, but I've never before had a session as productive as that one. My fifteen minutes with him exceeded all of my expectations. He truly is a great teacher.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

First Page Wisdom From Richard Peck, Kathleen Duey, and Jen Rofe SCBWI Miami

Richard Peck talked about the importance of a great opening line. Consider this from his book THE TEACHER'S FUNERAL: "If your teacher has to die, August isn't a bad time of year for it." That line is definitely memorable and makes the reader ponder what's coming next. Mr. Peck said he goes to the bookstore about once a month and writes down the opening lines from books he admires.

Kathleen Duey spoke of the importance of the first page and said she frequently rewrites the first page about twenty times.

In the novel intensive workshop, Jen Rofe read my first page out loud. She said it needed a stronger opening line, it could be tightened, the character's voice could come through more strongly.

I took Richard Peck's advice. I copied down lots of great opening lines from other books. I took Kathleen Duey's advice. I rewrote my first page about twenty times. I literally spent a whole day just working on the first two pages. Here's my take away: Peck, Duey, and Rofe dropped pearls of wisdom. My opening is much stronger from following their advice.

Give these pearls of wisdom a try. I'd be interested in hearing if they work for you too.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Finding Your Voice: Tips from Peck, Duey, Santopolo SCBWI Miami

For Kathleen Duey it's all about finding the right voice for the book. She shared that her voice varies widely.

Richard Peck told conference participants to go to real life for voice, that voice comes from listening. He said he has "reached the age of invisibility." That he can eavesdrop in mall foodcourts without teenagers even noticing.

Jill Santopolo used Barbie as a metaphor for voice. A naked Barbie is your authorial voice. Now consider dressing her as Malibu Barbie. Malibu Barbie will sound differently than Teacher Barbie or Nurse Barbie.

Ms. Santopolo said Junie B. Jones is the "gold standard" for voice in chapter books.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Writing Tips From Kathleen Duey SCBWI Miami

1. Find the right voice for the book. Kathleen's voice varies widely.

2. When plotting don't ask what happens next. Aask what would my protagonist do next.

3. The first few pages of a novel are the hardest. Kathleen rewrites many of her first pages about 20 times.

4. You can turn any reader into a critiquer with these three letters: B, C, D. Ask your readers to mark any places in the manuscript where they become bored, confused, or don't believe it with the corresponding letter.

5. Sometimes bringing the unexpected character to the plot makes a manuscript stronger. (e.g. the beautiful cheerleader who tries to commit suicide.)

6. When you have a good writing day, figure out why so that you can duplicate it.

7. Gag your inner parent!

8. When plotting make sure the stakes are high enough.

9. To make a novel really interesting have your character choose between two good choices or two bad choices.

10. There is no substitute for butt in chair!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


On Friday, I'll be participating in a "novel intensive" workshop led by Jen Rofe and Kathleen Duey. We have a homework assignment to "write a short description of what our major roadblock is, any aspect of craft, process, artistic process, time management, any fears, whatever..."

This caused me to ponder my roadblocks. At first I was going to put creativity. I always think other writers are more creative than I am. But then I read an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, (author of EAT, PRAY, LOVE), and she said that she's not terribly creative either. In her opinion hard work trumps creativity. Now there's a novel thought. Could I possibly need to work even harder?

Next I considered that writing poetic prose is one of my weaknesses. I read writers like Jacqueline Woodson and think "if I could only write like that." But I'm not supposed to sound like a cheap imitation of another writer. Could I possibly strive even harder to capture my authentic voice?

There's also the fact that I tend to write historical fiction in a market that seems to prefer contemporary stories. But there's still room for excellent historical fiction, look at WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS by Fran Cannon Slayton.

I'm left with no roadblocks, only a goal: to work even more diligently, and BELIEVE.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


All writers have them. Those authors we admire and strive to emulate. Lots of the usual suspects are on my list: Deborah Wiles, Karen Cushman, Deborah Hopkinson, Kate DiCamillo, Karen Hesse, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Richard Peck.

This past summer I had the opportunity to attend the national SCBWI Conference in Los Angeles. Richard Peck gave one of the keynote speeches, and I was enthralled. He has a wonderfully deep voice, the kind that is perfectly suited to a storyteller. As I listened to him weave his magic, I whispered to my friend, "I'd listen to this man read the phone book." Yes, he really is that good.

Last night an email popped up notifying me about my critique session for the Florida SCBWI Conference in Miami. Richard Peck is my assigned critiquer! I have a date with Richard Peck. Granted, it's only fifteen minutes, but it's destined to be one of those special memories that I dust off when rejection letters fill my mailbox.

Forget winning a date with Tad Hamilton. I'll take Richard Peck any day!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

DRAGON SLIPPERS by Jessica Day George

Never underestimate the power of a great opening line. DRAGON SLIPPERS starts like this, "It was my aunt who decided to give me to the dragon." I was immediately hooked. Who was this girl? Why did her aunt give her to a dragon?

DRAGON SLIPPERS has the feel of a fairy tale, but our heroine is no Sleeping Beauty. What I liked best about Creel is that she's frequently petrified, but finds the courage to confront danger anyway. She says, "I would rather die tonight trying to help my friends, than stand by tomorrow..."

I loved the talking dragons, each with a distinct personality, and the story has just enough romance to add a bit of spice.

The sequel is called DRAGON FLIGHT, and the first chapter is printed at the end.