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Picture Book Critique Group Checklist

Great critique groups are priceless! I can’t imagine being a writer without having at least one or two amazing, supportive groups.

I'm the Critique Group Coordinator for SCBWI FL and have had requests for some kind of checklist/info to help new groups share helpful feedback. I put this together fairly quickly and would LOVE additional resources and tips so this can help as many picture book critique groups as possible--we need more amazing PBs in the world!

If you’re able to read a manuscript in advance, it helps to give feedback on the first read through, then read the manuscript at least one more time paying closer attention to details before making additional notes.
Give overall notes up top once you’re finished making line comments. The sandwich method works great:

  1. List one or more positives (yay!)

  2. Here is the meat of your critique—areas your feedback can help strengthen.

  3. Finish with another positive (we pour our hearts into our work, so a little verbal hug at the end of a critique goes a long way).

The beginning of a picture book needs to entice readers to take the journey.
Saggy middles can cause readers to stop mid-way through.
Endings need to dazzle enough to entice parents, teachers, etc. to pay $17ish instead of reading a book once and moving on to the next.

  • Does the beginning immediately draw you into the book? Is it unique?

  • Does the middle sag?

  • Does the ending have an unexpected twist, surprise, or that extra something special that will make people want to read the book again and again?

  • Is the overall concept unique enough for the current market? What could make it stand out more?

  • Is the story relatable to children—typically between ages 4 – 8 (unless it’s a board book or shorter book aimed at younger children)?

Important things to keep an eye out for:

  • Mark areas that are awkward, unclear, or don’t sparkle as much as they should.

  • Show where text can be streamlined or the pace drags.

  • Is there enough unique illustration bait for an entire PB (typically 32 pages, but some are 40, etc.) The text should inspire unique illustrations, not say exactly what is in them.

  • In a PB with a typical arc, do you know who the MC is, what he/she wants, and what gets in the way? Do we see several trials/failures to achieve this goal? (The magic number for PB is often 3, sometimes 7 works well.)

  • Is the text fun and easy to read out loud? Every single word counts!

  • For a fiction PB, is it 500 words or less? Can more be shaved off without losing the heart and voice of the book? (If you can tell your story without losing the fun re-readability factor in 400 or even 300 or less words, go for it—sparse text is appreciated by busy parents who will read favorite books a zillion times).

Positives help a lot, too! They not only give writers much-needed encouragement but help them recognize their strengths and areas they might not want to change as much as others.

  • Mark areas that make you laugh! Use your own style. LOL. 😊 Ha.

  • Show spots that make you tear up or feel the emotion. (Yay, these are golden.)

  • Which text sings the most? What’s the most fun to say out loud?

  • Is there a line you love so much, the author might want to use it as a refrain throughout the book? Kids love fun refrains!

  • Do you love the characters? Is there anything they say/do you’d like to see more of?

  • Do parts of the book pop into your mind long after you read it?

* The balance of illustrations and text isn’t easy to accomplish—you need to make sure editors/agents can understand your text yet leave enough room for an illustrator to add amazing pictures that will take your book to another level and do more than just mirror the text. Some examples of things you typically don’t need to tell in text (unless it’s extremely important to the story and not just your vision of it):

  • Descriptions of your character’s appearance

  • Clothing

  • Step by step descriptions: He walked down the stairs, into the kitchen, reached out his right hand to open the fridge and took out…

Helpful resources

12x12PB--This is an incredible community of writers and illustrators with the goal to write and revise a picture book each month (it's okay if you don't do both...but great motivation to at least revise). I'm thrilled that it pushed me to write 12 new PBs in 2019 and I hope I'll write 12 new ones this year. You never know when you'll strike gold! It has an active forum and supportive Facebook group where you can ask questions 24/7. It also has an extremely active critique section on the forum (and the opportunity to receive at least one Ninja critique each year from a professional author). One of my favorite parts of 12x12 are the incredibly monthly webinars with speakers like Mac Barnett and Heidi Stemple. I love how members support each other and celebrate good news.

*Registration for 12x12PB closes in January...so if you miss it, mark your calendar for next year.

#PBChat – I look forward to this Twitter chat with Justin Colon every other Wednesday starting at 9pm EST (if you can’t make it live, you can participate when you have time). It’s such a supportive, helpful community with writers and illustrators at all stages of their careers participating. Sometimes, he has authors/illustrators/agents/editors as special guests!

  1. Hop onto the #PBChat feed-make sure you’re viewing Latest, not Top Tweets: https://twitter.com/hashtag/pbchat?f=tweets&vertical=default&src=hash

  2. Justin posts graphic cards to generate the discussions, so it helps to keep an eye on his feed, too. You can look at Tweets & Replies or Media: https://twitter.com/JustinRColon/with_replies

  3. To join in the fun, make sure your tweet has #PBChat in it so others will see it in the feed.

Josh Funk's Guide to Writing Picture Books
Picture Book Dummy, Picture Book Construction: Know Your Layout – Tara Lazar
Free Picture Book Thumbnail Templates for Writers and Illustrators – Debbie Ohi
Every Picture Book Author Should Make a Storyboard
Picture Book Resources from Kidlit 411
Resources listed by Justin Colon, founder of #PBChat—the ones with an asterisk specifically apply to picture books.

Picture Book Workshops

Joyce Sweeney has helped over 61 writers become traditionally published and has an amazing On Demand 10 week PB workshop called Picture Book Essentials covering all aspects of writing a picture book.

Favorite PB Writing Books

WRITING PICTURE BOOKS By Ann Whitford Paul is one of my favorite craft books! Critique groups can read it and work on the amazing exercises together.

Please share more amazing resources in the comments. :)

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To Celebrate My Good News, I'm Giving Away Free Critiques!

I just won a scholarship to the Craft and Business of Writing Children's Picture Books class through the Children's Book Academy. I've been happy dancing since I heard the great news! The class is taught by Random House editor Kelly Delaney and Mira Reisberg, and includes 25+ guest experts, worksheets and templates, and critiquing webinars. Plus, there will be Golden Ticket opportunities to submit directly to an agent or editor and bypass the slush pile or closed house submission policy. I can't wait to start this class at the end of the month!

I shared my news on Facebook and loved celebrating with everyone—then realized that it would be great to keep the celebration going by paying my good luck forward and helping someone else. I’m so grateful for this opportunity, and decided to give away a free picture book critique (or up to 5 pages of an MG or YA). When I asked Mira, she loved the idea, and then generously offered to give away a picture book critique. So click on the Rafflecopter widget below and enter for your chance to win a critique with Mira or me.

If you attend Mira’s free webinar on Friday night, June 19, at 8:30 pm EST, you’ll have the chance to win a picture book critique with Random House editor Kelly Delaney. I’m definitely going to be there. It’s called: Finding Your Writer's Voice, Finding Your Characters' Voices. It’ll help you learn what a writer’s voice is and how to develop yours and see how characters' voices are a part of your writer's voice. Plus, you’ll have the chance to connect with a Random House editor who is actively looking to acquire great picture books.

This scholarship came at the perfect time for me. I'm usually a very prolific writer (I actually wrote the first draft of one of my novels in 11 days during NaNoWriMo and wrote the first draft of nine picture books during the seven days of NaPiBoWriWee one year)...but because of health issues with my daughters, I haven't been as productive as usual. I also tend to give my novels more attention and my picture books have been begging me to do something like this for a while. I've had some interest in my picture books, but something always seems to hold them back from getting that magical yes. I'm hopeful that this awesome interactive online class will help me make my picture books sparkle enough to dazzle editors, agents, and future readers.

I've seen so many raves about this class. Some online friends have said that it's 'life-changing, the equivalent of 20 conferences, and better than complete MFA programs'. Thank you so much for giving me a scholarship, Mira! I don't often talk about my disability, but I've had about 70% hearing loss in both ears since I was 35 and have had to wear hearing aids since then. I'd love the chance to make all of my picture books shine, and would especially love to get my PB, Sound Detective, published one day. I’ll never forget what it felt like to realize how bad my hearing had gotten, and that I’d have to wear hearing aids for the rest of my life. I was horrified at first, but quickly changed my mind when I realized all the amazing sounds I had been missing, and how much easier it is to interact with people with my hearing aids in. I was surprised to see that there aren’t many books for children that have a character with hearing loss, and I’d love to use my experience to help children going through something similar—and also help raise more awareness in others.

Good luck to everyone entering for a free critique! I’ll announce the winners on Friday. LiveJournal often doesn't show the Rafflecopter widget, so if you don't see it below, click here to enter!

**Thank you all for entering. Rafflecopter has selected the winners, and they are:

A picture book critique (or 5 pages of an MG/YA) from Mindy Alyse Weiss:
Jill Dana Siegel

A picture book critique from Mira Reisberg:
Jennifer DuBose

Huge congrats to the winners! Mira and I will be in touch with you soon. :)

Don’t forget about the #PBPitch Twitter party on Wednesday, June 24th. It’s a great opportunity to pitch your completed and polished picture books online to agents and editors. Definitely check out their website—in addition to info about the fun pitch contest, they have a list of 100+ agents who rep picture books!

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The 2014 SCBWI FL Regional Conference - Part 3

As promised, here is my third post about the incredible 2014 SCBWI FL Regional Conference in Miami. This one covers the editor panel and workshops led by editors Laura Whitaker and Aubrey Poole. Click here to check out my first post about the fantastic Novel Intensive led by agent Jen Rofé, editor Stacy Abrams, and author Chris Crutcher. And part two covers almost all of the general session, including an amazing agent panel filled with helpful info.

The Wonderful Editor Panel

Editor Panel
Stacy Abrams, Kat Brzozowski, Aubrey Poole, Laura Whitaker, Andrea Pinkney
Moderated by author Dorian Cirrone

This is what they said they’re looking for:

Stacy Abrams—contemporary (no paranormal or dystopian). Can have an issue in it but the book can’t be about the issue.

Kat Brzozowski—dystopian is hard. Would love a good YA mystery. Comes across as loving dark but does love girl meets boy and they kiss, light romantic contemporary stuff for girls.

*She also said that with social media, if you do one thing well but don't like another, don't force it.

Aubrey Poole—loves sci fi, YA, not looking at genre really—it’s the stories that stand out within a genre. More experimenting with format.

Laura Whitaker—she’s tired of dystopian and paranormal YA. She wants to be immersed in a story so much that she's physically removed from her own issues. She wants to read about real people. Contemporary, original voice.

*She also said that with MG and YA, networking is important. Do a lot of digital marketing initiatives. You can get a huge impact from doing a blog tour. "Help me help you."

Andrea Pinkney—more diversity, African American boys, adventure, mystery, fun. Contemporary stories. *You need to normalize and not make it about the problem, even with something like bi-polar. She’s interested in a novel with a character who has piercing or a lot of tattoos.

Sunday workshops
Aubrey Poole – Do You Know Your Character?
A Writing Intensive on Character Development.

Aubrey Poole

She gave us a personality quiz to help look at characters in a different way. She chose a character—Sherlock Holmes (she's obsessed with the new Sherlock show). We had to answer from our POV—how we see him.

When writing your character, remember that you act different with parents/sister/friend, etc.

You can use the Hero's Journey—Google it, and you'll find one that works for you.

Harry Potter perfectly follows the Hero's Journey.

You should use whatever point of view tells your story. If you give a description of a room, it should reflect your character.

She shared a character questionnaire found in Gotham Writers’ Workshop’s Writing Fiction. It’s filled with fantastic questions, broken up into two sections. The first are questions that address the basics about a character and include things like: Does she have a secret and where does your character go when she’s angry. The second section digs deeper by asking more unconventional questions like: What is one strong memory that has stuck with your character from childhood and why is it so powerful and lasting?

I wish I could share them all with you, but it really wouldn’t be fair for me to give more than this glimpse. If you want more—take Aubrey Poole’s character workshop or Writing Fiction!

Laura Whitaker: Dating 101: What makes YOU desirable to an editor?

Laura Whitaker

She’ll look at a query for 30 seconds to a minute. First thing should be the hook, then a two sentence synopsis (three if you have to), then info about yourself. 

Tell her something interesting about your writing journey. What drew you to telling this story? Let her know any cool things you can share about yourself—show what makes you vibrant and unique.  

Come up with an original title that represents your work. If the title is the same when you’re published and there’s a story behind how you arrived at the title, marketing will want it later for a blog/Tumblr piece.

If there’s a tie in with a recent news story/national concern—make sure she knows. Comp titles/TV shows/films are always good to include. For non-fiction, tie it into common core curriculum. Writing groups/conferences show that the writer is interested in the revision process. They want to know this!

She wants magical realism MG—a present day situation that has magical elements that come into it rather than the focus of the whole story. She wants a Chanukah picture book. She likes sparkly things.

You can include info about it being a trilogy in a pitch letter to an agent but not an editor.

Your website is your calling card--especially for picture books.

Do you tweet out interesting, dynamic tweets? It’s the best way to build connections with other authors, agents, and editors. Twitter is more important for MG and YA. Interact! Do you write about the process or what you're working on? Marketing and publicity want to see your social media platform. The more social media, the better—but it’s not a substitute for the craft.

We received a coupon from the conference to submit to her. If we don't have an agent, Laura can't acquire a manuscript (but if she loves it--she'll actively try to help us find an agent). Combine this with her incredible enthusiasm and knowledge, this amazing workshop that explained how to wow an editor and included a really helpful handout, plus the fact that she requested several manuscripts and you’ll see why Laura Whitaker is a fantastic asset to any conference or retreat faculty!  

All the FL SCBWI events have been incredible, but this one had some extra-special magic. Peggy Robbins Janousky had her first page read in the Picture Book Intensive and it received such enthusiastic responses from the agent and editors that she ended up signing with Deborah Warren on the second day of the conference! I can’t wait to share Peggy’s full FL SCBWI Success Story in an upcoming newsletter. We have another writer who signed with Deborah Warren soon after the conference. And so many of our members received full manuscript requests from agents and editors that weekend. There’s a lot of hope out there now, and I’m crossing my fingers and toes that there will be even more great news to shout out soon.

I’m counting the days until the Orlando Workshop at the Swan/Dolphin hotel on Disney property on June 6th and 7th. I’ll share the faculty list as soon as it’s confirmed, but I was excited to hear that agent Alexandra Penfold will be back again. She gave an amazing Picture Book Intensive a few years ago with author Lisa Wheeler. Here’s a link to the first post about that Picture Book Intensive and here’s the second one.
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The 2014 SCBWI FL Regional Conference - Part 2

This is my second post about the incredible 2014 SCBWI FL Regional Conference in Miami. There’s so much info to share with all of you, I had to break it into three posts! This one covers almost all of the general session, including an amazing agent panel. I’ll post again on Monday, February 24th with the editor panel plus workshops led by editors Laura Whitaker and Aubrey Poole. Click here to check out my last post about the Novel Intensive led by agent Jen Rofé, editor Stacy Abrams, and author Chris Crutcher.  
Agent panel--Jen Rofé, Deborah Warren, Ammi-Joan Paquette
Moderated by author Dorian Cirrone

Agent Panel

When sending a query, make it clear you're personalizing it to that agent.

Lot of success with author/illustrators, multicultural and historical (especially MG), and contemporary YA.

When asked how many editors she sends a manuscript to at a time and when she considers giving up she said she won't stop until she's exhausted every opportunity.

The fastest she sold a manuscript—3 hours! The longest it took was four years.

Often times, queries go to the bottom of the list because agents are busy with clients.

Wish list: commercial character based picture books. A country song book for YA. Books based on childhood, like a girl who is getting into stuff she isn't supposed to do, but nobody would expect that.

Don't send one query to tons of agents at once, and don't send over holidays. Loves when it's obvious that you've done your homework.

She also loves getting referrals from existing clients.

Specializes in picture books. She’s known for building brands and loves finding new talent!

She loves working with author/illustrators—it's her sweet spot. She’s having trouble with chapter books (they're usually franchises). Realistic fiction is really coming back and she's excited about that.

The client/agent relationship is like a marriage. She’ll never give up on a client—once you're on the team, you're there!

She loves to see good social networking in a client.

Wish list: Author/illustrators, multicultural, books based on childhood, a book about singing, or kids overcoming their obstacles.

She usually takes three to four weeks to respond to queries. For longer requested manuscripts it was two months, but she’s backlogged right now.

She looks for a strong opening in the sample pages and is especially drawn to precise pitches in a query that are snappy and compelling.

Picture books have been huge this past year—they just exploded. The last couple of years, it's been skyrocketing. Science fiction is slower.

When working on promotion, authenticity and what feels natural to you is important. An awkward presence is actually worse than no presence. In the pre-published stage, the focus should be on craft.

Wish list: books that do something really different, a different narrative structure, different POV. Sometimes, if it's challenging to find the right home for it, it's even more rewarding in the end. She loves unusual projects, books based on childhood—travel, unusual vacations, anything to do with food or baking or French food. She loves caves.

Chris Crutcher – Turning Real Life Into Fiction
Chris CrutcherGet out there and tell the best story you can tell (worry about audience/marketing later).

Looks for the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy.

Crystal Kite award winner Augusta Scattergood and her editor, Andrea Pinkney, for Glory Be.

Augusta Scattergood and Andrea PinkneyShe shared the quote: It's never too late to be what you might have been.

What she first sent Andrea is considered the 'pre first draft'—they worked very hard together on it. In fact, when a kid asked Augusta how she learned how to write, she said her editor taught her.

Sara Pennypacker--Figure out what matters
Sara PennypackerAll authors have something at our core that we're trying to correct by what we're doing—something we're trying to make better. And connection is one of the most important things about books.

Write from the point of view of a character who feels deeply about things.

She loves Clementine—she'd just sit in a dark closet all day and listen to her.

Here’s what I learned during the First Page Critiques:
Kat Brzozowski

Loves when the first line of a book poses a question that the rest of the book will answer.

Try to keep character description off the first page unless shown vs told. If you tell on the first page, it gives the impression that there’s more telling throughout the manuscript.

Start in scene more than action.

Alex Flinn

Less description sometimes helps readers imagine how characters look.

Jen Rofé

Don’t start with an introduction (it isn’t interesting).

Peter Brown: My Curious Career
Peter BrownHe found the quote: "Good artists borrow, great artists steal."

He thought—pursue things that really inspire you and make it your own.

He started thinking about why he loved paintings and saw patterns in the things he loved.

Tiger ends up taking off his clothes right in the center of Mr. Tiger Goes Wild—he joked about having a nude centerfold in a picture book. :)

Lois Duncan: When a Dinosaur Goes to Hollywood

Lois DuncanNever give up. Learn from your mistakes and keep going!

If you can't sell something, put it in a drawer for a year or two and get it back in the market. If you really think it's a good book—keep it!

She wrote Hotel for Dogs and it didn't do that great...then she sold the movie rights about 35 years later. It went into successful movie, so Scholastic republished it.

Never burn your bridges.

The stories are really important. So go forth and write those stories!
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Novel Intensive with Jen Rofé, Stacy Abrams, and Chris Crutcher

I love attending conferences, workshops, and taking writing classes, and have a feeling that won’t change, no matter how many books I have published. I always take at least a gem or two back with me…and sometimes a whole treasure chest full of sparkling gems I can use to improve my writing and revision skills. Plus, I come home filled with inspiration. And I love spending time with others who love children’s books as much as I do! I’ve made some amazing lifelong friends and critique buddies through these events!

The 2014 SCBWI FL Regional Conference in Miami was fantastic! I have so much info to share with all of you, I’ll break it into two or three posts. I started the conference by taking the Novel Intensive with:

Jen Rofé (Agent, Andrea Brown Literary Agency)
Stacy Abrams (Editorial Director, Entangled Teen/Ember lines/Bliss)
Chris Crutcher (Author)

The Novel Intensive faculty

Jen Rofé spoke about agenting:

·         Write the thing that scares you. It usually comes from some raw, painful place and that's where the good stuff comes out.
·         If you write picture books, she would want at least four she could try to sell right away.
·         She’s very editorial.
·         Where you start the story really matters.
·         Don't EVER write to the market!!!!
·         She sees clients with writer ticks...but also idea ticks (for ex. Daddy issues). The goal is with each idea you have, go beyond that. Be stronger and different. You can write within same genre, but make sure you don't have ticks that repeat, like Dad issues, always losing and finding something, etc.
·         Let readers use their imagination instead of using too much stage direction.
·         Jen's job is to know the marketplace, so when writers tell her about the marketplace in a query, it's like they don't think she knows her job. But my book can fit in with __ and __ shows knowledge about the market and where your spot in market will be. Don't use the most popular books for comparisons!
·         She loves animal books.
·         A personal note from an agent is a good sign! They don't have time to send that to everyone. It might be the project/first page/query letter that isn't quite right at the moment.
·         When asked what the current market is like, she said: It’s always a great time for children's literature—but it’s very, very, very competitive.

In October, she learned that editors want:
·         Commercial and character based picture books
·         Fun MG J
·         Adventurous books, especially for boys
·         No dystopian or paranormal romance YA--more contemporary
·         Common core--everyone wants nonfiction, especially narrative NF (that feels like a story)

In the afternoon, Jen Rofé used Richard Peck's sheet—your first chapter is your last chapter in disguise, and we read the beginning of several books, and discussed why it did or didn’t get our attention. What did we learn about the character and the story right up front?
*I think this would be a great exercise to do with other writing friends or your critique group! You could gather several recently published books in the genre/s you write and see how much you learn from the first paragraph or two.  

Chris Crutcher

·         Don't think about your audience while you're writing your story. You'll start cheating yourself out of telling the true part of that story, the intimacy, the secrets. Tell your story in most raw, honest way possible. Don't worry about how it'll land—get the story down first!
·         It's dangerous emotionally to write a good book—it reveals your secrets.
·         Chris starts with an event that blows him away. It must be something he really cares about. He wonders ‘what if’ and sees where the story goes. He's usually at chapter eight or nine when he knows the arc/ending. He flails early on and doesn't know what he'll throw in character's way.
·         He didn't know what he was doing at first, but remembered being a kid and he had lots of kids in his life through teaching. He listens to current kid language at school visits, etc.
·         Find the piece that touches all of us. Don't just go into your experience, but step back and make it more universal.
·         Written language goes a long way—limit curses and using typical kid language like 'dude' and 'like'.
·         For critiques--you want people who think story. You don’t want critiquers who only think it's good.
·         Movement helps him work through issues in the book (he thinks about the issues when he’s running or swimming).
Stacy Abrams

·         When reading the beginning of a manuscript, she wants to know the problem and what your hook is (a hook shows readers why they should care). 
·         Readers need to see conflict right away—it’s the most important part of novel.
·         The first chapter is so important—her house spends an enormous amount of time on it. You can use the first chapter as a marketing tool and let people read it for free.
·         Relatability of characters is very important—she especially works on this with YA authors.
·         Language is important. How does your character describe the world?
·         High concept books can be explained in one sentence, like an elevator pitch.
·         You can’t just write a book, authors also have to go into schools, etc. It’s important for authors to interact with their audience!

This was just the first day of the conference! I should have another conference post up by the end of the week. I’m already looking forward to the FL SCBWI Workshop in Orlando this summer. It’s on June 6 – 7 at the Swan/Dolphin hotel on Disney property. It’s the perfect excuse for a Disney vacation!
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Where To Find Inspiration for Future Manuscripts

It’s amazing how many story ideas you can miss if you’re too busy to jot them down before they fly away. Mine often hit when I’m driving, about to sleep, or in the shower. Luckily, I’ve been able to get most of them into notebooks or on my laptop. Whew!
I recently realized that I didn’t have a NaNoWriMo idea for this November. I know there’s plenty of time, but I love being able to jot down notes, flesh out characters, run it through Joyce Sweeney’s Plot Clock, and be as prepared as possible when November 1st comes (especially since I participate in PiBoIdMo that month, too). I had thought of writing a sequel to my latest NaNo novel, but realized it isn’t a good idea yet. I’ve been busy revising older MGs after having some major ‘aha’ moments through classes and conferences, and have only revised part of that manuscript so far. I was planning to tackle it next…but a brilliant new idea for the beginning of my first MG hit me recently, and I’m dying to play around with it after I finish polishing up my MG, Mom Wars.

While I was reading The One and Only Ivan (which is a totally amazing book that you should all read—I was so emotionally invested in those characters and their heartbreaking story) it sparked an idea for a middle grade novel, in a style I never thought about trying before. It’s a little scary, but I think I can still showcase my heart and humor and can’t wait to play around with the idea to see if it might work for November. It’s wonderful how reading can broaden your writing. I never had considered writing fantasy, and came up with an amazing idea a while back while reading Libba Bray’s Rebel Angels in a room filled with flickering candlelight during a hurricane. Whenever I try a new genre, the learning curve is huge! It can take much longer to figure out how to make my voice and humor work…but I love experimenting and pushing myself to grow as a writer.

Sometimes, inspiration can be found in unexpected places. I went to an amazing novel retreat, and came home with tons of ways to strengthen my novels. What I didn’t expect was to have a major ‘aha’ moment while eating a meal with two awesome editors and some writers—for a picture book! Even though the focus was only on novels, the conversation sparked an idea for a picture book that is shaping up to be one of my favorites. And I think it could be really marketable, too!

Novels take so long to write and revise, that I sometimes neglect my poor picture books. I’m great about making time to revise them, but can go long periods of time without writing new ones if I’m not careful. Challenges like PiBoIdMo and the 12 x 12 Picture Book Challenge help a lot. For years, I’ve been participating in Paula Yoo’s NaPiBoWriWee. The goal is to write one new picture book draft a day for seven days (from May 1st through May 7th). Paula has all kind of inspirational blog posts from herself and other writers and illustrators. And you can win prizes, too! Although  having seven brand new manuscripts to mold into shape is an awesome prize by itself.

I’ve been going through my lists and fleshing out the ideas, and hope to Plot Clock as many as possible before the 1st (yikes, time is running out). So…who is going to join me?

If you want to join but don’t have a clue what to write about yet, you can start by thinking about your own childhood wants/needs/fears, or seeing what your own children (or other children in your life) experience. You can come up with a unique character and figure out what kind of conflict he or she can have. Brainstorm creative ways you can retell stories. Just keep your eyes, ears, and heart open at all times, and the ideas will come. J

Here’s a link to a post I put up on From the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle Grade Authors a while ago, called How To Find Great Ideas.

I’ll also paste part of a blog post I wrote that highlighted some things that helped me the year I came up with 87 PiBoIdMo ideas in one month:
Here are a few tricks that helped me come up with so many ideas:

* I looked for inspiration online, like Jean Reidy suggested.

* When the ideas seemed to slow down a bit, I created characters I'd love to write about, which sparked several of my story ideas.

* I used Tammi Sauer's suggestion to come up with settings and brainstormed what could go wrong in each one.

* I also used the suggestion from Aaron Zenz to come up with story ideas after looking at pictures drawn by kids.  

* I wrote down all the possibilities that hit me.  But I didn't want to have those tiny nuggets sprinkled around my more fleshed out ideas, so I created a section at the bottom of my file for random thoughts.  Some of them are just titles, a funny phrase...anything I think I might be able to use in a future manuscript.  The amazing thing is that I fleshed out many of my random thoughts throughout the month and had to move them into my main file.  I happy danced every time that happened.  The ideas started off so small, I probably would've forgotten about them if I hadn't jotted them down.  For all I know, some of them could end up in bookstores in the next few years! 

How do you come up with ideas for new books?   
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The winner of a critique from Gayle Krause is...

Thank you for visiting my blog to help Gayle Krause celebrate the release of her young adult novel, RATGIRL: Song of the Viper. And thanks again for all the sweet comments.  I'm glad you enjoyed Gayle's writing tips, and hope they'll help you with future projects.

And now, the winner of a five page YA or MG critique or a full picture book critique from Gayle is...

Janet Smart
Congratulations, Janet!  Gayle will send you an e-mail soon.  Enjoy your critique prize!
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Critique giveaway and writing tips from author Gayle Krause

I am thrilled to welcome author Gayle Krause to my blog!  Gayle stopped by to share some helpful writing tips and offer a critique giveaway for a YA, MG, or picture book to celebrate the launch of her young adult novel RATGIRL: Song of the Viper.  I’ve been studying pitches lately, and absolutely love hers:  When streetwise orphan, Jax Stone, discovers her singing voice has a hypnotic effect on rats and children, she uses her gift to outwit the tyrannical mayor of Metro City and his corrupt corporation.  Gayle is also the author of ROCK STAR SANTA—a rhyming picture book about a 'rockin' Christmas Eve.
Gayle Krause                       Gayle - RatGir

It takes a special creativity to write a story that will capture and hold a teenager’s attention. It must compete with smartphones, video games, and social media.

If you are interested in writing for the YA market, here are some writing tips, with examples from my story, RATGIRL: Song of the Viper, that will help you create a good young adult novel. You can adapt these to MG novels, as well.

1.Immerse your reader in a world they can recognize, but make it unique enough to be different from their lives.

Okay, you’ve got fantasy and realistic stories, and a combination of both. Teens live in either the city, with large populations, or the country, with less people, and more animals.

If your story takes place on Mars, the same rules apply – a largely populated space city or a lonely space station floating in the universe, somewhere.

In RATGIRL, I chose the setting of a large city in the future, but what makes it unique is:

Only the homeless and poor live there because global warming has affected the earth, and the rich have fled to the New Continent (Antarctica, which after the snow and ice melted revealed a fertile, temperate land).

The population can only venture to the surface at night because of the intense sun.

There are more rats than people left in the abandoned city.

2.Teen readers understand love triangles. Everyday at school, someone is having a “love” crisis. Use this in your story to grab their heartstrings.

Love triangles don’t always involve adults.

The triangle of love in RATGIRL involves Jax Stone, the main character, Colt Conrad, the young man who captures her heart, before she’s even aware he has, and her 5-year-old brother Andy, whom she protects with her life against the evils of the dying city.

Jax struggles with her love and need for both of men in her life.

3.Always have a struggle between “good and evil.” More than one villain is encouraged.

In any good story the villain has minions, but in RATGIRL the villains are not related, and the environment is the biggest villain of all.

Sylvannis Culpepper, the tyrannical mayor of Metro City is greedy and selfish in his efforts to rid the city of the homeless. His plan for the children is diabolical, and Jax refuses to let Andy fall prey to the mayor’s plan, even sacrificing herself to save him.

Otto Hoffmann, the pawnbroker who deals in trades for both money and food, has his own designs on escaping the city. He tries to swindle Jax out of more than a few scavenged trinkets and insinuates himself in her plan to save her brother.

And the biggest villain is Mother Nature. Global warming has overtaken the earth. Humans can only surface from their underground hideaways at night to trade for food and sell their services. The daytime sun is deadly.

4.Describe your character though their emotions and actions, don’t tell us about their emotions and actions.

This is a hard one to give examples for, but what I tell my critique partners, and it works for me, is to NEVER use I see, I hear, I smell, I feel, I taste.

Yes, it’s the 5 senses, and yes, you’re supposed to use them, but you must SHOW them, not TELL about them, and you do this through a character’s actions, emotions, and dialogue.

Excerpt form RATGIRL: Song of the Viper:

I race to claw my way through the debris that was once the door. Images of what could have happened flash before me. I gasp for air. “Oh, God. Andy!”
Dashing up the steps to the roof, my heart beats triple time. Air pumps through my lungs like a turbine. The door, at the top of the stairs, is wide open. I reach the roof, and fall to my knees. The sound of my wails, as I pull my hair, sound foreign to me, like I’m listening to someone’s lament, but it’s mine. “Nooooooooooo.”

5.Don’t be afraid to use a vocabulary word that teens may not know. If the sentence it is used in is written well, the reader will garner it’s meaning from the scene.

Teen readers love to figure out challenges as they read, not just be told everything they need to know. I write what I like to read, and I’ve been an avid reader my whole life.

I tend to set up a situation that has a mystery or question to it, so that the reader can connect the clues to solve the problem as the story goes along. Advanced vocabulary, or foreign words are favorites of mine. Sprinkled throughout the manuscript, they work to enhance the reader’s knowledge.

As a former teacher I can’t get away from my teaching mantra. “leave a student knowing more than when you met him/her.” Hopefully, I do that with my stories. J

Thanks for spending time with Jax Stone, and me. Please enter using the Rafflecopter link below for a chance to win a first chapter critique of your YA or MG novel (up to 5 pages), or a full picture book critique. Random.org will select the winner on Sunday, February 24.

You'll receive one entry each if you:
*Leave a comment on this blog post
*Tweet about the giveaway
*Follow Gayle Krause on Twitter
*'Like' the RATGIRL: Song of the Viper Facebook page
*Spread the word on Facebook
*Spread the word on your blog or other social media

Thanks again for stopping by my blog, Gayle, and congrats on your new YA!  Good luck to everyone who enters the giveaway.  Gayle is a professional critiquer.  She has tons of experience with YA, MG, and picture books (and for those who write in verse--she's a master at rhyme!)  I can't wait to see who wins the critique on Sunday. :)
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The Joyce Sweeney critique winners are...

I've had such a fun week celebrating the launch of Joyce Sweeney's online class.  Thank you all so much for your enthusiastic comments and link shares.  I really appreciate it!  And a huge thank you to Joyce for giving away so many generous prizes.  I can't wait to see who wins them!
Writing coach, Joyce Sweeney
And now, using Rafflecopter and Random.org, here are the winners, drawn in the same order I posted the prizes.  Good luck, everyone!  

Ten page novel critique or a picture book critique:  

Jayne Moraski 

These five winners will each receive a first page critique:

Jennifer Young

Tori Kelley

Kim Baccellia

Niki Moss 

Kristen McGill Fulton

And the incredible grand prize...

A 50 page novel critique or three picture book critiques and one query critique goes to:

Summer Ross

Congratulations to all the winners!  I wish we could hand out prizes to everyone.  Even though Joyce can't give a free critique to all of you, she has plenty of amazing writing tips on her website, and will continue to share them in her free monthly newsletter.

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HUGE Critique Giveaway and Interview with Joyce Sweeney

A grand prize has been added to this giveaway, thanks to all your enthusiastic shares of my last post, when I announced Joyce Sweeney’s new online class, shared my notes on her amazing Plot Clock workshop, and announced this giveaway.  Just wait until you see the generous prize that Joyce added.  It’s huge.  HUGE!  Plus, one lucky person will win the original 10 page novel or one picture book critique prize.  And…there just might be a few other little surprises waiting for you at the bottom of this post. ;)

But first, I’d love to share my inspiring interview of Joyce Sweeney, so you can have a glimpse into the heart and mind of the woman who helped thirty-six writers become published.  One of the things I noticed soon after meeting Joyce was how much she cares about all of her students.  She’s the first one to cheer for your great news, give you a shoulder to cry on, send a sprinkle of fairy dust your way when you’re about to send out a new sub or a requested revision, and help you through pretty much anything this business throws your way.  She’s like our proud Mama, and I know I’ve said this a million times, but I feel incredibly lucky to have Joyce in my life!

Here’s a picture of Joyce’s bookshelf, where she proudly displays the books her students have had published.

Books from Joyce's students

Welcome to my blog, Joyce!  Can you share how you became a writing coach, and what you love most about it?  What do you think is the most challenging part of being a writing coach?

I started out years ago teaching five-week classes through the Broward County Library, just as a way to make extra money.  I soon found out I had a passion for teaching and mentoring and the expansion began!  I started my own ongoing workshop on Thursdays in 1994 and my goal was to have one of my writers get published.  That happened in 1996. By 1998, we had seven people with books accepted and the Magic Bean ceremony was born.  Then I expanded to two classes a week, then three.  All this is fed by SCBWI, where I meet new writers all the time and I’ve always done manuscript critiques for people all over the country, but that has hugely expanded in the past few years as well.  I just can’t stop myself.  When I see a writer who needs a helping hand, I have to jump in!  What I love most is when my students have their books accepted, seeing that dream realized and knowing what it means to them and how hard they’ve worked for it.  The most challenging is when I know I’m right about something and the writer just doesn’t believe me…but of course, the coach can’t insist, she can only coach. 

How did you come up with the idea to create video classes?

People have been asking me to do online classes for a long time because I have so many clients outside of Florida and they want to take a class with me, too!  Cathy Castelli made it easy by suggesting a way we could do it and I was very excited.  Making the videos made me a little nervous…I’m used to talking to a room full of people, not a lens.  But I got used to it after a while. 

I heard that your video course can help people at all stages in their writing careers.  Can you give a few examples of the way it can help newer writers, those who have honed their craft for years and are currently seeking agents and editors, and published and agented authors?

For a beginner, this lets you get a good grounding of the fundamentals so you can start out right and avoid a lot of mistakes.  And for the more experienced, and even published writers…let’s face it, we never stop learning.  I’ve made a real study of craft over the past decade and I have a lot of shortcuts and ideas I don’t see anywhere else.  I noticed that Cathy, even though she works with me in a weekly group, learned a lot from the classes.  So this is definitely good for you at any level.

Do you need to have a completed novel to take your course?

No, the lessons are about the elements of craft, so you can learn them before you write, while you’re writing or after you have a draft completed.  Wherever you’re jumping in, your writing will definitely become stronger and you’ll have more confidence that you know how to get the best out of yourself.

How many hours per week do you think the average writer will spend on your class?

That’s hard to say.  To simply view a lesson takes about thirty minutes.  Probably some people will want to view them several times, to let the ideas absorb or take notes, or copy the handouts.  Then if you are applying the principles to your WIP, that’s as many hours as you want to do.  Plus there’s the website where you can share homework or talk to the other participants.  So it’s really up to those taking the class how much time they’d like to spend.

What makes this different from other classes out there?

I hear all the time that I’m teaching some things that are not out there.  My method of skills assessment, which comes in Lesson One, I know is unique, because I developed it and it gives writers a great sense of how and where to improve…and also why even though they are very advanced, there might be one aspect of craft they need to work on more.  There are lots of plot templates out there but the one I developed over the past few years along with Jamie Morris works really well.  As a novelist, I developed a lot of my own tricks and ideas about character, description etc.  I think I’m in a unique position for marketing because I’ve mentored so many writers to success.  So just because of my personal experience, there’s a lot of good information in these classes. 

Can you explain a little more about how the forum will work?

Students can use the forum any way they want to…there are homework assignments, which they can share on the forum if they want…or they can ask me a question, or they can just chat with each other about the classes.  I’ll be checking in often to see what’s going on and help people get the most from each lesson.

Will this course benefit nonfiction or picture book writers?

I think this course works very well for memoir writers because I address memoir in the lessons and I feel fiction writing techniques help them shape their material, which can sometimes be unwieldy.  I reference picture books at times, and most of the elements of craft apply to picture books as well as novels…great characters, realistic dialog, etc.  Some things will not apply to them…for example most PB’s don’t need to worry about subplots….but there would be a lot of value to all writers in this course, I think. 

Will participants receive critiques during this class?

There are very short homework assignments.  Not always writing, sometimes it’s a way of looking back at your WIP with something, like the Plot Clock, in mind.  But if anyone posts something short on the forum, I’ll comment on it for sure.  But not formal critiques per se.

You've helped so many writers become published.  What advice would you give writers who keep coming close to getting an agent or editor, but haven't received that magical ‘yes’ yet?

Please, please believe me when I tell you it takes longer than you think.  If you’re coming close, as in getting requests, you’re moving down the chess board.  There are certain steps to publication and without exception, if you take each step you need to take, you get there.  But the steps do include revising more than you’d expect, learning more about your craft even when you think you’ve learned ‘everything’ and not letting rejections stop you.  I see the same kind of determination in all my writers who make it.  They just keep going no matter what the obstacles are…and one magical day…all the doors fly open.  It happens every time.  Except to the ones who give up….

Thanks again for visiting my blog, Joyce!  And congratulations on the launch of your online class. 

Fiction Writing Essentials is a ten-session class for writers of all levels. In this class, you’ll learn about everything from pre-book decisions to marketing. Each session will include a video lecture, handouts, and assignments. Students will also have access to a forum where they can interact with each other, share assignments, and ask questions.

Joyce has critiqued over a thousand manuscripts during the past 20 years, and will share one writing tip a day on her Sweeney Writing Coach website until class starts.  She’ll also continue to share the types of mistakes she often sees in manuscripts and how to avoid them in her free monthly newsletter.    

And now, here are the amazing prizes you can win as we celebrate the launch of Joyce’s virtual class:

Ten page novel critique or a picture book critique

Five winners will receive a first page critique

And the mystery grand prize is…

A 50 page novel critique!


Three picture book critiques and one query critique!

If you’ve already entered, you can receive additional entries for sharing this interview. J

Enter using the Rafflecopter link below.  You’ll receive one entry for:

*Leaving a comment on this post or on Joyce Sweeney's website

*Signing up for Joyce Sweeney's free monthly newsletter

*Plus one entry for each shout out on a blog, Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. (Please list where you’ve shared it in the comments of this post).
--Several of these are listed under the Invent Your Own Option buttons--click on them for more info!


The lucky winners will be announced on Sunday.  Good luck!