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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

#PBChat – I look forward to this Twitter chat with Justin Colon every Wednesday from 9pm – 10pm 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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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! 

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Joyce at a book signing

I’m thrilled to share information from another one of Joyce Sweeney’s amazing workshops. Dialogue and humor are some of my writing strengths, but I’ve always had to work extra-hard to plot my novels well.  I love brainstorming a story idea and jotting down character traits ahead of time, but have never been a fan of outlining.  I was thrilled to see how well Joyce’s Plot Clock works for me—on existing manuscripts I want to rewrite and before writing new manuscripts.  It’s a tool I plan to use throughout my career!

Speaking of helpful tools…don’t forget to read all the way down to the bottom of this post, to see how you can win a critique from Joyce Sweeney!

Before I describe Joyce’s plot clock, fill in this important sentence about your novel:

My book is about _____ who grapples with _______ and discovers _________.

*Make sure it’s the external main plot, not an internal one!

**If there are flashbacks, the main plot is what is happening in real time.

The Plot Clock has four acts (picture a circle divided into four equal parts).  The length of the acts in your manuscript should be even, or at least close to even, if possible.


Show the ordinary world, and that something is wrong (something needs to happen).  Readers need to feel a lack, a need, just before the inciting event…which is the new thing that comes into the character’s life and changes everything.  The main character resists the change.

If very commercial, the inciting incident has to come up soon!

End of Act 1 is the binding point.  You can push characters into it, have them trapped, or some external event can make them want to do it.

*Note: Start putting the external events you know on the Plot Clock first.  Don't rush--you don't want to cram your own events in.  You might find that they're missing on the clock and you have to brainstorm a new scene

~That’s what happened to me!  I had trouble finding the binding point on the MG I brought with me…and it led to a huge discovery about my character that I was able to weave through the entire novel.  I had a misunderstanding between my MC and her best friend, where the friend got mad that she didn’t tell her important things.  It used to be that my MC was embarrassed, and just didn’t have the chance (or didn’t go out of her way) to tell her…but after looking at the Plot Clock, I now see how important it is for her to not tell her friend on purpose, for fear of losing her after having her last best friend ditched her a year ago.


Characters usually try to use their old techniques to solve this new problem.  But not doing the right thing causes losses or failures that escalate in a sad way.

At the low point between Act 2 and Act 3—characters think they can’t make it through this.  They change!  Try something different.

ACT 3: 

You can’t go straight from the low point to the climax—this act shows progress.  Things start getting better!  To counteract that, you escalate the stakes. As the protagonist gets stronger, the antagonist gets stronger, too. The second half of the book should signal where the climax will be. We pretty much have a clue what will need to be fought—what's right, wrong, etc. But you still need to keep the reader in suspense!

End of Act 3 is the turning point.  Joyce says most people don’t know anything about the turning point.  It raises the stakes and affects the climax in really important ways.  I wish I could go into more detail, but I’m trying not to give away all of Joyce’s secrets.

I feel so lucky to live close enough to attend Joyce’s weekly workshop, plus her other local events.  I’m really excited that she now has a virtual class that starts on Monday, February 11th.  I’m signed up and ready to take my writing to the next level, and I hope to see a lot of my online friends in the class forum!

In order to celebrate the launch of her virtual class, Joyce has offered a ten page novel critique or a picture book critique as a prize!  And guess what…if this awesome giveaway receives more than 50 entries, she’ll add a grand prize, which will be revealed on Wednesday, when I post an interview of her—AND IT WILL BE A MUCH LARGER CRITIQUE THAN THE ONE ALREADY LISTED!

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).

                                        CLICK HERE TO ENTER THE GIVEAWAY!

Don’t forget to come back on Wednesday to read an interview with Joyce where you’ll find out more about her virtual class, plus see what advice she’d give writers who keep coming close to getting an agent or editor, but haven't received that magical ‘yes’ yet.  You’ll also find out what incredibly generous grand prize could be added to the giveaway.  The winner/s will be announced on Sunday, February 10th.  Good luck!

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Happy 1st Birthday, Ruby!

My sweet little puppy is one today.  Happy birthday, Ruby!

I honestly didn’t think Hubby would let us get another dog, and was thrilled when Ruby came into our lives.  It’s hard to believe that she was abandoned out in the Everglades, fighting for her life.  I’m incredibly thankful that a local rescue group saved her!  Ruby was so scared when we first met her.  I’ll never forget how she shook when I held her for the first time. It wasn’t an instant connection.  I thought she was adorable, but she didn’t really want to interact with us.  Then, another dog was brought into the room, and Ruby’s eyes lit up.  She practically hopped around the room, kissing the dog right on the mouth.  We just sat back, watching them play, and I could tell that with some love and attention, she’d be incredible with people, too.  When I was about to leave, I picked her up and she wasn’t shaking anymore.  She gave me a tiny kiss on my nose, then lay her head against my cheek.  That’s it.  I was totally sold!

C Ruby loves her new boneRuby opening a door

I feel so lucky to have Ruby in my life.  She’s totally in love with her big sister, Lolly.  My three year-old bullmassador acts like a puppy again, and I love seeing them snuggle and play tug of war.  I’m still in awe of how smart Ruby is!  She figured out how to open every door in my house, and practically taught herself to walk next to us off leash, even if a dog is barking at her!  I love the way Ruby makes these adorable grunting sounds, especially when she’s happy. And she lets me know when she needs something—she jumps up to get my attention, then leads me to whatever it is she wants (I always know if she’s hungry, thirsty, wants to go out, or is bored and wants to play). 

I think every writer should have a special pet or two.  It’s so nice having them keep me company!  They often curl up by my chair, and constantly inspire me.  In fact, I believe every novel that I’ve written has at least one animal in it.  Lolly helped me come up with an amazing dog for my MG, Mom Wars.  And the sweet Siberian Husky I was lucky to have for 13 ½ years inspired one of my favorite characters…a husky-sheepdog-mystery mutt who is the biggest scaredy dog on the planet, and sheds enough fur to form a guinea pig. Our birthday pup has the same name as the main character in that book…and I can’t wait to see how my grunting, door-opening dog will work her way into a future manuscript or two.

I’d love to know who keeps you company when you write, and how animals inspire your stories.  

I’m off to celebrate Ruby’s birthday with a special treat my daughter made…vanilla cupcakes with peanut butter frosting for Ruby and Lolly and butter cream frosting for us.  Yum!

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Finding Balance

It's not always easy to balance writing and family.  For a while, life was fairly quiet while my girls were in school, and I had tons of writing time.  I've always loved a challenge, and amazed myself with achievements.  I remember plunging into my first NaNoWriMo last minute in 2006.  It felt incredible to surround myself with others who were all working toward the same goal--50,000 words of a novel.  I started about a week late, and was excited to still make my goal by the end of November.  Each year, I pushed myself harder.  And harder.  One year, I had to go away mid-month, and was determined to make my NaNo goal by then, so I could enjoy the time with my family without being tempted to escape to my hotel room to make more progress. I completed NaNo in 11 days!!!!  And last year, I believe I came up with about 90 new picture book ideas through PiBoIdMo (even though the goal is 30). 

I've been on a bit of a roller coaster this past year.  My older daughter has been doing a wonderful job trying to overcome an eating disorder.  She wasn't ready to go to our local high school though, so she's home with me and our pups, and doing virtual school.  We decided that Lolly and Ruby will be her school mascots -the Massive Mastiff and Regal Beagle.
Lolly and Ruby holding paws
It's great spending all this extra time with my daughter.  But between doctor appointments, bark-fests when my daughter takes a break to play with the pups, and daily interruptions I never used to have, I've been working a lot slower than usual. Taking several weeks or longer to do a round of revisions that I could normally knock out in less than a week was frustrating at first...but I've found that one perk is that I can see my manuscripts in a different light when I have the chance to really dig into them.

I definitely used to spend too much time writing (and doing writing related things). I'm heavily involved in so many things--From the Mixed-Up Files...of Middle-Grade Authors, I'm the FL SCBWI Listserv editor, an administrator on Verla Kay's Blueboards, I'm in five critique groups...plus all the time I spend on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. But now I feel like I haven't had enough quality writing time, which makes it scary to participate in challenges (if I say I'm going to do something, I feel beyond awful if I'm not successful).  I've thought about it, and I'm still determined to do NaNoWriMo and PiBoIdMo in November.  And I really, really hope I complete both!  But this year, I can't put my entire life on hold to do them.  I need to find some balance.  Yes, I'll probably stock up on extra underwear because the laundry mountain tends to get out of control in November.  And I'm sure I'll sneak into my office quite a bit and probably will say no to some events in order to have extra writing time...but I'm not going to shackle myself to my computer.  Helping my daughter through her rough battle with an eating disorder made me appreciate my family and friends even more than before. I'm not sure how I'll find the right balance...but I'm determined to do it!

I have a huge to-do list I'd love to tackle before November 1st.  I just took a plotting workshop with my amazing mentor, Joyce Sweeney, and had a huge 'aha' moment for my MG, so I'd love to finish running the revision through the entire manuscript and have a chance to read through the full in one sitting by then.  And there's another MG I'd love to go through.  Plus, I love the plot clock that Joyce uses, and for the first time, plan to loosely plot out my NaNo novel (I usually have at least a rough idea about the beginning, end, a few events, and character sketches ahead of time...but now I want to make sure I have all 4 acts, the potential inciting incident and binding point, etc. in mind...even though I know it's possible my characters will take me in another direction once I get to know them better.)  I also want to get as many picture books written for the 12 x 12 challenge by then (and hopefully get the rest into rough draft form by the end of the year).  I only wrote 5 out of the 12 drafts this year, and have so many great ideas  from last years' PiBoIdMo begging to be written.  And I have crits to get back to some amazing writers by the end of this month, too.  I have a feeling I won't make all of these goals by Halloween...but I'll do what I can and make sure I tackle the most important ones first.  

The thought of signing up for a challenge and not being able to complete it terrifies me.  But for years, I've told people that they're winners in these challenges, even if they don't make their goal...because they've produced much more than they probably would have without the challenge.  And I totally meant it...for them.  So why is it hard for me to believe that's true for me as well?  I always try my best in everything I do, but if life gets in the way of me completing my challenges this year, I don't want to feel awful about it.  I'll do my best and try to find a good balance between writing, my family, and writing related activities...and see what happens.

How do you balance writing, family, and everything else in your life?   
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I've had such a fun and busy few days with my family that I just realized that the winners of up to a 20 page critique of an MG from agent Alyssa Eisner Henkin and a copy of Wonder by R. J. Palacio will be drawn in a few hours, and I hadn't shouted it out here.  There's also a link toward the bottom that gives you another way to enter a giveaway for a 20 page critique from Alyssa Eisner Henkin...and this one is good for PB, MG, and YA!  Hop on over to the Mixed-Up Files site and check it out.

I had so much fun interviewing Alyssa, and learned a lot from her responses.  She discussed the changing market, great ways for authors to promote themselves and their books, and went into detail about a middle-grade novel by client Adam Glendon Sidwell named Evertaster that kept coming close with publishers.  Even though editors raved about it, the book was ultimately turned away because it was too quirky.  Adam had his book independently published by the new ebook publishing platform launched by Trident Media Group, and Evertaster hit #52 overall in books on amazon.com and #1 in children's mystery books on its first day of publication!  I loved reading about all the ways Adam helped promote his book...including cross-promotion with a pie company and an amazing trailer that's so professional, it looks like it could be a movie preview!  
I can't wait to see who will win the generous critiques from Alyssa Eisner Henkin.  What an amazing opportunity!  And now there are two books I can't wait to read.  Who can resist Evertaster after seeing that incredible trailer?  And I've had Wonder on my to-read list ever since people raved about it on the Favorite Middle-Grade Novel post I wrote on the Mixed-Up Files in March.  Now it's on my must-read list.  Check out the blurb on Indiebound:
I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.
August Pullman was born with a facial deformity that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. WONDER, now a New York Times bestseller, begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance. 
In a world where bullying among young people is an epidemic, this is a refreshing new narrative full of heart and hope. R.J. Palacio has called her debut novel “a meditation on kindness” —indeed, every reader will come away with a greater appreciation for the simple courage of friendship. Auggie is a hero to root for, a diamond in the rough who proves that you can’t blend in when you were born to stand out.

I love that Wonder inspired the Choose Kind anti-bullying campaign.  Kids can be so cruel to each other, especially in middle school.  It's nice to see a book and campaign that can help kids avoid the awful emotional and physical pain that bullies cause.  

Don't forget to hop over to my interview on the Mixed-Up Files site.  You'll have until 7 pm EST tonight to enter for a chance to win a copy of Wonder and a 20 page MG critique from Alyssa Eisner Henkin.  Good luck!

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I love interviews!

When I first joined From the Mixed-Up Files...of Middle-Grade Authors, I knew I loved chatting about everything middle grade, but I didn't realize how much I'd enjoy posting interviews.  I've met so many wonderful authors and have had fun coming up with questions I think our readers will love, and give them a chance to get to know the authors and their incredible book/s better. 

I was surprised to read something on Facebook the other day that said someone sent interview questions to an author, and clearly hadn't read any of her books. There's so much you can learn from an interview, I can't imagine why an interviewer would miss the chance to try to share some kind of unique information.  There are a few things that I do frequently ask, like favorite books (because I think that anyone who loves the author's books will probably discover some new books to read, or rediscover ones that haven't been read in a while), and I like asking if the author has a writing and/or illustrating exercise to share (I've added a few gems to my revision techniques through the responses to this one). It's also fun to hold giveaways and allow readers the chance to win a signed book or other cool prize.  

What do love about interviews, and what do you wish some people would do differently when coming up with interview questions?

My latest interview is up on the Mixed-Up Files site.  It's with Robin Mellom, author of THE CLASSROOM: The Epic Documentary of a Not-Yet Epic Kid, the first book in her series for middle grade readers and DITCHED: A Love Story, a teen romantic comedy.  Robin 
shares the differences between writing MG and YA, her favorite and least favorite middle school memories, and how a chat with the editor of her debut novel helped turn the first manuscript she wrote into an amazing middle grade series.
One lucky winner will receive a signed copy of THE CLASSROOM!  Check out this amazing trailer:
Hop on over to the Mixed-Up Files site and leave a comment to enter.  You have until 10:00 pm EST tonight. 

I never posted the link from my Mixed-Up Files interview with Jonathan Auxier, author of 
Peter Nimble & His Fantastic Eyes, the tale of a small, blind, orphan who also happens to be the greatest thief who ever lived.  He shares a fantastic writing exercise, what surprised him the most while writing his debut novel, and how he ended up creating an illustration for each chapter. Check out Jonathan's interview here.    

Late next week, I have another interview coming up on the Mixed-Up Files site...and this one is with an agent who will offer one giveaway of an MG that has made several bestseller lists, as well as a critique of up to 20 pages of a middle grade novel (and there will be a link for a second way to enter a critique giveaway that will be open for manuscripts ranging from picture book through young adult novels)! I'll post a link here when my interview is up. 

I hope you all have a wonderful weekend!

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It was so much fun participating in RAOK (Random Acts of Kindness) during the launch of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I bought the e-book as soon as it was released, and LOVE it.  What a fantastic way to celebrate the birth of an amazing book.  I love how much this helped bring our wonderful writing community even closer, and think it would be great to participate in an annual RAOK. Surprises are always fun, and it's nice to know how much you mean to people (and let them know how special they are to you). 

Thanks for all the sweet comments on my RAOK post...and for entering to win a critique of a picture book or the first ten pages of a chapter book, MG, or YA.  I wish I could give critiques to all of you...but then I'd probably end up a zombie and my manuscripts would complain that I'm neglecting them.  

I wrote all the names on pink pieces of paper and placed them in a bag.  Then, my daughter offered to choose the winner.  Actually, she asked if she could put her name in first, then if she chose herself, I could do her homework assignment instead of giving her a critique (and no...I didn't add her name, but tomorrow morning I'm bringing in bagels and special cookies to thank her for helping me).

Here's Sammi holding up the name of the winner.
It's a little hard to read in the photo, but...

Congratulations, Sue--you won the critique!    

But wait...there's more to the story.  Sammi wanted her friend to pick out a name, too.  And since she pulled it out of the bag and this celebration encourages random acts of kindness, I decided that I'd critique a picture book or five pages of a chapter book, MG, or YA for another winner.  So...                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

                  Congratulations, Jennifer Rumberger--you won a critique, too! 

This was fun, and I can't wait to read the winning manuscripts.  Did any of you participate in Random Acts of Kindness this week, or have someone honor you with one?  I'd love to hear about it!
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A smile. An encouraging word. A thoughtful gesture. Each day people interact with us, help, and make our day a bit brighter and full. This is especially true in the Writing Community

Take a second to think about writers you know, like the critique partner who works with you to improve your manuscript. The writing friend who listens, supports and keeps you strong when times are tough. The author who generously offers council, advice and inspiration when asked.

      So many people take the time to make us feel special, don't they? They comment on our blogs, re-tweet our posts, chat with us on forums and wish us Happy Birthday on Facebook.        


                                       Kindness ROCKS!          

To commemorate the release of their book The Emotion Thesaurus, Becca and Angela at The Bookshelf Muse are hosting a TITANIC Random Act Of Kindness BLITZ. And because I think KINDNESS is contagious, I'm participating too!

Wow, where do I start?  There are so many writers I want to thank.  I'm incredibly lucky to have my wonderful mentor, Joyce Sweeney. She's helped me grow so much as a writer (everything from plotting and characterization, to writing a dazzling first chapter and strong scenes that always move the action forward).  She's been there for me every step of the way--celebrating great news, and giving me hugs and pep talks after some heart-breaking rejections.  I'm sending her a bookstore certificate as a surprise thank you for everything she has done for me!

Another huge thank you goes out to Marjetta Geerling who recently gave me an awesome critique that I hope will take my MG from being great to can't-turn-it-down awesome.  Marjetta helped point out that I tend to make things too easy for my main character.  Even though I torture her a lot, I often fix problems too quickly and sometimes have things happen to her instead of having her actions cause bad things to happen.  Wow...my eyes are wide open now!  I'm excited that my revision is almost done, and am thrilled that Joyce, Marjetta, and my critique groups have helped my manuscript shine so brightly. I recently sent Marjetta a special thank you gift, but had to thank her again in today's post.

How do I even begin to fit in the rest of the people who have been amazing friends and critique partners?  I want each and every one of you to know how much you mean to me, and how grateful I am for everything.  You've all helped me improve my writing, have been there to support me, cheer with me, and encourage me every step of the way.  One of the best things that came from the second time I went to Rutgers was getting to know two online friends better, and forming an informal critique group with them.  Thanks so much, Kim Sabatini and Jodi Moore for everything.  And I'm really glad you brought Megan Gilpin into our critique family--I owe the three of you so much.  xoxo  

NI (Novel Idea) has helped me so much through the years.  Thanks to Amie Borst, Ann Marie Meyers, Rose Cooper, Jen Swanson, and all the past members, too!

RQ (Revision Queens) has been a huge help with my picture books through the years.  Thanks Laura Crawford, Amy Dawn DeLuna, Cathy Cronin, Leslie McCrary, and all past members (both in RQ and the previous name, TBA). :)  

Thanks to everyone past and present in The Prose Shop, my weekly group led by the amazing Joyce Sweeney, my monthly Boca group, and all the amazing writers I've swapped critiques with through the years (the picture book crits have been a huge help, and I'm really grateful to those of you who took the time to critique an entire novel, like Karen Schwartz, Shel Delisle, Amanda Coppedge, Heather Burke, and Sharon Pavon--and those who helped me have huge breakthroughs like David Case, Stacie Ramey, Kerry Cerra, and Nicole Cabrera).  I wish I could name more of you, but this post already has enough words to create two to three picture books!    

I hope you all know how much you mean to me.  I'm sending a huge thank you for always pushing me to write the best possible novels and picture books.  You all rock, and I feel so lucky to have you in my life.  (((Hugs)))  I'm also incredibly grateful to all my writing friends who have been there to cheer me on, offer advice, and share all kinds of sweet comments through here, Facebook, and Twitter.    

I wish I could give every single one of you a gift today...but even though that isn't possible, I'm going to close my eyes and wish that you all receive fantastic writing news, and that we'll have tons of reasons to celebrate soon!  And in honor of everything you've done for me, I'll pay it forward by offering one critique of a picture book or the first ten pages of a chapter book, MG, or YA.  Just leave a comment below and I'll randomly draw a winner on Thursday and announce who it is on Friday.  I'll give you an extra entry for each time you share this link (don't forget to let me know so I can add all your entries).   I can't wait to read the winning pages.  Good luck!   

One of the reasons I jumped at the chance to participate is that The Bookshelf Muse has been a fantastic resource for me and other writers (I've given the link to so many writing friends through the years). Becca and Angela have put so much into their fantastic site...and now their e-book.  After everything they've done, I'm thrilled to help celebrate the launch of their e-book and give a huge shout out to people who have made a world of difference to me because they're such amazing friends and critiquers.

Becca and Angela have a special RAOK gift waiting for you as well, so hop on over to The Bookshelf Muse to pick it up.

Do you know someone special that you'd like to randomly acknowledge?  Don't be shy--come join us and celebrate! Send them an email, give them a shout out, or show your appreciation in another way.  Kindness makes the world go round. :)  

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I can't believe how busy things have been, but I've been making incredible progress on my MG and PB.  I love finding ways to dig deeper into my manuscripts, and I also love the extra push that challenges give me.

I've been a member of From The Mixed-Up Files...of Middle-Grade Authors since our group started, and am thrilled with the impact our blog has had.  It's wonderful helping to introduce new and beloved older novels to middle-grade lovers.  My must-read stack is always overflowing with incredible books!  If you write MG and love middle-grade books as much as I do, I hope you'll apply for one of the available spots.  Here's the link.  Hurry, because the deadline is tomorrow!

I'm thrilled that the 12 x 12 Picture Book Challenge has inspired me to try to write one new manuscript a month in 2012.  For the past several years, I've always participated in Paula Yoo's NaPiBoWriWee (National Picture Book Writing Week) which inspires participants to write 7 new picture book drafts in 7 days, from May 1st - 7th.  I love that challenge, and am going to do my best to tackle that along with the 12 x 12...while revising a middle grade novel.  Not easy...but definitely worth the extra effort.  I love having brand new manuscripts to mold into shape.  So...who is going to take the NaPiBoWriWee challenge with me?  There's a wonderful and supportive Facebook group for it.  Let me know if you want me to add you, and we'll cheer each other on.   

I've had less writing time than usual though, because we recently adopted a puppy.  Ruby is a beagle and pointer mix who was one of over 100 dogs rescued from the Everglades.  We weren't looking for another dog, but couldn't resist this adorable face!  I'll fill you in on how we ended up finding her another time.  I need to finish up more of my MG revision and get ready for NaPiBoWriWee!

Here's a photo of Ruby (who was 11 pounds when we adopted her) and our 2 1/2 year old, 90 pound Bullmassador, Lolly. It's amazing how much these two love each other already.  We're so glad they both found their way into our family and hearts.
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I really enjoyed hearing Christian Trimmer speak at a recent SCBWI event at The Loft at Congress.  Huge thanks to Christian, Linda Bernfeld, Laurie Taddonio, and Flora Doone for putting together such a wonderful event.  And free, too!  FL SCBWI rocks, and I’m so lucky to be a part of it.
Christian Trimmer

Christian has been in the business for seven years, and absolutely raves about his authors, such as Mo Willems, Stacey Kade, and Robin Mellom. Right now, he said that Disney Hyperion isn’t actively looking for paranormal or much science fiction.  He loves books with rich details that find the truth in relationships, like Ditched by Robin Mellom and Carter Finally Gets It by Brent Crawford.

What do editors want?  Christian said a great voice, authenticity, and honest emotions.  Research helps make the world more believable. Pay attention to the details!  This helps make sure that readers can see the scenes, too and adds a layer of credibility. 

In almost all his editorial letters, he mentions character motivation.  If you can’t see what drives a character, then neither will readers.  When you create a character, you want readers to see themselves in that person.  You need to have an emotional arc (which helps readers genuinely care about a character) and a narrative arc.

     Here are some tips Christian shared with us:     

* Build a network—it’s great for support (he could tell our local SCBWI is an extremely supportive group).  Seek help with info if you need it.

* Make yourself stand out.  Marketing and publicity love when a writer has an active blog and large online following.

* Seek out agents who rep books from authors you admire.

* If you receive several offers, make sure you chat with an editor on the phone before accepting to make sure he or she is the right one for you. 

* You need to be prepared to sell books.  You have to talk about your books, and try to get your face out in the community to teachers, librarians, and book sellers.

* Envision your entire career—not just selling one book.  

* Set real deadlines and be disciplined enough to make them.  Write daily!

* Everyone’s path is different.

* Aim to have a second book published about a year after the first one is out.  Write at least one book per year to keep the momentum going.

* It’s good to have a couple manuscripts under your belt when you sign with an agent.  You never know which manuscript will hit first. 

Someone asked about boy books.  Christian said boys don’t read as much as girls do.  Humor definitely works, and when you have a boy main character, it can’t hurt to throw in a girl to widen your audience.

Besides a great voice and everything else I mentioned, what else is Christian looking for?  He said he’d love to find a religious allegory (bible tales made relevant for today), and something about recent wars in Afghanistan or Irac and how they affected teens.

Christian was full of helpful information, and went out of his way to chat with everyone and answer questions.  I hope we’ll have him at another event soon!   

When you have a chance, check out my recent From the Mixed-Up Files...of Middle-Grade Authors blog post. There are so many middle-grade novels, it’s hard to know what to read next.  If I love a book, I usually rush to pick up future novels from that author.  But how do you find great new authors in the first place?

I often seek out books that friends rave about, plus anything that catches my eye on the Mixed-Up Files book lists (you can browse categories like reluctant readers, books for boys, fantasy/paranormal, etc. and if you scroll toward the bottom you’ll see all our past new release posts).

Since we love helping our readers discover great new books, I listed some of my favorite middle-grade novels that came out in the past couple of years by new authors (or authors who are new to this genre).  I’d love to know what some of your favorite books are, too! 

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Voice Workshop with Agent Jill Corcoran

How to Improve Your Writing Voice and Characters’ Voices

Agent Jill Corcoran at the 2012 FL SCBWI Conference in Miami

Jill Corcoran talked about the difference between the author voice, which is in everything you write, and the manuscript voice, which changes according to things like tone, the target audience, and point of view.

She had us write a short scene with two characters from one point of view, then write it from the other.  It’s amazing how you can feel the difference.  Even better…this exercise can help with writer’s block! 

Character Voice

·       Make your characters distinct so you don’t always need to put in tags.   There’s a great way to test this—take the tags out of dialogue and see if you (or others) can tell who is talking.

·       Give each character something unique.  Weaving these little details in helps give dimension.

·       Readers fill in the gaps—you need to leave some white space.

Here are some other great suggestions from Jill:

·                       When you sit down and write, you don’t always have to write your book.  Just write anything.  It helps you find your voice, gives you space, and stops you from feeling pressured.  A bad day can affect your writing.  She said to strive for more than BIC…you want Butt In Quality Chair.

·       Read outside your genre.  This helps you see styles of writing that might be great for you.

·       Make dialogue count…especially when it’s up front.

·       Try to write three pages every morning before doing anything else.

·       Play around to find the right voice for your manuscript. You can try a different point of view, tone, day, attitude, etc. 

·       Think about where your book will sit in a bookstore, and keep that in mind when you revise.

Other notes:

Most picture books are not in 1st person because it makes them more universal.

Jill loves multiple point of view.

I loved listening to Jill critique first pages during her workshop and on the First Pages Panel.  She always has tons of fantastic advice to share.  Check out her amazing blog.  

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The Art of Friendship in Children’s Picture Books

I really enjoyed this workshop at the FL SCBWI Conference in Miami led by Tamar Brazis, the Editorial Director of Abrams Books for Young Readers and Amulet Books.  She has focused on picture books and middle-grade fiction for the past seven years, and has worked on the New York Times bestselling Jellybeans series by Laura Numeroff, Me, Frida illustrated by David Diaz, City I Love by beloved children’s poet Lee Bennett Hopkins, and Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes, a debut novel by Jonathan Auxier.   

She loves comforting picture books, and ones that she has a strong emotional reaction to.  Her favorite book is Frog and Toad. She also shared other friendship stories that she loves, and I can see why they resonated with her (and me).  One of my favorites is Waddles, by David McPhail.  It's such a sweet book filled with 'aw' moments and it brought tears to my eyes by the end.  I also had a huge emotional reaction to Making a Friend by Alison McGhee, and enjoyed City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems, and The Gift of Nothing by Patrick McDonnell (which gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling by the second to last line...and the very last line was a wonderful surprise).

A couple of the stories she shared with us were framed by seasons, which worked really well.  She told us that friendship stories can be between two children, a child and a stuffed animal, or two objects like a sock and a mitten (I never heard of Smitten before, but I can’t wait to read it). 

Tamar spoke about creating dynamics of relationships in a very human way.  She gave us a great exercise to help create memorable characters.  Really think about a friendship you had when you were younger, and write down all the details.  I LOVE this exercise!  Not only does did it tap into great details I can use in my manuscripts, but I can see how it could spark great new picture book ideas.  Besides using it to flesh out existing manuscripts and the new ones I’m writing for the 12 x 12 Challenge, I’ll definitely use it during the next PiBoIdMo.    

She also did a great second exercise, and explained a third right before the time was up.  I can’t give out all of Tamar’s secrets though—so definitely take her picture book workshop if you have a chance!  It was full of information and inspiration, and many of us left with ideas or scenes we'd like to use in future picture book manuscripts.

It was great taking the picture book workshop with Nancy Viau.  I met her for a few minutes at Rutgers in 2005, and have been online friends with her for years.  I loved having a chance to see her again and have her sign my copy of Samantha Hansen Has Rocks in Her Head, which Tamar Brazis edited…and Nancy also has a picture book coming out with her in the spring of 2013 entitled I Can Do It! 

*If you're looking for more awesome picture book info, check out part 1 and part 2 of my posts from the Picture Book Intensive with editor Alexandra Penfold and author Lisa Wheeler from the FL SCBWI Orlando event in June. 


**If you want to do a super-quick favor for a very sweet editor and talented baker, please click on this Facebook link and 'like' the photo of these adorable Cookie Monster cookies that Alexandra Penfold entered in a contest.  The winner gets a trip to Seattle to visit CakeSpy, and she's so close to winning first place...but the competition is really tough.  Look at this photo--she definitely deserves to win!


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Happy New Year!

Wow, I can't believe it's almost 2012--this year really flew by.  I accomplished a lot, and hope next year will be even better for all of us!

I've been thinking about my goals, and decided not to include things like selling a book.  Of course, I'd LOVE to sell one or more manuscripts, but my very wise mentor, Joyce Sweeney, told me it's better to make goals that I have the power to achieve.  I used to have goals like getting published by age 40, and it wasn't easy to see that goal pass me by after all my hard work. I had a lot of close calls this year, and hope next year will be filled with tons of magical moments.

Here are the goals that will hopefully make 2012 a wonderful, successful year:

1.  Revise/rewrite several middle grade novels and write one new MG--get at least one or two novels ready to submit.

2.  Plot out a chapter book series and hopefully write a draft of the first book.

3.  Participate in the 12 x 12 Picture Book Challenge that starts TOMORROW!  I've been fleshing out my PiBoIdMo ideas, and can't wait to write one new draft each month using them.

4.  Write 7 new picture book drafts in May for the NaPiBoWriWee Challenge.  (One will count for both the 12 x 12 and this challenge, which means I'll be writing 18 new PB drafts this year--wow!!!!!)  

5.  Revise at least 15 picture book manuscripts, submit the ones that are ready, and finish polishing up the ones that are almost ready to dazzle.

6. Read tons of books--at least 100 fairly recent picture books, plus more than 30 novels and chapter books. 

7.  Attend at least two conferences.  This should be easy, since I'm already going to the FL SCBWI Conference in January. I can't wait!!!!

And here are a few non-writing goals:

* Spend more time with family and friends.
* Exercise at least 4 times a week (sometimes I'm great with this, and other times, I'm so busy that a week or more slips by without me exercising (luckily, Becca often asks me to walk Lolly with her, so I do move around a bit...but I'd love to be able to keep a regular exercise schedule again.)
* Organize my office (okay, so I guess this is writing-related, but my office is also full of all kinds of mail and school papers that other people throw in there and it's getting hard to see my desk)!
* Try to get more sleep (this is always sooooo hard for me to do, and as you can tell, I'm not sure if I'll be able to achieve this goal, but I'll at least attempt to squeeze in some extra sleep whenever possible). 

Happy New Year!!!  How was 2011 for you, and what are your goals for 2012?

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November was an incredibly productive month for me.  I revised a middle grade novel--now it's fully polished and ready to go.  Yay!  I also revised more than eleven picture book manuscripts.  Six are fully polished and ready to go. Double yay!  Plus, I have three that should be ready to sub fairly soon and a few others that are in pretty good shape--the rest are in various stages of revision.  On top of all that, I won the PiBoIdMo challenge (Picture Book Idea Month) and came up with 87 ideas.  Wow--I still can't believe that number!  I honestly didn't think I'd get more than thirty or forty at the beginning of the month.  It's amazing how many ideas you notice once you get used to looking for them!
I absolutely LOVE writing challenges.  It's amazing to see how much I really can do when I keep a goal in mind.  Plus, it's fun to work toward a goal with writing friends.  That's why I was thrilled when Tara Lazar had asked me to write the kick off post for the event, and I can't wait to see how many gems will come out of these ideas!  Thanks for the inspiration Tara, guest bloggers, and participants--I'm grateful for everything you've done to make PiBoIdMo such an incredible, fun, and productive event.  You all rock!

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! 

Here's the breakdown of my ideas:
41 fleshed out ideas (two of them already have series possibilities jotted down)
44 random thoughts
Two nuggets that could end up in a future picture book or middle grade novel  

What will I do with all these ideas?  I'm going to flesh them out more this month, do some character sketches and interviews, and see which ones scream for my attention the loudest.  Then, I'll be ready to tackle two upcoming writing challenges.  In January, the 12 x 12 Picture Book Writing Challenge starts--the goal is to write one new manuscript draft a month in 2012. This is a brand new challenge, and I can't wait to see how it goes!  And in May, I'm going to do NaPiBoWriWee again, where I'll write 7 manuscript drafts in 7 days.  If I'm successful with both challenges, I'll have 18 new picture book manuscripts by the end of 2012 to whip into shape.  WOW!  Plus, I'm about to dive into a revision of a middle grade novel that I absolutely love.   

So...who is going to join me in these challenges or participate in other upcoming challenges?
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I'm thrilled to have Shel Delisle visit my blog on her Dolphin Girl tour.  I was revising a novel in early November and felt awful having to miss NaNoWriMo for the first time since I took the plunge in 2006.  Being able to watch a friend experience NaNo for the first time helped me survive withdrawal symptoms!  Here's what it was like for Shel:

When Mindy and I talked about a possible post on my blog tour for Dolphin Girl, I immediately had two ideas.  The first would be on the importance of critique partners.  Mindy has been one of my partners for a long time.  We’ve beta read for each other and she’s been an important contributor on a couple of my novels.  The second option was a NaNo post.  Every year, Mindy enthusiastically tackles this project. She’s tried to persuade me many, many, many times.  So this year when I decided to dip a toe into the pool that is NaNoWriMo, I knew Mindy was part of the reason.
Now.  You might wonder, “Why did she say dip a toe?”
Because, like Jane, the main character in Dolphin Girl, I bend and twist the rules. Here.  This will give you an idea of the extent of my rebellion:  I pulled out a partially written  manuscript that I had a burning desire to finish.  I didn’t upload word counts. I didn’t tweet progress.  Or talk to other participants. Yeah, I know, I basically didn’t really do NaNo.  It may go down in history as the most lame effort ever.
Here’s more proof.  This is what a typical day looked like:
4:00 am (I’m an early riser) Make coffee, check e-mail, see if Santa’s Elves sold any copies of my book while I was sleeping (they do sometimes) look at a few sentences about what I was supposed to write today, re-read some of the other stuff I wrote.   Write a paragraph or two.  Tweak, tweak, tweak.
5:00  Have my third cup of coffee, toss in some half and half.  Get some serious dialogue going between the main character and her love interest.  Oh yeah, that’s it baby.  Then, I get stuck because I can’t figure out what one of them is going to say to the other one.  Pull up Twitter and figure out if I need to tweet about my blog tour.
6:00  Wake up everyone else in the house.  Have another cup of coffee.  Get the jitters. Check a few more things.  Whatcha’ Reading Now?, my blog, Verlas, Facebook.  Get a really strong paragraph down with the setting and some descriptive details. Nice.
7:00  Get most of family out of the house.  Laundry, dishes, vacuum, clean bathroom, shower.  Check e-mail again.
10:00 – Exercise.
11:00 – Look at the bowl of Halloween candy.  Salivate. Resist.  Okay, take a mini-Twix bar.  But it’s only a mini. Write a little action. Figure out what the character was supposed to say at 5:30.  Do something for WRN?  Write blog posts for Dolphin Girl, contact reviewers/bloggers.  Visit Goodreads and other sites.
Noon – Eat lunch. Think about what I have not accomplished today and worry that I might be ADHD. Decide to go on the Internet and research ADHD while eating lunch.  I’m not – hurray!—but the research is really interesting.  Turns out the good news is:  I just procrastinate.
1:00  -- Decide I can not procrastinate anymore.  In exactly one hour I have to leave to go pick up one of my children.  I get my groove on and whip out about 700 words.
2:00 – 6:00 -- Family stuff, errands, more house stuff, etc.  Also more email checking, Amazon rank checking, etc.
6:00 – A sports practice.  Read or maybe just imagine scenes that my characters might take part in.  While I daydream about my wip for NaNo, I totally zone out.  It scares the other parents on my kids’ sports teams.  When a scene strikes me, I jot a few things down in my notebook.  Sing a lot of songs along with the radio. My singing scares the other parents even more.
8:00 – Home.  Make a few notes about the writing for tomorrow.  Check my productivity/word count.  OMG!  How did I manage to get 1,000 words!  It’s a freaking miracle!
9:00 plus – Just veg, maybe watch a reality TV show.
Like I said:  Lame! But here’s the thing, even though this is not the way I imagine that NaNo should work, I still finished the first draft, which is pretty incredible. Especially if you read that schedule.
So, guess what?   Next year I’m going to do it again.  And who knows?  I might even follow the rules. 

Thanks for stopping by, Shel.  Huge congrats on the release of your debut novel, Dolphin Girland for being a first time NaNoWriMo participant and winner.  I loved Dolphin Girl from the first time I met Jane, and can't wait to hear all about your newest manuscript!

How did all of you do with your November goals?  

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I'm thankful for so many things!

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving!  Sammi and I had fun baking brownies (our best batch yet) and delicious mini cheesecakes.  

We had a fantastic time yesterday!  Our cousins found this adorable kitty cowering in their backyard just a few hours before.  She's adorable!  We took turns snuggling her all day.  Unless someone claims her soon, it looks like she found a forever home with my cousins.  I'm sure she's thankful she wandered into the backyard of such a loving family. 


A day like this makes me think about how lucky I am.  Yes, there are things I want that I don't have...like being able to spend time with my parents, brother, and other relatives who have passed away.  And I'd love to have my middle grade novels and picture books published (after all my hard work, I'm definitely going to have a huge celebration when that dream comes true).  

But even though my life isn't exactly the way I'd like it to be, I'm thankful for so many things.  I'll share a few here:

I'm grateful for...

* My family, friends, and adorable dog.

* All the things that are easy to take for granted, like living in a nice house, having enough food, being able to go on vacations where we can have some uninterrupted family time and make lots of memories.

* I'm glad my girls are as beautiful on the inside as they are on the outside.  They're sweet and thoughtful...and I'm really trying to enjoy every moment with them because they're growing up way too fast!

* Critique groups and challenges that help push me to be the best possible writer.  I already revised one novel this month and am about to dig into another.  I'm loving the PiBoIdMo challenge, and have come up with over 65 picture book ideas this month! Thirty-five of them are more fleshed out than the others, and I think quite a few of them have potential.  I wonder if there's a way to come up with an idea week or so for novels, too!  It's much easier to find gems when you have a mountain of ideas to sort through.

* Being a writer--I can't even begin to explain how much writing has helped me.  It's such an important part of who I am, and has always been (I still remember writing poems and stories from the time I was fairly young, and how they helped me get through tough times).  I can't imagine my life without seeing myself as a writer.  And I'm incredibly grateful that my love of writing led me to meet incredible friends who mean so much to me!  (((Hugs)))  

What are you thankful for?


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I'm making huge progress this month!

I ended up having to revise a middle-grade novel, so I wasn't able to take the NaNoWriMo plunge like I have every year since 2006.  Sniff, sniff.  On the bright side, my family is relieved that I'm not shackled to my writing cave!

Even though I'm not writing a new novel, I'm making TONS of progress this month!  So far, I've...
* Revised one MG.  After not working on it for months, it's amazing how many tweaks popped out at me, plus I had some great feedback to work in that helped me raise it up a level or two...wahoo!
*Revised or polished 9 picture books--five of them are ready to go, two are almost ready, and I think I finally figured out how to fix an older picture book with a huge concept that never quite worked.  The last one is from NaPiBoWriWee, and is about to be critiqued by one of my online groups for the second time.  I can't wait to hear what they say...I think it's shaping up really well.  
*Came up with 24 ideas for PiBoIdMo, and filled my possible idea file (which could be a title, a simple line or two, etc.) with 20 new ideas.  Many times, I've ended up developing some of those random thoughts into full ideas that I've moved up to the main file.  I love when that happens!   It definitely shows that I should always jot down even the smallest grain of an idea--I never know where it might lead. 

What's next on my list?  I'm going to revise an older middle-grade novel that had received a couple revision requests from agents.  I really love that one, and think that I can make it shine even brighter now that I can dig into it with fresh eyes.  And when that's done, I'll dive back into the rewrite of my WIP.  

I also plan to revise more picture books that are in various stages, add to my PiBoIdMo list and flesh the ideas out as much as possible.

Speaking of ideas...I recently wrote a post on the Mixed-Up Files site that talks about where to find great ideas.  It truly is amazing how many you're able to see once you actively start looking for them.  I also shared how I came up with ideas for several of my middle-grade novels.  Since my daughter just walked into my office, I'll share one that she inspired (hop on over to the Mixed-Up site if you want to see the others).  The nugget for a humorous MG came to me when I was shopping with my daughter, and she freaked out that someone might see her in the bra aisle.  It’s amazing how that one moment sparked an entire novel…which includes a bra-tastrophe scene that I absolutely love.

How do you come up with ideas for your manuscripts? 
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PiBoIdMo and NaNoWriMo

I was thrilled when Tara Lazar asked me to be a guest blogger for PiBoIdMo.  I absolutely love this challenge!  My guest post is up on her blog, and includes the top ten reasons I think you should try PiBoIdMo. I'll share two of them with you here:

#7: You can tell everyone you’re busy with a challenge and need help with laundry and chores (shh…they don’t need to know it won’t take up too much time every day).

This one has a visual, thanks to my girls and Lolly!
And here's #10: If the above reasons aren’t enough to motivate you to join, you can win PRIZES…including critiques from authors and feedback from agents!

The agents are Jen Rofe and Kelly Sonnack from Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and Ammi-Joan Paquette, from Erin Murphy Literary Agency. What a great opportunity, especially since EMLA is a closed agency!

I wasn't sure what to do about NaNoWriMo this year.  I've worked so hard on the last MG I wrote and finally think I found the right place to start.  There are still things to iron out, but I don't think it's possible to have a gleaming first chapter until you finish a few full rounds of revisions.  I've spent so much time trying to perfect the beginning, I could use a good kick in the butt to do this major rewrite.  I've learned so much about my characters (and altered several traits since I first wrote this).  I have numerous new scenes to add, many to nix, and lots of work ahead.  But I really love this manuscript and believe it's worth all this work...and missing my first traditional NaNo since 2006.  

I'm going to take the advice of some writing friends and try to tackle a modified NaNo where I do a total rewrite on this book. I'm a little nervous, since I'm so used to having the words fly...but I can't just ditch this book in a drawer and cheat on it with a shiny new idea.  Have any of you tried doing a modified NaNo before?  I'd love to know how it worked for you.  Ani Louise has a great post about it here.  I've had to write more than one story before, because even though I tend to have a wordy first draft, some of my MG just don't hit the 50,000 word mark.  Sometimes, I've played around with several versions of the beginning, knowing it's one of the hardest parts to nail (and I have a clearer idea of where it should start once I reach the end).  This will be a totally new experience for me.  I'm thrilled that I won't have to miss NaNo this year, but am a bit scared about how this will work.  Guess I'll have to dig in and try my best and hope I'll be able to do a strong rewrite on a full MG in 30 days along with coming up with at least 30 new picture book ideas.     

I've posted lots of NaNo tips in the past.  Check them out here.  I've won every year since I took the plunge in 2006.  My record is 11 days, and most years I haven't used more than 14 or so days to hit 50,000 words.  Something tells me this modified rewrite will make 2011 my slowest NaNo ever...but even though I love watching the words fly onto my computer, I'm excited at the thought of having a much stronger MG by the end of November!  

Good luck to all of you tackling PiBoIdMo, NaNoWriMo, and JoNoWriMo!  
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I love writing contests!

I love writing contests for so many reasons.  Recently, I found out that two of my picture book manuscripts placed in the 80th Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition.  Wahoo!  Great news like that definitely helps me get through the long waits we often have in this business (and it shows me that people other than my critique buddies value my work).  

Years ago, I made a goal of getting published by the time I turned 40.  Um...that didn't happen.  So then I switched it to having a contract and agent by the time I turned 40.  That didn't happen either.  Now, I feel closer than ever, but I've decided not to make this kind of goal anymore.  No matter how much I revise, get feedback and revise again, attend conferences or intensives, and find a way to target the perfect agents or editors...it's out of my hands once I submit my manuscript.  Other than always striving to do my best work and constantly grow as a writer, I've found that putting a time or age goal on it isn't the best way to motivate myself.  So as I celebrate my 43rd birthday tomorrow, I won't make new goals like this.  I do hope it'll happen soon...with the perfect agent and editor for me, but my goals will be things I can control, like finishing a round of revisions on my MG, gathering new ideas for future projects, and polishing up a few more picture books so I'll have even more that are ready to submit when the time is right.  

To help me reach goals like these, I'll definitely turn to contests that motivate writers--and there are several amazing ones coming up soon.  Check them out when you have a chance!

* Right now, Jo Knowles is in the middle of JoNoWriMo, which has you set your goals from mid September until the end of November.  It's a really supportive community that helps cheer each other on.

* For all you picture book writers out there (or those who have thought about writing them), there's PiBoIdMo, run by Tara Lazar.  Picture Book Idea Month encourages you to come up with a picture book idea each day in November, for a total of 30 ideas in 30 days.  I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do it last year, since I participated in NaNoWriMo…but in addition to writing a 50,000+ word novel in November, I also came up with 38 picture book ideas!  Several of them have sparked into great manuscripts, and I can’t wait to see what new ideas I’ll have this year.  There are daily blogs to inspire you…check out the posts from last year.  Don’t forget to look at Tara Lazar’s website for current info!  If having 30 shiny new ideas to mold into manuscripts by the end of November isn’t enough incentive, anyone who signs up for the challenge and completes it can win awesome prizes…including critiques!  

***I usually flesh out my favorite ideas for a while, then write first drafts of them in Paula Yoo's NaPiBoWriWee, where you write seven picture book drafts in seven days the first week of May.  I was so excited about my PiBoIdMo ideas, that I ended up writing 8 manuscripts instead of 7!  

*Many of you know about NaNoWriMo, which takes place from November 1st through the 30th.  I've participated (and won) National Novel Writing Month every year since I first took the plunge in 2006.  It's a great way to tackle the first draft of a new novel.  It definitely helps to come up with character sketches and an outline ahead of time (or if you're like me, a general idea of the plot with some specific details).

The best thing about the motivation contests is the amount of support you get from other writers.  It can be such a long journey, with so many hours spent locked in a writing cave--working toward a common goal with writing friends is a fun way to motivate yourself to make your goals!  Plus, it's something you can control.  

What helps you make it through all the long waits?  
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I'm thrilled to have an interview with author Bruce Hale up on the Mixed-Up Files site.  I've seen him speak at conferences several times, and he's one of the most inspirational and entertaining authors I've met!  Hop on over and see his helpful humor writing tips, the books that make him laugh the most, and a fun writing exercise.  You'll also have a chance to win a signed copy of DIAL M FOR MONGOOSE!  The winner will be chosen by a random generator around 4 pm this afternoon.

From the Mixed-Up Files...of Middle-Grade Authors also has an amazing Skype author visit giveaway going on!  You'll have until October 3rd to enter for a chance to give your favorite class, group, library, or club a full length Skype visit with one of these incredible middle-grade authors:

Bruce Hale  (Chet Gecko Mysteries)

Tami Lewis Brown
 (The Map Of Me),

Erin Moulton (Flutter),

Kathy Erskine (Mockingbird),

Tricia Springstubb (What Happened On Fox Street),

Sarah Aronson (Beyond Lucky),

Uma Krishnaswami (The Grand Plan To Fix Everything),


Jennifer Nielsen (Elliot and the Pixie Plot).

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I sent out the latest FL SCBWI listserv last night, and love being able to share fantastic news for our members, market info, and a list of the incredible faculty who will be participating in the 2012 FL SCBWI Regional Conference in Miami on January 13 – 15.  Just wait until you see the amazing line-up!  I've been a conference addict since I attended my first one in 2005.  It's always incredible to spend time with others who love children's books as much as I do--and the information and inspiration I come home with is priceless!  My writing has leaped up at least one level thanks to new info and feedback I received at the Orlando Workshop, and I can't wait to see what new tools I'll bring home with me from Miami.  

I'll share more details about intensives and the conference theme soon, and hope to see many of my online friends in Miami!  Here's the faculty list: 
Donna Jo Napoli 
Greg Neri
Diane Muldrow—Editorial Director, Golden Books at Random House, Inc.
Bonnie Bader— Editor-in-Chief of Grosset and Dunlap and Price Stern Sloan, two imprints of the Penguin Young Readers Group
Cheryl Klein—Senior Editor at Arthur A. Levine Books (an imprint of Scholastic)
Tamar Brazis—Editorial Director at Abrams
Marietta Zacker—agent at the Nancy Gallt Literary Agency
Jill Corcoran—from the Herman Agency.  I’ve included many of her wonderful blog posts in our listserv.  If you’re wondering what types of manuscripts interest her, check out this post.
Barry Furrow—Barry is a Professor of Law and the Director of the Health Law Program at the Earle Macke School of Law at Drexel University in Philadelphia.  Although his expertise is in the field of health care, he has significant experience in publishing law. Barry has represented Donna Jo Napoli as her agent/lawyer since 1988.  He has negotiated more than fifty book contracts on behalf of Napoli, with such publishers at Dutton, Simon & Schuster, Disney Hyperion, Wendy Lamb Books,  National Geographic, Houghton Mifflin, and others. For a more information, you can visit www.earlemacklaw.drexel.edu to view Barry's faculty profile.  
E.B. Lewis
First Books Panel:
Laura Murray—scroll down to see her SCBWI Success Story here.
Augusta Scattergood—keep an eye out for her Success Story in a future listserv!
Medeia Sharif—scroll down to see her SCBWI Success Story here.
Laurie Calkhoven
Jan Godown Annino
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Beginnings can be so hard to master!

I was busy revising two other novels until fairly recently and dug into my 2010 NaNo novel as usual...and soon discovered that I had started it in the wrong place.  I had some info dump areas of backstory that would be better shown, and didn't establish what normal (or at least semi-normal) life was like before the MCs world undergoes huge changes.  At first, I wasn't sure where to start the novel.  I played with backing it up a day or two, but it wasn't enough.  I did total rewrites of the beginning over and over again.  It was like ramming into a brick wall.  But slowly, a couple bricks loosened, until a few rays of light peeked through.  

After several major rewrites, I put my MG aside for a bit and concentrated on my picture books.  It was the perfect timing, because I had some huge breakthroughs using new information I learned at the Picture Book Intensive in Orlando.  I interviewed the main characters of seven of my strongest picture books, added some extra word play, and tightened them up as much as possible.  It feels great to have so many ready (or almost ready) to submit!  I did have one favorite that looks like it didn't make the cut.  Some members of my groups love it, but the majority (including my mentor) said it was technically perfect, but they just didn't care about the main character.  Ouch!  I really do love that one, but it definitely won't be in my first or second tier of picture book manuscripts anymore.  I'll still keep my eyes open for ways to breathe new life into the character and the story.  I think it would've stung a lot more if I hadn't received raves on so many others.  My mentor always said that it's hard to write well in multiple genres and that my strength is middle-grade.  But now, she believes I'm a strong middle-grade AND picture book writer.  Yay!     

I'm slowly working on other picture books, but my main focus is back on my middle grade novel.  It looks like the time I spent away from it did the trick...I found the right place to start.  Wahoo!  The pieces are all falling into place, and it feels amazing.  I'm getting to know my characters so much better, and the beginning really does feel right.  There's a lot of work ahead of me...I have about three chapters in the newest version and will have to do a lot of rewriting and cutting to merge some of the original draft with this new and much improved one.

Beginnings are so tough to master!  I don't think you can really make them shine until you have a good handle on the rest of the manuscript (this goes for picture books as well as novels).  At least for the moment, it looks like I found the right place to start, show the humorous voice (which was hidden during a couple attempts that started during tense scenes), and give readers an idea of what the book is about.  I'm sure I'll make many changes to the entire manuscript, and I can't wait to dig deeper and make sure the heart of the story and characters shine throughout the entire novel.  I'm happy dancing that I reached this point, and can't wait to celebrate again when more pieces of the puzzle come together.  Writing a novel is a long journey, and I find that it helps to celebrate all the milestones along the way!         



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I love my critique groups--they're all amazing, and really have helped me grow as a writer!  I've been a proud member of The Prose Shop since 2008, when I saw a post on the Blueboards saying they had a couple of openings.  We're a supportive community of published and unpublished writers who write picture books as well as magazine stories. We're dedicated to helping each other improve our techniques and become more confident and capable writers.  We discuss and share information, and do our best to help our members make their manuscripts sparkle as much as possible.   

The Prose Shop started in 2005, and is organized via a private message board, so we can view all critiques and really work as a team.  We critique at least one story for each story we post...but the more critiques you give, the more you usually receive.  We ask each member to do at least one critique every 30 days.  And to keep the group active and encourage members to write, we ask everyone to post a story at least every three months (which could be a new manuscript or a revision of one that you've already run through The Prose Shop).   

We are looking for writers who demonstrate a long-term commitment to writing. We'd love to see applicants who have several picture book manuscripts and/or magazine stories available for critique.

If you are interested in becoming a member, please email TheProseShop@comcast.net and we'll send you an application.  And if you have any questions, feel free to ask me here, or send me an e-mail or Facebook message.  I hope some of my Facebook, LJ, and Blueboard friends will be part of our Prose Shop family soon!
Time to dive back into my MG novel!  I'm close to nailing the beginning, but had to take a break because all the picture book breakthroughs have been so exciting.  I think it also helped give me some time to think about the best place to start and let my ideas simmer for a bit.  And in the meantime, I've revised 7 picture books since the Orlando Workshop and Picture Book Intensive.  Wahoo!  One is fully polished, about four of them are in great shape and I'm sending them through my groups again to see if I can polish them up any more (one had a major overhaul and even though the story is much different now, I really love it).  I also have two that had some major changes and will take a while before they're ready.  I'm so thrilled they took a giant leap forward, and can't wait to see what happens in my next few rounds of revisions!
I have more picture books screaming for attention.  Some I wrote during this past NaPiBoWriWee and after revising them a bit, I pushed them aside to work on my MG and picture books that were closer to being ready.  I definitely need to make time for them soon...along with some older picture books that are screaming for my attention.  I can't wait to see what the character interview questions will reveal for them!
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I've been having so much fun using all the new info on my picture books!  Before the intensive, my mentor (Joyce Sweeney) said that almost all writers are strongest in one genre, and that I was primarily a middle grade writer.  After seeing several manuscripts I've revised since the intensive, Joyce said that I am definitely a middle grade AND picture book writer.  Wahoo!  Hard work, always looking for new techniques, reading and analyzing zillions of picture books, and belonging to several amazing critique groups really does pay off!
Here's part 2 of the Picture Book Intensive I took with Lisa Wheeler and Alexandra Penfold at the FL SCBWI Workshop in Orlando. 

Lisa Wheeler

Lisa gave us great questions to ask when revising. I can’t include all of them, but here are a couple important ones to think about:
• Does the main character solve his or her problem? (I think this is one of the most important things to keep in mind!)
• Does a secondary character hijack your story?

Naughty main characters
Even if they’re naughty, they still should have something likeable about them. Word choices can help…like The Recess Queen. Other great ones to check out are: The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, The Wolf’s Chicken Stew, Elinor and Violet, A Visitor for Bear.

There are so many stories with animals who stand in for humans, because they’re universal. Animals can represent every sex, race, and it’s often hard to tell if they’re rich or poor. It blurs those lines and allows the character to do more. It’s hard to tell what age most animals are, so they can often represent both a child and an adult. It also allows a character to be naughty. Kids aren’t very forgiving of other children, which could make them dislike a naughty main character…but they usually don’t have a problem with a fuzzy, adorable troublemaker like Peter Rabbit. Maybe that’s why he’s here a hundred years later!

Don’t use personification unless it’s really needed and you can do it well. It’s very hard to do! Some great examples are: The Very Small Pea and the Princess to Be, Giant Meatball, and When Moon Fell Down.

If you use an adult as the main character, there must be something very childlike about him or her. Some fantastic books that do this well are: The Old Woman Who Names Things, Saving Sweetness, Mrs. Toggles Zipper, Mrs. McBloom, Clean Up Your Classroom.

Watch for redundancy in your manuscripts…but remember that it isn’t all bad. Repetition for emphasis is okay. Learn to spot the difference!
Read it out loud and see how it flows. Page turns are scene separators. They’re almost like time travel devices!
See if you can work in the rule of threes…it can be in sentences, scenes, or maybe even the big picture. Also look for places to use alliteration and other kinds of word play.
Go back to the beginning to bookend the end of the manuscript. You can make it go full circle, or have a shocking surprise ending.

Alexandra Penfold

Alexandra Penfold likes humorous picture books with quirky bits parents appreciate. She often doesn’t love gross humor or manuscripts that are overly sentimental. She doesn’t seek rhyme—it needs to be exceptional.

She spoke about favorite first lines. Some favorites mentioned by the participants or authors and agents who let Alexandra know ahead of time were: The Big Red Barn, The Library Lion, The Whales, Bear Snores On, Harold & and Purple Crayon, Parts, Where the Wild Things Are, Eloise, Click Clack Moo, Madeline (Alexandra loves this one—it establishes the character, setting, and the problem.)

Both Lisa and Alexandra agreed that first lines are hard to get right…but there’s plenty of time to nail the first line after writing the story. Don’t let it bog you down!

Alexandra Penfold did an amazing exercise that I’ve never seen before in a conference or intensive (and I’ve attended a lot of events). She read us a dummy she enjoyed at a conference, then showed us how Lee Harper’s revisions changed the text and illustrations from page to page until it turned into his published book, Snow! Snow! Snow!

When she sees a manuscript, she has to consider if it’s resistible or irresistible...and how she’ll feel if she lets it go.
Here's a link to part 1 of The Picture Book Intensive.  I'm off to interview another picture book character.  I hope I'll strike gold five times in a row, and that all the information helps you as much as it helped me!  
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I've been a conference addict for years, and am in awe of how much this intensive has helped my writing. I'm sending a huge thank you to Linda Bernfeld and Marcea Ustler for bringing Alexandra Penfold and Lisa Wheeler to Orlando this summer.  If any RAs are reading this--see if you can book them for a future event.  They make a fantastic team! 

I have so many incredible things to share about the Picture Book Intensive, I'll have to split it into two posts.  I should have the second one up on Friday!

Alexandra Penfold

Alexandra Penfold talked about creating characters that live on past the page that parents and children will want to read over and over. Two that she loves are Dinosaur vs. Bedtime and There are Cats in this Book.

Another great example is Mr. Duck Means Business, by Tammi Sauer. Alexandra read the book to us, and it was easy to see why the fun language and characters make this a book that kids and parents love to read it again and again…like:

Mr. Duck sputtered. He muttered. He tail-a-fluttered.

Calling duck Mr. Duck while the other characters are simply called Pig, Cow, etc.

Alexandra gave us a handout with questions to interview our picture book characters that I absolutely LOVE! I’ve used it in four manuscripts so far, and am in awe of how much I’ve learned from it. So far, my critique groups have heard three of them and love the changes—wahoo! It really brought my writing up several levels, because the questions help me think about what my characters are like outside of the book, and really help give them more motivation and focus. I blogged about it soon after the conference, and wish I could share all of the questions with you…but don’t want to take away part of her presentation. I’ll share two with you though…what is your character’s deepest secret? What do they want everyone to know?

Lisa Wheeler

The best advice she can give is that there are no set rules.

The first line is a promise to the reader. It can:

1. Introduce the character
2. Flirt with the character (like Julius Baby of the World).
3. Set the mood or tone (like Boris and Bella). A story about the death of a loved one shouldn’t be in bouncy rhyme.
4. An air of mystery (like Martha Speaks)—an intriguing opening that makes readers want to know more.
5. Give location (like Mrs. Biddlebox).
6. Can be a fresh, original opening line (like Aunt Nancy and Cousin Lazybones).
7. Can be a mixed bag (that covers more than one of these). I think Arnie the Donut is the one she suggested for this.

Here are some picture books that have a great promise (sometimes, it’s in the opening paragraph instead of just the first line): Baron Von Baddie, Dear Tabby, Clink.

When writing a picture book, make sure you start in the right place!

The character’s name can say a lot about the character, but shouldn’t be the only memorable thing (an example of a great name is Mrs. Biddlebox). **Don’t give a fun character a generic name!

Description—leave a lot open for the illustrator, but when there is something important to the story or characterization, it can give readers a better feel.

I'll write more on Friday!
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I had a wonderful time at the SCBWI Florida Workshop in Orlando!  I came home fueled with fantastic feedback, great new gems to use when writing and revising, and tons of inspiration.  Plus, it was amazing to spend an entire weekend with so many people who love children's books as much as I do!
I've been busy revising since I came back (I got a request for one of my favorite picture books--wahoo)!  I recently took out something I loved after several critiquers didn't think it was needed, and after talking to an amazing and enthusiastic editor, it's back in.  Yay!  I always try to keep my picture books under the magical 500 word mark, but I was told that it's okay to go over that to flesh out some scenes. Sometimes, it's hard to know exactly how much to put into a picture book, because the illustrations will tell the other half of the story.  Years ago, I used to put in too much detail.  I might have scaled back just a bit too much, and love that the editor suggested that I try to convey the sights, sounds, smells, etc. of the most dramatic scenes.  It really made me look at my manuscript in a new way, and I've already come up with some interesting new ideas.  I just sent my first round of post-conference revisions to one of my online groups, and can't wait to see what they say!

I'll blog more about the incredible Picture Book Intensive next week, but want to share my biggest 'aha' moment with you.  I've always interviewed my novel characters, but for some reason, I never thought about interviewing my picture book characters. I mean, I jot down notes and imagine how they look and speak, but I didn't really dig deep enough to find out what they're like outside of the book.  

Well...that's behind me now, because Alexandra Penfold gave us an amazing exercise with interview questions to analyze our picture book characters. I love exploring how my characters view themselves vs. the way others see them.  The question that had the biggest impact on me for Sock-a-palooza was: Who is your character's best friend, and why are they friends?  Well, in a very early version of this, I knew who her friends were.  But now...she doesn't have any friends mentioned, and I realized that she really longs to have a friend who loves socks as much as she does.  So at the end of the story, she not only solves the mystery of her missing socks, but also fills a void in her life as well.  It adds a whole new layer to my picture book that I never knew existed!  I can't wait to interview all my picture book characters, and see how much better their answers help me tell their stories!         
I wish I could share the whole sheet of questions with you, but I can't give away all her secrets.  If you have a chance to go to a workshop or intensive with Alexandra Penfold...jump at the chance!  She and Lisa Wheeler put on an amazing Picture Book Intensive.  Things ran so perfectly, you'd think they've been doing this for years!  If anyone is looking for future faculty for an in depth study on picture books, see if you can ask both Alexandra and Lisa!

It was wonderful chatting with old and new friends in Orlando!  It went by so fast, I didn't get to talk to some friends as much as I would've liked. Hopefully, we'll keep in touch online and have lots of time to talk in Miami this January.  I did go to a fun dinner to celebrate Steven dos Santos' two book deal with Flux Books for his amazing Torch Keeper series.  Congrats again, Steven!  If you don't know him, hop on over to his blog and congratulate him.  And you can also read about our adventurous ride to Orlando (thanks so much for driving us, Marjetta!)
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I recently took Marjetta Geerling’s SCBWI Workshop, How to Appeal to Children and Adults When Writing Children’s Books, and can't wait to share the fantastic info with you!

Children are like us, but inexperienced.  You don’t dumb down or talk down to them.  Never condescend, oversimplify, think the audience is ignorant, or take conscious superiority.  Kids immediately realize this!  Children and teachers don’t want a book that screams ‘here’s something you should know.’

When you write a children’s book, you must first appeal to an adult audience.  Children won’t be the first people to read your book.  There are often over ten layers of adult readers…critique groups or writing mentors, agents, editors, marketing people, art directors—and this is all before the book goes into print!  Then, there are reviewers, award committees, booksellers, and then parents, teachers, and librarians that we hope will be so excited by the books we write, they’ll want to share it with all the children in their lives.

Many writers think they need to find a way to get by the ‘gatekeepers’ but in reality, they’re just as much a part of the children’s literature audience as the children themselves.  Think about this…if a child falls in love with a book and asks to hear it every single night—who is doing the reading?

How do we appeal to children and engage our adult audience at the same time?  Marjetta read the book PARTS by Ted Arnold.  I have to admit that I smiled the second I saw it.  My daughters and I absolutely LOVED that book, even after reading it together a zillion times.  In fact…I still have most of it memorized!

I remember the humor and fun illustrations the most.  It takes a few reads to get past the humor so we can analyze it and see all the brilliant layers.  It has some amazing lessons about life for kids and adults…in a way that doesn’t feel preachy at all.   

·       When digging deeper, you can see that both children and adults can relate to the theme—nervousness.  It definitely has universal appeal!   

·       It talks about normal things we don’t always think about.  Kids experience things in a new way that we often take for granted.  (Adults do this in different ways—we don’t worry about stuffing falling out, because we know it won’t happen…but if we notice a new spot on our skin, our minds start racing with the ‘what ifs’ and we could worry that it’s cancer—and then we need to find a way to cope with that fear.) 

·       When she reads PARTS to kids, they usually don’t see the book ‘Parenting for Beginners’ but adults really get it!

The end is a funny joke (we all laughed and groaned when she read it) but…at first it seems like the adults solve the problem, even though we all know the child is supposed to solve it on his or her own.  But the problem isn’t the lack of info.  It’s that he’s been passive and never actively sought out info to help him solve his problem…how to cope with anxiety.  And now, instead of freaking out, he shows in the last scene that he does reach out and immediately ask for the answer. 

So this book is profound, complex…yet completely accessible to kids and adults!

What about novels?  Middle grade readers are often independent (but may still read with a parent or teacher).  A great book to analyze is WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead.  It has so much kid appeal and engages adult readers as well.  And if you read A WRINKLE IN TIME, you can see a whole other layer…but it stands on its own, too.  (I loved WHEN YOU REACH ME, even before it won the Newbery Medal.)    

Even though parents often don’t play a big part in choosing YA books for their children, these books still need to appeal to adults.  Kids will outgrow the typical age of these characters…but librarians don’t!  It’s great to have teachers and media specialists introduce great young adult novels to a whole new audience.  A fantastic book to analyze is SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson.  (I had to smile when I heard this title, too—SPEAK was one of the first books that had a huge impact on me as a writer.)

Marjetta asked us to break into small groups to discuss one of our favorite children’s books, and gave us an amazing list of questions to consider.  And guess what…she gave me permission to share the entire list with you!  Thanks so much, Marjetta!

1.     Main Character:  How is the main character unique?  How is he/she like a kid?  Like an adult?

2.     Theme: Why can children relate to the theme?  What resonates for adults?

3.     Illustrations: What’s delightful for children to find? What can an adult appreciate?

4.     Language: What’s happening on the surface? What else is going on that would only come out in repeated readings?

5.     Story: What is surprising or not surprising about how the story unfolds? What does it teach the reader about storytelling?  About life?

I chose THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins because I love that book so much, it haunted me.  I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters and their story.  I once talked to an agent about how to make a character more likeable, and she asked what my favorite book was…and we tried to figure out why I cared so much about Katniss and her story.  Most of the time, authors use internals to help readers feel the emotions of their characters, but I didn’t find very many in there.  The agent had asked what I liked about Katniss, and I realized that if I had to be in the games, I’d want her by my side, or as my sister, ready to take my place in a heartbeat.  I trust that she’d put her own life at risk, trying to save me.

Marjetta joined our small group discussion.  We chatted about question one--that Katniss was supposed to follow a lot of rules, like a kid, but also had to protect and provide for her family.  She was forced to grow up too quickly, and denied her childhood (which unfortunately happens to many children). 

There were so many gems Marjetta gave me at the workshop, but the one I’m most grateful for (in addition to this list to help me analyze popular books) is why she thinks we feel so emotional about Katniss.  It’s all about the language.  Every line…especially the description, advances the characterization or plotting.  There’s never any downtime in this novel.  Every sentence moves us forward.  For example, reading the cat description in the beginning shows us just how desperate a world Katniss lives in.  There are so many layers, that this book is truly a monument to craft. 

A huge thank you to Marjetta for a fabulous workshop!  She’s leading the Novel Intensive at the FL SCBWI Mid-Year Workshop in Orlando on Friday.  I know it’ll be an amazing day!  The last I heard, there were two spots left…if you want to join Marjetta, Kathleen Duey (who gave so many fantastic gems in Miami and Orlando), and editor Michele Burke from Knopf BFYR.  There’s also room in our Illustrators’ Intensive (one of the faculty members is an associate art director at Simon and Schuster!), and it’s also not too late to sign up for the amazing workshop tracks on Saturday!   

Marjetta is also teaching a fall class—KidLit: The World of Picture Books, Middle Grade, and Young Adult Fiction at the Florida Center for the Literary Arts.  It's going to be on Wednesdays from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at MDC's Wolfson campus from Sept 19 to Nov 7. Registration isn't open yet, but you’ll find it on this site closer to the class.

I love having new tools to help improve my writing!  And I can’t wait to look at my favorite stories again, and dig deeper to figure out why I think they’re so amazing, and what the author did that helped make them so popular.

I’m off to get ready for the Orlando Mid-Year Workshop and Picture Book Intensive, and can’t wait to share the info with you when I come back.  I’ll also try to link to at least one blog about the Novel Intensive (I really wish I could take both!)  

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Beginnings are hard to master!

I'm playing the revision tango with the beginning of my middle-grade novel, My Sister is NOT Human.  I love the voice, but thanks to the help of my awesome critique groups, realized that I started in the wrong place.  I'm making some great progress on it, but have a feeling it will take a lot of playing around to nail it.  That's okay--I'm learning so much more about my characters and story.  I need to make the promise clear from the beginning, and now that I've revised a hundred times, the main character's age was cut from the opening pages.  Once I think I'm really close, I'll do my best to work it back in.  The opening scene is much more intense now, so I've lost a lot of the humor I had.  Since most of the novel is humorous, I want to find a way to work a bit of it back in.  I had the same issue with the beginning of Mom Wars, since it starts during a fight...and that's when I discovered that my character's coping device was throwing invisible food at her mom.  I wonder how I'll solve the issue with this novel!  I've also realized that I probably have to cut at least some of my subplots.  I already know one that's history.  Watch out other subplots...you might be next!

One of the scariest things for me was leaving behind a manuscript filled with characters I knew so well, and diving into this new one with a bunch of strangers.  I know them much better now...but still have a long way to go before I know them well enough to do their story justice!  Right now, I'm working on getting the bones and heart of my story in good shape...I'll have plenty of time to dig deeper and polish to perfection later.  Knowing that really freed me up to play around to see what works, and what I need to cut.  

What helps you whip a manuscript into shape during the first round of revisions?

If you live near Boca Raton, I hope I'll see you at a FREE FL SCBWI workshop this Sunday, June 12th from 2 p.m. - 5 p.m.  Click here
for details! 

There's still time to sign up for the amazing Orlando Workshop on June 25.  I believe there may be a few openings in the Novel Intensive and Illustrators' Intensive (one of the leaders is an art director at Simon and Schuster)!  Click here for more info.    

I'm wishing From the Mixed-Up Files...of Middle Grade Authors a happy first anniversary!  Wow, I can't believe our blog just started a year ago.  We've had so many interviews, book lists, and giveaways since then.  Speaking of giveaways--there's a wonderful one going on to celebrate our anniversary.  Hop on over to the website and leave a comment for a chance to win these great books by E.L. Konigsburg: The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, The View from Saturday, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

The rest are items to keep you busy if, like Claudia and her younger brother Jamie in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, you decide to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Here's a photo of all the fun goodies you can win!  Good luck. :)

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Today on the Mixed-Up Files...of Middle Grade Authors blog, I posted an interview of Ruth McNally Barshaw, the amazing author/illustrator of the Ellie McDoodle series.  She shared an awesome writing and illustrating exercise that I can't wait to try, and wait until you see her giveaway!

Tomorrow afternoon, two lucky people who comment on the Mixed-Up Files site will not only win an autographed and personalized paperback of her newly reissued Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel book, but Ruth will draw a sketch of each winner with Ellie, and will also create a version that could be used as an online avatar, like this wonderful sketch she drew of herself.

Most of our contests are only for people who live in the US and Canada, but anyone can enter this giveaway!  If winners live outside the US or Canada, they’ll still receive the sketch.  Instead of the autographed book, Ruth will give them a peek at a few digital pages from the next Ellie book, Ellie McDoodle: Most Valuable Player, a work in progress that will be published in Spring, 2012.
I had so much fun interviewing Ruth.  She's such a sweet, helpful, down-to-earth person.  She always has so many gems to share, and I love how easily she let us all into her life.  Growing up, my mom always wanted everything to seem perfect when we were out in public.  When I first became serious about writing children's books, I thought that I'd have to try not to show my fears or flaws in public, and I'm so glad that there are people like Ruth who show me that I can can let my writing friends know that I'm a little nervous when reading a new project to one of my groups for the first time.  Or when I finish polishing up a project, there's a part of me that wonders if I'll ever be able to write something as strong as that manuscript again.  It really helps to be able to share this part of me, too, instead of locking all my insecurities away.  Talking about it makes the obstacles much easier to overcome, and I'm grateful to have so many amazing writing buddies to share this journey with. 
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My next Mixed-Up Files post goes up on Wednesday, and I can't wait to share part two of Ruth McNally Barshaw's interview.  You can check out the first one here.  She included a writing and illustrating exercise that many of you loved...and she has another wonderful writing and illustrating exercise ready for Wednesday and a list of books that helped inspire her to become an author/illustrator!  Plus, Ruth has an extra-special giveaway planned.  She'll randomly choose two winners to receive a personalized copy of Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen Will Travel, which has a brand new paperback reissue coming out tomorrow that includes sketch lessons and other extra goodies on the back pages.  Ruth will sketch in each book--and the first name chosen will also receive an incredibly special original sketch!  I'll give you the details on Wednesday (both here and on the Mixed-Up Files blog).

I had so much fun interviewing Ruth, and want to wish her a happy birthday today...and happy book birthday tomorrow.  :)  

As most of you probably know, I'm proud to call Joyce Sweeney my mentor and friend.  I feel so lucky to be in her weekly workshop/critique group.  My writing has improved so much with her guidance, and she's helped many writers break into this business--which resulted in 32 bean ceremonies.  If you're not sure what that is, check out this awesome interview that Cynthia Leitich Smith posted of Joyce in Cynsations!
Here's Joyce signing my copy of The Guardian. 
Here's a picture of Joyce signing my copy of The Guardian.
I heard about Joyce's incredible critique group at my first FL SCBWI conference, and couldn't believe that some writers drove way over an hour to attend her group...until I met Joyce at a conference critique.  Her feedback has always been spot on, and has helped me dig deeper than I ever thought possible.  She's helped me find my strengths and improve my weaknesses, and has encouraged me every step of the way.  Thank you super-mentor Joyce, for everything you've done to help me and so many others!  

I recently ran Joyce's Success Story in the FL SCBWI listserv, and would love to share it with all of you!  You'll notice that she said she has given away 30 beans so far...that's because two of her peeps have sold their manuscripts since she wrote this! 

Florida SCBWI Success Story!

 Joyce Sweeney


My success story is going to be long, because I've been a writer for a long time -- since 1984!  During that time, my career path has taken some interesting twists and turns.  I wanted to be a writer when I was eight years old and I remember taking this aptitude test in the second grade that made me really mad.  It said I would be happier as a teacher!  I remember tearing it up, thinking that piece of paper would actually stand in the way of my writing dreams.  Actually that piece of paper was really smart. 

I pursued the dream of being a writer and when I was only 27, I won the First Annual Delacorte prize for a young adult novel with my book Center Line.  Center Line was a very successful book, was optioned many times for film (but never made into an actual movie) and won a number of other awards.  My career as a YA writer went on for two more decades, with the usual ups and downs.  Highlights for me were winning the Nevada Young Readers Award for my novel Shadow (I went to Las Vegas and signed 1000 books in one day!), the success of my novel Players, which was named a Top Ten Sports book for tweens by Booklist and which outsold all my other books, and my novel Headlock, which won a silver medal in the first annual Florida Book Awards.  I also lived through having one of my publishers go bankrupt, firing one agent and hiring another and a few books that didn't make a splash.  My most recent novel, The Guardian is about a boy lost in the foster care system, who turns to what seems to be his guardian angel for help. But it's not his guardian angel...it's something much more sinister.

All the while, through the good and bad times of being a novelist, I knew something was missing.  That darned aptitude test was right. I loved writing, but as it turned out it wasn't my favorite thing to do after all.  When I moved to South Florida, I had a chance to teach five week classes through the Florida Center for the Book.  Wow.  I knew right away, this was what I really wanted to do. I was good at it and they kept asking me back over and over.  But I noticed that people did great while they were taking a class with me, but if I checked back later, they had often lost momentum. 

I decided what was needed was an ongoing workshop, more of a support group really. I knew from my own experiences that it took much longer to get published than people think.  I knew good people were getting discouraged too soon. So The Thursday Group was born.  I hand selected 15 really talented writers who met weekly for critiques and ongoing writing lessons from me, but I think more important, supporting and encouraging each other.  The second year of the group, Noreen Wald got published, a memoir about her life as a frequent Jeopardy contestant.  The third year there were two more book contracts and by the fourth year...we had seven people, including Alex Flinn, Lucille Shulklapper and Sherri Winston.  That was when we created the Magic Bean ceremony.  One of our members had gone to Costa Rica and brought back seedpods from the guanacaste tree. Each one had 20 beautiful seeds inside.  So we had a big ceremony for our seven published authors, shaking rattles and handing out seven magic beans. 

When Linda Bernfeld started our Florida SCBWI chapter in 2000, there was an explosion of talent for me to discover and opportunities to meet and make referrals to agents.  Dorian Cirrone, Laurie Friedman, Gloria Rothstein, Janeen Mason and many others came in the next wave of magic beans. I expanded from one to three groups and also continued to help people publish in other genres including mystery, poetry, women's fiction, non-fiction and more. 

I'm up to Magic Bean number 30 now and in addition to my three critique groups I also critique manuscripts by mail for people all over the country.  Last year I partnered with writing coach Jamie Morris to create a series of weekend craft intensives called The Next Level.  We offer about five workshops a year, all around the state of Florida.  Working intensely with people over a three day period produces more breakthroughs...so I need to figure out where to get more magic beans!

I've decided teaching is my true passion, but I still write.  I've published a chapbook of poetry called Impermanence about my mother's struggle with Alzheimer's disease and now I'm writing and directing plays.  I love working with creative people, nothing gets me more excited. 

Huge congratulations, Joyce!  FL SCBWI is lucky to have such a dedicated member who has helped so many writers break into the business.  Would you like to share a writing tip with all of us?

My best tip to all of you who write:  I know the process is long and frustrating but you can't give up.  All the published writers I know went through some kind of long, difficult struggle. But believe me, when you see your name on the cover of a book, it's all worthwhile. 

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Now that Mom Wars is done...what's next?

It felt incredible to finish up my Mom Wars revision!  Thanks to my amazing critique groups and beta readers, I dug deeper than I ever thought possible.  So far, I've only sent it to one amazing agent who really liked the beginning and praised my voice when she heard it at a conference.  It felt wonderful to send new hope out after working on my middle-grade novel for so long!  I'm probably in for a four month wait, and decided that I'm going to try to hold off contacting any other agents until after I have it critiqued at the Orlando Workshop...just in case I find a way to add a little extra sparkle. 

Lolly spent most of her time curled up next to my chair while I revised, she happy danced when I finished, then put on her rock star glasses to celebrate.

So...what's next for me?  Well, I decided to take a short break. I participated in Paula Yoo's NaPiBoWriWee challenge, where the goal is to write 7 picture book drafts in 7 days.  This challenge helped me organize my ideas and then let them flow, instead of trying to use every single piece of information I know about picture books in the first draft (which could cause a person to stare at a blank page for a really long time).  That's why I love challenges like this!  There's plenty of time to incorporate all that wonderful info, revise, revise, revise, run it through my critique groups, and revise a zillion more times.  Besides getting over Scary Blank Page Syndrome, it also helped me experiment with different formats I might never have tried on my own.  And I love when I have an idea, start to get to know my characters, and the manuscript takes a totally surprising twist.  At the end of the week...I had 8 brand new picture book manuscripts.  Wahoo!  I can't wait to revise them.

Huge congrats to all my friends who tackled this challenge.  It was so much fun cheering each other on in the NaPiBoWriWee Facebook group! 

I ended up taking a few more days off from novels, and revised a bunch of older picture books.  I couldn't decide between Sock-a-palooza and Cake-tastrophe for my other Orlando critique.  I brought them both to my weekly group yesterday, and received fantastic advice.  They loved both manuscripts, but Cake-tastrophe was almost ready to go as is (a few tweaks, and I had to take something out of the manuscript that I love...but I could definitely see why it could be stronger without it).  Sock-a-palooza is so much fun, and I love the new changes!  There were a couple of larger ones though, so I want to let it sit for a bit after this revision, and run it through at least one critique group again.  I have a feeling I'll end up bringing the first page of this for a critique at the Picture Book Intensive I'm taking in Orlando with Alexandra Penfold and Lisa Wheeler.

It's amazing how long it can take to really revise something right, and I'm determined to do my best not to submit anything before it's 100% ready.  Whether that means a zillion rounds of picture book revisions, or finding the perfect place for a plot point in a novel that I thought was almost ready to submit.  Mom Wars had an issue with something that happened before the book started and was mentioned on the first page...but it really needed to be shown in scene.  So I moved it back to about the end of the first quarter, and it really popped.  I couldn't believe I ever had it in another spot.  Problem solved...right?  Um, no.  When my awesome mentor, Joyce Sweeney, read the full, she helped me see that the effects of the new scene didn't ripple through the rest of the manuscript enough...and it's because it was still in the wrong place!  Everything else on the full was a tiny tweak, and this probably would have scared me a few years ago, but I knew I'd be able to find the perfect spot.  And I did!  So what started off as a mention on page one is now around page 90 in the manuscript!  It needed to be much closer to the climax, and wow...what a huge difference in the rising tension.

I'm going to spend lots of quality time with my family this weekend.  After locking myself in my revision cave for so long, it will be nice to give Hubby and my girls 100% of my attention.  And then on Monday, I'm rolling up my sleeves and tackling revisions on the humorous MG I wrote during NaNoWriMo--My Sister is NOT Human.  I've missed working on it.  I love this story, and am excited to dive into it again!

When you finish revising a project, do you dive directly into the next one, tackle some in another genre, or take a bit of time off to celebrate all your hard work?

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Calling all picture book writers!

There's a fantastic challenge that runs from May 1st through May 7th that encourages you to write 7 picture book drafts in 7 days.  It's called NaPiBoWriWee (National Picture Book Writing Week) and was created by author Paula Yoo.  This will be my third year participating, and some of my favorite picture book manuscripts have come from this challenge.  It always reminds me that I should take a little break from revising my novel and current picture book manuscripts so I can write several new ones.

I'll share some of the rules below, but make sure you check Paula's site for all the details, updates, and wonderful guest blogs from Lisa Wheeler, Dan Santat, Don Tate, and several others.  Here's a direct link to the NaPiBoWriWee area on Paula's site.  And did I tell you that you can win prizes?  So you'll already be a winner for having seven new picture book drafts to mold into shape AND you can win prizes, too.  Wahoo!  

Here's a little more info:

1. Midnight May 1st to 11:59 p.m. May 7th: Write 7 separate and complete picture books.
2. You are NOT allowed to write the same picture book in 7 variations. Each book must be complete and separate.
3. No minimum word count. Instead, each book must have a clear beginning, middle and end.
4. You are allowed to brainstorm and research book topics before May 1st. Outlines are acceptable. First draft writing is NOT. Do NOT write your books before May 1st – only brainstorming, taking notes, and outlining are allowed.
5. You are NOT allowed to write a single word of your draft until midnight May 1st.

So...who is going to take the NaPiBoWriWee plunge with me?  I've been busy finishing up revisions on my MG, Mom Wars, and after one more quick read through, it will be DONE!  I haven't had much time to plan my new picture book manuscripts, so I'm really glad I have over 30 ideas that I jotted down during Tara Lazar's PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) challenge.  I was hoping to flesh out those ideas before this challenge, and will try to work on them today and tomorrow.  It looks like Sunday is going to be a very busy day...I can't wait!

Several of us formed a Facebook group to cheer each other on during NaPiBoWriWee--let me know if you want me to add you to our group!

Thanks for creating this wonderful challenge, Paula!  Good luck to everyone participating in NaPiBoWriWee.  I can't wait to hear about all your new manuscripts!
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I hope I'll see you in Orlando!

When I attended my first SCBWI conference in 2005, I instantly became a conference addict.  It's amazing to spend time with others who love children's books as much as I do!  I always leave with so much information and inspiration--and I have to say that everyone is always so friendly and supportive.  I love being part of such a wonderful community!

We have an amazing SCBWI FL Mid-Year Workshop in Orlando on June 25th, with incredible intensives on June 24th.  The hotel is on Disney property, so it's the perfect excuse for a vacation!  Here's a link to more info about our Orlando Workshop at the Coronado Springs hotel, and you can also read the faculty bios. 


Intensives--Friday, June 24th 

Picture Book Intensive

Alexandra Penfold: editor at Paula Wiseman, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Lisa Wheeler: author with over thirty titles on library shelves including picture books in prose and rhyme, an easy reader series, three books of poems, and creative nonfiction for the very young

Novel Intensive

Michelle Burke: editor at Knopf Books for Young Readers 

Kathleen Duey: award winning author who has published over 70 books for readers K-YA

Marjetta Geerling: author of FANCY WHITE TRASH and another novel scheduled for release in 2012

Illustrators’ Intensive

Lucy Cummins: associate art director with Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Priscilla Garcia Burris: author and illustrator, SCBWI National Illustrator Coordinator & Advisor

Linda Shute: illustrator or author/illustrator of 13 picture books and our FL SCBWI Illustrators’ Coordinator

Workshop Tracks--Saturday, June 25th

Picture Book

Alexandra Penfold: editor at Paula Wiseman, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Emma Dryden: 25 year veteran in children's publishing, owner of drydenbks--a multi-faceted company pertaining to all aspects of the children’s book publishing business

Alan Katz: author of many highly acclaimed children's books, including nine Silly Dilly Songbooks

Priscilla Burris: author and illustrator, SCBWI National Illustrator Coordinator & Advisor 


Middle Grade

Joanna Volpe: agent with Nancy Coffey Literary & Media Representation

Gordon Korman: author of more than seventy novels for kids and young adults with over twenty million copies of his novels in print


Young Adult

Michele Burke: editor at Knopf Books for Young Readers 

Kathleen Duey: award winning author who has published over 70 books for readers K-YA



Kristin Daly Rens: editor at Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins

Lee Bennett Hopkins: award winning author and editor


Digital Media

Rubin Pfeffer: agent with East/West Literary Agency

Emma Dryden: 25 year veteran in children's publishing, owner of drydenbks--a multi-faceted company pertaining to all aspects of the children’s book publishing business

Loreen Leedy: author-illustrator of 40 picture books for children that often incorporate math, science, and language arts content. She is in the process of creating digital versions of some of her books.

Curtis Sponsler: Creative Director and Animator of AniMill, überNerd, Author of "The Focal Easy Guide to After Effects"

ModeratorJoyce Sweeney: mentor and author of fourteen novels for young adults

Are any of you wondering if the Digital Media Track is the one for you?  Moderator Joyce Sweeney sent me a blurb about it, and it sounds fabulous!

Do you need a gps to navigate the changing landscape of publishing?  Are you app challenged? Social media phobic? Downloads got you down? 

Our panel of experts --  Emma Dryden (veteran editor and founder of drydenbks), Rubin Pfeffer (East West Literary Agency), Loreen Leedy (award winning author and illustrator) and Curtis Sponsler (Creative Director, Animill) will not only demystify the new world of Digital Media, they will show you that there are some great new opportunities out there for everyone from beginners to veteran authors.  Get an insiders view of Digital Publishing from e-books to apps to book trailers. 

Everything looks amazing, it was so hard to choose!  I finally decided to take the Picture Book Intensive and the Middle Grade Track.  I hope some of you take the other tracks and the Novel Intensive, so we can swap notes!

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Mom Wars is almost ready!

It wasn't easy revising while my daughter was home sick with croup, but I stayed up late every night and believe Mom Wars is in amazing shape.  Wahoo!  But...I'm still not sure it's bullet proof enough to start submitting.  I printed up the full and handed it to my amazing mentor, Joyce Sweeney, yesterday, and can't wait to hear what she thinks!  I know she loves the manuscript from comments she's made while I ran it through her weekly critique group a few chapters at a time (I love how she gives us grades sometimes, and my revised ending got an A+++++, which had me smiling all week).  But I've learned that some things that seem to work when reading a few chapters, aren't always strong enough when you read through the full manuscript.  Thanks to the help of several amazing beta readers, and going through the full a zillion and one times, I'm pretty sure it will be 1000% ready to submit soon. 

Here are some areas I tackled on my last few rounds:

1.  I went on a serious streamlining mission.  If anything wasn't absolutely necessary to my manuscript, I banished it to my orphan file (which is mind-blowingly huge now).  I cut over 6,700 words in a week!  And guess what?  I don't miss any of them!  I think my pacing is much better now, plus I found two areas where I mentioned something that wasn't necessary at that moment, and they ruined surprises later in the manuscript.  So...Mom Wars went from about 41,500 to 34,800 words.  I wonder what will happen when I get the overall and line suggestions back from Joyce! 

2.  I found a new way to look for overused words.  I tried to keep an eye out for my biggest offenders, like: just, suddenly, so, and crazy amounts of ellipses the past few weeks, and noticed that heart came up quite a few times.  Jen's stomach also flip-flopped a lot.  I created a page full of charts, one for each overused word I wanted to track, and wrote down the page numbers for all of them.  I also kept track of letters to her best friend (which I later decided to cut completely) and blog entries the main character makes.

3.  I made sure I tied up all the threads by the end, and that all character arcs were complete (there's a trick for this, too--you can create a file for every conversation with or about each character and read them straight through to make sure the arcs all work). 

What do you look for during the last few rounds of revision on your manuscripts?
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It's amazing how deep you can really dig into a manuscript and how parts that seemed to work from the beginning suddenly aren't strong enough.  It's a long, hard process...but it's also really fun, too.  I love learning new things about my characters, and often get up and happy dance around my office when I make a breakthrough.

I sent Mom Wars to three wonderful beta readers right before I went on vacation with my family.  Even though I thought about my novel a lot, I only worked on picture books and critiques while I was away for ten days. 

Here are photos of my girls hanging out with their grandpa (who they haven't seen in way too long because we haven't been to NY in years) and the unusual band that played next to us at Jekyll and Hyde (one of our favorite restaurants in NYC).

I found out that Mom Wars is great...but it could be even better.  So I dug in deeper than ever because I'm determined to make it knock-your-socks-off fantastic.  The feedback was incredibly helpful (thanks again a million times over, awesome beta readers), and the time I spent away from my novel helped me see it in a new way.  Sometimes I zoom through areas, immediately knowing how to make them stronger.  Other times, I get stuck on a paragraph or two for more than a day.  But I'm constantly moving forward, and loving every minute of this revision.  

I'm planning to make Mom Wars as strong as possible, get a little more feedback, and hope to find out that it's bullet proof enough to send.  It's hard to hold back sometimes--it's been quite a while since I've submitted anything.  But it's exciting to know that I'll have a really strong and totally unshopped middle-grade novel to send out soon.  I have a feeling you'll all hear me celebrating when I finally hit the send button!

I'll take a short break to dedicate some quality time to the picture books I've been neglecting, then roll up my sleeves and get ready to tackle revisions on the MG I wrote in November--My Sister is NOT Human.  I've missed working on it, and can't wait!

I usually write the first draft of my novels during NaNoWriMo (sometimes in as short as 11 days).  Then, I send it in chunks to my critique groups as I revise.  I do at least several full rounds of revision, interview my characters, and dig as deep as possible.  I also try to bring each manuscript to at least one workshop or intensive.  When it's as strong as possible. I send it out to a few betas, revise, revise, revise.  Then I try to have at least one or two fresh eyes to make sure I've done everything possible to whip a manuscript into shape before sending it out.  How do you usually work on revisions? Add This Blog to the JacketFlap Blog Reader Site Meter
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A Beastly Weekend

I had an amazing time celebrating the opening of the Beastly movie with local author, Alex Flinn, who wrote the novel.  Wow!  I don't even know where to start.  It was such an incredible event.  A few of us got really dressed up and I brought my family (my girls each brought a friend, too). 

Before the movie started, our wonderful SCBWI RA, Linda Rodriguez Bernfeld, made a sweet speech.  We're lucky to have her leading our region--she not only puts together amazing conferences, but organized this special Beastly viewing party.  Thanks, Linda!  Then my incredible mentor (and fairy godmother to many writers) Joyce Sweeney spoke about how proud we all are and gave Alex a special gift.  We celebrated with incredible cinnamon vanilla cake made by Gaby Triana.  Check out this photo--Gaby should have her own Cake Boss type show on TV.  I'm always amazed with the designs she makes. 

We all cheered when we saw Alex's name up on the screen.  I LOVE the movie!  The stars were great--Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Hudgens, Neil Patrick Harris, Peter Krause, and Mary-Kate Olsen.  I definitely plan to see it again (and again, and again).  I can't wait to read the book again, too--the writing is awesome.  Definitely read it! 

We each went home with all kinds of swag...t-shirts, a poster, pins, some people got a copy of the Beastly novel with the movie tie-in cover (I have the original cover on mine).  They also gave out boxes of candy with a Beastly picture on one side.  You can check out more of my photos here.

It's been a whirlwind of incredible movie news in South Florida!  Beastly was spoofed on Saturday Night Live, with Miley Cyrus playing Lindy.  Here’s a blog post where Alex shares photos and fun details about the Beastly premiere.  And I’m sure you’ve seen the commercials, but if you’re like me and just can’t see it enough, here’s a link to the trailer.  And here’s a great article in the Miami Herald.

So...what happens when you take an amazing book and turn it into a movie?  I've been having so much fun shouting out all of Alex's fantastic news.  Beastly is #1 on the New York Times Best Sellers List for children’s paperback books and is #26 on the USA Today Best Sellers List.  Wahoo! 

So huge congrats to Alex Flinn for her novel, Beastly, and the movie based on it being so successful!  And congrats on the recent publication of her newest novel, Cloaked.  It's sitting on my bookshelf now, begging me to finish up the novel I'm reading so I can dig into it.  I can't wait!

Time to stop blogging and get back to my synopsis.  I had to put my Mom Wars revision aside for a few days so I could whip the synopsis into great shape and send it along with the beginning of my middle-grade novel for the SCBWI WIP Grant by Friday.  It's amazing how much more difficult it feels to write a synopsis than an entire novel!  I think the bones are all there now.  I'm waiting on some more feedback from my wonderful critique groups to make sure I have enough of my main character's personality shining through, and that everything is as streamlined and clear as possible.  Critique groups and crit buddies rock!

Good luck to all of you who are applying for a grant.  I hope to see many of your names on the winner's list!    

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I was thrilled to interview Ruth McNally Barshaw, the author and illustrator of the popular Ellie McDoodle series on my latest From The Mixed-Up Files...of Middle Grade Authors post.  Wow--Ruth is such an inspiration, and shared so much wonderful advice, how she broke into the business, and a fantastic exercise that's great for adults and kids to use when fleshing out a character.  You'll also see three sketches and some info for the 4th Ellie McDoodle book, due out in Spring, 2012.

Leave a comment on the Mixed-Up Files site to enter to win a personalized Ellie book...and Ruth said she'll even add some surprise sketches inside each book!  Two winners will be chosen on Thursday, February 24th.  I can't wait to see who will win these two awesome prizes.  

Ruth's sketches are amazing--and she has tons of them on her website.  Here's one Ruth drew of herself that I included in the interview.  
I've been busy working on my MG revision--it's getting really close to being done.  Wahoo!  I'm hoping to post more about the Miami conference soon, but it takes me a while to organize my notes and type everything up, and I've had to concentrate on my revision, the interview, my critique groups, and the FL SCBWI listserv first.  A new listserv will be coming out soon...with news about the celebration for the opening of the movie Beastly, based on Alex Flinn's incredible novel.

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I love Valentine's Day Surprises

I owe a huge thank you to Tara Lazar for holding PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) in November.  After I finished NaNoWriMo mid-month, I tackled her amazing challenge and wasn't sure if I'd be able to come up with 30 new picture book ideas that fast.  Well...I ended up with 38 ideas by the end of the month, and can't wait to flesh out my favorites and tackle them in Paula Yoo's NaPiBoWriWee challenge in the beginning of May, where I'll write 7 picture book drafts in 7 days. 

Not only did Tara inspire me to come up with some amazing new picture book ideas, but she also held a wonderful contest.  Look what I got in the mail:

I love receiving surprises in the mail.  Thanks so much for the fun prize, Tara and Alyson Heller from Simon & Schuster!

Nineteen years ago, Hubby gave me a huge Valentine's Day surprise when he proposed to me.  I'll never forget how he ordered champagne and made the most beautiful toast.  But he acted kind of strange when I sipped the champagne.  He asked if it tasted okay, and I said it was great.  Sip, sip, sip.  Then, he held up his glass and said you can tell a good champagne by the effervescence of the bubbles.  I thought the bubbles looked fine.  Sip, sip, sip.  And then our waiter came over, took my glass, and tipped it toward me saying that sometimes champagne can have a bitter taste because of a metallic sediment on the bottom.  That's when I finally saw the ring--good thing I didn't drink it! :)

Here's our engagement picture (sorry that it's a little fuzzy, but I had to scan it in).

Hubby fished the ring out, dried it off, and proposed to me...what a wonderful Valentine's Day memory!  I hope all of you have a fantastic Valentine's Day, and make special memories that will stay with you forever. 
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The Novel Intensive

 Erin Murphy, Krista Marino, and Joyce Sweeney

 FL SCBWI Regional Conference 2011 in Miami 

This was an absolutely amazing intensive.  The three instructors worked so well together, it felt like they’ve been putting this intensive on for years.  I’ll share some of the highlights with you and wish I could blog about it in more detail…but I can’t give away everything.  If you ever have a chance to take a workshop or intensive with any of them in the future, sign up ASAP!

Krista Marino, Erin Murphy, and Joyce Sweeney 

Overcoming Obstacles

Led by agent Erin Murphy

              Erin asked what our fantasy writing life would be like, and said that obstacles are usually assumptions and not reality.

What strengths/talents and weaknesses do you have?  Write them down…because we’re often too busy putting obstacles in our way to notice the good things.

Some people are over-disciplined (they might outline or have to write at the same time each day, and others are under-disciplined.

It’s great to have a support community.  She mentioned Verla Kay’s Blueboards as a wonderful one (I agree 100%--I’ve learned so much, made tons of writing friends, and even found my online critique groups through the Blueboards).

Erin mentioned a method called the Pomodoro Technique, which helps her stay on task.  You write down your goals the night before, then set a timer for twenty-five minutes and don’t let anything distract you from your goal.  If you need to look something up or come up with a brilliant idea for a different project, quickly jot down the info so you can work on it at another time. 

Joyce talked about the importance of a great critique group. She says to try to have at least one person who is better than you.  And make sure it’s the right group for you.  Do you leave inspired, or never wanting to write again?  (I feel really lucky to be in three wonderful online groups and two amazing local groups—including one led by super-mentor Joyce.  I can’t imagine trying to get published without my talented critique buddies letting me know if the pacing is off, when something is unclear, and helping me dig deeper than I ever thought possible into my characters and stories—not to mention all the support they give me.  Critique groups and crit buddies rock!!!)

Krista Marino added that authors shouldn’t post the amount of money they make online, and to make sure you don’t talk negatively about editors and agents. 

Building Scenes

Led by Author Joyce Sweeney


You should be in scene almost all the time, with little bits of narration in between.  Otherwise, you’re just telling the story.

 Here are the beginner problems she sees most often:

·         A point of view switch for no reason

·         Not writing in scene (you should see dialogue)


Each scene is a plot in and of itself—you should see a little arc in each one.

             Each scene has to matter to plot.  Make sure you cut it if it isn’t advancing the story.  If a book takes place in November, you don’t have to celebrate Thanksgiving if it doesn’t add anything to the plot.

 If something bad is coming, make sure the description fits the mood.

 Use the inciting event to lure the reader in.  It isn’t exciting to say ‘nothing much happened on Tuesday’.

 The climax doesn’t always have to be an awful event—it can be happy…but has to be more than just showing a friendship.  Make something happen, too!

 If you stop a chapter at an awesome place mid-scene, then you don’t need to orient the reader again in the next chapter.


I didn’t include the parts of a scene in this post, because I had taken an amazing two hour scene workshop with Joyce a while back, and blogged about it in detail here.



Led by Krista Marino


You can recognize the authorial voice from book to book—it’s the fingerprint of an author.  Some change it up more than others, like Libba Bray. 

The narrative voice is invented by an author, but it isn’t the author’s voice.

 Elements that contribute to voice:

·         Diction—vocabulary/word choices

·         Perspective

·         Characterization—conveys info about appearance, gender, education level, religion.  Even if it’s not on the page, the author needs to know EVERYTHING about the characters.

·         Dialogue—interior monologue is the #1 element she feels is missing from manuscripts.  When a character shakes her head, what is she really thinking?  It needs emotional context.  (She read a scene from a book without internal monologue, and then again with it, and wow…there was a HUGE difference.)


Just being about a teen doesn’t make it YA.  It has to do with perspective (experiences).  The second an adult voice takes over, we place judgment on a child.  To see a good example of teen outlook vs. adult outlook, watch 17 again—a great line from that showing the wisdom from an adult prospective is “When you’re young, everything feels like it’s the end of the world.”  The younger you are, the more a child often has the ‘end of the world’ experience.    

Big is a great movie to see for a teen outlook in an adult world. 

Her favorite books are character driven—they need to have a plot and a strong voice.  A great example is Harry Potter.

Make a list of your main character’s attributes.  Does he or she have any defining physical traits? You need to know your character’s motivation.  Think of him or her as real (one participant in the intensive buys things for his main character and looks at those items as he writes).

Dialogue or interior monologue should:

·         Illustrate the character’s personality  

·         Take the plot forward

·         Feel real

What they’re thinking can be different from what they say.  Internals that are creative and deep can take a manuscript to the next level. 

Go to a public place where you can listen to what kids say (and how they speak).  You can also use your experiences (try to remember how you felt at prom, etc. and wonder what if… and see where it leads).

Krista Marino mentioned that she usually doesn’t like first person, present tense.



Led by Erin Murphy


Put your manuscript away for a while and get some distance so you can see it clearly. 

Here are some revision methods to consider: 

·         Darcy Pattison’s shrunken manuscript method—shrink down to about four manuscript pages per printed page, lay them out on the floor, and glance at them to see the pacing.

·         You can color code elements, use sticky notes, create a spreadsheet, or use a program like Scrivner

·         Outline after you’ve written

·         Read it out loud

·         Have someone else read it

·         Switch between reading it in print or on a screen

If you hate cutting anything from your novel, create a file for the deletions (I’ve been doing that for a while, and am starting to have more pages in my Orphan file than my actual manuscript…but it definitely makes hitting the delete key much easier).

When you get a revision letter, start small and break it down.  You can’t do everything at once—it’s too overwhelming.

You can check for overused words on a program like Worldles.net.  (I think Joyce added this one—it really is amazing to see what your most used words are.  A word like ‘just’ shouldn’t be one of the most frequent words in your manuscript.)

There’s a helpful checklist/outline format on Verla Kay’s Blueboards called: Nine Steps for Plotting Fiction. 

Erin Murphy gave us a great handout  entitled Questions to Ask Yourself When Revising a Scene.  I LOVE having all these wonderful questions in one place, and am having fun choosing a few to consider with each full round of revisions.  I’ll share some of my favorites with you (since I can’t give away all of Erin’s secrets).

·         Why is this scene necessary?  What would be missing from the story if it were removed?

·         Do you find yourself skimming some parts to get to the good stuff?

·         Does the scene address the main character’s internal arc as well as his or her place in external events in the story?  Do we have a sense of his or her goal in this scene?

·         Are all the characters present in the scene active in the scene, or actively shown there?  If it’s easy to forget any are there, and that is not intentional, do they really need to be there at all?  **Another gem that Erin shared is that if this happens in several scenes, you might be able to merge two characters together (I had to do that in my first novel because I didn’t really need two grandmothers and the combined version of both became a much more 3D character).  She said it’s okay for characters to be there for comic relief.

·         Does the scene include any important concrete devices or motifs that need to be threaded throughout the manuscript?  (If not, are any of those things present within a scene or two of this one)?

Wow…I wanted to keep typing away, because I have two pages of wonderful questions in the handout.  Definitely take Erin’s revision workshop if you have the chance!  In the meantime, Erin told us that Robin LaFevers has an amazing site that contains a good portion of the ideas that inspired her handout.  There are tons of gems on Robin’s site—scroll down and check out the list of labels on the right side.


Here’s some of the great info I picked up about Erin Murphy and Krista Marino during the first page critiques and Q&A:

* Both of them aren’t big on talking animal books.

 Krista Marino:

·         Boy MG is needed

             Erin Murphy:

·         She prefers that writers have more than one book and are familiar with conferences and the writing world.  An agent is a partner, not a teacher.

·         As the economy slows, the process slows.  An agent might get a manuscript as strong as possible, then test to one or two editors to see if there are any revision suggestions before blowing their chances.

·         Smaller imprints in bigger houses tend to be a little more nurturing.

As you can tell, this was an amazing Novel Intensive, and I’m thrilled that I was able to participate and share some of the gems with all of you.  I’ll blog about all the Saturday speakers, plus the two wonderful workshops I took on Sunday as soon as I make some more progress on my MG revision. 
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Here's part two of the listserv I sent out yesterday.  Good luck to all of you who will be participating in the contests or picture book challenge!

Congrats, everyone. :)


I’m hoping to put at least one success story in every listserv.  What are you waiting for?  Let me know your great news so we can all celebrate.

For this issue, the success stories are all up above in the tribute to Linda.  And like I said when I introduced the agent panel…I have a feeling that after listening to the secrets that Erin Murphy, Michael Bourret, and Sarah Davies shared with us and attending the FL SCBWI Miami Conference, a lot of you will be sending me great news soon—and I can’t wait to celebrate with you!


Greg Neri just won a Coretta Scott King Book Award Honor for Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty!  Greg’s book was illustrated by Randy DuBurke and published by Lee & Low Books Inc.  Huge congrats, Greg!  We all cheered for you at the conference and are sending more congrats your way now.  


The 2011 Picture Book Marathon starts on February 1st—sign up by January 30th for this fun challenge that will have you writing twenty-six picture book manuscripts next month.  Of course, they’ll probably be really rough drafts…but think of all the fun you’ll have choosing which ones to revise instead of staring at a blank page, wishing you could find the time and inspiration to start a new picture book manuscript.  Bruce Hale talked about finding ways to make more time to write, and this could be the jumpstart you need!  



SCBWI Crystal Kite Member Choice Awards Competition.


January 31st is the deadline to enter any 2010 publication in the all-new SCBWI Crystal Kite Member Choice Awards Competition. Any first-run book for young readers published by a PAL publisher in the 2010 calendar year is eligible for the award.


How to Enter

All you need to do is log in to your SCBWI Member Profile, enter your book information on the "Publications" tab, and make sure that you've clicked the box that reads "Yes, I would like to submit this publication for Crystal Kite Awards nomination."


HIGHLIGHTS 2011 FICTION CONTEST (The deadline is almost here!) 

CATEGORY:  Fiction involving an embarrassing moment.

PRIZES:  Three prizes of $1,000 or tuition for the Highlights Foundation Writers Workshop at Chautauqua.

ENTRY DATES:  All entries must be postmarked between January 1 and January 31, 2011.





Writing for Children and Teens: Finding an Agent

Sat., Feb. 12, 10:30 a.m.

Royal Palm Beach Branch Library

500 Civic Center Way * Royal Palm Beach, FL 33411 

Are you an adult who writes picture books, middle grade fiction, or young adult fiction? This workshop and critique group series is for beginning to intermediate writers who want to improve their craft and learn a little bit about publication. In February we will talk about writing good query letters and finding a literary agent. (60 min.)  Please call 561-790-6030 or email boskya@pbclibrary.org to sign up.





Julie Strauss-Gabel has been promoted to VP and publisher of Dutton Children's Books. The unit will publish 10 to 15 titles a year as "a boutique middle grade and young adult imprint with a focus on titles of exceptional literary quality and strong commercial appeal." Penguin Children's president Don Weisberg says that Strauss-Gabel will be taking Dutton Children's "gracefully into the future and I am excited to see her take on this new role at Penguin." 



Marcia Wernick and Linda Pratt, veteran literary agents who spent the majority of their careers at the Sheldon Fogelman Agency, are decamping to start their own eponymous outfit. The pair, who handle children's authors and illustrators, have worked together for more than 20 years and will focus on everything from picture book authors to YA novelists at the new agency, Wernick & Pratt.


*We do not endorse any contests or event, we are just passing along the information. Please do your own due diligence before entering any contest or submitting to any agent.



Here’s a note from Bruce Hale, who gave an incredible keynote speech at our conference in Miami:   

I loved meeting you all at the Miami conference! If you're running into roadblocks on the way to being published..., or if you're wondering what to do now that you're finally published — you might enjoy my newsletter of writing tips.

It's got inspirational quotes, feature articles, and a Q&A section where I answer readers' questions. This month, you'll find the answer to the first of several questions sent to me by Miami conference attendees. Here's the link: http://www.BruceHaleWritingTips.com/

Looking forward to hearing from you! 



At our conference, several agents spoke about writers leaking too much information online.  Don’t forget that whatever you say on blogs, message boards, and basically anywhere on the Internet can (and probably will) be found by agents or editors.  Here’s a great blog post from agent Jennifer Laughran on the same topic. 


Agent Jill Corcoran wrote an informative and timely blog about how to sub queries & full manuscripts in the digital age.


Check out this great new blog called EMU’S Debuts that explores the winding path that lies between the Book Deal and the Debut, brought to you by eight debuting authors represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette and Erin Murphy of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.   


Here’s a site by Harold Underdown where you can check all the major children’s book awards and winners from 2002-2011.  You can also find out more about each award.  You’ll also find great articles and market info on his website.   


Want to read more about the conference?  Here are the photos I took, and I hope you’ll all stop by our Florida SCBWI Facebook page and add your photos (please take a peek at what is there first so we don’t have too many similar pictures).  Check out these blogs, and you’ll find tons of info, inspiration, and photos!   

Donna Gephart

Larissa Hardesty

Shannon Hitchcock

Sarah Davies

I haven’t had time to type up all my notes yet, but Erin Murphy said that a good portion of her amazing handout entitled Questions to Ask Yourself When Revising a Scene was inspired by the great info that Robin LaFevers has on her website.  I love how easy it is to find writing gems like a characterization worksheet and plotting advice (scroll down and you'll see a list of labels on the right side).  Thanks for sharing all this wonderful writing info, Erin and Robin! 

I hope to have the Novel Intensive, general session, and workshop posts up soon (probably in three separate posts next week), so feel free to hop by my blog.     


Do you blog about our conferences?  Shoot me an e-mail with a link when you post a conference blog and I’d love to include it in future listservs.




It's always helpful to receive feedback on a manuscript.  I belong to two local and three online groups, and can't thank them enough for all the suggestions and support they have given me.  Are you interested in joining a local or online critique group or starting one if there are no active groups in your area?  Contact our Critique Group Coordinator, Paul May, and don't forget to check out the list of critique groups on our website.


Here’s a message from a critique group in Jacksonville that is looking for new members:

Our critique group in Jacksonville is looking for an additional member. We would prefer a picture book writer, but middle grade is fine as well. We currently have six active members who are serious about being published. One member has several book deals and others are getting close.

Because our group is established we take our time finding new members. We ask each prospective member to complete a questionnaire and to submit a writing sample so we can get to know them. We think this is the best way to have a good fit for everyone.

If you are interested, please contact Jennifer Swanson.  


Are you actively seeking new members for your critique group?  Send me a blurb about the genres you cover and other important info, and I’d be happy to include it in the next listserv.

* If you have a book sale, publication date, signing, (and are a PAL member who wants to mention a book from a PAL publisher), or you have a contest win, agent news, or an SCBWI Success Story to share, please e-mail the info to me in a similar format to the ones I posted above.  I can’t wait to celebrate with you!  




Mindy Alyse Weiss

FL SCBWI Listserv Editor 
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Happy 10th Anniversary FL SCBWI!

I had an amazing time at the 10th annual SCBWI Florida Regional Conference in Miami.  I'm lucky to live in an area with such a wonderful SCBWI group, filled with incredibly supportive and talented authors and illustrators.  Here's a special tribute that I included in the FL SCBWI listserv that I'd love to share with all of you, and hope you'll be able to join us for a future conference.  The January conference in Miami is a great excuse to escape the snow for a weekend, and our June conference is on Disney property, so you can easily turn it into a family vacation.

I'll paste the tribute part of the listserv below, and will add the rest in a second post--it includes some wonderful market info (including contests and a fun picture book challenge with deadlines in the next two days).

Hi everyone.  I want to thank our amazing RA, Linda Rodriguez Bernfeld, wonderful new ARA, Marcea Ustler, and all the fabulous volunteers for making the FL SCBWI conference in Miami an absolutely incredible experience for us.  I can’t rave enough about the speakers.  And thank all of you for making our 10th anniversary such a special event.

One of my favorite parts of the weekend was when Linda was given a beautiful necklace, a celebration cake, and several of our successful authors told her how much all her hard work and dedication helped their dreams come true.  Surprise again, Linda—because I contacted everyone and now you’ll have it in writing.  Any time you’re running around trying to replace a faculty member who can’t come last minute or any of the other issues that come up, you’ll remember how many people you’re helping…and how grateful we all are to you.


Joyce Sweeney

 Author of fourteen novels and one book of poetry.

She has twenty-nine students published and is now also directing plays.


I remember Linda contacting me about creating a possible SCBWI chapter...I told her, I'll do anything to help you make that happen.  We had that little conference at the elementary school and the next year, Linda had found a hotel and rounded up Judy Blume.  I knew that with SCBWI helping me I could go from a small time mentor to an Uber-mentor...and it happened.  SCBWI was not only an amazing place for me to find talented writers, but also to meet agents and editors to whom I still make referrals.  I have 29 people published from my workshops alone and I think the total number of people published in these past ten years from all of SCBWI Florida is about 40 people. We have incredible success stories like Alex Flinn who has a feature film coming out of her novel Beastly.  Or Christina Gonzalez, whose book has gone into multiple printings.  And other, quieter careers that are equally fullfilling.  Linda is a true fairy godmother to us all and she's also a wonderful writer. I know you'll all agree it's her turn to get some of that fairy dust!


Marjetta Geerling

Author of FANCY WHITE TRASH (Viking, '08)



At the very first SCBWI Miami Regional Conference in 2001, Alex Flinn (who I'd met only a few weeks before) introduced me to Joyce Sweeney and told Joyce she should work with me. Joyce mentored me, referred me to agent George Nicholson who took me on as a client in '02, and my first book sold in '07. Without my SCBWI critique groups and contacts, I probably would've given up long before the first contract came along. Thank you, Linda, for helping to create such a supportive community for children's writers in Florida!



Danielle Joseph

 Author of Shrinking Violet (MTV/Pocket Books, 2009)

Indigo Blues (Flux, 2010)

and Pure Red (Flux, coming October 2011)


Linda Bernfeld has done an awesome job in helping many writers reach their dreams. She has put together ten years of amazing SCBWI conferences, outdoing herself each year. Not only is she busy running two Florida conferences a year but she also runs a weekly critique group. I have been in Linda's critique group for almost nine years now. I have learned so much from the group and conferences which has helped me better my writing tenfold, eventually signing up with an amazing agent and am now awaiting my third book to be published this coming October. Thanks, Linda, you rock!


Debbie Reed Fischer

Author of Braless in Wonderland (Dutton)

  and Swimming with the Sharks (Flux)


The first time I attended an SCBWI conference, my head reeled. Not because of the wealth of information being presented, or the authors, agents and editors with whom I was casually mingling, but because of the overwhelming feeling that I had found my people. There were others who read and wrote YA?! And they weren’t in the closet like me! They read childrens' books openly and talked about getting published!

Incredible. I was not alone.

A lady sitting next to me during one of the sessions pointed to Joyce Sweeney in the crowd and said, “She’s a great workshop teacher and all the authors know her.” So, once again, I rustled up some courage and approached Joyce. Again, a warm welcome, more introductions, an overwhelming feeling I was among people who understood me and would guide me to where I needed to go on this writing journey.

I took Joyce’s class, and a few months later found myself in the weekly critique group she led, which included Norma Davids, Dorian Cirrone, Danielle Joseph, Adrienne Sylver, Janeen Mason, Gloria Rothstein, Laurie Friedman, Flora Doone, Linda Rodgriguez-Bernfeld, and many others. My new mentor, Joyce, explained that I would have to read what I had written and then we would discuss it.

 Talk about courage. Why didn’t I just stroll down the street in my bathrobe and zit cream mask? That would have been easier than sharing my words with people who were going to slice them and dice them and put them under a microscope.

But I learned. I became a better writer. I learned what I did well as well as what I had to work on. Most important, I created close bonds with other writers, which is so much of what SCBWI is all about. By the time the second conference rolled around the following year, I had a critique session with an agent named Steven Chudney, who told me within minutes of my pitch that I talked too much. Very perceptive! We laughed, and luckily, he decided to read what I had to say instead of listening to me babble. A few months later I officially had an agent. At that same conference, I met an editor from Dutton named Mark McVeigh, who later bought my second novel, Braless in Wonderland and became my editor.

So to recap: I met my teacher/ mentor, my agent, and my editor at SCBWI conferences. All because of a few chance meetings leading me to SCBWI.

And I met Linda. None of it would have been possible without Linda Rodriguez-Bernfeld. She gives up her own writing time for the demands of SCBWI, works hard all year to bring in the best of the best. All year, we writers look forward to the conferences where we strengthen those bonds.

That is why you MUST show up to these SCBWI conferences because you never know who you will meet that will bring you closer to your goal of being published. I am a prime example. 

To quote The Cat Ate my Gym Suit’s Paula Danziger, who spoke at the first conference I attended, “We make our own success. Put yourself in the right place, hope it’s the right time, and do your best.”

So, thank you so veryveryvery much, Linda, for providing the right place, year after year, and inspiring us to do our best. We are forever grateful.


Adrienne Sylver

Author of Hot Diggity Dog: The History of the Hot Dog


I first met Linda when I attended a critique group at the South Miami Library. I don’t think the group had had many meetings yet, and I remember that it was a small group, maybe just Linda, Sandy, and perhaps Susan at the time. From the minute I walked in the room, I was made to feel welcome. It was a place I belonged and it was an atmosphere where we could learn together. Linda really set the tone for what would become Florida SCBWI. Our little critique group grew over the years and moved to several different locations, but that feeling and camaraderie has never changed. Our much larger statewide organization is filled with people who are always willing to share, whether it’s advice on how to improve a manuscript or the feeling of joy when one of us sells a book. And while we may joke that Linda loves being an R.A. because it gets her a trip to L.A., we know that she is making the trip for us. Every time she returns, she’s got a list of terrific editors, agents, and authors who are willing to come to Florida to share their expertise. I’m happy to say that I’m an SCBWI success story; I met my editor at an SCBWI-Florida conference. Without Linda, that wouldn’t have been possible. And without Linda, we wouldn’t be sitting here this evening celebrating ten years together. Linda consistently puts the needs of others before the needs of herself, and she deserves a huge thank you from all of us.


The last speaker had us all in tears—it was Linda’s son, Brian.  And here’s what he had to say:


First off, Mom I helped you out this whole time because you've always been there to support me. I was seven when you started all of this.  I had no idea what it was, but I knew it was at my elementary school and there were cookies, and ever since then I haven’t wanted to miss one. You have always been there for me no matter what, going to my games, taking me to the hospital. And I have seen that you still have been able run these amazing conferences. I have seen and heard from experience going to all these events that you really run one hell of a show. And I can say with pride that 'Linda is my mom.' And for everything you have ever done for me, thank you, because I know if half of your work ethic has rubbed off on me, I will be one amazing and successful kid when I go off to college.  


Brian also has a message for us:  Tell everyone thank you so much for helping and supporting her. She wouldn’t be able to do this without any of you guys. She gets all the credit, but you guys are the heroes.


And here’s a special message from our wonderful, hard-working RA, Linda Rodriguez Bernfeld:

How do you say thank you for such a lovely gift? Not only the necklace, which I adore. The necklace is perfect. I love pearls and the Golden Kite Medallion is beautiful. I am going to have fun showing it to everyone the next time I get together with regional advisors.

But the truth is, the best gift was the parade of friends giving such wonderful testimonials about my small part in their success.  Plus, the testimonial of my awesome son. It meant so much having my family there to witness those speeches.

Organizing the conferences is a labor of love. I truly enjoy finding the speakers. I enjoy having them here and I love the fact that now Florida conferences have the reputation as the place to be for speakers. But they don’t come just because Florida is warm and they have fun at our events. They come because other editors are telling them if you have a chance to go to Florida, take it because the level of writing here is tremendous. I provide the opportunity but you provide the talent and the hard work that makes this state a goldmine for editors and agents.

We had at least 18 requests for manuscripts coming out of the January conference. Wow. That’s a tribute to you. And it makes it much easier for me to reach out to someone and say, “how would you like to come to Florida?”

The Mid-Year Workshop is scheduled for June 24-25 at the Coronado Springs Hotel in Disney World. I still haven’t settled on the number of intensives but we will definitely have an Illustrators’ Intensive, probably a Picture Book Intensive but I’m still trying to figure out the Novel Intensive. We are toying around with an idea but I don’t know if it will be in place of the Novel Intensive or in addition to the Novel Intensive. More on that soon.

The Workshop itself will have the Picture Book Track (Emma Dryden, Alan Katz), the Middle Grade Track (Joanna Volpe), the Young Adult Track (Kathleen Duey) a Poetry Track (Lee Bennett Hopkins and Kristen Daley Ren) plus an Interactive Media Track that I’m still finalizing. Emma Dryden will be speaking in that track as well as the PB track. Lisa Wheeler will be involved in the PB Intensive.

Because of the many family medical crises this year, I did not have the opportunity to pin down all the speakers before the January conference. But I’ve made great progress since then and I hope to have things settled by the end of next week.

There are so many people to thank after an event, especially an event as successful as the regional conference. I always manage to forget someone so I’m going to apologize in advance.  

Read more...Collapse )

Thanks again, Linda, for putting together such an amazing conference for us!  I can’t wait until the Orlando Workshop on June 25th (intensives will be on the 24th).  I’ll share the names of the rest of the faculty with all of you as soon as they are confirmed, and hope to see a lot of you there!

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Mindy's head shot
Mindy Alyse Weiss
I write humorous middle-grade novels with heart and quirky picture books.

I'm an Administrator on the SCBWI Blueboard, the FL SCBWI Newsletter Editor and Critique Group Coordinator, and a proud member of From The Mixed Up Files...of Middle-Grade Authors

I've been married for twenty years and have two beautiful daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer mix pup who was rescued from the Everglades.

I've been published in Highlights three times and placed in the 80th Writer's Digest Competition.

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