2 Reasons to Enter Writing Contests

If you are focused on getting published, or simply on meeting your daily word count, you may never have entered a writing contest. But there are two reasons you should.

The Win

Writing contests come in all shapes and sizes. Some are only for pre-published authors. Some award the winner with publication. Still others are for published books. The first reason to enter contests is fairly obvious. Whether there is a cash prize, a publishing contract, a plaque or bragging writes, the prize matters. To paraphrase MIB, it shows you are the best of the best of the best (sir!).

But what if you don’t win? This leads us to the second reason to enter contests. Check out page 1 of Joan Demsey’s CV and you’ll see what it is.

Lines on Your Resume

Contest wins add up as lines on your resume. I have to admit that I hadn’t actually considered this until I read an e-mail from novelist and writing instructor Joan Dempsey.

Dempsey is the force behind the free writing community the Gutsy Great Novelist Writers Studio. She sends out e-mails on various topics, including contests, to those of in the group (click through above if you are an aspiring novelist who is interested in joining). In a recent message she pointed out that she has a section on her CV (curriculum vitae) devoted to awards. Not only does she list the awards she has won, she lists those in which she made it to the final round. After all, how else is she going to let people know she received this honor except by telling them?

This is good news for those who are pre-published. When a publisher asks for your writing resume, you can include awards. Of course, to do this you have to win and that means you have to enter. Google “writing contests” and start doing your research today.


The MacMillan Children’s Books Diversify Your Bookshelf Pledge

MacMillan Kids has challenged each of you, as readers, to Diversify Your Bookshelf. As part of the pldge, each month they issue a simple challenge that will result in more diverse reading. In March, the challenge is to read a book by a woman of color.

Easy peasy, I thought. I’ll just pull out one of my library books. Between children’s books, research and pleasure reading, I’ve got 20 books checked out. And that’s counting only the books that I have’t already read. I expected the whole thing to be pretty easy. After all, other than work related books, I request anything and everything that catches my eye. And I do mean everything.

Right now I have picture books, graphic novels, memoir, how-tos, and novels. It was easy enough for me to find a title for young readers. I know the author of the two graphic novels I have is white, so I pulled out the picture books. Christian Robinson is black, but male. Ana Crespo is from Brazil. Rajani LaRocca was born in India. With no problem I found photos for all of these authors. I also have Rural Voices, a YA anthology about rurual life and experiences. Not every essay fits the criteria but several do.

But what about the adult books. I found one book by an Asian man and one by a LatinX man. Their bios and photos made “male” obvious. Him, him, him. But what about the author of African American Lives in St. Louis, 1763-1865 by Dale Edwyna Smith. No author biography. No photo. I Googled the author’s name. I found notes on her acadmic career. I found her book listed several places. Her photo? Nowhere.

I’m persistent so next I did a photo search, I finally found her mother’s obituary. That’s the effort it took to confirm that I had, most likely, found a book by a black woman. Sigh. We need to do so much better.

And that is why this challenge matters.

#booklover #reading #ownvoices

2 Reasons to Be Specific

The right word can make a huge difference.

As writers we spend a lot of time trying to find just the right word. We need something that says what we want. But we also need to select words that are specific, and here is why.

Word Count

Whether you write picture books or novels, there is a limit to your word count. When you overshoot what is acceptable, you find yourself having to remove words from the page. The first round is fairly easy. At that point most of us can tighten our work by removing sentences or paragraphs. We weed out what feels repetitive.

But once that has been done, a lot of writers freeze up. “Everything that is here is essential!” But is it.

Now is the time that you need to make each individual word count. When you do this, you find what I call filler words. Words that I can often remove from my own text include that, have, and start. Whenever I see these words in my text, I know that I can often come up with a tighter construction that avoids these terms.

To succeed at this, you have to study each sentence. Your goal? To find something to remove. Sunday, I discussed this with a writer friend who suggested rereading and cutting one paragraph at a time. And start from the end of the piece and work forwards. That keeps you from falling into the flow and simply reading along.


In addition to word count, using a specific word is often a matter of using a more meaningful word. If your character carries in a “really big fruit,” think again. She could be carrying in a watermelon. Is this a picnic? Or it could be a pumpkin. Is it autumn. Or she might have a durian. That might shift her location from the US to Malaysia.

Is your character studying science? Why not biology? Or anatomy?

Select the right word for the job. It can reduce your word count and also paint a specific picture. Use the specifics to draw your reader into a carefully crafted story.


3 Things to Consider When Using Song Lyrics in Your Book

When I rewrite my cozy, each chapter will open with a verse, or part of a verse, from a hymn. Like a lot of writers I know, and a lot of the people I know, music is a huge part of my life. So it isn’t surprising that so many of us attempt to use it in our stories. Attempt? Yep. It doesn’t always work. Here are three things to keep in mind about using lyrics in your work, fiction or nonfiction.

Using song lyrics in your writing can be tricky.
Photo by Elina Sazonova on Pexels.com

Deeply Personal

Music is deeply personal. I have far ranging taste and music that speaks to me ranges from rockabilly to heavy metal. Yeah, I’m kind of hard to peg down. But among what I love are old hymns. The problem is that what speaks to me may not speak to my reader. The lyrics I choose to include could hook some readers but others might put the book back on the shelf because of these same lyrics.


Lyrics are copyrighted. That means that if a song is under copyright, you have to pay a fee to include the lyrics in your own work. So think again before you include a line or two from an Ed Sheeran ballad. You will not only have to get Ed’s permission but also pay a fee.

This is probably why so many books include song titles. Song titles are not copyrighted. My character can listen to “Afterglow,” “You Better You Better You Bet,” and “Don’t Wanna Fight.” But as long as I do not quote any lyrics I don’t owe any money to Ed Sheeran, The Who, or Alabama Shakes.

Of course, there is a workaround but it means avoiding copyright music.

Public Domain

You are going to see it posted in various places that the copyright has expired on songs that were published before 1923. That is often but not always true. If the earliest AUTHORIZED publication was before 1923, the work is in public domain. If a song was published in 1914 without permission but the first authorized publication was 1930 it may still be under copyright.

You are going to have to do your homework to make sure that the music you want to use is copyright free or you are going to have to pay a fee.

I suspect this is why a lot of authors make up original folkmusic or lyrics for rockbands that exist only in the writer’s imagination. Me? I’m going to see what I can find in terms of copyright on hymns. The beauty is that we are still singing hymns that are well over 100 years old. Fingers crossed!


Picture Books: Written with Layers

One Dark Bird by Liz Garton Scanlon

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post about creating layers in your picture book. Layers give your work depth and help make it marketable. This was one of the topics that Liz Garton Scanlon talked about in her webinar. I just read one of her books and it really drove the point home.

At the most basic level, One Dark Bird is a counting book about . . . birds. If you’ve got a picture book reader or you write picture books you know that there are a lot of counting book. There are probably even a lot of counting books about birds. So you are going to have to do more than that to bring your book into the market.

But this is also a book that defines murmuration. That’s an awful lot of birds to bring in one at a time, so that isn’t how Scanlon does it. She takes a unique approach. First you have One Dark Bird. Then you add in two more birds, then three more and so on. By midway, you have a hundred birds here and a hundred birds there. Then it is all about the murmuration.

So you have 1 through 10. And you have a murmuration. The numbers increase but then they also decrease so there is an introduction to math as well.

But this is a story that also spans a day, not 24 hours but the daylight portion. That’s part of the structure but it is also another concept within the book. Birds wake up with the dawn and they settle down as the sunsets. The young reader gets up in the morning and settles down to sleep as night falls.

Not all concept books are this complex but layers can help you create a book without direct competition. That is true whether you are writing a concept book or a fictional picture book about birds, ant or aardvarks. Take a look at your work-in-progress. Can you, should you, add a layer?


3 Reasons to Apply for an SCBWI Grant

Although I’ve never won a grant, I’m putting together my application for The Ann Whitford Paul—Writer’s Digest Manuscript Award.  Why bother?  For several reasons.


Without a doubt, the number one reason is an opportunity to be recognized for what I do. If you’ve written for any length of time, you know that writing is a fairly solitary occupation.  It would be nice to have someone say, “Hey, this is good!”  And what better way than through a grant.  Because that’s recognition that comes with a check to help you . .  .


The whole purpose for this grand is to give someone the opportunity to hone a top notch manuscript.  Quite often attending conferences, taking classes, and getting critiques takes money.  The award for this grant is $1000 and that would be a huge help.

Naming Yourself

But more important than either of these is that by applying you are naming yourself A Writer.  Why else would you apply for a writing grant?

The Ann Whitford Paul-Writer’s Digest Manuscript Award is for a single picture book manuscript.  To qualify:

  • You must be an SCBWI member.
  • The manuscript must be under 1000 words.
  • The manuscript cannot be under contract.
  • You must not have sold a picture book manuscript in the last five years.

If this sounds like something you would like to enter, submissions are open from February 1, 2021 through April 10, 2020. To find out where to send your work and to review the rules, click through here.

Even if you don’t need the money to work on your craft, you can use it for anything that will help you develop your manuscript.  This could include research fees or a new laptop.

A lot of writers talk themselves out of applying for grants or residency programs.  Don’t think about why you shouldn’t do it.  You’re a writer!  This is for writers.  Why shouldn’t it be for you?


3 New Offerings from Save the Cat!®

I’m excited to be taking part in the blog tour for Save the Cat!®. My post doesn’t go up until 3/19 but I wanted to give all of you the chance to take advangate of the various blog posts and enter to win access to the new course, Cracking the Beat Sheet.

I’m really enjoying this class. My middle grade science fiction novel, Air Stream, is changing as I work through the lessons! The new ending? So much better than the original!

First, what is Save the Cat!®? 

Save the Cat! provides writers the resources they need to develop their screenplays and novels based on a series of best-selling books, primarily written by Blake Snyder (1957- 2009). Blake’s method is based on 10 distinctive genres and his 15 story beats (the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet). Our books, workshops, story structure software, apps, and story coaching teach you everything you need to unlock the fundamentals and mechanics of plot and character transformation. 

Find out more about Save the Cat! by visiting their webpage.

About the Save the Cat! Cracking the Beat Sheet Online Course

This course is designed for writers to turn their idea into a movie or novel. This learn-at-your-own-pace online class helps you develop the 15 key “beats” or “plot points” of your story. Strung together, in the right order, these 15 beats make up the blueprint to a successful screenplay or novel. 

You’ll Turn an Idea into a Story by Learning to… 

• Create a solid beat sheet that will serve as the road map, and “backbone” of your story 

• Identify and know the key components of your story genre

• Learn the clichés of your genre so that you can break them like an artist 

• Plot your hero’s journey and “transformation”

• Troubleshoot your story idea for viability 

• Write a compelling logline or elevator pitch 

This Course Is for Those Who… 

• Want to troubleshoot an existing story 

• Have so many great ideas and struggle to choose “the one” 

• Are ready to write but not sure how to start 

• Are determined to finish a half-written story 

• Want to learn 

This Course Includes… 

• Over 3 hours and 17 minutes of original video production 

• 9 downloadable worksheets

• 3 reading assignments (book not included) 

• 4 homework assignments 

Course Value: $59 

Find out more information about the Save the Cat! Cracking the Beat Sheet Online Course by visiting https://www.savethecatcourses.com/courses/cracking-the-beat-sheet.

In addition to the course there are Story Cards, Beat Cards. and Scene Cards. I haven’t worked with those but you can find out more about them at the Muffin, the blog for Women on Writing. Click here to find out more. And visit the other stops on the tour (see below) to connect with a great group of writers.


The State of Publishing

What are your favorite types of social media?

I hope some of you signed up for the SCBWI Winter conference. It was this past weekend. I attended three sessions on Saturday and am looking forward to the viewing the Zoom links of those remaining. One of the sessions I’ve already seen was Jean Feiwel’s State-of-the-industry interview., she is Senior Vice President and Publisher, Feiwel & Friends, Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, Swoon Reads, Square Fish. At Scholastic, she oversaw the development of Animorphs and the Baby Sitters Club as well as the acquisition of the first four Harry Potter books.

She was an amazing speaker. I was impressed by her willingness to tell it like she sees it. She had some amazing news for publishing. As she pointed out, 2020 was the best year that children’s publishing has had in a while. Backlist titles especially sold well.

But she had other news that some people may consider a negative. Me? I’m not so sure.

She said that we definitely need to be active in social media. Yes, your book matters. And you obviously aren’t going to sell it if you don’t write it. But social media is a must.

She emphasized not only that it puts us in touch with our readers and/or those who buy books for them but there was more. It puts us in touch with the vast publishing community. And we need these people. They are, after all, our people. But they are also our support system and one of our greatest assets.

The good news is that this is something we can each control. We know who we are. We know what our strengths are. And we can find a way to utilize these strengths online. I don’t remember exactly what Feiwel said but it was soemthing to the effect of “not everyone wants to give interviews but there are so many other possibilities.”

Social media is changing all the time. What is your favorite type of social media? How can you use it to reach out to potential readers and/or book buyers? The possibilities are endless.



Facing a deadline.

It never fails. When I have a deadline, one of my students has a pressing problem. The phone/doorbell won’t stop ringing. The toilet mimics Old Faithful. The garbage disposal falls off and the sink empties into a basement closet. What is that dripping?

Okay. I’ll admit it. I’m exaggerating just a tiny bit for comedic effect. All of that didn’t happen for the same deadline. They were spread out over the years. But it doesn’t seem to matter how well I plan, something always happens when I’m on deadline.

I’ve conducted my last phone interview standing in my son’s fort, my head cocked to one side. Why? Because the power went out and the only operating cell tower was not close at hand. I’ve done hard copy edits leaning on the wall in the emergency room. And I finished keying a manuscript in parked at the corner of the library to use their wifi because ours was down. I’ve also done an edit in the car zipping off to my father-in-laws because my disk (remember disks?) failed and I had hours to retype and submit my article. No, I wasn’t driving.

Honestly, in the time of pandemic, deadlines are actually less stressful. My son is finishing his last class for his associates degree and he’s doing it from his room. That’s his office for tutoring as well. My husband? His desk is right behind me. If something comes up, they can handle it. That’s a huge relief.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to check my footnotes and make certain I alphabetized the bibliography. It doesn’t pay to wait until the last minute. The deadline gremlins may be lurking.


3 Reasons to Read Your Work Aloud

Take the time to read your work aloud.
Photo by Samson Katt on Pexels.com

One of my writing friends, Kris Nitz,  taught me to read my work aloud.  She explained to me that she does this even when she is writing a novel.  That seemed like a lot of effort but then I gave it a try.  I quickly came to see things her way.  Why?  Because reading my work aloud helps in these three areas.

Catch Mistakes

When I read my work aloud, I catch mistakes that I missed both on screen and in print. It might be a typo (chose vs choose). Or it might be repetition. This doesn’t mean that I’ve typed the same word word twice in a row. It might simply mean that I’ve used it too often in a single paragraph or I’ve repeated certain facts or transitions on the same page. Why are these things more obvious out loud? I have no idea. I’m just glad that they are.

The Beauty of Language

Something can be technically correct and still be clunky or awkward, much like the word awkward. I catch these things hwen I hear my work. I’m also more aware of the beauty of language and turns of phrase when I hear things read aloud. At first, I thought that was just my imagination but it is something my critique group has confirmed. They’ve noted my tendency to play with sound even in tween nonfiction.


Voice is all about sounding like yourself. When I write about certain things, I need to be careful. Archaeology and history sometimes send me back to academia. Soon, I fall prey to what my husband lovingly calls aca-da-babble or academic babbling. It is convoluted and wordy and uses ten thousand dollar words when much simply text would do. But when I read my work aloud? I sound like me!

So if you are having troubles developing your voice, read your work aloud. It can also help you catch mistakes or simply create text that flows. Try it.