5 Tips on Regrouping and Recharging: When to Stop Writing

I’m prolific. At one level, it seems like bragging to say that.  But the reality is that I am.

So far this year I’ve written 2 nonfiction books for teens, 2 for older elementary students and rewritten three of these with comments from my editors.  I’ve reworked two nonfiction picture books for the retreat and am reworking them again.  And we’ve cleaned out my dad’s house.  As if the emotional journey there wasn’t hard enough, the air conditioner went out during what may have been one of the hottest weeks of the year.  And we’re talking Midwest hot.  Not Seattle hot.  Sorry Seattle.

Llama photo from pattern. Fingers crossed that mine is this cute.

Oddly enough even with rewrites to do, my last few weeks haven’t been particularly productive.  Simply put, I need a break.  So I took a vacation.  We spent almost a week in Tennessee with my in-laws.  By the time you read this, I’ll be on my way back most likely somewhere in Illinois.

Creativity takes a lot of energy.  It’s easy to forget that because we aren’t physically lifting heavy loads.  Instead we do it intellectually and emotionally.  It is important to take time to regroup.  I did a great job of this early in the year but later when the deadlines started coming I fell into old, bad habits.

Don’t be me.  Be smarter.  Here are 5 tips to help you out.

  1.  Take breaks throughout the day.  When you freelance, it is easy to be on the job all day long.  Don’t do that. Get up from your desk for five minutes every half hour.  Weed the garden.  Stretch.  Get the laundry from your basement laundry room.
  2. Schedule your day.  When you start your work day, start with what has to get done.  Your blog post for tomorrow.  The new chapter intro your editor wants this afternoon.  Then plan when to end your work day.  Once that time arrives, do something other than work.
  3. Screen free time.  If you work on-screen, you need to spend time off-screen.  That includes your phone.  Sundays are my screen free day.
  4. Have another creative outlet.  I’m not sure why doing something other than writing that is creative recharges me, but it does. I’m currently crocheting a llama.  My husband doesn’t get it either.  Maybe your creative thing is cooking.  Or decorating.  Or gardening.
  5. Schedule fun.  This might be a weekend trip to the Art Museum.  Or a week with family.  Or a hike.  Put these things on the calendar so you don’t ignore them.

Writing is difficult enough.  Give yourself what you need to have the energy to write.




Creating Depth: Adding a Bit More to Your Manuscript

Sometimes I manuscript will catch my eye because I am surprised that an author managed to sell it without the illustrations.  Let’s face reality, writers-who-cannot-draw.  Some manuscripts simply work better when pitched by an author/illustrator because it is easier to get the concept across with pictures.

This past week I read Whose Poop Is That? by Darrin Lunde, illustrated by Kelsey Oseid.  Yep, a book on poop.  But it is really clever because it is about what various animals eat but in a gross, not boring way.

First, a two-page spread asks “Whose poop is that?”  It will include a bit more information like “there is a tuft of fur” or “it has a bunch of splinters in it.”  It also includes another clue – the foot prints of the animal in question.

Then the reader turns the page and . . . big reveal . . . there’s a two-page spread with three or four sentences about the animal in question.

Simple.  Really simple.  But an author sold it.

I suspect this book sold for several reasons.  Young STEM titles are big because they are hard to write.  The right kid will love this book.  Video proof below.

This book is deceptive.  It looks short and simple.  It won’t take long to read aloud.

But it teaches things on multiple levels.  What the animal eats becomes what the animal poops.  Looking at the poop can teach you about what the animal eats.  Animals with different feet have different foot prints.

And yet?  Short.  Simple looking.  Quick to read.

Short, simple and straightforward would have been impossible for an author who doesn’t illustrate to sell.  But this?  Obviously it was salable because Charlesbridge bought in and published it.  It teaches on multiple levels.

A writer who doesn’t illustrate could learn a lot from a book like this.


Query Letters

You’ll have to excuse me while I swoon. I had to write a query letter.  Not even a query with accompanying pages.  Just the letter.  Ugh.

I’m not sure why I think I stand-alone query is so swoon worthy but I do.  But I sat down and made myself write it, let it sit for a day, and then rewrote it.  Then off it went so that I couldn’t play around with it for another two weeks and miss the deadline.

For those of you who have never written a query, it is the letter you use to entice an agent to request your manuscript.  To do this, it has to be a tempting business letter.  This is what I included.

Paragraph 1. The Hook.

This is the paragraph you use to hook the agent and make them want to read on in both the letter and in your manuscript.  I used a surprising fact about the whole body commitment that goes into vomiting.  Yep.  A book on the science of vomit.  Classy!

Paragraph #2.  The Book.

This paragraph gives the title, length and a bit on the audience as well as info on the book itself.  In this case I included section titles so that the editor will see that it is cheeky and scientific.  Like I said, classy.  I also include information on the research and sources in this paragraph.  I make sure the agent knows there is primary research including journal articles and an interview.

Paragraph #3.  So Self-Centered It Hurts.

This is the paragraph all about me. If I was approaching an editor, this would be the “why you want me and only me to write this book” paragraph.  Because this went to an agent, it was about the scope of my work and other pieces ready to submit.

Paragraph #4.  Why We’d Be a Great Match.

This is going to vary agent to agent.  In this case I included what she has to say about children’s lit that is reflected in my own work.  Oh, look. We have so much in common!

Will it tempt her to request the manuscript?  I sure hope so.  But if not I have another victim . . . I mean agent . . . in mind.  I’ll keep you posted!


KS/MO Conference: Apply for the Scholarship

Society of Children’s Book Writer and Illustrator conferences aren’t cheep but they are well worth the price.  If you’d like to attend the fall SCBWI Kansas/Missouri conference but can’t swing the tuition, apply for the Vanderpool Work of Promise Scholarship.

The scholarship honors the 2011 Newbery winner and SCBWI Kansas/Missouri member, Clare Vanderpool. The scholarship includes conference registration, lunch, and a one-on-one consultation with the faculty editor or agent of the recipient’s choice. To be eligible, you must be:

  • An SCBWI members (published or pre-published)
  • A resident of Kansas or Missouri

There is an application form to fill out.  You can download it here.  Check out the complete instructions for completing the form and submitting your sample work.  You can find complete information on the scholarship page of the regional web site.  Email ksmo@scbwi.org with your questions.  Applications will be accepted from from Saturday, June 23, to Sunday, July 22.

And last but not least?  Good luck!


Spin Offs: Re-imagining something that’s already out there

Sometimes I pick up a book and wonder, was this author inspired by Title X?  Did she love that book when she was growing up?  Or are the similarities just coincidental?

I don’t believe that the similarities are always intentional.  But sometimes they are and the authors will tell you all about it.  That’s why I’m eager to get my hands on Brightly Burning by Alexa Donne.  Her book is an sf, space journey inspired by Jane Eyre.  Yep.  Jane Eyre in space.  Say that without a smile on your face.  I dare you.

In her interview with Roger Sutton at The Horn Book, Donne admits that she was reluctant to take the project on and put it off for two years.  She wasn’t sure she could do justice to a book as amazing as Jane Eyre.  There was so much she wanted to be sure to retain but changes that would have to be made for it to work in an contemporary YA. Obviously, locking the mentally ill wife in the attic wasn’t going to work today.  Read the entire interview here.

Like I said, I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m looking forward to it.  So happy my library has a copy and I’m now waiting patiently in line. But now I’m thinking – how could you “update” other classics?

Obviously, one way to go is to change the setting although I’m thinking that Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn in space would simply look like I was copying Donne.  What about changing the time period?  What would happen if Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer took place today?

You could also change the gender of the main character.  Huck Finn as a girl in modern Missouri?   Or trans Huck Finn in modern Missouri.  I don’t think that that would be my story to tell but I have a writer friend I could invite to co-author.

I don’t know.  I’ll have to noodle this over and see if anything comes of it.


5 Minutes a Day: Outlining a Mystery

About two month ago, I wrote a post about outlining your novel.  I’m in the pre-writing stage of writing a mystery and I’ve been working on outlining my plot.  The problem was that something was missing.  It had to be.  My list was only about 20 scenes long.  Even I know that’s not enough for a novel.

So I started reading cozies, paying careful attention to the plot.  What I quickly realized is that I had outlined only part of the book.  I had the mystery, as in the crime, all plotted out.  A mystery novel is so much more.

Scenes that show us the character’s life sans mystery.

What is your character doing when she isn’t solving mysteries?  For an adult mystery, it often involves a job such as running a knitting shop or catering.  In a book for young readers the main character might be in the marching band at school or in pom poms. Whatever it is, these scenes show us what life is like when your character isn’t trying to unravel a mystery.

Sometimes these scenes take place at the beginning of the story.  In Last Wool and Testament by Molly MacRae, the main character is traveling to her Grandmother’s funeral.  This may not be how she spends a typical day, but the focus in these scenes is on family and friends and emotion.  This emotion is important because it will help readers identify with your character.

So throughout the book you can throw in more of these scenes.  Show your character interacting with family and friends. You can spend several five-minute sessions laying out these scenes.

Red herrings.

Other scenes are needed to drop red herrings into the story.  Once that mystery is launched, you need a string of suspects.  These scenes supply you with these suspects.  Perhaps your character overhears an argument, is sent a threatening text or someone tells a funny story that in hindsight may also contain a clue.

Again, spent several five-minute sessions noodling over how to make several of your secondary characters look guilty.  I’m including someone with a temper, a robbery, and a character who is hiding a secret.  The red herrings will be more obvious than the scene that actually gives the clues to the murder.  I’ll have to see if that works.

Plot.  Red herrings. Everyday life.  A mystery has to contain all three.  Fortunately it doesn’t take buckets of time to layer them into your outline.


Writer’s Block: Take a Walk When the Words Don’t Flow

I’ve heard of people who go through days and months where they cannot write.  They are utterly and completely blocked.  For the most part, I don’t have complete blocks although I do have slow downs.  When it happens, I do these three things to get the word flowing again.

I get up and burn some calories.  I’m not one of those people who believes that no matter what you should stay at your desk.  Sometimes you need a break.  I used to walk the neighborhood.  I’ve gotten out of the habit of doing that but think I should start again.  More often than not I walk on my treadmill or row.

Experiments show that after taking a walk, people test better both in terms of memory and attention, and that seems reasonable.  When you walk, your heart pumps more blood and oxygen not only to your muscles but also to your brain.  Feed your brain and it’s likely to work better.

Other studies show that we can change the pace of our thoughts by walking faster or slowing down.  Just can’t get a flow going?  A brisk walk will jar those notions loose!

Most of us are fairly good at walking, so our minds wonder.  Yeah, imagine that.  A writer’s mind wandering.  Still other studies connect just this type of mental state with making mental breakthroughs.  One minute, I’m noodling over the grocery list.  The next, I know exactly what scene should come first.

The next time that you’re stuck, maybe forcing yourself to stay at your desk isn’t the best answer.  It might be better to take a walk and get both your blood and your ideas flowing.  You don’t have to go walk for an hour.  Try five minutes out and five minutes back.  That’s a ten minute break that didn’t lead you right to the refrigerator.  Like I said, I’m stuck on the treadmill for now – something about a heat advisory.  But I’m looking forward to getting back out in my neighborhood.  I have a few plot issues to work through.


Reading List

Are you a PAL member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators?  PAL means “published and listed.”  If the answer is yes than SCBWI has an opportunity that you are going to want to take advantage of this opportunity.
The SCBWI is putting together a Recommended Reading List for 2018.  This is something they’ve been doing since the first list in 2016. The purpose of this list is to promote the work of PAL authors and illustrators.  Unlike resources that are just for members, this list is made widely available.  Teacher, librarians, and booksellers can digitally download all or part of the complete list.
This means that a bookseller who wants to feature Missouri or St. Louis authors could download just the portion of the list with Missouri.  Or a teacher could download the entire list and look through it for the perfect author to contact for a Skype visit.
Each SCBWI PAL author gets to send in information on one book that has been published or will be published in 2018. If you are an SCBWI PAL member, you should have gotten an e-mail about this opportunity.  In case it got caught in your spam filter, here is the pertinent information.
Fill in the following:
25 Word (or Less) Book Description:
Your City and State of Residence:
Publication Date:
Grade Level*:
Your Website:
*Grade Level should fit into one of these categories: PreK-K; 1-2; 3-5; 6-8; 9-12
Send this complete “form” to readinglist@scbwi.org no later than July 16th.  This is a great opportunity to get your work in front of book buyers, sellers and those who can help you gain access to young readers.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a decision to make.  I’m leaning towards Dakota Access Pipeline.  

Picture Books: Writing a Biography

I’ve been reading picture book biographies lately in part because one of the women in my critique group at the retreat had written one.  It didn’t quite work, so I wanted to study what does.  Here are five things to keep in mind when writing a biography for young readers.

  • There are two types – a beginning to end biography or a slice of life. A slice of life biography covers an event – creating a sculpture or founding an organization.  Beginning to end is the person’s entire life, or at least that’s how I think of them because those I read were about people who are no longer living.  The author was able to state what the person’s ultimate legacy has been. 
  • No matter how interesting someone is, it is really hard to write a satisfying biography if they have not succeeded at something big. It’s that whole legacy.  That means that no matter how fascinated adults are with Bobby Kennedy a picture book biography would be tough.  You need to be able to summarize his legacy in one line – he created, he founded, he discovered.
  • Many picture book biographies use a chorus to state a theme.  In Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing, the chorus is . . . can you guess it?  “He kept drawing.”  
  • The information in the text has to further the story.  In Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird by Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Erin McGuire, the author includes Harper Lee’s childhood friend Tru.  Harper Lee stood up for Tru when he was being bullied, which shows how important justice was even when she was a child.  They also wrote stories together.  But Tru was also Truman Capote who she reconnected with as an adult and a fledgling author. 

Writing a picture book biography requires sifting through all of the information you can find about an individual and finding that nonfiction story that will fascinate young readers.  It means choosing the details that support this story and crafting something with a beginning, middle and end even though it is still nonfiction.

It isn’t easy but a good biography?  It pulls the reader in and makes them want to know more.


Mentorships, Part 2: A Great Opportunity to Grow as an Illustrator

This is so embarrassing that I’m literally red in the face.  Last week I blogged about the KS-MO SCBWI writing mentorship.  I completely left out the illustration mentorship.  So embarrassing.

Like a writing mentorship, an illustration mentorship allows a less experienced artist to learn from someone with more experience. It is a great way to learn what pieces make good samples and how to put together a good portfolio.

In this particular program the winner will work with our mentor to improve a single illustration over the course of the mentorship.  That may seem trivial (one illustration!) but learning how to change and improve your work is vital to making a sale.  Vital.

I can’t emphasize that enough.


Our 2019 Illustration Mentor is Maja Anderson. Maja is the illustrator of the first 3 books in the Keeker and the Sneaky Pony series for Chronicle Books. In addition, she is currently illustrating a grammar book for Pelican Books. This book will come out this Fall. She has also worked on several gift books with Hallmark Cards.  Visit Maja’s site to check out her illustrations.  I wish I could draw!

Why can apply?  Any current Kansas/Missouri SCBWI member who has not yet published in children’s book illustration although other types of publication (newspaper, greeting card, etc) are acceptable.  Not sure if you are out of the running?  E-mail your question to KS-MO illustration coordinator Amy Kenney at ksmo-ic@scbwi.org.  Maja will critique the illustration twice during an agreed upon timeline, not to exceed one year.

The winner will also receive a scholarship covering registration cost to the Kansas/Missouri SCBWI Middle of the Map conference in 2018.

Don’t dawdle.  Deadline to enter is June 30, 2018.  For more information, visit the KS-MO SCBWI website.