Writing Nonfiction for Children and Teens: The Interview

Does anyone like the way that they sound?  I’m always vaguely horrified when I hear a recording of myself.  In spite of this, I was really happy with how this interview turned out.

Writing friend Marella Sands interviewed me for her Youtube series, Writers Wroom.  We didn’t have a script but we did discuss what my general topic would be and then she fed me questions to keep things going.  Marella is really good at this!

You can check out the interview below.  Let me know what you think.


I Voted!

I voted!  Have you?  Ballots are currently being cast for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Crystal Kites Awards.  And there isn’t even any controversy about casting your ballot electronically!

If you are an SCBWI member, it is time to cast your vote in the Crystal Kite Awards.  For those of you who have not voted before, the Crystal Kites are voted on by your peers, fellow authors and illustrators.  There is an award for each of the SCBWI regional divisions worldwide.

This is Round 1 in the voting which will continue through April 27.  Cast your vote for one book.  The winners in this Round will move on to the Second/Final round.

To vote, just follow these simple steps.

  1. Go to the SCBWI site and log in.  You have to be logged in so this step is important.
  2. Once you have logged in and reached your member profile page, scroll to the bottom of the left hand menu and click on “Vote in the Crystal Kite Awards.”
  3. This will automatically take you to the correct region, thankfully.  I’m in Kansas-Missouri which is (in SCBWI-land) part of the Mid-South.  You can scroll down the page and click on “More Info” to find out additional information on any given book.  You can sort the books by Title, Author Name, or Illustrator Name.
  4. Once you have decided which book you want to vote for, click on the “Vote For This Book” button for the book you have chosen.  You will be asked to confirm you vote and then you simply click “yes” or “no.”

That’s all there is to it.   Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go look over 40 or so different books and cast my vote.  It is so exciting to see so many books that I recognize.


Three Things to Do When Working on a Rewrite

Monday, I got the comments from two of my editors and a content consultant on an ongoing project.  My biggest realization so far?  I touch my face constantly while I’m thinking.  Con-stant-ly.  And it isn’t like the comment are horrible.  A month ago I wouldn’t have noticed this but now I do.  Ah, well.

It can be easy to be overwhelmed when you get comments back from your critique group or your editors.  After all, I have something like 127 comments on a 15,000 word manuscript.  But here are three things that you can do that will help.

  1.  Read through all comments before responding or making any changes.  When my editor sends me comments from the team, she always asks when I can have things done.  Monday morning?  Friday afternoon?  Before I answer her, I read all of the comments.  Yes, this takes some time but I actually feel less pressure if I have some clue what it is expected.
  2. Wait until the next day before you get started.  Wait?  I’m on a deadline?  Wouldn’t it be better to get started right away?  Actually, it works best when I let my subconscious noodle things over for a while.  That way if something seems HUGE or problematic, I’ve had a bit of time to process it.
  3. Schedule frequent breaks.  As you work through the comments, keep an eye on your energy level and state of mind.  When you find yourself looking for an easy comment to tackle vs just working on the next one, sometimes that’s okay.  After all, some questions need to germinate a bit before you find the answer.  But when you realize that you are skipping back and forth and not actually doing anything, it is time to stop.  In fact, I generally try to take a five minute break every half hour.  I get up.  I move around.  Maybe I sweep or fold a bit of laundry.  But I make sure I get a change of scenery and some motion.  Then I get back to work.  Every two hours or so I take a break that is at least 20 minutes long.

Writing takes a lot of energy.  It also takes time – time to process what you need to do but also time to do it.  These three tips can help.


What Was the Best Seller the Year You Were Born?

Last week, I got so excited when I saw the BookBub Feature, the Best Selling Book the Year You were Born.  What book would it be?  Something by Michum?  Wouk?  Uris?

The list started with 1920. As I scrolled down to my year, I noticed an interesting combination of books and author I know, even if I haven’t read them, and books I had never heard of.

The known list includes Zane Grey, a favorite among my grandparents, Sinclair Lewis, Pearl Buck and Margaret Mitchell, Unknown, to me, books and authors, include Kathleen Winsor, Mika Waltari (a Finnish novelist), and Morris West.

Then I got to my year.  Here is the description of my book.  “Dolls: red or black; capsules or tablets; washed down with vodka or swallowed straight—for Anne, Neely, and Jennifer, it doesn’t matter, as long as the pill bottle is within easy reach. These three women become best friends when they are young and struggling in New York City and then climb to the top of the entertainment industry—only to find that there is no place left to go but down—into the Valley of the Dolls.”  Valley of the Dolls by Jacquelin Susann. Not a book I remember either my mother or grandmother reading.

I scrolled down to the end of the list because I wanted to see what the most recent titles were.  The list goes up to 2016 and I have to admit that I saw something that surprised me.  In the last ten listed years, two of the books were for young readers.  They were The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2014) The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck by Jeff Kinney (2013).

Wow.  That is so cool that more recently a book for young readers can outstrip a book for adults.  Too, too cool.


How to Use Your Three Act Structure to Write Your Synopsis

The plot diagram I work with using post it notes.

As I work on my mystery, I’ve realized that at some point I will have to write a synopsis.  In all reality, while I don’t love writing a synopsis, it isn’t the worst thing every and it just got easier.  Last week, I read this post on using your story beats to create a 1 page synopsis.

The way I was taught to use the term, a beat is a unit of action.  Think about the 3 Little Pigs.

  1. Wolf knocks on door and calls, “Little pig, little pig let me in.”
  2. The pig replies, “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin.”
  3. The wolf responds, “Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down.
  4. Wolf huffs.
  5. Wolf puffs.
  6. Wolf blows said house down.
  7. Pigs run.

As you can see, that’s going to be a lot of beats. How can that possibly make it easier to write a one page synopsis?

Read the original post and you’ll realize that what she calls a beat, many of us were taught to call a turning point.  That greatly reduces the number of things you have to include.

Act 1.

  • The hook that pulls your reader into the story.
  • The inciting incident that sets the story in motion.
  • The event that forces the protagonist to take action.
  • The turning point or tipping point during whicn your character crosses the point of no return.

Act 2.

  • Character’s reaction to the tipping point.
  • First pinch point or stress point.  The antagonist does something that narrows the protagonist’s options.  And see what this does?  It brings the antagonist into the synopsis!
  • Turning point at the middle of the story. This is where your protagonist quits reacting and takes charge.  This is marked by a strong action of some kind.
  • Another stress or point point.
  • The dark moment.  This leads to the climax and we wonder if all is lost.

Act 3:

  • Your character regroups and makes a new plan.
  • Climax – the big battle scene/final confrontation/maximum drama.
  • Wrap up.

Come up with these points for your novel and you will find that your synopsis will be much easier to write.  Try doing it for a favorite book or movie and see how quickly it comes together.


Four Things to Do When . . . Life

I’ve got a deadline tomorrow.  And I’m doing a video interview.  Is this why the universe decided to play a practical joke on me?

That is about 75% of what was on one shelf in our pantry.  I was scavenging for a “hot veg” when I picked up a can of . . . chilis?  It may have been chilis.  And the can dripped red.

I finally realized that a can of Strawberry Fanta decided to “self empty” in the pantry. Thankfully, no rice or pasta was drenched in the making of this mess, and the can of soda had been sitting on a lazy susan.  Holy cow.  What a mess!

Fortunately, for some odd reason, I’ve already been doing many of the things that can help you cope when things go awry.  Maybe one of these will be helpful for you.

Yoga.  This is by far my favorite.  It helps my back.  But the relaxation pose is also calming.  In many ways it is a form of meditation.  I’ve noticed when I practice yoga I sleep much better.

Meditation.  If you don’t do yoga, you can still meditate.  My recommendation, if you are a beginner, would be a simple breathing meditation.  Exhale.  Then inhale slowly for a count of five.  Hold your breath briefly.  Exhale to a count of ten.  I sometimes imagine light being pulled in when I inhale and darkness/anxiety being pushed out when I exhale.

Podcasts. Not ready to jump into yoga or meditation? I’ve found two podcasts that are really good at helping you deal with stress.  One is The Happiness Lab and the other is Ten Percent Happier. These are not crazy pod casts that tell you that their techniques will cure what ails you.  But they will give you techniques that science shows will help you deal with stress.  Science.  You didn’t think I’d gone all woo-woo did you?

Coloring. I don’t know if coloring is all the rage that it used to be but I dug out a coloring book today and spent 30 minutes at the dining room table.  I’m not sure why coloring works for me but it helps me relax.

What works for you?


4 Tips for Writing Funny

I wish I could remember where I heard about Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman.  But I can’t.  Someone, somewhere must have recommended it.  Fortunately, the book was in my hands when the library closed.  I read it in one sitting.  It isn’t a long book but it was just what the doctor ordered, silly and goofy and fun. Here are 4 things to keep in mind when you decide to write a funny story.

  1. Choose Your Character Wisely.  Not every character is capable of being the funny one.  In Fortunately, The Milk, the opening chapter shows us that Mom is all business.  Dad gives the impression of being a little scatty – no one expects him to be paying attention when Mom gives instructions for when she is on her trip but he surprised them all by listening.  Mom couldn’t be the funny one.  Dad?  Dad has potential.
  2.  Have a Plan.  If you just throw in one funny bit after another, the whole thing can feel disjointed.  It works best if, like Giaman, you have a plan.  You don’t find out exactly how pirates, dinosaurs, and a volcano are all tied together until the very end but that’s okay.  Eventually all is revealed.
  3. Reversals Are Funny.  Just when you think you know what is real and what Dad made up, you turn the last page and . . . surprise!  It isn’t in the text so I’m not sure if Gaiman came up with this one or if the illustrator Skottie Young cooked it up on his own but since this is an illustrated book, the designer was able to use the page turn to make us all laugh one last time.
  4. Don’t Expect to Get It Right the First Time.  It doesn’t matter if you are writing something factual and serious or something super silly like Fortunately, the Milk. Good writing comes from rewriting.  Draft your funny scene and then look it over.  Would a different setting be funnier?  Could your character’s favorite snack make your reader laugh?

Lately, I’ve seen several editor and agents ask for funny manuscripts.  Why not give writing funny a try?


3 Ways to Celebrate: April is National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month.  WAIT!  I get it.  We aren’t all poets.  But even if you aren’t a poet it is important to learn about poetry.  Not only do poets play with words but they also pack a lot of meaning into their writing.  This is somethign that you can use no matter what you write.  Do it and readers will notice certain lines of text even if they don’t know why these lines stick with them. 
Here are three things you can do to get into poetry.  Number 1 and Number 2 aren’t time sensitive but if you want to take part in #3, it is only open through April.
1. Listen to a Podcast. Patrice Vecchione is a poet, teacher and nonfiction author.  She is interviewed on an Institute of Children’s Literature Writing for Children podcast that you can find here.  I haven’t listened to this yet but the notes say that they discussed ways to get started writing poetry and other topics.  The show notes also include downloadable resources.  Other poetry podcasts include the Poetry Magazine Podcast, Poetry Unbound, and the Poem of the Day by the Poetry Foundation.
2.  Read or Listen to Poetry.  I admit that I don’t read enough poetry.  Among my favorite poets are Naomi Shihab Nye and Joy Harjo.  In this video, Naomi Shihab Nye reads her poem Kindness and discusses the writing of this poem. In this video, Joy Harjo reads her poem, Grace.  You can find a wealth of poems being read on Youtube.
3. Library poetry compilation.  If you are over 18 years old and are a St. Louis Country Library patron, submit an entry this month for the poetry compilation.  You can check out the details here.  It sounds like the book will feature poems from library patrons across Missouri so if you aren’t in St. Louis County check your local library web site.
If you can think of something else that I should have told people about.  Be sure to add it below and thank you.

Four Reasons You Should Be a Reading Writer

The other day my husband looked at the overflowing library bag. “Just how much do you have ready to go back to the library?”  I wasn’t sure show I got out the yardstick and stacked picture books, graphic novels, novels and an audio book.  The answer is 13.5 inches of library material ready to return.  It will have to wait until our library reopens but meanwhile I’ve got more reading to do.

Here are four reasons you too should be a reading writer.

  1.  Other writers can teach us about voice.    One of the books in that stack is One of Us Is Next.  In this novel, Karen M. McManus tells a story in multiple points of view.  Each of these point of view characters has a distinct voice.  Reading multiple character voices written by a single author can help us see how to create voice for our own characters.
  2. Other books can inspire us.  In Prairie Lotus, Linda Sue Park tells the story of a young girl on the prairie.  Not only does her character have the typical prairie experiences, but she experiences them as a girl who is half-Chinese.  This has encouraged me to wonder how changing one element could alter other classic tales.  What if the Wizard of Oz took place today?  What is a character from Oz were whirled into our world?  Or the Box Car children took place in outer space?  Or Little House in the Prairie was Little House on Mars?
  3. Picture books teach us to play with how words sound. I know that not all novelists or nonfiction authors play with the sounds of their text, but I have my computer read everything aloud.  And sometimes I find myself, even when writing a blog post, playing with how language sounds.  I’ll use alliteration or a string of single syllable words. And very often these are the lines that people tell me impacted them.
  4. Even books we don’t like can teach us. A first person narrator who somehow conceals their identity through the whole book.  “Authentic” southern voice that sounds like a bad imitation.  Two-dimensional settings.  I’ve seen all of this and more in books I couldn’t stand.  But by reading these books full of things I didn’t like, I learned what not to do in my own work.  Note:  I didn’t call these books bad because someone else (at least the editor and the acquisitions committee members) must have liked them.  But they did not work for me.

Writers need to be readers and thankfully I have access to the books I need.


The Right Way to Improve on a Comp Title

Last week, I finished Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park.  Such a good book!  If you aren’t familiar with it, it is the story of Hanna, a teen who moves to LaForge in the Dakota Territories with her father in 1880.  More than anything, Hanna wants to go to school but now that her mother is dead Hanna is Papa’s helper in the dress goods shop.

And she is half Asian. I’ll let you read the book yourself (or read my review) to see why that’s a problem.

In her Author’s Note, Park talks about why she wrote the book.  She grew up loving the Little House books.  Serious love.  But it upset her that Ma hated the Native Americans they encountered.  Even as a child, Park recognized that this was fueled by racism.  Park also understood that Ma never would have let Laura be friends with someone with dark hair and eyes as Park herself has.  Park didn’t condemn Wilder or her books although she does acknowledge the problematic passages and themes.

Then she set about researching and writing her own story.  She wanted to add a character that she would have identified with as a girl.  I’m not going to dwell on the challenges this created or how she handled them.  Again, you’ll have to read the book.

But I do want to go into what Park did right.  She does not pan Wilder or her work.  She acknowledges what Wilder did right and how she drew many young readers into caring about her characters and their world.  Then Park builds on that and does it better, painting a more complete picture.

So often when we discuss comp titles, even comp titles that inspired us, we dwell on their short comings.  “This, this and this are wrong.  My book sets the record straight.”  How much better to hold it up as valuable if flawed and then do it even better.  You don’t alienate people (such as editors or agents) who loved the original and you start off on a positive.

A positive.  I think that’s something we could all use.