Three Tips to Help Increase Your Productivity

The past week or so, I’ve noticed that not only has my productivity flagged, midday is a monster.  Not a ravenous beast but more of a big, sleepy, nap-taking monster.  I probably spend more of the hour after lunch fantasizing about taking a nap than I do actually writing.

Today was better but today I also had an epiphany.  I have a standing desk.  I can work at it seated or standing and it has been quite a while since I kicked it up to standing. I did that today and . . . I was much more productive.  So that leads us to tip #1 for productivity.

Stand to Work.

I’m not suggesting that you should stand all day.  But stand for twenty minutes or so throughout the time you normally work.  Those of us who spend a lot of time sitting to work also develop sciatica which is pressure on the sciatic nerve.   Standing will help you avoid this.

Shift Position Often

Today I read a blog post by my friend Lynnea who is also a life coach.  Lynnea wrote about working standing up, using a variety of standing desks and other work surfaces.  As explained by Lynnea, standing to work is helpful because most of us don’t stand still.  Moving around frequently helps oxygenate our bodies and increases both health and producitivity.

Give Yourself Grace

Recognize that you are working through a situation that you could never have planned for.  Give yourself a little grace.  This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to work but schedule in family time.  My family and I watched all of the Harry Potter movies and all of the Star Wars movies.  My husband and I game together.  I’m working on a puzzle and knitting.  A happy writer is generally much more productive than an unhappy writer.  Develop new habits that lift your spirits and bring a smile to your face.



Three Reasons to Take Advantage of the Creating Books for Change Project

Yesterday I took part in a webinar about the Creating Books for Change Project. In the University of Pittsburgh Attentional Teaching Practices course, education undergraduates learn how to use picture books in the early elementary classroom.  In her work with the students, Dr. Shannon Wanless noticed that they often spotted problems – text or an issue with an illustration – that would derail messages of social justice, equality, or anti-racism.

What if these problems could be fixed before picture book manuscripts and dummies become books?  That is the goal of the Creating Books for Change Project through the University and SCBWI Pennsylvania West.  A select group of picture book authors and illustrators will work via Zoom with students to work out any potential problems in theme/wording/illustration that could make their work less effective.

Why should you take part?

Valuable Feedback

Being able to get our work into the schools is a goal for many in children’s publishing.  But a subtle problem, even an unintentional problem, could keep your book from making it into the classroom.  This program is an opportunity to correct any issues before your work goes to an editor or agent.

Learning Opportunity

This is also an opportunity to learn how your work will be received by others.  Learn from teaching students how young readers are likely to respond to your work.

Personal Growth

Everyone has biases.  If you are at a place where you are willing and able to face your own biases and work to remove them from your creative efforts, this program is an opportunity for personal growth.

Starting on August 1st, SCBWI authors and illustrators can visit the SCBWI Pennsylvania West regional website and fill out the application to take part in this project.  You need to have a dummy or picture book manuscript that is polished. Submissions will be accepted for a week.

If you are interested in this program, check out the Pennsylvania West SCBWI site and see if this project is for you.



Writing Prompts

Thank you to Chris Power who captured this photo.  

I don’t know about you, but focusing to write can be more challenging than usual lately.  My new normal includes sharing my office with my husband while my son Zooms his classes in his room next door.  Sometimes what I need to get started is a good idea.

Check out this list of unused titles that were published by Raymond Chandler, the American-British novelist and screenwriter.  The great thing about a list like this is that two writers can use the same title as a prompt and come up with completely different story ideas.

For example, let’s start with the title “A Night in the Ice Box.”  This could be a story about:

  • A night on the frozen sea.
  • A night in Siberia.
  • A picture book with food characters solving a challenge in an ice box – think Josh Funk.
  • A night at the morgue.
  • A story about making an ice carving.

A story based on this prompt could be anything from a silly picture book to a serious murder mystery or historical fiction.  When I work with a prompt like this, I try to come up with 5 to 10 story ideas.  In doing this, I’ve discovered that must first two or three ideas tend to be a bit ho-hum and mainstream.  My last several are often desperate attempts to fill out the list.  The gold?  Those are the ideas in the middle.

Photos are another good source of inspiration.  To find a wide range of images, you can go to copyright free photo site such as Pixabay or you can open your Instagram app and, instead of looking at posts by those you follow, click on the compass icon.

Do you  have a go-to source of inspiration when you need to come up with a fresh writing idea?  If so, share it below.


3 Things You Need in a Picture Book Biography

I’m one of those writers who is constanly jotting down story ideas.  That means if I see a story online about someone who interests, their name may become an entry in my notebook.  That doesn’t mean it is a detailed entry.  Many of them say something like “Bio Dilhan Eryurt: Turkish female astronomer” or “Bio Frances Perkins: 1st female cabinet secretary FDR.”

Because I have notes like this lurking in my journal, I take notice when I read a strong picture book biography such as The Brilliant Deep by Kate Messner.  Briefly, Ken Nedimyer grew up during the push to get a man on the moon.  In spite of this, he wasn’t interested in space exploration.  He also grew up watching Jacques Cousteau specials on TV.  In Florida, he was able to visit the Keys regularly and learned to dive.  When the corals died because of warming, he and his daughter found a way to regrow them by “planting” new colonies.

If you are contemplating a picture book biography, check this book out.  You might even consider using it as a mentor text.  You’ll find three things you need to make certain your own topic has:

A Broad Enough Market

In my own experiences, biographies get rejected when the appeal isn’t broad enough.  After all, a publisher needs a reasonable number of sales so that the book pays for itself.  Who is going to buy this book?  People who love the Florida Keys and Boomers and Gen X who grew up watching Jacques Cousteau.  Seriously.  Say “Jacques Cousteau” around anyone my age and you get “all around me the sea is teaming with life.”  Ken Nedimyer may not be Cousteau but linking him to this undersea giant was a smart move.

Kid Appeal

Not only did Messner create a story that appeals to the adult book buyer, she also hooks young readers.  Ken doesn’t save the reef until he is an adult with an adult daughter, but young readers meet him when he is a boy dreaming about the sea.  They see his room crowded with aquariums.  Messner gives young animal lovers a protagonist with kid appeal.

A Story Arc

Rock solid picture book biographies have a story arc with rising tension.  Readers have to question whether or not the protagonist will succeed.  Then they need, if not success, strong hope.  Ken loves the reef.  No one knows what it means when sea urchins start to die.  Then coral dies.  But all is not lost because Ken finds some growing some place new and figures out how to “plant” it.

This book is definitely one you should study if you are considering a picture book biography.  It will show you how to create a story that pulls in adult buyers and young readers.



3 Trends in Horror

First things first, you don’t need to love blood and gore to be into horror.  Sure, some authors paint their stories with buckets of blood.  But others create a sense of dread – the creep and slither that convinces you something dreadful is coming.  The latter are the ones I love.

Yes, some young readers are into horror but what horror means for a 13 year-old is going to be different than what horror means for a 30 year-old.  Not sure what I mean by horror for young readers?  Check out Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, The Night Gardner by Jonathan Auxier, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd Jones, and Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake.

Horror topics include hauntings, witches, aliens, viruses, space exploration, and more.  Experts say that horror appeals to us, including young readers, because it prompts strong emotion.  Here are some of the trends in adult horror recently written up in Library Journal. 

Once Again a Genre

When I was growing up, we read horror authors, but about a year ago I was doing research on horror and was surprised to discover that it was no longer a section in the bookstore.  In fact, if you asked editors and agents about it, many said that it wasn’t a genre but a tone.

That is all changing.  The article in LJ reported that B&N plans to recreate the horror sections in many of its stores.  And this isn’t a fluke.  Tor is launching a new horror imprint, Nightfire, which is giving away two free audiobooks collections.

Own Voices

Given the renewal of this genre, it isn’t surprising to find editors and agents looking for #OwnVoices novels.  One such book just came out – Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians (Saga).  Here is the publisher’s description:

“Four American Indian men from the Blackfeet Nation, who were childhood friends, find themselves in a desperate struggle for their lives, against an entity that wants to exact revenge upon them for what they did during an elk hunt ten years earlier by killing them, their families, and friends.”

Twenty-two of Jones books have come into print since 2000.


As often happens when a genre is renewed for a new crop of readers, old tropes and formula are dusted off.  Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic (Del Rey, Jun.) is, not surprisingly, gothic.  In this novel, the heroine’s dreams are invaded by none other than a house even as she tries to puzzle out the threat to her cousin from her new inlaws.

Horror films, specifically teen slasher movies, inspired two new books Adam Cesare’s Clown in a Cornfield (HarperTeen) and Stephen Graham Jones’s Night of the Mannequins (

Yes, Stephen Graham-Jones.  Again.  Obviously, if this is a genre you are interested in you should check out his work.




3 Reasons You Should Attend Comic Con

Comic Con 'At Home': How to Watch Online - VarietyBefore you start foaming at the mouth, I’m not suggesting that anyone forgo social distancing or wearing a mask.  You can do both and still attend San Diego’s Comic Con because Comic Con is going on right now and this year …

It Is Virtual

My husband and son go to our local Comic Con which isn’t nearly as huge as the San Diego event.  But that’s just not a thing to do in 2020.  So the creators of this amazing event have brought it to fans across the country.  The sessions are pre-recorded and virtual.  Some of them have to be viewed when they take place but many will be online afterwards.  When I told my husband that we could all view the sessions, he wondered how much it would cost, but …

It Is Free

Comic Con is not an inexpensive event so I’m really impressed that this year they’ve made it free.  Which makes it available to the whole family which is good because there are …

So Many Great Sessions

If you print off the schedule like I did, you’ll discover that it is 16 pages long.  That part isn’t suprising because there are always a number of sessions going on simultaneously.  Normally you have to pick and choose but because they are recorded you can attend one when the video drops and one later in the day.

There are sessions for fans of all kinds, for creatives, and for teachers.  I saw sessions on creating games, on making life-sized card board characters and more.  Here are a few of the sessions I’ve marked on my shedule:

  • 20 Years of Harry Dresden
  • Surviving the Hunger Games
  • Graphic Novel or Illustrated Book: You Make the Call
  • the Most Dangerous Women at Comic-Con: Building a Better Heroine
  • From Wakanda to Numbani: Writing the Next Generation of Heroes
  • The Craft of World Building in Comics
  • Teaching and Learning with Comics
  • Teaching Graphic Novels Online
  • Teaching and Making Comics

Oh, I nearly forgot.  The Museum tab includes how to create a cardboard Enterprise, an R2-D2 and a Captian America shield.   Take the time to explore and you are going to come away reenergized.


3 Ways to Select a Character’s Job

Rather you are writing for young readers or adult readers, eventually you are going to have to give a character a job.  It might be a teen’s first job or the job of a character’s parent.  If you are writing a novel for adult readers, it might be your protagonist’s job.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot since reading a post by Angela Ackerman.  In noodling this over, I’ve come up with three ways to select your character’s job.

The Average Job

Your character needs money.  Your character has not inherited money.  Thus your character needs a job.  Sometimes it is okay to go with the obvious.  Your tween character babysits or mows lawns.  Your teen character works in food service or at the local grocery.  In Stranger Things, one of the characters works in the mall.  If Stranger Things can do it, you can do it.  But you may want your character’s job to reveal something.  That’s when you dig a little deeper.

Character Interests

A character who is on swim team might be a life guard.  Statistically, in my experience as a swim mom, this is actually pretty likely.  A character who loves to cook might bake cakes for birthday parties.  One of my son’s friends and his two cousins catered parties while they were still in high school.  Develop your character, find out who they are, and then come up with a job that is a good match.

Emotional Scars

Angela’s post was all about how a character’s emotional scars might impact the job they choose.  A character who lost their grandmother might want to work at a senior day care.  A character with negligent parents might choose a job that requires them to be incredibly reliable or a job with a lot of rules.

There are many ways to chose character jobs.  My only word of warning?  Writers seem to create a lot of characters who are writers.  Not that you can’t, but give it a little thought before you pick this one.


Why Picture Books Must Appeal to Two Very Different Readers

If you are going to write picture books, your work has to appeal to two very different readers – the adult and the child.

Most of us think of the child as the picture books intended audience.  We are, after all, writing for a group of people who are 3 to 5 years old.  Young readers have limited experience and we have to come up with stories that appeal to this small, still developing world.

If you fail to appeal to this segment of your audience, they won’t sit still while the book is read.  Worse yet, they won’t pay attention.  I add this last bit because my kiddo seldom sat still but he could still tell you what the book was about in great detail especially if that book was No, David!, a book he declared beautiful.

But your book also has to appeal to the adult, the person who will actually read your book.  This is something that cannot be stressed enough.  Your book has to appeal to your young audience but if you don’t tempt the adults to buy it?  You aren’t going to have a young audience.

This Wednesday’s Book on Tap (7/23, 4:00 pm Eastern) will feature Ryan T. Higgins.  Higgins will be interviewed about the story behind the story of We Will Rock Our Classmates.  Penelope, a young T. Rex, has great reader appeal but it was Mother Bruce who first won me over.  If you don’t know the Mother Bruce books, Bruce is a bear who accidentally hatches a nest full of goose eggs when he is attempting to cook them.

Why did I love this book so much?  Higgins is a master of deadpan humor and his dry wit reminded me of Bruce, my son’s boy scout leader.  And the young geese?  Weeblo Scouts all the way.

Read any of his books and learn how he appeals to both adults and young readers and tune in or watch the video to hear about We Will Rock Our Classmates (details here).


4 Rules for the Historical Fiction Road

The other day I read a guest post by Andrew Noakes on Jane Friedman’s blog.  He wrote about writing historical fiction and has some really good tips.  I’m going to expand on one of them and then add three  of my own.

No Hive Mind

I don’t remember how Noakes phrased this but remember when you are writing historical fiction that not everyone thinks the same way about every little thing.  Think about the Revolutionary War.  Should we remain an English colony or become free?  Not everyone agreed on which answer as right and the justifications for their opinions were wide ranging.  No matter what time period you are writing about, don’t have everyone think exactly the same thing.  But if your main character disagrees with her family, know why this might be.

Research Details for Settings and Artifacts 

A lot of authors who are new to historical fiction want to research every little detail.  And you do need to know enough to set your story in the appropriate culture. When I write historical fiction, I use my research to enrich the setting and the various artifacts that surround the character.  What would their school look like?  Does it have artificial lighting?  If so, is it electric?  Gas?  Oil lamps?  This keeps me from trying to research dialogue.

Dialogue Rules

In his post, Noakes wrote about not writing dialogue that sounds like it is from that time period.  When you do this, you produce dialogue that is largely unreadable.  This is especially serious if you write for young readers.  You aren’t transcribing period dialogue.  You want to include just enough to give it the flavor of the time and place.  Do do this, I might use a few phrases or slang like “crazy” or “dolled up.”


When you create a story set in a distant time and place, it can be tricky for readers to identify with your character.  To make this possible, provide a bridge.  Give your character emotions that readers can identify with or put them in a situation that they can empathize with.  Anger, joy, and hope are all identifiable emotions.  Family problems, school worries, and being the new kid at school are familiar situations.

Writing historical fiction isn’t easy but it is popular with readers of all ages.  Why not try to spin a story in your favorite historic period?


3 Ways to Stop Getting in Your Own Way

Don’t get in your own way.

We creative types tend to be complex.  We love to create.  Sometimes.  We want to publish.  But we don’t send out our work.  Our excuses are legion.  Fortunately, there are three things that we can do to get out of our own way.

Identify the Problem.

Some people research, falling down that rabbit hole and never coming back out.  Other people are certain that just one more draft is necessary to make their work perfect.  Some of us would send it in if only we could find the perfect market.  Before you can fix it, you need to realize what you are doing where.  Me?  I need to turn loose of the idea that there is a perfect golden goose of an agent.  Yes, I need to find an agent that is a good fit.  But I need to quit finding excuses not to submit.  Identify your problem and own it.

Accept the Idea that There Will Be Rejections.

Your work will get rejected.  No one sells every piece that they send out.  And that’s okay.  You have to get your work in front of the right person and the right moment and this won’t happen if you don’t send it out.  Rejections are just part of the job.  Accept that and head toward them.

Determine Your Next Step.

Whether you are working to break into magazines or writing a novel, redesigning your web site or updating your blog, writing involves a lot of big jobs.  You don’t have to consider them at all once.  Determine your next step and then take it.  Step-by-step.

I’m not sure why we creatives spend so much time sabotaging ourselves, but we do.  The good news is that you can break the habit and move forward.  Just pick a direction, acknowledge that there will be rejection, and start the journey step by step.