Wednesday, January 25, 2017


I released a new MG this month: ALEXANDER AND THE AMAZING WIDE-AWAKE.

It's about a young boy with the best thinking cap of all time--the kind of thinking cap that makes everything easy...until one day, when the hat breaks. And suddenly, the boy who'd been good at everything is good at nothing. What's Alexander to do without his super power???

For those of you who are familiar with my previous releases, ALEXANDER AND THE AMAZING WIDE-AWAKE stars Alexander Gum, who was a secondary character in '16's short MG read WORDQUAKE.

Both books are lightly illustrated, making them great for the graphic novel or comic book addict in your life. They make fantastic "bridge books," helping readers begin to make that transition toward non-illustrated novels.

I had to make a bit of a transition myself, in order to write both ALEXANDER and WORDQUAKE: a transition into digital art. I've had several fellow writers ask what the first steps were that I took toward illustration. For a while, I told them: a Wacom drawing tablet (I have an Intuos Pro) and Clip Studio software (at $50, it's super-cheap, and it has all the bells and whistles a new illustrator needs without being overwhelming or intimidating).

But really, there's a step I took before that. Maybe the most important step of all: I called myself an illustrator. Even though I'd done NOTHING with digital art, even though my art experience had come decades ago and was on paper and canvas. I started calling myself an author / illustrator from the very beginning.

I'm not unlike most authors when I say it took years and many manuscripts and a pile of rejection before I sold my first book. I spent seven and a half years of full-time effort trying to get that elusive first "yes." During those seven and a half years, I was hesitant to call myself an author. I hadn't sold anything, so it didn't seem I had a right to that title. Or it resulted in the inevitable follow-up questions, during which I'd get THE LOOK: every writer knows it. The look that you always interpret to mean, Well, you know you aren't really an author if you aren't published. It's a hobby, not a real occupation.

But here's the biggest lesson I learned from all of that: you should never allow the outside world to define you. YOU should be the only person who defines you. Waiting around for the outside world to give you a title--or prestige--or a sense of self-worth (and those things so often seem tangled up into the same ball) is a recipe for disaster and heartbreak.

SO: Whatever resolution you've made for '17, whatever new goal you're setting out to achieve, whatever beginning you've undertaken, pause for just a moment and give yourself a title. Don't wait to achieve the goal. If you're writing, you're a writer. If your drawing, you're an artist. Get in the habit of owning the title. Say it out loud, proudly:

 I'm a ___.

Because you are.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

January Beginnings

I've been too overwhelmed with endings to think about beginnings this month, but I've squirreled away the advice I'm reading for when it's time to begin something new. I'm in the middle of a feast of freelance assignments with with four deadlines between January 1 and February 30. I'm very grateful for the work, but does it have to come all at once?

I do have two new publications to celebrate this month, and I'm so excited to see these books take their first steps into the world!

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Getting Started . . . Somewhere Special by Claudia Mills

I adored the Mark Twain line with which Naomi Kinsman opened her recent Smack Dab post: "The secret to getting ahead is getting started."

Oh, but getting started - writing that very first line of a very new book - can be so overwhelming. Even if you know you're going to change that line a dozen times before publication, this is still the moment when you are first putting pen to paper (yes, I still write my books by putting pen to paper). It's exciting, but also terrifying.

Here's what I do so that I can face the writing of that fateful first line with more delight than dread. I go out of my way to acknowledge the significance of this day of new beginnings; I celebrate its specialness by making it as special as possible.

I don't write the first line of a new book at home, lying on my usual couch, with my usual mug of Swiss Miss hot chocolate by my side, and my usual cat purring on my lap. Instead, I head off somewhere else. If the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, I'm going to poke out my toe for that first step with some fanfare.

Back when my writing group had its annual retreat up at Lake Dillon in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, I'd try to time the launching of a new project for that glorious weekend with dear writing friends in that stunning natural setting, and I'd write its first line in their company.

I've written the first line of a new book at "write-ins" at the homes of author friends.(I'm talking about you, Jeannie Mobley and Jean Reidy!)

I've invited a writing friend to come with me to a fancy hotel and sit in its elegant lobby, nibbling on over-priced treats, for the ceremonial composing of that first line.

My favorite-ever first line was written on a family vacation to Green River, Utah. I sat in our motel room, looking out at the river, and wrote the first line of my chapter book How Oliver Olson Changed the World. That first line - which stayed as the first line, through all the subsequent drafts - was (and is): "Oliver Olson looked up at the moon."

The next time you're daunted by that very first line of a brand-new book, try going somewhere special, with somebody special. It's a special moment. Go ahead, and let it be special.

Monday, January 16, 2017

How to Start AND Finish a Project

by Naomi Kinsman

“The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” 
― Mark Twain

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” 
― Benjamin Franklin

I often find myself frozen at the intersection between these two truths. Should I make a plan? Should I simply start? I know I’m not the only one. In fact, this conundrum is so common, we categorize ourselves into camps. “I’m a pantser!” “I’m a plotter!”

If only it were as easy as one approach or the other being the right way. Unfortunately, no. But, I don’t think throwing up our hands and giving in to the chaos of our process (whether the chaos comes from over-planning or over-improvising) is the way to go either.

Who I am to say so? As an author and the founder of a nonprofit, with a visionary personality (you might even swap in the word “addiction”), I’m a serial starter. As an educator, mentor and consultant, I serve as a trail guide for many other starters. I’ve seen my fair share of beginnings, and along the way, observed many successes and stumbling blocks.

What I’ve come to believe is that the pantsers are more likely to start, and the plotters are more likely to finish. If you’d prefer to both start AND finish projects, being in one camp or the other creates problems.

Pantsers aren’t afraid of what they don’t know. In fact, they can’t wait for the surprise that’s around the next corner.  They can’t wait, that is, until the surprise that’s around the next corner turns out to be a dragon. With no idea how to get past the monster, the pantser leans on her strength and starts over. Maybe the next idea will be problem-free.

Plotters gather information and plan, plan, plan. They anticipate possible problems and create solutions. Committed plotters craft back-up plans for their back-up plans. Often by the time they finally feel ready to start, they’re exhausted. While they may push on despite their exhaustion, the process to the finish line (while well-planned) can feel as arduous as a long-term battle with a legion of dragons.

Is there a way to split the difference? Yes! I’ve seen it work, and while this approach stretches a starter in his or her area of lesser strength, in my opinion the benefits outweigh the challenges.

Here’s a road-map to try out:

1. Choose an idea.
2. Spend a few hours brainstorming, capturing thoughts, building a picture of what you know about your idea so far.
3. Look over your brainstorm and choose a starting place. Ask yourself, “What could I tackle today, in say, an hour or less?”
4. Imagine your starting place as the tiny loose end of a complex knot. Start untangling, and spend a week (or maybe two) following the loosening string in toward the heart of the knot.
5. Once you’re at least elbow-deep in the project, come up for air. Return to your brainstorm, and add notes. What do you know now? What do you wonder?
6. Use these informed notes to structure a loose plan. Imagine this plan as the framing of a house. You don’t need to choose the paint color right now, but you do need to define the size and shape of the rooms.
7. Once you’ve crafted a frame that you feel is relatively reliable, walk away for at least a day. Then, return, review, and revise.
8. Choose a “room” as a starting place, and return to the brainstorming process. That one room is now your knot to untangle.
9. From here, the process continues, alternating between pantsing and planning until you reach the finish line.

Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, or a little of both, know that you’re not alone in facing dragons. Especially if you’re creating something beautiful, life-giving, and heart-changing, resistance is inevitable. Please don’t give up. Please wrestle your way through, no matter what it takes, because the world needs the beautiful things only you can bring to life. Here’s to a year filled with starts AND finishes.

Naomi Kinsman is an author, educator and creativity coach. She is the author of the FROM SADIE'S SKETCHBOOK series and recently collaborated with singer, Natalie Grant, on the GLIMMER GIRLS series. Naomi is also the founder and Executive Director of Society of Young Inklings, an organization that offers classes, mentorships and publishing opportunities for young authors ages 6-16.  Society of Young Inklings utilizes WRITERLY PLAY, the improv-based teaching methodology that Naomi developed, as the foundation for its programming.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Begin Again by Darlene Beck Jacobson

Like many of us, my first published book was not the first novel I wrote.  That remains hidden in a dusty closet where it belongs.  Neither was WHEELS OF CHANGE my first foray into historical fiction.

I've recently dusted off my first historical novel, and after reading it, found some nuggets worth mining.  Some characters worth getting to know better.  Some scenes waiting to take me to new places.

For more than a decade I didn't know what to do with the story.  Yet, always - at seemingly odd moments - the characters voices popped in and out of consciousness, cajoling me, urging me not to give up on them.  They beg for their story to be told.  I can't ignore their voices any longer.

So, I'm giving this "first novel" another go.  I still don't know quite where it will lead me, but so far, I'm enjoying the ride.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

My New(ish) #1 Task

 by Jody Feldman

One thing has become abundantly clear to me over the past six weeks: The most important task I have as I write my books is ...
Oops. Not gonna tell you yet.

Let me backtrack to the reason for my new conclusion. Recently and in a strange, world-converging set of circumstances, I simultaneously* turned two novels in to my agent. And while I thought I’d nailed the task of which I’m about to explain, her notes suggested I didn’t. Essentially, it’s this:

When the reader is on page 38, what will make him or her turn the page to 39? 140? 241? What gives your reader the impetus to keep reading until The End?

By now, you might be yawning and rolling your eyes and wondering why you even bothered to read this far. That’s a given, right? It’s such an obvious essential. It’s even old news to me; very, very old. It’s what my schoolgirl-self longed for every time I opened a book. Not consciously, but still.

Well, I need to be conscious now. The fact is, when you’re writing alone in your own little cave, utterly invested in the lives of your characters, everything can feel important. And while we may excel at putting ourselves in the shoes of our characters, we often forget to put ourselves in those of our audience. Starting now, that’s my #1 task.

Some will argue: No. Your #1 priority should be creating strong...
  • characters or
  • plot or
  • themes or
  • voice or
  • (chose your favorite literary quality)

But if you truly think about it, doesn’t page-turn-ability truly mean the convergence of every aspect that makes a book stand out?

Sure, the reader occasionally needs a beat to absorb what we’ve thrown at them. Even so, aren’t our readers important enough to have us take those extra steps that make the breathers and other assorted down-times just as fascinating?

That’s why I hope to craft every scene with my readers in mind. Figure out ways to make them pull out their flashlights to finish just one more chapter under their covers, way past bedtime. I owe it to them. I owe it to myself.

*To me, having two novel-length works ready within a two-month period is about as simultaneous as you can get in this business.

Monday, January 9, 2017

January Theme: Forget Beginnings—Skip to the Good Parts Instead

Marcia Thornton Jones

In every class I teach, writers want to know the best way to start their books. That's understandable since we’ve all heard that the opening page needs to convey tone, voice and genre, introduce character, setting, and conflict, and create page-turning tension that hooks readers (including editors and agents). It's a lot to ask of a first page or two, so I can see why so many participants in my workshops and classes want to spend time learning the best way to start their books, and I’m happy to oblige them. That being said, one thing I notice is that writers, including me, often get so focused on writing the best damn beginning we can, that we never get around to writing the rest of the story. And if we do, I’ve found that the beginning we spent so much time writing and revising and honing often doesn’t end up being the beginning at all. So, when talking about opening scenes, here’s what I think: go ahead and study first pages of successful books to determine what works (and what doesn’t), but don’t obsess about your own beginning until you are honing the final drafts. Instead, skip to the good parts of your story. Write those scenes and don’t worry too much about the opening. Then, when you feel like you’ve told your characters’ story, go back and figure out the scene that would be the best place for your readers to enter that story. But if you are at that part of your writing process, the part where you need to write the best damn beginning you can, then you just might want to check out Stephanie Orges’s May 4, 2012 “The 21 Best Tips for Writing Your Opening Scene” blog for excellent tips:

Sunday, January 8, 2017

January -- New Beginnings by Jane Kelley

A new year! Thank goodness! I can make a fresh start on a project that has bedeviled me since 2013. I'm confident that I can solve its problems. I have new insights into the material. I've learned some lessons. (Many thanks to Cheryl B. Klein's book, The Magic Words.)

But the work that I did before is absolutely crucial to any future success.

Just like this......

It may not look like much. A wad of fabric. Not very beautiful. Shapeless. Seemingly purposeless. 

A tangle of cord. 

But wait......

After carefully straightening out the cords and precisely folding up that fabric, all is ready for you to board that small plane and hitch a ride up higher and higher.

And then, confident that you did your preparation work well. That your idea is big enough and strong enough. That you are in fact brave enough to take that leap ..... 

You will not fall! You will soar, as my husband did that day.

While I watched with feet safely on the ground, saving my courage to jump a different way another day.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Blurring the Boundaries: Writing Fiction for Boys and Girls (Yona Zeldis McDonough)

I am girly-girl writer.  There, Ive just come out and said it.  Although Ive written bios for kids that appeal to both boys and girlsmany of them in the popular WHO WAS seriesmy real love is girl-friendly stories and the fact that no fewer than five of my childrens books have have the words doll or doll house in the title reaffirms that contention.
          I never saw this as a particular problem or even issue to be addressed.  Subsets in the childrens audience abound, as the fans of mystery, dystopia, humor and fantasy can happily attest.  So writing books that appealed chiefly to girls didnt seem like an issue to me.
          But a chance meeting with an editor from BoysLife was the first chip in my frilly, feminine facade. We had been invited to speak on a panel together and when it was over, she encouraged me, strongly, to consider writing fiction for the magazine.  I was flattered but didnt think I was up to the task.  Writing for a specifically boys market was alien to my sensibilities and I wasnt confident I could do it. But an invitation from an editor is nothing to sneeze at and I began to play around with some ideas, eventually settling on a story set in 1941 that was slated for the December, 2016 issue.  That was the 75th anniversary of the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor and in my story, a 12 year old boy finds himself defending his best friend, Kenzo, whose Japanese family had arrived in the United States some ten years prior and who owned the fish store in town. It was about the need for facing down prejudice and bigotry and it advanced a message of tolerance and acceptance.  The editor liked the story and asked for others, which I happily provided. 
So when I was tapped by an editor from Scholastic to write what eventually became The Bicycle Spy, I had already taken some tentative steps across the gender line. Scholastic wanted a book about a 13 year old boy who lives in the Southwest of France during World War II. His parents own the bakery in town, and unbeknownst to him, are members of the French Resistancehes been delivering their messages that have been baked into loaves of bread.  Hes an avid cyclist and fan of the Tour de Francesuspended during the war yearsand bicycling was to play a major role in the story, which was also to involve helping the family of a new friend to escape.   These were the bare bonesthe rest was up to me.
          I now had the task of writing a book whose primary audience would be boys, a much more challenging and complex task than writing a 1200 word magazine story.   If I was going to succeed, I needed to widen and expand my range as a writer and I was nervous.  Yes, I had written boy protagonists, but always in the short run.  Could I sustain a boys point of view and hope to engage boy readers for a whole chapter book? I would soon find out.
          To my surprise, I found the task less daunting and more exciting than I expected.  I wanted to make my protagonist Marcel appealing and relatable, so I turned him into an unlikely hero: small for his age, bespectacled and sometimes the target of the class bullys teasing and aggression.  Marcel loses to his best friend in a game of chess, flubs the occasional answer in class and dreams constantly of being stronger, taller and fasterlike the winners of the bicycle race he reveres. And yet, for all his flaws, hes also shown to be brave, loyal and determined. 
          As Marcels story evolved in my mind, I realized I wanted it to include a female component, something that would appeal to girls as well as boys.  And so I began to develop the character of Delphine Gillette, the new girl at school who loves cycling as much as he does and is revealed, midway through, to be Jewish.  Her family has escaped from Paris and is hiding out in this small town, protected by the false papers her father has been able to procure.  But when the Nazi presence intensifies, Marcel learns that the papers of the residents, particularly those newly arrived, are going to be scrutinized carefully. Delphine and her family are no longer safe.  They will need to escape again and it is Marcel who is instrumental in the daring plot to help them towards freedom.
          As I wrote, I tried to keep the concerns of both boys and girls in mind. I knew that boys would enjoy the suspense aspects of the story, the coded messages, and the workings of the Resistance movement, as well as the descriptions of both the occupying soldiers and the French gendarmes who supported them.  I also made sure to include details about Marcels relationship to his parentshis mothers worry and occasional tendency to nag, his fathers pride in his courageas well as the ones with his friends.  For the girl readers, I explored Delphines experiences as the new girl in town, her efforts to fit in and be liked as well as her spunk and her courage.  I also included references to the clothes she worebecause yes, girls do careand her affection for her pet cat.
          But I also began to notice a certain blurring of gender lines and realized that ultimately the concerns of these two characters were more alike than different. They both loved cycling, worried about their place in the social pecking order, and had to deal with parental expectations. Both faced the awful upheavals of war and fear of the future.
           I had started out thinking that boys would relate to Marcel, and girls to Delphine; I came to see that each of these characters would have appeal for the other gender. Its a revelation that I hope to carry with me when I approach my as-yet-unwritten next book.  Writing for boys taught me something about writing for girls and I am glad to have discovered that that universe of fiction is far broader and more inclusive than I had formerly imagined.

Yona is giving away one signed copy of THE BICYCLE SPY and one free Skype visit! Just fill out the form below to enter. If the form's not working for you, just leave a comment here--be sure to indicate whether you'd like a copy of the book or a visit!

Also, be sure to visit Yona online at her author site.

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Beginning the Query by Deborah Lytton: January Theme

Happy New Year! I love beginning a new year because anything is possible. This year, I am hoping you sell your manuscript to the editor of your dreams. If you don't have an agent, you will have to write a stand out query to either an agent or an editor. When I first met my incredible agent, Stacey Glick, it was through a query letter. The letter piqued her interest and eleven and a half years later, we are still a team.

I began my query by quoting the opening of my manuscript. The first sentence you write in your book is the most important one, and you have probably spent a lot of time making it perfect, so why not use it? Your voice is in those words of fiction, and it is as unique as you are. In my query, I used the first three sentences of my manuscript because they fit together to establish the main character and her point of view. After that, I introduced the character briefly and gave a one paragraph synopsis of the plot. My third paragraph shared a little bit about me. Then I closed by letting the agent know I would be happy to send the manuscript if she would like to read more. It was a one page letter which was concise but jam-packed with personality because I used the fiction to sell itself. Do you have any tips for writing good query letters? What works for you?

Happy Writing!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

One Hope for Writers

I keep a journal.

Some months I write in it every day. Other times, several months pass without a single entry.

I fill the pages with things that inspire me, things I want to think about, new ideas, possibilities, etc.

Mostly, it's a place for hope.

One entry includes some words (source uncited) I'd like to share with every person in the world:

Whatever your work is, keep doing it. Through the doubt, through the feelings of not-enough. Keep putting it out there. Your purpose, your art, will land in the heart it's meant to. You won't be for everyone, but you are for someone. And to that someone, what you give matters.And that changes everything.

Happy 2017!

Irene Latham's first bits of writing were love poems – for her mother. An award winning author of two novels for children LEAVING GEE'S BEND and DON'T FEED THE BOY, she was named the winner of the 2016 International Literary Association-Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award. Her poetry titles for children include DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST, FRESH DELICIOUS, and WHEN THE SUN SHINES ON ANTARCTICA.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Breathe and Begin by Ann Haywood Leal

January.  A new beginning.  I am holding onto that feeling of hope that my writerly and book loving friends are putting out into the world.  Because we all need that right now, don't we?  We all need to feel as if we are okay--that we are going to be okay.  We need to feel as if the world is round again, and we will not drop off a sharp curb into a scary abyss.  We need to drag ourselves up and over that ledge and band together with the extra sticky glue made of kindness and inclusiveness.  Because that's what a middle-grade novel is about, isn't it?  Hope.  Kindness.  Empathy.

So I'm offering up some of my favorite beginnings to begin 2017.

"Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly . . . "
--Langston Hughes  (Okay, I cheated with this first one.  Langston Hughes didn't write middle grade novels, but he was, Langston Hughes, so I get to.)

"Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away.  That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her back.  She didn't like discomfort, even picnics were untidy and inconvenient:  all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes.  Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere . . . "
--E. L. Konigsburg (From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler)

"We moved on the Tuesday before Labor Day.  I knew what the weather was like the second I got up. I knew because I caught my mother sniffing under her arms.  She always does that when it's hot and humid, to make sure her deodorant's working.  I don't use deodorant yet.  I don't think people start to smell bad until they're at least twelve.  So I've still got a few months to go."
--Judy Blume (Are You There God?  It's Me, Margaret.)

"Finally, I am twelve.
Old enough to wear a toob.
As soon as I wake, Muma whispers a birthday wish.
Blessings for all the years to come, Amira.
--Andrea Davis Pinkney (The Red Pencil)

"Lily Mollahan's bedroom was at the top of the stairs, the only one on the second floor.  The top of the house, Gram always told her, the top of the world.
     Lily sank back on her heels to look around at the blue walls and ceiling, and the gold stars pasted on here and there.  Then she stretched up again, working with Poppy's paint scraper, to peel off a star that was almost beyond her reach."
--Patricia Reilly Giff (Lily's Crossing)

"Today is Tet,
the first day
of the lunar calendar.
Every Tet
we eat sugary lotus seeds
and glutinous rice cakes.
We wear all new clothes
even underneath.
Mother warns
how we act today
foretells the whole year.
Everyone must smile
no matter how we feel.
No one can sweep,
for why sweep away hope?
No one can splash water,
for why splash away joy?"
--Thanhha Lai (Inside Out & Back Again)

I had to stop myself, because there are so many beautiful beginnings out there.  Go grab your own memorable beginning.  Open a middle grade novel, or let the words of Langston wash over you with drizzles of hope.