Friday, March 31, 2017


We’ve all been there: typing the last line of our WIP.

It should be a victory, right?

Sometimes, not so much. Sometimes, it’s a disappointment. Or a nagging feeling in your gut. You didn’t wind up where you wanted to with this manuscript. And not in a pleasantly surprised way, either.

The manuscript isn’t working. You know it. 

The worst part is, you don’t know how to fix it.

I think in this case, the best thing you can do is stop looking at your own work. Go back to the very beginning of it all: with genre.

GOOGLE IT. I don’t care if you’re a lifelong reader of the genre you’re working in, either. Google the genre. Read the most basic definition of it. Read more technical definitions. Take notes. Every romance, for example, needs a HEA or HFN (happily ever after or happy for now). What does your manuscript absolutely have to have to make sure it fits the genre? 

HIT YOUR BOOKSHELF. Nobody writes in genres they don’t like. Even if you’re a new(ish) reader of the genre you’re tackling, you’ve got titles on your shelf. Books you loved, that made you think you could write a (thriller, children’s book, etc.) of your own. Go back to them. Again, take notes. What made you love this book? 

READ REVIEWS. That means trade reviews and Goodreads or Amazon reviews. What did other readers say about the titles you pulled from your bookshelf? Where did the author succeed? Where did they fall short? Again, take notes.

Okay, now you should have amassed a checklist of what your book—or, really, ANY book in your chosen genre—should accomplish. Break out your manuscript. Where does your manuscript fall in line with other books in its category? Of course every book is allowed to break a few rules, chart new territory, etc., but they do so after they’ve fulfilled their basic duties to the genre they’re written in. 

Of course, this strategy might not always leave you with a definite plan for revision. But what it does do is help you pinpoint the areas that do need to be worked on. And that’s always step one in devising your action plan.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Sleuthing the Snow Queen Myth: Smack Dab in the Classroom by Dia Calhoun

I recently read Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy. Karen Foxlee's middle grade fantasy novel centers on the myth of the Snow Queen. This mythologem can be traced far back in our history, sometimes as an ice queen or ice princess.

A fascinating project for kids would be to take this image and trace it back. We find it in recent literature, like the White Witch in Narnia, and of course Hans Christian Anderson's Snow Queen. And of course Disney...with its liberal reinterpreting with all things marketing in mind.

Those stories have their antecedents in older mythologies. Like the Norse Goddesses Skadi or Hel. Robert Graves' The White Goddess also explores the myth.

I'm no scholar, but I've read enough of Carl Jung's work to recognize a powerful archetype in the Snow Queen. And powerful archetypes ignite imagination. So turn your students loose into an exploration of the Snow Queen archetype. Then have them write their own version.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Josanne La Valley

Instead of writing about threes or March this month, I want to tell you about my friend Josanne La Valley.

I met Josanne in my first writing for children class in 1998 and she suggested we form a writer’s group with a third classmate. Nineteen years later, Josanne and I were still meeting. Many writers came and went, leaving writing or leaving New York City, but Josanne and I were steadfast in our commitment to writing and to Thursday night group.

Josanne didn’t start writing until she was a couple of years into retirement from a career in arts management. It took her longer to get published than some of the others in the group, but she was always the first to celebrate when one of us had a success—usually with a chilled bottle of champagne.  She was also never discouraged enough to give up. In her 70’s she went to Vermont to get her MFA in Writing for Children.

She was also a traveler (she made crossing and ocean at least once a year a condition of her marriage) and found the stories for her two published novels among the Uyghur people of northwest China. THE VINE BASKET, the new YA novel, FACTORY GIRL both provide a window into a people and a culture that are quickly disappearing (although not quickly enough for the Chinese government). She worked with the Uyghur-American Association to make sure her novels were accurate, and they are, but they’re also true in a way that novels from the heart are always true.  Her characters are artists trying to survive in a harsh world, and Josanne was nothing if not a survivor.

Josanne lived long enough to see her second novel published and to read its very good reviews.  I hope you’ll pick up FACTORY GIRL and/or THE VINE BASKET to get to know her a little bit and to celebrate her very fine career.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Beware the Ides of March: Writer Version, by Claudia Mills

"Beware the Ides of March!" the Soothsayer tells Julius Caesar, and despite the emperor's scoffing at the warning, halfway through this stormy month of early spring, he's assassinated. The last words he utters are "Et tu, Brute?" - Latin for "Even you, Brutus?" - for it is one of his trusted friends who betrays him by plunging the fatal dagger.

I couldn't resist asking myself, what should we beware of, as writers? I decided that the beloved companion most likely to betray us is - ourselves.

You probably have your own favorite techniques of writing self-sabotage. Here are a few of mine:

1) Procrastination: endless busyness with just about every project that isn't writing."If only I could get caught up on my backlog of emails, and cross things off my long list of LTs (Loathsome Tasks), then I could sit down to write. . . ."

2) Envy: "My books will never be as good as the books of the authors I love and admire most, so why should I even bother?"

3) Laziness: "Okay, this book I'm working on isn't very good, but hey, one of my books has to be the worst one, so it might as well be this one."

I tend toward laziness myself, but you may tend instead toward the opposite danger:

4) Perfectionism: "It's too soon to share this book with any readers; I've only been working on it for six years, and I still have a lot of polishing and tweaking I need to do."

Finally: my current self-trap:

5) Exaggeration: responding to a thorough (but kindly expressed and extremely helpful) critique of a manuscript with deliberate distortion of every comment offered: "They hated it! They hated every word of it! I should throw it all away and dig a big hole in my backyard and bury the manuscript and never be a writer again!"

All of these are different forms of the single biggest demon besetting writers: self-doubt.

Caesar was betrayed because he trusted Brutus too much. Most writers are betrayed, I would hazard, by not trusting ourselves enough. In any case, the Ides of March have come and gone, and we're all still alive and kicking. So let's set aside procrastination, envy, laziness, perfectionism, exaggeration - self-doubt in all its devious forms - and write.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Big, Bigger, Biggest by Naomi Kinsman

Earlier this month, Irene Latham wrote a fun post on the rule of threes (with her added twist of the +1) for writers. Many improv games are also built on this principle. I had always thought of them as simply relying on the rule of three, but when I think about it, many do include the element of +1.

One of my favorites is called Big, Bigger, Biggest. I play this game with my students, but also at my own writing desk as a mental exercise.

Here's how it goes:

1. You think of a moment in your story and you act it out (or imagine it out) "big." You're starting from a place of high energy.

2. Next, you play the same moment "bigger," by changing parts of the scenario to make it more extreme, more surprising, more humorous.

3. Finally, you play the moment "biggest." The fun of "biggest" is that it usually invites the players to go too far. You swap in something ridiculous, or you completely over exaggerate the character's reaction.

Here's the +1. After you have played these three scenarios, you create the moment on the page. Now, having considered the absurdly over-the-top option, you can dial it back and find what will work. Often, this kind of thinking leads to a creative idea that lands somewhere between bigger and biggest, with a fun, surprising twist.

I hope this game adds spontaneity and fresh energy to your writing sessions or your classroom this month. Enjoy!

Naomi Kinsman is an author, educator and creativity strategist. 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.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

On the March by Darlene Beck Jacobson

March has always been a month of possibilities for me.  Renewal.  A chance to begin again.  Plants that have weathered storms and survived cold and drought sprout new growth every year.  Why shouldn't I be abler to do the same with my writing? 

Regarding a WIP or a new project still fermenting in my mind, I might try to:

M aybe look at characters in a new way.  Let them have a spring awakening and rediscover their own dormant abilities. What "storms" have characters weathered?  Dig deeper into the "soil" of their lives.
A llow characters to make more mistakes.  As E B White says: "A mistake is simply another way of doing things".
R efuse to rush to the most obvious path for resolution or conflict.  It's easier to do so, but not nearly as much fun for the reader.
C hange what isn't matter how hard it is to "kill" a favorite scene, plot point, or character. And chuck out those adverbs!
H ang out the "dirty laundry" in character's lives.  Air the juicy tidbits that make a reader a bit uncomfortable or show a darker side of a character.  It just might be the best path to the story you want to tell.

March forth with renewed enthusiasm for writing!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Three Reminders from Middle Grade Readers

by Jody Feldman

I was inspired to start writing this from a hotel room in Dallas, a few days ahead of posting, three-quarters through a week of school visits. Even now, even still, after countless presentations, I get so impressed by the enthusiasm, the intelligence, and especially the passion of the students and their teachers. Hoping to spread the smiles I’ve carried back home, I bring you three of the many reminders from this past week.

1. Kids love their facts. Do you remember the precocious boy in Jerry Maguire who continually spouted trivia, the most notable about the human head weighing 8 pounds? I’ve decided, middle grade readers could talk all day about strange and wonderfully random facts they’ve happened to learn. Just ask. It was early into my new workshop (Write What You Know) when I stopped to let them share something that they knew. I wish I’d written down all the facts, from the ability of frogs’ eyes to the state of our seafood supply to it being 9:54 a.m. If I’d let them, they could have filled my entire presentation just by sharing their facts. My takeaway? More random facts in my books. Not to the point of awkwardness or obnoxiousness, but as the plot and the characters deem it appropriate.

2. Kids can be fearless. While I was at an all-boys school (my first! and hopefully not my last), I was privileged to sit in on an annual celebration to add a new honoree on their Leadership Wall, joining the likes of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Mother Theresa. When I heard it was Malala Yousafzai, I was first struck by the coincidence (and teachers confirmed it was coincidence) that she would be honored on International Women’s Day. But what overshadowed this, in the very best of ways, was how poised and articulate these four young men were in presenting an overview of Malala’s life, her bravery, and her worldwide impact. These were elementary school students standing behind a podium on a daunting stage in a darkened auditorium with spotlights on them, presenting to a large audience of students, teachers, and parents. (To see a snippet of one of them, go to the March 8, 2017 post here.) Not only did each speak with such poise and elegance (and for five or more minutes apiece), each, himself, wrote the meaningful and awe-inspiring words he spoke. My takeaway: remember, never underestimate the abilities of children.

3. Kids who have graduated to *cool* are still kids inside. The 7th graders sauntered into the library, like maybe they were too cool for an author visit. My presentation is fairly interactive, but I knew from experience to go slowly on that with this age group. Finally, after a participatory bit (raise your hand if this is true; or now, if it’s false), there came a point where I tested the waters. “Who wants to tell me...” One hand crept up. Then a second. And within minutes, it was like the room breathed. At the end, we ran out of time long before they ran out of questions. Even after they were told to go back to class, several rushed up to ask something anyway; several more (including a few girls who seemed they may have been among the coolest), came up to thank me or to tell me they loved my books. My takeaway: there are more fans of all ages out there than you might know.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

March: In Like a Lion; Out Like a Lamb
A Month of Transformations

By Marcia Thornton Jones

In like a lion; out like a lamb. The very phrase suggests a month of transformation—so what better time to think about how story characters evole? Does my story character enter the story like an angry lion and exit as a peaceful lamb? Or might she shed her lamb’s wool and unsheathe claws in order to strike down every single obstacle thrown at her?

Considering how my character evolves will help round out a potentially flat character by giving her emotional depth. If her transformation embodies a theme, it will also make my story more compelling because universal truths tend to resonate with readers. That’s why, this month, I plan to borrow March’s phrase to think about my story character’s transformation by using the following prompts.

In like a ...

  • What animal would my story character identify with at the beginning of the story? In what ways?
  • What animal might someone use to describe her at the midpoint? Why? What attributes is she exhibiting?
  • What animal would best describe her at the end of the story? Why?
  • How might I weave in attributes/behaviors from the above animals to metaphorically show my character’s behavior, insights, and state of mind at beginning, middle, and ending stages of transformation? 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The THREE Body Problem --- by Jane Kelley

Isaac Newton first described the three body problem in  his 1687 best-seller, Principia.  It is impossible to identify the movements of three massive bodies because of all the different gravitational attractions.

This is Newton's diagram in the Principia 'to find the force of the Sun to perturb the Moon.' 

Don’t you love the use of that word "perturb"? As if it were upsetting for our moon to be pulled in different directions by the gravity of both the earth and the sun. 

Could you predict a path for any of the bodies? No! And neither could anyone else.

What may seem like an embarrassing situation for physicists, is a gold mine for writers. 

Look at those possibilities! When you have three characters, your story can move in so many different directions. But remember that you can’t just put those bodies in your novel. You must make sure they have influence on each other. How much influence depends on how much weight you choose to give them.

For instance, take your standard romance. A and B fall in love. Pretty straightforward until you add character C. And then who knows where the story goes!

Actually in this case, there was a happy ending for my husband, our daughter, and me. 

But don't forget what Isaac Newton also said. “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.”

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Juggling in Threes by Deborah Lytton

When I decided to become a writer, it was because I love books and I love words. I thought my work would be all about writing. How very wrong I was! In fact, I have learned that there are three areas a writer must juggle, and all are equally important.

1. Writing. This is why we are writers. It is what we are driven to do. But sometimes we have to remember the other two areas that support this work and give them some attention.

2. Promotion. Promote your work and promote yourself. Some authors are genius at this. I truly admire them. Promotion is so important and so hard to do. Start with establishing your social media platform by blogging and commenting on other blogs or attending conferences and networking. It's about getting yourself out there in the writing world and connecting with other writers and readers.

3. Business. The business of being a writer is like office work. It involves queries to agents or publishers or creating a website or even preparing calling cards in the form of bookmarks or postcards. I find that making a list either on the computer or in a notebook (I'm old school) and then updating is the best way to keep track of these tasks.

If you are like me and your writing time is limited, you will have to find a way to balance all three of these things. All the writers I know find their own way of juggling. Some set schedules and some set goals. I do both. See what works for you. Happy writing!

Friday, March 3, 2017

Writing for Kids: The Rule of 3 + 1

print available for purchase here
One of the things I love best about being a writer is the endless learning curve. There is always ALWAYS something new to learn.

So perhaps you've heard of the Rule of 3 in writing. Plots should include three major events, with the 3rd being the climax. Speeches should include 3 major points. When in doubt, go with 3.

Well, here's a twist: this past October it was my good fortune to learn from acclaimed author really-nice-guy Bruce Coville. Among many other things, he shared with the group the Rule of 3 + 1, which is....

3 little pigs + the big bad wolf


3 examples + 1 over-the-top example, i.e. "he'd been poked, punched, called names, and hit in the face with a cupcake."

I challenge you today to find a way to use this in your writing!

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 and three poetry picture books, she was named the winner of the 2016 International Literary Association-Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award. Her latest book (co-written with Charles Waters) is CAN I TOUCH YOUR HAIR? Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship (Lerner, 2017).

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Easier Said Than Done by Ann Haywood Leal

It's that time of the year when I just want to march forward into Spring.  I want Spring.  I need Spring.  But even in my beloved home area of Seattle, where it almost never snows, it's refusing to be Spring.  
So goes it with writing.  You just want your draft to be done.  You want it to be finished and perfect and wonderful.  But you have to make yourself march forward.  Stomp right through that mess of first, second, and (yes, really!) third drafts and make it even better.  
But how in the world do you do that?  I've got other books to write, you might say.  I can't spend my precious writing time revising! 

And my answer to that would be, Yes.  Yes, you can. You can and should do both.  As difficult as it may be, put that second draft away for a couple of weeks.  And let it sit and simmer while you work on a new book.  Believe me, I know it's hard to do that.  Once you are done with that second draft, you are ready to turn it in.  After all, you've sunk some blood and guts into that draft.  It should be finished.  

But those of you who know me, know that I love a good challenge.  So I challenge you to wait a couple weeks . . .  then do that third draft.  I guarantee you that you will see your book with a fresh perspective, and your third draft will be sure to have a hint of Spring in it.