Friday, September 29, 2017

Sketching For Writers Who Can't Draw...

Character Sketches – For Writers Who Can’t Draw

            I can draw – stick figures. Simple smiley faces. A house with clouds, like a five-year-old. When it comes to writing, I have to use anything other than drawing to sketch my characters. Many authors use the method below to help them get to know their characters. I find this also works great when I’m stuck on a plot point, or a dialogue scene or simply if my character would like sushi.
            The first thing I do when a character has introduced them self to me (in my head), is ask what they look like. Currently, I’m working on a horror short story where there’s a female doctor. She told me she’s Pacific Islander, so I hunted through Google Images for Pacific Islander people. I found a person whom I feel Dr. Sefina Mai looks like. (I add the pic to my sketch, but I can’t reproduce here without paying a royalty fee.)
            Now that I see her face, I can describe her wavy dark tresses, her eyes as brown as sable, and the wide set of noble cheekbones, but is that a small scar I see across her forehead from a rock thrown by a friend?
            Next, I ask her a few personal questions. What’s her favorite hobby? Is she interested in someone? Does she hate snakes like me? What’s her favorite food? Color? Movie? What is her biggest wish- and her greatest fear?
            While she talks, I make notes on her not-so-nice features and what’s she’s not telling me. She’s impatient. I know that from the one-word answers to the jiggling foot. Her eyes constantly seek out the clock. Apparently fashion isn’t a must for her; she’s wearing basic black pants, a white shirt that’s slightly gray and worn in the elbows, and black shoes that are too scuffed. Is that a bit of toe peeking out? Not really the professional outfit a doctor on the cusp of a revolutionary medical breakthrough should be seen wearing. She’s terribly blunt, too- “I have to get back to my lab. Hurry up.” I joke that I’m her Creator and can take as much time as I like. She snorts; she has no sense of humor, either.
            The last info I need from her are age, place of birth, education, where does she live now, any friends? Enemies?
            Having all the basics, I make what they call in the business a One Sheet (authors use this a a basic this-is-who-I-am). I am now ready to write my story because I know Dr. Mai. Oh, she’ll still surprise me by making an unexpected joke, showing interest in someone when she should be focusing on her patient, or thinking about a regret she hasn’t shared with me. I know she will do something shocking, but she’s keeping her own counsel about it.
            This ‘sketch’ is like an illustrator's rough draft because it’s not complete and is subject to change, works well for all characters. Minor characters don’t have to be so detailed, like people in the background of a picture. I glance at each sketch before I start writing and refresh my memory of our little chat. By the time the story is polished and off to an editor, this sketch may be several pages long. Or her picture could change. Just remember to keep it short and punchy- no need to write a proper novel on your character. Here’s what Dr. Mai’s initial sketch looks like:

            Dr. Sefina Mai
·         Born on island of Guam (Pacific Islander).
·         38 years old.
·         Single.
·         Medical doctor specializing in reconstructive surgery. Researching regeneration. Works out of own private lab which is funded by small surgical practice.
·         Lives in a small stone cottage outside the city.
·         No pets, no children, no husband or partner.
·         Her work, her research, is her passion. It consumes all her money, time, and attention. If she could just perfect her serum, she’d change millions of lives, but she refuses to be chained to a university, a pharmaceutical company, or the medical board. She will not be hindered by bureaucracy, politics, money, or her hypocritically moral colleagues.
·         She dresses basically; black pants, white shirt, to avoid wasting time thinking about what to wear. Her shoes are scuffed and she will have to take the time to replace them. There’s a hole in the left one, near her big toe, which will allow snow in.
·         Food is food, whatever is available and doesn’t take time away from her work, but that take-out in the fridge is green-and growing. Probably not good to eat, it must be old.
·         Her surgical practice is small, and not very fancy, but it’s steady. She tries to help those who are most desperate, those needing a facial or body reconstruction because of accident, illness, or injury.
·         Meeting Mr. Stein will change the course of her life- and death.
            A sketch supplies authors with a firm base to start from. Whether you’re writing middle grade or young adult (instead of job, list school, sports played, clubs/religion a part of, etc.) or even adult, fiction or non-fic, it’s a quick reference when you stop to think, ‘What would my character do?’ Refer to the sketch and you’ll likely get the answer. And with NaNoWriMo coming up (National Novel Writing Month in November), this is a good way to get a handle on the characters before you get stuck because you don’t know how they would react, or you have to think what color eyes you gave them, etc. You don't have to use all the information, but it's there in case you need it.

            So happy sketching! 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Introducing Dusti Bowling

I’m so excited to be joining the lovely and talented folks here at Smack Dab in the Middle. It was middle grade literature that truly awakened my love of reading as a child, and I couldn’t be more thrilled that I now get to write middle grade stories for children (and many grown-ups, too!).

I was in second grade when my parents divorced. The stories I read during that time and the years afterward were my friends, my escape, and my therapy. They were my windows into other worlds and times far, far away from my pain. They brought me great comfort, and I think I enjoy writing middle grade so much now because I can vividly recall those feelings and tap into them. 

I didn’t always know I wanted to write middle grade. I started out writing chapter and picture books that are currently hidden away. I then tried my hand at some young adult stories, which I self published with a bit of success. While I enjoyed writing young adult, I never felt the connection to it that I feel with middle grade. As soon as I wrote the first chapter of my first middle grade book, INSIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS, I knew I had found my truest writing voice. There’s something really special about middle grade literature, about that time in our lives when we’re learning so many new things about the world and who we are as people. When so many changes are happening within us, and even though we’re on the brink of young adulthood, it’s still okay to be silly. It is a time of great hope, when anything is possible.

I currently live in Arizona with my husband and three daughters. I do my best to find snippets of writing time in between homeschooling, cooking, swimming, and enjoying the outdoors when it’s not over a hundred degrees outside. Despite the heat, I have a passionate love for the Arizona desert, which has inspired the settings in both INSIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS and my next middle grade novel (releasing in 2018), TWENTY-FOUR HOURS IN NOWHERE.

I am so grateful for this journey I’m on, for the amazing people I’ve met, and for the incredible people I get to work with. I’m excited to share my love of middle grade literature on Smack Dab in the Middle, and I hope to create many more stories to share with the world.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017


I (Holly Schindler, blog administrator) was delighted to get a chance to chat recently with Roxie Monro, an artist and illustrator for a wide swath of ages. Here, she gives us some insights into her creative process, the business side of art, and even lets us take a peek at her work station:

You’ve had some amazing accomplishments as an artist—including making the cover of THE NEW YORKER! Many of us at Smack Dab are familiar with the submission process for fiction; how is the process different or similar for artwork?

It’s been a long time since I’ve submitted, but I don’t think the process has changed much, except for the fact that when I got accepted, there was one art editor…Lee Lorenz. He chose (with the New Yorker’s editor at the time) cartoons, spots, covers – all the art. Now there are several different editors for cartoons, spots/illustration, photography, and covers. I began by submitting spots and was immediately accepted. Contributed them for several years; I was living in Washington DC at the time and took the train up to New York City a few times a year. I was so lucky – a couple years later I submitted two cover paintings, and they bought one right away. I immediately moved to NYC. I did not know a single person in the city. I soon made friends, though, with other cartoonists and artists.

In addition to being an artist, you’re also a writer. What brought you to the world of children’s books?

I’d been in NYC for a couple years and was trying to make a living freelancing and doing fine art. I constantly walked the city, feasting on the city life, the tall buildings, and busy streets. I decided to try to do adult book jacket covers – maybe city scenes. One day an art director suggested I see a children’s book editor she knew. I snippily said, “I don’t do cute; I don’t do bunnies and bears,” but, needing the work, I made the appointment with Donna Brooks at Dodd Mead (later Dutton Children’s Books). She said, “I think you have something to offer children. Call me if you get an idea.” One week later, waking up at 7AM, before my closed eyes I saw, in red capital letters against the black of sleep, “The Inside-Outside Book of New York City.” I called her up and said I had a title, but no idea if it was a book. I knew nothing about page turn, what the gutter was, how many pages are in a standard book, trim size – nothing. Regarding writing, I had qualified for Honors English in college and written a couple newspaper articles, but that was it. But I did the book, and it went on to win the NY Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book Award and was on Time magazine’s Best of the Year List. So, I figured I’d stick with doing kid’s books. ;-))

What’s your process as a children’s illustrator? What comes first—the story, which you then illustrate, or do you complete several illustrative pieces and then tie them together with a narrative thread?

The latter, more or less. I’m a “visual thinker.” After I get an idea or a concept, I’ll do a few sketches, and then a simple storyboard and dummy. That’s what I present with the proposal to my editor, not the actual picture book manuscript. Then I do research, refine the sketches, and do the art. I do not write the text until the art is completely done. Kind of the reverse of the way most editors prefer.

What are your favorite illustration tools? (Do you rely primarily on traditional media? Have any favorite brushes, pencils, etc.? If digital, what are your favorite programs, drawing tablets, etc.?)
I don’t do digital art. I think there are basically two kinds of illustrators. Some, like my buddy Paul Zelinsky, may use a completely different media with each book – sometimes oil in a classical painting style, or maybe a cartoon-y method, with pastels or colored pencils, or sometimes he goes digital. I am the opposite. I use one favorite type of paper, colored inks, one familiar line thickness with my trusty Radiograph. I want to know my media thoroughly, so that my brain power doesn’t go into trying to figure out new materials. To paraphrase Flaubert: “… be regular and orderly in life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” I save experimentation not for different media, but for the idea, the compositions, color, pattern. The Horn Book said of my latest book Masterpiece Mix: “Like so many of Munro’s books, this one is hard to categorize.” I liked that.

Any pictures you can show us of an illustration in various stages of completion?

Here’s some work from my drawing table making Masterpiece Mix.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give anyone looking to make a living as an artist or illustrator?

Develop your own style (which evolves over time) and don’t worry about what’s trendy….to thine own self be true.

What can we look forward to next?

I have a book coming out in February called Rodent Rascals. The device is that all the rodents are shown actual size, which can get tricky because some critters, like the capybara, grow the size of a really large dog, so its whole body can’t fit on a page. Am waiting confirmation on another idea - a paper-engineered book. Like many of my books, this one is interactive and has an element of “gamification.” It’s a lot of work – I’ve done four moveable books, and did the engineering myself, which is hard and a real learning curve. But it’s fun!

Thank you, Roxie, for taking the time to talk with us! And please be sure to continue to keep up with Roxie online: 

Monday, September 25, 2017


I’ll be honest. At first, I wasn’t much of a fan. In fact, in the beginning, this particular professor drove me crazy. 

His name was Dr. B., and I had him for Intro to Literary Criticism. First semester of my sophomore year of college. 

And the first paper I wrote for him, I got a big fat “C.” 

I was not used to “C”s in any class really—especially not English. But I visited him in his office. We discussed the paper. I rewrote it. 

I improved. I got a “B” on the rewrite.

I wrote another paper.


The guy, in a word, was tough. Unrelentingly.

I went back to his office. I discussed. I rewrote.

I'll admit it—I cussed a lot, too.

And then, after a few weeks, things really started to click. I started to understand what he was asking me to do. I wrote a feminist paper on The Scarlet Letter, and the first draft of it made him cock his head and say, “I never thought about that before.”

On the final version of that paper, he wrote, “This is a dandy of an essay.” 

I had that thing on the fridge till it crumbled off.

In short, I worked my tail off for Dr. B. I came away with my precious “A” for the course. But I came away with far more than that. I came away with a solid feeling for what literary criticism was. I came away with—get this—loving teachers who were tough. Because, as I found out, there was nothing quite so satisfying as meeting their high expectations. 

I took three more courses with Dr. B.—undergrad and grad level. While I was still in school, I wound up getting a short critical piece on a Howard Nemerov poem published in The Explicator, which I was sure to share with him. 

He asked for a copy to keep. When I handed it to him, he told me, “I’m going to get to point to a big published work someday and say, ‘She was in my class.’” 

I was on cloud nine.

It took several years after leaving college to sell my first novel. When I did, I immediately thought of Dr. B. But when I looked him up, I was saddened to learn that he had passed away just a few months earlier.

The thing is, though, the more time passes and the more I find myself having to rise to new challenges and forge ahead, I think of what I learned from Dr. B., and I know that the truth of the matter is, I'm the one who gets to say, “I was in his class.”

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Fear of Imagination: Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun

“You have an overactive imagination.” 

This is a judgment people with less imagination make on those with more imagination—usually adults to children. Here is what these adults are really saying:

I don’t understand your imagination. I can’t contain it. Having so much imagination is not normal. So STOP! Squash your imagination. Turn it off. Because it FRIGHTENS me.

In our over-rational world, an abundant imagination is not only considered to be of little value, but also considered to be dangerous.

Children hearing such messages can become frightened of their own imaginations. This fills me with sadness, and a sense of waste. We think the problems of our world will be solved solely by technology. By the exercise of our rational minds. Look around! Can you honestly say that our single-minded reliance on one function of our brain hasn’t led us to the brink of social and ecological disaster?

We need imagination so desperately now. We need it in abundance, streaming out from us like stars to create paths forward we cannot yet see. We need to encourage imagination, not only in children, but in everyone. So turn on imagination everywhere you find it. Fan it into a flame.

But the most important thing we need to do is look into ourselves and ask: Why does imagination frighten me? Why do the imaginations of children frighten me? And more pointedly, how does my own imagination frighten me?

Then we will have a place to begin.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Read Aloud - A Favorite for Everyone

So who remembers coming in from lunch recess all hot and sweaty, getting a nice long drink at the water fountain, and then putting your head down on your desk in anticipation of the next chapter of the class read aloud?  This is the setting of some of my fondest book memories.  Not only was it a wonderful and relaxing way to transition into whatever we happened to be doing in class later that afternoon, but it was such an amazing way to experience a story.  Whether it was one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books or Island of the Blue Dolphins, I still remember closing my eyes and picturing what was happening in the story as my teacher read aloud. 

Those are my childhood read aloud memories, but I also have teacher read aloud memories.  When I got my first teaching job, one of the things I looked forward to most was the opportunity to pass along that read aloud experience to my students.  Choosing what books I would read to my classes was great fun for me.  And I have to confess, there may have been more than a few times during my thirteen years of teaching third grade that my read aloud time went a little longer than it should have.  But what is a teacher to do when her students beg her to read just one more chapter?  😏   Having the entire class experience the same story at the same time was such a pleasure to watch.

Now that I'm an author, I have a third kind of read aloud experience.  It's when teachers tell me how much they enjoy reading one of my books as a read aloud.  I never dreamed when I was that sweaty-haired kid listening to my teacher read to the class that I would one day write a book that kids would listen to at read aloud time, and I never imagined when I was a teacher reading my favorite books to my students that I would one day have teachers tell me that they read my book to their students.  It's really one of the greatest compliments I get as an author.

So, why write about read alouds during "back-to-school" time?  It's a great time to reminisce with those who have their own great read aloud memories.  And it's a perfect time to remind teachers just what an impact classroom read aloud time can make in a student's life.  There are so many ways to enjoy books, and I think classroom read alouds can be one of the very best!

Happy Reading Aloud,
Nancy J. Cavanaugh

A few of my read aloud favorites

Nancy J. Cavanaugh

Nancy is the award-winning author of This Journal Belongs to Ratchet, Always, Abigail, Just Like Me, and Elsie Mae Has Something to Say.  Nancy is a former elementary and middle school teacher as well as a school librarian.  One of her favorite parts of writing for children is being able to say, “I’m working” when reading middle grade novels.  Nancy enjoys visiting schools and sharing her love of writing with students.  She also enjoys sharing her expertise about writing and children’s literature with teachers and librarians.  Besides reading and writing, Nancy loves eating pizza in her hometown of Chicago.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Introducing Author A.M. Bostwick

I am so excited to be a part of this lovely blog! Middle Grade literature includes some of the earliest stories that drew me into books as a child, and inspired my love of writing. I’m looking forward to celebrating it here on Smack Dab in the Middle with all of these other amazing authors! I’d like to use my first post to introduce myself.

September for me always marks a new beginning. Perhaps it goes back to those late summer, early fall days with the start of school. Fresh sharp pencils, crisp clean paper and breaking the spines on new books. Each year, I try to mark out my map for the next 12 months of writing. Whether I’m editing, querying or writing, there never seems to be enough time in a day. And the months that follow are never as neat as I’ve outlined them on paper. Life as an author tends to have a lot of plot twists!

Later this year, I hope to continue to writing in my Middle Grade series, Ace the Cat. Ace is a mystery-solving feline. The books are told from his point of view – all on four legs. In my debut of The Great Cat Nap with Cornerstone Press (University of Wisconsin) in 2013, Ace investigates a cat-napping. The novel went on to earn the Wisconsin Council for Writers Tofte-Wright Children’s Literature Award in 2014.

I followed up in The Clawed Monet with Torque Press in 2016. Ace is sent on a new case to solve the mystery of a destroyed painting at the local art museum.

In my third Ace the Cat novel, I have a rough outline yet no clear direction of where it’s going to end. I’m typically a chronic plotter – not a pantser, as they say. I prefer to at least see where my headlights are going in the dark, but I must admit, this novel isn’t cooperating!

I also have one Young Adult novel in print, Break the Spell, which arrived on shelves in 2015. I continue to write Young Adult as well as Middle Grade. I’m constantly inspired by other authors, such as the ones on this blog, who have pursed their art for so many years and continue to break boundaries and push the limits in literature. I’ve met so many other great writers, aspiring and published, as well as incredible teachers, librarians, young readers and parents. It’s an ever-changing world in publishing, and I’m always thrilled to be a part of the web that connects us via the written word.

Besides being a writer and bookworm, I am a cat and nature lover. I live in the Northwoods of Wisconsin where I adore the changing of every season. I also am a firm believer that chocolate helps me write more proficiently. Luckily, I like to walk in the woods no matter the weather.

Thanks for reading and I can’t wait to get to know you all better!
You can find me at, and @bostwickam.

My novels:


Monday, September 18, 2017

The Writing Lesson I Never Forgot: Write with Kindness

During my entire long career as a writer, I took only one creative writing course, during my junior year in high school. At the time I found it a somewhat painful experience because the teacher committed an unpardonable sin: he preferred my one-year-younger sister to me. Not that we were in the same class, or that he ever showed partiality in any overt or biased way. But I knew the two of them had a special closeness; he remains her favorite teacher, and I suspect she remains his favorite student, to this day. And, in that terrible way siblings can have of willfully claiming a part of the universe as their own, and shutting its doors against the other one, I was the writer, not her! I was the one he should have loved best.

But there's more. One of our assignments was to write a character sketch, and with the new-found cynicism of a sixteen-year-old, I wrote about our parents. I "saw through" them, documenting their disappointed dreams, timidity that blighted their lives, annoying eccentricities, even their middle-brow literary tastes (Readers Digest). I was proud of the piece, for how I had observed them so carefully and recorded my observations with such unflinching honesty. I expected that it would blow my teacher away. (Finally, he'd see how much better a writer I was than my sister).

He didn't like it.

He said it was impressively written in many ways, but that it wasn't kind.

The comment burned its way into my heart. I felt I had been judged negatively not only as a writer, but as a person. I actually gave up writing for a decade or so, focusing on the academic study of philosophy (many of the world's great philosophers weren't particularly kind).

But now I think that comment he gave me was so wise, so true, so totally right. It's not enough to see "through" our characters. We need to see "into" them. We need to understand not only how they are, but why they are this way. Clever observation needs to be deepened by compassionate understanding. Now I write about even my most flawed characters (who are usually my protagonists) with a kind of desperate love.

Decades later, when I read these words by Brenda Ueland in her wonderful 1938 manual, If You Want to Write, I finally realized exactly what Mr. Jaeger had been trying to tell me: "I have come to think that the only way to become a better writer is to become a better person."

Mr. Jaeger made me both.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Introducing Bobbi Miller

I’m so excited to be joining the Smack Dab in the Middle! With a background in American folklore, I write historical fiction middle grade, focusing on forgotten characters (usually girls, who are not represented enough) and events (because I think as a nation, we are historically illiterate and have forgotten our own story) that helped build the American landscape. I like the challenge of writing historical fiction.

History is literature, David McCullough says. The artistic nature of historical fiction presents several challenges, especially in books for children. Events must be “winnowed and sifted”, as Sheila Egoff explains, in order to create forward movement that leads to a resolution. Authors choose between which details to include, and exclude, and this choice is wholly dependent upon the character’s goal. More important, resolution rarely happens in history. The same with happy endings. Because of the culling process, critics often claim that historical fiction is inherently biased.

Yet, nothing about history is obvious, and facts are often open to interpretation. In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but he didn’t discover America. In fact (all puns intended), some would say he was less an explorer and more of a conqueror. History tends to be written by those who survived it. No history is without its bias. The meaning of history, just as it is for the novel, lays “not in the chain of events themselves, but on the historian’s [and writer’s] interpretation of it,” as Jill Paton Walsh once noted.

One hundred fifty one years ago, twelve thousand Confederate forces gathered along Seminary Ridge. Almost a mile away, at the end of an open field, a copse of trees marked the Union line standing firm on Cemetery Ridge. When the signal was given, the men marched across the field. The line had advanced less than two hundred yards when the federals sent shell after shell howling into their midst. Boom! Men fell legless, headless, armless, black with burns and red with blood. Still they marched on across that field.

As I was researching another book, I came across a small newspaper article dated from 1863. It told of a Union soldier on burial duty, following this Battle at Gettysburg, coming upon a shocking find: the body of a female Confederate soldier. It was shocking because she was disguised as a boy. At the time, everyone believed that girls were not strong enough to do any soldiering; they were too weak, too pure, too pious to be around roughhousing boys. It was against the law for girls to enlist. This girl carried no papers, so he could not identify her. She was buried in an unmarked grave. A Union general noted her presence at the bottom of his report, stating “one female (private) in rebel uniform.” The note became her epitaph. I decided I was going to write her story.

Some facts, such as dates of specific events, are fixed. We know, for example, that the Battle of Gettysburg occurred July 1 to July 3, in 1863. The interpretations of what happened over those three days remains a favorite in historical fiction. My interpretation of the battle, in Girls of Gettysburg (Holiday House, August 2014), featured three perspectives that are rare in these historical fiction depictions: the daughter of a free black living seven miles north from the Mason-Dixon line, the daughter of the well-to-do local merchant, and a girl disguised as a Confederate soldier. The plot weaves together the fates of these girls, a tapestry that reflects their humanity, heartache and heroism in a battle that ultimately defined a nation.

The literary process that defines historical fiction allows readers to connect emotionally to historical figures and events. It introduces readers to different points of view. As Tarry Lindquist (1995) said, historical fiction “puts people back into history.” While textbooks tend to underscore coverage, this lacks depth, and as a result, “individuals—no matter how famous or important—are reduced to a few sentences…Good historical fiction presents individuals as they are, neither good nor bad.”

Historical fiction helps young readers develop a feeling for a living past, illustrating the continuity of life, according to Karen Cushman. Historical fiction, “like all good history, demonstrates how history is made up of the decisions and actions of individuals and that the future will be made up of our decisions and actions.”

Historical fiction makes the facts matter to the reader. If I didn’t get the facts right, creating characters true to their time and place, the readers won’t care about the facts. For me, the only way to discover this emotional truth was to walk the battlefield of Gettysburg, and witness that landscape where my characters lived over one hundred and fifty years ago. Besides extensive reading, including scholarly pieces, diaries and journals , eyewitness accounts, military reports, I traveled to Gettysburg four times, walking the battlefield and talking to re-enactors and the park rangers.

History is story. And our history is full of amazing stories. That’s why I write historical fiction.

What's your favorite historical fiction?

Thank you for stopping by!

Bobbi Miller