Sometimes, Silence Is Required

I’m in the midst of a difficult revision. Difficult, because like many of you, I’m very distracted by the world’s goings-on. And difficult also because I’ve been challenged to amp up the work with this next draft. To go deeper, exploring characters and theme more fully, and adding tension to that dreaded middle.

I’m not complaining about the challenges, mind you. I want to write the best possible novel, one that expresses my most profound feelings – and those of my characters – while saying things that need to be said, all without didacticism or obviousness or shouting from the platform.

As agent/author Donald Maass has written so eloquently, authors are responsible for crafting books that uphold basic principles of honesty, compassion, and hope. This is especially true, I think, for those of us who write for children. So my so-called message cannot feel like a message, yet must convey those principles through subtext and character behavior all while my story grabs the reader and yanks her along with energy, mystery, and surprise.

I’m one of those writers who has to write every day. If I don’t put words on paper I feel like I’ve dropped the ball. But sometimes, in trying to write the best words, silence is required.

Sometimes it’s necessary to step back and not write. To just let the thinking happen without the effort. To ask my subconscious to work while I dream, or to doodle and noodle until the ideas pop.

Walking is very good for this. So is gardening, I find, and in the winter, knitting or making music or sketching. Sometimes travel helps. And sometimes, just sitting and staring into the distance – that thing I find hard to do. I’ve been doing all of these, trying to get everything to gel, knowing from past experience that once it does, the writing will come fast and furious.

It’s very difficult, this stepping into silence, especially right now. So forgive me if I do go silent for a bit while I noodle and doodle. I hope that the rewards of this silence will be great.

A Teacher/Librarian Lesson Plan Tool Kit

As a former middle school and high school teacher, I know how valuable simple tool kits are – especially tool kits that provide a lesson plan that’s fun, engaging, and informative. That’s one huge reason why I partnered with Curious City to create a website for THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE that includes an event kit for librarians to help teach library search skills.lesson

Curious City has gone one step further in helping teachers and librarians by creating a month-by-month programming guide to all the specialized holidays and events you can imagine.

For example, if you are looking for something new to celebrate Black History Month, you can check out 28 Days: Audio Performances Promote African American History and Words as Freedom: Poetry Workshop Based on Don Tate’s Poet

There’s something for everyone in this wonderful new aid to teaching.

Now…I’m off to the Olympic National Park to research my latest project!

“How Can I Get Published?”

The number one question would-be and new-be children’s book authors ask authors like me is (no surprise) “How do I get my work published?” I understand, because I asked the same question when I was just starting out.

Here’s the thing: the publishing industry is a bit of a different animal than most. There’s no “shark tank”, no product application, no routine “I’ve got this idea” pitch forum. You can’t just walk into a publishing house and ask to meet Editor So-and-so. If you want to be published by a traditional house, whether one of the big five New York houses or one of the myriad smaller presses, there are certain ways to approach the business today.

The publishing industry has changed substantially since I began writing. For one thing, if you don’t want to work within the traditional industry, it’s very easy today to self-publish. I’m not going to discuss self-publishing here because there are plenty of other resources out there (and here’s just one I recommend.)

Today, many traditional publishing houses and editors are closed to unsolicited submissions. Some are still open, but you must know which ones and what their submission requirements are. Many prefer email submissions; some have reverted to hard-copy with SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) submissions. Some accept queries only. Some accept queries and the first ten pages or three chapters. Some want the entire manuscript.

And many houses are closed, which means you must first find an agent to represent your work, which is just as difficult as finding a publisher.

If you want to become a traditionally published children’s author, here is what I can recommend.

(Note: I’m making one assumption here. You have already studied the craft of writing, and polished your manuscript to a high shine. You’ve vetted your work with critique partners. In other words, you’re not submitting your first draft, because that’s a waste of your time and energy. For more on writing craft see this page, and my previous blog post.)

  • The primary resource for information on the publishing industry in the children’s field is the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). If you are at all serious about being published, you should join. They provide mountains of information, including details about agents and editors and what they publish, how to submit, and who they represent. On a personal note, I would not be published today without SCBWI, and have been involved in the organization since my early writing days.
  • You can meet editors and agents at writing conferences or workshops, and those may be places where you can formally pitch, be formally critiqued, or be given the ability to send a query letter later. (But please – no unsolicited pitches during conferences. That is frowned on, big time.)
  • Having a paid critique from an author at a conference or other venue can be just as fruitful as meeting an editor or agent. An author can open doors for you if they think your work is ready. (However – asking an established author for a referral is only appropriate if you know that author very well, and if they have read your work, and if they have encouraged you to request a referral. It is not appropriate to request either a reading or a referral from someone you don’t know or barely know and who hasn’t read your work.)

Here are some further resources:

  • AgentQuery.com. About 1,000 agent listings and an excellent community/resource for any writer going through the query process.
  • QueryTracker.net. About 200 publisher listings and 1,000 agent listings.
  • WritersMarket.com. About 400 to 600 agent listings. $5.99/month subscription fee.
  • Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog is also an excellent resource for news and views related to literary agents.
  • http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/
  • http://aaronline.org/ A professional organization of over 400 agents who work with both book authors and playwrights. Members must meet the highest standards and subscribe to the Canon of Ethics.

Questions?

New Craft Books For Writers

Lately I’ve discovered some new writing craft books that have become staples of my reference shelf. I wanted to share my impressions of these recent releases, so I hope you enjoy.craft

THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF FICTION: HOW TO WRITE THE STORY BENEATH THE SURFACE, by Donald Maass (Writer’s Digest Books, 2016). I’ve long been a Donald Maass fan, and pretty much use every one of his craft books repeatedly, but this newest release is absolutely stellar. As usual, Maass sprinkles his essays liberally with exercises that can be applied to your work in progress. But the most important aspect of this newest work is that rather than dealing with the architecture of story-telling (i.e., plot, pacing, character, voice, etc.) Maass tackles the nebulous yet essential emotional journey the writer must invoke in the reader. I’ve long been a fan of brain science and have read a number of articles on the importance of story-telling to us humans, but this is the first time I’ve read a craft book that tackles the “how-to” of invoking our reader’s deepest emotions and tapping into our primal story-loving needs.

STORY GENIUS: HOW TO USE BRAIN SCIENCE TO GO BEYOND OUTLINING AND WRITE A RIVETING NOVEL, by Lisa Cron (Ten Speed Press, 2016). And speaking of brain science and story-telling…I read these two books back to back. They are a marriage made in heaven. It’s almost as if Cron and Maass were channeling one another. The difference is that Cron – who also plants exercises throughout – first taps into the character’s emotional journey through life and how that applies directly to her story, and then, in the second half of the book, delivers a very specific template for crafting a first draft based on the emotional path of the character. For me, the second half of this book didn’t work because I’m a die-hard pantser and abhor any boxed-in template. But the first half is dynamite. And if you like planning and outlining, you may love the second half, too.

THE HERO IS YOU: SHARPEN YOUR FOCUS, CONQUER YOUR DEMONS, AND BECOcraftME THE WRITER YOU WERE BORN TO BE, by Kendra Levin (Conari Press, 2016). Full disclosure: Kendra is my editor at Viking Children’s. I totally love this book. And…surprise! It’s another book about how the brain works and how we writers must harness our individual emotions as the heroes of our own journeys. Kendra has also created numerous exercises to help writers cope with those ever-present nay-saying internal demons, and her research and anecdotal examples are fascinating. Kendra is also a certified life coach and I’ve participated in a coaching workshop with her, and if you are a writer – or any artist – who is struggling with self-doubt or fear, I recommend both this book and her coaching.

And one that I’m looking forward to….

THE MAGIC WORDS, by Cheryl Klein (W.W.Norton, 2016). I’m a fan of Klein’s SECOND SIGHT, so I’ve just put this one on order. When I heard Klein’s lecture at last year’s New York SCBWI conference, I came away with pages of notes. I’ll let you know what I think!

What about you – do you have any recommendations for new craft books?

Announcing A New Deal!

A new book deal for me!

Here’s the deal announcement from PW Children’s Weekly:

“Kendra Levin at Viking has signed Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle author Janet Fox‘s second middle-grade novel, The Last True Knight. Edwina, living in Elizabethan England, sets out to find her kidnapped older brother and avenge her father’s murder while disguised as a boy, accompanied by an aging knight whose magical stories not only presage the obstacles they face but hint at larger mysteries. Publication is set for fall 2018; Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency did the deal for world rights.”

And here’s my own version of the novel, which I kind of think is more fun:

THE LAST TRUE KNIGHT addresses alternative facts and gender identity in a magical Elizabethan England.

This is a story I’m deeply proud of and hope will touch your hearts. No, it isn’t a sequel to THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE. But don’t lose faith.

I’m so excited to share with you all!

Get Organized For Teachers!

This week, in a continuation of my focus on getting organized for the new year, I have some tips for teachers to share with you. And please do enter the grand giveaway for a classroom set of GET ORGANIZED WITHOUT LOSING IT, and more!

Here again is what the giveaway contains:

  • a complete classroom set of copies (25 copies total) of GET ORGANIZED WITHOUT LOSING IT
  • a hard copy print-out set of each of the reproducible worksheets
  • a hard copy print-out of the Activity Guide written by Deb Gonzales
  • a free fifteen-minute Skype visit to your classroom, grades 5-7

I’ve been a teacher, and I’ve seen students who have a hard time in school simply because they’re not organized. I’ve tried to work a few lessons into my schedule to teach some basic organizing skills. Here are some ideas for you, especially if you teach grades 4 through 7:

  • Most kids have no clue where their free time goes. They wonder why they can’t get homework done. Have students keep a record of their after-school activities and time spent on each for a day or two. Have them share any insights with classmates (there’s always a surprise or two!)
  • Does your school use a planner? If so:
    • Schedule a “planner walk-through” early in the school year. Students need to feel comfortable with their planners, and be able to customize them. Little things make a difference: “Do I write my homework on the day it’s due or the day I do it?” Show them how to clip pages to mark the current week.
  • If your school doesn’t have a planner:
    • Before entering middle school, kids need to learn how to manage their time. Teach “time awareness” by having them estimate how long something takes, then compare how long it actually takes.
  • You may already have a classroom cleanup time. I recommend that students clean up their desks, backpacks and binders, too. Guide them in this exercise to avoid the “dog ate my homework” look.
  • Give students interim deadlines on projects to teach long-term planning. Make sure they write these deadlines in their planners, with a clear path to their final goal.

And here’s a link to a pdf file of a long-term planner that you can share with your students. Be sure to enter the contest, and best of luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Get Organized For Parents!

Continuing with the giveaway I posted about last week (a classroom set of GET ORGANIZED WITHOUT LOSING IT, plus so much more…), this week some tips for parents who want to help their kids.

And parents, if you would like to enter the contest on behalf of your child’s teacher or librarian, feel free. (I do want this giveaway to go to a school classroom.)

As a parent, I can sympathize if you have a disorganized child! Except for the rare kid born with an “organization gene”, organizational skills are learned. Here are some ideas for you:

 

  • Early in the school year, help your child put together a binder, with dividers for each subject. During the year, help your child file papers, gradually allowing him independence.
  • Find a file box to keep at home, so that as your child collects papers the older stuff can be moved from the binder to the file box. Keep the papers only so long as they are useful (for tests).
  • Help your child set up a home study space. If the only space is the kitchen table, use storage boxes to hold things your child needs every day, like pencils, paper, a ruler, etc. Then the table can be cleaned off for dinner! Try to maintain quiet (no TV, no computer) while your child studies.
  • Make sure your child studies at the same time every day. This way homework becomes a habit, and homework struggles are reduced. Have your child read if she doesn’t have homework.
  • Let your child take a brain break from homework every 20 to 30 minutes. Make sure that he has a healthy snack after school and before homework, so that he can keep going.
  • Homework is important, and your child should study for at least 10 minutes per grade (i.e., 30 minutes in 3rd grade, and so on). By middle school, extra time will probably be required.
  • Get everything ready for school the night before. This will reduce the early morning tendency to forget something important.

Also, you’ll find a downloadable pdf file of my “after-school schedule” here. I hope you find it useful.

Here again is the giveaway form, and best of luck!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Get Organized!

January is the month to Get Organized!

My first book, in print since 2006 from Free Spirit Publishing, with over 60,000 copies sold and available in eight languages, is still helping middle grade kids get organized. With downloadable worksheets, helpful suggestions, various strategies, and humorous anecdotes, GET ORGANIZED WITHOUT LOSING IT has garnered praise from kids, teachers, and parents.

get organized

Get Organized giveaway pack

I wrote it because my own son suffered from ADD and dyslexia and the book emerged from the strategies I found to help him. (Mom pride moment: he is now on his way to a writing career.)

To celebrate my book’s decade-long (and ongoing) life, I’m offering a big give-away to any teacher or librarian. Here’s what’s in the giveaway:

 

 

  • a complete classroom set of copies (25 copies total) of GET ORGANIZED WITHOUT LOSING IT
  • a hard copy print-out set of each of the reproducible worksheets
  • a hard copy print-out of the Activity Guide written by Deb Gonzales
  • a free fifteen-minute Skype visit to your classroom, grades 5-7

If you are a teacher or librarian of upper elementary or middle school grades, enter the giveaway below. Please note: only available to teachers/librarians currently employed in any school in the U.S.; contest is open until January 31.

The winner will be announced January 31. Good luck!!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Pearl

Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what motivates a protagonist to action. Lisa Cron, in her terrific craft book STORY GENIUS, describes what she calls the character’s “misbelief” – a belief that has been the source of much agony for the character. Others refer to this characteristic as a “back-story wound”, or a “fatal flaw”, but I love the idea of a misbelief that results from perhaps a single defining moment in someone’s past.

I love it primarily because it answers the question, “Why did you do that? Why do you feel that?”

And it can stem from something startlingly simple and innocent.

Today I heard a story on NPR that, in my opinion, describes a perfect, quietly tragic moment that I imagine resulted in a terrible, defining misbelief.iceberg-copy

The story (you can read it in its entirety here) was told by 94-year-old oncologist Joseph Linsk. When he was a young boy, running across the playground, his arms flailing, he knocked the eyeglasses off a classmate, and the glasses broke. The classmate burst into tears and said that it would cost two dollars to repair them, and where could he get two dollars? He was going to tell his father, and get Joseph into real trouble.

Joseph had no idea where he’d get two dollars either, but he was scared to death that the other boy’s father would call his parents.

At the time, his mother had a housekeeper named Pearl, who earned two dollars a week. Joseph saw the two dollars waiting for Pearl at the end of the day, and he took them from the counter, gave them to his teacher, and settled the matter of the glasses.

What wasn’t settled was the matter of Pearl. When she asked where her two dollars had gone, Joseph’s mother accused Pearl of lying, of taking and hiding the money herself, and fired her on the spot, leaving her, a mother, jobless.

Joseph hid the story from everyone for 80 years.

Now imagine the guilt Joseph lived with. His shame. His knowledge that perhaps Pearl’s children went hungry that week and for a long time after. His awareness that Pearl, branded a thief, was unable to get another job without a good referral. What would that guilt and shame have done to Joseph? What decisions did he make throughout his life that reflected his sickening memory? Did he stand up for himself in tough times, or did he cower? Did he try to make up for his transgression by becoming selfless, or did he toughen against those in need?

The fact that he became an oncologist may answer some of these questions, but the deeper issue raises new ones. And if I were writing his story, I’d be asking them. Because that incident, recited in a halting voice brimming with emotion, clearly colored who he became.

And where did this terrible, life-long, tragic feeling begin?

A child ran across a playground.

Be Kind

When my son was younger I told him that he should keep two words in mind as he went out in the world: be nice.

Now I would change those words to be kind.

There’s nothing wrong with nice. My mother would have used the word correct. (Which is one reason I’ve come to dislike the term politically correct, since there should be nothing political about correct/nice/appropriate behavior.)kindness

But kind, now, means more to me than just correct. Kind means heartfelt. It means selfless. It means love in the most brotherly of terms. It means feeling empathy for others. It means more of what we need as the community of human souls, especially right now.

In tribute to kindness and in the spirit of the season, I’d like to offer some gift suggestions that honor kindness and foster empathy. These suggestions not surprisingly have something to do with books and reading, since not only is that my thing, but also because I believe that through reading and education do we grow in kindness and empathy.

There are many more books than I have room to cite so please add your favorites in the comments – especially for teen readers.Gandhi

For the youngest readers:

Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught The World About Kindness, by Donna Janell Bowman, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee & Low Books, 2016). A Horse that can read, write, and do math? Ridiculous! That’s what people thought until former slave and self-taught veterinarian Dr. William Key, with his “educated” horse Beautiful Jim Key, proved that, with kindness, anything is possible. Over nine years of exhibiting across the country, Doc and “Jim” broke racial barriers, fueled the humane movement, and inspired millions of people to step right up and choose kindness.

Grandfather Gandhi, by Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Evan Turk (Atheneum Books For Young Readers, 2015). Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson tells the story of how his grandfather taught him to turn darkness into light in this uniquely personal and vibrantly illustrated tale that carries a message of peace.download

For middle grade readers:

A Long Walk To Water, by Linda Sue Park (Clarion Books, 2010). Before leaving Africa, Salva’s life is one of harrowing tragedy. Separated from his family by war and forced to travel on foot through hundreds of miles of hostile territory, he survives starvation, animal attacks, and disease, and ultimately leads a group of about 150 boys to safety in Kenya. Relocated to upstate New York, Salva resourcefully learns English and continues on to college. Eventually he returns to his home region in southern Sudan to establish a foundation that installs deep-water wells in remote villages in dire need of clean water. This poignant story of Salva’s life is told side-by-side with the story of Nya, a young girl who lives today in one of those villages. (Be sure to check out the many generous actions taken by classrooms that have read this book.)the-seeds-of-america-trilogy-9781481486781_lg

The Seeds of America Trilogy, by Laurie Halse Anderson (Simon & Schuster, 2016). It’s 1776 and Isabel, Curzon, and Ruth have only ever known life as slaves. But now the young country of America is in turmoil—there are whisperings, then cries, of freedom from England spreading like fire, and with it is a whole new type of danger. For freedom being fought for one isn’t necessarily freedom being fought for all…especially if you are a slave. But if an entire nation can seek its freedom, why can’t they?

For teen readers:

Challenger Deep, by Neil Shusterman (HarperCollins, 2015). Challenger Deep is an astonishing artistic achievement. In high school student Caden Bosch, Neal Shusterman has created a young hero who finds a way not just to navigate his own schizophrenic breakdown but to ease the struggles of his fellow patients. Poetic, compassionate, and thrillingly inventive, Challenger Deep affirms the power of narrative to describe the indescribable and enlighten us all.download-2

For adults:

I recommend a contribution to We Need Diverse Books.

Their mission: “We Need Diverse Books™ is a grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.”

Please add any suggestions!wndb_button