On Shedding Light In Dark Corners

Lately I think we all have felt confronted (if not bludgeoned) by humanity’s darker nature. Between what we hear in the news to what we read online to the inexplicable horror of mass murder to the cruel taunting and trolling that pervades social media it’s hard to believe in pure human goodness.

As an author who writes for young readers I feel compelled to bring goodness into my stories. But in order to shed that light in dark corners, I have to portray the darkness, too. So, how does an author find balance? How do we write about hopelessness and evil without leaving our readers feeling hopeless and lost?

A couple of recent essays have spoken eloquently to these questions. First, in this analysis of what it means to read and write dark stories, Vaughn Roycroft says that his attraction to dark material has a limit, and that limit is drawn by whether the story is gratuitous in its treatment of dark behavior, or whether, as he puts it, “We can choose to provoke contemplation. We can choose to seek meaning, and to inspire our readers to seek their own.”

And in this post from Diane Magras, she explores what it means to write an antagonist who is nuanced enough to become good and a protagonist willing to accept that change. As she puts it, “growth comes from understanding, from exploring that which is different, and includes a willingness to change perspectives, to learn.”

The cover of my childhood Grimms’

Both of these authors have hit upon a central point in telling tales of darkness. As authors we must help readers seek meaning and understanding, and we should work to portray evil as not inevitable but mutable and subject to our willingness to reach across boundaries.

The old tales of the Brothers Grimm are truly dark, and evil behavior is usually rewarded by severe (often bloody) punishment. Good and evil are clearly distinguished. While I love those old tales, that strive to teach the benefits of humility and generosity, we live in an age of greater complexity. Both in literature and in life today the roles played by protagonists and antagonists are more fluid. Most readers would identify with the protagonist – the “good” guy – in a tale. But if we portray our antagonists as purely “bad” we miss the opportunity to, as it were, teach the benefits of understanding the other.

Understanding the other is, I believe, the way out of darkness. This is why movements like We Need Diverse Books are so important, and why addressing mental health issues with compassion is essential. Shedding light in dark corners is a matter of seeing clearly what we might otherwise wish to ignore or pass off as “bad”.

How should this impact our writing? I think we need to be aware of the limits of our personal perspectives and find beta readers who can help us expand those perspectives. But we also need to stretch to express those things that make us as humans fundamentally the same. We must confront the darkness by stepping inside it with open hearts.

And finally, and personally, no matter how dark my stories, I strive to leave my readers with a sense of hope and purpose, to give those readers a lamp to illuminate dark corners.

What about you? Do you read and/or write “dark” stories? How do you shed the light?


On Ethics

This blog post will stray a little bit from usual subjects and into current events but bear with me. Or don’t. That’s okay, too.

As an author of books for children – and as a mother, and a former teacher – I feel a particular responsibility toward representing ethical and moral behaviors. When I write I try to address subjects like cruelty, kindness, decision-making, loss, love, bullying, and so on, with the hope that kids who read my books will find answers to some of their questions, the kinds of questions they may not even be able to voice.

That’s my personal moral, ethical approach to my work.

David’s “Death of Socrates”

But sometimes it’s important to pause and ask, what does that mean? What is the ethically and morally right thing to do in any given situation?

Some things are ethically ambiguous, or at least debatable. For example, I faced a personal ethical dilemma when my very ill father (who was fully in his right mind) begged to be taken home and off hospital life support knowing that he would die within days.

But some things are clearly morally and ethically wrong.

It is morally and ethically wrong to walk into a school and shoot children.

How we, as a society deal with that ethical truth is entirely debatable, and I’m not going to take a side.

Ok, I am going to take a side. I’m going to take the side of the students of Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. This is the letter that I wrote to them, and I wrote it for young people everywhere who take stands against ethical wrongs.

Oh, Brave Ones,

When I see your faces, I am so proud. When I hear your voices, I am so moved. I see you, I hear you, and we – all – believe in you.

By terrible chance, this path has chosen you and it will not be smooth. Some will disparage you and some will mock you. Some will seek to bring you down. Please know that you have all of us behind you and though we can’t stop the arrows we will gladly take them in your place.

You are the Mockingjay. You are Starr. You are Martin, and you are bringing Martin’s dream. We will follow you.

You are the future and the past will fade in the brilliance of your light.

If you would like to read more letters written by children’s authors to these and all young people, here’s a link to the webpage created for this purpose by children’s author Ann Braden. And here’s her beautiful editorial for The Brattleboro Reformer.

These are difficult times to navigate, for choices are hard when we complicate them with personal desires. I will focus on asking myself in each situation – and in my work – this question: what is morally and ethically right?


Guest Post: Deb Gonzales On Book Promo Class

I’ve known Debbie Gonzales since we overlapped – ten years ago – at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s a talented lady. She built each of my curriculum guides, which are stellar. Now she’s launching a new venture designed to help you with your book publicity.

I’m happy to have Deb on the blog this week to tell you about her class, Path to Promotion. Here’s Deb:

You may know that I’m, at long last, going to be a debut author! My book comes out in the spring of 2019. Hip, hip hooray! Like a good little soldier, I’ve been working on a publicity platform, discovering lots of neat ways to let folks know about the book and myself. However, I discovered that, though I’ve been very active in the Kid Lit industry for a long time, I feel somewhat ill-prepared to promote my book. And then, it occurred to me that, if I feel this way, then others might, too. So, I contacted a few author and publicist friends and have put together an on-line publicity course suitable for published and pre-published authors and illustrators.  Together, we will navigate our way down the Path to Promotion.

I have a vision of what I’d like my publicity campaign to look like. I know I’ll need to utilize social media in creative and authentic ways to make that happen. I’m very interested in developing a sense of community with readers, as well as the folks I’ve been honored to create teacher guides for. I want to know how to make a solid connection with the school/library market. And, while I’m blessed to have tremendous support from my publisher, I’m fully aware that they have other authors that deserve their attention, too. I desire all these things, and yet I have limited funds and time to devote to developing this campaign. Where should I start? I need a plan. Set some practical, affordable, and achievable goals. Devise a strategy by asking guidance from professionals who know what to do. Take some action! That’s what Path to Promotion: A Six-Week Online Book Publicity Course is all about.

Path to Promotion is an online collaborative program designed to share promotional information and techniques, to guide in the publicity preparation process, and to clarify steps required to create an affordable marketing platform that is personal, authentic, and professionally sound. In this session, we’ll explore topics such as podcasting, the school/library market, creating a digital footprint, and others.  At the end of the course, participants will receive a Path to Promotion Publicity Planner packed with graphics and guides to assist in the quest to make a splash in the world.

Here’s how the Path to Promotion 6-week course works:

  • On Monday of each week participants will access an audio interview featuring one of the Path to Promotion faculty members focusing on their area of expertise. In addition, they’ll access a handout and (look out, now) a homework assignment due on Wednesday of that week.
  • On Wednesday, participants will access a live webinar (affectionately known as The Debinar) during which they can connect with the featured faculty member by asking questions via live chat. The Debinar will be recorded for later viewing. Questions may be submitted in advance.
  • At the end of the course participants receive a Path to Promotion Publicity Planner packed with graphics and guides to assist in the development of a practical, affordable, and effective promotional plan!

Some important registration and fee information:

  • Session run from Monday, May 14 until Wednesday, June 18
  • Early Bird Registration – $175 (opens March 1 – closes April 8)
  • Full Registration Rate – $200 (opens April 9 – closes May 7)
  • Spaces are limited

The Faculty list and their topics include:

  • Barbara Fisch and Sarah Shealy of Blue Slip Media present EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT PUBLICITY, BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK

I’m over-the-top excited about producing this course. The faculty is incredible. The topics are timely. I love the fact that the Path to Promotion coursework is interactional, flexible, and versatile – perfect for authors and illustrators, at what ever stage they may be in the quest for publication.

Join us, won’t you?

For more information, contact Deb Gonzales at debbadee5@gmail.com

Debbie Gonzales is a career educator, curriculum consultant, former school administrator and adjunct professor, and once served as a SCBWI RA for the Austin Chapter. Deb currently devotes her time to writing middle grade novels, crafting teacher guides and various other freelance projects. She’s the author of six “transitional” readers for New Zealand publisher, Giltedge, and the forthcoming non-fiction picture book Play Like a Girl: The Road to Breaking Barriers and Bashing Records (Charlesbridge, 2019). A transplanted Texan, Debbie now calls beautiful Ann Arbor, Michigan home where she lives with her husband John and spunky pup, Missy. Deb earned her MFA in writing for children and young adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.


Existential crisis: a time when one questions whether their life has value, and whether that value transcends life itself.

About six weeks ago I contracted a bacterial infection that landed me in the hospital for eight days with another five weeks of serious follow-up. During the early, medically-induced-spacy hours of this trial, I honestly thought I might die. It was for me an existential moment.

I had plans. I had goals. Suddenly, none of them mattered. When I got home from the hospital, nothing mattered. I didn’t have the strength to do those mundane things to which I hadn’t ever given a second thought – laundry, bed-making, even tooth-brushing were impossible chores. I couldn’t focus long enough to read a page, much less a book. I could hardly climb the stairs, much less take a walk. My appetite was gone in the face of heavy doses of medication.

Ironically, right before this illness, I faced a different kind of crisis moment, when the manuscript I had worked on for a year (and a story I had loved for years before that) fell apart in a heap of “not working.” My editor and I decided it had to be shelved. This, too, was existential. What would happen to my career? To my commitment to my publisher? Where would I go next? Was I at the end of my writing life?

I’m happy to say that I’ve returned to about eighty percent of normal, at least physically. Emotionally is another matter. Every decision, now, is made in the recognition of my own mortality and the question of whether what I do is transcendent and adds value, or not.

And even more fortunately, I’m not only on a road to physical recovery, but I’m also at work on a new manuscript about which I’m deeply excited (and Rookskill Castle fans will be happy to know is a companion novel) and which has my editor’s blessing.

That these events, the illness and the writing derailment, coincided added to their weight. And that adds to my consideration of value, and whether I am able to transcend my own existence and create something – or leave something behind – or act in such a manner in every daily encounter – that is meaningful and adds value, even in the smallest of ways.

That’s the question that I’ll ponder every morning I wake up from now on.



Pantser, Revised

If you know me at all well, you already know that I’m an avowed pantser. (If you don’t know me, or don’t know what a pantser is, it’s a writer who “writes by the seat of her pants”, i.e., organically.) I hate outlines and I love spontaneity. I love the open-ended response to “what if…?”


Some of my many drafts and notes……….

If you know me at all well, or have read this post, you also know that I’ve been wrestling with this latest novel, and it’s been one of the toughest “fights” of my writing career. Nothing seemed to feel right, no matter how many revisions I wrote nor how many directions I took. I axed scenes. I swept characters off the page. I killed so many darlings I should be under arrest. None of my efforts resulted in something I was happy with, much less could be proud of.

I had to take drastic, desperate action. Which meant…making a plan.

But here’s the catch. I couldn’t bring myself to make a detailed outline, even with this mess. I needed direction and focus, not constraints that would make me hate the work. I needed to understand deeper motivation and theme, I had to expand my character analysis, and I wanted to be certain that the plot was not only clear but also included the twists and turns that I love to incorporate in my stories.

So I wrote a “treatment.” It’s the kind of thing that filmmakers write as they are about to begin storyboarding.

I also created a “mood board” which helped me visualize.

I began at the beginning, with the kind of deep backstory that we usually have to lop off the front end of our first drafts. This was the “once upon a time” stuff that dug back at least a generation before my protagonist was born. I set up the inevitable internal family conflicts that would lead to my true beginning and my protagonist’s struggle. I wrote the backstory for my antagonist so that I could understand his motivations.

Then I rewrote my actual story in a short, narrative form, in summary but including emotional impact. I made sure to summarize each character’s motivations and behaviors, but without trying to be literary or put any material in scene. I ended with a short summary of “afterward.”

The entire treatment came to 13 single-spaced pages and took me about two weeks to write and revise. From this, I was able to craft a revision that was tighter and yet fluid.

I think writing the treatment has resulted in a far better story, and allowed me to “pants” like I love to do, while adhering to a map that illuminated the way forward. Better yet, I was able to share this treatment with my beta readers and my editor, and get a thumbs up and/or suggestions for improvement.

Will this technique result in a story that stands the test of time? That remains to be seen – but I feel far better about this draft and its future than I did before. If you are a panster struggling with an unruly draft, you might consider this method of bringing your words to heel.

In fact, I’m going to try it with my next novel, even before I begin the first draft. I’ll let you know how it goes!


Once again, it’s that time! Calling all ghosts and goblins! Especially those who love to read, and who have enough candy to last a lifetime.

Curious City is once again hosting TrickorReaters for Halloween, and THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE is participating. Here’s the direct link to what you’ll find about Rookskill Castle and company, but search the site for other spooktacular goodies.

And don’t forget how easy it is for moms and dads and guardians to put links to story give-aways in their Halloween treat baskets, so that brains are fed as well as tummies.

Get your spook on with great fun reads this Halloween.

And another reminder that there is a great “get-to-know-your-library” game at the Rookskill Castle website.

Happy hauntings!

Guest Post: Haunted Wyoming by Sally Keys

Who doesn’t like a haunted spot in October? I’m delighted to welcome Sally Keys to the blog today, to give us a spooky preview of scary places you can visit in Wyoming. Here’s a bit about Sally: “I spent over a decade working in web design before taking a step back to focus on home and family. These days, I work from home as a freelance writer. I love to spend as much time as possible exploring the great outdoors with my husband, two sons and our crazy but loving Labrador.”

Enjoy reading – just in time for Halloween!!

Haunted Wyoming: The Top 5 Scariest Places That Will Keep You Awake at Night

Ghost tours have become all the rage over the past years, and some states have become famous for their haunted towns, houses, and cemeteries. If you’re ever in Wyoming and are looking for a good scare, you may find that there are lots of places to go to that will keep you wide awake at night.

From spooky haunted hiking destinations to a trading post teeming with ghosts, there’s always something in Wyoming that can give you that hair-raising adventure that you’re craving for. One of the most haunted places on this list is a famous national park that is said to have seen a lot of paranormal activity. Here are the top five scariest places in Wyoming that will keep you awake at night.

Yellowstone National Park

Photo by Jesse Bowser on Unsplash

This world famous park is one of the most premiere sites of ghost hauntings in Wyoming, and The Old Faithful Inn is known for housing a few entities. It has been said that Room Number 2 is haunted by the ghost of a woman dressed in 1890’s garb. There have also been eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen a headless bride in the establishment.

Reports of mysterious activity are rumored to have taken place in the inn. Doors are said to open and close on their own accord, and a fire extinguisher is claimed to have been turned upside down and back to its original position by an unseen force.

Fort Laramie

Fort Laramie was known for being a successful trading post back in the 1800s. The location, which is now a National Historic site, is said to be haunted by a spirit known in the area as the Lady in Green. Legend says that the ghost appears every seven years on the Oregon Trail wearing a green riding dress and a veiled hat. The ghost is said to be riding a black stallion and is holding a jeweled quirt.

Other ghosts in the site include one which regularly haunts the Captain’s Quarters and another that makes a lot of noise in the Cavalry Barracks. There are also sightings of a ghost of a surgeon wearing a blood-spattered uniform.

Cedar Mountain

If you’re looking for another haunted destination that’s set in the great outdoors, then you must check out Cedar Mountain. It was once called Spirit Mountain as many people are said to have gotten lost in the caves. These as well as the canyon are said to be haunted, and footsteps have been heard by visitors.

Wyoming Territorial Prison

The facility was built in 1872 and it used to house a variety of criminals such as the famous outlaw, Butch Cassidy. The prison was closed in 1903 and it has been converted into a museum and state park. You may get a glimpse of the ghost of Julius Greenwelch, who is said to be a convicted murderer who ran a cigar making operation from the prison. It has been claimed that the ghost’s appearance is almost always accompanied by the scent of cigar smoke.

The Plains Hotel

This hotel is allegedly haunted by the ghosts of three people who were killed in a double murder-suicide. The housekeeping staff is said to have heard disembodied laughter and crying from one of the rooms, and witnesses report that they have had feelings of being watched. Entities have been seen wandering the second and fourth floors of the hotel, as well as its lobby.

If you’re in the mood for a good scare, check out any of these places in Wyoming. Bring your family and friends with you, and be sure to have a good time. While you’re at it, be on the lookout for ghosts too. You’ll never know who or what you may run into at any of these haunted destinations.

A Fun and Informative Writing Conference in Montana!

You’re invited to come to Montana for our Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators “Writing Forward Progress” Conference on October 13 – 15 in Billings, Montana! It’s a beautiful time of year here in the mountains – October is my favorite month. Billings is a short drive away from Yellowstone Park, and the airport has great connections from everywhere. You won’t want to miss this intimate and instructive gathering, with a chance to get a professional critique (a few spots left!) and vie for our new mentorship program.

We’re bringing in Agent Linda Camacho from Prospect Agency, Editor Kait Feldmann from Scholastic, and Creative Director Heather Kindseth Wutschke from Capstone. They will be presenting, and leading one-on-one critiques. We also have fun Field Trips to choose from, intensive craft workshops with me and Kent Davis, the kickoff of our new mentorship program, time to make connections, and a book signing party. Come join us for a wonderful weekend of Writing Forward Progress!

Here is the link for LOTS more details, and to register:


Writing Forward Progress Conference

October 13-15, 2017  –  Billings, MT  –  Northern Hotel

Friday, October 13

7:00 – 9:00 p.m.  –  Registration, Book Sale, and Silent Auction open

7:00 – 9:00 p.m.  –  Connections Party with hors d’oeuvres – Come meet the team for the conference, learn about programs, and mingle for connections

Saturday, October 14

8:00 – 8:40  –  Breakfast provided

8:40 – 9:00  –  Welcome and Announcements

9:00 – 9:50  –  Keynote by Agent Linda Camcho – Persistence: How to Keep Going in This Tough Business

9:50 – 10:10 – Break

10:10 – 11:00  –  Keynote by Editor Kate Feldmann

11:00 – 11:20  –  Break

11:20 – 12:10  –  Keynote by Creative Director Heather Kindseth Wutschke

12:10 – 12:30  –  Presentation of Crystal Kite Award

12:30 – 2:00  –  Lunch on your own

2:00 – 4:00  –  Field Trips  –  Meet at your selected location  –  Zoo Montana, Moss Mansion, or Yellowstone Art Museum

4:30 – 5:30  –  Field Trip Wrap-Up  –  Gather back at The Northern Hotel, Close of Book Sale

5:30 – 7:00  –  Dinner on your own

7:00 – 9:00  –  Tea and Dessert Reception for us and the community, at This House of BooksBook Signings with featured authors

Sunday, October 15

8:00 – 8:40  –  Breakfast provided

8:40 – 9:00  –  Announcements – close out of Silent Auction

9:00 – 12:30  –  Character Intensive Workshops with Janet Fox and Kent Davis

9:00 – 12:30  –  Individual Critiques with Agent/Editors

12:30 – 1:00  –  Final Wrap Up and Announcement of Mentorship Program Finalists

I really hope you can join us!

How To Aid Hurricane Harvey Folks

The amazing Kate Messner has once again launched KidLitCares, in order to benefit those who have suffered through Hurricane Harvey along the Gulf Coast.

A huge number of authors and illustrators and their agents and editors  – almost 200 total! – have offered services to those who make a tax-deductible donation to the American Red Cross. [Edited to add – you can choose to donate to the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund if you prefer.] Services range from authors, editors, and agents who will review manuscripts, to authors who will donate their books plus Skype visits to libraries or classrooms. There are many opportunities for you to donate, feel great about helping – and benefit your students and/or your career.

I’ve donated a Skype visit and set of my books, and would really love to visit your classroom or library and send you books (and more – tell me you read this post when you bid and I’ll throw in a bunch of cool swag and extras.)

Please visit the site and bid on these amazing offerings. The auction ends Tuesday, September 5 at 9pm EST. And, this former Texan thanks you from the bottom of her heart.

Exposing My Heart

After publishing five books with varying but largely good success I’m under contract for my sixth, my fifth novel. This is an enviable position to be in, but for the first time I’m struggling through the edits, trying to get it right. This is a book that began life several years back (and actually the seeds were planted when I was in my MFA program, back in 2009). Every attack I’ve made on the manuscript has been difficult. I’ve been through every aspect of character and plot, voice and theme. I’ve checked backstory wounds and antagonist goals and tried to put tension on every page. What, I keep asking myself, what more can I do?

What am I missing?

This comes in the face of what counts as wonderful milestones. My most recent novel, THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE is a Crystal Kite Award winner. It’s received numerous accolades of which I’m very proud. I’ve earned out my advance, meaning the novel has done very well, and I’ve made my agent and editor happy. My first book, GET ORGANIZED WITHOUT LOSING IT, has just been released in a new edition after ten years of excellent sales.heart

And now I can’t seem to get a handle on a story I love. Why not?

The nasty little voice inside me answers that I’m a failure masquerading as a success.

Today I had a startling realization. First I read this piece by Kathleen McCleary in Writer Unboxed, which so resonated with where I am. Then I read an amazing Twitter thread by Minh Le @bottomshelfbks, and found myself in tears. Here’s just a sampling of the latter: “It is not selfish or self indulgent to create something esp when the hope is to connect with a young reader in the future. #whykeepwriting

And as I wept, I knew. What’s wrong with the story I’m writing is that I haven’t put my heart on the page.

Back when this story was born, I was a different person, with different ways of approaching writing. Not so skilled perhaps, maybe more intuitive, so I opened up in those early drafts. But more importantly, back when this story was born the world was in a different place.

What’s been going on around us has been breaking my heart, day in, day out. I’m exhausted. Traumatized. Feeling helpless, and wanting to help. Feeling like I’ve done this before (hadn’t we closed that book in the sixties and seventies?) Wanting to stand up for what is right. Wanting to make a difference.

All this emotion is being channeled in the wrong direction. All this emotion, funneled into things I cannot control, is making it impossible for me to expose my heart on the page. I’m just not that masochistic. Except.

I want to make a difference.

Some books are harder to write than others. Some books need to be told differently. But all books need to be written from the heart, with those universal emotions on the table. As Kathleen McCleary says, “And that is what the best writing is—a witness to the human experience, a companion that lets readers know you’re not in this alone.”

My son, an excellent reader as well as writer, said, “Put away the plot chart. Stop trying to hit the turning points. You’ve got it all there, just write the book.” He’s right. I’m going to have to write this book from my heart, from where I should have been writing it all along. I need to become a witness. That’s how I can make a difference. That’s how I can connect with a young reader.

Please wish me well.