Writing Craft Books For Your Gift List

Tis the season…and if you are needing last-minute suggestions for either your own stocking or a fellow writer’s, here are my current favorites.

  1. Donald Maass, Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook. This has long been my very favorite craft book. Clearly written, with excellent examples and terrific exercises at the end of every chapter, if you dive into those exercises your writing will improve by leaps. At the very least, read the chapters on building conflict in plot. His mantra is “tension on every page” and he’s so right. Anything by Maass is terrific.
  2. Lisa Cron, Story Genius. I’m a big fan of understanding how we humans process stories, in order to understand how to reach my readers. This book addresses that head-on. What I love most is her definition of what therapists might call a patient’s “backstory wound” and what she calls a character’s “defining misbelief”. She leads the writer through the process of finding and then using that misbelief in the character’s arc.
  3. Debra Dixon, Goal, Motivation & Conflict. I found this book only recently. Oh, I’d heard about it for years, and I’m now kicking myself that I didn’t find it sooner. Simple, short, and extremely clear, GMC will revolutionize the way you see both character and story. I’m especially amazed by how I’ve discovered things about my characters that create and add to the deeper layers of story and their arcs. Get this one, if nothing else. I read the ebook and now have the actual on order!
  4. Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering The Craft. New 2015 edition. If you haven’t noticed, I do like craft books that are simple and clear, with examples and exercises that are easy to follow and complete. This is one of the best for all-around story construction at the most fundamental levels. Terrific for the beginning writer on your list, or for any writer refreshing the basics. Short, sweet, and perfect.
  5. James Scott Bell, Super Structure. Just about anything by Bell (like Donald Maass) will sharpen your writing. He’s particularly good at defining plot, and techniques to tackle plot. If that’s what you struggle with, you need this book and the last book on my list…
  6. Martha Alderson, The Plot Whisperer Workbook. Long a staple for writers, this book helps you to understand and clearly visualize the connection between rising tension and plot progression, in conjunction with character arc. You can’t beat that combo.

Happiest of holidays and here’s to a great writing 2019!

“Best Of”…Writing Advice

NPR’s 2018 “Best Of” Books

So many good books to celebrate this year! I’ve been following the “best of” lists, the successes of friends, the books that are making a difference in kids’ lives. I decided to make my own “best of” list, but not of books (for those, please see the CBC lists, and NPR’s list, among others.

What follows is a “best of” list of some of what I’ve learned about living the writer’s life. I hope it helps you during the season of what can be, for some, both ups and downs.

  1. Write a little every day. Even if it’s just a sentence. Even if it’s just an idea.
  2. Some ideas are better than others. Choose to write the idea that speaks to your heart.
  3. A writing career is non-competitive. Another’s success does not mean your failure; there’s always room for another book on the shelf.
  4. Successful writing careers are like icebergs – there’s a lot more craft-work going on under the surface.
  5. Craft books are inspiring, so find a new one and absorb its messages if you are in a writing funk.
  6. Read, read, read. Especially if you are in a writing funk.
  7. Your physical health is important to your writing. Taking a walk is a great way to get the brain working. Eat and drink in moderation, exercise every day.
  8. Join a writing organization like SCBWI or RWA or MWA. Build community. Build fellowship. They provide invaluable information, too.
  9. A rejection may mean no more than “I don’t get it; it’s not to my taste.”
  10. On the other hand, rejection should always be a time of reflection – is the work as strong as it could be?
  11. But don’t keep revising the same piece over and over. At some point, move on. Your skills will only grow when you stretch.
  12. Try writing something outside your comfort zone at least once a month. Poetry, a short story, a picture book (if you’re a novelist), a novel (if you’re a picture book writer).
  13. Nothing you write is ever a waste. There’s a lot of waiting in publishing: write something new while you wait on something old.
  14. Cultivate beta readers you trust. Listen carefully to what they say.
  15. Give back. Mentor new writers, mentor kids, be a great beta reader yourself.
  16. The writing community (especially for children) is tiny. Be nice. Be thoughtful. Be honest. Take the long view.
  17. That editor or agent who rejected you yesterday might just be the editor or agent who accepts you tomorrow. Don’t burn bridges.
  18. Never read Goodreads’ reviews. Period.
  19. Travel, if you can. Seeing the world through the eyes of those entirely different from you will enrich your writing.
  20. The world needs your words, your ideas, your thoughts. No one else can express ideas the way that you can – you are unique. Write from your heart and you’ll succeed.

The Graveyard Hook, Part 2

As our new group of middle grade authors who write spooky stories is about to launch our website – and come visit us at https://spookymiddlegrade.com/ – I’m finishing up our shared experiences with graveyards this week. I’ll only add that I’m still surprised to find myself writing such spooky/scary stuff, since I can’t watch spooky movies.

Would I walk through a graveyard at night now, like I did when I was a kid? Not a chance!

Enjoy these graveyard stories…

Jan with her angel

Jan with her angel.

From author Jan Eldredge: A few times a year, my parents would take us to some of the cemeteries along the Mississippi Gulf Coast so we could tend to our family gravesites there. At one particular cemetery, there was a statue of a little boy angel standing a few rows over from my great-grandmother’s grave. From the time I could walk, until I grew too old for such things, I would always wander over and talk to him. Many years later, I went back to that cemetery, hoping to see my little angel friend again, but he was gone. I don’t know what happened to him. My guess is that he’d been damaged in a hurricane and the caretaker had hauled away his remains.

It’s funny how I never really thought about it, but graveyards appear in many of the stories I’ve written. I actually find them to be beautiful and peaceful places . . . as long as I visit them in the daylight.

And this tale is from Patrick Moody: I grew up in a very close knit neighborhood in Trumbull, CT. A small public library sat at the bottom of the street, and up the hill, rounding a corner, where my house stood, a long rock wall separated Hilltop Circle from the Nothenagle Cemetery (that’s quite a name, isn’t it?). The cemetery was a mix of old and new. The first people to be laid to rest were the Nichols family, who’d founded the area in the late 1600’s. Their plots were set with stone monuments towering seven or eight feet tall, entire lines of the family collected together behind wrought iron fences. The Nichols were in a corner, where the forest had begun to creep in over the grass, like it was coming to swallow up the graves. That part of the cemetery was perpetually covered in shadow, and if there was ever a truly spooky spot, that was it.

Myself and the other neighborhood kids loved exploring the cemetery. It was our playground. Our sanctuary. Being an old boneyard, it didn’t get many visitors. For us, it was a place where we could be free, out from under the watchful gaze of those ever curious “grown ups”. None of us found the place scary, at least not in the daytime. We’d walk through the rows, reading the names inscribed in granite and marble, and would talk about the lives of the people laying sleeping beneath our feet. I think that’s where my knack for storytelling really began. I was endlessly curious about the residents of the yard. What they were like in life. Who their families were. What they did for a living. How they saw the world through the eyes of their ti

We would take grave rubbings from the more artistic markers, and I was endlessly fascinated by the images of angels, and in some cases, figures from other cultures’ mythologies. Norse and Celtic runes were there in good numbers.

At night, on those summertime Saturdays when we didn’t have a care in the world, the cemetery became a magical place. As fireflies danced between the rows, we’d play hide and go seek, using the graves, bushes, and trees as our hiding spots. Sometimes we’d play capture the flag, or flashlight tag. When we didn’t really feel like chasing each other in the dark, risking tripping over a gravestone (or breaking it…that wouldn’t have been good), we would post up in a comfy area, usually inside the Nichols family plot behind those fences, and try to best each other with our scariest ghost stories.

We walked a fine line between embracing the inherent “scariness” of the graveyard, and looking at it as a place of practicality: literally, seeing it as a place for the dead to be lain to rest. You can either be scared, or at least mildly creeped out, or you can be interested in the cultural aspects of it. I found myself clinging to both: the ghostly aspects, and the way that we as Americans (or in a broader sense, the Western world), view and experience death.

Needless to say, the cemetery shaped me. Probably in some ways I haven’t even recognized. But I do know that I wouldn’t be a writer today, or an artist of any kind, had I not spent my youth dodging between those tombstones alongside my friends, exploring our moonlit kingdom of granite slabs and towering statues.

Fun stuff here, right? There’s lots more to come, for teachers, librarians, and kids. Follow us on Twitter @spookymgbooks

The Graveyard Hook, Part 1

I’m delighted to report that a bunch of us middle grade authors who write “spooky” books – from the moody to the seriously scary (I’ve been told that The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle is seriously scary) – have joined together to form a group of Monstrously Good Middle Grade peeps. Very soon we’ll open our website (SpookyMiddleGrade.com), which features information for kids, teachers, and librarians. We’ve got tons of fun things planned (group author Skype visits, for example), so please stay tuned!

But while we were all chatting it emerged that most of us had graveyard experiences as kids.


Now, I don’t think that having such a might-be-creepy background is a requirement for writing spooky books, but it is interesting. Right?

I have my own graveyard experience. My dad was an Episcopal priest, so we lived next door to the church, which meant next door to the graveyard. This was a very old New England church. And a very old graveyard. But that didn’t bother me. I found my own secret spot inside the graveyard, where I would take my reading, and my homework, and my daydreams. It was a little nook with a big headstone on one side and overgrown shrubs on two other sides, so I could sit there completely hidden for hours. I never thought of it as scary…then. Of course, there was also an underground mausoleum with a broken door, and I looked inside that tiny dark place more than once – on a dare, but also because I was curious.

Did I see ghosts in that graveyard? You may ask…

But now I’ve asked my fellow spooky authors to tell us about their graveyard “hooks”. So many responded that I’ve got one part this week, and one part next, so here’s part one:

From author Jonathan Rosen: I grew up in a section called of Brooklyn called Gravesend, which was settled in around the 1640’s. Such a creepy name, and as a matter of fact, that’s why I named the town in my book, Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies, Gravesend. I figured, why make anything else up? The reality is creepier than what I could come up with. I lived right next to Gravesend Neck Road, and if you followed it all the way, it led to a really old cemetery, which we used to go exploring. It was right in the middle of a neighborhood, near homes. So creepy that everyone was living around it, with tombstones dating back hundreds of years. I was fascinated by that and it always spurred the imagination of what it was like to live right next to this old cemetery.


From S.A. Larsen: As an elementary-age child, I used to visit our town cemetery often with my grandparents. By the time I was middle school and high school age, both my grandparents had passed away, and I found myself drawn to that same cemetery – which I preferred to call the boneyard much like my main character, Ebony Charmed in Motley Education. I’d stroll what felt like endless rows of graves after graves, lifetimes after lifetimes. I could create unseen worlds and playgrounds for the dead. (I think that’s why I fell in love with Lydia the first time I watched Betelgeuse; she got me.) Sometimes, when I’d find an interesting name etched on an old tombstone, I’d sit and stay a while. And crypts? They were way cool! Who was in there? Were they really in there? OMGosh, I needed to know! Weird? Maybe, but I was completely fascinated by who these people were, what kind of life they led, and what they left behind. I was never frightened there; not really. Of course, there were times my mind would play tricks on me, fooling me into thinking I saw something I didn’t. And then there were the times during middle school when a group of use would wait until dark, sneak into the cemetery (no telling!), and scare the screams out of each other. I just loved that!

From Sam Clark: I didn’t live next to a graveyard, but when I was doing my A-levels in England, I used to walk home from school and there was a graveyard smack bang in the middle of a short cut. And, given that it was an old English town, the graves were ancient. Many had slabs of concrete over the actual grave, as well as headstones, and a lot of the slabs were broken. It was easy to imagine bony fingers inching around the broken pieces and pushing up! In the summer, it wasn’t too much of an issue. I’d walk through there, but I’d walk quickly with eyes darting around to make sure no zombies were rising. In the winter, though, when it got dark around 4pm, I only took the short cut once. I accidentally got locked in the graveyard and had to climb the gate on the other side to get out. I scrambled up that gate so fast! I walked the long way home after that.

(Yikes! I would, too!) Stay tuned for more graveyard hooks next week………………..


“Volcano” in the Country Bookshelf window!

A busy time between the book launch for VOLCANO DREAMS, and finishing a companion novel to THE CHARMED CHILDREN (more about that in a future post). I’m pleased to say that VOLCANO DREAMS has been very popular, including scoring the #1 bestselling slot at Country Bookshelf in Bozeman.

In addition, VOLCANO DREAMS has been featured in this wiki: Children’s Books That Actually Make Learning Fun

I’ll be appearing at the Children’s Festival of the Book at the Bozeman Public Library on November 10, too. This is a super fun all-day event, so I hope to see you there.

Stay tuned for more news about this and other books!

VOLCANO DREAMS Giveaway For Teachers/Librarians

I’d like to announce a giveaway as part of the launch of VOLCANO DREAMS. You MUST be a teacher or librarian to enter. The prizes include:

  • 2 hardcover copies of VOLCANO DREAMS for your classroom/library
  • A “Volcano-Making Kit”
  • A hard copy of my teacher’s guide to VOLCANO DREAMS
  • Bookmarks for all your students
  • A Yellowstone Forever bag to hold all your goodies
  • A 30-minute classroom Skype visit with me

The giveaway runs through the month of September.

To enter (remember, you MUST be a teacher or librarian, as I will only mail to school addresses in the US and Canada) you can comment below, and/or comment on Twitter with the hashtag #VolcanoDreamsYellowstone.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

I hope you will enter and hope you will win!!

But It Doesn’t Look Like A Volcano!

In the last couple of posts I told you that when you are in Yellowstone, you are inside a volcano. But you wouldn’t know it. And that’s due mostly to one simple thing: erosional processes.

Note the “yellow stone” exposed in the Grand Canyon.

The earth isn’t static. Gravity plays a huge role in how the earth looks, as do water and temperature fluctuations. Landslides, rockfalls, sinkholes, and so on are all aspects of erosion. Glaciers once rolled over the landscape and carved deep valleys. Because we are on a planet that experiences wide changes in temperature and rainfall, we witness what those processes do over vast time scales to change the way our earth looks.

In Yellowstone, erosion is responsible for the creation of landforms like the Falls of Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Hoodoos, and much more. Erosion has exposed cliffs and carved steep falls and riverbeds. Erosion has made the great mountains even greater.

The huge Yellowstone caldera, which is roughly shaped like a bowl, is formed by a combination of collapse (of the volcano as it cooled) and erosion (of the edges of the caldera over time).

Erosion is a continuing process that you can witness in real time, every time you see a stream or river, or witness a heavy rain.

At the end of August, I’ll be announcing a giveaway for teachers and librarians that will run the month of September. In the meantime, I’d like to announce that I’ll be in Yellowstone, so if you happen to be there, please come by!

I’ll be signing my books in Canyon from 11AM to 3PM on August 22.

And signing in Old Faithful from 11AM to 3PM on August 24.

I’ll have bookmarks and other swag. See you then!

Why Are There Geysers In Yellowstone?

Last week I described the Yellowstone volcano. The magma that fuels the volcano also fuels the thermal features that you’ll see in the Park: geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and steam vents. Heat flow deep inside the earth beneath Yellowstone is the driving force behind – or more accurately, beneath – all of these features.

The earth’s crust in Yellowstone’s basin areas and radiating from the margins of the caldera is riddled with fractures. Rain and snow melt permeate the crust through this network of fractures, and this water becomes superheated by the magma at depth. This superheated water is like water in a pressure cooker – when the pressure builds up high enough that it can push upwards against the weight of water and rock above, it will burst out of the ground as a geyser. The most spectacular geysers form when the channel through which the geyser water rises is

Old Faithful in winter

constricted, like the difference between blowing the same amount of water through a hose or through a straw.

Steam without much water forms a steam vent, or fumarole. Hot springs and mud pots form when the water rises without becoming highly pressurized. The mud pots are found in places where the hot water bubbles up through clay soils, and these can form brightly colored “paint pots”.

Some geysers erupt continuously. And some erupt at random intervals. Steamboat Geyser in Norris Basin is currently the world’s largest active geyser, and its eruptions can reach almost 400 feet high. Steamboat’s eruptions cannot be predicted and it has been quiet for as many as 50 years, but lately it’s been erupting quite often – 8 times since April of this year (2018). Why? It’s not clear. Perhaps the earth has shifted a tiny bit (which happens all the time), allowing more water down and then back up again.

The most well-known regular geyser is Old Faithful, which erupts on average every 90 minutes, and can reach heights up to 200 feet. Because it’s so regular, it’s easy to plan to see it when you visit.

The thermal features in Yellowstone are truly beautiful, but they are deadly hot. A white crust surrounds many features, and it is highly unsafe to walk on. If you go to Yellowstone please, for your own safety and to preserve these fragile features, obey all signs and stay on walkways.

What? We’re Inside A Volcano?!

Most visitors to Yellowstone National Park are not aware (at first) that they have entered a giant volcano. That’s right. Yellowstone sits above a “hotspot” – a place where molten rock rises up from the mantle into the earth’s crust, close to the surface. This has created the Yellowstone supervolcano, which has erupted every 650,000 years or so and is responsible for the amazing geologic landscape and thermal features we see today.

But don’t worry – there is little chance of an eruption occurring while you’re there! For one thing, these episodic eruptions occur on such a huge scale, with many hundreds of thousands of years in between, that you won’t likely be around for the next one. For another, because Yellowstone is so fascinating and dynamic, geologists have planted instruments all over the region to map its frequent earth movements. We would have plenty of warning of an impending eruption. Even though Yellowstone does experience frequent earthquakes that does not signal a major event.

The Yellowstone supervolcano last erupted 630,000 years ago. That eruption formed the caldera edges that you can see today, when the eruption blasted apart the crust, which then collapsed as the volcanic activity subsided.

The cooling lava formed some of the most interesting geologic features in the Park. Look for cliffs with columnar jointing, and visit the glassy obsidian rock (which formed when the lava cooled extremely rapidly).

There were a number of previous eruption events which have left a trail of geologic clues across Idaho, Utah, and Nevada. The reason for this long “tail” is that the earth’s crust actually moves over the mantle in response to plate tectonics.

If you want to learn more about the Yellowstone volcano, I recommend the book Windows Into The Earth by Robert B. Smith and Lee J. Siegel. And if you want to follow what’s happening in Yellowstone all the time, check out this website: https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/volcanoes/yellowstone/ There you’ll see the kinds of instruments that scientists use to monitor the volcano, and discover other fascinating aspects of its geologic history.

In the next couple of posts I’ll look more closely at the Yellowstone supervolcano and how it forms the thermal features you can see when you visit.

Animals In Yellowstone – Part 2


Humans have a complicated relationship with wolves. They may be ancestrally related to man’s best friend, the dog, but… Wolves are variously described as scary, beautiful, intelligent, cagey, dangerous, and fascinating. The gray wolf is the top predator in the Yellowstone ecosystem, and has been the bane of ranchers and farmers since Europeans first came to the region with sheep and cattle. We love to watch them play outside their dens in Yellowstone National Park, but we don’t want them in our back yards or our herds.

Early in the last century, gray wolves in the states around Yellowstone were almost exterminated and were in danger of extinction. Protections covered those that migrated south from Canada, but those that did migrate did not establish thriving packs in the northern U.S. In the 1970s wildlife biologists began to explore the idea of reintroduction of wolves into the Park. For one thing, biologists recognized that the populations of the wolf’s primary prey species (deer and elk) had exploded, and that huge and now unmanaged population was damaging fragile streams and rivers. Balance in nature is important, some would say vital, and wolves provide balance.

The reintroduction of the gray wolf did finally begin in 1995. Wolves were held in pens in the Lamar Valley on the northern edge of the Park until biologists were satisfied that releasing them into the wild would be safe for them and that they would remain in the Park, lessening conflict with humans. Since their reintroduction wolves have established a number of thriving packs both within and outside the Park, and while there have been a few negative interactions, the efforts of wolf biologists and other groups have gone a long way to mitigating problems.

I’ve had the good fortune of seeing wolves in the wild. They are beautiful – and scary (though they are not the most dangerous wild animal in North America. That distinction belongs to mama moose!) They generally stay away from humans, but hearing their song on an evening wind is spine-tingling. If you go to Yellowstone, be sure to spend some time either early in the morning or late in the evening in the Lamar Valley, where the wolves still congregate and den. If you see a large group of people with spotting scopes, they are surely watching wolves.

Two of my favorite books about wolves are Rick Bass’s THE NINEMILE WOLVES, and Thomas McNamee’s THE RETURN OF THE WOLF TO YELLOWSTONE.

It’s interesting to note: both bison and wolves were hunted nearly to extinction and brought back by the efforts of concerned biologists. Today, both animals rank highest on the list of animals that tourists wish to see when visiting Yellowstone National Park.