Your Story Spark

That idea that just won’t leave you alone…that image that plays in your head…that scene you wrote out of the blue…that character who talks to you while you’re doing the dishes…

That can indeed become a story. But, you ask, how?

My Own Experience

One day at my desk, with no warning or fanfare, I wrote two pages about a boy being pursued by a monster. Man, I loved those two pages, but what in the heck were they? I set them aside.

That was in 2008.

Two years later I rediscovered those pages when my then agent asked if I could write a book “about jewelry” (I kid you not) because an editor asked if it was possible. Five minutes later I was running through Facebook (because what else do you do when you are fresh out of ideas?) and came across an image of a chatelaine posted by one of my friends.

I didn’t know much about chatelaines except that (a) this one was purely decorative (hence, a piece of jewelry) and (b) really weird. And then, somehow, those two pages about the boy became wrapped up in a story about the chatelaine, and five days later, I had written 30 pages of a novel.

Now, you’d think that was it, right? But no. Because, even after writing 3 YA novels, I really didn’t know what I was doing, craft-wise. How to take that spark and make it work. How to build that idea into something kids would read.

It took another four years, getting my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, losing my original agent, gaining a new agent, and finally selling it to an editor who was a wizard at helping me round out the story before The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle became my most popular honest-to-goodness book.

lightning in a bottle

 

My spark, those two pages, are the first chapter, almost without a single change.

How to Capture Lightning in a Bottle

Instead of following my torturous path, here are my super-simplified suggestions for grabbing that spark you may have and making it into a book-shaped object:

  • Answer the fundamental questions:
    • What age will this book be for? (Yes, it does make a difference to know that right up front.)
    • What’s your genre?
    • What are some potential comparable books?
    • What’s your tentative title?
    • Can you describe in detail your ideal reader?
  • Know the fundamental craft issues:
    • Who is your main character and what do they want?
    • What is the story problem?
    • What are the stakes and obstacles?
    • Who is the antagonist and what is your supporting cast?
    • What is the setting/world?

And that’s just a beginning.

It’s a lot of work, and it’s an inch-by-inch process, but not one you can ignore. I’ve seen so many writers with brilliant sparks who launch off unprepared only to realize they have a hundred pages of unmanageable words, lightning that has drifted away.

Heck, it almost happened to me, except that I kept that spark held tight – even when some readers told me to delete it – and I was lucky to find mentors (critique partners, my new agent) who helped me through the process.

If you need such a mentor, I’m here. I’ve made a 20-year study of writing craft nuts and bolts and would happily guide you from spark to book.

And…coming soon – some of my earliest clients are now seeing their work come alive. I can’t wait to share!

Yes! I want to know more about working with you!

Picture Book Basics

Back in the day I believed that picture books were THE books for kids. I had good reason to feel this way as BHP (Before Harry Potter) there was no real “middle grade” category, and YA was still in the semi-adult realm, with books like The Red Badge of Courage.

So, like many of you, I cut my kidlit-writing teeth trying to write picture books.

I had no idea what I was doing.

My Childhood Picture Books…

Were for the most part heavy on the words. Lots of them were fairy tale retellings, although two of my all-time favorites were this one and this one (yes, these are my own pics of my own books):

Now that children’s literature has entered its golden age – I do believe that’s true – and I’ve learned to write picture books* as well as middle grade and YA, I have a bunch of tips to share with those of you trying to write your first picture book.

Audience, Subject Matter, Pacing

  • The first tip speaks to defining your audience. Of course it’s kids. Young kids, although lots of older kids, including those who struggle with reading, read picture books. But so do adults, and most importantly, you need to know that it’s adults who buy picture books. The librarians, teachers, booksellers, parents, and grandparents are also the readers you need to know and understand. They will look for books that add value. Books that have strong content, appropriate word choices, beautiful illustrations. Books that are funny, books that are serious, non-fiction books – all as long as they add value.
  • What do I mean by that? Tip number two: write, as always, from the heart. Read a million current picture books. Books like Watercress, Hello Lighthouse, How to Eat a Book, Eyes that Speak to the Stars. These are fun books, serious books, beautiful books, but all share the same feeling of being written by someone coming from a place of deep true emotion.
  • Tip number three: pacing is critical. Each page needs to create the feeling of “I’ve got to turn this page”. The overarching story is one part of this, but the other is the nature of suspense at the end of each page, prompting the young reader to want to know what’s about to happen next. Word count is also crucial to pacing. Know how many words are in Where the Wild Things Are? Fewer than 300. (And it was made into a movie.) Word choice is also crucial – choose diction and syntax that are age appropriate, not adult language. The way that picture books are made (not the story you want to tell) dictates the number of pages, which are always a multiple of 8, and most often 32 pages long.
  • Tip number four: templates are helpful. If you Google “picture book layout/template/dummy” you’ll find many of these layout templates. And specifically to making a picture book dummy, you can make one yourself by folding a stack of pages in half. Then you can get a real feel for the page turns and layouts, even if you are not the illustrator.

A downloadable self-ended 32 page picture book template

And speaking of illustrators…if you are not a professional illustrator, don’t try this at home. Don’t hire someone from Fiverr to illustrate your book. If you write only the text, you’ll sell it to a publisher who will have a very clear idea of who to hire to illustrate and what the finished book will look like.

Where To Find More

One of the best resources in the industry is Julie Hedlund’s 12×12. The SCBWI also has plenty of resources.

But make a note that very soon! I’ll be offering a free webinar followed by a low cost introductory course (“The Five Things You Need to Know to Start Writing for Children”) that will also include more about writing picture books (character arc, plot arc, etc.) so if you want to be kept informed about this, please click the button below.

And……….I now offer book coaching on picture books, so contact me here if you are interested in coaching.

*My second picture book will be out later this year, from Neal Porter Books, illustrated by Jasu Hu, and I can’t wait to share Jasu’s incredible artwork and my story, Wintergarden, with you all.

Please keep me informed about your upcoming classes!

What Is Hybrid Publishing?

And is it for you?

As you probably already know, the publishing world is going through a huge transition. The big New York houses are combining (or trying to – most recently, a judge denied the proposed purchase by Penguin Random House of Simon and Schuster, that would have merged the two). Self-publishing has become increasingly mainstream and lucrative. And a “new” kind of publishing has emerged called “hybrid”.

What does all this mean for authors?

Fortunately, we have an expert to rely on for answers to this and many other questions. Jane Friedman is a generous and knowledgeable teacher, blogger, and writer who shares her wisdom through her excellent newsletter and blog, as well as her essential book, THE BUSINESS OF BEING A WRITER. (If you want a career as a writer, you really do need this book.)

key publishing chart

Jane has created a cheat sheet that is downloadable (I’ve uploaded a copy here, but the original is easier to read, so download from that link) and gives a summary of every publishing option for fiction and non-fiction. In addition, you can find an in-depth interview about this cheat sheet and more between Jennie Nash and Jane here.

Focus on Hybrid

Because it’s the newest option for authors to pursue, and because it offers some assistance to what would ordinarily be on the indie author’s shoulders, hybrid publishing has taken a spotlight. As the name suggests, hybrid is neither traditional (advance-based) publishing, nor is it indie self-publishing.

Hybrid publishers can and do reject manuscripts (but only if they truly cannot help the manuscript become publishable). Authors pay for the services of hybrid publishers, which can include editing, cover, interior design, marketing, and distribution. If the author has the financial resources, this can be an attractive option, as it takes away the burden of our least-desirable tasks (marketing and distribution).

If You Are Thinking of Hybrid

It’s really important to do your research and vet the publisher. Some are forging a strong positive reputation in the industry, and as Jane says, have been founded by former industry pros. Others are more like the old “vanity” presses – they’ll take your money and do a terrible job. As with everything, caveat emptor.

If you want to whip that manuscript into shape, regardless of your publishing choice, I have a few openings in my calendar, and I’m about to restructure my options to include some affordable group coaching. I can also offer some guidance on your best path to publication.

I’d love to become your guide to writing and publishing your best children’s book. Create with confidence!

Click here if you’d like to learn more about book coaching!

Seven Books to Inspire Writers

I recently checked in with a writing client who feels stuck. She has three young kids, a full-time corporate writing job, has struggled with the aftereffects of a bout with Covid, and 2022 really kicked some dust in her path. All of this added up to a lack of creative energy (no surprise!) and I recommended that she take a breather. In contrast with my previous post, forcing yourself to write when the writing feels like drudgery is not a good idea.

But I think visiting some inspirational exercises can be beneficial, as they may unlock the door to the prison that has captured your creative energy.

I recommended to my writer the book that helped me back when I was in a similar spot, Julia Cameron’s THE ARTIST’S WAY, and realized that you all might benefit from hearing my 7 top recommended reads for any artist who needs a boost, a leg up, a way forward.

You can find and purchase all of these books in my Bookshop, here.

My Top Seven Inspirational Reads

Let’s start with THE ARTIST’S WAY. Cameron uses spirituality to guide the artist’s creativity. What I love about this book are the exercises. They are at once practical and uplifting, and if you try doing one each day, they will raise and comfort your soul and spur you to creative thinking.

cover of The Artist's Way

Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD is not so much instructional as it is ruminative. A writing instructor and author of multiple works of fiction and nonfiction, Lamott is witty and the prose is readable and real. It’s a classic for good reason.

THE CREATIVE HABIT enunciates Twyla Tharp’s kick-in-the-pants approach to creativity. This is the book for you if you need to be encouraged to make your art a daily habit, a ritual, by a dancer who knows what it’s like to not want to get up at 5:30 AM to work her body – but who does it anyway. Every day. And look at the result.

In ART AND FEAR, David Bayles and Ted Orland take a very different approach. They acknowledge the destructive forces of the inner critic. For some of you creatives, facing your demon is the way to send it packing, and if that’s what you need, this is your book.

Elizabeth Gilbert, the highly successful author of fiction, wrote BIG MAGIC as an homage to the muse. The title tells it all – creativity is sparked by some kind of incandescent magic that we must be ready to accept. It’s out there, she says: now, go and be awake to it.

Another classic, WRITING DOWN THE BONES by Natalie Goldberg is more of a practical approach than an ethereal one. She instructs as well as cajoles. Her exercises are not linear as in Cameron’s book, but embedded in advice.

Finally, Kendra Levin’s THE HERO IS YOU takes us back to a book filled with practical exercises. Using the Campbell Hero’s Journey archetypes as guideposts, Levin walks the reader through the Journey itself, to help any creative reach the conclusion: bringing your work to life.

Join Me For Practical Craft

As I work to create my own course content for middle grade and young adult writers, you can add your name to my list, without obligation, to be informed of what, when, and how.

Yes, please! Add me to your interest list for your upcoming classes!

Never Give Up, Never Surrender!

One of my all-time favorite movies is Galaxy Quest. It’s a sharply funny spoof of one of my all-time favorite TV shows, Star Trek. I love the internal theme of Galaxy Quest, too: “Never give up, never surrender.”

Whether it’s overcoming aliens or human foes or personal hurdles, it’s a great motto.

Galaxy Quest cast and crew

Do they look worried? They should be.

What is Persistence?

When I started writing for children, I already had a lot of rejections for stuff I’d written for adult readers. Two full novels (I had no idea what I was doing), fifteen short stories, and a ton of poetry. My first small triumphs were two short stories and one poem, all accepted for publication in literary journals…though one of those folded the month before my story was to print.

Then I found writing for children, but more importantly I found support. Education. Colleagues and publishing knowledge. This started with my membership in SCBWI, and continued as I went to conferences and workshops, as I worked with critique partners, as I studied craft books back to front, and finally as I went back to school for my MFA.

And I amassed a boatload of rejection slips.

My Rejection Drawer

Actually, a drawerful of rejection slips. I had an empty desk drawer and I made myself a promise. I would keep trying to get published until the rejection slips (they were paper back in the day) filled it so full I couldn’t close it.

I would not give up.

I’m convinced that there is one thing more important than talent, more important than imagination, more important than connections or even than luck in getting your stories out into the world.

Persistence is the key to success in publishing. Actually, I think it’s pretty much the key to success in any endeavor, but this is the one I’m certain of.

Do Not Give Up

I believe that if you work hard, study the craft, and make it your business to understand the business of writing and publishing, you will achieve success. I believe that if you persist you can succeed. I swear that on my growing stack of published books.

And I encourage you to find help along the way. Truly, read craft books. Read stories in your genre and age range. Go to conferences and workshops. Join SCBWI, or any of the other writer organizations.

If you want to learn at an accelerated pace, I’m writing a masterclass curriculum now, on writing the middle grade or young adult novel, and will also host smaller workshops on writing kidlit in the not too distant future. Get on my mailing list at no obligation and I’ll keep you posted.

Never give up, never surrender!

I’m interested in learning more about your Masterclass and course offerings!

Happiest of Holidays!

The holidays are here and first and foremost, I want to thank you all for being loyal readers and friends.

holiday cheer

I love bringing craft knowledge to this blog. In fact, I love teaching so much that I’m putting more energy into creating content that I hope will help you fulfill your dreams. Whether you hope to one day see your work in print, or just need to get the manuscript of your dreams on the page, my goal is to help you make that happen.

In the Short Term

That’s one reason why I have opened this offer to you: what I (with a bit of a merry twinkle) call my Jolly Jumpstart. This a chance for you to gift yourself an editorial eye on your writing, plus a craft workbook that you can use again and again.

For half my usual fee (only $155.) you receive:

  • my Story Heart Workbook
  • my editorial response to your answers in the Workbook
  • my editorial response to your manuscript’s first 30 pages
  • a credit of the full amount toward any one of my in-planning craft classes

But this special offer expires on December 25, so please don’t wait! Click the button with no obligation:

 

Yes! I’m interested in your Special Offer!

Down the Road

I’m deep into putting together my Masterclass in Writing the Middle Grade or Young Adult Novel. This is a dream for me, to share the knowledge I’ve accumulated over 20+ years of writing and publishing. It will be very high touch, and will also pull you into a cohort of colleagues, to make writing forward a joy.

I really love what I do, and I love bringing craft to you. These offerings are a way for me to pay back for the mentorship I received when I was starting out.

If you’re interested in the Masterclass, let me know.

Please keep me informed about your Masterclass!

Thank you again!

Write the Novel of Your Heart

A Masterclass for Middle Grade and Young Adult Writers

Learn to write your novel at a fraction of the cost of an MFA!

I’m super excited to introduce my upcoming Masterclass, with a start date of early spring 2023. The class is based on my 20 years in publishing, my craft education including an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and my experience writing nine books for young readers published by houses big and small.

This tailored, high-touch, high-value online course will lead you through the craft instruction you need to write your middle grade or young adult novel. Each module provides deep insight into all aspects of storytelling. Homework will be returned weekly with my comments, and once each month you’ll be invited to join a Zoom meeting featuring a live analysis of one or two students’ homework, plus an open Q&A. The final homework assignment, your first 50 manuscript pages, will receive line edits and an edit letter from me.

The course lasts a total of 24 weeks.

The modules include discovery, character, plot, world-building, revision, and querying. The last includes insights into the publishing industry and recommended next steps.

woman typing on computer

My masterclass will take your writing to the next level

You’ll finish this 6-month program with a foundation in the craft of novel-writing plus personalized feedback, and you’ll meet a cohort of colleagues with whom you can continue your creative journey.

I spent two years and tens of thousands of dollars receiving my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and while I deeply value that experience, not everyone can afford that kind of time and money. My course distills the knowledge I’ve amassed over my successful 20-year career.

Yes, I’m interested in your Masterclass!

Is this course for you?

Yes, if

  • You’ve got a solid idea or a rough draft for a middle grade or young adult novel.
  • You’ll be able to devote 5 to 10 hours/ week to learning and practicing the craft.
  • You are eager to become part of a cohort of writers at a similar level to yours.
  • You can commit to working over this 6-month period.
  • You like having accountability and deadlines.

But not if

  • You don’t have time to complete the homework, which includes suggested reading.
  • You’ve never tried to write a novel.

What’s Inside

Here’s a sample of what you’ll learn, from the module on Character 

  • Defining your main character – protagonist
  • Get to know your antagonist
  • Create important secondary characters with purpose
  • Write with emotion on the page
  • Learn what we mean when we say “show don’t tell”
  • Voice is probably the single most important element to understand and use correctly
  • Whose point of view should you choose, and how do you stay firmly in that character?
  • Writing in multiple points of view is tricky, but you can master it
  • Which tense – past, present, or even future – serves your story?
  • Master dialogue that shows character thoughts, and learn when to leave space for the reader
  • Create all-important character backstory
  • Do you know your character’s goal, motivation, and conflict? You will!
  • What does it mean to force your character to make things worse?

The class will be size-limited due to its high-touch nature, so if you think you want to join, don’t wait!

Interested? Use this link to get on my dedicated mailing list, and I’ll share further details with you.

Yes! Keep me informed about your Masterclass!

Critiquing Your Writing: Who Does What For You?

Do you have critique partners?

You’ve probably heard that the way to improve your writing is to have partners who will read your work and give you feedback. Yes, that’s certainly true, and I’ve had excellent partners through the years.

But good critique partners can be hard to find, and matching up with the wrong partner or partners can actually be detrimental to your writing.

In this post, I’m going to discuss (a) what makes for a good critique group and (b) what other forms of feedback you might use.

Critique Groups…

…are not all equal. Writers who are inexperienced in critiquing may not be able to tell you, in a way that helps you, what’s working or not. Here are some tips.

  • Try to find critique partners at the same writing stage you are in, or a little above your stage.
  • Try to find critique partners who write what you write in terms of genre and audience age.
  • Try to find critique partners who understand that they are not rewriting your book for you, and that the most helpful feedback is specific. Example: “In your opening pages, I’m not sure what your character really wants, what their story goal is.” Or, “In this paragraph, you’ve changed points of view.”
  • Set up a regular time to meet, weekly, biweekly, monthly.
  • Share equally. Everyone gets a turn.
  • Limit the amount of time given to any one submission.
  • I’ve found it most effective to share only a small portion at a time. Ten pages is about anyone’s limit for good feedback.
  • Reading aloud is hard. Personally, I have to read the pages myself to give good feedback. In my groups, we’ve either brought work and all read silently, or sent work ahead for feedback when we meet.
people writing at table

And where do you find good critique partners? SCBWI meetings are a great place to start. If you meet someone and bond with them, and they fit the criteria above, that’s a sure winner.

Don’t be afraid to say when it isn’t working. There’s nothing more destructive than bad critiques – I’ve known writers to quit after brutal or insensitive feedback.

Other Types of Feedback

There are other ways to get feedback, and these are the paid options.

Developmental editors: if you Google that term, you’ll find dozens of people who do what’s called developmental editing. This is broad brush feedback, generally in the form of a long edit letter with no line edits.

Online courses: some are structured to group participants so that they can work through course exercises together. That may not lead to specific feedback, but it might lead to meeting someone who is a good match for a critique partner.

Book coaches: this is what I do. It’s longer term personalized feedback, with line edits and specific discussion, through either writing a novel from scratch or revising a full novel, all over the span of time that’s needed.

Copy editors: if you’re confident of your writing skills but not your grammar, it’s easy to hire a copy editor who will do everything from grammar check to internal consistency (i.e., did you get your timeline out of order? Are your strangely spelled names always spelled the same?)

My Upcoming Masterclass

After a lot of research, I’m finally in real planning for my masterclass in writing the middle grade or young adult novel. This will be a high touch, limited enrollment class, and here’s the good news: much of the course material will be at your fingertips, forever. And, bonus, I plan to create cohort groups of students, which may lead students to long-term critique partners.

I can’t wait to share the details – I’m hoping to launch the course in March 2023 at the latest. If you’d like to be kept informed with no obligation, click here (and though it says middle grade, I’m expanding to include young adult): 

Yes! I’d like to hear more about your masterclass!

 

Turn, Turn, Turn: Plot Turning Points

A couple of weeks ago I addressed plot, and how the Save The Cat template is useful for sketching out the bones of a story. But there’s more to this idea of creating a skeleton, for stories (with the exception of metafiction) share a common structure.

This structure is based upon the concept of turning points, which is, in turn, based upon that human experience called life.

What Are Turning Points?

Turning points are places in a plot where the action “turns” due to something the character does (or fails to do). That turn is sharp, and completely opposite what is expected. For example, when in The Hunger Games Katniss’s sister Prim is chosen for Tribute, and Katniss jumps in and volunteers in order to save Prim, that moment in chapter 1 is the first turning point in the story.

Two things happen at any turning point. First, tension increases due to the 180 degree change in direction of the plot. Second, the turning point exists because of what the main character does (or fails to do), and her action will lead to what happens next.

Naming the Points

The first turning point in any story is usually called the inciting incident. Each of the subsequent turning points in a plot have been given various names bestowed on those spots by various authors of story craft, names such as plot point one, midpoint, plot point two, and so on. Regardless of what they are named, these turning points do align, as you can see from my plot paradigm compilation here.

image of plot structure

You can download this plot paradigm

Aristotle was the first writer to name the points of a story, and his simple 3-act structure forms the basis for all the rest. In 1863, Gustav Freytag created a paradigm that looks like a pyramid, with the climax forming the top of the pyramid. Christopher Vogler created the “hero’s journey” paradigm, which takes the shape of a circle. Martha Alderson created a paradigm that adds the value of rising tension to the linear changes of the three act structure. And Blake Snyder broke the structure down into finer turning points in Save The Cat.

The most interesting thing about turning points is that they reveal that story structure is ingrained in the human subconscious. Our lives are made up of turning points based on our personal choices in the moment. In story-telling, the author makes use of turning points to focus on how often a small decision, made in an instant, can change the course of a life or many lives.

The Importance of Turning Points

Why do we need to understand turning points? Because they define a moment of real change.

Stories do not bump along in “this happened and then this happened” fashion. When they do, we stop reading. If you want to use turning points consciously, find a paradigm that you like and use it. Not religiously – there’s no need for something to happen on page xx, exactly. But if, after your first draft, you can identify those moments when your character does something that changes everything that follows, see if those moments align more or less with the story structure defined in the pattern illustrated here.

And if your character is missing a turning point, you’ll add both tension and a causal trajectory to your story by creating that turning point scene.

I’ve used almost every paradigm I mentioned, but my current favorite is Save The Cat. What’s your favorite paradigm, or which would you like to try?

It’s Spooky Season!

When I was a kid, Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. But it wasn’t a big deal. Stores didn’t stock massive numbers of spooky decorations; we had to make our own costumes; pumpkins were carved but also eaten. When we went trick-or-treating we stayed in our own neighborhood, walked with friends (parents in tow), and generally laughed our way through the experience of surprising someone with a good costume rather than caring about the treats.

Today Halloween decorations come out in August (and to my horror – seriously – I’ve already seen Christmas décor for sale). Consumption seems to rule, whether it’s candy or decorations. We Americans are really into Spooky Season. So much so that the town of Salem, MA, home of the famous Salem witch trials is inundated with tourists (100,000 a day at last count) who don’t realize that it’s an actual town, not a theme park.

What Is It About Spooky?

I’ve written two middle grade spooky stories, and I’m a member of Spooky Middle Grade, a collective of authors who write these kinds of books, which range from real horror to mildly ghostly. Why do I write spooky? Honestly, it’s just plain fun.

Yes, and reading spooky stories can be an experience. I remember reading the original DRACULA by Bram Stoker, one winter night alone, sitting in a high-backed chair before the fireplace, and feeling like I didn’t want to leave that chair because it gave me protection from whatever might be behind me. Yet I kept reading, feeling the chills, savoring the masterful building of suspense.

When I listen to my fellow authors during our school visits, I nod in agreement with this: scary tales are useful. By reading about things that scare us, we can face down those fears. After all, we can put the book down and walk away; but we can also learn how to master fear, how to cope with “monsters”, how to even laugh at the things that seemed so terrible before we read about them.

I do believe in limits to spookiness for middle grade readers. I would never write true terror (I don’t read it, either), or bloody scenes, or violence. I happen to think the best horror, the scariest stuff, comes from inside and is psychological, and that, too, needs boundaries for middle grade.

Want To Write Spooky?

If you want to write spooky books for middle grade, here are a bunch of great books to read. Spooky is definitely having a day – kids love it, teachers and librarians are searching for it, and well-written spooky books last a long time on the bookshelves. Scare the kid inside of you silly and you’ll find your way into a fun book to read and write.

And Last Chance for This Spooky Giveaway!

My ARTIFACT HUNTERS companion booklet, SECRETS OF THE SAIU, will disappear at the stroke of midnight on Halloween. Don’t wait to get yours today!

Send me those secrets before it’s too late!