Volcano Dreams Book Giveaway

This week I’m featuring a giveaway to help our teachers, who are right now facing such difficulties across the board. This is the one thing I can do to say, “thanks for all you do”.

I have three (yes, three!) full classroom sets of paperbacks of my picture book Volcano Dreams to give away. That’s 25 copies of the book in each set. I’ll add copies up to 30 if you have more kiddos in your classroom.


Volcano Dreams: A Story of Yellowstone is my nonfiction picture book for ages 5-9, illustrated by Marlo Garnsworthy, published by Web of Life Children’s Books. It tells the story of the Yellowstone super volcano with scientific accuracy (I have a Master’s degree in geology) and is bookended by images of the myriad animals that live in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Here’s a short video about the book:

If you are a teacher with plans to teach earth sciences and/or natural history and/or western ecosystems, Volcano Dreams can form a part of your curriculum. I’m putting together a text set for the book, which should be available by mid-April, to help you create lesson plans. Additional ideas can be found here, in the exercises I’ve already developed for this book.

To enter the giveaway, please comment below with your name and school. You can also enter this giveaway on Twitter. Extra points for subscribing to my mailing list (where you’ll hear other teacher-friendly information; just click the link at the bottom of the page) and for Title 1 schools, so please let me know if that’s you. Giveaway ends April 8 at midnight.

A special note: my second picture book, Wintergarden, will be out from Neal Porter Books in the fall of 2023, illustrated by Jasu Hu.

And again – thanks for all YOU do.

Writers! Back Away Slowly…

I was listening to a writing discussion with Jennie Nash and Allison Williams the other night and Allison made a comment that the writers who succeed are the ones who can put the work down and come back to it with a fresh eye.

I know from personal experience how important that fresh eye can be. I’m working now on a book that I struggled with five years ago – and it broke my heart to put it aside when I couldn’t make it work. I’ve just picked it up again and – lo! – I’m loving every page, every sentence. Now I can see what the book means to me and what I want it to mean for the reader.

Neil Gaiman has said that when he first tried to write The Graveyard Book he struggled, and had to put it aside, and he did – for ten years. He admitted that he didn’t know how to write it, that he didn’t have the chops, until ten years later.

I’m not advocating for a ten year hiatus, or even five, but a break is essential to really get a grip on your work.

When To Take a Break

  • After that terrible first draft – and trust me, all first drafts are terrible, like it or not – is the first time to take that break.
  • Take a break whenever you stop truly loving the story. You’ll be fighting with your spirit if you try to muscle through.
  • Take a break as soon as you hit send to your critique partner, agent, editor, book coach. You’ll be better able to take their edits if you’ve stepped back.

And how long to take that break? I think three weeks minimum, six weeks maximum – unless like me and Neil you are just not ready to write that particular story. Some books are harder to master than others.

When To Find an Editor

If you feel that you can’t leave the story behind, and you know something isn’t working but you can’t put your finger on what it is, and if you don’t have a critique partner or you aren’t getting enough feedback or getting confusing/mixed feedback, that’s the time to find an outside editor.

An entire industry has grown up in the past three-four years around editing. I’ve got a book coaching business in which it’s my job to help a writer write, finish, and polish their book. There are dozens and dozens of fine book coaches and editors who will help you polish your work. I’ve hired one myself, so I truly know how invaluable a service it can be.

Here’s where you can start looking for that perfect-fit book coach (plus lots of writing support): Author Accelerator

What’s Happening on Page 50

Allison said something else that I found particularly interesting, and though it doesn’t bear directly on the subject of setting the work aside, it does bear on editing.

So many writers begin their story too early, with a lot of what we call “throat-clearing”. We writers think the reader needs to know all sorts of stuff so we pad it in there up front, in the opening pages.

Allison suggested that you hand your manuscript to a trusted reader and ask them to start reading on page 50. Are they confused? Are they lost? Is there information they need that they don’t have? If the answer to these questions is yes, then your earlier pages may be needed. But if not…

Revision is my favorite part of writing. Put your work aside, start something new, take a break, and come back fresh. You’ll be glad you did.

Yes! I’d like to learn about working with Janet Fox, Book Coach

Writing Lessons From an Illustrator

I listened to an excellent lecture today, and with acknowledgement to Eric Castleman, who gave the lecture, I’d love to share with you – reinterpreted for writers – his wise advice.

He didn’t know that he was an artist from the jump. He liked art and dove in – he is entirely self-taught. You can find his work here – and check it out because it’s wonderful, and he has a couple of lovely images available for sale. By being self-taught and deciding that this was his chosen path, he made his own plan for how to become a working artist/illustrator, so here are his reinterpreted “rules”.

By the way, Eric gave his permission for me to display his images – aren’t they amazing?

Eric’s Plan For Becoming a Pro (Reinterpreted for Writers)

  1. Write for one hour each day for a year.

That’s pretty reasonable, right? One hour, carved out of each day, is not a lot. But here’s the thing: I know from experience that if I set out to write for an hour, that (unless there are monumental things happening) that hour will turn in two or three or…

Courtesy Eric Castleman

And it’s the dedication to even an hour of working time that creates space for growth and inspiration.

  1. Share one thing you’ve written each week, with someone.

Critique partner. Teacher. Friend. Family member. If you know you’ll share it, you’ll work harder on it to avoid feeling embarrassed. In Eric’s case, he shared his art online (which I don’t recommend for writing), but find someone to share with. I have two critique partners I trust for feedback, and with them in mind, I keep my hand on the tiller.

  1. Study writing as if you know nothing about writing.

We can always learn something new, and if we have open minds about it, there’s always a craft technique or new approach that can blow our skillset wide open.

  1. Finish one full novel within one year.

Eric made himself finish 15 portfolio-ready illustrations in a year. Maybe you can write even more than one novel. Or finish and revise one novel. Or write ten short stories. Or 15 picture books. Challenge yourself. Make deadlines to keep yourself going.


    Courtesy Eric Castleman

More than talent, in my opinion, is staying with the work. Perseverance and persistence are the two qualities any artist needs in order to succeed.

Bonus Lesson(s)

Eric also said that he has tried to find his own style. Everyone’s style is unique. So Eric’s reinterpreted advice I would give to writers –

Lean into what you are good at. If you love romance, go all in for love. If science fiction, bring on the warp speed. Find your writing voice, and the subject matter that stirs your heart, and lean in.

And finally, Eric suggested that there is nothing new under the sun (so true) including no new stories, no new ideas. So go ahead – “steal”. No artist creates in a vacuum; we are all products of history. When I started out, I faithfully retyped full pages of other writers’ work. Not to steal it but to feel it – the cadence, the rhythm, the voice, the tone, the diction and syntax. Study the work of masters, see how they handle the difficult things. If you need writing inspiration or are feeling stuck, read someone else’s work.

So thanks, Eric, for letting me “steal” your terrific ideas.

How To Write Through Trauma

I think we can all agree that the times we are living in – really, for the past 6 years now – are traumatic. From polarization in politics, to the pandemic, to the increasing deleterious effects of climate change, and now to the very real threat of global war, we have the misfortune to be experiencing a unique set of stressors.

It’s hard to be creative when you wake up at 3 AM with the thought that the human race might realistically be facing extinction.

I believe that it is the role of the artist to crack open the barriers that create conflict. In order to get through these times we need to reinterpret them and express what is happening through a different lens, one that is accessible, one that may mirror events but with a flipped reflection.

To see a thing true, sometimes we need to see that thing from another direction.

By Example

[note: All the books I mention here, plus more, can be purchased at my Bookshop store here: https://bookshop.org/lists/books-for-tough-times You can read more about Bookshop here.]

Certain books have become classics precisely because they satirized or exaggerated the prevailing fears of the time: Fahrenheit 451 (book banning/burning); 1984 (brainwashing); Animal Farm (corruption in politics). Ironically, those books have themselves been subject repeatedly to book bans.

Other books have revealed the true horrors of war or of racial injustice (The Diary of Anne Frank; The Hate U Give – both also subject to book bans.)

Regardless of the controversy these books have engendered, they are much needed reflections of the terrible things, as well as the beautiful things, we humans can do to one another. They don’t preach, but show the reader how hatred, prejudice, and the lust for power all corrupt, while acceptance, openness, and knowledge elevate.

To Be an Artist

I believe that to be an artist is, at some level, to assume the responsibility of addressing the expressions of our human nature, bad and good. That by revealing both our beauty and our foibles we are honestly representing our need to listen to our “better angels”.

Try thinking about your work this way:

  • Metaphor. Removing the “thing” you want to say from direct expression can make it more accessible, especially to younger readers. (Animal Farm; Charlotte’s Web)
  • History. Historical perspectives shed light on today’s actions. (Between Shades of Gray; The Diary of Anne Frank)
  • Fantasy/science fiction/spec fiction. Fantasies can be relevant mirrors, albeit distorted. And science fiction and speculative fiction have long been the home for representation of human behavior, good and bad. (Lord of the Rings; The Broken Earth Series; Station Eleven)

Getting through traumatic times, for the artist, is a challenge. But if we think of ways to express the emotions that drive humans in ways both abhorrent and heroic we are not only shining a bright light into darkness, we are opening our own hearts to that light as well.

Publishing: Beyond the Traditional

Publishing. The ugly part of the writing life.

We writers love what we do. We sleep, eat, breathe our characters and plot lines, our worlds and our words. We spend years mastering craft, and more years digging deeper to try and tell the best possible story in the best possible way.

And then, of course, we want to see our work out in the world. We want to inspire and amaze and confound. We want our books in bookstores, in libraries, in reader’s hands. And we also would love to be rewarded for our efforts with a few nice (or glorious) reviews, maybe being on some lists, maybe even winning some awards.

Being a writer is great, until it comes to hawking our wares, because getting a book published through a traditional house at the moment is not easy. Not. At. All.

But I have some concrete suggestions for you, if you are an author frustrated by today’s industry.

Not Too Long Ago…

The way to get books into print was to find a publisher by submitting “over the transom” into a slush pile. When I started out, I attended conferences only to see editors posting pictures of themselves standing next to a pile of towering paper that made the editor look tiny. The deluge, spawned by the birth of the personal computer and the ease of printing multiple copies, had begun.

Soon after, publishers began to close their doors to unsolicited submissions and agents became the gatekeepers, until they, too, were overwhelmed with submissions and closed except to recommendations or requests.

At the Moment…

I’m hearing from industry experts that publishing is overwhelmed. A whole lot of people are writing, and a lot of those books are really good, and many are also justly serving under-represented voices, and many of these excellent books are getting published, and maybe everyone who wasn’t already writing wrote a pandemic book or two, and suddenly it’s really, really hard for a new author to break in. It’s even hard for a veteran author to sell a manuscript through their agent (take my word for it).

Further confounding new authors is the recent demise of #PitchWars and #PitMad, a Twitter forum allowing authors to pitch directly to agents, a practice that became a victim of its huge success.

What’s a New Author To Do?

First, persistence and determination are essential if you really want to land an agent and a major publisher. But there’s good news: the alternatives are actually getting better.

Again, when I started out, the only books being self-published were through “vanity presses” that charged an arm and a leg for a few copies that you might persuade your mom to buy, but they wouldn’t show up in libraries or bookstores. And usually those books were poorly written, badly edited, and sported icky covers.

Now self-publishing (“indie”) is not only acceptable, it’s a place where authors can find an audience and gain recognition. Companies have sprung up specializing in helping get books into the indie marketplace, do-it-yourself options are plentiful, and cover design has become very affordable.

And often overlooked smaller presses are still open to unsolicited submissions.

Here are some industry helpers that I can recommend:

If you have suggestions to add to my list, please let me know!

I’d like to discuss book coaching with Janet

A (Story) Heart for Your Valentine

If you are looking for a gift for the writer in your life – spouse, partner, dear friend, child, parent, or for yourself – I have a “gift” for you!

My targeted coaching package, Discover Your Story Heart, is already a sweet deal but I’m making it sweeter – for one week.

Discover Your Story Heart is a short but robust package designed to get you (or your Valentine) thinking about your story in a new way. Once you sign up, I’ll send you my unique Story Heart Workbook which poses a number of probing questions for you to answer about your work in progress. You’ll return the answers to those questions together with pages from your work. Then I’ll respond with a brief edit letter and we’ll have a 15 minute chat about where you hope to go next.

If you purchase the package as a gift, let me know and I’ll include a Happy Valentine’s Day ecard.

Whether you purchase it for yourself or for someone else, for one week only I am reducing the cost of the package from $220 to $190!

This price reduction expires at midnight, February 14. And the number of spots I hold for this package is limited, so when they fill up, the offer is gone.

If you’d like to take advantage of this special offer, please click the link below. There’s a place for you to let me know if this is a gift, and I’ll include the ecard when I send the instructions to your recipient.

Yes! I want to book your Story Heart Special Offer!

3 Exercises to Uncover Your Personal Life Theme

What the heck is a “personal life theme”? And why, you may ask, would I want to uncover mine? (Do note that this exercise is a bit of personal therapy.)

Aside from the general importance of self-knowledge, for a writer, understanding our life theme can guide us in choosing which books to write and how to write them. I’ve explored this before, but here’s another look at this important technique.

We all want to write books that resonate at a deep emotional level. Uncovering your personal life theme will almost certainly help you reach that level and provide the key to your next best book.

Let’s Define Personal Life Theme

We all (not only our characters) have a backstory. We all carry some baggage from our childhoods, informed by experiences we mostly would like to forget. These experiences may haunt us in the form of a wound, and Lisa Cron in STORY GENIUS has taken those human wounding experiences to character development in the form of a backstory wound. When we uncover our characters’ backstory wounds, we create characters that resonate.

Out of our personal childhood wound, we develop ideologies. For example, someone who has been brought up in a household where parents are absent physically or emotionally might deal with fears of abandonment. Someone who experienced death of a loved one at an early age may deal with fears of death and dying.

Using these ideologies in our characters creates rich characters. But finding our personal ideology – our “life theme” – will enrich all our story-crafting.

If your personal life theme involves “abandonment”, you can use that theme in different ways in each story you craft, whether it be in a story like THE RUNAWAY BUNNY or one like PAX, and it will resonate at a deep subconscious level to produce more deeply emotional stories.

3 Exercises

This exercise can be difficult and may open old wounds so please practice self-care as you delve in.

  1. In a meditative way, take yourself back to age 12. Think of a specific incident or emotional condition that you experienced or felt at that age.
  2. Write a letter to your 12-year-old self from where you are now, letting that self know that everything will be all right, and you are there to protect them.
  3. Take a break, and then come back to the triggering emotions you dealt with at that age in that moment. Those emotions will combine to show you your personal life theme.

Give yourself some peace and comfort. You’ve exposed a wound. But you’ve also given yourself a gift of self-knowledge that may guide you toward richer story-telling.

I’ll cover craft techniques like this and more in my upcoming Masterclass on Writing the Middle Grade Novel. If you are interested in learning more without committing, hit the button below.

Please keep me informed about your Masterclass!

What Brings You Joy?

For both writers, and teachers of writers, on the subject of “what do we write about and why”…

I have a wonderful coaching client, who has recently finished her first novel (a fantastic and emotionally moving story, beautifully told, about a middle school girl recovering from grief). We were talking about what she would write next, and she said, “Well, I have this thing I wrote that’s really different.”

I said, “Send me the first 30 pages.”

The pages were really, really different. Very funny, very well-written, kind of oddball, a mystery, and in a niche I won’t go into for reasons of client privilege. They were not at all like the novel she’d just finished.

My first concern was that as a debut author, readers may expect more of the same from her. My second concern was whether there was a market for this story, as it is so out of the box.

Writing To Please the Crowd

We had a conversation, this client and I, and I gave her my concerns, and asked her to think about them for a few days. And then think about any ideas she might also have that were more in line with her first book, because I knew from experience that it is hard to swerve away from one genre into another.

I’ve swerved, more than once, some times more successfully than others. My first three novels were historical YA. When I swerved into middle grade fantasy, I lost my then agent who wanted more of the same.

When I wrote my first picture book, it was hard to sell because I was known as a novelist.

When I wrote my most recent novel, Carry Me Home, it sold right away, but hasn’t found its audience because it’s contemporary and about a tough topic, and I’m known best for spooky fantasy.

I’m sure my current agent would also like more of the same, more successful middle grade fantasy books. I’m sure my readers would like more of them, too. But I’ve tried to write to please the crowd, and that doesn’t work at all.

“It Brings Me Joy”

When we write to please someone other than ourselves we write from an inauthentic place. I’ve written here before about being authentic, and I really believe that this is the key to writing great books. It’s not about the concept, or the genre, or even the smooth execution. It’s about the emotional well from which we draw ideas that are truly meaningful to us. Maybe this is what is actually meant by “write what you know”, except it’s not about what you know but what you feel.

My client gave it a few days and said she couldn’t come up with anything else she’d rather write about. She wants to work on this odd story “because it gives me joy.”

That was enough for me to say to her, “Then I’m all in.”

Write From a Place of Joy

Success in writing doesn’t always come in the form of numbers – books sold, books acquired – but in the form of what brings you joy. I still truly believe in Carry Me Home and am deeply proud of it, and have to trust that it will one day find its audience. That book, written with pure intent on a tough topic, brings me joy because I said what was in my heart.

I think that when we write, or when we teach or coach writing, we need to honor our own or the writer’s intentions and emotions and encourage ourselves and them to write from a place of joy.

So, I encourage you writers – and you teachers of writing – to ask yourselves or your students, “What brings you joy?”

I’d love to hear your answers to that question.

Interested in working on book coaching with me?

4 Ways To Make Reader/Character Connections

As Lisa Cron says in her terrific craft book Story Genius, our brains are wired for connection. People need other people; readers need characters. When we read, we are looking to make a deep emotional connection with the main character of a story.

Here are four ways – dos and don’ts – to ensure that your character makes that reader connection.

And as a reminder, if you like craft ideas like this one, sometime this spring I’ll be launching a Masterclass in Writing the Middle Grade Novel with lots of exercises and lectures. If you’re interested in learning more, click the button.

Keep Me Informed About Your Masterclass!

The Four Character Connections

  1. Do understand your main character’s desires, both internal and external.

Your main character must have an external story goal that comprises the basis for your plot. And they must have an internal story arc – a long-held, often buried, desire – that drives them emotionally through the hurdles created by the external arc. Your reader wants to know what drives your character as this lets them become emotionally involved in the character’s actions.

  1. Do make your main character active.

Your main character must be actively engaged in driving the external arc. In the first half of the story your character makes mistake after mistake, pushing against the obstacles. Around the midpoint, your main character may have a revelation which shows them the way forward, as they learn how to tackle the obstacles correctly. Your reader attaches to both the flaws/mistakes, and then to the successes of the character.

  1. Do create a backstory for your character.

This backstory is crucial to a successful character that has emotional resonance for your reader. Cron in particular emphasizes knowing the wounding event in a character’s backstory, one that drives their inability to act appropriately. Your character had a life before they stepped onto page one of your book – make sure you know what that life was like, and what event or events wounded them. Your reader will have a backstory wound; we all have one or more. We attach to characters who are wounded as well, even when we don’t precisely know what that event was.

  1. Don’t (unless you are N.K. Jemisin) create more than one main character.

This is not to say not to use multiple points of view. It just means that your reader must attach on page one to one character, and will want to follow that character throughout. Unless you have mastered epic fantasy or science fiction (and few of us will ever) stick to only one main character with one internal and external arc.

Don’t forget to let me know you might be interested in my Masterclass, and in the meantime please let me know what craft tips you’d like to hear about here.


Keep Me Informed About Your Masterclass!

8 Killer Character Questions

By that, I don’t mean your character needs to be a killer. But – what, you writers may ask, is the most important task to tackle while writing?

I’m a firm believer that without a great character, your novel will be…lost. The best plot, the most exciting premise, the most challenging adventure is nothing without a great character.

As humans we connect with others through emotion. In novels, that emotional connection comes from good character development. Here are 8 questions to ask so that you can craft stronger characters.

By the way, later this year I’m opening an online Masterclass on writing the middle grade novel. Stay informed with no commitment!

I’m interested in your Masterclass!

Whose story is this?

You need to know who your protagonist is first and foremost. And you need to know what they want, what they need, their primary flaw, etc. Here are the questions to answer:

  1. What is your character’s external desire?
  2. What does your character really want, but is buried in their subconscious – their internal lack?
  3. What does your character need in order to satisfy that internal lack or need?
  4. What is their greatest flaw, or personal weakness?
  5. What is the worst thing that can happen if your character doesn’t get what they desire, externally?
  6. What is the worst thing that can happen if your character isn’t able to satisfy their internal need?
  7. What is standing in the way of the external desire/goal?
  8. What is standing in the way of the internal lack/need?

And By Example: Harry Potter

  1. Harry Potter’s external desire is to be safe from Voldemort.
  2. His internal lack is for a family (note that before the story starts, he assumes he was abandoned. Abandonment is a huge issue generally and certainly is for Harry.)
  3. To satisfy his need for family, he has to uncover his true past and adopt the family he finds through the wizarding world.
  4. His greatest flaw is that he acts impulsively, out of a sense of aggrievement. 
  5. The worst thing that can happen externally is Voldemort kills him.
  6. The worst thing that can happen to Harry if he doesn’t find his “family” is that he is really, truly alone.
  7. Voldemort is his antagonist.
  8. Harry’s frequent impulsivity threatens his ability to keep his friends close. (He may also have trust issues stemming from his abandonment.)

Most Important Question – #2

Note that the issue of abandonment stems from Harry’s initial ignorance of his past. He doesn’t know that he comes from the wizarding world. He has no idea how he got his scar, or why strange things happen to him, or why he is living in such an abusive situation with a family who is both afraid of him and dislikes him. As you work through these questions, try to find an issue that has scope – like abandonment – and that asks deep psychological questions.

I’ll be addressing this more deeply in my next post.

More To Come

I’m planning a series of posts throughout 2022 with writing exercises like these. If you like this kind of work, keep in touch as sometime later this year I’ll be launching an online Masterclass: Writing the Middle Grade Novel, From the Ground Up. If you want more information (without committing) about this course, let me know here.

I’m interested in your Masterclass!