The Real Importance of Conferences 

I’ve attended a lot of children’s literature conferences over the past couple of decades. I’ve been to the SCBWI International Conference in Los Angeles about a dozen times. I’ve been to regional SCBWI conferences too numerous to count. I always look forward to them with a frantic sense of excitement. Or at least I did initially. I recall, in the beginning, stressing over what to bring to share, wavering between “This is brilliant,” to  “this sucks! I have nothing good enough to show anyone!” I’d chafe over what clothes to pack for the climate as well as for the social element. I’d redesign business cards at the last minute and then decide to go with my old ones. I was an anxious, nervous—but very excited—wreck leading up to a conference.

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A couple pages of conference notes from a recent conference

What made it easier was seeing old friends there. And meeting new friends. And meeting friends that I’d only known online before. As writers and illustrators we typically work alone and conferences are wonderful breaks from that solitary world. Many friends I’ve met at conferences continue to play important roles in my life today. Even beyond kid lit. I remember sitting with friends in a freezing ballroom or a too warm meeting room, taking copious notes during both keynotes and breakout sessions, sharing insights with a glance and a smile, or a roll of the eyes. I have sketchbooks scrawled with words of wisdom delivered by both presenters and pals, and scribbles and sketches from downtimes. When looking at old conference notes and sketches, I can remember pretty clearly who I was sitting with, and what we might have been discussing when I created them. And just about every one of them is from a joyous time. Besides attending sessions, the time at lunch, or over cocktails, or out to dinner with these people became just as valuable and informative, perhaps even more so, than the sessions and keynotes themselves. Shared experiences with peers are helpful and motivational and come with a large serving of encouragement. In an industry that often hums with pessimism and foretells its own demise, motivation and encouragement are pretty precious commodities.

Over the years, as the conferences began adding up, the breakout sessions and keynotes started repeating themselves. Most of the presenters seem to be from a rather select pool of industry stars and most of the session topics I’ve heard before. Deciding whether to attend a conference, or if at a conference whether to attend a session, sometimes becomes less about the topic or the presenter and more about who else is going to be there. I’ve hardly learned all there is to know about this industry, and I know I benefit from taking similar sessions repeated times. But in the end I know the most valuable parts of conferences to me are the other attendees. They make up this terrific community of kid lit. And the conference brings that community to life.

-kevan atteberry

 

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Show and Tell. Like Kindergarten, But With More Judgment.

This is my penultimate post here at the ‘Mus. It’s like leaving Neverland. Just when you’ve figured out the lost boys and the ticking alligator and the pirates who don’t seem to pirate anything, you are exiled forever for reasons you can’t quite grasp except as a kind of vague feeling you’ve done something wrong. Okay, maybe I don’t really get Neverland.

In my defense, these are some of the image results for “Neverland” and “Peter Pan.”

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Garter snake.

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William McKinley.

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Is that a cat? Are that 1970′s man’s legs on backwards?

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Peter denying Christ. So . . . close?

***Fun Fact: There’s this Peter Pan comic book at my grandma’s house, and you know how Peter’s usually played by a lady in the musical, right? So there he is on the cover — drawn — and they’ve drawn his boobs in. WHY DID THEY DO THAT? The singing ladies use tight wraps and loose clothing and all kinds of Theatre Magic to appear boyish, and the comics people then go and draw the boobs in anyway, like really obviously? Anyway, no I don’t have the image to show you because it apparently doesn’t exist on the internet, but I’ll take a picture for my ultimate post and then we can all feel various feelings together.***

So. The bones of this post were originally intended for another blog, wholesome and child-friendly, where I’m making a guest appearance to talk about writing. But the post I was working on for this blog involves me reading reviews of my book, and the longer I can put that off, the better, kind of like doing taxes. No, it doesn’t matter if they’re good reviews or bad reviews. It’s like — okay, that’s all going in the ultimate post.

Anyhoo. Writing. We all have our struggles with Craft (I like to capitalize it and pronounce it “krahhhft”), and the stretch between contract and launch is the perfect time for those struggles to be brought into painful relief. My personal source of pain, were I to get it tattooed across my forehead, is:

.llet t’nod ,wohS

I’m sure a lot of writers get to the point where we just want to have the bloody thing inked, waiting to greet us with its pithy, self-righteous wisdom in the bathroom mirror every morning.

“Never say, ‘She was happy,’” our forehead tattoo will remind us. “Say, ‘She danced through the junkyard like a smiling, dancing, sparkle rainbow conspiracy-theorist fairy, the sparkling rainbows of spilled gasoline reflecting off her tinfoil hat.’”

Okay. But, you know, sometimes we should tell also.

“NEVER!” shouts our forehead tattoo. “Go write out Moby-Dick longhand and think about what you’ve done!”

(This is why we SHOULD NOT get the forehead tattoo.)

***Fun Fact: Speaking of Moby-Dick, I made this collage one time when I thought ravenous dragons would improve most things. And speaking of dragons, TALKER 25 IS COMING.***

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OK, so readers need to make connections themselves, it’s true. It’s annoying when a book makes you want to shout, “Okay, he misses his freaking dead father! I GET IT ALREADY!”

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This is the free crybaby image I found. I can’t stop looking at it. Srsly, really study this horrifying thing. Where are its hands? WHERE ARE ITS EMOTIONS?

But sometimes we — and by “we” I mean, specifically, I — end up writing for psychic readers.

Anyone who’s read E. L. James can tell you there’s a fine line between a feather and a battle-axe. (I haven’t read E. L. James, which is why my Night Elf Warrior totally sucks.) I am so afraid of hitting readers over the head that sometimes I’m not even in the same zip code as them. In my WIP, for instance, I’ve got these beasts of burden. They lope around, they carry stuff, people ride them, and they have feathers. Because they’re birds. Birds have feathers. But that wasn’t clear. I needed to say they are birds.

Now that’s not to say that Show Don’t Tell is one (actually two, for some reason) of the ten worst pieces of writing advice you can receive, as asserted by a listicle that’s been making the rounds this week. It’s good advice. It’s just that telling has these specific times when it’s appropriate, so it’s more like Show And Tell.

I asked my mum what her thoughts were on this, and she tossed me a book she wrote on memoir. It was a special moment.

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Here we are protesting something. It’s the little things.

So here are some guidelines on showing and telling, based partially on my mum’s book and partially on what my spirit animal intimated to me (it’s either a bear or an eagle depending on which Internet quiz you believe).

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Holy balls, this came out way more terrifying than I envisioned.

Show when you’re in the moment. When the story is happening.

Show one specific instance of a repeated thing rather than montaging, “This thing would happen occasionally.”

Tell information that enhances the reader’s understanding of the moment you’re showing.

Tell insights.

Neither show nor tell actions or information the reader can infer on her own.

What else?

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One Hour A Week — Or Less

“I’m allowed to draw for one hour a week,” says my 16-yr-old SAT student. Anime characters look up at me from the pages of her sketchbook, as wide-eyed and alarmed as I am. “My mom says that’s enough.”

Enough for a teen who’s aiming for a career in medicine or law, she means. And what other career would a mother expect her daughter to go into after she pays through the nose for one-on-one tutoring, SAT classes, and weekend AP courses?

Makes sense.

But this student’s work is good, and I can tell she’s sneaked in a lot more than an hour a week to fill up this sketchbook.

“You can’t neglect this,” I tell my student. “If you keep at it, you could do something special with your art.”

But she will neglect it, mostly. She’ll convince her mom to let her take AP Art, but she’ll agree to major in something more practical, and eventually her studies will push out all time for drawing.

Many of the students at the Bay Area tutoring center where I work are barred from creative activities. Declarations like the one above seem to go hand in hand with a question my students ask me all the time: “Why do you work here?” Usually I answer with something to make them laugh. “Haven’t you seen this place??” I exclaim while gesturing at posters of punctuation marks made into cartoon characters.

The real reason I work part time at a tutoring center (instead of full time as an engineer/lawyer/doctor/CEO as falls in their realm of possibility for careers) is that I want to spend a lot of time with my five-year-old and I want to spend a lot of time writing (and–crazy–I actually love tutoring and teaching). Sure, I’d also like to spend a lot of money–but I’m not willing to devote all my time to making it.

When I explain this to my students, I can never tell if they understand it or not. In any case, it’s the right choice for me right now.

Is it a choice I can encourage my students to make?

Well, their parents are paying me to help them get into top colleges, so I should probably keep my mouth shut when I’m not extolling the praises of the UC system.

But when I look through a student’s treasured sketchbook, when she shows me her short stories posted online, I can’t be complicit with “one hour a week is enough for creative endeavors.”

At the same time, I know these students’ parents are trying to save them from the precarious financial situations I’ve been in more than once. It feels irresponsible to say, “Pursue your art! Don’t worry about the money!” when I know how much time I myself spend worrying about money.

I usually stick with a middle road. I tell my students, “You can major in engineering if you feel that’s what you need to do, but you can still write/draw/dance on the side.” This is a lie. Already these kids are being told that their art is at best a distraction. No way they will stick with it when the pressures of MIT come down on them. No way they will seek out classes or mentors or fellow artists while they’re competing for a spot at Google. I imagine them finishing school, completing internships, working out of a cubicle for a few years before suddenly remembering how they used to copy that one character over and over until they got it right. Or going back to that short story they never finished, and wondering how it should have ended.

And then what? Quitting their lucrative jobs in spite of the student loans that hang over them? Maybe they’ll take up sketching again as a hobby. “Just a hobby!” they’ll say as they paper their cubicles with drawings. Maybe they’ll start to lose sleep working on that old manuscript before bed. Maybe they’ll find a way to incorporate animation into their jobs.

Deep down will live stifled horror, or maybe something as harmless as faint regret, at never having developed their talent. And the rest of us will contend only ever with the ghost of their art, wonders never expressed and never observed.

parker photo Parker Peevyhouse works as an SAT prep course instructor and tutor in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also works as a substitute teacher at a K-8 school. Her debut YA novel, FUTURES, will be published by Kathy Dawson Books/Penguin in 2015.

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Choosing Writing

IMG_4561The hardest thing for me about writing is not the writing itself, it’s writing through everything life throws your way. Every writer I know–each one of you reading this, I imagine–is not simply a writer. We are daughters and sons, siblings, parents, grandparents, spouses. We are friends. We are pet owners. We work full time, we juggle three jobs, we are struggling to find a job. We are in college, we are going back to school. We are planning a wedding, a vacation, a birthday party, a baby shower. Our cars break down, a tree falls on our house, our basement gets flooded. We get sick, we get injured, our friends and family get sick or injured. We have serious health complications. Our loved ones have serious health complications. We endure loss, both unexpected and long-time dreaded. We are grieving. We are coping. We are exercising, we are moving to a new house, we are seeing the world, we are going home to see old friends, we are having a night out on the town, we are addicted to Breaking Bad, we are walking the dog, we are doing laundry, we are coaching little league, we are keeping up on the news, we want to sleep.

To be a writer, you have to prioritize writing above other choices, through the varied weather of your life, and you have to do that, if not consistently, often enough that you’re moving forward instead of treading water or falling behind. To be a writer, you have to choose writing.

Even in the happiest moments of your life, this is a juggling act. But what about our lowest moments?

In my post “Resolutions, I’ve Had a Few”, I mentioned 2009 was a difficult year for me. I refer to it as The Year That Shall Not Be Named. The bad stretch began with a sick dog and ended with losing my uncle to cancer after a surprising and short battle, with a lot more painful losses and grief and a lawsuit and broken appliances and car trouble and other sucky things thrown in the middle. I’ve experienced challenges and heartache in my life, but never so many difficult things in such close succession. It was the first time I really understood the metaphor of feeling like I was drowning in my own life. Wave after wave kept hitting before I had a chance to fully come up for air and rest from the last one. Once you’ve been hit by a few waves, a mental repercussion can take hold and you begin to fear the next wave, when it will happen, and how big it will be.

2009 could have been the year I gave up on writing. In the beginning, I assumed each wave would be the last, and more often than not I didn’t choose writing. Sometimes because I absolutely couldn’t, and sometimes because I thought, “I’ll just get through this tough spell. I’ll wait until this is resolved. There is enough stress right now without having to stress out over fixing a broken plot.” The problem was, that reprieve I’d been waiting for never came.  I hadn’t written for weeks, then months. There were times I’d sit at my computer, determined to get back to my writing, and I’d feel so distant from where I’d last been with my story. Who were these characters again? What had I been trying to do? It was overwhelming, frustrating, daunting. How did other writers manage this? Maybe I didn’t have the capacity to be a novelist after all.

I sought out advice from anywhere I could get it. What I heard over and over was to write through the difficulties. Keep that butt in that chair. Show up and do the work. This is what professionals do. This is what writers do.

Yes, yes, I’d nod. I’d sit down and face the knotted mess of my novel, determined to get the problems unraveled and everything in order, and another wave would hit and I’d stop writing again. And sometimes there was no wave, only my despair and frustration with myself, and I’d lose myself to a Gilmore Girls binge.

I felt like a failure. I felt like a fraud calling myself a writer. I’m here on Emu’s Debuts writing this, so obviously the story has a happy ending. But I want to share this for those of you out there who are struggling to choose writing, who are dealing with that guilt, who might feel like frauds, who might feel like you’re not good enough to be part of the writer club. To any of you in that position I say:

You’re not a fraud. If you want to be a writer, you are a writer. Screw that butt-in-chair, write-every-day advice. You will get your butt in the chair when its good and ready.

In the meantime, here are the things that kept me tethered to the writing boat while the waves crashed on top of me.

  1.  Show up and try. I didn’t show up every day. I didn’t show up every week. Sometimes I showed up but stared at a blinking cursor, or typed a paragraph and then deleted it because it was crap. But I kept showing up and I kept trying, and eventually things got better. Even if it’s been months or even years, it’s never too late to start showing up and trying.
  2. Surround yourself with people who will support your dreams and encourage you to choose writing. The main reason I didn’t abandon my novel is because I had family and friends who believed in my story even when I didn’t, and who believed in me as a writer when I didn’t. And the flip side of this, if a person or environment feels toxic, cut ties or distance yourself. Occasionally there are unsupportive people in our life who we can’t distance ourselves from. Accept those people for who they are and appreciate them for the other roles they play in your life. Don’t expect them to suddenly be supportive of your writing when they’ve never played that role before. Find your support elsewhere.
  3. Stay connected to the writing community. If you’re not currently involved in the writing community, this is actually a great time to put yourself out there. (And by “putting yourself out there” I don’t mean try to work a room. You can be an observer and learn a lot and gain a lot of inspiration from what others say and do.) The writing community can be a very healing place if you seek inspiration rather then shortcuts and connections. This is where organizations like SCBWI or Lighthouse Writers, writing friends, critique groups, and author blogs can be a godsend. (But not all organizations and critique groups and blogs are created equal. Participate in the places that leave you feeling lighter, happier–or at the very least, that don’t bring you down or add to your troubles.) I went to writing conferences, I took classes. Something I did quite often–and this is free and simple and entertaining and gives back to the writing community–is attend author readings at bookstores. So many times when I was feeling at my lowest failure/fraud point, I’d hear an author speak or read a blog post and they would say something that resonated in such a way that it gave me just enough pep to choose writing for one more day.
  4. Read, but read to refuel your creative tank. I read books on craft (The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes and Write Away by Elizabeth George were particularly helpful during this time). I read in my genre. I read my favorite authors in any genre. I only read books that grabbed my attention or entertained me. When life is stressful, reading should be an outlet of fun or relief. Don’t let reading turn into a burden.
  5. Recognize that you are writing even when you’re not “writing”. I may not have made much progress on my revisions in 2009, but I was always writing in one form or another. Anything you write–emails, blog posts, your holiday newsletter, Facebook updates, Tweets, journal entries–you’re exercising your writing muscle. Deliberate your wording, whether you’re painting the right picture, the best way to deliver a joke. Writing doesn’t have to be about daily word count goals, and it’s good to recognize that.
  6. Pay attention to your mental well-being. Get exercise and sleep. Talk to people when you need to. Be gentle with yourself.

Choosing writing isn’t always about typing words on the page. It’s about committing yourself to a goal and not giving up on it no matter the obstacles placed in your way.

Choose writing.

 

___________________________________

_2001843-122Jennifer Chambliss Bertman is the author of the forthcoming middle-grade mystery, Book Scavenger (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt/Macmillan, 2015). Book Scavenger launches a contemporary mystery series that involves cipher-cracking, book-hunting, and a search for treasure through the streets of San Francisco. Jennifer earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College, Moraga, CA, and is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette.

You can find Jennifer online at http://writerjenn.blogspot.com where she runs an interview series with children’s book authors and illustrators called “Creative Spaces.

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What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Debut

I’ve been getting all kinds of antsy lately, worried that I am supposed to be doing something to prepare for my spring 2015 debut. I’ve been plenty busy with other projects. I’ve sold a second book (woohoo!) and revised another for an interested editor (fingers crossed.) And there are the revisions on other projects, etc, etc. But, there’s something special about this debut experience. A first book is like a first child, right?

Some pre-release duties, like website updating, blogs, business cards, brochures, mailing lists, and library contacts, are predictable. Expected. But, how do we debut authors prepare for the unexpected?

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I reached out to some pretty awesome EMLA authors and asked them what they wish they’d known as they approached their debut release and what advice they would give to those of us stocking up on anxiety. I hope you will get as much out of their responses as I have.

What about that title? Jeannie Mobley, author of KATERINA’S WISH (McElderry, 2012) pointed out that authors often lose a beloved original title during the pre-release revision process. Your book will be around for a long time, so it’s important to negotiate, with your editor, a title that you will be proud of. Mike Jung, author of GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES (Arthur A. Levine, 2012) expands on the notion, encouraging authors to be prepared “by writing up some alternative versions that you’ll be able to live with.

How about those blog tours? Jeannie Mobley suggests spreading blog interviews out over time, rather than clumping them all into just before and just after the book releases. Especially close to holiday seasons, and award seasons. Janet Fox, author of SIRENS (Speak, 2012) noted the variations in blog styles: “I’ve found the most value for time in doing a creative blog tour. Not just the answer-the-questions kind, but one that maintains a thread or through-line and informs. For my 1920’s historical, I wrote ten posts on different aspects of the 20’s, and got a huge response.”

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Natalie Dias Lorenzi, author of FLYING THE DRAGON (Charlesbridge, 2011) says, “If your time is limited, be choosy about which blogs you agree to provide interviews for, and pay close attention to the audiences they reach. For YA writers, blogs that reach book club facilitators, readers and librarians will give you more mileage… For middle grade and picture book authors, reaching readers via blogs is highly unlikely (there are a few, like http://thiskidreviewsbooks.com).

“In my opinion, librarian and teacher blogs are the most worth your time (and I’m not saying this just because I’m both, I promise.) I say this because librarians and teachers are the most likely to get your books into the hands of readers…Think of a blog tour as a chance to make your audience aware of your book. Take a look at who leaves comments on a blog–is it mostly other writers, or do other folks chime in, too?”      Psst…Check out the below list of librarian and teacher blogs that Natalie has shared with us! Awesome, right?

School visits rock, but…- Pat Zietlow Miller, author of SOPHIE’S SQUASH (Schwartz & Wade, 2013) says, “School visits are a lot of fun, but they also are a lot of work in terms of preparing them, conducting them and decompressing afterward.” When she was faced with a flood of awkward requests for free school visits, Pat came up with a tactful and professional response similar to this: ‘I love doing school visits! What I charge depends on how long I’m there, how far I have to travel and what type of reading or presentation I do. I’d be happy to talk to someone from the school and see what they have in mind.’

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General, but fabulous marketing advice: When it comes to choosing your marketing energies, Cynthia Levinson, author of WE’VE GOT A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH (Peachtree, 2012) encourages authors to go into the process with eyes wide-open: “I wish I’d known how much time it would all take–blogs, presentations, interviews, videos, library and school visits, trailer, website development, teachers’ guide, conference proposals, multiple trips, articles. It was fun but my recommendation is to figure out what you most like to do and focus on those. Feel free to set priorities, and decline the opportunities that cause you stress or distraction. Your book has value and stands on its own. It’s your publisher’s job to publicize the book. Yours is to write the next books.    “Most of all, enjoy! You deserve it.”

 “I also wish I’d known how many people would ask me, ‘So…where can I get a copy of your book?’ says Pat Miller,  “So I made sure to know which bookstores in town carried it.”

“As far as gigs,” says Jeannie Mobley, “try everything the first time around, see what you enjoy and what you don’t and then pare it down to the things you enjoy doing as you continue to promote (or better yet!) promote your second book.”

What about those reviews? They all agree that it’s a good idea to stay busy and distracted while waiting for reviews to trickle in. Rather than fretting, always be working on another book. Mike Jung reflects on the review process in a humorous way: “Reviews can be a mutant porcupine demon of anxiety. But do not forget how awesome it is that your book is published and how awesome you are for having written it!”

Stress? What stress? “Stock up on chocolate,” says Janet Fox. “Hug your dog. The launch day will come and go and you’ll think, ‘what, no fireworks???’ That’s okay. Your baby is out in the world and you made it happen.”

For the finale to this What to Expect post, Jennifer Nielsen, author of THE SHADOW THRONE trilogy (Scholastic Press, 2012), brilliantly sums up the debut experience with a healthy mix of optimism and realism.

Keep your expectations in scale. Some debut books are breakout hits (Divergent, for example), but most aren’t. For most debut books, the Amazon rank won’t skyrocket upon release, or if it does, it’ll slowly fall to a more average number. Most don’t hit the bestseller lists or take home the big awards. Most debut books won’t garner requests to speak at conferences, or even at schools outside of your home area (if that). And I sometimes think we believe that if our debut doesn’t do all of that, that it’s a sign we’ll forever be mid list, or that we’ll never be “big.”

It’s just not true. Don’t let yourself become discouraged. These things only mean that it’s your debut book and it takes a long time for word to get out about an author, even if the publisher is doing mad publicity for you, and even if all the reviews are glowing. The fact that you are finally a published author is HUGE and amazing and wonderful, but don’t be distressed if the world continues revolving as usual on your release day. You might find your book on an end cap at B&N, or not. Don’t worry if half your family doesn’t get around to reading it for a while, or if your kids’ school doesn’t ask to host your launch party for the whole school to attend.

The #1 best thing you can do for your first book is to write and sell your second. Every book raises your profile, which is particularly important with young readers because once they find a book they love, they go on a search to see what else that author has written. Do everything you can to get the word out pre-release, but put your best attention on your next project.

Everyone has to start somewhere. Publishing is like climbing a mountain. There’s no single trail to the summit, and always a higher summit waiting once you reach the one you were aiming for. The only thing that matters is you keep climbing, and with each book, you will. Let go of any worries about where you are on the mountain – because we’re all just climbing too – and just enjoy the climb, as every author should.

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*Roben LaFevers and Mary Hershey have a dynamite blog, http://shrinkingvioletpromotions.blogspot.com/ that’s chock-full of promotional advice for authors.

*And, as promised, below is a list of Natalie Dias Lorenzi’s favorite teacher and librarian blogs. Thank you, Natalie!

K-5 Librarian: http://mrschureads.blogspot.com

3rd Grade Teacher: http://sharpread.wordpress.com/author/colbysharp/

Elementary School Librarian: http://100scopenotes.com

Public Librarian (who is now a stay-at-home mom as of a few months ago): http://sharingsoda.blogspot.com/p/what-i-read.html

Children’s school librarian: http://www.jennysbookreview.com

Mother/Daughter Book Club: http://motherdaughterbookclub.com

Public Librarians for YA: http://www.stackedbooks.org

Youth services librarian: http://masalareader.wordpress.com

Two teachers: http://readingyear.blogspot.it

* Former teacher, current coordinator of instructional technology: http://www.teachmentortexts.com

* Two teachers of reading (high school): http://www.unleashingreaders.com/?page_id=15

* These last two blogs co-host a meme called “It’s Monday–what are you reading?” that draws in lots of librarians and teachers, so check out their links each Monday and read the comments.

 

 

 Donna Bowman Bratton is the author of the upcoming nonfiction picture books, STEP RIGHT UP! THE STORY OF BEAUTIFULLY JIM KEY (Lee and Low Books, spring 2015) and EN GARDE! ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S DUELING WORDS (Peachtree, spring 2016.) She lives and writes in Central Texas.

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Part Method, Part Madness: Luring in a Good Idea

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“Where do you get your ideas?”

 Man, I hate that question. Not because I’m jealously guarding writerly secrets. Not because I haven’t thought about it. A lot. Just because when I try to answer that question honestly, I babble.

Here’s the thing. Ideas are strange creatures. I know they’re out there. I see them out of the corner of my eye. But it might be in the grocery store. Or in the woods. Or looking at me from the window of a passing bus. Ideas don’t seem to have an established, identifiable habitat. Or habits. Sometimes they’re out wandering at 2 AM. Sometimes they refuse to show up at all until sleep needs have been lavishly met. They eat chocolate. No, grapefruit. Spicy fish?

It’s a puzzle. I can’t give a satisfying, tidy answer. But here are a few things that work for me.

Show up at your desk. And get out of the house.

 Ideas like to know that there’s a place for them. Having a regular writing schedule let’s them know that when they show up, they’ll be treated with respect and given the warmest spot by the fire. They tend to show up if they know you’ll be there to open the door for them.

Until. . .they don’t. If for three or four days, I’ve been showing up and the ideas haven’t, if I’m starting to notice this fact and get a wee bit wound up about it, it’s time to get out of the house. Strap on the snowshoes or load the kayak on the car. Go into town. Do something I don’t usually do. Ideas like to slip in unnoticed. So give them that chance. And then get back to your desk.

Really think about form. No, quit thinking so much.

 Ideas come during times when I’m thinking carefully about some element of the picture book form. For example, I’m in love with the page turns in picture books. They can set up a joke. They can be used as time travel devices. Or to manipulate rhythm. So I might just sit and think, “What could I do with page turns?” After a while, my brain will say, “Hey, know what would be funny?” And here we go.

But then other times, a great idea comes from just playing, not thinking about much of anything. This is why you should walk out to the bus stop with your kids and play rhyming games while you wait. Or trade jokes. Or be silly and talk in badly done accents. Or draw dumb pictures in your writing notebook. Goofing off is a fertile state of mind. Ideas love it.

Relax. Or induce panic. Either one.

Ideas like relaxed writers. So breathe a little. Defend parts of the day from busyness. Give yourself space to just be. Space for ideas to float in for a soft landing. It’s part of your job. Nice, huh.

On the other hand, in a pinch, ideas can be flushed from the bushes by a good, old fashioned dose of panic. I hate this method. It has side effects that I do not enjoy. But when I feel like I’m in a rut, like everything I’m writing is recycled from something I’ve done before, it has to happen.

Sign up for a stretch class. Is it something you’re not even sure you can quite do yet? Taught by someone you have immense respect for and would hate to disappoint? Are there assignments that cause you to break into a sweat just thinking about them? Great. That should do it.

Or give yourself a deadline. In the next twenty days, write twenty picture books—one per day, from nothingness to The End every day. Warn your family ahead of time and then shut yourself in your room. Don’t allow yourself escape hatches. The first couple of days will be fun. Then it will get ugly. But part way through, out of sheer desperation, your brain will bump out of its well worn path.

So . . .

 I guess what I’m saying is to keep things lively. Mix it up. Nothing works all the time. When one thing stops working, move to another. Then another. Until you circle back around again. Make peace with the fact that it’s a little weird, a little messy, a little mysterious. And that when you try to answer that question about where ideas come from, you’ll babble.

 

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Mylisa Larsen is the author of the picture books, Instructions for Bedtime (Katherine Tegen Books) and If I Were A Kangaroo (Viking.)

You can visit her online at http://mylisalarsen.com

 

 

 

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Filed under craft~writing, Creativity, Picture books

Faith Redux

Last month, I wrote a post about faith, which told a recent story about a particular act of faith in my journey as a writer. This post addresses an earlier time in my journey. It is for writers who haven’t had The Call and might not have an agent. It is for all of us who sit down, face the blank page and keep going.

A few years ago, friend and fellow EMLA client Liz Scanlon sent me her annual family Valentine’s card. It was a picture of her girls about ready to climb onto to a zip line in Costa Rica. The phrase underneath the picture said, “Leap and the net shall appear.” I kept this card on my fridge for a long time. Everyday, as I made my tea, before I went to sit down at the computer, I would look at it. I didn’t have any cognitive thought about it. But on some level, I think the thought comforted me and guided me as I took a leap each day as a writer.

No agents were knocking on my door. No editors were reading my manuscripts. At the time, I think I was enrolled at VCFA and I leaped every time I sat down at the computer unsure of what to write, but writing just the same, page after page because that’s what I had signed up to do. That’s what was expected. That’s what you do as a writer every time you face the blank page. Leap.

But I couldn’t do it without faith.

Faith is what gets me to sit down with the blank page. Faith gets me to leap with the smallest wing of an idea or character. Faith that what I have to say matters. Faith that the words will come. The story will come.

I am in the middle of that act of faith now. Prewriting and finding my way into a story and its characters. I have some ideas but I am resisting the ideas and listening to the characters instead. For some darn reason, one is writing poetry to me. What I notice about the poems is that they have energy and I feel energetic when I write them. I have no idea if they will remain but their spareness is working right now. And they help me stay away from the idea of the story. Yeah, ideas get a little preachy and ponderous. For now, I need to stay inside the skin of the characters and write from there.

Faith. The blank page is such a bold move. Only by putting the words down do we create the net. Only then can we see what the heck we’re trying to get at, and find, as per Tim Wynne-Jones, the gems that have washed up on the shores of the page. In his book ON WRITING, Stephen King says the first draft is telling yourself the story. After that you can look and see what’s there. Right now, in this prewriting phase, I have to have faith that I will get to a first draft.

Leap and the net shall appear.

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Filed under Creativity, Faith, Uncategorized, Writing and Life

How to Build Character(s)

Memorable characters, like my husband’s aunt pictured here, demand your attention. How will their story unfold?

We all have goals, things we want to work on to become better writers and hopefully better people as well. Lately, for me, a key writing goal has been to build authentic, well-developed characters.  I struggle with this. Possibly because I’m an introvert who invests way too much effort trying not to ruffle feathers or let too much emotion or opinion come spilling out in the presence of anyone other than my spouse (lucky guy). I’d hate to give people the impression that I am not as emotionally stable as I might appear.

I also worry that pouring too much of a character’s inner workings onto the page will feel contrived or manipulative, that her struggles will be perceived as insincere, unearned.  Obviously I have to get past this. A fictional person on a page will never become the sympathetic, living, breathing hero of the story if readers have no clear view of her heart and mind.

birdbybirdI turned to Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD for wisdom. It takes time for us to know our characters, she says. We should ask ourselves “what happens in their faces and to their posture when they are thinking, or bored, or afraid. …Why should we care about them anyway?” Further on she writes, “Squint at these characters in your mind, and then start to paint them for us.” She explains that they should have flaws, but they should also be likeable, or at least interesting–and they become interesting if they possess clarity of vision in surviving the struggles they face.

And my favorite paragraph: “A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It’s a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly. You make up your characters, partly from experience, partly out of the thin air of the subconscious, and you need to feel committed to telling the exact truth about them, even though you are making them up.”

So I’ve been trying the method acting approach: using my own life experiences and feelings to inform my characters. Yes, they suffer through situations and events that I will never face, but the emotions and motivations they feel, those universal human truths, are the same. The process is a basic free association exercise. I sit down with pen and paper and choose a scene to work on. I decide what emotions my main character would be feeling in that scenario and just start writing, no editing allowed. The results are liberating. Even though much of the writing will need heavy revision or may even be scrapped altogether, the emotional truth that spills out is new for me, and holds real promise. I think. I hope. Time will tell.

How do you bring your characters to life? Tell us what works for you!

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May Arboretum 027Christine Hayes writes spooky stories for middle grade readers. Her debut novel, THE MOTHMAN’S CURSE, is due out spring 2015 with Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. She is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

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Filed under Advice - Helpful or Otherwise, Character Development, craft~writing

Cover Reveal: NOT IN THE SCRIPT

Friends!! It’s here!! My cover!!

And this isn’t just a cover reveal. Oh no. Read to the very end of this post and I’ll give you a link to where you could win an advanced copy of the novel that goes with it. NOT IN THE SCRIPT won’t officially be on shelves until October, but if you win this giveaway, you’ll get to read it within the next few weeks.

Some of you are probably wondering why an author would get this excited about revealing the cover of her upcoming novel to the entire world (or at least to the U.S., my family and friends in the UK, my three friends in Canada, the two bloggers I love in the Philippines and Australia, and my buddy Matt in Hong Kong), but THIS IS A PRETTY BIG DEAL FOR ME!

I started writing with the hope of getting published twelve years ago. NOT IN THE SCRIPT is the fifth novel-length manuscript I started—the fourth that I finished. But it’s the only novel I’ve ever felt brave enough to submit to publishers.

These long years of learning, writing, and revising have been really rough at times. I’ve had a lot of close calls, a lot of heartache. There were plenty of times when I wanted to give up. But whenever I’d see awesome new books on the shelves, with fancy covers and an author’s name printed on it in big block letters, instead of stomping my foot and saying “WHY isn’t that me?!” I’ve tried really hard to tell myself, “One day that will be me.”

That “one day” is today.

I finally have a fancy cover and it has my name on it. Here it is!

FINAL COVER Not_in_the_Script

Click on the cover to make it bigger!

Yay! I hope you love it as much as I do.

But even more so, I hope you’ll love what happens after you turn that cover over and start reading the pages. So here is my very first ARC (advanced reading copy) giveaway, and it’s sponsored by one of my favorite book review blogs, IceyBooks.com. Instructions on how to enter the giveaway will be there!

Another one of my favorite blogs is PopGoesTheReader.com (the reviews are fantastic!), and the host is revealing her own thoughts about my cover today.

This is way too much excitement for just one girl to handle, so thank you for sharing it with me! And a very big shout out to the fantastic art department at Bloomsbury! You guys rock!!

Want to know more about NOT IN THE SCRIPT? Read this: Millions of people witnessed Emma Taylor’s first kiss—a kiss that needed twelve takes and four camera angles to get right. After spending nearly all of her teen years performing on cue, Emma can’t help but wonder if any part of her life is real anymore . . . particularly her relationships. But her new costar, Jake Elliott, couldn’t care less about how many scenes he has to fake his way through; he needs the money. Toss in a reckless heartthrob, desperate for a comeback, and a resident diva who may or may not be as evil as she seems, and the production of Coyote Hills heats up in unexpected—and romantic—ways. Along with offering front row seats to the real life drama that often unfolds within the entertainment industry, NOT IN THE SCRIPT is a story about two not-so-typical teens who are searching for themselves, and just happen to find each other.

You can add it to your Goodreads “Want to Read” shelf here.

NOT IN THE SCRIPT will be released October 7th,  and is now available for pre-order (with discounted prices!) from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Books-a-Million.

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IMG_0723-2Amy Finnegan writes her own stories because she enjoys falling in love over and over again, and thinks everyone deserves a happy ending. She likes to travel the world—usually to locations where her favorite books take place—and owes her unquenchable thirst for reading to Jane Austen and J.K. Rowling. Her debut novel, NOT IN THE SCRIPT, came about after hearing several years of behind-the-scenes stories from her industry veteran brother. She’s also been lucky enough to visit dozens of film sets and sit in on major productions such as Parks and Recreation and Parenthood. You can follow Amy on Twitter @ajfinnegan, or Facebook (Amy Finnegan, Author).

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Filed under ARCs, cover art

Not-So-Deadly Deadlines

I love deadlines. Usually.

“Ummm… that’s due TOMORROW??”

I have a confession. I’m a terrible procrastinator. (Well, actually I’m a fabulous procrastinator. Ask my husband. “Have you made those reservations yet?” he will ask me. *Gulp…)

In fact, as I write this, I have deadlines for three projects. All due tomorrow.

*Deep breath* I can do this.

A few years ago I decided the time had come to finally get my master’s degree. After considering many options, I decided to do a crazy thing. I would take a leap of faith and apply for Vermont College’s master’s program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Not only would I be adding a suggested 25 hours of reading and writing per week on top of teaching full time and being a wife and mom, I would need to complete 20 packets of work during the two-year program, including new manuscripts every month.

Where was I going to get ideas for 20 packets worth of new stories?? Oh, if I were working on a novel, maybe. I could add a few new chapters a month. But I write picture books. That’s two to six new story ideas every month.

The first month was covered. I had a few manuscripts saved up that I could pull out and submit. (It was a good thing, too, as we ended up moving that first month to a new house after living 17 years on our farm.)

Then came the second month. Again, I had a few stories I could dust off, plus a brand new idea or two. The third month rolled around, and once more I had new ideas. Every time I would come down to a due date, the ideas were there. Every time I hit “Send” I was sure that the idea well was now dry. Yet the next month would come, and with it came more ideas.

How was this working? Did panic get the creative juices flowing? Did I have a cooperative muse? Was it the power of prayer?

Panic and prayer notwithstanding, I think the secret lies in having a deadline. Deadlines help me organize my priorities. I am the WORST in the summer when I don’t have to show up for work. Somehow, the morning slips by without anything getting done. But if I have a deadline, it bumps laundry, weeding, and checking my email to a lower place on my “To Do” list, and I actually end up with something to show for my time.

Deadlines make me accountable to someone besides myself who will be expecting results. Not just any results, but my best work. When I am accountable to a critique partner, my agent or an editor, I don’t want to disappoint them. They are expecting something good to land in their inbox, and I don’t want them to see shoddy work, or worse yet, an empty inbox.

Finally, regular deadlines make me develop the habit of writing. And while practice may never make me a perfect writer, it certainly helps me improve my craft. I know that unless I actually show up to do the work, any creative juices, chance muses or divine interventions will pass me by.

So if you’re facing a revision, in need of some inspiration, or working on a new story, having a deadline just might be a lifeline.

Congratulations to Melanie Fishbane, winner of a copy of Adi Rule’s STRANGE SWEET SONG!

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Filed under Advice, Anxiety, craft~writing, Deadlines, Deadlines, Education, Faith, Panic, Time Management, Uncategorized, Writing, Writing and Life