Category Archives: Advice

Demi Moore Isn’t The Only One

Demi Moore isn’t the only one who’s ever seen a ghost.

Stories haunt writers. They rattle at us, whisper to us, ceaselessly tap-tap-tapping at our imaginations. When we least expect it, they emerge to surprise and maybe even scare us, leaving us puzzled, shaken, full of longing.

To write is to reach for something you sense could exist, something that almost exists. Occasionally when I read a manuscript, I experience a sort of déja vu. The story reaches for me as I reach for it. It flickers in my imagination, briefly takes form, and becomes a maybe-book. When it happens, the maybe-book feels so real, so familiar, so full of potential, I can almost touch it. 

But alas, it isn’t real, or at least, it isn’t real yet. Turns out, creative clairvoyance isn’t enough to wrest a book out of thin air. Hard work, attention to craft, dedication, and resilience are required before ephemeral maybe-books have a chance to transform and be embodied in smooth pages and dark ink.

It’s up to the individual  writer to pursue their ghostly maybe-books and capture them. This is a daunting prospect and hiding under the covers—a posture which, according to a friend in the know, is universal ghost-speak for “go away”— may seem an appealing alternative.

But there’s a problem with that option. Duck-and-cover won’t work. You can hide but you can’t…hide. Stories know where to find you, and no mere blanket is going to stop them. Perhaps people who don’t believe in regular ghosts never see them, but the ghosts of Stories Yet-To-Come are different. Even if we don’t believe in them, they believe in us, and boy, are they persistent!

So let’s pluck up our courage, throw off the covers, and shoulder our proton packs. We’ll keep the mysterious channels of communication open and reach for what haunts us. Stories know they belong here, and they depend on us, the writers, to invite them into our world.

Here a few of my favorite ghost books:

ADVENTURES OF A GIRL CALLED BICYCLE by Christina Uss. (June 5, 2018)

 

 

 

GUS WAS A FRIENDLY GHOST by Jane Thayer

RULES FOR GHOSTING by Ammi-Joan Paquette

ghost book image credit: BHG.com

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About Hayley Barrett

I write for young people and live to make kids laugh. My picture book BABYMOON celebrates the birth of a new family and is coming from Candlewick Press in spring 2019. WHAT MISS MITCHELL SAW, a narrative nonfiction picture book, is coming in fall 2019 from Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane Books and will be illustrated by Diana Sudyka. GIRL VS. SQUIRREL, a funny STEM-based picture book illustrated by Renée Andriani, is coming from Margaret Ferguson Books/Holiday House in spring 2020. I’m represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette.

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Filed under Advice, craft~writing, Creativity, Inspiration, Persistance, Uncategorized

The Three Questions That Led to BE KIND

Be_Kind

I’m so grateful to the current group of EMU’s Debuts for letting me visit for a guest blog.

It wasn’t that long ago that I was a member of EMU’s Debuts, waiting for SOPHIE’S SQUASH to come into the world. It was a time of excitement and fun and nervousness and wondering.

I’ve had more books come out since SOPHIE, but I still feel the same way when a new book arrives. What will happen? Will people like it? Will it matter?

So I’d like to walk you through the questioning process for my new book, BE KIND, illustrated by Jen Hill, which released Feb. 6 from Roaring Brook Press.

THE IDEA:

BE KIND started with a conversation I had with Editor Connie Hsu from Roaring Brook Press. She wanted to publish a book on kindness and had the title. My job was to write the story. Which led to question No. 1: What should I say?

I decided to tell the story from the point of view of a child who wants to be kind, but isn’t sure quite how to go about it – especially after the first attempt doesn’t go so well.

I thought back to how I often felt as a kid – nervous and unsure. Wanting to do the right thing, but afraid of having it taken the wrong way. So quiet, that I probably sometimes came across as rude even though that’s not what I wanted.

In the book, the main character ponders different ways of being kind and how each way might make a difference in the world. I like how it shows that there’s no one right way to be kind. All you can do is try sincerely and try again if it doesn’t work.

THE CHARACTER:

The story is told from inside the main character’s head. Which led to question No. 2: Who should this character be?

Because the story is told in first person, the main character doesn’t have a name. Or an identified gender. We wanted a character people could relate to and see themselves in.

And it’s interesting. Some people have read the book and assumed the main character is a girl. Others have assumed a boy. My favorite response came from Madison, Wisconsin, school librarian LuEllen Childers. She read the book to some students, and the kids started discussing if the main character was a boy or a girl. LuEllen asked them: “Does it matter?”

And, after some more discussion, the universal answer was that, no, it did not. Because everyone could be kind.

THE AUDIENCE:

Our question No. 3 was: Who is this book for?

It might seem like an odd question. Picture books are for kids, right? And, yes, they are. But picture books can have a broader scope than that. More and more middle school and high school teachers are reading picture books to their older students to introduce topics and start conversations and reintroduce the power and joy of story. And more and more adults are realizing that picture books can apply to them, too.

No book is ever for everyone. But I hope BE KIND has ideas and concepts that apply to people of all ages, and I tried to keep that in mind as I wrote.

If you’d like to know a little more about BE KIND, here’s a Pinterest board I made featuring other picture books about kindness.

And here’s a book trailer featuring some students talking about what being kind means: to them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2eZBM0uvIg


PAT ZIETLOW MILLER iis a former member of EMU’s Debuts. She has published seven picture books. Find her on Twitter at @PatZMiller or visit her website twww.patzietlowmiller.com.

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Filed under Advice, craft~writing, Picture books, process, Uncategorized

Help from Hollywood

Long before I ever started writing fiction, I worked as a script reader for studios specializing in children and family entertainment. It was a low-level freelance job that paid just enough to cover my monthly cellphone bill, but it was perhaps the best education I could ever have asked for as a writer.

My job was to read and provide “coverage” of screenplays that had been submitted to the studios, i.e. giving a brief summary of each script’s story, critiquing it, and determining whether it was a good potential fit for the studio. One of the most important things coverage did for me was it moved me away from thinking of a story as either something I liked or didn’t like, and instead moved me to approach every story as a potential problem to solve. Whether a script was initially a strong one or a weak one, my number one job was to approach it with the goal of figuring out how to make it better. That’s right; one of the first lessons that Hollywood taught me is that nothing is perfect, and almost everything is fixable.

Like a lot of writers, I tend to be a perfectionist with a flair for the dramatic. When I’m writing it feels like every sentence is a high-stakes decision that will determine the ultimate fate of the book, my career, and possibly even my ability to survive another day on this planet. While it can be paralyzing, before I sold anything that wasn’t that necessarily a big a problem for me. If I wanted to take years to write a book I could. But when deadlines come into the picture, perfectionism is no longer a workable plan, especially when those deadlines usually aren’t that far apart. Now when I’m working on a first draft, my husband and I have a joke in our house: “We’ll fix it in post.” It’s a reference to the cherished Hollywood tradition of fixing errors in the post-production editing process, after the movie has finished shooting. In the film and TV business, nothing is ever considered a perfect finished product up until the very moment it’s released, and then the audience and critics can gleefully start ripping it apart.

Hollywood is known for its short attention span. Studio execs are inundated with hundreds of scripts a month, and they might hear several dozen pitches a day. As a result, they wanted their notes broken down in easily-distilled categories. The execs I worked with were most interested in four main elements: premise, plot structure, characterization, and dialogue. By focusing on specific elements rather than the piece as a whole, it allowed me to determine what made a particular story resonate or fall flat. I could quickly identify strengths, and if something didn’t land, it gave me an efficient way to figure out what wasn’t working and why.

This has been invaluable in my own work. I always start with the story’s concept or premise. Hollywood is big on “high concept” ideas. This simply means that your story’s premise can easily be pitched and communicated. It succinctly answers the question, “What is this about?” Because I write for kids, having a high concept idea is a pretty good place to start. If a bunch of kids want to know what my book series is about, I want to make sure I can pitch it to them in one sentence and grab their attention before they lose interest and scatter. Not every great idea has to be high-concept, but I have found in my own work that if I can’t easily communicate my premise, it might be a sign that my story has problems.

Highlighting the importance of plot might be the Captain Obvious move of the year, but in screenwriting when we talk about plot we’re really talking about structure and pacing. Everyone’s writing process is different, but working as a script reader turned me into a dedicated outliner. In screenwriting, structure is everything; lots of times if a story isn’t working, it is likely a problem with either the structure or the pacing. My mom always used to say, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will take you there.” Focusing on structure keeps me focused on where I’m going and how I’m getting there. It’s purposeful, and it makes for efficient and effective storytelling. I think of the plot structure as the skeleton of the story. If the skeleton isn’t solid, then it’s going to cause problems down the line when we start adding the rest of the body.

If the plot is the skeleton, the characters are the muscle. They do the moving and the heavy lifting. Because I was reading for a kids’ network, my job was to find kid-driven stories. If the kids weren’t driving the plot, it was a pass. As a writer I always have to make sure that my characters are driving the plot, and not the other way around. Beyond the inciting event, the story shouldn’t just happen to characters; we want it to be driven by the characters’ choices and actions. Characters also have to be rich and nuanced and feel authentic. Scripts where a character felt more like a prop, or seemed to be there solely to stand in for an idea or lesson of some kind, were less successful. For novels I lump voice in with characterization. When reading for character, I was always look for honesty and authenticity. In other words, it’s the character’s voice we want to hear, not the author’s.

Because screenplays are so reliant on dialogue, working as a reader gave me a lot of insight into how dialogue can make or break a story. Dialogue is our best way of getting to know characters and build conflicts that keep the story moving. One of the main stumbling blocks for dialogue is when it doesn’t feel natural. Readers can spot inauthentic dialogue from a mile away. My biggest pet peeve as a reader was when kids didn’t talk like real kids. It immediately pulled me out of the story, and each time your reader gets pulled out of your story, it makes it that much harder to bring them back. The other problem is when characters don’t have distinct voices. I struggled with this in Babysitting Nightmares: The Shadow Hand, because I had four preteen girls with common interests. It took a lot of extra character work and revision to make sure that each girl felt distinct, and I’m still not sure I got there.

If you’re worried about how your dialogue is landing, a table read is a really easy way to test it out. In Hollywood screenwriters often host table reads, where they invite actors or friends sit around a table and read a screenplay out loud. Invite a few folks over and have them do the dialogue of your scene. Listen to how they sound. Ask them how they felt reading it. This is a really effective and fast way to spot and fix dialogue problems. If you’re feeling shy or short on time, act out the scenes yourself. I do this all the time when I’m workshopping dialogue in my books. I’ll use physical gestures, move around the room, and speak in different voices so I can imagine how the characters might talk about what they’re feeling in the scene. Unlike film and TV where actors bring the writing to life, books have to rely on the reader’s imagination to bring the authors’ words to life. Don’t be shy about channelling your inner actor to make sure that your character’s voices will be heard.

The time I spent reading for film and TV was a huge gift I gave my writer self, because it forced me to look at my own work through a completely different lens. Many writers dedicate time and energy to reading within their lane, but consuming content outside your lane is a really effective way to inject some much-needed outside perspective on your own work. If you’re feeling stuck in a rut or uncertain of what your own story needs, go check out something completely different. And don’t just read; watch movies and watch TV. Watch what your audience watches, and take notes. Definitely watch the good stuff, but make sure you cover the bad stuff, too. I read a lot of great screenplays, but I also read a lot terrible screenplays, and every one of them taught me something different. The beauty of writing is that every experience brings an opportunity to learn something new.

 

Author PhotoKat Shepherd is a writer and former classroom teacher living in Minnesota with her husband, two dogs, and a rotating series of foster dogs. Her Babysitting Nightmares series (Macmillan/Imprint) debuts June 5, 2018. You can find Kat at katshepherd.com or connect with her on Twitter @bookatshepherd.

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Filed under Advice, Character Development, Characters, craft~writing, Deadlines, Editing and Revising, middle grade, Middle Grade, Plotting, process, Screenwriting, series, Uncategorized, Writing

WHO, WHO IS YOUR AGENT? An interview with Tricia Lawrence of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency

whobert hoover

As we continue the debut celebration of Jason Gallaher’s WHOBERT WHOVER, OWL DETECTIVE, I got to get the behind-the-scenes scoop on how WHOBERT went from manuscript on submission to debuting picture book with the help of agent extraordinaire, Tricia Lawrence. For those of you interested in becoming agent-signed authors yourselves, here’s how the process worked for Jason and WHOBERT:

Tricia, I saw WHOBERT as an advance reader copy and was immediately charmed by this over-eager owl detective. Was WHOBERT WHOVER the manuscript that led you to sign Jason as a client? (If not, please tell us how you and Jason first connected!)

Actually, this wasn’t the only manuscript. Jason had a few more manuscripts and WHOBERT made me laugh out loud for the second time. The first time I laughed out loud was at his manuscript about a squirrel that hoards unusual sustenance for the winter (that one hasn’t sold yet, but if you love WHOBERT, you’ll love that one too!)

squirrelI’d love to see that one – I’m already trying to imagine what that squirrel is up to! What was it about Jason’s writing that drew you in?

 

His incredible sense and use of humor; his understanding of what makes a text strong enough to stand up to being illustrated; his vision coming through only the text (very sparse art notes) and the beauty and strong emotion of his writing. 

 
I understand you’re the kind of agent that helps her authors revise and polish their manuscripts before sending them out to editors. How did you and Jason work together to make sure WHOBERT was in tip-top shape before going out on submission?

I didn’t have to work on this one, and that is very rare. Usually, I am much more involved in manuscript revisions. This is why I knew I had to sign Jason immediately. The majority of his PB texts come to me ready to go. Jason has that strong eye to know when he needs revision before I even seen the manuscript.

Being on submission can be a nerve-wracking time for authors, since every day can Jason G.bring the chance of an offer…or the chance of another rejection. While WHOBERT was out on submission, did you do anything to keep up Jason’s spirits? (Did he even need spirit-up-keeping? He seems like one of the bubbliest and cheerfullest authors ever. And I know livens up any costume party.)

Jason doesn’t need much spirit up-keeping, true! But we keep in close contact anyway, because even if the submission process is going smoothly, he also writes novels and he is awesome about keeping me in the loop on his progress and always ready to ask for help when he needs it. 

 
Knowing when to ask for help is a skill in and of itself; Jason’s main character Whobert the owl certainly has trouble doing that! Have you ever done something Whobert-esque, where you were certain you were right but completely misunderstood the situation?

Oh, yes. Haven’t we all? It’s usually me intervening in the dog negotiations at our house. The big mastiff, Toledo, is a bit intimidated by his younger and smaller sister, husky-shepherd mix, Rue, and they have this long “Wookie”-esque conversation about who gets to come through the dog door first. I often think it’s Toledo trying to bug his sister, but he’s just trying to get inside out of the sun or outside into the sun. 

dog negotiationsDog negotiations do sound complicated. I know you are closed to unsolicited queries, so if there’s an author out there who thinks they have something special like WHOBERT, is there a way they can query you? And do you have a suggestion on how their query can shine as brightly as an owl’s talons among all the queries that come your way?

 

They can attend a conference where I’m on faculty (I’m done for 2017; stay tuned for the 2018 schedule) or they can get referred into Erin Murphy Literary Agency by an EMLA client or another industry professional. Write something good! The query should not shine brighter than the manuscript. Make your manuscript amazing first. Then get help with the query by reading aloud a lot or having someone more experienced read and review it for you. I am a BIG FAN of critique groups and beta readers. Use them.

I’m going to take a page from some previous Emu agent interviews and ask you to finish this sentence: the perfect reader for WHOBERT WHOVER, OWL DETECTIVE is…

Who, Who, Who, Whover-ific!

Who could doubt that? Thanks, Tricia!


Christina UssChristina Uss loves being part of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency since she gets to hang out with terrific people like Jason Gallaher and Tricia Lawrence and see sneak previews of books like WHOBERT.

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Filed under Advice, Agents, Book Launch, Picture books, Uncategorized

Revision—To Quit or To Quilt?

I’m going to give it to you straight.

Writing is challenging enough, but to revise a manuscript—to critically reconsider each element and rework it—takes next-level commitment. Everything matters, from the tiniest detail to a panoramic vision of the whole.

The word revise is of French origin and means, “to see again.” At some point in the creative process, your writing must be seen afresh, and no one can do that like you. You, after all, envisioned your idea and with the barest of materials—imagination, emotion, words—undertook to create something both beautiful and useful. Because of you, a unique manuscript came into the world, and at some point, you will strive to revise it. Your instincts about this prospect are correct, at least in part.

Correct:

-It will be demanding and will require a fresh outpouring of determination.

Incorrect:

-You can’t do it.

You can and moreover, you will. Why? Because you love and believe in your manuscript. Trust me, you wouldn’t have gotten this far if you didn’t. If you didn’t believe in your story and in your ability to tell it, then all the notebooks, colorful thumb drives, or even that pesky laptop would be mouldering in a drawer.

Like my single, sorry attempt at a quilt.

Sure, I bought the supplies. I had coordinating fabrics, the roll-y cutting blade thing, and the self-healing mat. I had templates, thread, and batting. I read the directions. I even had middling good intentions.

I barely got started. Turns out, my heart isn’t drawn to fabric and batting, and I can’t cut a triangle to save my life. I wasn’t committed and before long, I knew it. I put my quilt stuff in a drawer and moved on.

I deeply admire quilters. I’m dazzled by the skill and artistry required to make even a basic quilt. I appreciate quilting’s history, its regional and cultural variations, and its stitch-by stitch manifestation of mathematical understanding and applied color theory. Behold this gorgeous example:

Now that I’ve tried my hand at quilting, I esteem these creators and their profoundly beautiful, profoundly useful, something-from-nearly-nothing coverlets much more. Their commitment to each one is self-evident.

I admire writers too. Their next-level commitment to creating the profoundly beautiful and profoundly useful is self-evident. Which brings me back to revision.

I don’t care if your manuscript is a 15-word board book or a Game Of Thrones-esque monster, you’ve come this far and will persist. With the courage of your convictions, you’ll disassemble your writing as laboriously as you pieced it together. You’ll pull it apart at the seams, tease out the stitches, and cut where you must to shred what was whole into back bright scraps. You’ll re-see it. And then—here comes the magic—you’ll bring it back together. The final result will be soft and strong, colorful, useful, and durable. It will offer comfort and cheer, warmth and inspiration. Born of tireless work and loving patience, of an open mind and a more open heart, it will be a wonder.

And that’s the truth.

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A few picture books about quilting:

Patricia McKissack and Cozbi A. Cabrera’s STITCHIN’ and PULLIN’Stitchin and PullinGeorgia Guback’s LUKA’S QUILT.

Luka's Quilt

Ann Whitford Paul and Jeanette Winter’s EIGHT HANDS ROUND.

Quilt image credit: Soldier’s Quilt, Artist unidentified, Probably United States, Canada, or Great Britain, 1854–1890, Wool melton, 67 x 66 1/2 in. American Folk Art Museum


I write for young people and live to make kids laugh. My picture book BABYMOON celebrates the birth of a new family and is coming from Candlewick Press. It will be illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal. WHAT MISS MITCHELL SAW, a narrative nonfiction picture book, is coming from Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane Books and will be illustrated by Diana Sudyka.
I’m represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette.

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Filed under Advice, craft~writing, Editing and Revising, Inspiration, Uncategorized, Writing

Okay…What’s Next?

This is the big question that comes after the initial book deal. We’re eager to sign our contract, be introduced to our new editor, work on revisions and see our “baby” come to life. Bring it on, world! But the fact is, these things take time. Brace yourself: I’m still waiting to sign a contract for a deal that was made in September of 2015! So, what’s a writer to do while he or she is waiting for all the “book deal” magic to happen?

Start another story!

Many writers, myself included, work on multiple projects but occasionally I find myself in a moment where I’m between projects. It’s like that “moment between breaths” I experience doing yoga, where it feels like time stands still for just a moment. It’s then, in my writing, that I have to find some inspiration for a new story idea.

Where do you get your ideas? Every author is asked this question. Honestly, for me, some ideas strike as quick as lightning while others are as slow in coming as molasses on a December day. I’ve always believed that the best ideas for me to pursue are those that come from the heart; stories about things I connect with. But sometimes my brain needs a “little” prompting. I thought it might be helpful to share some of the ways I get my imagination moving and finding potential story ideas that spark my mind.

recycle

Recycle an existing story or song: You’ve heard of “fractured fairy tales” haven’t you? This is where someone takes a fairy tale and puts a new twist on it. A contemporary example would be Tara Lazar’s Little Red Gliding Hood. Or another favorite is Mo Willems’s Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs. Perhaps you could impose a clever twist on a favorite childhood fairy tale or song?

 

goldfish

Seek visual inspiration: Google “Interesting Photographs” and see what comes up. Does anything grab your attention and shake your writing brain to a heightened state of curiosity?

 

 readingstacksRead for inspiration: Pour over as many picture books as you can and see if you can find a “mentor text” that inspires you, so that you can use that story for inspiration and run with your own imagination.

 

pintaildonkey

 

Pin the Tail on the Story Donkey: This is where you randomly select story elements (character/s, setting) and let your imagination run wild with possible conflicts. For example, close your eyes and randomly choose one thing from each column below to create your story premise:

MAIN CHARACTER SETTING SECONDARY CHARACTER
Dinosaur Classroom Cowboy
Monster Playground Fireman
Child Park Mailman
Unicorn Child’s bedroom Teacher
Cat Bathtub Ballerina
Dragon Mom’s office Race car driver
Puppy Pond Pirate
Gorilla Mountains Shark
Lizard Ocean Principal
Worm Cave Doctor
Parrot Circus Ghost
Squid Zoo Grandpa

 

Once you have a nugget of an idea, read these blog posts from author Tara Lazar’s Blog, where every she annually hosts PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month):

Kelly Bingham on developing an idea.

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen on developing your character.

Diana Murray on creating a character-driven story with conflict.

Or better yet, sign up for Tara’s 2017 PiBoIdMo (in January!) where you have a fun challenge of thinking of one picture book story IDEA every day (that’s 31 ideas by the end of the month!!!).

Best of luck with creating your new story sparks!

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PierceHeadshotUCLA (2)About Terry Pierce…

Terry writes picture books, easy readers and board books and is whittling away at a middle-grade adventure novel. She lives in the California desert but avoids the summer heat by retreating to Mammoth Lakes every summer to hike, bike, write and dip her head in high mountain sky. She’s a Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate and teaches online children’s writing courses for UCLA Extension. She has two books coming out in spring 2017, My Busy Green Garden (Tilbury House) and Mama Loves You So (Little Simon).

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Filed under Inspiration, Time Management, waiting, Writing

Great Gifts For Writers

It’s that time of the year again, when the holidays loom and suddenly we’re scrambling to meet deadlines, catch up on projects, and prepare for holiday festivities. I thought it might be nice to share a list of great gifts for writers – perfect for any time of the year and for any occasion from birthdays to launch parties to celebrating The Call or just because.

  • Journals and writing pads: Always a fun gift, although some writers are very particular about what journal or writing pad they use.

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  • Gift card to an office supply store:  I don’t know any writer who doesn’t love shopping for office (writing) supplies.
  • Gift card to a local indie book store

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  • Bookends: Writers have tons of books. You can probably find a bookend to match the writer’s passions on Etsy. From mermaids to steampunk, there’s a perfect bookend out there for everyone.

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  • A travel tea or coffee thermos: I have a tea thermos with infuser that I love. It keeps my tea hot for 6 hours. No need to reheat or top off.

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  • Or a travel thermos to keep things cold: My new favorite keep-cold thermos is by S’well. They claim liquid will keep cold for 24 hours! They also claim hot liquids will stay hot for 12. I once left it in my hot car for two hours and when I returned the water was still ice cold.

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  • Coffee mugs
  • Offer of babysitting if the writer has young children.
  • Book-related clothing: From socks to scarves to t-shirts, Out of Print has some fun stuff, like these library card socks.

 

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  • Gift card for massage: Writers sit a lot.
  • Earbud holder: This one works great for keeping earbuds from getting into a tangled mess.

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I’d love to hear some of your ideas for perfect writer gifts. Happy shopping!


web_edit6xx8t3624Debbi Michiko Florence loves to shop. She writes full time in her cozy studio, The Word Nest. Her favorite writing companions are her rabbit, Aki, and her two ducks, Darcy and Lizzy.

Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen and Jasmine Toguchi, Super Sleuth, the first two books of her debut chapter book series will be coming out from Farrar Straus Giroux on July 11, 2017, with two more books to follow. She is also the author of an early reader series, Dorothy & Toto (Picture Window Books/2016).

You can visit her online on her web site and her reading blog. She’s also on Twitter.

 

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The Surreal, the Sublime, and the Journey Itself

The time has come for me to leave the Emu nest, and I’d like to end my time here with three quick vignettes:

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First, the surreal. Many Emus use their introductory post to talk about getting The Call (wherein their agent tells them they have a book deal). I decided to save my story of The Call for my farewell post, not knowing that the post would appear exactly two years after that life-changing day. So here’s my story:

On December 5, 2014, I had been on submission for almost two years with three different manuscripts, and I had convinced myself that I loved writing for writing’s sake and it was okay if I was the person who always came close but never quite got a book deal. Some days I even believed this. I had taken a full time teaching job partly because I needed to feel like I was contributing again, rather than just writing stories that would likely never find readers. On that fateful Friday, I taught my last lectures of fall semester, came home, and made myself a plate of nachos as a reward. (This is literally the first time since high school that I had eaten nachos as an after-school snack.) I had just sat down when my seven-year-old daughter came running in with my phone.

“Mom,” she said. “It says it’s..Ammi-Joan Paquette?” (She would have known who was calling if it had just said “Joan.” 🙂

I had hoped for that call for so long that the hope had faded, almost entirely away. I’d dreamed that dream so long that it seemed impossible for The Call to be anything other than a dream, an oasis on the horizon that recedes with every step. It was truly surreal. And yet, there I was, crying into my nachos. It happened, folks.

The second story is of the sublime. I had many teachers who inspired and nurtured me and helped me grow, but none more than my first grade teacher, Kathryn Ipson. She helped me write and illustrate my first story, The Big Bad Pig. She sensed that I needed a challenge and got a computer in our classroom (at a time when nobody had a computer in the classroom), taught me to type, and set me free. We stayed in touch through the years, and when I visited her as a college student and told her my plans to get a PhD and become a professor, she said, “That’s wonderful. The most important thing is to find a job where you’re helping people.” That one statement lingers with me still, and although it didn’t change my professional plans, it changed my priorities.

On October 18, my first book, Like Magic, was published. I had a launch party at our local independent bookstore, and at times the line snaked to the back of the store. The most accurate (if cliched) way to describe that night is a dream come true. But perhaps the most sublime and wonderful moment of that night was when the crowd parted and there was Mrs. Ipson, standing in line with a copy of the book. I showed her her name in the acknowledgments. We hugged and cried a little. A few days later, Mrs. Ipson found me on Facebook and said that she had finished reading and she expected my book would win the Newbery. Okay, I suspect it won’t, but to have someone who has believed since I was very small that I was capable of anything–someone who continues to believe it–well, that is incredibly meaningful.

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Mrs. Ipson finds her name in the acknowledgments of Like Magic (photo by Brooke MacNaughtan)

There have been other moments that have been almost this magical–many, in fact. Signing books in the gorgeous Salt Lake City Library, where my characters spend much of the story. Receiving my first starred review. Finding out that the book had sold in Scandinavia, and that this story was about to find its way into other lands and languages. Meeting and hearing from bright and diverse readers who have connected with the story. Beautiful, unforgettable moments.

If you’re a writer, and you don’t give up, you will have these moments too–even if it feels like you will always be stuck in the spot where you are right now. But the more I think about this whole debut experience, the more moments of joy I see in the journey itself. Evenings gathered with my critique partners. Time spent in workshops when I’m taught something that sparks an idea inside me. Moments at the computer, alone with my characters, when I struggle and struggle and finally get that scene or sentence just right.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes:

“Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he has been robbed. The fact is that most putts don’t drop, most beef is tough, most children grow up to be just like people, most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration, and most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. Life is just like an old time rail journey … delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed. The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.”

-Jenkin Lloyd Jones

The last few years have been unforgettable and exhausting, yet I can’t wait to see what’s around the next bend. Thank you, thank you, to the Emus and to all who have shared this journey with me. And for all of us, no matter what stage of the expedition, may we find joy and be truly thankful for the ride.


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (HarperCollins) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She’s a member of SCBWI and represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web,@ElaineBVickers on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.

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Filed under Advice, Book Launch, Dreams Come True, Farewell, Happiness, Patience, The Call, Uncategorized, waiting

When We Were Twelve—EMUs’ Advice To Their Younger Selves

All this week on the blog we’ve celebrated the launch of Elly Swartz’s debut middle grade novel, FINDING PERFECT.

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FINDING PERFECT’s sweet, sensitive main character, twelve-year-old Molly, wishes her life was perfect, but family and school problems keep her in turmoil. She attempts to counteract these upsets with comforting rituals, only to find that these same rituals, bit by bit, begin to control her. As her anxiety escalates, it becomes clear that Molly needs someone to advise her, to assure her she is capable of positive change, and to help her look forward to stronger, better days.

Perhaps the best person to guide Molly would be her older, wiser self. With the perspective that comes with years, an adult Molly would know how to be supportive while encouraging growth. With this in mind, I asked the EMUs what advice they would give their twelve-year-old selves.

We’ll start with the author.  Elly’s advice to Elly Junior? “Be brave. Be kind. Be curious. And always stay true to who you are.”

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Isn’t Elly Junior adorable? See the light of creativity and compassion in her eyes? Bet this kid will grow up to be a writer or something.

The Debbi Michiko Florence of today advises her younger self, “Don’t worry so much about following trends like Farrah Fawcett feathered hair – really, it doesn’t work on Japanese stick-straight hair.”

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(I admire you, Debbi, for even trying. While my sister expertly wielded her round brush and can of AquaNet every morning, I slept in.)

Debbi goes on to recall a relatable tween dilemma with all its requisite drama. She asks her younger self, “And that gold belt trend you just had to follow? Remember how you begged and pleaded with your mom to get you that gold belt and how you lost it the first day you wore it to school? And remember how you convinced the teacher to let you go look for it and then convinced your friend’s teacher to let her leave her class to help you look for it? And how you looked and looked and couldn’t find it and you were so afraid you were going to get in trouble and you were freaking out? Then upi found it. The belt had slipped under your shirt and you were still wearing it! Don’t sweat the small stuff ! Or even what you think is the “big stuff.”

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I don’t have a picture of Debbi  back then, but I know she was much, much cuter than a sleepy desktop ducking.

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Like the seasoned picture book writer she is, Terry Pierce is superbly succinct. She advises young Terry to, “believe in yourself, be courageous and strong. Stand up for yourself if someone wrongs you. Don’t let others define you. You’re bright, a hard worker, and have a kind heart, and that will take you far in life.”

IMG_2512 - WEBJason Gallaher gives his former self a real pep talk, exhorting him, “to not stress out so much about how things are going to turn out in life. Everything is going to be just fine, so sit back and enjoy the ride.

Right now, dear 12 year-old, you’re quirky, a bit gangly, and your suspicions about liking boys are correct. But don’t worry about that because everything turns out better than fine.Keep focusing on your dreams because they will come true. And I know you’re going to roll your eyes and say, “Everybody says that.” But I’m not just saying this like your teachers or guidance counselors say it. I’m saying it knowing this for a fact about you, about us.

Every dream you have comes true: You move to a big city, your quirky talents get appreciation from people in a legitimate industry (publishing, in case you’re wondering), you *finally* get past that horrible middle stage when you grow out your hair and find out what it feels like to have long locks (You’re robsessed with it. Also, when Robert Pattinson becomes a thing you’ll understand the term “robsessed”), and you find love.

So keep trucking along. Love yourself, which I know will be a struggle, but in times when you feel down, know that even now, nearly two decades later, I love you and wouldn’t have made it here if not for you.

Sadly, Jason didn’t provide a tweenage picture of himself, so I’ll just leave this here.

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Oh, and this:

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Only one more, I promise.

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Darcey Rosenblatt says, “I would tell myself there will come a time when you truly treasure all the things that make you weird and different than the normal kids – really – trust me.”

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Spoken like a true environmental planner/scuba diver/mother/artist/story farmer/hiker/conference founder/wife/costume-maker/ soon-to-be published author, Darcey. You put the actual in self-actualized!

EMU Elaine Vickers advises her young self to value friendships, saying, “There are great things ahead, 12-year-old Elaine! You will soon outgrow this hairstyle and this shirt. But the friends you make this year will stay with you. You’ll laugh and grow and travel together. One will sing at your wedding, another will help deliver your babies. And one day, they will take you out to dinner the night before your first book launches. Hang on to these friends.”

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Stay true to yourself. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Stand up for yourself and be kind. Love yourself. Treasure what makes you different. Hang on to good friends.

Good advice for FINDING PERFECT’S Molly and everyone else. Congratulations and thank you, Elly!!!

Enjoy the day,

Hayley

 

Curriculum Guide for FINDING PERFECT:

http://images.macmillan.com/folio-assets/teachers-guides/9780374303129TG.pdf

A Teacher’s Guide For FINDING PERFECT

images.macmillan.com

A Teacher’s Guide For FINDING PERFECT About the Book To twelve-year-old Molly Nathans, perfect is: • The number four • The tip of a newly sharpened No. 2 pencil

To purchase Finding Perfect:

http://amzn.com/0374303126

http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780374303129

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/finding-perfect-elly-swartz/1122889663?ean=9780374303129


hayley-at-12Hayley's Author Photo

I write for young people and live to make kids laugh. My picture book BABYMOON celebrates the birth of a new family and is coming from Candlewick Press. WHAT MISS MITCHELL SAW, a narrative nonfiction picture book, is coming in spring 2019 from Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane Books and will be illustrated by Diana Sudyka. I’m represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette.

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Filed under Advice, Anxiety, Book Launch, Character Development, Characters, Inspiration, Launch, Panic, Uncategorized, Writing and Life

Spiral Review, Emu Style

My kids’ school district has adopted a new math program, and the majority of parents seem to loathe it. Meanwhile, I sit at home, harboring my own secret feelings, which I can sum up in three words:

I love it.

I am an educator and something of a math nerd, and I think overall, the new program does a fantastic job. One of my very favorite things about the homework my kids bring home (and in all honesty, I love math homework) is that on the back of every sheet, there is a section called Spiral Review.

The idea is this: We don’t learn best in a linear fashion. In math or writing or life in general, we learn best when we spiral back to the things we’ve learned before, and we approach them with a broader view of the world, a greater amount of experience, and new levels of understanding.

In this spirit, I’ve combed the Emu’s Debuts archives (with a little help from my fellow Emus) and come up with my own Spiral Review of some of the most poignant and meaningful posts from years of reading this blog.

The list could have been much longer, but here are a few favorites worth turning our attention toward again:

THE PIT OF DESPAIR by Terry Pierce

Want to Help an Author Out? It’s Pretty Easy! by Pat Zietlow Miller

Being Brave: A Challenge for Writers in General and Human Beings in Particular by Christine Hayes

Luciferadi Meeps Goodbye by Adi Rule

And So Our Story Begins . . . by Amy Finnegan

And finally, Nerve: Truth or Dare…The Videos, featuring many Emu emeriti. As Andrea Wang says, “Because who doesn’t love silly videos that make us smile? And how cool is it that former nest-mate Jeanne Ryan’s book, NERVE, which inspired all those daring EMU videos, is now a movie?! I may not be brave enough to do interpretive dance or compose an ode to a doorknob, but this post always encourages me to break out of my shell and dare to do something different.” (My personal favorite part is Tara Dairman eating the giant chocolate cake.)

What favorite posts, here or elsewhere, do you turn to for your own spiral reviews? What posts continue to teach and inspire you each time you read them?


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (HarperCollins, October 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She’s a member of SCBWI and represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web,@ElaineBVickers on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.

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Filed under Advice, Inspiration, Uncategorized