Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Treats and Tricks: My Q & A with Teaching Agent-Author Mary Kole

Today’s release of the hands-on how-to book for middle grade and young adult writers Writing Irresistible Kidlit (Writer’s Digest) gifts Moveable Type literary agent and creator Mary Kole with yet one more title:  Teaching Agent-Author.

Subtitled The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers, Mary’s interactive book offers up a bevy of agent-learned tricks, treats and best of all tools certain to help writers learn and hone their craft as well as their world.  She shares writing exercises, candid commentary and a collection of book excerpts and personal insights from bestselling authors and editors who specialize in the children’s book market.

Mary joined Movable Type from the Andrea Brown Literary Agency where she distinguished herself as an inventive and entrepreneurial agent.  Her books include author-illustrator Lindsay Wards’ When Blue Met Egg (Dial), Emily Hainsworth’s YA debut Through to You (Balzer + Bray) and Dianna Winget’s A Smidget of Sky (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). was named one of Writer’s Digest’s Top 100 Websites for Writers; over 50,000 readers visit the site monthly.

This being Halloween, a favorite holiday of just about every children’s book writer and teacher I know, I consider Mary’s answers to my questions below both delicious, calorie-free Treats and writer-friendly Tricks, plural.

For one more Treat, be sure to read below of our TeachingAuthor Book Giveaway of the 2013 Children’sWriter’s & Illustrator’s Market (Writer’s Digest) which includes two of Mary’s articles - “Crafting a Query” and “Building Your Author Platform.”

(1) How did you become a Teaching (Agent) Author?

I became an agent after reading for free at an agency to learn more about the publishing business. But I've always been passionate about teaching others, so I knew that I wanted to pass on what I was learning to writers. The publishing business is often difficult to wrap one's head around, so I wanted to pull back the curtain a little bit. I understand things better once I articulate them and explain them to others, so the teaching aspect of my work has also been invaluable to me.

(2) Why and how did your book come to be?                                 

I started out as a writer, so part of it was definitely yearning to be a published author. But the book also became a personal challenge: Do I have enough to say about the writing craft and can I say it in a way that it earns its keep on my readers' writing reference shelves? I hope the answer to both questions is "yes," of course, and I'm excited to see the reactions once the book is out in the world. Since I was doing a lot of programming and teaching for Writer's Digest, publishing the guide with them was a natural fit and the process of actually getting the book deal was easy. The process of writing it, though, took a lot more stress and work, but I'm very happy with the finished product.

(3) What are the Top Three problems you note in manuscripts when you’re reading as an agent?

Beginnings are tough to do well, and I often notice that writers don't start with a strong sense of the present moment and present action. A lot of beginnings have tons of backstory and info-dumping and not enough conflict to hook a reader in. In terms of character, writers can always work on motivation and objective--a really strong reason for characters to be doing what they're doing, and an overarching goal that they work toward in the story. In a prose sense, I often find myself giving the following note: "You are saying something fundamentally simple in an overly complicated way." Not everything needs to be a showcase for Writing-with-a-capital-W. Sometimes there's style in simplicity.

(4) What are the Top Three writers’ questions you receive at

Questions about query letters are always popular, and this is the first resource I end up sending to writers:

Other than that, I've been answering writing questions on the site since 2009 and there are a lot of different concerns that writers have. I don't know if I can pick the runners up in terms of popularity.

(5) Please share a favorite Writing Exercise.

To really help writers individuate characters and think about voice, I like to ask them to describe the same scene or landscape from the POVs of two different characters. Think about syntax, word choice, what each character notices and how. This often drives home the point that each fictional person is unique and has a very distinct lens that should inform every choice that a writer is making.

(6) You’ve worn so many hats while residing in the Children’s Book World! Which do you love wearing the best?

I'd love to say "reader" but, to tell you the truth, there is no better way to frustrate one's love of reading than to actually work in publishing, where you are reading more than you ever thought possible and under time constraints. So I'll say that my favorite hat is "cheerleader," because there's no better feeling than believing in a project and championing it through to publication.

Thanks, Mary Kole, for the opportunity to bring you and your new book Writing Irresistible Fiction to the attention of our TeachingAuthor readers.
Happy Halloween!

Esther Hershenhorn
P.S. Trick or treat?  You bet!  We’re giving away one copy of the 2013 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’sMarket (Writer’s Digest)!

You must follow our TeachingAuthors blog to enter our drawing.  If you’re not already a follower, you can sign up now in the sidebar to subscribe to our posts via email, Google Friend Connect, or Facebook Network blogs.
There are two ways to enter:
1) by a comment posted below
2) by sending an email to teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com with "Book Giveaway" in the subject line.
Just for the fun of it, and since we’re offering a Writer’s Book, share your #1 chocolate Trick or Treat candy.

Whichever way you enter, you MUST give us your first and last name AND tell us how you follow us. If you enter via a comment, you MUST include a valid email address (formatted this way: youremail [at] gmail [dot] com) in your comment. Contest open only to residents of the United States. Incomplete entries will be discarded. Entry deadline is 11 pm (CST) Wednesday, November 7, 2012. Winners will be announced Friday, November 9, 2012. Good luck to all!

Monday, October 29, 2012

November Preview, with a Special Invitation for Teachers

Our thoughts and prayers go out to all in the path of Hurricane Sandy, including our own Jeanne Marie. As a last-minute sub for her, I'm posting a quick preview of a special event we'll be sponsoring in November. We've decided to expand last year's Ten Days of Thanks-Giving into a full Two Weeks of Thanks-Giving, and we're hoping many of you will again join in the celebration, especially if you're a teacher or fellow blogger. This post includes an invitation to teachers who'd like to incorporate the event into their November lesson plans.  

Before I explain how to participate, let me share some background: In October, 2011 Esther blogged about a poetry form called a Thanku--a thank you note written in the from of a haiku. Her post inspired the TeachingAuthors team to sponsor our first ever Ten Days of Thanks-Giving last November. During those ten days, all our posts included thank you notes to someone special. In my post, I shared the following Thanku addressed to my teacher and mentor, Sharon Darrow:
Your encouragement
yielded a harvest beyond
my expectations.

We also invited readers and fellow bloggers to share their own thank yous via comments, emails, or blog posts. At the end of the ten days, we posted some of those thank you notes on our blog, along with a round up of links to other blogs that had participated in the event.

We plan to do the same this year, with some minor modifications. As I mentioned, we're expanding the event so that it will run for two full weeks. This year's Two Weeks of Thanks-Giving will take place November 16-November 30. We will again invite our readers and fellow bloggers to participate by writing a thank you note of no more than 25 words via prose or a poetry form of your choice. (We'd love to see more Thankus!) But this year, we ask that your thank yous be writing-related, expressing your gratitude to a writing teacher who helped you or to a writer you admire. You may consider following Sherman Alexie's #1 bit of advice in his Top 10 Pieces of Writing Advice:
[1] When you read a piece of writing that you admire, send a note of thanks to the author. Be effusive with your praise. Writing is a lonely business. Do your best to make it a little less lonely.
Now, to all the classroom teachers out there: We invite you to give your students the same assignment-- to compose a thank you note to an author of their choosing. Please limit the assignment to 25 words of prose or poetry. (If you're planning to have them write their notes as Thankus, see Esther's original post for inspiration.)  We'd love for you to share some of your students' notes with us, either via a comment, email, or your own blog posts. We'll then include some of their work (or a link to your blog post) in our final round-up on November 30. The kick-off post on November 16 will include complete details on how to submit to us.

For all our readers: We hope you'll also participate in our Two Weeks of Thanks-Giving. Again, watch for our November 16 kick-off post for complete details. And if you know any teachers who may be interested in participating, please share this information with them as soon as possible.

Finally, for those participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) or Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo), good luck!

Happy writing!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Research: The Devil is in the Details...and Happy Poetry Friday!

Howdy, Campers!  Happy Poetry Friday!

This week Poetry Friday is hosted by
Linda at TeacherDance
--thanks, Linda!

All five of my fellow bloggers have weighed in on research and now it's my turn.  Jeanne Marie talks about research avoidance, Esther walks us through the research behind three of her books, Jill is adamantly in favor of research ("put a sock in it," she tells us if our inner voice downplays its importance), Mary Ann argues the importance of research like a lawyer fighting for her client's life, and Carmela gives us a terrific trio of research resources.

Since I seem to be confessing sins lately, I'll get this out of the way fast: does anyone else ever get scared because you know that deep, down, you're really a fraud?  Here are two worries in the whispery-thicket of my mind, keeping me from that research phone call or email:
  • What do you mean, call the zoo and ask the herpetologist my question?  Who am I?!?!?  I'm nobody!
  • How can I interview a group of seventh grade girls? What if this never gets published?  They'll feel betrayed!
I can't tell you how many books I've done copious research for, most of that research saved on my computer.  I've interviewed rock and mineral experts, my 91-year-old Uncle Davie about flying bombers in WWII and pitching sparkling strands of tin foil out of the fuselage to mess up enemy radar.
This is my favorite photo of Uncle Davie, taken when he was 85.

I've emailed middle school girls and their mothers about body image, I've researched compulsive overeating, anorexia, alopecia, snakes, floods, tashlich, Passover food, Hawaiian hikes, foods that have holes in them (Swiss cheese, olives, bagels, dried apple rings, red and green bell peppers, pineapple rings, bundt cake and cherry lifesavers for dessert.) and so much more--oy!

Research, for me, comes down to the beauty of finding that one defining detail.

In researching Girl Coming in for a Landing, I spent a day at Magruder Middle School in Torrance, CA on the first day of school.  
Throughout the day I was allowed to interview individual students in each grade about how they prepared for the first day, how scared they were, etc.

Here is the pair of poems that made the book:


Last year
I worried about where the rooms were
and all     those      kids. 
I didn't know
what kind of binder to buy (three ring?)
or how much lunch money to bring.

Last year I got my hair cut the day before school started.
Dumb me. 
It was way    too    short that first day.

And last year I didn't know if I should buy new jeans
or if my comfortable overalls would be dorky…
or even if anyone cared.

Last year I wasn't sure what time to set my alarm.
Last year
I was scared.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *  


This year
I've got the perfect organizer
with pockets for every subject (except PE).

This year                                        
I ironed my lavender shirt three days ago
and laid everything out last night.

This year
I set the alarm for six forty-five:
just right.

This year
I got my hair cut two weeks ago
so that it is exactly the right length today.

This year
I have Mr. C for science
Mr. Barton from Tennessee for language arts

and Ms. Konigsberg
for chorus.

Last year I worried: Who was I?  What did I know?
This year
I put on glitter ChapStick and go!

poems (c) 2012 April Halprin Wayland.  All rights reserved.

So...besides the alternating inner turmoil and confidence the kids expressed, what was that one defining detail I discovered that day? 
Glitter ChapStick. 

Who knew?  It didn't exist when I went to school.  How would I know about that? And of course, that's precisely the point--I wouldn't.

Writing Workout: The Devil is in the Details

 Here's today's assignment:

1) Choose a topic you're working on or pull one out of the sky: cats, schools in Croatia, comic strips, how to grow asparagus--it doesn't matter.

2) Now, give yourself a reasonable amount of time to research it--30 minutes? A day? Two months?  It depends on the project--you decide. 

3) Google it, email a friend who knows the field, go to your local dog park and talk to owners, ask to speak with the woman who runs your school district's vegetable garden program.

4) Your goal is to find one killer detail.  Something that sparks you, as glitter ChapStick ignited me.

5) Now, write a poem or start a picture book with this detail in mind.

Write, my children, write!  And remember to breathe.  And to remember to write with joy!
drawing (c) 2012 April Halprin Wayland. 
If you use this drawing, please give credit.  Thank you!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Trio of Research Resources

Thank you to all who entered our latest TeachingAuthor giveaway. See the end of today's post to find out who won an autographed copy of Eileen Meyer's debut picture book, Who’s Faster? Animals on the Move (Mountain Press).

Image courtesy Microsoft Clipart
When MA posted on Wednesday, she thought she would be the last TA to talk about research, but we're not quite done with this subject. I agree with what my fellow TeachingAuthors have already said about the importance of research in fiction. So, instead of beating that dead horse, I'm going to share three research resources some of you may find helpful:

1. Consult an expert
 Jeanne Marie's post reminded me of an important resource many writers, including me, shy away from: talking to an expert. As Jill wrote in her post, that expert can be a family member or friend. But what do you do when you don't know anyone with the background to answer your questions? I look for professionals in the field. Most often, they are the authors of books or articles I've come across in my research. So far, I've contacted two such experts for information related to my historical young adult work-in-progress--both university professors. Because of their positions, their email addresses were easy to find on their university websites.

From my experience contacting subject matter experts for my nonfiction work, I knew that most experts are happy to share their knowledge. These two professors were no different. One was able to answer my question via email. But he also expressed his pleasure at learning of my project and asked me to keep him informed of my progress. The other professor agreed to a phone interview and spent over an hour talking with me. He did more than simply answer my questions--he also provided information about additional research sources for my project.

Of course, I did my homework before contacting these experts. I didn't want to waste their time by asking "stupid questions" or anything that could be answered by reading the right references. If you need an expert's help and have never contacted one before, I suggest you do some research (either online or via books about nonfiction writing) on conducting effective research interviews first.

2. Visit your setting virtually
In last Wednesday's post, Esther discussed using maps and photographs in books to "travel" to the location of her picture book. Nowadays, we have Google Earth to allow us to take virtual tours of locations around the world. And this past weekend, while attending the SCBWI-Wisconsin Fall Conference, I learned from a fellow attendee that another great resource is the U.S. Geologic Survey website. I haven't had a chance to explore this site in depth yet, but it appears to include historical topographical maps of U.S. locations as well as satellite images from around the world.  

3. Watch a video demonstration
It never occurred to me to use YouTube as a research resource until I was trying to find out about cat tricks for my I Fooled You short story, "Big Z, Cammi, and Me." Thanks to YouTube, I was able to watch videos of cats that had learned to "High Five" with their paws, a trick my main character teaches his cat, Big Z. More recently, I've watched re-enactments of eighteenth-century dances and step-by-step demonstrations of how to dress in eighteenth-century clothing.

Do any of you know of other resources, besides traditional library references? If so, please share them with us, either by posting a comment or sending an email to teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com with "Research Resource" in the subject line. Please note: several readers have emailed us about problems with Blogger's Word Verification software when trying to post comments. I've temporarily turned off Word Verification to make commenting easier. I'm hoping we won't be flooded with Spam as a result. I'm afraid that if we are, I'll have to turn WV back on. But for now, please "comment away"!

And finally, time to announce the winner of Eileen Meyer's debut picture book, Who’s Faster? Animals on the Move (Mountain Press). The winner is:

Karen  Kobylarz,

who submitted her entry via email. Like several other readers, Karen guessed that the fastest animal is the cheetah. Here's the correct answer from Eileen:
 The peregrine falcon is the fastest creature in the animal kingdom, with dives clocked at well over 200 mph. Try to catch that bird!
Thanks again to Eileen for her wonderful Student Success Story interview. And thanks to all our readers who entered the contest.

Happy writing!

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Few Last Words on Research

     I am the last person who should be writing the last post on research.  One, I am a former librarian. Once a librarian, always a librarian. Two, I write historical fiction which requires research. Lots of it.

     I read Sherman Alexie's blog post.  He has some valid points but the one about not doing a lot of research is not one of them. However, Sherman Alexie plays in a whole different league than I do.
He (mostly) writes adult fiction about his own culture. I write historical fiction for children. He is a big name A-list writer. I am not. Because he is a big name A-list writer he can flippantly say things like  (paraphrase here) that if you that you get details wrong, you can always change them in the paperback. If I get things wrong, there is no paperback, because reviewers have picked up on my gaffes and no one bought the book. I am not in a position to not get every detail correct, to the best of my ability.

     Since all of us TA's have agreed that research is important, I will throw out a few other thoughts to consider on the subject.

   1.  We are writing for children. While kids are growing more sophisticated all the time, they still are the most willing of humans to buy into "suspension of disbelief."  For instance, when I was teaching there was a popular Sprite commercial that feature a half lemon-half lime fruit that the advertisers called a "limon." I had teenagers who were convinced that the "limon" was an actual fruit just because it was on TV.  If you don't want to do research, don't write for kids.

   2.   More and more, children's literature, both contemporary and historical fiction, is being used to supplement teaching materials. Playing fast and loose with details often results in students thinking that for the most part, mankind has behaved and thought like contemporary Western society.  This is my special pet peeve.  I wrote my master's thesis on the overwhelming falseness in many award-winning books, used as classroom texts. (No names mentioned here; I have no desire to pick fights with authors who are better known than I.)  Suffice it to say, that while these books are popular and "good reads"they present a false picture of life in other times.

3.   Willing as children are to believe what they read, they can pick up on the places where the writer is just plain sloppy. I've read books where specific geographic places that are hundreds of miles apart, are
place within walking distance of each other. I've read "southern" dialect that bore no resemblance to anyone I know, and I've lived 90% of my life in the South (in different places.) Using dialect is a tricky
thing anyway, one that deserves it's own post.  I'll just say here, when in doubt, don't "dialect."

4.  If you ever find yourself thinking "Gee, I'm not sure about this or that. I'll just stick it in without looking it up.  The editor will never notice." Wrong.  The editor will always notice. That's their job.

5.   The best compliment you can get as a writer is when a reader says "I felt like I was so there.  I was in this complete little world that you wrote." The way you build that complete little world is research.

   Research does not mean you have to spend time and money visiting every location in your story. The best research story I have heard is concerning Laura Hillenbrand.  While she was writing the book Seabiscuit (which ultimately became the award winning Tobey Maguire movie), Hillenbrand suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome.  Sitting at her computer a few hours a day was all she could manage.  She arranged her research books in piles around her chair, and kept her phone at hand to interview those who had been part of Seabiscuit's story.  She never left her office.  When her books or the Internet didn't have her answer, she had various research librarians on speed dial.

    So what's your excuse for not doing your research homework?    The right answer?  There is no excuse for not doing your research.

    Don't forget to enter our current Guest Book Author Giveaway Eileen Meyer's Who's Faster? Animals on the Move.

    Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, October 19, 2012

Research, Take 3

I'm with Esther. Research is absolutely essential when writing fiction. All fiction, not just a story set in the past. Our stories should feel believable, grounded in reality, in a specific place and time. To do that, we have to get every detail right, have to know what we're writing about.

A chapter book story I wrote (as yet unsold) includes a parakeet and an accordion. Luckily, I owned a funny green parakeet when I was ten. I remember how my birdie fluttered to the top of the nearest curtain rod whenever I let him out of his cage. I remember stroking his velvety head with a fingertip. I remember his garbled chirps that never quite became the distinct "Hello, there!" I was hoping for. I remember cleaning the cage. Ugh. That memory is very vivid.

Still. Ten was a long time ago. So before writing the story, I studied parakeets in a pet store and read how-to books for bird owners and visited message boards on the internet, etc. I traded e-mails with my bird-raising cousin, who schooled me about some of her birds' personality quirks.

I've always had a soft spot for accordions, too. I know what they look like. How they sound. Still. A trip to a music store gave me an up-close-and-personal look at them (oh, the sparkles!). YouTube allowed me to hear them played and taught me more than I needed to know about bellows and reeds and chord buttons and fingering. A writer friend sent photos of her nephew, a hulking accordion parked on his lap, that helped me imagine exactly how that would feel to a 9 year old. No wonder I often had dreams during that time in which I was playing the accordion, my right-hand fingers flitting up and down the keyboard (I wish!) while those on the left danced across the oompah buttons.

Was all that research necessary? After all, I was writing fiction, for heaven's sake.

Hey, chill out. You're MAKING IT UP. You don't need to research.

Yeah. If ever your inner voice whispers something like that, put a sock in it.

It's our responsibility to the story and to our young readers to get the details right. How else can a reader lose himself in the story, feel as though he's experiencing it right along with the main character?

Research. Just do it.

Jill Esbaum

Like free books (who doesn't!)? If you haven't already entered our Guest TeachingAuthor Book Giveaway to win an autographed copy of Eileen Meyer's fabulous Who's Faster? Animals on the Move, hop to it!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The True Where and What of My Truthful Fiction

So, where do I weigh in on the value of research when writing fiction?

Well, for starters, I disagree with Sherman Alexie, a writer I greatly admire who so generously offered his Top 10 Pieces of Advice for Writers in a recent blog:  I don’t think research is overrated.

In fact, I’d say it’s under-rated.

I know first-hand: digging up the concrete details relevant to each of my imagined stories - for example, the people, the times and places, the weather and daily living of lives, allowed me to grow my characters and puzzle out their plotlines, all while uncovering my story’s Truths.

We all know 3 is the magic number when supporting an opinion, so I’ll gladly share 3 instances when research enhanced and enriched my stories, making the fictive details incredibly credible.

I could not have written my first picture book There Goes Lowell’s Party! (Holiday House) without traveling the Ozarks courtesy of a host of books I met while reading my way through the 910 Section of the Wilmette Public Library. (That’s right! I wrote a book set in the Ozarks in May without ever setting foot there myself!)  Shelves of books offered me maps to read, photographs to study, land forms and water ways that could work their way into my text.  As for the rain proverbs (Section 398) that kept my plotline going – the skies growing red, the birds flying low, the leaves tickling Lowell’s cheeks, I came to know them thanks to Ozark folklorist Vance Randolph.  My book’s illustrator Jacqueline Rogers’ first request was for me to send on my primary and secondary research.  I also found a slew of place and character names printed on maps of Missouri and Arkansas.  By the time Lowell’s kin made it to his party, despite rain and floods and mud slides and twisters, my readers knew the wonder of familial love.

As for my delicious picture book CHICKEN SOUP BY HEART?
Well, believe it or not, I read and cooked chicken soup recipes (Section 641) from around the world.  In fact, in its first iteration, Rudie Dinkins was one of many multi-cultural characters who, so loved by their afterschool babysitter, Mrs. Gittel, wanted to cook her chicken soup when she came down with the flu.  And to counter my editor’s doubt that chicken soup could be sweet, as Mrs. Gittel liked her chicken soup, I was forced to keep digging through cook books until I came upon a Hungarian recipe that utilized sugar.   Readers came to see the crucial ingredient – the reciprocity of love.

My picture book FANCY THAT demanded time-travel, back to 1841and Berks County, Pennsylvania (Section 900).  Once again, my Wilmette Public Library served as the World’s Best Travel Agent.  Pippin Biddle, my story’s orphaned young limner, who set his heart on earning his keep traveling about painting people’s portraits, all to get his three sisters out of the Poorhouse, was a unique combination of every single limner I read about in Jean Lipman’s comprehensive book (Section 750).  Fortunately, I was earnest in my research; otherwise Pip would have returned at Thanksgiving, only there wasn’t a Thanksgiving yet; Pip’s dog would have been a breed (Jack Russell Terrier) yet created.  A Christmas return directed me to Sections 248 and 249 of the Library, so I could read about the Germans who’d brought Christmas to America in the late 1830’s, and Pip’s sisters could then save the day with their wreath-making business!  To my surprise, I’d written a book about hidden talents and how they reside in each of us.

“Fiction is a lie that tells the truth,” Stephen King wrote.  IMHO, research helps the writer tell the best lie possible.

Happy Writing and Researching!

Esther Hershenhorn

Don’t forget to celebrate NCTE’s Fourth Annual National Day on Writing Friday October 19 and Saturday, October 20.
This year’s theme is What I Write.
Come Friday and Saturday, tweet out your compositions of all sorts and post them to Twitter using the hashtag #WhatIWrite, and if space allows, #dayonwriting.

Since the National Gallery of Writing opened on October 20, 2009, more than 3,300 galleries were created and nearly 33,000 writing contributions were submitted. While the Gallery is now closed for submissions, it is a searchable archive and is a great resource for you to use when involving others in writing.

Don’t forget to enter our Guest TeachingAuthor Book Giveaway to win an autographed copy of Eileen Meyer’s Who’s Faster? Animals on the Move.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Art of Research Avoidance

Sherman Alexie's recent Writer's Digest blog entry has been getting a lot of love on facebook this week.  My personal favorite from his list is #5, but I am here to talk about item #4 -- that dreaded eight-letter word, research.

I teach college English composition, and many of my students are loath to use any resource besides google; to visit the library, to open a book, to take a note, to thoughtfully examine both sides of the issue, and certainly to develop more than the most cursory familiarity with a proposed topic before beginning to write about it.

We all live in an age where research has become exponentially easier than it has ever been.  When I began working as a writers' assistant at Days of Our Lives, our office was Internet-free.  If I needed information about crime, I called the Burbank PD; if I needed to know about brain surgery, I actually bothered a neurosurgeon at USC.  My bookshelf remains stocked with resources such as the writers' friendly guide to poisons and committing the perfect murder.  However, I have not used these in a very long time, as now the information is literally at my fingertips.

Nowadays it is so easy to take a shortcut -- to avoid talking to real-live person when it is truly necessary to talk to a real-live person.  Through the years, I have learned that research is not my forte or really my interest.   I have also gotten used to approaching it from a soap-writer angle -- yes, it is incredibly unlikely, but is there a one-in-a-billion chance that it could happen?  Great, we'll do it! 

I pretty much only write contemporary fiction (partly due to my incorporating-research aversion), but I haven't been able to avoid the exercise entirely.  Lately I've made use of the virtual Walters Art Gallery, codebreaking websites, and Google Maps. In the past, I've ridden roller coasters at Hershey Park and taken ice skating lessons to put myself in Nancy Drew's shoes.  My favorite type of research, though, comes from reading fiction (back to Alexie's item #4) and seeing how other writers have approached similar material or particular writing challenges.

From what I understand, it is fairly common for writers to get mired in the research phase of a story, to use the library or the Internet as an escape from the harder work of filling a blank page with words.  I am perhaps that unique soul who suffers from perhaps an oxymoronic-sounding problem: I can avoid with the best of them, yet I still seem never to do quite enough (or quite the right) research.

In short, I definitely think Alexie has a point.  And I am eager to see what the historical fiction, sci-fi, and non-fiction writers among us have to say on this subject as the week goes on.

Also... Don't forget to enter our Guest Teaching Author Book Giveaway to win an autographed copy of Who’s Faster? Animals on the Move by Eileen Meyer.

Have a great week, and happy writing! --Jeanne Marie

Friday, October 12, 2012

Life is What Happens While You're Making Other Plans...Happy Poetry Friday!

Howdy, Campers--Happy Poetry Friday!  And thanks to Betsy of Teaching Young Writers for hosting today!

The winner of our contest for an autographed copy of Carolee Dean's book, Forget Me Not (see my interview with her here) is…

shishh-shishh-shishh (in a nod to Mary Ann's post on sound, this is the sound of shuffling through all the entry names on strips of paper in a pail with my eyes closed and then pulling one out) Irene Latham! How appropriate for Poetry Friday—congratulations, poet Irene!

Life is what happens to you / While you're busy making other plans,
John Lennon wrote in his song Beautiful Boy.

I have been working on the election for more than a year and have put my 14-year-old-novel-that-scares-the-dickens-out-of-me aside. You know the one--the one that's supposed to be in bookstores everywhere by now.  At least that was the plan.

Every day my stomach twinges; I wonder if I'll ever finish it. If I'm capable of finishing it.
Don't try to force anything. Let life be a deep let-go.
See God opening millions of flowers every day without forcing the buds
~ Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh

by April Halprin Wayland
"Come in," I say to my almost-book.
But it stays outside,
in a halo of porch light.

It will not take off its coat or paisley rain boots,
though I offer it a place on the couch
and a cup of hot tea.

It seems comfortable out there,
watching rain
dripping off the roof.

So I go about my days, my nights,
researching, running, writing.
Wrestling with wildlife.

Every now and then I tilt my head
to look out the window
at my almost-book on the wooden porch.

It's out there still,
in no hurry,
surrounded by the fragrance of tuberose.

poem (c) 2012 April Halprin Wayland.  All rights reserved.

Writing Workout: Wrestling with Demons
In the poem above, I told an embarrassing truth that haunts me. 
It's October...nearly Halloween. 
I dare you to do the same.
  • What demon are you wrestling with?
  • Talk to it.
  • Write a dialogue with it.
  • Give it a setting.
  • Give it a season.
And remember to write with joy.
Don't forget to enter our Guest Teaching Author Book Giveaway to win an autographed copy of Who’s Faster? Animals on the Move by Eileen Meyer.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Student Success Story Interview with Eileen Meyer and Book Giveaway

Hooray! Today I'm pleased to share a Student Success Story interview with my former student and now picture book author (and fellow poet) Eileen Meyer. I believe all of you who are aspiring writers will be especially interested in learning about Eileen's path to publication.

Eileen's brand-new book, Who’s Faster? Animals on the Move, (Mountain Press) is a nonfiction picture book illustrated by Constance Bergum that introduces readers to 14 different creatures from the animal kingdom.  Written in lyrical prose, the book starts with the slowest animal and builds to the fastest, describing each creature’s unique locomotion.  An informative appendix provides fun facts about animal movement and speed. After reading my interview with Eileen, I hope you'll enter our drawing to win an autographed copy for your children or classroom.  

First, let me tell you a little about Eileen Meyer. In addition to her picture book, Eileen also has a new poem in the recently released sports anthology And the Crowd Goes Wild: A Global Gathering of Sports Poems edited by Carol-Ann Hoyte and Heidi B. Roemer. (If that title sounds familiar, it's because one of my poems is also in the anthology! I wrote about it in this interview with Heidi.) Eileen's upcoming picture books include Ballpark (Amazon Publishing) and Sweet Dreams, Walrus (Mountain Press). Her poetry has appeared in children’s magazines, including Highlights for Children, Ladybug, and Highlights High Five. She lives in the Chicago area with her family. When she’s not writing or visiting schools, she enjoys reading, watching sports and traveling.  To learn more, visit Eileen's website
And now, for the interview:  

1. Eileen, it’s been a long time, maybe 10-12 years, since you took my introductory class in "Writing for Children" at the College of DuPage. Do you recall what inspired you to sign up for the class and/or any ways the class helped you?
      I remember the first writing course that I took from you with such clarity, Carmela!  My three sons were in preschool and elementary school and we loved to spend hours together reading fabulous contemporary children’s books. So for me, it was my interest in great children’s books that directed me towards your class and prompted me to consider writing for children. Your class was filled with a group of like-minded starry-eyed students and it was an informative introductory program. You encouraged us to join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), to attend programs and network meetings, to learn how to properly critique work, and to consider submitting to the magazine market. These were all excellent pieces of advice for new writers beginning to find their way.

2. I'm so glad you found the class helpful, Eileen. And that you took my advice to heart! In your article in the current SCBWI-Illinois newsletter, you discuss the importance of writing classes in your career development. Would you tell our readers a bit about some of the classes you took and how you found them?
      When I joined SCBWI, I signed up for many different courses in order to explore and learn more about myself and what I liked to write. Most class offerings were either advertised on the SCBWI-IL website, posted on our Listserv or listed in the College of DuPage Course Catalog. Through Heidi Bee Roemer’s class, "The ABC’s of Children’s Poetry," I not only discovered my interest in writing poetry, but I was able to connect with classmates and form a special poetry critique group. Through Pat Kummer’s program, "Nothing but the Facts: Get the Scoop on Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults," I found that I enjoyed researching and sharing information with young readers. I’ve taken many courses over the years, but Heidi’s and Pat’s classes were critical in my personal development. I encourage new writers to find their own pace by attending a wide array of programs. You never know what course or speaker might expand your horizons.
[Speaking of classes, if you live in the Chicago area, you may be interested in a new one I (Carmela) am teaching this Saturday, Oct. 13, from 1-5 pm at the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook: "Fundamentals of Writing Fiction for Children and Teens." See my website for details.]

3. Terrific advice, Eileen. Your first publishing credits were poems in children’s magazines. As it happens, both you and I have poems in the recently-released anthology, And the Crowd Goes Wild: A Global Gathering of Sports Poems. Would you tell us about the poem you wrote for that collection? 
      Yes, Carmela, it’s really exciting that a number of Illinois poets have work in the newly released, And the Crowd Goes Wild: A Global Gathering of Sports Poems. For my sports poem, The Letter, I wanted to combine two interesting themes: first, introduce a situation where a parent is the coach and highlight the awkwardness that may result on occasion, and second, expand upon the concept that we all have had a sports outing where nothing seems to go our way – one of those days in which absolutely everything goes wrong! I was able to weave these two themes together in a humorous fashion in this poem. Volleyball’s fast-paced action provided the perfect setting for this young player’s all-too-silly mishaps. In addition, it was fun to work outside of my comfort zone and write something humorous.

[Note to readers: Eileen and I will join editor Heidi B. Roemer and 4 other contributors to And the Crowd Goes Wild for a special Book Launch Party and Poetry Celebration to be held at Anderson's Bookshop, Naperville, at 7 pm, Tuesday, October 16, 2012. The event will be especially geared to children ages 6-12, though adults are welcome, too. See the Anderson's website for details. And if you'd like to reserve a copy of the book to have autographed by the poets that evening, be sure to call Anderson's as soon as possible:  630-355-2665.]
4. Would you tell us how you came to write and publish Who’s Faster? Did the book go through a lot of revision between acceptance and publication?
      My first children’s book, Who’s Faster? Animals on the Move (Mountain Press), was a project that I wrote during winter 2007. Interestingly enough, I have come to find that the January–March time frame is a very productive one for me.  I’m not an active winter sports participant, so when I am chased inside by our frigid temperatures, I’ve used my time productively for a number of manuscripts. This project was an outgrowth of the fact that I had found books about fast moving animals, and detailed nonfiction books about particular animals, but there didn’t seem to be a book that represented the broad spectrum of slow-crawling to fast-racing mammals. So I began my research and drafted the manuscript within a few months. I had the work critiqued by two different writing groups that I met with at the time and both groups had excellent ideas for tightening the text, incorporating repetition, and including substantive appendix materials. The manuscript text is less than 350 words, so it was a great experience to carefully reduce the text as much as I could. The appendix was 1000 words and included detailed research.  Additionally, the book was fact-checked by local zoo staff. Once the manuscript was polished and ready to go, I began to submit to a few publishers at a time.  Early on, I received a number of no's but I also had one close call – the editor noted that he turned it down after quite a bit of deliberation. That was one of my first so-called “good rejections” and it spurred me on. As it ended up, my lucky 13th submission hit the jackpot. In March of 2009, approximately 2 years after I had finished writing the manuscript, Mountain Press, contacted me about publishing the book.

5. Your story is yet another example of perseverance paying off. I always tell my students how valuable it is to attend events where they can hear editors and agents speak, but I’m not sure they believe me. ☺ Would you share your story of how attending a conference led to one of your book contracts?
      I make it a point to attend the fabulous Illinois Prairie Writer’s Day Conference held in mid-November. The line-up of editors and agents is always very compelling. In 2010, I listened to a panel of editors talk about their particular interests for manuscript submissions, and I jotted down notes that one editor was looking for sports-related picture books. A month later, I submitted my manuscript to her, and then I forgot all about it as I immersed myself in other projects. About nine months later, the editor contacted me and asked for a revision to my manuscript, Ballpark. After my resubmission, I was offered a contract for that picture book! This was an opportunity only afforded to conference attendees. SCBWI-IL was critical in opening this door for me to earn my second book contract.

6. On your website, you mention that you didn’t always want to be a writer. Your first career was in business. Has your business experience influenced your writing career in any way?
      Yes, I previously worked for over 10 years as a software consultant in California and Texas after I earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in business.  I designed training programs, helped market the programs and interfaced extensively with customers.  After my children were born (three in less than two years – yes, I have twins!) I elected to stay home with my sons and it was a wonderful period in my life. After about six years at home, I decided to write for the children’s magazine and book market, I was glad that I had a varied business background that would aid me in my current efforts. I’ve been able to create and produce some professional looking marketing materials myself – such as bookmarks, school visit brochures, promotional flyers and then have had other projects such as my website, farmed out to experts after I wrote the copy. As a former professional software trainer, those skills transitioned easily to the classroom as I designed and created new school programs offerings. All in all, it’s been a nice blend of new and old skill sets that I’ve been able to utilize.

Thanks for joining us today, Eileen. I'm always excited to share stories of my students' success.

And now readers, as promised, here's your chance to win an autographed copy of Who’s Faster? Animals on the Move written by Eileen Meyer and illustrated by Constance Bergum. You must follow our TeachingAuthors blog to enter our drawing. If you're not already a follower, you can sign up now in the sidebar to subscribe to our posts via email, Google Friend Connect, or Facebook Network blogs.

There are two ways to enter:
1) by a comment posted below
2) by sending an email to teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com with "Book Giveaway" in the subject line.
Just for the fun of it, tell us what animal you think is the fastest. (This is optional.)

Whichever way you enter, you MUST give us your first and last name AND tell us how you follow us. If you enter via a comment, you MUST include a valid email address (formatted this way: youremail [at] gmail [dot] com) in your comment. Contest open only to residents of the United States. Incomplete entries will be discarded. Entry deadline is 11 pm (CST) Tuesday, October 23, 2012. Winners will be announced Wednesday, Oct. 24. Good luck to all!

Happy Writing!
P.S. Don't forget--tomorrow is the last day to enter for a chance to win an autographed copy of Carolee Dean's paranormal novel in verse, Forget Me Not. See April's post for complete details.

Monday, October 8, 2012

With a moo moo here and a moo moo there

     I might have mentioned this before, but in a former life, I was a drama major. Perhaps this is why I think of picture books as "performance pieces." After all, picture books are meant to be read aloud. Jill started off this topic with her discussion of rhythm and rhyming picture books. Jill is a far braver soul than I. I have published six picture books (with another on the way) and none of them rhyme. My brain doesn't work that way.

    This is not to say that my stories don't have rhythm. They do. Jill covered this pretty well in her last post so I won't belabor the point here. I'll just say that if you aren't sure if your story has that "swing," read it out loud.  Better still, have a non-judgemental friend read it to you. If you find yourself stumbling over your own words, or if your friend's voice hits a word that sounds like an out-of-tune piano key, go back to Jill's post. 

     So if I don't rhyme, how do I (hopefully) hold my listener's interest?

     Repetition, for one thing.  There's nothing like a little group participation, whether you are reading to one child or seventy. If you want a good example of that, check out my First Grade Stinks. The title is also the main character's catch phrase whenever she is frustrated by yet another unfamiliar aspect of a new grade and teacher.  After awhile, the listener will chime in as well. (Loudly.)

    I love to play around with words. I'm a big believer in alliteration. In Camp K-9, Roxie goes to camp with a Pooch Pouch and makes friends with Pearl the Pug. A word of caution. Be spare with the mirroring consonants. When my daughter was small, there was one particular picture book (no titles mentioned here) that her father and I tried to hide at storytime.  Why?  Seemingly every word in this book began with the letter "p." It was not a short book either.  Two pages into it and my husband and I were sputtering and stuttering like Porky and Petunia Pig. Sometimes, we got so flusterated that certain expletives (not written by the author) slipped into the narrative. Not good.  Not good at all.

     My favorite writing technique (in novels as well as picture books), is the use of sounds.  (There is a polysyllabic word for this that I can't spell, and I am using a computer that doesn't have autocorrect.)  The stories I remember from my own childhood were actually songs, like "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" and "The Wheels on the Bus."  When I began writing my own stories, without really thinking about it, a "moo moo" here and a "cluck cluck" there showed up on my pages. Sounds are fun to write, fun to read, and give the listener another opportunity to "read along." (The only one who doesn't enjoy my "sound technique" is the copy editor who sends me notes questioning the correct spelling of "va-va-varoom.")

    If you want to see me go crazy with the sound effects, check out Surprise Soup.  In fact, when I was writing it, I began by listing all the kitchen sounds I could thing of.  Here is a partial list: chippity-chop (a knife), ka-rickety-ritch (a manual can opener), splishety-sploosh, slippety-slop, shakety-shake (ingredients going into the soup pot.) Once I had a list of thirty-something sounds, the story wrote itself. 

    A successful picture book is one that a child wants to hear over and over (and that the reader can read over and over without wanting to rip out his/her hair.) I think playful language is the grace note that adds zip and zing to "Jill's swing," and a little fun for the adult reader as well.

   Don't forget that the deadline for our latest book giveaway Forget Me Not by Carolee Dean is this Thursday, Oct. 11.  Good luck!

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, October 5, 2012

I Got Rhythm

I'm all over the place when it comes to my writing. However, my first love is and always will be rhyming picture books. Four of mine have been published; more are in the pipeline. If you, too, have been bitten by the rhyming bug, this post is for you.

The trouble with rhyming picture book stories is that, when done well, they look easy – like anybody could dash one off in an afternoon. But when you actually try writing one ... whoa, baby. As much as I enjoy writing rhyming stories, once I finish one I am absolutely drained, creatively. I need a break, need to work on something completely different. Else a certain person's writing desk would be in splinters from all the head-banging.

In today's tough picture book climate, selling a rhyming picture book story is more challenging than ever before. What are editors looking for? Near perfection. Even then, there are no guarantees. So what makes a stellar rhymer?

The rhythm is perfect.
The story is original and appealing.
The rhyme is spot on – and doesn't get in the way of the story.

Since I don't have enough space to write about all of those things in one post, I'll tackle them individually. Up today? Well, you saw the title of this post. So, when it comes to the rhythm in your rhymer:

1. Keep the pattern (meter) consistent.

Establish a pattern, and then stick with it. When somebody begins reading your story, they'll quickly settle into whatever pattern you've provided. Here's the opening line of one of my rhyming stories, I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo!, due out from Dial in 2014:

Nadine was a truly remarkable cow.

There's really no wrong way to read that. I mean, English speakers would all pronounce those words in the same way. Read this line, and, even if you aren't aware of it, your mind is already anticipating the rhythm of the next. Here it is:

There was nothing she feared–
so she claimed, anyhow.

That said, I have to add that it's fine to use an alternating pattern if there is a reason for doing so – as a refrain, perhaps, or as a purposeful thud for comedic effect – and if it doesn't trip up the reader. It's also perfectly okay to use a more complicated rhyme scheme than the one above, of course. The goal? Any Joe Schmo off the street should be able to open your book and read it without stumbling.

2.  Take advantage of a word's natural stresses.

Have you ever read a rhyming line which, in order for the rhythm to work with prior lines, required that you mispronounce a word, stress a syllable you ordinarily wouldn't? Ugh. Pay attention to each word's natural stresses, both light and heavy, so that doesn't happen in your story.

I've seen writers bent over manuscripts, doggedly counting syllables to be sure each line matched up. (Okay, I've been that writer.) If you do that, you'll see that my first line in the example above has 11 syllables and the second has 12. Horrors! But try not to think in terms of syllables. Instead, look at the stressed beats. Most of the population would read those lines above as:

NaDINE was a TRUly reMARKable COW.
There was NOTHing she FEARED–so she CLAIMED, anyHOW.

Yes, some of those stressed beats are subtle, but they're there. Four beats per line, so it works. Once you think your story's rhythm is perfect, have a friend read it aloud, cold. If she stumbles and has to back up and reread a line to make it work, you have revising to do.

3.  Match the story's rhythm to its subject to help create a mood.

This one's fun. Let's say you're writing a bedtime story. In that case, you'd want a soft, sleepy, swaying rhythm, right? You wouldn't use the same exuberant, galloping meter you'd use for a story about a horse race. Unless, you know, your objective is to get kids revved up at bedtime. Go for it. Parents would love you. *cough, cough*

Work on these three steps to refine your rhythm, and you could be one step closer to doing the I-got-a-contract happy dance. I'll talk soon about story. In the meantime, happy rhyming!

Jill Esbaum

And remember to enter our Guest Teaching Author book giveaway to win an autographed copy of Forget Me Not by the lovely and talented Carolee Dean! [Note from Carmela: there was a typo in April's original giveaway post, so you have until NEXT Thursday, 10/11, to enter the drawing. Good luck!]

And speaking of rhythm and rhyme, happy Poetry Friday! Today's round-up is at Laura Salas's blog, Writing the World for Kids.