Teachers Write! 6/27 – Q and A Wednesday

Wednesday is Q and A Day at Teachers Write! Virtual Summer Writing Camp. Got questions about writing? Ask away!

Today’s author volunteers are Rosanne Parry, Kristina Springer, Erin Dealey, Erica S. Perl, and David Lubar. They’ve promised to be around to respond to your questions today, so please visit their websites & check out their books!

Teachers & librarians – Feel free to ask your questions in the comments.  Published author guests have volunteered to drop in and respond when they can.

Guest authors – Thanks for joining us today!  To answer questions, just reply to the comments below.

And just a reminder…if anyone would like to order personalized, signed copies of any of my books for kids, check out this post with info – or just call The Bookstore Plus at 518-523-2950 before my signing there on July 2nd.

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81 Comments

  1. Posted June 27, 2012 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    I’ve been reading Stephen King’s book on writing, and he pushes the idea of not focusing so much on plot when starting out with a story. Instead, he suggests situations, and then let characters unfold in those situations, and the story will unfold from there. (Of course, he means short stories more than longer novels, I think)
    Do you start with a plot plan when you write? or does it develop gradually?
    Thanks
    Kevin

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

      I’ve written books this way, but I find that after a while of wandering/getting to know the character and watching him or her respond to the situation, I generally reach a point where I step back and say, “Okay…now where are we going with this?” And then I outline. I think it also depends on what kind of book you’re writing. If a story is more character-driven, I think this makes a lot of sense, but for something like a mystery or fast-paced thriller, it may be better to start with at least a rough plot outline, even if it changes a lot along the way. I’ve been working on mysteries lately (the two sequels to CAPTURE THE FLAG) and would feel lost without a working outline for those.

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      The funny thing about that advice is that Stephen Kings early stories were very strongly plotted. He is a brilliant enough writer that the situations he thinks up lead to compelling stories. Two examples: A man pays a service to help him stop smoking, and then learns they work like thugs, using strong-arm techniques. A man is forced to walk on a penthouse ledge after he is caught having an affair with a rich man’s wife. In each case, the crucial thing to notice is that it starts out with someone wanting something (stop smoking/be with the one you love), and ends up with a greater desire (avoid being hurt/avoid death). As for your question about how others start out — I often start with a concept phrased in the form of a “what if” question. Even if the spark came in another fashion, such as observation or a stray thought, it usually ends up phrased as “what if…?” But many writers start with a character, or other aspect. I will, on occasion, just start writing, or write an opening hook, then keep going to see what happens.

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      I think there’s no escaping an outline at some point in the process and if you’re writing a highly structured kind of story such as a mystery, you’ll be well served to outline sooner. I think if you have a series that is written on a tight deadline, an outline early in the process is a good idea as well.

      The danger of outlining too early is that you miss the spontaneous and fresh response to a situation that character might make that really makes her ring true and opens up possibilities in the plot you hadn’t considered before. Part of the excitement for a writer comes when a character makes an unanticipated choice. It can add depth to a story and keep what is often a long and arduous process interesting.

      Ultimately, I think each author finds her method. I tend to wait until after a first draft to outline, but I’m a slower writer working in a more character driven vein with single titles. If I were to write a series I’d probably approach things differently.

  2. Posted June 27, 2012 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    I posted this very late last Wednesday and got a response from Kate (Thank you, Kate!). I’m hoping getting it in earlier this week will elicit more responses! In the summer, I instruct a young author’s writing camp (my group is grades 3-5). I spent last semester creating a handbook for new instructors and I am curious as to what advice professional authors would give to instructors for the 5 most powerful writing lessons they should cover during the week. I’d love to be able to add your ideas to the handbook. The kids write in a variety of genres.

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      I forgot to mention-I checked out all of the featured authors’ blogs and am always pleased when I have some of the books they have written. The ones I don’t, I can always find a few to add to my amazon cart. I’m going to spend so much money on books this summer! David Lubar has a great resource called “Weenies Literary Concepts” where he features a concept and his published work it can be found in.

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      As Sam said below, as a writer, I’m out of my field of expertise when I’m discussing teaching. But I do have one thought. I think revision is the single most important part of writing, while most kids think it it the single most unnecessary part. Have the kids write something on the first day, and set it aside. Bring it out on the last day, for them to revise. While the gap probably isn’t long enough to totally drive home the lesson, it should at least show them that things look different after time has passed.

      • Posted June 27, 2012 at 10:36 am | Permalink

        I would second David’s point about revision, although this is tricky for younger students. Revision is essential to good writing. I think the key would be to build in activities that demonstrate how the story improves from revision. One way to look at it is that the first draft is a baseline. Now, the question becomes, had can you move the story forward by adding layers. (I tend to add layers through with each draft, adding complexity to themes and conflict.) So, an activity could be looking at the first draft of the story, or a character, and asking where could this go now? Perhaps using the analogy each draft ends at a fork in the road and now the characters have to choose which side of the fork they go down.

        • Posted June 27, 2012 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

          Thank you David and Sam. I find revision the most exciting part of writing to teach. By the time my second graders leave my classroom, they can reread their writing and do something about it! I love seeing their messed up papers and spider legs sticking out of the edges of pages-it shows a lot of thought going on. Thanks for sharing your great ideas-I like the idea of the fork in the road and choosing which way to go-kids will really get that.

      • Posted June 27, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        This is both a salient point and a great idea. I’m totally going to scam both. And blog about it. And put it up in the front of my room as a plaque. And make my students repeat it like a mantra before writing workshop every day.

      • Gae Polisner
        Posted June 27, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

        I love this, David!

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      I love working with this age group because they can be so fearless in their writing!

      Sometimes I’ll have kids look at a bunch of picture book versions of the 3 Pigs just to see how authors starting with the same idea have each come up with their own take on the story. I’ll use a traditional telling, Scieszka and Smith’s version, Weisner’s version, and the 3 Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig. Then I’ll have them all start from a similar prompt or plot situation and see all the different directions a story idea can go. It’s helpful in revision to see that there is more than one possibility for a story.

      If I’ve only got kids for a week, I’ll spend a day each on setting, character and plot and two days on revision.

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      I love David’s idea about putting the first piece away for the last day to illustrate the need for revision! Revision is so crucial and distance is an excellent editing tool, but I also think that it might be hard for some kids to get started. Setting aside fears and thoughts of constraints and just letting the kids write freely at first to build confidence, no matter how zany or disjointed it seems, will get them going.

  3. Posted June 27, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Kevin: I think this varies by author, but my process has been similar to King’s. Nevertheless, I always start out with an outline (which is plot driven for me) because I need a sense of direction. For me, however, the outline is never a blueprint. Rather, it’s a general framework for the story, and I let the story drive the action and character development. My stories tend to be character driven, so this framework also helps create suspense and tension since the story is organic.

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      Yes, willingness to abandon an outline is key!

      Many people write a very bare bones outline for each draft or have an outline that is as much a work in progress as the novel. It may be useful to have the outline at hand so that when your character makes a choice that changes the game you can note the chapters ahead and behind this change that need revision based on the new information.

  4. Posted June 27, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Is it okay to post or email a first page of something you’ve written for feedback here, or is there somewhere else that it would be okay to do that?

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      Gae’s our “Friday Feedback” hostess, and her blog is the place to do that on Fridays. You can always post elsewhere (on your own blog or on FB with a link & request for feedback) but I’d recommend stopping by Gae’s place because that’s where people will be hanging out expecting to give & receive feedback, so you’ll likely to get the best response there. Here’s the link:

      http://ghpolisner.blogspot.com/

      Note that most of the action here is on Fridays…so you may want to wait & share on Friday when things are active rather than posting to an older Friday Feedback entry, which might get lost in the shuffle.

      • Posted June 27, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

        Great! Thank you, Kate!!!

      • Gae Polisner
        Posted June 27, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

        Well, hmmm, hostess, huh, Kate? Now I feel like I should serve mini hot dogs with frizzly toothpicks poked in them. <— is hungry and would actually like some mini-hot dogs, actually.

        See you there, Kim! Although this Friday we're doing something a little specific, so while I do encourage everyone to not post to old, old Friday Feedbacks, if you're anxious for some feedback and can't wait, go ahead and toss something up on an old one and I'll get to it when I can. But only because I happened to see this here! Phew. 🙂

  5. Posted June 27, 2012 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    As I listen to all of you and read about other authors you all have a process that works for you. How do you develop a process that works for you as a writer?

    Thanks,
    Pam

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      I agree with Kate – trial and error is probably the best way to figure out what works. I recently was asked to write a proposal for a book (that isn’t written yet) and it was a complete disaster. My brain just doesn’t work that way, so for me, I need to write the story to find out who and what it’s about (and then edit, edit, edit, because writing without an outline means drafts can be very messy). There are as many ways to write as there are writers, so take what advice makes sense to you and tailor it for yourself. AND give yourself permission to try something else if what you’re doing isn’t working.

  6. Posted June 27, 2012 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    I think the best way to do this is to try out different processes & see what fits best. It’s a little like trying on clothes at a store – you see something and think it looks good, but sometimes you try it on and…whoa! Not for me! Other times, you’ll try something out and it turns out that what looked good on the rack (or when another writer was talking about it) is indeed a good fit for your personal style, too. That’s the idea here – to share lots of ideas for how people write and what might work for you so that you can try things out, discard what doesn’t suit you, and keep the rest in your writing toolbox.

  7. Posted June 27, 2012 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    Kim: What a great project. I’m a YA author, so I am definitely talking out of school here, both figuratively and literally, but I think one of the most important pieces of advice I would give to an instructor at this level is to avoid putting too much structure on kids when they are writing. Let them focus and explore their creative idea, with the instructor playing a suggestive rather than instructive role. Perhaps other writers might disagree, but I think the key is to provide a general framework in which kids’ creativity flourishes, and this can be stifled by too much structure.
    Let me illustrate from personal experience. When my son was in 3rd grade, he came to me and asked if we could make a movie. Knowing this would be a ton of work as the parent, I said “sure” but….he has to come up with a screenplay. This was a test on my part to see how much of an investment he would make in the project even though I knew he couldn’t really right a screenplay. Nevertheless, he came back after having worked out characters, plot and even a setting. His characters were creatively named, his plot was suprisingly clever, and the setting was way too rich for us to film. I then took what was in all essences his story and wrote the screenplay, and I produced it. We ended up jointly directing it.
    Although he was disappointed we couldn’t film a scene with 10,000 attacking orcs, we ended up making a very entertaining short film with epic battles including about two dozen of his classmates (and is still shown to students in elementary school many years later). The truth is his vision for the movie and characters was much more creative than I could have come up on my own. To make this creative enterprise work, I had to back out of the picture. My role really ended up being one where I made sure the “logistics” and adminsitrative details were taken care of–making sure we had film, cameras, could get kids to locations, etc.
    So, I think the lesson here is that we cannot under-estimated the creativity of kids at this age. I believe the goal at this level is identifying and unleashing their creative talent. As teachers (and parents) the best we can do is provide a comfortable environment and framework in which this can happen. This means, sometimes, we need to be less involved in the creative process while not abdicating our role as the adults that can provide certain general boundaries but also take care of the “logistics” of writing. At this younger level, the key is to nurture their creatively and help guide them and focusing less on mechanics and detailed structure. As in any creative enterprise, it’s the passion that drives the activity, and we should avoid anything that impinges on that creativity. Once adults put too much of our own structure on a kid, they tend to close up and retreat.
    I hope this helps. Please send links to your instructors manual (sam@srstaley.com) because I would love to promote this in our local schools. I will also blog it.

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

      Sam-I will email you a link to the handbook after I update it with these great ideas I am reading here today. I must say, it’s still in draft form as I’m adding to it as I go along. If you want more information about young author camps, I think you’ll find a lot by doing a google search for National Writing Project Young Author (or Writers) Camps. Thank you for all your thoughts on what do to with these authors for one week and sharing the amazing work you did with your son to promote his idea to create a movie, he’s a lucky boy!
      It’s so much fun working with these kids during the summer because they truly want to write, a lot. I totally agree that sometimes teachers can “get in the way” of a child’s creative process as they write and we need to be careful not to stifle their creativity. Thank you.

  8. Posted June 27, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    Good morning,
    Kevin’s reference to Stephen King reminded me of a YouTube video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqp7A0B7abc) where he says that writers have that moment when they read something and they know they could write something better.
    When did you know you wanted to write and then when did you take the jump to writing for a career?

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      For me, the moment came when I read a story that was so amazing and powerful (“Araby”), it made me want to be able to have the same effect on others that this writer had on me.

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      When my 3rd child was born some retired church ladies brought over dinner for my family. We got to chatting and they were full of complaints about how busy they were. I realized then the the notion of waiting for a time in my life when I would be less busy was a hopeless cause and that if I wanted to be a writer I’d have to figure out how to do it and raise a family at the same time. So I started that week, when my kids were 6, 3 and one week old. I got my first contract when they were 7, 10, 13 and 15 and my first published book came out when they were 10, 13, 16 and 18.

  9. Posted June 27, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Several of the exercises in Teachers Write have dealt with developing characters. I’ve used real people and/or situations as a jumping off point. I feel like I’ve changed the names and situations ‘to protect the innocent’, but nevertheless I worry that I’ll hurt someone’s feelings.

    Have you ever gotten negative feedback when a ‘character’ recognizes him/herself? How do you deal with it? How do you know you’ve camouflaged your character enough?

    Thank you!

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      The idea, I think, is not to base a character on any one person, but to borrow bits and pieces of different people so your characters end up unique and not like anyone you’ve met. But as far as using any one particular trait or detail? I like what Anne Lamott says: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”

      • Posted June 27, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        LOVE the quote from Lamott – so very true!

        • Gae Polisner
          Posted June 27, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

          I love it too! 🙂

      • Posted June 27, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

        I love that quote from Anne Lamott…”You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories…”

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      I have hurt someone’s feelings with a book. A very dear friend accused me of stealing her childhood and undermining the chances for publication of a book her mother had been writing for many years. She hasn’t spoken to me since.

      The sad part is, the book was not based on her life in any way. The character was a different gender, had a completely different family situation and grew up in a different time period. Pointing this out made no difference. In some ways it made my friend feel worse.

      Writing has its risks and offending people is one of them. Most of the time it’s complete strangers who will be offended over some point of the story (and sometimes over a point which is not in the story but they imagine is there.) The internet makes it possible for such people to write scathing reviews and leave unpleasant comments on a blog. It doesn’t happen all that often to most authors, but it is a reality of the business and something worth considering before seeking publication.

      I miss my friend and wish she’d responded to the book differently but ultimately the breech in the relationship was her choice. I’ve come to understand over time that her anger with me has really nothing to do with the book and everything to do with her own unhappiness. I’m not sure I have helpful advice because people will see in your writing what they want to see regardless of your intention. Certainly you should approach writing with an attitude of respect for others, but ultimately their response is not yours to control. And on the balance I’ve found that by far the majority of my friends and family have been loving and supportive through all the ups and downs of the business.

      • Posted June 27, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for your response – good food for thought! I’m sorry about your friend, but I agree with you that the decision was hers. 😉

  10. Posted June 27, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    When you revise and rewrite what are some things that help you decide if a character needs to be cut from a book?

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

      If a character performs a single function, I always look to see if that function can be done by someone else (or eliminated). If all scenes with a certain character fail to advance the plot, I kill that darling. If a character strikes me as uninteresting, he’s history.

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      I look at overall numbers of characters in the book and ask myself how many people I’m asking my reader to care about. Usually keeping the focus on 3 or 4 key characters works best. There are many books with sibling groups of 4, for example. It’s harder to write effectively about a larger group.

      If you’re on the fence about a character, try writing the story without her and see what happens. Save your previous draft and you’re not risking much. You can always go back to an earlier version.

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      David and I have similar feelings about this, I think. Usually, if I’m having questions about a character on a second or third revision pass, I’ll make a list of what that character’s roles are in the book. (i.e. sidekick, contrasts w/ main character, tells a secret, etc.) and then decide if another character that already exists can take over those jobs.

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

      Hi Sarah,
      With the YA I’m currently revising, I loved all my characters and could visualize them all but multiple readers told me there were too many and they got confused. I didn’t like this idea at first, believe me. You really have to learn to trust your gut as far as feedback goes. I re-read some of the first chapters of my favorite current books and counted characters. In the end, because I kept getting the same feedback, I decided to honor this and give it a try. turns out–they were right.

      Hope this helps!
      Erin

  11. Posted June 27, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    I had originally started my writing piece in the 1st person, but switched it to the 3rd person. It seems to flow MUCH better. How do the authors here determine which approach to take to their novels? Is there one way generally used more than others?

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      Kim — 1st is much more common, because it is more natural. We all talk and tell stories. Writing in 1st person is a lot like talking. If I remember correctly, there was a time, decades ago, when 3rd person was nearly mandatory for children’s books. As for which to choose, I generally use 1st unless there are a lot of things the reader needs to know that the main character can’t possibly know. (Interesting side note — all the recent huge books, from Harry Potter to Hunger Games, are in third.) I think you gave a good tip when you mentioned that you tried a switch and it worked. Perhaps, for some people, it would be worthwhile to experiment with both viewpoints early on.

      • Posted June 27, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

        Friendly correction: The Hunger Games is in first person, using the perspective of the lead character Katniss Everdeen.

      • Posted June 27, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        Ursula Le Guin wrote a great short book on craft that I use all the time. She’s got a chapter in which she writes the same scene over using every possible point of view, 1st, 3rd, omniscient, narrated by a secondary character. It’s very interesting and I’ve found it useful in my own writing. On my goodreads page I keep track of point of view in the stories I’ve read which helps when I’m looking for familiar examples.

        Ursula’s book is Steering the Craft. Powells always has copies!

        • Posted June 27, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

          I like that idea of tracking perspectives on Goodreads. Might be something I need to try.

          • Posted June 27, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

            I’ve found it very helpful. I have a good memory for some things about story but when I’m thinking about whether to move to omniscient point of view or give blank verse a try, it really helps to have books at my fingertips to go back and reread.

            • Gae Polisner
              Posted June 27, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

              My natural voice is 1st – present so I almost always write in it (even before it was popular or okay :\)

              But I wrote one of my manuscripts in 1st – past because I wanted the “looking back” feeling of past. It was amazing how hard it was to veer away from my natural voice. I’m still not sure which that ms should be. But I do think the pull of our natural voice — even if that’s third, which it is for some — is also something to consider.

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      My novels tend to be ensemble, character driven stories, so third person has made the most sense. First person forces you to adopt a singular perspective. So, I think it depends in on the breadth of your story, and which voice (or voices) are the most compelling drivers of plot and conflict.

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      Usually, when I begin writing a book, a certain point of view rises to the top of my head and that’s where I begin. If it works, I stick with it, but if I have the sense that the story or voice feels forced, I’ll often stop and try rewriting from a different point of view. Do note that while first person may seem to be more common, a close, limited third person still gives that personal viewpoint but also gives you a little more freedom as far as the language you use and the descriptions you offer.

      • Posted June 27, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

        Just to expand on (or go off on a tangent about) what Kate said about third person limited, newer writers should keep in mind that third person limited requires much more attention to craft than any other viewpoint. While it’s obvious if you slip out of viewpoint in first person, it can be easy to lose control in third person limited. I definitely don’t want to discourage anyone from exploring that viewpoint — in truth, I encourage everyone to experiment with all the tools at our disposal — and you can always try omniscient if you find yourself wanting to share the thoughts of all the characters, or want to flit from scene to scene, but I think third-person limited is the one that requires the the writer to pay the most attention to viewpoint. (That’s not a bad thing.)

  12. Posted June 27, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Ok, confession time. I’m a story-hopper, spending most of me time alternating between a few different manuscripts, but never really settling down and cementing myself to one story.

    I’m curious about how other writers organize their writing time. Do you find you stick with mostly one thing before allowing yourself to play with other ideas or develop other manuscripts? Set goals and only work on the other stuff when each goal is met? I think I need to figure out a better way to organize my writing time, but I know it’s really hard for me to push the other ideas out of my head! I thought hearing what works for you guys might trigger a bright idea for me! 🙂

    Thanks! Oh, and Kate — I’m in the middle of teaching a young writer camp and yesterday we wrote from pictures. I showed them Jo Knowles’ Monday blog post and Ruth McNally Barshaw’s post on character sketches — just so they could see that us old folks and published authors do these things too. Pretty cool! 🙂

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      So glad those posts are helpful in your teaching, too! That was very much the idea.

      As far a writing time, I often work on more than one project at a time (drafting one, revising one, etc.), BUT…I do try to be very careful about running off to chase new ideas when I’m in the middle of drafting. I call it “shiny new idea” syndrome – because anything that’s just a glittering bubble of an idea is naturally going to have fewer flaws and more appeal than the messy middle of the thing I’m working on, and that’s a good way to never finish a book. When a new idea is calling so loudly that I can’t ignore it, I stop what I’m doing, open up a new Word document, and give myself a single page to blurt out a summary of the whole new project idea. Then I save it, close it, and go back to my work in progress.

      • Gae Polisner
        Posted June 27, 2012 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

        can’t say it better than Kate, so I’ll just add an Amen. 🙂

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      Kelly, I’ve found a contract, a deadline, and a need to pay college tuition to be marvelously focusing of my attention. 🙂

      However, I’m often interrupted by a shiny new idea, so I make a note to myself of something I want to work on later. Then when I finish a draft and it’s on my editor’s desk, I have several things I’m eager to work on. It can be very helpful to have something new to work on so that when I get a revision letter from my editor I come back to the work with a fresh point of view.

      As a rule when I’m writing a first draft I try to get to 1000 words a day and then in revisions a chapter or two a week.

  13. Wendi
    Posted June 27, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Does anyone out there have advice on how to go about doing efficient research? I’m particularly interested in how to organize what I find so I can efficiently retrieve the information for current writing projects, but also how to store the information for future reference as well.

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      Hi Wendi,
      Do you mean research for fiction or nonfiction?
      Speaking as a nonfiction writer, I like to use http://www.bibme.org/ whenever I find information in a new source, be it on the internet, or from a book. It helps me keep a well-organized and alphabetized list of my sources.
      As I type up notes, I always use footnotes in MS word and just make up a quick acronym for sources I use frequently (such as BITS, page X for the book “Bugs In the System”).
      For my fiction writing, I use Scrivener to keep notes about character descriptions and settings. I like the ease with which you can whip back and forth from ms to outline to character descriptions.

      • Posted June 27, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

        Thank you so much for these ideas!!!

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

      It is in the nature of research to be inefficient, especially at the start. But I’ve tended to organize my research either grouping sources by chapter in which the information appears or by topic.

      In my current work in process I’m organizing the research by chapter. Under chapter one I have all the references I looked at for the school system in rural Japan, the culture information about school and family relationships, the language information about the different names used for grandparents and titles used for teachers and principals. It also has the information about the Columbia River Bar Pilots Association in Astoria, Oregon, information on tsunamis in general and about how far out to sea or how far up river a commercial vessel needs to travel to be safe from a tsunami. I know my editor will be asking me for this information, so having it on hand makes the process go smoother.

      When I wrote Second Fiddle I organized the research according to topic. There was a list of sources for Classical Music and Composition, Communism, Cold War, travel information for Berlin and Paris, etc.

      I dedicate a section of my bookshelf to books, maps, etc for each project. I keep a file with links to websites I’ve used. I keep a list of contacts I’ve interviewed. I have a file of reference photos for the setting. Those photos have proved useful in offering my editor references for his cover team. I hope that’s helpful.

  14. Wendi
    Posted June 27, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Erin Dealey,
    I just saw your youtube video called “Max the Writer”. What a fun way to show students the necessity for the rough (“ruff”) draft and revision. It will be fun to have Max the dog as a guest speaker at our school this fall.

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Wendi!
      I made it for that very reason–and those are really my rough drafts spread all the way down my very long driveway. Writing is rewriting!

      I also have to thank Sarah who mentioned my Max video on Twitter just now and reminded me it was Q&A Wednesday! So sorry to be chiming in late. I am knee-deep in YA revisions, have two scripts to finish for my theater kids at Fine Arts Camp in July, and my agent just told me I have a book contract in the making. Woot! Doing the happy dance!!!!!

      Going to take a look at the questions posted here now.
      Erin

      • Posted June 27, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

        Congratulations Erin!

        • Posted June 27, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

          Thanks! Not saying anymore until the details are ironed out. (I’m sure you know what I mean.) But let the dancing begin.
          : )

          • Posted June 27, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

            I know exactly what you mean but it’s never too soon to dance a few jigs in the kitchen! 🙂

            • Gae Polisner
              Posted June 27, 2012 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

              Congrats, Erin!

  15. Georgia Parker
    Posted June 27, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I would welcome any suggestions for writing a strong Query Letter?
    Thank you,
    Georgia Parker

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

      Just as I’m not a teacher, I’m also not an editor, so my advice on querying should be used with caution. But I think a strong query is short (editors are busy), gets to the point (editors are even busier now than they were one clause ago), and, if possible, gives the basic idea in a single sentence. I’m a big fan of high-concept descriptions. If you can describe the book in a single grabber of a sentence (e.g., “Carry meets The Bourne Identity,” or “Imagine if the flying monkeys in Oz decide to take over Narnia”), you’ve gotten your message across. You should then, of course, tell a bit more, but not in too much detail (editors are busy). And remember, I’m not an editor.

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

      Query letters can seem so daunting but really, it’s just a simple letter of introduction to a potential business associate. The idea is to help an agent find what she is looking for and efficiently dismiss what she isn’t looking for.

      So one paragraph to describe your book. Include the genre, age level, format, length and a one or two sentence description of the plot. One paragraph to introduce yourself. If you are already published you’ll want to include titles and dates of publication. Any relevant work experience, for example professional writing or teaching would be appropriate. If you met the agent at a conference or are contacting her on the recommendation of one of her clients go ahead and mention it. A simple salutation and closure are all you need. If there are guidelines posted on the agency website be sure to follow them.

      All an agent needs to know is whether or not your book is the type of thing they acquire. If it is and they haven’t already acquired something similar, they will most likely request a partial or full manuscript. My agent Stephen Fraser always says he skips the query altogether and goes straight to the pages. If he likes what he’s reading, then he’ll go back and look at who is making the offer.
      Does that answer your question?

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

      Hi Georgia,
      If you are a member of SCBWI go to their web site and you’ll find some examples and how-to’s under Resources. Also, Harold Underdown has a guest blog by Margot Fink about this: http://www.underdown.org/mf_query_letters.htm

      Hope this helps!
      Erin

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

      Cheryl Klein, a really great editor at Scholastic’s Arthur Levine Books imprint, has shared examples of good and bad query letters on her blog, and I think these are great resources:

      A Query Letter that Worked
      http://chavelaque.blogspot.com/2010/01/how-to-write-great-query-letter-example.html

      The Annotated Query Letter from Hell
      http://www.cherylklein.com/id9.html

    • Gae Polisner
      Posted June 27, 2012 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

      The thing I see all the time with query letters is that people start rambling about the details of the book and its characters — a query ltr like David said is SHORT: it introduces the title, genre and why you’re querying that agent (para 1), says in one para. what the book is ABOUT (para #2) and then concludes with any statistics/major credentials, if any (para. #3). I read queries for friends all the time that have rambled about character’s quirks and minor characters and I finish reading and I have NO IDEA what their book is about.

      • Georgia Parker
        Posted June 28, 2012 at 9:01 am | Permalink

        Thank you all for your responses. I am thrilled to have received so many practical suggestions.
        Gratefully,
        Georgia

  16. Posted June 27, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    This is not really a question, but it is a terrific practice/project/opportunity for teachers and their students.

    I don’t know if any of you know the gifted author, James Kennedy, who wrote “The Order of Odd-Fish”, but he is a spectacularly funny and talented writer/performer who truly loves to share the love of reading with kids. I could regale with all of his marvelous antics involving Neal Gaiman or The Dome of Doom, but you can check out his website at:

    http://jameskennedy.com/

    One of the ways he is involving lots and lots of kids in cracking out old Newbery award winners is having them create 90-Second Newbery video projects. It’s totally free and open to anyone of school age. I did this last spring with two of my classes, and they LOVED it. He posts them on his website and invites kids to attend a 90-Second Newbery Film Festival with famous authors in their area. This year, he’s working with The New York Public Library and the Chicago Public Library systems to hold the film premieres. There’s a list of cool authors who will be presenting there, but that’s not the coolest part.

    He posts them all, and here are just a few examples: http://jameskennedy.com/90-second-newbery/

    The coolest part is the evidence you get of your students’ reading and writing lives. They read the books and write the scripts and often direct the videos themselves. I had students all read one past Newbery book and write a script/movie proposal. Then, they voted on the ones they liked the best and formed production groups to create the films. It’s hard work to distill a novel down to 90 seconds worth of script. You really have to evaluate your words carefully, weigh the importance of events, and plot your plan carefully. It required a really in-depth knowledge and understanding of the book, and forced them to write with respect to a particular author’s style or find a style of their own that highlights the author’s message.

    I know it’s one of the things that my students really loved doing. I know he’s always looking for new entries.

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

      Great idea, Jessica. These are always fun to watch. Bet they’d be wonderful fun to make with your students too. (I’ve challenged kids at school visits to make a rap reply to my Writer’s Rap but no takers yet–hint, hint…)
      Erin

    • Gae Polisner
      Posted June 27, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

      I had the pleasure to meet James at Teen Book Festival Rochester this year. He was a showstopper! No kidding.

  17. Posted June 27, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Here is a question that I have seen on the SCBWI forum site a few times. I have seen many different answers. Here goes: Should a picture book manuscript be sent to an agent or publisher? I was just wondering what this group of knowledgeable writers, teachers, and published authors thought about this question. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      Hi Andy,
      I sent my first pb directly to a publisher, but that was a while ago. And actually, I queried them first, but many will take the full manuscript if it’s a pb. Please always be sure to check the submission guidelines and follow them to a t. (Sound like teaching?)

      What I would suggest is that you take a look (in the SCBWI Marketplace or Writer’s Market) at which publishers are actively accepting picture books and give those editors a try. Many will accept simultaneous submissions –as long as you note this on the cover letter.

      At the same time, there’s really nothing against subbing it to a few agents as well. Many of my colleagues have gotten agents after the publisher indicated interest.

      So maybe the answer is, why not submit to both?
      Erin

    • Posted June 27, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      There are actually quite a few houses that are still open to submissions for picture books, and many agents (most, I dare say) are more interested in novels than picture books, so this is a situation where I might recommend submitting directly to editors, even though I’m a huge believer in agents. If you do want to submit to agents, though, you may want to hold off on sending it out to editors because when an agent gets a manuscript, he or she will want it to be “fresh” (so the agent can send it wherever he or she thinks is the best fit). If you’ve already submitted to editors, it limits what an agent can do with the manuscript.

      • Posted June 27, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

        Very true. I’ve also been told that many agents currently prefer novels to pbs because, frankly, that’s where the money is… (Don’t dismay–there are exceptions.)

        Also true what Kate says about agents preferring to have a clean slate when they submit your work. So if you do decide to submit to publishers first, keep track of where so that you can let any prospective agent know its track record.

        Always good to do no matter what.
        ERin

        • Posted June 27, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

          Erin and Kate, thank you! The most difficult part of any forum is sifting through the advice because it often is contradicting advice. This happens with every subject (exercise, nutrition) – there are so many media outlets in this extremely large virtual world. Your advice is very helpful!

    • Posted June 28, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

      Andy, I write only picture books, I have an agent. More of the picture books writers I know do not have an agent as of yet. I sold the first two books on my own 5 years ago and then an editor recommended a set of specific agents and I was offered representation fairly quickly. All the agents wanted to see at least 5 full picture books before making a decision and Kate and Erin are both right, it’s a money issue. They can’t make enough on one PB typically to make it worth their while, but there are agents out there who love PBs and are good at placing them, they need to know you write enough of them to make it worth their while. Good luck!

  18. Posted June 27, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    Happy almost 4th of July everyone!
    I’m sending this greeting now since I’m off next week for family time, food, and fireworks. (Notice the commas? Not a family fireworks way.) After that it’s Fine Arts Camp where I’m the Drama Mama for two sessions of amazingly talented kids age 10-18 and whoosh, there goes July!

    So here’s my answer (well, Goethe’s) to your July Q&A sessions:
    “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”
    ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    Happy Writing!
    Erin

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