Teachers Write! 6/13 Q and A Wednesday

Got questions about writing?ย  Wednesday is Q and A Day at Teachers Write! Virtual Summer Writing Camp.ย  Authors are always welcome to drop by and answer questions (you never quite know who you’ll run into here!) But today’s official author volunteers are Mara Rockliff, Miriam Forster, and Erin Dealey. 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.ย  Published author guests have volunteered to drop in and respond when they can.

Guest authors – Even if today isn’t a day you specifically signed up to help out, feel free to answer any questions you’d like to talk about.ย  Just reply directly to the comment.


200 Replies on “Teachers Write! 6/13 Q and A Wednesday

  1. I always wonder how far out do you plan the plot of a story? I am always pleasantly amazed when some loose strand from the start of the book comes into play later in the book, or later in a book series. I know the use of foreshadowing is a powerful device, but do writers “go with the flow” and shift direction regularly as the muse takes them, or does the use of the outline (the other day’s activity) keep the writing tight and focused?

    1. I think you’ll find as many varying answers to this as there are authors, Kevin, so I hope others will chime in, too. For me, it really depends on the book. My outlines, as I think Sally mentioned on Monday, are not hard-and-fast documents, but fluid ones. So I’ll outline, write a while, realize that I’ve discovered something through my writing that changes everything, go back and redo the outline, etc. Rinse and repeat. You should also know that the “brilliant” foreshadowing that appears in books isn’t always there from the beginning – some of us go back and add it AFTER we’ve discovered through writing what’s going to happen later on. I am revising a mystery right now and going back to plant clues (and get rid of other clues) is a part of the process.

      1. Wow! It’s so fascinating for me to read how writers “work” on a piece of writing. I think these reflections can be so enlightening for students. It makes them realize how universal, in some ways, and how particular, in other ways, the writing process is for writers. I know some of my students will identify with what you say here, Kate, while others will use your experience to inform their own. Models are so important to learning how to do anything and writing models (real authors and writers) are a true inspiration! Of course, hearing about a writer’s process and actually experiencing your own process are two different things; that’s why writing workshop is so critical in any classroom at any grade level.

      2. Kate, I agree on the foreshadowing. Generally, most of my foreshadowing is added in late drafts of the book. For outlining, I know where I’m starting and I know where I’d like to end, but then for that first draft, I just go for the ride. After a couple drafts in, I do an outline, check it to make sure that everything makes sense, start cutting scenes and adding others.

    2. To augment what Kate said, not only will every writer give a different answer, but many will give a different answer for each book. I know some writers who are organized and methodical and use the same basic process each time. But I am all over the map. I’ve started out with nothing but an opening line, I’ve started with an outline, and I’ve done everything in between.

        1. Since the advent of Scrivener, I’ve heard of many more writers using pictures to augment their prewriting. I’ve done Google image searches to find photographs that inspire, of a character, a setting–whatever I need at the moment.

          1. One tool that I love is Google Earth, and even the Google maps now that they have the street view – I can virtually walk down the street or across the park or wherever my characters/subjects are at that point in my narrative. Great for getting the juices flowing in the morning. . .

            1. Wow! I never thought about that. This is really a helpful tool and strategy. Thank you!

            2. Wow, what a wonderful idea! I’m writing historical fiction so have been walking down “old” streets from photos in archives, but I never thought of the street view guy. Thanks, David, for reminding me that I don’t have to approach it the same way each time, either, but that it might depend on the book.

            3. I used Google Earth when I was writing Second Fiddle because I can’t afford a research trip to Paris. I’m glad I did because when my editor went through it he had a map open on his second screen and followed the girls every step of the way. So some of the comments were as detailed as, “If the girls are walking from the Luxembourg Garden to St. Sulpice, wouldn’t they turn left here?”
              It’s a great tool!

        2. I don’t outline with pictures per se, but I do always draw the characters in my books as part of the getting-to-know-you process of discovering the story. I thought for years I’d be a comic book artist so I still have that sketching urge…

      1. This makes me feel so much better! I’m diving back into fiction after years away, and what I’m doing with this story feels like nothing I’ve done before. Yet, even though I’m struggling, it feels right for this story…

        I’m also glad to hear that many authors use many different planning techniques because I’m not super linear in my own thinking, and I doubt I’d be ABLE to always use the same technique…

          1. “Do what works for you.”

            Exactly. Although hopefully you find some ideas here that help you figure out what that means! As David says, it can be different for each book, too. I’m usually all over the place and start with a few plot points when I sit down to write a book. With my last one, it was a line that was in the final scene. BUT, I have recently discovered Scrivener (check out the free trial- you may just love it) and am hoping it makes me a bit more structured going in. THAT SAID, the real joy for me in writing is the discovery as I type, and love those forshadowing strands that sometimes appear and just work out later. More often, though it’s a matter of going back and weaving them in seamlessly, like Kate is talking about.

    3. With my chapter book series I work really closely with my editors and don’t start writing until we’ve gone back and forth about the plotline quite a bit. I always have at least a page or two of proposal and often as many as five or six. (This is for a 6000-word book.)

      Then I start drafting and–well, not exactly throw the outline to the wind, but I do change a LOT. Usually I find whole chunks of story are unnecessary and I simplify. (For instance, I take every opportunity to avoid adult involvement in the mystery my kid detectives have to solve.) And I add little subplots or recurring jokes.

      It changes even more in later drafts, and by the time the book is done, the story is only vaguely similar to the outline that I started with.

    4. In response to Kevin’s question, I’d like to concur with what Kate said. There really are as many answers as there are authors. I’ve heard experts talk about one extreme or the other, although I’m an outliner and it’s hard for me to even conceive of sitting down and just letting a story “flow.” For writers who say they never outline, I can’t help but wonder if they have something of an unconscious outline in mind.

      As for foreshadowing, I agree with Kate again. Part of the editing process should be tweaking and polishing what works and what doesn’t work. It can become clear in the end what needs to be added, deleted, toned down, or amplified. This speaks to the idea that writing doesn’t need to be perfect in the first draft and that great stories reach their full potential during editing.

    5. It’s definitely different for every author, and as said above for every book.

      For me I work less with outlines and more with lists. Lists of scenes I want, lists of characters, lists of setting. I always have an idea of the central core of my story in the back of my head, though it may change, and I’ll make lists of my character’s fears or why these two people in this romantic relationship are good for each other. That helps me see patterns and more importantly, it gives me a blueprint.

      If the story starts to go in a different direction, I can look at my blueprint and decide if that’s really a direction I want to go. Does it fit with what I want to do with the book? Is it better for the book that my original idea was? (Sometimes it is, sometimes it’s not.)

      If I start writing a book without planning first, which does happen and is SUPER SCARY for me, all this will develop as I go. ๐Ÿ™‚

    6. I also agree with Kate and David that every author has a different answer, and possibly a different answer for every book. With my first book I totally pantsed it – no outline, no overarching plan of any kind. I wrote the first 50 pages in a more-or-less linear fashion, then rewrote them numerous times. I then wrote a bunch of out-of-order scenes, wrote the ending, shuffled the out-of-order scenes into some kind of order between the first 50 pages and the ending. Then I rewrote the ending, which meant I had to go back and rewrite/reorganize a bunch of the scenes in the middle. Then I did a lot of work revising the scenes in the middle, because they were wretched.

      With my current works-in-progress I’m trying a much more structured approach – like Miriam, I did a lot of list-making, and I also used Cheryl Klein’s concept of the Action Plot/Emotional Plot dichotomy (her book, SECOND SIGHT, is indispensable – http://cherylklein.com/second-sight/) to make a big-picture outline, and THEN wrote the first 4 chapters.

  2. I’m curious about word counts for picture books. Last week someone (it might have been Kate)mentioned 1,000 words as being the high end of what’s acceptable. It seems like many classic picture books have much higher word counts. Is it ever okay to go over 1,000 words? Thank you!

    1. It is okay to go over a thousand words, and there are some really lovely picture books that do that. Many of those, as you mention, are classics. If you visit a bookstore now, you’ll see that it’s much more common to have short picture books that parents can read in a few minutes before bedtime, and many editors will tell you this is more in line of what they’re looking for. All that said, word count isn’t something I generally worry about at all in a first draft. While I always try to write a picture book as tightly as I can, it’s later on during the revision process, that the pruner shears come out and I really work hard to trim every word that isn’t working hard for the book. Most of my picture books are in the 500-word range. But again…there are exceptions to every rule, and there are some absolutely gorgeous picture books that run long. They’re just a bit more of a challenge to get published from what I hear.

      1. Lin Oliver, Executive Director of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) recently spoke to writers and illustrators about publishers looking for manuscripts of 300 words! While this isn’t a rule set in stone, picture books need to make every single word count.

      2. I agree. My first drafts are always way to wordy- often over 1200 words. Then I cut and cut and cut and choose stronger verbs and more specific nouns to make my work as tight as can be. I cut a paragraph here, tighten a section there… (I make it a bit like a game for myself- I use the word count feature to monitor how many words I managed to cut in each session while maintaining the integrity of the story). It’s fun. Really.

        Once I’ve done that, most of my PB manuscripts have been between 350 words and 750 words. The needs of the story determine the length.

        My current PB manuscript is in draft 13 or something and each revision is truly a re-vision. Not simply little edits or word changes.I find my story fully reveals itself in the revisions.

    2. Gosh, you people get up early! *yawn* I think I just discovered how you get so much done, Kate.

      Catherine, this is a pet topic of mine, because it’s one of those things writers are always telling each other: Shorter picture books! Shorter! Shorter! and yet mine keep getting longer. I’ve never sold a picture book shorter than 600 words, and the last one I sold to Candlewick was well over 1000–I’m not even sure how much over because it had a bunch of sidebars and notes at the front and back. As Kate says, though, it completely depends on the needs of the story. Not every story should be longer.

      Recently I did a guest post on this topic for Cynsations: http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/2012/04/guest-post-mara-rockliff-on-writing.html. It’s got some links to good examples of long picture books recently published. I don’t recommend using classics as a model if you want to know what publishers are buying now.

      1. That’s a great post, Mara–thanks for sharing! This is a topic that comes up a lot in my picture book critique group. We’re so often told, “Aim for 500!” or “Under 300 is best!” but I know of many beautiful picture books that have recently been published that are longer than that. And I agree that word counts can vary depending on format/genre. Historical fiction is another area that tends to be a bit higher in word count since the author has to incorporate historical and cultural information (while leaving room for the illustrator, of course :)).

    3. Chiming in here from the West coast– the word at most SCBWI workshops ( no pun intended) on pb length is short. Kate’s right about non-fiction PBs having more text but short is best. Leave room for the illustrator– and I don’t just mean on the page. PB authors don’t need to add too much description. Make every word count. It’s sometimes helpful to create a dummy wherein you see which text might go on what page and then see if it warrants an illustration.

    4. You can always find exceptions to every bit of advice out there. But something to keep in mind is that publishing is partly about art and partly about business.

      I think the desire for shorter word counts comes from the business side of publishing: a feeling that today’s busy parent knows he/she may have to read a picture book many, many times and perhaps as one of a stack of books. So short is a plus. We’ve all seen someone open a picture book and then put it back because it’s too long. And parents put books back because they’re too short, too. “I can’t pay $16.99 for a book with only 100 words.”

      It doesn’t mean longer or shorter books aren’t still bought or successful, but something *else* is the big plus and the big selling point to the publisher for those books. It might be the art. It might be the fact this book has brand potential (Fancy Nancy, for example). Or it may be a unique topic. Or another reason.

      I always feel there’s no harm in trying something, though. Write the story for yourself first–as long or as short as you want. Then save that version and open a new file. See what happens if you aim for 500 or so words. See if the story truly has to be that long. Maybe you’re saying things the illustrator can show us? Here’s where a knowledgable critique partner or group can be helpful. Sometimes other people can help us see our work more objectively.

      I just received an editorial letter on my next novel, and my editor suggested I remove a whole thread. I like that thread, so it was hard to hear that, but I’m rewriting the story without it, and I’m finding I really don’t need it. I couldn’t have made that choice on my own, because I couldn’t have lifted my head above the story far enough to see that the thread was slowing down my pacing too much.

      And then at some point, you just have to leap and see what happens!

      1. >>I couldnโ€™t have made that choice on my own, because I couldnโ€™t have lifted my head above the story far enough to see that the thread was slowing down my pacing too much.<< Isn't that the truth??

    5. I turned in my first picture book with roughly 300 words. My editor actually had me add several stanzas, bringing it closer to 400. Because I write verse novels, my writing is already pretty spare. After hearing so much about short, shorter, shortest for picture books, it was surprising to be asked for more (and, of course, it’s better for it).

    6. The specificity of the words you use count more than their numbers. The words count more than the word count. There’s a bit of practicality involved, of course…we PB writers only have 32 (let’s say 28 really) pages and an audience with a very short attention span, the less words the better. If you can write the whole story in 10 words, you’re a genius, in 100 words, that’s wonderful, 500 words, that’s typical, 1200 words might be OK, but if it takes 3000, you’re probably not writing a picture book, and need to change the story focus or the book format. I use a rule of thumb that I edit my PB manuscripts until they are under 5 double spaced manuscript pages long. I’ve had drafts as long as 10 pages, but I don’t show a PB story to anyone that doesn’t fit inside 5 pages or less. I’m pretty new to the whole writing business too, so I’m so appreciative of all of you that are trying this for the first time or getting back into your writing. Trust yourselves with your story.

        1. You know? I had to look that up. Not quite a zillion, but it’s long, about 1,300 words. When I first submitted it it was 1,000 words, so that’s a case where in editing they actually WANTED more words (I don’t expect to ever see that situation again!)

          1. My kids are obsessed with that book! “Miz Houghton, is that what your picture book is going to be like?” “Don’t I wish!”

  3. I’m about to start an MFA program where independent studies are an integral part of the coursework. Can you offer up insight on what types of studies may be most beneficial to someone largely writing PBs (i.e.,poetry, creative writing, crafting dialogue, etc.)?

    One other question– I’ve had a few ideas for YAs. Given the expense and difficulty of PB publication, do you think it’s a good idea to shift focus to those projects? Thanks in advance!

    1. To be honest, I think the best way to learn to write picture books is to read zillions of good picture books and then practice writing them. Lots of them will be crummy, probably, but for me at least, it takes a lot of failed attempts before I get one that sings.

      As far as shifting gears, I think you should work on what you want to work on. Publishing is challenging no matter what, and the thing that’s most likely to make you successful is honing your craft, writing what you love, and not giving up. My two cents, anyway…

      1. Thanks so much, Kate! Great tips all around. I teach first grade and have been closely reading/working with PBs for the last decade or so. Studying what’s out there really is educational. I feel like I have many ideas for original PBs, but I want more support polishing them and making them publishable/crafting them to be the best they can be. Wonderful advice to write what you want to write. Why box ourselves in? Thank you for your insight!

      2. Another way to learn about PBs is to take a recent copy of your favorite and actually type it out into manuscript form– no illustrations or paging. See how the author makes each word count. Check out the hook.

            1. haha– I knew what you meant… : ) Be sure to choose a recent release. Some of our old favorites are fabulous but you want to learn about the kind that is being published NOW.

              1. Isn’t it crazy? So many of the cherished PBs that I’ve used over the years as a classroom teacher break all “the rules” you hear about at writer’s conferences. And guess what? The kids love them still!

        1. I love this idea. I’m going to do this Friday on my first vacation day…which, by the way, doesn’t allow getting dressed. Just coffee, toast, eggs, and writing.

    2. Marissa, what do you mean by “expense and difficulty”? Are you thinking of self-publishing?

      I would suggest a critique group, but since you’re already about to start an MFA program, I would just caution you not to take criticism from people working outside your genre too much to heart! I once had a critique group where I was the only children’s writer, and the others said things like (in reference to my narrator), “If that was my kid I would slap her!” They couldn’t even conceive of how YOUNG readers might respond.

      1. Hi, Mara! It seems many publishing houses reiterate the fact that PBs are costly to print and are therefore harder to sell. At least, that’s what I’ve heard a couple of times. It can be discouraging, though I always say I write for the love of writing as opposed to publication. Still, one can dare to dream ๐Ÿ™‚ Love your vignette regarding crit groups! Thanks so much for your help.

        1. You know, they’re always saying picture books are a hard sell . . . and easy readers are a hard sell . . . and chapter books are a hard sell . . . and realistic YA is a hard sell . . . and nonfiction is a hard sell . . . and dystopias are overdone . . . and fantasy is supercompetitive because everyone’s trying to do it . . . and vampires are over . . . and yadda yadda. When it comes down to it, you know what they think sells? Bestsellers. ๐Ÿ™‚

          I just came back from BEA and there were certainly plenty of picture books out on display, including mine. So, as Monty Python would say . . . they’re not dead yet.

          1. Mara, I think I love you. If they could predict what was going to sell, they’d have done it by now and bestsellers would be written by robots (I know, it’s probably coming…but I think with storytelling, people will always rule!)

    3. Marissa, good for you. I’m of the opinion that elementary schools wouldn’t be able to function without picture books. Great PBs don’t happen by accident and I applaud you for considering the path of poetry, creative writing, and crafting dialogue as part of your MFA.

      Although you may not intend to create the picture part of your PBs, I hope you’ll also consider art coursework as part of your MFA. The value of what you’ll be able to bring to your work with a critical eye toward illustrations will benefit you as a writer and a collaborator when it’s time for the pictures to be created. Also, I believe that writers can be inspired by what they experience visually. I can’t imagine any creative person regretting having taken an art course.

      One more thing, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having several things going at once. If you’re working on a PB, it might be refreshing and even beneficial to spend time with a YA project. Moving back and forth can potentially strengthen your abilities in both areas and make you an all-around better writer. Good luck with the MFA!

      1. Todd, thanks for such sound advice. I am excited/humbled/nervous for the MFA program but I feel as though I need more structured assistance. As a teacher, I know PBs inside and out. I know what the children love, where holes are in the market, and the general rhythm they possess. That said, I’m still missing the mark or possibly several marks! Hoping the program will help me to improve.

        Terrific advice on the art aspect. Sadly, stick figures are my forte ๐Ÿ˜‰

        You and Kate have really encouraged me to write what I want to write and not be too burdened by the genres or boxes we put ourselves in. Thanks so much!

    4. I’m not a PB author (I did explore that direction a bit when I started out, but shifted to older material) so take this with a grain of salt.

      I agree with Kate that you should study what you want to study. One of the best things about this writing gig is that I can pursue any field that interests me and be confident that it will be useful in my writing. Your passion is what makes the book shine, after all. ๐Ÿ™‚

      That said, if you think you may want to do rhyming picture books someday, studying poetry is a wonderful idea. Badly written rhymes are a big complaint that I’ve heard about picture book submissions. If poetry interests you, it can also open up new forms, like the book Won Ton, which is a picture book about a cat written in haiku. Studying illustration could also be helpful for you to see how the words and pictures fit together. But again, anything you’re interested in and passionate about is probably fine. As wiser people than myself have said, it’s more important to read as many PB as you can.

      I made the decision to switch my focus from PBs to YA a long time ago, partly because of the market, but mostly because I was already writing YA as well and I found an story that I loved and wanted to work on more than anything. YA turned out to be what I was good at. I would say try writing one of those ideas you have, see if the length and voice click with you. If not, stick with what you love. Don’t change for the market.

      1. Miriam, you really have me thinking. I’ve never even tried writing beyond a PB because it’s been my niche in my mind. But I am a voracious reader of YA. It just never clicked until recently that I could give it a try based on some ideas I’d been having. Your insights based on your own experience are gold. Thank you.

        As for rhyming, great points. Rhyme is always popular with the read-aloud aged children. Plus, I see so many PBs that use word play, rhythm, and rhyme in ways that extend beyond a complete ms in rhyme. One example I can think of is Where’s My Mummy? Carolyn Crimi just plays with language so well and captures a song almost, though there’s no consistent rhyme. The kids love that language play and I’m hoping to hone in on coursework that will help me explore that more.

        1. You’re welcome! If you’re a voracious reader of YA, you should definitely try it out. I’ve long been a fan of the philosophy that the things we love to read are the things we’ll be most likely to write well. And classes in wordplay and poetry sound like tons of fun!

      1. For sure, Caroline! As a first grade teacher, you really get the chance to do this often AND get the reaction of the audience first-hand. It’s very eye-opening to see what holds their attention, makes them laugh, or makes them fidgety with boredom.

  4. My question goes along with the one that Kevin was asking. I’ve written picture book manuscripts, but not middle grade as I am doing now. I have intentions as to where I want the story to go generally from the beginning, but each time I write, a new direction emerges. I find I get so impatient, and wondered how you middle grade/YA writers deal with this impatience, if you have it. I feel like I want to get on with the story but have to go down lots of side alleys before I can move forward. Those alleys are necessary to move the story forward, but I didn’t anticipate I’d have to stop the main direction for sake of explaining something. It’s daunting when I think how long this can take to ever finish. How do you make peace with the pace of your writing, think that is what I am asking!!

    1. It sounds like this is your first draft???

      If it’s important to you, if you feel strongly about writing a later section, don’t feel like you can’t move to that section. Writing doesn’t have to be linear. Sometimes I leave big holes in a draft, e.g. ALICE AND MOM HAVE A FIGHT HERE. It may be something I don’t want to tackle yet (writing an argument takes a certain amount of energy) or maybe I’ve got great ideas for dialogue in a scene that’s several chapters beyond where I am and I don’t want to lose that momentum or maybe it needs research and I’m internet-free at that moment.

      Do what works for you, as long as it moves you toward your goal (a finished draft).

    2. If you’re going too far down too many side alleys, there’s a chance that you’re wandering away from your story, and an outline (even a simple one, where you write each scene on an index card as a short sentence that relates to the main plot) might help you feel like you’re moving forward. There’s a book about screen writing called SAVE THE CAT that talks a lot about this strategy, and it’s one that helps me.

      Also, ditto what Anne Marie says about skipping some things if you know they need to be done but you want to keep moving forward. When I’m drafting, I keep a big sheet of paper next to me with the words “Known Issues” at the top, and every time I know I need to spend more time on something later or revise something, I just stick it on that list. It keeps me moving (because no…I am not a patient person) and also creates a nice little to-do list for my first revision pass. Might be worth a try.

      1. That’s a great idea. Me, I would lose the list! So I sometimes use a different color right in the draft, when I know something needs to be changed later. So my directions to myself are in red or blue.

      2. On the other hand, I wouldn’t shut down those side-alley wanderings too quickly, because it could be that what you THOUGHT was the main thread of your story isn’t, actually, and down the side alley might be the right way to go. Or might illuminate something about one of your characters that will be essential later. I’m not saying all the side alleys will wind up in the novel, just that you don’t want to shut down your creative impulses because your editor-side says “that’s not in the outline.” Especially in the first draft!

        But then, my usual first draft for a 500-word profile is about 2200 words long. . .

        1. Yes, thank you Sally and Kate. Helpful comments!

          I think the side alleys are necessary and don’t really get away from the main thrust of the story. I just wasn’t expecting them. I think I’m not used to relaxing into writing a longer story, is my main impatience. How do you relax with the time it’s going to take to get through the whole thing? Quit looking at the clock, so to speak?

          1. Diane, I totally get what you’re saying. Sometimes I love writing, but sometimes I just want the book to be DONE. It’s hard. Writing is work a lot of the time. The thing I try to remind myself is that even when I get to the end, the work is far from over. In fact, it’s only just begun, because revision is usually much harder than writing the first draft.

            So, try to enjoy the journey. Try to enjoy the discovery of what’s happening. The first draft is really our chance to play – to have fun with the story. And remember if you are getting bored, your readers will probably be bored to, so take that as a sign that it’s time to throw in some more conflict.

            Good luck!

          2. Unless I have a hard deadline, which I have never had for fiction, I don’t think about how long it’s taking. In fact now that I think about this, I’m sort of the opposite – I love writing, why rush it?

            When I do have a hard deadline, I divide up the time in advance, being sure to leave time to put the manuscript away for a while before starting revision, which I find essential. So then I might know “I have a week to write this” (or a month, or whatever). But that’s after years of experience, so I have a pretty good feel for what to expect.

            Enjoy the process/journey – isn’t that why we’re doing this? It’s about writing, not having written. . . .

            Realizing that this may not be particularly helpful, as I’m just sort of thinking out loud.

    3. I understand where you’re coming from. Sometimes the sheer volume of work involved in even finishing a first draft is overwhelming. (I write YA.)

      If you find yourself struggling a lot with impatience and boredom though, it might be because you haven’t connected with the story yourself. Every writer I know has days of slogging, but I’ve never met a writer who was working on a project they connected with, who also didn’t have giddy, omg-this-is-so-cool moments. It’s those moments that makes the slog worth it, when a subplot clicks into place, or a new character shows up or you get to write that kissing scene or that description you”ve been waiting for. If it’s all slog, something is wrong.

      My best suggestion is to go to the middle grade books you love and ask yourself why you love them. Is it the characters? The world-building? The fast-paced plots? The voice? Then o back and figure out how to bring that element to your story. If you love reading it, chances are you’ll enjoy writing it.

      1. I struggle with balancing the time to read AND the time to write, but I find that reading often inspires my writing.

  5. I guess it’s the Librarian in me that wants to write to the “holes” I see in Children’s literature. This reeks of “writing to get published” rather than writing what you want or writing the book that is inside you. Many authors spoke to this last week, but I am curious to hear more. Does free writing eventually lead to finding a topic and character? Or, is the process more purposeful than this?

    1. Mary, it’s wonderful that you’re letting your “inner Librarian” out! Seriously, knowing what’s needed to be put in the hands of young readers is a wonderful impetus for writing. I don’t think it “reeks of writing to get published” at all — it’s a testament to wanting to write something worthwhile and helpful and illuminating for young readers, which is why all of us who write, do so. For my two non-fiction contracted works, TSUNAMI and HURRICANE, my publisher wanted me to “fill a hole” in disaster-related books, so that’s what I wrote, feeling a strong sense of purpose and excitement (well, not about the tons of research, necessarily!) as I wrote. So, keep the inner Librarian out there and give her a pencil and a piece of paper!

    2. Mary — one thing I find more productive than free writing is having a written discussion with myself. It begins with a question, such as, “What kind of book do I want to write?” and then just spins off in whatever direction my mind takes it. The key thing is that I actually write the this, so it gets the writing juices flowing. I’ve gotten the ideas for at least two novels this way. I also use this to solve plot problems. I’ll ask the key question (e.g. “How do I get my characters out of the burning castle?”) and then explore answers.

    3. Mary, I don’t think free writing is ever a bad thing, no matter what you set out to do. Whether you’re looking for ideas or writing about a known topic, the act of putting it down (via pen, keyboard, whatever) helps the writer figure out so much. However, part of a writer’s life is more than writing. Many people don’t realize this, but a writer’s life is also consumed by a significant amount of thinking. Before I’d settled on a topic for my first novel, I sat in a coffee shop with an empty legal pad, wondering what I’d want to commit myself to writing. The feeling was daunting, especially since it was (and is) my first novel. I felt a lot of pressure. I didn’t want to “waste” time with topics that didn’t hold my interest, and of course I wanted to write something that I could market. It was a paralyzing feeling. For a while I felt I should just brainstorm ideas on paper (and I did), making lists of topics and title ideas and character sketches just to see what moved me. But then, I put the pen down and stared into space, thinking to myself, “I’m so fortunate to be sitting here brainstorming ideas while my husband’s at work and my kids are at school…but what if he lost his job?” My first thought was, “I don’t know if I’d be able to remain a writer.” That scared me to death, because writing is everything to me. When I thought even deeper, I imagined how my husband’s lack of a job would affect my psyche, and how those two things combined would affect our children. At that moment, right there in the coffee shop as I stared off into space, I knew I’d write a book about a girl whose parents lose their jobs and how the chain of events alters her life. And so, a huge part of my writing process is putting the pen down and letting my imagination run where it needs to go.

      1. There Christine, I found your post and replied with a question a few minutes earlier. What do we do about a “significant amount of thinking” for elementary students?

    4. I never freewrite and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing to be published or choosing a topic you think readers are missing out on. I think it all depends on what the “holes” are that you see and how you fill them. For a novelist, the most likely pitfall is heavy moralizing–you know, This Is a Book About Why X Is Wrong or Look! A Book About an Under-represented Group by Someone Who Doesn’t Know Much About Them.

    5. I have freewritten before, but nothing I freewrite ever ends up in a book. Mostly was good for me to see how I CAN write when I’m not scared of what people will think when they read it. Then I tried to bring that boldness to the story I’m telling.

      As far as filling holes go, I think it’s not a bad motivation as long as it’s not the only one. I agree with Mara, most problems with that come in when someone tries to write about an issue or group of people they don’t know much about. And it has to be something you really care about writing about beyond the hole-filling, otherwise the story won’t ring true. Does that make sense?

  6. Alright, I confess that other than reading, everyone else posts, I’ve yet to push a pencil as of yet. However, I feel I have gleaned so much already that when I approach the page I will do so with more confidence. So far the biggest benefit for me has been being introduced to so many talented writers. I confess that prior to camp, I had not heard or read many of our guest authors but I am inspired to read the feedback they share.

    1. *Hands Linda a pencil and piece of paper* Now, you’re officially a writer — just the fact you’re reading this wonderful summer camp makes you a writer. If you ever find the secret to “approaching the page” with confidence, please let us all know. ๐Ÿ™‚ We all go through the blank page jitters! Have fun!

      1. I second Margo. There’s always jitters and angst and slow days. Just remember, when you do start writing, it’s okay not to be perfect–or even good. The important things when you’re starting out are to keep practicing and to have fun. ๐Ÿ™‚

        1. I third Margo. I’ve been inspired by all the educators here to finally start a new project after a few past months of feet dragging/handwringing…guess what? I’m one page further than I was last week, and that’s gotta be good enough (especially with groups of kids running in and out for water or towels or rides to minigolf, oh yeah, and one dog’s been limping and the other puking this week too!) Anytime you start, anywhere you start, anyhow you start, it’s fine, just begin even if you’re not ready. No one here will judge, we know what it’s like to get entirely too frantic over what are basically squiggly dark marks on white paper.

    2. Ditto! I have posted, but I am gaining so much from the info on posts. Keep them comin’ guys and gals.


  7. So I have no clue what to do about the awesome photos I’m coming across in my research on Bucky Fuller. I’d like to know a little more about what I have the right to copy/use/post as I’m working on my writing. For example, I found a bunch of great stuff on Stanford’s online archives, but other than a comment I found on one page about “many photos in the public domain,” I can’t find specific information on who the rights belong to. Right now, I’ve just been posting only photos I find on Google Images and hope that if any of them are copyrighted that I’m not the original poster so I’m okay…… Or do I just collect as much as possible and worry about photo rights way way way down the line?

    1. Shannon, it sounds as if you’re having a wonderful time doing this collecting and that you’re really excited about writing this book! For my non-fiction, the publisher took care of all the rights and permissions for the photographs, so I’m guessing your “down the line” idea is probably spot-on. Enjoy the writing process and keep letting those photos inspire you!

      1. Save everything to your own hard drive (things on the web vanish), and keep detailed notes about where you found them. Chances are your publisher will have someone who does photo rights, and they’ll be grateful for anything you can give them to help (although for my Greenwood book I did have to do it myself, come to think of it).

        I stepped in on a book for my publisher when her photo person spent a year being seriously ill, and the actual work of locating copyright holders and securing the rights is a ton of work, can be a grueling process! So any help you can give that person is great, but the chances of it being your job.

        What you cannot do is assume that because someone else has posted it on the web, it’s public domain. The web is indeed tangled, and I’d venture to say that the majority of what gets posted is, in fact, a violation. . . .

    2. I’d collect for now (without sharing online or anyplace!)…and be sure to note everything you can about the source so it’s easier to track down necessary parties for rights later on. I can’t find a link to an article online, but I know that Loree Griffin Burns has done SCBWI workshops on photo rights, which I know can be a long and complicated process. Any NF writers able to chime in here?

      Also…slightly off topic, but I can’t resist sharing resources, the INK (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids) is a great one for anyone who writes NF.


    3. Hi, Shannon,

      By all means, collect away. Exploring and tracking down images is one of my favorite parts of the research I do for my books!

      That said, I suggest being very, very careful about copyright infringement. Just because an image is accessible online through Google doesn’t mean it can be downloaded and re-posted on a blog; doing so infringes on the copyright of the image owner. I tell people to think of images the same way they do words: you can’t simply take someone’s words and use them without permission or attribution. If you want to show an image online, its your responsibility to find out who it belongs to and get their permission to post it. On a blog this will probably only cost you a credit line (e.g. “Photo courtesy Kate Messner”). For a book project you will more than likely have to pay a fee for the use.

      Copyright and permissions issues can feel overwhelming and complicated at first, but there are lots of resources to help you get started. I recommend the book Getting Permission, How to License and Clear Copyrighted Materials Online & Off, by Richard Stim (NOLO, 2010), and here are some links to websites I find useful for defining and understanding basic issues of image copyright and permissions:



      I’m happy to answer more specific questions if you have them, although today is the first day of summer break here in central Massachusetts and my kids are dragging me out the door! I’ll check back later this afternoon …

      1. Thank you so much! This gives me a great start. I knew I didn’t want to have to backtrack where I got my information from, so I’ve been kind of obsessive about noting sources, but I don’t know much past basic MLA style stuff. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Hi Everyone! I’m enjoying all the talk & have no questions right now, but FYI-Miriam Forster’s link is not working. I found the website anyway, but thought you’d like to know.

  9. To echo Kate, Ann Marie, and David–for my fiction writing, I’m a big believer in outlining, but I also keep it fluid and allow the story to evolve. That said, I do believe the majority of fiction writers fall into two categories: Plot-Driven and Character-Driven. I’m a plotter. Everyone else in my writer’s group starts with character. It’s fascinating to see others’ processes, and seems quite Coke and Pepsi in a way, but it’s why we have such lively and enriching discussions!

    1. Sarah, Shannon (above) had a question about photo rights. Are you aware of any online articles or blogs that discuss that and might be helpful? I know that there are SCBWI workshops on that topic sometimes…

      1. Hi Shannon–Just got back from my writing group so sorry for the delay. If an image is in the public domain (pre-1921) and it is a slavish imitation of a two dimensional work, you are permitted to use it. Wiki images are usually fine IF the image is in the PD. However, if the photo is taken of a THREE dimensional work (such as a photo of a Greek statue) the photo may be copyrighted, because the photographer made artistic decisions in composing the photo (lighting, angle, etc) A good resource that explains this extremely complicated issue is called: Permissions: A survival guide by SM Bielstein.
        Many museums that own artwork will charge fees for reusing photos, and we writers must pay for the reuse if it’s the only way to secure a high-quality (300dpi) image. But in fact, they aren’t right to try to slap a copyright line on a two-dimensional image of something like the Mona Lisa. Hope that’s helpful.

  10. Good Morning! My question this morning takes this in a bit of a different direction. It is not about writing about about who is missing in our writers group? I teach in a very diverse setting and the voices of my students are will me as I write, read and learn.

    Here is a post I did yesterday for Slice of Life – I am still in reflective mode and not yet working on my books.

    Would love your thoughts – http://wordsfromjl.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/who-is-missing/

    1. Joanne, that picture of your students — the little writers — is absolutely adorable. You wrote a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. Going to publishers’ websites such as Lee and Low and also Marimba Books (one of my publishers) and Just Us Books may help you give your students pictures of writers who look like them. Also, take a look at http://www.hawaiibookblog.com; they do a lot of nice reviews of books and authors similar to what you’re seeking. Your students are fortunate they have such a caring teacher. ๐Ÿ™‚

    2. I think these are wonderful questions! I’ve been processing similar thoughts myself.

      Authors I can think of are people like Matt de la Peรฑa, Cindy Pon, Jo Whittmore and Mitali Perkins. In fact Mitali runs a wonderful blog that talks a lot about living and writing between cultures.


    3. Hi Joanne,
      I agree with Miriam and Margo! Lee and Low has several imprints you might be interested in.

      I would also add a blog by my writer friend, Nathalie Mvondo, Multiculturalism Rocks! http://nathaliemvondo.wordpress.com/ She grew up in Cameroon and interviews authors and illustrators of color, and reviews books with characters you and your students are looking for.

      Keep writing!

    4. A wonderful and hugely important topic, Joanne. There’ve been some great names mentioned already, and to that list I’d add the following:

      Lisa Yee created wonderful Asian-American characters whose stories aren’t ABOUT being Asian-American. Wendy Wan-Long Shang is a new author who’s received a lot of buzz. Cynthea Liu is a stellar middle-grade author who also does a ton of literacy work. Ellen Oh writes historical fantasy, but it’s rooted in Korean history and mythology, an area that’s extremely lacking in the market. Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich wrote one of my favorite books of recent years, 8TH GRADE SUPERZERO, which very skillfully touches on faith, ethnic identity, social justice, and civic engagement, with an incredibly light touch. Sarwat Chadda writes turbocharged fantasy novels with protagonists of color. The upcoming Tu Books anthology DIVERSE ENERGIES will provide an introduction to a whole slew of authors who write multicultural fantasy, including Malinda Lo, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Greg Van Eekhout. Thank you, thank you, thank you for being aware and active about this. We should all follow your example.

  11. I’ve read somewhere that writers write close to their heart, and I’m finding that principle to be true for me. As a result, I’m discovering that my characters resemble some of my loved ones (with embellishment and added untruths). I’m wondering if others have also found this to be true, and if so, how do you give your beloved characters freedom to behave freely (and sometimes badly) without alienating those who may see a little bit of a reflection in themselves? I really want to remain on a speaking basis with my mother-in-law. Honestly. ;/

      1. “I was as careful as I could be, in the years my mother and my other relatives were alive, to protect their feelings. But it would have been a distortion of my own self not to have written about them at all.”
        That was very helpful for me, and captures how I’m feeling right now! Thank you!!

      2. Kristin, in an early manuscript I wrote (women’s fiction, not YA) I made the mother in law character physically opposite my real mother in law — where my m-i-l was heavy, the character was rail thin; where my mil had light hair the character had dark hair, etc. BUT the funny thing was, as I permitted the character to physically morph from my mil, she also began to morph in other emotional ways and truly became her own character. After a while I didnt view her as the real thing anymore which really helped the whole book to become fiction. I find this now happens constantly when Im writing my women’s fiction which is way closer to home than my YA ever is. Of course, if that book had ever come out, I probably would have had to either change a few plot details or let the chips fall where they may. ๐Ÿ˜‰ But the other truth is, no need to worry about it till it’s close to getting published. That ms never saw the light of day. ๐Ÿ™‚

        1. btw, I look way happier about that ms never seeing the light of day via emoticon than I actually was in real life. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. Personally, I’ve found that the deeper and more complex my characters become and the more freedom they have to act, the less that’s a problem. For example, I have one character who’s based on a specific situation I had once with a relative, but over the writing/rewrite process, he turned into his own person and his reasons and reactions changed. The basic situation is still there, but now it’s driven by totally different motivations than the one I started with. Does that make sense?

      Also, the recommendation I see a lot is to change as many inessential aspects of the character as you can. Hair color, gender, occupation. Anything that doesn’t effect the core story should go, so people don’t recognize themselves as easily. ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. and, now I read Miriam’s response and she said what I said, without the long rambly ineloquent story. Thank you, Miriam.

  12. My question is related to Kristin’s…

    One of my characters is based on a deceased relative. Some days this has made the writing cathartic, other days it has been difficult.

    When have you left a character out of a story because is was too hard to spend time with them?

    1. I have named characters after deceased relatives, but I make them very different. For example, in my MG novel, IT’S RAINING CUPCAKES there is a barber named Stan. That was my grandpa’s name. Stan in the book is funny and outgoing and likes to tell knock-knock jokes. I love him. My grandpa was nothing like this. He was much more thoughtful and quiet, but when he spoke, it was interesting, and he did make us laugh quite often. I loved my grandpa and miss him very much. But I was able to write the book with a smile on my face and never get bogged down missing him because Stan in the book is so different. And I think my grandpa would have loved the man I named after him, even if he’s nothing like him.

      I think there is something to be said for keeping fiction… fictional. The more you put real people in there, the more you feel the need to be true to them, and writing a book is hard enough! I’m not sure we should make it even harder by giving ourselves one more thing to worry about.

      Good luck!

    2. Personal writing, or writing for catharsis, is something I reserve for private, journal-type stuff. If you don’t want your mom/husband/relative/boss to read what is a thinly-veiled caricature of them, probably best to keep it private. Hint: People you know will be LOOKING for themselves in your writing, so best to not use them if they might be offended or if it’s not memoir.
      What I like to do for my fiction is take pieces or quirks from people I know and mash them all together into a new character that doesn’t resemble anyone real. This also makes it easier to give them their own stories and not restrain them when you worry about if that’s something your real person might do or ‘shouldn’t’ do.

  13. Hi all! I am a YA writer, and I guess I’d describe myself as a character-driven plotter. When I got my Master’s in Creative Writing, there seemed to be a divide between “literary” writers who just followed where the characters led and “genre” writers who plotted things out before diving in. I have to admit that I was among those raising noses at genre writing, of any kind.

    But guess what? I didn’t get a whole lot of writing done–not then, and not in the years after I left the program. Finally, just a couple of years ago, I wrote an outline for the novel that would become my debut (forthcoming 11/12). It wasn’t a big outline–there was just a sentence, or a phrase, maybe a couple of sentences at most for each chapter. But it gave me the framework to begin.

    I discovered that the outline gave me parameters within which I could develop character. It was like shopping at Trader Joe’s–everything I needed, but not so many choices that I couldn’t make a decision. For me, it was magical.

    1. Congratulations on your debut! That’s wonderful!

      I can work with less planning, though it’s scary, but I HAVE to have the last scene in my head before I start. Otherwise I don’t know where I’m going and there’s no tension in the story. And I know what you mean about too many choices. Sometimes that can be really paralyzing. ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. I love all of the great information I have read from everyone. My question is this-How many of the authors commenting here use an agent? Do you think having an agent helps get a manuscript through the “slush” and into the right hands? Any tips for someone who lives in the Midwest-away from publishing hotspots to find an agent?

    1. I love my agent (same agent as Kate and Miriam) and she is helpful in a million ways, both before and after the sale. A good agent will give you feedback on your idea or manuscript; she’ll pitch your book to the right editors, negotiate the contract, make sure you get paid, and generally be your Virgil through the nine circles of publishing.

      It doesn’t matter where you live, because agents work by email and phone. I’m guessing most of my agent’s clients met her after they signed, if they’ve met her at all. A good way to find names of well-known agents is on the “agent response time” board at Verla Kay http://www.verlakay.com/boards/index.php?board=43.0. Then once you have the names, you can google them to find out what they are like and if they represent your kind of book.

    2. ARGH I just wrote you a long answer and when I hit Post Comment it vanished into thin air. I’ll try to reconstruct and hope it doesn’t double-post.

      I love my agent (same agent as Miriam and Kate) and she is helpful in a million ways, both before and after the sale. A good agent will give you feedback on your manuscript or even an idea, pitch your story to the right editors, negotiate the contract, make sure you get paid, and generally be your Virgil through the nine circles of publishing.

      It doesn’t matter where you live. If you feel strongly about meeting an agent in person you can go to writing conferences, but I know my agent hadn’t met most of her clients before signing them and probably still hasn’t met many of them. She represented me for at least a year or two before we crossed paths in real life.

      A good place to find names of reputable agents is on the Verla Kay writers’ chatboard in the Agent Response Time section (http://www.verlakay.com/boards/index.php?board=43.0). Once you have the names you can google them and find out what they are like and whether they represent your kind of book.

    3. Hi Melanie —
      I didn’t have an agent when I first got published, but after 3 books I finally decided to take the plunge. Judging from her reactions to the contracts I’d signed, it’s a good thing I did. An agent can help anyone, published or unpublished, navigate the tricky publishing waters and can serve as an intermediary between the business end and the creative end of publishing. And for unpublished writers, I think they’re invaluable in getting mss. into editors’ hands. I don’t believe that where you live matters — there are no distances on the Internet. From what I can tell, many agents have never met the majority of their clients. There are dozens of good websites that can help you match your needs to an agent’s. I like this site for giving real insight into how certain middle-grade agents think: http://middlegradeninja.blogspot.be/p/interviews-with-literary-agents.html. And this is an all-purpose site: http://www.agentquery.com/. I’m sure other writers have other useful sites to offer. Good luck!

    4. Having an agent definitely gets your foot in the door. A lot of publishers/editors won’t even look at unagented submissions, for one. And it’s a part of an agent’s job to know which editor is looking for what, so right away, your submission is more targetted. As for your location – I’m in Canada, but that’s never stopped me – most agents take e-queries and all correspondence can be done via phone or e-mail, so geography won’t hold you back!

      1. I keep trying to post this . . . maybe it will let me do it as a reply to the reply!

        I love my agent (same agent as Miriam and Kate) and she is helpful in a million ways, both before and after the sale. A good agent will give you feedback on your manuscript or even an idea, pitch your story to the right editors, negotiate the contract, make sure you get paid, and generally be your Virgil through the nine circles of publishing.

        It doesn’t matter where you live. If you feel strongly about meeting an agent in person you can go to writing conferences, but I know my agent hadn’t met most of her clients before signing them and probably still hasn’t met many of them. She represented me for at least a year or two before we crossed paths in real life.

        A good place to find names of reputable agents is on the Verla Kay writers’ chatboard in the Agent Response Time section (http://www.verlakay.com/boards/index.php?board=43.0). Once you have the names you can google them and find out what they are like and whether they represent your kind of book.

    5. Haha, I live in the wilds of Idaho, and I got an agent who lives in New York. Location’s not really an issue.

      I LOVE my agent. Not only, as Joanne pointed out, did she target my book to the right editors and sell it, but she’s a great person to go to when I have questions about the publishing process. (Or when I’m feeling angsty and need a dose of sympathy and common sense.)

      Agents are also great if your cover turns out to be fugly (not the case with mine, thank goodness) or your editor keeps pushing you to add sparkly vampires to your book. You go to the agent with problems and then the agent goes to the publishing house. That way the editor still has great memories of working with you and you don’t have to be the bad guy. Which is great for me, since conflict makes me want to hide under the bed. ๐Ÿ™‚

    6. I keep trying to post this . . . probably ten versions will eventually appear!

      I love my agent (same agent as Miriam and Kate) and she is helpful in a million ways, both before and after the sale. A good agent will give you feedback on your manuscript or even an idea, pitch your story to the right editors, negotiate the contract, make sure you get paid, and generally be your Virgil through the nine circles of publishing.

      It doesn’t matter where you live. If you feel strongly about meeting an agent in person you can go to writing conferences, but I know my agent hadn’t met most of her clients before signing them and probably still hasn’t met many of them. She represented me for at least a year or two before we crossed paths in real life.

      A good place to find names of reputable agents is on the Verla Kay writers’ chatboard in the Agent Response Time section (http://www.verlakay.com/boards/index.php?board=43.0). Once you have the names you can google them and find out what they are like and whether they represent your kind of book.

    7. Hi Joanne,
      the best tip I can give you is to seek out your region’s chapter of SCBWI. (I sound like a broken record here…) There are many chapters in the midwest ( see http://www.scbwi.org/Pages.aspx/Regional-Chapters ) and this network of authors and illustrators will be invaluable. Plus, they hold conferences with agents attending, so you can meet and see if one would be a match for you.

      Another way to meet agents is on Twitter. There are tons of them out here with links to their blogs and tips and chats that will let you know if they are a match for you, and if they are open to new clients. Follow them. Get to know them. Let them get to know you.

      Why? I believe someone has already addressed this, but having an agent is like a marriage. You don’t want to pick the first eligible agent around. You need to find someone who gets you, values your work, and will be your advocate. That being said, I published GOLDIE LOCKS HAS CHICKEN POX and LITTLE BO PEEP CAN’T GET TO SLEEP with Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, without an agent. It took months and months but GOLDIE made it through the slush pile! My other books are work-for-hire with smaller publishers, and I do have an agent now, who is patiently waiting for me to revise my novel, but it’s still possible to get published without one.

      How? Some agents on Twitter hold submission contests. OR–after you attend an SCBWI conference, editors will give participants a limited time to submit to their house–even if it’s normally closed to unsolicited submissions. This is a huge advantage. Some conferences offer a manuscript critique for an extra fee, and an editor or agent of your choice will read the first few pages and comment–and (if the stars align) ask you for more.

      Good luck! And be patient–this is a Hurry-up-and-wait business, but we love it!

      1. I’ve been wondering about the whole agent thing myself, even though my YA MS is no where near the point of completion for me to even really worry about it right now. I am already following a number of agents on Twitter and watch (quietly stalk) the #askagent chats when I come across them, so that’s at least a step in the right direction. Yay!

        My question regarding agents is how do you know when it’s time to seek one? After your completed MS has had beta readers and multiple revisions, or can it be before that? Like I said, I don’t even have a finished MS yet, but I am a “think ahead” kind of girl. ๐Ÿ™‚

        1. Hi Micki,

          You will want your manuscript to be as polished as possible. Competition is fierce out there – you want your manuscript to stand out above all the rest. You will also want to spend lots and lots of time crafting the best query letter you can. Get feedback on the query letter as well – if it doesn’t do a fabulous job describing your book succinctly, your manuscript won’t even get read. You’ll want to query in batches of 3-5 and see what kind of comments you get. If none of them request the manuscript, then it’s probably back to the drawing board on the query letter. If they do request and then end up rejecting the MS, see if they have common comments (although often, you won’t get any comments other than – not for me).

          Good luck!

        2. Micki – you want your ms to be as polished as possible – you don’t want to ruin that one chance to make a first impression! Agents really are busy people and probably won’t appreciate looking at non-polished drafts and I’ve read many agent posts about this. You should really have what you would consider a ‘publication ready’ draft. An agent still might want edits, but it’s got to be as close as you can get it on your own and with the help of your crit partners.

        3. I agree with Lisa. Definitely as polished as possible. Sending out a book prematurely is almost as bad as not sending it out as all, and it can limit your options quite a bit. And definitely query in small batches so you can course-correct and rewrite as needed. I did several revisions and a full overhaul of my book in between query rounds.

    8. Hi Melanie, I actually submitted my manuscript to my publisher before signing with my agent, but I’m really glad I did sign with her before my manuscript was actually read. I actually revised that manuscript AFTER submitting it to my publisher, and my agent easily and gracefully handled the process of pulling the previous version and submitting the new version. Then when I was offered a book deal, she negotiated the contract terms far more effectively and knowledgeably than I would have been able to. I trust and rely on her a great deal. A major bonus is the fact that my agency-mates are an incredibly supportive group of people, and have contributed a lot of joy and positive energy to the process of being a debut author.

  15. Good Morning Authors!

    Thanks for your time today. My questions have to do with critique groups.

    I’m trying to help my students form useful critique groups for their writing (and trying to find one for myself as well, let’s be honest!). I like the idea of a consistent group because then it can garner trust. Maybe with changes as needed or after a certain period of time.

    The first part has to do with how they form…

    What, in your opinion, is the best, most effective number of people to work in a crit group?

    I’m in the air about whether to assign crit groups to my students or encourage them to form organically. Does anyone have an opinion on this or seen it work spectacularly in either form?

    How often do you schedule time with your critique group, and is that time enough?

    When you hand your work to your critique group, do you go in with a pre-set idea of what you want from their feedback, a set of consistent rules/guidelines for critique, or is it more free-flowing?

    When you think about how the most useful pieces of criticism are couched, are there any common things about them that stand out in your mind? (tone, content, length, etc.)

    Whew! That was a slew of questions. Thanks for whatever you have the time or inclination to answer!

    Best Regards,

    1. Jessica, your idea for critique groups for your students is wonderful. When I taught middle and high school, I always assigned the groups, trying to keep a close eye on the group dynamics. If we let them choose their own groups, chances are that they’ll pick friends, or someone they *wish* would be their friend, and most certainly, there will be a few sad kids who aren’t chosen at all. One rubric (don’t we love teacher jargon?!) I used was this format — each would read his/her piece of writing aloud. Then, in their writing journals, they would comment as follows: 1) I really liked what/when you wrote…… 2) I wonder ….(what would happen if you did such and such, or ….) and 3) My favorite word/description/sentence was…. Then, each kid shares these. This format seemed to keep it positive and give both writers and listeners options to assess what was going on in the writing. If you use the Green Book idea (which I shared last Wednesday during Q&A), you can encourage kids to look for a sentence worthy enough of the Green Book, if they were the one making the decision. I’m sure others can contribute more ideas for you to use. Have fun!

    2. Hi Jessica,
      I echo what Margo suggests. Give them a format that keeps the comments positive and helpful.

      With my middle school and high school students, I called the groups Writing Teams–mainly because critique makes them think they are going to trash everyone’s work. ; ) Sometime we’d use a response sheet for them to fill in and give to the teammate. Or they would pass the paper around and write directly on that–using one of the responses below.

      Our rules:
      1. Be nice or be neutral.
      2. Use a quiet voice when talking to your partners, so other teams can work too.
      3. Choose how you’d like to respond from the following–
      * You’ve used some strong images such as_________________.
      *I like the part about_______________________
      *You’ve followed the format by ________________________
      *Great work so far! What if__________________________
      *The part that really caught my attention was_____________

      4. If a team member is reading aloud to the group, use your listening skills:
      Give the reader 100% of your attention.
      Look at the reader.
      Keep hands empty and still.
      (Talking, writing, clicking pens looking away, etc are distracting to all.)

      I also used the Writing Teams for writing time. The rules:
      1. & 2 above.
      3. Asking for help: If you’re unsure of how to spell a word, and you’ve tried to sound it out and look it up, ask your team. Write the word on your paper. then ask your team: “Is this right?” *Be sure to thank your teammates!
      4. Giving help: Wait to be asked before offering help. Help only with the part your teammate has a question about.
      5. When you have a question, ask your partners first. If you don’t get an answer, ALL TEAM MEMBERS raise your hands at the same time. that tells me you have a question and no one in your group knows the answer. If only one person in a group raises a hand, I will not come to you because you have not checked with your partners first.

      As for finding a critique group of your own, I recommend joining scbwi.org (We’ve talked about this organization in previous Q&As.) Your SCBWI region most likely has a Critique Group coordinator who will be able to match you with others looking for a group–or needing a person. Conferences are also a great way to meet like-minded writers and join forces. Even if you live across the country, online groups work as well.

      Hope this helps!

    3. Yay critique groups!

      I’m not a teacher, but I definitely think a format would be helpful, that way everyone’s on the same page about the kind of critique they’re going to get and it keeps the discussion from derailing. (Something I’ve seen in adult groups a lot too.)

      In my own critique group experiences, I’ve found that more than six or seven people is unwieldy. More than that and there’s no time to get everyone’s feedback on everything. We meet once a month because that fits best into everyone’s life and gives us time to read things in advance. I definitely think once a week is too much if you’re doing critiques in advance of the meeting, because then all you do is critique and there’s not much time for writing.

      I hope that helps a little, and I think it’s wonderful that you’re putting this together. Good luck!

      1. I just started a new SCBWI crit group and developed some introductory notes. I’ve now posted them on my blog, if anyone’s interested in reading/adapting them. They were written with adult-beginner/intermediate writers in mind, not students, so not everything there will be helpful, but I did attempt to lay out the difference between Critique and Criticism, and a couple of the people who attended the first session commented that it was helpful.


  16. Melanie, I’ve tried a zillion different ways to reply to your agent question and it won’t post, so I’m trying down here–hope you see it if it posts this time!

    I love my agent (same agent as Miriam and Kate) and she is helpful in a million ways, both before and after the sale. A good agent will give you feedback on your manuscript or even an idea, pitch your story to the right editors, negotiate the contract, make sure you get paid, and generally be your Virgil through the nine circles of publishing.

    It doesn’t matter where you live. If you feel strongly about meeting an agent in person you can go to writing conferences, but I know my agent hadn’t met most of her clients before signing them and probably still hasn’t met many of them. She represented me for at least a year or two before we crossed paths in real life.

    A good place to find names of reputable agents is on the Verla Kay writers’ chatboard in the Agent Response Time section (http://www.verlakay.com/boards/index.php?board=43.0). Once you have the names you can google them and find out what they are like and whether they represent your kind of book.

  17. Before I ask my question, I just want to give some background info – I am a school teacher (on a school teacher salary):( that is always looking to get the most bang for his buck. I am also new to writing (not new to writing, but new to sharing) and constantly researching new methods of writing for teaching purposes.

    In your opinion, which is the best writing conference (east coast preferred – so I can drive) to attend for a new, unpublished writer that is also looking for some strategies to use with middle grade students? The strategies can be for adult writers that I can tweak for children. Price is of little importance because I will only be going to one a year, and I do attend SCBWI local conferences. Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated.

    1. I am a big fan of the New England SCBWI conference in Springfield MA in April – I present there often and have learned a ton there over the years. Also, know that close to you, the Rochester Area Children’s Writers & Illustrators are a nice, big, healthy writing group with some great mentors.

      1. I was going to recommend the Founders’ Workshops, too. In my perfect world, I’d go to one every single year … as much for the content and the company as for the inspiring setting and peaceful cabins in which to work.

    2. Hi Andy,
      I’m not sure where you live or which SCBWI conferences you’ve gone to, so I’ll let others address that part of your question. However, if you have time to check out some blogs, you and your students can gain a wealth of knowledge from Cheryl Klein (who edited Harry Potter) http://chavelaque.blogspot.com/ , the amazing Sharon Creech http://sharonkaycreech.blogspot.com/ , and Kate’s section for Writers on this site ( https://www.katemessner.com/writers/ ) –*She lists other helpful blogs by children’s authors here too. For adult lit see Donald Maas http://writerunboxed.com/don/ . If you want lesson plans see my blog, and/or writing tips see Writers on my menu at http://www.erindealey.com .

        1. Thank you, Kate! Thank you, Mara! Thank you, Loree! Thank you, Erin! I checked all of your websites and realized I just got feedback from four amazing authors. With that said, I am taking notes on all of your answers.

          Kate, I have thought in the past about attending the New England SCBWI Conference. Your recommendation is pushing me to think 2013 is the year (and it is easily drivable from Syracuse).

          Loree and Mara, I am very intimidated by the Founders’ Workshops. I do like things that intimidate me though, so maybe someday I will find myself at a workshop.

          Erin, thank you for all of the awesome links. The Internet is so vast and I feel like through researching different topics for teaching (reading and writing) I have a grasp of the good sites, but I am wrong. Today, I visited four of those sites for the first time.:)

          Every time I Skype with an author, I want to ask some of my own questions, but I feel bad intruding on my students time with the author (they always have such great and thoughtful questions). These Wednesday Q and A’s are giving me a chance to ask all of my questions. Thank you very much! Your answers are greatly appreciated.

            1. Agree with Kate–I love when teachers ask me questions during Skype visits! I truly think teachers who arrange Skype visits (i.e. teachers who teach outside the box) are in their own category of awesomeness.

                1. haha–LIKE
                  I’m with you Barb.

                  And I agree with Sarah– Part of the fun of Author Skypes with classes is talking shop with the teacher. We are all in this together.

                  1. My class and I have our final Skype of the school year on Monday with Kathryn Erskine, and all of your feedback has motivated me to ask her a question (I already have it written – I get as excited as the kids). Thanks again!

  18. I have been reading many posts regarding the importance of having a critique group. Does anyone have suggestions about forming a group? I moved to a relatively rural section of Maine recently and don’t have many connections there but would love to form a group with others interested in writing picture books or beginning reader books. Thank you!

    1. Hi Melanie,
      This is what I suggested to Jessica (above) who also wants to find a crit group. (Hey–maybe you should connect…I’m serious! Click on her name above for info.)

      OR… I recommend joining scbwi.org (Weโ€™ve talked about this organization in previous Q&As.) Your SCBWI region most likely has a Critique Group coordinator who will be able to match you with others looking for a groupโ€“or needing a person. Conferences are also a great way to meet like-minded writers and join forces. Even if you live across the country, online groups work as well.

      1. Thank you. I will definitely look into joining scbwi.org and also connecting with others in this group.

    2. Online groups can be very effective. You might even come across some like-minded folks here!

      SCBWI may be a good avenue for finding a critique group as well. Does your library allow advertising on a bulletin board? I know of people who have formed groups that way.

      1. Thank you, Laura and Anne, for your suggestions. I was thinking that my local library would be a good place to start. I imagine that on-line critique groups can work really well, but I think I would also enjoy having a face-to-face critique group (also a good way to make friends in a new place).

    3. Melanie –

      I imagine you’ve already checked to see if there are any groups in your area, but if not, try this list: http://nescbwicritiques.blogspot.com/ (it’s not exhaustive, but it’s a start).

      Stacy Moser is the Critique group coordinator for New England necritiquegroups@gmail.com

      And Anna Boll is the Northern NE Adviser – you can connect with her here: NorthernNERA@nescbwi.org

      At the Springfield conference in April she was talking about trying to get some activities going in various parts of the ME/NH/VT region.

      Also, there are a LOT of NESCBWI members in Maine – you may not be as isolated as you feel.

    4. I’m just echoing everyone else by now, but libraries and SCBWI are great places to look for writing groups. Also bookstores often partner with writing groups and are aware of some in the area, so try asking there.

      Online can really work for some people. I’m terrible with returning emails, so it’s not my first choice, but I have gotten great feedback that way. Another online option is the Verla Kay Blueboards. A lot of great writers over there.


  19. I’m hearing the desire for people to connect & form some critique groups – I promise to talk about that soon. I’ve been pondering a way to help you connect with one another for that purpose.

  20. Hello! (I never know how to start writing in a comment. I feel like I should say hi.)

    I think I have the character that I want to write about, I have a pretty good idea of when the story is going to take place, and I know some of the issues that my character has going on. So now what? Do I just start writing? Do I need to do some planning (I hate planning, in all areas of my life)?

    I wonder, if I’m just looking for excuses not to spend more time putting the pencil to the paper.

    On a happy note, if I ever decide to write a teaching/professional book, I now have my topic. Isn’t that exciting?

    It’s exciting to me:)

    Thank you!

    1. I would start “jotting” (that word doesn’t seem to make sense on a keyboard, but whatever works) and see what happens. You may wind up with a bunch of random bits that you can stick in a folder. Or you may find a story unfolding under your pen.

    2. This sounds like it’s going to be fun for you, Colby! For a “quick hit start-up,” I like David Mamet’s enjoinder to his screenwriting team (via Cheryl Klein, as you well know, she of Arthur A. Levine fame and justly-deserved renown): “Who wants what and why? Why now? What happens if her don’t get it?” [sic] Play with that a bit and use Sally’s idea of “jotting” — nothing is set in stone. I’m sure others will have great contributions to add to this smidgin…. ๐Ÿ™‚

    3. Hi Colby,
      (How’s that for starters?) My answer is YUP. Sit down for five minutes and see what spills onto the page. Think Anne Lamott’s Sh**tty first draft. Try to write the worst beginning ever if that helps get you started but it sounds like it’s time to start. I’m the one who gets an idea and lets the characters guide me in the first draft. Yes, I have it mapped out a bit in my brain but the real structure–and story–becomes clear after I get to know the characters a bit more. Believe me, it will grow and change like you never imagined.

      You can read all the how-to books and our Q&As and plot to your heart’s content but I know you’re an awesome educator and it’s time to be your own mentor. What would you tell your students? GO FOR IT. But don’t take my word for it….

      “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light–not our darkness–that most frightens us.”
      (Marianne Williamson)

      BIC, Colby (Butt in Chair). BIC

    4. Hey Colby, I’ve only finished one actual manuscript so take this with a grain of salt, but I like Margo’s advice. Think of what would have to happen to throw your character’s world completely out of whack, and make it happen! Is something taken from her that she wants back? Is something added to his life that he doesn’t want to have in his life? Was she feeling really good about life, but something happened to make her feel bad? Was he feeling bad about life, but something happened that gave him hope of things changing for the better?

    5. Hi Colby! *waves*

      I would definitely say start writing, if for no other reason than that actually writing an idea down makes the problems and holes more apparent. Stories tell you what they need if you listen, be it more conflict or deeper characters or whatever. You can always stop and reorganize if you need to. (And you probably will. No one gets it right the first time.)

      If you’re starting with a character, try to get inside their heads as much as possible. What’s their biggest fear? Their secret dream? Is their instinct to fight or run away? What stakes could make them act differently? Who do they care about the most?

      As far as plot goes, earlier, Erin put up the link to Pixar’s 22 rules of Storytelling, which is totally worth a read. This is number #4

      Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

      It’s a good a place to start as any. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Good luck!

  21. I have a question about the post on “half of writing is thinking”. ( I can’t seem to find it this evening.) Since we have so little time in the elementary school day, how do we fit thinking into the writing time?


    1. It’s hard. And I’m not sure there are answers to that, other than to suggest that all writing assignments are not created equal, so perhaps you’ll have some things your students write pretty quickly, while other assignments get more space and room to think. You can talk about this with them, too – how when we’re working on a big, important piece of writing, it’s important to leave time to just think about it, maybe while you go for a walk. (And then you can go for a walk and all think about what you’re going to write when you get back.)

      1. I like this! (Where’s that LIKE button, Kate?)

        You could call it a Writing Walk. Kind of like when I used to let my hs seniors “Phone a friend” in between the writing prompt and the writing. They thought they were being allowed to cheat–haha. In reality, they were discussing ideas and brainstorming what they would write. But when we got back down to the writing , they were on their own.

        Actually having a writing walk where they get to walk and talk (about the prompt) would be amazing for all of our kinesthetic learners. And I definitely consider walking my dog part of my “writing process.”

        Wish I had a smiley face emoticon right now… : )

    2. I actually had an answer for this and the Interwebs at the airport ate it. ๐Ÿ™

      But I love Kate and Erin’s suggestions better. They are much smarter than I am.

  22. Hi everyone,

    I have two questions today. I hope that’s ok.

    First, this summer I am hopefully restarting work on a novel I am writing with a friend (She writes one POV and I write the other). It is in its messy first draft phase. Since we had to stop working on it for awhile, I’ve noticed one section of mine does not work – it has an extra character that was adding too much drama to the plot. Should I go back and fix that now or should I wait until we have a completed first draft and then we can look at everything and see how it should shift around?

    Second, I have a draft I have been procrastinating on revising. Outside feedback had helped me realize that the book started in the wrong place and I was waiting much too long to introduce one of the main characters. I am struggling with taking what had been the fifth chapter and making it the first (with lots of cutting and reshaping). I’m having trouble letting go of some of the dialogue from the first three drafts. It’s fun banter, but it doesn’t need to be there. With the chapter’s setting being the first English class of a school year, I’m also having trouble figuring out how many characters being named or talking is too much.

    Thank you!

    1. In response to your first question…this may not be terribly helpful, but you should probably do what feels best to you. If you feel like that issue MUST be resolved before you can move forward, then sure…go back and revise. But if you’re happy leaving it for now and forging ahead, knowing you’ll go back and clean it up later, that’s perfectly fine, too. My preference is almost always the second option…but that’s because every time I’m drafting a new book, I feel like it’s THE BOOK that I’m never going to finish. Finishing puts me in a much better frame of mind for everything, and then I am the world’s happiest reviser. But I know other people who revise as they go along and couldn’t do it any other way. You kind of have to try things out and see what fits you.

      As far as your second question, sometimes it helps to just open a blank document and start writing where you think the book should begin — meaning start over, instead of going back and cutting from what you already wrote. Your old draft isn’t going anywhere, but sometimes the act of starting fresh gets you past that feeling of staleness and frustration with the list of what needs to be done. And then after you’ve written a while, you can kind of take the best of both and move forward.

      As far as figuring out how many characters in the class should be named/talking, I’d suggest reading a couple novels set in classrooms, written by authors whose work you really admire, and see how they do it. We teach our students about “mentor texts” all the time, but I think this is a really great strategy for adult writers to use, too. How does Laurie Halse Anderson, for example, handle naming kids in classrooms in SPEAK? I always learn a lot from doing mini-studies like that.

      1. I’ve come to “help” a few times today, but can’t really offer more than Kate and company have been offering!

        The question I always ask myself is this: which way (which choice) will make me most excited about writing? Which will make me stop doing all those other things and stand (sit?) at the keyboard and write. NOW. Then I make that choice.

    2. Hi Sarah,
      RE your second question: My work-in-progress is set in a high school theater department and I originally had my first scene at rehearsal with gobs of kids playing gobs of parts. Think Shakespeare’s “Scottish play” (not invoking the curse here) x 2 . Wayyy too many characters but I loved the scene and the kids because I’d just finished directing it. Needless to say, after three glowing rejections and several wonderfully honest critiques by writer friends, I knew they were right.

      I had to go back to who my readers were–and how many characters they want to meet (and could process) at a time. I could easily keep them straight but no one else could. Long story short: I combined characters, eliminated many of the “extras”, left a few in as un-named or gave them monikers like junior-witch, and extricated several plot lines. Phew!

      The big question is–who is your story about? Let him or her tell the story and only include those key to the scene. Introduce one at a time with a specific (but brief) character tag or description. See Stephanie Perkins’ ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS, for a YA set in an international school with lots of students. Or Sharon Creech’s BLOOMABILITY. Those are two of my favorites, and I use them to remind me to keep the cast down.

    3. I think Kate is right, re: whether to fix your first draft now or later. It’s really dependent on what allows you to move forward with the story. I can’t finish things if I do too much edits but I know people who can’t take another step unless something is fixed.

      Since you’re co-writing it though, you may want to talk to your partner about it. Just in case it was a character she was planning on using in one of her chapters. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Your second question made me smile a little because that’s exactly what I had to do with City of a Thousand Dolls. I had gotten a phone call from an agent who decided not to offer (ouch) and I realized the book started in the wrong place. I had to shift the entire timeline! Fortunately the book still ended up starting with a dead body, so I was able to keep a lot of the set-up, but I had to change the person who died and rearrange the events and the dialogue, etc.

      My best suggestion if you start rearranging, is to keep anything you take out in a separate “maybe” document. That way you can reuse conversations and things later, and if you miss something and want to put it back, you don’t have to recreate it from memory. Also, make sure to save your previous draft as a different document. That way you can go nuts making changes and still have the original if what you’re trying doesn’t work.