Monthly Archives: April 2011

Hangin’ By AThread

Not really, since that would imply I sew, which is not a talent I ever got handed down through the generations.  No, my thread seems to be unraveling via a little white dog.

The second week we got DH’s new hunting dog, she ate and vomited up three socks.  About every ten days or so she gets weepy, whiney and mopey, only to puke up another sock or two.  You’d think her survival instinct would kick in.

“Hey, Self.  When I eat men’s size ten tube socks and wash them down with an anklet chaser, my tummy hurts.  Maybe I should quit eating socks.”

But no, she stubbornly snarfs them down only to pass them on the yard or vomit them back up in kennel at three in the morning.

My patience is thinner than an undarned dress sock.  Especially when I realize that I’m just as guilty as she is.

As a writer, I have been known to hang by a thread or two.  I’ve been guilty of writing the same darn thing into multiple manuscripts regardless of how well it works.

I might as well be swallowing socks for all the good this does me. 

My newest find?  I’m a sucker for dimples.  In real life I’m drawn to them like our hunting dog is drawn to footwear.  I’ll have to purge a manuscript or two of these delightful little things before I send them off to my agent.   

What patterns do you find yourself falling into when you write?  Even though you know full well that this practice may give you a tummy ache on the rewrites? 

Errant Characters

Sorry about the recent absence.  I’ve been tracking down and trying to reign in a few unruly characters.  To date, they are mischievous, uncontrollable and time-consuming.

A blog break will ensue in hopes that the extra time will allow me to write these characters back into submission.

Thanks for your understanding and hope to see you on the other side of my WIP.

hugs~ Cat

Cyber Friendships: are they real?

Tonight I commented on a thread over at Agent Query.  A few minutes later, my cell phone chinked, indicating a new email.  I knew without checking who it would be.  And I was right.  I’d received a PM from a dear friend of mine based on my comment.

There, I admitted it.  I don’t live in the real world.  I talk to my cyber friends as if they were right here with me.  We joke, laugh, poke fun at our foibles and support each other during some pretty rough times. 

I adore my writing friends, and since I don’t know many writers personally, my fellow scribes live mainly in my mind and on the internet.  And yet I care about them in the same way I care about my real life friends.  

I’m quite certain my DH thinks I’m mad and I keep peeking over my shoulder so he doesn’t slip on my little white coat.  After all, it’s probably not normal to talk about people who I’ve never met as if we just left the bar together two hours ago. 

My kids probably think I’m the biggest hypocrite alive.  

“Don’t ever talk to people you don’t know online.”  Oh yes, I’ve said this more than a hundred times.

And yet, here I am, sharing life and passion with complete strangers whom I call friends.  Heck, I’ve prayed for them, danced the happy dance for them and gotten my feathers ruffled when I felt an injustice had been done to one of them.

Is this wrong?  Can you truly be friends with someone you have never met?  Will likely never meet?  If  no, why not?

Word Nuances: All Words Are Not Created Equal

Yesterday Dear Daughter found her journal from her younger years.  We laughed our way from 2003 to 2006. 

As an aspiring writer at the age of six, she wrote this short story.

“Owonc opon o time.  The end.”

Three years later, she penned THE SNAKE PRINCE.  The following passage is from the height of the conflict in this slightly longer short story.

“Snake Prince, come over here please.”  Abi screamed.

The Snake Prince slithered over there.  “Yesssssss Abi.”  He hissed.

“I’m going to help you.”  Abi said.

“Help me with what sssssssss?” he asked.

“Help people understand that you are good!” yelled Abi.

When we read this, we dissolved into giggles.  And, being the quirky people we are, we reread this passage out loud several times with the proper inflection.  We held nothing back.

Our impromptu acting brought Middle Son out of his bedroom–why are you screaming?–and Youngest Son up from downstairs–why are you yelling?

Dear Hubby simply asked if I had Tourette’s.

But the point I make is that each word has its own distinct connotations and nuances. 

What if our brave MC had whispered to the Snake Prince?  Or sobbed?  Demanded, announced, cried?  The whole feeling of the passage would have changed simply by replacing one word. 

While presenting at a Young Writer’s Conference, I used this technique of exchanging one word for another to convey different feelings.  The kids were enthralled and shouted out words.  Crazy, silly, sly and funky substitutes to create incredible scenarios. 

I then made them act out their sentences with their chosen words.  “I _____ up the stairs.”

As writers, we need to read our dialogue exactly as we write it to see if it indeed says what we want it to.  I guarantee DD would not have Abi yell and scream this time around.  There is no need. 

Likewise, we need to examine our action scenes to make sure it is physically possible and acceptable to have our characters stagger, bound, slither, stumble, fly or roll up the steps.

If it can’t be done, we need pick another word–one with the appropriate connotations and nuances for the moment.

How do you make sure your words convey your intended message?  If you’ve ever acted out a scene to make sure it works, we’d love to hear how it turned out. 

Just the other day, I kept clasping my hands together, shaking them and pushing them away from my chest as if rolling dice.  After a while, this repetitive motion freaked out Youngest.  “Mom, what are you doing that for?  Are you okay?”

Maybe I do have a tic.

Cracked: When Science and Writing Meet

I love writing query letters.  I love boiling down the entire story into its necessary components and then weaving them together with voice and intrigue.  I want you to love writing queries as much as I do, and I think you can if you bear with me.

Often, writers look at a query letter as a formula that must be followed.  Add two milliliters of character to one liter of plot, sprinkle a hook on top and heat to the boiling point.  But I encourage you to look at the science of query writing in a very different way. By nature, no one story is exactly the same.  Therefore, it stands that every query must be slightly different.  If you open your mind to the experimentation part, you may discover that query writing can be fun and the results unexpectedly amazing.

Last night Dear Daughter announced her newest science assignment.  “I have to drop an egg from two stories high onto concrete.  And not have it break.”

While not all sciency myself, I do love a good brain teaser.  This definitely qualified as one.

“And I have thirty seconds to get it into the container and thirty seconds to get it back out.  Without breaking it.”

Add the time crunch and my adrenaline kicked in.  So did hers.

“Oh yeah,” she says as we start brainstorming things like containers within padding within boxes, “the size and weight of our container affects our grade.”

But of course. 

If this was a MG adventure query it would look something like this: 

When Evil Science Teacher devises a plan to single-handedly wipe out the small town of Grade A, Freshie Freshman must overcome her aversion to science or lose her breakfast. 

The only science Freshie enjoys is maintaining the perfect balance of salt and Tabasco on her scrambled eggs.  Yet when her EST begins chucking oversized ova from the roof of Midwest High, Freshie accepts the challenge to devise a fail-safe capsule for her precious egg.

 With no super human powers to speak of, Freshie must best EST at her own game with little more than her wits, a soda pop bottle and thirty seconds.  If she fails, her beloved egg will be nothing more than a bad grade on the concrete steps.

 Okay, that was way more fun than it had a right to be, but you can clearly see the bones of a query letter even though this is my first draft and I didn’t write with any of the necessary components in mind.

 We have a protagonist, an antagonist, an inciting incident, clearly defined stakes and a time constraint that heightens the tension of the initial conflict.  We also have voice and just enough of the story left unsaid to leave us wondering who wins and how. 

Query writing does not have to be painful and formulaic.  Rather, it is an invitation to set your story free through experimentation.  Hook doesn’t work?  Try another from a different angle.  When you set aside all the rules and let your manuscript speak to you, the query should write itself.

Does this quirky query seem contrary to the business aspect we are taught to write?  If so, chew on this: what better way to sell your manuscript than let your manuscript sell itself? 

And it’s not like the professionalism won’t be there.  That’s what your greeting and closing paragraphs are for.

 ~cat

P.S. Behind the scenes, we also had a decent story arc where our MC tried and failed several times before achieving her end goal.  As the night wore on—and we ruthlessly murdered three eggs, a stuffed frog, a tennis ball and a Tupperware container—my DD’s determination grew and she became more creative in her possible solutions.  Plot doesn’t get any better than that.

What in the Heck is a Content Edit?

And why do I need one?

My Dear Hubby ruptured a disk in his neck ten or so years ago.  After his pinky finger went completely numb this weekend, he decided to address his literal pain in the neck.  The kind doctor prescribed steroids to alleviate swelling and a muscle relaxer to…well…relax his ever-so-tight muscles.

 We parted ways after lunch.  Sometime later DH sent me this text:

“I took some z-PAC pills and one mule relaxer pill a half ago.”

I immediately offered to pick him up from work—he said he was so dizzy he couldn’t focus.  Obviously. 

His response: “Why!  Work is way more fun when I’m desirous.”

Hmmmm. Besides the great belly laugh, I also got a mini writing lesson out of his words.

Don’t forget to content edit. 

 A copy edit is one that simply checks grammar, spelling and those pesky typos—mule pills a half ago?  At times our work can be technically correct—a desirous work atmosphere—yet make no real-world sense.  This is where the content edit comes in.

 So what exactly is a content edit?

 It’s a check for inconsistencies.

  • Does your MC answer to Jack on the first page and Jeremy on page 78?
  • Did Jasmine enter the scene in a blue sweater and exit wearing a green jacket?
  • How in the heck did Sandy wake up from a dream when she never went to bed?  Or eat dinner in the middle of the night? 
  • Is it still raining four hours later, yet Candace walks in from her walk as dry as a newly diapered baby bottom?
  • Did Frank age ten years or get younger with each page turn?
  • Does Harry flush his toilet on the Dakota plains in 1910?
  • When did bubbly Hannah turn into a crass ogre?

 These are all examples of content editing.  And nothing pulls readers out of a story quicker than inconsistencies and untruths.

What are some of your favorite inconsistencies either in your writing or in books you’ve read?   Don’t be shy.  We’ve all made some whoppers at some point!

I once had a great opening line for the first day of summer only to have my MC get ready for the first day of school one chapter later.

Picture Book Appeal

I love picture books.  I read them every day with my preschoolers.  Some of them get read every day, while others lounge on the shelf half of forever before being noticed.  So what makes a good picture book?

Okay, what makes a good picture book in my opinion?

  • My favorite picture books are those where the text and the pictures work together and independently to create a richer meaning.  This doesn’t mean it has to be a picture search.  Rather, I want the text and the words to complement each other.  A great example: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.
  • My second favorite kind of picture book is one that uses the page turn.  What does this mean?  I love the pauses that turning a page creates.  It’s a chance to catch your breath and lounge in the moment.  It’s a chance to rev my imagination.  It’s suspense at its finest.  A time where I am surprised and delighted to turn the page.  A great example: The Very Cranky Bear by Nick Bland.
  • Another favorite trait?  Lyrical language.  I heart The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson.  If ever a writer has mastered the art of economy, it is Ms. Donaldson in this book. 
  • What else do I love?  Turning the page and finding the unexpected.  There’s a Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer rocks my socks off.
  • A good belly laugh is almost always appreciated by parents and kids alike.  Laughing out loud with a child is the most magical connection we can have with the little people.  A great read: Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin.
  • Another important component in changing a book from a casual read to a daily favorite is readability, including cadence and rhythm.  If I can’t pronounce the words, if the sentences don’t flow or if I’m tripping over my tongue with poetic, but unnatural prose, I will curse the book in words I can’t pronounce, but most certainly do flow.  Then I’ll throw it in the give-a-way pile, never to be seen again. To this end, I love Speedy Little Race Cars by Dawn Bentley.
  • An absolute must for me as a mom and a preschool teacher is the read-again factor.  There are times I literally close the last page of a book and open the beginning for a second, back-to-back reading.  If  I hate the characters, the plot, or if any of the above mentioned factors aren’t done well, I will recycle the book quicker than I slap annoying mosquitoes.  One I’ve loved listening to as a kid and now love reading as an adult is Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day! by Judith Viorst.

So there you go.  A completely unscientific list of books and the reasons why I (and my preschoolers) love them.

What is your favorite picture book and why is it a compelling read?

My Unofficial Guide to Conferences

I learned many important things at the SCBWI Iowa conference.  My top ten “ah hah” moments will be posted at From the Write Angle tomorrow.  But today, I’d like to share a few whimsical, but no less important tips on physically attending a conference.

  1. Get a Haircut. 
  2. Get Confidence
  3. Get Connected

THE HAIRCUT

One week before your conference, visit with your hairdresser.  I know, it sounds froofy and silly, but I assure you it’s not.  Once upon a time, I attended a conference.  My hair was short and sassy and I was a mess.  It was my second writer’s conference and I had yet to learn the second tip I’m going to give you. 

Needless to say, one of the speakers commented on my hair–in the ladies’ room, no less.  Fast forward two years.  I once again attended this same conference.  The same author was there helping out.  As she passed around handouts, she gave me a big grin.  “I remember you.  You have the cutest hair.”  And then we chatted.

 This time around, I was time crunched.  There was no way I could get to the salon with Real Life eating away at my days.  But I panicked.  Not because I’m froofy and silly, but because I’m completely lazy and my hair was getting too long to style in my alloted time.  If I can’t go from jammies to shower to out the door in 20 minutes I get grumpy. 

Fast forward to the conference.  I received several comments on my hair.  Not a back pat, I assure you, but rather an ice breaker. 

The moral: make sure you feel comfortable in your own hair skin.  If you don’t feel okay about how you look, you will be self-conscious.  The same can be said for the clothes you wear.  Take your favorite dressy-casual outfit along instead of pulling out the pants suit you only wear for holidays.  In this way, you will spend your time with other attendees, not silently cursing your hair or tugging at the collar of your newly dusted off jacket. 

THE CONFIDENCE

Nothing is worse than walking into a room full of strangers who all seem to know each other.  I know, I just did it on Friday.  With over 100 writers and/or illustrators registered for a conference 7 hours away from my home, I knew I was flying solo.  Walking in with my little blue folder was like walking into the lunchroom on my first day in a new school 27 years ago. 

But, I’d learned something between my second conference and my fifth conference.  I’d learned that you have to step outside yourself and into your confidence.  A quick check around the room showed that many tables were filled with groups of people.  I’m not confident enough to bust in on that.  But I have learned to find the semi-quiet table, the one where the attendees look as unfamiliar to each other as I feel to the entire room. 

Low and behold, there was such a table near the door with one elderly lady and a single man.  He had his head turned away from the door engaged in conversation with his companion.  I pulled up a chair and grabbed the next lost soul as she walked in.  She didn’t need to tell me this was her first conference.  I could tell by the way she clutched her folder to her chest and the terror in her eyes as she tried to figure out what to do next.

Turns out the gentleman was my agent and two other gals I invited to sit at our table were my twitter followers.  One of whom was also a client of Agent Awesome.  That night I didn’t have to eat alone, and by the end of the conference, I took home names, photos and memories of new friends. 

This may be hard to do, as many writers are introverted by nature.  However, when you get right down to it, we are all the same.  We are all writers with the same goals.  This creates instant conversation with anyone in the room, elevator, hallway or bar. 

THE CONNECTIONS

The writing life is all about connections.  It’s about the real-life friends we meet at conferences and the ones we bond with online.  It’s about shaking hands and holding conversations with our potential audiences, potential agents and potential editors.  Everywhere we go and everything we do, we are forming relationships that can impact our careers as writers.

The twitter story above is true.  Our respective homes are about nine hours apart.  We each traveled to another state and yet there we were, sharing the same table at a conference and a relaxing dinner on the first night out.

What if I had been a complete twitter ass over the past year?  What if I had acted immature and whiney online?  What if they had?

I think this experience really hits home the premise that we need to act and manage ourselves professionally at all times.  It doesn’t mean we can’t be quirky or assertive.  Nor does it mean we can’t have opinions or be ourselves.  It simply means that we need to be respectful of whom we might meet along the way. 

It is, indeed, a small world!

What conference tips do you have?  Spill the scary, the funny or the just plain must do’s and don’ts so we may learn together. 

Dessert from SCBWI Iowa

Aaand I’m home.

 I’m also motivated, energized and a whole lot smarter about what’s going in the children’s lit biz.  But that comes later.  What I wanted to share today is the agent/writer connection.

Conferences can be expensive and time consuming.  For me, living in the very, prairie corner of Minnesota where Iowa meets South Dakota, writer’s conferences are few and far between.  Not to mention I typically have to drive, drive and drive some more.  While I have been all shades of green over the Iowa chapter of SCBWI, I’ve never been able to justify the time (three days away from my fam), the travel (fourteen hours round-trip) and the money ($175 for the conference, three tanks of gas and hotel) to actually register and attend.

Yet this year, I noted my agent was going to be a speaker and HAD to go. 

Some writers are lucky enough to meet with their agents before signing or on a fairly regular basis after their working relationship begins.  But, being from the interior of the earth, this is not a likely scenario for me or many Midwestern writers, for that matter.  So when the opportunity arose, I nabbed it.

It was the single most amazing moment in my career to date.

Even better than receiving an offer for representation was actually holding a conversation with my partner in crime, my biggest cheerleader and my strongest advocate in the business—face to face.

Before querying agents, I researched heavily.  I didn’t just check out Preditors & Editors.  Nor did I simply read a blurb or two online—an agent data base and agency websites.  My research took months.  It started with the Agent Query data base then moved to a print copy of Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market.  If there’s a writer’s site with agent info, I hit it.  Blog commentary?  Read it.  Articles?  I checked them all.

By the time I started querying I had narrowed down my search to those who fit my “musts” and my “wants”.  They also had to want what I had to offer.  Needless to say, my A list was very small.  My B list slightly smaller and my C list added just enough to include a total of about 20 agents.  What can I say?  I’m picky.

I guess I figured that if I was going to partner with somebody, I wanted to be compatible.  And yet, paper doesn’t tell all.  Even a phone conversation can be misleading.  Think about it in terms of friendships.  Some friends are casual, others close.  Some friends are for the moment and others are life-long.  They all have their place in our lives and they are all important, yet we don’t always get a sense of this the first time we meet them.

What I had done during my search was to distill the qualities that mattered to me as a writer and applied them to my agent search.  No point in finding a casual friendship if what I really needed was life-long connections.

And I got lucky.  My offer came from a TOP agent on my A list.  Okay, I only subbed to my A’s with a B or two thrown in to satisfy conventional wisdom.  But my thought was this: “I know I have a solid query.  It’s unique and breaks every rule in the book, but it works—for my manuscript.  So why target agents who had only some of my musts and wants when I could target agents who had everything I wanted?”

But it wasn’t until I actually met Agent Awesome this weekend that I realized just how lucky I got.  We share the same quirky sense of humor—trust me, this is important.  It’s why I married my DH.  He’s a gentleman through and through—a consummate professional.  Our visions for my career align so nicely and the enthusiasm he shows for my writing is astounding.  In its totality, this does not come across on paper, during the research period or even during the offer stage. 

Like I told my licensing social worker for my preschool, “I could be the worst person in the world to work with kids, but if I know how to play the game, I can come across looking like Mary Poppins.” 

The same goes for your agent search.  Dig deep.  Deeper than you believe is possible to find all the dirt, not just the raves.  Nobody wants to be fooled into an artistic partnership with someone who is Jeffery Dahmer in disguise. 

Don’t settle for an agent who only reps picture books when the bulk of your work is YA.  It will be difficult to build career relationships this way.  Don’t accept an offer from an editorial agent when all you want is a therapist to support your journey, not help change your destiny.  But above all, don’t even query if you feel the fit won’t be right. 

While some writers believe that snagging an agent is a numbers game—the more I send out, the bigger the odds—I come at if from an entirely different angle.  If you do your research and write the best query and best manuscript you are capable of, the stars will align and provide you with your dream agent.  Because in reality, you won’t sub to any who aren’t.

And above all else, if you have the chance to meet your agent in person, do.  No matter the cost or time.  It is the single best thing you can do to ensure your partnership is exactly what you want and need it to be.

How do you research your potential agents?  How do you define your wants versus your needs?  What is important to you in an agent?

A Second Helping of SCBWI Love

Wow!  Fourteen hours of speakers and sessions, good food and friend-making is…just wow!

Big Picture Book Industry Tip: Your story must be started by page 10.  If you are still writing details and your MC isn’t on his/her journey, then consider a rewrite.  More from Candace Fleming at a later date.

Editor Allie Brydon speaks on sloshing out of the slush pile.  Her big tip on writing for kids?  “Write simpler, not simplistic.” 

Editor Molly O’Neill presented the business side of the industry.  Her mantra, “Write your own story, not someone else’s.”  And no, she doesn’t mean churn out memoirs.  She simply means that writers need to be original in their own works.  We need to find our own stories and storytelling from within us.

Diane Muldrow, Editorial Director of Golden Books/Random House and author, recapped the amazing history of children’s literature in America.  If you don’t know it, study it.  You’ll have a much deeper understanding and appreciation of what it means to write for kids. 

I can’t say enough about Lin Oliver.  I sat by her at lunch and she’s sweet and charming and concerned and caring and supportive and amazing and…well, you get the picture.  Did I mention she’s also the co-founder of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators?  Yeah, that was totally cool!

I’ve learned oodles today and can’t wait to digest it all. 

It’s also ten thirty and I have another five hours of conference tomorrow followed by a seven hour drive home. 

Time for bed!

PS.  I’d love to totally dish on my agent cuz he rocks my socks off.  We had several delightful, insightful and just plain fun conversations today.  Can’t wait to listen to him present tomorrow. 

PPS.  Can I just say wow?!?!?!