Highlights Foundation Workshop: Novel Beginnings

In March 2017, I returned to the Highlights Foundation for my second workshop, Novel Beginnings. Our amazing instructors were Clara Gillow Clark and Kelly Going (who writes as K.L. Going). This year I was in the Lodge, which I enjoyed just as much as the cabin. Another difference from my October 2015 visit: snow.

highlights foundation

Calkins Creek

highlights foundation

The scary bridge I made myself cross

highlights foundation

Snow!

 

There were about a dozen of us there for four days. Workshops like this are great because they are small enough to get to know the people but large enough to meet a diverse group of writers. And one of my favorite parts of Highlights Foundation workshops are that I don’t have to cook anything.

Each participant was able to submit the first 50 pages of their manuscript and received an in-depth one on one critique on their work. I found Clara and Kelly to be really open and honest about our stories and our writing. I know they offered sound guidance, because one of our attendees re-wrote her first few pages while at the workshop and when she shared them with us…WOW.

Group Critique

In addition to our one on one critiques, we also did a group critique session of our first three pages, hosted by Susan Bartoletti. Susan suggested we structure our critique feedback using the five points below, and I really loved the results.

highlights foundation critique

One thing that pleased me a lot was after only hearing my first three pages, a person in the critique group was able to lay out the overall plot of my story. If a writer can put that in front of readers and still make it funny and interesting, there is something good happening there.

Kelly shared a lot about the business of publishing. The time away from daily life helped me hone in on what I really wanted to do with my story. I received solid, positive feedback on my story from Clara and felt very motivated to keep working.

I haven’t yet told Clara that the week after I returned from the workshop I wrote every single day and made big progress through my manuscript…but was still really unhappy with the arc. I called up a friend, he’s 10, and talked it through with him. He brainstormed so honestly with me and I can’t ever thank him enough. After my conversation with him, I revamped the stakes in my story completely and now have a much better source of conflict that will interest kid readers. I hope.

Highlights Memories

But the Highlights Foundation Workshop isn’t all writing. Aside from working on my own story, I did a lot of running in the snow. And I spent some time traveling down memory lane and looking through Highlights from 1985 and 1986. I recognized covers and stories that I had read, re-read, and re-re-read as a kid, much the same way my son reads Match.

Word play and word history! I would love to write something like this for Highlights today.

highlights foundation

When I saw this story about the marathon, I wondered if it had influenced me, in a subtle way, to try running.

This is probably the first place I read about silkies. They are a favorite mythological creature of mine.

This story stuck with me forever. It could be one of the first science-fiction stories I ever read. It blended ordinary life elements with a strange idea and was also effortlessly entertaining.

This one made me laugh out loud. Reading this made me want to make my own butter so much and now that I’m the grown-up, we do!

Here’s a story about a young woman who played a role in shaping historical events. Could this be any more up my alley?

Six Word Stories Part 2

Who doesn’t love good six word stories? They are short and sweet.

I am so lucky to be able to visit classrooms and hang out with kids. As a writer, there’s nothing more valuable than learning from and listening to your target audience. So when I had a chance to go into my son’s sixth grade class, I decided the topic would be “brevity.” Now, I didn’t tell them that, but it gave me a framework.

Picture Books

First,  I read a short but very skillfully done picture book. You’re never too old to read a picture book and really learn about the essence of story. A picture book needs to tell a story in very few words.

ABCs

Then, we worked on a 26 word alphabet story about sixth graders. There were some funny parts, like when we included eating and farting. We had tech, including iPhone, video games and memes. One girl suggested we delete “sleeping” and write “Zzzz” – which was GENIUS. We had a lot of sports like gymnastics and karate and soccer.

 

Six Word Stories

Finally, we got to dessert: the six word story.

As I took them through the first two parts of the visit, I explained how stories build to a climax of emotion and action and then offer a resolution. I challenged them to include all of those elements in their six word stories.

Here’s what we came up with:

Kids

Last man on earth heard knock.

I am cool, you are not.

Roasted, toasted marshmallow on the fire.

Learn something!

I really loved hearing their stories. And since the main character in my current project is in middle school, I decided to write some six word stories for her.

Mine

She quit everything, until she didn’t.

She botched everything except dreaming big.

For Fun

Do you agree that a lot of six word stories sound so ominous? I love to laugh and have fun and wanted to write a humorous six word story.

Apology accepted. Now explain the bird.

Writing Prompt: The Lost Potato

Do you see that? There on the ground? It’s a potato. It’s just sitting there, all by itself, on the sidewalk. How did it get there?

This lost potato is the perfect writing prompt. I can think of lots of stories about how that potato ended up there.

Send me your stories about the Lost Potato. Feel free to change the title. I’ll share them here and someone (or ones) may receive some kind of recognition for their creativity.

Room for Improvement

room for improvement

Stop here.

Running has a finish line, but with stories, there’s always room for improvement.

Virginia Wolf wrote that it’s essential for women to have a room of one’s own, and I don’t disagree. But there’s another room that’s also essential. Room for Improvement.

I don’t usually write stories for specific contests, but I will revise them. There’s this website, Mslexia, that I like. I like what they say about women and writing. I want to send them a story and get good feedback. They have a contest with a deadline of March 1, 2017. I have a story I think they will like. Their contest has a word count limit of 3000 words. My story is 4719. I’ll have to cut 36% of my story to have it qualify. I worked on it for two weeks and I finally have the story down to 2995.

Is it the same story? Is it better or worse? Who knows.

There’s always room for improvement.

I have another story that meets the word count for the next round of Pen Parentis, in fact, it’s well under. It got great reviews on another website but when I pulled it out to re-read it today, I realized I can rewrite it even better, stronger. I overused the word “too” for example. I can spruce this up, get it proofread, and send it off to the contest, which opens March 1.

There’s always room for improvement.

Back in October 2015, I wrote a 50,000 word draft of a novel for NaNoWriMo, but I didn’t really write the full story. I wrote the fun scenes of a story. Now as I’ve pushed this manuscript through one round of revision, I realized I didn’t have a strong story line and I need a synopsis. So I’ve paused my revision and I’m now telling the story in synopsis form. This is a good exercise because I have to turn in my first 50 pages to the hosts of a Highlights Foundation workshop, and the pages are due March 1. (It’s a busy time.)

Once the synopsis is done, I’ll go back and revise those first fifty pages and make sure they really set up the story I plan to tell, so the workshop hosts know what I’m bringing them. I know my revision won’t be perfect, but that’s why I’m going to the workshop. I’m eager for their advice and feedback.

Because there’s always room for improvement.

 

Pen Parentis Fellowship Now Open

This is a photo of me in New York City with antlers, not horns. That’s significant, if you’ve had a chance to read my story “Cernunnos and Me.” The story is about being a hunter, about going after what you want. The day I took this photo was the day I attended my first Pen Parentis salon and received my fellowship award.

antlers

Antlers, not horns.

 

Writers are hunters. We chase after our prey – the elusive story – consume it, and crave more.

Sharpen your weapons, writers, because the Pen Parentis Fellowship is now open to submissions. From now until mid-April, Pen Parentis wants your new, never published stories. One skilled writer will be selected as the 2017-2018 Fellow and have their story published in Brain, Child and receive a $1,000 stipend to continue their craft.

pen parentis fellowship

I still remember the day I received the call from M. at Pen Parentis. I was smack in the middle of parenting. It was summer and I was picking the boys up from art camp and they were telling me three different stories at once and I had my hands full of art projects and was trying to thank the teacher and my phone rang with an out of state number. I don’t often pick those up, but this time I did.

As I answered the phone I said, “Boys, can you just give me one moment to take this call?”

M. laughed and laughed and told me she knew she had the right person and told me I had won the fellowship. I was in shock. I sat down. My kids stared at me and then broke out in cheers when I explained what was going on. It was one of the most special moments of my life as a writer and as a mom, and honestly, I’m glad they were there with me.

Pen Parentis Salons

The Pen Parentis award night was in September, my birthday month, and I was so lucky that my mother-in-law could stay with the boys while my husband and I spent three fun days exploring the city and attending a literary salon in Manhattan. I’m not really a shy person, but I felt surprisingly nervous about reading my story aloud. It’s quite different to share my stories at critique group, or have people read them quite a distance away from me. But reading aloud at a salon meant the reactions were immediate and quite visible.

I met other wonderful writers who offered support and some very kind compliments on my story. My favorite, most thrilling part, was when the audience laughed at just the right moments.

My children do inspire my writing, but it also seems like sometimes they conspire against it. It’s a balancing act, but groups like Pen Parentis know that and want to support us. I look forward so much to returning to New York this fall and meeting the next fellow. When I won, I was passed an invisible crown. I am thinking I might pass on something more personal, something inspired by my story.

I wish you a bountiful hunt.

New Publication: Highlights for Children!


I’m so excited to share that my first piece for Highlights for Children appears in their January 2017 issue.

Check out the crafts section for some spinning science fun and you’ll see instructions on how to make a Super Spinner. If your child makes a Super Spinner, send me a photo on Facebook or Twitter or by email and I’ll share it on my blog.

Best and Worst Writing Prompts from Fourth Grade 

Fourth grade writing prompts are really useful even for forty year old writers like me!

Do you remember any of your elementary school writing? I’ve been cleaning out my basement storage area recently and I found several old essays and projects that gave me a good chuckle. It’s really sweet to look back on the writing I did as a young person and remember how much pleasure it gave me to tell a story, whether it was fiction or non-fiction.

Two of my boys are in the upper elementary school grades and now they are tackling essays and stories. It’s just as exciting to me to see what they bring home.

My middle son is in fourth grade and he’s working on a narrative writing project. Here’s the description his teacher provided.

Narrative Writing

It’s funny to see it all laid out like that, but even adult writers forget these basic elements sometimes. It never hurts to get these basic reminders.

This assignment was a non-fiction project. The teacher asked the kids to do some brainstorming.

Best Days

First, they brainstormed their best days.

Best Days

As you can see, my fourth grader doesn’t have great handwriting. But he does have good ideas. His possible topics were the day he met Michelle Obama, our trip to Ireland, his birthday, and our family trip to Erie, PA.

Worst Days

Then they brainstormed their worst days.

worst day

His worst days included a trip to the dentist, the day a young visitor messed up some of his LEGOs, a close friend of his switching schools and the day our hermit crabs died. These were some very bitter moments.

Any good story includes some moments of joy and moments of sadness. But my fourth grader feels things very, very deeply and I knew it would be hard for him to write about something very sad. I anticipated he would chose a happy day, and I guessed right. He told me he was writing about the day he met Michelle Obama.

But he surprised me and actually wrote his narrative essay about our trip to Erie and my triathlon. When he brought his rough draft home to share with me, I noticed how his essay contained the element of narrative writing. He described events in chronological order. Our family were the characters. He included little details that showed he noticed how nervous I was. He included setting descriptions. I felt he did a great job and I loved seeing his writing progress.

If you’re looking for journal entry prompts or ideas for a quick blog post, consider doing a piece of narrative writing with a best day/worst day prompt.

Summer Writing

Summer writing is different from school year writing for me.

This summer, it’s been hard to find time to sit down and write. For me, once I get in my chair, I tend not to get out again. I get sucked in, absorbed, and I neglect other things like eating, moving and people.

That kind of behavior doesn’t work really well when you have kids home with you. They don’t want to be ignored for eight hours. And I have trouble focusing on long, big projects like novel revision in short sections. I need time to deep dive. So this summer it’s been a focus on pitching to magazines, short and quippy essays for parenting websites, and interview based articles for e-zines.

My schedule is all over the place, too. I haven’t used writing prompts this summer, but I wish I had. I have an app on my phone called Prompts and I used to receive emails from Sarah Selecky every day with a writing prompt. (I don’t think she offers these anymore!) While I didn’t love all of them, quite a few sparked some fun stories. I’d like to use daily writing prompts again to inspire some journaling and brainstorming, but ideas really aren’t my problem. It’s making time and finding a place.

Writing prompts don’t require a long time commitment, but they do require a place to sit down and write or type, and that’s the other thing I’ve lost this summer. A place. Our house has been under renovation and my office, where I write, has been a kitchen, a storage place, and is now a clump of furniture piled in the middle of the room. Other places in the house have been overtaken by this project and I don’t have a room of my own to get into the headspace of my characters.

I know, I know – if I want to write, make the time and the place to write. But I didn’t stop writing, I just changed my kind of writing.

I’ve also skipped my critique groups altogether this summer. While I love the act of critique and find it valuable in so many ways, it can also be filled with lots of drama. It’s good to take a break from things once in awhile.

Things are slowly changing back. And I have lots of writing on my to-do list.

  • Revise Dare Club.
  • Finish Stalkers already!!!
  • Make that dummy for Digit.
  • Write that ‘rent a kid’ story.
  • Write that ‘rumpelstilskin’ re-write.
  • Revise “The Hunter Case” and send that out.
  • Figure out if Mission:Compostable still has legs.
  • Find an agent who believes in me and my work.

Plenty to keep me busy.

Picklesburgh and Pickle Juice

 

picklesburgh photo

Drink me.

I’ve loved pickles all my life. While I’ve only lived in Pittsburgh for sixteen years, I love the city. And I love that there is a festival all about PICKLES! It’s called Picklesburgh.

From their site:

What’s the big dill?

Picklesburgh is for everyone – from pickle fanatics to just pickle curious. With the help of our sponsors, vendors and volunteers, we’ve assembled a two-day event around all things pickled. It’s not just about pickled food though.  No celebration would be complete without music. A broad selection of local musicians and genres will grace the stage, all set to the backdrop of a glorious Downtown Pittsburgh.

I wish I could attend Picklesburgh, because there’s a pickle juice drinking contest. And I know just who would win. The main character of my novel Dare Club, a klutzy but brave kid with the unfortunate nickname Scabs.

Here’s an excerpt:

 

“We’re going to test your taste for danger.” She smiled and I gulped.

She set the items on the table in front of us.

“Are those pickles? I love pickles,” I said.

“What’s the butter for? Dry skin?” Inky said.

“What are you talking about?” I laughed. “People don’t put butter on dry skin!”

“I do,” he nodded. “It feels soft.”

I made a mental note not to eat butter at Inky’s house anymore.

Marta moved the jar of pickles in front of me. It was a half-empty jar and the long pickle spears splashed around in the green juice.

“I dare you to drink all of the pickle juice in this jar.”

“What?” I yelped. “The whole jar?”

She nodded and smiled.

“That’s so gross!” Inky laughed.

“But why? I don’t get it,” I stalled.

“Think of this as your initiation into the club,” she said.

“What club?” Inky asked.

“It’s a secret club,” she said.

“But what do you do in the club?” he insisted.

“Nothing big. Just figure out your fears and face them,” she said.

The small flame inside me sparked. That sounded exactly like what I wanted.

“So this is the test to see if you two can handle it. It’s not for little kids,” she said.

“We’re going into sixth grade,” I reminded her. “And Honors classes.”

“Grades aren’t everything,” she said. “This is about real life.”

“But what do we do?” Inky asked again.

“I already told you. You face your fears,” she said.

“Is it dangerous?” Inky said.

“It can be. Not always. But yeah, you have to be ready to for some danger.”

Her words were a SuperSoaker aimed right at my little flame of excitement. I didn’t need any more scrapes or scratches.

“And if you decide to do it, you have to do it all the way,” Marta continued. “No quitting. No backing out.”

I wasn’t sure this was such a good idea.

“But if you do it, you’ll be a different person.” she promised.

Never mind. It was a great idea.

“I want to do it,” I said.

“So you accept?”

I squinted my eyes shut and pictured myself at the mouth of the Tunnel. I felt nauseous. I pictured Gunderpants laughing at me. My nausea turned to anger.

“I’ll do it,” I picked up the jar of juice. “I’ll join the club.”

“Seb, maybe you just think about this,” Inky put his hand out to stop me.

“I know I want to be different,” I told him. “I don’t want to be Scabs anymore. Is there a time limit on how fast I have to drink this?”

“How about before I die of boredom,” Marta put her hands on her hips.

“OK,” I twisted off the lid and the familiar scent of vinegar and dill hit my nose and my mouth watered. I love the taste of pickles but I had never drunk just the juice. At least it was a flavor I liked. I decided to go big at the beginning and took a huge gulp from the jar. The cold liquid rushed down my chest and when it hit my stomach, I already felt different.

“Ah!” I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. “Not bad!”

“I can’t believe you’re doing this!” Inky said. “You don’t even know if that’s actually pickle juice!”

I stared at Inky in shock. I hadn’t thought of that.

“No, I did not poison you. But I like the way you think, Leo,” Marta laughed.

Inky smiled.

“And now it’s your turn.” Marta pointed at Inky.  His smile disappeared. She slid the butter toward him.

“What? Why me? He’s the one who wants to go through the Tunnel!” Inky jabbed a finger at me.

“Not by myself!” I yelped. “I thought we were in this together!”

“But–”

I interrupted him. “You’re my best friend! You can’t abandon me now!”

“But–”

I interrupted again. “I’ll owe you so huge!”

“What do I have to do?”

I breathed a sigh of relief. He was going to do it, too, but I could tell by Inky’s voice he wasn’t thrilled.

“It’s basically the same as Sebastian’s dare,” she said. “I dare you to eat that stick of butter.”

“Nope!” He shook his head.

“I double-dog dare you,” she said. I took a big gulp of pickle juice.

“Come on, Marta. Enough with the butter.” He crossed his arms.

“I triple-black-cat dare you,” she held up three fingers. “Last chance.”

“Not a chance,” he said.

“You better do it,” she said. “Or you’ll be sorry.”

“I’ll be sorrier if I eat that entire stick of butter,” he said. I took three little sips of pickle juice. It was harder to force myself to drink it, but I kept going.

“Aren’t you worried about what might happen if I get mad?” Marta asked.

“I’ll take my chances.” He shook his head and looked away from her.

“I see,” she said. “Not worried about yourself, are you?”

Inky definitely didn’t look worried. She slid her gaze over to me. There was about a half-inch of green juice still swirling around the bottom of the jar so I quickly put the jar to my lips and tilted my head back and the tangy pickle juice rushed into my mouth.

“Leo Martinez, I dare you to take one enormous bite out of that stick of butter or I will make life miserable for your friend Scabs here.” She put her hands on the table and loomed over him.

I coughed and spit out some of the pickle juice. “What? Why me?”

Inky shook his head.

“This is so dumb,” he said. He picked up the butter, unwrapped one end, opened his mouth wide and stuck the butter in. Slowly his teeth sunk into the creamy yellow rectangle and the bite broke off into his mouth.

“That’s a big bite,” I noted. I glanced at Marta to make sure she agreed, but she was just watching Inky.

He chewed slowly at first and I could see the butter making his cheeks bulge out. He took loud breaths in and out his nose. Marta watched him with a huge smile on her face. It took forever but Inky finally managed to swallow his enormous bite of butter.

“Gah! It’s stuck all around my teeth!” He kept smacking his mouth and moving his tongue around to get the leftover butter bits out.

“Thanks, Inky!” I grinned. I knew he’d never let me down.

“Finish that,” Marta told me. I swallowed once, twice, three times until it was gone. I opened my mouth to ask her if we had passed the test, but instead a huge pickle-stench burp came out. I cracked up.

“Disgusting, Seb, that’s not funny,” Inky complained and fanned his hand. Marta didn’t seem to notice.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” she said. “I think we all learned a lot from that little experiment. Come back tomorrow morning. Be here by nine. And bring some donuts.”

“9 a.m. Got it.” I said.

Marta walked back to her house and left us standing there. I couldn’t wait to come back tomorrow and do the club.

“Marta!” I called. “What’s the club called?”

“You haven’t guessed already?” Marta shook her head at my slow wits. “It’s called Dare Club.”

How to Write a Story A Month

If you want to be a writer, you need to write and you need to write a lot. In fact, there’s a lot of advice out there that suggests writers should write a story a month.

I’ve been writing regularly for many years. I have a tidy stack of rejections that serve as a time capsule of my development as a writer. I juggle several projects at one time, but aside from that, I do try to write a story a month to keep producing new work and letting those creative juices flow. So far this year I’ve revised several stories that I started in late 2015, but I have at least four brand new stories I created in 2016:

  • Schadenfreude (essay)
  • The Hunter Case (adult short story)
  • Weirdest Creature in the World (picture book)
  • Digit (picture book)
  • Good Friend, Bad Choices (essay)

That’s five new stories or essays in four months. This doesn’t count the pitches, blog posts, or articles I have sent in to magazines and doesn’t count the progress I made on my new middle grade novel.

You don’t need to write each story perfectly and you don’t need to try to publish all of the stories you write. But you need to write a story a month. The big question many people face is how to write a story a month. 

Keep your writing tools handy

If you want to write a story a month, you can’t run around searching for paper and pen every time an idea strikes you. You also can’t rely on your memory. I carry a notebook and pen with me wherever I go. That way whenever creativity strikes I can jot down my ideas. But I also have a smartphone and a mini-keyboard in case a get a story idea and I’m in a spot where I can type out more details. Smartphones are also useful for recording ideas when you’re sitting in a dark bedroom waiting for your child to sleep.

write a story

It’s like an idea net

Go on autopilot

It’s not always easy to come up with ideas when you want to write a story, but sometimes inspiration does strike. It just doesn’t strike when you want it to. So you have to let yourself be open at times when you’re busy. Driving, showering, cooking – those are all times when we’re on autopilot and often ideas will float into our brains.

Force It

It’s ok to force yourself to be creative, too, by generating lists of things you like and don’t like. Just write down all your thoughts. One of them could lead to an idea that becomes your story of the month. One of my favorite tips from a writing conference was to think of twenty possible outcomes or solutions to a problem. After you write all of those down, even the dumb ones, you start on twenty-one and that’s when things get exciting.

Move

Blood flow helps the brain and you need your brain to write a story. So go for a walk. Go for a run. Ride the stationery bike. Move. Aerobic exercise tends to lead to more creativity, but strength training is good for balance.

write a story

Ideas come on the go

Listen

You don’t have to come up with all of the ideas for your stories on your own. Listen to other people! Yes, we all hate it when people tell us “you should write a story about…” but sometimes, every once in awhile those ideas aren’t that bad. My first fiction story ever sold to Highlights came from me listening to my eight year old.

write a story

Doodling also inspires ideas

Get accountable

Joining critique groups are a great way to motivate you to write a story a month just so you have something to bring and share. SCBWI has info on critique groups for children’s writing and Pennwriters has groups for all kinds of writing.

If you want to go virtual, write your story and share it on Scribophile.

There are also monthly activities out there to help you reach your goal o writing a story a month. There’s PiBoIdMo or “Picture Book Idea Month” that encourages participants to come up with one idea for a picture book a day for a month. Out of those 30 ideas you’re bound to find 12 that could become stories in the next year. And you could then join in with Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 or start your own Facebook accountability group.