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.

How a Book Smells

I love how a book smells. I love that slightly dusty, dry papery smell mingled with the chemical odor of ink. Unfortunately that smell can often fade, but it’s in my memory.

Writers are encouraged to use smells in their books because when our brains read the description of the smells, our sensory areas light up just like we’re actually smelling the smells. Our brains can’t tell the difference between smelling with our noses, or reading about a smell that we know.

I do try to weave scents and smells into my stories, but only when they are appropriate. Recently I read a YA (young adult) book that I think was a tad heavy handed about incorporating smell data into the story.

 

Book Smells in A Cure for Dreaming

A Cure for Dreaming is a mix of humor and horror set in early 1900s Portland. A young girl is hypnotized in an attempt to remove her egalitarian views. There is some romance, parental tension, references to Dracula and a slight education on women’s equality and suffrage. I wanted to love the story, but I basically just enjoyed it.

What stuck out to me was that in every chapter, the author inserted an odor, scent or smell somewhat early. It was part of setting the scene but it also felt a little like checking a box. Maybe that’s not really a problem. I’m probably more picky than the average reader for this book. It really stood out to me as a task, not a story element.

Several smells appeared in the first sentences of the chapter.

Cigarette smoke and warring perfumes. How long until most readers are unfamiliar with cigarette smoke odor? Neither of these smells are very appealing.

book smells cigarette

“cigarette smoke…warring perfumes..smelled overcooked”

Food smells trigger not only our scent memories, but our appetites, too. Does your mouth water when you read this?

“smelling of chicken”

The smell of black coffee is unmistakeable and quite enjoyable in my smell collection.

book smells food

“poached eggs, black coffee and a touch of rosemary”

 

In later chapters, the smells appear after a few pages. Here we have that tingling dental office smell that often triggers fear in people. Did you get tense reading this?

book smells fear

“A sweet, antiseptic, and metallic potpourri”

And the smell of peppermint makes me think of Christmas. This book is set at Halloween. Maybe she should have referenced cinnamon.

book smells holiday

“peppermint-scented candies”

These three scents aren’t really familiar to modern day readers. The purpose here is to reference a society from a different time.

book smells historic

“Cologne and pomade and the scent of wool suits”

 

Reading How a Book Smells

So not only does the physical book smell, but the book has smells. As you read your next book, take note of the book smells that are mentioned and think about how they help set the scene, the time period, the mood. Or, just read the book.

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.

Submissions Rates for 2016

I keep track of my submission, acceptances and rejections monthly and annually. I like to see what parts of the year I am slow and prepare for that. I also like to see if I’m getting better at sending the right submissions to the right publications or if I’m still sending stuff wildly into the unknown.

I love to color code my charts using the Pantone colors of the year. 

2016 Submissions

Here’s a look at my 2016 activity in terms of submissions.

submissions

2016 Chart 

 

I had the most submissions in February and March, but it’s clear my best months for acceptances were May and October. What isn’t highlighted by this simple numerical record is my selection as Pen Parentis Fellow in August. If I could put a big star by that one acceptance, I would!

Another highlight this chart doesn’t show is that all four acceptances in October were actually assignments, not responses to queries. That’s a great sign that editors look to me for work, instead of me constantly pitching them.

Another big improvement is my overall acceptance rate. In previous years, I had 6.3, 8.8 and 10.8 percent acceptance rates. A 14.6 percent acceptance rate is a definite improvement. I think that indicates a greater knowledge of what certain publications want.

2017 Submissions

submissions

2017 Chart

Things are starting off just a touch higher than last year. I feel very satisfied with this rate, especially when I look back at my submissions rate from past years.

Do I have a monthly submissions goal?

Yes, but I won’t freak out if I don’t meet it. I’d love to send out 10 pieces a month. I think that shows I’m an active writer. Yes, a writer is someone who writes everyday, but I’m also a business owner and I want paychecks and clips. I know it’s not always going to be possible to submit more than 10 pieces a month, but I need a goal.

This tracker also doesn’t include contracts that involve writing but aren’t exactly submissions with acceptance or rejections. I have some assignments coming through Upwork that are based on contract proposals, not story ideas, so I’m not tracking them here. I also have contracts that involve editing but not a lot of writing and I’m not counting them here, either.

In some ways, these charts are just ways to prove “I’m busy.” But they are always ways to boost my confidence and encourage me to keep working.

Do you track your submissions and rate of acceptance?

Have you noticed an improvement?

 

Graphic Novels About Growing Up

Graphic novels are so hot right now. When I was growing up, I only remember reading Maus, a story about mice in World War 2. But now graphic novels about growing up are all the rage.

Graphic Novels We Have Loved

My oldest first read a graphic novel version of The Red Pyramid, then dove into a graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time. Then we both loved Roller Girl and El Deafo. After that, both boys plowed through all four Reina Telgmeier books: Smile, Sisters, Drama, and Ghosts. For Christmas, my oldest got the first book in the Amulet series. He said it was scary, but wants to read the rest of the seven book series. We also read American Born Chinese, but I think a lot of the elements of that book were over the head of my middle son.

Reading Reina’s books helped my fourth grade identify which kids in his class thought it was ok to make fun of gay people. I love that the majority of the graphic novels they have read have female protagonists. And in some cases, the books don’t tell incredibly grand stories. Instead they highlight the everyday challenges of growing up.

Now I am no illustrator, but for fun I’ve decided to create an graphic novel of my sixth grade year.

I’m aiming for six pages that highlight six things from sixth grade. I know many of my memories aren’t going to be positive, because sixth grade was a tough year.

I don’t have a catchy title yet, so for now I’m calling it 6th. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s honest.

6th

A graphic novel about sixth grade.

(Remember, illustration is NOT my forte.)

graphic novels

Friendships are hard in sixth grade.

 

graphic novels

So is fashion.

 

If you had to pick one year to make a graphic novel about from your life, what would it be?

Pennsylvania Books

pennsylvania books

Three rivers, hundreds of stories

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ready for a reading list of Pennsylvania books?

Last summer, I came up with a “Reading Road Trip” article that described the real places in the U.S. featured in some of my favorite books. As a kid, I dreamed of visiting the places I read about, everything from Prince Edward Island to Manzanar and Helen Keller’s Alabama home.

I’ve been shopping the article around and looking for a publication or magazine to buy it, but in the meantime I thought I’d work on a list of books that were based closer to home, right here in Pennsylvania.

I have my own Pittsburgh, PA based stories in mind, but my first two middle grade novels are based in Maryland.

Pennsylvania Books

  1. Maniac MageeJerry Spinelli. Not based in Pittsburgh, but includes a visit to Valley Forge. It also tackles the tough topics of race and class.
  2. Criss CrossLynn Rae Perkins. I picked this up because it was a Newbery winner, and fell in love. It’s so lyrical and really captures a feeling and moments rather than a strict storyline. I loved that style. And it’s based in the steel town suburbs up the Allegheny river, some of my favorite parts of Pittsburgh. I plan to read her first novel, also based in PA, called All Alone in the Universe.
  3. EchoPamela Munoz Ryan. This novel follows three characters and one is based in eastern PA.
  4. Hitty: Her First Hundred YearsVirginia Ann Heyerdahl. Not the best book I’ve ever read. It’s a Newbery but fits into the Gay-Neck category, unfortunately. It’s about a doll who travels the world on random adventures and at one point lives in Philadelphia.

In the comments, my friend and fellow writer Amy suggested two more Pennsylvania books.

Macaroni Boy, Katherine Ayers This book is based in the Strip District of Pittsburgh and is also a period piece and a mystery. My kids read it for school and enjoyed the classic banana explosion story.

I’ve read Macaroni Boy but not her other book Voices at Whisper Bend. 

Any more suggestions?

What real live place from a book would you love to visit?

Pig Out for Reading

I remember falling in love with reading.

I’ve been reading a lot of middle grade books the past year, because that’s what I want to write. I want to write books like the kind I read from fifth to eighth grade, the kind I re-read and re-re-read. They were the books that really stuck with me as I grew older and looked for new books to read. I loved the books, I loved the writers, I loved reading.

I have trouble remembering authors and titles sometimes, but I can remember how my books looked in my room. I didn’t have a traditional bookshelf in my room, but I had shelves in my closet and I can still picture the books stacked in there. I even remember keeping some books in the open shelf on my night stand.

Remembered Reading

I remember reading Dreams of VictoryA Dog Called KittySasha, My Friend, and Six Months to Live. And of course all of the Little House books. And a book series from the grocery store called Grandma’s Attic.

But I have forgotten the titles of other books I loved reading. I could only remember snippets.  I remembered I read about a woman who gets a young puppy as a companion for her older dog and the older dog dies on an adventure. Or something like that. And I remembered reading a book about a girl who’s mother went vegan in an attempt to be happier.The mom had recently gotten divorced. The daughter hated the new diet and tried to sabotage her mom. The two big scenes I remember reading involved the daughter drinking mustard and milk and finding mice eating the junk food she had hidden in her drawer. The mom and daughter finally come to a truce and a healthy balance of good food.

(I think that book may have influenced my current eating habits more than I realized.)

I wanted to find these books. I searched all over the internet using as many descriptive words as I could. I searched websites like BookFinder for out of print and old books, I searched Amazon for keywords. I searched Goodreads.

Buried Treasure

Goodreads was useful because users create lists like “kids books that were popular in the 80s” and that’s just what I was looking for.

On Goodreads, I was delighted to find some covers of one of my favorites!

reading

Six Months to Live was my first exposure to childhood disease. The main character has leukemia. Funny, maybe this book influenced me more than I realized, too, because I worked for the American Cancer Society for eight years before I moved to writing full time.

On a Goodreads list I also found a book that I know I read, but had forgotten. This was like discovering buried treasure.

But I still couldn’t find the book about the mom going on a health food kick, or the young puppy and old dog. I let my search fade while the rest of life took over, but I didn’t forget about it. Every once in awhile when I visited the library or an old bookstore, I’d poke around and see if a title or cover jogged my memory.

Then I got involved in cleaning out our basement. I wanted to get rid of our excess belongings for several reasons. I abhor hoarding. The thought of it gives me anxiety. Also, I wanted to move our workout equipment into our larger storage room so I could get more done. My cleanup was ruthless. If I had kept something in the basement so long I didn’t go looking for it, I didn’t need it. As a means of farewell, I did do a sweep through all the papers before I recycled them, and that’s when I found my real buried treasure. My Pig Out award.

Pig Out on Reading

reading award

I love to read.

In fifth grade, I wrote 86 book reports to help my class win a reading prize. While it was wonderful to win the prize thirty years ago, it was even better finding these book reports today. I was so, so grateful to my mom (and then me) for saving them until just this moment. (This is not a reason to horde things. Only keep stuff related to your passionate dream.)

I found the titles of those missing, beloved books. Here are some of my favorites:

Behind the Attic Wall

A Wrinkle in Time

A Swiftly Tilting Planet

Helen Keller

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great

I wrote reports on tons of Nancy Drew books and way too many Sweet Valley High books. Remember, I was going for quantity.

The Bunnicula series is in here, lots of Beverly Cleary books, some Choose Your Own Adventure and a book that gives me an unsettled feeling called The Twits, by Roald Dahl.

But the one about the mom and daughter and health food? It’s called Fifth Grade Secrets. Did you ever read it? I’ve got to find it.

I didn’t find the new dog/old dog book, but that might have been a story in my classroom SRA box. Did you have one of those?