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?

 

Manuscript Goals

manuscript

Read. Edit. Revise.

Hello, manuscript. Get ready to work. I have some serious December writing goals. Tomorrow, I will start a new post and update it daily, with notes to myself, in order to be accountable and to reach these goals.

It’s not like I haven’t been writing. I did write in November, I just didn’t do NaNoWriMo. But that’s fine. Honestly, it’s about whether I am writing, not about what or how much. I did NaNo for a few years for confidence and practice and quantity, but I think I need to focus on quality now.

I have three completed novel manuscripts. I’ve submitted one for agent feedback several times, but I’d like to have two others ready to submit. I feel like these two others have good legs when it comes to having strong premises (not just ideas) and interesting, unique characters. They are all middle grade and I feel that’s my sweet spot.

Manuscript #1

So, let’s start with Dare Club.

It has 24 chapters. If I can read, edit and revise 2 chapters a day, that would take me 12 days. I’m already done 5 chapters, so that leaves 19 and I believe I could complete this in 10 days.

Manuscript #2

I don’t have a good title for this manuscript. But the premise is: what happens if a boy who always says the wrong thing finds an iPod that lets him read people’s thoughts?

My pitch is weak. But it’s a start.

“Jace is really good at always saying the wrong thing. When he finds a magical iPod at a flea market, he thinks he has the key to his dreams, starting on the soccer team and getting his first girlfriend. But his life turns into a nightmare when the iPod – and knowing people’s secrets – causes more problems than it solves. Will Jace figure out the real power of the iPod before it’s too late?”

I’d like to 1. write the outline and synopsis. 2. Read, edit and revise. 3. Submit in January.

Also, I need a title. Maybe “iSecrets.” No, that’s dumb. Maybe “Open Mouth, Insert Foot.” That’s my working title. Maybe “Shuffle.” Ha.

Outline should take a day, reading and revising 2 chapters a day means at least 2 weeks. And so just this manuscript plus Dare Club takes up all of December.

Manuscript #3

This manuscript also lacks a title. But the premise here is: What happens if the girl who never finishes anything decides she’s going to run a marathon?

The pitch goes something like: “Nobody ever takes twelve-year-old Whitney seriously, mostly because Whitney doesn’t take life seriously. But when Whitney decides to run a marathon, no one believes her. Will Whitney change who she is in the eyes of others or learn who she really is?”

I’d like to 1. write the outline and synopsis. 2. Read, edit and revise. 3. Submit in February.

Also I need a title. I’m thinking “Finisher.” Or “DNF” (that stands for Did Not Finish).

Probably the same timeline as Manuscript 2. Can I do three manuscripts in two months? Maybe if I give myself a clear accomplishment goal like “two chapters a day.” That feels defined and manageable.

Short Story Manuscripts

I also need to finish revising “Will Call” and “The Hunter Case” and send them in to the ghost story competition before January 2017.

Picture Book Manuscripts

I want to draft the text for “I Really Love You, Mom, and I Mean It” and bring that to critique group. I also want to craft the dummy for “Digit” and send that on to my selected publisher.

Can I get those short stories and picture books done by February?

Only if I don’t do anything else.

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.

Let’s Close the Word Gap

Ready to learn about the Word Gap?

I love to sneak learning into all parts of life. I’m a curious person, I can’t help it! My son asked if we could go on one vacation without learning things, and I answered with a maniacal laugh and a deep, sonorous NO. In this family, we love to learn!! And we talk about what we learn!!

Seriously, learning does not have to be boring. Learning can be fun if you do it the right way. And the right way is to make it into a game.

On car trips, when our kids were very little, we played rhyming games. They are all now school age so we will often play ‘Spelling Bee’ and give our kids funny words to spell at their grade level. We also keep a small but mighty trivia book tucked in a seat pocket and take turns passing it around and answering questions.

But let’s say you’re not on vacation and want some fun learning games for young kids. My first recommendation is BINGO. Yes, the classic game of Bingo is perfect to start playing with young kids (and older kids).

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Learning Numbers

When my oldest started kindergarten, I couldn’t wait to volunteer and help out. So as we neared Halloween, his wonderfully patient and experienced teacher invited me in to play a game with the class. I brought in our Bingo game set, complete with rolling ball and playing cards and red plastic markers. I started calling out letters and numbers and my son (and maybe a few other students) marked their cards. But most of the kids didn’t know what I meant when I called out double-digit numbers.

I felt embarrassed, but I also knew these kids could learn these numbers and that a game like Bingo was the perfect way to help them. We had been playing Bingo with our kids for a long time. If I hadn’t been so flustered, I could have written the numbers on the board and helping the kids look at their cards and match them up. I also could have done peer teaching and paired kids up.

Learning Words

It’s really important that kids learn their numbers, but it’s also important that they master our language and learn the parts of speech. Having a strong and varied vocabulary increases our ability to explain ourselves and understand others, to express complex thoughts and build connections between concepts and create new ideas. And that’s where Mad Libs comes in.

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Yes, Mad Libs. That old school paper book (not an e-device) that asks players to write in verbs, adjectives and nouns. The one where you couldn’t resist writing “butt” and “poop” at least a few times. It works.

My friend took a Mad Libs story into her son’s fourth grade class as a part of a holiday party and she was surprised how few kids could provide suggestions for the parts of speech. Standards in third grade already covered adjectives, adverbs and proper nouns! By fourth grade, students should be able to provide appropriate suggestions for those parts of speech. But even if they struggle, Mad Libs is a fun, non-academic way to encourage them to think about what kind of word is both grammatically logical but also hilariously out of place.

The Word Gap

Thinking about Mad Libs brings me back to the Word Gap. Simply put, kids from low income families are hearing and learning fewer words than kids from high income families. By age 3, kids from low income families are hearing 30 million fewer words. 30 million. And the discrepancy only increases as the kids age. It impacts these kids in terms of school success, which in turn impacts their chances of continuing education, job readiness, and the cycle of poverty.

A lack of words? It’s totally unfair.

It seems so bitterly unjust to me, someone who loves to talk and learn, that these children are already behind due to a lack of words. I try never to talk ‘down’ to children (or adults). But lots of people aren’t aware of this and say they aren’t sure what to say to kids. And sometimes when I take my children’s writing to more general critique groups, I get comments that my vocabulary is too high and I need to ‘dumb it down’ or ‘make it more kid friendly.’

But now you and I know being kid friendly means offering them more words, not less.

There are some amazing ideas out there. People are working to increase the number of words kids see, hear, read, learn and say. I’d love to contribute in some way to reduce the Word Gap. I’m going to keep thinking about it and I’m going to ask my kids what they think would work.

How would you reduce the Word Gap?

 

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.