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?

 

Protagonist v. Main Character v. Antagonist

protagonist

A bumble bee, cousin to my characters, hard at work

 

Protagonist v. Main Character

I’m struggling with characters in my story and their jobs. I think I have one main character and one protagonist. But I was thrilled to find this post from elements of cinema that provides great examples of stories where the main character isn’t always the protagonist, or the protagonist isn’t clear until deep into the story, or even complex stories with an ensemble cast  each going through their own struggle.

I’m working on my bee story and I want my protagonist, the one who chooses, to be my queen been.

I loved finding this post online outlining the differences between MC and Protagonist. The post author says that the main character of The Great Gatsby  is the narrator, Nick (who isn’t even mentioned in the Amazon review!!!!) while the protagonist is of course, Gatsby.

What is the job of the main character? Is just it the narrator? Not exactly. According to another writing blog I found, the main character is the one through which the reader experiences the story. The protagonist is pursuing the story goal.

So with that distinction clarified, I have decided I want my main character to be a worker bee, one who has the job of Forager. She can do tasks that set my protagonist up for the choice that is essential to the story. My main character will also have a choice or two.

Ensemble Cast

I love the idea of an ensemble cast. I’m not looking to create anything as epic as Game of Thrones, but I think I could possibly produce something approaching the Breakfast Club, where the different honeybees come together to save their Hive, which is sort of a character on its own.

http://www.publishingcrawl.com/2014/02/17/tips-for-creating-an-ensemble-cast-of-characters/

Antagonist or Villain

Now I have a problem when it comes to antagonist. I had several problems facing my sweet sister honeybees:

  1. Winter
  2. Food source disappearing
  3. A strange new kind of bee that is out to destroying them

But I didn’t actually develop a character as antagonist. I have nameless foes. I have internal conflict and external conflict, but no villain. I’m thinking I need one.

I found this site gives three good elements: vulnerability, believability and invincibility.

Part of me is thinking a drone might make a good villain. A drone would want the natural order of the hive disrupted. A drone is born only to mate with the queen and then lives off the food produced by the workers and then kicked out to die as winter arrives. A drone who likes the sweet life might not want to be kicked out to die as winter arrives. He might look for a queen who is willing to change the way she lives so that he can live his lazy, luxurious life a little longer. He might feed her desire to make her own decisions. I think he could be a good tempter who tries to entice her to give in to her selfishness…which would lead to the end of the Hive. Ok, I think I have my villain.

For more lists about villains, here are five elements. I like intelligent.

2016 Writing Goals

Ready for some writing goals? I’m gearing up for another year of reading and writing (and running, because that helps more than you might think!) I’m not setting resolutions per se, but I do constantly set goals and work on them. I like to set a mix of short and long term goals, that way I can feel good about meeting short term ones along the way and keep up my momentum on the long term goals.

Reading helps my writing goals

Reading helps my writing goals

Reading Goals

For my reading goals, I’m going to aim for 100 books again in one year. You can find me on Goodreads and see what books I’m reading, but I generally don’t write reviews of books. I just move on to the next book. I do love working off of lists and I think this year I’ll find the list of Newbery Award winners and see which ones I’ve read and seek out the ones I haven’t. I also don’t know the criteria for the Newbery, so that will be something good to learn.

 

writing goals

Brainstorming ideas. Go crazy!

Writing Goals

For my writing goals, I plan to continue to submit my existing stories (including Dare Club, The Red Deer of Fal and Mission: Compostable!) But I want to have a new manuscript ready to pitch at conferences. I have two drafts of middle grade novels I can revise, and I think I’m going to work on my magical realism one and get that ready for the spring.

My process for the magical realism novel has been a little unusual. Here’s a brief outline:

Step 1: Write the novel during NaNoWriMo 2014.

Step 2: Let it sit for over a year.

Step 3: Ask myself “what’s funny about gaining the ability to read people’s thoughts?”

Step 4: Ask myself “what kind of character would get himself into trouble from hearing people’s thoughts?”

Step 5: Read books like Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence and think about what people love to read.

Step 6: Attend conferences, like Pennwriters, and learn about brainstorming 20 ideas of things that could happen to your character.

Step 7: Accumulate rejections for other stories.

Step 8: Try not to think about how long it took to revise Dare Club to something I was proud to share.

Step 9: Finally sit down and brainstorm ideas in my super-creativity-enhancing notebook.

Step 10: Read a Reddit post about the pros and cons of mind-reading.

Step 11: Take a nap.

Step 12: Wake up and decide to go to Target. Suddenly get inspiration for a starting point while driving!

In this story, which doesn’t have a great title but I’ve been calling Buyer Beware, a middle school boy finds a piece of magical technology that allows him to read people’s thoughts. I know I want to tell a story that follows the lines of “what starts out seeming like an amazing discovery that will solve all of his problems and make his dreams come true eventually gets him into trouble.”

See, the story can’t be about the mind-reading device. It has to be about the kid. And for it to be something I love, the kid needs to be funny and likable, and the kid needs to mean well but screw up, and the kid needs to win in the end. I’m not the person to write about child refugees and kids dealing with horrible experiences. I’m the person to write about ordinary kids (like myself) who thought they wanted to be extraordinary and made some dumb mistakes as they figured out how to get through life.

I think I’ve got a plan, now. I think I have a problem and a desire for my main character, and a framework for things that my character will do, and how it might culminate into an interesting climax with a satisfying conclusion. If you’re interested let me know and you can critique my next draft – when it’s ready!

 

 

 

Setting up email newsletter

Happy New Year! I love trying new things and here I go again. I’m trying a new way to stay in touch with people: an email newsletter. Check out the upper right area of my website and you’ll see this little green form:

Now I Have a Newsletter!

Now I Have a Newsletter!

I’m not going to send out emails every day or even every week. I have one email scheduled a month, highlighting different fun activities, books and events I’m offering to kids and families. I’ve sent out a few so far in the end of 2015 and had a nice response, including book sales and inquiries from local schools about my workshops. That’s success!

I’m looking forward to learning more about what families want to hear about from a local author, about healthy eating and encouraging their kids to read.

I use social media effectively to stay in touch with readers but an email newsletter is an easy way to reach readers when social media channels change their rules. We now that not everyone reads every social media channel and it’s better to come to your readers where they are and not wait for them to come find you. It’s also a good way to catch readers when they are not skimming through their feed for entertainment.

If you’re an author or small business looking to use email newsletters to reach your audience, feel free to get in touch with me. I’m available to work with you to set up your email newsletter, write content and schedule emails.

So sign up to get my newsletter and stay in touch!

Chapter Titles in Scrivener Compile

Scrivener is great, isn’t it?

Scrivener is really hard to learn, isn’t it?

I can’t really learn and retain lots and lots of information just by reading it one time. I need to use the information in some way or else I find I have a problem and learn by finding the solution. My most recent problem was that the chapter titles for my novel manuscript weren’t appearing in the Compile document. I struggled with this for awhile. I did Google searches. I asked people on Twitter. I asked two smart, curious people who are good at problem-solving and debugging. I did more Google searches.

(In the middle of researching this problem, I stumbled upon the answer to another problem! How to populate the project status bars!)

Finally, after some continued struggle and putting the question away and then coming back to it, I re-read the block of text at the intro screen within Scrivener. Turns out I needed to not work in folders. Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 2.18.04 PM

I didn’t want to make multiple scenes. I just wanted to write chapters. So I thought that meant write in folders. But that was wrong. Based on the intro screen info, I needed to create text files and move those text files up to the chapter level.

Scrivener Chapter Titles

 

Within each text file, I also selected the boxes on the far right that said “Include in Compile” and “Page Break Before.”

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So I went through every chapter and created a text file, copy and pasted the words into the new file, then deleted the folder. Then I went to the Compile screen. Guess what!

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All of the chapter titles I wanted were highlighted in yellow! WOOO!!! I hit Compile. And when I checked out the document, all of my chapter titles were right where they should be!

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So my whole problem was answered right in the main screen. For reference, here’s the info:

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While I really enjoyed using Scrivener to work on my novel manuscript I am by no means a power user. There are so many features I haven’t even begun to explore. I’m about to work on a non-fiction picture book proposal and I believe I will learn even more about the features of Scrivener as I encounter problems or want things to look a certain way and then learn how to make it happen.

What feature of Scrivener did you learn through problem-solving? Which feature is your most favorite?

 

 

 





Magazines that Use Freelance Writers

magazines for freelancers

Check out the inside

Are you looking for magazines that use freelance writers?

In early october I spent some time sending emails to new magazines that accept submissions from freelance writers. How did I find these magazines? I can tell you I didn’t spend any time browsing the glossy magazine display at the supermarket or my local bookstore. While I have had articles appear in those magazines, they are far and few between. So here’s a list of some of the places I look for magazines that use freelance writers.

Pennwriters – as a member of Pennwriters, I received their newsletter The Penn Writer. The back few pages of the newsletter typically highlights several unique and varied publications that accept queries or works on speculation.

The Renegade Writer – Linda Formacelli offers both an extensive list of trade publications and the instruction and guidance on how to research and pitch articles to a variety of magazines that use freelance writers.

Freelance Writing – This website sends out a weekly email of online and print publications that accepts freelance writing. The site owner even hired some freelancers recently. What I like about this one is that it also lists places that seek and are paying for fiction writing.

SCBWI – I love the advice provided by SCBWI for children’s writing. But they also do a quarterly publication called The Kite that highlights recent publication credits of SCBWI members. I read those announcements and use them as jumping off points to research new places to send my writing. I consider it a little ‘pay it forward’ from successful writers to seeking writers.

When you do compile a list of magazines that use freelance writers, absolutely make sure you take some time to research what kind of writing style and topics they prefer. But don’t hesitate to send a letter of introduction or query even if you’ve never written on their focus topics. Do your research, conduct interviews and show your best work and get that writing out there.

Where do you find magazines that use freelance writers?

Pitching Your Writing

pitching your writing

Every day should be Coffee Day!

Pitching your writing doesn’t come easy to every writer. In fact, I have a friend who just shared on Facebook that she recently sent out her first query in a long time and “didn’t die.” Of course she didn’t die. Sending out queries should not be life threatening. But for many writers, pitching your writing is super stressful and not something that can be done everyday.

I don’t pitch every single day, but I try to pitch something every week. And sometimes I get on a big tear and pitch a lot of things in one week that keeps my monthly average high. For instance, September was a mighty busy month for me. I submitted several non-fiction pieces to children’s magazines, my novel manuscript to some carefully selected agents, and finalized my new children’s ebook for it’s October release.

Maybe you like pitching your writing is something special, that you should save up and do it big, do it right.

But I suggest you think about National Coffee Day. National Coffee Day happens once a year. If I treated National Coffee Day like some amazing holiday, I might plan a huge party, decorate my house, invite my closest friends, raise my expectations and demands to incomprehensible levels. And when the day finally arrived, if the roast was a little weak or the water not quite hot, or no one showed up at all, I could be sorely disappointed. Hopes dashed, coffee grounds strewn across the counter, stumbling around blinded by my caffeine-headache in despair.

Which is why I drink coffee every day. I don’t wait for one special day a year to enjoy it.

And that’s why pitching your writing should be an every day, or at least every week event. It doesn’t have to be the most perfect cup of coffee/article idea you’ve ever written. It should be GOOD. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggested you go about pitching your writing crap. But you shouldn’t wait for that perfect moment. Work on it as often as you possibly can. Pitch frequently. Pitch to new places. Pitch to your old favorites. Put it out there.

You need to pitch often for one important reason: so you can practice. Because pitching your writing isn’t something you’re going to be great at the first time. And if you don’t practice you’re not going to get better. I certainly was not any good at pitching when I started back in the early 2000s. But I’ve experimented, learned, practiced, learned more, taken classes and practiced even more. And I force myself to write pitches even when I’m not sure the editor is going to bite because the act of practicing pitching your writing is an essential part of being a freelance writer.

(Just like you have to practice running to get better).

So if you don’t want to send out what you think are weak pitches to editors, send them to your writing partner. But send them. Force yourself to hit send. Then celebrate with a cup of coffee or your beverage of choice. And get ready to pitch again tomorrow!

Brain Food: SCBWI and SWPFSP

summer reading with kids

Food for Thought

 

I hate being hungry. I can’t concentrate and I’m really grouchy. Imagine if you were a kid who was hungry all summer.  But here in Pittsburgh, that’s not an imaginary thing. It’s real. In fact, there are more than 45,000 children in Allegheny County that are considered to be food insecure, and 73,500 children are eligible for free or reduced-rate school lunches or breakfasts.

So when Chris from the Southwest PA Food Security Partnership approached me and my friend Kathy about helping more kids take advantage of the summer food programs in our area, both of us said YES.

Kathy and I had tables next to each other at the 2015 Farm to Table conference, but we’re also both members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Chris loved the activities we were offering for children that centered around healthy eating but also had a literary and storytelling component. We met in early summer 2015 and he asked us if we could come to summer food sites and provide fun activities for the kids. He hoped that by advertising visits from local authors kids would be more interested in attending. Kathy and I loved the idea and both realized this was a chance to interact with children (something kids’ authors love) and a chance to feed their minds and their bodies.

But we like to think big. So Kathy and I invited all the members of SCWBI Western PA to join us. We had 14 volunteers sign up and they conducted over 10 visits in Allegheny, Somerset and Cambria counties. SCBWI volunteers read books, played games, and told stories while children enjoyed healthy, free meals.

I took my youngest son with me to two of my visits to my old home library, Carnegie Library Woods Run. I used to walk to that library with my young children and we spent many happy afternoons in the children’s section. When my son and I visited in August we found a welcoming staff and adorable kids with incredible imaginations.

For my visit, I brought copies of my book The Bumpy, Grumpy Road to share with the kids. I wanted give them something, a small gift to spark their imaginations. They gave me gifts, too, because in addition to reading stories we played StoryCubes and made up our own stories. And these kids were AMAZING! The little girl in the photo above and another little boy came up with an incredible tale about a boy who had the shadow of a beetle and a beetle who had the shadow of a boy. They traveled together to a castle where they discovered human king…but a beetle queen. You’ll have to use your imagination to find out what happens next.

We definitely plan to continue this partnership next summer so if you’re a local Pittsburgh author or illustrator get in touch and help us feed imaginations while kids get fed.

The Pitfalls of Freelance Writing in Pittsburgh

freelance writing pittsburgh
Pittsburgh is home to lots of creative types!

Freelance writing in Pittsburgh isn’t always perfect. In fact, it can be full of pitfalls. But what if there was a cushy landing waiting at the bottom? I love doing freelance writing in Pittsburgh. Over the past four years, I’ve enjoyed working the organizations like Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon, Cancer Be Glammed, and teli. Right now I am enjoying my freelance writing work with Farm to Table and Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, as well as writing for national magazines.

Why I love Freelance Writing in Pittsburgh

I have learned a lot in my time as a freelance writer and not all of it pertains to writing. There are lots of extras, both good and bad, that come with a corporate position. Here is a quick list of seven potential pitfalls of doing a freelance writing in Pittsburgh that aren’t so bad after all.

  1. No organized community service. I miss blood drives! In my previous work in the non-profit world, the office manager always organized the blood drives and volunteering was part of my day job. It was easy and a no-brainer. Now that I’m a freelance writer I have to make my own volunteering opportunities. That could be a con, but now I have a chance to pick which causes really matter to me. I’m starting a creative writing club at our elementary school, I’m volunteering with the Food Bank and promoting healthy eating for kids.
  2. No office kitchen. I have no where to take leftover party food! When I worked in an office, I could keep extra sweets and snacks out of my pantry by donating it to the office kitchen. Problem solved. Now as a freelancer, a lot of those leftover pieces of cakes and cookies stick around the house. But as a freelance writer, I’m also not tempted to eat treats brought in by other people. No 4:00 sugar rush! And I can usually avoid the guilty obligation to buy popcorn and chocolate and wrapping paper from co-workers who are fundraising for their kids.
  3. No chit chat. Not working in an office means no water cooler talk. That’s good and bad. It means I don’t have people to bounce ideas off of easily. It means I have to use the phone, social media and scheduled meetings to share ideas and get feedback. That does require extra effort on my part. But losing the water cooler means also means I get to avoid hurtful gossip and misinformation. A definite pro!
  4. No suits. Working from home means there is no need for a business wardrobe. This feels like a real pro for me most of the time. I can do my freelance writing in my workout gear and make sure I have no excuses when it comes to running, cycling or lifting weights. It does make it hard sometimes when I need to dress for a presentation or networking event, but I think this feature has helped my budget and my overall health. I haven’t worn high heels in several months and I don’t miss that at all!
  5. No sick days. As a freelance writer, I still have to work when I’m sick. I’ve taken time off when I’ve felt really bad, but if it’s a bad cough or a sore throat, that doesn’t stop me from writing. That mean seem like a con, but the good part about not working in an office is that I don’t have to work around other sick people. Why do people insist on coming into work sick? No one’s handing out medals for coming into work on your deathbed! And since our nation has really failed to support families with excellent parental sick leave rights, I can now stay home with my sick children and keep working. That’s a real pro.
  6. No carpool. I don’t have anyone to carpool with to work. No HOV lanes for me. When I do have to drive somewhere, I am on my own. But I also don’t drive to work everyday. There are many days I don’t drive at all. That has to be a pro.
  7. No trivia club after work. It is harder to socialize now. It’s very easy to stay home, tuck into my work, and neglect personal relationships. But I am a social person and I make an effort to get out to different kinds of networking events and community activities. And I’ve also tried to prioritize friendships with people that really match my personality instead of gravitating towards someone who just happens to work in the next office. It’s been good to meet a variety of new and interesting people through my numerous freelance writing contracts but it’s also been good to explore friendships that are not related to work. I think in many ways, non-work friendships can be healthier and less stressful. There are so many great people in Pittsburgh, I don’t think I’ll ever truly lack for excellent socializing!

Writing Advice: What not to write

This is a list of writing advice I’ve heard on what not to write or how not to write. It’s probably a little fiction heavy, but I’m open to non-fiction writing not-to advice. Feel free to send suggestions of what and how not to write. But I’m also interested in examples of when going against this writing advice works.

1. Don’t use  “started to” or “began to.” People don’t start to cry, they cry.

2. Don’t tell us a character “felt” something. Show us how the character feels.

3. Don’t use passive voice, for instance “She was informed by a friend of her mistake.” Use “A friend said she was wrong.”

4. Don’t use adverbs like “happily” or “greedily.”

5. Don’t use cliches, like “she balled her hands into fists” or “she rolled her eyes.”

Advice from other writers:

1. Avoid “to be” verbs unless the sentence is awkward without them. Just about always avoid expletive constructions (exception for weather only, I think). Avoid unnecessary attributions. Avoid most attributions other than “said.”

2. Use Wordle to figure out what words you’re overusing. Then use a Find command to eradicate as many of them as possible. Do this with your top ten most overused words.

3. If your story makes perfect sense without a chapter, delete it.

4. Don’t start a sentence with “There” or “It” or “This,” especially if you can’t pinpoint what the pronoun is referring to. Start with a strong word instead. – Beth Skwarecki