Exciting SCBWI Announcement for 2019!

I’m so excited to announce that starting January 15, 2019, I am the SCBWI Regional Advisor of Pennsylvania: West! It’s a true honor and I’m really eager to build a new leadership team and to work to support the creative members of our region.

We have some great events planned for 2019 already and we’re in the process of planning more.

Check out our events calendar here.

What are your favorite events to attend as a writer or illustrator?

One of my big goals is to reach out to new communities and neighborhoods. I’m hoping we engage new writers and illustrators and learn from the incredible people in Western Pennsylvania. I really believe that by increasing the diversity of our knowledge and experiences we can do our best work as individuals and an organization.

I’m a huge supporter of We Need Diverse Books and hope to guide our region into embracing diversity fully.

Why SCBWI?

SCBWI is a wonderful organization for writers and illustrators.

SCBWI is great for new members. There is so much to learn about the publishing industry. Many new creatives don’t even know what questions to ask. That’s where SCBWI mentors and critique groups and workshops and conferences help. Even the online forums are helpful for figuring out how to write a query…or understanding what a query is!

But SCBWI is also useful for published writers. PAL members, or “Published And Listed” members, still need SCBWI. Connecting with other writers and illustrators helps me stay on top of changes in the industry and learn about new technology that can impact how and what we create. It’s no longer just about writing a good story, it’s about writing a great story that fits the publisher’s need at that exact moment, and one that fits with the market. There are so many options and we need help exploring them. We can now create graphic novels, ebooks, info-tainment non-fiction, and more, that being a part of SCBWI helps published writers and illustrators stay informed even as we hone our craft.

Both new and experienced writers benefit from SCBWI critique groups. Critique groups are an essential part of my writing routine. I have found an incredible support network from my critique groups. I’ve learned so much from my group. And my writing has improved. I’m not sure which benefit is more valuable.

If you’ve ever wanted to create for children, I invite you to join your local SCBWI chapter. Meet professionals and newbies, meet writers and illustrators, immerse yourself in the field and learn all you can. I promise you’ll meet amazing people. You will be inspired, and I know you will find some truly wonderful books that are great for any age!

 

Five Focal Points for Revising A Manuscript

I am training for a triathlon. That means I have to practice three different ways of racing: swimming, biking and running. Each one requires me to work on my form for that sport. But the form for each sport has lots of moving parts: arms, legs, head, neck, spine. When you’re practicing any of those, it’s hard to think about your entire form all at once. So I think about it parts. When I’m swimming, I’ll think about elbows one lap, or keeping my neck loose. When I’m biking I’ll work on relaxing my shoulders and leaning forward for a half mile at a time. When I’m running, I’ll work on my forward lean for 2 minutes, then knee lift for the next two.

The same goes for writing and for revising a manuscript.

It’s hard to think about all of it, all at once. So try breaking it into parts.

In May, I attended an agent workshop hosted by my local SCBWI chapter. I spent the most time with Vicki Selvaggio from the Jennifer de Chiara agency. In final presentation of the weekend, she suggested each of us go back through our manuscripts and read it over five times. Each time through, she offered a different focal point for us to consider. Because it’s hard to revise your manuscript and think about all the important pieces all at once.

Here are the five focal points she suggested for revising a manuscript:

  1. Make an X in the manuscript whenever you get bored, a character says the same thing more than once, you’re confused, or you see a tell vs. a show.
  2. Make an X if a scene, page or chapter doesn’t move the story forward, if it doesn’t end when the story is over, if there’s a main character change or if the theme isn’t clear.
  3. Make an X if it’s not written in a unique voice, if someone doesn’t have an important role, if they dialogue tags are too visible (“said” is just fine).
  4. Make an X if your story is missing sensory details, if the story feels like it’s in a void, if you haven’t mentioned how things look, sound, smell, taste, feel, if you can combine setting details with action.
  5. Make an X where you start paragraphs the same way, if you can avoid “-ing” verbs, if you can avoid double verbs, if you can remove adverbs, or other weak words.

Before you tackle this, she suggests letting the story sit at least a month. I’m well overdue for revising my manuscript, so I have to get started making x’s right now!

 

Read it five separate times. Revising a manuscript

Read it five separate times!

Advice for Writers from an Agent

In May, I attended the SCBWI Western PA Agent Workshop. I learned a lot and got some excellent advice for writers on pitches, storytelling, and revision and I wanted to share it with you!

Pitching Advice for Writers

While they need to be short, they still need to include the main character, the obstacle and some sense of resolution.

This was my pitch and it was well-received.

Short and sweet!

Short and sweet!

Storytelling Advice for Writers

  • Mirror, Mirror. Please don’t use the tired device of describing your character’s physical appearance by having your your character look into a mirror.
  • Too Much Telling takes away from action.
  • Why Should I Care? This is the feeling that readers get when they confront too much backstory. Weave it in, don’t dump it.
  • Bubble Boy or Girl. Or Alien. Make sure your characters don’t exist in a bubble. Describe the setting and use all five senses!

Revision Advice for Writers

More advice for writers covered how to revise your manuscript. Envision your manuscript as a road that your readers will travel on a wondrous journey. The first draft is like that rocky, dirty, bumpy path carved out by construction equipment. Each stage of renovation makes it smoother, easier, more pleasant to travel.

As you read your manuscript, look for places where you’ve left out setting details, where you’ve used passive voice and -ly words, and if your main character is changing. If not, go back and call in that construction crew.

Advice for Writers of Picture Books

Did you know 60% of the story should be told through illustration? That means for non-illustrating writers like myself, I should only write 40% of the tale in the text. This is an interesting way for me to examine my texts, even though I never considered myself particularly mathematical. I like the idea of making sure the larger part of the tale comes through in the art, even if that does make writing harder.

How to Run a Critique Group

What do you need to run a good critique group?

First you need people. But once you have enough people, running a good critique group needs something more than just kind words and cheerleading.

critique group

Keep it real – but Include some positive

They need structure.

We’re working on tightening up our critique group structure in our SCBWI group and I feel like we’ve hit on a good formula.

  1. We use a Doodle poll to find a morning date and an evening date that works for the majority, but not everyone.
  2. We keep our day meetings at the coffee shop and our evening meetings at a local restaurant.
  3. We have a Facebook group and are encouraging members to share their work at least a week in advance.
  4. We ask a different member of the group to run each meeting.
  5. The meeting runner decides the total time we spend on each person and informs the group.
  6. The person running the meeting picks the writer we are starting with at that meeting.
  7. Critiques begin with the person to the left of the writer being critiqued. The meeting runner keeps track of time.
  8. Each person gives their critique and tries to include positive details and places that could be improved.
  9. We try to avoid chitchat during critique time and save it for when the meeting is done.
  10. We rotate jobs!

How do you run your critique group?

SCBWI Western PA Fall Conference

SCBWI Promising Writers!

SCBWI Promising Writers!

In November 2015 I attended my third fall conference hosted by SCBWI Western PA. I felt very excited for this conference, mostly because I felt very prepared. It’s nice to be past the novice stage and to be heading to an event with clear goals and specific things I wanted to learn. For instance, Valentine’s Day and Halloween are big book selling times.

(If children’s writing isn’t your thing, here’s some advice about going to a science writer’s conference from my friend Beth Skwarecki. )

As always the conference organizers did an amazing job. We were at the Hyatt Airport and there was an intensive the night before the main day of sessions on Saturday. I decided to stay the night on Friday so I could skip any traffic snarls and get to my volunteer station early. The rooms at the hotel are expensive, and I had missed the discount rate period, but luckily I had enough points (thanks to stays at the Hyatt in NYC for the SCBWI Winter conference!!) and got the room for free.

I helped at registration and greeted many of my writing friends. My favorite presentation was by Ariel Richardson from Chronicle Books. She covered novelty picture books and wow was my imagination sparked. I also particularly enjoyed the presentation by Susan Hawk who went into great detail on the agent/client relationship. She answered some tough questions about what happens once an agent likes your work.

The food at the conference was excellent and the rooms were fine, but I wasn’t thrilled that we didn’t have wireless internet access. I feel like conference attendees should get the code.

SCBWI Promising Writer

One special moment at the conference was when Ariel told me she had selected my story, Mission Compostable!, as her favorite. This meant I was honored with eight other writers as a Promising Writer. We received a coupon for a discount off a future WPA SCBWI event. In addition to her kind words, Ariel also offered some very generous advice and guidance on revising and submitting my manuscript.

It was really thrilling to be chosen as a Promising Writer. As we stood in front of the conference attendees, I looked at the people to my left and right and realized I was in a very special group of talented people! I promised myself again to keep working on my craft.

The networking and education that I get at these conferences is really so valuable, but like many conferences there never seems to be enough time for critique or discussion. And there is always so much to learn!

This year, I’m hoping to get to an SCBWI Conference in Cleveland in late summer and possibly the LA SCBWI Conference in August. Stay tuned!

What conferences do you attend? What is some good advice you’ve gotten at a conference?

12×12 Picture Book Writing

It’s November and like many writers, I’m at the early stages of NaNoWriMo. I love NaNoWriMo because it helps me produce one big project, a 50,000 word novel in a specific period of time. But I’m not only writing novels. I write magazine articles throughout the year and try my hand at short stories here and there. But I also have a goal of writing a publishable picture book, fiction or non-fiction.

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 3.06.32 PM

To work on achieving that goal, I was really excited to learn about Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 project. This website encourages writers to produce 12 picture book drafts over the course of the year, one per month. The drafts do not have to be perfect and you don’t even have to show the draft to anyone (but I always take mine to critique groups). But for each draft you complete, you can earn a badge on your profile on the website. Writers can also earn a badge for revising a picture book manuscript in each month. Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 4.09.10 PM

I love the gamification aspect of this site. I also enjoy the forums as a place where writers can discuss questions and Shel SILVERstein members (my level) can also share the first 250 words of their manuscripts in the forums and request feedback from other members. For good karma, members are encouraged to leave feedback on two or three manuscripts for every one we submit for feedback.

Gold members pay a higher fee and have the chance to submit their manuscripts to agents or editors. There is a bronze level that doesn’t allow you to post 250 words but does give you access to the forums and chance to participate in webinars.

Thanks to 12×12, I’ve been really productive on my picture book manuscripts this year. I have a decent one I plan to bring to an intensive critique at my local SCWBI conference this month. I produced at least one throw away (The Snow Fort) and one possible magazine story (Santa’s Best Friend). I also revised a story that was purchased by a magazine and that feels like a great success! And for three months in a row I drafted completely different stories based on one basic idea.

It doesn’t take long to produce a picture book draft. Mine are typically under 1000 words so that’s less than an hour of work a month! Get those vague ideas into words and see how they feel. Then for the rest of the month massage the words, revise the words, adjust and alter the words. If it’s not feeling great, let it go at the end of the month because you know you will produce something new.

I’m thinking I will renew my membership next year because I like the accountability that comes with knowing I’ve paid for a membership and I should use it. It’s interesting that I don’t have a lot of trouble generating queries for non-fiction magazine articles. But there’s usually a deadline associated with non-fiction query ideas, so that is my accountability!

What helps you be productive when it comes to picture book writing? Do you set goals and work to fulfill them? Do you need some kind of external structure to keep you focused?

 

 

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.