Girls Write Pittsburgh

Remember when we were in school and we had to write essays or copy lines as punishment?

Why do some people make writing a punishment when it’s so redemptive?

It’s like running laps when you messed up in phys ed or on another sports team. Running doesn’t punish me. It saves me.

Girls Write Pittsburgh knows this and right here in Pittsburgh offers writing as a source of inspiration and empowerment.

girls write pittsburgh

Girls Write

When I was a young girl, I didn’t know it was possible to have a job as a writer. I knew that some people had jobs as newspaper reporters, but that wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I wanted to write and tell stories, fiction and non-fiction. Perhaps I wasn’t particularly bright, because while I knew that people authored and wrote the stories I loved, I didn’t put it together that it could be a job.

Nobody said I couldn’t be a writer, but nobody said I could, either. But it’s ok. That didn’t stop me from writing. I’ve written my whole life. It just took me a long time to realize it could be my real-life job.

I always imagined I’d be a teacher. And in many ways in my life, I’ve done that and loved it.

But now, thankfully, I’ve gone and made a life for myself as a writer.

Being a writer is incredibly fulfilling and not just because I get to do what I love, but because I get to meet amazing people like the creator of Girls Write Pittsburgh.

I’m incredibly inspired by Girls Write Pittsburgh and I’m looking for ways to support this project. First, they need donations. Second, they need mentors. They need places to host events and they need authors and writers to mentor and host workshops.

I’m so committed to expanding the voices that are telling stories in our world, and I see Girls Write Pittsburgh as an important way to do that. If you’re an author, illustrator, storytelling, creative, writer, or just love good stories please consider supporting Girls Write Pittsburgh.

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.

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?

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.

New Books at Our Little Free Library

Our Little Free Library is really getting a lot of use! We get thank you notes frequently. I love seeing the books change over, noting which ones have found new homes, finding new ones that I didn’t add to the library appear. I do admit I feel a little bad for some books that never seem to get picked from the library.

img_0587

First Books

Did you ever write a book when you were a kid? Even a short one? As you can guess, I did. And so did a young writer in our neighborhood. The best part is that this young writer was able to put their book in our Little Free Library! It was incredibly inspiring to find this book by a young author in our library. I pictured how excited this little storyteller was when they placed their book in a real library for others to read. I hope other young writers share their books, too.

first books

NaNoWriMo

Speaking of writing books, it’s November. And you know what that means. Time to write a novel. Earlier in October, I shared some information about NaNoWriMo in the library. Only one person took a tear-off tab, but I’m hopeful that maybe some others visited the website and attempt to write their first (or second?) novel.

nanowire mo

I’m doing NaNoWriMo again this year. I know what kind of work it takes to “win” and write 50,000 words. Maybe in a few years one of my novels will be in a Little Free Library. But it won’t get there if it isn’t written, so it’s time for me to get to work. Let’s write!