Friday, September 30, 2011

Instant Gratification

Instant gratification doesn't happen very often. Not in science or writing. The best scientific experiments raise more questions than answers, and I don't think I've ever written anything that I didn't revise at least three times. And then there's the process of submitting: waiting... w a i t i n g . . .  w  a  i  t  i  n  g. 

I've been doing a lot of that lately. Waiting. By the end of last week, I was trying to make myself write something, anything, just to take my mind off of the seven different submissions I've got out there.

Over the weekend, October peeked its head around the corner and waved. Hmm. One week left in September. If I wanted all those plants I'd bought to survive the winter, I needed to get them in soon. Time to put my weeks of landscape planning into action.

So we did. Beloved Husband and I (with the help of the kids) dug up the grass between our fence line and the sidewalk. Then we hand-tilled the (extremely hard, clay) soil underneath. We removed the soil, put the grass back in upside-down and covered it up with the soil that had been under it. (Following all this? There will be a quiz later.) It took two three-hour sessions to prepare ⅔ of the fence line.* (If you're wondering why we put the grass in upside-down and buried it, it will decompose and become compost. It also saved us having to figure out what to do with it once it was out.)

Have I mentioned that we're the crazy new neighbors in our conservative, midwestern neighborhood? We're the weird people from Germany who mow with an electric lawn mower. (Two months ago, when Beloved Husband first used it, our normally polite neighbors actually stopped and stared). But last week, one of our neighbors bought an electric mower, which meant we'd gone from crazy to trend-setting. Until we started digging, that is.

The next day, I set out my plants and started putting them in the newly tilled strip. Among comments from passersby about how much work I had cut out for me, I planted several kinds of native grasses and perennials - plants that, once established, will be drought tolerant and need less care than the grass did. They will attract beneficial insects like bees, lacewings, ladybugs, and butterflies. The grasses (when fully grown) will provide cover for birds that eat the pesty insects. And there will be flowers blooming in all different colors throughout the spring, summer, and fall.

Unlike my daily activities, I got to experience the (almost) instant gratification of seeing a project reach completion. it was hard work, but well worth it. And it provided the added benefit of taking my mind off of all those things I'm waiting on.

Oh, and the neighbors love it. Several asked what the different kinds of plants were. I wonder how long it will be before we go from crazy to trend-setting yet again?

* To do the rest of this strip and convert several other bits of lawn to garden areas, we're going to do it the easy way. Power landscaping tool rental, here we come.

What gratifying events have you experienced lately?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Multicultural perspectives - Bamboo People

Mitali Perkins writes across culture. Her stories bring to life the struggles kids from different races, cultures, and backgrounds experience when they are immersed in a world dominated by people who are different.

Bamboo People is a powerful example. The first half is told from the perspective of a Burmese boy who is recruited, against his will, into the Burmese army. The second half is told from the perspective of a Karenni boy, one of the tribal people the Burmese are persecuting, living in a refugee camp in Thailand. Just imagine what happens when their worlds collide.

One of the extraordinary things about Bamboo People is how easily the reader can identify with both boys. You get inside their heads, see the conflict from both sides, come to understand why the Burmese and Karenni behave the way they do. This book not only opens a reader's eyes and mind to current world events, it also provides a window of insight into why events unfold as they do. 

And yet this is a middle grade book. The characters are dealing with war, yes, but they are also dealing with issues of friendship, budding romance, and finding their place in the world. It's a remarkable book, hard to put down, and one I highly recommend reading.

What books with multicultural perspectives have you enjoyed? Do we need more books like these?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Doing it right

On Monday, I wrote about Livia Blackburne's thoughts about blogging to reach your audience. Her post dovetailed with a brief social media session Mitali Perkins held at Chautauqua. Mitali's had me thinking ever since. Specifically, I've been wondering about this:

How can you contribute to children's writing in a way that sets you apart? 

Lots of writers blog about writing. It helps us to connect with other writers, and perhaps to the intended audience. But if someone has the option to follow what a well-known, established author writes versus someone just starting out, which would they choose? As writers, we need to create our niche in the blogosphere.

Mitali suggests brainstorming (free write in a journal) what you want to contribute. Ideally, you do this before you even begin your blog, but you can always modify your content as you go.

Blog about things that serve kids and parents. What are you passionate about? Are there topics that come up again and again in your writing? Themes that weave through your work? Blog about those kinds of topics. Discuss related children's books or activities; provide them with resources.

Mitali does this at Mitali's Fire Escape: a safe place to chat about books between cultures. She blogs about writing, but she also writes posts about the issues that appear in her books. She provides resources for readers, so they can find out more about a topic or even find a way to help. These posts are for kids, parents, and teachers - the audience.

Me? I'm passionate about science, nature, and grappling with complex problems that don't have a black and white solution. It's important to me that everyone see both sides of an issue (which happens all too seldom these days). All of those things come up in my writing. To reach my intended audience, Mitali said I should blog about other nonfiction books, fiction books that cover similar kinds of topics, and science-y activities that kids and parents can do together; things they can do to make a difference.

How do you let your intended audience know about your posts? Send out provocative twitter posts that link to the blog post, and reach out to the audience you want to reach. Mitali has lists of people involved in the issues she writes about. Find your audience. Let them know you're there. Give them a reason to stop by.

For me, that means you will be seeing new kinds of posts. Posts about terrific books, posts about important subjects, posts about things kids (and teachers and parents) can do to get involved. I will also write a bit about writing (there's still lots to share from Chautauqua), but that won't be all I blog about.

How will you change the way you blog?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Embracing Failure

This is a couple of years old, but the messages are so important, I thought I'd share them. J.K. Rowling on the fringe benefits of failure.

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.

"What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality." -Plutarch.

How will your imagination inspire change?

Monday, September 19, 2011


Last week, Livia Blackburne (who is also a scientist by day), wrote this insightful post about why bloggers blog. It struck a chord with me, because I've thought about this since I began blogging.

Isn't the point of blogging to help you reach your audience? As Livia points out, platform logically applies to people who write non-fiction; people who are experts in a subject area and can easily reach their intended audience through a more personalized venue like a blog. And when they write a book? Their audience is already there. Chris Guillebeau at the Art of Non-Conformity is a terrific example.

But what about writers of fiction? Many of us seem to follow other writers. This is a terrific way to network and gain support from other writers, but are these the people who will buy your novels? To some extent, probably, since we need to read in the genre, but it's only a small portion of the intended audience.

So what should we blog about? Livia's follow-up post gives excellent insight into how to tailor your blog and your posts to your intended audience.

What do you think about blogging? Are you reaching the right audience?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hooking teachers and librarians

One of the terrific things about Chautauqua was having a chance to meet with lots of teachers and librarians (on the faculty and among the attendees) and hear what they look for when they select trade books for the classroom and library.

Guess what? It's not just about content. (Obviously that's important, but content alone won't do it.)


Most teachers at the elementary level choose books that complement their curriculum. Fiction or non, the books need to dovetail in some way with the concepts that are being taught. And if the books connect different areas? Even better. (Think multicultural issues and geography, for example.)

How do you know whether your book will complement the curriculum? Do a google search for "state curriculum standards." Start with your state, then check out others. How do they compare? Can you make a case in your query/cover letter that your book could be used by schools in a number of states?

How books are written is also important: books that assume background knowledge kids don't have will NOT be used in the classroom. Background needs to be built into the text, so the readers can understand without having to fetch a dictionary.

Illustrations? They're terrific! But they need to appear on the same page spread as the relevant text. If the reader has to flip a page (or two) to find the illustrations, teachers will skip the book. Make the information easily accessible to your readers. Ask to see page proofs and make it clear that you want a layout that enhances readability and retention of information.

Teachers and librarians also need to teach study skills. How? By choosing books that have a table of contents, a glossary, an index, and a list of additional resources. List of possible discussion questions? Bring 'em on! Anything to make a teacher's life easier will be greatly appreciated.

If your book would work well in the classroom, be sure to mention how it addresses these kinds of things in your query letter. Many schools use the SQ3R reading method. Describe how your book can be used in this way. Not only will you impress the editor reading your submission, you vastly increase the chances of getting your books into schools and libraries.

What is your favorite book that was/is used in the classroom? Why?

Monday, September 12, 2011


Have you ever finished a book and felt that the end somehow wrapped up the entire story in a way you couldn't quite put your finger on? Something subtle? Chances are, the author created an ending that resonated with the beginning.

The same is true of magazine stories (fiction) and articles (non-fiction); in fact, the resonance is often more noticeable in a thousand words or less. It's that clever ending that returns to the premise from the opening paragraph. Pick up an issue of Highlights magazine, and you'll see what I mean.

It turns out, that resonance is intentional. It is one of the things editors look for in the articles and stories they evaluate. If you write for Highlights or other children's magazines, check for this before you submit.

Resonance isn't just for short pieces of work. Sara Grant, author of the recently released Dark Parties, incorporated resonance into her novel and recommends that other authors do the same. This isn't the answer to the big question posed on page one, rather something quiet... something that provides emotional satisfaction for the reader. It brings the work full circle.

What examples of resonance have you seen lately?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Writing engaging nonfiction or historical fiction

I attended sessions for both fiction and nonfiction writing at the Chautauqua workshop, and over the coming weeks, I'll share some of what I learned from those workshops here.

The biggest point to come up in the nonfiction sessions? Nonfiction can—and should—be presented as a story. No boring facts, no encyclopedic recitation, and for heaven's sake, no passive voice! When you present information in an engaging fashion, the audience will continue to read and be more likely to retain the information.

Fact or fiction? Born 1596, died 1722? (source)

Ever take a class that you hated? Science or history, perhaps? There's a good chance you didn't like it because you were forced to memorize facts. But if that information had been given to you as part of a story—part of a bigger picture—I suspect you would have felt differently about it.

For most of my life, I hated anything having to do with history. Why? Because every history class I took focused on names and dates. It was mind-numbing. There was nothing about it to make me care. So when I started reading Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series and got interested in the history of Scotland, my mom (who loved history) was shocked. She thought I hated history. Well... I did. But not when it was part of an interesting storyline. Funny how that works.

Now the Outlander series isn't nonfiction. It's historical fiction. And that's probably the greatest draw for historical fiction. It's factually correct regarding events that took place in the time period, but with the flexibility of a fictional story to string those events together. Thorough research and accurate portrayal is just as important in a piece of historical fiction as it is in nonfiction.

With nonfiction, you have to be careful. You can't make up quotations; you must have references to back up everything you say (although this is true for historical fiction as well: Carolyn Yoder at Calkins Creek requires documentation for every factual event included in the story). It's easy to get carried away by your efforts to paint a picture and accidentally overstep the bounds. A good editor will call you on it.

With care, writing as a story works for any kind of nonfiction. (biography, nature, history, science). Make it engaging. Make it active. And watch your audience grow.

What are your thoughts about writing (or reading) nonfiction? Does the format matter?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Chautauqua notes

I'm back! My apologies for the longer-than-expected hiatus. The move took much more out of me than I'd anticipated, but yesterday the movers took the boxes away, and I promised myself I'd get back to blogging. So here I am.

First, thanks to Christie Wright Wild for the Pot-o-gold award! I am honored that you find this blog full of interesting and helpful content. :)

And I know you're all dying to hear about the writers workshop... Chautauqua was fantastic! If you have an opportunity, I highly recommend it. The faculty were fully engaged with the attendees, and the staff maximized the number of opportunities we had available to speak with them. I'm delighted to say that I've made real friends with some of the faculty members (and many attendees), and I'm not sure you can say that about many other conferences.

Most of the week had workshops; three concurrent sessions at a time. There's something for everyone, from writers of picture books and early readers to MG and YA; from fiction to non. If, like me, you write in more than one genre, it was nearly impossible to decide which sessions to attend, and they were all incredibly informative.

In addition to the scheduled sessions, faculty held "lunch and learns" - informal meet-ups during the lunch break during which the faculty would talk about a particular topic. Use of social media? Spend the lunch hour with Mitali Perkins. Classroom presentations? Hang out with Sneed B. Collard, III.  What does a 9 3/4 year-old want in a book, anyway? Harold Underdown and his daughter are there to give you some insight. I learned just as much from these lunches as I did from the official curriculum.

But probably the best part of the Chautauqua experience is the one-on-one mentorship. Each attendee submits a piece of work (first ten pages of a novel, PB manuscript, or magazine article), and they are paired with a faculty reader/mentor to work on it. You get two meetings with your mentor, so you have time to make changes and look at revisions. I was paired with Andy Boyles for one of my nonfiction PB manuscripts, and he offered some terrific advice for improving it.

And did I mention the food? Or the enormous bag of books that you bring home with you? The delightful attendees? The superheroic ability of Jo Lloyd, coordinator for the Highlights Foundation, to leap tall buildings and not get flustered in the face of things like two-day power outages? The gorgeous setting in the Chautauqua Institution?  It was truly an extraordinary experience.

Want to attend? I know you do. :)  Yes, it's a pricey venture, but the Highlights Foundation offers scholarships that make it reasonable. I hope to see you there in future years!

And if you're too impatient to wait until next year, check out the Founders Workshops.  (Some of these are next on my list.)

So... that's what I've been doing. What have you all been up to while I've been away?