Category Archives: Inspiration

Tips for November Writing Challenges

It’s almost November—do you know what that means? Many writers are getting ready for fun challenges, like NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). The goal is to write at least 50,000 words of a novel in November. When I first learned about NaNoWriMo, I didn’t think I’d be able to participate because I was finishing a revision on a middle grade novel. On November 7th, I completed my revision and thought of a shiny new idea. By the end of November, I ended up with over 60,000 words! As awesome as that was, I’ve learned that it’s better to have more than just an idea. Fleshing out my concept and making sure I have important plot points in mind really helps (even though it’s possible they’ll change as I get to know my characters better). Some people love to outline, but I’ve never been a huge fan of it for my work. My favorite tool is Joyce Sweeney’s Plot Clock. Here’s a post about it, and here’s another post that shows a picture of the Plot Clock.

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Calling all teachers—did you know that there’s a NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program? Check out their Resources for Educators, where you’ll find their free classroom kit, lesson plans, and Virtual Classroom how-to. You can also find out how to connect with fellow educators.

If you want to participate in NaNoWriMo, but don’t know what to write about yet, here’s a post that can help you come up with new ideas.

Here’s a link to a helpful interview with author Dorian Cirrone. She has fantastic advice for brainstorming high concept ideas, how to come up with a great beginning, plus a writing exercise. Check out Dorian’s blog for her series on Ten Ways to Generate Ideas.

A lot of middle grade novels are way less than 50,000 words…so how can you write a middle grade novel and still be a NaNoWriMo winner? Well, I think anyone who makes great progress on a novel is a winner. Reaching the end of a first draft in one month is definitely a reason to dance around the room and treat yourself to some kind of special celebration (maybe delicious chocolate, a fun outing with family members you haven’t spent much time with because you were so busy writing, or possibly a massage to un-hunch your shoulders after all that hard work). After celebrating, I like to dive back in and hit that 50,000 mark. Here are a few ways that I’ve accomplished that:

  1. My first drafts used to have lots of dialogue, but only a small amount of description. To beef up my word count and add important sensory details, I’ve looked for areas that could use fleshing out and added more description to them. I’d often have to cut a lot of it in the first few rounds of revision, but loved how many gems I was able to keep. Find what you often lack in your first drafts (maybe it’s dialogue, you don’t increase tension enough, etc.) and see where you can add it into your draft.
  2. If you think a sequel could work for your story, jump in and start writing it to reach your 50,000 word goal. Just try not to get too invested in it, because any changes you make to the first novel could cause huge changes to any future ones—but it can’t hurt to play around with it. You might find ideas that could enhance your first book!
  3. Beginnings are so hard to get right, that I’ve gone back to write a bunch of different beginnings. Don’t be afraid to start in a completely different place. If you’re not sure which one is best for your novel, polish your favorite beginnings up after NaNoWriMo is over, then share them with your critique group or writing friends and see if there’s a clear winner.
  4. You could also start a new novel! Hopefully, you’ll have some ideas fleshed out and ready to go.

If you get stuck while working on your new project, here’s a link to Tricks to Defeat Writer’s Block.

For those of you who also write picture books, check out Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) where the goal is to come up with at least thirty shiny new ideas during the month of November. Then, you have plenty of ideas to choose from whenever you want to write a new picture book throughout the year.

If you have any tips to share or questions to ask, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you. Good luck with whatever goal you’re working toward this November. I hope the words flow!

Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle grade novels with heart and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her two daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer mix who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s TwitterFacebook, or blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.

Where Do I Begin…

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I was at a routine doctor appointment today and it happened again.  I told my new doctor I write books for children and she said “WOW! I’ve written a children’s book, too! What do I do next?”

Lots of children’s authors get annoyed by these very frequent questions. (Right, Doctor Clueless. I removed my neighbor’s appendix this afternoon. So what do I do next?) But well meaning potential authors always excite me. Life may have directed them down a different path, but somewhere in the back of their minds (and in the center of their hearts) they dream of writing for children. Often they’ve already produced a manuscript with their own children.

And I’m living this person’s dream! Lucky me! I’m all too ready to share the joy!!!!

So what is next?

That’s up to you. The first question I ask a sincere author-to-be is what’s your goal?  Is it to save your children’s stories as a family legacy? Is it to become the next J. K. Rowling? Do you envision yourself as a serious professional writer in the future or is this a one time fun project?

Writing is an art and like other arts it can take many forms. A concert pianist who plays (or dreams of playing) at Carnegie Hall has a different level of training and commitment than an at home piano player who’s the hit of every family gathering and neighborhood party. There’s nothing wrong and a whole lot right with both paths.

First stop in my completely unbiased (!) opinion is visit the resources on our From The Mixed-Up Files website. We have a whole page devoted to aspiring authors and you won’t find a more accessible place to find out what to expect when trying to move forward with writing and publishing a children’s book.

Another blog I recommend (okay I’m one of the founding members there, too) is www.ThroughTheTollbooth.com  It’s a children’s writer’s craft blog written by a rather stunning group of super successful children’s authors (plus me) trained at Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children & Young Adults masters program. Search the archives for just about any how to topic and you’ll find the answer (well lots of different approaches and answers) in The Tollbooth.

And perhaps the best advice is head to your local chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – aka SCBWI.   Annual SCBWI conferences can seem pricey, but they’re well worth the investment whether you consider writing for children a casual hobby or a serious vocation, and most chapters have smaller less expensive or free events sprinkled through the year. You’ll meet kindred spirits, and you’ll learn not just what you think you need to know, but things you never knew you didn’t know, or never knew you’d need to know or… well you get the picture. There’s loads of great information on the SCBWI website, too, so be sure to pay a visit!

Finally (and by now the person who’s asked me “what next’s” eyes have usually glazed over because all they wanted to know is my editor’s personal phone number) I strongly recommend a bit (okay a whole lot) of reading.

Most adults haven’t read many children’s books since they left elementary school. Go to the children’s department of your library. Go to the children’s book section of a bookstore. Even poke around in the children’s book category of an online bookseller if you have no other alternative. Don’t focus on the books you remember from your childhood. Get a feel for what’s in style now. You don’t want your literary pride and joy to be the book equivalent of a bustle skirt or a moth eaten zoot suit– even if it is historic fiction. While you’re there pick up a copy of a good guide to children’s books and publishing like Harold Underdown’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books. And pick up Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books For Children  It’s not her only children’s book guide. It may not even be her best children’s book guide. I love her Book A Day Almanac. But if you love children’s books and you want to write them, even as a casual hobby or fling, make it your responsibility to be familiar with everything on this list.

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So what’s my advice when someone says “I’ve written a children’s book. What’s next?” I say raise a glass of champagne. You deserve it!!  (and invite me to toast you!) Then get back to work.

Tami Lewis Brown bids a very very fond farewell to From The Mixed-Up Files with this post about just starting out. I’ve enjoyed every golden moment of this wonderful community and welcome all who join behind me!

Mentors that matter

This morning I started working in the ASPIRE program at my local high school to mentor juniors and seniors through the college application process. It’s much more daunting to get into college these days and since I’ve been through the process with three of my four children it seemed like a natural fit. It has also gotten me thinking about all the people who have mentored me and my children over the years.

The one person who has mentored me more than anyone in my professional life is my cousin Kathleen Delaney. She has spent her entire teaching career in some of the lowest income schools in the Chicago area. She has told me stories about her students my entire life–stories about the ones that have inspired her, worried her, made her laugh, made her cry, and sharpened her understanding of the injustices so many face every single day. This August as she was preparing for the school year she stepped across the hall to introduce herself to a new teacher in her building. She was met with a shout of joy and a warm embrace from this new teacher.

The woman had been an 8th grader in my cousin’s school decades ago. Kathy taught 6th grade and after school she coached the girl for the district speech competition. They chose the address of Chief Seattle from 1854 and worked on it together after school for several weeks. Before the competition my cousin gave her the picture book version of Seattle’s speech written by Susan Jeffers. What she didn’t realize at the time was that the girl’s family had come to this country illegally. The mother was struggling to raise five of kids on minimum wage. That book was the first one the girl had ever owned. The first book anyone in her family had owned. They read it until it fell apart. 61gaPRmd8hL._AA160_This girl decided to become a teacher, in part because of my cousin’s example. Her younger brothers and sisters who had Miss Delaney in 6th grade reported that she was the “hardest” teacher in the school, the one who assigned the most homework. She was the one who believed that they could do all that work, even though they were new speakers of English.

This former student took her college classes one at a time over many years because her immigration status made her ineligible for financial aid. But she stuck to her goal year after year and now after all this time, she and my cousin will be teaching side by side. I’ve done author visits for my cousin in recent years and her students are quick to tell me that she is still the hardest teacher in their school. They feign agony in reporting all the writing assignments she’s given but it’s easy enough to see their pride underneath all that complaint. Some of them come voluntarily to school an hour early every day to work in her room before school starts.images

I mention all this at the start of the school year because my cousin cheerfully points out that there is nothing unusual about her. Most teachers mentor students before and after school. Many have very high expectations for even their most impoverished students, and almost all of them give away hundreds of books over a teaching career. So this is my thank you to all of you for all you do to change lives, to raise up one literate generation after another, and encourage those who enter school powerless to leave it with something to contribute to the world. It’s easy to get discouraged and in the minutia of daily work and lose sight of your power.

You make history every day. When a child learns to read, you change that entire family’s economic fortunes forever. Our economy cannot function without you.  I’m grateful–to my own teachers, my children’s teachers and all of you everywhere who work with students wisely and generously every day. Thank you!