Tag Archives: SCBWI

Prompting Writing: Re-energizing a Draft

At some point in the middle of a piece of writing, whether it’s a short story or a full-length manuscript, I invariably hit a slump. Given the number of publications, workshops, tools, and challenges out there, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone!

Here are some tools that might be useful to you in moving a recalcitrant manuscript forward.

Books

Of course we all read books about writing. Every writer has their favorite dog-eared copy of certain books.

One that continues to inspire me to create writing that is filled with my own spirit is Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, by Ursula K LeGuin. How could LeGuin NOT write a really great book about writing? Working through the exercises in this book has taught me how powerful a change in point of view, length of sentence, or approach to paragraph structure can be in “waking up” a manuscript that has become predictable. More than one of my Mixed Up Files buddies recommended exercise just like these when I asked for help. I’m listening!

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott, helps simply because I can open it and find something to inspire me, to reassure me, or even to push me to try something with more abandon.

A friend just pulled this lovely little book off her shelf, remembered how helpful it has been for her, and got me my own copy for my birthday. I can’t wait to dive in to Story Structure Architect, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, as I work and re-work this manuscript to make it even better.

Workshops and other in-person learning opportunities

Shortly after I inherited my father’s publishing company, I attended Write on the Sound, a local writing conference, after years of wishful thinking. It was just right for me – small and welcoming and not too scary as I dove headlong into the world of writing and publishing.

What I discovered was the gift of deep inspiration and commitment that can be found when you encounter a really good instructor. The lessons I learned about historical fiction from the lecturer were powerful tools I share with students today.

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Another favorite workshop introduced me to exercises based on author and creativity coach Deb Lund’s  fun deck of cards called “Fiction Magic.” These provocative questions, prompts, orders, magic tricks can be used in a variety of ways. It was really fun to play with them in person with their creator and a room full of enthusiastic writers.

Of course there is my local SCBWI chapter to turn to for inspiration and help – amazing meetings, drink nights (which are often sketching/noodling/doodling and writing nights, too), and also the meet ups with other authors that have come about because we discover like interests or common writing hangouts. I learn much from doing exercises on the page, but I learn even more for getting together with other people and talking about the process, the ideas, the struggles…

Challenges

I love deadlines, too. They motivate me. At least, they usually do!

I have participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) several years running, which for the uninitiated is a month-long sprint challenge in which writers all over the world attempt to finish a manuscript draft of at least 50,000 words. This challenge is not for the faint of heart, and requires a huge commitment. For getting the bones of a new book onto the page, it’s fantastic. And the fancy certificate you get at the end (along with discounts from a wide variety of writing-related vendors.

For the most part, I prefer my challenges in more manageable chunks; though NaNo is something I look forward to each year, I can’t always give up the month of November to hide in my writing cave.

Here are two shorter ones I’ve used with good success in the revision stages of my work, when it’s easy to put other things first (since I edit for others as well, I often put my writing at the bottom of the list. Small challenges help me to put it in the spotlight in reasonable ways).

WFMAD- Write Fifteen Minutes a Day, by Laurie Halse Anderson

WFMAD – Day 1 – Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

All you need to do is read these posts from 2013 and you will be able to create your own challenge. Invite your friends to join you. This series comes with great stuff to do beyond writing for 15 minutes- it really is an invitation to examine your writing and get over being afraid to just DO it.

Write Daily 30 – Linda Urban

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Middle Grade author Linda Urban has offered this challenge/support several times, where you sign up on a shared spreadsheet and post your progress. You create your own goal and the others in the challenge prod you and hold your hand. I’ve presented my own a couple of times since, without the spreadsheet, just daily tweets with the hashtag #WriteDaily30 for 30 days. I’ve made tremendous progress on projects by having the accountability to check in frequently and cheer for others.

I happen to be subbing in Middle School writing lab as I put finishing touches this post (I’ve been encouraged to use my own writing practice to set a good example for students). They are calling on their classmates for inspiration and using images to jump start ideas, and I’m watching.

What tools do you use to move your writing forward?

 

In fourth grade, Valerie Stein touched an ancient artifact from an archaeological dig. Though she never got to travel the world in search of buried treasure, she ended up journeying to new and exciting places between the pages of books. Now she spends her time researching history, in museums and libraries, which is like archaeology but without the dirt. Valerie’s book, THE BEST OF IT: A JOURNAL OF LIFE, LOVE AND DYING, was published in 2009. Her current work focuses on historical fiction set in Washington State. Valerie is proprietor of Homeostasis Press, and blogs at The Best of It. She manages Gather Herean online history site for middle grade readers and teachers.

 

 

 

What to Read When You Want to Write

Do you have a book in you? When people hear I am an author, they often want to tell me about their story ideas. I listen, and then as soon as I can I suggest they join the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). There is no better group to understand the basics of writing, revising, submitting, and publishing.

SCBWI just had its huge annual conference in Los Angeles. I didn’t make it but I always pay attention. You can read what happened by searching the hashtag #LA15SCBWI or reading the official blog (which is where I gathered the following quotes).

If the conference is out of your budget, start local and small (there are chapters everywhere). Another way is to read the books by the authors who were invited to speak. These authors and their works are respected for a reason. Here are three middle grade authors to read:

crossoverKwame Alexander has written many books, and his latest, The Crossover, won the 2015 Newbery Medal and received five starred reviews. In this middle grade novel in verse, twins Josh and Jordan must come to grips with rivalry, growing up on and off the basketball court, and the health of their father, their coach.

Alexander led a rousing interactive speech that included this poem:

hustle dig/grind push/run fast/change pivot/chase pull/aim shoot/play hard/practice harder/work hardest!

Goose-GirlShannon Hale is the New York Times best-selling author of fifteen children’s and young adult novels, including the award-winning The Goose Girl. It’s a retelling of the classic Grimm tale in which Ani eventually uses her own special ability to speak to animals to find her way to her destiny.

Reading novels creates empathy, Hale said at SCBWI, and we are asking boys to live in a world that is 50 percent female while telling them not to read books about girls. We need to give books about girls to boys, and say, “I think you’ll like this book because it’s funny, etc.”

TheGreatGreeneHeistVarian Johnson is the author of The Great Greene Heist, an ALA Notable Children’s Book Selection, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year, and a Texas Library Association Lone Star Reading List selection. It’s the story of Jackson Greene, who has changed his ways, but when his nemesis runs for school president against his former best friend, he pulls together a crack team to make sure the election is done right.

I’ll let Johnson have the last word: If you want to write a children’s book, do it. As he said at SCBWI, “”It’s hard. It’s supposed to be hard. But it doesn’t have to be impossible.”

Jennifer Gennari is the author of My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer, a 2013 ALA Rainbow List selection.

The Butler Gets a Break (A Bellweather Tale): Giveaway and Interview!

Have you ever heard about the three most important aspects of a middle grade novel? Voice, voice, and, oh, yea, voice.

Luckily, Kristin Clark Venuti, author of Leaving the Bellweathers and The Butler Gets a Break, has it in spades. Or, maybe I should say that the real author of these novels has a wonderful MG voice. Because in writing her novels, Kristin partially channels the voice of a butler named Benway, who is 50% Jeeves and 50% Mother Theresa, sworn by an unfortunate “Oath of Fealty” to the Bellweathers, residents of the Lighthouse on the Hill in the village of Eel-Smack-By-The-Bay. The Bellweathers are “most chaotic family ever to live”: there’s the eyebrow waggling inventor Dr. Bellweather, the wall-painter Mrs. Bellweather, a son named Spider who saves Vicious Endangered Animals (including albino alligators & attack squirrels), a daughter named Ninda who advocates for the Oppressed (whether they like it or not), and a set of triplets named Brick, Spike and Sassy who think removing a few stairs from the staircase (thus causing the butler to break his leg) is an example of ‘negative space’ in art.

I was hoping to interview the intrepid Benway, but was happy that my first post as a new blogger on From the Mixed Up Files is a chat with Kristin Clark Venuti about writing, publicity, laundry, and the Power of Capitalization.

Check out the interview and leave your thoughts below – one lucky commenter will win … a butler! No, but you will win a copy of The Butler Gets a Break. How’s that for a New Year’s present?  (Winner announced Dec. 23rd!)

When I was reading your wonderful novels, Kristin, I felt like you knew my deepest, darkest secret. Because the truth of the matter is, I have always wanted to have a butler (who hasn’t?): someone to do my laundry and dishes, feed me tea and crumpets with Devonshire cream, put my, er, ever-so-delightful children back to bed …  four hundred and eighty three times in the span of 30 minutes… Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Now Benway seems to have it hard. Those Bellweathers are not only Loud and Quirky but all too often Up To No Good.  Do you anticipate him successfully leaving the Bellweathers at any point? Or, er, leaving their bodies in some unmarked literary location?

Great question!  I too, have always longed for a butler – just as I too, have longed for someone, anyone, to put my children back to bed four hundred and eighty three times in the span of 30 minutes.  Benway’s only hope is for the children in his charge to grow up.  Even then, I imagine he’ll be stuck with the childish Dr. Bellweather… but I like the thought of that.  I sort of picture them growing old together, heckling one another, but appreciating their differences.  Sort of like the Odd Couple, only Felix is British and Oscar is no longer taking his meds.

Now, I adore Benway and, of course, have ALWAYS WANTED A BUTLER (did I mention that already?), but did anyone ever challenge the choice of having a grown up be such a central character – the protagonist, really – in a children’s book?  How did you make that choice?

I was actually pretty concerned about how having an adult protagonist in a children’s book would go over, since it is a notion that was challenged on more than one occasion.  But Benway has a personality that kids can relate to.  He definitely has it together better than the Bellweathers do.  He fulfills the need for a straight man in order to show that the family’s actions are out of the norm, even by the standards of Eel-Smack by the Bay. Still, there’s enough privately held petulance coming through in his journal to keep him from being a saint. That makes him more interesting.  At least that’s what I hope.

BTW – when I myself started to question whether or not Benway as a main protagonist would work for kidlit, my husband pointed me in the direction of Mary Poppins.  I don’t know that anyone ever dreamed of chiding P.L. Travers for her choice there. I’m no P.L. Travers, but it was nice to be reminded that there are successful exceptions to every rule.

Tell me about your writing process. Because your books are a combination of Benway’s diary entries and third person POV prose. Do you and Benway have a collaboration in the strictest sense or are you a sort of translator and interpreter? (and I’m assuming you are sharing the royalties with him, or else I think Ninda Bellweather is really going to have a labor case against you!)

He definitely gets a share of the royalties!  As long as he promises not to write a tell-all book about ME.

Actually, I wrote Spider’s albino alligator story first. I originally envisioned three short stories that had characters in common. But they kind of grew together and morphed into the Bellweathers.  Benway was present in all, but not integral to any. (He’d be astonished to hear me say that though.  He considers himself the most important part of any story).

Later on, it became evident that Benway needed to not only relate the kid’s stories, he needed one of his own.

Was Leaving the Bellweathers was your first children’s book? Can you tell us about the process of getting it published?

Leaving the Bellweathers is my first book for children.  I have to thank my lucky stars that it was in the right place at the right time on all accounts.  I had never written for children and wasn’t sure I was on the right track. (I could go off on a tangent here about language choices and vocabulary for kids… but instead I’ll let that slide so I can sit back and enjoy the all-too-rare feeling of self control)

Someone told me about the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and mentioned a conference that was sure to have workshops addressing craft.  I sent the first 15 pages of what was then a forty-page manuscript to the national summer conference in LA.  The fabulous Kim Turrisi passed my ms along to a lovely woman who was a junior editor at Harper Collins.  Jaira loved it, invited me to send it to her once I was finished with it.  Of course, by the time I did so, she was no longer working at Harper Collins.  Back to the conference I went, learning all the way. (The workshops on craft are super-helpful).

Through the SCBWI summer conference I met Tracey Adams of Adams Literary, who really liked it and had a good idea of who in the industry might share our slightly dark, slightly twisted senses of humor.  Fortunately for us Regina Griffin at Egmont US, too, has a peculiar sense of humor. Egmont US bought LTB and it came out the next year, which is lightning fast in terms of a publishing timeline.  The sequel, The Butler gets a Break came out a year later (October 22nd, 2010) again, lightning fast in terms of the publishing world.

I once heard you give a fantastic talk called “I’m published… now what?” (undoubtedly you had a more clever title, but along those lines). What are a couple pieces of advice for writers to create their own publicity buzz? What’s worked for you? (Tell us about the stuffed animals!)

Ahh, yes.  The old author as public relations person.  I’m very fortunate in that my book was on the launch list of Egmont’s US venture (they’ve been around forever in Europe, but just decided to get into the US market recently) so my book got maybe more publicity than it otherwise would have… still there’s a lot for me to do.

Middle grade fiction writers are lucky in that if they’re halfway decent at presenting, they have a captive audience in elementary school kids.  What kid wouldn’t rather go to an assembly than sit in class? So getting school visits is a great way to publicize a book.  Another way to increase buzz is through blogging, but this is a strictly do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do-you-ninny sort of a thing.  I am very bad at it.

One marketing thing I stumbled upon though, turned out to be a lot of fun.  I found a website that had these cute little albino alligators for sale.  (In my book, the oldest child brings an Endangered Albino Alligator home to live in the Lighthouse.) In my other life, I’m a scenic artist, so I ordered some alligators and then painted these little crates for them to live in.  I sent them to my agent’s kids for fun.  She thanked me on Facebook, at which point my Very Funny publisher, Elizabeth Law, saw them and let me (and our hundred or so mutual Facebook friends) know she really thought SHE should have one too.  So I made a special one for her (it had a lot of needs, as I recall, such as injections four times a day among other things).  The head of marketing at Egmont US saw the alligator and liked it so much that she ordered hundreds of them to be used in promotion.  She even had them custom made with red eyes. This was a very nice thing.  I carry them with me when I do school visits, and leave each school library with one as a mascot.  The alligators come with a letter from Sir Tennyson Prufrock that details how they are to be cared for.  It’s a lot of fun – and again, a very nice, above and beyond kind of a thing for my publisher to have done for me!

I have read on your website , that you are in fact a Very Untidy Individual. If you had a butler…say, Benway… working for you, what would you have him do? I know your family is the inspiration for many of the Bellweather children, would they be as awful to Benway as Spike, Ninda, and the triplets?

I am indeed a Very Untidy Individual – and may I just say, that the world (and in-laws in particular) became far more forgiving about this personality trait once I became a Published Author.  Here’s how folks see the math: Untidy Individual = Lazy Housekeeper

BUT Untidy Individual + Published Novel = Creative Genius.  It may not be true, but it works for me!

If Benway lived with me, I think I’d just have him fold and put away laundry.  Really.  I often have visitors to my house sign my laundry room walls – but it’s usually a pigsty.  If a first time visitor is invited to sign, I try to make sure a copy of my book is Prominently Displayed, so I can wave toward it airily – as if to say Published Author here, Don’t Judge.  It doesn’t usually work, but it makes me feel better.

As for my kids mistreating Benway – it’s true that the Bellweather kids are based in large part on my own tribe, however my kids really are Very Conscientious Individuals, who have been raised to take the feelings of others into account…so, no.  I don’t think Venuti Villekula would be as hard a place for Benway to work as the Lighthouse on the Hill.

The Habit of Capitalizing Important Things in your text – tell me about it. Is it an Homage to The Bear of Very Little Brain? (Ie. Pooh?)

You know, it’s funny.  Capitalization is one of Benway’s quirks.  He uses it to draw attention to phrases he thinks are important – but I never considered where this quirk might come from.  Now that you mention it though, I am a huge A.A. Milne fan, and it very definitely seems like one of those things that creeps into one’s subconscious and works its way out in writing.  Good call, Sayantani!

I also read that one of your inspirations for the Bellweathers books was Roald Dahl. What other authors – from your own childhood or now – do you turn to for inspiration? (and do they have butlers?)

Roald Dahl is by far the biggest influencer in terms of tone, but the Cheaper by the Dozen books by Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth had a big influence, as did Little Men by Lousia May Alcott, Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking (my house is named for Pippi’s), Helen Creswell’s books about the Bagthorp family, and of course, the Moffat books by Eleanor Estes.

Albino Alligators, Attack Squirrels – what next? For the Bellweathers, Benway, or for you, Kristin?

I worked nonstop on the Bellweathers over the last two years, so that the sequel could come out so soon on the heels of the first one.  I love him, but Benway is taking a bit of a break. I look forward to revisiting him and the Bellweathers in the future. There are at least two more stories to tell regarding that family’s misadventures.

Presently I’m at work on something completely different, though. I’m Very Excited about this new project and it’s going Extremely Well, but I’m keeping it under wraps for now.

Are your stories good medicine? [And I don’t mean in the sense of  “I had to go to the hospital at Eel-Smack-By-The-Bay because I broke my leg on some negative space, er, art.”]  How so?

I am a firm believer in laughter being the best medicine. I used to write tortured short fiction for adults.  It was all very depressing, but that’s just what I was interested in at the time.  Then, a week after his 18th birthday, my Godson was killed by a drunk driver.  We were all devastated.  It occurred to me during that time, that there was enough sorrow on the planet – and that there were enough people writing about important issues – and writing about them better than I could at the time.

I stopped writing for a while – but eventually I started again. I wanted to put some light back into the world.

I began writing about the Bellweathers, and I’d read what I’d written aloud to my Godson’s mother.  In spite of the tragedy of her life, she would laugh.  It really was very healing, the discovery that there were still funny things in the world. That there were reasons to smile let alone to laugh. So yes, I’d say Leaving the Bellweathers is good medicine.

Thank you Kristin, for your time, generosity and humor! And most of all, your fabulous middle grade VOICE!

Leave a comment below to enter to win a copy of Kristin’s book! Twitter or post to your FB (and tell me about it) and increase your chances of winning! Check back on December 23rd to see if you’ve won!

Sayantani DasGupta is a big fan of butler-based literature. If she could ever steal Benway away from the Bellweathers, she would have him fold all her Very Untidy laundry, and wrangle her Sometimes Naughty but Very Adorable children. She, like Kristin, is a Big Believer in Capitalization.