Wednesday, February 23, 2011

For My Eyes Only

Isn’t it wonderful to snuggle up with a great book? More and more, though, I have been finding that I don’t just read to escape into a story, I read to find out what else I can learn about the craft of writing as well as what makes a book buzz-worthy, award-worthy, best-seller worthy.

Recently, I’ve kicked up my analysis a notch or two by writing reviews for my eyes only about books that I’ve read. At first I did this just to help me sort my thoughts, but I’ve found that in writing these reviews, I end up giving the novels that I’ve read a lot more thought. Kind of cool, right?

I’d love to tell you that I have a format for these reviews, but I don’t. After all, they are for my eyes only. Free writing is allowed and encouraged. However, I usually begin by asking myself what I found intriguing about the premise of a story. What pulled me to the book? The jacket copy? The cover? Reviews? The buzz? A recommendation? And how did the novel reading experience pay off compare to whatever pulled me to read it?

Some times I’ll explore why I couldn’t put a book down. Would I have been able to drop it if the house caught on fire or the sky started falling? If not, this deserves further exploration. What makes a novel this good?

I love cliff-hangers and plot twists, so I’ll often note these and why they work (or don’t) for me. How did the placement of these affect the novel?

What about voice? Give me a great voice and I’ll follow a character anywhere. So, I’ll sometimes explore what I liked or loved about a great voice in a novel.

I also love the way some authors tap into amazing details. It makes sense, then, that I’d write about these and how they affected the plot, characters, and setting.

Also, I’ll often jot down examples of incredible writing that makes me blink and catch my breath. This is sort of like collecting diamonds.

As you can probably imagine, my little reviews often turn into rants that go off in crazy directions, but they always offer insights. And, sort of surprisingly, writing willy-nilly about a novel after reading it, to revisit it and pick it apart, has turned out to be really fun.

Do you ever write about what you've read in a for your eyes only way? I'd love to know. ; )

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

For the Love of Teachers

When did you discover that you liked or even loved to write or read? I recall deciding that writing was big fun during the second grade, thanks to a teacher who took writing very seriously. Apparently, my mom took note of my budding interest in writing because she saved one of my stories--“The Sloppy Man.” Or, as I spelled it back then,“The Sloupy Man.” I am happy to report that my spelling has improved a little bit since the second grade, but not my drawing skills. Now you know why I write novels instead of illustrating picture books.

Anyway, my amazing and fabulous second grade teacher encouraged, nurtured and fostered my first leanings toward writing. You probably can't read her note here, but it reads: “I loved reading your sloppy man story. This is a great improvement (note: I’ve always preferred revisions to first drafts). Isn’t writing fun?” I'd like to point out that she wrote this in red. Red! You know that had to have been big. I’m sure I was pretty impressed with myself at the time (shoot, I’m impressed now). Never mind that this story being an improvement over anything is a tad scary. Anyway, I truly believe that thanks to this wonderful teacher at Murray Avenue School, Sloupy Man turned out to be the beginning of my great and mighty love of writing. I am forever grateful to Mrs. Dennison and all the teachers that encouraged this passion. Where would we be without the love and nurturing of our teachers?

How about you? Do you recall when you first felt the spark of passion for writing or reading? Do you have a teacher to thank for this? I bet you do.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Roads to Publication: Part III

Today I wrap up my three-part blog series on publishing while still pursuing a book deal with a trade publisher. And I am happy to introduce you to Shannon Hitchcock. Shannon has written stories and articles for magazines such as Highlights for Children, Ask, Cricket, Pockets, and Children’s Writer. She has also interviewed many authors for Sprouts magazine, including yours truly.

Welcome, Shannon! Your list of accomplishments is impressive. Could you tell us a little bit about how you got started writing and selling your stories, articles, and interviews for the magazine market?

I got started by taking a class on writing for the children’s magazine market through the Institute of Children’s Literature, (ICL). ICL offers correspondence classes that are reasonably priced. I would highly recommend them to beginners.

Do you begin with a subject that you want to write about and then find a home for it? Or, do you research the needs of a magazine and then write a piece to submit? Or are you hired to write?

My magazine work usually starts with a dash of inspiration. For instance, I was reading my college newsletter when I read an article about fellow alum, Wendy Welsh. Wendy is an underwater archeologist working to conserve the remains of Blackbeard’s pirate ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge. I was fascinated by Wendy and thought kids would be too. I sent her an email and away we went. That article was published by Cricket.

On the flip side, I had written three profile pieces for Pockets magazine, and then one of the editors contacted me and asked if I would write a profile of Katherine Commale. Katherine is a young girl who is raising money to buy mosquito nets for African children. Of course I said yes.

How much guidance do you usually receive from the editors of a magazine?

It depends on the magazine. Highlights for Children editors are very hands on. “My Sister Snores” went through three rewrites before it was published. There’s an article on my website about it called “How I Finally Made A Sale To Highlights for Children And How You Can Too.”

How has writing and publishing in this market helped you toward your career goals as an author of picture books and middle-grade novels?

Writing for magazines taught me how to write with a story arc, about using active verbs, and how to show instead of tell. It also gave me experience in working with editors and interpreting their feedback. But perhaps the most important thing magazine writing gave me was motivation. Once I saw my name in print, I was completely hooked.

What advice would you give someone who might be interested in writing for magazines?

Read the magazines that you want to write for. Each one has its own personality. If a magazine sends you a rejection letter, rewrite before you submit the story or article elsewhere. A piece that’s right for Highlights is not right for Cricket without some tweaking. Also follow the magazine’s submission guidelines to the letter. Don’t give them a reason up front to reject you.

What are your plans for the future, Shannon? Will you continue to write for magazines? Why or why not?

Never say never, but I’m not writing for magazines as much as I used to. My novels consume huge chunks of my time. The one exception is Sprouts, published by New Jersey SCBWI. I love interviewing other authors and find that I glean information from them that I can use in my own work. In the spring edition of Sprouts, I’ll be interviewing Grace Linn, Newbery Honor Author of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.

Thank you, Shannon! You learn more about Shannon by visiting her at her website:

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Roads to Publication, Part II

Last week I wrote about my publishing experience with educational publishing. Today, I am happy to introduce Linda Benson, author of Finding Chance and The Horse Jar, two middle-grade novels published with Mondo Publishing,, a company that publishes classroom materials and books for the educational market.

Welcome, Linda! I enjoyed your books. Could you share your journey to publication with Mondo Publishing? Did you write your novels and then submit them to Mondo? Or, were you hired to write these books? If you were hired to write, how much guidance did the editors at Mondo Publishing provide?

Finding Chance and The Horse Jar were both completed novels when I began submitting to publishers. I did not have an agent at the time, so I researched publishers and made a list of those that accepted unsolicited (and unagented) manuscripts, and Mondo was one of them. I originally submitted The Horse Jar to Mondo, (and it was a “no”) and later when I finished Finding Chance, (originally titled “Welcome to California,”), I submitted that one. Almost immediately I got a letter back saying that they liked it, and would like to keep it “under consideration.” Being an unpublished writer at the time, I spent days, weeks, months scrutinizing all the possible meanings and ramifications of that phrase, but as time crept on and nothing happened, I stopped holding my breath. So imagine the happy dance I did when about one year later, I got an email offering me a contract. Then, a little over one year after Finding Chance was published, Mondo asked if I had any other manuscripts. I submitted The Horse Jar again. Timing is everything in this business, and this time they loved it, and it became my second book.

I did work with an editor on each book, which was a totally enjoyable process, and I was also allowed some input on the illustrations. It was a great experience each time.

How does the marketing end of an educational publisher such as Mondo Publishing work? How much of the marketing falls upon you?

Although they have had some trade books in the past, I believe Mondo Publishing only markets and sells to schools at the moment. Although my books are not available in bookstores, they are going directly to reading programs at schools, and perhaps in that manner they are getting into the hands of children more directly. I kind of like that idea.

How can people purchase your books?

Schools can purchase my books through Mondo and I also have my books listed on Amazon so my fans and readers can purchase individual copies directly from me.

How has publishing with Mondo benefited your career as an author, Linda? Would you recommend publishing with an educational publisher? Why or why not?

Let me just say that holding your first published book in your hand is one of the biggest thrills of a lifetime – right up there with giving birth. (Well not as good as that, but our manuscripts become so dear to our hearts that getting one published almost feels like giving birth. But all kidding aside, having a published book (and then two) was a huge confidence builder, because then I went from being a “writer” to being an “author.”

Would I recommend going with an educational publisher? Of course! As it becomes harder and harder to catch the interest of large publishers without an agent, I think educational publishers are still a great way for newcomers to break into the children’s publishing business, but you still have to follow all the rules of querying and have a polished manuscript.

Another good thing about educational publishers is that they may keep your books in print for a long time. In fact, Mondo just came out with a Spanish translation of The Horse Jar, which is a great thrill. It’s called La Alcancia De Los Suenos, which means “The Piggy Bank of Dreams.” Isn’t that a great title?

That is a great title. So, What are your plans for the future? You have these two wonderful novels with Mondo Publishing. Will you publish more with them? Do you aspire to publish elsewhere?

I have three more completed middle grade novels, and I am currently agent shopping. I’d love to have a trade novel out soon, and while we all dream of publishing the next big best seller, I take heart in the fact that children are probably turning the pages of my novels while we speak, hopefully soaking in the words and stories. And isn’t that why we write for kids in the first place?

Absolutely, Linda! Thank you so much for that perspective and sharing your journey to publication. For more information, you can visit Linda at her website:

I hope you enjoyed part two of this blog series. Next week I will introduce you to author Shannon Hitchcock. Shannon will share her experiences with magazine publishing.