Archives for 2015

Writing Characters for Your Novel

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What a character.

We say that a lot here in the South, usually when we’re shaking our heads over some strange comment or behavior.

Right now, I’m faced with expanding some characters I’ve already written about. The agent who’s agreed to represent my middle grade novel wants another (let me pause here to take a deep breath) 10,000 words.

My entire manuscript is 25K, so he’s asking me to write the equivalent of another half a book.

That’s okay (even though it sounds daunting), because he tells me there’s a better chance of selling my story if it’s closer to the length of most mid-grade books. And besides, he’s not asking for a lot of new scenes or action; he just wants me to give the characters more time on stage.

So—how do you beef up your characters, and make them feel alive for your readers?

One way is by turning real life into art. Start by observing people around you.

Here’s an example. One Sunday afternoon, I noticed a striking woman in the grocery store. She wore a simple, black dress that fell to her calves, and her long, straight hair–which was also black– reached almost to her waist. She was pushing a buggy in the cereal aisle, checking out the Fruit Loops, when I noticed she had a pair of fuzzy, black bedroom scuffs on her feet.

She was probably in her 50s.

Until I got to the part about her slippers and age, you might have pictured her as a Goth.

But those shoes told me a lot. I know how it feels to wear high heels all day, and since it was lunchtime, I thought she’d probably just come from church. She may have stopped to pick up a few things and changed into scuffs because her feet hurt.

Maybe they hurt because she wears heels everyday to an office. Or maybe she’s not used to heels at all, and only wears them on Sundays.

Her black dress and long, unstyled hair also made me think she might attend a fundamentalist church.

It doesn’t really matter, because I’m writing fiction, and I can use details like those to flesh out my characters. You can, too; all you need is a good memory, or a pen and paper to jot down ideas for later.

Later I’ll share some prompts for writing memorable characters that I learned at a workshop given by award-winning Latina author Meg Medina. Stay tuned.

How to Get a Literary Agent

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How do you get an agent for your children’s book? Well, first you need an elephant…

Okay, I’m kidding about that part. But Bob, the elephant you see above, has become the mascot for my middle grade novel, Whistling for Elephants.

I found Bob at the SCBWI SpringMingle, a conference for children’s writers and illustrators that’s held each year in Atlanta. He’s made by the talented Michelle Nelson-Schmidt, who also wrote a book about him.

Bob thinks he’s a unicorn, although his friends don’t see that at all. Then he finds someone who believes in him. Check out the trailer for Michelle’s picture book here on YouTube: Bob Is A Unicorn.

Landing an agent is a lot like finding someone who sees past your elephant-ness into your glittery, magical unicorn-ness. Agents share your dreams for the manuscript you’ve written, and believe it can be more than just a stack of paper. Like you, they see it as a published book children will love to read.

I’m excited that I’ve just received an offer of representation from Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. My agent loves middle grade fiction, and he’s encouraging me to get my story up to around 35,000 words (it’s about 26K now). Once I’ve given my characters a little more time on stage, so to speak, he’ll start circulating it to publishers. I feel so fortunate to have someone with his knowledge and experience in my corner.

So here’s what I learned, as I set out to find an agent:

1. Do your research. I used the SCBWI online catalog of children’s book publishers (you must join SCBWI to access it, but the membership fee is very reasonable, and there are lots of other benefits). Once you find an agency that’s open to the kind of work you’re doing, visit the agency’s site. Read about the agents who work there, and pay attention to what they’re looking for. You’re wasting your time to submit a Y/A novel to someone who only wants picture books. You may also want to Google the agent’s name, to find the books and authors he or she currently represents.

2. When you write your query letter, make sure the agent’s name is spelled correctly. Misspellings are a real turn-off, and suggest you’re a careless or sloppy writer.

3. Personalize your query, if you can. Don’t go overboard; you want to present yourself in a professional and businesslike way. But if the agent mentions he likes a certain book because of its strong voice or sense of place, and you like that, too,  mention it. Just be genuine. If you don’t share his enthusiasm, don’t fake it. But little touches like that can show you’ve done your homework and you’re really trying to find a great match between what you can offer, and what the agent can represent with real heart.

4. Add a brief and pertinent bio to your query. If you’ve published in the kids’ field or you’re a much-requested storyteller at your  library or school, lead with that info. Not published? Mention writing courses you’ve taken, to show you’re studying and practicing your craft. Agents like to find writers who are SCBWI members, because that means you really care about children’s literature.

5. Follow the directions on the agency’s website and send only what is requested. If they want sample chapters pasted into your email, don’t send an attachment (most won’t open them). If they ask for 5 pages, there’s no need to send 15; it’s risky to annoy the person who’s reading.

6. Be patient. If the agency says their typical reply time is 2 months, don’t nudge them before then. When the time is up, it’s okay to send a short, respectful note asking if they need more time to consider your submission.

7. Keep writing. Keep writing. Keep writing. Continue to read, study, and perfect your work. Consider joining a critique group; your family probably loves everything you’ve written, but that’s because they love you. And having a supportive team behind you is great. But you also need unbiased readers, so you can discover what’s working, and what needs improving.

It feels magical when you finally connect with a great agent. Good luck on finding one who sees your inner unicorn!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ouch Chronicles

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Is it about the destination or the journey? You have to decide.

Ouch, ouch, ouch…there are lots of popped-out nails and splintered planks on the path to publication.

Although I’ve written 3 books for adults, now I’m trying to find an agent or editor for my first middle grade novel, Whistling for Elephants.

I’ve gotta admit, I was downright blessed with those other books. The first one, Gardening with Heirloom Seeds, happened because an editor from a small publishing house saw an article I’d written for an in-flight magazine (Delta Air Lines Sky). She contacted me and asked for a proposal. I sent it, but ultimately, it was turned down.

Well, I figured, I’d written an outline, market analysis, sample chapters, and so forth, and I didn’t want to waste the work, so I sent my proposal elsewhere. My second try, at UNC Press, was accepted, and the book came out about 18 months later. (In case you don’t know, yes, it really can take years to get a book to print).

Then I wrote an essay about my spiritual journey, also for Delta Sky, and it happened again. An editor saw the essay and contacted me. (See a pattern here? Getting published in an in-flight magazine is amazing exposure. Literally millions of people read them each month.) I wound writing Mustard Seeds for B&H Books, and even got a contract for a follow-up, Little Mercies.

I’d always loved kids’ books, so next I tried writing one. But lots of life-stuff started happening, so I kept shoving the manuscript to the back burner, until this month, when I finally finished it and began circulating it.

I’m discovering that few publishers take unsolicited, or so-called “over the transom” manuscripts anymore. They’re so inundated with submissions, they’ve stopped reading new work unless it’s represented by an agent.

Unfortunately, it can be as hard to get an agent as it is to find a publisher. It seems almost everybody wants to write, but few stories see the light of (published) day, unless the writer really works hard to learn and practice her craft.

So here what I’ve decided: I’m going to share my path toward publishing a children’s book here, and on Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn.

And here’s why: I’ve told friends that I’ve already gotten a couple of rejection letters (which is not a sign of failure, I’m learning; award-winning children’s author Kate DiCamillo got an overwhelming 470-some rejections before she sold her first book, which went on to become a best-seller and a TV movie. Read her interview with PBS here).

As I share my own turn-downs, I’m reminded about what really matters. Writing feels like a calling, and doing what you love matters more than what you may or may not get in the end (a contract and money).

I often debate how much to share. I mean, if I let down the public mask that most of us wear, do I look like a loser? Well, sometimes I am, but that’s okay. That’s what it means to be human, right? I am what I am, and what I am is — a work in progress.

So please check back with me to see what’s happening on my journey toward publication. I’ll share what I’m learning, in hopes it’ll help other aspiring writers. And if nothing else, those of us who feel called to write won’t feel alone.

 

 

How to Make a Zine

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my first zine

If you’re looking for great art, you’d better stop here.

But this isn’t about creating a masterpiece. It’s about making a zine.

First: what’s a zine? It’s a small, self-published–or in this case, handmade–magazine. I learned about them at the 2015 SCBWI Southern Breeze Springmingle, a conference for children’s book writers and illustrators. I made my first zine there, thanks to inspiration (and instructions) from award-winning Latina author Meg Medina.

Tools to make a zine: old magazines, scissors, a glue stick, and paper

Meg showed us how to fold a sheet of legal-sized paper into a small booklet with 4 pages. Since each page has 2 sides, that gave us 8 surfaces to work with. We cut pictures and text out of old magazines and glued them into our zines, supplementing them with stickers, stampers, and other odds and ends.

The goal was to create a sort of storyboard for whatever we were writing. The images and words didn’t have to mean anything to anyone else; we just picked out what spoke to us, jogged our imaginations, or sparked our creativity.

remember to give your zine a back cover

Mine isn’t perfect (perfect’s not the goal). I got carried away and used images for several different manuscripts I’m either actively working on or just starting to outline. But that’s okay. I can flip back through it for ideas when I need them. Next time, though, I’ll make just one zine per story, to help me stay focused on the plotlines and imagery I want to use.

If you’re having trouble getting started, or you’re stuck with writer’s block, try a zine. It might kick loose your next great idea.

Rain, by Cynthia Barnett

Image courtesy of Crown Publishing

Image courtesy of Crown Publishing

Cynthia Barnett’s Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, is exactly the kind of natural history book I love. It’s lyrical (as you’d expect, since rain figures in many poems and songs) and informative and just plain fun to read.

It’s also a good reminder that no matter how plastic and artificial our lives sometimes feel, rain is wild, unpredictable and precious.

For those of us who live in urban areas, it’s easy to forget how vital and extraordinary rainfall is, until there’s not enough of it, and farms blow away as dust, and the price of bread soars. At other times, we notice only when there’s too much rain and our basements flood, or worse, entire buildings are swept away in raging currents.

Throughout history, rain has influenced the migration of animals and the movement of human populations. The lack of rain emptied our wallets when we looked to “rainmakers,” charlatans who claimed the ability to conjure rain from clear skies (did you know the U.S. Congress bankrolled a bunch of rainmakers in the 1890s? Yet another example of taxpayer dollars literally going down the drain). On the flip side, the abundance of rain has led us to re-sculpt the earth with dams and dikes and levees and canals.

Rain has inspired writers; think Ray Bradbury, who imagined a rainy red planet in The Martian Chronicles, or Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, a recounting of the Dust Bowl years. With the success of The Weather Channel and its slicker-clad meteorologists reporting from the field, rain has even become must-see TV.

Barnett’s book is fascinating, written in an accessible, interesting style. Although my copy was provided free through LibraryThing.com, my opinions are my own and I recommend this book.

Heroes in Young Adult Books

Some heroes wear capes - but not all.

Some heroes wear capes – but not all.

After 5 years of on-and-off again writing, I finally finished my novel for middle grade readers (grades 3 to 6), and sent it to an agent. Fingers crossed she’ll offer representation. Even if she turns me down, I hope she’ll give me feedback to help me revise so I can send it off again. That’s the path to publication;  try, try, and try again.

In the meantime, the best way to avoid chewing my fingernails is to jump into a new project.

I’m brainstorming for ideas for young adult novels. I woke up the other day with a single sentence in my head: “There was a hole in the side of the mountain.”

Yep, that’s it. No characters, plot, or setting. So do I have the start of a new story, or just some weird scrap from my subconscious? Remains to be seen.

I’m looking forward to taking a class with author Meg Medina next week at the SCBWI conference in Decatur, GA. According to the conference brochure, she’ll help us unearth clues for our next projects by making a journal using glue sticks, scissors, and magazine pictures. Sounds fun, yes?

While I was thinking about a protagonist for a Y/A book, I found this quote by actor Matthew McConaughey: “Every hero doesn’t go do this great big hero thing. They do the simple thing over and over and over…and they stick to it.”

So true. Not all heroes are Supergirls or Batmen; some are selfless, patient, perservering everyday Joes and Janes who push on in the face of adversity. They’re outsiders or bullied kids or teens who parent younger siblings when parents are MIA or unloving. In the adult world, heroes are caretakers of Alzheimer’s sufferers, single moms or dads, and people with chronic pain or disease.

But novels, especially for young readers, hinge on drama, tension, and action. How would you write about a character who is an ordinary, everyday hero without boring your audience? How do you convey strength, passion, drive, and change–because by definition, every story has to be about change, whether interior or exterior–in a setting or circumstances that are about “simple things” someone is doing “over and over and over”?

Of course, nobody is saying I have to write about that kind of hero. And this isn’t an impossible task; other authors have created just these kinds of characters. I’m just mulling over who my next protagonist will be, and what he or she will want and do and need.

Like I said, I’m looking forward to Meg Medina’s journaling exercise. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

 

 

Unfold Your Wings – Write

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“If you stand still long enough, you’ll grow wings.” from Bella Grace Magazine, D. Smith Kaich Jones

It sounds like an oxymoron, but I think it’s true. When you stand still for too long, you don’t necessarily grow roots. Sometimes you get wings.

It hit me when I read that line. I’d been in one place for so long, my pin feathers (the soft, baby kind that appear before the real flying feathers) were starting to sprout.

I was at a job with wonderful people, in a lovely office park, doing work that had been creative, fulfilling and fun. For a long time, anyway. Then things changed, as things are wont to do, and the job wasn’t as fulfilling anymore. I had come to a standstill. I had stopped writing – at least, doing any creative, fiction writing.

That’s when I felt the itch and burr and scratch of unexpected feathers, and I knew it was time to fly.

I stretched my wings and have made, to date, a rather bumpy landing. But that doesn’t mean I’m grounded. This can be a place to rest and think and figure out how to get to where I want to go next, where I really want to be.

So here goes. Unfolding my wings again.

Lynn

 

Growing Heirloom Vegetables

antique seed catalog

How’d like to pay off your mortgage by selling tomatoes?

“Radiator Charlie,” a West Virginia radiator repairman, did it. During the Great Depression, he developed a delicious tomato that he dubbed the ‘Mortgage Lifter,’ because he sold enough plant starts–at $1 each–to pay off the $6,000 mortgage on his farm.

Not many of us can settle our debts like that anymore, but we can still grow Charlie’s tomato. It’s now considered an heirloom, and like most old-timey vegetables and fruits, it’s packed with great flavor and has lots of desirable growing characteristics, like the ability to resist many pests and diseases.

Planet Natural has a great video about the charms of heirlooms that you can view here. And thanks, PN, for recommending my book, Gardening with Heirloom Seeds, in an online article about these plants.

Ready to try some heirloom seeds? Click on for Planet Natural’s catalog.