Go Play. Seriously.


Here it is: your permission to take a day off.

Stay in your pjs and binge-watch Game of Thrones or make chocolate cookies and eat two (at least).  Finish a book, or start one. Walk the dog or take a nap, ride a bike or shop for new shoes. Set the table with a fancy cloth and candlesticks, plant petunias in the yard, or practice your putting.

Yeah, I know. Who am I to say it’s okay to play instead of work?

Think of it this way: I’m not really the one giving you permission. YOU have to do that.

But if you have trouble letting go of whatever you normally do from 9 to 5, I’m here to cheer you on, because I have the same problem.

Yet we’ve gotta play sometimes. Too much work doesn’t light any sparks under your writing. In fact, fatigue and stress and pressure throw a bucket of cold water on inspiration, and it melts away, Wicked Witch-like, and disappears.

Right now, I’m in a good spot. I’ve got work to do, but I’m ahead of schedule, so I took a play date.  I spent a few hours sewing, and I made the little cupcake pincushion you see here. It’s based on this one, created by Vanessa Goertzen, a quilter and fabric designer who blogs at Lella Boutique.

(Unfortunately, no one replied when I wrote to ask if there was a pattern, so I improvised. I used cardboard for the base and a fabric cylinder for the body. Pink rickrack trim and felt flowers stand in for icing and decorations.)

It’s not perfect; actually it’s kinda lopsided, like most of my real cakes. But I loved the fabric colors (it’s Moda’s Into the Woods), and I had fun making it.

I admit, most of the time, I feel guilty about playing, as if the only good day, the only valuable day, is one that results in a paycheck.

But that’s soooo not true. I’m learning that if you want to live a creative life, you have to let yourself off the hook sometimes. Making a pie or making a pincushion, stringing beads or baking bread are all worthy pursuits that can re-fuel your spirit and help you become more productive in the long run.



Author Meg Medina’s Writing Prompts


Latina author Meg Medina had some of the audience at the recent Atlanta SCBWI conference in tears. The waterworks started when she gave us prompts to create characters for our children’s stories.

Tuck a tissue in your pocket and try one of these. Just be really, really honest, because, as Meg said, because growing up is tough, and writers need to tell the truth.

Ready? Finish this sentence: “I come from….”

To get you started, I’ll tell you where I come from. “I come from dirt-poor grandparents who lived in Alabama and dropped out of school around the fifth grade to help farm the family land. I come from a father who was the first person in his family to graduate from college (he could afford it only because of the GI Bill).”

Here’s another prompt:  “And so, we meet again…’

One woman in our group completed that one with a paragraph about a man who sped through her neighborhood every night on his way home from work. While he barreled past little kids and startled dogs and stroller-pushing moms, he blasted his horn, non-stop. Then he’d screech to a stop in his carport, stomp inside, and slam the door behind him. She said everybody called him “The Blower.” While you wouldn’t make an adult the focus of a kids’ book, wouldn’t this guy make a fascinating character?

One more. Write your autobiography in just six words. When we did this exercise, many of the writers in the room came up with lovely, even lyrical lines.

Not me. I remembered a tough patch I’d gone through a few years ago, and I decided to look into my own darkness. My six words were, “Her broken pieces are still holding.”

Once I showed some vulnerability, others did, too. More than a few of us had damp eyes by the end of Meg’s talk, which was a good thing, because it meant we were digging deep into our personal truths.

Whether you’re writing about sunny times or desperate ones, Meg says we’re still every age we ever were. The preschooler, the adolescent, the young adult: they’re all still alive in our heads and hearts. Use her prompts to nudge or jolt your memories. Reach deep inside to find emotional connections that will grab your readers.




Writing Characters for Your Novel


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


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


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


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.