Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Writing Conference Preparations - Part 2

Last week, after I hit the publish button on Writing Conference Preparations – Part 1, I realized I had forgotten something important. I’m not sure if it classifies as preparation because it harkens back to the act of signing up itself. But is probably the most important thing I remind myself when I attend a conference. And that is—

Sign up for everything!

I didn’t do this for my first conference, and I regretted it. 

Conferences are expensive both in terms of time and money spent. I want to get the best return on my investment. I’m sure everyone who attends a writing conference wants an editor or agent to fall in love with their work. But other than working on craft and becoming the best writer I can, there’s no way to control this variable. But I can make sure I’m going to peer critiques and meeting the other interesting people around me. I don't plan to be in my room by myself unless I'm sleeping. When there’s a time slot where I can be active with my peers, I’m in. Pre-conference intensive. Check. Mix and mingle. Check. Writing conference success. Check.


Another way I use my conference time? I volunteer.

At the upcoming NJ SCBWI conference I will be the “workshop facilitator” for one of the workshop sessions. Do I think this will fast track my words to stardom?

Nope. But I do think conferences are important, I appreciate the opportunity to attend and I want to help them run smoothly and keep costs down. If checking the volunteer box helps the organizers who make these opportunities possible, I’m all in.

So what else did I do this week in preparation for the upcoming conference?

I chose my wardrobe wisely. And I’m not talking style. Frankly, as long as it’s within the bounds of decency, I don’t think anyone cares how I dress. At other conferences I’ve attended, depending on the venue, folks wear anything from t-shirts and blue jeans to business casual. But the important consideration is—layers! I spent one entire workshop last year sitting on my hands because the room was so cold. The conference organizers sorted it out later in the day, but that first workshop was physically painful. The reverse can also be true. Air conditioners break or are overwhelmed. I want to be able to focus on the subject matter and not be at the mercy of the indoor elements. 

Yesterday I started practicing my pitch for a recently completed middle grade novel. I have a four minute pitch slot with a terrific agent and I don’t want to sit there like a blathering fool. I know there will be nerves, and I know when push comes to shove I may forget my own name and end up talking nonsense anyway, but at least I know I prepared the best I could. It’s easy to talk about my novel for twenty minutes, not so easy to condense my enthusiasm into one or two, leaving time to talk with the agent.

This morning, I printed off the three copies of my first page for my first pages workshop. Printers have a way of running out of ink/toner at the most inopportune moments (those of you with kids who wait until the last minute to write papers for school know what I’m talking about!). I put it in the folder along with my critiques, hotel confirmation and directions to the venue. While I have a GPS, it’s been wrong before and I’m a visual person who likes to see where I’m going in advance.

I think I’m ready! I'm reading my contributing author's copy of the newest Chicken Soup: Inspiration for Writers, jotting down motivational messages to myself, shadow-boxing writing demons, practicing the Ann Cuddy's TED talk body language.

Anyone have any other suggestions for me?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Big Red Lollipop - Perfect Picture Book Friday

This review is part of PPBF (perfect picture book Friday) where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's site. She keeps an ever-growing list of Perfect Picture Books.

Sometimes a picture book takes your breath away. Sometimes, it's a quieter happy feeling. The Big Red Lollipop falls in the second camp. And it isn't really about a lollipop at all . . . . When I selected the book, I didn't know it was an award winner, but I learned that it won the 2011 Golden Kite Award for best picture book text, and the 2011 Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text. I guess I'm a good judge of picture book character (and characters)!

Title: The Big Red Lollipop 

Author: Rukhsana Khan

Illustrator: Sophie Blackall

Publisher: Viking, 2010

Synopsis: Rubina is invited to a birthday party. But her mom doesn't know what a birthday party is--it's new to her--and she insists that Rubina bring her little sister, Sana along. Sana spoils the party and Rubina's next day at home as well. "I don't get any invitations for a really long time." Then when the tables are turned, Rubina has to decide whether to put Sana through the same social humiliation.

Opening: I'm so excited I run all the way home from school. "Ami! I've been invited to a birthday party!"

What I enjoyed about the opening of this book is the subtle way the author tells the reader that the family are "outsiders." We don't know how long they have lived in America but the mother asks "What's a birthday party?" and Rubina answers "It's when THEY (emphasis added) celebrate the day they were born."  This shows us that Rubina and her family aren't part of the world that celebrates birthdays without telling us specific details or even what nationality they are. It looks as though the mother is dressed in a traditional Salwaar Kameez and the back flap tells us that the author was born in Pakistan and then emigrated to Canada, but the story is satisfying without knowing this detail. The underlying emotions and tension between the two siblings are universal in nature.

Activities and Resources: After reading the story, talk about why Sana gave Rubina the green lollipop. The author has teacher's resources and a link to games for kids on her website. Watching this Youtube video, I learned that the author IS the younger sister in this story "Sana." As part of the "story-sharing project" you can watch Amanda Ferraro read the story.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

NJ SCBWI Writing Conference Preparations- Part 1

When I signed up in March, it felt like it was ages in the future, but now the NJ SCBWI conference is only two and a half weeks away!
Sometimes, I sign up so far in advance for a writing conference, it’s easy to forget about it until it’s almost on top of me. But to get the most out of my conference, I know I need to be prepared. This is more than polishing the manuscript(s) one final time. Even if the manuscripts aren't what the editors and agents are looking for, I know I can have a "successful" conference.

  • The first part of my preparation was to be sure I met all the deadlines for manuscript submissions. The editors, agents and authors who are doing the critiques at these venues are busy people. The deadlines are there for a reason, to allow them to give the proper attention to everyone’s work. I don't want to be memorable for all the wrong reasons-- begging for an exception to the deadline. And while the workshops are wonderful, the personal feedback from individual critiques is invaluable.  I want to take advantage of every opportunity!

  • I signed up to do peer critiques at the conference, so I’m doing them now! The peer review time is a great opportunity to meet other conferees in a relaxed setting and I don’t want to ruin it for everyone else by showing up unprepared. It's easy for life to throw unexpected curve balls my way, I'm going to have these beauties done and in my file ready to go before this weekend.
  • My business cards are up-to-date, so I don't have to run out, or jump online to order more. While I don't think they're "necessary," they're nice to have if anyone asks.

  • What’s next on my list? Later this week I plan to review the names of the workshop leaders. In the internet age, there’s no excuse to show up not knowing anything about the presenters. I had a choice of workshops and chose the slots I did for a reason. But it’s been two months since I made those choices. I need to take a moment to review why I wanted to attend each and write down the goal I hope to achieve (in the future, I'm going to try to remember to do this when I sign up!). Was it just getting to meet a particular person? Is it learning about an area of the craft that I felt weak in? Perhaps I wanted to ask a specific question? I know I have to write it down--now! It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of the actual event and forget to do the one thing I wanted to do—yup, that’s my voice of experience with a been there/done that, (“forgot that”) moment. 

Conferences are a big investment of time and money. Next week, Part 2 will cover the "final" preparations.
If you have conference advice you want to share below, I'd love to hear it!

Friday, May 17, 2013

The post that isn't really a post

     A writing friend emailed me--wondering why I hadn't posted today.
     No worries, I'm fine!
     Yes, it is Perfect Picture Book Friday. I encourage everyone to check Susanna Hill's blog for today's picks. But I didn't have a pick today.
     I suppose I could just review any picture book. I have stacks of them.
     But the point of Perfect Picture Book Friday is to recommend books we think are truly exemplary. Not just "okay" picture books.
     I ordered a newly released book. I had heard great things about it. I had expected I would review it on my blog this week,
     But I don't like it as much as everyone else does. It's okay. But it isn't perfect. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed.
     And I don't post reviews on Friday of books that disappointed me.
     So, I am on the hunt!
     Hope to see you next week . . . .

Monday, May 13, 2013

Tips for catching Chelydra serpentina

     Tips for catching Chelydra serpentina.
     Really. Watch out Leonardo, I'm a regular renaissance woman.
     Sometimes writing takes a back seat to real life.

     My husband headed out before me a few days ago and phoned to tell me to “look out front by the neighbor’s mailbox. But don’t go near it.” And then he left.
     Well, I follow directions fifty percent. I looked, as directed.
(wikimedia commons)
     At first, I didn’t see anything. I was expecting to see a big buck. We have a lot of deer in our neighborhood during the spring and fall so what I thought I’d see was one of them making their breakfast out of my hostas. I spray the plants with a vile liquid that makes me want to vomit, but for some of the deer, it’s just salad dressing.
     But I digress.
     After scanning back and forth, I finally looked down.
     There it was, crossing the road, a prehistoric-looking creature covered in mud. I was hoping it had just come out of hibernation (and was glad I missed it when it passed our house going the other way). Even from fifty yards away, I recognized the distinctive shape of the snapping turtle.
     This turtle’s flat ridged shell was about a foot long, with its jagged edged tail adding another foot in length. In a word, this beast looked formidable.
     For those of you who haven’t met “the beast,” they are called snapping turtles for a reason. If you approach, they will go for you. And although they lumber fairly slowly across land, the muscles in their neck are strong and can extend accordion style with lightning fast speed to catch the unwary.
     My husband said to leave it alone. And I was in bare feet, so I ran back into the house to dry my feet, put on socks and get on a pair of sneakers. By the time I checked back on the beast, it had moved twenty yards, into the middle of my front yard.

(wikimedia commons)
     Although my head was telling me to “follow directions” a part of me rebelled. Our lot is sloped front to back and I think the turtle was just passing through, heading down to the end of our neighborhood to the open fields and stream that lie beyond. But what if it wasn’t?
     What is it took a liking to a shady spot under a bush and I reached in to pull weeds? I’d lose a finger. Or two. Or three.
     I knew I wouldn’t be able to ignore it. I wouldn’t be able to get anything else done, thinking about it.
     I got two large buckets from our garage. One bucket nested nicely inside the other. One bucket is NOT enough. I cannot emphasize this enough. And piddly-sized indoor gonna-mop-the-floor buckets aren’t advised either. These were substantial buckets that used to hold When the turtle’s neck shoots up out of the bucket, you’ll want something between you and it. A riled up turtle will stand on its back legs and reach farther than you ever believed possible.
     I set one bucket on the grass in front of the turtle, open end facing it. Then I used the second bucket to hook under the back end of the turtle’s shell and “encourage it” into the bucket. The key is to move swiftly because the second you touch the turtle it is in full out attack mode. Once the turtle is in the bucket, tip it up with one hand while simultaneously nesting the second bucket inside, covering the beast.
     And that’s how I know the beast I had was twelve inches long. It barely fit. Now that would have been a bad misjudgment on my part . . . .
     But it ended well. With the beast pinned down, I walked the quarter mile to the woods and set it free. I was going to take a photo before it disappeared, but by then I was too jazzed to remember.
     What I did do was to read up about snapping turtles when I got home.
     I discovered something important.
     Snapping turtles hibernate in the water. They come “upland” and can travel up to a quarter mile, to lay their eggs.
     I guess I’m glad I helped a new “mom” back to her habitat. She would have had to cross two roads on her own otherwise. And snapping turtles are important parts of the ecosystem. They eat dead fish and small mammals and “clean up” their environment.
    But if “mom” was upland laying eggs, that means I will have to be on the lookout. Little snapping turtles won’t be as ferocious looking, but they’ll have the numbers on me.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Mule Train Mail - Perfect Picture Book Friday


This review is part of PPBF (perfect picture book Friday) where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's site. She keeps an ever-growing list of Perfect Picture Books.

     My pick this week is a reminder that writers don't always have to shoot for "high-concept." Sometimes, a nonfiction narrative is the perfect choice. Admittedly, it does help up the interest factor when the story is set in the awe-inspiring surroundings of the Grand Canyon.

                               Title: Mule Train Mail

                               Author/Illustrator: Craig Brown

                               Publisher: Charlesbridge, 2009

                               Themes: Culture, Jobs

                              Ages:  4-8  (but I think younger would enjoy it)

Synopsis: The author went along with the lead muleteer as he loaded the mail at the south rim of the Grand Canyon and delivered it to the town of Supai located on the Havasupai Indian Reservation at the bottom of the canyon. This is the only US postal route delivered by mules. The story uses the third person POV and recounts what it's like to make this delivery in the heat of summer and the icy cold of winter.

Opening: "Anthony the Postman doesn't wear a uniform.
                He wears a cowboy hat, chaps and spurs."

A few summers ago, my family took the horse ride (not with the mules and the mail!) down the Grand Canyon and this book captures the feelings of those terrifying switchbacks. Every time the horse swayed, I was convinced I was going to be pitched over the edge of the trail into the abyss. It was an adrenaline packed journey. The author cleverly turned the book sideways on several spreads to give the reader a feeling for the height of the canyon walls.  Mule Train Mail was a Bank Street College of Education's Best Children's Book of the Year.

Activities: I didn't realize there was a National Postal Museum. But it's part of the Smithsonian. If you're in the neighborhood of Washington D.C. you can go visit: National Postal Museum, 2 Massachusetts Ave., N.E., Washington, DC 20002. If you can't get there, the museum has an online "activity zone" with a host of fun activities. My tiny local post office doesn't have a lot to look at, but a field trip to your local office is a possibility. Younger children may want to post a letter of their own and then draw a picture showing all the different modes of transportation it will take to reach its destination. Cowboys and cowgirls may be inspired to take a ride like Anthony (our local zoo offers pony rides).

Final note: Congratulations to Natalie Aguirre who won a copy of Debbie Dadey's newest chapter book, The Lost Princess. Just released May 7, the book is already on its way to her! Yeah, it's a "mail" link. I know how much I like to find something that isn't junk or bills in my mail.

What's the best thing you ever received in the mail?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Inspiration for Writers - In a Book!

     The box arrived yesterday. A beautiful brown cardboard box with Simon & Schuster’s name on the side.
     My name isn’t on the cover or the spine, but it’s “my book.” 

     In bookstores May 21, Chicken Soup for the Soul: inspiration for Writers.
     My sixth story for the Chicken Soup for the Soup conglomerate is one of the 101 included in this anthology. Four of my previous stories you can find in the Chicken Soup for the Soul books at your local bookstore, the fifth you’d have to hunt for because it’s on a forty pound bag of dog food (did you know Chicken Soup for the Soul has a pet food line?). But after five stories, I’m still as excited as I was with number one. And I have to say that this story is a big one. 

     Look at the title! This is a book for WRITERS. Writing something for other writers was intimidating. Go to any writer’s conference. There are hundreds of people there at various stages of their writing careers. I've met people who have authored over a hundred books. I’m a relative newbie.
     But I felt I had something to say. It came from my heart. And I guess it flowed onto the paper with words that spoke to the editors, too. So look for me on page 230!
     My story is titled “Getting Started.” Because everyone has to start somewhere.  

     “You block your dream when you allow your fear to grow bigger than your faith.”—Mary Manin Morrissey (page 6).
     It’s an inspiration to be in the book—and it will be an inspiration for me to read the 100 stories new to me. If you get a chance to read my story, come back and let me know what you think!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Maggie's Second Chance - Perfect Picture Book Friday


This review is part of PPBF (perfect picture book Friday) where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's site. She keeps an ever-growing list of Perfect Picture Books.

Let me preface this post with a warning. I needed a box of tissues to get through this book. It has a happy ending but getting there is fraught with emotion. The fact that this book is based on a true story only makes it more powerful.

Title: Maggie's Second Chance

Author: Nancy Furstinger

Illustrator: Joe Hyatt

Publisher: Gryphon Press, 2011

Ages: 5 and up (note: the issue of euthanasia is mentioned although no details are given)

Themes: Animals, Helping Others, Adoption

Synopsis: A pregnant lab mix is found abandoned in a house and taken to a shelter. When a fourth grade boy learns that the dog will be euthanized if no one adopts her, he and his classmates convince their town council  to build an animal shelter in their own town and save the dog. This book is based on the true story of Texas fourth graders who founded an animal shelter in their town of Dalhart. It isn't nonfiction; the author has blended two experiences together and uses third person limited from the dog's point of view, but everything rings true.

Opening: Maggie waited, watching the door. Her growing belly grumbled. Where was her dinner? 

Perhaps because I've volunteered in animal rescue, this story struck home. I have pulled dogs out of lakes and seen dogs with fur matted so badly they could hardly stand. And in the heat of summer, there were dogs like "Maggie" left behind in empty houses when their owners moved away. I wish every child could read this book and understand that these situations are NOT okay.

Joe Hyatt does an amazing job with the illustrations. The dog's patient expressive eyes and her soft fur are rendered perfectly, layering meaning with the text.

Activities: Talk about what animals and people need. How are our needs different? How are they the same? Visit a local animal shelter--online or in person--to find out how you can help dogs like Maggie. Adoptions.bestfriends.org and www.aspca.org/adoption are good places to learn basic facts about pet adoption. Older children may want to discuss an issue that they feel passionate about and how they might help. The book ties in well to a discussion of all avenues of community service.