Friday, June 28, 2013


            If you looked for Part 3 (day three) of the NJ SCBWI conference on Tuesday, I apologize. My summer schedule may be more erratic, but know that I will eventually get to everything and try not to leave you hanging too long!
            By the time day three arrived, my head was starting to spin from the number of amazing people to listen to and learn from. Lucky for me, day three started with a speech by the amazing debut picture book author Tara Lazar who somehow managed to kick awesome up another notch. If you haven’t read The Monstore yet, stop reading and go find it. During my one on one critique Tara emphasized that good writing isn’t enough in today’s market. It’s all about concept and hooks. Her book is a master class on these.
            Done reading The Monstore?
            Okay, then I’ll continue.

Me and Peter Brown (see my 12x badge!)
            My first workshop was with Charlesbridge Publishing editor, Julie Ham. Julie led us through the
thirteen qualities she uses to evaluate non fiction. And yes, she said she really has a checklist she uses when she reads, and edits. I don’t want to “give away” her talk, but wrapped up in summary the take home lesson for me is to inject personality into nonfiction. The market is done with dry textbook chronologies. Write about something you’re passionate about and let the passion show.

            Agent John Cusick had to fight technological gremlins to get his workshop off the ground. I think there’s a story angle somewhere in the need for so many adapters. Dibs on that. Once he got the power points rolling there was no slowing down! Looking at published works, he took us through a variety of first lines and why he thought they worked. And after he told us what to avoid, he showed first lines that did exactly what he said not to do and became huge classics in literature. For example, the soft opening in Looking for Alaska – “I woke to my alarm.” A no-no turned yes. So what’s a writer to do? Make your first line the best one for your story.
            The editor panel was next. Six editors talked about pet peeves and the industry in general. For poetry writers, they emphasized the importance of linking your poems in a collection that would have a curriculum tie-in. With this tie-in the book has a better chance of being back-listed and becoming an “evergreen” title. All six were looking for multicultural stories (as everyone else in the industry appears to!).

            After lunch, the incredibly brave Lauren Oliver took the stage for her keynote address. She was incredibly brave because the day before she had to cancel her workshops at the conference due to illness. Still, she faced the packed room on Sunday and worked her magic. Her youtube videos are great, but in person she rocks. Having read some of her books (I bought my copy of The Spindler there and hadn’t read it yet!) it was amazing to hear how she fumbled about for direction at the beginning of her writing career, learning craft as she wrote and discarded stories.

            The last thing before I left? Book signings by Lauren Oliver and Peter Brown. The hardest part of the weekend? Leaving the conference center, hoping the inspiration I felt at that moment was part of me now, not to be left behind.
Oh, and I forgot to add that I participated in a pitch session, too. At that moment, I went almost totally tongue tied and had to blabber nonsensically to loosen my voice. I had practiced and practiced, but wow, it went spectacularly bad. The agent at the other side of the table was an angel to me and I appreciate her calm advice.
            So what’s my advice to anyone who stops by to read this? The is an annual conference. GO! Put it on the calendar now. Maybe I’ll see you there next year!

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

While Perfect Picture Book Friday is on summer hiatus, I thought I might write some reviews of books in other book formats. I know, y’all thought I only read picture books! Well, I do read a LOT of them. But there are other books that find their way into my library tote.
One book that was on my list to read until recently is The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. With my background in the sciences, I’m surprised it took me so long to get to it.
This was a 2010 Newbery Honor book and I came to it with high expectations.

Most of my expectations for this middle grade novel were met. The author uses beautiful language to evoke the surroundings of a rich family’s post-civil war lifestyle. The only drawback to this is that in first person narration the eloquent phrases often gave the eleven-year-old main character/narrator a “voice” older than her grandfather's. Certainly, times have changed, but I wondered if today’s children would find the voice as distancing as I did. In contrast, when thinking about her older brother’s burgeoning interest in the opposite sex, Callie’s emotional response felt very young and I had difficulty reconciling the disparate tone.

Similarly, I admired Callie's spunk but found the home life versus science attitude somewhat off-putting. As an adult, looking back at life in 1899 (Callie's era) I understood the author's viewpoint but as someone who left a professional career to take care of my own children I didn't like the message I got that there are women of worth and women who stay home. Even at the end, Callie feels uni-dimensional in this regard. I recognize that different women are entitled to different choices. I think what stopped me is that Callie not only doesn’t want any part in what had historically been a woman's traditional role in the world, she doesn’t recognize any value in other women’s part in it. I couldn’t put my finger on the quote when I went back but either Callie or Grandfather opines that the women are at home because they don’t know any better. Yikes. These attitudes seemed stranger after I read the author bio and learned that the author, Jacqueline Kelly, had-- like myself--been in a field of science and then become a lawyer before turning to writing. Perhaps the book was written this way precisely to promote discussion.

The book does a marvelous job weaving scientific discoveries of the day in with the family’s life. Grandfather’s fascination with the automobile made me chuckle. Readers who are looking for plot though won’t find it here. I have to admit I found myself skimming and had to make myself go back over parts. It felt like assigned summer reading rather than something I would pick if I were a child again.
While it won’t make my list of favorites, this book is certainly worth a read.
Anyone else want to weigh in on it?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

NJ SCBWI Conference retrospective - Part 2

Day two of the NJ SCBWI conference started with a keynote speech by author/illustrator extraordinaire, PeterBrown. Once again, I wished I was an illustrator but having viewed the portfolio presentation tables I know I’m not only not in the ballpark in terms of my artistic ability, I’m not even in the game. I will continue to do all my painting with words!

My first workshop was a First Pages session. Neither editor in my session (Connie Hsu and Steven Meltzer) is open to submissions from the slush pile and this was a good opportunity to have our work read by them. A volunteer read each of ten pages then the editors reacted. It was encouraging to hear that the editors liked the voice and character of my middle grade novel. Then came the editors’ wish lists; one was looking for “YA novels with opportunities for illustration,” the other wanted picture book characters who “let their freak flag fly.” That’s right—neither was looking for middle grade this time around, but perhaps the right project could change their mind . . . .

My signed copy!
Agent Marietta Zacker’s Visual Literacy was my second workshop. She talked poignantly about the importance of visual literacy in her own life, arriving to America as a non-English speaker. Then as a group we discussed why publishing picture houses were requesting shorter word counts in picture books. Marietta urged writers picture books through YA to “just tell the heart of the story.”

Author Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen led the next workshop in Advanced Picture Writing. She bravely posted power point slides with quotes from editors’ letters rejecting her own work or requesting revisions to illustrate possible reasons our work might not make the grade. Amazing. My favorite quote wasn’t from one of the letters, but from Sudipta herself. “Too quiet isn’t a taste issue, this is a market issue you cannot overcome.”

Advanced Nonfiction with editor Carolyn Yoder was my next workshop. She urged everyone to show passion in their cover letters and breadth in their bibliographies. One thing I hadn’t realized was to include sources we consulted but didn’t use in our bibliographies. “Keep the rich details of your research and avoid overgeneralization but make sure details are relevant and necessary.”

And there was still more! My last workshop on day two was an easy reader/chapter book workshop with editor Jenne Abramowitz. Comparing and contrasting these two formats, Jenne emphasized that these genres cannot be “quiet.” Readers spend a short time with these formats and so these titles must be even more attention grabbing than middle grade and young adult offerings.

Then let me use my best infomercial voice. But wait, there’s more!
The day also included lunch at a table with editor Heather Alexander, a one-on-one critique with the talented picture book author Tara Lazar, dinner with fellow writers and then—no rest for the weary—peer critiques into the night. 
Whew! That's a lot of inspiration.
But day three is still to come--

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

More Writing Inspiration

Lots of good news!
I had a little celebration yesterday. I learned that my tongue-in-cheek poem “Elegy to My Hotel Bed” is included in the July/August issue of the SCBWI Bulletin. I haven’t received my hard copy of the Bulletin yet, but a friend who had checked the publication online alerted me. Appropriately, when it was released online I was staying in a hotel to attend the New Jersey SCBWI conference. I hadn’t known when the poem would appear, so that was a nice surprise.

More good news?
Last weekend I met several of my online writing friends. As a member of Julie Hedlund’s 12x12 picture book challenge group I have connected with numerous people I had never met face-to-face. I had been exchanging manuscripts with Marcie Colleen for several months and finally got to see the personality behind the words! I’m sorry to say I didn’t meet all the 12xer’s who were there, but that just means I’ll have to attend another event. Katie Davis made AMAZING pins that we can proudly sport to any writing conference. 

Is that all the good news?
Nope. The rain wasn’t the only thing that came in torrents last weekend. Inspiration flooded into my work. I hate writing about the conference in the past tense; I want to hold onto that energizing feeling.
I’ll try to summarize a few high points of the workshops I attended. I’ll start today and continue over the following weeks.
I arrived before lunch on Friday to attend Heather Alexander’s pre-conference Intensive, “Voice Lessons – Defining Character Through Voice.” Heather used two music videos of the same song performed by different artists (it’s been awhile since I listened to Nirvana!) to illustrate the impact of different voices.
Something I’ve been working on in one of my own manuscripts is strengthening the interior voice, making sure the emotional stakes for my character are put on the pages and not just in my head. Heather said that this is a key element often missing in submissions, and without it a reader can’t understand what is truly important to the characters. This means another look at my pages . . . . 

Photo courtesy of Heather Alexander
Heather used several writing exercises to bring her points home. I left with a list of books to read (or reread) including Okay for Now, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, and Origami Yoda.
After the intensive I had a critique with editor Rotem Moscovich from Disney/Hyperion. Over the course of the weekend I heard some people say they hadn’t signed up for intensives because they weren’t “ready.” My advice is that critiques with professionals are an amazing opportunity that everyone can learn from. They can help you get from not ready to ready. The object isn’t always to get an immediate contract offer (although that would be nice!), the object is to improve craft and move forward. If you don’t want to show an agent or editor something that really “isn’t ready,” there were critiques with amazing authors who have been down the same path and were willing to share their expertise. I had one of those as well.
Friday night at the mix and mingle I eschewed standing in line for food over talking to people. I left hungry, but happy. The other writers, agents and editors I spoke with were genuinely engaging folks.But no wonder. The entire writing community is focused on bringing great books to kids, certainly something to be happy about!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Alas - Out of town for PPBF!

     I am attending the NJ SCBWI conference tomorrow and will post when I return.
     If you're a fellow writer, maybe I'll meet you there? It all starts for me with Heather Alexander's pre-conference intensive "Voice Lessons."

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

THE MONSTORE - Book Birthday!

If you were expecting the final installment of my conference prep posts, I apologize. I'll catch you up when I get back next week. But just like all the major news channels, I interrupt this blog with BREAKING NEWS.
Today is my friend’s “book birthday”. Tara Lazar’s The Monstore is in bookstores today. 

Two caveats.
First, I’ve never actually met Tara. Not in person. And not yet. I have followed her blog for two years, and Tara is the kind of person who puts herself out there and makes you feel like she speaks to you in each post. However, I will get to meet her in just three short days at the NJ SCBWI conference! And when I see her, even though she’s critiquing one of my manuscripts and I know I should act like a writing professional, I plan to give her an unprofessional hug (you are warned, Tara!). Writers know how important point of view is—and from my point of view Tara is already my friend.

Second, The Monstore is officially released today, but Tara explains here why her book won’t be in Barnes and Noble, at least not yet. This is absolute craziness.

In the press release provided by Simon & Schuster, Tara summarizes The Monstore brilliantly so I’ll give you her words:
“The Monstore began with a hush-hush location, a trap door, a password knock, and a boy’s hope that he’d find his perfect monster, just right for doing tricky things around the house. Like scaring pesky little sisters away.”
She had me at trap door. 
Illustrator James Burks gives the book a 3-D crazy feel. I don't know how he did it. It's magic genius. His website says that he's works on a raft of animated movies and TV shows and he translates that onto the page with perfection! In the hallways of the children's home even the photos on the wall have an eerie 3-D quality like Walt Disney's Haunted House ride.

I got my copy of The Monstore yesterday! Like a kid in a candy shop, I gobbled in the words and illustrations. Yes, it’s a book about monsters. Yes, it’s a book about kooky hidden places. But most of all, it’s a book about brothers and sisters.

Speaking as someone who was (and maybe still is) a pesky little sister, The Monstore rang true. Don't believe me?  I'm not the only one who thinks so. 
The Monstore currently has five star status on Goodreads. 
 PPBF 's Catherine Johnson had an advance review. 
My friend Carter Higgins reviewed it today, too on her Design of the Picture book blog.

Why are you still here? Go find a copy!
(Call Tara's local indie, The Bookworm to order a signed copy to be shipped to you: 908-766-4599.)