Thursday, August 28, 2014

Stickers, Word Counts, and Other Demotivational Tools by Dianne K. Salerni

The image above was the first “demotivational poster” I ever saw – back in 2009, according to the date I saved it on my hard drive. There are many sites devoted to these satiric little beauties, including Despair, Inc., where the motto is: MOTIVATIONAL PRODUCTS DON'T WORK. BUT OUR DEMOTIVATOR® PRODUCTS DON'T WORK EVEN BETTER.

I had my own experience with demotivation last month. Having resigned my teaching position (due to despair in the workplace, ironically enough), I was faced with the task of making writing my full time job. A fairly well-known YA author suggested the “calendar method” for staying on task. It basically boiled down to giving yourself a sticker for every 1000 new words written. At first I laughed at the idea of a former teacher giving herself stickers. But – I did find some shiny stickers when I cleaned out my desk at school. What the heck? I thought. I’ll try it.

At first it was great. I usually write late at night, so my family checked the calendar every morning to see if I’d earned a sticker the night before. They high-fived me when I got two stickers in one day.

Then, the inevitable “stuck-point” happened – the thing that occurs several times in every one of my first drafts where I’m not sure what needs to happen next. I might know the next plot point – just not how to get there. Days went by. No stickers. Usually, when I need to stop and think about my draft, I know I skip some writing days, but this time I knew exactly how many days I’d missed. Because of those damn stickers.

No stickers meant I wasn’t writing. No stickers meant I obviously couldn’t hack it as a full time writer. No stickers meant I was an idiot to quit my day job. No stickers probably meant I would never finish another book again! I’d been a full-time writer for less than a month, and I’d already failed!

Incidentally, during this time period I was conducting a series of a paid gigs as a visiting author at a summer camp for student writers. One of the most frequent questions I got was, “How do you combat writer's block?” My answer was always, “Walk away from the project.” I don’t know how many times I gave that answer before I realized I wasn’t allowing myself to follow my own advice!

As Matt McNish and Marissa Burt expressed in their excellent blog posts earlier this summer, writing doesn’t always mean putting new words on the page. The most commonly given advice for full-time writers (in fact, for all writers) is to write every day.

But “writing” can mean:

  • Blogging and making new contacts
  • Creating a promotional package for school visits
  • Looking up contacts to send the promotional packages to
  • Updating your website
  • Taking out old stories you never intend to finish just to play with voice and POV
  • Re-reading a book that uses a POV-switch you hope to emulate in a future project
  • Brainstorming ideas for another story
  • Researching Colonel Percy Fawcett’s journey into the Amazon just because you might model a character after him some day

I ignored the demotivational stickers and did all those things above, which furthered the business of writing. After about ten days, I started adding words to my WIP again. And I threw out the stickers.

Goals are good, and so are schedules. Writers should have those things, but only to the extent that they motivate us and make us feel good about ourselves and our work. The instant they start to demotivate, they need to go. If I don’t write new words for a week because I decide to binge-watch all 4 seasons of The Killing on Netflix, then yes – I need a kick in the butt. But if I don’t write new words for a week because I need time to think about my story, then that’s just part of being a writer.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

My Time in the Secret Garden

This week, I read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett for about the twentieth time. I first read The Secret Garden when I was nine and borrowed it off my best friend’s bookshelf. We often played in one of the local gardens together, so she thought I’d love the book since it was “full of flowers.” She was right—and over the next couple of months I must have borrowed her copy two or three times before I finally saved up enough money to buy my own. I still have it, still read it, and it has been much worn and much loved over the many years since then.

There were many things I found magical about The Secret Garden as a child. Who wouldn’t want a beautiful garden all their own, locked away from the rest of the world, overrun with roses and lilies and daffodils and all sorts of beautiful growing things? I loved the old-fashioned setting where people relied on ships and trains and carriages to reach their far-flung destinations instead of cars and airplanes. I loved the colorful cast of characters, many of whom spoke in a charming Yorkshire accent that I couldn’t quite reproduce out loud no matter how hard I tried. I loved Dickon’s way with animals and wished I was talented enough to entice fox cubs, squirrels, and birds to sit on my shoulder and follow my every step. And because I lived in such a warm, sunny climate, I was entranced by the idea of romantic, rainy moors where the wind “wurthered” throughout the night.

I think even back then, I appreciated the book’s themes of regeneration—of a garden, an outlook on life, a family. I loved the idea of the transformative powers of nature. Of course, I couldn’t articulate these thoughts as a nine-year-old, but I knew these themes were there and loved them all the same. As an adult, I’m probably even more appreciative of quite power that comes off the pages when I read the book, of hope, redemption, regrowth, and rebirth.

When I finished The Secret Garden last week, it was the first time I’d read it in a couple of years, and it was a lovely reminder that I need to revisit some of the classic books of my childhood a little more often. If there is one book forever linked to my childhood love of reading, it’s definitely The Secret Garden. Sometimes, I get so caught up in new releases about magic and monsters and aliens and secret societies, I forget the quiet beauty of some of the classical works of children’s literature. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the exciting new books that make their way onto bookstore shelves as much as the next person. (Maybe even MORE than the next person.) But I’m trying harder these days not to forget some of the amazing stories that have been entrancing readers since long before I was a child reader myself. After all, they’re classics for a reason.

What classic books made your childhood magical?

-Dawn Lairamore

photo credit: ukgardenphotos via photopin cc

Friday, August 22, 2014

What picture books taught me about writing for middle-graders by Kell Andrews

I am a middle-grade writer first, but not only.

I read so many picture books when my children were young that I wanted to write one. Finally an idea hit me, and the story flowed out in a sitting. But that was the beginning -- that story required many, many more sittings, drafts, and subsequent stories that improved on my first effort. As simple as a picture book manuscript looks, it's hard to write one.

Switching gears between middle grade and picture books creates challenges, but it has its lessons. Here's what I've taken into my middle-grade fiction from my efforts to write for younger readers.

Let story guide progress. 
One of my inspirations, a few years ago...

When I was beginning to take writing seriously, I believed that a writer ought to write a thousand words a day. But if you're writing picture books -- where the average published book is 500 words -- if you write a thousand words, you're probably doing it wrong.

That's not to say that high word counts are wrong for all writers, but it's not how I measure progress now. I try to use scenes as markers -- I'm telling a story, not stringing together words by the thousand. Word count is a simple metric to use when it works, but it can lead your story astray if you race after numbers.

Every word matters. 

When you revise a picture book, you look at every word. Every one is a decision -- is it the most precise one? Will it be understood by the reader? Is it colorful enough, fun enough? Can the sentence be said in a more concise way? Can the whole sentence go?

When writing and revising a novel, most of us won't take that kind of care on every word unless we don't care if we never have time to write another. But every word still matters. If not, it shouldn't be

Let go of what doesn't work. 

I can't speak for other picture book writers, but it takes me a lot of ideas to find one that I can execute well enough to put in front of my agent. And then it takes a good number  of manuscripts before my agent finds one she feels is commercial enough to put in front of editors. I'm not sure how many stories it takes to find one editors will buy, but fingers crossed that my time will come.

That winnowing process has taught me to let go of ideas and stories that haven't found a home, even if I love them. That's harder to do for a novel, which is a bigger commitment of time and craft.  But sometimes you do have to let go and move on -- which can mean leaving a favorite scene on the cutting room floor, shelving a problematic manuscript unfinished, or trunking a book that didn't find a publisher. Hard, but not every story will find a readership, even with the possibility of self-publishing.

Leave room in the text. 

For a middle-grade writer writing picture books, one of the biggest adjustments is leaving room for the illustrator. That means not describing what can shown in a picture and not trying to control the illustrator with too many notes.

For a novel, it means not overdescribing what the imagination can fill in. Don't underestimate your reader. Young children understand more than they are often credited with. So do older readers -- write up to them, not down.

Let go of control.

Picture book writers do not usually get to choose the illustrator, nor do they have veto power over the illustrations. Sometimes that can yield unexpected results in the wrong way, but in the best collaborations, the illustrator will bring more to the book than the writer ever imagine.

The same is true for novels. Once the story has been published, the writer does not own the story any more. It belongs to the reader. Sometimes readers misunderstand authorial intent. Sometimes they hate the story with burning intensity.  Sometimes they love it. But love it or hate it, once they've read it, it's part of their understanding of the world. That's the gift the writer gives, and the gift the reader gives back.

Do you write other genres or for other ages? How does it affect your work for middle-grade readers? 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

How Do You Learn? – a post by Chris Eboch

What's the best way to learn?

It depends on each individual's optimal learning style. Some of us do well with printed material – books, magazines, blog posts. (There is even debate about learning from printed books versus electronic formats.) Others do better listening to an instructor. Some need visuals, or must be physically involved in an activity.

Do an Internet search on "learning styles" to find out more. You can also try a quick online survey to find your learning style here. (FYI, I came out at 92% linguistic and also scored highly in intrapersonal and interpersonal, but low in musical and visual-spatial. So I guess I should talk to people.)

If you’re a writer, understanding your learning style may help you improve your craft. Should you be taking live classes or is an online correspondence school a better fit? Can you really learn everything you need to know just from reading books on the craft?

There's also a relatively new technology gaining steam: webinars.

 At the recent SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles, the subject of webinars came up during the regional advisor meeting. Small regions were especially interested, as they may not have the money and attendance numbers to pay for bringing in speakers. Webinars are also good for spread-out regions, or even large, active regions that want to make classes more accessible to those who live outside the main urban areas. And webinars can work well for people who simply have a hard time leaving home, for whatever reason – needing to care for children or aging parents, health problems, difficulty driving at night.

Last Tuesday, I presented a webinar on Writing for Children's Magazines for the combined SCBWI Texas regions. They are holding webinars every other month, and people outside of Texas can also sign up. (SCBWI members pay $10, others pay $35.) I have a three-hour webinar set up in September for the Caribbean regions. Since the Caribbean has members spread out over multiple islands, it would be nearly impossible to bring everyone together for an event. And a live event would be too expensive, because of the travel costs, for both speakers and attendees.

I've also done webinars through a company called Delve Writing. We are experimenting with what works best as a business model, whether it's a class that meets once a week for several weeks, or a single class. I expect to have a couple of workshop options set up this fall.

By the time this posts, I'll be in Connecticut, at the International Women's Writing Guild retreat. There I'll be teaching a workshop on plotting that meets for four days in a row, leading critique groups, and participating in a Q&A panel on traditional and indie publishing. I'm looking forward to hanging out with other writers in person. I enjoy being able to see my students. It's nice to walk among them while they do exercises, so I can offer extra help to those who need it. Given the choice, I’d present live.

But living in the center of New Mexico, travel is an expense and hassle. Being able to offer lower-cost workshops online is a great option, for me and students.

If you would like to be added to my mailing list for writing workshops, sign up by sending an e-mail to me through my website contact page.)

Monday, August 18, 2014

Revision 101: Quotes and Links to Help You On Your Way

Revision requires an author to see her work with new eyes. Here are some quotes and links I used in my revision class last spring. I hope they point you in the right direction with your own work:

Quotes from Novel Metamorphosis:

Revision: What is the most dramatic way to tell this story?

“Revisions are the messy route toward powerful stories. ...I never tell someone how to revise their story. Instead, I ask you to look at your story in different ways, apply various strategies of revisions, and tell your story, your way. You are in control and will make all the decisions yourself.”

“Competence is a hard-won prize that only comes with lots of study and practice.”

Quotes from Second Sight:

“When you’re writing that first draft, don’t worry about following the rules. Instead, tell yourself the story you’ve always wanted to hear, the story you’ve never read anywhere else, the one that scares you with the pleasure of writing it. Treasure the joy of the work, because it is hard work, but when you can find that just-right word, that perfect plot twist -- there are fewer greater pleasures.”

“Editors work forward from the manuscript to make its truth all it can be...paying attention to details that add up to an overall result.”

“Good prose repeats words in close proximity to each other only by strategy or design, not by accident or sloppiness.”

“I test every sentence against the question ‘What purpose doest this serve?’”

“An editor’s greatest joy is a writer who can recognize his own weaknesses and respond with an intelligent revision.”

“For a writer, an artist, making a choice gives you something to work with. You make a choice, get the words on the page, see if it feels right. If it doesn’t, you edit it or go back and make a different decision. The hardest thing is getting past the fear of making a choice at all.”

Saul Bellow: “The main reason for rewriting is not to achieve a smooth surface, but to discover the inner truth of your characters.”

“As you’re sitting down to write, you need to ask yourself: Am I writing a specific story that could only happen to this character in this world, in this time? What am I trying to say with this story? What do I want my readers to think when they put my book down?”

“What questions or mysteries does your first line raise?”

“Just because you put it first doesn’t mean that your current opening section is the real beginning.”

“Be a curator, not a camera...Believe it or not, most beginning writers will transcribe, as if they were a video camera...Another big mistake is focusing on transition scenes because you think you need to show how a character gets from one place to another.”


Novelists: You Are Gifted and Talented :: Darcy Pattison
WFMAD The Bones of the Writing Process, Parts 1 and 2 :: Laurie Halse Anderson
23 Essential Quotes from Ernest Hemingway About Writing :: The Write Practice
WFMAD (Write Fifteen Minutes a Day) Revision Roadmap #18 :: Laurie Halse Anderson
WFMAD Temper Tantrums and Do Overs :: Laurie Halse Anderson
I don’t want an honest critique :: Darcy Pattison
WFMAD Getting Feedback on Your Story :: Laurie Halse Anderson
WFMAD Belonging to a Critique Group Without Murdering Anyone :: Laurie Halse Anderson
Balancing Thoughts, Description, Dialogue, and Action :: Between the Lines: Edits and Everything Else
Novel Revision Charts: 2 Tools for Smart Re-Thinking of Your Story :: Darcy Pattison

What quotes, techniques, or tips have you found helpful when it comes to revision?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

I have to admit that I am a pretty picky reader when it comes to fiction. Mostly, I read realistic fiction but when survival and remote locations are involved I can be coaxed into giving a wider-range of stories a try.

So, when a friend’s sixteen year-old daughter recommended Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, I gave it try.

From the back cover:

A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. And a strange collection of very curious photographs. It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children who once lived here—one of whom was his own grandfather—were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a desolate island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive.

In short, this book really operates outside of the box, using authentic, vintage photographs that the author has collected at flea markets to help drive and shape the story and the characters.

I liked the book so much that now I’m almost finished reading the sequel, Hollow City, and it is just as good as the first book.

Please note that these books are not classified as middle grade novels. Really, in my opinion, they defy classification in a good way. The plot is twisty and page-turning, and the photos included match the well-developed, unique characters the author has created. In terms of choosing these books for a middle grade audience, I would say upper middle grade would be as young as I would go, and then it would depend on how individual readers react to potentially scary stories. I’m curious what others think who have read one or both of these books in terms of recommending them for specific age groups, something I’m not an expert at. If you have thoughts, please leave them below.

I totally recommend these books both for a great read and for a fresh look at story-telling technique.

To top it off, the movie of the first book is due out in 2015.

Thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


Words on the page give the reader a map. Pictures leave an impression- and artist’s impression- that become part of the book experience. Fabulous artwork can bring great things to a story. Art can have a life of its own in a book. Those two things can sometimes have very different effects on the reader.

Mary Grace Corpus and Jason Wiliford were the artists who did the illustrations in The Young Inventors Guild books. (Jason Wiliford did the chapter head sketches for The Atomic Weight of Secrets… and Mary Grace did the chapter head illustrations, as well as the blueprints for the inventions, in The Ravens of Solemano...) Each sketch has so much power, hinting at what will come in the pages ahead. The blueprints are crafted beautifully and offer a living schematic, something that only adds to whatever images are already dancing in the heads of readers.

Sometimes, though, the art breaks the spell and interferes. Sometimes, the artwork and the story are out of sync. We’ve all read books that are vastly different from whatever the illustrator (who clearly did not read the book manuscript) provided.

In Egypt, the artwork for locally produced kids’ books is due for an overhaul. Retro is one thing. Out-of-date design is another. Some of the art used in children’s books hasn’t changed for decades and was never attended to seriously. It feels like there may be only one or two working illustrators in the country and they learned their craft in the 50s.  Many modern booksellers are in pursuit of some fresh and fabulous local art- of which there is plenty!

We Project Mayhem authors are lucky to have really wonderful artwork in our books. It’s a great thing to have a publisher who pays attention to art and offers us some control when it co

Monday, August 11, 2014

This counts as "writing", right?, by: Marissa Burt
I can end this post right here, yes? I think all writers have to resonate with this on some level, because writing requires self-motivation from a group of people who are often easily distracted by imaginary worlds, let alone all the interesting things right there in front of us.  While there is something to be said for sitting down and eking the words out through sheer force of will, I'm beginning to let go of the drivenness that says every writing-moment must equal words on a page.

Matt's earlier post about being okay with not writing every day was spot on, and I'm going to springboard off that and say that sometimes things that have absolutely nothing to do with writing are useful for building creativity. No, this is not a weak attempt to justify my ridiculous fondness for Candy Crush, but I do think mindless indulgences - whether it's frittering away a few minutes online or daydreaming out the window - do something for our creativity.

It's like how I stop to do a few stretches after I've been hunched over my laptop for an hour. My body needs a break and a reset. Why do I begrudge my mind the same?

So I'm learning to factor wasting time into my writing time. If I have a whole four hours to write, I've come to accept that about 30% of that will evaporate into research rabbit-trails and a quick visit to facebook and another trip to the pantry.

All that being said the ability to focus in and really get lost in the world varies with the stage of the manuscript. I squander writing time frivolously during the first draft, but as I reach the end of the manuscript, I find it difficult to even stop for lunch, and if a brilliant plot twist strikes, all bets are off.

What about you? What do you do to reset your creativity? And 'fess up, Mayhemers, what are your secret time-wasting indulgences?

Friday, August 8, 2014

Karen Rivers & FINDING RUBY STARLING - Interview & Giveaway

UPDATE: THE WINNER OF THE GIVEAWAY IS TARA! Thanks everyone for commenting and I really encourage you all to check out Karen's marvelous MG books! 

I recently requested a book off NetGalley based mainly on the cover and the premise of “The Parent Trap meets the digital age”, but I hadn’t heard of the book or author and had no idea what to expect. FINDING RUBY STARLING by Karen Rivers delighted me so much I ended up tracking down the fantastic author to answer a few of my questions, and one very lucky blog commenter will win a signed copy of FINDING RUBY STARLING and a copy of its companion novel THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ME.

Here’s the description of FINDING RUBY STARLING:

When Ruth Quayle used a special app to search for pictures of herself online, she found dozens of images of "Ruth Quayle" -- and one of "Ruby Starling." When Ruby Starling gets a message from a Ruth Quayle proclaiming them to be long-lost twin sisters, she doesn't know what to do with it -- until another message arrives the day after, and another one. It could be a crazy stalker ... but she and this Ruth do share a birthday, and a very distinctive ear....

Ruth is an extroverted American girl. Ruby is a shy English one. As they investigate the truth of their birth and the circumstances of their separation, they also share lives full of friends, family, and possible romances -- and they realize they each may be the sister the other never knew she needed.

Written entirely in e-mails, letters, Tumblr entries, and movie scripts, FINDING RUBY STARLING is the funny and poignant companion to Karen Rivers's THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ME.

Karen was awesome enough to answer a few of my questions. 

FINDING RUBY STARLING is a companion novel to THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ME. Since I haven't read THE ENCYCLOPEDIA yet, I can definitely attest that RUBY STARLING stands alone, though now I can't wait to read THE ENCYCLOPEDIA. How did the companion novel come about? Did you have Ruth's story in mind when you were writing THE ENCYCLOPEDIA?

I did not have Ruth's story in mind, but I've long been a fan of "series" books that aren't series. Taking a look into some of the background characters is just a whole lot of fun. I found Ruth fascinating and my editor and I had talked about her quite a bit. She was quite fully realized, even though she wasn't in the book much. I just really wanted to go further with her.  (And also with Freddie Blue Anderson, who will hopefully be the next girl from Cortez to get her own book.) 

FINDING RUBY STARLING is written almost entirely in emails (with the occasional claymation video script and Tumblr poem thrown in). I was concerned as the story went on that we might not get the full weight of the climax, as filtered through emails. As it turned out, I shouldn't have worried (if my sobbing was any indication). How did you decide whose perspective certain scenes should come through? Was it a struggle to hit the right emotional tones in pivotal scenes, given the structural limitations you'd given yourself?

I honestly didn't think of it that way, about who should have the perspective. It just happened naturally. I wrote the book in the order that you are reading it in, when it felt like Ruth's/Ruby's "turn", then I just pivoted and went with it. Some of the scenes were harder than others. The ones that come to mind are the letters from Ruby's mum and from her Nan. Those ones had a LOT of editing. It was hard to go there without going either too far, or not far enough. My instinct was to pull back, but luckily my editor, Cheryl Klein, is smarter than me and convinced me to just put it all out there.   

You write super convincingly as both British and American -- and you are Canadian, right? Have you spent time in the UK, or do you have British relatives? (Amazeog is my new favorite word, by the way.) How did you decide to make Ruby British?

I am Canadian, which makes me a bit half and half. We have a lot of American influences obviously, and I live in a part of Canada that is frequently described (cringingly) as a Little Bit of Olde England. I have many British relatives and a smaller subset of Canadian relatives with a strong penchant for all things British. And I grew up reading British boarding school books and still love reading British books. Originally I started writing this book with a British friend, Kate LeVann. She was going to be the British voice and I was going to be the American, but that hit the skids relatively early in the process and I decided to just run with it, knowing that clever editors would pick up all my glaringly non-British mistakes. I think both characters are suitably over the top with their nationalities such that they come off as being so incredibly different, it's part of what makes the book fun. I have never had so much fun writing two characters, that's for sure.

You write adult fiction, YA, and MG! Any more MG projects in the works right now?

I am writing Freddie Blue Anderson's story, which will be middle grade and will (hopefully) delve into the subject of mental illness in children, as well as touch on things like how society instills a terrible vanity into pre-teens and how sometimes that can be very difficult for them to manage.  And bullying. And toxic friendships that can sometimes be very difficult to dodge. Also, there are auditions and acting; friendship and loss. It doesn't sound that cheery when I describe it like that, but much like ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ME and FINDING RUBY STARLING, I think it has a lot of moments of humour all huddled around a much bigger, more serious issue. I also just sold two YA novels to Farrar Strauss Giroux and I'm really excited to see what happens with them. One is called GREAT WHITE ME, and the other is titled HOW TO SAY YOU'RE SORRY TO THE DEAD.   My pet project right now is an adult literary mystery, although that is not really the right descriptor either as it's not so much a mystery as it is an examination of life in the 21st century, wherein it's not as uncommon as it certainly should be for someone to, say, shoot up a school full of children.   It's a look at tragedy in the Pinterest world, let's say. I don't really know for certain where it's going, but there are beaches and long grasses and fireflies (or the search for them). I feel like when I'm asked to describe it, all I see are the sand dunes and crashing waves, so there you have it. I'm loving the experience of writing it, so far. Fundamentally, I don't find there is much difference in writing for teens or tweens or adults, it comes down to the age of the protagonist and then, obviously, the way they see the world through their experience. I feel very lucky to be doing any of it, I couldn't have made up a better job for myself.

Thank you so much, Karen! I can’t wait to read THE ENCYLOPEDIA OF ME and am thrilled there is another companion novel coming!

Project Mayhem readers, one lovely commenter will be chosen to receive a copy of THE ENCYLOPEDIA OF ME and a signed copy of FINDING RUBY STARLING. (Be sure to give us a way to contact you in your comment.) These are really fantastic gems to add to any MG collection! I hope you love them as much as I did!

You can find more about Karen at her website, and on Twitter.

Did you ever imagine a long-lost twin when you were growing up?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014


The great poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, said there is an ancient enmity between daily life and the great work.  Many of us can relate to that.  Every day we have dozens of things to do, all of which pull us away from the novel.  How do we overcome this challenge and stay productive and finish what we start?

One way is to learn how to write even when you’re not writing.  What I mean by this is that we’d all love to have four or five hours of peace and quiet in front of a computer to finish a new chapter but what if we only have fifteen minutes in a school parking lot waiting to pick up the kids? 

My suggestion is to use that fifteen minutes, use every second you have in your day that allows you to focus your imagination on the story you want to tell.  Keep a pen and notepad in your car.  Whip it out whenever you get the chance, even if you’re just jotting down notes about a new character, a character you don’t have a handle on yet, a character who is one hundred pages away from being born.  All work matters, even two or three lines.  It all adds up.  Most importantly, it maintains the connection between you and your novel.  You need to keep that connection strong and vibrant. 

Completing your novel is of paramount importance to you.  Do whatever you have to in order to keep making progress.  Get in the habit of using the voice recorder on your smart phone when you’re out walking or grocery shopping and an idea pops into your head.  You will feel better about yourself and your creative journey regardless of how small the output.  You’ll feel like you’re doing something.  And you are doing something.  You’re being creative.  You’re being resourceful.  You’re remaining steadfast.  Five minutes here, ten minutes there, do whatever you can until a block of time opens up that will enable you to get rolling.  They key here is not to drive yourself crazy.  We don’t want to get neurotic about trying to pack an hour’s worth of writing into five minutes in a parking lot.  What we do want to do is take the little chunks of time that seem ripe for creativity and plant something in them.  Keep planting and some day you’ll have a garden.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Interview With a Young Writer--Rena Marthaler, author of MAGIC THE CREST

Rena bottle-feeding koi
(picture taken from her website)
This is the second of my occasional series, featuring young authors. (The first was about Felicia, of Stanley and Katrina, which you can read HERE, if you missed it the first time around.)

I am in awe of the creativity, work ethic, and gumption of these authors. I'm even more thrilled because Rena Marthaler lives in Portland, Oregon--and though we haven't met yet, it would certainly be fun to do so!

Here are Rena's answers to my infintely probing questions. Enjoy!

Me: When did you write and publish Magic The Crest?

Rena: I wrote Magic The Crest during the annual National Novel Writing Month in November, 2013. The NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program is used in classrooms, or kids can participate on their own, which I did. I published the book in December, 2013.

Me: What was the most enjoyable part of the writing, and then the publishing, process?

Rena: Not having to do my homework that month, I mean - er - not completing all of my homework was a nice side effect to having to finish a whole novel in 30 days. The best part of the publishing process was working with the cover illustrator.

Me: Can you give our readers the "pitch" for Magic The Crest?

Rena: My book is about four girls who just found out they have powers. They are given a quest to find a lost girl. She is also a “magic.” Together, they travel to a magical universe of elemental planets, where they have to find different gems. To get the gems, they must battle monsters and meet creatures that you would never encounter in the mortal world.
Magic The Crest Book Cover Image

Me: Are you writing anything else now?

Rena: Yes, I’m co-writing a story called The Place Beyond Our World with one of my friends. We write it on a shared Google doc. And I’m planning the sequel to Magic The Crest. I also write on my blog,

Me: How much time per week do you spend writing?

Rena: That varies a lot. During NaNoWriMo, it was four to six hours a day. Now, it’s more like two hours a week not including school assignments (and it’s summertime, so I don’t have homework!).

Me: What about schoolwork? Besides writing (and reading) what are your favorite subjects at school?

Rena: I love art and spelling. My second-grade teacher taught us “bookmaking,” which was making elaborate boxes with folded pages with our stories in them. I also liked studying the Oregon Trail and making a covered wagon out of resources that were already in our house.

Me: What books are you reading right now? 

Rena: This summer, I read The Big Book of Superheroes by Bart King. I’m halfway through the Sisters Grimm series. I read Matilda by Roald Dahl, and I would like to read all of the novels that are mentioned in that book. I liked the first Andy Smithson book by L.R.W. Lee and I've started the sequel.

Me: When you read, do you like hard copy books, or e-books--or both?

Rena: I like either, as long as the book is good!

Me: I'm wondering if you have had an inspirational teacher?

Rena: I have really loved all of my teachers. This year, I felt inspired because my teacher was enthusiastic about our achievements. One of my most inspiring teachers is my guitar teacher - he shows me how to take the next steps in a way that makes me excited about learning guitar.

Me: Would you mind filling the blank: "I am awesome at..."

Rena: I’m awesome at making friends. I’m getting awesome at Minecraft. But mostly, I think I’m awesome because I enjoy trying new things.

Those were totally awesome answers! There is also an interview with Rena on This Kid Reviews Books (and "This Kid"--a.k.a. Erik W.--is someone I hope to feature on this series in the future.

About the Author: Rena Marthaler is a ten-year-old living in Portland, Oregon with her two dogs. She wrote Magic The Crest, a middle grade fantasy adventure novel, during the 2013 NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program. Her website is RenaWrites.

Thanks so much, Rena, for joining us on Project Mayhem today. Best of luck in your future writing projects--keep us informed about how things go!

Friday, August 1, 2014

So You Want to Write a Graphic Novel? Great!

It seems like every conference has at least one workshop on writing a graphic novel. I bet you’ve even tinkered with the idea yourself, right? Of course, how to write one is the follow up question that causes problems.

Been there. Done that. Slipped in the gutters.

That’s a graphic novel joke (not a good one), because gutters are the spaces between the panels in sequential art, and…


Okay, bad terrible jokes aside, the idea of writing a comic or graphic novel appeals to a lot of us. Heck, my own writing journey started after taking a “creative vacation” that included a week-long class on writing comics taught by Peter David. Yes, the Peter David of the Eisner award winning run on The Incredible Hulk (all the fan boys just perked up…).

That week awakened my interest in writing. Not specifically writing comics, but as they say, “write what you know.” And so, like many an aspiring writer, I started buying craft books (we should have a support group), and mine included more than a few on comics and sequential art. At VCFA, I spent much of my time researching words and pictures as storytelling tools, and in this past May I presented a talk at NESCBWI on that topic. All of which is to say, I may not be the world’s biggest expert, but I have some bona fides in my corner, and a short list of craft books you might find helpful when approaching your graphic novel. Ready?

Before I start that list, I want to make one more point (or maybe my first point, I’m tired and need more coffee). It helps to become familiar with the medium you’re writing for. Makes sense, right? So do yourself a favor and read the best ones out there. Here's some links to help ferret them out:

Kids Comics Awards 2014
Kirkus Graphic Novels & Comic Books Reviews
School Library Journal Graphic Novel Reviews

Bookmark those for future reference, because here come the craft books.

Craft Books for Graphic Novelists

A very nice overview of the comic writing process that looks at everything from story structure to word balloon placement to script format.

A real nuts-and-bolts approach to every aspect of independently producing and self-publishing your graphic novel. If you're a motivated, self-starter this book will be a valuable road map for you to follow.

Scott McCloud's follow-up to Understanding Comics is even better, in my opinion, for the writer of comics. I love his books on comics, and can lose hours at a time re-reading and unpacking everything McCloud puts into them. This book will raise your writing game, no matter what format you're writing.

Speaking of format, that's very often the first question new graphic novel writers ask. This collection of actual comic scripts from Brian Michael Bendis is invaluable for granting access into one writer's specific way of doing it. Better still, with a little digging in your local comic shop or in trade paperback collections, you can find the published comics and see how the illustrator translated the script into a completed comic. 

More Bendis, and with good reason. He's been one of Marvel's top writers for well over a decade, and he brings a Whedonesque approach to his work. Epic conflicts, fueled as much by small character moments as cataclysm, are a hallmark of his writing, and that always works for me. In this brand new book, Bendis not only discusses his approach to writing, but also interviews other top creatives in the field, including illustrators, and editors. It's a terrific guide to the craft and the business.


My list of craft books tends to lean heavily into the superhero genre, but that doesn't mean they are the be-all and end-all of graphic novels, not by a long shot. What it means is that I think anyone looking to write graphic novels can learn how it's done from the industry professionals that have driven the format's popularity. 

Learn the format, then tell your story with it. 

Up, up, and away!