September 2016 Archives

Authors in the Classroom

gender-1459661_1280.png"Ackk, I've been asked to do a school visit! What do I talk about?" Often there's some panic or anxiety to the question.

The amazing thing is I've talked about the same topics and done the same writing exercises for a variety of ages for school visits. Yes, of course, the wording or detail is simpler for younger kids than for older kids; the exercises less complicated, but it's the same material.

I like showing my first book to a group of children and asking them, "How long do you think it took since I started writing this book to when it was published?" They'll guess a month. I point up. They guess three months, six months, a year. I keep pointing up. The students are shocked when I finally tell them seven years! I talk about why it takes so long: writing, rewriting, critiques, rewriting, submissions, waiting, rejections, acceptance, contract, editing, time for the cover to be created (or the illustrations to be done), printing. I also tell them, "No, I didn't do the pictures."

I've done the same thing with short stories. Talked about how after I wrote it, I had it critiqued (explaining what that means), rewriting, submissions, editing, time till publication. My first story for Highlights for Children took three years to be in print after I signed the contract! I've told them things my editor said on this short story and how I fixed the problems. In this story's case, it took two rewrites with the editor. Since kids think writing a piece once is good enough teachers love this.

So what can YOU talk about? Here's a list of ideas:

  • What writing the book was like.
  • When you write.
  • Where you write. (I write at home, sometimes in my pajamas, on my laptop. Or at my desktop where I stand. I like meeting other writers to write in coffee shops.)
  • What inspired you to write in general and this specific book in particular.
  • The hardest thing for you to learn about writing.
  • Number of rejections on this book.
  • If you have an agent, what that person does for you.
  • Rewrites and edits.
  • Read various drafts of a paragraph or page so they can see the difference writing makes.
  • Funny writing mistakes you've made.
  • Titling your book.
  • Naming your characters.
  • Why you decided to write from the viewpoint of your main character.
  • Why you included humor, or romance, or facts about science or baseball.
  • How you came up with the personality of your main character.
  • How you chose the setting for your book.
  • The unique factors of your book.
  • The skills of the main character and where you got that knowledge (experience, research, interviews).
  • Plotting your story.
  • Big problems you had writing this particular story. E.g. I couldn't figure out how my main character was going to . . . And then . . .
  • Your favorite part of the book.
  • Read a scene from the book and ask the kids what they think might happen next. (If they haven't read the book.)
  • Q&A - but I strongly recommend having some starter questions that are on the topic you want to discuss or having the teacher work with the kids to prepare questions ahead of time. Kids will go off topic, will make statements instead of asking questions. If they read your book ahead of time, they may have "why" questions.
  • Your education to prepare for writing, if any. Or that you attended lots of conferences and workshops, read books, etc.
  • Money! Tell students how much you earn per book or explain advances and royalties. (They'll often think authors are rich, so you may have to put it in some kind of context.)
  • Ask them about their favorite books or authors and tell them some of yours appropriate for their age level.
  • Book genres.
  • How many copies of your books have sold and what that would look like if they were stacked or laid out end to end.
  • Your book an ebook? Make sure they know what that means. Talk about how those books can be read. Ask if any of them (or their parents) read books electronically. (One safe way to ask some questions is to say, "raise your hand if . . ."
  • What you cut out of your book and why.
  • Why you wrote it in first person or third person or from different viewpoints.
  • Did you go somewhere and do research? Show pictures!

You can also do activities. I like to do an activity related to something I talk about. Some writers mostly do activities. (Remember two things: have kids raise their hands to answer or ask questions, and plan very simple writing for under fourth grade. You can do a lot of the writing on a white board for younger children.)

  • Create samples of poor versus good writing to read. Ask them which they like best. Ask them why they like it better? Talk about those reasons. E.g. They say it is more exciting. You explain about action, suspense, details, etc.
  • Have them draw something from your story.
  • Do a simple story outline as a group. First, decide on a character, then this person's problem, discuss possible solutions, etc.
  • Give a simple scenario about a kid with a problem and have the students write for five minutes as if they were that kid. (Give very specific guidelines.)
  • Explain about the five senses. Ask the kids to write a description of their favorite place using as many senses as they can.
  • Think about activities related directly to your book. Your main character collects words. As a group create a list of interesting words. Your mc makes wishes, each student could write down three of their wishes and share a top wish with the group.
  • Your next book is about a specific age gender who lives in a specific place. Make a group list of what hobbies this kid could have. Does she have older, younger siblings? How many? Does he have pets? What kind? This is showing them the kinds of decisions authors make all the time.
  • Give each student (or small group) a verb or noun and have them come up with more specific verbs or synonyms. Everyone will get to share and you may add suggestions. This can lead to a discussion of a thesaurus.
  • Have volunteer students read a scene from your book as if they are the different characters. They have to act out what the characters are doing, so you'll provide some appropriate props. You can be the narrator.
  • Ask what kinds of problems they've read about in stories and/or know about from real life. E.g. someone sick in family, wanting to win a contest, earning money for something special. Write them down for all to see and pick two or three to combine into a new story idea. Talk about how you'd get ready to write that story.
  • Tell them how writing was your dream and ask them what dreams they have? Think how you can turn that into some kind of writing activity. Would you have them write about the steps they need to achieve their dream? The kind of education or training they'll need? Or why they want to reach that goal? Of course, you'll make it age appropriate.

Remember, kids of all ages like it when adults are interested in them. They also like the novelty of special guests in the classroom. That means that most of them are happy you are there. Listen to them as well as talk and you'll probably have a satisfactory visit.

If this was helpful, you may also want to read these older posts: Dragged to the Podium and Going Back to School.


Write from the soul not

Write from the soul, not from some notion about what you think the marketplace wants. The market is fickle; the soul is eternal.
Jeffrey Carver

All Four Stars

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

allfourstars_final.jpgAll Four Stars (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2014) by Tara Dairman is deliciously funny and definitely appropriate for any foodie.

Eleven-year-old Gladys Gatsby secretly cooks gourmet food when her parents aren't at home, since they think cooking is nuking something in the microwave. They also don't know Gladys' dream of being a restaurant critic. But she gets a lot of practice after she catches the kitchen on fire--practice in writing up food disasters, that is. With a ban on cooking and orders to go out and make friends, the school essay contest sounds like a solution to her problems.

This book has an engaging main character and a satisfying ending. I'm not the only one to think so, because the book has received awards, including a 2015 Crystal Kite, and been put on state lists.

According to the author's website, parts of the book "were written in a mall in Brazil, a guesthouse in Morocco, and coffeehouses in Argentina, Cameroon, Gabon, and Tanzania." Recipes from the book are on the website here. Tara Dairman also includes recipes in her blog from time to time.

stars-of-summer.jpgTwo more books have followed the first: The Stars of Summer is second in the trilogy, and the third is Stars So Sweet.stars-so-sweet-cover-1.jpg











the impossible knife of memory

The-Impossible-Knife-of-Memory-cover-image.jpegthe impossible knife of memory (Viking, 2014) by Laurie Halse Anderson is a good book for those wanting to understand PTSD. It's told from the viewpoint of a teen girl.

Hayley doesn't know which father she'll have when she comes home from school each day. The one who cares about her? The one having an attack of memory? Or the dead-to-the-world-sleeping-all-day one? Will he have gone to work? Will he want dinner? Or will he be drunk or drugged? But she's expected to deal with starting a new school as a Senior anyway. That'd be difficult enough for most kids, but for the past five years Hayley's been home schooled in her daddy's big rig. How can she fit in with the zombies at school and keep her dad safe?

There's an interview of Laurie about this book in USA Today (August 2013).

ashes_lg.jpgHer next book coming out on October 4th is Ashes, the final in the American Revolution trilogy which includes Chains and Forge. There's a website for the trilogy here.


Never give up for that

Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.
Harriet Beecher Stowe

Most things good for writing

Most things good for writing are bad for life.
Lorrie Moore

Just My Luck

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

Justmyluck.jpgJust My Luck (Harper, 2016) by Cammie McGovern is a touching story.

Fourth grader Benny Barrows has so much to worry about--not being able to ride his bike, Dad's accident might be his fault, finding a new friend, the new contest at school... He doesn't think anyone else has more problems than they do which makes it hard to follow his mom's advice of thinking about someone else's problem and trying to help them.

The author created a sympathetic and believable character in Benny. Cammie McGovern also writes YA and adult books. Read more here.

Why Twitter?

twitter.jpgTwitter. Facebook. Snapchat. Instagram. Periscope. There are so many options in social media that it can be hard to choose which one(s) to use. If you aren't on Twitter, don't know why you as a writer might want to use it, or don't know what to do with the Twitter account you have, perhaps this post will be helpful.

First, what is Twitter?

An internet discussion/social network where messages are 140 characters long. Some refer to this as microblogging. You can say what you want, whenever you want, and your followers can read it whenever they want. Messages are referred to as "tweets." Messages can include links to a website or blog, photos or videos, gifs, and polls.

My Reasons for Using Twitter

I started using Twitter to connect with other kidlit writers and to get better acquainted with editors and agents. It's a good place for those purposes, both which are really about connection.

Find People to Follow

Following someone is how you get to read messages in Twitter. Your Twitter feed, your timeline, is made up of messages posted by anyone you follow, plus messages you send. It's how you listen in on the conversation. It's how you join public conversations or start conversations. Messages are in chronological order in your feed with the most recent messages on top.

I started by following some writer friends. Then followed some people my friends followed. Since then I add people I meet, read about, read their books, hear speak, or find through retweets, or through Twitter suggestions. I may or may not follow those who follow me.

If I don't know anything about a person, I read his/her bio and some sample tweets. Sometimes I follow someone and later unfollow them as their tweets bother me (it could be language, or too much self-promotion, or too much discussion of politics.)

Because I now have an adult ebook out from Clean Reads, I have a Twitter handle for that pen name @SMFordwriter, too. I've found that the children's literature community--just as they are in person--are more open to conversation, helping each other, sharing, etc.--than the adult literature community.

The Conversation: What Do You Say on Twitter?

Answer questions. Here's an example that @KSonnack posted yesterday: "I need some book recs. #1: for an 8yo who just moved to a new city and is having trouble adjusting. Go!"

Follow links to articles, then comment or retweet the original tweet. (Retweeting means sending the tweet out again from your user name.)

Share articles. This from August 11th: "The 11th hour villain. I agree with this concept. http://www.starpowercomic.com/the-eleventh-hour-villain/ ...

Use the heart to "like" what someone says.

Comment on or retweet tweets. Such as: @Corinneduyvis on September 2nd: "Hugely important part of writing for me: my plot notebook. I take pen, paper, and just talk my way through scenes and problems."

Share good news, links to blog posts, writer quotes, and book recommendations.

Ask questions.

Celebrate others' good news and sympathize with bad.

Conversations: Private

You can also have private conversations by using DM (direct message) through Twitter. This only works for people who follow you. You can DM a single person or a group. More info here.

Searching Twitter

Twitter is searchable and the main tool to use is a hashtag. Hashtags can be anything anyone creates using the pound symbol (#) followed by a word or words with no spaces, but common ones start becoming known, such as #amwriting or #writingtips or #writingchallenge or #kidlit. Some are just initials or abbreviations that have become great tools.

Some of the most useful writer hashtags for submitting are #MSWL (manuscript wish list), #PitMad (pitch madness), and #PitchWars (a contest).


  • #MSWL also has a website--both the hashtag and the website offer editors and agents to post "what they are looking for." This is amazing!

  • #PitMad is a chance for writers to pitch manuscripts during quarterly events. Basic information can be found here. One of the most important things about it is that tweeters must also indicate the genre of the manuscript with another hashtag, such as #PB #MG #YA.

  • #PitchWars is a "a contest where published/agented authors, editors, or interns choose one writer each, read their entire manuscript, and offer critiques on how to make the manuscript shine." See full details for 2016 here. What a deal!


These latter two give you a chance to see if your pitches are working. Do they garner any attention or not? You can often offer different versions to try pitches out.

Search for a specific editor or agent--one you'd like to know more about--by name. You may find links to interviews or blog posts by this person. You may find comments about the agent or editor. If the agent or editor has an account, you can read his/her tweets. Seeing a "I hate squirrels" tweet would let you know not to send a squirrel story to that specific person.

Twitter Lists

One of the tools on Twitter is the ability to assign those you are following to lists. I normally add someone to a list when I follow them. That means if I want to see what Picture Book writers are saying today, I can just see the posts of the people I've put on my PB list. (Would need to use Tweetdeck or HootSuite). Lists can be public or private.

Setting Up Twitter

When you sign up for an account, you create a user name or handle--mine is @SusanUhlig, my pen name for my children's writing. The @ symbol is the common way to indicate a Twitter handle. Once you have someone's user name, you can view their page by typing in your browser twitter.com/username. So in my case it would be twitter.com/susanuhlig. Once you go to my page, you'll see Sue (Susan Uhlig) followed by @susanuhlig.

Actions you need to take asap are upload an avatar--usually a picture of you--and create a bio. You don't have a lot of characters, so keep it short and pertinent. Mine says: "Children's Book (PB, readers, MG, YA) & Mag Writer. Writing helps/book recs on my site ('cuz I always have an opinion). SCBWI Oregon. ICL Instructor." You can see I used some of my bio space for affiliations. I also get to list my location and my website in addition to my bio. Another fun option is adding a header photo, but that can come later. However, often people won't follow those who do not have an avatar.

Of course, Twitter itself has articles and FAQs that can help you get started.

Once you are set up, you can join the conversation. If you find you are spending way too much time on Twitter, set a timer for how long you want to be on and when it goes off, close that Twitter window.

Making Use of Twitter

You can also set up a Twitter widget on your website that will show a specified number of your most recent tweets. It's one way to have frequently changing content on your site. (How you do this depends on your website software.)

Someone once asked me if I could explain Twitter in 140 characters. As you can see, I can't. But I can sure tweet this post.


The Thief of Mirrors

thiefofmirrors.jpgThe Thief of Mirrors (Capstone Young Readers, 2016) by P.D. Baccalario was a fun read set in Applecross, Scotland, well, mostly set in Applecross. There's a trip on the Incognito Bus, a visit to the Sunken Castle, plus a puppet who talks in rhyme, and of course a villain.

Thirteen-year-old Finley McPhee has just had one of the best summers of his life until his older brother Doug ruined it. Doug's got the scorpion key and likes Aiby Lily, the girl Finley likes. Doug says he'll give the key back in three days, after the meeting that Finley is not invited to. But when everyone is missing, Finley has to go to the rescue.

The book was originally published in Italy in 2013. The translation was well done, except copying editing didn't catch some errors. Turns out it is book 4 in the Enchanted Emporium series, so I'll have to catch up on those. But the book stood alone just fine.

Here's info about the author here.

If you cant be bothered

If you can't be bothered reading, do not bother trying to write. You'll fail.
John Birmingham

Snoring Beauty

Snoring Beauty.jpgSnoring Beauty (Harper, 2014) by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and illustrated by Jane Manning is a fairy tale retelling done right. And it's even in rhyme.

The main character is Mouse who is "dreaming of his dearie" on the night before his wedding day. As his eyes are closing, he's kept awake by Sleeping Beauty's terrible snoring. He knows "someday a prince will come to break this spell," but meanwhile how will he get his sleep? When Mouse rises to close the shutters he sees a prince and thinks he'll get to "sleep within the hour!" Of course, it's not that easy when the prince hears the snoring.

I loved the humor both in text and illustrations. The rhyme isn't always exact as there's some near rhyme, but it doesn't stop my enjoyment.

Author Sudpita Bardhan-Quallen talks about how her writing journey in her bio. She's written many humorous picture books and nonfiction as well.

Illustrator Jane Manning has worked for a number of publishers including HarperCollins, Scholastic, and Houghton Mifflin.

What I find interesting is that there's another picture book of the same title: Bruce Hale's SnoringSnoringBeauty-BruceHale.jpg Beauty about a princess turned into a dragon. It came out in 2008 from HMH Books for Young Readers and is illustrated by Howard Fine. The book description makes it sound hilarious. And that cover illustration of the dragon is great.

Hampire.jpgAnother interesting fact is that Howard Fine has illustrated another of Sudipta's books: Hampire!.