Friday, June 24, 2011

Taking a Leap

I have two announcements today. 1. The winner of Tracy Bilen's book giveaway is... Jeanette! Tracy will be sending you a copy of 13 Little Blue Envelopes. Thanks to everyone who commented.


Yes, today is my birthday, and I'd like to reminisce about one of my "big" b-days. My friends and family wanted to celebrate my 40th birthday with a big bash, but I had a different treat in mind.
For years, I had studied writing course guides from MFA programs to the Iowa Writers Workshop to Chautauqua. Then I learned about the Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop.

I would need to apply and submit samples of my work; they only accepted 8 students. I would need to leave my family for an entire week. And I would need to cough up a good chunk of change in a turbulent economy. It was time to take my writing craft to the next level. Happy birthday to me!

I received an email from Carolyn Coman (Carolyn Coman! The trifecta honoree of children's book awards- Newbery Honor, Printz Honor, and National Book Award finalist!). She informed me that I had been selected for the workshop, but she wanted to make sure I was prepared to take a leap of faith. She asked me to consider a complete "re-visioning" of my novel. Was this really what I wanted? Yes, it was time to take the leap.

Carolyn read my entire manuscript and sent me a four page, single -spaced critique letter a week before the workshop. I mulled over her comments, flew to Pennsylvania, and met my fellow students. Our marked-up manuscripts were returned to us after dinner, and we retired to our private cabins to pour through our stories.

Everyone used their time in different ways. Some were ready to hit their keyboards and dive into revisions. Others attempted storyboarding to work on their plots. I had plenty to think about, the re-visioning that Carolyn had recommended. I spent a few mornings exploring wooded hiking trails along a roaring river.

Every afternoon, we met for a group workshop - critiquing each others' manuscripts, followed by a discussion on various writing topics led by Carolyn, Donna Jo Napoli (Check out her many wonderful books!) or Monika Schroder. At that time, Monika was a librarian and MFA student who had previously attended the workshop. Just recently, her second published novel won a Crystal Kite Award from SCBWI.

Carolyn likes to storyboard during the revision process to help her look at sequencing and emphasis. She identifies what happens in each chapter (briefly, in one sentence) and names the dominant emotion. Then, she thinks backward from this emotional blueprint to fill in plot. What is the character's motivation, and what do you need to emphasize in each and every chapter?

Going beyond the usual "write what you know" advice, Donna Jo introduced the topic of autobiography and its place in your book. She recited a quote by Katherine Patterson, "Write what only you can write," and asked the group what this meant to us. Essentially, everyone has their own unique worldview that's shaped by our personal experiences over time, and this is what you bring to your writing. This was our most emotional discussion of the week, cutting to the core of each of us.

Did I mention these topic discussions were followed by appetizers and wine? Then we gathered around a large table on a screened-in porch for a family-style dinner, dessert, and conversation. The gourmet chef, Marcia, used locally grown, in-season produce to create delicious, healthy meals all week. She was happy to discuss her recipes, so not only did we learn from the writing pros, we received informal cooking lessons too.

Overall, it was a challenging and inspiring week in a beautiful setting with a talented group of writers. I couldn't have asked for a better birthday present.

Last week, I learned that my completely "re-visioned" novel won first place in the Fire and Ice contest through Chicago-North RWA. I'm finalizing revisions on another manuscript, and a new story is in progress. As I write, and rewrite, I hear Carolyn's voice. Who are you talking to?, she asks when my first-person narration turns self-conscious. Which line in this paragraph best illustrates what you want to emphasize? The heart, the motivation... Cut the rest.

Have you attended a writing workshop that required a leap of faith? That helped advance your writing to the next level? Please share!

Sunday, June 19, 2011


Many years ago, when I decided to actively explore becoming a writer, I got ready by gathering all the information I could about writing books for children. Next, I set goals on how I would go about making my dream a reality.

For me, setting goals has been the most important part of the writing process. Unstructured and disorganized by nature, I knew that if I were to accomplish the ultimate goal of getting published that I would need accountability and a timeline from which I could measure success.

I needed clear goals, and I needed pressure, but I also needed rewards! In the early days, I set goals where if I wrote a certain amount of pages, I would reward myself with additional reading time, or a trip alone to the library.

I stepped it up a bit after I discovered contests in The Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market. Contests worked for me because they came with a list of strict guidelines including specific formats, word count, and last but not least: a deadline. Not to mention, they were great practice for getting ready for future submissions. Every time I sent off an entry, I’d treat myself to a trip to the bookstore to purchase a new book, or simply give myself the rest of the day off.

After I’d accomplished some contest success, I felt comfortable enough to move to the next level—conferences. Getting ready for a conference meant preparing myself with everything from elevator pitches, to feedback from one on one critiques, to meeting complete strangers and networking. The experience and knowledge gained at a conference were invaluable rewards.

Joining a critique group was next on the list. I was terrified at the thought of face-to-face critiques with people I’d never met, but it seemed all the successful writer interviews I’d ever read recommended joining a critique group. And since my goal was to become a successful writer, I stepped out of my comfort zone and signed up. Talk about deadlines and accountability--my group meets every two weeks and we push each other to not only submit material to each other, but also to contests, agents, editors, or whatever the case may be. The experience, sharing of information, and the friendships have been life-changing.

So, many years and goals later, I have met personal deadlines, graduated from the safety of anonymous contests to face to face pitches with agents and editors, endured the brutal honesty of a critique group, and as difficult as it was to let go and face the possibility of rejection, I sent my completed YA novel out to agents...

I’m overjoyed to report that seven weeks ago, I reached my goal of obtaining an agent!! My reward is huge—I’m going to the RWA Nationals in NYC and I get to meet with my agent in person!!

And after my agent approves my revisions and sends my manuscript out on submission, I plan on meeting my ultimate goal: getting published!!

…Then I’ll start all over with a whole new set of goals; )

Do you have any goal-setting tips you’d like to share?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Summer Fun!

What’s the next best thing to taking a summer vacation to an exotic locale?

Reading about someone who did, of course!

This week’s post is about one such book (and includes a little contest!)
The book is Maureen Johnson’s 13 Little Blue Envelopes. It features Ginny, who is off on an adventure orchestrated by her deceased non-conformist aunt. Using the instructions found in a series of 13 letters, Ginny travels throughout Europe, living in the moment, learning about her aunt, and falling a little bit in love along the way!

If you’d like to win a copy of this book, you must follow this blog (if you don’t already!) and post a comment by midnight (Eastern Time) Saturday, June 18. From those who comment, I’ll randomly select one person (U.S. entrants only) to mail the book to (sorry, no little blue envelope).

Here are some ideas for your comments inspired by Maureen’s book:

1. Ginny has a cool aunt—do you? What fun things have you done with your aunt?

When I was nine, my own aunt predicted I would someday live in Paris. Sure enough, I did. My aunt also showed up to take me on a wild European adventure (which included nearly being robbed by gypsies on a night train to Prague)

2. Ginny’s aunt used a theme to paint a whole café in Paris. If you had to paint a café, what theme would you use?

I’m going to have to go with elephants, myself.

3. Letters—ah, that lost art form! What letter are you glad you saved or what is one that you wish you had saved?

O.K., I admit I still have that first love letter. (Clears throat). And I got rid of a whole series of letters from my grandmother in which she told her life story.

4. What other Y.A. travel stories have you read and loved?

Be sure not to miss Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins!

5. Yeah, sure, you can pick your own topic too!

Happy summer travels, whether real or imagined!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Storyboarding—it’s not just for moviemakers

I have amazing movies in my head. The scenes grow from subtle details like lighting and body language, to breathtaking action powered by strong emotion. Of course there’s snappy dialog, too, delivered with tone of voice and driven by deep internal motivation. I’m talking epic stuff, here. Big, good, funny.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a movie projector in my skull—I can’t point my head at a screen and charge theater prices for popcorn. I can’t even stick a USB cable in my ear and brain-dump my mental productions into MS Word. There is no app for Kurt’s psyche (consider yourself lucky). So... I write. I convert my omniscient writer/director dreams into two-dimensional, black and white text.

To help me translate detailed action sequences into text, I sometimes act out the scene, while narrating it aloud. With luck, I can describe the action in everyday words, and even remember them long enough to type them into my computer. But acting doesn’t work when I need to freeze a moment and see it from the outside. That’s when I borrow a trick from movie making, called storyboarding, and run it backwards.

When a movie director translates the written word of a screenplay into the lights and sound of a movie, he or she will often start by drawing pictures. These cartoon-like images, called a storyboard, show freeze-frame moments of action from the audience’s perspective. By studying the pictures, a film crew can figure out lights, cameras, marks, eye lines, and so on. Words become pictures, which become movies. All I do is reverse the process, going from pictures to words, except that...

I don’t draw well. My brother is the cartoonist in the family (shameless plug—you can see his work at I’m the unseen brother in strip number 109, and no, you can’t have my Prada sneakers). Anyway, I don’t draw, so I use a camera. Most recently, I made a storyboard for a rewrite of a car chase. The scene is too dangerous to video, so I used still photos instead. In this scene—which is the modern equivalent of the stagecoach robbery in an old western—the absurdly macho Hammerfist hangs out the car door, brandishing his club.

Picture 1: Hero-wannabe Hammerfist prepares to hurl his club (I think he’s compensating) at an SUV full of ninjas.

Picture 2: The car drifts into a rut, tilting the car and dropping Hammerfist perilously close to the ground.

Picture 3: The car slides into an opposing rut, swinging the door closed. Crunch!

Not only do I have these images to study and translate into words, but I have also demonstrated that the actions are humanly possible—an important detail, because my top-notch critique group asked.

Storyboarding works for me, maybe it can work for you. Or maybe you have another trick of the trade. Let me know, and post a link if you’ve got an example on your website.