Friday, November 19, 2010

Giving Thanks to Writing Mentors

Becoming a successful writer often requires the help of others. That help can come in the form of presentations at writer’s conferences, support and advice from fellow writing critique group members, other writers’ blogs, and sometimes just a good friend or mentor. As I’ve developed my writing over the past 23 years, I’ve received help from all those sources. However, the greatest impact to my writing development came from two individuals who to a significant degree became my writing mentors in my early years.

The first of these is my good friend Dave Wolverton (aka David Farland of Runelords fame). I met Dave when I first starting writing seriously and just as his career was beginning to take off. He was always willing to share helpful advice, provide kind criticism, and give encouragement. He helped spark inside me the confidence I needed to keep at it and to give me valuable insights on how to improve my writing and career. Dave continues to provide advice and encouragement to thousands of other writers through his “Daily Kick” e-newsletter that anybody can sign up for at

My second writing mentor is another good friend, picture book author, Rick Walton. When I first started writing picture books, Rick invited me to participate in a critique group that gave me my first glimpse at the essentials of picture book writing. Over the years Rick has continued to be a good friend, selflessly doing what he could to help me and other fellow children’s authors. While Rick is a prolific writer with over 50 books published (more info at that’s not what makes him unique. Rick has nurtured or contributed in some way to the writing efforts of probably every published and aspiring children’s author with ties to the state of Utah. To some degree the same might be said for many of my fellow Utah children’s authors, but I’m fairly certain that most of them would agree that Rick stands out on top as one who has selflessly given his time and energy to help all the aspiring or published children’s authors he meets.

With this being the month of Thanksgiving, I thought it appropriate to give a shout out of thanks to these two individuals that, whether they realize it or not, have had a significant influence and positive impact on my writing career. So, a gigantic thanks to Dave and Rick for all you’ve done for me and the many others you’ve helped.

Okay, time to name names and give thanks. What individuals have had the most positive impact on your writing efforts or career?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Do Teen and Pre-Teen Boys Like to Read?

I'm conducting an informal survey of why teen and pre-teen boys (ages 10-19) do or do not like to read. If you're a boy ages 10 to 19, please complete the survey below. Please only complete the survey once.

I'll be running the survey until the end of the month. Please share the link to this blog poll with others and encourage the teen and pre-teen boys you know to participate. Thanks.

Do you like to read?

I would read more if:

Books that interest me include:

Monday, November 8, 2010

Cow Can't Sleep

Just signed the contracts for my picture book, "Cow Can't Sleep", which will be published by Marshall Cavendish in Spring 2013.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Haiku Attempt

I needed to write some haiku for a class I'm taking, even though I hadn't written one since grade school. Anyway, I thought I'd share. Enjoy.


Pink fire paints the sky
Sparks the blaze of lover’s hearts
Strolling summer sands


The pigskin sails true
The blue shirt leaps and reaches
Sixty thousand groan


Sun peaks above lake
Chill glass shimmers beneath me
Sick wake makes me fly


Gold leaves swirl the trees
Icy drops drench graying path
Trudge the long trek home


Tiny fingers wrap
Around my pinky and heart
Dawns love forever


Note: Autumn leaves image by Ian Britton courtesy of

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Getting Unstuck with Research

When you get stuck in your writing, sometimes researching your subject or new ideas is the best way to get unstuck. In my office I have shelves full of books that help me research. I have books on birds, mammals, horses, plants, trees, gardening, castles, medieval life, comedy, body language, baby names and more. I also have an assortment of encyclopedias, visual dictionaries, rhyming dictionaries, reverse dictionaries, regular dictionaries, thesauri and atlases. While early in my writing career I used these books extensively, my use of them has become less frequent with the rise of the Internet.

The Internet is a treasure trove of knowledge that allows you to do research in ways unimaginable years ago. If I need a quick answer, I simply Google it. Want to know the flight speed of an African swallow? Google it. Need to know the fashion trends or street slang of today, the sixties, or the 1300s? Google it. If I’m unsure of the correct meaning of a word, it’s often faster to Google the word than to look it up in my dictionary. Google and the Internet can take you places that you’ve never been before, giving you insights and ideas that bring color and detail to your stories.

While Google can quickly direct you to multiple sites with the information you need, there are a number of sites you might want to bookmark (aka make favorites) so you can easily visit them as needed. Wikipedia is one these, providing a virtual online encyclopedia with quick access to basic information in often easy-to-understand language on over 3 millions subjects. But be careful, some information in Wikipedia is not always accurate. So, before you rely on it, verify the information from another source.

Other favorite sites include, the social security administration popular baby names site, which can help you in naming your characters. It lets you see the popularity of the top 20 to a 1,000 boys and girls names for every year from 1879 to the present. provides you online field guides. The CIA World Factbook provides detailed information on almost every country in the world such as population, ethnic groups, native languages spoken, economic conditions and factors, political systems, communication infrastructure, international relationships and more.

As great as the Internet is as a research resource, don’t let it make you lazy. There’s nothing like experiencing a setting or getting ideas first hand. Talking to someone who has actually experienced something that you’re writing about can deliver much more valuable insight than anything you can get off the Internet. Researching a location online doesn’t expose you to the sights, sounds, smells, and attitudes that you get walking the streets, back alleys, and dirt paths of the place itself.

Still, there are times when the Internet becomes your next best option. For example, this past summer I visited D.C. for a book I’m working on. Unfortunately, in the week I was there I couldn’t visit all the places I needed to get the details, insights and imagery I needed for my book. In fact, there are places that I didn’t know that I needed to visit until after I got home and continued with my writing. Google Images lets me see the sights that I didn’t have a chance to visit. Google Maps makes it easier for me to get a feel for the layout of the city. But one of the coolest tools, is the street view that Google Maps provides, letting me virtually travel down any street in Washington D.C. to see its people, shops, parks, monuments, and more. If only it had a Google Smell and Google Sound, then I’d be that much closer to actually being there.

What are the most valuable research tools you use in your writing?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Getting Unstuck with Brainstorming

When you’re stuck for ideas in your writing, brainstorming is one of the best ways to get unstuck. There are a number of brainstorming techniques, but a few of the most popular ones include listing, free writing, what ifs, and webbing (aka spidering, mind mapping, ballooning, clustering).  No matter what technique you use, one of the most important things to remember when brainstorming is that there are no dumb ideas. When you brainstorm, you turn off your internal editor and write every idea that comes to you to allow your creative juices to flow freely.

Listing is perhaps the easiest brainstorming technique. As the name suggests, you simply make a list of every idea that comes to you. Listing can be particularly helpful if you have a general topic or idea of what you want to write about, but you need to get a little more specific. For example, you might want to write a story about dogs, so as fast as you can you start listing everything you know about dogs. Your list might start off something like this; bark, fleas, collar, drool, fetch, roll-over, food dish, snoopy, leash, Frisbee, and the list goes on.

Free writing is another great way to get the creative juices flowing. Sometimes we stare at a blank screen for so long, we condition ourselves to think we’ll never come up with a good idea. Free writing is a way to shove aside that negative thinking, by simply writing whatever comes to our mind. It can be words, whole sentences, paragraphs—whatever comes to our mind, we just type it, no matter how nonsensical or unrelated the thoughts are. Once again, you turn off your internal editor and let your imagination go free.

“What ifs” is a good technique to use in conjunction with listing and free writing. You can take some of the more interesting things from your list, and ask what if questions about those items, and free writing your thoughts or answers. For example, you could free write answers to the question what if dogs couldn’t bark?

Webbing or spidering is my favorite type of brainstorming, especially when it comes to creating and developing plots. Like the other techniques, with webbing you write down whatever ideas come to you, but you make visual connections between your different ideas. For example, to web a story idea about dogs that can’t bark, you write “dogs can’t bark” in the center of your paper and as you come up with your “what if” ideas, you write them down and connect a line between it and main your idea. If one of your new ideas sparks another idea, you draw a connecting line between those ideas, and you just keep writing and connecting ideas until you have what looks like a spider web of ideas or something like my picture at the top.

I like to use a whiteboard for my web brainstorm sessions, but the problem with whiteboards is that they aren’t permanent. But here are two easy ways to solve that. The first is to take a picture of your web. The second, which is my preferred method, is to enter your results into a webbing program like FreeMind, (a free mind mapping program). Or if you prefer, you can skip the whiteboard and just begin with the webbing or mind mapping software . My preference is to use a pen and whiteboard first. For some reason, my creative side seems to like the feel of a pen in my hand.

What are your favorite brainstorming techniques or tools?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Getting Unstuck

Once in awhile writers can get stuck at a certain point of their story that prevents them from moving past that point. This might happen for a number of reasons. Perhaps, you’ve discovered some plot problems that need to be fleshed out further. Maybe the characters you’ve written are developing in an unexpected way that requires you to rethink a few things. You might simply be running low on ideas. A lot of times it simply comes down to the fact that you’re not sure what direction to take the story next. This can happen even if you’ve created a detailed outline of your story, requiring you to rethink or revise your outline.

Reworking or further developing my outline is often one of the first things that I do when I get stuck like this. But to do that often requires the acquisition of fresh ideas. So, if a quick fix of the outline isn’t sufficient, I usually do one of two things, or both—more research and brainstorming. Sometimes, it’ll just take a few hours of these activities, other times it can take days, weeks or months. But the longer it takes the more frustrating it can get, especially if I’ve already spent months or years developing the ideas and plots for a story. Once I dig into a story, I don’t like getting stuck. I just want to write.

In the next few days, I’ll talk a little about some of my favorite research and brainstorming tools that I use to get unstuck so I can resume the writing process.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Do It Right the First Time?

Sorry I haven’t blogged much over the past little bit, but I’ve been consumed by an extensive home improvement project. More accurately, I should refer to it as a home revision project, fixing a problem in our home’s roof that wouldn’t be a problem if the original builders had simply done things right the first time. What ultimately cost me more than a week’s worth of back-breaking, long days of hard work under a scorching sun, could have been eliminated if our home builders had not sacrificed quality to save them time and effort up front.

This experience has made me draw some parallels to how different writers write. In doing this, I’m not suggesting that others’ writing styles are bad or wrong, but it sheds some light on why I write the way I do. In my associations with other authors and while attending numerous writing conferences, I’ve heard many writers express that when they write they treat their first drafts as, well, as first drafts. They’re more concerned about getting they’re story down on paper, then worrying in the first draft about some of the different nuances that makes a story great. For example, they might wait until subsequent drafts to smooth out the dialogue, make the setting more captivating, fix plot inconsistencies, clean up grammar and punctuation, and other such details. There are a lot of good reasons for writing this way. One, it allows you to take advantage of streams of inspiration as they come. It can keep your internal editor at bay so you don’t let your own self-criticism hold you back. For some people this is simply a more productive way of writing for them. And for others the process of going through several later wholesale drafts and rewrites simply works best for them. But not for me.

For me, I prefer to get my first draft as close to final as possible. This doesn’t mean I don’t do revisions. In fact, I do a lot of revisions, perhaps more revisions than those who go through several drafts. Whenever I sit down to write, before I write anything new, I go back over the last few pages and chapters tightening them, revising them, and making them as perfect as I can get them at that point. One of the reasons I do this is that when you do a full-manuscript edit and revision, a lot of problems (big and small) can easily go unnoticed just due to the sheer magnitude of the effort required. But by breaking down the edit and revision process into smaller segments that can be repeated several times, I’m more likely to catch my mistakes and see potential problems that are easier to fix now than they would be if waited until later.

Also, I'd much rather discover a plot problem in chapter 5 of the first draft while I’m still working on chapter 5, then to discover it after I’ve written 30 more chapters that are based on that flawed plot premise. For me, I’d rather do it right the first time.

Don’t get me wrong, I still do several full-manuscript revisions and edits, but when I do I’m able to focus more on improving and enhancing elements of the overall story rather than a fixing a multitude of minor mistakes that I easily could have fixed early on, as well as significant problems that require a major story overhaul.

The other thing that this method of writing allows me to do, is that by constantly going back to my most recently written pages and chapters, I’m ensuring that the voice and tone of the story remains consistent throughout the story. It keeps in my mind on little character or plot nuances that can sometimes be forgotten when you rush through a manuscript.

Even though this works best for me, it might not work well for other writers. In fact, I’m the only writer I know that works this way. But the key to all of this is that while you’ll receive all sorts of different advice from different authors, not all advice is created equal. When an author tells you that his or her way of doing things is the best or only way of doing things right, it’s good to listen and try to understand why they feel that way, but ultimately you have to decide what works for you.

What works best for you? What's your writing process in terms of edits and revisions? Why?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Admit Writing Mistakes

Yesterday, in my work-in-progress YA I finally finished a chapter that I've been working on for the past few weeks. There is so much I love about this chapter, the girl hero in the book finally meets the cute guy she's been wanting to meet, things don't go well in the meeting, they fight, she struggles with external and internal conflicts of how to deal with the guy, elements of mystery and suspense grow, etc. Anyway, it took a lot of work to get everything just right with it and I'm really pleased with the results except for one thing. A major premise of the chapter simply isn't believable. Oh, the tension, mystery and suspense I could have created if that premise worked, but it just doesn't. I have to take the chapter a different direction and rewrite it.

While I was writing the chapter, I kept telling myself I can make this work, I can make this work, even though in the back of my mind I knew readers wouldn't buy into what I was trying to get them to believe.

As writers, sometimes it's really hard to admit that something we really like in our writing isn't going to work. We might be able to fool ourselves, but you can't always fool your readers. The reality is that you have to be objective with your writing and admit when there are problems that need to be fixed. But too often we're easily blinded to these problems and we just don't see them. That's where a good critique group can be a big help.

What are some things you do to get past author blindness and identify problems in your writing?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Creating Characters with Depth

One of the ways of adding depth to your stories is to make sure your characters have depth. You need to go far beyond having a character with a basic set of emotions coupled with a physical description of the character.

Your character needs history. What has happened in her life to make her who she is? What’s her relationship with her parents, siblings, children, friends, bosses, teachers, and others?

No one is perfect, so your character needs flaws. How do these flaws play into the plot? Do they create additional conflict, internally or externally? Even if your antagonist is the most evil person in the world, your character needs some good qualities to show their humanity. Obviously, your protagonist needs good qualities too. Otherwise we won’t care what happens to her.

Your characters need to have inner conflicts that the people around them can’t see or don’t know about. Everyone puts on a front or a face that they show the world, which is different than how they view themselves. We need to see the discrepancies between the character’s inner self and the self they show the world. When we talk, we don’t always say what we mean—the same thing has to happen with your characters from time to time—where you know they’re thinking one thing, but saying something different. Once again it becomes the clash between the inner self and the outer self.

These are just a few things to watch out for when adding depth to your characters. Below are a few of my favorite books that provide even more valuable insights on creating characters with depth.

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card - Provides invaluable perspectives on how to develop and use your characters to make your stories come alive.

The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus – While this book primarily focuses on how to add humor to your stories, it also covers many aspects of creating multi-dimensional characters in terms of their flaws, humanity, and unique perspective on the world.

Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon - From listings of physical attributes to character actions and the way they dress, this is a good reference or resource book for helping you define the unique characteristics of your individual characters.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Open for Interpretation

Have you ever read a book only to have it end without telling you how it really ended? I hate it when that happens. When you invest all that time in a book, you want some closure. While those kinds of books often bug me, there is something that can be learned by that approach to writing. By not disclosing all the final details, the author leaves it to the reader’s imagination to fill in the missing blanks. I think it’s interesting that a skilled author often has different readers filling in those blanks with very different personal interpretations.

While I’m not espousing that writers shouldn’t bring closure to their books, I do believe that a story has much more depth and intrigue when it is crafted in a way that throughout the story its readers derive diverse meanings from its storyline or message. To do this, an author has to refrain from hitting the reader over the head with preconceived themes or messages. The author has to keep from always impressing their own personal judgments on their characters’ behaviors and attitudes. The author has to avoid the temptation to tell us everything the protagonists think about themselves, others, and the events of the story. In other words, the author needs to leave some things open for interpretation by the reader. The author needs to let the readers discover their own meanings from the story.

This can often be accomplished by simply showing what happens in the story versus telling what happens in the story (See Show Your Readers the Way and Make Your Story Come Alive). A basic example of this would be instead of telling us that a Joe is angry, hurt and wants revenge on Bill because Bill stole his girlfriend, you show us Joe’s reactions from body language to action. Does he yell and scream, threatening Bill, or does he smile and feign friendship in order to better set up his revenge and keep Bill and the reader guessing at what Joe is really up to?

The point is that a story becomes much engaging and memorable when crafted in a way that readers are allowed to discover their own personal insights and interpretations from the story.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Story Depth and Balance

Sometimes writers will argue what’s more important, the characters or the plot? The truth is there needs to be a balance between the two. Plot driven stories on their own are flat and have no depth, while character driven stories on their own can often wander with little direction or with nothing really happening, making them a bit tedious and boring.  A quality story will typically have both an action driven plot and a character driven plot, with each feeding off each other.

The action driven plot is sometimes known as the external or surface plot. The character driven plot is often referred to as the internal plot. It deals with the characters’ emotions, relationships, internal struggles, the inner workings of their minds, and motivations.

For example, in the Harry Potter books the external plot usually involves Harry trying to beat Voldemort, while the internal plots deal with Harry trying to understand who he really is as he tries to learn about his parents and the strange connection he shares with Voldemort. The fact that the external and internal plots often intertwine and at times are at odds with each other makes the story that more compelling.

Best-selling author, David Farland once said, “A well plotted novel is really a dance between character and event.” So, how do you choreograph this dance? As you write, you ask questions like the following. Why do the characters care about what’s going on around them? How do the actions of the plot affect the character? What are the characters motivations to act? How do the characters act and respond to the events of the plot?

The important thing to remember is that for your novel to have the ideal depth and staying power, you need a rich set of intriguing characters that have to deal with an array of internal struggles while fighting to come out on top of the more obvious physical battles that surround them.

If you ever have a chance to attend one of David Farland’s writing workshops, do it. In addition to being a great author, David is a great writing mentor and teacher as well. He truly knows his stuff. You can find out about his workshops at

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Avoiding the "Too Slight" Label

Have you ever been told by an editor or someone else that your story is “too slight” and wondered what that meant? What does it mean when a story is slight? When editors say a story is too slight, typically it means that the story is too flat or one dimensional. It can also mean that the premise is too weak, your characters have no depth, or that there’s simply not enough going on in your story. Often the too slight label occurs because the story focuses primarily on the action of the story or primarily on the story’s characters. In other words, it doesn’t work on multiple levels.

Some things to work on in order to avoid the “too slight” label include, crafting your story such that readers can get multiple meanings from the storyline, developing an engaging blend of both external plots and internal plots, and creating believable characters that are multi-dimensional.

While I’ll talk in more detail about these subjects in future posts, what are some other things can you do to create stories with more depth and avoid the “too slight” label.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Selling Out?

So, in my last post about universal appeal, Riss asks, “If you're writing about a subject because it has universal appeal, rather than because you care about it, don't you run the risk of insincerity?” She then implies that it might be akin to selling out. I respond to that question with another question – “What’s your purpose in writing?”

If you’re writing just for your own personal enjoyment or enrichment, universal appeal is moot. But if you’re writing to entertain, to educate, to get a point across, or even to share your opinion with others, your reading audience will be quite small if what you write does not appeal to your readers at some level. In my opinion writing to “appeal” is not selling out, it’s simply writing about something that others care about or can connect with at an emotional level. The more people that care about or can emotionally connect with the subject, the more universal it becomes and the greater chance you have that more people will read it.

If you don’t care how many people read your story, then it doesn’t matter if your story appeals or not. But that’s just my opinion. What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Appealing to the Reader

For a book to really succeed, it has to have universal appeal. This means readers from all walks of life need to be able to relate to your story at an emotional level. In other words, they need to care about your story. For children’s picture books, this applies to both little people (the listeners) and big people (the readers and buyers). It seems obvious, but it’s often an overlooked fact that if people don’t care about the subject matter of your story, they’re not going to want to read it.

A problem that many beginning writers have is that they’ll write stories that have significant meaning to themselves, their children, or family members, but outside of that small circle it’s just a nice story. The story has to have significant appeal to a very large circle of people that encompasses the country, and better yet the world. That doesn’t mean that it has to be a story of interest to everyone in the world, just a large cross-section or percentage.

However, a word of caution. Many of the subjects with the greatest universal appeal have been so overdone that they have become cliché. Unless you can present them in a very unique or fresh fashion, you should stay away from these subjects.

So as part your of writing efforts, you need to search for subjects that have universal appeal. For children’s books, you have to discover what kids care about.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Does it cost to quote stuff?

In the course of writing a story, occasionally you might want to quote a line from a movie, a poem, or song. Maybe you want to mention the name of a restaurant, a book or something else. Or, maybe you're afraid to because you don't know if it's allowed or if it will cost you. Well, Rachelle Gardner, an agent at WordServe Literary, answers many of those questions in her blog post today called "Stuff You Pay For".

The blog post initially talks about whether an author has to pay to have an index put in a book, but then delves into other stuff that authors have to pay for and get permissions for. Some of the more detailed information is actually found in her comments, so don't skip the comments.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Let the Creative Juices Flow

Too often as writers we hole-up in our little writing nooks, hovering over our keyboards day in and day out, and seldom coming up for air-- all in an effort to be as productive as possible. Unfortunately, not only can this be unhealthy, but it can lead to un-productivity as well.

To keep our creative juices flowing at their peak, we need to get out once in awhile and explore this world we live in. Talk to people. Visit places. Interact with the world around us.

I spent part of last week visiting Bryce Canyon National Park. What a beautiful and inspiring place. Often when I visit places like this it stirs the imagination and creates inspiration for my stories.

What places have you visited that have been a great inspiration for setting or other aspects of your story? What gets your creative juices flowing at their best?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Name that Theme - Part 3

While I’m not a big fan of fiction that focuses more on teaching than on story, that doesn’t mean stories shouldn’t teach. In fact, the best stories are the ones that do the best job of teaching. I’ll explain what I mean.

The best stories often take protagonists through a series of events where they have to face their most terrifying fears, overcome their biggest weaknesses, endure their greatest challenges, live through the most devastating crises of their live, and so on. As a result, protagonists often must make a journey of self-discovery where they realize they need to make internal changes in order to come out on top. If these discoveries come by way of the natural turns that the story takes – and not through author intrusion or some obvious manipulation of the story to get a certain point across—then they can ring true for us and can lead us to discover things about ourselves.

These stories with unintended messages teach us best because they let us go on our own journey of self-discovery, where we uncover our own pearls of knowledge. These might be stories that create such intrigue that even after we’ve closed the book we can’t stop thinking about what we read, pondering and wondering about its hidden meanings. It could be that certain characters, events or the whole story simply resonate with us, triggering thoughts, ideas and emotions that go beyond the pages of the book.

What do you think of this? Does any of it ring true for you? Does teaching, learning, or lack of it affect your enjoyment of a book?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Name that Theme - Part 2

Yesterday, Lois commented on my blog that “themes emerge in all types of writing” and that “stories that don't try and shove the theme down your throat are much more enjoyable.” I agree completely with these comments. In fact, I had already planned on talking about this aspect of theme or preachy-ness in today’s post.

A few years ago, another author asked me if I ever felt that something I had written had become too preachy? In answer, I indicated that it might have been the case in some of my earlier writing, but now if I find something that sounds preachy, I try to get rid of it. The problem with setting out to preach a message or make a point in our writing is that all of us carry with us a certain set of ideals, standards, or morals that we live buy. In most cases I believe that those ideals and standards will seep into our writing subconsciously without us trying. I don't think that's a problem, as long as we're aware of that and we make sure to temper it and not let it take over the story, but instead keep it in the background.

However, when we set out to create a story with the goal of preaching an ideal, making a specific point or addressing a theme, that message usually comes across so strong that it not only alienates the reader, but squashes any chance of resulting in a story that the typical reader will enjoy and want to read.

So, as I said in my original post, you have to focus first on the story, but that doesn’t mean stories shouldn’t teach. In fact, in my next post I’ll discuss how the best stories do teach us.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Name that Theme

I’m currently taking a class on literary criticism, a subject that I have never really been a fan of. To my surprise there have been a number of elements in the class that I have enjoyed and have proved insightful. However, I’m currently studying a section on theme, which at times I’m finding a bit bothersome.

I’ve always had problems with the concept of theme. To me the idea of theme suggests that I’ve set out to write a book to make a point, or to teach or preach something. While there are a number of books written specifically with that goal in mind, that’s typically not my goal. Usually, my goal in writing is to create a story that entertains and touches people on a variety of emotional levels. While the book might end up indirectly teaching something, that’s great if it’s not at the expense of the story. For me, the story needs to come first. In fact, I believe that’s a mistake many beginning authors make—they want to teach something, so they create a story as the vehicle for teaching that point. As a result, the story suffers. You need to focus first on the story.

I’ll have more on the subject of theme and being preachy in my next post. In the meantime, what do you think of the concept of theme? What do you think about writing fiction in order to teach or preach a specific point? Do you think most contemporary authors have a theme in mind in their writing?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Research in D.C.

I'm spending the week in our nation's capital doing research for a YA novel I'm currently working on. It's nice when you can combine work with family vacations.

What's been some of your funnest on-site research that you've done.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Reluctant Readers No More – Part 2

Last post I talked about how to turn your children into passionate readers, but what do you do if they've already become reluctant readers. I'm sure there are a wide variety of opinions on this, but I think many kids become reluctant readers because they haven’t yet been introduced to books that are interesting to them or they are forced (in school or at home) to read books that are boring to them . Often, so-called great literature or classics aren't that interesting to young readers. Even your Newbery winners at times leave a lot to be desired. As a result, if the only books that a child is encouraged to read are the ones that don't interest them, they make the assumption that all books are boring or not exciting.

However, there are plenty of books available that help reluctant readers overcome this mindset. I think books that break the so-called norm can help the reluctant reader become an interested reader. I think books like Junie B. Jones, Captain Underpants, Time Warp Trio, Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid all fall in this category of books that break the norm. On part 1 of this blog topic, PragmaticMom shared in the comments a link to some of her Favorite Books for Reluctant Boy Readers Grades 3-5th. I think it's interesting that many books on her list are some that break the norm, but then she also has a mix of classics and newbery winners.

For some reluctant readers it might be a simple matter of finding the right genre, i.e. fantasy, SF, Horror, action thrillers, sports, educational, etc. Harry Potter opened up the fantasy world to many readers, as well as just the reading world in general. However, for some young readers Harry Potter seems too long. Overall length of a book can be a major obstacle. They look at how many pages are in it and it just seems too overwhelming. In those cases, shorter can be better.

I think the main key is to find books that interest the reader. Every reader is different, but there are plenty of book choices out there to turn your reluctant readers into passionate readers.

What are your suggestions for turning reluctant readers into passionate readers? What books or strategies do you recommend?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Reluctant Readers No More – Part 1

I have often heard the question from parents, teachers, or book enthusiasts “How do you get ‘reluctant readers’ to read?” I believe this has a 2-part answer, the first part being that before they ever even have a chance to become reluctant readers, you turn them into “passionate readers”. How do you do this? It starts at home and it starts early.

Parents play a major role in creating enthusiastic or passionate readers. When parents simply take the time to consistently read to children a few minutes every day when they are very young (reading books that the children enjoy), their children will develop an interest in reading and become readers for life. This has been a tradition in our home at bedtime, and each of our five children have become avid readers, often to the point where punishment for wrong doing has sometimes been to take their books away. In many of these cases, the wrongdoing was actually reading when they were supposed to be cleaning their room, doing their jobs, getting ready for bed or going to bed.

One of the biggest obstacles to reading to children is the time commitment, but the benefits make it well worth making that commitment. Not only does it develop a love for reading in your children, but it becomes a time for parent and child to have fun together, grow closer to each other, and create great memories.

How has reading to your children worked for you? What strategies have you used to make time for reading in the midst of hectic schedules?

Next post, I’ll talk about the second part of the answer, which is what do you do if your child is already a reluctant reader.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Author's Voice - Make Your Story Come Alive

When you ask children's book editors what they look for in a manuscript or what makes one story stand above another, you'll often get responses like it has to have a "fresh voice", distinctive voice", "strong voice" or "memorable voice". It all comes back to the author's voice or the voice of the story. But what is voice?

Voice is one of those intangible things that’s hard to wrap your fingers around.There are probably dozens of different definitions of what voice is, but for me voice is what gives the story feeling and personality. It’s what lets you feel like you know the character. It’s the language and style of the story  (i.e. POV, active voice, sentence structure, simile/metaphor, alliteration, rhythm, repetition, contrasts, onomatopoeia, exaggeration, allusion, etc.) , the tone, the rhythm, and the mood.  It’s the emotion and personality of the characters, the narrative, and the story itself.

The bottom line is that voice is what makes the story come alive.

What's your definition of voice? What makes a story come alive for you?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Lawn Care and Fixing Your Manuscript - Part 2

The other day as I worked on my lawn to figure out why a small patch wasn’t growing very well, I discovered a rock just a few inches below the surface. As I peeled more and more lawn away, I discovered it was a huge rock. In fact it was a three foot boulder. I spent the day digging around it and eventually pulled it out with a giant crowbar, a tow chain and my truck.

Sometimes our stories are like that too. The small problems we see on the surface might actually be a symptom of a more significant foundational problem that can take a lot of work to fix. For example, a number of years back I wrote a middle grade fantasy novel that garnered interest from a few editors, but not to the point where I received any offers. I thought that was about to change with one editor who praised it up and down. Some of the other editors at the house thoroughly enjoyed it as well, but it hit a road block when it reached the head honcho at the publisher. The final comment came back saying even though we loved your writing, we felt the novel wasn’t quite original enough.

That response really took me by surprise. I couldn’t figure out what they were talking about. The magic system was very original. The characters were very original. The story line was very original. What did they mean? I had to dig deeper to figure out what they were talking about and as I did I realized that I had some key foundational plot elements that had become cliché in the fantasy genre. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a quick fix. It would require some major re-landscaping of the plot, storyline, and character to fix it.

The point is that you can’t ignore what might seem on the surface to be just a small problem. If in the eyes of your critique group and readers everything in your story seems great except for a few minor things, fix the minor things. They might be symptoms of something bigger. If you’re getting rejections—even if they’re encouraging, personalized rejections—try to discover ultimately why your story is getting rejected and remedy it. Sometimes you need to dig deep below the surface to find out what’s holding your story back. If you’re lucky it still might only need a few tweaks. If not, be prepared to get your hands dirty and do what it takes to make it work.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Lawn Care and Fixing Your Manuscript

Over the weekend I realized that you can draw some parallels between fixing up your yard and fixing up your novel. We had a small patch of lawn that for the past several years has never really done very good. The grass grew thin there and was always dried out. On Saturday I decided to dig beneath that patch of lawn to see why it was behaving badly and fix it. I figured it probably had few rocks or gravel near the surface that I just needed to take out and replace with good soil, making it a twenty minute job tops.

Sometimes our stories are like that where we can tell there’s a problem, but we’re not sure what it is. We have to dig down into it to discover the cause of the problem. This is where critique groups or readers can be a great a help. They might tell us that some of the dialogue doesn’t sound natural, the setting in one of our scenes doesn’t feel real, we have too much description, or not enough. It’s amazing how much you can improve a story by just doing some minor reworking or tweaking based on feedback you’ve received from readers or critique group members.

Unfortunately, sometimes you have to do more than just a little tweaking or editing. You might find as you dig in below the surface you have a bigger problem than you realized. That’s what happened with my lawn. In my next post I’ll tell you more about what I discovered under my lawn and how that relates to writing too.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Show Your Readers the Way

The other day I talked about the difference between showing versus telling, and why showing your readers your story’s world is so important. Often writers on the verge of understanding the concept of showing versus telling will sometimes successfully show with their writing, but then they ruin it with a follow-up telling phrase. It’s like they realize that they need to show, but they either don’t trust their writing skill at showing or they don’t trust that their reader will get it.

For example, if I write, “I close my eyes and bury my whole head into the folds of my arms. The entire class is staring at me. I want to die.” This is showing and leaves the reader to figure out what the character is feeling. But too often a new writer will follow-up this phrase with a telling statement like, “I am so embarrassed.” This mix of showing versus telling is patronizing to the reader. It’s like you’re saying, “Hey, I’ve given you clues to figure out what going on in my hero’s head, but I don’t think you’re smart enough to figure it out.” This hurts your story and turns the reader off.

When it comes to showing instead of telling, you have to trust your writing and your readers. As I said in my post of the other day, let your writing show us everything about your characters and setting. If you want to transport your reader into the pages of your book, you have to “show” them the way.

In addition to showing, what are some other ways to transport your readers into your story?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Show Don’t Tell – Make Your Story Come Alive

One of the most important things for new writers to learn, and almost the hardest to learn as well, is to show instead of tell. Your writing needs to show us what happens, not tell us what happens. For example, don’t describe the kind of person your character is or how your character feels, let the reader discover character traits and feelings through actions, thoughts, body language, and speech. So, if your character is annoyed, don’t tell us he’s annoyed, show us he’s annoyed by what he says or in his facial expression. The same thing with setting, don’t describe your setting, show us your setting by using the five senses. If it’s raining, you don’t say it’s raining. You say the downpour soaked my clothes. You don’t say it’s cold. You say, he shivered or he brushed the snow out his hair.

The way to tell if you’re showing, instead of telling, is if your reader has to figure out for himself what your reader is thinking, feeling, or doing. If you spell everything out for your readers, you’re telling. The point is that your writing needs to show us everything about your world. The reader doesn’t want to be told about your world, he wants to live it and feel it. Showing lets that happen.

Later this week I’ll have a little more to say about showing versus telling. In the meantime, tell me why you think showing versus telling is so important.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Authors Have a Life Too

I think some people picture an author’s life as being full of glamor, fame, and living an exotic lifestyle, I don’t know how it is with all authors, but I think most of us live pretty normal lives. That’s true even for the few best-selling authors that I know.  Some might have a few more conferences, book signings, and school visits than others, but other than that we deal with the same issues as everyone else.

For example, yesterday I spent a frustrating hour on the phone with the customer support people for our cell phone trying to get my phone to work right, and I received a fun letter from the IRS wanting more money from me. But I was also able to workout at the gym, give my youngest daughter a ride to school, spend the day working at my “real job” (freelance writing), coach my middle daughter’s soccer team practice, study for an online class, and help cook and eat barbecue with my family. It might not have been very glamorous, but overall it was a great day.

If you want an insight into some other authors’ lives, check out the King’s English Bookshop blog, where you’ll find interviews with the children’s book authors that will be presenting at the upcoming 2010 Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Workshop this June.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Strong Story Beginnings – Hooking and reeling the reader in

Whether you’re writing a picture book, early reader or a YA novel, the opening sentences and paragraphs of your story are perhaps the most important parts of your book. If you don’t grab your readers’ interest in those opening lines, you’ll lose them. Many editors won’t read past the first two paragraphs if it doesn’t pull them in. The bottom line is you have to have a strong opening for your story to succeed.

A lot of factors can work together to create a strong opening; a fresh voice, a feel-like-you’re-there setting, and an intriguing conflict. Many might argue which of these is more important than the others in regards to story beginnings, but if you don’t introduce conflict in the first few sentences or paragraphs, you’ll have a hard time holding your reader’s interest. You need to let the reader know right up front what problem or problems your hero is facing or has to deal with. That doesn’t mean that you have to reveal the whole plot at this point, it means you introduce some important aspect of the conflict that the plot builds on.

Look at some of your favorite stories and see how early the conflict is introduced. Is that what pulls you in? What else about a story’s beginning pulls you in? What do you think makes for a strong opening?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Editing – An Essential Evil

When you write a book, it often becomes your precious little baby. You think your prose and verse are so perfect, but then reality hits when your critique group finds all sorts of problems or weak spots. For many writers, especially new ones, the critique process can be devastating. I actually enjoy this process. When I critique someone’s work, I’m brutally honest and I want my fellow critics to be equally harsh. It’s only by uncovering the problems and weaknesses in a story that enable it to become the best that it can be. But if I truly believe this, why was I so surprised that my editor for Old MacDonald had a Dragon wanted so many edits? After going through so many rounds of revisions on my own and with my critique groups, I guess I assumed it had already reached near perfection and there would only be a few minor line edits. But no, some of my favorite parts were on the chopping block. So, I had to decide whether to fight to keep them or see things from my editor’s perspective and make the necessary changes. It ended up being a combination of both, and because I listened to my editor and tried to understand why she wanted the changes, the book will be much better now than it would have been.

The whole process reminded me of when I received the first edits from my editor for Brave Little Monster. It was my first published book and I was very willing to please, but it was kind of hard when the editor wanted to remove one of three main action sequences from the book. Still, I made the change. However, once the change was made, the editor realized that the book was now too short. So, she asked me create a new sequence. It felt like starting from scratch. But from that request emerged the creation of the “Hungry Dance”, which I believe ended up being one of the best parts, if not the best part of that book.

So, no matter how painful the editing process can be, it’s not only a necessary evil, it’s essential to taking your book to the highest levels it can reach.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Key to Publishing Success: Persistence

At the many writers conferences that I've attended and presented, aspiring authors always want to discover the keys to publishing success. The answers are always varied, but typically include never stop writing, never stop reading, never stop studying the craft, and never stop networking. Simply put, never stop.

Persistence is often the key that matters most.While there are a few overnight successes, most authors don't find success until after years and years of hard work. I first started writing about 22 years ago. It took me 10 years and the writing of a few novels and a dozen or so picture books before I received my first publishing contract, which was for the picture book, Brave Little Monster. I considered that a great success and hoped it would lead to many more book contracts. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work that way. It took a little over 10 more years and a lot more hard work to get my next contract, which is for the picture book Old MacDonald had a Dragon (Coming Fall 2012).

I plan on having many more books published. I don't know how long it will take for my next success, but I do know it'll never happen if I stop trying before I get there. So in the words of Churchill, the key to publishing success is "never, never, never give up."