Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year!

As so many of us are busy setting goals for the New Year, be sure to check back in on my blog mid-January! On January 24 at my local SCBWI Schmooze, I'll be leading a goal workshop. During the workshop, I'll guide everyone through a process to help set realistic short-term and long-term writing goals for the new year. These goals will include getting published in 2008 as well as working on that manuscript you love. After the workshop, I'll post notes from the Schmooze and provide short tips to set your own goals. Until then--Happy New Year! May the year ahead truly be a NEW year for you as a writer, and not just another year of the same old same old.

The Top Ten
The results are in! And thanks, Catherine, for sending in your most important goals. For last week’s Top Ten, here’s the list that was chosen from the suggestions that came in:

The Top Ten goals you want to make for 2008.
1. Start a blog.
2. Make an official writing space to sit down and write.
3. Start a brand new manuscript and actually finish it.
4. Join a critique group.
5. Read a writer’s how-to book.
6. Learn how to self-edit my manuscripts and take the time to do it.
7. Set up my website(s).
8. Keep a journal and write it in often.
9. Keep a month-by-month calendar of writing goals to track my progress.
10. Get published on a regular basis by writing for no-pay or low-pay publications.

Do you want to have some fun? Whenever I post a topic for The Top Ten, send me your suggestion(s) by posting a comment! Your comment will automatically land in my e-mail box and won't actually appear on the blog itself. The way it works is people each send me one or two suggestions for each Top Ten topic. Then I choose the ten most fun suggestions and post the results within a week. (You can submit as many suggestions as you want.) If you want me to list your name as the contributor (if your suggestion is chosen), please include your first name and/or city along with your suggestion(s). Also, if you have an idea for a Top Ten topic, please send it my way.

This week’s topic is:
The Top Ten mysteries you’d want to solve if you were Nancy Drew.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Welcome to My World!

Recently I signed a contract for my third book with Chicago Review Press--unless you count the second edition that just came out of my book A KID'S GUIDE TO AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY. My new book, too, will focus on African American History.

I also belong to a listserve of nonfiction writers for kids. One of the topics it had focused on a week ago was the importance of thorough notetaking. Many writers, it seems, type notes directly to their computer. They explained that it gives them easy access to search and find keywords in their notes as well as provides thorough footnotes on their own personal manuscript. If an editor calls to fact check, they can find their research sources quickly and easily.

Since I've been doing research the old-fashioned way--piles of books on first a card table and recently my dining room table, and then sitting in a recliner to read through books and jot down handwritten notes--I feel challenged to utilize today's technology to take more efficient and better notes.

As we head into the new year, I've been preparing mentally to start my new book project. First I'll print out monthly calendars and determine how much material I have to write each month in order to meet my deadline with ample time to tie up any loose ends. I'll make weekly and monthly goals to keep me on track. Secondly, I've been wrestling with how to best set up a research station to take notes directly onto a computer. I don't want to tie up my dining room table with all that clutter for an entire year!

When our oldest son moved out this past year, he left behind a computer desk, comfy computer chair, and a laptop. What luxury! Up to this point, I have hardly opened the laptop and had been using his computer desk as a sewing station since I also enjoy quilting. But not now! I have decided to set this up as a research station for my new book project. I plan to get a book easel or paperweights to keep my book open that I'm using as research. It's important to have a place for each book as I take notes, especially since some of the volumes I plan to use include biographies of several hundred pages or encyclopedia-type books with over 1000 pages each. Too bulky to hold in my hand or on my lap while I type!

I'm in the process of searching out and purchasing key books I'll be using for my main research--both on general American history during the era I'll be studying as well as specific African American history. I usually find these as used books for great prices online. As these books come in, I'll assign each one a simple alphabet code so that I can just type that code and page number next to each fact I type into my laptop. This will help me know where I found each fact. And as I read through various books, I'll jot down several sources for each fact I find. When a certain fact has at least 3 sources listed next to it, I'll know I can use it in my book manuscript, as long as I'm sure it is a verified fact and not just rumor. (The reliability of my sources helps me determine this.)

So off I go to set up my research station today!

Teacher Tip:
When students are assigned a topic to write about, encourage them to first read about their topic in an encyclopedia. Also, have them look up books on their topic during their trip to the school library. Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, by reading this material BEFORE they sit down to write, they will feel more confident as a writer. If the entire classroom is writing about the same topic, set up a simple research station in a corner of the classroom. Have a basket of notepaper and pencils for jotting down notes. Keep encyclopedias and a dictionary handy. Provide a stack of topic-related books for students to dig through. Invite students to visit the research station before they sit down to write their assignment.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Author Interview: Carla Killough McClafferty

Meet Author Carla Killough McClafferty!
Web site:

Carla Killough McClafferty is the author of Forgiving God (Discovery House Publishers, 1995), an adult Christian inspirational book. She also writes middle grade nonfiction books including The Head Bone’s Connected to the Neck Bone: The Weird, Wacky and Wonderful X-ray (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001) and Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006). Among other honors, Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium, has been recognized as the 2007 IRA Children’s Book Award Winner in the intermediate nonfiction category as well as the 2007 NCTE Orbis Pictus Honor Book. Her next book, In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry, also published by FSG will be released in the fall of 2008.
Carla is also the SCBWI Regional Advisor in Arkansas.

Featured book:
Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)
Q: Describe part of the research process it took to write this manuscript.
A: For Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium, I did massive amounts of research. I also traveled to Paris, where she did her groundbreaking work. That trip gave me a wonderful sense of place. For example, her husband, Pierre, was killed on a small street in Paris on a rainy day. I found the street where this tragedy occurred—and it just so happened that it was raining at the time. This pivotal moment in the life of Marie became very real to me. I also had the opportunity to visit the Radium Institute, which Marie Curie built. They even let me sit at Marie Curie’s desk in her office.

Q: Describe a highlight of your writing career.
A: I attended the IRA annual conference in Toronto in May 2007 where I received recognition as the author of the Children’s Book Award winner. And in November 2007, I traveled to the NCTE national conference, where I received recognition as the author of an Orbis Pictus Honor Book. I feel blessed that my book has been honored by these two incredible organizations.

Q: What project are you currently working on?
A: I’ve just finished my next book, In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry, which is ready to go to the typesetter. It is about Varian Fry, a Harvard educated journalist who in 1940, traveled to Marseilles, France, and arranged the escape of more than 2000 Jews from Europe before the Nazis get them. It is an incredible true story. I’m thrilled to have the chance to share the story of a real American hero with a new generation of young readers.

Q. Share one tip you would like to give about school visits.
A: Be ready for anything and try not to bore them.

Please note: If you’re an author, illustrator, or editor and would like to be considered for an interview on this blog, please contact Nancy and let her know.

Thursday, December 27, 2007


My favorite type of scrapbook album as a writer is the Westrim Crafts 12 x 12 Strap-Hinge Album. It allows me to add extra pages as needed for my album. I kept a month-by-month album this past year for the very first time to chronicle my writing. It was so rewarding personally that I'm planning on doing it again.

As a writer, it's so easy to forget the positive experiences of critique group friends and joy of working on various projects. Too many rejection letters pile up and too many days go by without seeing much progress on a book-length manuscript. By keeping a scrapbook of each month's highlights and little joyful moments as a writer, I was inspired and encouraged throughout the year. Now, as I look back at my collection of pictures of friends in my critique groups, copies of positive comments from editors, and descriptions of fun experiences I had while writing various manuscripts I worked on this past year, I'm excited to start the new year and write, write, write!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

African American History: Did You Know...?

In 1966, Kwanzaa was first celebrated in Los Angeles, California, by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor of black studies, with his family and friends. With the vision of introducing a special holiday to celebrate the cultural heritage of African Americans, Dr. Karenga created Kwanzaa. More and more families celebrate Kwanzaa each year.

Did you know that today is the first day of Kwanzaa? This seven-day celebration starts on December 26 and ends on January 1.

During the celebration of Kwanzaa, you might want to wear a kufi. A kufi is a round hat made from soft fabric with an African design. You can make a kufi from felt to wear during this important holiday.

Strips of red, yellow, black, and green felt, 2 by 24 inches
Sharp scissors
8 safety pins

Wrap a black strip of felt around your head for the headband. Overlap the edges 1 inch, cutting away the extra felt. Use a safety pin to hold the ends together. Use a needle and thread to stitch the headband together.

With the headband on your head, use a yellow strip to measure from one side of the headband, across the top of your head, and to the other side of the headband. Cut this strip to the correct length for the top of your hat. Cut one strip of red felt, green felt, and black felt to match the same length as the yellow strip. You should now have four shorter strips of felt.

Following the illustration as a guide, arrange the four felt strips so they overlap in the center like spokes on a wheel. Stitch through the center with your needle and thread. Use the safety pins to pin the edge of each felt strip around the headband so that all the strips are evenly spaced. Try on your kufi to see if it fits. Trim any strips that seem too long and adjust the safety pins as needed. Stitch each strip of felt to the headband, removing the safety pins as you go.
-excerpt from A KID'S GUIDE TO AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY (Second Edition, Chicago Review Press, 2007)

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas from our family to yours!

The Top Ten
The results are in! Once again, Sherri, thanks for lots of these fun suggestions! For last week’s Top Ten, here’s the list that was chosen from the suggestions that came in:

The Top Ten presents on your writer’s wish list for Christmas.
1. A multi-book contract for a new series with a top publishing house and amazing advance.
2. Wall to wall, ceiling to floor, built-in bookshelves (earthquake safe). In other words, my own library!
3. A best-loved children's book in every child's stocking all around the world.
4. A gift certificate to the Mount Hermon Writer's Conference in '08. Oh, pleeeeeeease!!!
5. MFC all-in-one printer/fax/copier and free laser cartridges for an entire year.
6. A fan letter from a child saying why he LOVED my book!
7. A cleaning lady once a week, FOREVER. If you're a writer, you'll know why this is on my wish list!
8. Gift cards to Barnes anad Noble.
9. Gift cards to local office supply store.
10. Lots of 3-ring notebooks with clear plastic cover on front for cover sheet. Tons of dividers would be nice, too. (o:

Do you want to have some fun? Whenever I post a topic for The Top Ten, send me your suggestion(s) by posting a comment! Your comment will automatically land in my e-mail box and won't actually appear on the blog itself. The way it works is people each send me one or two suggestions for each Top Ten topic. Then I choose the ten most fun suggestions and post the results within a week. (You can submit as many suggestions as you want.) If you want me to list your name as the contributor (if your suggestion is chosen), please include your first name and/or city along with your suggestion(s). Also, if you have an idea for a Top Ten topic, please send it my way.

This week’s topic is:
The Top Ten goals you want to make for 2008.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Do You Want to be a Writer?

If you're interested in becoming a writer, one of the best things you can do is find an activity that gets you writing fresh material every day. I don't mean "writing" as in working on a magazine article or book manuscript. Write every day in a journal. Keep a diary. Start a blog. Write your family's memoirs. Write detailed letters to long distance family and friends. By sitting down to write every day like this, it builds up your stamina for writing. It trains your brain to craft sentences and form complete thoughts. It develops your ability to communicate your ideas through the written word.

I know far too many people who dream about writing. They talk about writing. They read about writing. They edit and rehash and rework manuscripts that they've been working on for ten years. They belong to two or more critique groups. They read other people's blogs and read through the newest writer's markets every year. But I don't see evidence of them actually sitting down to write new material.

It's overwhelming to think of sitting down to work on a magazine or book manuscript. It's scary to work on those projects with the thought of your critique group watching over your shoulder. It's hard to break through writer's block and work on the next page of your project when your brain freezes and doesn't offer the perfect ideas for the next scene or point.

But if you sit down each day for at least fifteen minutes and "allow" your brain to enjoy the process of uninhibited writing in your journal, diary, blog, memoirs, or personal letters, your writer's soul will be fed. It will grow. It will mature. You will come to realize you ARE a writer and that you're on your way to learning to express your thoughts to the world through the written word.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Author's Corner

Since my husband, Jeff, teaches fourth grade in public elementary school, his students are always very interested in finding out more about the life of a writer. He's got 72 students this year since he is now team teaching--something new! Many have already sent in questions for me to answer on my upcoming Virtual Book Tour in February.

One thing students are eager to know is where an author gets ideas. This is important to them, I know, because often they are given homework or in-class writing assignments. It's easy to stare at a blank page!

I keep an "Idea File" just for that purpose. In the file I collect topics that interest me, pictures from the Internet that caught my eye, and fun titles that popped out of nowhere. When I need a new idea to write about, it helps to bring out the folder, browse through it, and see what sparks my fancy.

Everyone can keep an Idea File! You can write ideas on index cards and store in a filebox. You can use a spiral notebook and fill up the pages with ideas. Or, you can do as I do and keep a filefolder handy to store new ideas as they come to you.

Teacher Tip:
To help students create an Idea File, have them make file folders from a large piece of construction paper folded in half. Distribute blank paper, glue sticks, scissors, and old magazines, calendars, or toy catalogs. Encourage students to cut out pictures that interest them, glue each picture on a piece of paper (one picture per paper), and store them in their folder. When students are given a future writing assignment, encourage them to browse through their Idea File first and choose a topic to write about.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Virtual Book Tour

I'm continuing to work a little bit each day to organize my upcoming Virtual Book Tour that starts on February 1, 2008. I'm delighted at how eager everyone is to get involved! Here are more tips on setting up you own:

Step One: See post on December 8, 2007.
Step Two: See post on December 12, 2007.

Step Three:
Determine what you want to do on various days of your Virtual Book Tour. I decided I wanted to make mine a combination of:
a. Links to other sites that feature an author interview they posted of my book.
b. Interviews of the illustrator, including samples of the book’s art posted on my site.
c. Some all-text answers to questions students/teachers/librarians send to me.
d. Short video clips taken in my home where I answer interview questions sent to me.

After figuring this out, I contacted teachers and librarians I’ve met who might be interested in sending me a list of questions to answer during my Virtual Book Tour. Also contacts have been made with: several booksellers across the nation (both online and walk-in), other blogs who post author interviews, and websites for writers. I explained how the tour will work, invited them to be a “stop” on my tour, encouraged them to check into my blog each day of the tour, and asked them to e-mail me questions they’d like to ask about my new book or my life as an author. Also, the publisher of my book is very interested in my Virtual Book Tour and is hopping on board via my publicist to help spread the word, make important contacts, offer constructive feedback, and prepare press releases.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Author Interview: Marjorie Flathers

Meet Author Marjorie Flathers!

I have been a free-lance writer for over 25 years. Although my work has appeared in print over 300 times, in a variety of magazines, newspapers, and anthologies for writers and knitters, I’ve yet to achieve that elusive book contract! But I’m still trying! I’ve been married to my husband, Wayne, for 47 years. We have three adult children and five wonderful grand-children. I’m grateful for my 12 years of Catholic education, which gave me a solid foundation for my writing. In high school, I worked on the school newspaper for three years and was editor in my senior year. When I graduated, I wasn’t able to go to college because of my father’s illness, but 23 years later, I did start going to classes at San Bernardino Valley College and spent 4 great years there, enjoying every minute and graduating with an AA in English. I found something of interest and value in every class and have been able to use a lot of this knowledge in my writing. Knitting is my special hobby and source of relaxation, but I’m never happier than when I’m surrounded by books!

Featured Story: Jacaranda Tree series in the Los Angeles Times

Q: What inspired you most to write this story?
A: The beautiful jacaranda trees that bloom everywhere in Southern California in mid-May, many near my house. As I watched the lush purple blossoms unfold each year, I became more and more intrigued and began to read all that I could about them. That led to an idea for what at first I thought would be a picture book, but after many revisions, it became the five-part (serialized) story, “The Secret of the Jacaranda Tree,” that the Los Angeles Times accepted as my first story on that page. By that time, the only “character” left from the original story was the jacaranda tree itself!

Q: What is one of your favorite topics to write about when writing for children?
A: I like to weave in nature themes, but mostly I like to write about friendships and the problems children have as they grow and learn how to relate to others.

Q: Describe a highlight of your writing career.
A: Being accepted as a regular contributor to the Kid’s Reading Room page of the Los Angeles Times was definitely a high point! This page first appeared in the Times in 1999, with five-part stories appearing Monday to Friday and shorter stories on Sunday. When I attended an SCBWI Writer’s Day that year, I received some tips, including the Kid’s Reading Room editor’s name, on submitting from two writers who had already had stories on that page. I sent in my story, “The Secret of the Jacaranda Tree,” but didn’t hear anything back. Then, in early 2000, I received a letter from the new editor of that page who said she had no record of receiving this story, but she was intrigued by the title and would love to read it, if I cared to resubmit it. Would I? I worked and worked at revising this story, tightening it and fitting it to the exact word requirements she listed and also added the necessary daily “cliff-hangers.” Shortly after, I received an e-mail saying she loved the story and a contract would follow by mail. This story proved so popular that I was asked to do 4 more yearly sequels, plus many other stories for the page…17 and counting! The daily kids’ page has now been eliminated, but I still write shorter stories for the Sunday page. I found that I liked working within their structure and enjoyed plotting and writing each and every story. As a long-time reader of the Times, appearing on its pages was something I didn’t even dare dream could happen!

Q: Share one tip you would like to give to a children’s author about the importance of joining a critique group.
A: Critique groups are valuable because we are often so close to our work that we fail to see obvious mistakes, of all kinds, and critique group members will usually spot them. Better that a critique group member find them than an editor! A writer can then use the suggestions, or not, as she sees fit. It’s still her story! However, members who are critiquing should take care not to make demeaning or hurtful remarks and not allow their personal feelings to get in the way of constructive criticism.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

African American History: Did You Know...?

Did you know that on today’s date in history, December 18, 1865, it was officially announced that the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified? Unlike the Emancipation Proclamation which only declared slaves free in the southern states that had seceded from the Union, the Thirteenth Amendment finally abolished slavery in the United States.

By this time, many states throughout the north had abolished slavery within their borders. The Thirteenth Amendment, however guaranteed that those laws could not be reversed in the future. It also guaranteed that new territories gaining statehood could not allow slavery to exist. It was a pivotal day in history.

Teacher Tip:
To show your students a copy of the Thirteenth Amendment, visit the National Archives. Search for the Thirteenth Amendment in the search field on the site.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Picture Book Pointers

I’ve had numerous picture books published including novelty books, board books, library books, nonfiction books and my newest, D IS FOR DRINKING GOURD: AN AFRICAN AMERICAN ALPHABET. Often, I’ve been asked how to write a picture book, so I’ve decided to offer some pointers that have helped me achieve success.

First of all, it’s important to understand that picture books are the hardest market to break into from an author’s point of view. This is because not only does everyone want to write a picture book, but these books are the most expensive book for a publisher to produce. The full color illustrations which make these books everybody’s favorite, are also the very element that makes them so costly. They’re costly for a publisher to make, and they’re expensive for the consumer to purchase. So if you’re a writer who wants to write a picture book and get it published, don’t be discouraged if you get lots of rejection letters along the way.

The first thing I advise a writer to do is choose TWO picture books projects to work on simultaneously. I know it may sound hard for you if you like to focus on one manuscript at a time, but if you can plan your son’s birthday party the same week you’re helping your daughter with her science fair project, you can do it. You just have to learn to segment your time to create a separate environment for the second manuscript where your brain can switch gears and focus on the other project for awhile. Sometimes I work on one manuscript in the morning, take a break at lunch, mentally switch gears and then focus on the second manuscript in the afternoon. Other times I work Monday through Thursday on one manuscript and then spend the whole day Friday working on my second project. The important thing is to dedicate some time each week to both.

The FIRST picture book project should be a manuscript you just want to write for fun. Chances are, you already know what this is! The SECOND picture book project will be a manuscript that you will write specifically to get published.

I know, I know! You’re already asking, “Isn’t that what my first manuscript is for?” Yes, of course, but in today’s competitive market, I have NEVER sold a single picture book manuscript that I wrote just because I wanted to write it. Yet I have sold nearly two dozen picture book manuscripts that I wrote specifically to get published following a certain strategy.

Here’s your assignment:
Picture Book #1: Start working on that picture book manuscript you’ve always wanted to write and have fun with it!
Picture Book #2: Go to the bookstore and find a picture book that you say, “I could write a book like this!” Then either purchase that book or borrow it from the library. Study it from cover to cover and read it at least five times. Type it out word for word on your own computer.
Picture Book Pointers: Borrow at least ten picture books from your local library each week to read, examine, and evaluate during the entire time you’ll be working on these two manuscripts.
Picture Book How-to: Read “The Everything Guide to Writing Children’s Books” by Lesley Bolten. She has great information about writing picture books and which type is what.

Check back soon for more Picture Book Pointers as I explain the next step to take as you’re working on your two picture book manuscripts.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Top Ten

The results are in! For last week’s Top Ten, here’s the list that was chosen from the suggestions that came in:

The Top Ten children’s books you would read if you were lost on a deserted island and discovered a treasure chest filled with books.
(A special thanks to Sherri for sending many of these suggestions!!!)
1. The Island of the Blue Dolphins
2. Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
3. Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder
4. Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne
5. A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson
6. Frog and Toad books
7. Chronicles of Narnia series by C. S. Lewis
8. Charlotte’s Web
9. The Secret Garden
10. Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter

Do you want to have some fun? Whenever I list a topic for The Top Ten, send me your suggestion(s) by posting a comment! Your comment will automatically land in my e-mail box and won't actually appear on the blog itself. The way it works is people each send me one or two suggestions for each Top Ten topic. Then I choose the ten most fun suggestions and post the results within a week. (You can submit as many suggestions as you want.) If you want me to list your name as the contributor (if your suggestion is chosen), please include your first name and/or city along with your suggestion(s). Also, if you have an idea for a Top Ten topic, please send it my way.

This week’s topic is:
The Top Ten presents on your writer’s wish list for Christmas.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Editor Interview: Sheila Seifert

Meet Editor Sheila Seifert!
Personal website: Sheila Seifert
Featured Publisher: Focus on Your Child parenting newsletters

Q: Describe a typical workweek for you as an editor.
A: I usually enter my cubicle by 7:30 each morning and leave by 5:30 each night. Depending on the deadline rotation for issues, I will plan future content (6 to 9 months out), work on present issues (2 to 5 months out) and disseminate information from past issues (those that are actually going out to readers). I attend meetings to coordinate my material with other Focus on the Family products, edit raw copy to galleys and play with ideas that will improve each publication. I also interact with authors and sources (averaging 40 to 100 e-mails a day) and supervise the other editors working on the Focus on Your Child (FOYC) newsletters. The FOYC designer and I work closely together to make articles fit in each issue (which is a lot of fun for those of us who enjoy puzzles). Finally, I review submissions and accept/reject them.

Q: Do you also enjoy writing your own manuscripts in the midst of editing everyone else’s?
A: Yes, I do quite a bit of freelance writing. I worked as a freelance writer for over 20 years before becoming an editor. I have authored or co-authored over 20 books and have over 1,000 freelance sales (all before becoming an editor). Now, in my free time, I work on writing scripts and novels. I write little nonfiction in my free time—saving that area for my job.

Q: What hobbies do you like to do?
A: It’s not really a hobby, but I also teach various college courses in composition, creative writing and literature for local colleges, and have done this part-time for about 20 years. I enjoy the interaction with students.

Q: Share one tip you’d like to give about writing for periodicals.
A: When an editor says she wants a 350-word, profile article, give her what she asks for—not a 1,200-word devotion that you think she will like better. Also remember that her concern is for the overall feel of the entire publication, not just your article. If your article is changed or edited, it’s rearranged for a purpose. Her job is to make you look better in context of her publication and before her readership.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Get Published Tips

Getting published is all about setting goals. Longterm goals keep you progressing toward a successful career as a writer. Shortterm goals keep you motivated day by day to continue with the craft. As the New Year is approaching, I'll be posting tips in upcoming blogs about setting realistic goals. These will be based on a mini-workshop I'll be doing at a local writers' schmooze in January.

One longterm goal is to aim on landing royalty-based contracts. I know of quite a few writers who have written various work-for-hire books--but seem to be stuck in that endless cycle of several months of hard work and one paycheck, several months of hard work and one paycheck. Landing work-for-hire book contracts is great! I've done a bunch. They give you experience and look good on your resume. It's important, however, to have the goal of landing more royalty-based book contracts as you move forward in your career. Royalty-based contracts keep the paychecks coming in for several years of sales--after that same initial few months of hard work writing the manuscript.

If you've been writing work-for-hire books for several years, (or even if you've not yet landed a book contract) how can you start to land more royalty-based contracts? Here's what works for me:

1. Keep your eye open and look for publishers who offer royalty-based contracts for "series" of books. By series, I mean like Chicago Review Press's line of nonfiction books "...For Kids." They have Leonardo da Vinci for Kids, The Civil War for Kids, George Washington for Kids, etc. Or look at Libraries Unlimited. They have several series including one for Readers Theatre. By finding a series like this within a publisher's product list, you can hope to piggyback on that series and try to land a contract. How can you tell if the publisher offers royalties? Look at the copyright in the books within that series. Chances are that if the copyright is in the name of the author, it's a royalty-based contract. Also, the market guide might give that detail.

2. Study that publisher's series. Write down a list of the topics they've already done. Make a list of topics they haven't yet done that might fit into their series and that would interest you to write.

3. Send a simple and short e-mail to the publisher. In the e-mail say, "I've been browsing your Web site and am interested in such-and-such a series that you do. Would you be interested in seeing a proposal for one of the following three topics that could fit into that series?" Don't send a letter--it takes too long and might get "lost" in the pile. Even if they say not to e-mail them, go ahead. I landed one of my best book contracts when I e-mailed a "Dear Submissions Editor." Afterward, I asked why they responded to my e-mail when they say not to e-mail them. They said that so many people send them manuscripts totally unrelated to their product line that they post a no submissions policy. But my short e-mail targeted their product line, so they responded. (I've known other authors who have successfully done the same.)

4. If you don't hear back from them, don't worry about it. Just find a different publisher with a different series who offer royalty-based contracts, and e-mail them. There are actually quite a few publishers like this--just study your market guide and skip over the publishers who require an agent if you don't have one. Keep studying different publishers' series and e-mailing various ones until you land a contract. Then write the book, and enjoy years of paychecks rolling in!

I followed these exact steps and landed my two recent contracts--0ne with Chicago Review Press who has published two of my books already, and one with Libraries Unlimited who is a brand new contact. In fact, I just finished my first book deadline with Libraries Unlimited yesterday! Whew! I hope you can start landing royalty-based contracts as well. It's a longterm goal that is worth your while.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Virtual Book Tour

I’m having so much fun setting up arrangements for my Virtual Book Tour that starts on February 1, 2008! Here are more tips on setting up your own:

Step One: (See post on December 8, 2007.)

Step Two:
Plan interactive features to include on your Virtual Book Tour. This gets online guests checking back in each day to join in the fun. On my Virtual Book Tour, I’m planning these upcoming interactive features to include each day:
1. Trivia questions about African American history that online guests can e-mail their answers to me. I will post a new trivia question each day of the tour and provide the correct answer the following day.
2. Top Ten Lists such as Top Ten African American Heroes. Online guests can e-mail me their suggestions and I’ll later post a list of the top ten responses I chose.
3. Each time someone e-mails me about the trivia question or Top Ten List or posts a comment, I will put their name in a hat. On the next to last day of my Virtual Book Tour, I’ll choose five names from a hat to give away five fun prizes to the winners.

To find more creative interactive features to include on your tour, check out other authors' sites to see how they succeeded. Google "Virtual Book Tour" and have fun exploring!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

African American History: Did You Know...?

Here's a picture from my newest book, D IS FOR DRINKING GOURD: AN AFRICAN AMERICAN ALPHABET. This page is from "H is for Harlem Renaissance." The Harlem Renaissance was an amazing era when artists, writers, musicians, and political activists flocked to Harlem during the 1920s and on up into later years. Creativity and pride in African roots grew strong.

Recently, I've been discovering more fascinating information about the Harlem Renaissance for another book I'm currently writing. This book will be for teachers in the intermediate grades, grades 4-8. (I'll keep you posted as more information about the book becoomes available--my deadline is Saturday and I'm almost done!) One of the things I've been studying is the "rent party."

DID YOU KNOW that rent parties became very popular during the Harlem Renaissance? Its roots were in the church social in southern communities where friends and families would gather, often for a fundraiser, to help raise money for a new church roof or to help a family in need. People moved north to Harlem and brought these traditions with them.

I first read about rent parties in the book HAVING OUR SAY: THE DELANY SISTERS' FIRST 100 YEARS. Rent was high in Harlem and wages were low, so people started hosting rent parties to help each other out. A small entrance fee was charged (often less than a dollar). People paid for plates of food, often donated by the host's family and friends. A piano player provided music, furniture was cleared to make a dance floor, and guests danced the night away. By the end of the night, enough money was collected to pay the rent, and a fun time was had by all.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Author Interview: Sheryl Crawford

Meet Author Sheryl Crawford!
Agent: Sheryl is represented by Etta Wilson of BOOKS & SUCH Literary Agency. Phone: 615-377-1146. E-mail:

Most people who know her call her Sherri. Two little girls call her “gramma.” (Her husband, Bobby-Bear, calls her Sherri-Bear. Shhhh.)

I grew up with my freckled-covered nose in an old set of twelve books my mother read as a girl. MY BOOK HOUSE BOOKS were published by The Book House for Children in Chicago. The first printing was in 1920. These wonderfully illustrated books were filled with fairy tales and fables, princes and talking animals. I laughed and made up my own melodies to go with silly poems. I walked around the house and yard singing them, and pretending to be the characters. I read in earnest, HIAWATHA’S CHILDHOOD by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and yawned with WYNKEN, BLYNKEN, AND NOD by Eugene Field. Even at the age of six and seven I underlined and circled favorite titles and lines. I read with awe stories about Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Boone. I lost myself in a magical world of wonder. These books are one of my dearest treasures today. They actually elicit tender emotions when I open one. With a lump in my throat I remember an unhappy childhood, but it seemed to vanish when I opened those books. They were healing. While reading, I “lived” through these characters that practically jumped off the pages, asking me to join them. Now that is pulling your reader in!

I never knew I could write for children until I was in my late thirties. What a shock when I realized that I could create fun, engaging stories that brought children joy and laughter! Our home was filled with children’s books. I didn’t read them only for the sake of entertaining our two boys—I read them out loud in bed at night with my husband, too! Our kids could hear our guffaws around 10:00 PM. We both loved children’s books. I so desperately wanted to write for children but I didn’t know how. I took two Saturday classes at my local community college on how-to-write-for-children. I was hooked! I brought home stacks of children’s magazines from the library and studied them. I read fourteen books in one year on how to write for children. Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse Jr. accepted my first magazine feature fiction story in 1993. I remember pulling the magazine out of my mailbox in our town-home complex and literally jumping up and down like a maniac, squealing with delight. Neighbors saw this. I did not care. After that first story, I never looked back as God opened the doors. I was published in Highlights, Babybug, and Trails ‘N Treasures. I became a frequent assignment writer for Clubhouse Jr. magazine, and continue to write for them today. Since that time I’ve co-authored seven books with Nancy I. Sanders for Scholastic Professional Books. I’ve been a contributing assignment writer for MY LITTLE PRAYERS by Word Publishing, and have had a reading comprehension story with test published by Harcourt/Trophies. My Christmas book, THE BABY WHO CHANGED THE WORLD was published by Cook Communications. It is now out of print and I’m seeking a publisher. My dream is to turn this book into an audio-book package. The sample audio is sooooo cute.

Featured book: Psalms for a Child’s Heart
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
A: Hope. Hope inspired me. In the 1990’s I was ill and in bed for nearly seven weeks. But I had hope. My hope rested in my relationship with God. That’s when I wrote my first children’s book, PSALMS FOR A CHILD’S HEART. I literally wrote it from my bed. I chose eight of the best-loved Psalms and wrote them the way a child might say them to God today. I wanted the Psalms to be personal to little ones. I wanted them to have hope. Some children have such painful lives. I was once one of those children. I remember thinking, “Oh, if only I could have known the beautiful truths found in those Psalms when I was a little girl.” I wanted children to feel God’s arms wrapped around them. That is why I wrote it—to help bring hope and joy to little hearts. It took five years for that book to be picked up by a large Christian publisher, Cook Communications. The illustrations are wonderful and were done by Elaine Garvin, a grandmother in Arizona. It is now out of print and I’m hoping to find a new publisher for PSALMS FOR A CHILD’S HEART.

Q: Describe the benefits of writing for short assignments such as magazine articles in between book contracts.
A: There’s a writer’s cartoon pinned on my bulletin board above my desk. It’s been there for years. Picture an empty mailbox with the door hanging open. A human skeleton is hanging over the mailbox with a spider web going from his knee to the mailbox post. That poor writer did nothing but WAIT for an acceptance letter from a book publisher. Don’t hold your breath! It’s important to keep writing for magazines, periodicals, newsletters, Sunday school papers, etc. while you go through those dry spells. They can be long. Years long. Hone your skills with all that practice. When you write short assignments, you are sharing your gift of words to thousands of readers. Writing for magazines is quite difficult and there is much competition. It is not the “easy road” to getting your foot in the door as some amateurs think. There is no easy road. While I wait, hope and definitely pray for that next book contract, I continue to write for magazines. I thoroughly enjoy seeing my imagination in print!

Q: What Writers’ how-to-books do you have on your bookshelf, and which one is your favorite?
A: Whew! My favorite? You have to be kidding (o: I can’t possibly chose just one. I have four—the first four on this list. Are you ready?
Writing for Children & Teenagers by Lee Wyndham
How to Write a Children’s Book & Get it Published by Barbara Seuling
Anyone can Get Published—You can, Too! by Nancy I. Sanders
How to Write and Sell Children’s Picture Books by Jean E. Karl
You Can Write Children’s Books by Tracey E. Dils
Beginnings, Middles, & Ends by Nancy Kress
Writing for Children by Catherine Woolley (Jane Thayer)
Writing and Publishing Books for Children in the 1990’s by Olga Litowinsky
Picture Writing: A New Approach to Writing for Kids and Teens by Anastasia Suen
Story Sparkers: A Creativity Guide for Children’s Writers by Debbie Dady & Marcia Thornton Jones
Creating Characters Kids Will Love by Elaine Marie Alphin
How to Write a Children’s Picture Book by Eve Heidi Bine-Stock
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books by Harold D. Underdown and Lynne Rominger
Writing Books for Kids and Teens by Marion Crook
Children’s Writers’ & Illustrators Market Guide by Alice Pope
Christian Writers’ Market Guide by Sally Stuart

Please note: If you’re an author, illustrator, or editor and would like to be considered for an interview on this blog, please contact Nancy and let her know.

Fun News!

I love waking up on a Monday morning to exciting news. What a great way to start off the week! This morning, I woke up and looked at my e-mail only to discover a link from one of my publishers to USA Book News Book Awards. D IS FOR DRINKING GOURD: AN AFRICAN AMERICAN ALPHABET is an Honors winner (finalist) for their 2007 Picture Book: Hardcover Nonfiction! Here's the link to USA Book News.

Have a happy Monday!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Virtual Book Tour

I’m having so much fun setting up arrangements for my Virtual Book Tour that starts on February 1, 2008! Here are some tips to set up your own:

Step One:
If you don’t have a blog already, set up a blog or spot on your website that you can easily update each day. Free services such as Blogger come packed with how-to instructions and easy-to-use steps that make it comfortable for even non-techies (like me!) to learn to navigate.

I’m planning on using my blog as the place online guests can check into each day for the newest event on my Virtual Book Tour. A blog seems like the natural place to host it since it’s free, it’s interactive for my guests and easy for you to post comments, and it can be quickly updated to include each day’s new events.

If you’re a teacher and want to prepare your students to join the tour, a Teacher’s Guide is available on the publisher’s website for D is for Drinking Gourd: An African American Alphabet. Once you reach my author's page click on the title of my book. (It's below my photo.) Then click on "Teacher’s Guide" and a pdf file will come up with suggested activities for you to use.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Top Ten

Do you want to have some fun? Whenever I post a topic for The Top Ten, send me your suggestion(s) by posting a comment! The comment will automatically land in my e-mail box and won't actually appear on the blog itself. The way it works is people each send me one or two suggestions for each Top Ten topic. Then I choose the ten most fun suggestions and post the results within a week. (You can submit as many suggestions as you want.) If you want me to list your name as the contributor (if your suggestion is chosen), please include your first name and/or city along with your suggestion(s). Also, if you have an idea for a Top Ten topic, please send it my way.

This week's topic is:
The Top Ten: A children’s book you would read if you were stranded on a deserted island and discovered a treasure chest filled with books.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Welcome to My World!

When I want to get comfortable and get away from the confines of the computer for awhile, I gather my paper, pens, research books, and project file and go sit in my living room where I can look out the window and watch the birds.

We have a big window in our living room that looks out over a tiny side yard with a 6-foot concrete wall. When we moved here, the previous owners kept their trashcans stored here and a pile of wood scraps to burn, but I decided immediately that this was a great place for birds. I dug out a hole and put in a bird feeder post that holds a large feeder on the post and two small ones hanging on each side. I added a hanger from the wall to hang a bag of thistle and a pole that I sometimes hang a birdfeeder and sometimes hang a potted plant. In the center, my son Ben helped me put the birdbath he made for me one year. He cut the shape of sunflower petals from wood that is the flat base which sits on a green pole with a pair of green wooden leaves. A brown plastic flowerpot bottom is the center of the sunflower and where we put the water. The birds love it! They sit in a row around the rim of the flowerpot and lean over to take dainty sips of the fresh water.

Since we moved here 5 years ago, I’ve added gravel all over the ground and planted a Cape May Honeysuckle bush shaped like a miniature tree that the hummingbirds enjoy. They love the orange trumpet blossoms that bloom periodically throughout the year. The back wall is covered by a row of Indian Hawthorne—the mockingbirds love the red berries! And during the winter, purple hyacinth and yellow daffodils sprout up after it rains.

I sit and ponder outlines or create verse while I watch the goldfinches on the bag of thistle, listen to the mourning doves eating seeds that have fallen to the ground, and observe the never-ending supply of house sparrows and house finches that flock to the feeders. Sometimes we have visitors traveling through like the bright orange black-headed grosbeak and the bright yellow American goldfinches. Occasionally, a Cooper’s hawk visits to eat dinner himself—he sits right on the wall to enjoy his meal!

Editor Interview: Aimee Jackson

Meet Editor Aimee Jackson!
Publisher: Sleeping Bear Press
Web site:

After graduating from the University of Kansas, I joined the Peace Corps and lived and taught in Ukraine. I’d grown up an army brat and was conditioned for travel and cultural exploration. After returning home, I entered graduate school at Northern Arizona University where I earned my M.A. and began working in publishing. I started my career at Northland Publishing in Flagstaff and helped launch their children’s imprint, Rising Moon. I worked there for five or so years before moving to Minneapolis, MN to work for NorthWord Books for Young Readers, where I was the editorial director for several years. I now work for Sleeping Bear Press as a senior editor, and enjoy the heck out of my job. Sleeping Bear is based in Chelsea, Michigan, but I work remotely from my home office in Minneapolis. My husband works in sports television in the Cities, and we have the most adorable curly-headed three year old, who continues to teach me about what makes books work, and what doesn’t. Sharing books with my own child—and especially books I’ve made—is a joy for me beyond measure.

Q: When did you first realize you wanted to become an editor?
A: I was in grad school studying to be a professor. I realized quickly that academia was not where I wanted to spend my life, but I didn’t know what else to do. One summer I was in a technical writing and editing class and an internship posting was handed around for an editorial assistant position at a local publishing house. Even as late as grad school it never occurred to me that you could work in publishing. I applied, I got the job, and I never left the field. Here I could be close to the writing process and be a part of making something lasting and real. Books were my childhood—and to think I could be a part of that as an adult!

Q: What were some of the most influential books you read as a child?
A: The Velveteen Rabbit, Charlotte’s Web, everything Ramona Quimby, all the Little Golden books, Shel Silverstein, the Grimm's tales

Q: How do you balance your career and your family?
A: I’m still trying to figure this one out! Though I always feel overwhelmed by it all, the most important thing I’ve figured out is to be fully present for each—when I’m at work I’m at work. When I’m at home I’m at home. When the two cross over too much, I don’t feel like I do a good job at either.

Q: Share one tip you’d like to give about writing nonfiction for kids.
A: I find that writers who are truly excited about their subject can make any topic lively, entertaining, and engaging. Know your audience—I know that’s a phrase that gets tossed around a lot, but it really can’t be said enough. In nonfiction, you have to know what prior knowledge you can and can’t assume so you know when to further define something you’ve written. The creative process of writing nonfiction involves making decisions about what to leave out—how deeply you can go into a subject—while still conveying what you hope to get across. I think the best nonfiction writing is efficient, and yet as entertaining to read as fiction.

Please note: If you’re an author, illustrator, or editor and would like to be considered for an interview on this blog, please contact Nancy and let her know.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Do You Want to be a Writer?

How can you know if you're qualified to become a writer? Recently a person said that she didn't have a college degree so didn't think she'd ever be able to get published. A week or so ago, I saw an interview with Avi, famous children's author, and he said he struggled with symptoms of a learning disability when he was growing up. Last month I gave a little "author talk" during lunch at a local SCBWI event and someone commented that my success was because I had published so many books already.

Yet I started out just like everyone else getting years of rejections before I ever sold my first manuscript--a local newspaper article about my dad in celebration of Father's Day. And I qualify to teach writing at a local state university--not because I have a college degree because I don't--but because I am a published author. And as for struggling with a learning disability--I know of extremely successful writers who are such marvelous storytellers that they've landed high-paying writing assignments and still can't spell or use punctuation correctly.

Do you want to be a writer? Then you're qualified! I truly believe that if you have the heart to write--you can become a successful writer. Oh--it may not happen overnight. I gathered a steady stream of rejections for 5 years before I ever saw my first acceptance. You may have lots to learn--I still remember how I'd get letters back from editors telling me I had formatted my manuscript incorrectly. I had to read writing books and how-to books and attend writer's conferences and join critique groups. You may doubt your own abilities--I've shed many doubt-filled tears along the way. But you CAN be a writer. All you have to do is sit down and transform your thoughts into words on a paper. And if you're already doing that--you're already a writer!

Please note: Several people have told me lately that they have commented on this blog but their comment never gets posted. If you submit a comment and do not see it posted on this blog within 24 hours, please contact me and let me know so we can work out this issue. Thanks!

Monday, December 3, 2007

My Magnum Opus

I have chosen to “guard” my magnum opus from the eyes of the world until it is complete. I rarely take it to critique groups. I rarely discuss it with other writers. In fact, I work hard at making sure nobody has the opportunity to reject or criticize it. (I won’t even tell you what my magnum opus is.) This frees me up to really let my creative side create. I try not to let myself worry that if what I’m writing is any good or not. I just try to say what I really, really want to say. I’m doing my best as I can at this moment in time, and that’s enough.

My greatest friend for my magnum opus had been and still is my outline. (Remember how I took three full months to develop it?) As I come across new information or get new ideas, I quickly open my outline and plug that information into the right spot. And when I eventually get to that spot ready to write that page of the manuscript, I’ll find that idea or bit of information there in the outline waiting for me. After two years of working on my magnum opus, my outline is now over 200 pages. It allows my project to grow over the years with me as I am growing as a writer.

And growing I am! Somehow I’m different since I started working on my magnum opus. I feel a maturity as a writer I never truly felt before. I know I’m doing something important. I know I’m working on something worthwhile. I know I have self-worth as a writer.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Author Interview: Marilyn Donahue

Meet Author Marilyn Donahue!
Editiing Service: Contact Marilyn at for information on Writing Unlimited, her editing service.

I have been writing as long as I can remember. First, I was fascinated by the shapes of letters, then excited to discover that I could link them together and make words. Later, I became fascinated by the miracle of sentences. My sentences! My thoughts! Right there on paper where I could see them.

I was ill for many months when I was a child. Somebody gave me A Child's Garden of Verses, and I found that I could create the "land of counterpane" with my own sheets and blankets, making mountains and valleys where imaginary characters lived and had adventures. I credit Robert Louis Stevenson for showing me how to create believable worlds and my mother for reading tons of library books to me -- and showing me there are worlds beyond my own.

Featured book: Straight along a Crooked Road
Q: Describe a highlight for you personally while you were writing this book.
A: This book is the story of a group of families who travel from Vermont to California in a wagon train. The characters are fictional, but the events really happened. While describing their journey across the mountains and prairies of America, I realized that, in the beginning, the goal was clear to them. It was California, their destination, their promised land. Everything good, they believed, would come at the end of the road, and they were moving straight along it. But the way was not straight, nor was it easy. The "crooked road" symbolizes their necessary detours, their ups and downs, their successes and failures. Luanna, my main character began to realize that every day was another beginning, that the end of the trip was not as important as what she (and I) learned along the way.

Q: Do you ever base characters in your books on people you know or have known in your past?
A: Everyone I have known has influenced me in some way, positive or negative. All these people are part of my memory patterns. I'm sure that I have created characters from composites of these. Even when I feel positive that a character leaps from my own imagination, I later recognize bits and pieces of a real person.

I come from a family of story tellers. As a child, I sat on many laps and heard tales of the pioneers when other children were listening to the adventures of The Little Engine Who Could. The characters from these thrilling tales are etched deeply in my mind. I know them as well as real acquaintances. I have never used a specific character in a story, but I have used an amalgam of characteristics.

Now I am working on a collection of "A Gathering of Voices," a collection of family stories. I'm sure that this will be my chance to make these characters from the past come alive for future generations.

Q: What writing project are you currently working on?
A: My latest fiction project is finishing the final chapters of The Trouble with Arnold, a middle-grade novel. I'm enjoying recording the adventures of Corrie (Coriander) as they evolve, seeing how she reacts to the beautiful Doreen, and watching her discover that Arnold is no trouble at all. This is a fun book to write and something of a relief from Moonstone Summer, which dealt with a heavier subject.

Q: Share one tip you would like to give to a children’s author about developing the setting in a MG or YA novel.
A: I always "quick sketch" the setting. This doesn't mean creating a work of art, but getting something down on paper that shows you where the plot unfolds. I always sketch an overview; for example, Main Street, complete with houses and back alleys. Often I find it helpful to sketch other locales, such as the cemetery and swamp in The Trouble with Arnold. One single thing I try to remember is: "Nothing happens nowhere." Eudora Welty said that before I did, but I've adopted it as a quote to remember!

Please note: If you’re an author, illustrator, or editor and would like to be considered for an interview on this blog, please contact Nancy and let her know.

Welcome to My World!

Writing is the perfect job and my favorite hobby! I have some fun hobbies—I love to quilt and crochet and read and play the piano. Lately, though, each time I sit down to relax, I’d much rather write than do anything else. I make sure not to “work” during these times, but just have fun writing on projects that let me be truly creative without worrying about deadlines or editorial feedback.

Right now, my husband Jeff is relaxing in his chair, wrapped up warm and cozy in his favorite afghan. He’s reading his One Year Bible and is also looking up words in his college Webster’s dictionary. (He likes the old King James Version so often looks up outdated words that he finds each day.) Lucy, our dog, and Humphrey, our cat, are sound asleep on the couch on each of their afghans that I crocheted for them. (I had to make each of them their own so they wouldn’t fight over just one.) I’m sitting here in my chair with my laptop typing away. It’s great at times like this to have a laptop because it gives me the mobility to join the family while we’re relaxing or reading and not be stuck by myself in the office at my desktop. Jeff and I can chat, listen to our favorite Christmas music, and enjoy each other’s company together even while we’re relaxing.

Friday, November 30, 2007

My Magnum Opus

I was inspired to create my own personal magnum opus after visiting the Getty Museum where we saw original paintings by the masters including Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh’s story, especially, inspired me. Here was one of the greatest artists of all time—yet he felt little self-worth. In fact, because his paintings didn’t sell well and didn’t receive positive reviews, he ended up battling with depression and committing suicide. Yet his art is highly prized today.

As a writer, it’s easy to feel little self-worth. Manuscripts are repeatedly rejected. Income is sparse. People seem uninterested in something you poured your heart and soul into. Very much the same as what Van Gogh experienced.

So I decided to pick a writing project to work on that I could pour out my entire creative energies into through writing—that was BIG, that would CHANGE MY WORLD, and that would leave MY footprint in history. It took awhile to decide on the project, but once I found it, I knew this was IT. I knew I could spend years working on this and feel that it was worthwhile in a big, huge way.

I think every writer should have a magnum opus they are working on in between all the deadlines, contracts, manuscript submissions, and rejections. It helps keep me going. It gives me focus when other aspects of my writing career seem out of control. It propels me forward toward a worthwhile goal even on days editors or critique group members inform me that rewrites are NECESSARY. Smile.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Author Interview: Shirley Shibley

Meet Author Shirley Shibley!
I wanted to write from the first time I could make words with my pencil. I still remember the first story I wrote. I put writing on the back burner while I raised my family, but when the kids were all in upper grades in school I started dabbling a little with words again. I hadn't the faintest idea what I was doing, I just wrote. Over the years I began to study hard at crafting the writing, though I didn't make any sales until I was an empty nester, and then just a dribbling at a time. It wasn't until I attended writer's conferences and joined a critique group that I began to see myself as a writer. I received the encouragement I needed along with tips for success. I still receive many more rejections than acceptances, but I feel my writing has matured and all the discarded and rejected things gave me great experience.

Featured Article: "Holiday" in Focus on the Family's Clubhouse magazine
Q: Describe part of the research process it took to write this article.
A: When I received the go-ahead from Clubhouse to write an article on Old Testament holidays I had everything to learn. Some holidays I was familiar with, but discovered many more. I found the required ones in the Bible, explained more thoroughly in Bible dictionaries, and also found a magazine article in an adult publication. Clubhouse suggested a rewrite with a different format and I complied. Again they decided on a different format and I did another rewrite. Eventually they accepted the article, out now in the December, '07 issue.

Q: What inspires you most as a writer?
A: Every time one of my critique group's members gets an acceptance I am inspired to continue to work hard and harder at my own writing. I'm always so happy for them, as I know they are for me when I have success.

Q: What were some of the greatest benefits to you as a writer when you took a recent Alaskan writer's cruise?
A: My Alaskan conference cruise was a tremendous milestone in my writing (dare I say it?) career. For a whole week I traveled with a group of men and women who love the writing, editing and publishing life. Some were just beginners, and I hope I was able to encourage them to keep at it. Others were "wannabees" but perhaps some or even just one learned about dedication at the craft. The novelist who spoke had us laughing at the writing life and ourselves, while giving us tips and pointers that were invaluable. Both the nonfiction article editor and book editor invited me to send proposals to their companies. Excellent free handouts were given and writing books were available to purchase, and my only regret was lack of space for carrying home more on the plane.

Q: Share one tip you would like to give someone who is just starting out as a writer for children.
A: I would like to tell all new writers to study, study, study your craft. Read, read, read books of the age you like to write for. Then, write, write, write. Don't give up. Rejection slips are part of the game. I have enough to wallpaper my whole study with!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Deadline Tips

As someone who works from her home, I have to really work hard to schedule my time. Especially around the holidays, I have to be careful to schedule my writing hours to get things done but to also take important time off for family and friends. I’ve learned to ask for deadlines in book contracts by mid-December and not mid-January. If a book deadline is in mid-January, I’ve found I can’t set the project aside mentally, and I tend to stress out over the holidays.

So this year, when I signed a contract in September for a new book for Libraries Unlimited, I asked for a deadline of December 15. And right now on my desk is a new book contract to sign for next year with Chicago Review Press. Once again, I asked for a December 15th deadline. It will give me time to finish up each book and still have plenty of energy and enthusiasm to enjoy the Christmas holidays.

I don’t ever want to neglect my family during the holidays or put my writing commitments ahead of spending time with them. Once I read in interview of A.A.Milne’s son. (A.A.Milne wrote the Winnie the Pooh books.) His son seemed resentful of how writing took his dad away from him. Another time I read about how Norman Rockwell was so into his painting that even on major holidays he would disappear into his studio to work. I don’t want to do this. My family will always be more important than any writing project, and I want to let them know this. That’s why I try to schedule deadlines early enough to let me truly enjoy the holidays with them.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


I love my critique group! What an enthusiastic, dedicated group of eight professional writers. We work hard each month when we gather together to focus and critique. This month, for the second year in a row, however, will be different. Usually, we meet in Montclair, but for our meeting in December, we’re all driving up to Gloria’s in Hesperia for our annual Christmas party! Gloria goes all out to decorate for the holidays and she’s a wonderful host. There will be lots of good food and desserts, a fun gift exchange, and a VERY short time of critiques. (We e-mailed our manuscripts to each other so we can read over them ahead of time and just spend a few moments discussing each one at the party.)

I’ve been having fun collecting treasures for our gift exchange—something wrapped, something used, and something for writers. Most of the time, it’s a used writers’ book, but this year I found a few unique “freebies” for writers from a local conference I recently attended—some for the gift exchange and some to give each person in the group.

Today I’m enjoying wrapping the gifts and filling out their Christmas cards. Next, I’ll start planning on which delectable dessert to take! It’s a highlight of our writing year.

Monday, November 26, 2007

My Magnum Opus

Every writer should have a magnum opus. I do, and it’s changed my entire self-worth as a writer.

About two years ago, I decided to write a huge, huge project that would eventually become the pinnacle of my writing career. It’s way over my head as far as my ability or qualifications to write it. It’s bigger than anything else I ever plan to write. But it’s something I work on, word by word, week by week, and gradually it has become a part of me and is shaping who I am as a writer.

It started out innocently enough…I challenged myself to write an outline about a book that I wished every kid would have. You know—a classic—a book that would pass down from generation to generation of kids and become known as a landmark of books.

That innocent little outline grew and grew and grew until after several months of full time writing on it, it was over 150 pages long. I determined the projected length of my book—over 500 pages—and what I wanted to say in which part of my outline. Oh, I didn’t know the exact words I wanted to write for each section, but I knew most of the topics I wanted to write about.

Since those intense months of writing my outline, I have been working on my magnum opus. Word by word. Paragraph by paragraph. I estimate that it will take me at least ten full years to complete it.

But I’m not in any hurry. As a matter of fact, I keep my goal simple. If I write one hour per week on this manuscript, after an entire year, I’ll have spent at least 52 hours writing and working on it. That’s a bit, actually! And some weeks I spend more time on it than others, so I’m well ahead of my goal. (There were a bunch of weeks when I didn’t write at all on my magnum opus—my mother-in-law fell and fractured her pelvis and we had to drop everything! But then I wrote an extra hour each week when things settled down and quickly got back on schedule.)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Virtual Book Tour

To celebrate two new books I had come out this year, I’m hosting a Virtual Book Tour during the month of February, 2008. I’ve never done this before, so it’s an interesting journey! I’ve been checking into different sites that host author interviews for children’s books. So far my strategy is to find different blogs or websites that will agree to post my interview. Then I plan to add a link to these sites during Black History Month in February—one new link each day of the Virtual Book Tour. I know there are places that set these things up, but the fees are quite high and I want to give this a try on my own.

My publicist for Sleeping Bear Press, Audrey, sent me a lead this morning that I’m going to look into…

Check back in periodically for updates on the progress of the tour for my two newest books:
D is for Drinking Gourd: An African American Alphabet
A Kid’s Guide to African American History

Friday, November 23, 2007

Get Published Tips

The best success I’ve had in getting published is to follow these steps:
1. Find an editor who says what she is looking for.
2. Study that publisher’s website and find a hole in their product line.
3. E-mail that editor and ask her if she’d like to see a proposal for my book idea that fits into the hole in her product line.

And the best place I know for children’s writers to find editors who say what they’re looking for is by subscribing to Children’s Writer: Newsletter of Writing and Publishing Trends. For info on how to order it, go to

Each issue is jam packed with quotes from editors saying, “I’m looking for this,” and “I need that.” I’ve landed four big book contracts by e-mailing editors I read about in this newsletter since over two years ago when I started reading it.

Last June, I made it my goal to read through each issue of this newsletter and find at least one editor to e-mail with a book manuscript idea. This month, I had to STOP doing this. Why? I now have three more book contracts lined up which will keep me BUSY until next December and two of those publishers require me to send in my next two book proposals when I’m done with their deadlines!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Author Interview: Catherine Osornio

Meet Author Catherine Osornio!
Writing was never a career Catherine Osornio was looking for. Her interests while growing up were in math, science, cartooning, and eventually in film. It wasn’t until five years ago, while helping a friend develop her writing skills, that Catherine felt the Lord confirming a call to write.

Catherine has written both fiction and non-fiction stories for children's magazines and a private school's reading program. She has also written numerous inspirational articles for newsletters and an online newspaper. Currently she is in negotiations for her first picture book on American History. She is also working on two projects dear to her heart: an adventure series for boys, and a mystery series for girls. Catherine lives in Southern California with her husband and four children.

Featured Book: Alphabet book about American History (Title forthcoming)
Q: Congratulations on landing your very first book contract! How long did it take to go from your first idea to the actual book contract?
A: I took my writer group's challenge to write a book in a month, and encouraged by my author friend, I chose to write an alphabet book. Going onto, I used their advanced search tool to find publishers who were currently producing this type of genre. I made sure to choose companies who had at least five alphabet books in their catalogs. Once I created this list, I went to the publishers' websites to see if they were currently accepting unsolicited manuscripts. My list was now narrowed to five. Based on the type of alphabet books the company produced, I narrowed the choice down to one.

During this process I had been praying for some good topics to write about. I did not make this decision until I had found my prospective publisher. I noticed they had many books on holidays, but not one for the 4th of July. Looking through their submission guidelines, I noticed that they did not want picture books longer than 1,100 words. I bought five of their books and carefully read each one looking for patterns: how many words per letter; how was the topic covered; how did they handle difficult letters like Q and Z? I made notes of everything and used these patterns to write a rough outline. I researched using online materials and books from both my own library and the public library. I reworked and fine-tuned my manuscript until I had a rough draft to take to my critique group. Once I got their thumbs up and worked the changes, I sent out the manuscript to the publisher. This process, including pinpointing the publisher, took one month.

Six weeks later, the Editor-in-Chief e-mailed me. She liked the idea, but wanted an historical emphasis only (I had written about celebrating the 4th as well as the historical aspect). I got to work digging up more research materials. Three months later I took my rough draft to my critique group, and then sent out the final draft to the publisher. I heard back from the Editor-in-Chief about five weeks later, letting me know they were interested in the book and were working on the contract.

The total time from starting with my idea to hearing from the Editor that they wanted the book was seven months.

Q: Where do you get your ideas?
A: I pray a lot for inspiration and I find ideas popping in my head. It also helps to have four curious children, with ages ranging from 7 to 13, who are constantly asking me about things that spark story ideas.

Q: As a child, what were your favorite books to read?
A: I devoured mysteries! I also loved biographies, particularly about George
Washington. I find it funny that my first book is about American History, particularly during the time frame of my favorite hero.

Q: Share one tip you would like to give to a children’s author trying to land a first book contract.
A: Target, target, target! It really pays to know the publisher and their product lines. If you give them what they favor, they will be more likely to look at your ideas. I doubt I would have been so successful if I hadn't studied the publisher as well as I did.

Research Tips

I'm trying to break into a nonfiction magazine for kids I've never written for before. Yesterday, the free samples of the magazine arrived in the mail. (Even though most places say it costs for samples, I've learned that if you simply e-mail the editor of the magazine, explain that you're interested in sending a sample submission, and request a sample magazine, they are happy to send you a couple free copies.) Also, in the mail arrived two key research books I purchased used at for a total of $10 because the assigned topic is actually one I plan on writing for on other projects. And five more books arrived in my library yesterday that I ordered in for research. So I'm ready to go!

I plan on first reading through the sample magazines to find articles that fit the format mine will be written in. Then I'll start reading through my own research books that I purchased to jot down important facts of interest to kids. Then I'll read through the borrowed books to flesh out my resources.

The editor told me she wants three sources for each fact I state. So I have a system that seems to work. I give each book I'm using a little code letter such as AA or AB or AC. When I write down a fact I find, I write down the code for the book plus the page number. When I find that same fact in the next book, I also jot down the code for that book plus the page number. After reading through several books and jotting down the page numbers of the facts I find, I then go back and look over my notes. Any fact that has 3 sources next to it can go right into my article! If other facts look interesting, but I only have two sources, I need to look for more sources to support those facts.

Here's a sample of my notes:
Binare are ancient walled cities in Nigeria AA23, AC182, BA3
Kano is the oldest ancient walled city AA23, AB10, AC180
Kano still has portions of the wall tourists can see today AB12, AD480
Picture of wall in Kano AD12

I keep a list of codes/book titles on the computer so I can easily use the search/find tool in a future project to keep track of which books are which codes. (On my own books I actually write the code on a sticky note in the front of the book or even on the title page if the book is used and already beat up.) It's a bit time-consuming, but when an editor contacts me for a fact check, as has happened, I quickly pull out my notes, find the titles and page numbers of my resources, and send them to her.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Book Signing Tips

I just had two fun days at CSLA of signing my new book that just came out in September, D IS FOR DRINKING GOURD: AN AFRICAN AMERICAN ALPHABET. It was so exciting to see the response of librarians and teachers when they saw it. Even high school librarians bought copies to add to their collection after I explained how I visited libraries at local universities to dig up little-known information about the history of African Americans to include within the pages of my book. One librarian said that she plans to use this book in her “Buddy System” program where older students read to younger students. The book has an easy-to-read poem for each alphabet letter, but lots of important information in sidebars to provide the older readers with topics to talk about with their buddies.

Here are a few pointers I’ve learned over the years from attending my own book signings as well as observing other authors at book signings. If you have any tips you’d like to add to this list, please let me know!

*Bring along several retractable Sharpie® pens. I’ve tried different pens, but at one of my signings, the store had these pens available for authors to use and now they’re my favorite. The caps don’t get lost and they make a dark, legible signature. Bring several because sometimes they have a tendency to “walk off” and disappear as all pens do!

*Bring a sticky notepad and retractable ball point pens for people to write down the exact spelling of the person they want you to autograph the book for. This helps eliminate spelling mistakes.

*Dress for practicality and comfort. Wear comfy shoes because you might be standing on your feet a long time or want to walk the floor to see other conference exhibits. Bring a sweater if the signing is indoors as often businesses or conference centers run the air at a very cool temperature. If you’re anticipating lots of handouts from other exhibits, bring along a wheeled tote to save you from carrying a heavy load throughout the day.

*Bring a snack since many places don’t offer a wide selection of food if any at all.

*Consider having small change in your wallet or purse such as four 5’s and ten 1’s. When Audrey, my publicist, recommended this, at first I wasn’t sure that it was very important in today’s age of credit and debit cards. But I followed her directions and had some in my purse. I’m glad I did. The very first person at my recent signing purchased my book. When she was ready to pay for it, she reached in her purse and pulled out a twenty dollar bill. The sales rep at the booth said, “I’m sorry! I don’t have any change.” But I did! I ended up giving the sales rep all my small bills in exchange for her 20s and we had a very successful day minus that hassle. Thanks, Audrey!

*Bring a friend to help. If you’re expecting a busy time, a friend can sit with you at the book signing to help manage payment of the book, pass out sticky notes for writing down correct spellings of people’s names to autograph, or run unexpected errands that pop up. When scheduling book signings at ticketed events, I always ask for two complimentary tickets—one for me and one for my husband. Especially if you are signing books with children and have handouts or small activities, your friend (or hubby!) can help manage the crowd at one end of the table while you’re signing at the other end. Plus, it gives you someone to talk with if the day is a slow one.

*Always wear a smile and leave your ego back in your room. Many events are hosted by volunteers or have too small a staff to handle all the many details. Often, author’s name tags are misspelled, or they run out of author badges and give you an exhibitor’s badge instead, or have to give you a sticker to wear with your name on it. Don’t despair! Just smile in spite of any mishaps or inconveniences. Appreciate the people who are trying to help, enjoy the day, and spread lots of goodwill and cheer with a friendly smile.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Illustrator Interview

Meet Illustrator Frank Lowe!
Featured book: The King’s Silverware
Bio: Frank A. Lowe (Illustrator/Graphic Designer)
Resides in La Habra, California, but was raised in Whittier just one city over. Being the second youngest in a family of six children and also being born between two sisters, Frank found himself too young to hang out with his older brothers and too bored for the tea party scene with his two sisters. Drawing and doing art became the perfect outlet for Frank to pass the time in his childhood days. Frank has now worked professionally for over 20 years in the art field. He has worked in animation in such studios as Marvel Films (Spider-man), Hyperion Animation (Life with Louie, Itsy Bitsy Spider, and Happily Ever After [for HBO]), along with many others, doing everything from story-board to character development. He currently works as a graphic designer, designing corporate identification packages for small businesses. Frank is illustrating picture books for children in the age group of 4-7. The King’s Silverware is the first picture book out of a two-book deal he has with Olive Leaf Publications.

Web site: Samples of his work are posted at

Q: As an artist, what technique do you prefer to work with?
A: What I like to do is spend some time praying and considering each project I do. After a short while I begin to brainstorm on a large 18 x 24-inch sheet of paper using just a graphite pencil to get my ideas for each one of my characters or background layouts. As soon as I have an approximate design completed, I scan the line art into my computer to make it into a layer in whatever software I might be using, to begin rendering and colorizing each piece.

Q: What inspires your creativity the most?
A: I don’t like to fill my head with other people’s work. Because when I do, I start to imitate them too closely. I listen to other people’s advice for structure, layout, rendering, and foreshortening, and that’s it. As far as style goes, I would have to say I’m most influenced and inspired by the scenery of day to day life. I think that the Lord has created the best backdrops that have ever been done. And as far as inspiration for character development, the Lord came up with millions of them to populate this rock we live on called Earth, so I just take a walk and I come back with all I need.

Q: Describe a highlight of this book project for you personally.
A: I think that a highlight for me while I was working on The King’s Silverware was when I saw each character all drawn out and completely colorized for the very first time. The best way to describe it for me is, a little kid seeing a new toy for the first time and thinking of all the possibilities and things that can be done with it.

Q: Share one tip you feel children’s book illustrators in today’s market need to know regarding staying up-to-date on computer technology.
A: To answer this question, you would need to consider the fact that I’m an artist who was basically railroaded into the computer age. I would have to say that you should do all you can to make sure you as the artist don’t lose your creativity in the technology. There are people spending all their time coming up with new and improved ways of making boxes look three dimensional and so real that you think you can touch them. But after all…it’s still just boxes.

Query Tips

Yesterday, a bunch of great writers met at our local Borders for an SCBWI Schmooze. What a fun time we had discussing “Queries that Work.” We had lots of great examples of queries people brought that actually landed a book or article contract.

One thing we discussed is how sometimes, the rules just have to be broken. I’ve landed over 70 book contracts with a certain “formula” I use to write my queries. When I have followed the “rules” found in most writing books or discussed at most writing conferences, I’ve never gotten a successful sale. Here’s how I write my queries—and they work! Just for an example, just recently I’ve landed four book contracts in the past three months!

Let’s say I want to write an alphabet book about my funny cat Humphrey. BEFORE I WRITE THE BOOK, I look around on the Internet at different publishers’ web sites. I keep searching until I find a publisher who writes alphabet books about pets. They have an alphabet book about dogs called, “S is for Spot: An Alphabet Book about Dogs.” But I see that they don’t have a book about cats yet! I look for their submission guidelines and see that the editor’s name is Paula Wells. I order some of their library books in at the library to check out their format and style. Then I’m ready to write a query! Here’s what I say in my e-mail query:

Dear Paula,
I studied your website and saw that you publish alphabet books about pets.

I see you have a dog alphabet book, “S is for Spot: An Alphabet Book about Dogs.” I noticed that you don’t have an alphabet book yet about cats.

I was wondering if you’d be interested in seeing a proposal for an alphabet book about cats called “H is for Humphrey: An Alphabet Book about Cats.”

If not, I would also be interested in writing an alphabet book about these other pets:
Horses, goats, pot-bellied pigs.

I am a children’s author and have written several articles for the children’s magazine, “I Like Pets.”

I’m looking forward to hearing from you.


Nancy I. Sanders
(Contact info here.)

That’s it! This is my standard format to contact an editor. Short query via e-mail targeting their product line. Personal e-mail. If the editor doesn’t take e-mail, I usually don’t bother contacting her. I just look for a different publisher to target. I don’t want my query to land up in a pile of envelopes and not hear back for months. The results? I usually hear back from within the week or I don’t hear back at all. Out of about 25 queries I sent these past 3 months, I’ve landed several book contracts and magazine assignments. My goal is to get the contract before I write the manuscript. Why? Because usually, the editor wants to give input on which direction the manuscript should take. It save me lots of revision time. And wanna hear a secret? I’ve written over a hundred manuscripts that I’ve tried to submit somewhere—with 100% rejections. I haven’t sold a one of them. But I’ve landed over 70 book contracts when I query the editor before I write the book. Even as a beginning writer!

Middle Grade Musings

Thanks, Catherine, for your great suggestion. Your idea makes it to the top of the Check-off List! Here's the new and revised list to use after you write your first draft of a chapter of a middle grade novel. It's great for the editing process. If you have anything you'd like to add to the list, please let me know!

Chapter Check-off List
for Middle Grade Novels
*Does your opening paragraph have a strong enough hook to draw the reader into the story? This needs to continue in each subsequent chapter, particularly following a great cliff hanger.
*Does the chapter end with a cliffhanger?
*Is the setting clear but not obtrusive?
*Are characterizations developed to make each person unique?
*Are main characters carrying more weight in each scene than the minor characters?
*Do the subplots work together to increase tension?
*Are the five senses included? Sight, sound, smell, hear, touch?
*Is the level of interest on target for this age range?
*Did anything slow down the forward progression of the plot such as: dialog, unnecessary scene, too much background information, too many details in the setting, bunny trail?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Middle Grade Musings

As I was rejoicing that I finished the first draft of chapter one for my new middle grade novel, I was thinking it would be helpful to have a Chapter Check-off List of items I can make sure each chapter contains as I go back and edit it. Here are some key ingredients I plan to add to my list. If you know of more, please send them my way! Wouldn't it be fun to make a great list for these middle grade novels we are writing to help polish and hone during the editorial process?

Chapter Check-Off List
for Middle Grade Novels
*Does the chapter end with a cliffhanger?
*Is the setting clear but not obtrusive?
*Are characterizations developed to make each person unique?
*Are main characters carrying more weight in each scene than the minor characters?
*Do the subplots work together to increase tension?
*Are the five senses included? Sight, sound, smell, hear, touch?
*Is the level of interest on target for this age range?
*Did anything slow down the forward progression of the plot such as: dialog, unnecessary scene, too much background information, too many details in the setting, bunny trail?

Already, I'm getting ideas to go back and add more sensory details. Let my reader feel the cold air (it's winter), smell the savory soup in the bowl that was handed to my main character from over the camp fire, hear the axes cutting down trees to build log huts...

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Middle Grade Musings

Last night after a full week of writing, I just felt like relaxing and having fun. Of course, since writing is my favorite hobby, I reached for one of my writing projects--a historical fiction middle grade novel I'm just starting to write. I grabbed my book of baby names along with several nonfiction books from the American Revolution era and had fun looking through them to come up with names for my new characters. Hip, hip hooray! I chose the name of my main character--a 12-year-old girl. Then I started filling out a character interview from a form distributed at my writer's group. Some of the things I discovered about my character surprised me as I had to fill in the blanks about who her parents were and what her favorite color was, etc. I recently read of an author who creates a scrapbook for the characters in her novels, collecting photos of the actual setting and magazine pictures of what she thinks her characters look like, etc. This intrigues me and I want to start a scrap book for all the new characters I'm going to meet in my new book, too! After deciding on all the names I needed in order to start my book, I sat down with my laptop and finished typing my first chapter. Whew. A big milestone! Now I'm ready to move forward and let the story unfold.