Friday, December 30, 2011

A Writer's Goals

Well, the year is just about over. Time to set new goals as a writer. I seem to have the same goals every year: write and read more, submit manuscripts to publishers, nurture myself as a writer, attend at least one writer’s conference or workshop, value my writer friends, keep the hope up. Of course, I don’t always get all of these done. Each year seems to go by faster than the last one.

The above is what I wrote a couple of years ago, but it still applies. I went over my journal to see if I had really read as much as I had hoped to in 2011. I could have done better, but, oh, well. Some of the books I read were: Moon Over Manifest, Writing as a Sacred Path, Olive’s Ocean, Between Us Baxters, Noah’s Compass, Climbing the Stairs, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, The Help, The Water Seekers, Turtle in Paradise, Between Shades of Gray, Three Quarters Dead, Under the Mesquite, and There is no long distance now: very short stories by Naomi Shihab Nye. Add one more, a nonfiction book which I just read last night: Frances Hodgson Burnett: Beyond the Secret Garden by Angelica Shirley Carpenter and Jean Shirley.

This past year was a pretty good one for me as a writer. I feel truly blessed. I got three book contracts for picture books and McGraw Hill bought subsidiary rights for one of my books. I also was a recipient of the SCBWI/ award for a work-in-progress piece. I hope 2012 will be a great year as well. I wish you a year of inspiration and great writing.

“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island … and best of all, you can enjoy these riches every day of your life.” – Walt Disney

Friday, December 23, 2011

Writers' Retreat

I’ve been reminiscing about a writers' retreat I attended a few years ago in Pennsylvania. It was during this time of year that I had that wonderful experience. During the past few days, I have received emails from across the country from some of my fellow writers who attended the same retreat. We have so many fond memories of our time together in those beautiful, rustic cabins. 

From my journal on one of those days, I wrote: Arrived a little while ago from the Scranton airport. It is cold here, but the sun is out. Remnants of powdered snow linger in patches on the ground and on nearby rocks. I have been assigned to one of the cabins, which is nestled in a wooded area surrounded by tall trees. There’s a tiny porch with a rocking chair. There’s also a pathway that leads down into the woods. 

The Cabins

The leaveless trees stand tall and firm and let the sun filter through. Some dry orange leaves still cling stubbornly to some trees as if not wanting to yield to the coming winter cold. My little cabin creaks as the strong wind pounds the walls. 

The other writers and I are to meet with the editors in the “big house” down the hill. That house is quaint and charming. Across the street is a creek. We shall workshop our manuscripts then. Looking forward to it. 

The Creek

I wish you abundant blessings and happy writing in the coming year. I hope that you too will someday attend a writer’s retreat that will leave you with wonderful memories.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Picture Books

For those of you who write and/or illustrate children’s picture books, here’s an interesting article on the blog from an illustrator’s perspective. Guest blogger, Mélanie Watt, award-winning author/illustrator, writes about the techniques, styles, swing moods and facial expressions she uses for the characters in her books. In her fascinating piece, “From Crayons to Computer-Generated Art,” she writes about how she got started with an art project and a “teacher who sent her mockup to a publisher.” For both illustrators and writers, I believe this is an inspiring article of one author/illustrator’s journey into the world of picture books.  

San Antonio River Walk
Happy Holidays!
“Possibly the greatest role a book can play in the lives of young readers is to assure them that they aren’t alone.” – Richard Peck

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Writing Goals

One of the things I look forward to during the holidays is getting together with family for our annual Cookie Exchange Party. We take turns hosting the party each year. At the gathering, we listen to Christmas music, catch up on the latest in family news, eat delightful snacks, and then start the “ritual” of the cookie exchange. The cookie containers get fancier and fancier each year.  Some are so beautifully wrapped, you hate to even open and disturb the elaborate decorations that you know have been created with a lot of love. Over the holidays, I share the dozens of cookies (all different varieties) with neighbors and friends. It’s a tradition I have enjoyed with my family for many, many years now. Do you have a special tradition you treasure during the holidays?

And it’s not too soon to start setting some writing goals for the coming year. In Jody Calkins’ article, “Breaking Down Your Writing Goals and Setting Doable Tasks,” on the Institute of Children’s Literature blog, the key word here is “doable.”  She writes that writing goals down is easy, but achieving them is another thing. (I can vouch for that). In this article, she comes up with a “a different approach to defining your goals.” Step by step, she shows how to break up goals into smaller goals that are “doable” and not so overwhelming. This is an excellent article to read before you start writing out those goals. Wishing you luck with your writing!

"My never-fail secret to getting your book published ... Write it!" -- Sephanie Gordon Tessler

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Procrastination in writing

Do you find yourself with so many time constraints you can’t fit in some writing time? Once in a while we’re all guilty of that. Besides time constraints, might there be other reasons we procrastinate? There’s an article on the Institute of Children’s Literature blog written by Claudette Young, "Procrastination -- Fear's Time Thief," where she suggests that sometimes we make excuses so that we don’t have to tackle the job before us. Is it fear of failure or fear of success? Or is it something else? Whatever the reason, she lists five baby steps to get yourself back on track with your writing. It’s hard to recapture the momentum if you stay away too long. Take a look at the baby steps in the article and see if they help. Happy writing!

Albuquerque 2006
"The greatest children's books are about the journey to wisdom." -- Jane Yolen 

Friday, December 2, 2011

YA Book Author

I feel compelled to brag about this author, Ruta Sepetys, because I met her last summer at the SCBWI-LA conference. We talked for a bit and I bought her book, Between Shades of Gray, and she graciously autographed it. She told me she was one of the “success” stories of SCBWI. Seems she met her agent at one of these annual conferences, and the rest is history. I really enjoyed reading her book and now I see her name all over the place. She’s featured in the December 1, 2011, Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf online newsletter. I am so proud to have met her. I wish her the best of success with her book and the next two that are coming out. I can say, “I knew her when.”

                                                   Lupe Ruiz-Flores and Ruta Sepetys

Here’s the article from PB Children’s Bookshelf: 

Winners' Circle

The French literary magazine LIRE has selected Ruta Sepetys's Between Shades of Gray as "Ce qu'ils n'ont pas pu nous prendre"— Best Novel for Young People 2011. It is the first time the prestigious French prize has been awarded to an American in the children's category. Between Shades of Gray, published here by Philomel and in France by Gallimard Jeunesse, tells the story of Stalin's deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia. Sepetys, the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, told PW in an interview that she was compelled to tell the story after a visit to family in Lithuania in 2005, during which she learned about her own grandfather's story of Siberian deportation and his eventual emigration to America.”

"If a book looks like you worked too hard on it -- go back and work on it some more." -- Betsy Byars

Monday, November 28, 2011

Story submission

With the holidays fast approaching, I haven’t written much lately, but I did submit a picture book story about a woodpecker with attitude that I had filed away some time back. I revisited it, dusted it off, revised a bit, had it critiqued by my writer group, and sent it off to publishers. Wish me luck!

Researching publishers takes quite a bit of time as well. It’s all part of the writing process. Having a link to publisher websites helps. Here’s a children’s book publisher website that has valuable information on guidelines, agents, manuscript formatting, and so on. Website: Signaleader

During the holidays, I like to read from two books given to me by writer friends whose stories are included in the books. It’s a real treat for me!

Don’t get too frazzled during the holidays. Relax a bit, drink some tea, and read a book. Enjoy!

“What does an editor do? Michelangelo said it best: ‘I saw an angel in the marble and I just chiseled till I set him free.’” – Deborah Brodie

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What is a story?

What is a story? We’ve all been told that a story has to have structure, i.e., a beginning, a middle, and an end, right? Well, according to Brian A. Klems, a blogger for Writer’s Digest, he writes that a story has to have much more than that. He addresses this topic in his article, “The 5 Essential Story Ingredients.” 

 Some of what he writes: “stories have an origination, an escalation of conflict, and a resolution. Of course, stories also need a vulnerable character, a setting that’s integral to the narrative, meaningful choices that determine the outcome of the story, and reader empathy. But at its most basic level, a story is a transformation unveiled—either the transformation of a situation or, most commonly, the transformation of a character. Simply put, you do not have a story until something goes wrong.”

Read his entire article as he defines the “5 essential story ingredients,” which are Orientation, Crisis, Escalation, Discovery, and Changes.


 “I can create my own theatre in picture books. I love the flow of turning the pages, the suspense of what’s next.”Don Freeman

Monday, November 14, 2011

Panel discussion with publishers

Recently Ingrid Sundberg, YA writer and illustrator, posted on her blog, Ingrid’s Notes, an excellent piece covering the 2011 SCBWI-LA summer conference panel discussion with five publishers. Ms. Sundberg writes on her post some of the questions raised by the moderator to the panel: 

What kind of skills does an author or illustrator need? What do you expect from them more than just the ability to write? 

What about self publishing? 

How does New Media affect picture books? 

Visit her blog to find out the answers to these questions and many more. I was there during that panel discussion and found it extremely helpful and interesting.  

And here’s a peek at the Publishers Weekly Children’s Books (long list) - Spring 2012 Sneak Previews Compiled by Shannon Maughan 

Happy Harvest 

“I always yield to the inevitability of events in my novels even when it causes me to shift course, toss away pages and notes and make sudden revisions.” – Robert Cormier

Friday, November 11, 2011

YA Debut novel

I just returned from a book signing at Barnes & Noble for a writer friend of mine, Guadalupe Garcia McCall. It was a lively event where kids from the middle school where McCall teaches performed in mariachi groups to the delight of the crowd.

The YA book, Under the Mesquite, published by Lee and Low Books, is McCall’s debut novel. I first met McCall two years ago at the SCBWI-LA conference where she was on a panel of Latino writers. I found out she lives very close to San Antonio so we’ve become friends. 
Guadalupe Garcia McCall

It’s always a pleasure to see writers you know, especially local ones, get published. We all know how much work goes into the writing process and so we congratulate one of our own. Wishing you the best with your new book, Lupe!

“An author who is proactive in her book’s marketing and promotion is much more desirable than one who waits for the publisher to make the first move.” – Writing Tip from Writer’s Digest Weekly Planner

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Picture book illustrations

I’ve always said that a picture book is collaboration between the writer and the illustrator. In my opinion, the illustrator brings our stories to life. I always have my own vision when I write the story. However, I’m always amazed at how much better the illustrator’s vision is for the same story. I leave it up to these talented artists to work their magic.

Take a peek at the 2011 Best Illustrated Children’s Books by the New York Times Book Review. The post, published by Pamela Paul on Arts Beat blog, announces the ten titles. 

You might also enjoy Shirley G. Webb’s post, “A Book is Born,” on the Institute of Children’s Literature blog. She describes her excitement when she first became a “published author.” 

“Know yourself. Listen to a lot of music. Don’t whine. Maintain your sense of humor; indulge your sense of play. Persist, persist, persist.” – Kathleen Krull

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Critique groups

I know I’ve mentioned critique groups before. I just had a critique session with my group yesterday and their comments were right on target. In certain areas of my manuscript where I had misgivings, the group readily picked up on it without me mentioning it beforehand. That was enough validation for me to revise those parts.

The Austin SCBWI has a brief description of what a critique group is. They mention the “sandwich” method, which I’m sure many of you have heard before. Critique etiquette and group parameters are also addressed. Join a writing group in your area and form a critique group. You’ll not only make lifelong friends, but you’ll get valuable feedback.  

A group of writers, including yours truly, recently participated in Educator Appreciation Day at a local Barnes & Noble. The teachers and librarians in the audience were treated to presentations by the authors. A booksigning followed. We had fun!

Educator Appreciation Day

"Nothing one ever experiences or feels is wasted." -- Lynne Reid Banks

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Dialogue in your story

Sometimes as writers, we struggle with dialogue in our stories. Is the dialogue in our story boring, an info dump, or does it move the action along like it’s supposed to?  “Not all dialogue is created equal.” That’s what Jan Fields writes on her post, “Diagnosis Dialogue,” on the Institute of Children’s Literature blog. She addresses the different types of dialogue, the problem, and the diagnosis. She gives examples as well. Interesting post. 

In the book that I’m reading, Writing Tools, by Roy Peter Clark, one chapter devoted to dialogue begins with, “Use dialogue as a form of action. Dialogue advances narrative; quotes delay it.” Another great line in that chapter: “… dialogue defines a story because its power drags us to the scene and sets our ears to the action.”

What I like to do once I’m finished with a chapter or the story itself, is to go over the dialogue on the pages, highlighting it in blue to see if there is too much on the page or not enough. I also check to see if it is moving the action forward. What about you?

“The biggest mistake a writer can make is not taking the time to fully understand the publications, publishing houses, or literary agents she queries.” – Writing Tip from Writer’s Digest Weekly Planner

Monday, October 24, 2011

San Marcos Texas Author Day

Join us for the annual San Marcos Texas Author Day on Sunday, October 30, from 2 to 5 p.m. at the San Marcos, Texas, public library. There will be a host of authors including yours truly. I will be doing a reading of The Battle of the Snow Cones at 2 p.m.

From the San Marcos Mercury: “These published writers and illustrators will sign copies of their books and chat with fans. A variety of genres will be represented including Texana, mystery, romance, memoirs, children’s literature, poetry, and non-fiction.” 
San Jose Mission Window

“ … one day you experience a new joy, that of your story being published (giving birth). Everyone sees this beautiful thing that you have created. They will dress it up (illustrations and packaging). Family and friends shower you with praise.” These are some of the words Shirley G. Webb wrote on her post, “A Book is Born,” for the Institute of Children’s Literature blog. It’s a wonderful piece that addresses the passion, the revisions, the rejections, and all that goes into the process of finally getting a book published. 
"You must write for children in the same way as you do for adults, only better." -- Maxim Gorky

Friday, October 21, 2011

Word choice in scenes

Guest blogger, Ingrid Sundberg, had a really good article posted on The Parking Lot Confessional blog. Titled “The Right Word,” it addressed the topic of word choice in your manuscript. A few weeks ago, I had a manuscript critiqued at a local conference, and the editor talked about using the right word choice to bring a scene to life.

Sundberg has a couple of examples in her piece and also two exercises that go into more detail. In the first exercise, “Scene Analysis … pick a scene in a book where you (as reader) felt an emotional connection….  Exercise two … Write with Word Lists … A great way to use this technique in your own work is to create word-lists.” Of course, you need to read the entire piece to appreciate why word choice in scenes is critical. According to Sundberg, “a new emotional layer has been added to your work with the touch of a few carefully chosen words.” 

She’s right. 


I love the definition of scenes in the book, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark. The author writes, “You don’t build a story or a book of words and sentences and paragraphs—you build it of scenes, one piled on top of the next, each changing something that came before, all of them moving the story inexorably and relentlessly forward.” 

“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” – Elmore Leonard

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Handwriting in cursive

This doesn’t have anything to do with writing, but in a way, it does. Handwriting in cursive, that is. I wrote an essay on penmanship a couple of years ago and it was published in our local paper. The other day I came across an online article dealing with the same topic. Titled “Should cursive be saved?” it was posted by Kathy McManus on The Responsibility Project blog. 

According to the article, there are supporters of the flowing script and those who think it’s not really needed anymore. Comments in the article: “… But others say there is zero need to save a communication form which fails to prepare students for a practical future. ‘Do people need to be able to write? Of course,’ said one online commenter, who continued, ‘Is cursive the best method? Probably not, given how few people use it on a daily basis.’” 

In this day and age of texting, IPads, and PCs, I guess penmanship is fading. I’m glad I had a chance to learn it, though. What do you think?

Aguas Frescas

“Great editors do not discover nor produce great authors; great authors create and produce great publishers.” – John Farrar

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Chautauqua Experience

Lucky enough to have been the recipient of a scholarship, I attended the Highlights Foundation workshop in Chautauqua, New York, two years in a row. It was quite a while back, but I still remember the excitement of it all. Besides meeting and getting books autographed by renowned authors and illustrators, I enjoyed the fabulous food, basked in the tranquility of the campus, and made lifelong friends. I’d like to share some of what I learned about the craft of writing. 

“A writer is the verbal painter,” said Peter Jacobi, professor emeritus of journalism at Indiana University. He used examples of art and music, sensual art versus impact. 

“Capture your reader,” he said. “Think first, plan, then write.”  Some of his writing tips: 

§  Promise and deliver – The first page should set subject, tone and direction. Then what you promised the reader must began to be delivered. 

§  Flow – Make your narrative flow steadily ahead. A river of words unbroken from start to finish. 

§  Clarity in language – Lucidity in thought. Word choice. Seek to find the right one. 

§  Rhythm – Listen to your sentences as they grate against the mind. How do they come together? 

§  Movement – Do not bind your story with a pile of ingredients where there is no sense of movement or forward propulsion of your story. 

§  Surprise the reader with the unexpected from left field. 

§  X-ray – Take the reader behind the scenes. 

“Nice writing is not enough,” he said. “Surprise the reader along the way. Do not write the fact that it’s raining, but the feel that you’re being rained upon.”

 There was much, much more. I am only able to skim the surface in this article. I hope many of you will one day be able to attend the writers’ workshops at Chautauqua. It is well worth it. Most rewarding was the accessibility of the faculty and the inspiration and guidance they offered in a setting that most writers only dream about.

If you want to write for Highlights magazine, make sure your story applies to their mission statement. Address your manuscript to the appropriate editor.  Go to their web site,, subscribe or get a copy of Highlights so you can get an idea of what types of stories they’re looking for.

"When composing a magazine article, it is usally better to write with a specific market in mind so your work will match the publication's style and tone and be directed toward its unique readership." -- Writing Tip from Writer's Digest Weekly Planner

Friday, October 7, 2011

Writing Animal Stories

The Children’s Writer is taking submissions for their Poetry or Verse Story Writing Contest. Polish that story you’ve been working on and submit before their deadline of October 31, 2011. Visit their website for contest rules. Good luck!

I once wrote a story about a dog that was rescued from the animal shelter by a family when they saw him perform in a local school play, Little Orphan Annie. Although it hasn't been published yet, I'm thinking of resubmitting. I took it out of my file, read it again, and decided it’s pretty darn good. I might just resurrect it someday soon and send it out.

This thought was triggered when I read the post, “5 Tricks Animal Writers Should Know,” on Writer’s Digest Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents Blog. The guest column by Patti Sherlock, award-winning author, (latest book, A Dog for All Seasons), offers tips on how to write animal stories starting with “Respect what animals mean to your audience.”  Take a peek.

Pumpkins, pumpkins, everywhere!

"So much can be said and felt through poetry in just a few words or lines. A poem can have as much impact in ten, twelve, or fourteen lines as an entire novel." -- Lee Bennett Hopkins

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Book Events

Just had a jammed-packed two weekends of book events. First, I participated in the Education Services Center (ESC) Roundup in San Antonio on September 23. There were hundreds of librarians from the local and surrounding areas. I was on a panel with several other writers and illustrators who came from all over Texas. Between signings, we discussed our latest works and upcoming events.

Then on September 30, I was in the Rio Grande Valley at another ESC book event, this time at Region One in McAllen. Again, I was on a panel and met different writers and illustrators who were all enthused to be there.

Come Saturday, October 1, we all headed to the Harlingen Public Library where a book festival was the event of the day. The library is beautiful with a gorgeous courtyard where I did a reading of my book, The Battle of the Snow Cones. Then some of us were on a panel answering questions about the writing and illustrating process.

Courtyard - Harlingen Public Library

It was an exhaustive but fun time. Networking and socializing with teachers, librarians, writers, illustrators, parents of young school children, and of course, the children themselves was a super rewarding experience. Cannot wait until next time. 

Mark Twain and Author

 “To do without tales and stories and books is to lose humanity’s past, is to have no star map for our future.”Jane Yolen

Thursday, September 22, 2011

First scenes in MG and YA fiction

First scenes in middle grade and young adult fiction from editor's comments at the SCBWI SW-TX conference.     

§  The goal of a first scene is to grab your reader’s attention and make them want to read your second scene.

§  Example of a first sentence in a scene: “I stole a body.”           

§  Example of a first sentence in a scene: “The house did not want her there.” 

§  Intrigue the heck out of the reader with your first scene.  

§  A great first scene starts the story in the right place. Otherwise, you can confuse your reader.  

§  A scene only matters within the context of its plot. 

§  Think about the promise that you made to your reader and keep that promise throughout the scene that you write. 

§  It’s like a puzzle: every scene has to be in its place in order for the plot to be complete. 

§  Every scene needs a goal and every scene advances your story. 

§  Do not start with back story. Give the reader only what they absolutely need. No info dump. Integrate this throughout the novel instead. 

§  Your first scene is not about a lot of details about your character. You don’t have to introduce ALL of your characters. You will bog down the reader with too many details. 

§  Your story needs to have momentum and tension from the very first scene.

More on scenes to come.
Old-fashioned stove in Albuquerque

"No matter how much formal education you've had, it's best to read as many classics as possible and keep abreast of today's popular reading, especially in the area to which you hope to contribute." -- Writing Tip from Writer's Digest Weekly Planner

Monday, September 19, 2011

Writing tips for picture books

A success! We just had our annual SCBWI-SWTX (San Antonio Chapter) conference in our lovely city of San Antonio. Attendance was good and everyone seemed to have gotten something out of the conference and critiques by editors and agents from New York and California. Some comments from the editors on picture books:

                  §  A book has to mean something to a child.

§  Voice – Story has to be told in a way that feels new and original. Unique voice.

§  Use clever, evocative language.

§  Narrative arc – what’s going to happen next?

§  Not all books have narrative arc, i.e., concept books.

§  Pacing – what keeps the reader turning the pages.

§  Are characters memorable and relatable?

§  Word count should be around 250 – 1000 words.

Captive audience

Conference Luncheon

River Walk
If you're a writer or illustrator and wish to join the local San Antonio SCBWI chapter, contact our Regional Advisor for details.

Next time: First scenes in middle grade and young adult fiction. 

"Membership in a national professional writing group or organization can help you establish a professional image as it increases your visibility." -- Writing Tip from Writer's Digest Weekly Planner 

Friday, September 16, 2011

Book Illustrations

For illustrators and writers alike, you might want to see the gorgeous book illustrations in  Elizabeth Bluemle’s post, “Overlooked by the Caldecott,” published in the Publishers Weekly, Shelf Talker blog. 

What is the Caldecott? According to the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), The Caldecott Medal was named in honor of nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott. It is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.” 

To learn about the history behind this medal and the criteria for awarding the Caldecott, visit the Randolph Caldecott Medal ALSC link. 

In the meantime, enjoy the beautiful art of those illustrators mentioned in Bluemle’s article.


“Know yourself. Listen to a lot of music. Don’t whine. Maintain your sense of humor; indulge your sense of play. Persist, persist, persist.”Kathleen Krull

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Traditional versus vanity presses

Have you ever thought about self publishing your book? These days, more and more writers are thinking about it. What are the risks? What are the pros and cons? How much does it cost? The questions go on and on. Harold Underdown addresses this issue in his article, “Between Publishers and Vanity Presses: Opportunities and Dangers in the Twilight Zone.” He lists the options you, as a writer, have. He points out the difference in publishing with traditional presses and vanity presses. He doesn’t condemn or endorse either one, but leaves the decision up to the writer. What he does offer are the options that are available. Interesting read.  

The Texas Book Festival (Austin, Texas)  is coming up on October 22-23, 2011. For a preview of the author lineup, visit the link above. I've been a featured author there twice and have really enjoyed the event. Attend if you can. Well worth it.

"I want to write a book that will be read from beginning to end with a mounting sense of anticipation and discovery--read willingly, with a feeling of genuine pleasure." -- Russell Freedman