Saturday, January 30, 2016

Creating Characters and Other Alchemy with Joe McGee

            I am an active advocate for writing exercises and for creative play. It’s the same mentality behind stretching before you run, work out, play sports, fight bulls, and/or engage in long-distance competitive yo-yo relay sled races – it gets you limber, loosens the creative muscles. Besides that, they’re just plain fun.

            The very act of writing, of storytelling, is magical. Think about it: We take letters, form them into words, and string those words into sentences, that when all put into some kind of sequence, create dynamic characters, compelling worlds, and fascinating stories. THAT is magic; a form of alchemy.

            But there is another kind of magic that happens when we create stories. Stories often begin as tiny seeds, or little sparks, embers of something that flittered through our space and, once nestled into the womb of our imaginations, grow and develop. We are surrounded by stories, or story material – characters and places and conflict and imagery – that offer interesting paths to pursue. It’s like finding the end of a ball of yarn and unraveling it, pull by pull….only in reverse.

            So, here’s what I mean….here’s the prompt to practice the art of what I like to define as “telescoping.” We’re going to start small, at the micro level, and work our way out. This is an excellent way to find and develop stories – start small and work outward.  It begins with a bumper sticker….

            Have a friend, or family member, or your pizza delivery person (if you have neither friends or family) tell you, text you, email you two bumper stickers they have seen or happen to like or remember. They should tell you NOTHING about the vehicle it was on, or the person who drove said vehicle. This is important. NO details. Bumper stickers only. The details are your job.

            Starting with one of the bumper stickers, begin with what kind of vehicle YOU think it might be on. Then begin to define it, starting with the exterior. Is it a rusted old Jeep, or a new Camry? What color? Dents or scratches? Broken tail light? Grungy Teddy Bear tied to the grill with barbed wire? What does it look like inside? Sombrero in the back window? Take out wrappers all over the floor? Nursing school textbooks spilled across the back seat? Does it smell like sour milk or strawberry air freshener? What’s on the radio? Loose change in the cup holder? Where did it come from? What did the driver buy last that produced the change? Follow the yarn…ask questions…ask questions based off of the answers to the previous questions.

            Then, move to the driver. Who are they? Start with the easy things: Age, gender, outward appearance. Then go deeper. What are their mannerisms? Behaviors? Who are the

people in their lives? Where are they going? Why? What is their history? Their fear? Their desire? Their problem? Keep building off of everything you discover along the way. Instead of peeling layers away from the onion, you are adding layers.

            Then, do the same process all over for the second bumper sticker. Have fun with it. Play with juxtaposition and possibility. Let your imagination loose. Once you have developed two complete characters, and the vehicles they are driving, see where their stories Venn. Where do their paths cross and what develops when they meet? How do their arcs collide and what story is produced as a result of this character mash-up? You may be surprised to discover an entire story waiting to be told simply by rolling these bumper sticker snowballs down the hill and watching them grow.

            At the very least, you’ll practice the art of developing ideas and fanning the flames of idea minutiae. We are surrounded by story potential. All you have to do is take hold of the string and start pulling…you may be surprised to discover where it takes you.

 This kind of thing can be done with anything: start small and build outward. What is in the envelope? What text did that man on the bus just read? Who owned that mud-splattered doll on the side of the road?

            Remember….story is in the details.


Joe McGee is the author of Peanut Butter& Brains: A Zombie Culinary Tale (Abrams, 2015), a picture book about being true to yourself and following your heart. He teaches writing at Rowan University and at Sierra Nevada College, where he is faculty in the low-residency Writing for Children & Young Adult MFA program. He has his MA in Writing from Rowan University and his MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is represented by Linda Epstein, of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. You can find him at or on Twitter, @mcgeejp 

Friday, January 29, 2016

WANTED: 2017 Debut Books for Review Here on REVIEWSDAY TUESDAY

    I am published picture book author, a 2016 Cybils Award Picture Book and Board Book Panelis as well as a former Book Reviewer for Kliatt, Midwest Book Review, The Writer's Journal and more. My reviews have also been published in Queens Parenting Magazine, SCBWI Bulletin and Children's Literature Review, to name a few.

       If you are an author or publisher interested in having your traditionally published book featured here on REVIEWSDAY TUESDAY, please contact me at to request a review. I will be accepting reviews for Picture Books, Non-Fiction Picture Books, Chapter Books and a selected number of Middle Grade and Young Adult Books.

My Little Secret (From his book Weird Writing Tips) by Dan Gutman

          Here's a trick I use to improve my writing.  I'm pretty sure I invented it.  Maybe not.  In any case, I never heard of anybody else who uses it.

          I shouldn't be revealing this secret to you, because once everybody finds out, any dope will be able to do what I do.  But I'm going to tell you anyway, because I'm a nice guy.  But keep it to yourself, okay?  I've got enough competition as it is. 

         Here's the trick--after you finish your first draft, let it sit there and "age" for a while.  Like a fine wine.  Age it for a couple of days, at least.  A week is even better.  During that time, the words you wrote will fade, just a little bit, in your memory.  Next, pick it up again and read it OUT LOUD.

And here's the important part: While you read it out loud, PRETEND TO BE SOMEBODY ELSE.

It's as simple as that.  Pretend to be a kid, a librarian, your best friend, or a complete stranger.  When you read your words out loud and pretend to be somebody else, it's almost like you're reading those words through someone else's eyes.  You'll see the mistakes you made the first time.  You'll see where you can make the writing better, clearer, and sharper.  As James Michener once said, "I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter."
Yes, people may think you're crazy while you're reading out loud.  But you're a writer.  People think that anyway.
As you read out loud, the words should flow smoothly in your mind.  One word should lead naturally to the next one.  One sentence should lead to the next one.  One paragraph should lead to the next one.  If the words don't sound right in your mind, they're not right.  Make some changes so the whole thing flows.

My goal is to write books that flow so smoothly that after two hours a kid will look up and think, "Wow!  That didn't even feel like I was reading!  I felt like I was watching a movie in my head."
That's my secret.  Don't tell anybody.  

Dan Gutman was born in a log cabin in Illinois and used to write by candlelight with a piece of chalk on a shovel. 

Oh, wait a minute.  That was Abraham Lincoln. 

Actually, Dan Gutman grew up in New Jersey and he writes on a laptop computer.  When he was a boy, Dan didn't like to read, and his books are most popular with reluctant readers today.  You may be familiar with his My Weird School series, The Genius Files series, the baseball card adventure series, or some of his other books for young readers such as "Rappy the Raptor,"  "The Kid Who Ran For President," "The Homework Machine," or "The Million Dollar Shot."  Dan lives in New York City with his wife Nina.  For more information about Dan and his books, please visit his web site ( or follow him on Twitter or Instagram (@dangutmanbooks).

Thursday, January 28, 2016

A Terrible, Rotten, Wonderful Lesson by Danna Smith

 I hadn’t been on the path to publication long when a senior editor at a national publishing house asked to see more of my work. “Wow!” I thought, “this is going to be my big break!” Not so.  The editor returned the stack of manuscripts I had sent to her with a note.  That one sentence scribbled in red pen crushed me.  The note read, “You have some amazing ideas, but absolutely no idea what to do with them.”  I was new to this business; it was before I had armed myself with the thick skin writers need to make it without giving up on our stories and ourselves. After bellyaching and defending my manuscripts to friends and peers who were kind enough to listen, I began to see the editor’s comments in a different light. Although her words were harsh, the editor was trying to help me, not crush my spirit. I was willing to admit that I could have made my stories stronger had I taken more time with them.  In the beginning, I had a habit of jumping on my ideas and writing the story so quickly that I didn't do the idea justice.  That was fifteen years ago and nine published picture books later. I will never forget the lesson I learned that day because it made me a better writer. Since then, with each new Idea, I follow my own set of guidelines that I’d like to share with you.

1:  Let the idea simmer:  Try not to jump on your idea so quickly that you neglect its potential.  Jot down the idea and a few key points, but think about it for a while before putting pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard).  More often than not, the story plays out in my head as I go about my week in a way it wouldn’t have had I jumped in with both feet immediately. Remember, you have just one chance to grab the attention of the editor, give her your best work.

2: Play with the idea- a lot:  Never be afraid of the work it takes to write the same story in several completely new ways. Is rhyme the best way to tell the story? Maybe not, try it in prose and find out.  Or perhaps a combination of the two? Could the second-person narrative work for this story? Give it a shot.  How about the character? Is a bear the best animal to use to get your point across?  It’s amazing how a story can change so completely (and often for the better) when different techniques are tossed in the mix.

3: Never fall for your first thought: Many times the first or even second thought I have is something anyone could come up with. I challenge you to dig deeper, reach higher, find a unique element for your story that isn't obvious at first or add an extra layer to up the WOW factor. Doing so will make your story shine and stand apart from the others.

4: Words can never hurt you:  When someone critiques your story, it often feels like they are attacking your creation, your baby.  Remember, they are trying to help you.  You won’t always take their advice, nor should you, but set aside your affection for a certain line or character and give their comments some real consideration.

These guidelines often help me from wasting a good idea on a bad story. I hope you’ll give them a try and remember, your story is the vehicle for your idea, make sure it arrives in style!

Danna Smith wrote her first poem at the age of six and has not stopped writing since.  Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, Danna is a SCBWI member and the award-winning author of picture books, Mother Goose’s Pajama Party, Arctic White, Two at the Zoo, Pirate Nap and Balloon Trees. Watch for her forthcoming picture books, Swallow the Leader (2016) and Hawk of the Castle (2017). She is currently a full-time writer and dreamer living in Northern California with her husband, two grown children, and their cocker spaniel, Peanut.  Please visit her website at

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

L@@k to a Child for Picture Book Ideas with Linda Joy Singleton

Do you ever look at a published picture book and wonder how the author got the idea? Ideas can lurk in dreams, images, eavesdropping or memories. But recognizing an idea that's good enough to become a book that a publisher will buy can be a challenge.

There was a time when I watched my friends sell pictures books but I was too intimidated to write one myself. Few words mean each word has to sing a story together. Writing short is a very tall challenge.

But then the ideas came....each one from a child.

My first picture book, SNOW DOG, SAND DOG (Whitman 2014) was inspired by a photograph. I was watching my friend Verla Kay speak at a school and up on the slide project I saw a photo of her as a child, building a snow dog. That image stuck in my head and the next day I wrote the first draft of SNOW DOG, SAND DOG. Five years later it was pubished.

My 2nd picture book just came out!  YAY!! CASH KAT (Arbordale 2016) was inspired by my 6-year-old grandson. I was watching him one day and wanted to entertain him in an educational way. He was learning how to count money, so I created the "Money Game." I told him he had to earn (play) money to buy snacks. I put out chips, granola bars and other snacks on a tray then priced each item from one dollar to twenty. He could earn the play money by reading a book, exercising, or picking up trash outside. He loved this game, especially when we took a walk and filled a bag with trash.  A book idea was born! I created a character named Kat who spends a day with Gram Hatter cleaning up City Park, and finding coins and even a dollar which becomes a cash-counting lesson.  After a few years of waiting, CASH KAT is finally out! It comes with a teaching/activity guide aligned with Common Core. 

Check out Linda Joy's Cash Cat Book Trailer made by Danna Smith!

Another picture book I recently sold, LUCY LOVES GOOSEY was inspired by my granddaughter. One day my 4 year old granddaughter had her arms full with stuffed animals. I asked her their names. She rattled off some names but when she came to the last stuffed animal she said, "And this one is Big Sister." Well, my heart melted because as the youngest with two older brothers, she will never have a sister. I took this longing of hers and gave it to a little dog named Lucy who thinks a big goose named Goosey is her big sister. Look for it in 2017 from Little Bee. 

And although not a picture book, my midgrade series 
CURIOUS CAT SPY CLUB, was inspired by a real life club with the same name. I was 11 when I formed the club with my best friend. Now decades later, the club lives on in a series about three best friends. And I use many of my own real experiences. The child I once was inspired the adult writer I am now. 

I'm often asked when I'm going to write for adults and the answer is never. It's much more challenging and satisfying to write for children.  Listen carefully when around children--you might just hear a wonderful idea. Good luck with your writing journey.

Linda Joy Singleton is the author of several middle grade and young adult novels, including NEVER BEEN TEXTED

Writing tips and more can be found on her website:

NOTE: Linda Joy's  books are huge fan favorites in our house! My daughter even did her 2015 Middle School Summer Reading Project on the Curious Cat Spy Club #2. Here it is.....

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

SPECIAL EXTRA EDITION / REFOREMO: Join Me in Reading for Research!

When I first heard of the ReFoReMo Challenge and Blog last February, I didn't have any idea what it was about, except that it had to do with one of my favorite past-times -- READING!

Once I learned what it stood for (Reading for Research Month),  I realized that I was a ReFoReMo-er without even knowing about it.  And even better, I was not alone! There was an entire community of fellow ReFoReMo-ers to provide book lists, share book lists, discuss books and make Mentor Text recommendations. I've gotten to Carrie and Kristi better and made a lot of new friends there (the FB group is open all year). Most importantly, I've learned and grown due to ReFoReMo and my reading of Mentor texts.

On several occasions, ReFoReMo-ers have pointed me in the right direction. When doing research for my WIP - BAD DAY AT THE FAIRY TALE CAFE, I turned to my ReFoReMo-ers for Mentor Texts, and got some absolutely AMAZING comp titles, both new and old, that I might never have looked into with the tips.

During ReFoReMo I grab every reading list and read the spines of the books in every picture. I just sit back and have fun reading, sharing  and learning how to write picture books with friends.

ReFoReMo registrations begin on February 15, 2016.
Will you join me?
Hope to see you there!

Lynne Marie is the author of Hedgehog Goes to Kindergarten, Scholastic, 2011. She attributes her success to having read any and all mentor texts she could get her hands on regarding school buses, first day of school hedgehogs and fear. She is a proud supporter of Carrie Charley Brown's ReFoReMo. You can learn more about her at her website,

REVIEWSDAY TUESDAY: A Review of Keila V. Dawson's The King Cake Baby

TITLE: The King Cake Baby

AUTHOR: Keila V. Dawson
PUBLISHER: Pelican Publishing, 2015 

            In this unique cultural adaptation of The Gingerbread Man, a devious little King Cake Baby escapes an Old Creole woman's kitchen as she prepares to assemble her freshly baked King Cake for King's Day (January 6). 

While the ending won't be much of a surprise to anyone who has read the Gingerbread Man tales, the King Cake Baby's journey is unique to New Orleans and sweetened with rich, cultural details. Best of all, an Easy King Cake Recipe (with Cream Cheese Icing) waits at the end. Comic book artist Vernon Smith's active illustrations are rendered in Mardi Gras colors and add to the festivities. 

AUTHOR BIO: Keila Dawson was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Crescent City has remained close to her heart in spite of her work and life abroad and across the USA. She has worked in the Philippines, Japan, Egypt, and on both US coasts as a teacher, school administrator, and educational consultant before she became an author. In this, her debut picture book, Keila shares her love of Louisiana culture highlighting a cultural tradition unique to her hometown. Find a FREE study guide to include a glossary, comprehension, math, written expression activities as well as coloring pages and craft ideas printable from her website at

ABOUT Multicultural Children’s Book Day #ReadYourWorld

Our mission is to not only raise awareness for the kid’s books that celebrate diversity, but to get more of these of books into classrooms and libraries.
Our Mission: The MCCBD team’s mission to spread the word and raise awareness about the importance of diversity in children’s literature. Our young readers need to see themselves within the pages of a book and experience other cultures, languages, traditions and religions within the pages of a book. We encourage readers, parents, teachers, caregivers and librarians to follow along the fun book reviews, author visits, event details, a multicultural children’s book linky and via our hashtag (#ReadYourWorld) on Twitter and other social media.

The co-creators of this unique event are Mia Wenjen from Pragmatic Mom and Valarie Budayr from Jump Into a Book/Audrey Press. You can find a bio for Mia and Valarie here.

Multicultural Children’s Book day 2016 Medallion Level Sponsors! #ReadYourWorld

Multicultural Children’s Book Day has 12 amazing Co-Host and you can us the links below or view them here.
All Done Monkey, Crafty Moms Share,Educators Spin on it,Growing Book by Book,Imagination Soup,I’m Not the Nanny,InCultural Parent, Kid World Citizen,Mama Smiles,Multicultural Kid Blogs,Spanish Playground

Classroom Reading Challenge:Help spread the word on our  Classroom Reading Challenge . This very special offering from MCCBD offers teachers and classrooms the chance to (very easily) earn a free hardcover multicultural children's book for their classroom library. These books are not only donated by the Junior Library Guild, but they are pre-screened and approved by them as well.
What we could really use some help with is spreading the word to your teacher/ librarian/classroom connections so we can get them involved in this program. There is no cost to teachers and classrooms and we've made the whole process as simple as possible. You can help by tweeting the below info:

Teachers! Earn a FREE #Multicultural Kids Book for Your Classroom! #teachers, #books #teacherlife

The Classroom Reading Challenge has begun! Teachers can earn a free diversity book! #teachers, #books

Monday, January 25, 2016

Getting Back on the Writing Track with my 1st Mentor Monday -- the Inimitable Joyce Sweeney, Writing Coach

Just after Scholastic published my first book Hedgehog Goes to Kindergarten in 2011I went through a terrible divorce and relocation. As with any life change, there were positive and negative effects, but one positive result is that I found my Mentor! Thanks to fellow Prose Shoppe member Mindy Alyse Weiss, I was invited into one of Joyce's private critique groups. Week after week we plowed through my manuscripts and punched them up. It has been a bumpy road getting back on track, but Joyce has been there to help steer my work in the right direction and cheer me on. Now, our hard work is beginning to pay off. Thank you, Joyce! XOXO

I will preface Joyce's writing tip by saying it is truly important for all of us -- whether we write picture books, chapter books, non-fiction, middle grade or young adult. So listen up because this free tip from Joyce is worth it's weight in gold, and you didn't even have to pay for a conference or class to get it. Take a look at her website and be sure to check out her fabulous "Plot Clock" webinar. 

 FROM JOYCE SWEENEY, WRITING COACH: My favorite quick fix to strengthen any manuscript is to look over each and every verb.  Strong verbs can do more to tighten and punch up your voice than any other part of speech.  First, look for stiff, do-nothing verbs like, 'enter', 'exit' or 'move'.  Those are stage directions.  Look at the difference between, 'He moved around the room' and 'He sidled around the room'.  Next, attack and destroy your adverbs!  They are either propping up weak verbs or adding nothing to strong ones.  Look at the difference between, 'He walked cautiously around the room' and 'He crept around the room'.  What's the purpose of 'She quickly slipped it under the door'?  'She slipped it under the door' is a quick action.  The word quickly actually slows the sentence down!  One of my 'layers of revision' is always to punch up those verbs.  It makes a world of difference!

The thing I'm most excited about right now is the All Access Pass, being offered by Sweeney Writing Coach. For $49 a month, you get a year's worth of free access to EVERYTHING offered by Sweeney Writing Coach.  That's three ten-week, interactive courses (this year it would be Fiction Writing Essentials, Advanced Fiction Writing and Revision) , Three live webinars and all our on-demand classes and webinars from the past. If you pillage and plunder the website to it's fullest extent, this is over a $1000 value.  So it's really a bargain if this is your year to invest in your writing education!  

BLOGGER NOTE: I would also like to mention that I am in very good company as a Joyce Sweeney Mentee -- here are a few books from others who she has mentored. And these are just a few of the talented authors. You can see the full list, and their books, on her website.