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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Lifting out of Tragedy

When the faces of tragedy are twenty angelic 6 and 7 year old babies and their six heroic school faculty, such as the world has seen from Sandy Hook Elementary School in my home state of Connecticut, our hearts bleed for them. Nothing can turn back time to help those 20 children in that terrible moment. Our prayers and gifts and wearing their school colors of green and white seem tokens only, insufficient to lessen the heavy load of grief born by all who have heard this news.

As a writer, I am reflecting back only a month or two to a conference in which I heard author Bruce Coville discuss a spiritual lack among today's kids and the responsibility children's authors have to lift them to a mountaintop. His words were, "Our work has the potential to change the world in ways we can't imagine." A ripple effect that comes from an author's character or story or single line in a book impacting a child's life in unimaginable, better ways. To paraphrase Coville's ideas, our work as children's writers is to honor and celebrate children in a way today's world simply has failed to do, a world in which media hound them as consumers and celebrate violence. Like Obama said in his vigil speech to the devastated community of Newtown, Connecticut, this must stop. Writers of literature for children have the opportunity and responsibility to lift our children, to challenge them to higher ideals, and to cause each to feel valued, treasured, and with an assurance that their life has meaning.

Think of a time in your life when you felt alone, or lonely in a crowd, or plain old disagreeable with everyone in sight. How many times did you turn to a book to fill that empty space? A book that made you feel that someone understood what you were going through? A book that took you out of your sad/angry/hard place and put you in a fantasy to escape for a while? A book whose main character became a best friend when you were sorely lacking in one?

A book doesn't solve the problems of the world by any means, but as Bruce Coville so eloquently pointed out at the Rutgers One-on-One plus Conference in October this year, even single lines in one can truly be a life-changer. He mentioned a reader telling him years later that a line or two from a single page out of a science fiction story he read as a young student caused him to seek out the Peace Corps as a career years later. 

We don't know what sparked this terrible tragedy, but I pray that those responsible for developing products for children be aware that they are shaping precious little lives with every detail. God bless those who are suffering from this and all-too-similar tragedies.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How to Choose the Best Writer Conference

Wee Willie Writer runs to a workshop
Uptown and Downtown never does he stop,
Tapping on an editor, crying through her tears,
“Won’t you look at mine, please?
I’ve worked on this for years!”

As my teenage daughter puts it, writing workshops exist for people like me to meet other “crazy obsessed writers.” Okay, I’ll admit I am in the danger zone of listening to the voices in my head and trapping them on paper. But a writing conference is valuable beyond the friendly camaraderie. It can be a key to vaulting your writing from habit to career. I have attended conferences of several different styles; each has benefits and drawbacks.

Questions to consider before signing up:

1.     Do you dream of one-on-one attention from a top editor or agent?

Consider the face-time you actually get. Is it a pricey extra? You might get a thoughtful critique on pre-submitted work—or a quick minute to pitch an idea. Is there mingling time or meals with editors/agents included? Research to avoid disappointment or unnecessary cost.

2.     Want to make friends with new fellow writers? Want to learn from published authors?  

If you crave being around people who “get” you as a writer, tap into the energy of a large networking conference. If you want to learn from experienced folks, consider a small, selective program requiring a writing sample for admission.

3.     Do you have a specific genre or interest group? Do you have specific needs (such as writing better dialogue or how to plot a novel?)

Christian writers, mystery and crime, children’s, romance and historical, to name a few, offer conferences/monthly meetings. Check online for session titles and faculty. Will your specific goals be addressed?

4.     Want alone time to actually write?

If a quiet house is your impossible dream, consider a writing retreat center or vacation destination in the company of other writers. 

5.     How much time can you commit? How far from home can you travel?

One-day workshops, weekend conferences, a week-long immersion or exotic retreat . . . there is a writing conference that fits you and your time/budget constraints.

“The agent will make me a star!”

Ahem. Reality check. Writers do break into publishing from conference connections, but most writers gain valuable constructive criticism. Armed with thick skin and your best work, you will hone your skills. 

Which writing conferences have you enjoyed? 

Friday, October 26, 2012

An Idea a Day?

It's kinda like breakfast . . . important every day, breakfast is the first order of business that gives you the energy to keep on keepin' on. Here's the challenge: Could you come up with a brand-spanking new picture book idea every day for a month? If you take author Tara Lazar's "PiBoIdMo" challenge, you will fill your hopper with ideas that can be fleshed out the rest of the year.

In October, thousands of writers gear up for NaNoWriMo, the "National Novel Writing Month" in which novel writers combine Luke Skywalker- and Darth Vader-like forces to bang out 50,000 words in a month. Many succeed, and bestselling books have been polished out of those rough diamonds.

Kiddie picture book writers have PiBoIdMo"Picture Book Idea Month, the brainchild of author Tara Lazar (

A few weeks ago, I heard Tara give a creative and encouraging keynote speech ago at the Rutgers University Council on Children's Lit One-on-One Conference. Afterward, Tara told me she had no idea PiBoIdMo would be as wildly popular as it has become. "Maybe ten followers?" she guessed she'd have, but kid lit writers everywhere are eating their extra Wheaties in November and thanking Tara when the idea mills in their heads are miraculously cranking at full speed.

I tried PiBoIdMo for the first time in 2011 and was amazed at how those rusty October wheels started turning right on schedule, on November 1st. I saw fun picture book potential in the most ordinary, everyday kind of places and events. It was like the dusty film had been wiped off my glasses, and I ended the month excited about several of the ideas.

Try it and let me know how it goes for you!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Digital Age: Friend or Enemy?

Shooting from the Hip

When the topic of digital publishing comes around, do you throw your hands in the air and run out the back door to let out a primal scream? Do you wax poetic about the feel-goodness of paper pages and the happy weight of a child on your lap, heads together in page-turning bliss?

Me too.  Recent events, however, illuminated the creative usefulness and the “it-isn’t-going-away-ness” of the digital age. I mean the word “Illuminated” literally. On vacation, my family stumbled upon a cave shrouded in darkness. The kids wanted to go in. A dialogue with my husband went like this:

“It would’ve been a good idea,” I mused aloud, “to bring a flashlight.”  

My husband whipped his hand to his hip faster than any cowboy managed a gun in the Wild West.  He said, "Hey! I can use the flashlight app I put on my smart phone!”

In seconds, we had a good look at the dirt in the cave. Not much there. Palpable excitement, however, came from everyone rushing to see the cool feature on the smartphone.

   On another occasion this summer, I watched my niece and nephew, both under 4, cuddle up with their dad --and an iPad.  Typical of their generation, these tots seamlessly moved between technologies as new as e-readers and as old as a box of crayons.
If you write with an audience of children in mind, like I do, it would behoove us to become as acquainted with technology as our growing population of readers.

To see what the hoopla is about I bought an e-reader. While not my favorite way to read, an e-reader has one HUGE advantage for writers: With a click, I've spent money on books. It's just too easy.  

Truth be told, people respond to nifty, new ways of doing the same, old things. With digital publishing comes vast potential for new ways to get our words into the minds of readers—because isn’t the connection with readers our ultimate goal?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Turn Up the Heat and Win BIG

Turn Up the Heat and Win BIG!

One of the best ways to spend a summer afternoon is watching a sailing regatta. Lovely and peaceful, there is nothing quite like a fleet of colorful spinnakers billowing over sunlit waves, cool breezes kicking through the summer heat. As a bonus, no engine noises mar the view.

If you tally up the bruises afterward, participating in a race might be more akin to tackle football. My brother-in-law returned from two E-Scow regattas in one week proclaiming “My bruises got bruises!” With a wide smile, this sailor showed off his thighs streaked with multiple marks in shades of purple. Beaten up by a boom, apparently.

This sailor’s pride in accomplishment got me thinking as a writer. Main characters need “bruises on their bruises” to bring their challenge to a satisfying conclusion.

Are you too easy on your characters?

Beginning writers tend to love their characters too much and hesitate making their situations awful. Readers identify with characters and live through them: How would that character deal with something that, in real life, would be too scary to face?
Real writing fun starts when you dig holes deep enough to make your characters show their stuff. From the first pages, plant seeds—personal qualities—that will eventually help him or her save the day. One of my main characters wants to learn how to whistle just like her father. She works hard at it, puckering over and over. Perhaps your character has an uncanny ability to communicate with animals or throw his voice. A girl’s hair-braiding skills can be employed to rope-weaving. That whistle turns into a life-saving signal in the book’s climax.
No matter how outrageous the situation, your characters’ challenges will be met in a way that is believable if you have planted the seeds to their success early on. Your readers will root for him or her to jump figurative or literal chasms.

Is your villain nasty enough? Has he/she/it gone soft?

Think of any villain you love to hate. My current favorites are the actors on ABC’s Once Upon a Time series. Lana Parilla plays Snow White’s Evil Queen. Her colleague, Robert Carlyle, plays a delightfully devious Rumpelstiltskin. Both seek to fulfill their own agendas at any cost. Sparingly, authors can use superlatives to add weight. If Voldemort was merely trying to give Harry Potter a bad day once in a while would his triumphant end be worth reading thousands of pages? As the darkest wizard in generations, with a name people feared to speak, Voldemort was a worthy opponent for the good vs. evil quest.

Your readers deserve the toughest nemesis you can dream up. Victory over a true villain makes it worth the effort to bang up your character with a boom.

Pile bruises on the bruises!
Your readers will forgive you—and enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Pebbles on the Beach


Are you a collector?

When on vacation, I find it impossible to resist bringing back a piece of the place. How better to preserve memories of special times, gatherings, food, music, and scenery than holding it, literally, in one’s hand?

Sometimes a “piece” means a cheap refrigerator magnet in the shape of the Mayflower, but often it means a literal piece picked off the ground. My husband is from Athens, Greece, and visits to his family always include a trip to the beach. The ubiquitous pebble beaches of Greece are a wonderful place to find packable treasures. Marble chunks smoothed by years in the Mediterranean Sea. The whitest pebbles, or the blackest. Pieces of blue and green bottles. Broken terracotta so smooth it seems like an ordinary pebble, but one that might have originated in some ancient past. Each pebble contains the power to bring back visions of my kids dancing in a village square, laughing and stumbling over the fancy Greek footwork.

Collect words
In my writing, too, I am a collector. When I first began, I voraciously sought out “how-to” books. How to structure a story. How to bring believable characters or plots to life. How to build a platform. Then I realized: I was doing a lot more reading about writing than actually writing. Has this happened to you? We “feel” like writers, therefore we are? Nope. Not unless we are writing! Now, I prefer collecting books of words, unique thesaurus-style books filled with words relevant to whatever theme I am exploring barefoot at the moment.

Keep a small notebook
Collect special sayings that touch your heart in a notebook. They might worm their way into a book's theme. A small notebook can be a writer’s best friend, easily on hand to record the joys/pains of life. Annual events like the 4th of July would seem easy to recall, as they happen pretty much the same every year—but on a winter’s day writing about it, are you going to remember the sound of the American stripes flapping in a strong breeze, or its hooks clanging a summer music against the flagpole? Will you remember the sting of lemon in a fresh cut, or the pesky bee buzzing around the pitcher of lemonade? 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Rejections Raining on You?

Spring Rains By Suzanne Y. Cordatos

Did you make any writing resolutions this past New Year? How are they going?

In January, my writing friend set ambitious goals: Submit work more often. Research and query agents. Enter contests. Query. Revise. Again. And Again. I meet with this writing friend every week for a hearty breakfast of eggs, critiques, conversation, inspiration and motivation. (BTW, if you haven’t yet found a writing friend, it is easier than you might think. Join a formal association, or simply make a few public comments that you “are a writer”. Fellow writing souls will emerge from the woodwork.)

In March, her effort paid off big-time. Her manuscript was in the hands of agents and contest judges, right on schedule. Even better, the novel we had labored over for two years (longer for her) was placed among the top four finalists of a contest. Her work would be read by a top NYC publishing house! The top finalist would be handed a gold-plated book contract! Yippee! Right? Not so fast.

Like spring rains, however, rejections started pouring down on her good efforts and optimistic spirits. For the past few weeks, her writing pen has barely slogged across the page. Have you ever felt that way? Why do we writers torture ourselves like this? Her self-torture: If she hadn’t submitted more, she’d be swimming happily right now in her pool of dreams, a pool deep with fantasy contracts and book signings.

Why do you bother to write? I keep trying because stories have shaped my sense of empathy, my understanding of the human condition; fiction binds us together as people of a planet who share the human experience: its dreams, sadness, and hopes. Stories help create empathy for others and transport us out of the mundane.

Find out why by reading some of your favorite old classics. Those treasured, dog-eared books you dragged around? The ones whose characters felt more like friends than the kids down the street? I found myself—the values/views/themes/beliefs I hold dear to my heart—in specific sentences of those books. Single lines that rang true. Bits of dialogue. Unforgettable settings. Characters who triumphed over obstacles.

The joy of watching flowers bloom and helping others reach their potential? It’s behind the locked door of The Secret Garden. The value of a good cry? Who didn’t cry over the beauty of life and self-sacrifice in Charlotte’s Web? A sense of adventure and the belief that small people can make a big difference in the world? Just ask Frodo and Bilbo Baggins. The deep sense that Mom cares no matter how bad I am? It’s in the bowl of soup that Max’s mom left at the end of Where the Wild Things Are. After Max’s misadventures, the soup was still hot.

Writers make a difference. Published or not. I sat across a conference lunch table from Newberry Award writer Jerry Spinelli a few years ago and heard about a manuscript he still keeps tucked away – a novel the editors don't care to publish. What if he had stopped writing when they said no to that first try? Whatever is on your heart that needs to be said to the world—it matters! Whatever keeps pushing the keys on your keyboard, the words that speak to your heart, it really does matter.

What inspires you to keep writing through rejection?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Pile Police: Are they after YOU?

Get help sorting out your writing piles with my latest article on 4RV Publishing's blog. Cut and paste this link:

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Bon Voyage!

My high school freshman daughter, Erica, boarded a plane last night for a group trip to Paris and Barcelona. The kids, about 25 of them, were jumping through their skin with excitement. Parents held a mixed bag of emotions, nerves and envy for their weeklong trip to see some of the world's amazing sights. Book: Entre Nous, A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl" by Debra Ollivier To get in the spirit francais, I pulled a book off Erica's shelf that I had found six months ago when she first signed up for the trip. Erica devoured Ollivier's take on French Women's savoir faire faster than a chocolate croissant. I can see why. Like a fine pastry, the book is layered delicately with quotations from famous in-the-know writers, personal anecdotes, movies with characters who personify these ideals, and fun lists of things like "What's in a French Girl's ideal closet?" French women feel comfortable with themselves in ways American women may never achieve. So much fun to read while my budding teenager walks those cobblestones in search of herself.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

To Blog or Not to Blog . . .

. . . that is the question. I am scanning blogs and websites online, dissecting what makes them work. Or not. The blogs that have the most life are the ones that are purpose-driven, that give the reader a reason to stop by. A friendly neighbor popping in for a quick chat or to drop off a borrowed book. What's the curb appeal of your blog? Is it inviting and welcoming? Does it say, "I'm home, and would love your company? If you stop over, I can offer you coffee and cookies or whatever literary equivalent you're after? With a second novel nearly completed and a lovely, inexpressibly fabulous contract-in-hand for my picture book story, Willard the Dragon: Sneeze-Fire with 4RV Publishing, I've set a goal to get a website up and running and to refresh the look and purpose of this blog. The blog will focus each month on how to add more JOY to the daily journey. Have you noticed how putting more effort into something gives you more joy out of it? What kinds of little things do you do to add joy to your life and the lives of people around you?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Seeing Green

Seeing Green

See this blog article on my publisher's website!

With St. Patrick’s Day around the corner, are you seeing Irish green? How about spring green, avocado or jade? Kelly, chartreuse or lime? Acid, celery or pond? How many substitutes for the word “green” can you make? I've got a list of 72!

Readers like to second-guess what’s coming next. The best writers throw surprises,don't they? It is the secret to what keeps us turning pages. It is our job to learn how they accomplish this feat. The best way I’ve found is to push past the first, second and third idea that comes to mind. Instead of using the word "green" for example, is there another word that fit the setting more precisely? One that will more completely capture the tone of your scene? Pond green might convey a stillness, or gloominess, to a "green" scene, whereas jade implies mystery. Lime adds zest!

If a description, action, characteristic, or mystery-solving plot point shows up high on your mental list, chances are good it will occur to your readers in a heartbeat, too. As a writer, we don't want to be predictable. Push to see what creative idea lurks brilliantly further down your list. While I agree with writing "How-to" books that discourage using adjectives and adverbs, writers can evoke memorable descriptions with an occasional powerful choice, as in "After raining all day, the summer-sweet lawn beckoned to the golfer who jumped from his armchair without further argument."

Beyond the Thesaurus

Scour bookstores for unique "wordy" reference books. Beyond the common thesaurus, there are many books crammed-full with words and ideas perfect for expanding our creative diction. A book of police terms sets the scene for crime writers, while a cookbook of old country recipes offers authentic language to write a story set in a one-room cabin.

While munching Irish soda bread or hot cross buns this weekend, challenge yourself to create banquet-worthy words for your next language feast!