Take a Risk

You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down. – Annie Dillard

Summer of 2014 might have been my busiest summer yet. I had a week and a half to breathe—to sleep in past 5:00AM, to not work 12-14 hours a day, and to really reflect on all that I’ve experienced.

I’ve been writing religiously every morning, working on project after project, and feeling like I wasn’t making much headway. My mom planned to be here for the summer (from Thailand, where she usually lives) and I knew I had an opportunity to attend the week-long WOW conference in Georgia, organized by Kristen Fulton. Childcare, one of my biggest obstacles in being gone for a week, was taken care of. I took a risk. Hesitant about leaving my kids for a week, I had misgivings. I’d be sharing dorm space with strangers. Would the money and the time given up be worth it?

I took a risk and went.

All of my fears were replaced by friends. Friends that I knew online and finally met in real life. Sharing dorm space wasn’t a problem, it was fun. I felt like I got my money’s worth on day 1 in a day long workshop with Lisa Wheeler. I knew if I learned nothing else that week, I’d already made a good investment in myself as a writer.

Jodell Sadler, literary agent, was in attendance. She came about halfway through the week. I introduced myself. She spoke about picture book pacing. I’d been following her for awhile and really connected with her use of mentor texts, even reaching out before the conference via e-mail as a possible poster on my blog. I hadn’t signed up for a critique with her though.

I took a risk and asked her for a critique.

She willingly worked me in. In my risk, all I’d hoped for was an honest critique. I knew she was an editorial agent, so I wanted to get some feedback on a picture books I’d never sent out before. She really liked it and offered to represent me. I wanted to make sure she really liked more than one thing, so I gave her more work. Which she also liked.

I prepared lots of questions to ask her before accepting her offer. We chatted in person and by phone.

My husband finally said, “Marcie, take a risk.”

It didn’t seem like a risk, but more of a step in the right direction.

Then in August, I had the privilege to attend a picture book workshop with Lola Schaefer and Rebecca Kai Dotlich in Indianapolis. One thing that Lola said stood out to me. She said,

When writing your stories, take a risk.

She encouraged us to try something different and not be afraid to stretch ourselves as writers.

I’m not much of a risk-taker. But sometimes I realize, I have to leap, even when I don’t know the outcome.

In the words of fellow Hollins gal, Annie Dillard, “You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.”

My goal for the remainder of this year is to be braver in my writing life. To take more risks. To not play it safe, but to stretch myself.

The Halfway Mark of 2014: Are You Where You Want to Be?

Halfway There

It’s the end of June. We are officially halfway through 2014. The question is, are you pleased with where you are as a writer this year? Are you working toward your goals? Are you making time to write? If so, keep going and planning out the rest of your year. If not, it’s not too late. Time to get working.

Resources

It’s the end of the month, so I always plan my next month’s focus. Here is the template I use for that task. For me, July is going to be busy with me working and writing. But I still have several writing tasks needing to be accomplished.

We have finished two quarters of the year. Each quarter, I look at my goals again. If you want to plan out your next three months, here is a template that I use.

At the beginning of the year, I created a book where I could write down my accomplishments–big and small. If I get an encouraging rejection letter or a request to revise and rewrite, it goes in the book. Read more about my book here.

Book of Stars

I’m sorry my posts have been missing lately. I was working on a big project with a very tight deadline.

How about you? What are you proud of accomplishing so far this year? What do you want to do in the remainder of 2014?

June Monthly Focus Reminder and New Planning Template

Where did May go? I looked up behind my computer where I hang my monthly focus paper, and it still says April. Oops. It’s not that I haven’t been working in May. I’ve actually had one of the busiest writing months ever, but it was so busy, I never did  May focus sheet. I guess since I had some pretty clearly defined deadlines, I didn’t have trouble focusing. I had to focus on the thing that I needed to do to finish the job.

Consider this your reminder to do your monthly focus for June. For the template click here. For more information on monthly focus forms, read this post.

New Planning Template

My planning mind often resembles that of planning for instruction in my classroom. I look at the blocks of time and adjust my instruction, mapping out what needs to be covered in the time that I have. I had a brainstorm to try something similar during the last busy month that I have and going  into a very busy summer of writing.

Click to download the template.

Click to download the template.

I found a weekly meal planning template on Microsoft’s website. Then I customized it and saved it as a template in Excel, so it comes up as a template choice every time I open up Excel. I blocked off my time. I don’t write full-time. I have a day job as a teacher, so I only have certain times available to me. I write every single morning before school because it’s a time that I can grab every single day. Evenings or “extra times” I may or may not be able to fit in. On weekends, I try to write before everyone gets up. Sometimes it’s an hour, sometimes (like this weekend) I get up extra early and get in several hours.

On Sundays, I look at my upcoming week and block off the times and the things I need to get done. I try to save the mornings for writing only (as much as is possible). Any other writing-related activities like critiquing, blogging, freelance editing, I try to save for evenings. I love my old to-do list, and I may go back to that eventually, but I’d find some days I’d sit and negotiate what I needed to do first. This new template helped me prioritize.

This summer, if I have days with bigger chunks of time, I might break this down even further.

Try it out, if you think it would help you. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Some of you are night writers, so change your chunk of time to evenings, instead of mornings.

Survey Reminder

If you haven’t had a chance to add your opinion to my next writer and teacher resources, please do so. I’d love to know what you think. I have lots of ideas and a limited amount of time, so vote on what you think I should work on first.

Help Me, Help You (Mentor Text Resources Survey)

Summer is approaching, and while I’m knee deep in deadlines at the moment, I’m still thinking about what cool mentor text resources I can start providing. I have ideas about mentor text resources I’d like to create, and I’ve even started on many of these ideas. However, with time short, I’d love to have a VOTE. What mentor text resources would you like?

If you are a WRITER or a TEACHER (or both), please fill out this two question survey. I will use the results to help me develop future mentor text resources.

Survey Link

 

Feel free to pass this link on to other teachers and writers also. I need all the feedback I can get.

Baseball Books as Mentor Texts: BARBED WIRE BASEBALL by Marissa Moss

barbed wire baseball

Barbed Wire Baseball

By Marissa Moss

Illustrated by Yuko Shimizu

Abrams, 2013

Kenichi Zenimura loved to play baseball. He play baseball for years. Until World War II, when he and other Japanese families lived their lives in internment camps. But inside that bleak camp, Zeni made a baseball field. He spent a lot of time constructing and making the best baseball field he could. Then he organized teams and games, giving a little bit of hope to himself and the people living there. This would be an excellent text to also incorporate into a WWII unit.

Writing Skills

* Figurative Language

         * Similes

* Descriptive Language

* Sensory Words

* Vivid Verbs

Other Baseball Mentor Texts:

Miracle Mud

Mighty Jackie

Mentor Texts for Writers and Character Post

Mentor Texts for Writers

Recently I had the privilege of doing a workshop in Northern Virginia for a group of writers. The lovely and amazing Dianna Aston spoke in the morning about the stories behind her books. I spoke in the afternoon on using mentor texts to become a better writer. Johnell DeWitt, the organizer, took video of it. Here are some of the highlights in case you are interested.

Videos from the Mentor Texts for Writers Workshop

Character Post at Kids Are Writers

I have a new post up about character at Kids are Writers. Check it out here.

We’re All in This Together: Growing as a Writer

We all grow as writers as we move along on our writerly journey. When we look back on the things we wrote a year, five years, or ten years ago, we can tell how much we’ve grown. What is one thing that you’ve done to help yourself grow as a writer that you would recommend to someone else?

Sue Heavenrich

Blogging about science and nature at Archimedes Notebook http://archimedesnotebook.blogspot.com/

Reviewing children’s books at Sally’s Bookshelf http://sallysbookshelf.blogspot.com/

The most important thing I’ve done over the past couple years is take my desire to write picture books more seriously. For me, that meant taking some online courses and a class on children’s literature at the local community college. It also meant “homework”: reading – and reviewing – as many picture books as I could. I keep a book log where I jot notes about the picture books I read. Sometimes I draw their storyboards or type out the complete text. I also post book reviews on my blogs and on Susanna Leonard Hill’s awesome Perfect Picture Book Friday posts…. which meant “thinking beyond the book” to activities and other ways to connect children with literature.

Vivian Kirkfield

Writer for Children – Reader Forever

www.viviankirkfield.com

Forty years ago, I wrote a bunch of picture book stories for my own children. Ten years ago, I decided it was time to resurrect one of them. I even made a dummy with charming illustrations my daughter-in-law had drawn. My niece had worked for Random House briefly and had a contact there, so, knowing NOTHING about their submission guidelines or how submissions work for most publishing houses, I sent this glorified dummy to an editor at Random House. The editor kindly sent me a lovely personal rejection (and my dummy back – even though I hadn’t enclosed an SASE). The one thing that stands out to me that I didn’t do then that I should have was: HAVE SOMEONE ELSE READ YOUR WORK!

The one thing I’ve done that has helped me the most and that will continue to help me grow as a writer is: JOIN A CRITIQUE GROUP. This is crucial for several reasons:

  • Objective feedback from people who are studying the craft of writing
  • Helpful suggestions to make your stories stronger
  • Advice and information about writing resources, submission opportunities, conferences and classes
  • Support and encouragement

I’m now part of three critique groups that exchange manuscripts on a regular basis. I look forward to each exchange, not only because I get great feedback on my stories, but also because I learn so much about writing by critiquing the manuscripts of others! So, if you are not part of a critique group already…go and find one! You’ll be glad you did!

Carol Munro

www.carolmunrojustwritewords.com

Freelance writer since 1996

Set goals and stay focused.

Have you seen the blinders owners put on horses to keep the horses’ attention front and center? I imagine myself with those blinders every time I think I’m about to stray from my focus for this year, which is to read picture books, write picture books, and study how to write better picture books. I’ve been tempted often — and easily.

I mean, what does it matter if I take a workshop about writing chapter books? It’s about writing, so it can’t hurt, right? But is there a picture book writing workshop I could do instead? For sure. In fact, I recently took “Revising – and Reimagining – Your Picture Book Manuscript,” presented by Harold Underdown and Eileen Robinson. I learned techniques I can apply to every manuscript I’ve written to immediately improve them.

And is it terrible if I write stories or poems for grown-ups when I meet to write with friends? Probably not, but where should my focus be? Picture books! So far this year I’ve completed nine new PB manuscripts.

See? Instead of swerving into chapter book territory, or writing for adults when I meet with my writing group, I put those blinders on and stayed on track.

I’m loving my blinders. Get some for yourself.

Romelle Broas

Children’s Writer

www.romellebroas.blogspot.com

www.Romellebroas.com

Joining a critique group and sharing my work with fellow writers is one of the most important things I’ve done for my career as a writer.  I used to be afraid of critiques.  I didn’t want to know what others think of me and my work. I was afraid of the truth. It took me a while before I got the nerve to join a critique group.  As it turned out, what I was most afraid of is what helped me take my writing to the next level. Now, I am the first to snatch up an opportunity for a critique. When I look back at when I first joined a critique group, I was appreciative of the kind words/positive feedback. But now, I crave the truth! Please don’t sugar-coat my critique. I want you to give it to me straight! What didn’t work? Topic overdone? Was it boring? Of course, my critique partners are never blunt. They have a knack of telling the awful truth in a very nice way. After all, they are writers.

Learning my story’s weaknesses helped me become a better writer. Besides, It’s better to learn that my story sucked from my peers than from an editor or agent, don’t you think? Here are my top 3 reasons I find critique groups valuable:

  • Receiving feedback will help you to be more analytical of your own work.
  • A critique may give you a new perspective on your story with questions that surface.  Many times this can help move your story forward or take an alternate turn for the better.
  • A second pair of eyes can help you identify mistakes or flaws you may have overlooked.

I was amazed at how helpful the writing community is. They have a genuine interest to help each other grow as writers. So, take advantage of that and join a critique group!

Marcie Flinchum Atkins

Children’s and YA Writer

www.marcieatkins.com

I’ve been writing for a long time, and I’ve taken lots of classes in graduate school and on my own, but nothing has transformed my writing more than submitting regularly to my critique group and being a part of various writing communities.

First of all, when you finally find your tribe—picture book writers, nonfiction writers, YA writers, middle grade writers, poets—whatever your niche, there is a group for you. Sometimes those relationships are formed online, sometimes they are formed in person. But nothing in my writing life is more vital to me than my writer friend connections. We share our collective knowledge and that has lead me to many, many opportunities. In all honesty, most of my freelance writing projects have come to me because a friend recommended various jobs to me.

Secondly, my critique groups are a huge part of making me a better writer. I am a part of three critique groups. Having deadlines for these groups keeps me writing. The more I write, the better my writing becomes. Developing a dialogue about how to make my writing better has also made me a better writer. I have grown tremendously as a result of being active in critique groups.

Baseball Books as Mentor Texts: MIGHTY JACKIE by Marissa Moss

mighty jackie

Mighty Jackie: The Strikeout Queen

By Marissa Moss

Illustrated by C.F. Payne

Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster, 2004

Jackie had been pitching her whole life, even getting coaching and encouragement from a former Brooklyn Dodger pitcher. But girls couldn’t play major league baseball. Her team played an exhibition game against the New York Yankees, and Jackie got to pitch. When she faced Babe Ruth, he wanted to show her up. But she ended up striking him and Lou Gehrig out.

Writing Skills:

* Onomatopoeia

* Using quotations in a nonfiction text

* Sensory words

Other Baseball Mentor Texts:

Miracle Mud

SHE SANG PROMISE by Jan Godown Annino, Mentor Text Lesson Plan

she sang promise bookcover

SHE SANG PROMISE: THE STORY OF BETTY MAE JUMPER

by Jan Godown Annino

Illustrated by Lisa Desimini

A few weeks ago, I featured SHE SANG PROMISE as a mentor text on the Grog site. This week, I’m debuting the full length lesson plan.

SHE SANG PROMISE MENTOR TEXT LESSON PLAN

Featuring:

* Description

* Word choice, including:

* Specific nouns

* Vivid Verbs

* Sensory Words

* Imagery

 

Baseball Books as Mentor Texts: Miracle Mud

This month, I will be featuring baseball books as mentor texts. Using sports-related books is a great way to get reluctant readers and writers interested in the story and the story structure. There are so many wonderful picture book baseball books that I couldn’t fit them all in. But I will be featuring four this month.

miracle mud

Miracle Mud: Lena Blackburne and the Secret Mud that Changed Baseball

By David A. Kelly

Illustrated by Olivier Dominguez

Millbrook, 2013

Baseball regulations state that the shine has to be taken off the balls before they can be used in the major leagues. Lena Blackburne wanted to play baseball, but he wasn’t very good at it. He’d seen how players had tried every technique to make the balls not shiny, but nothing seemed to work. He tried mud from a fishing hole near his house. The mud worked on the balls without ruining them. Now, Lena Blackburne’s famous mud is the only mud used for taking the shine off of baseballs.

Writing Skills

* Sensory Words

* Specificity