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12 x 12

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All last year I was busy taking classes for my LDE (Linguistically Diverse Educator) Certification for work. It was valuable because I was able to learn best practices that I could immediately apply in the classroom and the courses helped me to grow as an educator. It also meant I had to sacrifice time away from family, friends, and writing.

Starting the new year, I feel like a bear waking up from hibernation. While it was important for me to focus on school last year, now, I will have more time to do the things I enjoy. To help get back into the writing saddle, I’ve decided to take a writing challenge. I signed up for 12 x 12, with goal of writing 12 picture book drafts by the end of the year. It’s broken up into manageable chunks of writing one picture book draft each month.

Going to conferences, taking classes, and participating in online challenges and courses is a great way to help jump start motivation. It’s also a great way to hold yourself accountable and learn the craft of writing for children.

What classes, courses, or conferences (in person or online) have you found to be beneficial?

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Leaping into Genres

By Susan Wroble

This fall, I took a leap. I had wanted to take a more active role in the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI. When an opportunity arose, I volunteered to co-lead a new writing group — the Denver South Connect and Critique.

Working with my co-leader, the talented Judy Rose (author of the award-winning Look Both Ways in Barrio Blanco) has been a delight. Having the opportunity to mentor some of the members who are new to SCBWI is incredibly fulfilling. But what I didn’t expect what how much I would learn and get out of this job.

Judy and I constructed a survey to try to find out the wants and needs of this new group and we passed it out at the first meeting. Understanding children’s literature terms and genres scored high. We divvied up the presentation work for meeting number two, Judy taking terms while I took genres. After all, how hard could explaining the difference between Middle Grade and Young Adult, Fiction and Non-Fiction, or Literary and Commercial actually be?

Hard, it turns out. For every site I turned to, there were slightly different definitions. I finally chose a primary source to settle the disputes (Laura Backes of Children’s Book Insider). Then I made a spreadsheet. With a background in engineering, I love trying to make tight, concise spreadsheets. Making this one clarified a lot about genres for me — I hope it does the same for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Panning for Gold

I’m a huge fan of any kind of professional development, and now that I’m focused on writing, I love finding all different kinds of ways to help expand my craft. I find real pleasure in looking through course catalogues (in particular the one for Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop for those in the Denver area) to see what class sounds like it will be just the right key to unlock some question I have. I can’t wait for the conference schedule to come out each year for the SCBWI Letters & Lines conference. I browse the 800 section in my local library. I listen to a slew of podcasts. I love learning and hearing and thinking about writing.

Whenever I walk into some type of professional development, and that classification can be broad, I try to consider them along two layers – the understood benefit and the underlying nugget of gold. Everything has an immediate impact– I took a class on book mapping to bring another level and nuance to my ability to edit full-length novels. I learned just what I thought I would – how to choose the elements to map out a book, mapping it out, and subsequently using that map to develop an editorial letter. It was a great online class that gave me a new tool that is aligned really well to my analytical left-brained side that is a part of my revision and editorial process.

But a class almost always has more to offer than what is listed in the course description. This second layer is the underlying nugget of gold. Some of the gold from this class was that I am now connected to an experienced children’s book editor, and it got me thinking about how I might expand some of my own editorial services.

The nugget of gold can be obvious, or subtle, singular, or numerous. I received a critique where one of the comments was that my protagonist was coming off as a little quiet. A few days later someone called to ask if I was interested in a class on voice. Yes! Yes, absolutely! So the immediate benefit I expected from that class was obvious. But the class was also full of nuggets of gold. It got me thinking about my writing practice, and how I was incorporating it into my daily life. In hearing others read their work in class, I learned from what they were doing. And, the best nugget of all, I got a burst of motivation to continue on my own draft.

Not every class, or course, or podcast, or book feels worth the time or expense. Sometimes it repeats information you already have, sometimes it isn’t as applicable as you thought it would be. These are the times when it’s especially critical to pan for that gold. If you take the ownership to search deeply for the underlying value, not matter how big or how small, then it will increase the benefits of every way in which you engage with your craft. It will ensure that you have spent your precious time wisely.

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Stretching My Writer Muscles, Literally

by Karen Deger McChesney

Lauren, my massage therapist: “Any areas that you want me to especially work on?”

Me: (Pointing to my triceps and forearms.) “Here and here. They’ve really been hurting.”

Lauren: “Have you been writing more?”

Her question surprised me. Lauren listened intensely as I rambled about revising, which I rarely do outside of writer circles. Then, she got her usual twinkle in her eye and briefly explained why my aches were from writing. My pride sunk. I wanted to hear that my aches were from my weightlifting or something else. Not writing! Unfair. Yes, my aches could be much worse. But, from writing? A year ago, I committed to increasing my weekly writing time – and now I have an achy-breaky upper body? Darn! As my mind melted into the land of massage, it made more sense. Like Natalie Goldberg says: “Writing is physical…like an athletic activity.”

After my massage, Lauren showed me stretches and mentioned that she works with writers (and how much she enjoys “them”). Wow! What a coincidence!

I recently interviewed Lauren about stretches for writers and to motivate myself to un-hunch and stretttcccchhhhh! Lauren has been a massage therapist and cranio-sacral practitioner (a hands-on therapy to enhance the body’s natural capacity for healing) for over 25 years, and she has taught yoga for 18 years to a wide variety of people in health clubs, yoga studios, senior centers, and other settings.

What ails writers? What do they come to you for?

Stiffness and pain in their neck, shoulders, low back and hamstring. I find that writers get so wrapped up in their writing, they go for hours without moving.

Name your top tips for writers:

1st, set a timer to go off every hour.

2nd, then, get out of your chair and stretch.

3rd, do gentle twists while you’re sitting.

Describe the correct way to sit at a computer:

Sit in a chair that allows your hips to be a little above your knees. Ideally, you want your body to be stacked, which means in alignment – your shoulder joints over your hip joints and your ears over your shoulders. Then, always be looking straight ahead at your screen, not down. If you’re not at a desk, put a pillow on your lap to lift up your laptop closer to eye level. Keep changing positions and trying different chairs.

How do we maintain good posture, especially when writing for hours and hours?

I tell my yoga students: imagine moving your right shoulder blade toward your left hip pocket and vice versa. This will open up your shoulders.

 What’s a good stretching sequence for writers?

 CHAIR TWIST: To the right, then left. Hold each side 15-30 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 WALL DOG: Hold 15-30 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EAGLE POSE: Left elbow over right, then vice versa. For maximum stretch, press elbows together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Any other stretches to add to our sequence?

PALM AND WRIST STRETCH: Push both palms and all fingers into a wall simultaneously. Hold 15-30 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TRICEP STRETCH: Bend left arm over, touch fingertips on left shoulder, then right hand over head and touch left elbow. Vice versa. Hold each side 15-30 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ARMS OVER HEAD: Hold 15-30 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What stretches should writers do while sitting?

1: CHAIR TWIST 

2: RUBBERBAND STRETCH:

Wrap rubberband around outside of fingertips.

 Then, spread thumb and fingers out. Hold 10-15 seconds.

 

 

 

 

Are there any other aches that you’ve noticed in writers?

When they’re into a really intense session (and feeling a lot of emotion) or writing for extremely long periods, they often clench their jaw. This can cause neck issues and pain. Try this: Move the tip of your tongue to the middle of the roof of your mouth. Hold for 10-20 seconds.

Your words of wisdom?

Experiment and do stretches that feel best for you.

What is your current yoga class schedule?

7-8am Wednesdays – Living Yoga Studio, Denver; 8:30-9:30am Fridays – Sol Center for Radiant Living, Georgetown.

Special thanks to Lauren Hess for her time and commitment to writers. For more information about her massage therapy and yoga class schedules, contact Lauren at lhmoscow@hotmail.com.

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by | December 6, 2017 · 3:04 pm

A Year of Logging

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

Last October, when the leaves were turning raspberry red, lemon yellow, and orange orange, I embarked on a serious mission to make myself feel more like a real writer. (www.inthewritersweb.com, Nov. 2016.) Although I took my writing seriously, it didn’t seem like I was doing enough. Like you, I spent my time setting yearly goals, working on a variety of manuscripts, submitting to agents for feedback, participating in writing/critique groups, taking classes, and going to conferences. I read blogs and books on craft. I wrote articles like this one.

But despite this dedication, I still had no offers of representation or publication to show for myself. I had gotten very close with a few agents and editors, but that golden ticket still eluded me. And, I had reached a crossroads – give up on the whole shebang or amp up my life as a writer. Obviously, I chose the second option. (First sign of being a real writer!) Now I needed a new way to prove to myself that I was getting closer; that I was doing everything possible to increase my odds.

So I came up with an idea. I decided to keep a daily log of everything I did that related to my life as a writer. As a teacher, I loved leafing through my over-stuffed lesson plan books to see how much I had accomplished with my students. There were scribbles in the corners of cramped daily squares and tattered pieces of paper shoved in between the pages. Everyday had been a whirlwind of accomplishments!

Only with writing, planning out my week in advance often went awry. On some days, it seemed like I got very little done. I’d spend hours rewriting one chapter when I thought I’d be able to do four. Or I’d plan to do a small bit of research, get caught up in the subject matter and read articles on the topic for an entire morning. Finally, it came to me out of the clear blue – a totally different approach to this problem. I would log about what I did after I did it, not before. This way, I wouldn’t be disappointed if I didn’t accomplish what I thought I should have.

I got to work. I bought a large calendar/daytimer/notebook. Then, at the end of each day, I jotted down whatever I did to further my life as a writer. And, after a year of doing this, here’s what I discovered:

 

  1. I was doing a lot. Seeing months of squares filled in with writing activities convinced me that I was doing all sorts of things to further my life as a writer. I included everything from working on my novels and going to conferences to doing research and reading books in my genre.
  2. I developed a habit. According to many experts, it takes at least 21 days to develop a new habit. And for most of us, it’s longer. By writing in my log every day for an entire year, I made being a writer a conscious part of every day.
  3. Reading counts. You must read to write. I made sure to log about the books I read, both in and out of my genre and on craft. Then I entered the titles onto my Goodreads page. I also included blogs, articles, and emails to my writing colleagues.
  4. Rewriting is very time-consuming. By writing down exactly what I did each day, I could see how long it was taking me to revise my novel. A looonnnngggg time. There was one week when I worked on my first page for five days in a row!
  5. I am part of a writing community. I saw how often I met with other writers, both individually and in groups. I included in-person writing groups, conferences and classes, as well as online blogs, workshops, emails, and texts. It was A LOT!!!
  6. I am improving my craft. I recorded all the classes I took, conferences I attended, books I read on craft, and the ways I was implementing changes into my manuscripts. So important.
  7. I took on more of a leadership role in the RMC-SCBWI. My board position as Exhibits Coordinator turned into the PAL LIAISON this year. Being involved at this level makes me feel more professional and has also has introduced me to an inspirational group of writers!

At a recent writers conference, I was thrilled to share a lunch table with renowned editor, and author of THE MAGIC WORDS, Cheryl Klein. When Cheryl asked if I wrote every day, I told her about my writing log. She liked the concept and said that a daily writing practice is the key to getting published. So maybe I’m on my way!

But here’s the main thing I discovered by keeping the log… getting published is only one part of living a writer’s life. It’s an extremely important part of the journey, but the things I wrote down in my log squares, … those are the things that make me a “real” writer. And here’s the surprising takeaway – I don’t feel the need to continue logging. A year of doing this has served its purpose. I am living the life of a writer. And I have a notebook full of scribbled-in boxes to prove it.

 

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The thing about “The thing about jellyfish”

By Susan Wroble

Ali Benjamin’s book The thing about Jellyfish has rightly won well over a dozen awards, from National Book Award Finalist to National Public Radio’s “Great Read of the Year” list. I loved the story, with its themes of friendship and grief, and its sections neatly divided by the parts of the scientific method. However, it’s not the story that startled, then amazed and finally inspired me. That came from the acknowledgements section at the back of the book.

“This story,” Benjamin wrote, “was born from a failure.” A few years earlier, she had become captivated by jellyfish. She dove into their world, learning everything she could about jellyfish and poured it all into a story. She submitted to a magazine. The magazine was interested, and kept it.

Then Benjamin waited… for a year. A year of waiting to hear. A year of waiting for her story to be published. And after a year, she did hear. The magazine no longer wanted it. The story was rejected.

 

I know what I would have done. I would have cried, then forwarded the rejection on to my writing group, The Story Spinners, knowing that they would give me the encouragement and support to keep going. Getting things published is tough, and a support group of people going through the same long process of rejection collecting makes the journey much easier to bear.

I’m not sure if Ali Benjamin did any of that. What she did do was keep going. Despite the wait, despite the rejection, she wasn’t willing to give up on jellyfish. She just delved deeper, moving beyond researching jellyfish to researching jellyfish experts. She took notes and continued to learn.

This incredible, award-winning story was what emerged. Had Benjamin’s original article been published, I am sure that it would have been fascinating. But it wouldn’t have been this. To have this book materialize out of failure served, for me, as a type of buoy – showing that what springs from the ashes of failure may be beyond our wildest dreams.

 

 

 

 

 

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Finding the Positive – Conference Edition

I was recently asked what piece of advice I might give for new conference goers. Lots of things came to mind but the most personal experience I had could be boiled down to, “It is to your benefit to find the positive.” The fact is, you are likely to sit in a session where you think, “I know this.” You may end up in a session where you think, despite the fact that you read the conference description, “This just isn’t for me.” But I highly recommend that when you are in those situations, you do the best you can to find the thing that is relevant, that you didn’t know, that will make it a good connection and a good use of your time.

At one conference, I straight up messed it up.

What I heard: “Everyone clear out of the room while we set up lunch tables. We will reopen the doors when we are ready.”

What I didn’t hear: “And when we do, each agent, editor, and author in attendance will be sitting at their own table and you can choose to sit with whoever you want, first come, first serve, no adding chairs to tables.”

So I wondered why everyone was rushing back into the lunch room, but I had decided that what I needed was a little bit of sun and a stretch of my legs, so I went for a quick walk outside around the hotel parking lot, called a friend, and relaxed before coming back in.

And then I realized my mistake. The only seat that I saw that was left was for an author who wrote historical middle grade fiction. I was at the conference focusing on picture books, and while I had contemplated writing fiction, my genre would be fantasy. No clear connection here.

But there are no lemons at conference! I sat at the table with the intention of talking to my fellow creators (authors and illustrators) and having a nice lunch. And then I dug a little deeper. There are connections between historical fiction and fantasy. For example, world building is key in both, as you seek to introduce readers to a place they have never experienced. We had a great conversation that I found to be valuable.

My determination to make everything I experienced something positive immediately paid off – at that table I met a woman, we hit it off, and she invited me to join her critique group. THIS very critique group, in fact. My missing out on being able to choose a table, and having a table chosen for me, gave me new insight and a critical piece to my writing journey.

So when at conference (and I hope to see you at this year’s Letters and Lines!), don’t leave it to the presenters and lecturers – I encourage you to find the relevance, the connection, the link to your own work and process even if it isn’t immediately obvious, to make it the best experience it can be.

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On the Road to Find My Story

Each fall, my good friend Martha and I choose a theme to explore and then we read all we can about the topic. Then, come summer, we take a trip to further explore all that we have learned. These yearly “theme trips” provide inspiration for my writing.

It began with our “12-year-old Boy Tour of England.” Martha and I made our pre-teen sons read and research, then took them to England. We did everything 12-year-old boys would want to do: torture chambers, hedge mazes, knight and castles, Jack-the-Ripper, Sherlock Holmes and Stonehenge. Those boys, now young adults, will always remember the combination of focused reading and exploring. They knew more about the places we visited than the tour guides. Young Alex said to me at the time, “It’s really better in person because it makes it real!”

Since then, Martha and I have “made it real” on our yearly theme trips. We went to New York City to explore the theme of “Immigration,” visiting the Lower East Side tenements and Ellis Island. The “Civil Rights Tour” took us on the Selma to Montgomery Trail, to a Birmingham Baptist church and to a Memphis balcony. A “Native American” theme sent us to the Wounded Knee site on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and to the Crazy Horse Monument in South Dakota. Over the last decade we have done many other trips- “Jane Austen” in the English countryside, “Prehistoric Peoples of the Southwest” in Colorado and New Mexico and “Abraham Lincoln” in Springfield, Illinois and Washington DC.

The trips help me to direct my reading and provide me with a thought provoking topic for the year. I start my preparations with nonfiction- reading encyclopedia articles and books, then I move on to primary source materials. My favorite part of preparing for a trip is reading any relevant adult, middle grade, and children’s fiction I can find. I focus on the way the authors integrate historical details and how they portray culture and place into their books. All this allows me to get the most out of the trip and to understand how to improve my own writing.

I’ve just returned from our “Underground Railroad” trip that we chose for our theme this year. We were inspired by a family story about one of my abolitionist Quaker ancestors who harbored freedom seekers escaping slavery. We went to the small town of Vandalia, Michigan for “Underground Railroad Days” and to Detroit’s sites that memorialize the dangerous journey from slavery to freedom. This year’s trip focused on those who helped strangers and broke the law of the land because it was the right thing to do. Michigan, as I learned, was an abolitionist hotbed and the crossroads of secret pathways that led to Canada and freedom.

It was a sobering topic. The realities of our nation’s shameful history of slavery are painful to explore indepth. I learned more about the inhumane conditions that made enslaved people risk finding a path to freedom. The people who helped them were heroic. Much of the story of the underground railroad will be forever hidden, because it was secret and dangerous. But some stories remain and are important to understanding our collective history.

When I am on one of our trips, I look for the stories that are hiding below the surface and have particular resonance for me. I note details that I could never know from just reading—the feeling of standing where a historical event took place, the details of the landscape, and the atmosphere that surrounds a place.

I never know if the topic I have learned about during the year will find a place in my writing. Sometimes, our yearly theme is just for me and satisfies my own curiosity about the world. I understand more about our world and its complexities. My compassion for others grows as a result of pursuing a deep and connected understanding of a topic. Other times, I discover a story that needs a voice and a storyteller. I try to imagine the story that will help a young person understand more about a time and place. This is when I find inspiration and focus for my writing for children.

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A Summer of Sequels

As a kindergarten teacher, I am gearing up to go back to school in a couple of weeks. In preparation, one of the items on my to-do list was hit the bookstore to find some good reads. When I arrived, I felt like I struck gold because I found a few of my favorite titles came out with sequels and they did not disappoint. One great thing about reading books from the same author is the ability to compare and contrast. I think my little ones will be entertained and delighted to compare these titles! Caution: spoiler alert!

Mother Bruce/Hotel Bruce

Good ole grumpy Bruce the bear is back with a whole new problem. He returns from migration (with his geese from the original story) only to find mice have transformed his house into a hotel. You gotta love Bruce because in the end, he may just be a giant teddy bear at heart who can find room for a few visitors to stay.

If You Ever Wanted to Bring an Alligator to School DON’T!/ If You Ever Want to Bring a Piano to the Beach DON’T!/ If You Ever Want to Bring a Circus to the Library DON’T!

These stories have an If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, feel. The charming alligator lover is back to show readers why you shouldn’t bring a circus to the library (they are for sitting quiet and reading)! And why its a bad idea to take a piano to the beach (when your mom asks you what you want to bring, she means a frisbee or a shovel)!

What Do You Do with an Idea?/What Do You Do with a Problem?

If you thought ideas made you nervous, wait until a problem comes along. Just like ideas, you can’t ignore problem because they grow (and unlike ideas, you don’t want that to happen). But when you tackle a problem, you may find it really isn’t so scary after all.

I love to get my kindergarten class excited about reading. The best tool in my toolbox for this task is a great book to share. What are some of your favorite picture books?

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