Author Archives: Susan Wroble

Vacation Research and Golden Pens

By Susan Wroble

About a year ago, I opened up an email and fell in love.

The email was actually a link to articles from Live Science, and the story I fell in love with was Laura Geggel’s about a new dinosaur. The article quoted Cristiano dal Sasso of the Natural History Museum in Milan. “It is a miracle that it survived such a long chain of events: drifting away to the sea, then floating, sinking, being scavenged by marine animals, reworked by sea bottom currents, buried, uplifted within a mountain chain, and eventually blown up by human explosives.”

With a background in engineering, I love processes. I love mapping out the big picture, figuring out what comes next. And the process that transformed the dinosaur now known as Saltriovenator zanellaiinto a fossil was incredible. I couldn’t get enough.

I downloaded all the articles on Saltriovenator. I poured through the 78-page scientific paper, marking it up with different colored highlighters. I asked volunteers at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s Prehistoric Journey to help with the parts I didn’t understand. I started working on a draft of a nonfiction picture book about this miracle fossil. And I told my husband that if we could swing a vacation this year, because what I wanted most of all was to find out more about this dinosaur.

And last month that dream came true! From the guidebooks, I hear that Milan is full of amazing art, incredible fashion and is the gateway to the stunning Italian lake district. I am sure that is correct — but we missed those parts.

Instead, paleontologist del Sasso led me to his office and slid open a drawer — and I was able to hold one of Saltriovenator’s 200-million-year-old bones. The next day, he escorted us to a talk in the town of Guissano, north of Milan. There, we met with Angelo Zanelli, the amateur fossil hunter who, back in 1996, discovered that same dinosaur bone while searching for ammonites, then notified just the right people of his find.

I know that my manuscript has many more rounds of revision in front of it, but I was surprised and honored this weekend. At the annual conference of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (RMC-SCBWI), I was nominated for their Golden Pen award for my story “How to become a Miracle Fossil.”

And I have a new goal — I’m planning research vacations more often!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE SQUIBBY NOTEBOOK

By Susan Wroble

Over the years, I’ve attended a lot of conferences and workshops, but after this year’s Spring RMC-SCBWI conference, I felt that what I needed most was some way to organize the information so that it would stay relevant and useful.

That’s when it hit. I already knew how to do this! About a dozen years ago, I had taken training in document organization. In addition to writing for children, I moderate a support group for parents whose kids are twice exceptional (2e). These are highly gifted students with a myriad of learning differences, and anyone who has a special needs kid knows that the paperwork mounts quickly. There are medical reports, 504s and IEPs, neuropsych evaluations… the list is endless. In my role as facilitator, I had attended a WrightsLaw Special Education Conference, where a major part of the conference was teaching parents to manage the papers.

And so, with a nod to both dyslexia, which is a frequent piece of the 2e puzzle, and my critique group, who affectionately refers to SCBWI as “Squibby,” I present to you THE SQUIBBY NOTEBOOK, also known as Children’s Writing Resources.

You’ll need a big three-ring binder (preferably the type with plastic outside that lets you slip a paper into the front and back covers and spine), a hole punch and a pencil. Slide something eye catching in the front plastic sleeve (I use a page from an SCBWI calendar) and make a label for the spine (my label says “The Squibby Notebook”).

The hardest — and most valuable — part of this system is the Table of Contents. Create a spreadsheet (landscape orientation) with the following five columns:

  • Date
  • Name
  • Title/Profession
  • Document Type
  • Notes

 

Make a header for the Table of Contents that reads “Children’s Writing Resources.” And then start filling in information on the spreadsheet. The “Notes” section is the most important. That’s where you connect the dots, linking this document to one or more of your works in progress. The notes section reminds you of why that document is important.

And then you file documents chronologically: oldest in front, newest at the back. With the pencil, date each document on the bottom right-hand corner. One of the beauties of this system is that each time you attend a webinar, workshop, or conference, you update that Table of Contents, and in the process review what the notebook holds. You’ll know which agents and editors you’ve seen and when you saw them. And with luck, by keeping the lessons at the top of your brain, and the documents corralled, you’ll shorten that journey from idea to publication. Happy filing!

 

 

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The Magic Notebook

By Susan Wroble

At first glance, my magic notebook doesn’t seem very magical at all. It’s your standard half-inch thick, plastic-covered white three-ring binder, picked up at a thrift store for fifty cents.

So how, exactly, is this not-so-special notebook magical? That story goes back years…

I’ve been a member of SCBWI for a long time. It took nearly a decade of plugging away at beloved middle grade novel before I realized that my writing group members had a much clearer understanding of my characters than I did — or ever would. My characters’ faces and bodies were always blurry; they changed ages with every re-write, and they never held onto consistent character traits. Despite assembling collections of photos and pages upon pages of dialogue, interviews and character traits, my characters were never real to me. Much as I love reading fiction, it finally became clear to me that my brain wasn’t wired to write it.

With that long overdue understanding, I let go. At first, it felt like giving up. And then it felt amazingly freeing. Everything changed. Instead of creating fictional characters, I could research the real people and things that captured my interest. Instead of a long novel, I could focus on short pieces, less than a thousand words. And instead of books, I could write for magazines.

And that is how the notebook came to be.

I made a spreadsheet of magazine due dates and wish lists to slip into the front cover (with a background in engineering, I love spreadsheets!). The list included all the upcoming themes for Cricket Media’s family of magazines. For me, the structure of a desired theme was the easiest place to start.

Simply having those dates and themes at the front of the notebook, where I saw them frequently, set the stage for the magic to happen. Ideas for articles kept percolating. I started asking friends what they’d want to see on a given theme — and found the question made for a great dinner party conversation! And then I started pitching. It took a lot of rejections and a bunch of typing out published articles to really get the sense of the style before an acceptance came.

In the end, the inside of the magic notebook didn’t matter at all. I had used the inside for submission guidelines, articles that seemed like good models, checklists of everything that was required to submit to a given magazine…

And I rarely cracked the cover. What mattered most was simply putting my notes in a place where I could see them and think about them. The true magic, it seemed, was in learning to change my habits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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CRITIQUING: Just One More Thing…

By Susan Wroble

 The goal: Critique without overwhelming.

The problem? It’s really tricky.

The solution: Just one more thing…

With the talented author Judith Robbins Rose (Look Both Ways in the Barrio Blanco), I feel very fortunate to lead one of the Connect Groups for the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI. Our Denver South Connect & Critique follows a model of craft presentation followed by critique break-outs. For some of our members, who are brand new to children’s writing and SCBWI, these critiques are the first time someone else has seen their work. They are being critiqued by whoever ends up in their circle, from other new writers to ones with years of experience.

In sessions like our Connect, as in many critique groups, the critiques come in two forms: written and oral. In an intensive at the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the SCBWI conference this year, author Laurie Halse Anderson offered her advice on the topic. She recommends restricting written comments in a critique to two types — smiley faces and question marks. I admire the simplicity of this approach, and the gentleness. From what I have seen, however, most of the problems in critiquing come not from the written review, but from the oral comments.

For years, at SCBWI conferences, I attended the “First Pages” sessions. The guest editor or agent would listen, along with the audience, as first pages of manuscripts were drawn from a pile and read aloud.  And then the editor or agent would give their initial impressions. Each year, I was reminded that the job of deciding which works to represent is very different from the job of mentoring and encouraging a writer. Our guest speakers had a tough job, and few did it well. Even though the submissions were anonymous, their analysis could feel devastating.

Likewise, our initial Connects faced a rough start. Now, we review the sandwich method before each critique session. In this method, constructive criticism is tucked between positive starting and ending comments. It’s so easy to visualize that it makes a great first approach. But it didn’t feel complete. It could still be overwhelming. And it didn’t feel that it did the job of helping writers, especially new writers, know where to begin to focus to improve their craft.

Drawing on her years of competing on the university debate team, Judy Rose had an insight regarding her coach’s approach to her entry in after-dinner speaking. “Even though he’d heard my piece dozens of times before, he’d laugh — and sometimes cry — and say “That’s great! It’s fabulous! There’s just one more thing…””

“Just One More Thing.” I love it. It feels like the sandwich method has just found the essential missing ingredient it lacked.

 

For more ideas about writing and receiving critiques, I found the following post from The Writer’s Loft especially helpful: https://www.thewritersloft.org/critique

 

 

 

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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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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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Cocoon!

By Susan Wroble

Photo: “Cocoon” by Dawn Huczek is licensed under CC BY 2.0

 

I was born with a hip that didn’t fit quite right, so I always knew I was going to be a candidate for an early hip replacement. The past few years gave a steady decrease in the things I was able to do. When I stopped being able to ride my bike around the neighborhood, I knew it was time to talk to an orthopedic surgeon.

The surgery was scheduled for early January. Our neighbors graciously loaned us every conceivable type of device I might need, from a cane to a shower stool to an amazing walker. Our daughter set up a Meal Train account, and emailed the link to friends, so we had meals delivered a couple times a week for a month.

Surgery was easy, with no complications. But recovery was a fascinating period. For the first few weeks, I was simply exhausted. I couldn’t wait to go to bed. Each night, I’d throw the covers over my head and think: “Cocoon!” Yet even as I thought it, I had no idea why.

The surprise to me was that it was indeed a cocooning period. The me that emerged was different. With all my normal activities on hold, my attention was increasingly focused on writing. It was the one thing I could still do.

A month after surgery, we went to a party, and someone asked the standard “What do you do?” question. For years, my typical reply has been that I volunteer too much. This time, however, what came out was completely unexpected. “I’m a writer,” I said, surprising myself with the answer.

For years, I’ve wanted to make that switch to writing. I just never expected hip replacement surgery to be the precipitating piece. My nighttime cocooning was indeed transformational, and I emerged feeling incredibly blessed.

 

 

 

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Giving Away Treasures

By Susan Wroble

I love thrift stores. Once a month, I choose one and treat myself to a long perusal of its shelves. I love the excitement of not knowing what I may find. But I do know that having explored the rest of the store, I’ll always end up in the book section. Like all children’s authors, I can’t get enough of books.

And when that perfect award-winning book sits forlornly on the shelf, I buy it. How could I not? At thrift stores prices of a quarter for a paper-back, or two-for-a-dollar hard-covers, I’ve found true treasure. My own bookhelves, of course, are bursting. I can’t keep these books. But I’ve found a solution. I give the books away.

My thrift store treasures go into one of three boxes. One box is for a small library in rural Indiana, a library my great-uncle helped build. At the start of each summer, I mail this library a box of books, from readers to middle grade, that they use as rewards for their summer reading program. Each year, I’ve gotten a card signed by all the kids in the program, and I’ve been thrilled to see the list of names get longer each year. It is because they are getting great quality books at the end of their program? I don’t know, but I can only hope…

The second box is the hardest, but the most satisfying. To fill this box, I need to find, on my thrift store adventures, twenty-four pristine, un-marked holiday books – books like The Polar Express or The Night Before Christmas. Typically, it takes a few years to fill this box. And when I’ve finally found the last one, I wrap each book and tag it with a number, 1-24. The collection becomes a magical advent gift for a special child, with a different book to unwrap and read each night on the count-down to Christmas.

The third box is new, and its contents will stay closer to home. My own street is too quiet for a Little Free Library, so my church is allowing me to set up a Little Free Library on their grounds, near a city bus stop. This Little Free Library won’t be installed until this spring, when it’s warm enough to dig and pour concrete more easily. With an inner-city location in a primarily minority neighborhood, I’ve been able to start collecting books for a different demographic and age spectrum than those aimed for school kids in the mid-west. I can’t wait to become this library’s steward, and see which types of books will best serve the community.

 

 

 

 

 

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What Makes a Great Book?

By Susan WrobleIMG_0579

I picked up Leila Sales’ amazing book Once Was a Time at the library last week. Immediately, I was engrossed in its themes of history and time travel and, above all, friendship. It made me start thinking about what makes a book great. I know what I do when I read what I think is a great book (and what I did with Sales’ book) – I fall in love with the language and the characters and the intricate weaving of the plotlines. I cry towards the end, hug the book when I finish, and finally turn right back to page one and voraciously start the whole thing all over again.

But, as I said, that’s what I do. It isn’t what a great book is. Author and rare book dealer Rick Gekoski tried to answer this same question in the context of the Man Booker Prize, the annual award for the best book written in English and published in the United Kingdom. In a 2011 article for The Guardian titled What’s the definition of a Great Book?, he wrote “When you read works of this quality you often feel, and continue to feel, that your internal planes have shifted, and that things will never, quite, be the same again.”

Shift, change, movement, transport… My definition of a great book would be one that transports the readers — in both meanings of the word. Readers should feel first that they are in another place or time, and second that they are overwhelmed with emotion. For me, that feeling initially came when I read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Reading Wrinkle gave me insight into concepts of advanced physics, and changed my beliefs of what is possible and what is real. The book transported Meg and Calvin and Charles Wallace and me across space and time, but more importantly, it transported me to a place of happiness in the knowledge that love will always triumph.

I narrowed my question, no longer concerned about what makes a book great, focusing instead on what makes a book great for me. It’s a book that transports, that carries me away, that lifts me up. And when you find a book like that for you, give it a hug from me!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Gone to the Dogs

 

By Susan Wroble, photo by Carol-Ann Mullin

A graduate level conference for social workers, focusing on human-animal interaction, was the last place I expected to find a recommendation on the practice of writing. But there it was, a gem of information, right in the midst of sessions about addressing trauma through the use of therapy animals.

NellaHathawayGalena

Like all writers I know, I wear a lot of different hats. I always hesitate when people ask what I do. My usual answer is that “I volunteer a lot.” The dozen or so organizations where I give my time center around three areas: science, education, and dogs. That meant that the “Animals on the Brain” conference, hosted by the University of Denver’s Institute for Human Animal Connection (HAIC), was right up my alley.

 

Much of the conference focused on brain chemistry – specifically, the hormones oxytocin, which promotes trust and bonding, and cortisol, which is released in response to stress. Working with animals tends to release oxytocin in the human brain. As a result, social workers are increasingly incorporating animals into their practice with individuals who are autistic or who have experienced trauma.

 
Nina Ekholm Fry, Director of Equine Programs at HAIC, was in the midst of a talk on the Social Neurobiology of Equine-Assisted Work when she made the observation that changed my writing practice. “Your state of mind can be changed, it can be affected. Your state of mind goes to sensations and thoughts.” She continued, “I have input in that. I can change what I feel.” Before working on a difficult task, Fry said that she reads through a list of compliments her students have sent her. This, she explained, changes her brain chemistry and thus her mindset.

 

My writing sessions have all too often started with the mundane – and the depressing. Filing a rejection. Figuring out where to send something next. Wondering whether or not I should follow up on an article sent months ago, given no response from the editor. And that, I realized while listening to Fry, is completely wrong.

 

As a result of the conference, I’m separating the filing, the rejections, the “what’s next” questions out from my writing sessions. Starting with a dash of anxiety-inducing cortisol is not the way for me to be productive. Instead, I’m collecting a file of kind words and published articles and rave reviews (okay, those may all be from my writing group!). I’ll review those before starting my writing. And, of course, spend a whole lot more time petting the dogs.

 

 

 

 

 

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