Monday, June 29, 2015

Meet Ariel Bernstein ~By Suzy Leopold

The secret of a good critique partner is sharing great feedback with each other that helps a writer to grow and learn. For myself, as a writer "under construction", Ariel knows the importance of sharing honest and helpful suggestions for improvement as one of my critique partners. 

When critiquing a manuscript, Ariel begins with what she notes is working with the story and follows through with constructive criticism to encourage me as a writer. Her suggestions for improvement help me to revise and make the story the best it can be. 

The "Sandwich Method" is an excellent way to give and receive a critique. And this Ariel knows how to do. She knows what makes a good picture book manuscript. She knows the importance of a catchy hook, a unique story arc with a satisfying ending. Ariel knows that every word counts in a picture book. She knows that dialogue needs to move the story forward. Both Ariel and I share manuscripts once a month, where we give and take, through a critique group called All Picture Books on Deck.
Without further ado, let me introduce you to Ariel Bernstein. I am thankful for my critique partner, Ariel. Read all about Ariel and all that she does as she shares her love of children's literature.
A beautiful smile!
Ariel Bernstein 

Q1. Tell us about your writing journey. What inspires you to write? why do you write? What genre of kid lit do you prefer to write?

A1: I've written on and off since I was young. I remember in high school I had an assignment to write a story in the voice of Holden Caufield from The Catcher in the Rye. I was a so-so student and this was on of the first assignments that came very easily to me that I also enjoyed. I'm pretty sure I go an 'A' on it which also made me think I should look into writing more.

I'm inspired to write either when I've thought of a concept I feel is interesting enough to explore or when I think of a compelling voice to tell a story with. I've mostly written picture books, all fiction, and recently completed a draft of my first chapter book. I enjoy writing both (picture books and chapter books), allot writing the chapter books was definitely more daunting at times.

Q2:  Do you have an agent? How did you know she was the one to represent you and your writing? Do you have any words of wisdom on how to seek representation?

A2:  I've recently signed with Mary Cummings from Betsy Amster Literary Enterprises. We had a great phone call about the picture books story I submitted to her and it was clear she felt as passionately about my story and the characters as I did. She gave fantastic suggestions about how to improve the story and I really wanted to work with an agent who could give great editorial feedback. It's been wonderful working with her. 

You have probably heard most of this advice on querying before, but researching agents, through sites like Literary RamblesQuery Trackers, their agency sites, their Twitter feeds and MS Wish List, can be helpful in understanding what they're looking for. Getting other writers to read your queries is great (the group Facebook Educational Website Sub It Club is fantastic for this). Keep your bio very relatively short and don't worry too much about having a huge online presence. If your agent thinks an online presence is helpful and loves your story, they will discuss developing one with you. If you get a rejection from an agent you want to work with and eventually have another story to submit them them, you should. Just wait a few months first before re-submitting!

Also read (and even submit your query to) Janet Reid's Query Shark. Janet give detailed and helpful advice on writing queries, even if it's for a query in a different genre. Plus, she's hilarious in her posts.

and her journal 

Q3:  If you could invite five authors to dinner who would you choose?

A3:  I would choose: 1. Jane Austen because she's JANE AUSTEN! 2. Kelly Link because my mind is blown every time I read one of her short stores. 3. Maya Angelou to hear her voice in person. 4. George R.R. Martin because I have a ton of questions to ask about his Game of Thrones books. But I wouldn’t keep him too long at dinner so he could go back to writing. 5. Maurice Sendak, to thank him for opening my mind as a child as to where my imagination could take me.

A Tooth Fairy Pillow
"under construction"

Q4:  Share something about yourself that very few people may know about.

A4:  I still have a baby tooth. There's probably a picture book story in that but I haven't figured it out yet.
A stack of mentor
picture books

Q5:  How do you use mentor texts to support your writing?

A5:  I use mentor texts to get in the right state of mind to begin the story I want to write. I can't read articles on the Internet or a novel and then transition to writing for kids. I need to read a picture book or part of a chapter book before I begin my own stories.  I also use mentor texts to get a feel for word count, pacing, character interaction and fun language. If you can break a book down to understand all the things in it that work so well, it’s incredibly useful when writing your own stories.

Q6:  How do you come up with ideas that inspire you? 

A6:  I've come up with ideas in all different ways. One idea was inspired by a common phrase. One idea I thought of just by thinking of a color, which let to an object of that color, which let to a character holding that object, which lead to another character wanting to hold that same object badly, and there was my story. One idea I got while thinking of funny titles, and the actual story unraveled from there. Like most writers, not all of my ideas actually turn into great stories, or even finished ones.

Q7: Do you participate in [a] critique group[s]? Do you have any thoughts on what is best for working with critique partners?

A7: Yes! Having critique partners is one of the best things you can do as an author. And they're free! I belong to a six person online critique groups where we swap stories once a month. I also have about five critique partners where we send each other work whenever we need an extra set of eyes. When you find a fellow writer who give you honest and helpful insight into how your story can be improved, and manges to do it in a kind way, never take them for granted.

Q8:  Do you have any hidden talents that you want to share?

Q8:  I have this really weird thing (I don’t know if it can be called a talent), where somebody can say something to me and I know pretty quickly how many letters they’ve used in the words they’ve said. For instance, if someone says ‘What are you doing today?’ I know instantly that sentence is comprised of 20 letters. It’s not even about counting. My dad and sister are both math teachers and this is pretty much the only math gene that I got. It’s pretty useless but freaks people out sometimes which is fun.

Q9:  What words of wisdom or best piece of advice do you have for aspiring writers?

A9:  Every writer knows that the path to publishing can be a hard one filled with lots of rejection and disappointments. Fortunately, there are supportive and informative writer communities out there that help sustain you. My advice is to seek out these communities through websites (like this one!) and Facebook groups. You’ll find writers to share your accomplishments with, to vent about frustrations, and to learn from. It helps immensely to know you’re not alone on your writing journey. 

Q10: Finally, where can readers find out more about you?


Thank you, Ariel, for the opportunity to learn more about you and to share your writing journey with our GROG Readers. The many links that you provided for answer #2 are excellent resources. Your positive attitude, beautiful smile [with one baby tooth! ;)], and willingness to share your knowledge of the craft of writing for children always warms my heart. You are appreciated. 
I picked this flower 
just for you,

Friday, June 26, 2015

Part I Hearing Voices: 6 Steps I Used For Creating An Anthology

by Janie Reinart
An anthology has the power to magnify the voices of its contributors much like the device of a Greek Chorus in a play. The Chorus is the mouthpiece for the audience clarifying the theme of the play, adding commentary, asking questions, and narrating the action. 

In an anthology, the contributors become the Chorus, fulfilling the same function, making sure the unique voice of that collection of work can be heard “loud and clear” by its readers.  

1. Find A Unique Theme   
After some positive experiences of contributing to educational anthologies, (see below) I was ready to work on my own. But what voice needed to be heard and hadn’t been heard before? 

A life-changing experience answered these questions when my son was deployed to war. 

The seldom-heard voices of mothers sending their sons and daughters to war needed to be heard. This Chorus would narrate their stories telling of the sacrifice our children and military families make every day.
The working title for the book was inspired by a letter sent from my son while serving in Iraq with six months more to go: “I look forward to brighter days of picnics and card games … and church and things that families do together. I love you deeply, more than you know. Your son, Joe.”

 2. Set Goals For Your Anthology 
My son made it home, defying death several times. I could breathe again. I wanted this to be a book where military mothers could all breathe a little easier, narrating our stories and sharing our burdens. Some of our stories are from Gold Star Mothers. Their children did not return. 

My goals:
*Share stories from mothers of soldiers 
*Use writing as a therapeutic venue
*Give back to our injured veterans  (A portion of the book’s proceeds is donated to charities.)

 3. Create Guidelines For Your Contributors
 I asked contributors to share glimpses of their lives: What does it mean to be the mother of a soldier? How did you make it through the journey of separation from your child during their deployment? How has this experience changed you? What is the status of your soldier? 

It was important to have these starting questions as a jumping-off point. Some contributors had never written their stories before, and they needed some guidance at first.

I also wanted to include interwoven in the chapters, copies of e-mails, letters, photos, and recollections of phone calls between mother and soldier(s). Hard to believe, but some moms had more than one child deployed at a time. All this was to be done free of political commentary.

Celeste Hicks with

                    Micala, Nate, Patrick, Philip, & Mary

Part two includes: search for a publisher, call for submissions, securing release forms, and the power of the anthology, and is scheduled for July 10,2015.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A One Day Workshop w/ OWLS by Kathy Halsey

School librarians who also write gathered at the State Library of Ohio yesterday for a day-long confab. Check out the writerly goodness that floated through the stacks. 
Librarians by day, writers by night, the OELMA Writers' League met with Jody Casella, YA author of THIN SPACE, and Michele Jakubowski, middle grade/early chapter book guru, who wrote several series for Capstone, including Sidney & Sydney, Perfectly Poppy, and a new mystery series targeted to 4-6th grade, THE SLEUTHS OF SOMERVILLE.
Jody, Kathy and Michele. These authors say that we ARE writers.


1. The path is different for us all. Jody wrote for 15+ years before her breakout book. Michele's path to publication has taken 5 years. Jody has an agent and Michele has negotiated her own contracts.

2. No English degree? No MFA? No problem. Our writer/librarians had a myriad of backgrounds: science, math, special education, academia, and illustration.

3. Try something different for a new equation.  One English teacher + one librarian + an after school walk up "Murder Hill" = YA/paranormal thriller with alternating POV. These partners create characters and scenes as they walk and observe others for character traits. They feel comfortable as co-authors because they are responsible for only half of it! (Bird by Bird, remember?)

4. There is no one perfect process that guarantees success. Our voices are all different. A sign above Jody's desk says, "TRUST THE PROCESS." It takes time to find the daily routine/your process. Try reading what you wrote the day before, take walks and have cell phone nearby in case genius strikes so you can tape yourself. Find a writing buddy to whom you are accountable.

5. First draft and revision reminder: Throw it all out there in the first draft. Like a jigsaw puzzle, you must see all the pieces. If a scene doesn't work, ditch it, but save EVERYTHING as compost for other stories.

6. Setting is often overlooked and it can be an important character. Louis Sachar thinks it's the most important element of story. His seminal middle grade, HOLES, would not be the book it is if not set in Camp Green Lake.

7. Keep a companion journal for the manuscript you are writing. Jody says it becomes a record of your thought process for the book and serves as a reminder of where in the process you get "stuck" for the next book.

8. A fun exercise: try this and see what transpires. Go to a coffee shop. Record dialogue word for word. Later, insert tags and action around the dialogue.

9. We are all drawn to tell certain stories. Examine the "why" for every manuscript. You will find theme, emotion, and the heart of the tale. This is what keeps readers with us.

Hope these tidbits refreshed you, feed your writing appetite, and nourished you for your journey! Gonna go nosh on some manuscripts now before the next OWL event, October 3, 2015. Check out the OELMA site for more information.

Monday, June 22, 2015

What Can I Write About? What to Do When the Well Runs Dry by Pat Miller

Recently, one of those registered for my upcoming NF 4 NF Children's Nonfiction Writing Conference asked a surprising question. "It's my writing day today and one of my task list items is to ask you for homework. Sounds strange, I know, but I feel like I'm having writer's block on what to do next."

I find that taking action creates motivation, rather than the other way around. Asking for help is one way to take action when the well runs dry. Perhaps you need a little "homework?" This was the assignment I gave for her nonfiction needs. 

1. Revive a languishing manuscript
If you're like me, you have manuscripts “under the bed” that just didn't catch fire. Distance from your once-loved manuscripts creates a detachment that makes it easier to delete paragraphs, remove incidents, and see where sensory details are needed. Hopefully it’s been long enough that you’ve forgotten the information you subconsciously brought to the page, revealing assumptions and gaps for the reader you were blind to before.

Choose one of your non-starters that still seems to have some juice in it. Use Nancy I. Sanders' checklist to attack your story methodically. Have fun giving this work a thorough makeover. Play with the language. Add details that put us there. Sketch each scene with stick figures to see if you have provided enough detail for the reader’s imagination and the illustrator. Nonfiction needs the same detail so the reader can picture the time, the people, or the science you are writing about. 

2. Do a quick investigation
When you find yourself thinking, “I wonder why…?” or “How does …?” you have a bridge to a writing project. And if those thoughts don't occur to you regularly, here are some books I use to pique curiosity. Sometimes the unpressured action of investigating a mental nudge bypasses the perfectionism that may be keeping you from writing. (I've included a similar website in parenthesis.)

Chase’s Calendar of Events. This book contains 12,500 entries. Many of those could start one writing. The day of the request, for example, was the birthday of Elizabeth Fry. She devoted her life at the turn of the 19th century to improving the conditions of women in prison. Sounds hopeless—why did she care? How did she try? Did she have any success? It was also the beginning of the Mudbug Madness Festival in Shreveport, LA. What is the appeal of mudbugs (crawfish)? What’s their life like? Why is it such a mainstay of the Cajun cookbook? (Important Dates in History)

An Uncommon History of Common Things is a National Geographic book by Bethane Patrick and John Thompson. Chapters include Food & Drink, Toys & Games, Symbols & Customs, and six more. Any of these may make you wonder—and investigate further. This technique works--my upcoming book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is about the guy who invented the hole in the doughnut. (Origins of Everyday Things)

Robertson’s Book of Firsts: Who Did What for the First Time by Patrick Robertson. Learn about the first microwave oven, the first railroad accident, even the first elevator music. Perhaps you can challenge yourself to write about the event in 100 words or less—giving yourself practice in getting the best bits into the best words. (Firsts in America)

3. Prime the pump with mentor texts
There are so many engaging and inspiring children’s books that you can use as a mentor or template. For this assignment, you'll need at least three books in your genre—maybe three biographies, or three books about animals.

First, read each one thoughtfully with the goal of choosing your favorite. Second, make a page by page list of the structure of the story. You’re looking at the bones, not the meat.

For example, here is the page by page structure I would write for Those Rebels, John & Tom by Barbara Kerley:

  1. Set the stage, and the hook, with a single summary sentence 
  2. Single sentence that is true about both
  3. John as a kid
  4. Tom as a kid
  5. Two lists of differences between two men
  6. John at home and work
  7. Tom at home and work
  8. They were different, but one big thing they  had in common…

Last, using that structure, build a similar book on the same structure. For this example, choose two people who are similar in a major way, but different in many others, and plug your research into this structure. Maybe Eleanor Roosevelt and Calamity Jane? Ben Franklin and Thomas Edison? Elizabeth Blackwell and Amelia Bloomer?

Or you might choose a book about wolves, and use its structure to write about raccoons. Or a book about the early settlers in Virginia as a model for your book about the early settlers of your home state.

If these suggestions don't get your fingers on the keyboard, here are 11 pages of nonfiction writing prompts from Los Gatos High School, Los Gatos, CA, to keep you busy and inspired. Good luck!

Friday, June 19, 2015

By the Light of the Moon

By Janie Reinart

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, 

you'll land among the stars.”

~ Norman Vincent Peale

On warm summer nights, look at the stars and behold the moon. Pay attention to other nighttime wonders too, like the singing of tree frogs and the twinkling of fireflies.

In the Japanese Kamakura era (1185-1333 AD), Buddhism influenced art and literature. Moon gazing parties were held in gardens to read and write poetry about the moon.

Husking rice?
a child squints up?
to view the moon.
~Matsuo Basho

Consider creating a Moon Journal to record poems, scientific observations, sketch pictures, or write about dreams.Your journal will hold your discoveries and be a place for surprises. Share your creations in the comments.

View image |

Night’s shadow fingers
Reaching across expanses
Barely hold the moon
by Janie Reinart

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


by Jan Godown Annino

These are impressions that I feel almost everyone
felt. The dedicated artists & writers shared laughs,
love of books & stories & lively discussions 
through the weekend.
Perhaps being in magic Florida, helped!

My poetry crit partner Christine & I sat rapt all
Saturday. I was also lucky to soak up picture book
lessons on Friday.
Worth. Every. Penny.
The thrills + wisdom shared offset motoring 9 hours round-trip.

(With thanks to my dear hubby who made the trip too & our
generous local hosts who just moved into a big new house,
Brad + Sandy. The neighborhood elementary school is
Spanish-speaking & Sandy is a volunteer reader/tutor with
school stories to share, a bonus for me.)

Still applauding conference volunteers – including
Linda Bernfeld, Gaby Triana, Linda Shute & Curtis Sponsler &
my longtime SCBWI pal, Gloria Rothstein. They conducted
two auctions – live & silent, matched critique givers to
the artists & writers, arranged meals, transportation for
faculty, meeting rooms, onsite bookstore & much more.


You-Heard-It-Here-Today/ Picture Books –
Lee Bennett Hopkin’s JUMPING OFF LIBRARY SHELVES (illus. Jane Manning)
Alexandra Penfold’s EAT, SLEEP, POOP (illus., Jane Massey)
Rob Sanders’ RUBY ROSE ON HER TOES (illus Debbi Ohi)
Tim Miller’s MOO IN A TUTU (he is illus)
Douglas Florian’s HOW TO TRAIN  YOUR DRAGON (he is illus)
Irene Latham’s FRESH DELICIOUS, Poems from the Farmer’s Market &
Mika Song’s TEA WITH OLIVER (he is illus)
Bonus – how about that last author-illustrator’s name?

INFO bits on the detailed PROCESS to PUBLISHING
>An editor rejected books that another house published. When she
saw them between covers, she wished she discerned, in manuscript form
 what the other house perceived in manuscript form – the books turned
out quite  good & she wished she had pubbed them.
This is to help us understand how our manuscripts can be wonderful,
just not right at that moment for the editor/publisher we’ve sent it to.

>This same editor shared that when she was at a house where the sales
force wielded manuscript rejection power, one of her championed children’s
books was rejected. She eventually had it published by that house. How?
“There is a lot of turnover.”
She sent to back to the writer to keep working on it.  Later the editor
resubmitted it when the naysayer had moved on to another house.

>An editor said a picture book that she originally didn’t like, even
sort of derided to close associates, still had this kernel of emotion that
stuck to her.
She could never shake it from her mind. She went back. Looked at it.
Six years later she is publishing it, pleased with the results.

<Listening to an editor share how short  p.b. manuscripts can make her
heart beat fast – I feel I got it.  Revising. Short.

A successful YA author said her years of taking picture book classes
to learn to write 500 word manuscripts helped her write succinctly
(I will add successfully) in verse for the high school reader.

First lines that are direct & simple make all the difference in picture books.
Examples an editor shared that she loves -
“Hattie was a big black hen.”  Mem Fox
“The mice made a teeter-totter.” Ellen Stoll Walsh

Look up the SCBWI Edited By list to help find editors whose books you like.

Agents, editors, artists & writers! Even spouses, partners & children.
Too many to name, but here is one moment of many from the conference
that are treasures. He is poet, editor & poetry anthologist Lee Bennett Hopkins, known
as The Pied Piper of Children’s Poetry.

Every faculty member was accessible, warm & funny. If I garbled my words
getting them out, or didn’t get any words out to those I intended to, it was my
own cold feet. Next time, Jan!

I feel good that at lunch I linked a writer I didn’t know before that much appreciated meal,into a nice conversation with an agent at our large table, because the writer had shared with me info about her work I knew the agent would like to know. Put on the spot, I am usually more advanced at promoting others than myself.

At a workshop an editor said spiffy remarks after
I read aloud from my fresh-scribbled words. They were three pieces
of brief writing in response to the unexpected writing prompt. I
blushed, floated. Haven’t quite landed, yet.

Orlando’s newish indy shop, Bookmark It, received a warm welcome.
I turned out to be their first conference book buyer (not just looking)
customer.  One of the best sellers of the SCBWI weekend is the book
cradled in my hand, in the photo,
I am so stoked that writer pals, especially Robyn Hood Black,
are represented in this huggy, chubby board book, longside Jane Yolen, X.J. Kennedy, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Kristine O’Connell George, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, Alice Schertle & other children’s author luminaries. I am happy it winged it’s way, inscribed, to the dear baby in our family in Rhode Island, who celebrates his 1st birthday this very month.

We arrived in Orlando not long after visiting our family in CT & MASS during
days of a big ol’ eyetalyen wedding, so it was fun to reflect on very different cities.
 We saw a chipmunk in Boston and an otter in Orlando. We saw the pencil
sculpture in Orlando in a downtown art park.
And it strikes me as something Boston would be proud to own.

Consider the SCBWI-FL MidyearConference in 2016. Information on
it will be posted at the Florida site.

While I was in Orlando, several title eyedears & other creative writing
thoughts came to mind. My conference-inspired scribbles continue.  
 I’ve re-read & re-read notes from the two conference
critiques, have thought, made scribbles of phrases, lines, more.

One final summer presentation as a children’s author is on my
calendar. ( I visited a well-off private school one week & then drove over
to a needy community center program the next & I appreciated having
those contrasts.) The next event is at our lovely library.
After,  I expect to slack off non-manuscript writing (including here & my own blog)
to finish manuscripts & begin new project eyedears
that bubbled up as a result of this inspiring SCBWI-FL weekend.