Thursday, August 31, 2017

Critique Partners Chat

By Janie Reinart & Kathy Halsey

Now for a light-hearted change of pace, Ohio writers, critique partners, and fellow GROGgers, Janie  and Kathy, chat and share their thoughts about the writing life with you. Grab a cup of tea and lets go.  

Kathy & Janie

What the best part of being a writer? What’s the hardest part?

Janie: The best part is the magic of getting into the writing zone, encouraging emergent writers of all ages, taking classes, learning new things, and the kid lit community! The hardest part is the hurry up and wait nature of this business.

Kathy: The best parts for me are: the thrill I get when beginning a first draft with a shiny new idea, the joy writing has added to my life, and the friendships I’ve made along the way.The hardest part of writing for me is revision and knowing what the nugget is with nonfiction.

As writer friends who’ve known each other for 4-plus years, what do you see are each other’s writing strengths? 

Janie: I want to be a librarian like Kathy when I grow up. Her resource and author knowledge base is amazing as you would expect. Kathy is the Grammar Queen and my go to person for all things punctuation. She is amazing at networking. The characters in her stories are charming as is her voice. Kathy is wonderful at dialogue. She also knows when to cut words.

Kathy: In a past life, Janie was a consummate storyteller. This experience makes her a good resource for plotting ideas/problems. Listening to her read a story aloud is pure gold, too. Janie is a rhymer, where I am not. She can help with rhyme schemes, cadence, and lyrical language when I need help. She is a kind critiquer, but finds the issues that need work in my WIPS.

You are both grandmas or as Kathy likes to say “glam-mas.” What has reading to your grands taught you about picture books and writing?

Clara said,"This is not a good book. There are no pictures."


Janie: We start them early and encourage book reading as they grow. My little grands love humor, page turns, and lines that repeat so that they can "read" along. 

The older middle school and high school grands like to do book chats with me. We share what we are reading and talk about our favorite parts of the story. When Hannah was in the 5th grade, we read Matilda together, saw the stage performance, and then watched the movie. Hannah liked the book and stage renditions best.

Nana and Tobin.

Kathy: With grandson Tobin, my first, I read bagfuls of books to him constantly. He really attended to humor and crazy plot twists. The more we read, and the older he got, the more he refined his taste in books. I poured over his favorites to see what elements drew him in. I found that books I might admire for language or other sophisticated elements were not what he craved. Plot, suspense, and humor were key in his choices. So even though I am a pun/word nerd, I am paying more attention to plot and surprises. 

Tobin recently said, "Nana you are a writer, so I am going to be a writer."  He created a three page book about his model planes. Tobin had a cover, printed the text himself, and asked his Nana how to spell unfamiliar words. Then he and his dad stapled it to complete a proper book. He titled in and promptly tried to sell it to me. From the mouth of a 6.5 year old, "Nana, I know you got $20 in your wallet." 
I retorted, "Tobin, why don't you just dedicate the book to me instead?"

You’re both submitting to agents/editors now. What are your tips to keep motivated?


Janie: I am encouraged when I get a 💚  at twitter pitch parties. I keep sending manuscripts out into the world, because they won't do me much good sitting on my computer.  Entering contests are another way of keeping it going. A writer has to follow their passion. Our critique group listens to the good, the bad, and "crickets".  You have to be stubborn enough to keep going no matter what.

Kathy: I like envisioning the future to keep me subbing. I imagine my signature as I sign books for readers or what the illustrator could do with my manuscript. I believe in subbing sprints to keep from fatigue. This July I was a subbing machine. In August, I’ve been refining work. I keep a calendar w/important sub dates from conferences I’ve attended and upcoming twitter pitch parties. I highly recommend Sub It Club and Sub Six for companionship and accountability. Most of our critique group are all subbing, so we prop each other up and share our ups and downs.  

Sometimes you  read aloud to each other in your weekly google hangouts. Share some recent faves and why you like them.

Janie: I focus on picture books. Ninja Baby by David Zelster made us laugh out loud! "Things were going perfectly until...her parents brought home a Kung Fu Master. (aka a baby brother) And their is a surprise ending. 
My favorite part: "What's your secret?" she asked him.
He just looked at her.
It was like listening to the wind in the bamboo."

Another picture book that made us laugh is Charlotte and the Rock by Steven W. Martin. "Charlotte Gray wanted a pet. She didn't care what kind of pet...even a pig would do." Charlotte's parents bought her... a pet rock. It wasn't what Charlotte had in mind, but she tried to remain positive."

Kathy: I read a mix of picture books and middle grade. Currently I’m a fangirl for THE JUMBIES by Tracey Baptiste (MG) a creepy tale steeped in Caribbean lore. It gives the feel that CORLAINE did. I appreciated and rooted for main character Corinne and the world-building Tracey used to create this story with its multiple layers.  

Picture books I’ve dipped into recently include BEN AND ME: AN ASTONISHING LIFE OF BEN FRANKLIN By HIS GOOD MOUSE AMOS. Don’t overlook classic stories - this one by Robert Lawson with a quirky POV. 

Another recommendation with POV in mind is THE CATAWAMPUS CAT by Jason Eaton. With the genius of Gus Gordon’s illustrations, this PB is a perfect marriage of pictures and words. COOKING WITH HENRY AND ELLIEBELLY by Carolyn Parkhurst is a hoot that you’ll want to read aloud.

Share something others may not know about your critique partner.

Janie: In her thirties, Kathy studied ballet, jazz, and modern dance. Kathy performed with the University of Dayton's dance ensemble and Sinclair Community College's dance ensemble. Kathy says,"Now my fingers do the dancing on my keyboard writing stories."
Kathy's dancers body.
Kathy: Janie is quite musical and has a wonderful voice! She sang a solo at Sagrada Familia BasĂ­lica in Barcelona with her church choir! Amazing, right?

Singing is the best way to pray.
Thanks for stopping by and getting to know us.



Monday, August 28, 2017

Lisa Amstutz's Recipe for Success (Writing a Picture Book that Sells)

We're excited to have a Guest Blogger for today's GROG post: Lisa Amstutz, author of more than 80 nonfiction books in the school and library market. Lisa's first trade picture book, Applesauce Day, was published this month by Albert Whitman & Co. For this lively story, Lisa drew inspiration from her family's applesauce-making traditions.

And here's Lisa, with her recipe for picture book success!
~ Christy Mihaly


We’ve probably all had a recipe that flopped at some point. Burnt cookies, salty soup, bread that didn’t rise…. On one memorable occasion, my husband forgot the noodles in a tuna noodle casserole! It happens to even the best cooks. But following a recipe carefully will maximize your chances of an edible result.

The same could be said of writing a picture book. There is no guaranteed recipe for success—after all, even picture book greats like Jane Yolen still get rejections!  However, an editor is more likely to find your picture book "delectable" if you follow these steps.

Fresh, sweet apples
1. Start with a strong concept. You have a concept, but how do you decide whether it's "ripe" for writing? Check first on Amazon and WorldCat to see if someone else has recently written about your topic. If so, make sure your treatment is different enough to stand out. If not, ask yourself why no one has covered this idea before. Is it interesting to kids? Is it age-appropriate? If your story concept passes these tests, move on to #2.


2. Look for a hook. A sales hook helps make your story “appetizing” to editors. Publishing companies have to make money to stay in business. If an editor falls in love with your story, they have to sell it to their acquisitions committee. Make it easy for them by giving your story a clear sales hook. Maybe it’s similar to a bestseller, or ties in with a major holiday. Perhaps there is an obvious curriculum tie-in. For example, with Applesauce Day, 
many teachers do apple units in the fall. Apple orchards and apple organizations are other potential markets.

Washed and ready for the chopping block
3. Find some mentors. Check out works by "master chefs." Look through recently published picture books to locate luscious mentor texts for your story. These do not need to be about a topic similar to yours, but rather should have the tone, structure, or style that you have in mind for your book. Do you want it to be lyrical? Funny? Rhyming? Straightforward? Circular? Don’t plagiarize, obviously, but use your mentor texts as inspiration.

The family works together in Applesauce Day
4. Add some “heart.” This is the "secret sauce." A successful picture book usually takes the main character, or the reader, on an emotional journey, or evokes a universal theme such as friendship, love, or family. This can be an important selling point for your story. When writing Applesauce Day, I started with a family making applesauce. But my story didn't find its heart until I added the special applesauce-making pot into the story: it symbolizes the handing down of this family's applesauce-making tradition from one generation to the next, and highlights the book's family-togetherness theme.
Into the pot
5. Be smart: make a dummy. I resisted this step for years. When I finally started doing it, my stories improved significantly. You don’t have to be an artist to make a dummy; just break your story into page spreads and draw some stick figures. Make sure you have enough content for 12–14 spreads and that there is enough, but not too much, for the illustrator to work with on each spread. Putting together a dummy makes my stories tighter and more visual. It also helps in creating page turns. You won’t submit your story this way unless you’re an author/illustrator. But if you’re serious about selling a picture book, don’t skip this step.

Is it applesauce yet?
6. Revise, revise, revise. Don’t submit your story “half-baked.” I have 40 versions of my current work-in-progress in my computer, and it’s not done yet. Find some good critique partners who will give honest feedback on your work. “Stir” your story well to smooth out any lumps in the storyline. Then sprinkle on some simile/metaphor, rhythm, alliteration, etc. to make your text really delicious.
Ta-dah! Delicious, homemade applesauce
There you have it – my not-so-secret recipe for picture book success. Good luck—and bon appĂ©tit! 

Lisa Amstutz is the author of more than 80 children’s books. Her newest picture book, 
Applesauce Day     was released Aug. 1 by Albert Whitman & Company. Lisa also serves as a judge at Rate Your Story and Assistant Regional Advisor for Northern Ohio SCBWI. Learn more about her books and critique services at, or follow her on Facebook