Saturday, April 7, 2012

Please see Write in the Middle!

Hello, visitors! Thanks for your interest in my blog and for your support! I'm phasing out this blog in favor of my new webzine Write in the Middle, also for young writers. Please visit the site for more exciting articles about writing and publishing!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Getting Published: Your First Page

Have you ever sent a story to a magazine or book publisher hoping to get published? Whether you've done that yet or not, you should know there are certain things editors look for on your very first page. If you can hook them there, they'll keep reading - and possibly fall in love with your story.

So what are some of the magical elements editors like to see on a first page? Read on!
1. Action. 
Action doesn't just mean jumping off cliffs or fighting vampires. It also means getting right into the story. So if you've got a tale about a kid cheating on a math test, that's a great place to start. The opposite of action: background. Editors aren't overly excited about stories that start off with tons of information about what characters did in the past that will lead up to the action.

2. Action that moves the story.
Editors like to see more than one event take place on the first page. For example, they don't want to read a whole page about someone waking up for the day. They'd rather learn the person woke up and maybe looked out the window at something strange. Or checked their email and got an interesting message. By the end of the first page, the story should be moving forward.

3. Unusual Ideas.
Realistic stories often have familiar elements. They might be set in the usual home or school environment, for example. But editors also like to see there's something different about your story that makes it stand out from the crowd. So if your main character goes to, say, a school for skiers, that's a good detail to mention right away.

4. Main characters.
If you're going to mention multiple characters on the first page, they should be characters who will play pretty big roles in the rest of the story. Otherwise, they don't really deserve first page billing. Just don't introduce too many characters at once. That can get confusing.

5. Appealing main characters.
A lot of stories revolve around kids who feel they're unpopular. Or who have major attitude. Or who complain about how bored they are. These might be great characters as your story develops. But they can't just be losers, snobs or annoying complainers. They should be likable, too, right from the first page. That way, the editor will root for your characters and keep reading.

And that's the goal of your first page. Hook readers and keep them reading through to the very last page!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Suffering from Writer's Block?

Writers tend to have great imaginations. But even writers can get stuck for ideas. Does that ever happen to you? If you're searching for something - anything! - to write about, here are some ideas (also called prompts) to get those creative juices flowing.

1. Ponder your own questions. 
Ever wonder something off-the-wall? Like… Why are dogs always napping? It's not like they have to hunt for their food, go to school or really do anything at all! Now, take a question like that and answer it however you like. Could make a pretty good story.

2. Stop reading that book!
If you're halfway through a book and wondering how it'll end, this is your chance to decide for yourself. The characters and plot are already in place. All you have to do is write your own ending.

3. Read newspaper headlines.
There are lots of interesting stories in the paper, but you don't have to read them to get writing. Just scan the headlines, then write your own story to follow.

Happy writing!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Be a Better Writer: Read it Out Loud!

Writers always want to make their work better. Some say writing is really about rewriting. The problem is, it’s not always easy to know how to rewrite a piece in a way that will improve it. 

Some writers set their work aside for a while after they’ve written the last sentence of a draft. Others start rewriting immediately. But either way, the question remains: How do you know what to do to make it better?

One way you can figure it out is by reading your piece aloud.

Reading what you’ve written out loud gives you a chance to hear where your words and sentences flow—and where things get clunky and awkward. (And yes, there are always spots where writing gets clunky and awkward. At least in the first few drafts!)  Reading work aloud gets your words out of your head, where everything you want to say is clear. When you listen to what you’ve written, you can pretend you’re a reader. You can hear if something doesn’t make sense or if a point you’re making on the page needs more clarification. 

Another benefit to reading your work out loud: It’s a great proofreading method. Spellcheck might not pick up on the fact that you’ve left out a word in a sentence or misspelled a word that has several different spellings (and meanings).  When you read aloud, these types of errors are much easier to spot than when you simply reread silently to yourself.

So the next time you finish a draft of a story, essay, or poem, find a private spot where you can read the work aloud to yourself—no other audience members required. The process will give you plenty of clues about what you should do next to improve your work.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Next Up: Improving Your Work

When you're writing for yourself - and not your teachers - you don't get grades. You don't get comments scribbled in red ink all over the page (thank goodness!). But without those clues, how can you know what will improve your work??

Next up: a writers' trick you can use to figure it out yourself. No teachers required!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Cool Career: Writing for Children's Television

Shows like "Sesame Street," "Little Einsteins" and "Super Why!" may seem a little babyish after a while. But if you still love watching them, there could be a very grown-up reason: They're great shows! And the reason behind that? Talented writers.

You could grow up to be a writer for children's television. Jennifer Hamburg did. (She's also author of the picture book A Moose That Says Moo and creator of Dramatic Fanatic mystery theater parties for kids). Here's what she has to say about her career. Learn more at

How did you get your first job writing for children's television?

I went to grad school to study Educational Psychology. After I graduated, I was hired to do research for a "Blue's Clues" spin-off called "Blue's Room." They knew I was interested in writing (because I kept reminding them!). After that job was finished, they asked me to stay on as an assistant writer. 
What did you like most about the job?
I really got to see the ins and outs of how a TV script was written. Every show is different. For some the writers work together. They brainstorm ideas and each leave with specific writing assignments. Other times writers get a treatment and a deadline and work on their own. 

How long does it take to write a script?

Two weeks is typical for writing a script and maybe one week for a revision.  Sometimes I’m asked how long I need, and other times I’m given the date and time to hand it in.

What's the biggest challenge writing for children's television? 

I write for many different shows now. Each show has a specific tone, feel, style of humor, etc. My job as a writer is to take my writer “personality” and fit it into the particular show I’m writing for. It’s harder than it sounds! 
Also, lots of preschool shows have specific lesson plans for each episode. I need to include learning moments in the story, which can be tricky.
What's your favorite part of writing for children's television?

I like diving into a new script and going over and over it until it sounds just right. I think of rewriting as a creative exercise. I think of it as a puzzle - a very, creative, fun puzzle! I'm inspired by the shows I write for, and each script makes me a better writer. Most of all, I love knowing that my work is making kids smile. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Glossary and Sneak Peek

Remember Elmo? Little Einsteins? Caillou? Up next, an interview with children's television writer Jennifer Hamburg! Here are some new words that appear in the article.

deadline: the date an assignment is due

script: the written form of a show

spin-off: a show created from a similar show

treatment: a summary of an episode

Sunday, March 4, 2012

"Write what you know."

Heard it before? Most students get that message over and over again. But there's a lot of satisfaction in writing what you don't know. In fact, that's the basic idea behind many paying writing gigs. Newspaper reporters, for example, don't know everything about everything before they get started. They ask questions, get answers, and in the process, gather material they can use to write their articles.

When you open your mind to writing about subjects you're not familiar with, you can write about anything. There are no limits, and that's exciting. There is, however, one major hurdle to overcome. That would be your ignorance about the subject matter you plan to tackle. How, for example, can you write a story about a girl living on a horse farm if you've lived your whole life in the city or suburbs?

The answer is simple: research. 

Once you know what you want to write about, no matter how little you know about it, you can find out more. There are many ways to approach your research. In the case of the horse farm story, you could actually visit a horse farm to get some details. You could also interview a horse owner, read about horses and their care, attend horse shows, watch youtube videos of equestrian events, and the list goes on wherever your imagination might take you. 

It doesn't matter if you start writing the day you start researching or when you decide you're done. (Some writers get really caught up in research - it's fun to learn about something that interests you!) The point is, once you start, you'll know more about your subject than you did the day before. That knowledge allows you to write about it. 

So in the end, maybe once you do some research, you're writing what you know after all! 

Got your own ideas about how to research writing topics? Please share!

My Blog is Now For Kids!

The truth about me and blogging - I just can't get totally into it! I love writing. Blogging seems like a good way to keep at it. But for some reason, it doesn't really keep me hooked.

Writing articles, however... that's another story.

I like writing articles, even if there's a good possibility they'll never be published. Lately, I've been writing articles about writing, but aimed toward kids. When I look up info about writing (craft, publishing, etc), it always seems to be meant for adults. The info about writing meant for kids almost always consists of a specific opportunity to get published. Which is fine, but what if a kid wants to know more about how to become a better writer? Or how the big-house publishing industry works? Or about different careers in writing and publishing?

Well, these questions have led me to retool my blog. It is now going to offer the answers to those questions - for kids! I'd love to have kids involved in shaping my blog, too. So if you know any kids who love to write and have some questions, please send them my way!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

My Thoughts on The Hunger Games

I recently joined a book club. I'm inspired to meet new people, since I've moved, and also the club happened to be reading The Hunger Games. I knew I should read this wildly popular book, but I'd been avoiding it. Something about it's popularity turned me off.

Then I read it. Quickly. And I had to admit, it was popular for good reason. This Suzanne Collins really knows how to draw you in, keep your attention, and create strong female characters - a nice added bonus, I think.

The ending, however, turned me off a little. Since I was too shy to speak up at my book club meeting (maybe next time I'll be more brave!), I figured I'd sound off here.

When I read the book, I knew there was a sequel. But still. Leaving the reader hanging like that at the end felt... manipulative. My feeling is each book in a sequel should still stand alone. You should feel satisfied as a reader. Questions need not remain. Readers should be motivated to move on to the sequel for other reasons. The strength of the writing. A love of the characters. A sense that the author is so good, you just want to read more from him or her.

After reading both the first and second book in this series, I feel almost as if the author, or an editor, simply chopped a longer work into thirds, so readers would have no choice but to keep reading the sequels.

I will, of course, read the third book. I have to know what happens.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Rejected.. Again!

So after anxiously awaiting word from an agent who'd asked for revisions (i.e. a major rewrite), I have officially received her rejection. Alas. It's disappointing and, like all rejections, a little depressing - despite some positive points in her email, including the phrases "you are such a talented writer" and "I am always open to reading your work again in the future."

(Reading that over again, I can see that's good stuff.)

Still, last night I turned to the Rejection Section of my favorite book about publishing (The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published) for consolation.

Here is an excerpt that could help a lot when you're down about rejection:

"Jane Austen, J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov. Name your favorite authors and you'll find a trail of rejections scattered behind them. So if the greatest writers have been bashed. pilloried, dismissed, railed upon and savaged, what makes you think it should be anything different for you?"

Good question. Throughout the chapter, there are various examples of best-selling authors who were rejected multiple times - I'm talking 27 times, 375 times, etc. And harshly! There's also a great paragraph in this chapter about how it's so much harder for humans to hear praise than rejection. I should pay attention to that, considering my own rejection did contain those positive points.

Besides taking advice from my favorite publishing book, I like to deal with rejection by sending the rejected piece out again right away. (And I do mean immediately, as in within a few hours.) So now, I have queries out to three more agents as well as two editors.

Hey, if they all reject it, that'll be only six rejections - apparently nothing to worry about if you consider Joe Quirk's story!

Monday, January 16, 2012

First Pages Event

Here's something fun - a First Pages Event in Hyde Park in March. I know it's hyper-local, but they have these sorts of events all over. I always keep an eye out for events that meet certain criteria. For example, I like events that have:

1. a small crowd. It is next to impossible to stand out in a room full of hopeful writers trying to meet agents and editors that everyone there wants to meet, too. In some cases, I've found large conferences downright depressing. This event, on the other hand, is open only to the first 50 writers who sign up.

2. some guarantee of personal attention. As I mentioned, no one pays attention to an unknown in a crowd of hundreds of clones. But some events do guarantee you'll get some personalized feedback on your work. This event, for example, offers each writer an anonymous critique of the first page of their work.

3. a limited time frame. Personally, I'm not big on overnight trips that require tacking on the stress of a lengthy trip not to mention the cost of a hotel and several meals out. If you look around, you can find events that are somewhat close-by or even online.

4. a low price tag. I realize it's important to invest in one's career. But spending thousands of dollars (literally) to attend huge events just doesn't strike me as a particularly wise investment. There are loads of ways to spend money trying to "make it" as a writer. My advice and mantra: Spend as little as possible while earning money as a writer instead.

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

What I'm Working On

As a writer-for-hire, I don't always love the topics I'm assigned. But the truth is, usually I do love them and even if it doesn't start out that way, I get interested once I begin researching a subject. There's more freedom than many people think in work-for-hire freelancing. While I don't choose my subjects out of thin air (or my imagination), I do get a choice of several titles each time an editor approaches me. When there's a list, I can always find something that interests me.

So this week, I happen to be working on a book I find fascinating - it's a biography about a Texas cowgirl who lived back in the 1800s.  I don't want to give away her name, just in case I'm not supposed to before publication. But this woman rocks! I love learning about historic figures like this woman, a person I don't think everyone knows much about (especially considering the conflicting reports I'm getting from my sources).  It's fun finding out about her and straightening out the facts to give her the respect she's due.

Freelancers can't just work on one project at a time, though! I also have some emails out to editors who will hopefully be making assignments soon. And most exciting to me, my book is with an agent right now. I'm really looking forward to hearing back from her, since it's a second read with revisions I made based on her comments and suggestions. Here's hoping she likes it!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

What Makes Literature Literature?

Last week, I reread one of my favorite books in the world: Joy in the Morning. It's by Betty Smith, better known as the author of A Tree Grown in Brooklyn (and another favorite). Both books are just so rich and layered, filled with interesting characters and real emotions. 

Right after finishing Joy in the Morning, I went back to reading commercial teen fiction, which has been my focus all month (except for The Christmas Village mentioned in my previous post, which doesn't fit into that category). Anyway, up till then, I'd been enjoying commercial teen fiction, but suddenly it paled in comparison. It wasn't literature. And literature was somehow better. But I can't put my finger on what the difference is. 

I've been thinking about it a lot lately. Both literature and commercial fiction can offer interesting plots, well-rounded characters, a real understanding of the human condition, etc. I still respect commercial fiction authors immensely and I do enjoy their books. But I want to know: What is it that makes literature literature? 

Your thoughts welcome!