NEW SALE! King of the Tighrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara

The announcement made by my agent Erin Murphy, of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

I am so honored that illustrator Adam Gustavson will be working his artistic magic to bring this story to visual life.

The announcement made through Publisher’s Weekly.

Kids books ROCK!

2015 SCBWI Book Launch Award


I had the loveliest weekend after receiving a Friday afternoon call from SCBWI National. Out of the giant pool of applicants, consisting of mega-talented authors I admire, I won the 2015 Book Launch Award with STEP RIGHT UP: HOW DOC AND JIM TAUGHT THE WORLD ABOUT KINDNESS, forthcoming from Lee and Low in 2016.  Wowzer!

I am honored, especially because SCBWI, through conferences, online resources, workshops, quality speakers, and an overall awesome and generous membership, has been on this long journey toward publication with me. They have been an invaluable part of my education as a writer. For years, I have been a volunteer with my local chapter, further cementing the organization as part of my family. This recognition is sweet indeed.
These award funds will be immensely helpful as we launch STEP RIGHT UP into the world.
Thank you, SCBWI!

Lessons from the Trenches: What I Learned from Reading 90 Submissions

Within a relatively short period of time, I was charged with reading the synopsis and first ten pages of almost 90 adult novel manuscripts. That’s a whole lot of different plots, characters, perspectives, and narrative styles. It was a daunting task, but I emerged with a better understanding of what works, and what doesn’t work in submissions to editors, agents, and writing contests. Before my observations slip into distant memory, I’d like to share some of the problems I identified.

Let’s face it, writing is HARD! Writing a good synopsis is a pain. A headache. A necessity! It might just be the most important part of any submission. After reading almost 90 of these puppies, I have a new appreciation for the importance of clarity in synopses. (Yes, that is the plural of synopsis). Some of what I read was truly stellar, and I’m sure they’ll land with the right editor soon. Unfortunately, in many other cases, I was left scratching my head, wondering “but what is the story?” or “who is the main character?” or “what does that have to do with…?” Unlike the one-line summary, or elevator pitch, or the teasing query to an editor or agent, your synopsis should give a complete, but condensed picture of the entire story. In one or two pages, your synopsis needs to reveal the main character(s) and their motivations and problem, the most important plot points, the climax, the emotional change in the character, and the resolution. This isn’t the place for a tease, or wide-sweeping generalizations.

In no particular order, here are some problems identified in almost 90 synopses:

  1. Using the synopsis to give the history of the setting, or the backstory of the characters, thereby ignoring the character and plot at hand.
  2. Failing to clearly identify the main protagonist(s). The synopsis reader needs to know who the point-of-view character(s) is, so that we know whose story it is.
  3. Not indicating the emotional trajectory of the character through the plot line. Remember, there is an active plot, and an emotional plot.
  4. Including too many secondary characters in the synopsis. They clutter your summary. Stick with only the characters that drive the primary plot.
  5. Presenting a childhood-to-death storyline. *Yes, it has been done in adult literature, but it can easily feel like a biography rather than a novel, if not crafted well. Always consider the narrative arc.
  6. Related to #4: Beware the multi-generational storyline: beginning with one pov character until his/her death, then switching to his/her child’s or grandchild’s pov. I ran across several of these. It is especially challenging when a first person pov character dies.
  7. Related to #5: When planning multiple pov characters, it should be clear in the synopsis. And the intersecting plot points need to be clear, too.
  8. Stating that the character must reach his/her goal, but not stating how. We need those big plot points.
  9. Leaving out the resolution. The agent, editor, or contest judge reading your entry needs to know upfront, how the story ends, and how your character changes. By the resolution, we need to identify the story’s theme(s).
  10. Writing a synopsis that does not match the manuscript pages submitted. If the characters introduced in the synopsis, do not appear in your first chapter, it might indicate that the story isn’t focused enough, or that you begin the story too far from the main character and the inciting incident.
  11. Confusing a synopsis with a query.

In no particular order, here are some problems identified in the first ten pages of almost 90 submissions:

  1. Beginning the story too soon. In other words, too far from the day the main character’s world changes. Your early pages need to hook the reader.
  2. Beginning the story with an info dump, or back story, rather than with character.
  3. Info dumps, in general, because they disrupt the flow of the story. It is better to reveal backstory as the reader needs it.
  4. Beginning with secondary characters. *Especially problematic when these characters aren’t important enough to be introduced in the synopsis.
  5. Relying too much on foreshadowing to create tension. Sometimes, this can indicate too much narrative/psychic distance. Keep your reader in the moment. Build tension organically.
  6. Using passive language, rather than active language. Zero in on to-be verbs, and adverbs.
  7. Using language that is either too flat and dry, or too flowery and overdone.
  8. Not allowing characters to have distinct voices in dialogue and/or internal monologue.
  9. Not developing character. If you can’t begin the story on the day something changes for your pov character, at least develop him/her enough to allow the reader a glimpse into his/her wants, desires, and fears that feed into the emotional journey to come. We should glimpse the theme early on.
  10. Having a narrator that sneaks in with random opinions, or direct address to the character, the reader, or both, unless there is a logical reason for this. Narrators who are characters require some development. Above all, be consistent.
  11. Inconsistent character names. Beware sudden switches to nicknames.
  12. Changing tense, or pov.
  13. Mis-spelled words, grammatical errors, punctuation errors. I never realized how distracting this can be.
  14. First ten pages that don’t reflect what is revealed in the synopsis.
  15. Including a Chekhov’s gun element. Beware focusing on an object/prop without giving relevance to it.
  16. Plopping new characters into a scene, without identifying them beyond name. And, yes, sometimes we need to have stage direction to avoid the “where’d he come from?”
  17. Missing dialogue tags, when multiple characters are speaking.
  18. Too much psychic distance. If the lens is too far away, it’s difficult for the reader to be emotional invested, unless the language is compelling enough.
  19. Having a first person narrator that is not identified, not an active part of the story, and not developed as a character.

Putting together a submission packet is a nerve-racking challenge. It is easy to either overwrite or underwrite. My best advice is to have a trusted writing friend read through your synopsis and manuscript pages to identify any holes in logic, missing information, and extraneous details. And, give yourself time to put the submission in a drawer for a week or two before you go back to it with fresh eyes. Distance yourself enough so that you can read a bit more objectively. Ask yourself if your synopsis summarizes the entire book, and if your first ten pages adequately hook your reader into wanting to read more. Remember, you have one chance to make a positive first impression.

Happy writing!


Guest Blogger: Carmen Oliver on her First Book Contract

I am thrilled to welcome my friend Carmen Oliver as my guest blogger today. I feel a like a proud matchmaking sister as the official news of Carmen’s first book sale has just been announced. Before I step off the stage, here’s a little back story about why I have a double sense of pride about this news.
Some time ago, I stumbled upon an article about Favio Chavez, a remarkable man in Paraguay who creates musical instruments out of landfill garbage. With them, he provides a musical education and a lesson in hope to the disadvantaged children in his poor community. I was intrigued enough to dig into it a little. I just knew that his story needed to be a children’s book! Yet, as much as I was smitten, the story had Carmen written all over it. She’s particularly drawn to stories about people who make a difference in the world and this one just felt like it belonged with her. Carmen and I have been friends for a very long time, journeying the path to publication together. I had a fairly good sense of her style. Like any good matchmaker, arranging a blind date on a hunch, I sent her an email that read something like, “I think this story is meant for you.” Thankfully, she agreed. In the end, I’m pleased to have shared the idea, but Carmen’s research, her unique angle, and her word-magic spun the story in just the right way. It was the perfect match, after all.  I couldn’t be more proud of her. And I know this is only the first in a long line of books to come from her.
Congatulations, Carmen!

“Stepping Over the Threshold – The First Children’s Book Contract”

Over the last six months, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect
as I waited on my first nonfiction picture book contract to come together.
During this time, I had moments of doubt wondering if it would materialize. And
in these times, I would tell myself – keep the faith and keep climbing. In
other words, I worked on other writing projects. I took care of my Booking Biz clients’ needs.  I pushed myself to be the best I could be because
there’s so much more climb left in me.
I’ve been working at writing for children for over twelve years. If I’m
honest with myself, longer, as I’ve been reading and digesting books since
“the beginning of time.” Even so, I know I’m just starting to crest
that mountain and that there’s a lot more mountain to climb. And though it can
sound sappy to say “It’s the journey,” I can tell you it is the
journey that I’m still on that means the most to me. The people I’ve met along
the way — the mentors, teachers, confidants, and heroes — who have become my
friends. The exceptional SCBWI conference
experiences, the opportunities to apprentice, volunteer, learn. This long (and
on-going) journey makes me the writer I am and it makes me a better writer,
with each revision and critique. And whether every manuscript finds a home, I
celebrate in each story’s journey. And contracts are icing that can put bread
on the table, so who doesn’t love a good publishing contract.
I’ll admit. I used to think about how incredible it would
feel to say I’m published. And I won’t lie; it feels great to get to this point
where I’m stepping over the threshold! But not because of the reasons you might
think. It’s because I’ve learned so much more about myself:
I can go the distance.
I’m tougher than I thought I was.
I can conquer my fears.
It’s okay to fail.
I know how to pick myself back up again and ride/write.
I know what I want to be when I grow up.
And my hope is that we all savor our individual journeys. Every
frustrating, joyful, and tearful moment. The people you meet are the real
prizes. And I wouldn’t be publishing my first nonfiction picture book The Favio Chavez Story with Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
without my people. You know who you are. You have left your marks on me.  Changed me.
I am blessed.
Thank you.

Carmen Oliver is a children’s author, and booking agent/founder of the Booking Biz, a boutique style agency that brings award-winning children’s authors and
illustrators to schools, libraries, and special events. She’s also the former
assistant regional advisor for the Austin SCBWI chapter and a regular
contributor for ReaderKidZ. She lives
just outside of Austin, Texas.

MFA-Bound. Because I am Good at Doing Things Backwards

Hello, dear blog readers. Remember me? Once upon a time, I blogged very regularly. Then I got Very busy with writing projects in 2014. My year wrapped up something like this:

I celebrated the January 2014 sale of En Garde! The Dueling Words of Abraham Lincoln (Peachtree, 2016.);
I wrapped up two Capstone books for their horse series. And they are lovely!
I got a solid start on two books for Capstone’s Native American series;
I fully researched two original projects that are awaiting my full attention;
I wrote two picture book manuscripts that still need some work;
I judged two writing contests-one for young writers and one for adult writers;
I completed a bazillion revisions;
I volunteered at the Austin SCBWI conference;
I volunteered and moderated a panel at a Research workshop;
I volunteered at a Writing Barn workshop about picture book writing (Thank you, Bethany!);
I mapped out my grandiose (and probably unrealistic) ideas for launching my Beautiful Jim Key book this fall, 2015;
Speaking of Beautiful Jim Key, 2014 was the time to celebrate news of the upcoming movie about BJK, starring Morgan Freeman.

I celebrated the good news of a bunch of writer friends;

And…drum roll, please…I was admitted to the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Because, you know, I had all this free time. *cough*

Many people have asked why I made this decision to go back to school, having already broken through the publishing gates. I’m prone to doing things out of order and against the flow. Let’s just say I’m allergic to the road most travelled. This MFA journey is a very personal mission for me. The fact is, I don’t need an MFA to write publishable books, but I look forward to deepening my craft, elevating my analytical skills, opening the door to potential teaching opportunities, and being part of this amazing community. I couldn’t be happier. But, beginning a program like this requires that I switch mental gears on a regular basis. Normally, I am publishing-focused. As a student, I must be learning-focused. For me to be successful, both roles must co-habitate and complement each other.

My unique challenges began the moment I returned home from the ten-day January residency. Awaiting me were edit notes for multiple books, from two editors; an offer of two more books for an educational publisher; the impending arrival of a whole heap of manuscripts to be judged; And a heads-up from an editor about forthcoming edit notes on several more books. What a wonderful “problem” to have. Yet, some time, between now and February 16, I also need to have critical essays and creative work ready for my VCFA advisor. Am I stressing about it? You betcha! When I begin to feel overwhelmed, I remember that this is what I always dreamed of-this life of a working writer. As for school, well, I wanted that, too. My piled-up deadlines are temporary. I’ll get through this with a lot less television, social media, and blogging time. And a lot more time-management.