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Cheryl's Musings

Cheryl's Musings: February 2008

Cheryl's Musings

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road

Friday

Children's Fantasy Agents

Anyone looking for an agent who represents children's fantasy? I've come across a few new names over the past few weeks. Check out their sites for more info--and good luck!

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Wednesday

Sticking to it!

Sometimes, the only way to move forward on a writing project (or homework--as inspired by my homework-overloaded sixth grader) is to muster up your writing focus and spend a few solid hours with your pen. The problem is that many, many other things wait in the wings, ready to pounce the minute you sit down to work. It's easy to spend 45 minutes "working" and realize you've accomplished.

How do you stick to the work? Here are a few ideas that I find helpful (since I have a lot on my plate right now!)


  • Turn off the telephone.


  • Step away from the e-mail program.


  • Work in a room where you can close the door--and close it.


  • Get out of the house--fewer distractions attack in the library reading room


  • Prepare yourself with a water bottle and a snack (I like dried fruit or beef jerky) so you won't have to break for sustenance.


  • Bathroom needs? Take your work with you!


  • Post "Do Not Disturb" signs

I also find it helpful to start my writing/working time with a centering exercise. Sometimes I take an hour-long walk where I think about my project; sometimes I spend 20 minutes meditating with a recorded relaxation Podcast (check out http://www.themeditationpodcast.com/ for some nice non-denominational meditations for beginners;) sometimes I just take ten deep breaths. And sometimes I forget!

How do you find the focus to stick to your work? Find a trick that works for you--or try out one of the above.

:) Cheryl

PS--The bird? Inspiration for writing far from my daily distractions!

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Monday

Training the Writer...

Anyone who has studied up on animal training knows that intermittent reinforcement is one of the most powerful training techniques.

Intermittent reinforcement (Cheryl's non-technical definition) is rewarding a given behavior some, but not all, of the times that the behavior occurs. I used positive reinforcement to train my dog to sit--she got a yummy treat every time she did it right. Once she'd learned the behavior, I cut back on the treats. Intermittent reinforcement means that I give her a treat some of the time she obeys. Not every time, but just often enough to keep her coming back.

Well, it's occurred to me that my e-mail program (or editors and agents--or the world at large) has trained me to check my e-mail with increasing frequency. It provides that incredibly addictive intermittent reinforcement.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, my e-mail messages are unexciting (and that's not even counting the messages that head straight into my spam folder) but every once in a while--usually just after I've said "there won't be anything good, since I just checked my messages five minutes ago"--I get something great. A request for a manuscript...or a kind word from an editor...or correspondence about an article I have out in submissions land...

Luckily, I write longhand. Far, far, far away from my e-mail program!

:) Cheryl

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Sunday

Surviving the agent query process...

I have a midgrade fantasy manuscript that I'm (theoretically) sending out to agents and editors. I say theoretically, because I suffer from a common writer's problem: fear of rejection. Not as badly as, say, when I first began to write and submit, but the submission process is often tough.

For a variety of reasons, this manuscript is particularly tough to submit. After I queried a few agents the end of last year, I stopped. I had excuses--maybe the book wasn't ready, or maybe the concept wasn't marketable for a first-time author. The truth? Sending it out was (is) incredibly emotionally draining.

For the New Year, I resolved to get back on the horse. I'm researching agents and sending out queries to a few who seem like good fits, even though it's scary :). Here's how:

  1. I told my critique group to keep me accountable. (They will!)
  2. I send out a query or two in the morning. Then I meditate. THEN I write.
  3. I tell myself that probably, nothing will come of the submissions. I bargain with myself, promise myself that I won’t have to worry about it for a while….
  4. Blatant bribery. I mean, incentives. ("If you send out that query, Cheryl, you can buy a raspberry-lemon gelato at Glacier....")
  5. And I keep working on several other deliciously distracting projects.

How’s it going? Well, I’ve sent out those first few queries. And I’ve gotten a few nibbles, from a few agents I’d be very excited to work with. Of course, my coping strategy #3 is failing me: obviously, I will hear from some of them! But I guess that was the point of submitting in the first place.

Just one question: does anyone else burst into tears when they get a request-for-partial email?! Goofy emotions.

Ooh, wonder if I can use that in a story?

:P Cheryl

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Friday

Nonfiction Markets: Writing Crafts

Speaking of breaking into the magazine market... I have an article in my SCBWI's winter newsletter about how to write and sell craft articles. Check out the newsletter for that and other helpful writing info: http://www.rmcscbwi.org/kitetales/pdf/kt0208.pdf

Enjoy!

Cheryl

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Thursday

How to Make a Magazine Sale

Last week I promised more on how I sold my first article--and how, maybe, you might do the same. I followed my advice from last week: studied my target market, kept my eyes open for cool ideas, and wrote my article with a similar sample article close at hand.

Now for the specifics. I had just started the Institute for Children's Literature writing course. That meant I had a pile of great reference material and not enough writing to do, because the first few assignments were too short and simple to offer much challenge. (It's a fantastic course, I just didn't click with the first (read beginner) assignments.) So, being me, I read ahead.

I learned that nonfiction is easier to sell than fiction, so I spent time studying sample articles collected in one of the ICL publications. I particularly loved one from Highlights: "Watching a Bee Keeper" by Joan Davis (http://www.dpi.state.nc.us/docs/accountability/testing/eog/g5/ReadingSamples/Gr5WS6beekeeper1615.pdf). It was written in an appealing conversational style. Its story-like format draws in the reader--guerrilla educational reading.

I thought I could write an article like that--if I had a topic.

The next step took a bit longer: I kept a lookout for news that would catch hook a second-grader. I found what I needed when I passed a herd of goats chomping weeds along a nearby bike path. A story!

Over the next months, I performed hours and hours of research, visited the goat ranch, interviewed the goat herder, wrote the article, and polished, polished, polished. I compared it, paragraph by paragraph, with the “Bee Keeper” article. I compared the amount of time I spent on description versus education. I looked at sentence lengths, word choices, point of view. I gave it to my critique group. Finally, I rewrote the article twice based on much-studied comments from Highlights’ editors.

Want to break into the magazine market? Find a publication you love and study, study, study. When you learn what the magazine likes, you’ll be able to write for them.



:) Cheryl

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Wednesday

Seized by the Muse?

Cynthia Morris's "Original Impulse" newsletter showed up in my inbox with just the right thoughts for me today. Remember that Peru story that's overtaken my life of late? She calls the phenomenon being "taken over by the Muse." For affirmation and encouragement from a fellow writer, you have to read her February newsletter: http://www.originalimpulse.com/impulses/impulses-feb08b.htm

And before you ask--yes, her description fit me perfectly. Unfortunately for my family this past weekend! Fortunately, though, I captured several uninterrupted hours today to pour out another chapter. I feel much more settled.


But I need to go back to Peru for more research...!
:) Cheryl

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Sunday

Today's News: A Voice!

My recent travel to Peru inspired a new book idea--but a book that's completely different from what I usually write: YA rather than midgrade, with a touch of romance, and without even a hint of fantasy. I had a great character, great story concept, great setting--but I couldn't get the voice. And I couldn't sleep, because this story wants to be written.

So at 3:00 am or so Saturday morning, I pulled out one of my journals from high school and started to read. Wow. What a roller coaster! I remember a lot about being a kid, but reading the day to day account pulled me back into the memories and emotions. And yesterday I spent three intense hours in a coffee shop writing the first few chapters. I've got the voice. Weird and wonderful.

Have any journals from your childhood? If not, beg, borrow, or blackmail your friends into letting you read theirs. (Never read someone else's without permission, though. That earns you an eternity without books or paper....) And rediscover your voice.
~Cheryl
Me at 16: "I may be 'sweet sixteen,' and I've had my first kiss (even if it was the grossest and most disgusting thing imaginable,) but all of my experience with 'love' has been more disappointment than anything else."

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Saturday

The Perfect Pitch

Did I mention that I've resumed sending out queries for The Last Violin? That has me thinking a lot about how to write a good pitch. Donald Maas gives one formula in Writing the Breakout Novel (and suggests that "quest" is always a good word to include); Miss Snark provides additional advice in her blog archives(http://misssnark.blogspot.com/); and Kristen Nelson offers examples of winning pitch letters on her blog (http://pubrants.blogspot.com/). Here's a clue: different agents have different ideas about what makes a great pitch.

The latest SCBWI bulletin offers an interesting article that made me rethink my pitch/query approach. The author shares my trouble with pitch creation--and like me, she submitted queries with substandard pitches and her sample pages, confident that those terrific sample pages would speak for themselves. And she received lots of "no thank-you's." The same sample pages submitted with a shorter, sparkier pitch gained her requests for more.

Interesting. Obviously, the pitch is important.

Here's a winning pitch from YA fantasy author Hilari Bell: "Aided by an underpowered, unreliable trickster spirit, two teens must change the course of humanity." She adds that ""change the course of humanity" is a totally meaningless (and ungramatical) phrase, that has nothing to do with the story either, but the pitch worked, so she's not complaining too loudly!"

And her agent says that "quest" is definitely a no-no in today's market. "Spirit quest" gives your pitch the kiss of death.

I think I'll take another look at my query letter....


:) Cheryl

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Friday

Today's News: a Deadline

Today's news is that I now have a deadline for finishing revision of Juggling the Keystone, a midgrade fantasy novel I wrote during the 2006 NaNoWriMo, started to rewrite last year, and have been ignoring for the past several months. In 8 weeks, I'm scheduled to hand it out to my critique group. Wish me luck (or discipline or, maybe, scheduling talent!)

I love working on multiple projects at once. Nonfiction energizes me for fiction and vice versa, and medical writing seems to use an entirely different part of my brain, so that writing in one genre doesn't sap my energy for writing in another--it just takes time and prioritization. Just. Gotta love that word!


So...Juggling just moved up my priorities list. I'll let you know how it goes!


:) Cheryl

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Thursday

Market Analysis: Highlights for Children

Earlier this week, I spotlighted Highlights as a great break-in market for children's writers. Today's topic? How to do it!

First, the basics:

  1. Read (and follow) their guidelines: http://www.highlights.com/custserv/customerservicesubgateway2main.jsp?iCategoryID=203&CCNavIDs=3,203 That seems like advice too basic to include, but you'd be surprised how many people don't bother to follow simple instructions....

  2. Study their needs: http://www.highlights.com/custserv/customerservicecontent2main.jsp?iContentID=2552&iCategoryID=203&CCNavIDs=3,203

  3. Check out their mission: FUN, but with a PURPOSE.

  4. Study the magazine for article content, writing style, and format.

In my opinion, the most valuable step in the process is to study the magazine. So, what's in this month's Highlights? A quick survey turns up the obvious--a poem, a few short stories, a few nonfiction pieces, two pages of crafts, the monthly feature "Ask Arizona," The Timbertoes, a rebus story, riddles, puzzles, and the science corner. That info helps you figure out if Highlights is the right market for your story, article, craft, or puzzle.

Next: take an in-depth look at the type of piece you want to sell. Do you want to submit a short story? Take a look at "The Mystery of the Ghost in the Wall." Hmm...about 800 words long, written for Highlights' older readers, this story has a quick-talking narrator and a math tie-in. Almost every paragraph is one to two sentences long--the story moves. Description? Minimal. Dialog? It occurs in short bursts separated by transitions, tight one-sentence scene-setting descriptions, actions, and internal dialog (aka, the narrator's thoughts.)

What about a craft? Turn to page 32 for the craft line up. These crafts have only 4-6 steps and no list of "what you need." Instead, supplies are shown in the text of each craft, highlights in bold. Word counts are low. What kinds of crafts to they feature? One toy rocket, one card craft, one decorative magnet, one Valentine-themed mask, and a treasure chest/treasure map craft pair encouraging active play.

By taking a close look at the pieces a magazine has published, you can get a vision for the types of pieces they like. Skeptical? That's how I sold my first article--but more on that later.

:) Cheryl

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Wednesday

Wednesday Woolies

This is the time of week when all the days (and projects!) start to blur together for me. Maybe I'm working on too many things at once! (Again. Ya think?)

That said, I have a few things to celebrate today:


  • I FINISHED my nonfiction picture book manuscript. I've been wrestling with that rewrite for nearly a year and a half, so hopefully the editor who requested it hasn't forgotten me :). It goes out my door tomorrow!

  • I sent out a select few queries for my midgrade fantasy, The Last Violin, which has been languishing on my shelf for months now.

  • I sent off some interview questions to follow up on a great article possibility I encountered while visiting Lima, Peru--thanks to friends. (Thank you, Jackie and Liliana!)

  • My birthday! It's not today--it's tomorrow--but since tomorrow night is booked, I get to gather with two delightful boys and one sweetheart of a husband for a birthday celebration this evening.

Do all writers try to do too much? Or is it only me? At least "too much work" in writing translates into something like "too much fun." It's not exactly a bad thing, just busy.


:) Cheryl

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Monday

Break-In Markets: Highlights for Children

I decided it's time to plug my favorite magazine market again: Highlights for Children.

Highlights is a great break-in market for new writers. Why? Here are a few reasons:

  • They accept--and respond to--unsolicited manuscripts, including manuscripts from unpublished writers. As for any publicaion, a list of publication credits in the cover letter helps, but they'll take a serious look at your writing whether you've been published before or not.

  • They actively encourage beginning writers with their yearly fiction contest (http://www.highlights.com/custserv/customerservicecontent2main.jsp?iCategoryID=203&iContentID=1584&CCNavIDs=3,203 -- deadline of Jan 31; sorry not to mention it sooner,) with the Highlights Foundation's Writers Workshops http://www.highlightsfoundation.org/, and with a generous scholarship program to help struggling writers to attend.

  • It's a well-known and well-respected publication with a circulation of two million+ readers.

  • They have diverse needs, publishing fiction, nonfiction, multicultural, science, history, crafts, rebuses, poetry, puzzles and recipes.

  • They publish a list of "current needs" that helps writers target topics to the publication (http://www.highlights.com/custserv/customerservicecontent2main.jsp?iContentID=2552&iCategoryID=203&CCNavIDs=3,203)

  • They're devoted to their writers. Once you've sold a piece to the magazine, they try to respond personally to all future submissions.

  • They have a reputation for fairness. Although this company buys all rights, they resell articles and share the profits with the writer.

  • Comparatively rapid response time. Depending on the department, response time can range from a few weeks to a few months--which is still relatively quick for the magazine market.

  • Highlights is closely associated with Boyds Mills Press, a high-quality children's book publisher. When you build a relationship with the editors at Highlights, you're building relationships with Boyds Mills' editors as well.

On the flip side, Highlights buys all rights (never a favorite amongst writers) and the pay is modest compared to adult publications. If you've spent time studying the children's magazine market, though, then its pay scale starts to sound pretty good!

The market can provide great writing credits for the beginning writer. Sound good? Tune in later this week for an analysis of the most recent Highlights magazine.

:) Cheryl

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Saturday

The Best E-Newsletters for Writers

Online resources and free newsletters abound for the writer today--so many that at times I find my in-box flooded with an excess of helpful advice. I tend to subscribe to free newsletters quickly and unsubscribe just as quickly. Here are five "keepers":

Any others to suggest? Let me know!

:) Cheryl





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Friday

Thoughts on Culture: Similarities and Differences

Culture: "the characteristic features of everyday existence... shared by people in a place or time" (from Merriam-Webster Online.)


One of the things we do, as children's writers, is help kids connect with people from other cultures. But how? Here are some of the similarities and differences you might consider in other cultures:


  1. Children's games: Children in Peru play with dolls and toy cars, chase each other through the market, and talk to their stuffed animals, just as they do in the U.S. And yet, I bet they have some games new to the average gringo. Games make great articles!

  2. Children's behavior: On a hot day, a ten-year-old hides a water balloon behind his back to sabotage a friend--just like one of the kids on my block. A 2-year-old drags at his mother's hand in universal 2-year-old language. But I also saw something new: kids having a shaving cream battle.

  3. Family fun: Preschoolers and their mothers feed crackers to the geese and fish, just like I used to do with my youngest. Friends laugh over cold drinks--although the drinks are more likely to be Inca Cola (above) than Coke.

  4. Daily life: In Lima, elementary-aged children walk between cars stopped at a traffic signal, juggling tennis balls or selling pins or simply asking for coins. In Cuzco, Chechuan children earn money by posing for tourists' photos. In the U.S., brothers fiddle together on the downtown mall, collecting dollars in their cases. Similar. Different.

  5. Transportation: In Cuzco, few people own cars. Instead, they ride public "combi" routes with names like Batman and Robin, or take one of the ever-present taxis. Cars are expensive; but public transport is inexpensive and readily available.

When we weave details of culture into our stories--whether cultural similarities or cultural differences--we celebrate the humankind in its many forms. And, on a practical level, the details make for richer, more believable writing. What things do you take for granted in your own culture? Take notice. And then write.

:) Cheryl

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Thursday

Transformative Travel

One of the most valuable things I gained--both as a writer and as a person--from my recent trip to Peru was completely unexpected. The trip changed me. It changed the way I see the world, the way I see myself, and the way I see the faith and love and peace and joy. Why is this important for my writing? Because as writers, we portray our characters as they grow and change. The best way to capture the emotions of transformation is to go through it ourselves.

In Criss-Cross, the 2006 Newberry Medal winner, a character says:

"I think...that it's a good thing to get out of your usual, you know, surroundings. Because you find things out about yourself that you didn't know, or you forgot. And then you go back to your regular life and you're changed, you're a little bit different, becuase you take those new things with you."

That was my experience in Peru. I returned to the States with a better handle on my values, with a bit thicker skin, and with a new clarity of purpose for writing. I also returned with a passion to write this self-discovery into a novel. Change, self-discovery, growth: these are the things a reader identifies with in a character.

Today's challenge: Do something out of the ordinary. Put yourself in a new situation, one that forces your to be brave, to be self-reliant, to discover new aspects of yourself. Nurture your own transformation. What can you do in the next six months that is radically different from your normal life? Learn to skydive? Join a soccer team? Take a weekend trip over the border? Heck, take a quick trip to Lima? Commit. Stretch yourself.

Then write about it.

And hey, let me know what happens!

:) Cheryl

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Tuesday

Ten Tips for the Traveling Writer

I hope the past few posts inspired you to mine your travel experiences for writing inspiration. If so, here are a few tips for getting the most writing benefit from your next trip:

  1. Collect character ideas. Keep your eyes open for interesting characters in the airport, on the street, on the tour bus--and take notes. Travel lets you do more people-watching in an afternoon than most of us do in a week. Take advantage of it!

  2. Collect stories. Gather the tales of those you meet to weave into your own storytelling. (And thanks, Omar & Rosi, for the tale of a llama named Checho....)

  3. Collect nonfiction article/book ideas. As you meet new people and places, keep your eyes and ears open for things that will interest a child, such as cultural differences and cool science facts.

  4. Collect setting details. When you travel to a new city, climate, or country, take note of the things that are different. Pay special attention to sensory details, what you smell, taste, hear, and feel, as well as what you see.

  5. Collect "what ifs?" Travel puts you in new situations as well as well as in new places. Use the opportunity to imagine new plot twists and conflicts. Maybe one will spark your next story!

Travel usually means very full days with little time to write, so don't take along big projects! Instead, plan and prepare for small blocks of time with purse-sized notebooks, airplane-safe pens, and a journal or three for end-of-day notes. With a little preparation, you will return with a wealth of writing inspiration.

:) Cheryl

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Sunday

Setting Research for the Fantasy Writer

I'm back! Back from Peru, that is, with a swirl of thoughts and ideas to share.

Today's thought: Travel provides a great opportunity for the fantasy writer to do a bit of “setting research.”


Setting research—assembling a complete understanding of a story's location—takes different forms for different genres. Historical fiction writers can travel to their story site or look up clothing, architecture, and tools from the time period; YA writers can visit local high schools. Fantasy writers, though, can't travel to an underground fairy realm (Eoin Colfer) or the post-apocalypse city of Ember (Jeanne Duprau) to collect details. (Bummer, because there are a few worlds I'd love to visit!)

Instead, the fantasy writer's “setting research” occurs in the imagination—
and travel can spark the imagination with details of life in other places, in other cultures, and at other times.

Here are a few details I collected when I visited the city of Machupicchu, an ancient city of the Incas:


  • Architecture: temple ruins with smooth-cut stone blocks perfectly fit together and steep stone steps curving upward through the clouds

  • Food storage: storehouses cling to a facing mountainside, where wind kept the food dry and cool

  • Music: Chechuan children play mournful tunes on breathy-sounding zampoñas and quenas

  • Language: Chechuan words click rapidly in the marketplace, speech filled with consonants that sound harsh after the music of Spanish

  • Food: Choclo con queso steams in my hands, corn on the cob in a cornhusk bowl, a drizzle of spicy green ahi topping kernels the size of grapes, a thick slice of fresh, salty cheese tucked in one side

  • Environment: jungle borders the cobblestone path, thick-leaved succulents growing beside a broad-leaved bromeliad growing on a rotting tree trunk, all on a hillside too steep to climb. “Air plants” cling to other plants, to tree branches, even to electric wires in town.

Although I can't travel to my fantasy world, real-world details of life in other places, times, and cultures help me create rich and believable fantasy settings.

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