Becoming an artist at The Winged Pen

book cover in graphic novel style, boy and girl in brown medieval cloaks in a snowy dark wood with a monastery looming behind
Jackie Randall’s EMELIN is an exciting adventure story about a girl who is a book artist.

If you’re looking for me this week, I’m over at The Winged Pen interviewing author Jackie Randall about her middle grade adventure: EMELIN.

I really enjoyed this book!

The gutsy girl artist, Emelin, is appealing. Her mysterious friend Wolf is also intriguing.

The story is easy-peasy accessible and the everyday details of England in the middle ages are effortlessly accurate. Try it, you’ll like it.

You can read the interview with author, Jackie Randall, here.

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7 Insights from the 2017 SCBWI Europolitan Conference in Brussels

Art Deco building with musical motifs under every window showing the history of written music
This beautiful building is the musical instrument museum in Brussels, Belgium.

The Society of Children’s Writers and Book Illustrators (SCBWI) “Europolitan conference” is a chance to meet people who write for kids in English and live all over Europe. Yay!

  • Lots of languages
  • 65 writers and illustrators, talking top-speed,
  • Belgian fish and chips.

Top 7 insights from the conference:

1. “Build your own community” was a huge theme. It’s easy to think “there’s no one near me who writes,” but it’s never true. Even where the official languages aren’t English, there are people writing fiction for children in English. If you haven’t found your people yet, give it another try.

If you need tips, check here and here.

In case you think isolation is a writer problem, think again.

Literary Agent Gemma Cooper organized “Agent Mixers” in Chicago for young editors and agents. Early in her career, she shadowed agent Penny Holroyde to learn the business. The author equivalent: “study the books in your genre.”

Editorial Director Penguin Random House Children’s, Natalie Doherty met with a group of editors from other publishing houses. They declared their meetings a neutral zone: “This is Switzerland.” After all, multiple editors could easily be competing for the same author.

2. Why write for middle grade (9-12 year olds)? Literary agent, Gemma Cooper’s example of middle grade “obsessions” reminded me of the way it feels to be twelve years old.

As a child, she was obsessed with Egyptian hieroglyphics and her brother was obsessed with space.

This reminds me of why children’s books are the key to a happy life. The things we explore when we are young are the things that enrich our lives. Wealth is not all about the stock market.

How else do people create a world-class collection of musical instruments? Gotta start young. 🙂

3. Writing for young readers is also about modelling creativity. Story comes first of course! Both author/illustrator Chris Mould and author Robin Stevens talked about encouraging young readers to draw, write, and look at the world differently.

Robin Stevens’ hands-on way to start a story invites listeners into the process. She’s got the most delicious pile of “clues.” So easy–a sure sign of a true expert! She does school visits the same way. Wouldn’t you love to hear those mysteries?

4. Traditional publishing is reaching out. Social media has made things more transparent for publishers too. Editors can contact book buyers from bookstores on Twitter.

Keywords and categories came up even though that’s normally a self-publishing conversation. Traditionally published authors are also expected to know more about their audiences.

5. Genre fiction still isn’t everything. According to the lovely Natalie Doherty, Books like Wonder, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Holes, and The Book Thief are referred to in-house as having a “Special Book Feel.” They address “weighty themes in accessible ways.” A hopeful sign.

6. Transparency isn’t quite everywhere. It sounds like getting accurate sales numbers for books is still challenging, even for super agents like Gemma Cooper. If anyone can fix it, she can.

7. Book Cover “Aha!” moment. It’s hard to figure out what you need to create a solid book cover. This is why:

“Cover designs bring all the publishing departments together.” —Laurent Linn, Art Director Simon & Schuster.

Creating a book is a group process. The best product comes from a team that works respectfully together.

Did you find something here to help you move forward? Or have something to add? Feel free to comment below. Thanks for dropping by!

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An Aha! Moment via Joanna Penn: Publishing vs. Marketing

Joanna Penn is so smiley and enthusiastic and knowledgeable that she always gets me inspired. This webinar was no different.

Got a sudden insight from Joanna Penn’s webinar on goals for the new year (2017):
Marketing is what you do to SELL a book.
Packaging, editing, and categorizing are what you do to PUBLISH a book.

This is almost guaranteed to be obvious to everyone else. Why was this such an eyeopener for me? Once I saw the difference, I could break down the process into smaller tasks.

A few years in the query trenches makes the difference between writing and publishing crystal clear. My idea of publishing was fuzzy: it included everything from literary agents and editors to book reviews and book signings.

Marketing decides who the likeliest readers are and sets out to win them over. When you pick out comp titles for your book, you are choosing an audience with particular tastes.

Publishing MAKES the packaging (including some baked-in marketing):

  • edits the story
  • chooses the right categories and keywords.
  • writes a book description that ticks all the right notes.
  • designs a book cover that appeals to readers and matches what your story delivers.
  • chooses formats (audio, e-book, print) and distributors that reach the story’s audience.
  • tinkers with packaging later on if the book doesn’t find its audience

Marketing USES the packaging to attract readers with:

  • book reviews
  • ads and promotions
  • blog tours
  • social media
  • sales and offers

Rachel Aaron has a fascinating, detailed post on which marketing techniques work.

So now that we’ve gotten the difference between Writing, Publishing, and Marketing straight, we can go back to writing the next book. 😉 Because that’s the strongest Marketing* technique of all.

*If you want your work to be clear cut, take up something heroic, like logging with drafthorses.

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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I recommend a new middle grade book, and share story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

 

The Olympic Games Blues: 9 Ways to Juice Up Your Writing Life

Building with glass dome with gold figure on top
The local name for this building is Zitronenpresse or the “lemon juicer.” What do you do when your writing life is squeezed dry? © Laurel Decher, 2016.

When my older brother and I were 8 or 10 or 12 years old, Mom would turn off the Olympic Games because we got so down in the dumps about how little we had achieved in our lives.

These days, it’s even easier to see what everyone else is achieving. Don’t misunderstand: I love to see writer friends achieve challenging milestones! It gives me hope that it can be done.

Over time, I’ve collected a lot of friends who write and publish, so there are more and more milestones to celebrate. This is wonderful! It’s thrilling to see hard work rewarded and see good work in the hands of readers who enjoy it.

The problem comes when I look at my current projects and measure them against the goalposts of all my writer friends simultaneously.

I start wondering if my pumpkins will EVER bloom into coaches and drive away to the palace. It’s a kind of ambition sickness that makes me dissatisfied with my work and leaves me hopelessly unproductive.

So, what’s to do? How do you cure the Olympic Games Blues? Here are some questions that help me. Maybe you’d like to try them:

  1. Am I writing regularly? When I see a bit of progress* in my creative work, I feel much happier about my projects. If it isn’t possible to write a LOT, make time to write a LITTLE, regularly. A bit of scribbling in a notebook scares away the imposter syndrome.
    *progress by any measure: word count, improved scene, dialogue, or understanding of character motivation etc.
  2. What creative work have I done this year? When I feel like I’m getting nowhere, it helps to widen the window. Bill Gates widens it even more: “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”
  3. What have I learned about writing recently? I don’t mean information about writing or publishing. I mean what have I experienced about writing or tested out in publishing. (Show Don’t Tell applies to more than the written page.)
  4. Am I taking risks in my writing and publishing? Risks can be queries, contests, workshops, whatever. Risks are scary to the lizard brain, but they fill the creative brain with hope. Something is about to happen!
  5. Whose work inspires me right now? Reading reminds me why I wanted to write in the first place. It also makes me happy and happiness makes the creativity flow. Reading books I love gives me the experience I want to give readers. That experience gives me ideas of things I want to try in my own writing.
  6. What’s the very next step? I had an advisor in graduate school who helped me so much during my dissertation research. He took time to meet with me, listened to what I was working on, and asked, “What’s next?” This question works wonders because it’s easy to get behind when you get ahead of yourself.
  7. Do something else. The elusive joy of writing sometimes shakes loose after we play hard to get for a while. Try gardening, long hikes, cooking, or whatever hits your reset button.
  8. Broaden your gaze. Put your work in perspective. Get involved in a charity auction, visit a prison and do a workshop on writing, or do an open mike with a girl scout troop. Figure out how your work can give something to others in another way. Take the pressure off the words.
  9. Lose a rule. What are you telling yourself about writing and publishing that might not be true? Try dropping a writing “rule” and see what happens.

Ambition puts the focus on an inflexible, predetermined, and probably inaccurate future. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, ambition is called a “grievous fault” and is connected with greed for power. Ambition is an attempt to steal the future.

Creativity happens in the present. It solves problems playfully, without worrying about the Olympic Gold. Persistence puts the focus on the creative work and not on the uncontrollable outcome.

What helps you when the bar seems too high? Feel free to share in the comments below. I’d love to know what you do to get your writing life back on track.

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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

 

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Writing Gratitude Countdown (5): The Gift of a Deadline

lamp post with four feet and very knobby knees outside the Zwinger Museum in Dresden.
Need a leg to stand on? Try one of these contests to get a little more support for your writing. © Laurel Decher, 2016. Zwinger Museum, Dresden.

This is the fifth post in my Writing Gratitude Countdown. I keep finding more things to appreciate about the writing life.

It’s sometimes easier to be gentler with other writers than with yourself. But being hard on yourself for too long dries up the words. Gratitude is a wonderful oasis from ambition.

Gratitude also seems to be a writerly re-set button. Remembering all the people who took time for me is humbling. Humility and gratitude make it easier to give myself time to grow as a writer.

(You can find earlier posts here: 1. The Gift of Attention , 2. The Gift of Permission, 3. The Gift of Hospitality, 4. The Gift of Feedback)

5. The Gift of a Deadline: the value of markers in the sand

Even after a manuscript has been re-written and polished, there are so many steps to work through before it can be sent out into the world. Gratitude helps my writing motivation and so does a solid deadline.

Fortunately for writers, the publishing community has a generous selection of contests that help great stories come to light. Here are a few of the ones that have helped me:

a. Get your pitch** ready. When I first heard about Twitter pitch contests, I didn’t get it. How could it help to describe your manuscript in 140 characters?

But Twitter pitches aren’t just a catchy sales technique to find an agent or editor. Writing a Twitter pitch for #PitMad helped me identify my story’s core.

**Read all about pitches and find dates for upcoming contests at The Winged Pen.

Thanks to Authoress for organizing all the moving parts of so many pitch contests! I’m very grateful for the deadlines! Check out all of her contests here.

b. Get your query ready.

Michelle Hauck offers several contests that require a query letter: Query Kombat, Nightmare on Query Street, Sun versus Snow, Picture Book Party, and New Agent. I got great feedback in the New Agent contest.

Thanks Michelle Hauck for organizing these great opportunities!

Thanks Wade Albert White for your excellent feedback on my query and first 250 words and a even a synopsis! (Talk about over and above!) His middle grade book is available for pre-order on Amazon: THE ADVENTURER’S GUIDE TO SUCCESSFUL ESCAPES. You can add it to your GoodReads list here.

c. Get your first page(s) ready.

  • Secret Agent Contest Submit the first 250 words of a completed manuscript. Monthly except June and December. While you’re at Authoress’s website, Miss Snark’s First Victim, check out her other contests.

The other contestants weigh in on the entries, so you’ll get lots of feedback even if the Secret Agent doesn’t comment on yours. And the feedback I got from superagent Linda Epstein made me say: “Oh, that’s what they mean by tension!” Invaluable.

Thanks again, Authoress!

Thanks Secret Agent Linda Epstein!

Kathy Temean’s contest lets you submit 250 words to a different agent each month. If your entry is chosen, you get specific agent feedback on your page.

Thanks Kathy Temean for organizing this monthly contest and for interviewing new agents every month! Sign up for her excellent newsletter here.

Thanks to YA author and literary agent, Marie Lamba, for her insightful feedback!

d. Get a once-over for you first 50 pages. Or your whole manuscript.

Believe it–writers are generous people. #PitchWars is a contest where over 100 authors volunteer to read submitted manuscripts and fight over the privilege of working with their favorite over the next three months. For a taste of what these generous writers are like, check out my fellow Winged Pen mentors here.

Some mentors even offer feedback to manuscripts they didn’t take on. I really appreciated hints I got back from my almost-mentors that my story was starting too late. It’s easy to write a few more chapters for the beginning once you have feedback like that.

Thanks for organizing this amazing event every year Brenda Drake! I don’t know how you do what you do. You’re always thinking up new ways to fish writers work out of obscurity.

Add these books published by #pitchwars authors to your reading list.

If, like me, you didn’t get into PitchWars or you missed the deadlines for these contests, there’s no need to despair. There’s more generosity going on all the time. I’ve seen a number of charity auctions offering great writerly prizes to raise money for colleagues, help refugees, or to celebrate a writing anniversary.

For example, here’s one that was organized by middle grade author, Shannon Hale. Auctions are often announced on Twitter.

I was fortunate to win a 50-page critique from Jackson Eflin in honor of Ava Jae’s Blogoversary.

Thanks Ava Jae!

Thanks Jackson!

This post is getting too long again now, so I have to stop. But there are always more opportunities to help and be helped as a writer. If the contests above aren’t quite the kind of deadline you’re looking for, the Sub it Club does a contest round-up every month.

Feel free to mention your favorite writing contest below in the comments. I’d love to hear about your experiences of generosity.

Happy writing! Happy submitting!

So that’s my fifth installment of gratitude for my writing journey. (The earlier posts are: 1. The Gift of Attention , 2. The Gift of Permission, and 3. The Gift of Hospitality, and 4. The Gift of Feedback.) More to come!

If you’d like to share about people who helped you see your own work clearly, please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear about it!

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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

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Writing Gratitude Countdown (2) The Gift of Permission

A stone face with a water spout mouth. Pink flowers behind.
Give yourself permission to spout off. Get writing! Rhöndorf, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

This is the second post in my Writing Gratitude Countdown. It’s my way of re-discovering the richness of the creative life. You can find the first post here: The Gift of Attention.

2. The Gift of Permission: the value of allowing yourself to create

Giving yourself permission to write is a way to counteract the doubts that come when we face a blank page:

Is it good? Am I a writer? Should I write more? Have I got a story here?

Permission is a cycle. It starts and ends with you, the writer, and in the middle are all kinds of readers.

a. You: Giving yourself permission to take time to learn, create, and revise.

The people who helped me most with permission are the ones closest to me. My husband takes on childcare so I can go to writing conferences or local writing groups. My children patiently traipse through research museums with me, take photos of settings, listen to garbled explanations, and put up with slapdash meals because the creativity was all used up by the time we got to food.

When other people make sacrifices for your dream, it’s the most tangible kind of permission there is. Thank you darling family!

b. Readers: Friends who read books agree that what you’ve written sounds like a “real” story.

At the beginning of the writing life, it’s hard to find other writers. The closest you can come are people who read a lot of books. They have taste and experience.

Sometimes the most encouraging people won’t be your “target audience” that is, they don’t read the kinds of books you’re trying to write. Don’t forget to value them.

Our dear neighbor Rebecca told me once that she didn’t like novels because she didn’t enjoy reading about the conflict between good and evil. But because she was a reader and valued books of all kinds, she still encouraged me to write. I still miss her.

Other friends have promised me that they will read or buy my book when it comes out even though their personal and professional interests are in totally different areas. It’s a special vote of confidence.

Librarians and teachers are a special category of experienced readers. I hope you have many special ones in your writing life!

c. Writers: Other people who write make it all seem normal.

My husband’s cousin is a talented furniture maker. He knows all kinds of people who makes things with their hands. (He put in our kitchen–Thanks, Matthias! We enjoy it!)

I’ve been writing for a while and I have so many writer friends I can’t list you all! It’s natural and wonderful. Thank you writer friends!

It’s fun to “talk shop” when you’re learning a new skill. Comparing tools, asking for opinions, and practicing getting the words down together can be a blast. An afternoon of writing prompts at a local coffee-shop, a day-long local workshop, or book festival can re-charge the writer batteries.

Watch your local newspaper and library bulletin boards to see what writers in your neighborhood are up to. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

If you’re still looking for your own set of writers, you might enjoy: Six Tips to Find Your Online Writing Community and my round-up of middle grade writing communities: Writers Working Together: 8 Things We Can Do Better Together.

(More about my current critique partners is coming in a later post, so stay tuned!)

d. Authors: Published writers (or any writers ahead of us on the path) share insight into the whole writing and publishing path. Secret handshakes are also a kind of permission.

It’s always an honor when someone who does something well treats your early attempts with respect. Susan Gilbert-Collins is a published novelist (Starting from Scratch) and much more experienced writer than I am. I’m so very grateful for her generosity. She read my “trunk novel” graciously and I’ve lost count of the number of times she has read and praised my middle grade work-in-progress. Thanks a million, Susan! I’m looking forward to your next novel!!

Tracy Barrett is the author of 22 books, including Anna of Byzantium. and a brand-new The Song of Orpheus: the Greatest Greek Myths You’ve Never Heard. She’s also an active and generous member of SCBWI. (If you write children’s books and want to find like-minded people, visit the SCBWI website and extensive discussion forums.) Tracy gave me a personal critique at an SCBWI Germany & Austria workshop and I’m still referring to her notes. Thanks, Tracy!

PitchWars is a classic example of authors giving back to the writing community. Author mentors coach mentees through an extensive 3-month revision and then help them connect to a stunning list of literary agents. The generous Brenda Drake (Thief of Lies) has been organizing this amazing growth opportunity for writers since 2012. Thank you Brenda Drake!

Author Michelle Hauck (Grudging) runs several contests, including the New Agent Contest. I won the chance for a mentor to get my query and first 250 words in good shape. My mentor was the wickedly smart and amazingly tactful author, Wade Albert White (The Adventurer’s Guide to Successful Escapes). Thanks Michelle Hauck! Thanks Wade White!

e. Agents and Editors: People who can assess writing for its qualities and marketability.

The first time a real live agent or editor seriously listens to your pitch or reads your query while you’re sitting there is amazing. I’ll never forget watching the classy Meredith Bernstein consider my written pitch at a conference years ago or her hand-written comment on my manuscript: “You deserve time and attention.” Now maybe she writes that on other people’s manuscripts–I have no idea. She gave me written permission to write and to persevere. Thank you Meredith Bernstein!

f. Reviewers: People who assess published work for its qualities and marketability.

Here we’re back to experienced readers. I don’t have any reviewers (Yet ;)) but I review books I enjoy and try to nudge them towards friends who’ll also enjoy them.

g. Readers: People who want to read the next thing we write.

Seth Godin coined the term permission marketing and explains it better than I can. People who voluntarily give their e-mail addresses in exchange for finding out when your next book is coming out give you the ultimate permission.

They want to read things you haven’t even written yet. They are inviting you to write something new. Thank you so much to all my e-mail subscribers! It’s an honor to have each and every one of you!

h. You: Giving yourself permission to try something new.

And that brings you back to the blank page where you need to give yourself permission all over again.

Happy writing!

So that’s my second installment of gratitude for my writing journey. (You can find the first post here: The Gift of Attention.) More to come! If you’d like to share about people who gave you permission to write, please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear your story!

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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

 

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The question that moves my work forward

Fountains, square tower with crenelated edge on top, small palm trees in the foreground, huge one in the back, stone-edged path, green grass and blue sky.
What can you do when everything seems so complicated? Image: English Gardens, Palermo, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

What’s the simplest solution?

This is the question that moves me forward when I get stuck. I’m not sure why it helps. Maybe it’s what my friend and writing mentor Susan Graham calls “making a decision.” Friends are a gift.

With this question, I move forward with the information I’ve already got. Information gathering stops. I try something out.

Do you have a question that helps you move forward when you get stuck? Share it in the comments below.

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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

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