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The Rich Writer

The Rich Writer: September 2007

The Rich Writer

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road

Friday, September 28, 2007

Fan Mail

Some of my fellow writers--writers in my critique group--receive fan mail. And I'm a wee bit jealous.

It's not that I want to be famous and have crowds of adoring fans. In fact, I was confused by my yearning for a "fan letter" because I'm not really the type to want fans. I mean, I go to an abbey for fun, one devoted to the practice of silence--and I'm not even Catholic! I'm recharged by silence and solitude and wide open skies and a lack of traffic noise. So what's up with me?

I think I've figured it out. It has to do with why I write for kids. It's certainly not for the money, although money's nice. It's not for wild fame, because, frankly, I'll probably be unhappy if I ever am wildly famous. It's because I want to share something with the kids of the world. I want the lonely ones to hear that loneliness has an end; I want the happy ones to have their joy redoubled; I want the ones who don't really like to read to get bowled over by an exciting story. I want to kindle a child's enthusiasm somewhere, so they'll start asking questions about their world. I want to touch people, make a difference. It's a weird compulsion, I guess, but it makes me happy.

So why the fan letter desire? I guess because I like hearing that people actually do read the stories and articles I write, and that they enjoyed them.

Luckily, I know enough kids who read Highlights and Cricket and Spider that I can fish for feedback :). And I'll let my critique group members deal with their crowds of adoring fans!


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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Today's thing to love...Greenwillow Books

One of the delights of my work is that I have to research publishers, to see if they would be interested in my manuscript. I've been continuing research on Greenwillow Books, edited by Martha Mihalick.

From an overview of the books on their list, their fantasy is definitely character-focused, with an emphasis on well-built fantasy worlds and cultures. At first glance, I didn't see any realistic fantasy--perhaps Dragon's Egg and The Merlin Conspiracy? I'm still waiting for Dragon's Egg from interlibrary loan.

Here are some midgrade and YA titles from their current catalog:
  • Chase, by Jessie Haas
  • The Oracle Prophesies, by Catherine Fisher
  • Dragon's Egg, by Sarah Thomson
  • The Feverbird's Claw, by Jane Kurtz (ed. by Rebecca Davis)
  • The King of Attolia, Megan Whelan Turner
  • The Last Apprentice: Curse of the Bane, by Joseph Delaney
  • The Little Gentleman, by Philippa Pearce
  • The Merlin Conspiracy, by Dianna Wynn Jones
  • The Secret History of Tom Trueheart, by Ian Beck
  • The Secret of the Rose, by Sarah L. Thomson
  • The Sphere of Secrets, by Catherine Fisher
  • Warrior Girl (Joan of Arc), by Pauline Chandler
  • The Wizard (picture book), by Jack Prelutsky

My first read from their list was The Oracle Betrayed, by Catherine Fisher. She creates a beautiful world that weaves in a bit of Greek and a bit of Egyptian mythology--engaging story--interesting characters who I would have liked to know a little better. So I guess I come out ahead, whether Greenwillow is the best publisher for me or not. I've found another great book!


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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

More on Interviews from Liz Rusch

Elizabeth Rusch, nonfiction writer extraordinaire (, spoke at my SCBWI 2007 Fall Conference a few weeks ago. Two of her most recent books, Will It Blow? (Sasquatch Books, May 2007) and The Planet Hunter (Rising Moon Books, Fall 2007) draw extensively from interviews with scientists. She uses the first-hand information from the individuals who do the science to draw readers into the world of science. Liz gave a wonderful talk on the benefits and how-to's of using interviews to round out your writing at our conference. Here are a few of the tips she shared:

  1. For ANY subject, there is at least one expert. Her example? Ketchup. There is an expert in the field of ketchup. I kid you not. She read the article to us--from The New Yorker or Harpers Magazine.

  2. Why is this important? Because the expert will keep current in the subject. The expert can provide information that you can't find in books. The expert can answer questions, helping you learn about a topic more quickly and thoroughly than you could through book research. And (my favorite) the expert can give you unexpected information, bonus material that you can't find anywhere else.

  3. How do you find an expert? Google is an obvious starting point. Other sources include authors of recent books on the topic; authors of recent articles on the topic; university professors; and sources cited by other references you might find.

  4. Do your research first. The more you know about the subject, the better research questions you can ask.

  5. Include "The Most" questions in your interview. These are the questions that give you good stories for your book or article. What was most important? most surprising? most difficult? most fun? I used her advice in my most recent interview and asked for "the funniest" things that had happened during the research--with some wonderful results. And no, I'm not going to share the answers here: they're for the article :).

Interviews are a great way to add life to a book or article. They can provide quotes, anecdotes, new perspective, greater understanding, personal insight. They connect the writer to other people, other lives. Give it a try!

:) Cheryl

PS--No, that's not Liz Rusch. Since the emus inspired this thread on interviews, I thought they rated another picture....

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Weaving Wonder into an Article: Interviews

This past weekend, I had the chance to do one of my favorite writing-related jobs: interviewing experts. In this case, I spent time talking with Terry and Linn Turner, of the Rabbit Creek Emu Ranch; a zoology student from Colorado State University; and a scientist who is interested in emu behavior. I also got to spend time up-close and personal with the birds. (More on this later, once the writing is finished...)

Female emus make the weirdest sound: ba-ba-boom, ba-ba-bum, like distant drumbeats. The males cross a roar with a growl to make a noise that, I'm told, sounds similar to the noise an ostrich makes, but I haven't had the opportunity to meet any ostriches face-to-face.

Most my nonfiction writing projects lead, sooner or later, to an interviews with an expert--and I've discovered that these interviews are one of my favorite parts of writing nonfiction. I've had the chance to speak with the most interesting people: an ethnomusicologist, a museum curator, and a steel drum player; a paleontologist, a geologist, and other scientists from around the world. For an hour or two, I have the chance to absorb their excitement for their particular field. I get to hear the inside scoop of what it's like to live the life of the geologist or paleontologist or field biologist, with all the funny stories and confusing turns that don't make it into scientific papers or newspaper reports.

Afterward, I get to distill all the collected information--about the person, the field, the stories, the struggles--into a few paragraphs that, I hope, paint a picture of the people, not just the facts. When I can capture the excitement of these people for what they do, I can communicate a sense of wonder to the reader.

Or maybe I'm just communicating my own wonder, because whenever I learn about a subject in-depth, from someone who loves it, I come away with a new love for the topic. Maybe enthusiasm is catching, because I caught some this weekend!

:) Cheryl


Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thursday's thing to love...CONTESTS!

Pictured here are some of the winners of last year's PPWC Paul Gillette Memorial Writing Contest ( That's me in front, in black, hoping my friend Colleen won't jab me in the ribs before the photographer finishes....
You gotta love writing contests. They're a great way to get exposure to editors and agents. Often, contests also offer the option of a written critique, providing valuable feedback from someone with more writing experience. Besides, they give us a deadline, which is never a bad thing.
Right now, I'm preparing for the 2008 Paul Gillette Writing Contest again. This is a contest for unpublished writers (*unpublished in book-length fiction only*) and it includes categories for both children's and YA authors as well as multiple adult categories. The top three entries in each category go through a final round of VIP judging by an editor. It sure beats the slush pile as a way to access an editor's eye!

Like any contest, (and like publishing, for that matter,) judging is subjective. My manuscript, The Last Violin, placed first last year in the children's category--but I know of several manuscripts that I consider just as good, if not better, that didn't place at all. I have friends who received incredibly valuable feedback on their manuscripts, and others whose judges didn't seem to get their entries at all. There's definitely a bit of luck involved...but if your writing is beautiful, if your story is well-structured, and if your dreaded synopsis is coherent, you stand a decent chance of rising to the top of the stack. And with a little luck, you might even win.

It's risky, of course. Writing always is. But hey, risk gets easier with practice, so why not?

:) Cheryl

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Writing Challenges

Writing is always rewarding; but often, being a writer is hard. Today's top five writing challenges:

  1. Time

  2. Money

  3. Balancing long-term (ultimately more rewarding) projects with short-term (read faster-paying) projects

  4. Distractions from other life stuff

  5. Lack of regular feedback on how I'm doing

I'd like to write a list of my top five solutions--but that makes it all sound too simple. There aren't exactly solutions, but I have found strategies I can use to keep putting myself back on track. Maybe you'll find them encouraging, too:

  1. Promise myself that I'll value my writing time. I set a "work schedule" and stick to it--I have to, or I'll fritter away my morning doing laundry and picking up dirty dishes. I love working at home, where I can write with a dog curled up on either side of me, but I have to start each day by steeling myself against distractions.

  2. Sometimes I forget that I've chosen this life and chosen my priorities. Blame it on our consumer culture or on human nature--but I find myself wishing for more cash to buy this or do that--and then dissatisfaction sets it. Another promise to self: when I'm evaluating money, include the priceless treasure of being able to write four or more hours every single day. I'd give up a lot of gadgets and soy chai lattes for that!

  3. This is another money-related one. As a freelance writer, I have to choose between projects that further my career long-term, but don't do much for my bank account in the short term; and projects that bring in some cash for the short-term, but don't provide much fulfillment or career advancement in the long term. It's hard to find a balance between the two. Promise to self: set a limit on how much time I spend hunting for short-term freelance projects, so that it doesn't eat up all my time for long-term children's writing.

  4. Hmm. Guess this is time, too, but it's a little more complicated. Even when I schedule time to write, sometimes it's hard to get started because my mind is whirring with other worries, to-do lists, and such. Promise to self: begin my writing time with a mind-settling practice, such as yoga, meditation, or even Eric Maisel's recommended deep breathing and self-talk: "I am stopping. I am entering the work." It's hard for me to take time for these things, because they feel like they're stealing from writing time; but I think they make the remaining time more productive.

  5. I'm still working on this one. Writers spend so much of their time working in isolation. That's actually one of the things I love about being a writer--I thrive on that alone time--but even I need occasional affirmations that I'm doing a good job. Maybe I can get a writing support group started. Something like a critique group, except focused more on supplying writers with regular contact with each other. This one, though, I have to think about!

I'll let you know how it all goes!


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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women: A Portable Mentor by Gail McMeekin

If you're looking for inspiration along the writer's road, The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women is a great source.

Author Gail McMeekin interviewed 45 highly creative women from a variety of fields--artists, painters, CEO's, writers, small business owners, designers--to discover twelve traits they held in common. She dives into each secret in detail, using examples from the lives of these very different and inspiring women.

What I like about it:

  • The wonderful women she interviews have inspiring stories to share!

  • ...and these 45 different women harness creativity and integrate it into their lives in many different, personal ways. This isn't a "one-size-fits-all" solution manual

  • McMeekin uses a series of "Challenges" in each chapter to help the reader explore the topic as it applies to her own life

  • It goes beyond the standard inspirational book, in that the ideas and exercises can help a writer out of many different ruts along the road

I borrowed the book through interlibrary loan several months ago, and have referred to my notes so many times since then that I should just buy the book. When I'm stuck, I look back at the "Mastering Challenges" section; when my writing feels flat, I pick up an exercise from the "Engaging Your Creativity" section. McMeekin calls the book a portable mentor. It doesn't quite measure up to my local critique group, but it's as great a mentor as a book can be.

Maybe I'll promise it to myself as a reward for the next risk I take--like sending my book out again!


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Monday, September 17, 2007

The Risk of Writing

One of my boys just ran for student council. This might not sound like much--until you learn that he's new in his class, worried about a lack of friends, and, like most of us, terrified of the idea of standing in front of his peers and looking foolish. He'd come home Friday excited about running, but by this morning he'd decided against it.

After much talk and worry, though, he decided to give it a try. I like to think it's because he's seen his mom send out manuscripts over and over and over, which is an emotionally risky business. He's seen the risk pay off, and knew that if I hadn't taken the chance of rejection, I would have missed quite a few acceptances along the way.

Guess who gave a great speech, got his class laughing, and was elected to student council? One kid who decided to take one small risk--and it paid off.

Writing is risky. But one way or another, it always pays off.
PS--That's me in the yellow, doing the chicken dance in front of a whole lot of people. Maybe risks get easier with practice!

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Thursday's thing to love...other writers!

Sticking to the conference theme, one of my favorite speakers at this year's RMC-SCBWI conference was Elizabeth Rusch ( She gave talks on writing for magazines, on using interviews to craft terrific nonfiction, on marketing books through magazine articles, on the editor/author collaboration and on obtaining meaningful feedback from child audiences. I enjoyed her first talk so much that I rearranged my schedule to come back for more!

Liz's recently-published nonfiction book Will it Blow? Become a volcano detective on Mount St. Helens (Sasquatch Books, 2007) was a must-have addition to my collection of great nf books. She takes a unique twist on the standard volcano book, opening with a memo from the Department of Volcanic Investigation:
"Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to predict a Mount St. Helens eruption. It's not enough to catch Mount St. Helens red-handed. To protect the public, you must sniff out what kind of volcanic trouble is brewing...."

The book is chock-full of information collected under fun headings, such as YOUR MISSION, THE SUSPECT, PRIOR OFFENSES, and KNOWN DISGUISES.

My goal, as a nonfiction writer, is to find those incredibly cool, unique twists on subject and presentation. Creative nonfiction is the art of crafting story from facts. If you want to read a great example of creative nonfiction, check out this book. It's a great book for the nonfiction writer to study--not to mention a downright fun read. Thanks, Liz!

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Conference Report #2: More on editors and agents

At the 2007 RMC-SCBWI Fall Conference, the first session was a panel where editors Theresa Howell, Meredith Mundy Wasinger, Martha Mihalick, and agent Andrea Brown answered a series of questions put to them by our chapter's regional advisor, Becky Clark Cornwell. I won't recap the entire session, but here are a few of the responses that I found most illuminating.

1. What makes you say yes or no to a manuscript?

Martha: If she likes it, then she has to consider whether it fits her list, whether it's marketable, etc.

Theresa: Does she like it and will it sell?

Andrea: Her agents acquire a manuscript if a) they love it, and b) they can think of three editors to pitch the manuscript to who might also love it. They also are interested in clients who will develop long-term careers, not one-book clients.

2. What do you look for in a query or cover letter?

Meredith: She looks for the very best paragraph from the manuscript itself, something that shows off the story's style, voice, and character. She wants a one-page cover/query and wants to see originality in the story.

Martha: First, does the person know her? She prefers short covers and queries. She wants to read the work itself.

Theresa: She feels like the story speaks for itself. She wants the cover or query to include a blurb or sneak peek at the story.

Andrea: She wants the cover or query letter to be as short as possible. Two paragraphs. In the first, she wants to know the book's length, genre, and a three-line Hollywood pitch describing the story. In the second paragraph, she wants to hear anything else that's relevant about the author's writing career. And, of course, covers and queries should include all relevant contact information.

3. What makes you groan in a manuscript?

Theresa: bad rhyme, cliches, overdone topics, flat voice. What makes her sit up and take notice? A fresh idea, a strong voice.

Martha: singsong rhyme, fantasy manuscripts with character names that contain apostrophes (they make her head hurt,) made-up languages. What makes her take notice? "Yes" moments, moments when the character says something she never thought of before.

Meredith: letters claiming "my grandkids loved it" or "this is the next Harry Potter!" What does she notice? Great writing, before voice and character.

Andrea: cover letters that begin "you've never heard this idea before." She wants books that stick with the universals of a child's universe. If a story hasn't ever been published before, maybe there's a reason. Publishers, she says, want more of the same, more of what's selling, but with the author's unique twist.
4. What is the most important thing in a children's book manuscript?

Martha: honesty

Meredith: connection to a child's world

Theresa: good writing that keeps the audience in mind

Andrea: an author who is respectful and wants to be the "perfect author"

5. What types of manuscripts would you like to see more of?

Andrea: well-written, really commercial, fabulous books!

Theresa: She was looking for--and will be looking for--fresh, artful, progressive books for 4-8 year olds. Books with artistic merit and literary integrity.

Martha: Literary but also a little commercial. Picture books that will hold up to multiple readings. Novels with fresh, great voices; characters kids will care about and identify with.

Meredith: character-based stories, not just concept stories. Humor.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Conference Report #1: Editors and Agents

First, the disclaimer: I'm beginning to realize that my opinions of children's book editors and agents might not be as useful as they first appear. I haven't yet met a children's editor or agent who I didn't like. Maybe it's the field. Every one I've met has been generous, kind, fun, and absolutely human. I hear this isn't the case in all of publishing, but it's my experience in the world of children's publishing.

I'll spend the next week compiling thoughts and information about the various industry professionals I met at the 2007 RMC-SCBWI conference, but here's the quick summary:

  • Andrea Brown, literary agent, Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Inc. This is one of the most knowledgeable industry professionals I've ever met. She's tough, straightforward, all business, and knows her stuff. She plugged the Big Sur conference, a writing workshop for children's writers run by her agency. It sounds wonderful--a weekend in which authors work with an editor, an agent, and an author in their genre. And lest you think my source is biased, I've heard only the best of reports from past attendees as well. For more factual sorts of info, see her bio on her website, My take? She's not the agent for me, since she doesn't rep fantasy, but I left with renewed determination 1) to attend Big Sur next year, and 2) to query her agency.

  • Meredith Mundy Wasinger, editor at Sterling Publishing. She's incredibly easy to talk to and incredibly sympathetic to authors. She's one of those people who puts you at ease after two minutes of conversation. What makes her willing to work with an author? Character, voice, and a personal passion for the work. If a story has a great character and a great voice, she's willing to hang in there. My take? Well, since she publishes only picture books, I don't think I'll be submitting to her. Bummer. I'd love to work with this classy lady! Maybe I'll have to take another stab at picture book writing. After I finish my five other projects....

  • Martha Mihalick, recently promoted editor at Greenwillow Books. I didn't get to spend as much one-on-one time with Martha, but she gave great feedback in the "First Pages" sessions. Maybe "First Pages" should be renamed "Test-the-Editor," since they require the reading editor to process and comment on stories so quickly and with so little information. She also provided manuscript critiques to a fortunate few, and reports state that she did a fine job of discerning what worked and didn't work in manuscripts. What makes her willing to work with an author? A moment in the work that speaks to her, a cool plot, a moment when a character says something that surprises her with its truth. She also prefers authors who are great to work with during revisions :). My take? She's a delight as a person, sharp as an editor, and likes fantasy, so I'm currently researching Greenwillow's list. They seem to publish fantasy that's a little "higher" in style than my own magical realism story, The Last Violin, but I'll probably still send her the first ten pages or so.

  • Theresa Howell, editor of Rising Moon and Luna Rising--which were recently acquired by another publishing house. In the short term, that means that they aren't accepting any manuscripts; in the longer term, though, they expect to need a lot of manuscripts once things are straightened out. Theresa publishes picture books with everyday themes, such as Liz Rusch's A Day with No Crayons (which comes out in November, if all goes well.) I spent the least time with Theresa, but hear she gave great critiques.

More on these four tomorrow!

:) Cheryl

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Thursday, September 6, 2007

Thursday's thing to love about being a writer...

...other writers.

The field of children's writing is filled with support and encouragement from other writers. I subscribe to a number of writing-related listserves, and one of my favorites is the nonfiction children's writers' list:

Recently, one of the members asked how writers balance their day jobs with the projects near to their heart, and responses have flooded in from writers at all stages in their careers. Some write with young children at home; some write early in the morning, before beginning less captivating work-for-hire projects; some work as teachers, and get most of their writing done during the summer; some advocate retirement as the ultimate boost to a writing schedule (although not available to everyone.)

This group impresses me. The members bring a wide range of knowledge and expertise to the discussions. I'm impressed even more by willingness of more experienced writers to advise and answer the questions of those with less experience.

If you write nonfiction for children, you need to visit this list. Whether you need information or support--or just to know that other writers share your struggles--it's a great resource.

:) Cheryl

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Wednesday, September 5, 2007

News from 1891...

News article from The Hot Springs Daily Star, Tuesday March 31, 1891:

Undesirable Knowledge.

The itinerant vender [sic] of microscopes for the purpose of disclosing a wriggling mass of animalculae on staple articles of food should be treated as an enemy of mankind. Where knowledge nauseates, 'tis folly to be wise.

As a scientist (as well as a writer,) this particular nugget cracked me up. An enemy of mankind, for selling microscopes? It reminds me, though, that people don't always want to hear--or see--truth. Knowledge has the power to nauseate, as well as the power to prevent disease, predict hurricanes, and build nuclear bombs.

Right now, medical science is approaching the point where doctors will be able to diagnose rapidly the predisposition to certain serious cancers and diseases. Good knowledge, right? Except that if insurance companies know you're predisposed to develop heart disease or lupus or Hodgkin's lymphoma, will they insure you?

Hmm. This is a much bigger subject than time allows right now. I have three weeks remaining to scan through four rolls of microfilm at my local library, plus I'm helping out with my local SCBWI (Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators) fall conference this weekend. Expect a full report next week!

Meanwhile, remember: Knowledge is a powerful, wonderful, terrible thing. Use it wisely.



Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Children's Fantasy Market

I've found another attractive market for children's fantasy writers: The Julie Andrews Collection, published by (an imprint of?) HarperCollins Publishers. It's particularly attractive to me, because my book is about a young violinist and the collection is seeking works "embracing themes of integrity, creativity, and the gifts of nature and the arts. With a violin as one of the main characters, The Last Violin has been a little difficult to place ("beautiful writing, but I'm not sure if kids will sympathize with a violin...")

I'll take the "beautiful writing" bit to heart, and keep searching for someone willing to chance a talking violin character. Ah, publishing is slow...but it gives me time to write while I'm waiting to hear from people.

:) Cheryl

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