Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year Wishes for Writers

It's the folding of one year into another and magical just for that. May all your writing dreams take flight. I'll tie up my posts for 2014 with an inspirational quote (below) and video (above). 

"Take a leap of faith and begin this wondrous new year by believing. Believe in yourself. And believe that there is a loving Source - a Sower of Dreams - just waiting to be asked to help you make your dreams come true." -- Sarah Ban Breathnach 

Happy New Year! 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Finalist

by Scott Schiller
I woke up to a nice surprise. My Christmas story for Susanna Leonard Hill's Holiday Writing Contest made it to the finals. I'm thrilled to say the least, but it's not over yet. People can still vote for their favorite of the 12 finalists at Susanna's site:

UPDATE: I tied for ninth. Here's the link with the results: 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Djiboutian Christmas

It's here! Susanna Leonard Hill's holiday writing contest. The rules are: Write a children's story in which wild weather impacts the holidays in 350 words or less. (Scroll down to skip the info and get straight to the story.)

Although my story is fictional, it is based on plausible events inspired by two of the places we've lived--a city near the Sahara and Djibouti. And no I'm not trying to offend anyone, Djibouti is an actual city in the country of the same name. 

Map of Djibouti

The French occupied Djibouti at one time and still maintain a foreign legion base there, and the U.S. military has its only military base in Africa there as well.

I googled Djibouti and was rather disturbed to find several sites that listed Djibouti's average temperature at 85°F. I suppose that number is possible if the reading was taken from the air-conditioned office of the Minister of Propaganda, but I don't remember a day that felt below 90 °F. 

In fact, it was not uncommon to have temps in the 120s. A temperature reading at the U.S. military base even placed one summer day at 130°F with the humidity factored in. 

Djibouti is hot, barren, and stinky. It's full of sand, feral dogs and goats that climb on cars or into the trees to reach the scruffy foliage that somehow survives in a place that smells and feels like a dryer full of towels washed in low tide. But it does have crystal-clear water (outside the city) and white-sand beaches. 

I frequently heard of wild sandstorms in the Sahara. I never personally experienced any while living near there nor in Djibouti, but as the video at the beginning shows, it can happen. And in my 338-word story, it does:

A Djiboutian Christmas
by Johnell DeWitt

On Christmas Eve the desert wind howled and growled. Beth growled back.

“I want to go to our old home and build a snowman with Nana.”

“Sweetheart,” said Mom. “We can have Christmas in Djibouti too.”

“I hate Djibouti! It’s too hot for snow and too hot for Santa.”

“Santa will find us,” said Mom.

“But what if Santa’s reindeers get hot and can't fly? The only animals here are scruffy goats who climb trees and stinky dogs who live by the ocean. Santa can’t use climbing goats or soggy dogs to fly his sleigh.”

“Santa won’t come at all if you’re not asleep.”

“I don’t care if Santa comes,” huffed Beth. “Even Santa can’t make it snow in the desert!”

Mom sighed and pulled one of two dangling strings. The light went out, but the fan stayed on. 

“Maybe Santa will surprise you.”

Beth grumbled as Mom closed the door, but the whir of the fan and the chick-chick-tap of sand caroled a desert lullaby.

All night the wind howled. All night the sand blew and in the morning…  

Beth’s mom shook her awake.

“I’m waking you up on Christmas Day,” she laughed. “I think Santa heard you. Look out the window.”

Beth pushed aside her curtains. She could barely see her scraggly yard. Drifts of creamy sand frosted the walls like gingerbread icing.

“It’s a desert snow!” Beth squealed. 

Dad held up a box dotted with prancing reindeer. “I think you should open this present first.”

Beth tore the wrapping off a new pail and shovel. She hugged her dad, slipped on her sandals and pushed her way out the door. 

All morning Beth packed pail-loads of sand. All morning she molded and adorned until finally...

“I’m done,” she shouted. “Santa didn’t bring me snow for a snowman, but he did bring me sand for a sandman.”

A baseball-cap-wearing, carrot-nosed sandman grinned at Beth, and the desert wind blew in to say, “Merry Christmas.”

The End

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Weekend Links: Susanna Leonard Hill's Holiday Writing Contest

Click for Photo Details

As if Halloweensie wasn't fun enough, Susanna Leonard Hill is at it again with her Holiday writing contest. Here are the rules:

Write a children's story in which wild weather impacts the holidays! Your story may be poetry or prose, silly or serious or sweet, religious or not, based on Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or whatever you celebrate, but is not to exceed 350 words. Any kind of weather is fair game.

Good luck and have a great weekend.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Weekend Links: Just for Fun

I hope everyone of you who celebrated Thanksgiving had a joyous one. If your Thanksgiving didn't go quite as planned, the video above should tickle your wishbone.

Since we're starting into the mad rush of Christmas and holiday shopping, I thought the video below was a good reminder of the perils of taking a part-time job as a mall Santa. 

Since there's only one day left of PiBoIdMo, I hope something will spark the idea center of your brain and land you the last ideas you need to complete the month.

Have a lovely weekend.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Weekend Links: Kathryn Otoshi on Marketing and Gerogia Hughes on a Fresh Look

The holiday season is charging in and time is limited, so the videos today are like fruitcake: best in small pieces, chock-full of sweet nuggets, and dense with hearty ingredients. But these videos will actually be pleasant to consume.

The video above is a short reading of part of Kathryn Otoshi's book One. If you've read it, or her other incredible books, Zero and Twoskip to the video below, which includes a brief interview of Kathryn talking about the marketing of One and how she had to stretch out of her usual style to make it work.

And finally, a 90 second video of Georgia Hughes encouraging authors to surprise their editors rather than strive for the latest, greatest trend. She also suggests taking an age-old issue and making it new. 

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Weekend Links: Picture Book Study with Mira Reisberg

I've already mentioned that I completed Mira Reisberg's Children's Book Academy class on writing picture books. I loved it. I can't give you the whole class here obviously, but Mira analyzes various picture books in videos that she graciously shares on YouTube. 

With her knowledge as an illustrator and writer she's able to use the books as text books on how to write and illustrate. I've included a few of my favorites.

Mira has taught some stellar authors/illustrators, Kathryn Otoshi among them whose books are disarmingly intelligent in both design and message. And Yuyi Morales whose artwork and stories are exquisite as shown in the video below. It's a little longer than the others, but captivating if you have the time.

Hope you are all having a fabulous week and are ready to enjoy an even more fabulous weekend. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Course on How to Prepare a PB Query and Manuscript

Julie Hedlund and Emma Walton Hamilton are hosting a self-guided, online course on how to prepare a picture book query and manuscript for submission. The early bird price ends tonight at midnight (P.S. The deadline has been extended by a day, so tonight is the cut off for the early bird price), so I wanted to get this out while there's a few hours left:

The video above is a brief overview of the course, and the video below is a more in-depth explanation of the course and answers to many of the basic questions on how to prepare a query for submission.

I took Emma's middle grade writing course and loved it and Julie is a power-house in marketing, so these two make a perfect teaching duo on how to put your best foot forward in submitting to agents or editors. 


Monday, October 27, 2014

Halloweensie Entry: Creakety, Crackety Croo!


Susanna Leonard Hill's Halloweensie contest is up and running. All entries are limited to 100 words or less and must include the words creak, pumpkin and broomstick. Mine weighed in at exactly 100, whew. And here is my entry:

Creakety, Crackety, Croo
by Johnell DeWitt

Wenda watched her aunts fly away. 

No Halloween Ball again! Just because she couldn’t remember her spells?


Wenda opened the ancient spell book primer…creeeeaaaak…but another book fell out.

A story book

Before Wenda finished the Happily Ever After, she knew what to do.

She fetched her wand, a pumpkin and an old dress…

“Creakety, crackety, croo!” 

The pumpkin shivered then SNAPPED into a broomstick, then Wenda’s dress quivered and POOFED into glittery gown—the perfect creepy costume for the Halloween Ball. 

As the clock screeched midnight, Wenda hopped on her orange broom and zoomed into the night. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Weekend Link: Halloweensie Contest!

Susanna Leonard Hill is hosting her annual Halloweensie contest. Woot! I confess, this is the first year I've heard about it and the first year I'm trying it, but I'm excited.

The rules are as follows: In 100 words or less (title not included and no illo notes allowed) write a Halloween story appropriate for children. You have to use the words pumpkin, broomstick and creak at least once in the text. And you can use different variations like creaky, pumpkiny, broomsticks, etc.

Then post your story on your blog between 12 a.m. EDT Monday Oct. 27 and Friday Oct. 31 by 11:59 p.m. EDT. Then visit Susanna's site and add your post-specific link to her list on her Oct. 27 post.

I've been working away on mine and I have to say 100 words or less is tricky! Stop by after Midnight on October 27 for a sneak peak of my entry.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Two Valuable Courses: How to Make Money as a Writer and CBA's Illustration Course

I'm thrilled I get to tell you about two fantastic courses coming up. First, Julie Hedlund has opened her How to Make Money as a Writer course. I'm fortunate to be in the beta course. I'm learning how to use social media to market yourself, how to market yourself off-line, and how to create the mindset of an authorpreneur. And now her course is open to everyone! Click here for the details:

I've also graduated from Mira Reisberg's Children's Book Academy--see my nifty graduation button? I took her course on writing picture books and so enjoyed my experience with Mira that I'm tempted to take her illustration course even though I'm not an illustrator. But for those of you who are illustrators or who would like to be, I unabashedly recommend her illustration course.

Check out her great introductory video with co-teacher Kristine Brogno, design and art director for Chronicle Books.

It's starting soon and if you register before Wednesday, you get a discounted price. I'm sorry for not posting this sooner, but I'm waist deep in work from our move and a few other unexpected things. I can't wait to share more with you about what I've learned from these two talented women. Have a great day!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Rebuilding the Arc

I read an interesting post today about atypical story arcs, by Joyce Audy Zarins. Instead of the usual rise and fall (pictured above), some story arcs take on less traditional patterns, like the "X" shape arc in Bridge to Terabithia where Jesse and Leslie switch roles by the end
I tend to follow the heroes journey arc the most, but I'm intrigued with the idea of using an arc as an integral part of the story rather than a plot mapping tool.

Joyce also mentioned the cyclical arc of Holes, by Louis Sachar, and how fitting that is to the title and development of the main character.

I started looking around for other ideas about arcs and ran across a lecture by Brandon Sanderson. He briefly talks about non-traditional arcs but then answers a student's question about collaboration, also an interesting topic and pertinent to a discussion on arcs. 

I'll leave this here for now. More on arcs later as I churn up additional research, but I'm currently enrolled in two writing courses that are keeping me busy, Mira Resiberg's The Craft and Business of Writing Children's Picture Books and Julie Hedlund's soon-to-be-released course on marketing for the authorpreneur. More on both of those later. 

I'm also churning away at my middle grade novel and revising a handful of picture book ideas I think have the most potential.  Between all that, I'm organizing a children's lit group in my new home as I did in my previous home. There is no SCBWI chapter here, but I'm trying to lay the ground work for establishing one. It's been a busy but fruitful transition. Hopefully I'll have more good news to share in the near future.

Happy writing.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Weekend Links: More on Humor

For those who've read my post about humor, this will be a fitting follow up. I've been trying to pay attention to different types of humor as I've gone about my daily routine. I caught the video above on Facebook last week and enjoyed it. 

As you watch it, try to hear the words separate from the visuals. The words are hilarious alone and when added to the context of the video, it's brilliant.

Of course, the compilers of the video didn't create any visual humor, they just capitalized on existing footage by adding some pretty funny (and family friendly) verbal humor.  

But illustrators have loads of opportunities to create visual humor in subtle and not-so subtle ways. Looney Tunes creators were masters at this, which is why their appeal crosses generations. One of my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoons is a perfect example of how an illustrator (and how an author with carefully played art notes) can add multiple layers of humor. Notice the name plates of the knights in the following clip:

Now moving into this century, I finally watched the Life of Pi. So much understated humor, which I love, but my favorite line of the movie had to be when Pi's father was talking about their move from India to Canda:
  1. Pi's Father: "We will sail like Columbus."
  1. Pi: "But Columbus was looking for India!"
I wish I could have found a video clip for that scene, but this behind the scenes video captures some of the humor a lot of beauty that went into the film.

I hope something tickles your funny bone and your funny pen and I hope you have a great weekend.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Thinking Outside the Book Cover

I'm still settling into to our new home, but had the fortune of watching the video above. It's an interview for SCBWI, of Julie Hedlund, author and founder of 12x12. The publishing world is adapting and Julie's interview exposes one way to think outside the traditional methods of getting published. It's definitely worth viewing.

On another note, I joined WriteOnCon for the first time this year. We had the chance of having agents view our queries and first five pages or first 250 words. I posted a middle grade novel I've been working on and a picture book. I can't say I got any agent comments, but I definitely benefited from the other writers' comments who graciously took time out to critique my stories.

Forums like 12x12, Verla Kay's Blueboards (now the SCBWI Blueboards), PiBoIdMo, NaNoWriMo and WriteOnCon are all great ways to meet other writers and learn the ins and outs of the publishing world for anyone seriously considering a plunge into the world of writing.  

And to take a page off of Leandra's blog, here's my favorite line from my historical-fiction, middle grade novel that I posted in WriteOnCon:
I heard the screen door slam and saw my father’s shadow skirt the corner and disappear. The truck started up and the sounds of it pulling away masked the clanging of the pots coming from the kitchen. 
Whatever my mom was doing stopped when Grandma entered. She rarely came out of her room, but when she did, we had to be on our best behavior. 
Happy Writing. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Writing With Humor: Erin Cabatingan

As posted previously, I hosted Erin Cabatingan, author of A is for Musk Ox in my former home for a workshop on writing with humor. Now that I'm finally settling into our new home, I'm cobbling her wisdom in a post. I apologize that I haven't been around to read the great posts you all are putting out there as well.

Back to my notes from Erin's presentation:

What is humor? Author Rick Walton says, "Humor is surprise without threat of promise." So what does that mean? You have to surprise the reader without making them feel threatened.  (For Rick's essay on humor, see here.)

Humor is hard to teach someone. Read lots of humorous books until it becomes part of you. You can use humor for a laugh-out-loud experience or just a smile, or even to make a serious topic more light-hearted. 

Where can you find humor? Observe children and add it into book, but be careful when using true to life examples of children--don’t make fun of them. You can use real examples and make them safe by making sure the child reader feels superior to the character in the book. They can laugh at the way they used to be. (Example: Kel Gilligan's Daredevil Stunt Show, by Michael Buckley). 

Watch kids for funny things and adults. Watch animals—they do funny things too. (Example: Doggone Dogs, by Karen Beaumont) . 

Humor can use wordplay where you take a word and switch out a syllable like Chimpansneeze, by Aaron Zenz or Zombelina, by Kristyn Crow. (Note: Erin said Kristyn looked up zombie jokes to find the puns for her book.)

Humor can be found in conflict. Have characters believe different things or want different things. In Erin's books, A is for Musk Ox and Musk Ox Counts, Musk Ox and Zebra are at odds on everything, which creates the humor that drives the plot and fleshes out the characters. 

Humor can share inside jokes but you have to set it up for the reader or use established knowledge in order to make it work. (Example: The Three Silly Billies, by Margie Palatini.)

Humor can can come from an established pattern that the writer breaks unexpectedly. (Example: Yes Day, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal)

Humor can bend language. The way you say things can be funny. (Example: Moo Who?, by  Margie Palatini.) Use the sounds of words, onomatopoeia, to add in humor, or play with expressions and accents. (Example: The Dirty Cowboy, by Amy Timberlake.)

Pair two mundane things that go together and make it funny. (Example: Never Take a Shark to the Dentist, by Judi Barrett.)

Let the illustrator add humor to the manuscript by giving them ridiculous or fun situations to illustrate. Try to think visually. Think of your text as illustrations and try to visualize how the illustrator might see it. Make a dummy. Let the illustrations tell all or part of joke. Have the text and illustrations disagree. (Example: A Vampire is Coming to Dinner, by Pamela Jane.)

Warning: When you do add humor be conscious of what different ages find funny, you don’t want it to go over the child’s head. (Link to age-appropriate humor suggestions:

As you can see, it was an excellent workshop. I haven't included all my notes, but these should get you started. And in the immortally funny but sage words of Dave Barry: 
"Most people have a sense of humor that's good...Some people don't. I feel sorry for those people. The humor impaired. I got a lot of letters from them, so I know they're out there. Specifically, there are a couple things [to write humor] I think you need to do. You need to have a real strong sense of pacing. Too many attempts at humor fail because A, either it takes forever to get to what's supposed to be funny and just wanders around before it gets there, doesn't seem to be any purpose. Or once it gets there, it says it over and over and over, it doesn't get out of there, you know, quickly. So, I think it's a lot like stand-up comedy, in a sense, you don't let the reader see it coming, you hit the reader with it, and then you get out of there and go to something else the reader doesn't see coming. And that's probably the most fundamentally important thing. The other thing is, it's work to write humor...if you're gonna write humor you have to take it just as seriously as if you were gonna write about anything else. You have to really work hard to get it to work."

Have a great week. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Uninterrupted Mornings

In the summer when my little one is not in school, uninterrupted time is hard to come by. And bedtime is hard to enforce when it stays light until 10 pm and all the other kids are out playing. So I gave up on bedtime. Whenever I can get him to bed, I go to bed too, and then I have time in the morning before he wakes up. I get up, go straight to my studio or computer and work until he wakes up, sometimes eating breakfast between lines. A benefit I didn't expect is that my work is on my mind throughout the day and I keep going back to it whenever I have a few minutes. Because I started my day with what I love, I'm thinking about it instead of menial tasks. My mind is generating ideas when I'm doing other things too, which pulls me back to my computer or studio. Just as going a few days without writing or making art makes it hard to get back into, starting my day that way keeps me in it.

Monday, July 7, 2014

A is For Awesome Author Erin Cabatingan

Our regional kid lit group hosted a workshop on writing with humor by Erin Cabatingan, author of A is for Musk Ox and Musk Ox Counts. If you've read her stories, you know she gets humor. If you haven’t read her stories, you are seriously missing out. (See the trailer above.)

I took copious notes from her excellent workshop, but I was also able to ask Erin questions about her personal writer's journey and that is what I will share with you today:

Q: What was the evolution of your journey to find an agent and when did your Musk Ox books come into that phase?

A: My publishing journey started in college when I took a class about writing for publication. That was when I first started to understand how to actually go about getting published. Starting then, I began writing and submitting my work, but I didn't do much else to improve my writing or increase my knowledge of how publishing worked. It was about six years before that I got really serious about trying to get published. I joined a critique group. I started reading tons of blogs about publishing. I worked a little with Rick Walton, who helped me understand what it took to get a manuscript submission ready. I went to my first conference and workshop. It was also then that I decided I definitely wanted an agent. My A is for Musk Ox book came into the whole process at about this point. I had my musk ox book, and another one about a toucan that I really liked, and I took turns submitting them to different agents. When an agent rejected one story, I would send them the other.

After receiving lots of rejections, life got in the way and I stopped submitting manuscripts to agents. At the time, I thought I had received rejections from all the agents I had submitted to, so months later, I was surprised to get a voice mail from Nancy Gallt telling me that she was interested in representing A is for Musk Ox

Q: Where did the idea for your Musk Ox character come from?

A: I needed an animal that began with “m," so I found a website that listed "m" animals. Musk Ox happened to be the first one that I liked. The personality of the musk ox came as I wrote the story.

Q: How did you pitch to your now agent? Did she contact you right away or ask for revisions first? What was the process?

A: I was one of those dredged from the slush pile. I wrote a query letter to Nancy Gallt, having no connection to her at all--I hadn't met her at a conference or anything like that--and she liked my manuscript enough to want to represent it. In fact, she already had an editor who was interested in it when she contacted me.

Q: What were some pivotal moments in your search for an agent that got you to the point you’re in right now?

A: Probably the most helpful thing was my "internship" with Rick Walton. He's the author of over 90 published books, many of which are picture books.  He had projects for me to work on and in return, he would help me with my manuscripts. The projects themselves helped me become a better writer. 

One thing he had me do was go over editors'/agents'/authors' blogs and find all the parts that talked about how to be a better writer. That really helped me understand the publishing world better. And then he worked with me on my writing. With his help, I drastically changed a manuscript I was working on and made it much better. I haven't yet published that manuscript, but I learned so much from working with him on it. And maybe one day it will get published. 

Q: Did you have a writing background? What did you study in college?

A: I didn't finish college--all I managed to do was get my general education requirements done. And the only writing background I have is what I did in high school and the two writing classes I took in college, one of which was writing for publication.

Q: Once you landed your agent, what has changed for you as a writer, mom, wife, person?

A: I’m not embarrassed to tell people that I'm a writer any more. I'm still shy about mentioning it, but not embarrassed. I also don't feel quite as guilty spending my time writing, since there's a little more hope that I might sell something else. Or at least I can tell myself that. Other than that, I can't really think of anything. Maybe more will change if/when I write a book that is much more popular, or if I sell more manuscripts.

Q: Any favorite moments/responses when talking to or hearing back from readers of your books?

A: I’ve had a few. There was one time when I went to the book fair at my kid's school. They had A is for Musk Ox there, and I overheard one lady gushing to the PTA president and cashier about how much she loved my book. That was really fun to hear. 

It's always fun when I meet someone who has read my book, likes it, and is excited to meet me. That's only happened once or twice, but it's pretty fun.  It's also fun to hear kids laugh when I read one of my books to them. That's maybe my favorite.

Q: When is the third book in the Musk Ox family coming out?

A: September 30!

Q: What are your favorite picture books?

A: Besides my three picture books? Hmmm. That's a hard one. I really like Where the Wild Things Are, probably in part because I remember reading it with my dad. I still remember rolling my terrible eyes and gnashing my terrible teeth with him. I like There's a Nightmare in My Closet, King Bidgood's in the Bathtub, Bedtime at the Swamp, Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type, and many others. 

Q: Name your favorite part in your books.

A: That’s another hard one. Probably the holes in their covers. I had mentioned having a hole in the manuscript for A is for Musk Ox, but I wasn't sure they would actually put one in because I knew it would cost more money. I was excited to see it there. I wasn't expecting a hole in Musk Ox Counts, so that was fun to see. And the third one has a hole as well! Holes are fun.

Q: What advice do you have for writer’s struggling to land the agent or publishing deal?

A: Keep going! If you love writing, and want to be published, don't ever stop trying. Keep improving your craft--search the internet for information about writing and publishing, go to conferences, have others look at your manuscripts, read books. Eventually you'll make it. Just don't give up. 

Erin is repped by Marietta Zacker at Nacy Gallt Literary Agency.