Thursday, December 31, 2015

Top 5 Writing Celebrations of 2015

       Yes, I've been on hiatus for a while (and will continue to be so, see #1 below for my very good reason why). But as it's the end of another year, I feel the need to take stock. One of my favorite posts from last year was Top 5 Writing Celebrations of 2014, which was a great writing year for me. 2015, well...not as great in terms of writing, though I do have a few moments of honorable mention:

5. Starting a new project. I'd been working on The Sleepers and a couple of picture books for so long, that it felt really great to set all that aside and begin research and drafting on a new middle grade novel. My critique group loved the idea, too! Sneak peak: an alternate history set in the 1960's in which females, not males, are and have been the dominant sex. 

4. SCBWI Illinois Spring Thaw. Although I've been a dedicated attendee of Prairie Writer's Day, I found a new conference that offered a smaller and more intimate setting. Here's my full account of the day. Hopefully I will continue to attend in years to come!      

3. Finally reading my book aloud to my students. See the full post here, but this was so fun to hear my story come to life, and the 4th Grader reviews I got made all the hard work worth it! 

2.  Querying my MG manuscript The Sleepers. Although it resulted in a round of resounding "no thank you's," it felt very good to finally put my work out there and give it a try. Round two of querying still on deck.

 1. A big celebration, though technically not a writing celebration. The Very Hungry Author is still quite hungry; just more in the physical sense rather than "hungry to chase my author dreams" sense. I've been busy on another little project.

       That's right, this author is pregnant! When I found out over the summer, I was sure that my due date/deadline in March would motivate me that much more to write, write, write because, of course, once the baby is here I'll be sleep-deprived and barely able to form coherent thoughts. Not to mention, baby's schedule and needs will all of a sudden take a major front seat to MY schedule and needs. 

       I was wrong.

       Evidently, my brain and body can only work on one major creative project at a time (I've always been bad at multi-tasking). My biggest effort in this area in the past 6 months has been one revised query and an earnest attempt to attend my monthly writing critique group meetings. 

       My favorite thing lately is the tremendous guilt I feel when eyeing my stacks of manuscripts and inactive blog, or seeing that my also-pregnant critique partner is still writing, or noticing how successful everyone else is being in their writing careers (like my old time BFF-turned-inspiration Jessica Lawson, who has her 3rd MG novel Waiting for Augusta coming out in spring 2016!) 

       Alas, I'm trying my best not to feel too guilty, as I've been told I'll have plenty of mom guilt over other things as soon as baby arrives. I suppose this is one of those sacrifices I hear about that parents make for their children (did I mention I also gave up my writing office to be a nursery? My desk has been relinquished to the basement). I'm going to count "lack of writing motivation" as my worst pregnancy symptom, in which case I know I can consider myself incredibly lucky because so far I have somehow avoided most of the very unpleasant things that expectant mothers have come to expect. 

       But, I'm not done! Just on a little break from the blog for now, and planning to continue my writing projects. Stay tuned! And, if there are any mommies out there with tips on how to carve out writing time with an infant, I will be happy to hear them.

Happy New Year to all! 
May your 2016 be filled with new adventures, lots of love, and not too much guilt over resolutions not achieved!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Help! My Query Letter Isn't Working (or, Query Letter Resources)

                                              Query Letter not working? Try again!

       In general, there are two different kinds of rejections in the publishing world. There are form rejections, and there are personalized rejections. What I've been told is that a form rejection means you probably need to work on your query, because the agents probably aren't reading any further. Personalized rejections, while still rejections, are a bit more celebration-worthy because it means the agent probably read some of your actual manuscript and has actual suggestions or reasons the project is not for them. 

       I got all form rejections. This may not sound great, but I'm not surprised. This is where most authors start out, and although I fantasized about being one of the only authors EVER to land an agent on my first round of querying, I knew that most likely would not be the reality. So, after receiving a round of "thanks, but no thanks" responses to my agent queries, I know what I must do: try again. 

       In order to learn more about query letters, and in order to help anyone else out there in a similar position, I've gathered a list of great resources on query letters. Have fun researching, and as always, if YOU have any great resources or tips on query letters, please share!

The Complete Guide to Query Letters: Here are the basic necessities, spelled out step-by-step 

Query Shark: This is a great blog by agent Janet Reid that includes queries that got a YES, and suggested revisions to submitted queries--kind of like a tutorial. You can also follow her on Twitter @QueryShark.

10 Dos and Don'ts of Query Letters: short, sweet and to-the-point, by Writer's Digest. 

23 Query Letters that Worked: I'm definitely a learn-by-example kind of gal, so I love seeing examples of real-life letters that were successful!

Quite the Query: More successful letter examples (and featuring my friend Jessica Lawson...check out her voice-filled query!). 

I Stop Reading When...: Find out some common mistakes that immediately turn agents off.

AgentQuery Connect: an online forum to give and get advice on query letters. 

A Pretty Much Foolproof, Never-Fail, Silver Bullet Query Opening: If you like formulas, you'll like this. 

Read Over 60 Successful Queries: More examples! Because really, we can all read and listen to how we're supposed to do it, but it's hard to know what works unless you see it. 

What Agents DON'T Want in Query Letters: So now that you know what you should have, make sure you don't include any of these...

                                    Happy Querying!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Happy Birthday to the Very Hungry Author!

       The Very Hungry Author got started one year ago on July 30! In honor of my blog birthday, I'm going to take some time to get a little nostalgic and remind myself exactly why I love children's literature so much, why it matters, and why I've embarked on this challenging, fun journey in the first place. 

       So here, in roughly the order I encountered them, are some of my favorite books that influenced me as a child reader and now, as an adult writer of children's books. 

1. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
       Well, are you surprised? I'm sure I've mentioned before that is is one of my favorite baby/toddler books. I typically gift it to brand-new babies as a board book so they can stick their fingers in all the little holes with no fear of ripping pages. Creative, colorful, and quite literally transformative. Not to mention, all that yummy food! 

2. The Monster at the End of this Book by Jon Stone
       My first exposure to a clever twist ending when (spoiler alert) after much worry, Grover discovers that HE is the monster at the end of the book. Genius and hilarious. 
       I actually adored several Sesame Street books, including Don't Forget the Oatmeal, featuring predictable conflict between Bert and Ernie, and Down on the Farm with Grover, featuring predictable Grover antics like feeding spaghetti to the cows. Children love repetition and predictability, especially if it's all mixed with humor. 

3. Corduroy by Don Freeman
       Who in the world didn't feel awful for the poor bear without a home (and equally important, a button)? This is a simple book with a simple message about belonging and home, yet it's delivered through such a sweet and memorable character that it is an absolute classic. 

4. Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary
       On to chapter books. My first memory of this book is my dad reading it aloud to me at bedtime, then me reading it myself (and the rest of the series) once I was old enough. Love Ramona's fresh perspective on things, love her odd-man-out (er, odd-girl-out) lot in life. Her quirkiness was so refreshing, especially to someone who wasn't necessarily part of the "popular" crowd. 
       In 3rd grade, my best friend and I decided to be Ramona and Beezus for Halloween. I happened to be getting my hair cut in October and asked the hairdresser to cut my hair like Beezus. She looked at me in the mirror and said "What's a Beezus??" Oh, grown-ups. 

5. Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
       This was read and re-read and re-re-read. Such great humor, rhythms, and illustrations. I still love reading these out loud to my students, and they still love listening. One of my favorites: Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out. Why can't I be this clever? 

6. Garfield by Jim Davis
       While not technically a children's book, I had a small collection of these books that I would pull out in the middle of the night if I couldn't sleep or got scared (telling you, WAY too active of an imagination here. I still scare myself just starting to imagine creepy things that go bump in the night. Maybe I should still have some of these in my nightstand). Anyway, Garfield is a wonderfully developed character who hates Mondays and loves lasagna. Sweet humor that will take your mind off murderous come-to-life dolls or shadow goblins. 

7. The Babysitter's Club by Ann M. Martin
       This is when it would be accurate to say I started to read voraciously; when I was about 8 or 9 and read literally one of these a day over summer break. I think my mom actually got tired of continually taking me back to the library to replenish my supply. Maybe not the world's most amazing literature, but it doesn't always have to be. Ann M. Martin hit on a niche that little girls loved (and still do; last year one of my students was reading The Ghost at Dawn's House and I couldn't wait for her to finish so we could discuss). 

8. Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry
       Fabulous. Read the entire series and still think of Anastasia as one of the first strong female characters I related to. Funny, thoughtful, smart. I recommend these books still to many of my girl students that don't like the typical "little girl" books that are out there now (not that there's anything wrong with those). 
       I remember one joke that went over my head at the time. Anastasia heard her parents talking about salmonella. Not understanding it was the name of a type of food poisoning, she assumed they were talking about a man, Sal Monella. The irony is that it went over BOTH of our heads, until years later when I learned of salmonella and finally got the joke. 

9. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
       This book is so chock-full of interesting characters, it isn't dull for a second. And, although I had no idea what they were, the chocolate egg cremes that Harriet got after school had me drooling. 
       In 5th grade, my class put on this play. I was Mrs. Robinson, half of the snobby, stuffy, rich couple on Harriet's spying route. Fun stuff. 

...and saving the best for last, as I love to do, my all-time favorite children's chapter book:

10. The Giver by Lois Lowry
       Where do I start? I've read this book many times, probably because the first reading of it left such a strong impression on me. The book requires the reader to put things together as the pages turn, with little explanations (I know now this is called world-building, as opposed to info dump where the reader is basically told outright what they need to know). 
       As a child, it's a little confusing at first, but I loved that Lois Lowry respected my mind enough to know I'd figure it all out; and how much more delicious it was when it all clicked! This book forces the reader to re-examine so many small aspects of our lives that we take for granted. How would you describe sunshine to someone who's never experienced it? Snow? Pain? Love? And is society better off without these things? (I think we all know the answer to that). 
       This was the book that led me down the path of alternate society/ speculative fiction books, which I now write myself. My favorite question as an author is "what if?" I love answering my own questions by creating new worlds and putting all my imaginings on the page. 

       Thinking about my favorite children's books is definitely inspiring and motivating as I continue to polish my craft. There are dozens more I could add to this list, but these ten were the first that popped into my head (that's right, I wasn't really a Goodnight Moon or Dr. Seuss girl). Even if you're not a big reader as an adult, I guarantee you can think of at least a few books that shaped your childhood. Children make such an emotional connection with books, which is why children's literature is so important. Funny, touching, beautiful, simple, sweet...they're all crucial in developing a child's love of reading, pathway to learning, and new views of the world. 

       Now, what were some of YOUR favorite children's books? Let's reminisce! 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Mid-Year Review


       Here we are, halfway through 2015 (I know, when did that happen?) Since I consider my writing a second job, I thought it would be a good time to give myself a mid-year review. 
       As a refresher, here are my 2015 New Year's Resolutions:

1. Read more blogs about writing, and make comments. Goal: one new blog/comment per week. 
       Well, we're starting off with a fail. I have done neither of these things on a weekly basis. Perhaps this resolution was too ambitious. I'm going to change it to one or two a month and go from there. Baby-step to make it more likely: compose a list of writing blogs so I can easily click and read when I have time. Have ideas of writing blogs for me? Please leave them in comments!

2. Do at least two rounds of queries for my middle grade novel. 
       Ok, this one I feel better about! I have done one round of querying (eight agents) and await to hear from seven of them still (first reply was a "no." Add it to the Rejection Tally). Most agents say they'll respond or pass within eight weeks, so that gives me plenty of time for a second round of querying in the fall!

3. Begin new middle grade novel (I have two ideas I'm kicking around...will let you know which wins). 
       Another win! I have begun a new middle grade novel while I'm waiting to hear back from agents. My new project: an alternate history set in Chicago in the 1960's, in which gender roles are reversed, i.e. women are the dominant sex. Told from the point of view of Theo, a 12-year-old boy who wants nothing more than to grow up, get married, stay home and raise his kids. 

4. Write two blog posts per month.
       Well...not quite. If I'd stuck to this I should have 12 posts this year and I have 8. Three quarters of the way isn't too awful, right? My husband and I bought a house, packed, and moved all between the end of February and the end of March, which sunk writing way, way down on my list of priorities. But it has risen to the top once again! (song playing in my head: "Survivor" by Destiny's Child)

       No need to wallow in the mud of my failures...let's celebrate two out of four resolutions (I mean really, two and three quarters)!! And I now resolve to try a little harder on following other writing blogs, and continue with my own blog posts. 

       Now for you: there are 6 more months left in the 2015 calendar. Time to do a little self-evaluation of your own...revisit resolutions, see where you're at, and re-resolve, if needed. How have you done on your New Year's Resolutions? Can you remember what they are? I wish you the best of luck in tackling old goals and creating new ones, and I celebrate with you in what you've already accomplished thus far! And, even if you think you haven't done much in the way of your goals this year, here's a little Pooh Wisdom to keep in mind: 

Friday, June 26, 2015

She's At It Again!

       Hats off, again, to my childhood best friend Jessica Lawson on the release of her second novel, NOOKS & CRANNIES! She continues to be uber-impressive, cranking out fantastic novels while caring for two big kids and two little ones. 

       I haven't read it yet (don't worry, it's at the top of my summer reading list), but here is a little blurb: 

Tabitha Crum is a girl with a big imagination and a love for mystery novels, though her parents think her only talent is being a nuisance. She doesn't have a friend in the world, except her pet mouse, Pemberley, with whom she shares her dingy attic bedroom.

Then, on the heels of a rather devastating announcement made by her mother and father, Tabitha receives a mysterious invitation to the country estate of the wealthy but reclusive Countess of Windermere, whose mansion is rumored to be haunted. There, she finds herself among five other children, none of them sure why they've been summoned. But soon, a very big secret will be revealed--a secret that will change their lives forever and put Tabitha's investigative skills to the test. 

       I believe Jessica described it as CHARLIE & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY meets CLUE. Plus, I detect a couple references to MATILDA and even PRIDE & PREJUDICE. Can't wait!

       If you're interested in winning a free copy, check out Jessica and her agent Tina Wexler as they discuss middle grade voice here. You can also win a free query critique by Tina if you're a writer! 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

My First Book Review

       The long awaited moment has arrived: on the last day of school, I finished reading my middle grade book The Sleepers to my 4th grade class. Then, I confessed. I apologized for lying to them, and told them it was not written by my friend, but by me (click here for my original post from when I began reading it to my class). 

       I wish I had photographed their faces. Imagine shock + delight + pride. I also wish I'd had time for a more formal feedback process, but it was a rather hectic day. After having missed the previous 4 days of school for jury duty, I had to try to squeeze what I'd normally do in a week in one day. On top of that, our end-of-the-year picnic was moved indoors due to thunderstorms. But as they sat eating their Dairy Queen lunch, I gathered what feedback I could and scribbled it down so I'd remember. Two of my students were motivated enough to write down a review for me. 

       Here are 4th graders' reviews and comments about The Sleepers:

"Fantastic book! Very suspenseful and adventurous! If this book gets published I call dibs on the first book!" (hand drawn: 7 stars)

"One of the best reads of my life. Okay, of 4th grade."

"You can retire from teaching when this gets published."

"Mrs. Azark, I. Am. Impressed."

"How did you get the idea?"

"I'd recommend that book to my friends."*

"When I'm in college, and my friends have your book on their bookshelves, I'll be able to say I know the author!"

"I don't know if this is good or bad, but there are lots of cliffhangers. It's good because it makes you want to keep reading, but it's bad when you have to stop."

"Can I have your autograph? It'll be worth millions."

"When this books gets published, I'm going to be the #1 person to buy it. And it WILL be published."*

"I love this book!"*

"It's kind of like The Giver, how it takes place in a 'perfect' society." *

"When this book is on the New York Times Bestsellers list, I'll say 'That's my 4th grade teacher!'"

*comment from before they knew I wrote it

       In addition to these comments, many of them were very concerned with what the cover of the book would look like. I insisted that I wouldn't have much input, but they shared their ideas anyway. So, prospective publishers, I have 27 children with ideas for the cover in case your artists can't think of anything. 

       It was a pretty cool feeling to see how excited they were about my book. I felt like a celebrity answering questions and talking about it with my kids. So, now I've completed my own market test, and I can't see what would be better proof to an agent or publisher that my book is worth taking on! 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Writing Workout: Wart

In need of a writing workout? 

       The SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) is hosting a new monthly writing prompt. The first 500 entries will be posted in their online gallery so others in the writing community, including agents and editors, can see little morsels of work by writers. 

       I could definitely use some writing exercises to keep me fresh, so I thought I'd give this a go and post my entry on the blog just for fun--and feedback! If you have any ideas or tips that can help me improve, let's hear them! Also, if you're a fellow writer, or are just looking for something to get your creative juices flowing, have a crack at it and post in the comments section! If you're a SCBWI member, enter your writing to be posted online. 

       JULY PROMPT: Write a description of a children's book character using no more than fifty words. The prompt word is WART. 

Ready, go!

       Greasy knuckle hair, moldy toe fungus, puss-filled pimples, and skunk breath…Wart is a typical ogre. But those aren’t the qualities that disgust his friends. It’s his overwhelming passion for baking pink petit fours.  What can Wart do to get others to enjoy his delicate creations?

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Back to the Heart of the Matter

Children's books can take kids to some amazing places (grown-ups too!)

       Hello again! Remember me? I know, it's been a while and yes I KNOW I haven't stuck to my New Year's Resolution of two posts a month. I could explain my really, really good reasons why I haven't posted in a couple of months, and I'm sure you'd agree they are really, really good reasons. But let's just get to the good stuff, yes?

       I've been wanting to read aloud my MG manuscript for a while, partly just so I can hear the awkward sentences and the confusing parts for myself, but also to get some audience feedback. I started reading it aloud to my husband who is a wonderful listener but a not-so-enthusiastic reader. That went fine, but he's not my target audience. Plus, because he's been my sounding board all along, he already knows the plot and all the surprises along the way. 

       So, after finally finishing Jessica Lawson's The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher aloud to my 4th grade students, I decided to try something I've never tried before: I began reading them my novel. 

       They don't know it's my novel. Since they're in 4th grade, they still love everything their teacher does. I mean, I'm kind of a big deal in Room 302. I desperately want to tell them it's mine, but even more desperately want genuine feedback. So, I am going to wait until we finish to tell them. For now, they think it is the work of one of my writing group friends. (If you teach with me and are reading this, SHHHH!) They were SO excited when I told them they were the first kids in the world to hear this story.

       And, THEY LOVE IT! It feels absolutely amazing to see their reactions when something exciting or twisty happens, and my heart sings when it's the end of Read Aloud time and they whine for more--especially if I've left off on a cliffhanger, which I love doing to them. Every now and then I'll have moments as I'm reading to them: "I don't think they're going to know all these words," or "It's getting too confusing for them. Do they get it?" But when I ask them to summarize a chapter or tell what a character is like, they nail it. As we line up for PE class, they are still buzzing and murmuring to each other their predictions or guesses as to what's happening in the book. Happy dance! 

       This is exactly why I started writing in the first place, and I love being reminded of it. If you are a pre-published author, I highly recommend getting your work into the hands of some children.With all the revising, conferencing, querying, worrying, second-guessing, and rejections that come along with writing a book, it's easy to lose sight of the big picture. The heart of the matter--I write to entertain and thrill children's minds. To create a fantastic place for them to go where the words on the page can let their imaginations soar. So, no matter what happens with this novel, my heart is content knowing that at least a few children have come into the little world I created and are loving every minute of being there. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

SCBWI Illinois Spring Thaw 2015

       What a perfect day for this year's SCBWI Illinois Spring Thaw: the sunny and "warm" weather (the low 40's after months of brutal below-zero windchills is paradise!) put everyone in a good mood and ready to dust off the winter's work to share and critique with others. 

       Contrary to Prairie Writer's and Illustrator's Day back in November, this conference is much more intimate. Instead of sitting in a big conference room, we were at round tables where we got to interact and get to know people. I enjoyed the format (and the shorter day, and come to think of it, shorter drive) much better!

       Some of the highlights:

      1.  A keynote speech from agent Paul Rodeen of Rodeen Literary Management located right here in Chicago. One of the biggest takeaways from his speech was that when it comes down to it, if you want to get your book published, you need to be a really, really good writer. Duh, right? But, it's very easy to lose sight of that when you're constantly inundated with workshops on finding the right agent, and mastering the query letter. So, it was nice to be reminded what truly matters! 

       2. Another keynote speech from Kelly Barrales-Saylor, an editor with Albert Whitman & Company of Park Ridge. She was hilarious and personable, and broke publishing into three main feats of human strength (my words, not hers): Do Your Homework & Research; Submit Something Great; and Get Used to Rejection. I really appreciate her last point on rejection, which was that in fact, it's NOT the rejection that's the hardest part. It's learning to work with your editor/agent after being offered a deal on COMPLETELY CHANGING YOUR MANUSCRIPT. I get why that part is difficult, I do. But if I've been offered a book deal by an agent or editor, I promise I will not mind this step. I will do whatever they suggest to make my book the best it can be! But, I do think it's good for authors to go into this knowing that will happen. That even when your work has been "accepted" by the publishing world, it's still going to need some work. 
        She also gave me a great idea for my blog: interview agents and editors! What better way to hobnob with the target audience, plus get some great advice? Stay tuned for this feature here. Kelly and I both work in Park Ridge...think she'll want to do lunch?

       3. Round Table discussions: We were seated according to book format (picture books, middle grade, YA, etc) and had two sessions where table members got to share the first 500 words of their work and get feedback from the group. This was great! It's always so nice to get fresh eyes on your work; particularly fresh eyes belonging to people familiar with the industry. I came away with a couple of good ideas and all kinds of warm fuzzies from my table-mates. I also scored a new e-mail beta reader/critique partner!

       4. A 15-minute one-on-one talk with an agent or editor who had read your first ten pages prior to the conference. Invaluable! For us pre-published authors, editors and agents often seem so inaccessible. So to have one read your work and discuss with you is so refreshing. My sit-down was with Paul Rodeen. He gave me a lot to think about, which felt overwhelming at first. I can definitely see the validity of several of his points...I'm just not ready to tackle them yet. I need to let his comments marinate for a while, then examine how I can incorporate them into my piece while still keeping it my piece. 
       Getting personalized feedback can be so hard, because it's such a subjective industry. For every agent that likes your work and relates to your vision (which is probably only a few), there are hundreds who don't. It doesn't mean you're a bad writer or they're cruel agents, it just means there wasn't that much needed connection. It can feel very discouraging at times, but I relate it to dating, in search of "The One." You kiss a lot of frogs until you find your prince, so they say. Well, you also submit to a lot of frogs until you find your Agent (note: I'm not calling anyone there today a frog.)

       5. As with Prairie Writer's Day, the highlight of my experience came in the last 5 minutes, during the Mix & Mingle. I'm really starting to get the hang of these things--and with no cocktails, either! When I first learned Chicago-based Andrea Brown agent Jennifer Mattson would be on the panel, I freaked out. She is at the very tippy top of my dream-agent-list, after having read several interviews with her and about her work. What an opportunity! I patiently waited my turn to introduce myself and my work, and we had a great conversation in which she actually asked me more about my novel after hearing my "elevator pitch!" And THEN she said she'd love to take a look at it! Done! Hooray! She even loved my bookmark business card (thanks again 12 Line Studio). 

      Now I just need to find a moment to submit to her amidst closing on a new house, moving, and a trip to Hawaii. Should be no problem :)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Writing Contests...To Enter or Not To Enter?

           Many aspiring authors who are plugged into the writing social network have undoubtedly caught wind of many, many contests meant for newbie writers to get their work in front of agents. Some involve a Twitter Pitch alone, some are queries or first pages, or maybe even the first ten pages of a work. All sound glamorous and promising, and all can be a major time-suck. Many writers probably wonder "Should I enter? Is it worth my time to finesse a 140-character gripping hook for my novel versus spending that time actually revising said novel, working on my query, or researching prospective agents?"

        Here's my take, as someone who has entered (and lost) several writing contests. Usually only one, or a few, authors win any given contest, so entering renders an individual very, very susceptible to losing (there are a LOT of aspiring authors out there, people). Upon finding out you weren't chosen, it can feel like a colossal waste of time time, resources, and hope. 


        The way I see it, every contest you enter gets you out there. Freeing your work into the world is important (duh, because how is it ever going to get published if no one sees it?). Every time you enter a contest, you get a little more used to other people seeing and critiquing your writing. And, every time you work on creating whatever is required for contest entry, you learn something about your work. Can you hook someone on your novel in 35 words or less? It's harder than it sounds...and I think that sounds pretty hard! After entering your first 250 words into a couple of contests and not winning, you might consider making some changes. When available, reading the winning entries can also teach a lot about what people in the industry are looking for. 

       Conclusion: Enter contests, IF you have a finished manuscript. Don't kill yourself trying to enter every single one, but if you have time before a contest deadline, go for it! For every hour spent assembling a contest entry, spend two on continuing your other work. 

Some upcoming contests:

1) Pitch Madness from the contest queen, Brenda Drake (deadline is midnight February 23rd!!). I entered this year. This is the one where you write a 35-word hook, plus submit the first 250 words. 60 finalists move on to an agent round where agents duke it out to request partial or full manuscripts from finalists. 

2) SCBWI Work-in-Progress Grants (submissions March 1-31). One winner in each category will have work presented to leading publishing houses. 

3) Twitter Art Pitch Party for PB through MG (April 2). This one's for illustrators!

4) Check out Sub It Club's Contest Page for all kinds of smaller contests (win critiques or lessons, etc). 

                      BEST OF LUCK IN ALL YOUR CONTESTS! 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

About the Author

       Last summer I finally kept my promise & went over to my parents' house to start cleaning out my childhood bedroom. Unlike most of my friends, my parents have not moved, nor have they turned my old bedroom into a gym/office/crafting room. It's pretty much exactly the way I left it when I moved out. 

       Going through boxes, I came across my 5th grade entry into the Young Author's contest. I LOVE that I found this, and I also love the irony that I am now co-director of the Young Author's contest at my school. Full circle, people, full circle. 

       "Emerald" is a fantasy story in which the main character falls asleep and enters a magical world in order to find and save her missing father. The number of similarities to my current MG manuscript actually kind of weird me out. In my room-cleaning endeavor I also came across several other stories from as young as 2nd grade with similar themes ("My Trip to Cowzoomy,"and "Bubble Land.") I think it's really cool that the type of story I loved writing as a child--fantasy/sci-fi set in different worlds--is still the type of story I love writing as an adult.

       However, my favorite part of this find is my "About the Author" page at the end of the story:

       In case you can't read my stellar cursive: "Nicole Benoit was born at Evanston Hospital on August 27, 1980. She has a dad, a mom, and a brother. She has a dog named Rowdy, and two goldfish named Polky and Gumby. She is ten and will be turning eleven this summer. Other stories recently written by Nicole are The Search for the Devil's Head, Christmas Magic, The Selfish Peacock, and Pumpernickle. She attends Hubbard Woods School and is in the 5th grade."

       I think when I get published, this should be my "About the Author," no? 

       Anyway, I think finding my old writing at this time in my life is pretty much the definition of's meant to be. Look for my books "The Search for the Devil's Head" and "The Selfish Peacock" at a bookstore near you.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Make Your Resolutions Stick (Writing or Otherwise)


        I've had a love/hate relationship with New Year's Resolutions for the last several years, but not for the reasons most people have. Here's my beef: if there's something you want to change about your life, why wait 'til January to get started? I get it, it's a fresh start, a new year, the same reason all diets start on Monday. 

       As a regular gym-goer, I always dread the January New-Year's-Resolution onslaught. No parking spots, no free lockers, and 15-minute waits for the ellipticals. Don't get me wrong--I applaud all the people trying to make a positive change in their lives. But, why now? And, why don't I see the same people come June? 

       My big thing recently is to just go ahead and get started on whatever change you want to make as soon as you think of it. I think we've all heard enough stories to realize that our time here is finite; so I say, let's get to it! 

      But, since so many people love the New Year as a time for resolutions, I'd like to offer a few tips I've found useful in actually carrying them out:

1. Do it now. (See above)
2. Make it small and specific. "Lose weight" is an awful resolution (note I said awful resolution, not intention). To make these things attainable, start small and avoid vague goals. Better resolutions might be "Stop drinking sugary soda," or "Work out twice a week." When you have something to work towards, and can then see yourself reaching your goals, it's much more motivating. 
3. Focus on one at a time. Most of us have lots of areas of our lives we'd like to improve: work, health, family, friends, hobbies, finances. But if you try to tackle them all at once, you'll only get overwhelmed and end up accomplishing nothing. Choose one area to start with, and once you've tackled your small & specific goals there and feel comfortable maintaining them, then move on to another area. Or--don't! Relish your success and relax for a while. Good job, you!
4. Get a buddy. If you can't find a friend with a similar goal, then at least tell others about your resolution. Being accountable is a HUGE factor in carrying out your goals (see my previous post about this). If you're the only one who knows about it, it's much easier to just say "forget about it." But if you have someone striving toward the same thing you are, someone to ask you about your progress, or someone to remind you when you slip up--you can't just forget about it. My husband recently had a resolution that he didn't want to tell me because he knew I'd bug him about it if he didn't do it. Well, he's right. But now that I know it's something he's really trying for, I want to support him rather than nag him. 
5. Mistakes are okay. Just because you botch it up and eat that whole package of Oreos does not mean all is lost. Enjoy the Oreos, and start again the next day. Making changes is hard, but don't ditch your resolution just because you aren't successful at it 100% of the time. Didn't anyone notice that I didn't write a blog post for over a month in November/December? Yeah, oops. But here I am, back at it.
6. Reward Thyself: I am a firm believer in giving yourself a little pat on the back for a job well done. Celebrate your successes--and not just at the end of the year. The summer I was training for my 1st marathon and writing my master's thesis, I'd tell myself I'd get an ice cream for every 10 pages written or after the really long runs (note: this reward is not ideal if your goal is losing weight. Maybe buy yourself new shoes or get your nails done instead).  

And now, to follow my own advice on accountability, here are my small, specific 
Writing Resolutions for 2015
You hereby have permission to bug me if I don't do them....

-Read more blogs about writing, and make comments. Goal: one new blog/comment per week. 

-Do at least two rounds of queries for my middle grade novel (for non-writers, this means sending it out to agents).

-Begin new middle grade manuscript (I have two ideas I'm kicking around...will let you know which wins). 

-Write 2 blog posts per month. 

Meet you at the ice cream shop!