Starting Your Own Critique Group, by Heather Stigall

Starting Your Own Critique Group

Quite some time ago I wrote a series of blog posts about critique groups. In them, I tackled five “Ws” and one “H”: Why join a critique group? How do you find or start a critique group? Who do you include in, and where and when do you hold a critique group? What to do when giving and receiving a critique, and what do you consider when joining or starting a critique group? You can refer back to those posts to read how I addressed those questions, but today I’d like to zero in on one aspect—starting a new critique group

To date, the Eastern PA chapter of SCBWI has 39 active critiques groups listed on our website. That means that many of our members are taking advantage of a valuable resource to help them on their writing and illustrating journeys. But I know there are many out there who are not in a critique group but want to be. How do I know? As the Critique Group Coordinator for our chapter, I receive emails from these members. Some of them decide to start their own groups, and you can too!

Who can start a new critique group?

Any of our Eastern PA SCBWI members! Are you looking for a critique group for picture book illustrators? Middle grade fiction? Poetry? YOU decide what genre you want to include in your group.

Where can your critique group meet? 

One perk of being a critique group leader is that you choose your meeting location. Currently, SCBWI is recommending that all events meet virtually, but when we are finally feeling comfortable with in-person events, you can choose a location that works for you. That can be a local coffee shop, bookstore, community center, or Zoom, Google Docs, or email.

When can your critique group meet? 

This is another advantage to leading your own group—you determine your group’s meeting time and frequency. You can choose a day and time that suits your needs and schedule. Or you can use that as a starting point and, once you have members, adjust to accommodate everyone’s needs.

Why start your own critique group? 

Sometimes members reach out to me after they have already looked through our critique group listings but couldn’t find a group that suited their needs. Sometimes members are already part of a critique group but want to be in a second group (for another genre or to have more eyes on their work, for example). Whatever the reason, you are welcome to lead your own group.

How do you start your own critique group? 

First, contact me at scbwiepaCGC@gmail.com to tell me you want to start your own group. I will ask you to provide me with some basic information so I can post your group on our website. I will also provide you with resources you might find helpful. Then I will send out an email to our members announcing your group is open. Sometimes all it takes is for one person to take the initiative to start a group and, before you know it, you have a full group. Some groups take longer to gain members, but you won’t really know if there are other writers looking in your area unless you advertise.

What are the critique group leader’s responsibilities? 

Critique groups are a collaborative experience, but at least one person needs to be listed as leader. Interested writers/illustrators will contact you if they are interested in joining. You can form your group on a first-come-first-serve basis until you are “full” (whatever “full” means to you), but you might want to utilize some sort of “screening” process. Some things to consider when forming your group are genre, experience, critique style, commitment, and career goals. You can ask potential members some screening questions, ask them to submit samples of work, or you can hold a meeting or two to see if you work well together. Once your group is established, you will likely have all your members weigh in on decisions about adding more members. You also act as leader during and in between meetings by doing things like making sure everyone has equal time or sending reminders about deadlines, meeting dates, and Zoom links. 

Still have questions? 

Don’t be afraid to ask! You might find the answers you’re looking for in the blogs I referenced above. If not, please contact me at scbwiepaCGC@gmail.com. I’m happy to answer any questions or concerns you might have. I can also provide you with resources about leading critique groups and giving and receiving critiques. 

If you’d like to consider creating your own critique group, please let me know.

I know first-hand how valuable critique groups can be, and there may be several others like you who want to find a group with openings in your area. 

Additional Opportunity:

If you’re interested in hearing more about critique groups, I’m planning a FREE virtual Meet & Greet on Tuesday, March 9 at 7:00 p.m. I’ll be giving an overview and some tips, but mostly I want to address YOUR questions and concerns. Maybe some of you will connect to form your own group! Whether or not you are already in a critique group, are considering forming one, or just want to hear about critique groups, all are welcome. I hope you’ll join me!

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He Said, She Said . . . , by Anthony D. Fredericks

A Monthly Column by Anthony D. Fredericks

He Said, She Said . . .

A fourth grader in the rear of the auditorium raised her hand and asked, “What inspires you to write for children?” I thought for a moment and responded by saying that kids are my inspiration. Their energy, their enthusiasm, and their unfettered curiosity about the world drive me to my desk every morning, keep my fingers dancing across the keyboard, and generate a million creative possibilities.

Later, as I contemplated my response, I concluded that, like other children’s authors, I also stand on the shoulders of many writers before me. In my writing workshops, I always admonish prospective authors to unfailingly read a plethora of children’s books before and during their own literary journeys. Knowing how other writers have drafted compelling themes, paced a plot on a faraway world, or invented sinister characters is critical to the development of one’s own philosophy and style. In short, our writing comes from experiencing the writing of others—not to emulate them, but rather to understand the power of vocabulary and the wonder of story.

So, too, have those writers penned inspirational homilies that give us counsel in writing our own books. While not all are children’s authors, they share profound thoughts that can solidify our mission, drive our enthusiasm, and propel our literature. Here are a few of my favorites. Write them down, post them over your computer, and embrace their wisdom. Consider them as new views on a familiar journey.

  • “Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” —E. L. Doctorow
  • “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” —Benjamin Franklin
  • “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” —Ray Bradbury
  • “The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.” —Gustave Flaubert
  • “Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.” —Meg Rosoff
  • “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” —Octavia E. Butler
  • “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” —E. L. Doctorow
  • “You fail only if you stop writing.” —Ray Bradbury
  • “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” —William Strunk, Jr.
  • “You know that I write slowly. This is chiefly because I am never satisfied until I have said as much as possible in a few words, and writing briefly takes far more time than writing at length.” —Carl Friedrich Gauss
  • “Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.” —E. B. White
  • “To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.” —Truman Capote
  • “Life throws surprises, sorrows, sadness, and hardship, and I think that writing has actually grounded me. It kept me grounded when everything else was falling apart.” —Sandra Brown
  • “Writing is an extreme privilege but it’s also a gift. It’s a gift to yourself and it’s a gift of giving a story to someone.” —Amy Tan
  • “I’m writing my story so that others might see fragments of themselves.” —Lena Waithe
  • “I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.” —James A. Michener
  • “Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism what will be grasped at once.” —Cyril Connolly
  • “I’m writing all the books I wish I had when I was a kid.” —Jason Reynolds
  • “The point always is to be writing something—it leads to more writing.” —Susanna Moore
  • “When I’m writing, I am concentrating almost wholly on concrete detail: the color a room is painted, the way a drop of water rolls off a wet leaf after a rain.” —Donna Tartt
  • “I like myself better when I’m writing regularly.” —Willie Nelson
  • “Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.” —E. L. Doctorow
  • “I think you become a writer when you stop writing for yourself or your teachers and start thinking about readers.” —Avi
  • “You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.” —Stephen King

OK, readers, what’s your favorite writing quote? Please share it with your fellow authors in the “Comments” section below. Spread the word; spread the wealth!

Editor’s note: Since Tony asked . . . I couldn’t help but include some more inspiring writing quotes. —Laura Parnum, EasternPennPoints Editor

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” —Toni Morrison

“I do believe writing is thinking. Sometimes we can’t untangle what’s happening in our brains, but we get our pen moving and all of a sudden, as we write, we figure it out.” —Elizabeth Acevedo

“Even the silence has a story to tell you. Just listen. Listen.” —Jacqueline Woodson

Tony is the author of more than 50 award-winning children’s books including Tall Tall Tree (Dawn), Desert Night, Desert Day (Rio Nuevo), and The Tsunami Quilt (Sleeping Bear). His latest book, “All Aboard!” Starts with A, will be released in April. For more information, check out www.anthonydfredericks.com.

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PAL Corner: Four Ways to Promote Your Books Through SCBWI Today! by Lindsay Bandy

Hi, everyone, I’m really excited to be back on Eastern Penn Points with a column for our published members! As your PAL coordinator, I can’t wait to get to know you better, talk about your needs, concerns, and achievements, and keep you informed about all the good stuff SCBWI has to offer right now. And I’m especially excited to keep adding more and more published members as we work toward success together.
For our first installment of the PAL Corner, I’d like to highlight a few current opportunities to sell and promote your books through SCBWI online. So much has been changing on the main web site as we’ve transitioned to digital opportunities this year, so here’s a little rundown of what you can do today to get more eyes on your books.

First, be sure to add any publications to your home page! You can add these books to various other lists from there. And if you need to apply for PAL status, just click on the link in the menu on your left. If you need help navigating this, don’t be shy!

1. Add your books to the Member Book Store. This can be done from My Home. Scroll down to the BOOKS section, and click to add publications. You can then add these to the SCBWI Member Bookstore, a searchable database with links for purchase. To check out the store, just click here: https://www.scbwi.org/bookstore-landing/

Art by Tina Kugler

2. Sign up for the Winter Conference and add up to two of your books to the Event Book Store! This is a free feature for anyone registered for the conference. Just log in and visit https://www.scbwi.org/conference-bookstore-member-pages/  

Helpful Hint: Changes are not saved automatically as you enter your info, so make sure you manually save frequently as you fill out the form. Then, you won’t have to redo everything like this girl right here. (Oopsie!)

3. Add your book to an appropriate Monthly Reading List. Monthly themes have been selected for the year, and you can add your book through My Home. Visit the Reading List page to learn more! https://www.scbwi.org/scbwi-reading-list/

We’re currently celebrating Black History Month, and March will be Women’s History Month!

4. The Crystal Kites are just around the corner, with voting beginning April 1. You can enter your book NOW, and preview the others already listed in the Atlantic Division by visiting https://www.scbwi.org/crystalkite-results/

That’s all for now, PALs! 

Stay safe and healthy, and keep in touch.

 Lindsay

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Announcing the 2021 Eastern PA SCBWI Let’s Connect Mentorship Program

We need one another

We need support

We need connection

We need community

We are honored to announce the Eastern PA SCBWI LET’S CONNECT MENTORSHIP PROGRAM. This multi-month, one-on-one mentorship program begins formally this April 2021 and ends in September 2021 and has been made possible through the efforts of our volunteers and mentors—celebrated storytellers from our region.


The mentorship program includes

  • Choice of full or partial manuscript feedback for novelists, OR feedback for up to two picture books for picture book authors or author/illustrators
  • Monthly email or phone check-ins with your mentor (April – September 2021)
  • Virtual meetings within our storyteller community to ask questions, share support, and learn together (March, May, July, and September)
  • A place to find creative support and build community in the Eastern PA region
  • Scholarships available (see below)

Introducing our MENTORS…

Novelists

Picture Book Authors

Picture Book Author/Illustrators


Cost and scholarship support

To value the critique and feedback portion of this opportunity, we will ask $275 for our picture book mentorship and for our partial novel mentorship. We will ask $525 for our full novel mentorship.

The Equity and Inclusion Team of Eastern PA SCBWI is honored to announce three scholarships to be awarded to story creators whose work promotes the mission of the Equity and Inclusion Team. These stories should allow all children to embrace and celebrate their own experiences as well as foster appreciation for the richness of other cultures in our world.


Want to become a mentee? 

Here’s how to apply!

Please note that this opportunity is for active members of the Eastern PA SCBWI only. If you are unsure of your membership status, please visit www.scbwi.org.

If you would like to apply for a scholarship, please see step “g” below.

1. Consider the project(s) for which you would like to have mentor support in 2021.

2. Learn more about each mentor and their work to consider who might be the best fit for you and your specific project by visiting their websites.

3. If you think the mentorship program would be right for you, please email Lindsay Bandy at lindsay@lindsaybandybooks.com with the following information (you can cut and paste this list into the body of your email):

a) Your name

b) A brief personal bio

c) Short description(s) of project(s) you would like to use during this program. (If you are a novelist, please describe one project. Picture book authors or author/illustrators can list up to two.)

d) Identify the genre(s) of the projects listed in “c.”

e) Describe briefly which mentor you feel you would be best matched to work with (and if you would be open to working with any other mentors in the group).

f) Attach up to a 1,000-word sample of your writing. (This must be from a work you would like to use during the mentorship.)

g) If you are applying for one of our Equity and Inclusion scholarships, please include a narrative response here as to how your project(s) connect to the mission of the Equity and Inclusion Team (see above). Please also note if you will only be able to participate in the program if you receive the funds from the Equity and Inclusion Team.

Please email the above no later than February 25, 2021.

You will be notified of your status no later than March 3, 2021 if you apply for the Equity and Inclusion funds.

You will be notified of your status no later than March 10, 2021 for general applications.

If you have any questions, please email Lindsay Bandy at lindsay@lindsaybandybooks.com.

We hope that each year we will grow in mentors and grow in storytellers.

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Member News — January 2021

Member News is a monthly feature on the EasternPennPoints blog. We want to celebrate our Eastern PA SCBWI members’ good news and help spread the word far and wide. Send us your children’s book–related news—book deals, releases, awards, author or illustrator events (signings, launch parties, appearances), etc. If you’d like your news to be included in next month’s column, please email Laura Parnum at epa-ra2@scbwi.org before February 20 or fill out our “Good News Survey.”

Here’s some exciting news from our members this month:

Agent Signings

  • Author Alyssa Reynoso-Morris signed with agent Kaitlyn Sanchez of Olswanger Literary, and they are currently on submission with two picture books.
  • Author Chris Low signed with agent Joyce Sweeney at Seymour Literary Agency and recently published the short story “Local Buzz” in Balloons Literary Journal.
  • Author (and Eastern PA SCBWI Co-Regional Advisor) Laura Parnum signed with agent Kaitlyn Johnson of Belcastro Agency for representation of her middle grade novel.

Here’s to long and productive literary partnerships for all of them!


Instagram Challenges

Two of our illustrator members are involved in Instagram challenges this month. Sarah Ryan started her second 100-day challenge on January 15, posting 100 days of backyard birds. Check out her progress on Instagram (@sarahryandraws). Tara Santoro launched an illustration challenge for 2021: the Great Illustrated Recipe Challenge (@gr.illustratedrecipechallenge #IllustratedRecipeChallenge). Click here to see what was posted!


Author-Illustrator Julie Fortenberry’s upcoming picture book, Darcy’s First Sleepover (Christy Ottaviano Books), will be released in June 2021 and is now available for preorder here: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250755902. Darcy’s First Sleepover is a story about overcoming anxiety: Every night at home, Darcy brushes her teeth with strawberry toothpaste, she snuggles in bed with Little Cat, and she falls asleep to the sound of her dad washing the dishes. But tonight, Darcy is having her very first sleepover! Even though it’s at her cousin Kayla’s house, it still feels a little daunting. Kayla has peppermint toothpaste, a baby bear named Charlotte, and howling winds outside her window. Darcy misses her dad and her own cozy bedroom. Should she ask her aunt to take her home? This rewarding tale celebrates the excitement of new experiences and the power of quiet growth. Backmatter also includes steps parents can take when helping kids prepare for their first sleepover.

In addition, Julie’s most recent book, Pearl Goes to Preschool (Candlewick, July 2020), received reviews from Horn Book, Booklist, and The Wall Street Journal. You can read Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and more reviews here.


Author Joan Friday recently released her first YA novel, My Sister, My Soul: An Arabian Nights Tale on Amazon in both paperback and ebook. My Sister, My Soul is the story of Scheherazade and her sister, set long ago in an ancient palace with a touch of fantasy. Is the legend of the phoenix true, or is it her sister’s stories that will save the kingdom—and keep them alive? The book is available here.


Author Susan Dalessandro’s YA novel, Complex Solutions, will release in March 2021. In this novel, sixteen-year-old Lexi learns that her parents secretly proved a famous math theorem before their deaths in a car accident. An accident she believes she caused. Stalked by a man who wants the proof of the theorem for his own glory, she turns to a friend for help, falling hard for him, while trying to conceal her own secret of self-harm.

This month Susan also released a YA novella, Sink or Swim, as part of a romance box set entitled Askew Ever After (RhetAskew Publishing, January 2021).


Rose Capelli’s poem “Can You Wiggle Like a Worm” was published in the anthology Hop to It: Poems to Get You Moving by Silvia Vardell and Janet Wong (Pomelo Books, October 2020). The book is a collection of 100 poems by 90 poets, with fun factoids sprinkled throughout, thematic mini-lessons, and extensive backmatter featuring useful tips to help maximize student learning. Poems involve the whole body and incorporate a wide variety of movements—including deskercise! The book is available here: https://www.qepbooks.com/Products/HOP-TO-IT-Poems-to-Get-You-Moving__Pom7299.aspx.


Kira Barrett was accepted into the Vermont College of Fine Arts, into the Masters in Children’s and Young Adult Writing program. Kira is thrilled to be joining this exceptional program, starting January 2021, to fully immerse herself in developing the craft.


Katie Caprino has started a children’s book blog. As writers, we are always reading mentor texts to improve our craft. Katie wanted a place to share her ideas about contemporary children’s books with other writers, parents, and teachers. Katie Reviews Books (katiereviewsbooks.wordpress.com) is the result of her desire to share her love of children’s literature titles with others.


Author-illustrator Adrienne Wright will be presenting in a free webinar on Feb 3 at 7:00pm EST for the Global Read Aloud webinar series. Adrienne will be discussing her book, Hector: A Boy, a Protest, and the Photograph that Changed Apartheid, which won the Children’s Africana Book Award last year and is featured for the Africa portion of the series. Adrienne will be talking about her inspiration, research, and sources and will be doing a short reading from the book. There will be a Q&A session after the presentation. Register here: http://africaaccessreview.org/global-read-webinar/


If you have good news to share, please send it to epa-ra2@scbwi.org to be included in next month’s Member News column or fill out our “Good News Survey.”

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A Cafe Chat with Sarah Ryan, by Berrie Torgan-Randall

Today on the blog we return to the virtual EasternPennPoints Café where our Illustrator Coordinator, Berrie Torgan-Randall, has invited illustrator Sarah Ryan for a chat. Sarah has recently embarked on an Instagram challenge in which she plans to draw 100 backyard birds in 100 days. Here’s what they had to say.

Berrie: Hi, Sarah. Welcome to the Café Chat. Would you like a cup of coffee or some bird seed?

Sarah: Thanks so much for having me! Coffee please!

Berrie: Why did you choose to draw birds for your 100-day challenge?  

Sarah: I have always loved birdwatching! I look forward to seeing how many I can spot during the spring and fall migrations. I recently took a trip to the Edwin Forsythe Refuge in New Jersey and saw two short-eared owls; it was very exciting! My boyfriend also takes beautiful bird pictures, so I have plenty of references. (He’s on Instagram as @zgillespie215.)

Berrie: Where did you find the inspiration to draw 100 birds? Is there a hashtag for 100-day challenges?

Sarah: This is the second 100-day challenge I’ve tried. Last year I drew 100 butterflies, but it took me way more than 100 days. This time I’m trying to really get all of these birds done in 100 days. I try to think of the mantra “finished, not perfect” to get myself to post them in time. I think a lot of artists get caught up in perfectionism, but sometimes it’s good to just practice and produce. The hashtags I’m using for this project are #100birds #100dayproject #100dayproject2021 and #100daychallenge.

Berrie: Tell us about your art background and your favorite Eastern PA SCBWI events that you have attended. 

Sarah: I started out admiring children’s books! I was an assistant manager at Barnes & Noble for five years, and I worked in a children’s library in Upper Darby for 10+ years. I’ve always drawn as a hobby, and I posted those drawings on a blog for fun. A friend of mine submited my drawings to a gallery without telling me, and they got accepted! That was the first time I realized that this could be a career.

My favorite SCBWI events have been the Portfolio 911 workshop (although I’m still working on my children’s illustration portfolio!) and Illustrator Day 2019; I met so many great people at both events! I also went to the New York Winter Conference in 2018. I learned a whole lot there, and one of my goals is to attend again when it’s safe. 

Berrie: What is your advice for illustrators wanting to open up their own Etsy shop? What is your most popular item?

Sarah: I’ve had a lot of success with Etsy, but I think you have to self-promote first. There are so so many artists and illustrators on that platform, and your work can easily get lost in the shuffle. When you start getting some sales, then you’ll rank higher in Etsy’s search algorithm and customers will be able to find you.

My most popular items have been anything with my bat illustrations. Bat cards, bat garlands, bat stickers . . . you name it and there’s been a demand. Bat rescue groups and bat biologists have been some of my best customers. 

Berrie: Last fall when I was visiting Cape May, I saw your illustrations for sale in one of the shops. What other stores carry your illustrations? How did you make this happen?

Sarah: I usually have work in about nine different shops, but a lot of them have been closed over the past year. Some of my favorites are VIX Emporium in West Philadelphia, Nice Things Handmade in South Philadelphia, and Art Star in Northern Liberties. The shop in Cape May in West End Garage is run by a friend who also runs the West Craft Fest events in West Philly.

A friendly email to shop owners is a great way to introduce yourself. I would never make an unannounced visit to a store, because a lot of these shops have a very small staff, and they can’t really spend time talking with you during retail hours. A lot of shops will ask you for a wholesale line sheet that lists your products and wholesale prices.  

Berrie: You recently illustrated a book for the City of Philadelphia Recreation Department. What is the book about, and did you enjoy working on this project?

Sarah: I worked on a coloring book about Love Park for the Fairmount Park Conservancy. I did enjoy working on it! I had to shift gears and work in pen instead of my normal watercolor and pencil, so it was a challenge. The coloring book was given to children while they were waiting for their parents at the Philadelphia Family Court across the street from the park and was also sold at Christmas Village.

Berrie: I see that you post a lot of your illustrations on Instagram. What are your favorite hashtags to follow? 

Sarah: My favorite hashtags to follow are mostly animal related, like #birdsofinstagram #wildart2021 #nationalparks . . . and (of course) #scbwi.

Berrie: You also sell your illustrations on cards, prints, garlands, and stickers. Do you have a favorite printer that you use to manufacture these items? Were you able to sell your illustrations at craft shows this year, or were they mostly cancelled due to the pandemic? 

Sarah: I manufacture everything myself! When I started my business, I saved money until I could get a large format archival printer. I like that I can control the colors myself, and I can test out small quantities of prints. I also have a Cricut machine to cut the stickers and garlands.

I do get business cards and promotional materials printed by Fireball Printing in Philadelphia. 

I didn’t participate in any art events or craft shows in the past year. I just didn’t feel it was safe for me. I did have work in the Virtual Art Star Craft Bazaar, but I really missed their live events! I am so grateful for people who found me online. Usually online sales are a third of my income, but this year they had to be 100% of it.

Berrie: Any other advice for our illustrator members?

Sarah: Support other artists!

Also, don’t take rejections personally. When you apply for jobs and juried events or contact shops, they could really love your work, but it might not fit with the exact aesthetic the store or project has in mind. It says nothing about you as a person if they say no. Send a thank-you note or email afterward. 


Sarah Ryan is an artist and illustrator based in Haverford, PA. She’s fueled by ice cream and imagination, and inspired by comic books, vintage advertisements, and fairy tales. Her favorite tools are mechanical pencils, watercolor, and gouache, and her work usually features animals, elements of fantasy, and a healthy amount of humor.

Be sure to check out Sarah Ryan on Instagram (@sarahryandraws) to see her 100 days of backyard birds challenge. You can also visit her website at https://sarahdrawsthings.com and her Etsy store.

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A Visit with “Mrs. Claiborne’s Ghost,” by Anthony D. Fredericks

A Monthly Column by Anthony D. Fredericks

A Visit with “Mrs. Claiborne’s Ghost”

I’m going to begin this month’s column by giving you a homework assignment. I’d like to invite you to read a story—a most compelling story—and then, when you return to this column, we’ll use that tale as an example (perchance, a lesson) of what good writing is all about.

Please read this story before continuing with the column below: https://parhelionliterary.com/laura-parnum

The question lingering over all our literary efforts is, “What really makes up a good children’s story?” Below you will discover selected elements that clearly distinguish good stories from those that are run-of-the-mill. We’ll use “Mrs. Claiborne’s Ghost” as an example of how those elements are seamlessly, wondrously, and magnificently included in a well wrought tale.

A Powerful Lead/Hook

A good book starts off with a strong “hook.” The “hook” grabs the reader’s attention—an introduction that is so amazingly interesting, incredibly mysterious, or delightfully thought provoking that readers just have to keep reading. These first sentences are an inducement to learn more or discover what comes next in the narrative. Here’s how the author of “Mrs. Claiborne’s Ghost” hooked us:

“Mrs. Alexander Bennington Claiborne ran her delicate fingers over the cushion of the parlor settee.”

Notice how the author used the full and formal name of the main character, the precise description of her fingers, a specific piece of furniture, along with its exact location. In one sentence the author offers four clearly defined facts that thoughtfully pull us into another time, a signature place, and a most unique character. This is a lead expressly designed to seize our attention and gently lure us into the story.

Exacting Vocabulary

The right words, in the right place, at the right time. This is what all writers strive for—a constant linguistic challenge that propels a manuscript, any manuscript, through multiple drafts and multiple decisions. Too many writers are prone to telling about an action or a character when showing would give readers an opportunity to become part of the story. Look at these examples from “Mrs. Claiborne’s Ghost”:

  • “Mrs. Claiborne sighed a great heavy sigh that, had her father still been alive, would have sent him searching the four corners of the globe . . . .”
  • “Upon turning the corner, the handsome Ravenfield house had come into view with its gables and turrets and dormered windows.”

Precise vocabulary is invitational. It summons the reader to make a mental investment in the story . . . a visual image. In so doing, the reader’s engagement is both ensured and respected. This can only be accomplished when the words selected are as exacting as they can be.

The Rhythm of Language

Good writing has a melody. It has a cadence and a pacing that is rich and warm. It is musical and it is lyrical—an arrangement of words and sentences that compel, engage, and excite. It is something to be read aloud to a group of eager youngsters because its power is in the rhythm of the language. It is like a classical melody (Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 14, “Moonlight”) or a guitar riff (B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone”) that sounds wonderful the first time you hear it . . . and every time after that. It is a story to be savored like a song that must be played. It is music! Witness these examples:

  • “Her silky hair was the color of butterscotch and was tied back with light blue ribbons.  Her dress was the purest white, and her expression had just a hint of sadness.”
  • “The scent of bergamot immediately filled her nostrils, and her hands, which she realized had been clenched, relaxed and reached for the cup.”

Dialogue

We learn about the personality of story characters, not by how they are described, but rather by what they say. Just like that person you met for the first time at the last social event. (You know, the guy who just couldn’t stop talking about himself.) You were able to assess his persona simply by listening to his words. In short, speech reveals character. You want to unveil your story characters in the same way. You don’t have to attach a plethora of adjectives to them, just let them talk and offer your readers an opportunity to deduce character from what each individual says. For example,

  • Mr. Claiborne chuckled. ‘Now they’re publishing ghost sightings on the society page. Ridiculous! I’m sure they just have drafty windows and an old servant who’s suffering from dementia.’”
  • I’m Mrs. Alexander Bennington Claiborne. Surely you’ve heard of my husband?’”

Special Insights

Good writers sprinkle unexpected literary delights throughout their manuscript. These aren’t necessarily required for the character, setting, or plot, but they add just a little more spice, making the reading just a little special. They are an added bonus—a treat for both the eyes and the ears. These are the surprises that differentiate a good story from a great story. They make a story richer by their inclusion and our experience of that story a little more memorable. Remember these examples:

  • “The next thing Mrs. Claiborne knew, the girl had wrenched herself from her grip with a strength quite surprising for one supposedly so sick.”
  • “But this woman was nothing if not ordinary. The only noteworthy thing about her appearance was a large collar of lace draped over her otherwise plain gray frock.”

These five elements are essential—no, critical—to a story well told. Consider them as vital components in your own writing as much as they were intrinsic to Mrs. Claiborne’s tale.

NOTE: Many readers will recognize the author of “Mrs. Claiborne’s Ghost.” Laura Parnum is the Co-Regional Advisor for Eastern PA SCBWI and the Editor of EasternPennPoints. She is a celebrated author in her own right, and I’m honored to have her as my mentor on “Write Angles.” She introduced me to “Mrs. Claiborne’s Ghost” last October, and as soon as I read it, I knew it would be an exemplary model for a future column. There is much to savor here . . . and much to learn! Thank you, Laura.

_____________

Tony is the author of more than 50 children’s books. In addition, he has written the celebrated Writing Children’s Books: Everything You Need to Know from Story Creation to Getting Published (https://amzn.to/3ey0CsG).  [“. . . a must have for all authors writing fiction and non-fiction books. This is one of the best books I’ve seen on the market . . . from beginning to end.” —Amazon 5-star review].

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Eastern PA SCBWI Webinar Series: The Foundations of Story, with Eric K. Taylor

WEBINAR SERIES

The Foundations of Story

February 1, February 15, and March 1, 2021
7:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. EST

Join us for one or all three!

This webinar series is not to be missed for all children’s authors.


Monday, February 1

Part I: The Foundation of Emotion: Tension, Desire, Stakes, and Emotional High Points

We know action is central to scene. But action alone can result in what Gardner famously calls just “one damn thing after another.” Constructing situations, actions, and events in light of desires (what characters consciously and unconsciously want), stakes (what characters stand to lose if things don’t work), fears, controlling beliefs, misconceptions, and various other internal qualities makes for a richer story. Using all of this to create tension, and intersecting all of this with what Maas calls emotional “high moments,” makes our stories much richer. 

*Registration for the live webinar link closes at 5:00 a.m. the morning of the event.


Monday, February 15

Part II: The Foundation of Structure: Scene and Summary

Scene and summary are key elements of writing. Summary covers a longer period of time briefly. Summary is useful for giving background, for setting scene, for passing over time. You’ll find bits of summary sprinkled throughout a story. But the bulk of a story takes place in scene. In scene, we write about brief periods at length, where the camera zooms in close and we see what happens, real-time, blow-by-blow. Scene is where action and dialogue take place, where characters do things, where things change for the characters, where we find crises and turning points. This session explores scene and summary in more detail, examining when each is useful. And for scene, we’ll examine key elements and what’s needed to really make a scene move your story forward.

*Registration for the live webinar link closes at 5:00 a.m. the morning of the event. 


Monday, March 1

Part III: The Foundation of Opposition and Growth: Antagonists

We all want more compelling heroes. One key to developing our protagonist and requiring their growth is to create better antagonists, especially in light of your character’s inner and outer desires. This session explores why the right antagonists are critical to help make your protagonist their best self and how to design better antagonists. This includes not only hostile antagonists but also well meaning antagonists who have the character’s best interests at heart. There are even ways the hero can be their own worst enemy. We’ll consider internal and external tensions, how different types of antagonists stretch your hero in different ways, and how both emotional and practical opposition makes the character grow and change the most. A hero rarely if ever rises about the level of the antagonists.

*Series registration closes at 5:00 a.m. on Monday, March 1.


CRITIQUES: (at additional cost of $50) Submissions are due on or before Friday, February 5, 2021. For picture books, send one full manuscript plus a two- to three-sentence pitch in the same document. For CB/MG/YA, send up to 10 pages of your manuscript, plus a one-page synopsis.


Get to know your instructor: 

Eric K. Taylor is the author of Using Folktales (Cambridge) and editor of the contemporary language version of William Penn’s Some Fruits of Solitude (Herald). His adult poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared in River Teeth (“Beautiful Things” series), English Journal, Whale Road Review, Plough Quarterly, and Poetica. Children’s poems have appeared in The Caterpillar and Imperfect—Poems about Mistakes: An Anthology for Middle Schoolers. His passion is writing for children and young adults.

Eric holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He has taught college-level writing, editing, and ESL; has done readings and discussions in elementary classrooms; and has led classes and workshops at AWP, StoryMakers, Eastern PA SCBWI, the New England Young Writers’ Conference at Breadloaf, the Vermont Conference on Christianity & the Arts, the Northern Pen Young Writers’ Conference, the Gove Hill Writing Retreat, and elsewhere. He has also served on the steering committee for the Vermont Conference on Christianity and the Arts. Find out more about him at ektaylorbooks.com.


For more information and to register, go to https://epa.scbwi.org/events/webinar-the-foundations-of-story/.

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Two Upcoming Eastern PA Webinars: Crafting Picture Books and Crafting Novels, with Emma Dryden

Upcoming Webinars

Crafting Picture Books & Crafting Novels: Tips & Tools (and a Trick or Two!)

February 11, 2021 and March 25, 2021
7:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. EST

Join us for one or both!


February 11, 2021 – Crafting Picture Books: Tips & Tools (and a Trick or Two!)

Lectures will be recorded for all registered participants. In this webinar, Emma will explore elements that make great picture books, focusing on everything from word count, read-aloudability, and how to use page turns for best effect to defining three picture book structures, the difference between plot and story, and how to create picture book dummies. Emma will be suggesting writing exercises and providing a variety of invaluable handouts/worksheets. 

*Registration for the live webinar link closes 5:00 a.m. (EST) the morning of the event. 


March 25, 2021 – Crafting Novels: Tips & Tools (and a Trick or Two!)

(Lectures will be recorded for all registered participants.) In this webinar, Emma will explore elements that make great novels, focusing on everything from genres, the difference between MG and YA, and plot structure options to considering action plots and emotional plots, creating authentic characters, and how to world-build. Emma will be suggesting writing exercises and providing a variety of invaluable handouts/worksheets.

*Series registration closes 5:00 a.m. (EST) on Thursday, March 25.


Career Consultations available: (at additional cost of $60) Editorial and publishing consultant, Emma D. Dryden, will meet with authors or illustrators through 20-minute career consultations over Zoom or Skype to discuss or address any one of the following:

  • Career questions/concerns/conundrums
  • A draft query letter assessment
  • Synopsis (of fewer than 500 words) assessment
  • A digital portfolio or website review
  • Submission/query questions
  • Agent research/advice
  • Marketplace questions

Note: Emma will neither recommend nor refer specific agents/agencies. Emma will not be looking at manuscripts. In advance of the consultation, Emma will contact the author/illustrator via email to discuss their specific needs so she can determine what she’d like them to send to her prior to their consultation. She will also schedule a mutually convenient virtual meeting time.


Get to know your instructor:

Emma D. Dryden established drydenbks LLC, a premier children’s editorial and publishing consultancy firm, after over twenty years as a highly regarded children’s book editor and publisher with Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division. During her tenure as VP, Publisher of Atheneum BFYR and Margaret K. McElderry Books, she oversaw the annual publication of more than a hundred hardcover and paperback titles. Over the course of her thirty-five-year career, Emma has edited more than 1,000 books for children and young readers, many of which have received numerous awards and medals, including but not limited to the National Book Award Honor, Newbery Honor, and Caldecott Honor, and which have hit bestseller lists in USA Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Publishers Weekly, as well as other national publications. Emma is a proud member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators’ Board of Advisors; she teaches numerous writing and craft workshops around the world and online, and can be found online at www.drydenbks.com.


Webinars are $15 each/$25 for both for SCBWI members and $25 each/$40 for both for nonmembers.

To register for one or both of these webinars, go to https://epa.scbwi.org/events/craft-webinars-crafting-picture-books-and-crafting-novels/.

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Member News — December 2020

Member News is a monthly feature on the EasternPennPoints blog. We want to celebrate our Eastern PA SCBWI members’ good news and help spread the word far and wide. Send us your children’s book–related news—book deals, releases, awards, author or illustrator events (signings, launch parties, appearances), etc. If you’d like your news to be included in next month’s column, please email Laura Parnum at epa-ra2@scbwi.org before January 20.

Here’s some exciting news from our members this month:

Santa and the Cotton Tree (Covenant Books, June 2020) by Diane Campbell Green (illustrated by Linda E. Jones) recently won a Royal Dragonfly Award in the Holiday category. The book tells the story of the Christmas Eve adventures of four children in Yardley, PA, circa 1963 and includes an old Bucks County tradition.


Rissy No Kissies (Carolrhoda Books, March 2021) by Katey Howes (illustrated by Jess Engle) recently received a starred Kirkus review. The book is about a lovebird who doesn’t like kisses: Rissy’s friends and family wonder if she’s sick, confused, or rude. But kisses make Rissy uncomfortable. Can one little lovebird show everyone that there’s no one right way to show you care? Rissy No Kissies carries the message that “your body and your heart are yours, and you choose how to share.” A note at the end provides further information for kids, parents, and educators about body autonomy, consent, and different ways to show affection. The book is currently available for preorder.


A Teacher Like You (Sleeping Bear Press, March 2021) by Frank Murphy and Barbara Dan (illustrated by Kayla Harren) is available for preorder. Teachers have the power to change the life of a child with every new school day. Whether they’re discovering math or reading, practicing a new instrument or a new sport, or learning about our wonderful, diverse world, students can count on the kindness, innovation, and patience of a teacher. This is a wonderful celebration of all the ways teachers help their students bloom.


If you have good news to share, please send it to epa-ra2@scbwi.org to be included in next month’s Member News column.

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