Thursday, August 27, 2015

Eliza Wheeler on "The 'I Suck' Dilemma" - a guest post


It’s been two weeks since the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators annual summer conference in Los Angeles, and I am still feeling like I’m in recovery mode. This conference is a massive whirling ball of creative energy. There we experience information, inspiration, connection, excitement, boredom, nervousness, and ultimately, exhaustion! It was the first year I was on faculty to give a portfolio workshop and moderate a panel of art directors at the Illustrator’s Intensive day, so all of these feelings for me over the four days were extra heightened.

A memorable moment happened at the end of that Illustrator’s intensive day when the faculty was giving parting words for the attendees. The very last question that came up was (I’m paraphrasing):
“After four days at this conference I’m left feeling two things: An intense excitement and inspiration to go home, do more work and get better. Then there’s this overwhelming, ‘Oh my god, I SUCK! How am I ever going to get there?!’ What the heck do we do with these feelings?”
This question lit a fire within the faculty, Caldecott-winning illustrators and art directors battling for the mic to say: “That feeling NEVER goes away.” And, “Maybe we do suck, but we have to keep going, keep working at it.” And, “The feeling of sucky-ness is what pushes us to reach for more and better. If we thought our work was awesome all the time, we’d get too comfortable and complacent with our work.” It felt like the conversation could have lasted for hours. One thing was clear – we all feel this way, no matter how successful we’ve become in the eyes of others. And I felt so moved to say something, and we were sort of out of time, but mostly I just didn’t have the courage to take the floor in that moment. So that question has been eating at me since, and I’ve decided to share what I had wanted to say then, here.
by Debbie Ohi,
There’s a fundamental problem in the way that we creative people approach our work. We draw lines or write words on paper, declare them an extension of ourselves, and then label those marks (and ourselves) as either AWESOME or SUCKY. This is an illogical and unhelpful thing that we do. 

THIS IS NOT A PIPE: The Treachery of Labels

In Rene Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images, the image we see is a painting of a pipe. Underneath the pipe are the words, “This is not a pipe.” Because of course, it isn’t. It is paint on canvas. Can we take away the labels of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ from our work, and see it simply for what it is? Marks on paper. 

 Even worse than the judgements we give our marks on paper are the labels we give to ourselves (in response to the marks on paper). “I SUCK!” we proclaim. But I am not those marks – I am a human being, that is ink on paper, and “I suck” is only a thought in my head.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” ~William Shakespeare
I think we are afraid that if we don’t connect our identities to our work, if we don’t judge it as good or bad, we won’t care about the outcome. We won’t care to improve, to grow. I assure you, this is not the case. Why?

Because the reason we do this work, the reason that we sit down every day and make marks on paper, is because we have seen art, or read writing that made our hearts sing. Maybe we’ve even had a taste of this from our own work. But that is our driving force behind making marks. We want our ideas and our marks to make our hearts sing.


So, back to that question, “What do we do with these intense feelings of ‘I suck’?”

On an action level, we have two simple choices:

1. Continue making marks on that paper.

2. Make new marks on a new piece of paper. 

How do we know which action to take? Once we take our thoughts away we are left with the marks on paper, and our internal feeling response to the marks. This internal feeling is your guide to what to do next, so give it your full attention. Don’t label it, don’t judge it, just feel it.

Does it feel enthusiastic, exhilarating, expansive, focused, or simply relieving? Those are good signs to keep going!

Does it feel confusing, tense, blocked, or like a sinking pit in your stomach? This is a signal that you might want to stop and refocus. So in that moment ask yourself those two questions:

1. Would it feel better to continue making marks on this paper?

2. Would it feel better to make new marks on new paper?

When you look at these lines on the paper, does it feel better to leave them as they are? Does it feel worse to abandon it now? Maybe more marks will fix what’s not working for you. Does it feel better to do something entirely different? There’s no right or wrong answer, you’re just feeling for relief. Every moment is a slight adjustment towards a feeling of relief. Improvement is a matter of incremental turns in the direction of better feeling marks.

I would also suggest taking these steps (often) in between number one and two:

1. Take a nap. (Or a walk. Or a shower. Clean something. Read something, etc.) It’s likely that if you’re in the emotional state of ‘I suck’, none of those marks will please you right now. I have discovered that when I take action in my desperation to fix problems, I usually end up mucking things up further because of my lack of clarity. Walk away and come back with a clear mind. Those two decisions of continuing or starting over will still be there, but you’ll be fresh in your approach.

2. Study marks on other papers. Stepping away from your marks often and revisiting other work that you love will remind you of that heart-singing feeling. Try to learn about why those marks worked so well. It can help create more clarity in what kinds of marks you want to make that will feel better.

REVISION, EVOLUTION, IMPROVEMENT, GROWTH Maybe the marks won’t make your heart completely sing for a while, but you will be able to at least feel relief from previous marks that really didn’t feel good. Keep turning, making incremental shifts to a place that feels a little better, and a little better. This is what we call ‘the revision process.’

TURN IN THE DIRECTION OF FUN. If you aren’t enjoying yourself, it’s likely you’re not going to create work you love. A miserable journey is not going to leave you feeling happy at the end. A joyful journey is going to respond with a joyful outcome. Melissa Sweet taught me this – at the Illustrator Workshop, she showed us some painting she was experimenting with, and to us it looked gorgeous. But she asked herself one simple question, “Okay, this looks great, but am I having FUN?? No.” So she turned in the fun direction, and the work came out EVEN BETTER. To anyone else it may look great, or it may suck, but the only thing that’s relevant is how the marks make you feel. So those small incremental turns should go in the direction of fun–in the direction of play–in the direction of relief. They are moment by moment, downstream turns. Effort and pushing feels upstream. Playing and inspiring feels downstream.

I am the first one to admit that I get too precious with my work. I have limited time, and so I often feel that I have to make everything count, that it has to be perfect right out of the gate. But that’s not how the creative process works. It’s not how those heart-singing surprises happen. I’ve realized that when I’m too concerned with creating a great end product (trying to do something that doesn’t suck), and add to that working on a deadline, that’s when it goes downhill for me. But when I’m focused in each moment with ink flowing on paper, without analyzing or judging it, that’s when the magic happens. Inspiration and insights come out of a good-feeling process, and answers to problems in the work are waiting there.

This process of mark-making and finding relief in new marks is a process that never ends. It’s creative evolution – it IS the work. Turn towards those feelings of inspiration and the desire to keep making new marks, and release the “I SUCK!” words in your head. Those small, gradual, incremental turns will eventually lead you towards mark-making that will make your heart sing.

* * *

Author / Illustrator Eliza Wheeler

Eliza Wheeler is the author-illustrator of MISS MAPLE'S SEEDS (Penguin), which debuted on the New York Times Best Seller list. She has also illustrated other children’s books, including Pat Zietlow Miller’s picture book WHEREVER YOU GO (Little Brown), and Holly Black’s Newbery Honor winning novel DOLL BONES (Simon & Schuster). Eliza received the SCBWI Grand Prize Award for best portfolio at the 2011 National Conference. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband. 

Here's a cover for a recent title she illustrated:

See more of her work at

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

5 Great Middle Grade and YA Novel Tips from #LA15SCBWI

Editor Emma Dryden, on why Ellen Hopkins' books are so popular: "These books are dealing with how kids would really feel in these situations. But if it's not on the page, kids are going to think you're lying to them."

Emma Dryden edited this latest YA novel from best-selling author Ellen Hopkins 

On the 'perfect, magical' minority trope: "Your characters deserve to be three-dimensional." -Varian Johnson

Varian wrote this breakout Middle Grade Novel

"I make my novels as short as they can possibly be." -Newbery-Winning Author Paul Fleischman

Paul's middle grade novel has been chosen as a state- and city-wide read across the U.S.A. And it's only 80 pages long!

"Authenticity equals specificity" -Editor Jordan Brown

Among the authors Jordan edits is Anne Ursu

"What we remember from books isn't plot but character." -Meg Wolitzer

Bestselling Adult author Meg Wolitzer's debut YA novel

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies - A Great Craft Book by Deborah Halverson

I need to start this post with an apology to Deborah and all of you.  I resisted checking this book out for too long, because I didn't love the self-defined idea of claiming "dummy" status by picking it up... I guess I was embarrassed. (I'm almost embarrassed to admit that!)

But really, I'm over it now. Because Deborah Halverson (who I'm always so impressed with) has put together a really useful guide, for all of us who write YA.

And her book is packed with good stuff. Like on page 76, where Deborah explains:

Calling all heroes

Your goal with your main character (or protagonist) is to move the plot forward and in the process transform that character into something better or wiser, thereby giving life to the story's themes. The reader, too, should be better off for having read this character's tale. To accomplish this, all protagonists, regardless of their age or the genre, have to share three attributes:

 Check mark symbolA need or want strong enough to make the hero struggle onward, no matter what obstacles frustrate his quest to achieve it: This need or want is the character's goal. In teen novels, the need/want must be something other teens can relate to. After all, shattering the glass ceiling at the office has no meaning for readers whose career arc is still in the squeezing-lemons-at-Hot-Dog-on-a-Stick phase – if they're even old enough for a work permit. Examples of teen-friendly needs/wants are parental or peer approval, salvation of other characters in physical or emotional peril, or winning a competition against other teens.
Within this need/want attribute is its opposite: the fear of failing to attain that Big Want. This is an important factor because the more undesirable you make the consequence of failure, the greater your hero's fear will be, increasing the tension in your story. Tension makes readers turn pages. I talk about raising the stakes to heighten tension in Chapter 6.

Check mark symbol A key flaw. The protagonist's flaw is that undesirable trait he keeps tripping over as he tries to attain his goal. Another way to look at his flaw is as his vulnerability. Maybe he's afraid of heights, or painfully shy, or too self-centered. Achieving success is darned hard when you're in your own way. Hard... but not impossible, thanks to the character's core strength.

Check mark symbol A core strength. This is the personality trait that will overcome the key flaw. The core strength must be evidenced in the character in one form or another throughout the entire story. Simply pulling it out of your hat for the climax feels contrived. Maybe your characters didn't notice this strength or it was just budding, but it was there. For example, if you want to set up a character's extreme act of compassion, the hero may rescue an abandoned animal early in the story and nurse it to health, or he may stop his bike so as not to run over an insect hobbled by a broken wing, or he may surreptitiously give a favorite toy to a needy kid he meets at the park. Small moments like these set the stage for the core strength to blossom at the end of the story.

Perhaps your hero's want is to be popular, his flaw is glory-hogging on the basketball court (earning him not admiration but further alienation), and his strength is a moving compassion for underdogs like himself. In this scenario, his compassion for someone else finally overcomes his need to set a point record when he passes the ball to a teammate with even more at stake for the game-winning basket. Both characters become school heroes, and your main character has made a key transformation. That's an example of a successful character arc, which I focus on later in this chapter.

Here's the table of contents, to give you a big-picture idea of what's covered:

So are we dummies for wanting to write YA? Nahhh.

As M.T. Anderson says in the book's Foreword, we're the smart ones:

"If you write to stir the emotions of readers, to move people deeply, to change people's lives, then you should consider writing for young adults. Who else will read your book 12 times? Who else will try to steal a copy from the library? Who else will sleep on top of your book? Who else will make a diorama of your book with the main character played by a Styrofoam cup? Who else, in short, will invest themselves imaginatively in your world like a young person will?"

Writing YA is a great calling.

And "Writing Young Adults For Dummies," even with that title, is an excellent guide.

Illustrate and Write On,

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

5 Amazing Picture Book Tips From #LA15SCBWI

"If there's no trouble, there's no story." -Mem Fox

Mem Fox wrote this beloved classic!

Editor Allyn Johnston, on what doesn't hook her: "Picture books that don't change, as Mem said, my emotional temperature."

Allyn Johnston was the editor on this Mem Fox authored, Helen Oxenbury illustrated picture book!

"Leave out all the stuff that's boring." -Author and Editor Jane O'Connor

Jane O'Conner wrote this best-selling book that started the fanciest of fancy franchises!

The "Dr. Seuss Test" - can it be read aloud the first time by someone who has never seen it before without tripping? -Paul Fleischman

Paul Fleischman wrote this book of poems that won the Newbery Medal!

On message in picture books: "Don't let it be the tail that wagged the dog." - Paul Fleischman

Paul's latest picture book!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Tag Crowd - A Useful Editing Tool For Writers

What are your written tics?

Do you have characters looking at each other a lot, in different meaningful ways?

Or is everyone smiling at each other, every two pages?

Tag Crowd is a neat quantitative and visual way to figure out if you're over-using a word, and if the balance of your manuscript is, well, balanced.

Here's an example from a picture book manuscript I'm working on:

I just copied the text, pasted it in the Tag Crowd box, and hit "visualize."

When I check out the results, what pops are the character names. That's good.

Then I look at my verbs, to see if I've made the language varied and dynamic. "Took" is in there four times. Back to my manuscript, searching for "took." Checking each use. Is it just the right word?

One of the biggest words in the results is "perfect" – snd, since that's the theme, I'm okay with its prominence.

Similar to Wordle, which does a "word art" cloud, this seems like a really useful tool when you're in that final editing stage of any project.

Illustrate and Write On,

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Social Media Fans Unlock An Annotated Extra Genesis Chapter Of Laini Taylor's Fantasy Series: Innovations In Book Marketing

It was covered in Publisher's Weekly, and was so cool I reached out to Jessica Shoffel, Director of Publicity at Little, Brown and Company Books For Young Readers to find out more.

Jessica explains:

The campaign was done to continue the buzz leading into the July 7th release of the paperback edition of DREAMS OF GODS & MONSTERS.

LBYR's social media channels asked fans to share a favorite quote from DREAMS OF GODS & MONSTERS with the hashtag #UnlockLainiTaylor. Once we reached 613 hashtags (the page count in DREAMS OF GODS & MONSTERS) we released a chapter from Laini that inspired the series.
And the genesis chapter wasn't just put out there. As Jessica shared:

LBYR partnered with Genius to create a reading experience where fans can read Laini’s own annotations about the chapter. They show up as highlights throughout the text, and when you click each one, a pop-out with her note appears, see it in action HERE. It was an incredible collaboration that allows fans into the early genesis of the series and Laini’s beginning ideas on what it could become.

Here's a screen shot of the unlocked chapter, with an open note:

It's a very cool use of social media to build buzz and reward fans!

You can find out more about Laini and her books here.

Illustrate and Write and Market On,

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Guest Post On Naming Your Characters by Jennifer Moss

Author Jennifer Moss


As an onomast and an author, I’m very sensitive to names in fiction. Yes, your characters are metaphorically your “babies,” however you shouldn’t name them as you would a child. Here are five mistakes that writers make regarding names in fiction:

 1. The name is not age-appropriate.
 Recently I watched a television pilot set in California in the late 1970s. A couple’s teenage daughter, Emma, was missing. I flinched. It would have been extremely rare for a teenager to be named Emma in 1979. In fact, it would still be rare for 2015. Emma has been on the top ten list for baby names for the past five years, which means Emma will be a teenager in about the year 2028. Use the U.S. Social Security site, where you can look up the top 1,000 names in any year going back to 1900. Research the names that were popular the year your character was born. If you don’t use a name from his or her birth year, then you should have a great reason why.

 2. You, the author, are naming your characters.
The characters in your story are not named by you, they are named by their parents. As an author, you should consider your character’s ethnic background, geographic location and parents’ personalities. What immigration generation are they? If it’s only second generation, then it may be acceptable to have a more ethnic name. However if assimilation is important to the parents — or your character — then perhaps not. Your character’s backstory is integral to his or her name.

3. You don’t use terms of endearment. I rarely call my daughter by her name, Miranda, unless she’s really in trouble. I call her “baby” or “booboo,” even though she’ll be soon graduating college. To make your dialog natural, use terms of endearment between parents, children, lovers, and friends. Listen to your own conversations with loved ones. How many times do you actually use their given names? Probably less than you think.

One best-selling author continuously makes the same mistake of continuously using a husband’s name in the wife’s dialog. “Yes, Alex, I know what you want,” and “Did you want to eat out tonight, Alex?” This is a common practice for TV or movie writers, in order to quickly identify the characters to new viewers. However in written fiction, it sounds unnatural and out of place.

4. You use the wrong terms of endearment.
TV writers also tend to use relationship terms like “Sis” or “Brother” to indicate characters are siblings. These terms are extremely dated and not used in current-day conversation. And don’t get me started on Mija. Not every Hispanic mother calls her offspring Mija and Mijo, contractions meaning “my son” or “my daughter.” My mother-in-law is Mexican—born in Mexico—and has four children. I have never once heard her use that term. Whether it’s common practice or not, the terms are clichéd and overused.

5. Your character name is too complicated.
This is one naming practice I recommend for both characters and babies: make the name easy to spell and easy to pronounce. Readers sound out names in their heads, so you don’t want them tripping up on a name like Orxynthadriod. Did that name cause you to stumble out of this article because you couldn’t pronounce it?

This is especially important for writers of science fiction, fantasy, or any genre in which you want to create names that don’t exist in the real world. Great sci-fi/fantasy writers like Tolkien and Martin get it: Bilbo Baggins, Hamfast Gangee, Stannis Baratheon, Jorah Mormont.

George RR Martin even went so far as to create naming practices in his A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE SERIES. For example, his Wildlings typically don’t have surnames. Children born out of wedlock receive the surname “Snow.” Hodor (which is not the character’s name) is nicknamed Hodor because the only word he can say is “Hodor,” and so on. Martin has done so well with character naming that even a character’s title, Khaleesi (meaning Queen), is now being used for (real) babies. Remember, names are just as fundamental to a society as they are to an individual’s identity.

So take time to name your characters — even minor ones — and have fun with the process. Every name has a story, and your story should have interesting and meaningful names.

 * * *

Jennifer Moss is the author of TOWN RED, WAY TO GO, and TAKING THE RAP, a series of mysteries published by Black Opal Books. She is also the founder of,, and the author of the ONE-IN-A-MILLION BABY NAME BOOK (Perigee Press, 2008). Moss has been a name enthusiast all of her life and is a longtime member of the American Name Society. You can find her on-line at

 (Article reprinted with the author's permission. "Are You Making These Five Mistakes With Character Names?" was originally printed by the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and then I read it in Bruce Hale's excellent newsletter.)

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Twitter Highlights From #LA15SCBWI

What a conference!

Whether you were able to attend or not, The Official SCBWI Conference Blog has 87 posts featuring conference moments, insights, quotes and highlights.

Another great way to get a taste of this weekend of craft, business, inspiration, opportunity and community is to access the conversation on social media with the conference hashtag, #LA15SCBWI.

So, to get a sense of what resonated widely, here's a dozen of the most popular tweets of #LA15SCBWI:

Steven Malk ‏@stevenmalk Aug 2 Here's the wonderful @deborahwiles accepting her @scbwi Golden Kite award for Revolution. So very proud! #LA15SCBWI

Martha Brockenbrough ‏@mbrockenbrough Aug 2 Shannon Hale is cracking the audience up, which is so weird because women aren't funnyTM. (KIDDING!) #la15scbwi

Genetta Adair ‏@GenettaAdair Aug 2 "Boys feel totally justified in mocking girls stuff. What kind of culture have we set up?" @haleshannon on gender in kid lit #LA15SCBWI

scbwi ‏@scbwi Aug 1 Sparkling and shining. #LA15SCBWI

Rotem Moscovich ‏@Spanish_Broom Aug 1 Unicorn's got fans at #LA15SCBWI ✨@bobshea @DisneyHyperion @SOLurie

Jolie Stekly ‏@cuppajolie Aug 1 Jenny Bent: Be helpful. The more you give back to this community, the more you have to gain. #LA15SCBWI

jen rofé ‏@jenrofe Aug 1 So proud of my agent colleagues on the panel. I freakin' love my job. #LA15SCBWI @barrygoldblatt @bbowen949 @AgentPenfold @jennybent

scbwi ‏@scbwi Aug 1 "Don't give up" Dan Santat #pubtips #LA15SCBWI

Jolie Stekly ‏@cuppajolie Jul 31 Meg Wolitzer: What we remember from books isn’t plot but character. #LA15SCBWI

Danielle M. Smith ‏@the1stdaughter Jul 31 "Would a child give a damn about this book?" - Mem Fox, tough things we have to ask as children's writers. #LA15SCBWI

Martha Brockenbrough ‏@mbrockenbrough Jul 31 "The reader will feel a certain emotion because the author felt it first." -- Mem Fox #la15scbwi

Laurent Linn ‏@LaurentLinn Jul 31 Here's what 1200 energized #kidlit illustrators & writers look like at #LA15SCBWI -- it begins! @scbwi

Add YOUR favorite moment - from the conference or from twitter - in comments!