Friday, April 8, 2022

Award-Winning Children's Book Author Talks Writing and the Writing Life

Valerie Bolling is the author of the 2021 SCBWI Crystal Kite award-winning and CT Book Award finalist Let’s Dance! (March 2020). A graduate of Tufts University and Columbia University, Teachers College, Valerie is an Instructional Coach for Greenwich Public Schools and is on faculty at Westport Writers’ Workshop. Valerie has been an educator for almost 30 years. When she taught elementary students, it was difficult to find diverse literature for them. Thus, she is passionate about creating stories in which all children can see themselves and feel seen and heard, valued and validated. Here Valerie answers questions about writing and the writing life as a children’s picture book author.

What current or past writing project presented you with a new writing challenge, and what was that challenge?
I set a challenge for myself with Together We Ride. I wanted to write a book that had fewer words than Let’s Dance! and used the same end rhyme throughout the text. I met both challenges. Together We Ride has only 30 words, half the number of Let’s Dance!, and all the words (except one) rhyme with “ride.”

What method(s) did you employ to work through the obstacle?
What helped me most with the challenge was my own determination. After all, I had set my own challenge, and I wanted to succeed. For inspiration, I consulted Cheryl Klein’s book Wings, which has only 12 words (wow!), and I used rhymezome.com, a helpful tool for those writing rhyme.

What was the outcome?
The outcome was that I met the challenge. Further evidence of my success was that when my agent went on submission, immediately after signing with him, with the manuscript for Together We Ride (at the time called Bike Ride) sold at auction. Ultimately, I ended up with two two-book deals from two different publishers! The best outcome is that Together We Ride will release on April 26, and you may preorder it now from RJ Julia.

What did you learn from the effort?
I learned that writing is like life. There are ups and downs, bumps in the road, and rollercoaster rides that can seem as if you’re about to fly off the track! So, be sure to celebrate your successes. Even the little ones … like a completed draft or half of a draft, revisions, or a rejection. Yes, a rejection. A rejection means it wasn’t the right time for you, but you’re that much closer to a “yes.” Celebrate everything – a class you took, a conference you attended, your critique group members, new followers on social media, winning a giveaway. These are all things that can bring joy when you’re feeling discouraged. The best way to experience success (whatever success means for you) is to set goals and work hard to achieve them. You will definitely have more successes to celebrate!

What one thing would you tell other writers that you hope they’ll really take to heart?
Besides what I’ve mentioned, I’d add to make sure they enjoy every moment — even the challenging parts because that’s how you grow — in writing and in life.

Besides writing picture books, Valerie Bolling has published articles The National Writing Project’s Quarterly. She is a member of SCBWI, the Authors Guild, and NCTE. Valerie and her husband live in Connecticut and enjoy traveling, hiking, reading and going to the theater.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Picture Book Writer Addresses Diversity and Inclusion to Inspire and Empower Children to Success

Sherri T. Mercer is a writer and student of writing who is passionate about children's literature. Sherri also participates in the Black Creatives Mentorship Program and is a recipient of a BIPOC Scholarship Award to attend the 2022 SCBWI Winter Conference. Here, Sherri answers questions on her current writing projects and future goals and plans.

In what genre(s) do you write?
Currently, I am writing fictional picture books, both Christian and mainstream. I also enjoy writing Young Adult Sunday School curricula and devotionals for kids and adults.

Describe a current project.
I have several picture book manuscripts at varying levels of completion. Most of my manuscripts address diversity and inclusion, written with the underrepresented in mind, characters who are not represented, who are too small or unfairly judged. I hope children will feel empowered to overcome the barriers and distractions impeding their success. In addition, I have two manuscripts based on Christian principles—those in God's creation are enough to overcome what others perceive as hindrances.

What are your goals for your projects and in general?
I hope my stories are acquired by an agent/editor this year for traditional publication. And I plan to read 500 picture books by December 31.

Are you facing any obstacles with your projects? If so, how are you working through them?
I am not facing any obstacles, but I am working within the constraints of traditional publishing. It's a subjective process with many unwritten rules. Publishing traditionally takes patience, timing, and connecting with the right people. Through classes, webinars, and conferences, I am honing my skills. Once I complete the tasks I can control, I'll begin looking for an editor/agent who is receptive to my work and willing to position it rightly in the industry.

What are your writing goals overall?
My lifetime writing goals are: to publish children's books that foster hope and empower,  to publish devotionals to encourage the brokenhearted and discouraged to look beyond their daily struggles because DAY 41 IS COMING, and to write a novel based on childhood memories of my father—BIBLICAL TRUTHS FROM A DADDY'S GIRL.

What are your biggest challenges as a writer?
My biggest challenges as a writer are letting go of my work and remaining focused. It's easy to get caught up in honing your skills, lose focus, and not apply the skills you have learned. There will always be a great webinar, conference, or new way of breaking into the industry. But, it's essential to get what you need, then write—application results in an end product. I also struggle with "making my work perfect." I want to be sure I'm putting out fun and entertaining stories/materials that offer healing and help build (empowering) and rebuilding (offering hope) the lives of my readers.

What might you want other writers and/or writing students to know?
Writing is not easy. It carries with it responsibility. Even the most humorous and entertaining story should positively impact the reader's life. If you wish to publish traditionally, invest time learning the industry and becoming your best writer. Be patient and stay the course. Until your book publishes, do as our fore-parents did: Tell your story orally. It's more about the message than the platform.

What else might you want to add?
I am thankful to the writing community, especially the KidLit community. It's such a giving and supportive body of people. I am here answering questions on your blog because of your generosity. Return the generosity shown, reach back, and lift another—wait! Your day is coming.

Sherri T. Mercer is a retired educator (30+ years) passionate about children's literature. She is especially drawn to stories that inspire hope and give voice to what matters to children. She has a work-for-hire leveled reader that will publish with Benchmark Education and a young adult Sunday School curriculum in September 2022 with the Sunday School Publishing Board—National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. Sherri is also a wife, mother of adult children, a writer and caregiver who resides in South Fulton, TN. Sherri is grateful for the opportunity to participate in the Black Creatives Mentorship Program. She is honored to work with Natasha Tarpley as a 2022 mentee and to be a recipient of a BIPOC Scholarship Award to attend the SCBWI Winter Conference 2022.

Contact Sherri at sherritmercer@gmail.com, or follow her on Twitter: @sherritmercer and Instagram: @sherritmercer_sincerelyyours.

Monday, March 7, 2022

How to Create Compelling Scenes in Fiction - Seminar

Scene by Scene: How to Create Compelling Scenes in Fiction
With Adele Annesi

Manhattanville College
March 12 
 Via Zoom
From 10:00 a.m. to 12 noon
Registration $45

Scene by Scene: How to Create Compelling Scenes in Fiction with Adele Annesi 

Scenes are the building blocks of fiction, but what makes a scene strong, fully realized and effective, and why do some scenes fall short? This Manhattanville College seminar-workshop via Zoom explores all these aspects and more. We’ll consider such key elements as backstory, interior and exterior dialogue, the role of setting, and how to develop character and advance plot at the same time. We also examine how to structure scenes in a section or chapter to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. The workshop is suitable for short and long-form fiction of all genres. We’ll also explore aspects of scene revision so writers should bring their current projects to share and for Q&A, examples and discussion.

The registration fee is $45. 

Scene by Scene: How to Create Compelling Scenes in Fiction with Adele Annesi 

Monday, February 7, 2022

UK-Based Author and Publisher Dawn Bauling Chats on Submissions and the Writing Journey

Author Dawn Bauling is editor of The Dawntreader quarterly, the highest circulation magazine of Indigo Dreams Publishing (IDP), based in the UK and formed by Dawn and her and her partner, Ronnie Goodyer, in 2009. Here, Dawn answers questions about what she looks for in submissions to The Dawntreader and about her own journey as a poet, writer, author and publisher.

What do you look for in submissions to The Dawntreader?
It’s quite an alchemy of things, really. Initially, I like the courtesy of someone emailing and contacting me by name, and getting it right! I’m enraged by being called Sir, Balding and/or Dennis! A brief covering letter is always good, too. You can tell a lot from that, even before you open the submission – arrogance is not winsome, and poems as attachments with no introduction makes a publisher think there’s no thought; overly long and detailed isn’t helpful to a busy publisher either. I need to know that the person sending knows what the magazine is all about and wants to be part of it.

The Dawntreader is themed to the spiritual, nature, myth and legend, love and the environment, so work must meet that [criterion] first and foremost. This all happens before I even read the work. I do read every submission, however, as I know how much effort and nerve may be needed to send work out. That’s important to us as IDP. I do, therefore, read a lot of poetry! When I read, I want to be surprised. I want fresh language, new insights, space to contemplate and walk with the writer. I need to know that the writer has taken care with their craft, spent time selecting words, like a painter chooses color. I want to be challenged, too, not to sit too comfortably. It’s disappointing to be led into a piece of writing and then to finish with a feeling of, “So what!” Equally, I don’t want to be berated, or given a lecture.

And … as a cheeky tip … I’m a pushover for a good title! It’s like an irresistible “come hither” to me. All that said, lots of people do get it absolutely right. I have so much good work on file, waiting to appear in The Dawntreader – prose and poetry – a lot have real fire attached, simmering, ready for publication. Who can refuse work like that!

What writing projects are you working on at the moment?
At IDP, we are taking a more bespoke approach to 2022, with mostly competitions and commissioned projects ahead: collaborations with Leeds Trinity University, an anthology aimed at supporting the work of The League Against Cruel Sports (my partner, Ronnie Goodyer, is their Poet in Residence), and those authors whose work we love and want to showcase. I won’t name them, as I’m bound to miss one off. Please visit Indigo Dreams Publishing to have a look.

2022 is the first year we haven’t had an open window for collection publications, so we are seeing where that leads us. We also wanted to make time for our own writing, which has been put on something of backburner over the last two years. Personally, as a poet, I have a several embryonic writing projects on the go. I have been asked by my Twitter followers to pull together some of my Twitter posts (@wavelace) into a pamphlet. Ronnie and I are joining forces again, after the success of our collaboration in Forest moor or less. We love France and Corfu, and have quite a few scribblings from our times there. We are told that our poetry voices make quite a nice harmony, so it’ll be nice to sing again along together. We’ve still not settled on a title so, or finished 50% of the work so, more on that story later.

What are some writing challenges you've worked through, and how have you addressed them?
My main writing challenge is time. As well as being a publisher, I work part-time for the NHS [National Health Service], in our local surgeries. You can only begin to imagine what the last two years have been like, so juggling shifts and poetry, publishing and vaccination clinics has been a real challenge. I love both but knew that I had to make a change last year, to get a bit of balance back.

I broke my leg at Christmas 2020 and spent the first part of 2021 recovering and learning to walk again. It gave me time and perspective. So, thanks to my incredible NHS managers and colleagues, I am now only working two days a week as the local Primary Care Network media officer. I have more time, less stress and am just beginning to feel like a writer again, picking up my own pen, rather than helping everyone else sharpen theirs.

What one thing would you want writers to know that could make a difference in their writing and/or writing life?
I went on an Arvon Course about 20 years ago when I first started taking my writing seriously. My tutor was David Hart, who sadly has just passed away. He told me to take my work and cut it by 50%, read it again and then cut another 25%, if possible. That way you get parfum and not eau de toilette! He told me to dare to be dangerous that way. It’s not always easy, as I’m a naturally shy kind of person, but as a quiet person, he also gave me the confidence to dare to shout. I try to pass that on to lots of people – in my NHS work as well. It has certainly helped me. Don’t give the reader everything, let them walk with you, give them space to wander in your words and don’t ever be afraid.

What else would you like to add?
Without a shadow of a doubt, I have “met” some of the most wonderful people in my poetry life. I found Ronnie through poetry, by reading one of his collections and word-wooing him until he said yes! I have also found some of the closest kindred spirits through being an editor. It feels less of a job and more of a lifestyle, as necessary as a limb. We live in a beautiful forest in Devon, but when I open my laptop I find the world and its people and all the reasons I need!

Author Dawn Bauling and her partner, Ronnie Goodyer, formed Indigo Dreams Publishing in 2009. They offer a breadth of knowledge and understanding about what it means to be a published author today and how to enjoy it to the max. They live in a wooden house in the middle of Cookworthy Forest, Devon, with their rescue blue merle collie, Mist. The Dawntreader quarterly is IDP’s highest-circulation magazine, with an international readership that offers writers and readers a chance to let the imagination run free.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Award-Winning Author, Poet, Instructor Kalafus Talks of the Downs and Ups of Writing, Life and the Writing Life

Award-winning author, poet and Westport Writers’ Workshop instructor Christine Kalafus talks about the downs and ups of writing, life and the writing life, from an honest insider’s perspective.

What current or past writing project presented you with a new writing challenge, and what was the challenge?
I think every writing project is a writing challenge; it’s the challenge that draws me to it. In my previous career as a seamstress, I got to the point where I could look at anything sewn and mentally deconstruct it: window valances, wedding gowns—everything. When this happened, I knew the end was near. I wasn’t learning anything new, and I couldn’t imagine a work life without a bit of a razor’s edge.

With writing, I got my wish! Although I couldn’t have avoided writing if I tried. It was like a magnet. I closed my business, earned an MFA, wrote a memoir, and by a miracle of happenstance, landed an agent. I’d published a few essays and a poem and felt confident (too confident), that the memoir would be published. Beware easy success! I was, and still am, an unknown writer — I don’t have millions, or even a thousand, followers on any social platform, and I wasn’t an archetypal underdog, rising from the ashes. I was a forty-six-year-old woman who’d survived some bad shit and wrote about it. Even if the memoir was well-written, it soon became obvious that not one of the Big Five was interested.

What method(s) did you employ to work through the obstacle?
I am not too proud to say that I cried. More than once. But, really, who did I think I was? I’d been living in a bubble. As a seamstress, I was a big fish in a small pond. Now I was a minnow in the ocean. A few months later, I was in Manhattan and made an appointment to see my agent. I was raised to send thank-you notes. But even a note on vellum, hand-written in calligraphy and sealed with wax wouldn’t have been personal enough. No. I had to see her, shake her hand, and say something like, “It’s been nice knowing you.”

The poem I’d had published had also won an award. I figured I’d focus on poetry and never make another dollar again. But then, I sat there, in [the agent's] bright white, cramped high-rise office, books and manuscripts everywhere, sweating through my lucky blouse, and told a lie as white as the room: I said I was working on a novel. From the dregs of memory, I pulled a paragraph of fiction I’d written years earlier in a Westport workshop and stretched it into a pitch as if I hadn’t published essays or won a poetry contest, but like I was auditioning to be a writer. I don’t know if she believed me, but she said to send some pages after New Year’s. I wrote like my life depended on it. I just sent the finished draft this year, a few days before Halloween, three years after that meeting.

What was the outcome?
I’ll find out this month!

What did you learn from the effort?
I learned I could write a novel. Whether it’s any good or not, remains to be seen. But I had a kick-ass time doing it.

If you could tell other writers one thing that you hope they'll pay attention to, what would it be?
Writing is an art. Publishing is a business.

Blueprint for Daylight, Christine’s award-winning manuscript, a memoir of infidelity, cancer, colicky twins, and the flood in her basement, was excerpted in Connecticut’s Emerging Writers. Essays have appeared in Longreads, PAGE, and the Woven Tale Press, among others. Her poem “Horses” was the recipient of The Knightville Poetry Award, featured in The New Guard, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. “I Hear You Make Cakes,” recorded before a live audience at Laugh Boston, was chosen for The Moth. “Look Inside a Woman for the World” appeared in The Connecticut Literary Anthology, Vol. II in October 2021 Christine is also facilitator of the Quiet Corner chapter of the Connecticut Poetry Society.

For more about Christine, visit ChristineKalafus.com.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Winter Workshops and Programs for Writers

If you’re starting to plan for the holidays and/or the New Year, consider giving yourself the gift of writing. Enclosed below are upcoming workshops, classes and programs for writers offered through Westport Writers’ Workshop.

WRITE HISTORICAL FICTION
If you enjoy stories like Beneath a Scarlet Sky, Downton Abby, Medici or Street of a Thousand Blossoms, or have your own real or imagined tales to tell, this workshop is for you. In this workshop writers learn how to conduct focused research, create authentic characters, and immerse readers in detailed descriptions and settings. Subgenres include fantasy, hybrids, mystery, romance, saga, spiritual, thriller and traditional. Each writer can submit up to five pages weekly for group feedback and detailed instructor comments. Handouts are included. Suitable for writers seeking to fictionalize real life experiences.
For more, visit Westport Writers’ Workshop — Write Historical Fiction — Starts January 12.

NOVEL-WRITING MASTER CLASS
This master class offers detailed, constructive feedback for writers completing a novel or memoir. Each week two writers will submit up to 25 pages to the instructor and group who will read the submissions outside class and share insights in class on what works and what needs clarity. The class is suitable for current drafts and robust generative efforts, and to hone revision skills. A bibliography of resources and a detailed list of craft elements are included. Limited to six participants for writers to complete a substantive revision to finalize their manuscript.
For more, visit,
Westport Writers’ Workshop — Novel-Writing Master Class — Starts January 13.

MENTORING PROGRAM FOR FICTION
This innovative, one-on-one program combines personalized instruction in the craft and art of fiction with inspiration toward your writing goals. Based on the mentoring segment of the MFA in creative writing, the program provides support for your project and you as a writer from a writing professional who understands publishing and the writing life.
For more, visit
Westport Writers’ Workshop – Mentoring Program for Fiction – Ongoing.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Autumn and More: Perfect to Explore Mood, Motif, Setting, Story, Theme

The hours of daylight decrease, the varicolored leaves fall and skitter in the autumn wind. What we might otherwise see as downsides of a different time of year mark this hauntingly lovely season as worthwhile for writers.

There is much about autumn to inspire. The changeable light and variable weather, along with the approaching holiday season, make fall the perfect time to explore the essential craft elements of mood, motif, setting, story and theme. Here are ways to make the most of these indispensable artistic writing tools.

Mood
One definition of mood is the story’s emotional setting or atmosphere. When considering mood, ask yourself these questions:
  • How might the reader feel while reading the piece?
  • Does the mood of the prose complement a particular scene, the chapter and the overall story?
Motif
Motif could be described as a concept or an idea, usually repeating, that conveys the story’s theme in a subtle way. When using motif, ask yourself these questions:
  • Do my motifs deepen the story and its theme with each repeated mention?
  • Do the repeats vary sufficiently in wording and/or subtlety so as not to be obvious to convey something more about the story with each mention?
  • Do the types of motifs complement the story’s theme? For example, if your story is about a struggling musician, you might mention timing, the sound of the wind or scaling a mountainside while on a hike.
Setting
Setting is a broader category of craft element than writers may realize. Setting includes the story’s time or era, its place, and the conditions wherein the action takes place and establish the story’s context. When using setting, ask yourself:
  • Is my setting sufficiently developed?
  • Does it include the timeframe, location(s) and broader landscape of the story?
  • How does the setting mirror and/or contrast with the plot and/or character(s) for which it forms the backdrop?
Story
The definition of story is actually simpler and more straightforward than most writers realize. It could be described as what happens in the story overall. When working out your story, consider these questions:
  • Are the events presented in an original way?
  • Do the events reflect the writer’s knowledge of the plot without overshadowing the story?
Theme
Theme is what the story is really about, not what it seems to be about on a surface level. Theme is all-important and should be conveyed upfront, in the first paragraph, if possible. When working with theme, ask yourself:
  • What is my story really about?
  • Does the subject have both universal and individual appeal?
  • Is the theme conveyed in an original way that shows what’s at stake?
  • What are the consequences of the characters’ choices, and how do they impact the story?
People often find that when the seasons change, their mood changes, too. And the decreasing daylight hours of autumn usually mean a period of adjustment, maybe a dip in energy levels, changes in routine and some missteps in modifying our lives to match the time of year. Given this reality, it can take a couple of weeks to move through the continual light of summer to the growing darkness of fall. Yet, throughout the transition, writers can embrace the changes and even use them in their writing while adjusting their lives accordingly.

The changes in weather, and even the increase in darkness, can serve to inspire writers — and not just those who write dark stories. It’s the mood. It’s the magic. It’s change itself, to cooler climes and pristine skies, and the shushing sounds of falling leaves.

Happy writing and happy and safe holidays!

Adele Annesi is an award-winning author, editor and teacher. For questions on writing, email Adele Annesi.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

A Different Sort of Writer’s Conference - What's Right for You?

What do you look for in a writer’s conference? Workshops, feedback, panel discussions, agent-editor talks? That’s what I usually look for. But not this year. As a writing instructor, I wanted the immersive experience and sense of community I found while studying for an MFA at Fairfield University here in Connecticut. I’m pleased to say I found it.

As a writer, an educator and an advocate of lifelong learning for diverse writers, I found myself longing for a summer writing experience that included three key components: pedagogy, craft and community. And I wanted a certain level of experience in those elements. What I found was the Postgraduate Writers’ Conference (PWC) at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA).

When you’re looking for a writer’s conference, you often get a lot of advance hype that isn’t fully realized in the actual event. That wasn’t true here. Described as a “haven for serious, emerging practitioners seeking to connect, recharge, and lift their process and craft to new levels,” the PWC at VCFA was exactly that.

I have to admit I hadn’t heard of the conference before this year. One reason is that over the past eight years I’ve been involved in planning the Ridgefield Writer’s Conference. Since the Ridgefield conference ended its run last year, this year I was free to find an event that offered the same core elements. I started the search in May.

While looking through the Poets & Writers Magazine classifieds, I found a listing for the PWC at VCFA. While the August 9 through 14 timeframe worked with my summer teaching schedule, what drew me most was the conference model description of small workshops of five or six writers led by a faculty member. I recognized the format because it was the same as the MFA at Fairfield and the Ridgefield conference. But the PWC didn’t stop there.

Besides five days of workshops, each writer had an individual instructor consult. And there were faculty and participant readings, craft talks, generative writing sessions and social events. The PWC was so community-oriented, the fact that it was held remotely didn’t detract from the event. For me, it was a plus because it enabled me to attend the conference while working on projects here at home. The other benefit of a virtual event was that the writers and instructors came from across the country.

The one aspect of most writing events that wasn’t part of the VT conference were agent, editor and publisher panels. Honestly, I didn’t miss them. I already keep up with this aspect of the writing life and cover it in my own instruction so it was a breath of fresh air not to have to focus on the industry side of writing for a change.

Another affirming differentiator of the PWC was its focus on writers with graduate degrees. It was a significant benefit to be in workshop with experienced writers who respect each other and offer high-level critique. A further positive was that the conference instructors are both gifted writers and compelling teachers. And teach they did.

As I searched all those online and print conference listings this spring, I was hoping for a safe place where I could improve my writing and connect with other writers. The Postgraduate Writers’ Conference at Vermont College of Fine Arts offered exactly that. While this type of conference may not be right for everyone, whatever your needs, it’s important to know what you want before you sign up. Of course, research helps clarify what you’re looking for and what's out there. Just make sure you don’t settle for less. With all the venues available, you shouldn’t have to.

For more on the conference I attended, visit Postgraduate Writers’ Conference at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

For more on events and conferences for writers, visit:

AWP Directory of Writers' Conferences & Centers

NewPages Big List of Writing Conferences and Events

Poets & Writers Conferences and Residencies Database