Stories: They come back over time

As a writer, I find myself in love with film. I think we can all say film and novels go hand in hand. Today we see most blockbuster films coming directly from novels written by award winning authors. Some films do better than others, but all book related movies seem to be the most popular. I saw the film “Black Swan” the other night and before I tell you what I thought of it, I’m going to give you a history lesson of sorts on another film, The Red Shoes (1948). This is a film I watched over and over as child.

“The Red Shoes” was written and based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. (Other fairy tales he wrote included “The Little Mermaid”, “The Princess and the Pea”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, “The Little Match Girl”, “The Snow Queen”, “Thumeblina”, “The Wild Swans”, “The Ugly Duckling” and “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”). Interestingly enough, Hans’s father was an independent shoemaker, with a workshop in their living room.

In “The Red Shoes” story, there’s a shoemaker who plays a strong role in creating the life of the shoes themselves. The shoes tempt a customer to place them on their feet and then the shoes take hold and dance the wearer to death (Some might say it was the story of Hans himself). It’s a dark story of desire and passion for art which ultimately in the movie version, takes hold of the actress playing its role; exactly like “The Black Swan”. Both stories are about ballerinas who get their huge break by the owner of the ballet company taking them on as the lead role of a new ballet. Both stories end with the lead actresses’ death because of the roles they play which over take over their lives (Both movies also became award winning films).

These are all similar aspects of the two films and there’s many more but I think you get the idea. The differences however, are the take on the stories. “The Red Shoes” is romantic, driven, and very mystical. The “Black Swan” takes a stronger approach of a psycho/sexual thriller; both films were written for the current audiences tastes. Now the similarities of the films are uncanny.  I think the most interesting portion is how these roles not only showed duelality, but, have greatly affected the lives of the actresses themselves.

The lead of “The Black Swan” Natalie Portman physically acts out metamorphosing into a Black Swan. Although her role is psychotic and dark she sees her future as her aged mother; a retired ballerina who ended her career because of her pregnancy. In real life Natalie Portman finds herself pregnant after acting the role in film by the choreographer of the very same film. Moira Shearer, the lead in “The Red Shoes” experienced welcoming a child following her film with the headlines from the “Sydney Morning Herald”, “Pink Booties for Red Shoes”.

Most stories that are popular and have resonance; in this case it seems that Hans Christian Andersen was the base of this resonance. I enjoyed watching “The Black Swan” and found Natalie Portman brilliant in her role. The direction was superb, costuming lovely, and the film kept me on edge of my seat. I don’t think it’s a film for everyone. It does borderline horror, unlike “The Red Shoes”. So, for those who have issues watching lesbian love scenes and bloody images I say watch “The Red Shoes”. It’s pretty much the same but without all the smut.

Good stories have a tendency to come back time and time again. This doesn’t mean as authors we need to reinvent the wheel. Many times we need to look at great stories and tell them to the generation we live in. Sometimes that calls for us to use elements from older stories into our own creation. Take a look at stories you loved as a child. See how you can create that same magic today. I would however, prefer you to keep it cleaner. If you do come up with something, maybe you’ll be the next famous person sitting at the Oscars?

Writing Your First Book

The outline for my presentation at LTUE about Writing Your First Book

Where Do I Start?

How many of you are writers?
How many of you have a book published?
How many of you have written a full book?
How many have started writing a book?
How many of you have written something simply because you wanted to?
YOU ARE WRITERS! Because you choose to be!

Challenge: Tell someone during this conference that you’re a writer. Raise your hand if you commit to do that in the next two days.

How to Get from, “I want to write a book,” to “I’m writing a book.”

The Question was never, “Can You Do It?” You can. The real question is, will you?
Stop telling yourself you don’t have time
Give yourself a regular time to write.

How to Generate Ideas

Write what you know.
Write what you don’t know.

Getting Started

Trouble getting the first sentence or paragraph?

1. Skip it!
2. Summarize
3. Don’t be Afraid to Write Badly

For Fiction Writers:

Crash course in:

Basic plot structure: Hollywood 3-act
Character development
Basics of word count
* Identify your genre
* These are a basic GUIDELINE right now. Focus mostly on writing.
* Adult: 80-90k with 10k leeway on each side
* Children’s
* Picture Books: 500-600 words
* Middle Grade: 25k-60k (depending on age)
* YA: 55k-70k
Narrative voice

For Nonfiction Writers

The power of story (fiction AND nonfiction)
Google is Your Friend (but read multiple results)


Don’t submit immediately
Don’t show it off immediately
All First Drafts Stink

Things to consider in revision:

1. Hook
2. Character development/arc
3. Consistency
4. Research
5. Scene Structure
6. Anything boring, confusing, or unbelievable
7. Line edit (overused words, grammar, cliche’s)
8. Visual Balance

Making Time to Write

The Outline for my Presentation at LTUE about Making Time to Write

Don’t Put Writing First

1. A balanced person is a better writer.
2. Life Provides Fodder.
3. You need to be reaching for something higher.

If You Find Yourself Making Excuses

Let’s face it, excuses are like armpits, we all have them and they stink.
Do you:

1. Have a favorite television show?
2. Surf the Internet?
3. Nap or Sleep longer than necessary?
4. Take “Me” Time?
5. Too Involved in the Community?
6. Getting Lots of Overtime? Some jobs demand it, and if they’re taking you away for 70 hours a week, it might be time to look for another job. You can, you know.

Commit to Change:

1. Make a schedule for yourself.
2. Set Goals.
3. Give yourself a deadline.
4. Bribe Yourself.
5. Use a Commitment Device.
6. Excuses are Lies.

Be Flexible

1. Don’t be a spoiled brat.
2. Get up ten minutes earlier.
3. Get some awesome skills.
4. Learn to type properly.
5. Learn to write in small chunks.
6. Look for ideas everywhere.
7. Use the tools you have.
8. Don’t be afraid of half sentences.
9. Get a Text-to-Speech App.
10. Read to your kids.
11. Don’t be afraid to write badly.

Time-Saving Strategies

1. Shop no more than once every two weeks.
2. Cook simpler meals.
3. Race a timer for doing chores.
4. Consolidate trips.
5. Become an efficiency expert.
6. Delegate.
7. Give up a lesser-priority hobby.
8. Do self-sustaining landscaping.
9. Get more sleep and exercise.
10. Set up auto updaters for your social media.

Coming Up with a Long-term Solution

1. Study the Craft.
2. Study the Market.
3. Take Risks.
4. Make a Marketing Plan.
5. Map Out Your Writing Career

First Time at a Writer’s Conference?

Relax! Everyone has a first time, and don’t worry, they’re fun and you’ll learn so much your head will pop. Okay, so it won’t pop, but it will expand to unnatural levels with all the information it’s trying to retain.

Here are a few simple tips to make your first writers conference awesome

1. Relax! 

Okay, so I already said that one, but seriously, it’s an event packed with people who are just as nervous and insane as you are. Can I tell you how liberating it is to come across other people who spend their spare time crunched up to a laptop writing imaginary stories about fairies, psychotic killers, and madly insane love-birds? You’ll look around and realize, “There’s like a whole tribe of us!” Yes. Yes there is. Now go meet them and tell them about all the adventures you have in your head that make your friends and family think you’re from another planet. Who knows, maybe you are…

2. It’s Not Networking, it’s Social

This is one I had to figure out fast, because I’m kind of an introvert, and the idea of going around advertising my stuff to complete strangers literally makes me nauseous. After a couple authorly events, it occurred to me that all an event like this is, is a social event. I’m serious, it’s just a social event. Sure you may not feel 100% comfortable at social events, but you’re probably more comfortable than at a speaking engagement or sales pitching extravaganza (is there such thing??? I can only imagine…)

If you need to, feel free to step out every couple hours to get a bit of fresh air and recharge your social batteries, so when you go back in, you can concentrate on meeting new people and having a great time.

3. Pack Snacks, and Water

Even if you’re attending an official luncheon or dinner, you’ll want stuff to carry you through.

4. Bring a Notebook or Recorder

Maybe even both. Believe me, you won’t remember it all. And you’ll want to be able to review it later. You get enough at a conference to study for several months afterward. In my experience, the presenters that even find out you’re recording them are flattered, and some might even ask for a copy. I’ve noticed in a given class, there are usually at least two or three people recording.

5. Be Prepared to Exchange Information

If you have business cards, bring them. If not, at least take a notebook or sticky pad to give people your email, twitter, or Facebook information.

6. Have Fun!

Don’t be afraid to have a great time! Participate in contests, cheer for the winners, ask a lot of questions. This isn’t high school. It’s okay to be a geek! In fact, it kind of goes without saying… I mean, you’re attending a conference about your geekness.


Apostrophes and Possessive Pronouns

If you can learn this concept, you will be amazed at its applicability across multiple scenarios. It will help you know when to use its or when to use it’s. It can help you chose when to use either your or you’re. It can even help you know when to not use they’re when you should really be using their. Memorize this:

Possessive pronouns DO NOT use an apostrophe.

Just to make sure we are on the same page, let me define possessive pronoun.

A possessive is when something belongs to somebody. Usually, when a noun possesses something it is indicated with an apostrophe. Such as:

John’s house. (John owns the house)
Bob’s wrench. (Bob owns the wrench)
Tiffany’s Pokemon cards. (Tiffany owns the cards)
See? They all contain apostrophes.

A pronoun is a type of noun that functions as a replacement for something or someone. For example:

John likes cheese. He particularly loves Parmesan. (He is a replacement for John)
Mary skips to school. She just can’t wait to get there. (She is a replacement for Mary)
I love my job. It fulfills me. (It is a replacement for my job. As a bonus, both I and me are replacements for… ummmm… yours truly)

So, like nouns, pronouns can also own or possess something. However, when this happen it does not use an apostrophe like a noun does. NEVER. No exception. So, once again, remember:

Possessive pronouns DO NOT use an apostrophe.

Just as a reminder, an apostrophe has two uses. The first, as mentioned above, is to show possession. But it is also used to make contractions, i.e., turn two words into one. It is = it’s. They are = they’re. Do not = don’t.

Pretend you are writing, and not reading the overly long blog post. You come up to a part where your brain says, “Put an its/it’s right here” but you aren’t sure which one you are supposed to use. Just think it through.

The way I usually think it through is to first see if it works as a contraction. If it does work that way, you can safely use the form with the apostrophe. Otherwise, it is a possessive pronoun.


Its/It’s going to be a cold day.
It is going to be a cold day.
(That works! It’s a contraction; use the apostrophe)
It’s going to be a cold day.

My book keeps falling out of its/it’s cover.
My book keeps falling out of it is cover.
(That doesn’t work. It’s a possessive pronoun; DO NOT use an apostrophe)
My book keeps falling out of its cover.

You have lost your/you’re mind?
You have lost you are mind?
(That doesn’t work. It’s a possessive pronoun; skip the apostrophe)
You have lost your mind?

Working in Partnerships: An Illustrator’s View on Working with an Author

 “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”

Henry Ford

As a freelance illustrator I get to work with various authors with all different points of view. My main mission is to take an author’s story and transfer it into imagery. Sometimes it’s not always an easy thing. I have a great challenge because I know, being an author myself, that writers see their work in a specific way. I would hate to create an illustration and it not stand up to the expectations set by the author. This is why it is so important to work together with the author to build a beautiful story.

It’s all about partnership. Like any great marriage both parties involved need to care about the goal (in this case the book) and always be givers. No relationship can be strong if one is always taking. Give ideas freely, and give each other help in reaching the goal you have set together. Although I feel the roles of the author and the role of the illustrator should remain separate, so that creativity isn’t influenced, I also believe that communication and compromise is the key to success.

As an example I’d like to share my experience with working with author Jim Long on our book Lucius and the Christmas Star. You might have noticed I said “our” book. Remember that it’s a partnership; it’s no more Jim’s book than it is mine. We created it together. When Jim approached me to illustrate his book, I was thrilled. I love Christmas stories and his was very unique, because it told the account of the wise men that is taken from the bible—which is much different than one told traditionally. The only thing that scared me at first was that the main character was a camel. I did not draw camels well! In fact I had created a wall mural for my sister’s home where I painted Noah’s Ark, the camel was hideous and I hid him mostly from view. So I had lots of homework to do. I drew nothing but camels for about a week.

Once I came up with the camels that I liked the best I emailed Jim some of the drawings. Once he approved them I then started on the actual sketches. Throughout the process he would give me hints on what he preferred things to look like. I would tweak them a little to meet his expectations, but at the same time give me myself creative liberties. In the end I believe Lucius the camel turned out perfect.

If you are an author looking for a freelance illustrator I suggest some key things:

  1. Before you even look at their prices, look at their art. See what work they have already put out. Look at their website and look at their galleries. Make sure their art coincides with your vision.
  2. Check out the books they have already done. If they don’t have a book yet, please do not mark them off your list. Everyone needs a first step. You could provide that for them.
  3. If you like their work, and their prices fit in with your budget (illustrators all charge different rates, but most freelance artists stay way below the threshold of the mainstream market) then ask them about their process. Some might have this on their site, I do, and it’s important for authors to know because this goes into the next key…
  4. What is their time frame going to be? Most freelance illustrators have day jobs too. So the work they do will be done on the side. Make sure you give them enough time to do their job effectively. Most work within 6 months to 1 year. If you have a Christmas book, don’t wait too long to hire your illustrator.
  5. If you like everything about them, then make sure you both agree on the terms. You are building a companionship, a partnership, together; your goals need to be the same. I wish you best of luck in your process.

Remember when you work in partnerships to treat it like a marriage. Communication and compromise is the key to success in any relationship. Good luck on your projects. Happy writing!

Finding the Aha Moment

Aha moments can come from just about anywhere; from dreams, to a scene that should have been in a movie-but wasn’t, even over hearing someone’s conversation at the grocery store. But for me, the greatest aha moments come from my children. Aha moments are when a writer stumbles upon an idea that is the backbone of a story. And if you write books for children, being around kids can create a lot of aha moments.

An example of just how little these moments can be is this: my daughter is three years old and loves just about anything to do with princesses and magic. One day she told me she wanted to read “Princess and the Frog” except that isn’t what I heard when she said it. I heard “Princess and the Hog” which got me thinking about a picture book about a very messy princess and a very clean hog. It was an unexpected aha moment. I wrote it out and now it is going to be a picture book.

Sometimes these sparks of a story can be like a whisper and other times like the boom of a marching band. When I had the aha moment for my ABC Adventure series I really had parades of animals with drums marching through my head. Again this aha came from my daughter. We were at the library and we were trying to find a picture book to borrow. She told me she wanted an ABC book about dragons. I did a search on the computer but yielded no results. She then asked me why there wasn’t a book like that. I responded, “Because I haven’t written it yet.”

Trigger: the AHA moment! By the time I left the library with her stack of books in tow, I had three ABC books in my head that I wanted to write. Currently I’ve planned for seven. Ranging from King Arthur to Halloween, even one on Cooking with Kids.

So watch out for those aha moments. They can be found anywhere. Good luck on your projects. Happy Writing!

The Seven Edits of Highly Effective Authors

(Let’s hope the Covey’s don’t sue)

One lesson I’m quickly learning as an author is the importance of learning to love the revision process. It’s such a big part of being a writer that if you don’t love it, it’s a tough career. But if you can learn to love revision, you’re going to have a blast.

For me it helps to follow a little formula. In an effort to make my revision process manageable, so I never feel like I’m biting off more than I can chew at a given time, I’ve come up with a set of seven revisions, which, if I follow them strictly, should get my book awesome. Sure, it means I’ve got to edit my book seven times, but by the time it’s ready, I’ll probably have edited it more than that anyway, right? Plus, when I follow the revisions in this order, I don’t end up correcting a bunch of grammar in a scene that will just be removed anyway.

So here they are:

1. Fill the Gaps Edit

As you were writing, you knew of places you would have to come back and fix or fill in. Fix those. Remember those places you wrote, “Bob says something really cool here that I can’t think of.” Yeah, fix those, too.

2. Shot-Gun Edit

Read straight through without stopping. You can keep a notebook handy for broad notes, but don’t note misspelled words or miss-formatted paragraphs. You’re looking for major plot holes, character inconsistencies, and overall character arc.

3. Character Edit

Chances are, your characters changed personality during the writing of your story. Now’s the time to decide exactly what each character is like and how they behave. Go through and make each consistent with the personality you decide on. Also decide exactly what each character’s arc looks like, and make their progression (or digression) consistent with that arc. Make sure every character (good and bad) has strengths, weaknesses, attributes, and flaws. Every character should have his/her own unique voice. Do a word search for common words like, “scared,” or “fast.” Every time they’re used in dialogue, appoint different words for each character. For example, Jane might say, “scared,” but Bob prefers, “frightened” and Mary usually says, “freaked out,” because each personality fits the word they prefer. When you do this with enough words, you’ll start to notice when a character’s actions don’t coincide with her personality, so those problems also become easier to fix.

4. Research Edit

Check your facts. Do police really behave that way? (And few books get police right.) Do cars actually do that when they crash? Is that word unique to 21st century American language even though my book is set in the 18th century? How would the climate in this area effect their efforts to search for the treasure? Though you don’t need to go overboard, everything, be it contemporary, romance, or fantasy, is researchable to some degree.

5. Structure Edit

Hold your story up to the 3-act Hollywood structure and the seven point story structure. Check each scene: make sure each has a purpose. A scene is a situation in a particular point of view and place at a specific time. When any of those things change (POV, place, or time), it’s probably a new scene. Consider each scene a short story, with it’s own small arc. You don’t have to follow any of these structures to the letter, but keeping them in mind will help you develop a strong structure that your readers will unconsciously grab onto.

6. Line Edit

Word searches are your best friend on this edit (ctrl-f in Windows and Linux or cmnd-f in Mac) Do a word search for all your overused, underused, misused, clichéd, and pet words. Do a full spellcheck. Look for qualifier words, like “very,” “so,” and “slightly.” Look for exclamation points. Look for “ly” words. Look for words like, “big,” “little,” “small,” “fast,” “quick,” and any other super common adjectives to see if there are opportunities for metaphor, description, or unique phrasing. Clean up passive voice (doing some of these word searches will help with that a lot). Look for examples of telling and change most to showing. Find terms like, “I saw,” “He thought,” and “She noticed,” and replace them with the thing seen, thought, or noticed. These are almost always telling. Do another check for your most common their, there, they’res and too, to, twos. Make a note of the ones most common in your writing. Just be careful with ctrl-f searches to not make “change all”s unless you’re sure it won’t turn all “the queen bees” into “Queen Elizabeth bees” (true story). Make sure paragraphs are indented properly. Make sure chapters have proper page-breaks rather than a bunch of “enters.” Make sure you have names of places and people capitalized, and species names lowercase. Most of all, just read through the book from the beginning and make sure it’s all good!

7. Visual Balance Edit

Make it look nice on every page. You want a reader’s first time flip of the book to catch his attention and get him interested in the book no matter the page. Make sure you have plenty of paragraph breaks. Make sure there are chapter and section headings to keep things looking interesting. Make sure there are enough chapters to give a sense of forward movement without diluting that effect by having a new chapter on every page. A good chapter rule of thumb is to have a chapter per scene. You can also use an occasional white-space between paragraphs to provide further balance and interest, or if you need more than one scene in one chapter.

See more detail about each of the 7 Edits

The Authors' Think Tank Podcast, a show for writers by writers with new episodes every Monday.


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