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Friday, October 29, 2010

Writing Lessons from J. Peterman

I’m sure many of you remember the J. Peterman character on Seinfeld; tall, brooding actor John O’Hurley played the man behind the catalogue. He was known for giving little speeches about exotic locales he visited to obtain the latest items for sale (the jungles of Burma factored largely into his travels).

The catalogue isn’t that different. Each item for sale (ranging from clothing to antique coffee grinders) is described in a literary blurb designed to create atmosphere. Instead of just saying, “Comes in blue and green, sizes S, M, and L,” they try to take you on a little journey so that you’ll gasp and say, “Not only do I want that hat…I AM that hat. Give it to me now. $345? No problem.” Many of the blurbs are over the top and make for highly entertaining reading, especially if you add a British accent (don’t ask me why—the company is based in Lexington, KY, but an accent makes everything more fun, so pick your favorite one and have at it).

That said, there’s something pretty clever about the whole idea, and if you can keep from laughing out loud, you might just learn something about setting a scene.

If you’ve never read a J. Peterman catalog, get your booty over to the website and fill out the easy form so they can send you a FREE one. You won’t be sorry, I guarantee it.

Click HERE….come on, just do it.

Back yet? Okay, I got Owner’s Manual No. 82 in the mail yesterday, and have to share a couple of items with you:

You’ve Been Elevated to Dangerous Woman Status.

Is that “The CEO of the Year” making a beeline toward you at the annual office party? None other.
“You know Margaret, I never told you how insightful your cost analysis study asking the question do we need a cost analysis study itself.”
“Some didn’t think so.”
Balancing two flutes of champagne and a stuffed mushroom, he suggests discussing it in a more private setting.
You may never know if it’s you.
Or your daring cutaway blazer you’ve chosen to wear with a lacy cami underneath.
But as you’ve documented: who cares about analysis?
Cutaway Tuxedo Blazer (No. 2857). Exceptional fully lined take on men’s formal wear in fine Italian wool. Single button is where it all cuts away. Notch collar. Deep center back vent. Simple slits at cuffs. Boutonni√©re on lapel just right to affix a small phal√¶nopsis orchid, once considered an aphrodisiac. Imported.
Women’s sizes: 2 through 18.


The J. Peterman Shirt.
99% Thomas Jefferson. 1% Peterman.

Thomas Jefferson disliked stuffy people, stuffy houses, stuffy societies. So he changed a few things. Law. Gardening. Government. Architecture.
Of the thousand castles, mansions, chateaux you can walk through today, only Monticello, only Jefferson's own mansion, makes you feel so comfortable you want to live in it.
I think you will feel the same about his 18th-century shirt. Classic. Simple. Livable.
The J. Peterman Shirt (No. 1012) for men and women, in pioneer muslin and pure cotton. Non-silly 18th-century collar. No collar stays to lose. No points to button down. Authentic dropped seams at shoulders. Wooden buttons, beautifully detailed. Mid-length placket.
Sizes: S, M, L, XL, XXL. Imported.
(Generous cut.)


Dominica Bay Rum.

The Small Island of Dominica. Columbus discovered it, named it, and left it alone. It's north of Martinique. And it is the home, since 1907, of a very good West Indian Bay Rum manufactured under the Dominica brand-name.
Bay Rum has a fairly quiet scent, less strong than anything called perfume, less strong than anything called aftershave, but not so quiet as to be boring. It is, in fact, quite sexy.
It is sexy the way skin begins to smell from strong sun, salt water, steel drums, breaking waves, moving palm branches and giggling coming from somewhere.
Men liked Bay Rum long before 1907, when the Dominica brand started. Men have liked Bay Rum since Spanish Main days. They like it for the least complicated reason in the world: it smells good.
A decent gift which often turns into a lifetime habit.
Dominica Bay Rum (No. 1044), 10 fl. oz. Imported.


Baker Street. Dense fog.
A man passes, his profile silhouetted in the mist.
The all-too-familiar shape of his pipe prominent.
The smell of sweet smoke wafting in the air.
Could it be?
Of course it is.
(Can you believe some people think Sherlock Holmes was merely fiction?)
Then how can you explain his remarkable pipe?
The Sherlock Holmes Pipe (No. 2931). Made from a specially selected briar with a smooth, polished finish and an extra-large bowl. A Peterson of Dublin exclusive with Holmes’ iconic profile etched into the sterling silver band on the pipe’s shank.
And that curiously cool smoke?
Simple deduction points to the small hole at the mouthpiece.
Or “P”-Lip to be exact.

I provided some links to other people who feel that J. Peterman has something to offer the writing world :)

Have a great weekend.
PS~ Seriously, get the free catalogue sent to you. It's fun to read.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Few Reminders...and a Pirate Countdown


Some contest deadlines are approaching so I thought I’d give you a little reminder mark your calendars:

NOW-November 3: Guide to Literary Agents, 7th Lucky Agent Contest~ Open to YA

November 1-30: YA Novel Discovery Contest ($15)-Open to YA

November 16, 18: Miss Snark’s First Victim Agent Auction~ Submissions for the contest will be held on two separate dates in November, one for adults (November 16) and the other for MG/YA (the 18th).

….and, for your entertainment (because my 12-year-old is contemplating a Captain Jack Sparrow costume for Halloween):

Top 10 things overheard at the dinner table that show your child is quickly becoming a pirate (courtesy of piratejokes.net):

(10) "You can flog me, but I'm not eating creamed spinach."

(9) "I've buried me treasure in the mashed potatoes."

(8) "I'll need another ration of grog if you expect me to eat these peas."

(7) "Your tuna noodle casserole would be perfect to fill cracks in the deck."

(6) "This chicken tastes like the parrot I was forced to eat after being marooned on an island for 30 days."

(5) "I wouldn't serve brussel sprouts to even the prisoners in the brig."

(4) "If I eat all my food, can I plunder the neighbors before I go to bed?"

(3) "This burger is fatty enough to grease a mast."

(2) "Too many vegetables - too little shark."

(1) "What did they do with the last cook's body after he was hung from the yardarm?"

Friday, October 22, 2010

Top Foods in Children’s Literature

I adore reading menus at restaurants and am very guilty of judging a dish by its description. Honestly, I think that all restaurants should hire writers to come up with item blurbs to make the dish sound as enticing as possible. I’m always disappointed by menu choices that say: Ernestine’s Chickencooked chicken breast with broccoli. Come on—show a little effort :)

In regard to books, my eyes always perk up at a food scene—love them, love them love them. My stepson actually attempted to make butterbeer (from Harry Potter) last night, based on an internet recipe. He used simmered cream soda, butter, and butterscotch syrup (it…didn’t taste like I imagined it would…he was a little heavy-handed with the syrup).

I recently read an interesting article by Rebecca Cohen regarding top foods in children’s literature, and I thought I’d share the list of five edibles/beverages and books that scored top marks for her:

1. Everything, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
2. Butterbeer, Harry Potter series
3. Cookie, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie
4. Green eggs and ham, Green Eggs and Ham
5. Turkish delight, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

To that list, I have to add:

Toad-In-A-Hole/Yorkshire Pudding- Danny the Champion of the World (Roald Dahl)
Hot Chickpeas from a New York street vendor- All-of-a-Kind Family series (Sydney Taylor)
Wild stews/Campfire potatoes- The Boxcar Children series (Gertrude Chandler Warner)
Fresh Norwegian shrimp- Boy (Roald Dahl)
Lembas (Elf Bread)- Lord of the Rings Trilogy (J.R.R. Tolkien)
Cheese Buns- Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)

Please chime in and let me know if you can think of any other delicious meals/snacks that made you salivate on the pages of a novel—or ones that captured your imagination in any manner. It doesn’t have to be something exotic, just something you’d like to try.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


I’ve never spent an entire blog post talking about a specific contest, but I stumbled across this yesterday, and thought some of you might want to know about it:

Young Adult Novel Discovery Contest 2010—Entry period, November 1-30, 2010

What you submit: Title and first 250 words of your YA novel (sorry middle-grade writers)

Normally I wouldn’t endorse a contest with an entry fee (because I’m poor and cheap and suspicious of contests that cost money…always check out the source and the judges before considering the investment), but it’s only 15 bucks and the first 100 people to enter are shipped a free copy of Writing Great Books for Young Adults by Regina Brooks.

Regina Brooks is a cool agent who was nice enough to do a WriteOnCon Live Workshop in August, and the list price for her book on Barnes & Noble is $14.99. So, if you have your trigger finger on the send button, it’s pretty much free. If you decide to enter, you’ve got about 10 days to polish your first page.

Please note that you can send her a query letter for free whenever you want; the only reason this might be a good opportunity is if you think your first page is stellar. The top five get commentaries from editors at Candlewick, Viking (Penguin), etc., which is pretty cool.

Here’s a breakdown of the prizes (click on the contest link above for more details):

The Grand Prize Winner will have the opportunity to submit an entire manuscript to YA literary agent Regina Brooks and receive a free, 10-week writing course, courtesy of Gotham Writers' Workshop.

The Top Five Entrants (including the Grand Prize winner) will receive a 15-minute, one-on-one pitch session with Regina Brooks, one of New York’s premier literary agents for young adult books. They will also receive commentary on their submissions by editors at Candlewick, Scholastic, Harlequin, MacMillan, Viking, Roaring Brook Press, and Sourcebooks and receive a one-year subscription to The Writer magazine.The First 100 Entrants will receive a copy of Writing Great Books for Young Adults by Regina Brooks. (Shipped only to addresses in US and Canada.)

JUDGING YA literary agent Regina Brooks and a select group of readers will read all of the entries and determine the top 20 submissions. These submissions will then be read by Nancy Mercado, Executive Editor at Roaring Brooks Press (MacMillan); Nicole Raymond, Editor at Candlewick; Cheryl Klein, Senior Editor at Arthur Levine Books (Scholastic); Leila Sales, Editor at Viking (Penguin); Evette Porter, Editor at Harlequin; and Leah Hultenschmidt, Executive Editor at Sourcebooks. These judges will whittle the top 20 down to five, and each of the five winners will be provided commentary on their submissions.

That’s it for today.

***Middle grade writers, don’t despair. Click HERE for a mouthwatering announcement from Authoress of Miss Snark’s First Victim. She’s got something special lined up for December that will involve both MG and YA!!!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Waiting for Inspiration

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” - Jack London

Do we have to be truly inspired to produce inspired/wonderful writing, or is any idea that you plug away at good enough, as long as the actual writing passes inspection?

I go back and forth on the level of inspiration present in my writing ideas…obviously they come from somewhere, but I currently have a big fat backlog of plot possibilities, most of which will never see the light of my laptop screen. Why? Because I make a point every now and then to sit my booty down and come up with ideas. I don’t get up until I have ten thoughts, no matter how useful or trivial they might be.

Not all of them are what I'd call inspired—they might just be random words that pop into my head and get scribbled down (boy scouts/aliens/Area 51, ship/ghosts/school trip, historical candle shop/fire/runaway, etc.). Like I said, most of these end up trashed, but some of them might come in handy one day. In the meantime, I feel much more comfortable waiting for inspiration when I’m working on something else. I can let it come naturally without feeling stressed out.

My conundrum here is that perhaps all of my writing is not “inspired.” Does working at trying to find inspiration negate/cheapen the term? Sometimes I feel a little guilty about that, like I get my ideas in forced ways rather than through some huge epiphany. With that in mind, I went searching the blogosphere for inspiring articles on how to find inspiration (I’ve said it before, I’m right-brained). Here are some ideas for anyone who might be looking for their next project:

Historical figures- You don’t have to glean an entire plot line from a specific time period, but think about some historical figures and what made them stand-out people. Maybe you could fashion a 12-year-old middle grade protagonist from Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s characteristics, utilizing his qualities as a leader, motivator and overall badass. Maybe you could give a modern high school girl Amelia Earhart’s personality and have her deal with a sexist teacher. There are lots of fun possibilities here.

Travel- For those of us without a travel budget, magazines and internet searches are useful. Sometimes simply learning about a new environment can spark an idea.

Movies- You never know when a scene will trigger a writing thought…plus, it’s an excellent excuse to take a break. Forcing yourself to write all the time may lead to meeting deadlines, but it can also lead to resentment of the thing you love.

Grocery Stores-Not only are these great places for people watching and cart-peeping, but there are a bunch of items that could possibly be your next book (Vegetable section=farm book, Red Bull/Energy Drinks section=Hyper Teenager book, Frozen Fish section=Boston Harbor setting, Bread section=Family Bakery book, Frozen Pizza section=Me overindulging in frozen pizza book…you get the idea)

Those are just a few—I listed some links in the upper right of this blog that might be helpful too.

The most powerful ideas can come along when we least expect it. While I’m waiting for that big idea though, I force myself to do the list thing as an exercise in creativity and stretching the old brain muscles. If you find yourself in a writing funk, you might be better off forgetting inspiration for a minute and sticking with a good old fashioned stubborn attitude. As one speaker said at the RMFW Conference, “I get up dutifully at six o'clock every morning to wait for inspiration. If it hasn’t turned up by five past, I start without it.”

In the end, I do believe that inspired writing can come from an idea that might not be designated as pure inspiration. Any thoughts on the matter?

Have a great weekend!

**By the way, please don't take this post as an indication that I'm bitter/anti-inspiration as a whole--I'm all for it!**

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Confession Tuesday - Inner Manuscripting

Okay, this may sound a little weird, but do you ever find yourself writing a mental manuscript of your daily actions? It’s kind of like inner dialogue, but with descriptions and scene-setting too. I confess to having a problem with inner manuscripting.

My inner manuscript voice pops up now and then, and it’s always obnoxiosly cheesy. Seriously, it’s bad. Here's an example:

My stepdaughter was watching the animated movie Monsters vs. Aliens and there was a scene where a groom was talking to a bride before the wedding. The girl was in her wedding dress and told the groom, “Go away, it’s bad luck to see me in my dress!” The groom protested, but my stepdaughter echoed the comment. “She’s right, it is bad luck.”

I was at the sink (letting water fill a pasta pot) at the time and at those particular words, my dramatic inner author began writing, mainly due to the fact that I never had a wedding. I tried to shut her up, knowing the exact soap-opera tone she would adopt. It’s nothing like my writing in real life, and I have no idea where it comes from. My God, I could almost hear the tiny violins playing in the background while my inner manuscript writer took over…

She gazed out the window with a bittersweet regret; “no wedding and no stress” had also equaled “no honeymoon and no dress.” It was done though; her time for ceremony had passed and the only wedding she could look forward to now was her daughter’s….yada, yada, yada, more junk about dust on windowsill, drift into dust/life metaphors, blather, blather, etc.

I burst out laughing, interrupting the melodramatic moron in my head, and jogged over to the computer to jot down the thoughts before they faded. I figured that sharing an embarrassing habit might make for an interesting blog post, but it also brings up an honest question.

Do you ever find yourself watching the car next to you or people at the grocery store, and think about their frustrating or humorous situations as page text?

Do you ever have an inner manuscript writer documenting a mundane activity (The soccer game dragged on and on, and she couldn’t help thinking that one more afternoon of shouting accolades for kids who didn’t even seem to know what sport they were playing might just drive her over the edge)?

Just wondering :)

Friday, October 8, 2010

Action Tags versus Dialogue Tags

We’ve all heard that using lots of dialogue tags is frowned upon, especially adverbial dialogue tags:

“Oh, are you leaving so soon?” she asked sadly.
“Billy, hurry up!” she screamed/exclaimed/shouted/yelled excitedly.

I was reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (again) last night, and within a page Ms. Rowling used 'said Fred seriously,' 'said Ron darkly,' 'said Harry flatly,' and 'said Ron hastily.' Clearly, exceptions are everywhere, but more and more we are being told to stick with a simple he said/she said. Many times, even these aren’t necessary.

Use action tags to turn this awkward and crowded sentence on its toes.

“This homework stinks like Uncle Carl,” Gary sighed heavily. “I hate math,” he added emphatically.


Gary slammed his book shut. “Math stinks worse than Uncle Carl.”

Perhaps you’re writing a scene in the kitchen and there is a garbage can full of foul odors.

“Smells like a rose,” Gary said sarcastically.


Gary pinched his nostrils shut. “Smells like a rose.”

Same thing, only with action to show the sarcasm. Your readers are smart enough to get it.

A great post by Ann Marble (click HERE) on the use and abuse of dialogue tags has other fun examples. I was SO guilty of making these mistakes in my manuscripts, and still have to look out for them. I swear they just sneak in, it’s not really my fault… here are a couple things to keep an eye out for (straight from A. Marble’s post):

Don't use a verb used to describe an expression and then try to force it into becoming a dialogue tag. It won't work. People don't grimace, grin, smile, and frown their sentences. Consider this line of dialogue: "You'll never get away from here," her evil guardian sneered. Even the most notorious villain doesn't know how to sneer a line of dialogue.

"But my villain has to sneer," the writer said. Of course. It's in his nature. So try this instead: The evil guardian sneered. "You'll never get away from here." Don't worry about the attribution. As long as the action is kept with its dialogue, the reader will figure out who said what.

The big kahuna of dialogue tags to avoid is "hissed." It's used a lot, but quite often, it's used where it's unwelcome. We've all seen this dialogue tag abused. For example: "Get out," she hissed. OK, you try it -- hiss that line. Something's missing -- the sibilants. I suppose the Snake Creatures of Tilolaca could hiss that line, but that's about it. Your characters shouldn't have to be forced to hiss their words.

There are a few links at the top right that discuss this topic and provide more examples to look out for. I suggest taking a look at your pages to see if you can change a few of your dialogue tags to action tags. Or maybe you’d rather go to a movie or something instead—that’s cool too. Mom and Dad are coming this weekend, so I'll be cleaning up the house and giving the lawn one last mow this season.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

October Announcements/Reminders

Here are a few items to keep in mind this week/month:

Guide to Literary Agent’s Lucky Agent Contest closes tomorrow, October 6th. Be sure to enter if you have a completed urban fantasy or paranormal manuscript.

Query Tracker’s Contest this month is for Children’s/MG/YA on October 27th. This is an exciting one because Joan Paquette of Erin Murphy is the judge. Erin Murphy Literary Agency only takes queries from referrals and conference attendees, so this is a great chance to show your pitch line and first 100 words to an agent who might not otherwise see it.

NaNoWriMo is next month, so start thinking about whether or not you’re up for it and what you’d like to write about.

Nancy Coffey Literary has new query guidelines, including a new query address.

Elana Roth (of Johnson Lit Agency) announced that she's open to queries again. Here are a few things she's looking for in terms of MG/YA.

The Frankfurt Book Fair is this week in Germany. Again, many MG/YA agents won’t be attending, but it’s still nice to know when these things go on.

Finally, I recently received an email from Stories For Children, an online kids magazine. It was a media release detailing their new blog, Families Matter. Here is an excerpt from the release:

Along with content written by members of the SFC blog editorial team and SFC publishing team, V.S. Grenier has announced she is opening some of the monthly columns of the SFC blog Families Matter to submissions. “We feel this is a great way for those seeking publication to build their writing resume and for parents, educators and those interested in helping families to submit material our readers would be interested in,” says Grenier.

The guidelines and topic list will be available after October 1, 2010 on the SFC blog Families Matter and at the Stories for Children Publishing website.

Visit the SFC blog Families Matter throughout the month of October and be sure to follow along and participate with your comments and/or questions. Blog posts will be three times a week every week. There are some great interviews lined up, along with book reviews and educational and health tips.

I mentioned the new blog because many of you have kids and families, and I thought this might be a writing opportunity you’d like to pursue.

See you Friday!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Straight From The Agents: “Work Like Hell”

I used to imagine that agents mainly want two things from their clients: quality production and timeliness (sorry to make a writing career sound like factory work). Accomplishing those two things is a feat in itself, but I left something out. Something big. I attended an agent panel at the RMFW Conference a couple of weeks ago, and the following question was asked:

What do you want the author to do in terms of publicity?

Agent X spoke first and gave the answer (paraphrasing here), “If the author wants to remain relatively anonymous and just do their thing, I will respect that. I have no problem taking on the publicity for a book I sell. If they want to get involved, fine, but if not, that’s fine too.”

I was stunned. I wasn’t aware that agents catered to their clients like that…maybe if you had Hemingway or Salinger for a client you’d stay the hell away and be happy they threw you a manuscript now and then, but in today’s world? I didn’t realize that happened.

Turns out, some of the other agents didn’t appear to agree with the first speaker either. After a brief period of silence, Super Agent Christine Whitthohn of Book Cents Literary leaned into her microphone to respond:

“I respectfully disagree. I want my clients to work like hell.”

It was a pretty cool moment. She elaborated, and the other panelists agreed heartily.

Getting the book down on paper/screen is only one part (albeit, a pretty darn important part) of being a career writer. Web presence, web presence, web presence…it was mentioned time and time again. Blogging, Facebook, Twitter…and whatever you put out into the virtual world, make sure it represents you well. You don't need to overextend yourself or stretch yourself too thin. Right now, I am consciously choosing one thing. I don't update my Facebook page on a regular basis, and I don't do Twitter. I blog twice a week, and that's it. That's what I'm comfortable with. That said, if I ever become a career writer, I WILL make time for other things, because that's what needs to be done.

It was intimidating to listen to, but there’s good news. Even if you aren’t familiar with some of these things, you’ve got some time between landing a contract and the launching of your title. Educate yourself, network, and make an effort to keep up contact lists. Writing the book will get you the first job…but being a good publicist will turn that job into a career.

Like I said, many of us are still concentrating on the “getting an agent/getting published phase,” but it’s smart to know what you’re getting into. Unless you land someone like Agent X, you’ll be expected to work hard on publicity and marketing. The guidance will be there, but you’ll need to, well, “work like hell.”

Another bit of good news is that we all love what we do, and putting in tons of hours for something you love is always rewarding. I posted a few links in the upper right part of this blog in case you want to take a look :)

Have a great weekend and I’ll see you on Tuesday!

FINAL TIDBIT: Elana Roth from Caren Johnson Literary just announced she's accepting queries again. She's looking for MG and YA, and lists specific things she'd like to see.