A Dream to Dance

The summer has presented me with challenges–one after another–and some, which I had hoped to avoid.  Having an ill parent with few options for an acceptable living environment is something I would wish on no one. It is my worst nightmare, and to avoid feeling physically sick over the situation, I try to find small moments each day to see beauty in the world, and to appreciate the wonder of others.


My five-year-old granddaughter is a blessing, particularly now when my family faces some of the hardest decisions of our lives. Ava makes me stop, forget about the barrage of depressing phone calls, and take a moment to live life in an idealist way.


In our large front yard, I am free—even for just thirty minutes—to laugh, chase Ava through the grass with our dog Merlin, and wonder at the miracles of the tiniest of creatures. We remain like statues when the hummingbirds zoom above us. We watch the bees on my Echinacea, revel in the sight of a butterfly, and kneel on the cool ground to peer into a daylily to marvel at fascinating insects, which appear to be from outer space. They are smaller than ants in actuality.

A frog leaps before us and Ava is off, chasing the tiny amphibian, catching it . . . losing it . . . and then catching again. Her hands tightly clasped, she tells me, “Grandma, the frog is berry thirsty. And he needs a home to live in.”

Just like my father, I think. Why is it that we cannot find suitable housing for the elderly where they can be respected and loved and treated with dignity? I brush the thought aside and head indoors for a small bowl. Ava follows, and my eyes stay fixed on what is contained within her grasp. “Don’t let that frog loose in the house,” I say. The cats would have a field day.

I fill a small, short container with water, and we go back outside. With great care, Ava places the frog in the bowl. It swims happily, and then leaps for freedom.

“Uh-oh,” she says, leaning over to trap the frog once again. “I think he wants some food.” With great precision, she keeps the creature safe, while using two fingers to add clumps of grass and a smattering of dirt. The frog back in the bowl, it swims the best it can among its new challenges, and then escapes.

“Uh-oh, says Ava, clamoring to catch it. The frog is faster than she is, and soon is nowhere in visible sight. “Oh, no, I didn’t find it a friend!”

“We’ll find something else.” And we do. On the porch, we discover an injured moth. Carefully, Ava scoots it onto the palm of her hand. “Oh, Grandma, he is so sweet. Can you fix him, please?”

Can I heal my father? No, and I know I can’t fix the moth’s wings, but I don’t say this to her. Instead, I follow her around the yard.

“We have to find the moth a place to rest, that’s nice. So he can get better and fly away,” Ava says. “He wants to go back to his family.” No matter how large or small a creature is, Ava is always concerned that they have a family to be with, or at least, friends.

Until our new porch is completed, all of my garden statues are under our red maple tree, and this is where she heads. After she walks around the tree, twice, Ava settles on a cherub lying on its back.

“Perfect,” she says, “This is just perfect.” She hopes the moth will survive, despite its apparent odds, and in the morning, when she checks to see if the moth is still there, she announces happily that it has flown away. The family of moths is reunited. (I find it later—lifeless and snuggled in the crease of the cherub’s wings—in a place she did look and I do not tell her.) I want her to believe the moth lived, as I wish to cling to the belief that the situation for my father will improve. I am not prepared to let go of hope. Some days, all we have is hope.

Satisfied that the moth is settled in for the night, Ava resumes her frog search, and with unbelievable luck, she finds it, or its sibling, or a relative of some sort, I guess. Her new mission is to find the frog a friend. The sun begins to set, which does not deter Ava in her quest. She carries the frog in her clasped hands, while I follow and dig where directed. I check under leaves, around flowerpots, between rocks, and anywhere else, she believes the frogs are hiding from her. In the meantime, twilight falls upon us.

“Ava, you have to find somewhere to put the frog, and not in the house.”

“I know, I know, Grandma.”

Clearly, this quest will soon require flashlights.

Suddenly, Ava remembers one garden statue not under the maple tree. “Come on, everybody!” she says. Merlin and I follow her to the backyard.

“Look, everybody, this is just perfect.” Leaning over, Ava places the frog in the middle of a statue of two frogs. “Perfect! Now, he has a family!”

Thankfully, the frog seems content; he stays exactly where Ava places him, until she runs off to chase a fleeting dragonfly.

“Is he still with his family?” she calls back to me.

“Yes.” Well, for the moment he is, before leaping through the white fencing to explore a world free of curious little girls, intent on being matchmakers or reuniting long-lost family members.

We chase fireflies until I hear the phone ring. While receiving an update on my father, Ava finds other lives to run. Once the conversation with my sister ends, I learn that Ava has played matchmaker with our cat Terrapin. Terrapin is to marry Ava’s Steiff black leopard and have two babies, instantaneously. The wedding ceremony is performed without complications. To my surprise, Terrapin does not flee the makeshift alter, and she even poses for formal photos without a single complaint. Well, maybe a glare or two. Once Ava knows that the babies are being tolerated by the new bride and groom, we settle down to read books . . . and books. I am thankful for the distraction.

Now, two days later,  I sit by the window, awaiting the return of the Baltimore orioles. I review the pictures I took with Ava, and the photos I was fortunate to have the opportunity to shoot the day before, on my way to work: a Great Egret and a Blue Heron. Both phones (cell and landline) are charged and by my side. I have already taken six calls this morning regarding my father, the first at 4 am, at a time when I was doing one of the following: ripping off covers . . . whipping them back, staring at the clock . . . trying to not look at the clock, fluffing my pillow . . . punching my pillow,  opening the window . . . closing the window, petting a cat . . . shoving a cat off of my chest.

I cannot sleep. I cannot eat. I cannot write. And with the beginning of each new day comes the knowledge that my father will be calling, at any point, to ask about my writing.

Through his pain, my father continues to check the progress of my submissions; to remind me he is running out of time. I am losing this race to find success before his last breath, but I will not give up, even knowing I cannot fix what I want to fix, need to fix.

 I will remember the promise I made to my father and to myself. Whether it is through my photography, my interactions with my granddaughter, or another creative outlet, I will find the way back to my words.

In the past, my return to inspiration has started as a low hum, which quivers like a hummingbird’s wings, until I reach out to snatch it. Other times, lightning hits, catching me off-guard. Whichever way the relentless desire to create returns, I am ready. My heart is open, and until that moment, my inspiration comes from the hawk that soars in the sky above our house each night. Drifting on the wind, it flies free and without worries. I watch and I dream . . .

I dream of dancing. I dream of dancing across the page with words and images. I dream of dancing to places only I can find, kept safely, for now, within me.

This is who I am.

This is what I know.

I am my father’s daughter.


New Jersey SCBWI 2011 Conference

This year the 2011 annual New Jersey SCBWI Conference took place at a new location in Princeton, NJ, where I had the privilege of working behind the scenes of such a large undertaking. While I have attended the yearly NJ conference since 2007, this was my first time I co-chaired a committee. My volunteer responsibilities didn’t stop there, I spent hours in the weeks leading up to the conference checking spreadsheets, pouring over attendees’ personal schedules, and whatever else needed to be done. Kathy Temean and Laurie Wallmark are tireless leaders, and I couldn’t help but say Yes! whenever they reached out for help. In the end, it was fun, truly. If you can volunteer for a conference, do so.

Kathy Temean planned, organized, and ran the NJ SCBWI Conference, as only she knows how to do, with Laurie Wallmark at her side. Her inspiration for creating a one-of-a-kind conference stems from her heartfelt desire to give children’s writers and illustrators the best possible outlet to improve their craft, make connections, and to have numerous critique opportunities. What conference have you been to where you can pay for more than one critique? For conference statistics: http://kathytemean.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/conference-stats-and-ideas/

The Wyndham Hotel is quite large, yet it offers a beautiful outdoors, which was taken advantage of by attendees, editors, and agents. There are trails to run or walk on, a lake to relax by, and wildlife to discover. You can easily find a chair to lounge in when your head is spinning from all the information you are trying to absorb. Ten minutes in the sun can do wonders, just ask Katia Wish, the fabulous illustrator.

The conference extended to three days this year, and brought in 13 agents and 13 editors.  Plus there were two art directors, an artist rep. and an editorial consultant for a total of 30 Industry Professionals without counting the many published authors and illustrators who shared their expertise with the members.  Kathy also invited two new literary agents to join us on Friday night for the mix and mingle, and Saturday.  For every nine peole attending the conference, there was one editor/agent. Odds were everyone got to talk to many of the faculty over the weekend. Such opportunities continue (thanks to Kathy) throughout the summer. Check for availability. http://kathytemean.wordpress.com/2011/06/08/update-on-summer-networking-dinners/

The number of generous people who donated items or time for the scholarship raffle amazed me. You can see in the pictures some of what we had to offer. This was the first time we used the main stage, and we certainly had our challenges setting up. In the end, it was successful and fun for all.


Excitement built over the weekend over the first time eBay auctions of the editor and agent critiques. Only Kathy and Laurie would think of doing this. It worked!

David Caruba

I am just now going over all the notes I took at the workshops I attended. There is a mound of paper begging my attention, and fighting my desire to spend the day outdoors, photographing the birds and insects. They fascinate me. It makes me see the tiniest of details, which inspires me to write.


Grace Lin

As for being inspired at the annual NJ SCBWI Conference, I was, many times over. What comes to mind immediately are two names: Grace Lin and Holly McGhee. I have heard Grace speak before at a NE SCBWI event, and she is charming and down to earth and sucks me in with her first sentence. Her message is to find your own voice, to not be who you think you should be, but who you need to be—the person only you can become. If we follow trends, we give up a part of ourselves, and risk the chance of losing the connection to who we truly are. It can be scary, but ignore the temptation. Honor you. Honor your unique gift. Love what you have deep inside you. Let it rise to the surface and be free, even if you are afraid.

 I see Holly McGhee, founder of Pippin Properties, standing at the podium, vulnerable, honest, as if exposing a piece of her so that we might be brave enough to follow suit. Long after the conference, her words linger in my head. Sleeping has been difficult. She touched the part of me I’ve kept hidden for so long, and now will not slip back into the darkness of my soul. I find ways to avoid it. I work long hours at the toy store, spend hours following subjects to photograph, play with my granddaughter. Anything but write about those moments. Nothing works. When I close my eyes to surrender to sleep, my body responds, while my mind does not. It is wide-awake. It screams at me. I toss and turn; try to read, and then I have no choice, because Holly’s words envelop me until I get out of bed, pad down the hall to my writing room, turn on the light, and write until the ache subsides and I can fall asleep.

This is what you want a conference to do for you. You want to learn something new. You want to see old friends and make new ones. You want to laugh, go for a walk, breath in the fresh air, write, and find a new direction to improve your WIP. You hope to make a connection with an editor or agent, but you never count on this. Mostly, you want to be inspired, to be scared that if you don’t listen to the beating of your heart, your story will never be told.

Consider attending next year’s annual conference, or any other event run by the New Jersey chapter. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed. And for those who see room for improvement, stress the positive, too. For a large event run in a new facility, kinks are to be expected. Thank you, Kathy, for listening to all, and suggesting ways to improve next year’s conference. If you volunteer, you will see how much hard work goes into running this.

For Holly’s inspirational speech, here are the links, featured in four segments. Thank you, Holly, from the bottom of my heart. You touched my life in a way that I did not expect.








What is An Antagonist?

After attending the recent New Jersey SCBWI Annual Conference, I had to make an unexpected trip to Miami. When my family calls for help, I get on a plane. I’ve earned a lot of miles this year.

On a better day towards the end of our trip, my sister and I ventured into the Florida Everglades, though we didn’t last long. She quickly became tired, and then a storm came through. Before we headed back to the hotel, I managed to take this picture of the sky. You can see the dividing point where the rain ends. I find it quite fascinating and beautiful.

In the moment when I took that picture, I thought about weather, how powerful it is, and how much damage it can do with little or no warning. This brought to mind the topic of antagonists because in some novels, weather provides the conflict in the story.

On the drive back from our short trip to the Everglades, I considered the meaning of antagonist, mostly because the topic came up at the recent New Jersey SCBWI Conference. What is an antagonist, and do all stories require the presence of one? The answer is yes. All stories need conflict. Something needs to get in the way of your protagonist to thwart their continued efforts to achieve a goal or fill a need or want.  

The question that arose in the workshop was whether an antagonist had to be a person. The answer to this question is no.

A quote from Wikipedia:

An antagonist (from Greek ἀνταγωνιστής – antagonistes, “opponent, competitor, rival”)[1] is a character, group of characters, or an institution, that represents the opposition against which the protagonist must contend. In other words, ‘A person, or a group of people who oppose the main character, or the main characters.’[2] In the classic style of story where in the action consists of a hero fighting a villain, the two can be regarded as protagonist and antagonist, respectively.[3] The antagonist may also represent a major threat or obstacle to the main character by their very existence, without necessarily deliberately targeting him or her.

On that day in Miami, we dealt with more than one antagonist: the weather and my sister’s illness. Both thwarted our plans to enjoy the beauty of the Everglades. If the alligator had jumped any higher out of the water, I would have listed that too.

An antagonist can be devastating weather, an incurable disease, or the racist attitude of an entire community, among many other possibilities. The protagonist can also get in their own way caused by their behavior. This situation can make the most interesting of stories, though it is more difficult to pull off in an effective manner.  Consider that your main character is a sociopathic liar. They may yearn to connect with others and to follow a path of honesty, but their personality doesn’t allow them to change. Who or whatever keeps your protagonist from getting what they seek is the antagonist. Without this element, you have no conflict, and thus, no story. Or at the very least, an incredibly boring story, which elicits no desire, on the part of the reader, to turn the page.

Elusive antagonists are far more interesting and provide a steeper challenge for your protagonist.  It is easier to combat a person than an attitude or an uncontrollable part of yourself that you’ve yet to reckon with. Think about the alternatives when you create your antagonist. What places the biggest blockades in the path of your main character? Don’t make it easy on them. Keep the storm coming, and make it elevate in intensity. Slather the pages with conflict.

In the end, this will improve your story. So no matter who or what your antagonist is, lay it on thick. And have fun creating those antagonists. I know I do.

Why It’s Easier to Kill My Darlings Than Tame My Spider Plant

One of the topics discussed at last week’s NE SCBWI conference was the importance of ridding your manuscript of overgrown scenes, useless characters, and runaway descriptions. If you don’t pay attention to where your story is going, there is a good change it will run wild.

Wild is exactly what happened with my spider plan—the one that currently hogs the ledge of our bay window.  In the past year, the plant has thrived, and now our front yard view is no longer paramount. There is something in the way, and that something is green.

I have had this plant for years. My mother first brought it home in the mid-nineties. It flourished until the day she moved to North Carolina, which is when I promised to take care of it. At the time, I knew little about caring for plants, especially indoor ones, but I feigned confidence. Shortly after she left, the plant began to wither. I watered it. Perhaps too much. Perhaps too little. Whatever the reason, its future became evident—all too soon. There was nothing pretty about it.

I tried to ignore the signs. Stems curled at the ends where the green had turned the color of dirt.  Pieces of plant dropped to the ground, where they lay lifeless, until I was inspired to vacuum. And there was the fact that my husband suggested, more than once, that the garbage can was an alternative habitat for the spider plant.

The signs continued, and whenever my mother asked how the plant was doing, I changed the subject. Then one day, it dawned on me. I was killing something that meant a lot to my mother, something I had promised to take care of. When I shared my epiphany with my husband, he said,  “It’s only a plant, Betsy.”

I sought the help of garden experts, friends, anyone who might help me rescue the plant I was clearly obsessed with, and was almost beyond hope.

Paying heed to the experts’ advice, I tried new ways to aid the plant’s recovery. I talked to the thing. I begged it. I even cursed at it, and then, with luck, patience, hard work, and perseverance (all traits a successful writer needs) the spider plant leaped from the edge of death and responded with vigor to all the attention that I gave it.

Again, my husband reminded me, “It’s only a plant, Betsy.”

Yes, but it was so much more . . . which brings me back to writing.

We all have those darlings in our manuscripts, you know, the characters we come to know and love. Their every appearance on scene gives us the greatest of pleasure. They make us laugh. They make us cry. They offer absolutely nothing to the plot. Nothing. Aside from our darlings, there are those long and flowing passages filled with evocative descriptions that also offer nothing to the plot. Whether it’s a character or a description or a setting or a superfluous scene, the presence of certain elements can thwart the very essence of our manuscript and change the view we intend to create. The reader cannot see through the window into our story. There is something in the way. Like an overgrown spider plant.

What does one do?

A professional or seasoned writer will tell you to get rid of them. “Kill them,” they say. “Toss them from the pages of your manuscript without remorse.” “Have a drink and relish in hitting the delete button over and over again. It will feel great!”

Will it?

These conversations are typically one-sided and contain little or no feeling of mercy or remorse. You, on the other hand, are overwhelmed with the sense of loss, guilt, and shock, mostly because the expert’s suggestion comes with added enthusiasm and much delight over the process. You sit there speechless. They pump their fists in the air, hungry for another stimulating experience of killing beloved darlings; of deleting entire chapters with the tap of one button.

I understand the experience now, and I will tell you that it is freeing—and fun—to let your darlings go. I do hug and kiss them and apologize profusely first, oh, and I promise to use them in another manuscript, perhaps feature them as the main character. (I will do anything to lessen my guilt connected with the characters I create, or rather listen to when they appear from nowhere to tell me their story.) As for superfluous scenes or descriptions, I have an Everything Deleted out of Necessity document where all of this goes. You never know when you may need something.

It is for the best of your manuscript. Trust me. I feel your pain. I know your struggle. I am there too—not with the writing—but with the plant: that over-grown spider plant that continues to grow and grow and sneer at my husband with glee while it expands across the windowsill and redefines our view of the front yard.

While I have not yet tackled the plant, it seems I may not need to. Not only does the green beast irk my husband, but now also our two cats—and our two visiting cats, who were supposed to stay with us for one week, and now six months have gone by. After incessant arguing over which one cat gets to sit on the limited portion of sill unclaimed by the green beast, they cats have joined forces. They discuss their strategy at night while I am trying to sleep, as cats will do. What exactly is their Kitty Plan of Attack? They bat at the baby plants, chew on the leaves; use their teeth to pull on the dangling offspring. If my view of the front yard does not soon improve, at least there will be room for two cats—not one—to soak in the sun. May this bring some peace to our household, because I am not about to kill my mother’s plant. Even though, it is just a plant.

And yet, it is so much more . . .

In closing, I leave you with a quote of my own. (This week I seem to be stuck on W words.)

The words we write must awaken the senses of the reader. They must bear weight to the world we have created. Why? You want the readers to wonder, to wrestle with their own thoughts, and to always want more. Meaningless words wander aimlessly across the page in a waste of space. They attribute nothing wondrous at all, except to become a wall, which stands in the way of our readers’ wants and needs.   Betsy Devany 5/11

The NE SCBWI Annual Conference-2011

I am still reeling from this past weekend: a glorious three days spent with writers, illustrators, and professionals in the field of children’s literature. The NE SCBWI conference was a thorough success, and not just in my opinion.

Something was different this year. Maybe because we were enlightened by the presence of the SCBWI founders Lin Oliver and Stephen Mooser. Or perhaps it was that the writing goddess, Jane Yolen, captivated us. Whether she was speaking, walking the hallways, or signing books, she brought her brilliance, her passion, and yes, her wonderful sense of humor to the event.  Add the one and only Tomie dePaola to the mix and the almighty Harold Underdown–at times sporting a Boston Red Sox hat–and . . . talk about surreal.  I was in writing heaven! And on top of this, we had the opportunity to watch a screening of Library of the Early Mind. Everyone, at least in the field of writing for children, needs to see this. We were honored to have the two filmmakers present: Edward J. Delaney and Steven Withrow.

Richard Michelson had us on the edge of our seats with the story of how he became a prizewinning poet and children’s book author.  I plan to visit the R. Michelson Galleries located in Northampton, Massachusetts. You should too. His speech surprised me at times, but went right to the heart. Good writing at its best.

In truth, every speaker, including all the workshop presenters, was fabulous. In between workshops, the hallways were filled with glowing comments.

My head spins from all the information I obtained, the wisdom I absorbed, and the inspiration that now fuels my writing. So much so that I have put aside my notes and let my subconscious do what it does best.  As always, once I get all my new ideas on paper–thus to lessen the overcrowded feeling in my brain–I will sort through my notes and organize them accordingly. (I will blog about this actual process in the coming weeks.)

Like Whispering Pines, I plan to break up my posts on the conference, partly because I am bogged down with preparations for the upcoming New Jersey SCBWI conference. I am a committee member and volunteer, and I have lots to do before I head down Interstate 95 for Princeton, New Jersey.  (For those attending the conference, I look forward to seeing you. Please seek me out to say hi if we haven’t met before!)

Thank you to the conference committee for all their diligence and deep commitment to having the best conference possible. They achieved this goal, and much more!

I am eternally grateful to the Ruth Landers Glass Scholarship committee for choosing my middle grade novel, Savannah’s Mountain, to be this year’s recipient of the award. I humbly join the list of past winners, and I promise to honor, more than ever, my commitment to writing quality children’s literature. My congratulations to all the illustrators who won at this year’s conference.

The word I will leave you with is the word I remember the most from the conference: community. It came from Lin Oliver, and I cradle that word in my soul where it keeps me warm, and not feeling so alone at those moments when I need it the most.

Community. Let the word roll off your tongue. Feel its power, it’s undying support. In the business of writing for children, we are fortunate to be a loving and sustaining community—unlike so many other professions where greed and jealousy prevail. Writing and illustrating is a solitary experience. But we are not alone. We are in this together, supporting one another, cheering one another, and encouraging our peers. Yet, we must honor the necessary process of being by ourselves. We must close the door and find that place, which takes us out on a limb, alone. Sometimes scared, but hopefully always driven to create. To create the very best that we can.

Keep that sense of community before you escape to the work that only you can write. Then turn off the phone, the internet, the fighting desire to sink your bottom into the couch and flit from site to site, from Face book to Amazon ratings, to anywhere else because you fear the empty page.

You are not alone in that fear. Yours is not the only empty page being stared at. At this very moment, all over the world, there are writers and illustrators and creators–your vast community–having those same thoughts. Fighting those same struggles.

Believe in yourself. Give the world your very best work. Create what only you can create. And always, always, feel the support of community. Know that when you reach a personal milestone your community celebrates with you. Be thankful for this. I know I am.

I will be back next week with more from Celebrating Milestones. Thanks for stopping by!

Inspired to Revise: My Thoughts on Peeling Away The Layers

Whispering Pines behind me, I prepare to journey to the land of revision. My coffee cup refilled, I escape to my writing room with the dog and a cat, or two. (If I don’t extend an invitation to the pets in the beginning, I will have to endure the sound of paws traipsing up and down the hallway, after which, tapping and scratching on the door will commence.) 

Once my furry family members settle into their usual spots, I close the door to the world behind me and slip to the place where doors do not exist, where the open sky welcomes me, as do the surrounding pine trees. While this place is not in my writing room, it is in my mind, my memories. This world sits in my heart where I can tap into it, and so, I do.  Eyes shut, I drift to where I need to be, alone in my mind with my story.

I picture myself sitting on a pile of dry needles, leaning against a tree trunk, surrounded by my WIP characters. Speckles of sunlight dance in the grass as clouds roll through the sky. Two squirrels chase each other across the lawn, up a tree, and then back down again. In my mind, I yearn to pick up my camera and take pictures or go on a walk with my characters. Anything but, dissect my manuscript. Why? Fear.

It takes courage to slice and dice something we have poured out heart into. It also requires confidence and skill. And because of the recent Whispering Pines conference, I feel stronger. I fight my fear and self-doubt with the tools I’ve acquired. With Cheryl Klein’s book Second Sight at my side, I am prepared to battle. My manuscript may resemble a battlefield for a while, but in the end, I will win this war with myself. I will cut and chop. I will dice and shred. I will strip away the layers of my manuscript, like a Sycamore or Birch tree with its peeling bark.

I have always loved these types of trees. Their beautiful camouflage appearance fascinates me, especially knowing that the peeling process is the tree’s way of shedding scale insects and heavy encrustation of moss and lichens. The Sycamore tree provided much comfort for my young nieces and me when my sister was ill a few years back. As bark peeled away, it left sections of unscarred tree trunk. We saw this as a clean slate, new possibilities, and most importantly, hope. When revising, I keep a piece of Sycamore bark on my desk. Inspired by how the tree sheds unwanted insects, I work my manuscript with the goal of shedding those characters and passages that do not aid or move the story forward.

While the process of revising can feel lonely at times, I am not alone, as reminded at Whispering Pines. In the places where I get stuck or unsure, I picture the circle of Adirondack chairs by the lake. I see the smiles. Hear the laughter. Writers for children are incredibly warm and supportive of each other. I hope the remainder of my pictures represents this.


Thank you for stopping by and sharing this experience with me. I hope to see many of you at Whispering Pines next year!

This week, we have featured another of our NESCBWI members for Free Fall Friday. http://kathytemean.wordpress.com/2011/04/08/free-fall-friday-contest-5/

Rejections that Truly Matter

Having witnessed and experienced a variety of rejections since the beginning of 2011, I am reminded how important it is to distinguish between the rejections that matter and those which bear little significance in comparison. These past few months, I have spent hours at a hospital in North Carolina, caring for my parents, while witnessing people deal with life-and-death rejections: the rejections that matter. When I sit for long hours, waiting for doctors, I quickly find myself talking to others around me, whose courage is deeply inspiring. I cannot imagine losing a young child, or being unable to get needed medicine, or not being allowed to see my grandchildren. Yet the people I spoke with have dealt with these situations, all due to rejections: rejections by insurance companies, transplant rejections, and rejections by family members. So when I hear of writers complaining about getting a rejection, it makes me, well, cringe.

To be a writer, you must experience rejection, it is part of the business, and while it may sting, it is not a matter of life-or-death. It is possibly a matter of not being the right fit. http://betsydevany.wordpress.com/2009/10/08/the-right-fit/  

Whatever the reason for the rejection, move forward and appreciate the fact that you got a response from an editor or agent. Someone took the time to read your work. You are no longer waiting and wondering, checking your mailbox or e-mail. You can rework the piece, send it elsewhere, or stick it in a drawer. You are not dying, or longing to see a grandchild you have never met, or in need of medicine to survive.

Be thankful for that.

As for myself, this past week, I have enjoyed the beautiful sights in North Caroline: the painted murals in the doctor’s office, the blooming trees and flowers, yet to appear where I live in Connecticut. These small joys offset the struggles I face here, and for this, I am grateful.

For  Free Fall Friday, here is the link for this week: http://kathytemean.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/free-fall-friday-contest-4/

Falling Leaves Retreat 2010

Every November the New York chapter of SCBWI offers a weekend writing workshop: Falling Leaves. Last year the group concentrated on picture books, and this year, middle-grade and young adult novels were the focus.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending, and arrived one day early to work on a novel revision. After getting lost in Lake George (a booming summer town which seemed to be in hibernation mode), I found one store with its lights on. A woman welcomed me inside and took pity on me, printing out directions to where I needed to go. After four hours in the car, there was another twenty-five mile drive up a winding road in the dark. The woman warned me to drive carefully; watch for sudden turns and drivers traveling in the opposite direction.

The two-lane road twisted and turned, and after forty minutes, I wondered if I had missed my street. It was pitch black. I was starving. And then, I saw a small sign to my right for Silver Bay.

At the end of this road stood a majestic white building with a wraparound porch lined with rockers. Mine was the only car. Once I discovered an open door, I entered what looked like a living room with a stone fireplace. Few lights were on, and besides the clunk, clunk of my clogs across the wooden floor, the only other sound was a grandfather clock, chiming.

“Hello? Anyone here?” I said, wondering if I had been transported into The Shining, where Jack Nicholson might jump out at me from around the corner. “Hello?”

After a minute, a woman appeared holding a flashlight instead of a hatchet. Clearly, my imagination was working over-time.

The image of The Shining aside, I woke up the next morning and discovered I had indeed been transported to a different place. Not the Overlook Hotel, but a magical place. A world filled with serenity and inspiration, best captured by the photographs I took on my many walks.

While the setting alone was worth the trip; the retreat, organized by Nancy Castaldo, made the weekend unforgettable. The thirty-five writers in attendance were treated to the company of five editors: Kendra Levin, editor at Viking Children’s Books; Julie Tibbott, Senior Editor, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Book Group; Noa Wheeler, editor at Henry Holt Books; Wendy Loggia, Executive Editor at Delacorte Press; and Mary Kate Castellani, associate editor at Walker Books. These five women were accessible to us throughout. Charming and reachable, funny and honest, they all gave unique, inspiring presentations.

Noa talked about beginnings. Using examples from published works, she identified how to grab our readers on page one. The Wizard of Oz as an example, Kendra addressed characters and how motivation drives story. She led us through exercises to help us learn more about our characters. (I must say that this was my favorite part of the weekend. Through Kendra’s exercise, I discovered the truth behind what gets in the way of one of my protagonists.)


Julie Tibbott had all of us sweating for the week prior to the conference. We were instructed to bring a one-page synopsis. 250 words. Some writers had rewritten their synopsis over fifty times. Others painstakingly edited their synopsis until the length was not 251 or 249 words, but exactly 250. Working on this assignment was the topic of conversation throughout the weekend. Synopses are not easy. They can be more painful than writing the novel itself. And if you can’t succinctly describe your story in 250 words, than you may need to rethink the plot. Or other aspects of the work. Julie worked long after her presentation to help each of us. I will always have the image of Julie, head bent over at a table, reading and writing notes, while the rest of us toasted marshmallows at the bonfire.

Mary Kate Castellani also gave an invaluable presentation, discussing how she presents a project to acquisitions. ‘Handle’ is now a part of our vocabulary. We learned the importance of being aware of the market, and that knowing our selling points is a plus. It is essential that you stay current with today’s market, and to be aware of which novels might be similar to yours.

The weekend ended with Wendy Loggia’s presentation on revising step-by-step, where we had the opportunity to hear a selection of her editorial letters, which can range from one to eight pages in length. The editor/author relationship is the heart of the publishing business. Appreciate your editors, who are the true champions of your work, once you receive a contract.

In addition to the editor presentations, each writer had a thirty minute one-on-one with an editor. On Saturday morning, we broke off into groups of seven for peer critiques. These sessions were highly praised by all.

The food was exemplary, the setting breathtaking, and the company of other writers–all of us different–was inspiring to say the least.

Thank you, Nancy and your loyal assistants, the editors who gave so much to us, and my writing peers who opened their hearts and let me in.

I wanted to share some of the beauty of this location, which caught me off guard. I attended Falling Leaves Retreat with one hope: to learn something new. To find a nugget. One nugget I could use to improve my writing. And with this retreat, I experienced so much more, simply because I had no expectations, except to be diligent about my own writing. Being surprised and swept off your rocking chair is much sweeter.  

For what drew me in at this beautiful location, in addition to the writing, here are a few of my photos. I hope you enjoy!



Free Fall Fridays and My Approach To Prompts

In the past month, I have won two first-page contests. One for Searching For Big Meanie, and the other for Majestoral Dragon. The contests were ultimately judged by two editors and it was exciting to have my pieces stand out. But in truth, I had already won something. I have two new story beginnings, actually, more than that. I have characters with voice who I long to follow. Would they have risen to the surface without the prompts? I don’t know. People have asked me whether I will continue writing past the first pages, and I will, in time. But until then, I keep these characters close at heart, protecting the energy surrounding their stories, even though I know what lies ahead for them.

The prompts which led me to these pieces, and many others, came from Kathy Temean, and for this, I thank her. In the beginning, her challenges terrified me, particularly when I was in a room with other writers and writing cold.  But then, I put aside my doubts and let go. I made a commitment to believe.

I believe in prompts. I believe in plunging into cold water from fifty feet above, even if I do not know how to swim. Even if I am terrified, and filled with self-doubt.

I believe in falling on my face and writing words that make no sense; in filling a page with crappy writing. I believe that out of this, good writing can blossom.

 I believe in practice and patience and pushing myself beyond the safe zone.

I believe in the challenge of following a prompt.

Once I have stated my beliefs, I read the prompt at hand. If there is an accompanying picture, I study that, looking for details and specifics, which might propel a story. If the prompt starts with a particular sentence, I repeat this over and over. And then I wait, allowing time to pass, so my mind can chew on the inspiration while I go about day-to-day living. Other times, I lie on the floor of my writing room, turn on some music, close my eyes, and concentrate on breathing. I try to picture the characters starting to develop in my mind. How do they relate to the prompt? What do they want, and who, or what, gets in their way? Are they in an active scene? Are they alone in their head, thinking? Where are they?

As I drift to the place of imagination, my two cats find me lying on the floor. They hiss. They shove each other. Tails whack my face. Finally, one claims a spot on my chest, while the other plops on my belly. Breathing becomes more challenging than thinking about the prompt. Within minutes, the dog appears. He licks me uncontrollably. My concentration gone, my face coated with slobber, I get off the floor and . . .  go for a walk or play catch with the dog or  do the dishes or start a load of laundry.  All the while, I think about the prompt. I ask myself questions, such as the examples below.

When you study the photos for this week’s prompt ( http://kathytemean.wordpress.com/2010/10/22/announcing-free-fall-fridays/) consider:

  1. Is your mc alone or is there someone walking ahead of them up the stairs?
  2. Does your mc want to return to the ground level to engage the child?
  3. Does your mc want to ignore the child and the man?
  4. Who is the man? Is he the child’s father? Are they working together or separately?
  5. How does your mc feel about seeing the young boy beg?
  6. Will the person with your mc (if there is one) create conflict, and why?
  7. Are there other people around, reacting to the child?

Typically, within a few hours, ideas begin to spark. Energy flows through my veins and propels me to write. Once I start, I do not stop until the one page is completed. This is how Majestoral Dragon and Big Meanie evolved. Both were total surprises to me, once I read what I hadwritten.

The more you let go and think of plunging through the air towards the page, the more you will surprise yourself with what you can write. Sometimes for fun, I respond to a prompt immediately after reading it, and then go through my regular routine (as stated above).  It is always interesting to see how similar or different the two pages are.

I look forward to hearing from you, and welcome any suggestions for Free Fall Fridays. May you have fun!

If you would like to read my winning pages, go to 



Thanks for stopping by!

Searching for Butterflies

Whenever I work in my gardens, go for a walk, or play outside with my granddaughter, I look for butterflies to photograph. If a flicker of yellow or orange flits past me, I run for my camera, hoping. Have the butterflies arrived?  Might one linger on top of a flower long enough for me to capture it in a photograph? What does their arrival mean to me?

By the time I return with camera in hand, the bright colors have disappeared, and I begin to wonder if my imagination is playing tricks on me. Yet, I do not give up. I continue to wait for their arrival and instead, focus on the insects invading our yard: bees, wasps, beetles, mosquitos, and pincer bugs. Just to name a few. This has surprised me, as typically, I abhor bugs. I do not want to touch them, nor do I want them to land and crawl on me.  They destroy my gardens and are obsessed with the scent of my skin. Ticks cling to me as if I were a magnet. And last summer, bees built an underground nest beneath my front garden. Not knowing this, I was happily weeding early one evening when a swarm of bees flew from their hole and attacked me.  As I ran screaming for safety, three followed me into the house. My face was swollen for days.

Last month I visited my nine-year-old nieces in Idaho, who are fascinated by bugs. And rocks. Mostly, bugs. I put aside my fear and disdain for insects and saw them through the eyes of a child. Through my camera, I became fascinated by these tiny creatures. And that change grew out of seeing the tiniest details. The way some insects’ eyes look like an alien’s. How they scratch at their heads with one of their legs while resting on a flower. How hard they work. How comical and cartoonish they appear. How they court and mate in similar patterns to humans.

As in all well-written stories, details are what bring the pages to life for a reader. They allow us to go deeper into the story, tugging at us until we unconsciously slip through the pages and into the world we are reading about. As I followed the insects with my nieces in Idaho, I felt as if I was falling, and being pulled, into a world I had never visited: a world of the tiniest of creatures from another planet. The details sparked my interest. They drew in me, and surprisingly, made me yearn for more.  This desire reminded me of how I feel upon reading the final page of a well-written novel. (A good book leaves you satisfied at the end, yet sad. Sad, because you don’t want the book to end. You want to linger with the character, remaining in their world.) These are the books I covet; lined up on my shelf where I see them early every morning as I settle down to write.

And so, while I wait for the butterflies to arrive, I photograph bugs, still unsure why I am compelled to follow them. Perhaps, there is a story there. A character longing for my attention. All I know is that I will follow the insects as long as I am inspired to do so. Until the pieces fall into their places. Until I understand why a small bee captured my attention for thirty minutes. Why I let my dinner get cold while I photographed a cricket couple in the pouring rain, clinging to a daylily. Why I cry at the sight of dragonflies chasing each other in the early evening, their bodies zipping over my head.

I have opened my eyes to the world of bees and beetles and dragonflies, following the advice quoted on an Idaho shopping bag: “Do one thing each day that scares you.” And that I have done, never knowing how much pleasure I would get in return.