Fan That Spark OK SCBWI Fall Retreat – The Recap Part II




Day One of Our Fall Retreat for Oklahoma SCBWI last month had something for everyone, with specific tracks for novel, illustration, and picture book that allowed you to focus on your area of interest. Day Two found us in the capable hands of Linda Urban, children’s book author and mad genius when it comes to dissecting what makes a book work.


LindaUrbanLinda Urban – Linda writes picture books and middle grade novels from subjects as varied as an angry mouse expressing emotion (MOUSE WAS MAD), a red-headed boy searching for independence (LITTLE RED HENRY), a girl who dreams of playing pianos only to end up with a wheezy organ (A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT), and a girl who tries to fix a horrible mistake with a birthday wish (THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING). Urban’s characters are written with so much heart, yours will burst while reading about them.

The focus of her revision intensive for the day was on voice and point of view.   Of course, what is it that agents and editors always say they want in a story, and the one thing that everyone says is all but unteachable?


Linda showed us how making the right choice with point of view can affect the voice of your story. Some POV choices bring readers in closer, while some give more distance and offer more flexibility.

Not all YA books have to be in 1st person, and not all Middle Grades have to be in 3rd person. Surprising, I know. Making a more thoughtful choice for your story is essential to giving it the greatest impact.

One specific example Linda gave to show how these two ideas work together is to consider if your character changes the way they express themselves in a moment of crisis. If so, how does POV shape this expression?

Interesting question, right?

Linda teaching us about voice and POV.
Linda at our Fall Retreat teaching us all the good stuff.

Linda also talked about using mentor texts – examples of good writing to be studied and imitated – to help you learn rhythm and sentence structure. You can tear apart these stories and study them; figure out how they work. (Another reason to be reading!)

Here are some great examples she used:

1st Person POV

clementine_book1CLEMENTINE by Sara Pennypacker

In this first book of the series, Clementine tries to help out her friend Margaret, but ends up in a lot of trouble for it. Things get worse each day of the week, until finally she’s worried that Margaret is right: Clementine’s parents might consider her “the hard one” in the family. They’re up to something mysterious…are they thinking they’d be better off if they only had her little vegetable-named brother…”the easy one”?



book thiefTHE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak

It’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. . . .

Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.



vera with printzPLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ by A.S King 

Eighteen-year-old Vera’s spent her whole life secretly in love with her best friend, Charlie Kahn. And over the years she’s kept a lot of his secrets. Even after he betrayed her. Even after he ruined everything.

So when Charlie dies in dark circumstances, Vera knows a lot more than anyone—the kids at school, his family, or even the police. But will she emerge and clear his name? Does she even want to?


2nd Person POV

blink and cautionBLINK & CAUTION by Tim Wynne-Jones

Boy, did you get off on the wrong floor, Blink. All you wanted was to steal some breakfast for your empty belly, but instead you stumbled on a fake kidnapping and a cell phone dropped by an “abducted” CEO, giving you a link to his perfect blonde daughter. Now you’re on the run, but it’s OK as long as you are smart enough to stay in the game and keep Captain Panic locked in his hold.

Enter a girl named Caution. As in “Caution: Toxic.” As in “Caution: Watch Your Step.” She’s also on the run from a skeezy drug-dealer boyfriend and from a night- mare in her past that won’t let her go. When she spies Blink at the bus station, Caution can see he’s an easy mark. But there’s something about this naive, skinny street punk, whom she only wanted to rob, that tugs at her heart, a heart she thought deserved not to feel.


book-whenyoureachme_f2WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead

3rd Person POV

Mouse MotorcycleTHE MOUSE AND THE MOTORCYCLE by Beverly Cleary

In this imaginative adventure from Newbery Medal-winning author Beverly Cleary, a young mouse named Ralph is thrown into a world of excitement when a boy and his shiny toy motorcycle check into the Mountain View Inn.

When the ever-curious Ralph spots Keith’s red toy motorcycle, he vows to ride it. So when Keith leaves the bike unattended in his room one day, Ralph makes his move. But with all this freedom (and speed!) come a lot of obstacles. Whether dodging a rowdy terrier or keeping his nosy cousins away from his new wheels, Ralph has a lot going on! With a pal like Keith always looking out for him, there’s nothing this little mouse can’t handle.


KeeperKEEPER by Kathi Appelt

Keeper was born in the ocean, and she believes she is part mermaid. So as a ten-year-old she goes out looking for her mother—an unpredictable and uncommonly gorgeous woman who swam away when Keeper was three—and heads right for the ocean, right for the sandbar where mermaids are known to gather. But her boat is too small for the surf—and much too small for the storm that is brewing on the horizon.


harry-potter-and-the-philosophers-stoneThe Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling


Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy. He lives with his Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia and cousin Dudley, who are mean to him and make him sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. (Dudley, however, has two bedrooms, one to sleep in and one for all his toys and games.) Then Harry starts receiving mysterious letters and his life is changed forever. He is whisked away by a beetle-eyed giant of a man and enrolled at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The reason: Harry Potter is a wizard! The first book in the “Harry Potter” series makes the perfect introduction to the world of Hogwarts.


Omniscient POV

ManiacMagee500MANIAC MAGEE by Jerry Spinelli

Jeffrey Lionel “Maniac” Magee might have lived a normal life if a freak accident hadn’t made him an orphan. After living with his unhappy and uptight aunt and uncle for eight years, he decides to run–and not just run away, but run. This is where the myth of Maniac Magee begins, as he changes the lives of a racially divided small town with his amazing and legendary feats.


bk_realboyTHE REAL BOY by Anne Ursu

On an island on the edge of an immense sea there is a city, a forest, and a boy. The city is called Asteri, a perfect city that was saved by the magic woven into its walls from a devastating plague that swept through the world over a hundred years before. The forest is called the Barrow, a vast wood of ancient trees that encircles the city and feeds the earth with magic. And the boy is called Oscar, a shop boy for the most powerful magician in the Barrow. Oscar spends his days in a small room in the dark cellar of his master’s shop grinding herbs and dreaming of the wizards who once lived on the island generations ago. Oscar’s world is small, but he likes it that way. The real world is vast, strange, and unpredictable. And Oscar does not quite fit in it.


Feeling overwhelmed by all the choices? Here’s one final thing to consider:

“Part of deciding point-of-view is knowing the experience level of your readers.” – Linda Urban

I’ve barely brushed the surface of everything we learned. It was enlightening and educational, to say the least. If you get an opportunity to take in a workshop taught by Linda Urban, I highly recommend it.

Learn more about Linda by visiting her website:

Follow Linda on Twitter @lindaurbanbooks.




Fan That Spark OK SCBWI Fall Retreat – The Recap Part I



Our Fall Retreat for Oklahoma SCBWI last month had something for everyone, with specific tracks for novel, illustration, and picture book that allowed you to focus on your area of interest. The theme “Fan the Spark” encouraged all to turn those beginning creative sparks into fully developed stories.

I attended the Novel Track.

(I heard rave reviews from everyone I spoke with who attended both the Picture Book Track taught by Janee Trasler, and the Illustrator Track taught by Tim Jessell.)

The first speaker had a background in theatre arts and showed us how writers could learn from actors when developing their characters. She also stopped by this blog prior to the retreat to introduce herself. Click on this link to get a more detailed view into her background..

Ginny SainGinny Sain – with more than 20 years experience as a working director, choreographer, playwright, theatrical designer, performer , and theatre arts teacher, she has worked as an artist in residence teaching theatre arts workshops in Arkansas and Oklahoma schools as well as teaching and directing all classes, workshops, and productions for over 18 years with the very successful Stages Theatre for Youth program.

“Generality is the enemy of all art.” – Stanislavski

When creating your characters, you want to move from the general to the specific.


By paying attention to the inner lives and motivations of your characters in every scene. And this should be done FOR EVERY CHARACTER.

When an actor prepares for a new role, they get to know their character intimately – what motivates them, how they move about in space, what they like and don’t like – they slip into their character’s skin to portray them in a believable manner. The actor inhabits every inch of that character’s psyche. And they do this before they even step foot onto the stage.

This can feel like a daunting task. Impossible even.

So how do they do it?

They break down the play into moments – or beats – and figure out what’s driving their character’s behavior from moment to moment. Beats are manageable chunks even smaller than scenes. Some obvious beats include when a character enters or exits a scene or when there’s a shift in conversation, or when new information has been revealed. Once the beats are identified, the actors then decide what the character’s objective, obstacle, and action is for each beat.

Objective – What your character wants. Each character has one main “superobjective” that spans the entire work and many smaller objectives that lead toward the “superobjective”. The path a character takes as they move through these smaller objectives is called the “through line”. Each character should have an objective for every beat they are on stage. The objective should be active and directed toward the other characters.  Objectives seek to change things.

Example: “I want to get away from him and leave this room.”

Obstacle – What is keeping your character from getting what they want. Obstacles can be internal or external. Or both. This struggle is what makes the story interesting.

Example: “I can’t leave because he locked the door.”

Action – What your character does to overcome his or her obstacle. There are usually three possible outcomes: the character will give up, overcome the obstacle, or plow through and ignore it. How they react to obstacles shows what characters are made of – reactions reveal a lot about character.

Example: “I jump out the window.”

Focusing on what each character wants as you write each moment – which may be completely opposite/opposing things – can make for much more interesting writing.

Learn more about Ginny by visiting her website: HeARTsong Creative Center.


The next speaker was no stranger to our OK SCBWI group or to the previous speaker (being her mother). She gave a talk about how to write emotion into your story without crossing the line into sentimentality.

AnnaMyersphotoCAnna Myers – This award-winning Oklahoma author has published 20 books to much critical acclaim. She has won the Oklahoma Book Award four times for SPY!ASSASSINGRAVEYARD GIRL, and RED DIRT JESSIE. She was also awarded their lifetime achievement, the Arrell Gibson Award, in 2012. She writes historical and contemporary fiction for young readers. She also had her first picture book, TUMBLEWEED BABY, published in 2014. Most importantly, she was our Oklahoma SCBWI Regional Advisor and fearless leader for 14 years.

Anna’s talk focused on helping us see the difference between emotion and schmaltz, the Yiddish word for sentimentality or literally, chicken fat.

“Novels aren’t real life. They need to be sharper.”

Emotion needs to be stronger.

Yet, this doesn’t mean readers want to see characters spill their guts out when grieving. Crying is too easy.


It’s the struggle that’s most interesting. Readers want to see how characters deal with problems – this is where the emotional connection lies.

So, what can you do to show this?

Think of an action to show the emotion.

Anna gave the example of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. This was a devastating time for the entire country. And yet, the most moving image wasn’t of a widow grieving, it was of his young son saluting his casket.

Photo credit: Stan Stearns/UPI
Photo credit: Stan Stearns/UPI


This would not have been as touching if he’d been crying. This is utterly heart-breaking. We feel the loss so much stronger. (While researching, I also learned that this picture was taken on John Jr.’s birthday. Seriously. Where’s the kleenex?)

Of course, tears do have their place, but don’t rely on them, or any other bodily expression, as a crutch for showing your character’s emotion. Focus more on that action that expresses their sorrow.

Learn more about Anna by visiting her website:


The next speaker lead us through a visualization exercise to help us overcome blocks in our creative process.

Pati Hailey PicPati Hailey – Over her career, Pati has written state legislation, online training for large corporations, lesson plans for teachers, and literature for children and adults. She is a frequent speaker at conferences and schools. Pati’s articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines, including Cricket and Hopscotch. Her contribution to this series, TE ATA: Oklahoma Cultural Treasure, is her first published children’s book.

I always find these visualization exercises helpful and I always learn something surprising about my manuscript or my character. Pati walks us through a simple relaxation before taking us through the visualization exercise. During the visualization, we are to focus on a part of our manuscript that is giving us trouble and look at it from a different perspective, paying attention to surroundings in more detail, and thinking about our characters in different ways, even asking them specific questions.

These visualizations allow your brain to relax enough to use your subconscious and solve story problems. You can try these on your own, too. While writing, think about getting up every 30 minutes or so to give your subconscious time to work on any story problems you might have.

Follow Pati on Twitter @PatiHailey

Follow Pati on Facebook here.


After lunch, we had a First Pages Critique Panel



The wise Panel Members: Anna Myers, Tammi Sauer, and Sonia Gensler share their insights.
The wise Panel Members Anna Myers, Tammi Sauer, and Sonia Gensler share their insights. (Photo credit: Regina Garvie)


a Speaker Autograph Party

Autograph Party 1
Some of our fantastic speakers signing their books. (Photo credit: Regina Garvie)


and then dinner…

We took over the Rock Café in Stroud. (Photo credit: THE Jerry Bennet)
Many of our group took over the Rock Café in Stroud. (Photo credit: THE Jerry Bennet.)


…before the final event of the day.

The Inspirational Keynote from LINDA URBAN! YAY!!!

LindaUrbanLinda Urban – Linda writes picture books and middle grade novels from subjects as varied as an angry mouse expressing emotion (MOUSE WAS MAD), a red-headed boy searching for independence (LITTLE RED HENRY), a girl who dreams of playing pianos only to end up with a wheezy organ (A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT), and a girl who tries to fix a horrible mistake with a birthday wish (THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING). Urban’s characters are written with so much heart, yours will burst while reading about them.

Linda encouraged us to be open to inspiration and new ideas throughout the weekend.

She told us the story about when she first felt that spark, that joy from writing. She put her heart on the page and loved that feeling. Then one day the good feeling stopped. A boy called her writing weird, and said she was weird. She felt horrible and stopped writing for a long time.

When she came back to writing, it was a slow, painful process. Once she let herself find that spark again, that feeling of joy, she needed to define the “spine” of her work. “Why do I do it?”

For her, she wants to write about small things that matter to kids in a big way.

“All I need to be successful is to be true to my spine.”

What is YOUR spine?

Inspiration in spades!

Learn more about Linda by visiting her website:


Stay tuned for The Recap PART II to read all about what Linda Urban had to teach us during the revision intensive on Day Two!


2015 TBR Challenge – DIE FOR ME Review

Die for Me cover

2015tbrbuttonMy ninth review for the Official 2015 TBR Pile Challenge is DIE FOR ME by Amy Plum.

The goal of this challenge is “to finally read 12 books from your ‘to be read’ pile within twelve months”. To qualify for the challenge, books must be read and reviewed before the year is over, and all selections must have publishing dates from the year 2013 or older. (Here are the books I’ll be reading this year.)

What a fitting title for this time of year, eh? I won this book last year after participating in an online chat with the Colleen Houck Book Club on Goodreads. We talked with Amy Plum about the first book in her latest series, AFTER THE END. (It is also fantastic, and I highly recommend it, too.)

On to the review!


Die for Me coverDIE FOR ME (Revenants #1) by Amy Plum

Published by: Harper Teen

Release Date: May 10, 2011

Genres: YA, Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Paranormal

Plot Summary:

When Kate Mercier’s parents die in a tragic car accident, she leaves her life—and memories—behind to live with her grandparents in Paris. For Kate, the only way to survive her pain is escaping into the world of books and Parisian art. Until she meets Vincent.

Mysterious, charming, and devastatingly handsome, Vincent threatens to melt the ice around Kate’s guarded heart with just his smile. As she begins to fall in love with Vincent, Kate discovers that he’s a revenant—an undead being whose fate forces him to sacrifice himself over and over again to save the lives of others. Vincent and those like him are bound in a centuries-old war against a group of evil revenants who exist only to murder and betray. Kate soon realizes that if she follows her heart, she may never be safe again. (Plot summary from author’s website.)


When I first read the flap copy, I was a little hesitant because it sounded more like a run-of-the-mill romance. This is so not that! Besides there being so much more sword-fighting and ass-kicking of epic proportions going on, Kate is no damsel-in-distress. She is very much a girl making decisions about her life – good or bad. And the revenants are so fascinating! I love the detailed design of their world, how they crave to sacrifice themselves for someone, almost like an addiction or sickness, until it becomes overwhelming – so interesting. And let’s not forget the setting! Plum really brings it to life. While reading, you feel totally immersed in this gorgeous city.

Here’s a brief excerpt from the beginning to whet your appetite:

There’s nowhere I’d rather be than Paris in June. Even though I’ve spent every summer there since I was a baby, I never fail to get that “‘Paris buzz” as I walk down its summer streets. The light is different from anywhere else. As if pulled straight out of a fairy tale, the wand-waving brilliance makes you feel like absolutely anything could happen to you at any moment and you wouldn’t even be surprised.

But this time was different. Paris was the same as it had always been, but I had changed. Even the city’s sparkling, glowing air couldn’t penetrate the shroud of darkness that felt superglued to my skin. Paris is called the City of Light. Well, for me it had become the City of Night.

I spent the summer pretty much alone, falling quickly into a solitary routine: eat breakfast in Papy and Mamie’s dark, antique-filled apartment and spend the morning entrenched in one of the small dark Parisian cinemas that project classic films round-the-clock, of haunt one of my favorite museums. Then return home and read the rest of the day, eat dinner, and lie in bed staring at the ceiling, my occasional sleep jam-packed with nightmares. Get up. Repeat.

The only intrusions on my solitude were emails from my friends back home. “How’s life in France?” they all started.

What could I say? Depressing? Empty? I want my parents back? Instead I lied. I told them I was really happy living in Paris. That it was a good thing Georgia’s and my French was fluent because we were meeting so many people. That I couldn’t wait to start my new school.

My lies were meant to impress them. I knew they felt sorry for me, and I only wanted to reassure them that I was okay. But each time I pressed send and then read back over my email, I realized how vast the gulf was between my real life and the fictional one I created for them. And that made me even more depressed.

Finally I realized that I didn’t actually want to talk to anyone. One night I sat for fifteen minutes with my hands poised above the keyboard, searching for something even slightly positive to say to my friend Claudia. I clicked out of the message and, after taking a deep breath, completely deleted my email address from the internet. Gmail asked me if I was sure. “Oh, yeah,” I said as I clicked the red button. A huge burden lifted from my shoulders. After that I shoved my laptop into a drawer and didn’t open it again until school started.

Now that is disconnecting from the world. Sad to say, I’ve actually been in that headspace. Things take a very interesting turn for Kate very soon after this. No spoilers here. You need to pick up this book to find out what happens.

This was such an intense, fast-paced and heart-felt read. I tore through this first book and continued on through the rest of the series in less than a week. Such wonderfully developed characters and rich story lines, it was a wonderful world to get lost in for awhile. I just loved it.


Learn more about Amy Plum here.

Follow Amy on Twitter here.



Jennifer Mathieu and Julie Murphy – Joint Author Interview

Today I may have to cut down on the caffeine intake because I’m already buzzing enough with excitement over my two guests. Jennifer Mathieu and Julie Murphy both had extraordinary debut novels that made quite a splash in the world of contemporary YA fiction. (I seriously raced through them in record time. Loved loved LOVED!!!) And now, they are putting all of their fabulous talent together to host a workshop this February for Madcap Retreats. (Yes, THAT Madcap Retreats. The brainchild of Natalie C. Parker.)

One lucky reader will win $100 off this workshop! Stay tuned to enter!


Jennifer Mathieu PicAbout Jennifer

Jennifer Mathieu is an English teacher, writer, wife, and mom who writes books for and about young adults. Her favorite things include chocolate, pepperoni pizza, and the super hilarious 1980s sitcom The Golden Girls. She can basically quote every episode. Jennifer lives in Texas with her husband, son, one rescue dog, one fat cat, and another cat that is even fatter than the fat cat.

When it comes to what she reads, she loves realistic young adult fiction (obviously), creative nonfiction, super scandalous tell-all memoirs, and anything that hooks her attention on the first page. She is the author of THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE (2014) and DEVOTED (2015). Her debut novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE, won the 2015 Children’s Choice Book Awards’ Teen Choice Debut Author Award.


About JulieJulie+Murphy+Author+Photo+copy

Julie Murphy is a potty-mouthed Southern belle who was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, but found her home in Fort Worth, Texas. She’s never seen Star Wars, but has yet to meet a made for TV movie she didn’t love. When she’s not writing, Julie can be found cruising Costco for free samples, watching Sister Act 2, stalking drag queens on instagram, obsessing over the logistics of Mars One, and forever searching for the perfect slice of cheese pizza. She lives with her bearded husband, two vicious cats, and one pomeranian that can pass as a bear cub.

Her debut novel, SIDE EFFECT MAY VARY (2014) was a NYT Bestseller. Her second young adult novel, DUMPLIN’ (Sept 2015), received glowing reviews including two stars from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, and in less than a month after its release, hit #1 on the NYT best seller list for YA Hardcovers. The film rights for DUMPLIN’ have been optioned by Disney.


The Interview

Valerie Lawson: You both have written stunning debut novels, which received much critical acclaim. Tell us about life as a debut author. What was the most surprising experience? What lessons did you learn?

alice_finalJennifer Mathieu: To be honest, I’m still surprised that I wrote a book and it got published.  It took me seven years to publish my first novel. My first two manuscripts got very close but never sold. So I spent my debut year sort of in a haze that THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE was not only getting published but was getting a very warm reception. 

I’ve learned to approach this writing career with enormous gratitude. It’s my childhood dream come true. It’s so easy to get sucked into the worry cycle or the gossip of the industry. But the bottom line is that once my debut novel hit the shelves, I became a published author. Nothing can ever happen that can take that away from me.

Side Effect CoverJulie Murphy: First, thank you! I am that horrible type of person who believes they can handle anything no matter how many times and how many people have warned them that the road ahead is difficult. There were so many incredible highs, but there were also so many lows that I never believed I’d actually experience or thought I was more emotionally equipped to deal with. I’ve learned that no matter how sane you are, planning a wedding or large family function can turn you into a special kind of crazy. That’s how the debut year is. You’ll be yourself, yes, but it may not be a version of yourself you’ve ever met.

The good news is: you are not alone. You will make fast friends with fellow debuts, because no one else can relate to you like they can. I would have to say the friendships were the most surprising experience and I’d go through it all over again to for these women if I had to. I poured so much of myself into SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY that I felt like I had nothing left to give and that this was my one and only chance, because I would never be able to recreate this magic. But that’s not true. My second book just came out and I love it just as much. I’m working on my third and am contracted for a fourth. There will always be more books. Sometimes publishing them won’t be so easy, but you will write another book.


VL: Gratitiude, yes. And realizing you’re not alone sounds especially important. I love how supportive this writing community can be.

How was the process of writing different for you when you wrote your second novel?

devoted_cvr_revealJennifer: I will say writing my second novel, DEVOTED, was very difficult for me. I really had that classic experience you hear about where your debut is warmly received and you feel total paralysis with the second book. I ended up completely throwing out the first draft of DEVOTED and rewriting it from scratch. I was incredibly late on every deadline which is so not me. I cried multiple times. 

Fortunately, my amazing editor at Roaring Brook, Kate Jacobs, talked me through it and in the end, I’m so enormously proud of my second book. I stretched myself as a writer and I’ve had multiple readers tell me that they can see my growth as a writer in DEVOTED. That makes me feel so good.

CoverReveals_F15_DumplinJulie: I was totally blind when I wrote my debut. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong or what I was doing right. Because of my huge ego, I assumed that if it didn’t feel off, it must all be perfect. DUMPLIN’ was an eyes wide open experience.

I knew my flaws. I knew the mistakes I’d made in my first book. For me, that knowledge was almost crippling. I knew what a published book looked and felt like and nothing about those early drafts matched those expectations. I had to learn to forgive myself of those mistakes and explore the narrative.


VL: Throwing out an entire draft? How terrifying! 

Learning to forgive your mistakes and explore the narrative – love that. 

You are co-hosting an intriguing Madcap Retreat this February entitled “More Than a Beach Read”, how did you come to be a part of this project?

Actual location for upcoming Madcap Retreat event - workshop with authors Jennifer Mathieu and Julie Murphy.
Actual location for Madcap Retreat “More Than a Beach Read” with authors Jennifer Mathieu and Julie Murphy.

Jennifer: Well the lovely Julie Murphy approached me and told me about Natalie’s plan to create Madcap Retreats. I immediately wanted to be involved. I think there’s so much to be gained from working intimately on your art with other artists in a concentrated period of time. I’m a huge fan of Julie’s work and Natalie’s work, and I knew I just wanted to be a part of anything they were involved with.

Julie: Natalie Parker is my partner in crime in many ways and when she floated the idea by me, I said I’d think about it. When she said it would be on the beach, I couldn’t say no. I knew I wanted to do something voice and critique intensive, and I knew that would be a lot to carry on my own. When we began to discuss bringing another author on, Jennifer was my first and most obvious choice. I have so many writer friends that I love and respect, but our styles and approaches really click. We both love contemporary and have the same type of values when it comes to storytelling. Let the record show: if I dropped dead tomorrow, I would have faith in Jennifer to finish my work in progress.


VL: That is a stunning compliment, Julie! (Please don’t drop dead.) That does speak well to how you must compliment each other.

What can you tell us about the workshop? What special programming do you have in mind?

Jennifer: Julie and I have been working on the agenda and we are looking forward to having roundtable workshop-style critique sessions as well as one on one time with each writer. We’re also planning on bringing in guest authors to tackle different topics. Julie and I really aim to focus on voice and building your writer voice. Some say that voice can’t be taught. While I do believe most writers have an innate ability to craft some sort of voice, I believe there are techniques and strategies you can use to strengthen your ability to make your work really come alive.

Julie: We actually just finished the whole agenda! Jennifer did a great job answering this one, so I’ll just add that the attendees will spend their morning with us really focusing on voice and in the afternoons while Jennifer and I (yes, we’re both reading each attendee’s submission), and supporting faculty members will help paint a broader picture by discussing critique, revision, and plot. In the evenings we’ll also be doing casual but themed panels to discuss our dealings in publishing and the business aspect of all of this.


VL: That’s a wealth of knowledge crammed into five days. And so much focus on voice! Wonderful. I know several authors who’d jump at this opportunity. 

You both come from different occupational backgrounds – one an English teacher and one working with teens in public libraries – where you have worked intimately with young people. What has this experience added to your writing?

Jennifer: For me, the teaching feeds the writing. I mean, I basically get paid to do my research. I’m surrounded by the rhythm of adolescence on a daily basis, and it’s so energizing and inspiring. I hear snippets of teenage conversation all around me at all times. On a daily basis I’m reminded of the heartbreak and excitement associated with being a teenager. Of course, my plots are fictional, but my students certainly help me create what I hope are realistic characters.

Julie: Like Jennifer, working with teens hugely impacted my writing. I think it’s easy for young adult writers to romanticize the lives of teens, but seeing them every day, you are reminded of their limitations. The same limitations you most likely experienced as a teen, too. On the other hand, I was constantly reminded of how each generation is defying the boundaries set by those before them. I really miss working with my teens!

VL: Being surrounded by your inspiration. Excellent!

Your workshop focuses on enhancing character and voice in manuscripts. What can you tell us about your writing process that helps you bring these two elements to the forefront in your own work?

Jennifer: For me, the characters become real in my mind. I think about them all the time. I miss them when I’m done with the book and still think about them after the book comes out. For me, I believe crafting a character you almost believe actually exists out there is key to writing a memorable novel. 

For the first time ever I struggled with that when writing DEVOTED. I was writing a story about a young woman in a very insular and conservative religious sect. I’d done all this research on the sect and was just information dumping throughout the entire book, but the truth is, I didn’t know my main character Rachel at all. My editor was like, “Who is she really?” and I realized I didn’t know. 

That was such a terrifying experience because in my first novel (and in subsequent novels) my characters came into my mind fully-formed. I spent a full weekend fixating on Rachel, doing all these exercises like imagining what she kept in the drawer of her nightstand. Finally, she started to come alive for me and the book became much easier to write. I really do believe it all begins with character.

Julie: Voice and character are huge for me, and yet they never come first in my writing process. I never start with a detailed plot, but I always have the pitch and premise and from there is how my voice and character evolve. I usually like to hammer out setting as well since it’s such a huge contributing factor. I like dissecting the situation and deciding what type of person might exist inside the premise and setting.

But when it comes to actual writing, I can’t start anything in earnest until I have a fully formed character. That character and your voice are sort of like a lantern in a dark tunnel, especially in contemporary. You will get lost–and sometimes it’s even helpful to get a little lost–but as long as you’ve got that lantern, you will eventually find your way.

VL: Oh, that’s good!

So if you don’t know your character inside and out, maybe spend some time getting to know them better. Your story will thank you.

Tell us a little about your teen years growing up. What was the most embarrassing thing you experienced? What was the most memorable adventure you had with your friends?

Jennifer: Freud would have a field day with me. I hated high school so much and looking back I can see I was actually fairly depressed throughout my high school years. And here I am teaching high school and writing books for and about high school students. It must be some form of catharsis. There is no one singular embarrassing incident. I was embarrassed constantly, and most of it was over silly stuff I’m sure no one noticed. I ran with a very good girl crowd. I would say my most memorable adventure would be staying up all night at a sleepover and eating too much raw cookie dough. Honestly, that’s as crazy as it got for me.  

Maybe the most embarrassing thing for me happened after some girlfriends and I went to see that movie The Bodyguard starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner. They were all so moved by the film they were sobbing hysterically as they walked out of the movie theater and everyone was staring at us and I wanted to die. And all I could remember thinking was, “That was one of the stupidest movies I have ever seen.” I loved old black and white movies from the 50s and 60s like The Bad Seed and The Last Picture Show. I thought there was something wrong with me. I just hadn’t found my tribe yet, but eventually in college, I did.

Julie: Those were some wild years. I was a horrible student. You know those videos of cats knocking things off tables? That was me and rules. I carried myself with this false but impenetrable confidence, so even if embarrassing things happened, I played them off as jokes no matter how mortified I really was, so I can’t think of anything in particular.

But I really did have great friends who on very rare occasions I was even vulnerable with. We always went on great mini roadtrips or had ridiculous parties or even went to some amazing concerts, but what I remember most is just hanging out at home with my closest friends, rolling around on the floor laughing and creating inside jokes. We were all theater kids though, so we were constantly performing and cracking jokes.

VL: Ha! Fantastic stories.(I’m really partial to The Bodyguard one. I can so relate to feeling like that!)

What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?

Jennifer: Well I adored Julie Murphy’s DUMPLIN’ of course!  I remember her reading a few pages from it at a retreat she and I went on over a year ago now, and I was so excited for the book and I loved it even more than I thought I would. 

There’s another book I want to mention that I had the opportunity to blurb. I read an advance copy this year, but it won’t be out until March 2016. It’s called SAVE ME, KURT COBAIN and it’s by Jenny Manzer. She and I share the same wonderful agent, Kerry Sparks. I loved this book so very much.  It’s fresh and nostalgic all the same time. Gorgeous, lyrical writing and a plot that kept me guessing until the very end. I think she’s going to be a voice to watch.

Julie: Sadly, this has been such a dry reading year for me. I’ve bought so many books, but time hasn’t allowed for me to start most of them. (Here’s looking at you, DEVOTED!) However, I am listening to the audio of SIMON VS THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA and the voice is incredible! Simon is someone I would have been friends with in high school and that makes for an authentic reading experience if you ask me.

VL: More fab books to add to the TBR collection. Nice.

What can you tell us about what you are currently working on? 

Jennifer: I have my third book coming out with Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan on September 20, 2016 and I am having the most infuriating time coming up with a title. But I can tell you it’s told in dual POV and it’s about two teenagers, Ethan and Caroline, and how their lives are linked by a tragic crime. It’s about healing from trauma and finding a soul-saving friendship in the most unexpected place.

(Update: Julie has a title! Her 3rd book has been christened AFTERWARD, and it comes out 9/2016.)

Julie: Sort of. Kind of. Maybe. Ha! I’m working on my third novel, which is currently titled RAMONA DROWNING. It’s about a too tall lesbian who lives in a trailer park with her well-meaning dad and pregnant sister. All is sort of okay until Ramona realizes she’s falling for a friend, who happens to be a boy. It’s a story about sisters and friendship and sexuality and the labels we assign to ourselves. I’m still drafting, so I’m sure it will end up being about more things. My publisher is referring to it is a YA Chasing Amy, which seems like a fair assessment.

VL: Ohh! Both sound exciting! Can’t wait to read more from you ladies!

Thank you both for sharing with us, today. It has been an honor and a great pleasure having you here on the blog.


The Giveaway

To entice you further to try out Madcap Retreats, we are giving away $100 off the cost of Jennifer & Julie’s upcoming workshop, “More Than A Beach Read“!


ENTER HERE!!!  ➤➤➤  Madcap Retreat Rafflecopter giveaway

(If you really, really want to enter, but are Rafflecopter-shy, you can post a comment below – along with your email address – and I’ll manually add you to the giveaway.)

Congratulations to the winner, Elisa J! 


Learn more about Jennifer Mathieu here.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter here.

Follow Jennifer on Tumblr here.

Follow Jennifer on Instagram here.

Follow Jennifer on Facebook here.

Learn more about Julie Murphy here.

     Follow Julie on Twitter here.

     Follow Julie on Tumblr here.

     Follow Julie on Instagram here.

    Follow Julie on Facebook here.

Learn more about Madcap Retreats here.

Tammi Sauer ROARS into Fall – Author Interview and Book Giveaway!

Tammi Sauer Author Pic

I have come to know Tammi Sauer over the years through many OK SCBWI events, and I have been delighted to watch her publishing career grow. We’ve been plotting and planning for her to stop by for an interview for awhile now, but busy lives and crazy schedules – mostly hers – have prevented this. I mean, what’s gal to do when the mayor names a day after you? This year she has three books being published, with the latest one, ROAR!, releasing in no time at all on October 6th!

Busy, busy busy!

Somehow, we finally managed to align the planets so this bright and shiny Oklahoma star could come by for a visit to the blog.

We’ll get to see the fantastical, star-studded trailer for ROAR! a little later in this post.

And one lucky reader will win a signed copy! So stay tuned!

About Tammi

Tammi Sauer grew up on a farm in the vast metropolis of Victoria, Kansas, where she liked to play tag with the pigs in her cheerleading uniform when not embezzeling money from her siblings.

She worked as a teacher and library media specialist before turning to a life of crime beginning her career as a full-time picture book author, and going on tour with some funky dancing chickens. (I may be mixing up some of my facts a bit, but I like this version.)

She really is a picture book author and has actually sold 24 books to major publishing houses. In addition to winning awards, her books have gone on to do great things. MOSTLY MONSTERLY was selected for the 2012 Cheerios Spoonfuls of Stories program. ME WANT PET! was recently released in French which makes her feel extra fancy. And NUGGET AND FANG, along with Tammi herself, appears on the Spring 2015 Scholastic Book Fair DVD which is seen by millions kids across the nation.

Before we dive into the interview, let’s learn a little bit about Tammi’s latest book:

Roar coverROAR! by Tammi Sauer

Release Date: October 6, 2015

Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books

Genres: Picture Book
Plot Summary:
With scissors and tape a boy transforms himself into…a dragon! “ROAR!” he says. He is BIG. He is SCARY. Well, not really. When two dragons come over for a play date, what on earth will these three find to do together? The boy doesn’t have big teeth and he can’t breathe fire. He is just a boy. And the dragons can’t eat ice cream or do cartwheels. They are just dragons. Luckily, the dragons care more about what they all can do together, like make silly faces and do the funky monkey dance. What they really care about is being friends.

That looks so awesome, I just want to dust off the old dragon costume (doesn’t everyone have one?) and stomp around the office.

The Interview

Tammi Sauer Author PicValerie Lawson: ROAR is your first picture book written completely in dialogue, why did you make this creative choice?

Tammi Sauer: I have always enjoyed using the classic picture book structure: character has a problem/want, character faces obstacles of escalating difficulty, character encounters a black moment in which all seems lost, character manages to solve the problem by the story’s end.

A few years ago, though, I challenged myself to try a variety of different approaches for telling a story, and writing a book entirely in dialogue was one of them. I wanted to stretch as a writer.

It was fun. And hard.

VL: Even though you were successful with those classic structure books, I love that you took the chance on trying something new. It’s really paid off!

The only character in the book with a name, Stanley the cat, was the creation of the illustrator, Liz Starin. What other surprises did you find when you saw the drawings for the first time?

TS: I discovered that the story was set in the boy’s world. When I was writing the manuscript, I envisioned it set in the dragons’ world. Also, I pictured Standard Issue Dragons. Liz’s dragons were a fresh, wonderful, and welcome surprise.

Roar Full Spread

VL: You do a lot of school visits each year, what’s your favorite part about interacting with the kids? Any standout memories/stories from the last year or two?

TS: As a former teacher and library media specialist, I love visiting schools and getting kids fired up about reading and writing. These visits have resulted in marriage proposals, invitations to play dates, and lots of great fan mail.

There are beautiful, quiet moments as well. Following a recent presentation for a large group of fourth and fifth graders, a girl waited for the room to clear. Then she came up to me, gave a shy smile, and said, “I’m a writer, too.”

VL: Oh, that last one just gives you tingles! Inspiring another generation of writers.

And when can we expect to see another dance video like the Librarian?

TS: Ha! I think I am a one-hit wonder in that department. I do, however, make a cameo in the ROAR! trailer.

VL: Nice segue! We will get to view that wonderful trailer right here after this interview.

In many posts talking about revising a manuscript, you’ve mentioned being happy after taking an entire day to change or cut a single word. What can you tell us about your revision process?

TS: Oh, I am a revision nerd!

Getting a manuscript juuuuust riiiiiiight is my favorite part of the process. It feels like a game to me. I strive to use only the best words. I remind myself to tell as much as possible in as little as possible.

Reading my manuscript aloud is another must—it helps to ensure that the rhythm is there. I also step away from my manuscript and grab lunch or run an errand. Getting away from it for an hour or so helps me to return refreshed. OH. The revision process ALWAYS involves ice tea. I am currently hooked on OnCue’s unsweetened tangerine green tea. It sounds gross. But is it good. I promise.

VL: Great ideas! I always find taking a break works wonders, too. 

This is your thirteenth published picture book, what’s the best piece of advice you can pass on to fellow authors?

TS: My best advice came from a quote I once read in a Cynsations blog post (blog by author Cynthia Leitich Smith).

“My main considerations for any picture book are humor, emotion, just the right details, read-aloud-ability, pacing, page turns, and of course, plot. Something has to happen to your characters that young readers will care about and relate to. Oh, and you have to accomplish all that in as few words as possible, while creating plenty of illustration possibilities. No easy task.”—Lynn E. Hazen.

VL: No easy task, indeed. Fantastic quote.

What can you tell us about what you are currently working on/soon to have released?

TS: I’m usually pretty hush-hush about my current projects. They feel like eggs in the incubator to me. Not all of them will hatch, but I always hope for good.

I can, however, tell you what’s in store for 2016. I have four upcoming titles:

Mary Had a Little Glam, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Sterling), is my first rhymer. It was an incredible challenge. I recently saw Vanessa’s sketches, and I am in love with sweet and sassy Mary.

I Love Cake! Starring Rabbit, Porcupine, and Moose, illustrated by Angela Rozelaar (HarperCollins), is about some of life’s finer things—good friends and cake. It also involves some spectacular sweaters.

Ginny Louise and the School Field Day, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger (Disney*Hyperion), is a sequel to Ginny Louise and the School Showdown. In book two, the irrepressibly cheerful Ginny Louise takes on the Truman Elementary Troublemakers in a whole new way.

Your Alien Returns, illustrated by Goro Fujita (Sterling), is a companion to Your Alien. This time around, the boy goes on a play date that is out of this world.

VL: Whew! Another busy year for you! Two sequels, how wonderful! And cake! I can’t wait to see them all.

Thank you so much for sharing your time with us, Tammi. Always a pleasure.

And now for your viewing pleasure…

The Trailer

The trailer for ROAR! includes cameo appearances from some of today’s fiercest authors and illustrators. You’ve been warned. Please view responsibly.



To learn more about the making of the trailer and behind-the-scenes scoop, check out this blog post by Tammi on Picture Book Builders.

The Giveaway

Tammi is giving away a SIGNED COPY of her new book ROAR! to one lucky reader of this blog!

To enter, all you have to do is name every author and illustrator who appears in the ROAR! trailer, along with their complete body of work listed in chronological order from bestselling to – JUST KIDDING!


ENTER HERE!!!  ➤➤➤ Tammi Sauer Rafflecopter giveaway

(If you really, really want to enter, but don’t want to use the Rafflecopter feature, feel free to post a comment below as your entry, and I’ll manually add you to the giveaway.)

Winner will be selected on October 19th.



Learn more about Tammi Sauer here.

Follow Tammi on Twitter here.

Follow Tammi’s group blog Picture Book Builders here.

In Celebration of Banned Books Week – a TGNA post



Surprise! Two posts in one day.

It’s Travel Tuesday over at The Great Noveling Adventure and I’m sharing ways that you can celebrate Banned Books Week.

I had the pleasure of attending the most amazing event last night put on by our local Booksmart Tulsa group. I had the opportunity to hear the phenomenal Salman Rushdie speak.

Outstanding! Inspiring!

Talk about the ultimate way to kick off this week. I applaud the gang at Booksmart Tulsa for pulling off the greatest Banned Books Week event.


I have no idea how they will ever top that.

For some ideas on how you can celebrate this most revered of bookish holidays, check out this excellent blog post.

Here’s a preview:




The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) – I looove that they have an office devoted to this! – promotes awareness to book challenges and at the same time celebrates freedom of speech during Banned Books Week, what an awesome thing!

And that week is now. YAY!

For this Travel Tuesday, I am supplying you with fantastic links so you can participate in this great event.

I know, I know…you’re very welcome.

To see the rest of the post (which will show all the fabulous links, as well as a great visual aid depicting last year’s most challenged books) click here.

I’d love to hear about how you’re celebrating and what you’re reading for Banned Books Week, too.


TweetIf you’d like some company as you write, please join us each week day morning on Twitter!

I host AM #wordsprints over on the TGNA group Twitter handle @Novel_Adventure from 6-8am CST. We sprint in 20 minute blocks with ten minute breaks in between each session. This season, I’m throwing in some fun challenges each day to keep things interesting.

Hope to see you there!

2015 TBR Challenge – I WILL SAVE YOU Review


2015tbrbuttonMy sixth review for the Official 2015 TBR Pile Challenge is I WILL SAVE YOU by Matt de la Peña.

The goal of this challenge is “to finally read 12 books from your ‘to be read’ pile within twelve months”. To qualify for the challenge, books must be read and reviewed before the year is over, and all selections must have publishing dates from the year 2013 or older. (Here are the books I’ll be reading this year.)

I was introduced to Matt’s work a few years ago while attending the SCBWI LA summer conference. His keynote speech and then his break out session on exercising patience made me an instant fan. (Read the post about my introduction here.) I brought home a few signed books and read the first one, MEXICAN WHITEBOY, right away – which I loved. This book slipped slowly to the middle of my TBR pile as I kept accruing more books to read. I’m so glad I finally had the chance to read it.

On to the review!

saveyou_bgI WILL SAVE YOU by Matt de la Peña

Published by: Random House Children’s Books

Release Date: October 12, 2010

Genres: YA, Contemporary, Realistic Fiction

Plot Summary:


Kidd is running from his past and his future. No mom, no dad, and there’s nothing for him at the group home but therapy. He doesn’t belong at the beach where he works either, unless he finds a reason to stay.

Olivia is blond hair, blue eyes, rich dad. The prettiest girl in Cardiff. She’s hiding something from Kidd—but could they ever be together anyway?

Devon is mean, mysterious, and driven by a death wish. A best friend and worst enemy. He followed Kidd all the way to the beach and he’s not leaving until he teaches him a few lessons about life. And Olivia. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Many of us probably had a toxic friend like Devon growing up; that one bad influence that brought out the worst in us or dampened our spirits and made us feel worthless. Yet we couldn’t seem to stay away from them or tell them “no” when they came around. And they always, ALWAYS dragged us into something we knew deep down would end badly.

Or maybe that was just me.

I could really relate to the characters in this book and the struggles they went through. One of Kidd’s big struggles is keeping the people he cares about safe. Sometimes that means from himself.

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the book:

And I saw it…

Devon sitting with Olivia at the top of the stairs, talking close like flirting people talk.

I choked on breath.

I almost squatted down on the not-yet-silver sand ’cause my knees went wobbly and I couldn’t tell which way was up, like when a wave takes you underneath and spins you around the ocean’s washing machine.

Olivia and Devon.


The beach sky was black except for a moon oval that lit up their position on the cliff like a stage spotlight in some romantic play, and I set right off for them, my heart knocking in my chest and stomach and even my neck. My philosophy of life book shaking in my hand. I walked at first like everything was normal ’cause I knew if Mr. Red thought something was happening he’d call me back and take off his old sombrero and fire off question after question (“What’s going on, big guy? You all right? Somebody stressing you out?”).

When I made it around the bend I jogged, then ran up the stairs, two at a time, thinking I had to get to her before something happened and what if something happened.

I saw them through the bushes and stopped cold…

Devon slowly tracing the mark on Olivia’s cheek, the one she showed me, and her just letting him.

“You can’t do it,” I said under my breath.

Olivia didn’t turn to look at me.

But Devon did.

Devon stared and even got a tiny grin on his face and I told him: “Get away from her!” But he didn’t get away from her. Instead he ran his fingers through her long blond hair and leaned in to whisper something in her diamond-earringed ear and then kissed her a real kind of kiss, like two people who were committed together as a couple.

She kissed back.

Intense and powerful, right? Makes you want to read more.

Just as he said in his talk, Matt holds the reader in the palm of his hand and makes them suffer.

I’ve heard Matt refer to this as his “sad” book and make no mistake, the ending will leave you wrecked. Still, it is well worth reading, well worth being wrecked by this fantastically talented author.

Learn more about Matt de la Peña here.

Follow Matt on Twitter here.

Follow Matt on Facebook here.