Friday, October 30, 2015

The Mystery of Writing: Keep Your Readers Guessing by Laura Wolfe

Are you writing a mystery? Or thinking about writing a mystery? These tips will help my fellow mystery writers to keep readers engaged from the first page to the last. 

1.  Start with an intriguing premise. The central mystery in your work should be one that makes a reader turn the page and want to know more. In other words, the premise should raise multiple questions that beg for answers. "Who robbed the bank?" is not as intriguing as "Who emptied the vaults of five banks on the same day in a quaint Midwestern town without anyone seeing?" In the second example the reader automatically wants to know not only Who did it?, but How did the robber hit five banks in one day?, and Why didn't anyone see?, and What's the real story behind this "quaint" town?

2.  Introduce a few seemingly irrelevant clues toward the beginning of your work. Start with a couple of minor clues and build toward more frequent and important clues toward the end. These strategically-placed hints toward the beginning should not be so obvious that they give away the answer to the mystery. Instead, the clue should make the reader think, That's odd. And then later, Aha! It all makes sense now. For example, in Trail of Secrets, the MC, Brynlei, realizes someone stole her deodorant shortly after she arrives at the riding academy. While Brynlei thinks the occurrence is strange, the reader can sense something more sinister. It isn't until the central mystery of the missing girl is solved that the reader realizes its significance.

3.  Give the reader plenty of suspects to choose from (but not so many it becomes confusing.) As your MC discovers new information, she should start to view formerly friendly characters in a more suspicious light. For example, maybe your MC is certain the creepy P.E. teacher is the one who strangled her French teacher, but then she sees the nice man next door digging a hole in his backyard in the middle of the night. Or maybe your MC discovers the new transfer student from France lied about an important piece of her past. Anyone can be a suspect! Just don't go crazy. Keep the viable suspects to less than five, and make sure to explain away any suspicious behavior for people who are not the guilty party.  
4.  Raise the stakes to keep readers turning the pages. Mysteries aren't always page-turners, but they should be! Here are a few ways to raise the stakes and keep readers on the edges of their seats:

  • Put a timeline on solving the crime (e.g. The MC's brother will be sentenced to death if the MC can't find the real murderer in a certain amount of time);
  • Take away your MC's friend, helper,  or support system;
  • Have the police accuse the MC of the same crime she is trying to solve; and/or
  • Make the suspect aware that the MC is onto him, and reverse the chase!

5.  Make sure the answer to the mystery is a good one! When the mystery is solved, keep your promise to the reader. Don't have the MC discover that everything actually happened exactly the way the police said it did, or that the secret room your MC finally uncovers behind the grandfather clock is really just used as a broom closet. Those are NOT the prizes readers want to find at the end of your book. Give them something scandalous and unexpected. Instead, maybe the police chief stages the crime to cover for his son who is the real murderer, or the secret room behind the clock is used to hide a dead body. See the difference?

I hope these tips help you write your next mystery! I can't wait to guess, "Who dunnit'?"

Laura Wolfe lives in Milford, MI. She is a wife, mother, and lover of nature and animals (especially horses!) Her debut novel, Trail of Secrets, was published in August 2015 by Fire and Ice YA. Laura's picture book, Henrietta's Hoof Polish, is forthcoming from Guardian Angel Publishing. Laura is a member of Sisters in Crime and the SCBWI. 

More about Laura here: 

It's time for another SCBWI-MI Member Spotlight. Who will it be? Find out next Friday.
Happy Halloween weekend!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Welcomed into the Kid Lit Community with Open Arms by Christina Fecher

Maybe I’m just cynical, fueled by a career as an inquisitive journalist. Or perhaps it’s just because the writing industry overall – newspapers, magazines, books, you name it – is incredibly competitive.

Regardless of the reason, I’m completely amazed – and admittedly a little overwhelmed – at just how welcome the kid lit community has made me feel so far.

I guess I really shouldn’t be too surprised. I mean, we are a group of individuals striving to inspire, encourage, educate and entertain children. Not to mention foster an early appreciation for reading.

But still …

As a newcomer to the community, I’m so appreciative of how much I’ve been helped by people I’ve only just met at the SCBWI-MI Fall Conference!

My experiences have helped me believe that maybe, just maybe, I can make it as a children’s book author after all. To name a few:

The Michigan Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is a great resource that I recommend others check out. There’s a mentorship program, webinars and free monthly meet ups to help you further develop your writing. They also have a blog, The Mitten, that I’ve submitted posts to on occasion. They encouraged members to submit a post, so I reached out to Kristin Lenz and her response was both quick and encouraging. That right there spoke volumes because it made me feel as though what I had to say was relevant. It was great meeting her in person earlier this month.

Every writer needs an editor, and I’m so lucky I found Louise Knott Ahern, a former journalist like myself. Maybe found isn’t the correct term since we’ve been Facebook friends for years but have never actually met. Anyway, she took on my manuscript project and helped embolden my voice. Louise smoothed areas in need of TLC, but also highlighted my strengths. She truly made it better, made me stronger. But it was more than that … her feedback built my confidence, declaring me “well-suited to writing children’s books.” And since then, she’s passed along tips and tidbits to help get me noticed.

Christina with Deborah Diesen at the fall conference.
If you have young children, then you’ve certainly read The Pout Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen time and again. In fact, it’s a favorite in our household! Well, after much consideration, I decided to reach out and email Ms. Diesen to introduce myself earlier this summer before the SCBWI-MI Fall Conference. I had never emailed a New York Times Best Selling Author before, and the interaction was nothing like I expected. First and foremost, I never even expected a response. Let alone a same-day response congratulating me on my leap into the children’s picture book world and offering insight into her publishing journey. After a few emails – and the opportunity to meet her in person at the conference – I’m definitely taking her advice to heart.

I’ve only scratched the surface into the encouragement and kindness within the kid lit community, but I already feel a confidence that I didn’t have 6 months ago. And I sincerely thank those who’ve given me a moment to say hello. It’s these simple acts of kindness that set this genre apart.

So I think I’ll go ahead and stow my skepticism, because you’ve all proven I don’t need it anymore!

Christina Fecher is a former reporter at The Detroit News, who now handles corporate communications and public relations in West Michigan where she lives with her husband and their two children. She’s a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

Coming up on the Mitten blog: Adding Mystery to Your Writing, Planning a Critique Group Retreat, more Kiddie Litter cartoons, and another Member Spotlight. See you next Friday!

Friday, October 16, 2015

OH, THE PEOPLE YOU’LL MEET... at an SCBWI conference. (And a scholarship opportunity!)

Registration is now open for the 17th Annual SCBWI Winter Conference in New York City. Have you dreamed of going? What's holding you back? Time, travel, money, fear? Charlie Barshaw is here to share his experience attending a national SCBWI conference, and we'll tell you how you might qualify for a scholarship to cover the cost of the NY conference registration AND airfare.

OH, THE PEOPLE YOU'LL MEET by Charlie Barshaw

In the past I’ve emphasized the talent present at the SCBWI national conferences.( 2015 SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles was no different. From Mem Fox to Kwame Alexander, with agents and editors by the bushel, it was a spectacularly star-studded affair. 

But, keynotes and breakout sessions are only one reason to attend a national conference. Another great reason is the creative community, the people, your peers, who you meet.

Lin Oliver announced that a record 1,173 attendees paid for the conference. Of those, 736 were, as we like to say in the biz, pre-published.

So, more than half of the writers and illustrators at the conference were figuratively in the same boat, and literally in the same ballroom for the opening speech.

Silly me, I forgot the business cards that Ruth had printed and cut for me. (I am, the card proclaims, a writer and literary agency intern.) Almost everyone else I met had one, and I came away, even the introvert I was, with contact information from at least a dozen new creative friends and acquaintances.

It started on Friday morning when I recognized Owen in the registration crowd. He’d been at my a.m. NY round table in February. I’d admired his work, gotten his contact information and promptly lost it. And my brain, usually a rusty trap, gave me his correct name right away. Owen and I would meet several more times over the weekend, and we’ll likely be trading YA manuscripts.

One fortunate encounter happened on Friday night when I participated in a peer group critique. Our mid-grade novel group had me and four other writers, and every single set of pages was uniformly excellent. I met Naz, Tiffany, Eric and Kathryn. Three of them live within driving distance in California and scheduled a date to meet again. Tiffany and I planned to join in electronically, and suddenly I have a new crit group.

Afterwards, outgoing Naz persuaded me to visit the hotel bar, where I paid $13 (!) for a glass of wine and gathered more cards. I met Lori, a YA fiction writer who had written a manuscript about a transgender teen. The story, she said, was semi-autobiographical. That same evening I met writer Jeanette just long enough to snag a card from her, too.

The next day, I sat next to Rhonda, who has a published MG out but was disappointed that her publisher passed on the sequel. However, she had another story in the pipeline and was encouraged at its prospects.

I stood in a long line waiting for Adam Rex to sign my copy of THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY. I talked with Marshalla, in line ahead of me, about schools and plays; she was a NY educator. I asked if I could use her lovely name for one of my MG characters, and she agreed.

At the “Sparkle Party” that night I ran into former SCBWI-MI member Betty Raum, who’s now RA for North Dakota. I also met Virginia, who is the Illustrator Coordinator for the Louisiana/Mississippi region. Virginia also draws the LSU tiger mascot for the school.

I met Stephen on Sunday when we found the last open table for a luncheon. He’s a balloon illustrator and children’s author. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to explore the balloon thing with him.

Molly, who I met in fast-talking editor Jordan Brown’s breakout, might be able to share notes so we can piece together all the great advice he loosed.

I met Carolyn Flores in New York and was thrilled to meet her mother in LA, a children’s writer in her own right. I declined taking Carolyn’s card early on, but accepted her evocative postcard at the signing party on Sunday because she still had a few left.

I met Owen again on Monday before the Intensives when Stephanie appeared. She’s writing YA and opened one of her WIPs with a suicide note.

These are connections. Some will go nowhere, but some will last a lifetime. Owen met up with author Paul Fleicshman after a 30 year absence, and they reconnected in a heartbeat.

There are many good reasons to attend an SCBWI conference, on the national and local level. Perhaps the best reason, though, is for the people you will meet, the networks that may form, the friendships and creative support that will almost certainly result.

Charlie has recovered fully from a stroke which left him unbalanced. He can now walk a straight line and still twist a sentence into knots. He's currently working on his YA and revising his MG, "Nuts" with his new-found LA crit group. 

Thanks to Charlie for sharing his experience. Are you intrigued? Feeling more comfortable about attending one of the big SCBWI national conferences? If the expense is holding you back, SCBWI-MI member Shutta Crum has the solution:

Shutta will pay the full early-bird registration fee for a Michigan SCBWI member to attend. ($425.00) The qualifying rules are listed on the application form posted here and on Shutta’s site. (Deadline to apply for the scholarship is by midnight, Dec. 5, 2015.) SCBWI-MI will reimburse the scholarship winner for the cost of airfare.

We're so fortunate to have such a supportive chapter!

Coming up on the Mitten blog: A Kidlit Welcome, Adding Mystery to Your Writing, Planning a Critique Group Retreat, more Kiddie Litter cartoons, and another Member Spotlight. See you next Friday!

Friday, October 9, 2015

Tips, Pics, and Congrats from the 2015 Homegrown Talent Conference

Conference co-coordinator Jennifer Rumberger is here to share her conference take-aways, but first we want to say congratulations to SCBWI-MI members Dan Burns and Ann Dalman! Dan won the 2016 Michigan Mentorship Award that featured diversity, and Ann was the first runner-up. This award considered picture books, novels or nonfiction manuscripts that were either written by a person of diverse origins or included elements of a multicultural perspective.

Patricia Hruby Powell
The grand prize is a one-year mentorship with Patricia Hruby Powell, a storyteller, author and former dancer. Her most recent picture book, JOSEPHINEwon The Coretta Scott King Book Award, Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, Parent’s Choice Award, Wall Street Journal’s 10 Best Children’s Books of the Year List, and the Bologna Ragazzi Nonfiction Honor.

We'll catch up with Dan and Ann in another post to learn more about them and their work. 

Here's Jennifer's conference recap:

This past weekend SCBWI-Michigan hosted a Homegrown Talent Conference at Thomson-Shore publishers in Dexter, Michigan. The amazing speakers: Ruth McNally Barshaw, Deborah Diesen, Kelly DiPucchio, Lynne Rae Perkins, Katherine Jacobs, Kathleen Merz, Mary Bigler and portfolio reviewer Wong Herbert Yee (all from Michigan or currently living in Michigan) shared much to keep those in attendance inspired. To help those of you who missed the conference find inspiration as well, below are five tips as you continue to write.
  1. Dig deep and figure out why you’re writing for kids.
  2. Fall in love with your main character. It’s the best way to make your reader feel something for them as well.
  3. Make sure you are committed to your story before going too far with it. If you can’t totally commit, your reader will know.
  4. Round characters are a necessity in every good story.
  5. The influence our writing can have on today’s children is a power not to be taken lightly.
As you sit down to type that next story or pick up your pen and paper, remember that a community of writers is cheering you on from their own computer or notepad. 

Jennifer Rumberger is a wife and mom of two very active boys. She is an administrative assistant during the day and a children's writer in her free time, which can be at home or at one of her boys' many sports practices (never during games!). She has been published in a handful of children's magazines and her picture book, DUCKLINGS ON THE MOVE, is available from MeeGenius.

Thanks to Pat Trattles who coordinated the fall conference with Jennifer and the many volunteers who helped - what a great event! Here are some photos from the fun, informative, jam-packed day. Thanks to Kirbi Fagan for taking the time to capture these moments.

Co-Regional Advisors Leslie Helakoski and Carrie Pearson kick-started the day with an audience dance.

SCBWI-MI webmistress Deb Gonzales with editors, Katherine Jacobs and Kathleen Merz.

Ready to start the day.

Kelly DiPucchio during her funny, inspirational speech. Bulldogs, Babies, and Bacon: Everyone Has a Story

Perusing the portfolio display

Thank you illustrators for sharing your work.

SCBWI-MI Illustrator Coordinator, Ruth McNally Barshaw led a session for illustrators: Packing the Perfect Portfolio

Nick Atkins, creator of the Homegrown Talent Conference logo, with his wife Ashley.

Save the date! The SCBWI Wild Wild Midwest Conference will be held in Chicago, April 29- May 1, 2016. Five regions are hosting —Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa. More info soon!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Our New Featured Illustrator!


This questionnaire goes back to a popular parlor game in the early 1900s. Marcel Proust filled it out twice. Some of our questions were altered from the original to gain more insight into the hearts and minds of our illustrators. We hope you enjoy this way of getting to know everybody.

1. Your present state of mind?


2. What do you do best?


3. Where would you like to live?

I didn’t grow up in Michigan, but I love it here. I’m also a big fan of Colorado.

4. Your favorite color?


5. Three of your own illustrations:

6. Your music?

When I’m painting, I like to listen to music with a lot of energy. It can be bluegrass, motown or pop, as long as it makes me feel like moving.

7. Your biggest achievement?

Writing and illustrating a book was a dream of mine for quite awhile, so it felt pretty darn good when it happened.

8. Your biggest mistake?

As George Saunders puts it, “failures of kindness.”

9. Your favorite children's book when you were a child?

Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni

10. Your main character trait?

I’m a good listener.

11. What do you appreciate most in a friend?


12. What mistakes are you most willing to forgive?

Unmalicious ones.

13. Your favorite children's book hero?


14. What moves you forward?

Excitement. A deadline.

15. What holds you back?


16. Your dream of happiness? 
Simple things, like going on a hike or watching a sunset with people I
love being around. Without anxiety.

17. The painter/illustrator you admire most?

Maira Kalman

18. What super power would you like to have?


19. Your motto?

Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” - Pablo Picasso

20. Your social media?

web site:
twitter: @dpilutti
instagram: dpilutti