Friday, May 27, 2016

Barnes & Noble B-Fest: B-There!

Behind the scenes at Barnes & Noble stores around the country, you will find Community Business Development Managers working to create communities of readers. I recently caught up with David Knapp from the Barnes & Noble store in Rochester Hills, MI. He's excited about books and getting kids reading, and he's an author too. His job includes coordinating with local schools and organizing events.

Barnes & Noble is trying to return to its roots of being a bookstore first and foremost, and David is especially looking forward to the upcoming B-Fest. This 3 day event on June 10-12 was created as an avenue to bring teens into the stores. B&N's first national teen book festival will feature contests, giveaways, author panels and signings, and writing workshops. 

Tom Batterson, the Community Business Relations Manager at B&N Lakeview Square in Battle Creek, hopes B-Fest will be an annual event, partnering with thousands of authors and fans to create new excitement about books and make smaller YA authors more discoverable.  

Want to B-involved? 
  • Follow the Barnes & Noble Teen Blog on Facebook or BNBuzz on Twitter
  • Stop by your local store or visit their website to see their line-up for the weekend. 
  • Ask to participate as a local author, spread the word to local teens, or simply show up and enjoy the festivities as a reader.
I'll B-there! ;)

At B&N Rochester Hills, come see authors Cori McCarthy, Amy Rose Capetta, Bethany Neal, Erica M. Chapman, Andrea Hannah, MG Buerhrlen, David James, Heather Meloche, Barbara Rebbeck, and Kristin Lenz (me!). Click the store's link to find more information and times.

SCBWI-MI's Kelly Barson, Patrick Flores-Scott, and more will be at B&N Lakeview Square, Battle Creek. More info below.

If you're an author appearing at one of the stores, let us know in the comments below!

Coming up on the Mitten blog: the SCBWI-MI Picture Book Mentorship Competition, Ask Frida Pennabook, the Making of a Book Cover, an Indie Bookseller Interview, and MFA Q&As.

Nina Goebel is preparing to announce our new Featured Illustrator on July 1st, and Patti Richards is gathering your good news for another round of Hugs and Hurrahs. To be included, email Patti by June 19th at


Kristin Lenz

Friday, May 20, 2016

Wild Wild Midwest Memories

The Wild Wild Midwest SCBWI Conference was held in Naperville, Illinois from April 30 - May 1, 2016. For me, the best part of these conferences is the energy and momentum that continues long after we've all returned home. I'm still hearing stories of connections made and opportunities developing. Stories of generosity and going the extra mile to help others.

Keynotes, Workshops, Roaring 20's Party, Manuscript Contest, Art Show, Art Awards - it was a whirlwind weekend. In the words of our members and in photos shared, here are some highlights.

Jackie Sewell shared her conference notes with her critique group. Here's a glimpse for the rest of us:

One pervading theme of our whole weekend was Story. Story is critical - story is essential - without story it's just words and facts. Story is what compels people and is the catalyst for change.  Lisa Cron spoke very passionately about this. (You can read about her at

From Miranda Paul's workshop (my new author crush) (if you haven't read her yet (I hadn't!) get thee to a library and check her out!!) Clever and Creative NonFiction:

* Your goal is to create a remarkable book - one "worthy of attention." Why should a librarian/child choose your book instead of just googling the subject?

*Play with format (Rhyming verse, free verse, How to, Parody of a classic, Conditional (if - then), Call and response, Metafiction, Cumulative, Degenerative (count down ie 10 Little Robots), Linear, metafiction (talking directly to reader).

*Repetition is fun!

*Play with it - try different styles/tones/formats

From Candace Fleming's workshop (author of many, many books - used Family Romanov in our session, also referenced Papa's Mechanical Fish which I love!) Writing biographies:

*What is your vital idea? Why do you want to tell this story? How is what you want to say different/better than what a dozen others have already said? To be successful it needs to be more than an encyclopedic rendering of facts. It needs to be a story. (see note above)

*Think in terms of scenes - she actually blocks out her research materials into scenes. Each scene includes: a specific time, specific place, and one change.

*Ask: what does the reader need to know to get to the next scene - this is the bridge. The bridge contains only what is necessary to give context for the next scene.

*End Strong, "the purpose of the story is to lead readers to the ending." The ending should reinforce the vital idea; it should resonate with (haunt!) the reader; it should arrive "on time."

Thanks for sharing your notes, Jackie!

Here's a great story from Michigan member, Suzanne Klein:

I have been a member of an online critique group for about twelve years with seven wonderful ladies. We all met face-to-face for the first time at the Wild, Wild Midwest SCBWI Conference. We are from all over the United States (Washington, Oregon, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania), and one of our members is currently living in North Korea. It was a truly amazing experience to spend the weekend with this group, whom I now consider close friends.

Suzanne Klein's online critique group meets in person
The speakers and break-out sessions were also outstanding. We heard Lisa Cron speak several times, and her explanation of a “protagonist’s misbelief” really resonated. We talked for several hours that weekend about each of our current projects, discussing misbeliefs and scenes of origin. We have even decided to read Wired for Story by Lisa Cron together. And it wasn’t only Lisa that inspired us; there were many wonderful speakers—too many to name. I think it’s safe to say that we all left Naperville feeling energized and ready to dig deeper into our writing. Thank you to everyone who helped make this conference unforgettable!

Ruth McNally Barshaw, Carrie Pearson, Leslie Helakoski
Tracy Bilen, Lynn Baldwin, Kristin Lenz (me!), Deb Gonzales

Those amazing aviators above are the MI chapter leaders who spent countless hours planning and managing, but still took time out for fun at the Roaring 20's party. I always admire people who go to great lengths to plan costumes; alas, I am not one of them. (But hey, those boas were a lot more work than they look. I was picking purple feathers out of my clothes for days.)

Take a look below at some of the creative costumes - illustrators are the best!

Lori Taylor, wildlife painter
Angie Kidd and Beth Raynor (Picasso!)
Kara Marsee (Millions of Cats!)

Sondra Soderborg

Who's Eeyore? Julia Richardson! 

The wonderful art show overflowed into two rooms, and what a tough decision for the judges to choose the winners. Congrats to Michigan author/illustrator Heidi Sheffield (who also took many of these photos!) for taking second place.

Heidi Sheffield
By now, I think you've all heard about the spontaneous scholarship donation to We Need Diverse Books. (You can read more about it on Publisher's Weekly.) A week later, Heidi Sheffield jumped on board to auction off her award-winning print to raise even more money for the cause. And the donations continued even after the print had been awarded to the highest bidder!

Writers had a contest of their own with various New York editors serving as the judges for picture books, middle grade, young adult, and non-fiction manuscripts. See the winners here.

David Striklen, Charlie Barshaw, Ruth Barshaw, Leslie Helakoski

Here are two of the many volunteers who helped keep things running smoothly all weekend: Charlie Barshaw and David Stricklen. Charlie is merely a blur in the background because he's racing off to the next AV crisis.

Laura Seely, Ann Finkelstein, Nancy Shaw

Melissa Shanker and Georgia Shuler

Smiling faces, so much fun! Thanks again to all of the Regional Advisors and volunteers who contributed their time and energy to create this magical weekend. Keep riding this wave of momentum and create!

Kristin Lenz

Friday, May 13, 2016

Writer Spotlight!

Introducing Sarah McElrath 

Sarah McElrath calls herself, “…one of those weird kids who liked to write school papers,” and credits her second daughter and the long, cold Michigan nights for her first completed YA manuscript, BLACK DRAGON. Sarah grew up in Grand Rapids, and was the second child of four. She attended graduate school in Ann Arbor, and her first job landed her on the Michigan shoreline in Grand Haven. You’re going to love Sarah’s story, so let’s jump right in. . .   

Mitten: OK Sarah, when did you start writing for children, and how did you know it was something you wanted to do?

Sarah: I was one of those weird kids who liked to write school papers. As for writing for young adults, I don’t know that I decided it so much as the stories I needed to tell decided for me.

After I was married, I spent several years messing around trying to write about my experience with clinical depression, all without much success. Everything I wrote was… well, depressing. While nursing my second child in the middle of the night — freezing because it was February in Michigan—my brain spit out the idea to write about depression as I had in my journal at the time. Back then I had no idea what was wrong with me, and only knew it as this dark horror, this black dragon that stalked me, intent on consuming me whole. It took on a life of it’s own after that.

Mitten: How did you find out about SCBWI and how long have you been a member?

Sarah: Oh boy, a memory test. Well, I think I first found out about SCBWI through a writer friend of mine. Robyn Ford also writes YA fiction, and she told me about a conference for writers who wrote for children and teens. I’ve been a member since 2009.

Mitten: What genres are you most interested in and why? Picture books, middle grade, YA, chapter books, poetry, nonfiction?

Sarah: The manuscript I’m currently revising was intended to be middle grade. That lasted about a week. I’m drawn to YA. Not that I’ll never try middle grade or younger, but the possible plot lines I’m most interested in are all YA. That age is so complex, so difficult. There is the desire for independence, the knowledge that you are unique, not exactly like your family or friends. And yet, there is the pull to fit in, the fear to separate from family, the fear that you might not make it, people might not like you. It is that juxtaposition, that push-pull that fascinates me. How one handles it can determine the rest of that persons’ life.

Mitten: Tell us about your publishing journey. Are you pre-published or published, and if so where?

Sarah: I’d say I’m in the Still Hopeful stage of my publishing journey - that is, the part where I have a completed manuscript, but haven’t yet found the right editor/agent. It sounds better than saying that so far, all I’ve received are nice rejection letters. Black Dragon is currently out to an editor (sigh, the process is slow and requires much patience), a second manuscript awaits more editing, and I’m revising a third manuscript, trying to tighten up the plot.

Mitten: Many of us have a job other than writing for children. Tell us something about what you do outside of writing.

I’m a dual personality in my day job—Library Media Specialist at White Pines Intermediate School AND at Lakeshore Middle School. Each building has over nine hundred students, so I am blessed with many, many chances to nurture a love of story, of reading and writing in these kids. Not only do I share awesome books with students and staff, but also I have many opportunities to talk to them about the power of words—spoken, written, and online.

Mitten: How does this occupation inform your writing?

Sarah: I dare say being a school librarian just might be the best job for a YA fiction writer. Some of the dialog I hear in the library or in the hall has me scrambling for my notepad. I still remember one phrase of dialog that came from shamelessly eavesdropping when I worked at the alternative high school in our district. It was after lunch and a group of students were talking about their weekend. A thin-faced girl with high cheekbones and incredible cornrows dominated the conversation, gushing about her boyfriend. Finally the young man sitting across from her interrupted. “Girl, I swear if you talk about him any more, I’M going to fall in love with him.” I wrote the sentence down thinking someday I’d use it in a story.

Mitten: Where do you get most of your writing ideas? Do you write them down, keep them in a computer file or just store them in your memory?

Sarah: My ideas come from everywhere—my experiences, what I observe happening around me, what I read. I am curious by nature, and ideas come to me when I wonder why. Why would someone do, or say, or think, or not do/say/think what they did? What would happen if that person had done something different? Those are the seeds of ideas. Sometimes it takes the dirt in life to grow them—I mean, the fears, the angers—stuff like that.

Memory is a fallible thing for me, so if I want to keep an idea, I have to write it down. I have a half dozen journals lying around at home and at work where I write my ideas, phrases, words, quotes, bits of story. For some reason, it’s easier for me to use a physical journal rather than the computer. The computer makes me too worried about whether or not the idea is good. Plus, it is easier to randomly flip through a journal when I’m searching for inspiration.

Mitten: We all have favorite writers that inspire us. Name two of yours and why you like them.

Sarah: Whenever anyone asks me this I feel like I should be listing some of the classics, the greats. And those books/authors have inspired me. My dad was a librarian as well, and after supper he’d read aloud to us. Treasure Island, Lad—a Dog, Shane, The Swiss Family Robinson… he read almost all classics.

But the books I have read and re-read are more modern. Megan Whalen Turner is probably my all-time favorite writer. The way her plot unfolds in The Thief, twists in Queen of Attolia, twists again in King of Attolia, weaving together in Conspiracy of Kings is awe-inspiring. The choices she made about point-of-view in each of her books is masterful—even though I knew the characters, the changed perspective fooled me.

I have also read Anne McCaffrey’s books many times. She is a master at world building. Whether it is Pern in her Dragonrider series, or the future earth presented in The Talent Saga, Anne McCaffrey excels at making that world and its characters real. Grounding her stories in scientific fact, she extrapolates to the next level, using specific details to make it interesting and believable.

With both authors, it is their ability to create interesting characters that draws me to their books again and again. Turner and McCaffrey create characters that are fully human in needs, wants, flaws, and strengths. The characters have traits I can relate to, and traits I would like to develop in myself. These are books I re-read because I want to visit my friends again.

Mitten: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received as a writer for children? Why?

Don’t worry about teaching a lesson — just tell a good story. Kids are smart, they’ll get it.

The advice came after I’d finished my second manuscript. I wasn’t happy with it, but I didn’t know why. When a friend of mine read it, she pin-pointed that problem. I’d been trying too hard to connect the dots, to teach a lesson. It made the story seem forced.

Thank you so much for sharing your writing journey with us Sarah (I told you she had a great story)! You can learn more about Sarah by visiting her at the following:

My website:
My Feed The Writer Scoop:
Twitter: @aliaslibrarian

And remember, get your own story ready (blog, twitter, website, etc.), because you never know when the Writer Spotlight may shine on you!

Friday, May 6, 2016

Breaking Out of Your Circle by Melanie Hooyenga

I’ve been a self-published author for over three years, and while I’ve had great reviews and enthusiasm over my books, my sales left something to be desired. At the beginning of 2015, I challenged myself to break out of my circle—to get myself and my books in front of people I didn't know through book reviews, guest blogging, interviews, personal appearances, book signings, etc.—and in one year, my sales increased eight-fold.

Here’s what worked for me:

Make Goals

If you’re starting from nothing like I was, aim for getting yourself in front of one new audience per month. Take an afternoon to scour the internet for bloggers and review sites, then designate one day per week to contact them. Keep your list on a physical calendar or whiteboard to hold yourself accountable—it’s harder to ignore goals when they’re staring at you from the wall.

Make Connections

Reach out to book bloggers. Talk to your local bookstore. Join Facebook groups, both local and national. I found book fairs, art fairs, and farmers’ markets through those groups, and while they weren’t all successful in terms of sales, they helped me hone my pitch and meet more authors, teachers, and librarians—the people you want to know. Book reviewers and bloggers looking for authors to interview frequent these pages as well.

Have a book coming out soon? Write a press release and send it to the local newspapers and radios—and don’t forget high school papers and college alumni magazines! Stop by the local bookstore when they aren’t busy and ask if they’d be willing to host a book launch party.

Watch the Sales Roll In

I wish it were that easy, but it takes a lot of time and persistence. The connections I made at the smaller events led to invitations at larger venues, and it’s snowballed from there. But don’t be afraid to think differently. I live in craft-beer land, so I approached the owner of a brewery to host a book event there. I met a radio station manager at a work event and asked if he’d be interested in interviewing a local author. (He was.) Brainstorm with other authors.

Final Tips

Looking back, I was quite pitiful at my first event. I had my books, my autograph pen, and my credit card reader—what else did I need? Let me tell you what’s in my “event box” now:

  • Black tablecloth (some places provide one but you don’t want to the only author stuck with the bare table)
  • Newsletter sign-up sheet (and depending on how large the crowd will be, a sign stating they’ll be entered to win a $25 Amazon gift card for signing up). TIP: add a signature or two to the top of the list. No one likes to be the first name.
  • Candy (Bonus if it ties into your books)
  • A sign with book prices
  • Display copies of each book so people only handle one copy—this also keeps the table neater.
  • An 18x12 poster with book covers that clearly says author name & genre
  • I plan to add a pop-up banner to my arsenal this year.

My biggest advice is don’t be afraid to speak up and tell people about yourself—especially at events. Make eye contact, smile, and be friendly. There’s a fine line between being persistent and being obnoxious, but when you find it, good things will happen.

Melanie Hooyenga first started writing as a teenager and finds she still relates best to that age group. She has lived in Washington DC, Chicago, and Mexico, but has finally settled down in her home state of Michigan with her husband Jeremy. When not at her day job as Communications Director, you can find Melanie attempting to wrangle her Miniature Schnauzer Owen and playing every sport imaginable with Jeremy.

Coming up on the Mitten blog: We're still recovering from the jam-packed weekend at the Wild, Wild Midwest SCBWI Conference, but we'll have a recap soon. You can help by sending your conference photos and take-aways (a few sentences about what you learned, or an ah-ha moment) to 

But first, Patti Richards is coordinating another Writer's Spotlight. Who will it be? Find out next Friday.

Have a great weekend!
Kristin Lenz