Friday, August 28, 2015

Things I Learned While Writing a Trilogy by Melanie Hooyenga

I recently published the third book in my YA trilogy, The Flicker Effect, and this release was far more stressful than the previous two. Writing a novel—not to mention publishing it—is a huge accomplishment, and I could have used this advice to avoid unexpected bumps along the way.
Planning to write a trilogy, or already in the middle? I hope this helps!

It’s very very important to keep a character bible.

When I wrote the first book, FLICKER, I hadn’t planned to write a trilogy. It was only after I finished that I realized it had series potential, and I’d neglected to take some very important notes while during the writing process. Case in point: Mid-way through the first draft of the second book, FRACTURE, I couldn’t remember my main character’s last name. I didn’t remember even GIVING her a last name. But since I never kept track of that HUGE detail, I had to skim through ALL OF FLICKER to make sure. Nope, I never called her anything beyond Biz, and her BFF Amelia refers to Biz’s dad as Mr. Biz.

I started a loose guide at that point, but with FADED, the third book, I ran into the same problem. I don’t spend a lot of time naming secondary characters—I often write the first name that pops into my head—so when a new character from chapter three resurfaces ten chapters later, there’s very little to help me recall that person’s name.

It’s difficult to promote books 2 and 3 without giving away THE BIG THING from books 1 and 2.

While working on the back cover copy for FADED, I was faced with this challenge: how do I refer to the BIG HUGE LIFE-CHANGING EVENT that was the climax of the previous book without giving away the ending to those who haven’t read it? You need to hook readers so they’ll want to read it, but for someone who’s never read any of my books, I don’t want them to skim through the descriptions of each one and be disappointed.

My solution? I stuck with vague details that focus on a big event that opens the book, with a few hints of trouble to come:

Biz didn’t think life could get worse after after the tragic events that surrounded her last flicker, but when she accidentally flickers on her eighteenth birthday after doing shots of vodka—she’s forced to face the consequences of her actions in a way she never imagined.

When an anonymous email threatens to reveal her secret, Biz must decide if flickering is all it’s cracked up to be, or if she needs to stop. Forever.

Generic adjectives like “tragic” and phrases like “forced to face the consequences” may not be the most elegant solution, but they allow a glimpse of what’s coming without giving away the ending of book two.

Ending a trilogy is much bigger than ending a stand-alone book.

Concluding a book has always been a challenge for me. I don’t want the ending to be trite or clich├ęd, or worse, leave readers feeling unsatisfied (well, except for the end of FRACTURE which was definitely a cliffhanger), and I often struggle with finding the perfect way to end a story.

Well, multiply that times a hundred for ending a series. Based on my outline, I was still several chapters from The End when I realized, “Hey, I’m already in the end.” Story lines that started in FLICKER were wrapping up without me realizing it (this is the stuff we writers say that annoys non-writers) so I had to back-track and make sure ALL the loose ends were tucked neatly away. The character arcs from books one and two had to close as well. As my husband teases me: ALL THE THINGS. There was a lot more than I expected, but I’m happy with how it came together.

You’ll both dread and look forward to saying goodbye to your characters.

FADED was published in June and I’ve said goodbye to Biz, Cameron, Amelia, and my new favorite character Quinn. They’ve been with me since 2010 and while it makes me sad to let them go, I’m excited to get to know the characters in my next book. I still need to do character development projects to learn what makes them tick (I know Cally loves to ski, but what’s her favorite subject in school, or her least-favorite food?) and I’m a little nervous I won’t love them the same.

Then again, they say there’s always a special place in your heart for your first love.

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 a graphic designer, 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 heading back to school with a 3-part craft series on Voice, and Patti Richards is collecting your good news for another round of Hugs and Hurrahs. Email Patti at

Kristin Lenz

Friday, August 21, 2015

SCBWI-MI Conferences: Looking Forward and Back

Registration is now open for the SCBWI-MI Fall Conference - Homegrown Talent on October 3, 2015 in Dexter, MI. The jam-packed day will feature a variety of presentations for writers and illustrators, as well as editorial critiques and portfolio reviews. 

Maybe you've already registered and are looking forward to the event (like me!) or maybe you're questioning if it's worth your time and money. Betsy McKee Williams attended the SCBWI-MI Hook of the Book conference in May, and even though the primary focus was on an amazing illustrator (E.B. Lewis), Betsy took away many lessons as a writer too.

A Writer Learns from Illustrators at Hook of the Book by Betsy McKee Williams

I’m writing middle grade novels and, while I am also interested in writing picture books, I will never be an illustrator. So I debated registering for Hook of the Book. But this conference was so close (only 10 miles from my home) and, thanks to the generosity of Thomson-Shore publishers, so affordable. And I love to learn. So I went.

I am so glad I did.

E.B. suggested that SCBWI might be called the Society of Children's Storytellers, and introduced himself as the one who "writes the pictures." 

He started his talk with a metaphor: Some of us speak English, some French or Italian, and illustrators speak Visual Language. I found this metaphor very apt, because I spent much of the day translating his advice to illustrators into words for novelists, and building conceptual bridges between words and illustrations.

Here are just a few examples.

E.B. spoke of perspective, of the angle from which we view the illustration. Are we at the characters' level? Or do we view the characters from below or from above? How far above? And how does the perspective affect our connection to the characters and to the story?
And I thought about point of view: first person, close third, omniscient...

E.B. told illustrators not to have a character look directly at readers, because doing so "breaks the wall." 
And I thought of avoiding second person point of view.

E.B. told illustrators to keep the light source consistent. He showed us images of outdoor scenes where the light and shadows were not consistent with having one sun in the sky.
And I thought of avoiding "head hopping," and of revising for consistent point of view.

E.B. and Matt Faulkner both discussed technical aspects of how they illustrate, answering questions about the steps they take from sketch or storyboard to finished illustration.
And I thought an analogy for writers might include an outline. (But I wouldn't know... I confess that I don't start with one.)

Both illustrators shared specific ideas for illustrating characters to convey personality and emotion, and for showing setting.
And I thought of much specific advice to writers on writing dialogue and showing character emotion*, and of my struggle to select only the best bits from my extensive (excessive?) research, to show historical setting without subjecting my readers to info-dumps.

Leslie Helakoski's presentation gave me a great overview of qualities to look for in published picture books, and to build into my own texts. And the QA session gave me helpful insight into how illustrators work with authors. (The short version: most work separately.)

E.B. spoke of revision, and of the love of the process. He told us to allow ourselves to make mistakes: "Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which to keep."
Those words certainly apply to writers as well as to illustrators.

At the start E.B. said that, just as we in the western world read words from left to right, we read pictures in the same way. While I think I knew that truth before the conference, I came away a much more sophisticated reader of images. And I learned a great deal about how illustrators compose and arrange images to tell a story and to hook the reader. 

Novelists and illustrators both seek that hook!

Betsy McKee Williams lives in Ann Arbor, where she balances writing for children with a full time job and coordinates local Meet Ups for SCBWI.

The next Ann Arbor Meet Up is August 29th, 10-12:00 at the Ann Arbor District Library. Shutta Crum will speak about adding "extra value" to PB manuscripts. She will also collect new or like-new books to be donated to the Martin Co. library in Kentucky.

Here's everything you need to know about the fall conference:

SCBWI-MI Fall Conference 2015: Homegrown Talent

Learn ​from ​the ​amazing ​talent ​grown ​right ​here ​in ​Michigan! ​ This ​will ​be ​a ​jam-packed ​one ​day ​conference ​held ​at ​ Thompson-Shore ​in ​Dexter, ​Michigan ​on ​Saturday, ​October ​3, ​ 2015. ​Open ​to ​all ​who ​are ​interested ​in ​creating ​literature ​ for ​children, ​it ​includes ​a ​limited ​number ​of ​onsite ​portfolio  ​reviews ​and ​written ​editorial ​critiques. ​It ​is ​going ​to ​be ​ an ​event ​that ​blossoms ​with ​enrichment, ​community, ​and ​fun. ​ Join ​us!
For information regarding the Homegrown Talent Conference access the links below!
Conference will be held at Thomson-Shore: a book publisher, printer, and distributor
7200 Joy Road
DexterMichigan 48130
(Thomson-Shore is a 100% employee owned book publisher, printer, and distributor located in Dexter, Michigan. The venue lies 18 minutes west of the heart of Ann Arbor, an hour and a half east of Kalamazoo, two hours from central Grand Rapids, and five or so from da' UP, eh.)

Coming up on the Mitten blog: Writing a Trilogy, a September back-to-school 3-part series on Voice, and another round of Hugs and Hurrahs. Please send your good news to Patti Richards at 

Have a great weekend!
Kristin Lenz

Friday, August 14, 2015

Road Trip to Toledo by Charlie Barshaw

Thursday June 25, 7 am, and I try to rouse Ruth. As usual, she’s stayed up way too late, this time finishing the dummy for a picture book she’s worked (off and) on for almost two years and sending it to her agent. Ruth asked for another half hour of rest.

So, we set out for our road trip to the Toledo Library close to an hour later than planned, but still managed to meet two of our loose-knit party in the underground parking garage. There we met Kirbi Fagan (an SCBWI-MI illustrator) and her college drawing professor, Anne Garavaglia. Soon afterward, just inside the building, we met Susan Zonca, and once on the second floor in the children’s wing, we met up with Kara Marsee and her two sons. It was Kara’s original MichKids post at the end of May that sparked the idea for this day children’s art and camaraderie.

The Toledo Library Main Branch is a cathedral to books. A docent on the first floor pointed out where the original library used to end. The outside wall now stands as an indoor monument, and the ceiling windows flood the interior with natural light, even on a rainy day.

Different size doors, charming art and sculptures at the library

The children’s wing on the second floor abounds with clever touches: doors of different heights line the walls, and 3-D sculptures of dinosaurs and Greek masks on the endcaps. The noses of two vehicles emerge from the walls, one a gold Cadillac from a book of the same name by Toledo native Mildred D. Taylor . The other is the front half of a Jeep, with three startled sheep sculpted (in baa-relief, says Ruth) on the wall behind, to celebrate Nancy Shaw’s classic SHEEP IN A JEEP. In both, young riders (and readers) can pose for photos.

Quick-draw Barshaw draws Nancy Drew

Lining the walls, donated artwork from many Michigan illustrators brighten the room. RA Leslie Helakoski’s FAIR COW graces one wall near artwork from Lori McElrath-Eslick. Wendy Anderson Halperin, Mark Crilley, and many other familiar names invite you on a treasure hunt of discovery.

Kirbi Fagan wears the same color palette as Lori Eslick’s painting next to her

We set out for the Toledo Museum of Art at lunchtime and dined in the four star-rated cafeteria. (Tasty food, low price.) Afterward, we made our way to the second floor (kid’s books seem to end up on the second floor in Toledo) where we found a room dedicated to animal artwork on loan from the Mazza Museum.

The museum exhibit ended in July, but Mazza, on the campus of the University of Findlay, exhibits children’s book art year-round, and is well worth the trip.

We each drifted off then, back to our daily lives, but for a few magnificent hours, we bathed in the magnificence of children’s book illustration.

We still have a few weeks of summer left. If you have an idea for a fun road trip, mention it on the MichKids listserv and SCBWI-MI’s Facebook page. It just takes one spark to start a creative fire.

Charlie Barshaw is a writer who devotes considerable time and energy to our SCBWI-MI chapter. He coordinates conferences and meet-ups, and frequently contributes posts for the Mitten blog. 

At the moment, he's recovering from a health scare that landed him in the hospital this week. Have no fear, he's back home and on the mend and surrounded by a swarm of loving friends and family. He doesn't know his blog post is being published today, but we thought it'd be a welcome surprise.

Surprise him some more by sharing your well-wishes and appreciation in the comments.

Kristin Lenz

Friday, August 7, 2015

Writer Spotlight! Meet Ken Rahmoeller

It’s time for another Writer Spotlight here on the Mitten! Today’s distinguished guest may be the very first chemist/children’s writer I have ever had the privilege to meet. 

Ken Rahmoeller is a true Midwesterner, having grown up in Missouri and Illinois. He moved to Michigan after college with his native-Michigander wife, and has been here ever since. His only two complaints about Michigan are that it’s too cold in the winter and there aren’t enough castles! I guess too cold depends on your perspective (polar bears might think it too warm), but I'll agree with Ken about the castles.

Welcome to the Mitten!

Mitten:  When did you start writing for children or otherwise, and how did you know it was something you wanted to do?

Ken: As strange as it may seem, ten years ago I had absolutely no interest in writing.  None.  It’s so difficult for me to take my thoughts and put them down on paper in a coherent manner, I avoided writing as much as possible. I’ve written numerous research papers and technical articles for work, but I never enjoyed it. But after reading the final Harry Potter book many years ago, I began wondering how Rowling might go about writing another book in the series.  I wrote down a few ideas, which grew into paragraphs, which coalesced into scenes, which blossomed into chapters…  I suddenly realized how much I loved writing fiction, especially whimsical and humorous fiction aimed at the younger (or young at heart) audience.  It’s still a struggle to get the words down on paper, but I enjoy telling my stories so much I don’t care.

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

Ken: While searching for critique groups in the Detroit area, I learned about the SE-
Mitten Meet Up group, so I joined SCBWI so I could attend. I’ve been a member for nearly two years and am quite happy I joined. I’ve met so many wonderful, supportive people.

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

Ken: Definitely middle grade and YA. I enjoy writing humorous, quirky stories and I believe those kinds of stories work best in those genres. On the other hand, YA has become kind of edgy these days, and I don’t believe I’d be very good at writing those kinds of stories.   

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

Ken: I’m pre-published, partly because I’m a very slow writer and partly because I’m working on three stories at once. (shakes head)  Right now I’m pushing to finish at least one of them by the end of the year. Wish me luck!  
Mitten: Many of us have a job other than writing for children. Tell us something about what you do outside of writing.

Ken: I’m a research chemist during the day, and I’ve taught a few college chemistry courses at night. When I’m not interacting with my wife or teenage children, I spend my time redecorating my writing space as an alchemist’s lab.   

Mitten: How does this occupation inform your writing?

Ken: I write fantasy, but I think fantasy is best when it draws on, and is enriched by, laws of science. And as a chemist, I have plenty of rules from which to draw.   For example, one of my stories involves alchemy.
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?

Ken: They come to me at the oddest times, so I have to jot them down immediately, because I’ll lose them if I don’t. Fortunately, my phone has a voice recording option, so I can save ideas that occur to me as I drive to and from work.  All these bits and pieces get dumped to a huge file on my computer. I peruse that file every once in a while just to fire up my imagination.

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

Ken: Obviously, J.K. Rowling would have to be one of them. After all, without her books, I never would have begun my journey as a writer. The other would probably be Brandon Sanderson. He writes adult fantasy and his voice is so relaxed and smooth I study his books to learn how he does it.

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

Ken: Don’t think you can learn everything you need to know as a writer in a couple of months. It’ll take years of practice and reading books on craft to get where you need to be. And don’t try to go it alone.  Nothing is more important than working with other writers. You learn so much that way. 

Thanks for having me!

My pleasure Ken! Thanks for stopping by! 

To learn more about Ken and his writing journey, visit him at: or connect on Twitter @chemistken