Friday, October 28, 2016

TURN HERE! (How to Know When Your Work is Ready to Go Out) by Shutta Crum

Recently, I was on a road trip to Maine with family. There were four of us, plus two google-navigating cell phones, one road atlas and a GPS device to “bind them all.” Needless to say, whoever was driving was besieged by three or four opinions about where to turn and which was the best route. (After the GPS led us on a few merry dead-ends, we could only partially count on her expertise.) 

The driver was in the unenviable position of glancing at the GPS map, listening to our arguments about where to turn, and our mutterings about how the way was lost in the gutter—this by the one who kept peering at the printed road atlas. And, of course, there was the voice of unembodied reason who calmly directed us to “turn here,” into a cranberry bog. (We did not. But we sat there for a good while scratching our heads.)

I won’t argue that one should never listen to a wide range of opinions on many things, but sometimes we need to remember that the driver has control of the wheel. Ultimately, the driver will make the decisions. This holds true for creatives who will at some point say, have I turned a corner? Is my work ready to go out into the world? But what a scary point along the trip that can be!

You worry, is my work polished enough? Have I done everything I wanted to? Have I put as much heart into the piece as I am capable of? What if it’s too rough? Or God forbid, what if it’s amateurish?

I have a writer friend who’s been tinkering with his novel for many years. When he reads, critique partners tell him “do this.” “Go this way.” “Back-up.” “Head back the way you were going.” Poor driver, bewildered writer.

Not long ago I got an email saying, he was sending it out. He wasn’t “getting any younger.”  Yes! I was so glad to hear this, for there simply comes a point at which you must trust your gut and go for it. Then it is better to tune out the multiple voices—often conflicting ones, of turn here, no there! And you may need to overrule the calm voice of rote intelligence. After all, you can spend years traveling in circles, following written or online instructions to make your work a pièce de résistance and still end up facing a cranberry bog and scratching your head.

Shutta's new middle grade novel
Having said all this, now it’s time for me to give you my own bit of back-seat advice. However, you’re the driver; you may heed it, or not. Perhaps you need time to ponder the cranberry bog and shut out all the voices. A good rest at a peaceful spot can do wonders. But when you’re ready to carry on and get your creative work out I think there are only a few questions you need to answer for yourself.
  1. Have I spent time “re-envisioning” my work so that it feels complete to me? (Not just noodled with the sentences. That’s editing, not revising.)
  2. Have I spent time re-envisioning my work so that it feels smooth to me?
  3. Have I spent time re-envisioning my work so that it feels alive to me?
  4. Can I tell someone, in one or two sentences, what it’s about? 
These are not easy questions to answer. But answer, you must.
  1. Complete: have I given my audience as much as is needed to arrive at the heart of my work? 
  2. Smooth: Have I paved the way to the heart of my work so my audience won’t get lost traveling there? 
  3. Alive: Have I breathed into my work the emotion necessary so that my audience will be eager to travel there? 
  4. (Question #4 is self-evident.)
Even after many books, I don’t always feel confident answering these questions for myself. But I do. I must. I can’t sit here, lost in front of a bog forever... no matter how beautiful it is. I grip the wheel and make my turn...

Shutta is a long time member of SCBWI, primarily published by Knopf and Clarion. Her latest middle-grade novel is WILLIAM AND THE WITCH’S RIDDLE (2016, Knopf) which came out to glowing reviews “A fast-paced story excellent for adventure lovers.” (Booklist). She’ll have a new picture book out in 2017, MOUSELING’S WORDS (Clarion). Visit:

Coming up on the Mitten blog: Learn more about SCBWI-MI Shop Talks, Capital City Writers Association, and an SCBWI Magazine Merit Award Winner, but first, it's time for another Writer's Spotlight. Who will it be? 

See you next Friday!
Kristin Lenz

Friday, October 21, 2016

UP IN THE HEIGHTS: THE SCBWI-MI 2016 FALL RETREAT by Charlie Barshaw, Lisa Healy, and Ruth McNally Barshaw

On the northern tip of the finger of Michigan’s mitten, children’s book creators met in October to follow three sets of tracks. Here are their stories:

by Charlie Barshaw

Logo created by Lindsay Moore
Boyne Highlands is one of the lower peninsula’s premier ski resorts, but in the early fall it proved to be the labyrinthine home for “The Days and Nights of the Round Table” retreat.

For mid-grade and young adult writers, three tables (aptly named Excalibur, Guinevere and Lancelot) anchored the 25 lucky and talented scribes. Almost double that number applied to attend; the competition was fierce.

The Round Table format, perfected at national SCBWI intensives, hosts a table leader and eight writers. Each writer had 15 minutes to read their piece and collect comments from the faculty and other table mates.

Officiating at each table were Senior Editor Kendra Levin from Viking, prolific picture book and mid-grade author Shutta Crum, and twice published YA author Kelly Barson.

A giveaway of Shutta's new novel on Vicky Lorencen's blo

Kendra, also a certified Life Coach, led off each day with a short inspirational nugget. Her new book “The Hero Is You: Sharpen your Focus, Conquer your Demons, and Become the Writer You Were Born to Be” was available before official release at the Bookbug bookstore. The Saturday and Sunday morning sessions opened with Kendra’s “Write Bravely” exercises, including meeting your character face-to-face, and acknowledging your “Rut” and overcoming it.

Kendra Levin
Special thanks to David Stricklen who was co-chair (and did most of the work) for the novel track. Participants raved about the conference, and RAs are already considering hosting another retreat, perhaps this time with two novel tracks.

Charlie Barshaw is pounding out the final chapters of his YA novel “Aunt Agnes’ Boarding House.” That’s a placeholder title, and his real Aunt Agnes has little in common with his fictional creation, but they are both strong, inspiring women who’ve influenced his life.

 by Lisa Healy

It was quite a weekend journey October 7-9, 2016 when picture book writers took their seats amongst the round tables for some intense scrutiny from publishing house editor and author royalty!

Editors Kendra Levin and Brett Duquette

Brett Duquette, senior editor of Sterling Children's Books, held court and captivated attendees with his Voice presentations. "Voice starts on the cover," he noted, adding that a picture book title, such as Caveman: A BC Story, sets the boundaries up for something inside that "sings" but doesn't necessarily have to explode on the first page. "It can be cumulative," he added. "Writing is about choices. The mood of a character determines the details noticed." Some of his favorite books include the Zack Delacruz series by Jeff Anderson, Cici Reno #middleshoolmatchmaker by Kristina Springer, Monster Trouble by Lane Fredrickson, and the Good Question series of nonfiction picture books.

Our local faculty included the amazing talents of picture book author/illustrators Leslie Helakoski (Woolbur; Big Chickens; Big Pigs; Doggone Feet; Hoot and Honk; Ready or Not, Woolbur Goes to School) and Deb Pilutti (Ruby Goes to Ninja School; Ten Rules of Being a Superhero; Bear and Squirrel Are Friends; The City Kid and the Suburb Kid; Idea Jar; Twelve Days of Christmas in Michigan) who wowed the writers with amazing critiques of works in progress. Encouragement reigned supreme!

All were knighted with wisdom and strength to go forth and share their mighty stories in story land.

Lisa Healy with editor Brett Duquette
Lisa Healy "writes" pictures. As a journalist, she's worn many hats, including published author, newspaper columnist, editor, publicist, photographer and on-camera reporter/talent. She feels very fortunate to be part of SCBWI and learn from such talented writers, illustrators and other industry professionals.

by Ruth McNally Barshaw

The illustrators followed a different path. Where the writers shared their work at round tables and then wrote and then came back to share again, the illustrators remained at their tables the entire time. I’m afraid I designed a grueling schedule. We reported for work early in the morning (breakfast started at 7, rewarded with a Tip From Kendra Levin) and we remained working long past dinner. And it paid off! I am seeing improvement in my own art just one week later.

Vanessa Brantley-Newton with Heidi Sheffield
Author-illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton (latest book: illustrations for Mary had a Little Glam, written by Tammi Sauer) led us through formal and informal discussions and some powerful motivational-inspirational calls to illustrate that resonated deeply, as did her talk on diversity and how books influence. Vanessa talked about resilience and the leap of faith it takes to soar, and told us what the industry wants to see in book characters today.
Cathy Gendron with Bradley Cooper pondering

llustrator-educator Cathy Gendron performed a demonstration the first night on one of her oil glazing techniques. It was thrilling to see Frankenstein’s monster take shape in color. In follow-up discussions Cathy gave us much to think about in style vs. voice and in the mechanics of putting together a book from start to finish. She also talked about resilience and the importance of painting for FUN. And she spoke on how to present ourselves on social media and to editors.

lllustrator-educator Kirbi Fagan instructed us on values structure – theoretical balanced with surprises like using the letters of the alphabet to lead composition choices. She spoke on color, how to add dimension, how to unify the painting, and why this makes sense: “Color gets all the credit but value does all the work.” Probably the biggest surprise of the weekend is how Kirbi looked at images from each of us and showed in real time how to tweak them for improvement.

Kirbi working with Heidi Woodward Sheffield's art sample

It was a fascinating combination of craft and inspiration. I hope everyone got a lot out of it.

Ruth McNally Barshaw writes and illustrates children’s books, travels teaching story workshops, and plays harmonica. See her work at

Did you miss the illustrator's video? What a fun bunch:

Ann Finkelstein with Jennifer Burd

And finally, here's the announcement you've been waiting for. From Ann Finkelstein, SCBWI-MI Mentorship Coordinator:

Please join me in congratulating Jennifer Burd for winning a year-long mentorship with Deborah Diesen. Jennifer's manuscript is called WHEN YOU SIT IN ONE PLACE.

The runners- up are: Sue Agauas with HOW TO WASH YOUR ELEPHANT and Jayne Economos with NAN'S MAGIC CARPET.


Ruth McNally Barshaw, Lisa Healy, and Anita Pazner

Coming up on the Mitten blog: The Craft of Writing: How to Know When Your Work is Ready to Go Out, and another Writer's Spotlight - it could be you!

Have a great weekend!
Kristin Lenz

Friday, October 14, 2016

K.A. Barson and Cori McCarthy: Sophomore and Junior Books

K.A. (Kelly) Barson and Cori McCarthy teamed up to launch their new books this year, and I attended their event at Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor. I wondered how this book launch was different than their debut experience, and what we could learn from them. And because they're so generous, they took it from there. Please welcome, Cori and Kelly.

Cori: I’m excited to interview someone I’ve had the pleasure to know since 2009. Kelly and I met at grad school—VCFA’s MFA program in Writing For Children & Young Adults. We graduated together in 2011 and set off on our publishing careers shortly thereafter. Our debut novels were published in 2013, and this past spring, Kelly’s second book, CHARLOTTE CUTS IT OUT, and my third book, YOU WERE HERE released only a few weeks apart. 

So let’s compare and contrast the debut season and the sophomore and junior release! 

Q: Kelly, I found debut season to be a nightmare. It was much like being a clueless freshman. I didn’t know what I was doing or where I should go or who I should talk to, and I spun in a bunch of circles. How did you find debut season?

KA: I actually loved the debut season because I was part of several groups—the Lucky 13s (very large group) and the Class of 2k13 (only 20 members). We navigated the waters together, asking questions, comparing situations. I felt like I had support. Plus, I liked learning about the process. Being a newbie gave me a safety net to ask questions and not feel dumb. 

Cori: My sophomore book did much better than my debut title, which is a very bittersweet fact. I even had several bloggers and reviewers try to “redub” me as a debut author, and I had to scramble around to make sure that people didn’t think I was trying to pull a fast one. All in all though, I found my sophomore release and plugging season to be much more relaxed, and I finally started talking to classrooms (something I had feared too much during my debut season), and I realized that I LOVE talking to young writers. I now Skype with classrooms all over the country as often as possible. 

Q: Kelly, what have been some of the differences in your release season for CHARLOTTE from your debut release season for your first book, 45 POUNDS (More or Less)? Have you enjoyed it more? Or less? Oh, I swear I didn’t mean to pun…☺

KA: Ha! Again, my experience was the opposite. Because of the debut groups and promo push from my publisher, 45 POUNDS got more buzz. I also did more speaking, both with the groups and smaller subsets of the groups. My editor left my publisher shortly before CHARLOTTE was released, so I felt kind of orphaned. It hasn’t been that long, though, so I’m still hoping readers will find CHARLOTTE. 

Cori: One of the great upsides of being on my junior novel release is that things are starting to feel a bit more normal. When YOU WERE HERE came out in March, I got right to business on scheduling talks and panels at all the bookstores I’ve enjoyed attending. I took care of the blog tour. I made some swag, and I disappeared from my family and my writing for almost every weekend for nearly three solid months. Something new for this third book, I started working with a freelance publicist to help me think “outside of the box” when it comes to marketing ideas. (I work with Kirsten Cappy at Curious City, and she’s fabulous!)

Q: Kelly, tell us about your latest release season and how you’ve tackled publicity. What are some things that worked really well in helping get the word out about a book, and what things have not worked out?

KA: I have a tendency to accept nearly all invitations for speaking and/or signing. Some have been more successful than others. I find that making appearances with other authors—like you—are more successful. I also find that bookmarks are the best swag. I have both book covers on my latest bookmarks, and they come in handy when visiting libraries and bookstores. Or even when I run into teachers and teen readers. Handing out bookmarks feels like I’m giving them something, but really it’s keeping my books in their sightlines. 

Cori: Looking forward now to NEW books! One of the great things about my publisher is that they’ve supported my books even though they are vastly different from one another. My second book was genre YA and my third was contemporary with mixed format (including graphic novel and word art poetry). I’m currently in the editorial stage on my fourth book, NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE, which will come out in April 2018. I’m already starting to scheme some potentially bigger release ideas including music videos and a cross-country tour (and by scheme, I mean start to save $ for). I’m excited and scared. There is so much pressure on the first weeks of a book release, and it took me several titles to figure that out. 

Q: Kelly, what do your future writing plans look like? What have you learned over the first two books that you will bring to the third one? Do you have new goals or priorities now that you’re a couple books deep?

KA: Starting in October I’ll be teaching a Writing the Middle Grade Novel class for UCLA Extension Writers’ Program online, so that seemed like the perfect time to write a middle grade novel that’s been tumbling around in my head for a while now. I still have YA book ideas, so I’m sure I’ll return to them, too. I’m planning to go kind of underground for a while and focus on writing. I’ll think about promo when I have something more to promote. 

Thanks for the discussion, Cori. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my limited experience it’s that nothing is predictable. Every author’s experience is unique. It’s best to focus where you have control—on the work—and not where you don’t—publishing, marketing, and bookselling.

Cori McCarthy studied poetry and screenwriting before falling in love with writing for teens at Vermont College of Fine Arts. From a military family, Cori was born on Guam and lived a little bit of everywhere before she landed in Michigan. Learn more about her books at

K.A. (Kelly) Barson earned an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She and her husband live in Jackson, Michigan, surrounded by kids, grandkids, unruly dogs, a cat, and too many pairs of shoes. She feels most like herself when her hair is purple.  Learn more at

Thanks for sharing your time and experience with us, Cori and Kelly!

Coming up on the Mitten blog: SCBWI-MI Fall Retreat Recap and a new Writer's Spotlight - it could be you! Did you notice our new blog banner? Learn more about the artist, Bradley Cooper, here.

The SCBWI Book Blast is back! The promotion only runs for six weeks from Oct 10-Nov 18. Spread the word, support your author friends, and find a book to give or enjoy at

Have a great weekend!
Kristin Lenz

Monday, October 10, 2016

Animated Illustrators

What an inspirational weekend at Boyne Highlands for the SCBWI-MI Fall Retreat! We'll have a full recap soon from our star reporter, Charlie Barshaw, but in the meantime, here's a special treat for our illustration nation.

Cathy Gendron had a camera with a timer on it, so she took a series of photos of the illustrator's group. At first the camera was set to take 300 photos. Ha, that wasn't what she'd intended! She changed settings and when the illustrators looked at their photos in sequence afterward, it looked like a movie, which cracked them up. Here it is - enjoy!

Friday, October 7, 2016

Featured Illustrator Bradley Cooper


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?
Currently, my mind is in Michigan, but it tends to wander.

2. What do you do best?
Most recently, it seems to be "bottle flipping" and procrastination, but generally, I'm good with my hands.

3. Where would you like to live?
I was always going to move to the mountains in Montana when I was younger. Then I did the opposite and moved to the city of Chicago.
I loved Chicago while I lived there, but Michigan is home. I'm right where I want to be here in Brighton. Sometimes it takes getting away from Michigan to recognize how great it really is.

4. Your favorite color?
My favorite color is October, but more specifically it is orange.

5. Three of your own illustrations:

6. Your music?
I love music and picking the right playlist for the mood I'm in probably takes up more time than I should allow. When I'm illustrating, it can be anything from old Kinks albums to Bon Iver, Luna, Underworld, Lorde, Marvin Gaye, Van Morrison or any GOOD music (I also have my share of closet music.) When I'm thinking or brainstorming, I tend to listen to more ambient, classical, or instrumental music. I avoid lyrics during those times because I have a tendency to hone in on the words. (@Lori Taylor I also listen to a lot of R. Carlos Nakai Native-American flute.)
7. Your biggest achievement?
Yikes! I want my biggest achievement to be more substantial than what I can think of right now.

8. Your biggest mistake?
Pulling reference before I brainstorm. (I get too influenced by what has already been done.)

9. Your favorite children's book when you were a child?
I'm going to start with my most memorable book as a child which is Raggedy Ann and Andy by Johnny Gruelle. I did not like that book. I didn't care for the story or the characters, but I LOVED that my father read it to us every night for many days. I wasn't a fan of books as a kid, but I admired illustration. "Where the Wild Things Are," and Ezra Jack Keats "Goggles" were my favorites.

10. Your main character trait?
I'm a good listener (except when there is an opening for a little humor.)

11. What do you appreciate most in a friend?
Someone that not only accepts who you are but understands who you are. And of course, someone who genuinely enjoys my humor (or at least is confused by it.)

12. What mistakes are you most willing to forgive?
Past mistakes. We are not the same person we were yesterday.

13. Your favorite children's book hero?
Ferdinand the bull: for not even hesitating about being who he is.

14. What moves you forward?
Creating something that surprises me. (Also, a deadline is critical if I want to get it done.)

15. What holds you back?
Systems, process, productivity and analysis paralysis!
16. Your dream of happiness?
In my twenties, I used to have this picture from a magazine. It was a beautiful brunette with a french braid, flannel shirt, and jeans hiking in the mountains with a gorgeous Alaskan Malamute dog. I always said that was my dream. I married a beautiful brunette who wore flannels while backpacking in the mountains with me, but we got a beautiful mutt from the Detroit Humane Society instead of a Malamute, and she was the best dog ever! I also have two incredible boys, so I suppose my new dream of happiness is to regularly feed my imagination by creating what I imagine without fear or excuses.

17. The painter/illustrator you admire most?
Painter: The Group of Seven's Frank Carmichael, A.J. Casson, Lawren Harris, and Tom Thomson.
Illustrator: Shaun Tan's inventiveness, Chris Van Allsburg's mystery and values, Lisbeth Zwerger motion and energy, Eric Rohmann's composition, Peter McCarty's dreaminess and Howard Pyle's lighting, color, composition, everything!
18. What super power would you like to have?
The ability to stop time. The closest I get to that now is by getting up really early in the morning while everyone else is still asleep.

19. Your motto?
If life was easy where would all the adventures be?

20. Your social media?
Instagram: bradleydcooper
Twitter: @Brad_D_Cooper