Friday, July 28, 2017

Janet Ruth Heller, Grammar Guru: Agreement of Subjects and Verbs

Introducing Janet Ruth Heller in her first Grammar Guru post! Janet will address common grammar problems and questions that she frequently encountered during her thirty-five years as a college professor of English literature, composition, creative writing, and linguistics. Today's post is a back-to-the-basics lesson as Janet explains the agreement of subjects and verbs in fiction. Here's Janet:

In most English sentences, the subject and verb are right next to one another, so it is easy to make them agree. If the subject is singular, the verb should be singular; if the subject is plural, the verb should also be plural. For example, in the sentence “Molly likes pizza,” the subject “Molly” is singular, so the verb “likes” is also singular.  In the sentence “Molly and Jack like pizza,” the subject “Molly and Jack” is plural, so the verb “like” is also plural.

Note that people who have not grown up speaking English find it confusing that this language uses an s to make nouns plural but also uses an s to make present tense verbs singular. So if a character in your story is just learning English, he or she will probably have trouble with subject-verb agreement, and you may reflect that in your dialogue. Also, young children who are just learning English will not make subjects and verbs agree perfectly, so you do not need to make toddlers sound like college professors.

Similarly, the United States, England, South Africa, India, and other English-speaking countries have dialects that make subjects and verbs agree differently. Each dialect has its own subject-verb agreement rules. When you portray a character who knows a nonstandard dialect, such as Cockney English, Chicano English, or African American English, you should do research on the rules of that dialect. Also, be consistent in having that character not add s to singular present tense verbs, for instance.

Even native speakers of English have trouble with what we linguists call “blind agreement.” In about thirty percent of sentences, the subject and verb get separated by other words. When this happens, a writer has to work harder to determine what the real subject is. For example, in the sentence “The playground of the children has flooded,” the adjective prepositional phrase “of the children” comes between the subject “playground” and the verb “has flooded.” Although the plural word “children” comes right next to the verb, “children” is not the subject, so the verb needs to be singular. Similarly, in the sentence “Any student who talks back to teachers gets expelled from school,” the adjective relative clause “who talks back to teachers” separates the singular subject “student” and the singular verb “gets expelled.” Despite the fact that the plural word “teachers” is right next to the verb, “teachers” is not the sentence’s subject. In standard English, a verb must agree with its subject, not any nearby word.

Of course, if your story has characters who are learning English, who speak a nonstandard dialect, or who are very young, their conversation or monologues need to reflect their struggle with blind agreement. For example, a child, vernacular speaker, or immigrant might say or write in a journal, “My friends from Detroit comes with me to the State Fair” or “My friend from Detroit come with me to the State Fair.” Flawed subject-verb agreement adds realism in fiction for children.

Janet Ruth Heller, President of the Michigan College English Association, wrote the poetry books EXODUS, FOLK CONCERT, and TRAFFIC STOP; the scholarly book COLERIDGE, LAMB, HAZLITT AND THE READER OF DRAMA; the middle-grade fiction chapter book THE PASSOVER SURPRISE; and the award-winning children’s book about bullying HOW THE MOON REGAINED HER SHAPE. Learn more at

Coming up on the Mitten Blog: Frequent contributor Charlie Barshaw has officially joined the Mitten Blog editorial team! Come back next Friday for our quarterly Writer Spotlight feature where Charlie will shine the spotlight on one of our SCBWI-MI members. Who will it be?

Registration is now open for the SCBWI-MI Fall Conference with early-bird pricing until August 5th. Don't delay - spots are filling up fast and the conference is expected to sell-out. Learn more and register here.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Power of Personification by Shutta Crum

Sometimes the secret to good writing is simply a matter of remembering what you learned in 3rd or 4th grade—those basic literary techniques. And one of them, personification, is a power-wielding giant. It’s an imposing, and oft-times elegant, figure of speech to be admired. That’s because it can carry a great deal of weight and perform several functions. (Did you catch that? I personified the term personification.) Personification punches up all kinds of writing—especially novels. (Though some poo-poo it as simply a technique for younger readers.) Not so!

Personification is the giving of personal or human qualities/traits/thoughts and feelings to non-human entities/objects/abstractions/gods/forces of nature. In some dictionaries anthropomorphism is similarly defined, though as children’s book writers we tend to think of anthropomorphism as giving human qualities/traits/thoughts and feelings to animals.

So what can this behemoth of a technique do?

It can make the setting come alive by:

  • helping the reader identify with the story’s world. A kind of, “Oh yeah, this feels familiar” feeling.
  • speeding up slow-moving sections, or slowing the reader down to ponder a while.

It can foreshadow by:

  • creating mood. (anxiety, fear, hopelessness, joy, etc.) This is especially important to emotionally heavy writing like horror, romance, etc.
  • creating humor, as well as tragedy. Letting the reader get an inkling of what’s to come and what kind of book it is that s/he is reading.

And most powerfully, by choosing what is personified and how often it is woven through a narrative the writer can create a recurring symbol for the most important ideas of a work. Especially in novels. And if you assign a gender to that symbol, there can be more depth to the personification. Why is Ice always a queen? Or why are the messengers of the apocalypse always horsemen?

Some examples:

In A MONSTER CALLS by Patrick Ness, anger literally comes to life, becoming a monster and taking on human qualities. I love the first two sentences—so much told in just a few words: “The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.” We know, right away, this will be one of the main characters. And it is punctual, maybe even concerned that it shouldn’t be late. And the setting is personified. In the first pages of the novel, curtains shush each other. And we hear wood groaning, “. . . like the hungry stomach of the world, growling for a meal.” What foreshadowing! What mood setting! For many reasons, this book is one of my favorites. In addition, the monster is a symbol—a symbol of Connor’s anger at his mother’s cancer. Personification at its most powerful.

Take a look at Marcus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF. Like anger in the Patrick Ness book, death has become a character, the narrator. This is from Death’s diary: “It was a year for the ages, like 79, like 1346, to name just a few. Forget the scythe, Goddamn it, I needed a broom or a mop. And I needed a vacation.” Also, there are wonderful bits of personification sprinkled throughout. “The visions began to pour and fall and occasionally limp from out of his hands.” and “The bomb took a bite out of the street.” Great writing!

You can find many more examples. “Is love a tender thing? It is too rough, too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn.” William Shakespeare, ROMEO AND JULIET. Uh-oh, love is not going to go smoothly here. “Pink is what red looks like when it kicks off its shoes and lets its hair down.” Tom Robbins in WILD DUCKS FLYING BACKWARD. Uh-oh, you’re in for a wild ride!

And just because personification invades our everyday life so much, (See. Did it again.) in terms of common usages such as duty calls, the budget demands, the nation is on alert, and on and on, doesn’t mean that you should belittle this figure of speech. More than anything, the very commonness of it is an indication of how it resonates with us. Just think of the popularity of CHICKA CHICKA BOOM BOOM by Bill Martin. Those zany letters are the epitome of all little kids—of us.

If used wisely, placed early to foreshadow, and thoughtfully deepened into symbols personification is one of the hardest-hitting tools you’ve got in your writer’s toolbox. Just for fun, try this little exercise:

Writing starter: Take something inanimate and give it a human background. List what kinds of friends it might have, phrases it might say, attitude toward its job/function, and memories or desires it might have. Once you have several lists, play with the ideas to make a poem.

Now, I’ve gotta skedaddle! The day is languorous and lazily beckoning me outside...

Shutta Crum is the author of twelve picture books, three novels, and numerous poems and articles. Her book, THUNDER-BOMER! was an American Library Association and a Smithsonian Magazine “Notable Book” of the year. MINE! was listed by New York Times as one of the best board books of the year. She has a new picture book, MOUSELING’S WORDS (Clarion) slated to be published December, 2017.

Coming up on the Mitten blog: our Grammar Guru tackles common mistakes and our newest blog team member Charlie Barshaw takes over the quarterly Writer Spotlight feature. Charlie will be reaching out to interview SCBWI-MI members from all over the state - it could be you!

Save the dates:

  • Registration for the SCBWI-MI Fall Conference opens tomorrow, Saturday, July 22nd. Go here to learn more and access the registration link.

  • Our new PAL Coordinator, Jodi McKay, has been busy planning events for the PAL published authors in our Michigan chapter. The first one is coming up on August 5th. Please stop by to show your support!

Friday, July 14, 2017

You Can Take a Detour, Choose Your Road to Publishing by Karen Bell-Brege

It finally arrives, sitting in your inbox, or a letter in your hand. You hesitate – for a second, you then madly click or tear into it. Your heart sinks, and now your day, your week, your life, is totally ruined! You’ve been down this road before, as you grab the nearest counter with your hand on your head, you can barely stand up…the agony, the defeat. You wonder how much longer you can take the rejection as you proceed to shamefully degrade yourself. Telling yourself you were an idiot to think you could write, let alone get published. Okay, maybe not so dramatic, but you know that awful, sinking, pit of your stomach, feeling of rejection.

When you do come to grips, the only thing you can think about is how many times you’ve been rejected, enough to wallpaper the entire bathroom? Nah, more like your living room. How many times has your family seen the tears or heard the whining? Only to witness your mood instantly change  - this is where you think about how you don’t care, you WILL find a publisher. You wonder who the people are that have the say on whether you make it past the slush pile. 20-year-old interns, that have been up all night and binge read on their phones? It’s then you notice that your family is no longer home. Some have snuck out the back door, and the ones still there, have their headphones on, including the dog. If you’ve hit this stage kudos to you, because this is where you’ve turned a corner - a glimmer of hope is emerging and you realize you can keep going.

It does seem like everyone wants to write a book – it’s rare you meet someone that doesn’t. But you did it –this proves you have it in you to be successful. You sat down, opened a vein, put your creative, soul baring self on the page. If you have the gumption and wherewithal to do that – then you can get published. If you’ve had the perseverance to put your butt in the chair, day after day, or night after night, with a job, a family, pets, bills, in this digital age, along with the other daily accouterments, then you can’t give up. You are a writer, because after all, you made it to a place that few have the verve and nerve to go.

But maybe you’ve had it, it’s been a few years, and you know you will have to wait even longer if you do get an offer. You want to hold your book in your hands, now. Here is where you ask yourself, “Self, is it time to start thinking about other options?” If your self is in agreement, you could think about self-publishing, or vanity publishing, (vastly different), or an e-book. Although, these are not decisions to take lightly. Many people, some stores, reviewers, associations, and the gatekeepers of traditional publishing still look down their noses at self-publishing. However, it is changing, and it can be a viable route, history has proven that.

We all know that Indy publishing is growing in leaps and bounds in the world of music and movies, and slowly gaining traction in the book world. But keep your eyes open, going in. It too is a beast, requiring time, money and guts – mostly guts.

Although, traditional publishing now requires you to market, promote and develop a platform for your book. If you also do this with your self-published books (which you must), who knows, it could also be the road to getting traditionally published. If it’s a route you’re considering, do your homework, research it thoroughly and decide if its right for you.

Here are some stories of literary greats that started out like you, wanting to share their love of children’s books. They took the self-publishing road less travelled, journey into the unknown, which led them full circle.

Surprisingly, self-publishing has been around longer than we realize. In 1901 Beatrix Potter felt the need to share her story of the adorable rabbit that was hopping around in her head, THE TALES OF PETER RABBIT. After being rejected numerous times, she went on to self-publish 250 copies of her book. A year later a publishing house that rejected her picked up her book. The firm went on to publish 22 more of her books, which continue to sell to this day.

If the name Christopher Paolini doesn’t sound familiar, the title ERAGON, might. There are a few different stories about how Paolini self-published. Some say his parents owned a printing company and printed it, then paid for him to travel the states promoting it. Others say he used a print-on-demand company. Either way he started out self-publishing. On his journey he became friends with Carl Hiassen, and was then picked up by Alfred A. Knopf and went on to sell millions of books.

Amanda Hocking went the e-book self-publishing route and sold over a million copies of her young adult books. She eventually signed a $2 million contract with St. Martins press for her TRYLLE trilogy that is optioned for a film, and for her new four book series, WATERSONG.

There are countless other famous authors that took this route. So, don’t give up! Hold your head up high. Either road you take, you can be a published author.

Disclaimer: Self-publishing – where you physically have the books printed at a printer and do everything yourself from writing to marketing to storing, is not for the weak, lazy, faint-hearted, tired, unimaginative, uncreative, greedy, money-hungry…but then again, if you were any of those things, you wouldn’t be a writer, right?

Karen Bell-Brege and Darrin Brege
Karen Bell- Brege is an author and has self-published 9 chapter books (the MICK MORRIS MYTH SOLVER and GHOST BOARD POSSE series), a picture book (MONSTER'S FIRST DAY AT SCHOOL) and a sketchbook (SKETCH THE MYTHS). She is also an improv performer, speaker and trainer. She is a former radio host, communications specialist for Chrysler and copywriter, toured with Working Woman Magazine, and has done countless voice-overs. Darrin Brege is the illustrator for the books, and is also a VP Creative Director for Helloworld. He was the original cover artist for the MICHIGAN and AMERICAN CHILLERS series, and was a voice impressionist for ESPN radio. They met when Darrin auditioned for Karen’s improv troupe and have been laughing and creating together ever since. They say their best creation is their son, Mick, and when you meet them, they will most certainly make you laugh. Learn more at

*BONUS* Karen and Darrin have so much experience to share. There are no shortcuts on the road to publishing, but here's a resource list they created to help you begin your own research.


Michigan book printers – a bonus because it’s always nice to say that your book is, Made in Michigan.

McNaughton Gunn
60 Woodland Drive E,
Saline, MI 48176
Renee Lane – A wonderful person to work with.
(734) 429-5411

Color House Graphics
3505 Eastern Ave SE
Grand Rapids, MI 49508
Gary Nyenhuis
(616) 916-7370

Thomson-Shore Inc.
7300 W. Joy Road
Dexter, MI 48130
Ann Arbor, Michigan
(734) 426-3939

ISBN To purchase your ISBN

Make sure you copyright your work.

Cover Art
Graphic designers and artists can be expensive, but you want your book to look professional. Talk to other authors to see who they use, or contact a local college art department. There are many aspiring art students that do fantastic work, and would love to get a freelance job (see your artist’s portfolio before you decide). Also, have a contract and make sure you own the rights to the work you buy.

Be sure to have your book edited professionally. There are many online resources, however it’s best to use a local editor, and get references.

Formatting & Typesetting
You can do this yourself, once you decide the size of your book and page count. You can also hire a freelancer, or your printer may provide this service, or recommend someone.

Largest publisher and distributor of ebooks.

Ebook formatting service.

Print-On-Demand/Vanity Presses/Self-Publishing Service – BEWARE!
Another route to go but not really self-publishing – you do not own your ISBN – they do. Research this before you invest in it.

Traditional Publishers & Agents
Attend conferences. Meet agents. Buy the book, Writer’s Market 2017, (current year), which lists agents, publishing houses, what they’re looking for, and how to submit.

Gumption and Perseverance
You’ve got it, just look inside yourself.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Featured Illustrator Amy Nielander


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?
Leary - after hearing strange beeping noises coming from my washing machine.

2. What do you do best?
I love pushing picture book concepts and pulling rough dummies together quickly.

3. Where would you like to live?
I’d love to live on the beach or near water in the summer months. I also think the hustle of city life is energizing. I lived in an apartment over a downtown bookstore for some time and felt centered in the city’s…center.

4. Your favorite color?
Red, yellow and orange.

5. Three of your own illustrations:

6. Your music?

7. Your biggest achievement?
My incredible kids. Career-wise it is believing that I had more to give creatively and going for it.

8. Your biggest mistake?
What I put in the washing machine before it started beeping.

9. Your favorite children's book when you were a child?
Popcorn by Frank Asch.

10. Your main character trait?

11. What do you appreciate most in a friend?

12. What mistakes are you most willing to forgive?
Mistakes made by kids. The younger, the easier.

13. Your favorite children's book hero?
I don’t have one hero that stands out. I enjoyed big characters like Pippi Longstocking and Miss Piggle Wiggle when I was younger. Willy Wonka (movie-version) also intrigued me, as did the tight bond between Charlie and his grandpa.

14. What moves you forward?
Creating goals and giving myself deadlines.

15. What holds you back?
Anticipating rejection.

16. Your dream of happiness?
I would be thrilled to have a partner (agent) on this journey. I also dream of long blocks of uninterrupted time to nail down revisions and flesh out new picture book concepts.

17. The painter/illustrator you admire most?
Too many…Marla Frazee, Mo Willems, Tony DiTerlizzi, Ronald Searle, Tony Fucile, David Small, Quentin Blake and Kirsten Ulve to name a few.

18. What super power would you like to have?
The ability to clone myself so I could get more done in less time.

19. Your motto?
Keep going.

20. Your social media?
Twitter: @nielanderamy
Facebook:  Amy Nielander - Illustration and Design