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headshotby Marcie Colleen

“Show, don’t tell.”

We hear this all of the time. Yet, many writers struggle with this very idea.

Writers like to research. We travel to faraway places, we talk with people who live there. We look through old files and photographs. We mine our memories for tidbits and call upon our imagination to fill in the rest.

We stay cerebral.

But this is where we fail ourselves. This is where we fail our readers.

We all want to write books that make people feel, but in order to do that—we must feel first. We must cry. We must get angry. We must laugh. We must fall in love. We must face fear.

But to achieve true emotion with our words, we need to get out of our heads and tune into our guts.

To do this, I like to call upon the actor’s craft.

Here are 3 tips to get out of your writer’s head and write from the gut.


  1. Keep an Emotion Diary.
    An actor knows that whatever happens to them in life is fodder for their craft. Even at a moment of extreme heartbreak, an actor knows, “I can use this.” Observe yourself on a daily basis. How are you feeling? Don’t detail the situations that are happening to you, but write down what an emotion feels like physically. Tune into your hands, your chest, your legs, and your jaw. These are places we hold emotion.
  2. Be emotional.
    An actor practices playing with emotion. They take the time to experiment in order to better know how to portray it when the time comes. Much like a yogi will hold a pose to build strength, actors practice holding emotion in their bodies to gain emotional fluency. Refer back to your Emotion Diary to remember how a certain emotion manifests in your body. Soak in it. Go about some daily tasks while in this emotional state. (Although keep these tasks solo. You are working on craft here, not ruining relationships and getting a reputation. Hint: scrubbing the tub while angry is amazing!) Observe how the emotion affects your movement and your actions. Of course, when play time is done, find ways to unwind…we don’t want you to end up a basket case.
  3. Embrace the First Person.
    An actor walks in the shoes of others to learn to live in their moments. They speak directly from the mouth, the heart, the gut of the very person they are performing. Spend some time pretending to be your character. You can go through the same emotional practice you did in the previous step, but this time with your character’s situation in mind.

Take your character to the most heightened moment in this emotion. How do they react? Write a letter or a diary entry as your character while holding this emotion. Or create audio or video as your character. Abandon flowery metaphor and other authorly devices for the time being and speak raw, from your character’s gut. You might be surprised what you learn.

It is so easy to fall into summarizing a scene instead of delving in and living each moment. Maybe as writers we prefer to play God and observe the tough situations from afar. It’s more pleasant to be omnipresent than personally absorbed.

But when we learn to write from the gut, our hands may tremble with each keystroke, a lump might form in our throat, tears might well. It’s not always comfortable. Yet it is essential that we learn to breathe life into each moment, so that the very DNA of our story can breathe on the page and fill the lungs of every reader it touches. This is the essence of “show, don’t tell.” In fact, it takes the idea one step further.

“Be, don’t show.”

marcieBefore Marcie Colleen was a picture book writer, she was a former actress, director and theatre educator. In her 15 year career, Marcie worked within the classroom, as well as on Regional, Off-Broadway and Broadway stages. Formerly the Director of Education for TADA! Youth Theater, she also worked for Syracuse Stage, Camp Broadway, the Metropolitan School for the Arts, and Tony Randall’s National Actors Theater. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education and Theater from Oswego State University and a Masters degree in Educational Theater from NYU. She has taught theater workshops in the UK and throughout the US, including Alaska.

Marcie’s From the Gut: An Acting for Writers Workshop (being held on September 14th at NJ-SCBWI) helps writers get out of their heads. Her up-on-your-feet techniques feature acting and writing exercises to tap into raw emotion. Through guided practice, writers learn to breathe life into the voice of every character. Time is spent exploring, playing and simply “being” emotion while learning how to transfer the discoveries onto the page in a way that creates immediacy and authenticity for the reader. Participants are given tools to deepen their writing through voice and movement even when alone in their writing caves.

Visit Marcie at

Rainbow coloured swirl background

All writers love language. And we especially love fun words, don’t we? Some have funky spellings, tongue-twisting turns, a satisfying “ooh”…and some sound too hilarious to be true! So I’ve put together a list of favorite fun words that I’ll add to periodically. Have fun, lexicon lovers!

  1. abecedarian
  2. abracadabra
  3. accoutrements
  4. adagio
  5. aficionado
  6. agita
  7. agog
  8. akimbo
  9. alfresco
  10. aloof
  11. ambrosial
  12. amok
  13. ampersand
  14. anemone
  15. anthropomorphic
  16. antimacassar
  17. aplomb
  18. apogee
  19. apoplectic
  20. appaloosa
  21. apparatus
  22. archipelago
  23. atingle
  24. avuncular
  25. azure
  26. babushka
  27. bailiwick
  28. bafflegab
  29. balderdash
  30. ballistic
  31. bamboozle
  32. bandwagon
  33. barnstorming
  34. beanpole
  35. bedlam
  36. befuddled
  37. bellwether
  38. berserk
  39. bibliopole
  40. bigmouth
  41. bippy
  42. blabbermouth
  43. blatherskite
  44. blindside
  45. blob
  46. blockhead
  47. blowback
  48. blowhard
  49. blubbering
  50. bluestockings
  51. boing
  52. boffo (boffola)
  53. bombastic
  54. bonanza
  55. bonkers
  56. boondocks
  57. boondoggle
  58. borborygmus
  59. bozo
  60. braggadocio
  61. brainstorm
  62. brannigan
  63. breakneck
  64. brouhaha
  65. buckaroo
  66. bucolic
  67. buffoon
  68. bugaboo
  69. bugbear
  70. bulbous
  71. bumbledom
  72. bumfuzzle
  73. bumpkin
  74. bungalow
  75. bunkum
  76. bupkis
  77. burnsides
  78. busybody
  79. cacophony
  80. cahoots
  81. calliope
  82. candelabra
  83. canoodle
  84. cantankerous
  85. catamaran
  86. catastrophe
  87. catawampus
  88. caterwaul
  89. chatterbox
  90. chichi
  91. chimerical
  92. chimichanga
  93. chitchat
  94. claptrap
  95. clishmaclaver
  96. clodhopper
  97. cockamamie
  98. cockatoo
  99. codswallop
  100. collywobbles
  101. colossus
  102. comeuppance
  103. concoction
  104. conniption
  105. contraband
  106. conundrum
  107. convivial
  108. copacetic
  109. corkscrew
  110. cornucopia
  111. cowabunga
  112. coxcomb
  113. crackerjack
  114. crescendo
  115. crestfallen
  116. cryptozoology
  117. cuckoo
  118. curlicue
  119. curmudgeon
  120. demitasse
  121. denouement
  122. desperado
  123. diaphanous
  124. diddly-squat
  125. digeridoo
  126. dilemma
  127. dillydally
  128. dimwit
  129. diphthong
  130. dirigible
  131. discombobulated
  132. dodecahedron
  133. doldrums
  134. donkeyman
  135. donnybrook
  136. doodad
  137. doohickey (this is what I call a library due date card)
  138. doppelganger
  139. dumbfounded
  140. dumbwaiter
  141. dunderhead
  142. earwig
  143. eavesdrop
  144. ebullient
  145. effervescence
  146. egads
  147. eggcorn
  148. egghead
  149. elixir
  150. ephemeral
  151. epiphany
  152. eucatastrophe
  153. extraterrestrial
  154. finagle
  155. fandango
  156. festooned
  157. fez
  158. fiasco
  159. fiddle-footed
  160. fiddlesticks
  161. finicky
  162. firebrand
  163. fishwife
  164. fisticuffs
  165. flabbergasted
  166. flapdoodle
  167. flibbertigibbet
  168. flimflam
  169. flippant
  170. floccinaucinihilipilification
  171. flophouse
  172. flotsam
  173. flummery
  174. flummoxed
  175. flyaway
  176. flyspeck
  177. folderol
  178. foofaraw
  179. foolhardy
  180. foolscap
  181. footloose
  182. fopdoodle
  183. fortuitous
  184. fracas
  185. frangipani
  186. freewheeling
  187. fricassee
  188. frippery
  189. frogman
  190. froufrou
  191. fuddy-duddy
  192. fussbudget
  193. futz
  194. gadfly
  195. gadzooks
  196. gallimaufry
  197. gangplank
  198. gangway
  199. gargoyle
  200. gasbag
  201. gazebo
  202. gazpacho
  203. gewgaw
  204. genteel
  205. ghostwriter
  206. gibberish
  207. gimcrack
  208. gizmo
  209. glabella
  210. glitch
  211. globetrotter
  212. gobbledygook
  213. gobsmacked
  214. goosebump
  215. gooseflesh
  216. gorgonzola
  217. gossamer
  218. grandiloquent
  219. greenhorn
  220. guffaw
  221. gumshoe
  222. guru
  223. gussied
  224. guttersnipe
  225. haberdashery
  226. haboob
  227. hairpin
  228. halcyon
  229. halfwit
  230. hangdog
  231. haphazard
  232. harebrained
  233. harumph
  234. harum-scarum
  235. headlong
  236. heartstrings
  237. heebie-jeebie
  238. heirloom
  239. helter-skelter
  240. hemidemisemiquaver
  241. heyday
  242. higgledy-piggledy
  243. highfalutin
  244. hijinks
  245. hillbilly
  246. hippocampus
  247. hippogriff
  248. hobbledehoy
  249. hobnobbed
  250. hocus-pocus
  251. hodgepodge
  252. hogwash
  253. hokum
  254. hoodoo
  255. hoodwink
  256. hooey
  257. hooligan
  258. hoopla
  259. hootenanny
  260. hornswoggle
  261. horsefeathers
  262. hotbed
  263. hotfoot
  264. hothead
  265. hubbub
  266. hullabaloo
  267. humbug
  268. humdinger
  269. humdrum
  270. hunky-dory
  271. hurly-burly
  272. hushpuppy
  273. huzzah
  274. hyperbole
  275. idiom
  276. idiosyncrasies
  277. igloo
  278. ignoramus
  279. impromptu
  280. incognito
  281. incredulous
  282. indomitable
  283. indubitably
  284. infinitesimal
  285. interloper
  286. interrobang
  287. ironclad
  288. izzard
  289. jabberwocky
  290. jacuzzi
  291. jalopy
  292. jamboree
  293. jargogle
  294. jawbreaker
  295. jetsam
  296. jibber-jabber
  297. jitney
  298. jubilee
  299. juggernaut
  300. jujubes
  301. jumbo
  302. junket
  303. juxtaposition
  304. kaleidoscope
  305. kaput
  306. kerfuffle
  307. kerplunk
  308. kibosh
  309. killjoy
  310. kismet
  311. knickerbocker
  312. knickknack
  313. kowtow
  314. kumquat
  315. kvetch
  316. lackadaisical
  317. lagoon
  318. lambasted
  319. lampoon
  320. landlubber
  321. laughingstock
  322. lexicographer
  323. limburger
  324. lingo
  325. loco
  326. loggerhead
  327. logjam
  328. logophile
  329. logorrhea
  330. lollapalooza
  331. lollygag
  332. loofah
  333. loony
  334. loophole
  335. lugubrious
  336. lummox
  337. machinations
  338. madcap
  339. maelstrom
  340. magnificent
  341. majordomo
  342. malapropism
  343. malarkey
  344. manifesto
  345. mastermind
  346. mayhem
  347. mealymouthed
  348. mellifluous
  349. menagerie
  350. miasma
  351. miffed
  352. milquetoast
  353. misanthrope
  354. mishmash
  355. moocher
  356. mojo (also a character in THE MONSTORE)
  357. mollycoddle
  358. mondegreen
  359. moniker
  360. monkeyshines
  361. monsoon
  362. mnemonic
  363. moonstruck
  364. muckety-muck
  365. mudpuppy
  366. mudslinger
  367. muffuletta
  368. mufti
  369. mulligatawny
  370. mumbo-jumbo
  371. murmuration
  372. muumuu
  373. nabob
  374. namby-pamby
  375. nimrod
  376. nincompoop
  377. nitwit
  378. nomenclature
  379. nonplussed
  380. noodge
  381. nudnik
  382. numbskull
  383. onomatopoeia
  384. oomph
  385. orotund
  386. outfox
  387. outlandish
  388. oxymoron
  389. pachyderm
  390. pagoda
  391. palindrome
  392. palomino
  393. panache
  394. pandemonium
  395. pantaloons
  396. papyrus
  397. parabola
  398. parallelogram
  399. parapet
  400. paraphernalia
  401. pedagogue
  402. peewee
  403. pell-mell
  404. persimmon
  405. persnickety
  406. pettifogger
  407. phalanx
  408. phantasmagorical
  409. phantonym
  410. phylactery
  411. piffle
  412. pizzazz
  413. plethora
  414. pogo
  415. pogonip
  416. pollex
  417. pollywog
  418. poltroon
  419. pomposity
  420. poppycock
  421. portmanteau
  422. potpourri
  423. pseudonym
  424. pugnacious
  425. pulchritudinous
  426. pusillanimous
  427. pussyfoot
  428. quibble
  429. quicksilver
  430. quicksticks
  431. quiddle
  432. quinzee
  433. quirky
  434. quixotic
  435. quizzity
  436. rabble-rouser
  437. raconteur
  438. rainmaker
  439. ragamuffin
  440. ragtag
  441. ransack
  442. rapscallion
  443. razzle-dazzle
  444. razzmatazz
  445. rejigger
  446. rendezvous
  447. resplendent
  448. rickrack
  449. ricochet
  450. riffraff
  451. rigmarole
  452. riposte
  453. roundabout
  454. roustabout
  455. rubberneck
  456. ruckus
  457. ruffian
  458. rugrat
  459. rumpus
  460. sabayon
  461. sashay
  462. sassafras
  463. scalawag (also scallywag)
  464. scatterbrain
  465. schadenfreude
  466. schlep
  467. schluffy
  468. schmooze
  469. schmutz
  470. scintillating
  471. scrofulous
  472. scrumdiddlyumptious (Dahlism)
  473. scuttlebutt
  474. serendipity
  475. sesquipedalian
  476. shabang
  477. shenanigans
  478. skedaddle
  479. skullduggery
  480. slapdash
  481. slapstick
  482. slipshod
  483. smithereens
  484. smorgasbord
  485. snollygoster
  486. sobriquet
  487. sojourn
  488. spellbind
  489. splendiferous
  490. squeegee
  491. squooshy
  492. staccato
  493. stupefaction
  494. succotash
  495. supercilious
  496. superfluous
  497. Svengali
  498. swashbuckler
  499. switcheroo
  500. swizzlestick
  501. synchronicity
  502. syzygy
  503. talisman
  504. taradiddle
  505. tchotchke
  506. teepee
  507. telekinesis
  508. thingamabob
  509. thingamajig
  510. thunderstruck
  511. tidbit
  512. tintinnabulation
  513. toadstool
  514. toady
  515. tomfoolery
  516. tommyrot
  517. toothsome
  518. topsy-turvy
  519. trapezoid
  520. tub-thumper
  521. tumultuous
  522. typhoon
  523. ululation
  524. umlaut
  525. umpteen
  526. usurp
  527. uvula
  528. vamoose
  529. verisimilitude
  530. vermicious (well, if I included one Dahlism, why not another?)
  531. vertigo
  532. verve
  533. virtuoso
  534. vivacious
  535. vuvuzela
  536. wackadoodle
  537. wallflower
  538. wanderlust
  539. whatchamacallit
  540. whatsis
  541. whimsical
  542. whippersnapper
  543. whirligig
  544. whirlybird
  545. whizbang
  546. whodunit
  547. whoop
  548. widget
  549. wigwam
  550. willy-nilly
  551. windbag
  552. wipeout
  553. wiseacre
  554. wisecrack
  555. wisenheimer
  556. wishy-washy
  557. woebegone
  558. wonky
  559. woozy
  560. wordplay
  561. wordsmith
  562. wunderkind
  563. wuthering
  564. xylophone
  565. yahoo
  566. yellow-belly
  567. yokel
  568. yo-yo
  569. zaftig
  570. zeitgeist
  571. zenzizenzizenzic (yes, this is a word! look it up!)
  572. zephyr
  573. zeppelin
  574. ziggurat
  575. zigzag
  576. zonked
  577. zoom
  578. zydeco


Allow me to be Andy Rooney for a moment.

Imagine me as a white-haired, bulbous, salty old man with a whiny accent.


I know, it’s hard. But just IMAGINE. (By the way, isn’t “bulbous” a marvelous word? I think we, as writers, should seek its descriptive assistance more often. But sorry, I digress. Back to being Andy…)

“Ya ever wonder why so many children’s books feature THREES? Goldilocks and the THREE Bears? The THREE Little Pigs? Snow White and the SEVEN Dwarfs? No wait…I miscounted…I mean The THREE Billy Goat’s Gruff?”

Yes, there’s something downright appealing about the number THREE. (P.S., I’ve returned to being Tara. Thank goodness ’cause those eyebrows are itchy.)

It’s like two is too little. And four is too many. As Goldi would say, three is “just right”. Three is as satisfying as a warm, comfy little bed. (Until the three bears arrive home, that is.)

According to Wikipedia (yes, I’m quoting Wiki), “things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things. The reader or audience of this form of text is also more likely to consume information if it is written in groups of threes. From slogans (“Go, fight, win!”) to films, many things are structured in threes.”

The rule of threes is all around us. In photography, the “rule of thirds” dictates that the most visually striking elements of a photograph should align with the intersection of theoretical lines which break the image into thirds lengthwise and widthwise. (Geesh, what a clunker of a sentence.) Hence:


In interior decorating, objets d’art are often grouped in threes.


Architecture adheres to this rule as well. Three are more aesthetically pleasing than two or four. Threes help to balance the focal point in a room. Just ask Genevieve.


There’s the “three schema approach” in software engineering. But don’t ask me to explain. That’s the hubby’s forte.

Even religion espouses threes—the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

“Omne trium perfectum” is a Latin phrase which translates to “everything that comes in threes is perfect”. The world seems to think so. You’ll see the “rule of threes” demonstrated everywhere. Hey, I even sneeze three times in a row.

So in picture books, where do we use this rule?

Descriptive groups of three.


“The Monstore” by Tara Lazar & James Burks


Three images upon a page.


“Boy + Bot” by Ame Dyckman & Dan Yaccarino


Even three text boxes!


“Children Make Terrible Pets” by Peter Brown


And the classic three characters.



But the most important rule of threes in picture books is three attempts to solve a problem. (Prior to the fourth successful attempt.)

These three attempts invest the reader in your hero’s struggles. Solving the problem in one fell swoop? That doesn’t feel genuine, and the reader won’t care about their journey because it’s over before it’s even begun. There’s no time to empathize with your MC. And with two attempts, the main character has not yet collected enough information to help complete his task. But third time’s the charm! (See that?) It’s when he tries again, fails, hits his lowest point, but then realizes just what he needs to rise again. Three attempts build tension and encourage the reader to turn the page–eagerly! Oooh, what happens NEXT?

Crack open your favorite picture book and you’ll notice threes abound. What did you find?

But now, I’m going to tell you about some different numbers…


THE MONSTORE author and PiBoIdMo creator Tara Lazar’s “7 ATE 9”, a pun-packed preschool noir mystery, starring a hard-boiled Private “I” and a mysteriously missing number, to Kevin Lewis at Disney-Hyperion, by Ammi-Joan Paquette at Erin Murphy Literary Agency (World).

Hip, hip, hooray!

(That’s three cheers!)

Now I know PiBoIdMo participants are awaiting a final post from me, your fearless leader.

Well, that is still to come, once I am feeling better. Perhaps tomorrow? Monday? It shall come soon, never fear, says Fearless Leader.

In the meantime, I have something to make YOU feel better.

Gifts for writers! And by gifts for writers, I mean gifts that you shall immediately place on your wish list. Why? They’re just THAT awesome.

I’ve put together this list of my 10 personal favorites, but I have a more than 100 other literary lovies to tickle your holiday fancy on my Pinterest board Things Writers Like. So hop on your sleigh and slip over there once you’ve perused this pile. (Geesh, enough with the corny alliteration, Tara.)

Let me know which gift is your favorite, and feel free to add to the list in the comments!


1. Modern Wooden Alphabet Necklace available via SevenSparrowGoods on

Men, don’t leave. I know this first gift is for the ladies. Don’t worry, I have plenty for you. See #2.



2. Famous Author Action Figures available via ebay.

Ka-pow! Bam! Zonk! NEVERMORE!



3. USB Typewriter available via

If you miss the satisfying click-clack of an old-fashioned manual typewriter, here’s the perfect solution for you. It remains modern with a USB link to your preferred device–a PC, Mac or iPad.


4. Notebook Paper bed linens available via

Can’t find a piece of paper in the middle of the night? Write on your pillow. Yep, this duvet set comes with washable markers. You won’t even get mad at the kids for drawing on them.



5. Storymatic Game (Kids Version) available via

Maybe you’ve heard of Rory’s Story Cubes or Haikubes or even The Amazing Story Generator. Well, this is a writing prompt game with over 6 million possibilities.



6. Book Rest Lamp available via

Ah, there’s no place like home. Home for your latest read, that is. The soft glow of the lamp is enough to read by, plus you’ll never lose your page.



7. AquaNotes available via

No more great ideas down the drain! (And while you’re getting clean, may as well use “Wash Away Writer’s Block” soap.)




8. The 3Doodler available via

OK, so maybe you wouldn’t want to write a novel with this, but wouldn’t it be cool to give your fans your characters or signature in 3D?


9. Vintage-style custom bookplates available via oiseaux on

Every writer is a reader, and your books are cherished keepsakes. So treat them that way with gorgeous vintage-style bookplates. This shop offers over 100 other vintage styles.



10. Charlotte’s Web tee available via

A classic gift. Out of Print Clothing offers tees inspired by your literary favorites, from Goodnight Moon to Call of the Wild, from Charlotte’s Web to The Great Gatsby. You can never have too many books or too many book tees.



Happy shopping for that special writer in your life!

And remember to stop by my Pinterest board “Things Writers Like” for even more!


A few months ago, when “Gangnam Style” fever had kids ponying around the country, two baffled Fox News pinheads personalities debated the song’s appeal.

gangnam“I think what this fella Psy is tapping into…is the fact that people don’t want any meaning right now. The most popular music apparently is that without intelligible words…not reality, not feeling, not meaning.”

“So it means nothing…”

They never once considered that the song was in Korean and the gibberish they were hearing was indeed actual words in a different language, satirizing the wealthy Gangnam district of South Korea, an area obsessed with western culture.

From that mind-numbing discussion, they somehow segued into their perceived lack of meaning in children’s books.

Wait? What was that? No meaning in children’s books?! Oh yeah, the ignoramus commentator had a picture book rejected and was obviously still reeling from the sting.

“I had a little kids’ book I wrote; I sent it out to a few publishers. They bemoaned the fact…they said, gee, it seems like it has a message. I said, ‘Well, yeah, it’s about empowerment’. Well, books about messages right now aren’t selling.”

He then ridiculed WIMPY KID and OLIVIA, two of the best-selling children’s book series. (Probably because he didn’t think of them first.)

“Try to tell them about ‘courage’, that’s not going to be purchased by the great masses who now want not to be tapped on the heartstrings, if you will, but simply to be pushed toward ‘a good beat’.”

sledgehammerDarn straight, readers want a good beat. What they don’t want is to be beat over the head with a lesson you think they need to learn, sly Mr. Fox.

Message-driven picture books begin with the intention of teaching a life lesson, like how to have good manners. With the writer’s purpose being so righteous, the story can come across as preachy and self-important. Why don’t these books sell? Because they lack the one thing that kids really want: FUN. Think about it—children are being taught all day long—at home, at school, at places of worship. When they pick up a book, do you think they want to hear “remember to say please and thank you” yet again? If I were a kid, I’d shelve that book pronto. Kids want to be entertained.

Message-driven books are not subtle. They often contain the very phrase the writer intends to teach, like: “Just be nice and you’ll always have lots of friends!” This is the classic mistake of “telling” instead of “showing” with your words. It’s talking down to kids, it’s assuming they’re not intelligent creatures with limitless imaginations.

Not all books with messages are message-driven. In fact, the best books do contain messages, but they are subtly woven through a wondrous story rich in character, setting and action. Every good story contains a universal emotional truth—friendship, family, fitting in—that is slowly revealed through the main character’s journey. The character at the beginning of the book is not the same person by the end; they have been transformed. How have they changed? Within the answer lies the lesson. Character is paramount when writing, not the message. Begin with character. With character as the driving force, a message unfolds naturally and reveals itself organically; alternatively, when the writer begins with a message, they often push the character to act in order to deliver the lesson, rendering the story false.

I’m going to leap upon my soapbox now. I believe children’s books should be fun-driven. If books are going to compete with TVs, iProducts and video games, authors need to deliver an escape, a fantastical world where anything can and does happen. I write with fun in the forefront. I think back to my childhood and the things that I loved—like secret hideouts adults didn’t know existed. I was fascinated by Dahl’s chocolate factory and the fact that he chose a kid to run it. (I hope I didn’t spoil that for anyone. It has been almost 50 years since the book was released.) A kid in charge! Marvelous! And yet, Dahl still had a message, but it was hand-dipped in chocolate.


So let’s circle back—does DIARY OF A WIMPY KID have a message? It sure does. I can name a bunch: being yourself, persevering through difficult situations, being able to laugh at yourself. These are all important life lessons.

Of course, no one would call Jeff Kinney’s series “message-driven”, yet a lot of people mistake these kind of FUN books as being worthless teachers, as being meaningless. I beg to differ. (And I beg Fox News to get a clue.)

It’s time to do the exact opposite of writing message-driven books: assume kids are already smart as whips. (Believe me, they are.) A message-driven book isn’t going to teach them anything except to avoid reading. And that’s a lesson no one needs to learn!

Three is a magic number. Not only because it’s the age when tiny toy parts no longer pose a choking hazard to your toddler, but because the universe is full of threebies.

Three square meals a day.

Three strikes and you’re out.

Three ring circus. And three ring government. (Excellent analogy, Schoolhouse Rock.)



Then there’s the “rule of thirds” design principle for composing visual images with tension and interest.

Ever heard of the FOUR LITTLE PIGS? Of course not. There’s just three, like THREE BLIND MICE and THREE BILLY GOATS GRUFF. Heck, there’s even THREE STOOGES.



In picture books, you’ll often find the protagonist struggling to solve their problem three times before finally succeeding. This technique encourages the reader to become invested in the hero’s journey. If the character were to try once and triumph, what fun is that? There’s no time to root for her!

Likewise, you’ll often see groups of three drawings on one picture book page. Three offers a nice balance because two is too few and four is too many. Like Goldilocks and the THREE Bears know, three is “just right”.

So today I’m going to extend “The Rule of Three” to you, the aspiring author. How so? I encourage you to have THREE polished manuscripts ready before submitting to an agent or editor.

Three manuscripts means that you’ve been writing for a while. Not a month or two, but most likely a year or two…or yes, even three. You’ve taken the time to hone your craft. Three manuscripts also means you’ve got a body of work an agent can review. If they don’t like your first story, but they see potential, they will ask for some more. Wouldn’t it be a missed opportunity if you didn’t have more?



In fact, even if they LOVE your first story, they will ask to see more. Picture books are a difficult sell, so if the first manuscript doesn’t find a home, they’ll want something else to submit. Three stories lets the agent know that your body of work, your style, resonates with them. On the flip side, they may LOVE your first book but not see a market for your other stories, or personally dislike them. Their lack of enthusiasm means they are not the right agent for you. You want to know this BEFORE you sign with someone, not AFTER….’cause breaking up? It’s hard to do.



And listen, if you have three manuscripts ready, I’m going to go a bit further and suggest you get FIVE ready. Because five is shiny, like “five golden rings” or “The Jackson Five”.

Yeah, it’s easy as A B C, 1 2 THREE.


When I first began writing for children, my critique group invited an author to speak to us about the publishing process. But we hadn’t realized this author paid to be published with a vanity press. Was she an author? Technically, yes. But after listening to her story, we realized that she might have her name on a book, but she was definitely not an author.

Disclaimer: I am not suggesting everyone who publishes with a vanity press is not an author. Some are excellent authors who are commercially and critically successful. They have taken charge of their career and I applaud them.

But this is the story of the kind of person vanity presses take advantage of—or perhaps the kind of person who takes advantage of vanity presses. At the end, I’ll ask you—do you think she fits the definition of an author?

She began by touting how quickly she wrote her book. She admitted she didn’t think a traditional publisher would acquire it. “Random House? Simon & Schuster? I knew they wouldn’t want it.” So after a few Googles, she found a vanity press that claimed to screen submissions.

The week she submitted, they sent an enthusiastic message offering to publish her book. For a fee, of course. While she wouldn’t tell us exactly how much she paid, she admitted it was between $5,000 and $10,000, although she only had to pay that fee once. Each subsequent book she published would not cost her as much (although it would elicit other fees). More on the sequel later.

She handed out her book, a holiday title, and let us read it. The first few lines were a monologue—single words emphasized with exclamations—but no explanation. She intended those words to be said in disgust, but they were words that conjure excitement in children, so without any other clues, we interpreted them as positive statements. On the third page when the character finally elaborated on his hatred of the holiday, our group was thoroughly confused.

Could the story have benefitted from a critique or two? A revision or two? Certainly. But she didn’t belong to a writing group. She didn’t have the time. Her adult daughter corrected the story for grammar but those were the only changes.

She was very pleased with how “flexible” this publisher was and how much they listened to her illustrative input. (Well, if you’re paying thousands of dollars, you shouldn’t expect anything less.) She made the artist redraw her animal characters several times so they would exactly resemble her real-life pets, the stars of the story.

However, insistence on getting the drawings “just right” delayed the book and severely limited her sales window. The book released just 2-3 weeks prior to the holiday for which it was written. Her vanity press arranged a signing for her at a bookstore and she was thrilled when she heard herself referred to as “the author”.

But is she really an author, with all those missteps and instant gratification? In my opinion, no. One of my dear friends, whom I can hear in my head, is saying, “So if a book is what she wanted, why is that so bad? Be happy for her.”

OK, I can see that the book made this woman very happy. But honestly, her flippant attitude toward our craft irritated me. It’s so very different from what I’ve been taught about working hard for something, being professional, and the satisfaction of a job well done.

In a day when self-esteem is so highly regarded and protected, when we’re giving every kid on the team a trophy just for showing up, when party games like “pin the tail on the donkey” don’t have winners or losers, and “good job” is a common parent refrain even when the job is not good, vanity presses have slipped into the culture quite easily.

But the final part of her story is the most baffling. The vanity press expressed interest in releasing a series of books based upon her characters, and as mentioned previously, she would not have to pay the hefty initial publishing fee. Her response floored us.

“Well, I’m really busy right now, but maybe in a year or two.”

Huh? You mean you have a chance to actually sell more books and make back some of your money but you are “too busy”?

Five years later, a search for her name turns up just one book. No series ever materialized.

So my next question is—was she even a writer? I don’t know writers who are “too busy”—because we must write. It is what we do. We can’t NOT write.

We write for many reasons. Some are writing with the goal of publication. Some are writing for the sheer pleasure of creation. Why do you think this woman wrote? And is she an author?

Among those represented by the Erin Murphy Literary Agency, Luke Reynolds is known as the *real* Ryan Gosling (you had to be there). Although, I happen to think Luke is cuter, don’t you? Just look at that dimple! And I happen to know he’s a heckuva lot funnier.

He’s also smarter than my Ryan Gosling when it comes to publishing, writing and living.

Luke is the author of KEEP CALM AND QUERY ON: NOTES ON WRITING (AND LIVING) WITH HOPE. And he’s here today to give you that: HOPE. (Plus a copy of his book, plus a query critique, plus a personal “pep talk” phone call!)

Half of Luke’s book includes some reflections for writers on perseverance, hope, humor, gratitude, and work ethic, while the other half includes interviews with writers like Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket), Katherine Erskine, Jane Smiley, and 11 other authors.

Without further Ryan Gosling references, take it away, Ryan! Erm…I mean Luke!

Making a Life

by Luke Reynolds

There are two places where fast, easy manoeuvres and accomplishments are both warranted and worthwhile: 1) In a snowball fight, when your opponents are slinging well-packed cold stuff at you faster than re-runs of Friends episodes appear on TBS; and 2) In getting the kids to bed when they’re already overtired after a long day of snowball fighting.

Most other pursuits in life don’t lend themselves to easy success. And at the top of a very, very long list of Stuff That Takes Forever comes the pursuit of writing. But that’s a good thing—a terribly hard, but fantastically good thing. Because deep down, none of us who love writing want it to be easy anyway. That’s not why we fall in love with something in the first place.

When we were children, people asked us, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Very few of us, I’m guessing, responded, “I’d really love to find something easy—something that requires little skill, almost no perseverance, and happens fast.” Instead, most of us said we wanted to fly into outer space wearing massive white suits; or we said we wanted to sing on stage in front of a roaring audience; or we wanted to be pilots or race car drivers or scientists who found cures for every kind of disease or explorers who found distant lands.

Or we wanted to be writers.

Novelist John Dufresne writes in his Foreword to KEEP CALM AND QUERY ON the following: “Writers want to write, not to have written.” Even though the manuscript of Keep Calm had been finished and proofed and was ready for publication, that line from John’s Foreword hit me hard and fast—much like a well-packed snowball or like a child screaming wildly that he isn’t ready for bed. The line speaks so loudly because it captures the essence of this pursuit we’ve chosen: a creative calling that is about making a life, not a living.

We write because we love the small giddy feeling that rises up like regurgitated food after we’ve eaten too much and then laughed too hard. We write because we like the problems (deep down) that our characters encounter, and we like the fact that there is no easy way out—either for our characters themselves or for us as we make plotting decisions. We write because we know that hearing no enough times and going back to our desks, reworking material, forging new work, and venturing back out into the wild, beautiful possibility of publishing makes our hearts beat fast.

So, deep down, we know it’s not easy. Nor do we want it to be. That’s not why we love it in the first place.

Why do we love films and stories about underdogs? Why—for instance—does Atticus Finch inspire me to no end? It’s not because he took an easy case that guaranteed a sure-fire victory with no obstacles. I love Atticus because he took an impossible case that guaranteed a loss but his conscience demanded it and his soul echoed the call.

You love the books and characters and films you do, I believe, because you know that triumph is only beautiful when the journey is difficult, that getting the story right is profoundly moving only because you’ve known the story has been so stubbornly wrong—however slightly—in its previous lives.

The MG novel that my agent, the lovely Joan Paquette, signed me on was originally entitled ATTICUS AND ME. It was a story that came down my arteries and out through my fingertips. The first draft, though, would have guaranteed a speedy rejection from Joan. So she didn’t see Atticus until his fourth revision. And then Joan continued to revise Atticus into a character who was more authentic, more real—a character whose story meant more. Joan raised the stakes in the novel. And after quite a few rounds, Atticus is still growing, still changing.

And various picture book manuscripts are in their own worlds of revision, each entering a fifth, ninth, and eleventh or more incantation of their possible lives.

We write because we want to write, not because we want to have written. As writers, we start to accept the fact that—much like us—the characters that people our stories are going to need second-chances, harder obstacles, higher walls, deeper pain—and that all of this, eventually, leads to greater love. In the writing, for the writing, and through the writing.

So, then, the question remains: if we don’t want writing and publishing to be easy, what do we really want? I’d venture a humble guess: we want support. We want somebody—anybody, the mailman, Grandma, our children, our students, and maybe one day an agent and editor—to tell us that we have what it takes. We want support. We want to know that our work is worth it. That ninth draft of an MG novel or our twentieth time through a PB manuscript that has changed completely and become almost an entirely new book are both pursuits for which support is not only helpful, but essential.

In short, we need someone in our corner, shouting in a voice of accountability, conviction, and faith to keep going. You have what it takes. Get through this draft. Try it from a different POV. Try it from a different character’s perspective. Try the story in present tense. Throw in a cow who believes he is Ryan Gosling. Throw in a turtle who eats books. Throw in a kid who thinks it’s over, until—

Until that voice. Listen it to it clanging inside the damn-near defeated walls of your heart. That voice confirms what you and I already know: we don’t want it to be easy. It’s hard. We know that. What we want is the pluck and the nerve and the faith to keep going—to make a life with our pursuit of writing and the way we embody it, rather than simply a living.

We want more than a contract and some cash. We want to craft the words that get us excited—that get readers excited. Or, as John Dufresne put it, we want to write, not to have written.

So: a toast. (I wish I had wine, but coffee feeds the writer in me more). To the very act of writing—in all its difficulty, stubbornness, painstakingly slow but remarkably beautiful worth. May we all, as writers and as people, keep calm and query on.

Thanks, Luke! Very inspiring. I need a tissue now. *sniff*

And you folks need to comment! Luke is giving away THREE PRIZES!

1. A signed copy of KEEP CALM AND QUERY ON.
2. A query critique.
3. A personal phone call and pep talk to discuss your writing career.

Your comment counts as one entry. You get an extra entry for each mention on social media: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. Just mention it in your comment. Comments close the end of April 1 and winners will be randomly selected on April 2.

Now keep calm and comment on!

Luke Reynolds is editor of the forthcoming book for teens and tweens BREAK THESE RULES (Chicago Review Press, 2013). He has also co-edited BURNED IN: FUELING THE FIRE TO TEACH (Teachers College Press 2011) and DEDICATED TO THE PEOPLE OF DARFUR (Rutgers University Press, 2009). His newest books are KEEP CALM AND QUERY ON: NOTES ON WRITING (AND LIVING) WITH HOPE (Divertir Publishing, 2012) and A CALL TO CREATIVITY: WRITING, READING, AND INSPIRING STUDENTS IN AN AGE OF STANDARDIZATION (Teachers College Press, 2012). He loves garlic bread with passion, and loves children just about as much. He has taught grades 7-12 and he’s now a nightschool teacher and home-dad by day. His writing for children is represented by the formidably wise and oft-inspiring Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Keep calm and visit on at

Contests for kidlit writers are big draws because they’re an opportunity to break into the business, but I must say to publishers—please stop with the public vote-to-win process.

Publishers may think that open voting ensures that the public’s favorite—and thus, the best book for their audience—will win, but how is that going to happen when the writers are campaigning for votes via social media?

Sure, votes demonstrate the author’s reach and may indicate how well they’ll market a published book, plus it gets more eyeballs on a publisher’s site. But the thing that will really sell a book? A GOOD story.

Writing contests should be chosen by an experienced editorial team, not by Aunt Sue in Schenectady. Because it’s one thing to ask for a writer’s friends and family to click a button and yet another to ask them for cash once the title is released. Just because someone spends two seconds to vote does not mean they’ll spend hard-earned money on the completed book.

Contests that require people to vote once a day for a prolonged period are even more exhausting to the writer and the people who are repeatedly asked to vote. And vote again. Just one more click. Another? Pretty please? It may even cause that writer’s social network to shrink.

And think of the disappointment when the diligent voters learn their time was for naught. Think of the writer’s disappointment having to tell their audience that it was for naught. Will people spend the time voting for that person again? Maybe. But maybe not.

Yep, social media isn’t always so social. And it shouldn’t be exploited.

As a kidlit enthusiast, I want to see good stories published for children to love. The public voting process does not ensure that. Like a Student Council election, it ensures that the most popular person wins. But the most popular isn’t always the most qualified or the most deserving.

In the end, these contests are more about marketing for the publisher than about discovering real talent. And if you have real talent, you should avoid them. Spend your time polishing your manuscript for submission, not campaigning for votes.

I’m sure this post will cause a stir. So please, debate away in the comments. I’m eager to hear your thoughts.

Before I got my first publishing contract, I dreamed of the day I could call myself a bonafide “author”. I thought my life would be transformed. Transformed how, I wasn’t sure, but I’d walk down the street with a dignified air.

Of course, I got my first contract and I was like Samantha Baker on her 16th birthday. I looked in the mirror and nothing had changed. (And, I will note that the cream they say diminishes dark under-eye circles doesn’t work.) Sure, I was happy—thrilled—but the Tara remained the same. For instance, nowadays:

  • I don’t wear tweed jackets with elbow patches.
  • I don’t sit in Queen Anne chairs, sipping Darjeeling.
  • My toilet doesn’t magically scrub under its rim.
  • I haven’t taken up pipe smoking.
  • I still don’t use words like “forthright” and “verisimilitude”.
  • Joyce Carol Oates has not invited me to dinner. (But I’m only 45 minutes away, Ms. Oates!)

Nope. In fact, I still:

  • Remain in my jammies for 2-3 days at a time.
  • Drown my eggs in ketchup.
  • Do a spot-on impression of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Elmo and Fozzie Bear—while I’m buying groceries.
  • Have zero confidence in my writing at times.
  • Fall into creative slumps.
  • Wear my hair in pigtails.
  • Question my significance after viewing Hubble images.

So, I’m here to say…if you haven’t gotten a publishing contract yet, don’t sweat it. You’re still an artist. You’re still a writer. Heck, you’re even an “author”. Life doesn’t really change when you sign on the dotted line. But…

…maybe it changes after the book is released?!

As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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Summer/Fall 2018

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