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kendralevinby Kendra Levin

A few years ago, my friend and I joked that there should be a National Don’t Write a Novel Month. In fact, we even created a Twitter account for it and spent the month of November that year tweeting about all the things we were doing instead of writing a novel.

Writing is hard. Writing a novel in a month is even harder. And while NaNoWriMo and Tara’s own PiBoIdMo are fantastic ways to light a fire under your butt and get words on the page, it’s just as important for writers to spend time…well, not writing.

So this year, if you’re feeling creatively fried, emotionally exhausted, distracted by the election, or just plain burnt out, try spending November replenishing yourself artistically.

Consume culture. You already know how important it is for writers to read—and not just the genre or age category you write, but all kinds of books, articles, and other content. Go see an art exhibit, a dance performance, or a concert. Play a video game. Go to a movie you wouldn’t normally be interested in. Try art forms and genres you don’t expect to like and see what happens!

Explore your world. On the way home from the gym, your job, your kids’ school, any place you visit more than once a week, try a new route. Always go to the same gas station? Try a different one. Instead of walking, running, or riding your bike wherever you usually go, head to the next town over and investigate a neighborhood you’re not familiar with. See what inspiration is hiding in the world adjacent to you.

Learn a new skill and bring new people into your life. Join a club, a meetup group, or a casual sports team. Find an activity you’re curious about that’s different from anything else you do and give it a try. Go to a place that you know attracts people with different interests than you and see if you can make a new friend.

Read your journals. If you keep a journal, you have a potential goldmine of material in the experiences you’ve had and thoughts you’ve recorded. Go back and look at what you wrote this year, last year, five or 10 years ago, or even in high school, and see what you find that intrigues or surprises you.

Make non-writing art. See what it’s like to express yourself without words, and without the pressure that can come with doing your primary creative focus. Collage, draw, paint, compose music. Make a silly video on your phone. Create a whole story just using gifs. Don’t worry about it being good. Make art with no agenda and have fun!

Meditate, be present, nurture your spirit. If you love the idea of meditation but never seem to make time for it, now’s your chance. Take a contemplative walk alone, ideally in nature. Attend a service of a religion you don’t practice, or visit a place that is sacred or spiritual to you. Spend time alone without plans and see what you gravitate toward or where your thoughts take you.

This year, let the month of November be an opportunity to find inspiration, challenge your preconceptions about yourself, and rejuvenate your psyche. By the end, you’ll be ready to roll up your sleeves and write, or to take on the next challenge life brings: the holiday season!

theheroisyouKendra Levin helps writers and other creative artists meet their goals and connect more deeply with their work and themselves. She is a certified life coach, as well as a senior editor at Penguin, a teacher, and author of The Hero Is You. Visit her at and follow her @kendralevin.

And Kendra is giving away a free 30-minute Skype coaching session to one lucky writer. Just leave a comment below about your favorite way NOT to write. Winner will be selected randomly later this month. One comment per person, please. GOOD LUCK!

Check out Kendra’s new book THE HERO IS YOU, released today!


The humidity whacks me in the face each time I step outside, so yeah, it’s August. Already.

Every summer I entertain grandiose plans to write outdoors while enjoying a picnic of luscious home-made ciabatta sandwiches and baked goods the likes of which would make The Barefoot Contessa swoon. I buy light, airy dresses, relish being barefoot in the cool grass and imagine the stack of manuscripts I will have completed, polished and prompting auction offers…

And then August smacks me upside the head. Already.

Nasty, vile August. Why do you curse me so?! You let my children out of camp teeming with bug bite scabs, force me to endure three-hour back-to-school lines at Staples, and leave my computer devoid of new manuscripts.

Well, at least someone is winning this month. Finally, a list of all the prize winners from recent giveaways!





Congratulations, everyone! I will be emailing you shortly.

Now, because I want everyone to be a winner in August, here are some excellent writing articles I’ve come across lately. All are worth a read!


And finally, one of my favorite books OF ALL TIME, although I discovered it only a couple years ago, is MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND by Matthew Dicks. Matthew offers a fabulous newsletter jam-packed with writing and storytelling tips. You can even win a storytelling consult with him. He is a multiple winner of Moth’s Story Slam and GrandSlam competitions. He posted an engaging TEDx talk recently about how to hone your story radar and even improve your life in the process. I encourage you to watch:


I hope this video makes your August better than mine!

For years I mistakenly thought that writing was just about words. About particularly poignant sentences. Flourishes of the language. Creating a passage so magnificent, it makes the reader stop and ponder the meaning of life.


Of course, it isn’t just about words. It’s about all the words, together. It’s about the story.

So in pursuit of the best story this week, I had to kill darlings. We’ve all heard the phrase before, but what does it actually mean? What are we bludgeoning to death?

In short, “darlings” are pieces of writing that do not further your story. They are superfluous lines only there because you want to admire their shine and glow. Ooh, sparkly!


The reader should not be jolted out of the story by the beauty of your words. The point is to draw the reader further in, not shove them out.

So what do these little darlings look like?


Sorry, not Kristy McNichol.

These darlings may drag a scene on too long. The point has already been made, but you stick it to the reader one last time in such a witty way. Sorry, kill it.

Sometimes we get so caught up in fun devices like alliteration, internal rhyme and onomatopoeia that we end up with gobbledygook rather than glory. Sorry, kill it.

On occasion, we write jokes that fall flat. Sure, we laugh hysterically but to everyone else they go SPLAT, right in the kisser. Sorry, kill it.

You know that character who magically appears, says one important thing and then leaves? Why? Where’d she go? Is she ever coming back? No? Well then, murder must be committed.

And if we’re writing a story based upon real events, we can feel inclined to include things that actually happened, even if they don’t necessarily add anything but word count. Kill, kill, kill.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “Single Effect” theory suggests that everything in a short story should contribute to an overall emotional theme. Everything you put into the story, he said, should be carefully selected to elicit the desired effect.

And since we’re writing what can be considered super-short stories, we need to be even more diligent about leading the reader down a specific path. Veering off means higher word count—which can kill the story’s publication potential. Sacrifice some darlings and save the whole village!

Super-short shorts.

Super-short shorts may have killed WHAM!

Finally, don’t be sad about killing your darlings. When you have to kill one or two, just refer to these gifs. They’ll make you feel better. (I know they helped me.)





rejectedYou’re a lovely person. Simply charming. I mean that, I really do. You read my blog and leave nice comments and buy my books and write like you can’t go wrong. But I have to tell you:

“It’s not you. It’s me.”

In short, that’s what a literary rejection means. It’s not about YOU. Remember, YOU are lovely! It’s about the editor and whether the proposed project fits with her taste and imprint list.

Subjective, it’s all subjective! One editor’s rejection is another editor’s next book!

But editors and agents often provide writers with rejection statements that we want to understand. We feel the need to analyze, to determine what we can do better. But don’t over-analyze. Sometimes a rejection is just a way of saying “no, it’s not for me.”

Here is a list of common rejections heard by picture book writers (and other writers), plus an interpretation of what they mean. (Note that I said “interpretation”! Your mileage may vary.)

“It feels familiar.”

The editor is reminded of another book (or books) while reading your manuscript, but he can’t quite put his finger on it. Maybe it’s the character, the theme or the structure, but it’s impossible to pinpoint. In short, the story doesn’t feel unique enough. The editor doesn’t think it will stand out in the marketplace. There’s too much similar competition. If you wrote about a common theme (new sibling, moving to a new house, first day of school, etc.) without a fresh new twist, this could be the problem.

“It’s too slight.” or “It’s too one-note.”

The editor feels your story doesn’t have enough meat to it. It may be lacking a universal emotional theme (friendship, being yourself, perseverance, etc.) or a clear story arc. The editor may feel there isn’t enough going on to encourage re-readings. The story feels more like a one-line joke than a fully fleshed-out tale. The main character may not have struggled enough before finding the resolution, which is sometimes why an ending can “fall flat”. Also rejected as “needs more layers.”

“It’s not right for our list.”

Every imprint within each publisher has a specific “style”. Some are commercial, some are literary, some are message-driven, some are wacky and humorous. Know which imprint publishes what.

“It’s too similar to…”

Your story competes too closely with a book on the editor’s list or a wildly popular book by another publisher that’s already in the marketplace.

“It’s not right for us at this time.”

See above. They might have projects in the hopper that compete too closely with what you submitted. (You submitted a story about a bowling ball. They just signed a bowling ball book! What are the odds???) They may have recently contracted multiple projects and no longer have room on their list. They may be moving away from “older” picture books into the younger set (ages 2-5 vs. 4-8). Unfortunately, this rejection is also used as a polite catch-all or a form rejection.

“It’s too quiet.”

The imprint you submitted to might not publish literary fiction. The editor feels your manuscript doesn’t have a strong hook, something that will make your book marketable. They don’t feel it will stand out in the marketplace. It cannot be easily summarized into an elevator pitch, which is what their salespeople will use to market the book to stores, schools and libraries. It’s not a commercial or high-concept story.

“It’s too commercial.”

The imprint you submitted to might not publish commercial fiction. Commercial books have a strong marketing hook, are often high-concept (can be boiled down to an immediately understood, succinct statement), have a clear plot struggle and appeal to a wide range of readers. Literary fiction features artistic prose and often contains an internal conflict and more meandering plot.


“It doesn’t resonate with me.”

This is really a case of “It’s not you. It’s me.” The editor may think the story is well-written and even enjoy it, but it isn’t tugging at her heartstrings. Being an editor is like dating, like finding a potential mate—the story has to light something within her to want to devote passion and commitment to it. Remember, the editor has to spend two or more years with your story, bringing it to life. They need to feel sincerely attached to it. You want them to LOVE it, you want them to be EXCITED so they can create the best book possible. Examine your emotional theme—is it strong enough?

“I didn’t quite connect with this in the way I’d hoped.”

See above. The editor may have liked your concept and pitch, but not the execution of the story. Again, the story isn’t tugging at his heartstrings. Examine the POV, voice and the emotional theme (often referred to as a “layer”). A revision might be necessary…or not. Another editor may connect. Also rejected as, “It doesn’t have that WOW factor” or “I’m not getting that YES! feeling.”

“This needs a stronger voice.”

Voice is the unique way an author combines words and strings together sentences. It is your story’s personality, its manner of expression. It’s the difference between “Oh, shucks!” and “Oh, slippery slush!” (Little Red Gliding Hood) It’s the difference between “Charmaine’s showing off” and “Charmaine’s strutting hard enough to shame a rooster.” (The Quickest Kid in Clarksville) It’s the difference between “Pancake raced away” and “Pancake rappelled down a rope of linguini.” (Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast)

Go ahead and play with your words—use stronger verbs, alter the sentence structure, use alliteration, internal rhyme, onomatopoeia and uncommon words. Heck, make up a word every once in a while! Think of voice the way a poet thinks about meter—there’s a certain beat that the reader can dance to.

Pretend YOU are the main character. How would he or she TALK? Does the way you’ve written the story—the cadence of the words—match the character, the setting, the situation?

“There’s no current market for this.”

Your story’s subject matter and/or theme is either too popular or too obscure.

Remember when vampires were all the rage in YA? Same thing with pirates in picture books. There were a slew of well-received books featuring gangplanks that sold gangbusters. (Hey, there’s “voice” again!) But then that ship sailed. The market got soaked with pirates. So guess what? Editors didn’t necessarily buy a lot of pirate titles because there was too much existing, well-established competition. But everything is cyclical. I spot new pirate books on the horizon, captain! Land, ho!

Also, your manuscript might not be a picture book because it’s too long or too descriptive, yet it doesn’t fall neatly into another kidlit category, either.

Form Rejection vs. Personal Rejection

Most will send a form rejection. There’s just not enough time in the universe—or even in the flux capacitor—to personally respond to every manuscript. But if you receive a personal rejection, the editor or agent sees something promising. You haven’t hooked him, but he sees potential. Think of it as encouraging. You’re on the right wave. Just keep swimming; just keep swimming.

On the other hand, getting only form rejections doesn’t mean you DON’T have potential. It just means the editor or agent is crunched for time.

I mean, imagine this is what gets dumped on your desk every day!


One thing you should know: if an agent or editor wants to see more of your work, they will ask. No need for interpretation; it will be there in black and white. If they complimented your story but did not ask for a revision, DO NOT send one anyway thinking they just forgot to ask. If they want it, they WON’T FORGET. And if you send something they didn’t ask for, THEY WILL REMEMBER.

Let’s face it, the fact that you’re even receiving rejections is good. Yes, GOOD! You’re putting your work out there. And the sting of each rejection will lessen with every new one you receive. So let them pile up. Read ‘em. Move on. You WILL get rejections for the rest of your life if you’re a writer. Bottom line: learn to live with them, their brevity and their occasional ambiguity. Ever onward.

And, in case you forgot, you’re a lovely person.

tammiforsiteby Tammi Sauer

Psst. Hey, you there. Yes, you. Do you want to wow an editor with your next picture book manuscript? Great!

It only takes one thing. Come up with the next Fancy Nancy, Olivia, or Skippyjon Jones. Editors are wading through their slush and/or agented submissions in the hopes of finding an irresistible, can’t-put-down, character-driven manuscript. They want manuscripts that make them feel something and a great character can do just that.

Examples of strong characters in picture books:

OLIVIA by Ian Falconer
Olivia is a feisty little piglet who has too much energy for her own good.

FANCY NANCY by Jane O’Connor
Nancy is very into fanciness whereas her family is not.

SKIPPYJON JONES by Judy Schachner
Skippyjon Jones is a little kitty with a big imagination.

A PET FOR PETUNIA by Paul Schmid
An exuberant Petunia wants, wants, wants a pet she really shouldn’t have.

The seemingly unstoppable Dinosaur is very much into his own bad self.

Clark has super-sized enthusiasm which leads to all kinds of mayhem.

Developing a unique and engaging character like the ones listed above, however, is a huge challenge.
When I’m working on a new picture book manuscript, I remind myself that if people don’t care about my main character, they won’t care about my story.

I always keep A.R.F. in mind.

A stands for Active.
I want my main character to be doing something. No one wants to read about a kid who just sits on the couch all day with a bag of Doritos.

R stands for Relatable.
I want my main character to connect with readers. I want readers to think, “Yeah, I know what that feels like.”

F stands for Flawed.
I want my main character to have some sort of flaw. Nobody longs to read about little miss perfect. Yawn. Perfect is boring. A flawed character is much more interesting. A bonus? A flaw often increases the story’s tension and makes the character more endearing and root-worthy to readers.

In my latest book, GINNY LOUISE AND THE SCHOOL SHOWDOWN (Disney*Hyperion), illustrated by Lynn Munsinger(!!!), Ginny Louise is the new kid at school.


But Truman Elementary is no ordinary school. This is made clear at the very beginning of the book:

The Truman Elementary Troublemakers were a bad bunch.

Especially these three: Cap’n Catastrophe, Destructo Dude, and Make-My-Day May.

Day after day, these scoundrels made waves.

They dodged danger.

And in the classroom?

You don’t even want to know what went on.


Ginny Louise is Active. She happily goes about her school day. She paints, she sings, she learns things. All the while, she is oblivious to the fact that everything she does drives the Truman Elementary Troublemakers bonkers.

Ginny Louise is Relatable. She doesn’t fit in with her classmates in the classroom or out on the playground. (Readers can empathize with her because everyone has experienced the feeling of not fitting in at one time or another.)

Ginny Louise is Flawed. She only hears what she wants to hear. This results in all kinds of miscommunication.

By the book’s end, this active, relatable, flawed character turns things around at Truman Elementary. Well. For the most part. 🙂

GINNY LOUISE AND THE SCHOOL SHOWDOWN debuts TODAY! Next summer, Ginny Louise and the rest of the gang return for more mayhem in GINNY LOUISE AND THE SCHOOL FIELD DAY.


And now it’s a great giveaway for GINNY LOUISE!

Leave a comment naming your favorite PB character and you will be entered to win a signed, first-edition copy of GINNY LOUISE AND THE SCHOOL SHOWDOWN!

One comment per person, please. 

A random winner will be selected in two weeks.

Good luck!

Tammi Sauer is a former teacher and library media specialist. She has sold 23 picture books to major publishing houses. In addition to winning awards, her books have gone on to do great things. Mostly Monsterly was selected for the 2012 Cheerios Spoonfuls of Stories program. Me Want Pet! was recently released in French which makes her feel extra fancy. And Nugget and Fang, along with Tammi herself, appeared on the Spring 2015 Scholastic Book Fair DVD which was seen by millions of kids across the nation. Tammi’s books Ginny Louise and the School Showdown (Disney*Hyperion), Your Alien (Sterling), and Roar! (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman) debut in 2015.

You can visit Tammi online at and at

First, let’s announce some winners!

The winner of the LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD F&G is:


The winner of Dev Petty’s I DON’T WANT TO BE A FROG is:


Congratulations! Be on the lookout for an email from me.


…So this week I did a boatload of Skype visits for World Read Aloud Day. Almost TWO DOZEN! Phew. My own kids are fed up with THE MONSTORE, as evidenced by my elder daughter’s video—mouthing the words and rolling her eyes while I read in another room. (She thought she’d get away with it, but I found it on her iPad! Oooooh! BUSTED!)

One of the most frequently asked questions during these Skypes was: “Out of all your books, which is your favorite?”

Now I know some authors claim—like parents of multiple children—to love them all equally, to not to have a favorite. But I do. And I’m not ashamed about it!

It’s whatever I just finished writing. My newest manuscript.

Once I complete a new story that my agent approves, I just go NUTSO with excitement. I dream of who may acquire it, which rock star illustrator will be tapped to illustrate it…plus I imagine Merry Makers creating the must-have accompanying plush toy. (Or maybe even a stuffed me!)


Yeah, I told you I go NUTSO.

There’s something about a fresh story. It’s a feeling I wish I could recreate as I BEGIN a new story, but often with a new manuscript, there’s a lotta chewing of fingernails (which is why I haven’t been able to put on my new Jamberry nails).


How can you recreate that newly-subbed, fresh-and-juicy, shinier-than-Turtlewax feel?

The best way out is always through. Write something new and get-r-done. If writing were easy, then everyone would have a published book. There should be joyous celebrating once something is finished and submission-ready. If you’re feeling just ho-hum, that manuscript is not pumped up full of YOU.

Photo credit: Scott Beale

Photo credit: Scott Beale

That’s another thing I want to talk about today, finding YOU as a writer.

Years ago, when I was writing flash fiction for adults, I stumbled across a marvelous piece in an anthology. It was about two young women with a strained relationship going back to their parents’ house to pack it up. Their mother was fading away, doing strange things, leaving herself bizarre notes to capture pieces of her memory. The sisters found one of these notes in the bookshelf, held each other sobbing, and then laughed at the absurdity of it all. The story was so lyrically written, and so poignant. Why couldn’t I have written that?

So I tried writing something based upon that style—that lovely, lilting, poetic style. Like a sunset watercolor over the rippling bay. And you know what? It stunk. Worse than the bay.

Even though it was stilted and forced, that story taught me a little about who I was as a writer…by showing me who I WAS NOT. It was one step in finding my true voice.

I always say no piece of writing is wasted time. It’s all practice. Even the junk is worth something!

So, tell me, out of all that you’ve written, what is your favorite?

Please leave a comment (with a link, if appropriate).

May you share a boatload.

by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

IMG_5422 (1)It’s back to school season here in New Jersey (or, outside Philadelphia, as I typically refer to it) and that means big changes in my household. All summer, my kids and I are bums. We hang out at the beach, at the pool, at the mall. We travel, we sleep in, we do nothing. Summer is heaven.

But come September, my children’s lives change. Gone are the no schedule, no stress days and in their place we have wake up alarms, agenda books, and deliverables (and, it seems, a LOT of laundry!). The kids aren’t the only ones who go back to school—as a children’s book author, the school year means that I go back to school as well.

Every year, between school visits, Skype visits, and events like Dot Day or World Read Aloud Day, I connect with about 100 different schools all around the world. Because I spend so much time with school kids, I end up doing quite a bit of teaching, especially teaching writing. Which happens to be a completely different skill than actually writing.

There is a very stupid expression that you sometimes hear people throw around: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” I want to be very, very clear here: that is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. Not only is it disparaging, inflammatory, and demeaning, it also has the distinction of being very WRONG. I definitely knew that before I personally started working with schools, but now that I teach on a regular basis, I can tell you that those who teach can do better than anyone else.


It has to do with the nature of teaching. In order to teach someone a skill, you have to know it so well that you can explain every step, even the ones you do automatically or on muscle memory. Here’s an example: when I was in graduate school, I bought a brand new Mustang that I couldn’t drive. Because it was a stick shift and I only knew how to drive an automatic. So I had a friend try to teach me how to drive stick. We got in my car, I started it up, and I asked him what to do next. He said, “OK, now drive.” I looked at him blankly. “Just don’t stall the car,” he added. I had no idea what that meant. So he said, “Don’t ease off the clutch to quickly. Or too slowly!”

At that point, I threw him out of the car. He, to this day, doesn’t understand what had upset me.

He knew how to drive a manual, and things that I needed to know—how to properly come off the clutch when changing gears, how to tell when to shift up or down, etc.—were things he’d stopped thinking about. So he couldn’t teach me to do them because he hadn’t been thinking about all those little steps that you do to succeed that once you’re successful, you completely forget about.
(For the record, I can now totally drive a stick.)

When I started teaching writing, I struggled with this same thing. I thought to myself, How can I teach something that I just DO? Trust me, this was very difficult to figure out. But the more I did figure it out—the better I got at teaching others how to write—the better I actually got at writing. Just like my friend who failed at teaching me how to drive my Mustang because there were so many things he was doing on autopilot that he couldn’t explain, as writers, we do that same thing. When you get to a certain point in your writing journey, you don’t even think about certain things like how to conceptualize a complex character or add layers to your plot, you just do it. But if you try to teach someone else how you do what you do, you have to break down every action into baby steps so that you can show your students how to mimic your actions. This forces you to think through your methods, and in the process, refine them even more.

So even if you’re not at the point in your publishing career where you are teaching, I’d like to encourage you to think like a teacher to become a better writer. For example, instead of saying, “I’m going to create a charismatic main character,” I’d ask you to analyze what steps you’d take to do that, like:

  •  Start with something familiar
  •  Add some positive unique features
  • Give the character some flaws that make him or her relatable
  • Give him or her positive relationships (family, best friend, etc.) and negative relationships (nemesis, villain, etc.)
  • Temper every extreme (like “good” or “bad”) with something that brings it back a notch (like “good but hates kittens” or “bad but rescues kittens”)

The more you go through this process of treating your writing objectives like lesson plans, the deeper you’ll understand what you’ve done when something work—and what you may have left off inadvertently when something doesn’t work.

When you’re a good teacher, your students will benefit. When you yourself are your own student, your teaching skills make you so much better at doing.

Happy Back to School!

SudiptaParisSudipta is an award-winning author of over 40 books and the co-founder of both Kidlit Writing School and Kidlit Summer School. Her books include DUCK DUCK MOOSE, TYRANNOSAURUS WRECKS, ORANGUTANGLED, and over thirty more books that have been acclaimed by the Junior Library Guild, the California Reader’s Collection, the Bank Street Books Reading Committe, the Amelia Bloomer list, and many more. Find out more about her by visiting or her blogs Nerdy Chicks Rule and Nerdy Chicks Write.

Sudipta’s new class: Picture Book A to Z’s: Plotting in Picture Books

The Picture Book A to Z series is designed to be a collection of master level classes that cover all of the fundamentals of picture book craft. While each class is complete on its own, taken together, the series will teach you everything you ever wanted to now about picture books- and a lot more!

The ability to craft a strong picture book plot is one of the factors that separates unpublished writers from those who consistently sign publishing contracts to see their work in print. This course will teach you the essentials of creating compelling plots, starting with Arcs, Beginnings, and Climaxes — then literally taking you through the alphabet. Each topic will be explored in depth, both in the lessons and in the discussion forums and webinars. The writing exercises that are a part of of the course are designed to help you apply the lessons to your own writing seamlessly and immediately. By the end of the course, you will never look at plotting the same way again! The first course in this series, Plotting in Picture Books, will begin on October 6, 2014.

Bonus Critique: Register for Plotting in Picture Books before September 20, 2014 and receive a free picture book manuscript review and 20-minute Skype session with Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, redeemable within six months of the course’s completion.

Thanks, Sudipta! And now for the giveaway…either a 20-minute telephone/Skype PB critique with Sudipta or one of her signed books. The choice is yours. Just comment once below by September 16th to enter!

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. calamity
  82. calliope
  83. candelabra
  84. canoodle
  85. cantankerous
  86. catamaran
  87. catastrophe
  88. catawampus
  89. caterwaul
  90. chatterbox
  91. chichi
  92. chimerical
  93. chimichanga
  94. chitchat
  95. clandestine
  96. claptrap
  97. clishmaclaver
  98. clodhopper
  99. cockamamie
  100. cockatoo
  101. codswallop
  102. collywobbles
  103. colossus
  104. comeuppance
  105. concoction
  106. conniption
  107. contraband
  108. conundrum
  109. convivial
  110. copacetic
  111. corkscrew
  112. cornucopia
  113. cowabunga
  114. coxcomb
  115. crackerjack
  116. crescendo
  117. crestfallen
  118. cryptozoology
  119. cuckoo
  120. curlicue
  121. curmudgeon
  122. demitasse
  123. denouement
  124. desperado
  125. diaphanous
  126. diddly-squat
  127. digeridoo
  128. dilemma
  129. dillydally
  130. dimwit
  131. diphthong
  132. dirigible
  133. discombobulated
  134. dodecahedron
  135. doldrums
  136. donkeyman
  137. donnybrook
  138. doodad
  139. doohickey (this is what I call a library due date card)
  140. doppelganger
  141. dumbfounded
  142. dumbwaiter
  143. dunderhead
  144. earwig
  145. eavesdrop
  146. ebullient
  147. effervescence
  148. egads
  149. eggcorn
  150. egghead
  151. elixir
  152. ephemeral
  153. epiphany
  154. eucatastrophe
  155. extraterrestrial
  156. finagle
  157. fandango
  158. festooned
  159. fez
  160. fiasco
  161. fiddle-footed
  162. fiddlesticks
  163. finicky
  164. firebrand
  165. fishwife
  166. fisticuffs
  167. flabbergasted
  168. flapdoodle
  169. flibbertigibbet
  170. flimflam
  171. flippant
  172. floccinaucinihilipilification
  173. flophouse
  174. flotsam
  175. flummery
  176. flummoxed
  177. flyaway
  178. flyspeck
  179. folderol
  180. foofaraw
  181. foolhardy
  182. foolscap
  183. footloose
  184. fopdoodle
  185. fortuitous
  186. fracas
  187. frangipani
  188. freewheeling
  189. fricassee
  190. frippery
  191. frogman
  192. froufrou
  193. fuddy-duddy
  194. fussbudget
  195. futz
  196. gadfly
  197. gadzooks
  198. gallimaufry
  199. gangplank
  200. gangway
  201. gargoyle
  202. gasbag
  203. gazebo
  204. gazpacho
  205. gewgaw
  206. genteel
  207. ghostwriter
  208. gibberish
  209. gimcrack
  210. gizmo
  211. glabella
  212. glitch
  213. globetrotter
  214. gobbledygook
  215. gobsmacked
  216. goosebump
  217. gooseflesh
  218. gorgonzola
  219. gossamer
  220. grandiloquent
  221. greenhorn
  222. guffaw
  223. gumshoe
  224. guru
  225. gussied
  226. guttersnipe
  227. haberdashery
  228. haboob
  229. hairpin
  230. halcyon
  231. halfwit
  232. hangdog
  233. haphazard
  234. harebrained
  235. harumph
  236. harum-scarum
  237. headlong
  238. heartstrings
  239. heebie-jeebie
  240. heirloom
  241. helter-skelter
  242. hemidemisemiquaver
  243. heyday
  244. higgledy-piggledy
  245. highfalutin
  246. hijinks
  247. hillbilly
  248. hippocampus
  249. hippogriff
  250. hobbledehoy
  251. hobnobbed
  252. hocus-pocus
  253. hodgepodge
  254. hogwash
  255. hokum
  256. hoodoo
  257. hoodwink
  258. hooey
  259. hooligan
  260. hoopla
  261. hootenanny
  262. hornswoggle
  263. horsefeathers
  264. hotbed
  265. hotfoot
  266. hothead
  267. hubbub
  268. hullabaloo
  269. humbug
  270. humdinger
  271. humdrum
  272. hunky-dory
  273. hurly-burly
  274. hushpuppy
  275. huzzah
  276. hyperbole
  277. idiom
  278. idiosyncrasies
  279. igloo
  280. ignoramus
  281. impromptu
  282. incognito
  283. incorrigible
  284. incredulous
  285. indomitable
  286. indubitably
  287. infinitesimal
  288. interloper
  289. interrobang
  290. ironclad
  291. izzard
  292. jabberwocky
  293. jacuzzi
  294. jalopy
  295. jamboree
  296. jargogle
  297. jawbreaker
  298. jetsam
  299. jibber-jabber
  300. jitney
  301. jubilee
  302. juggernaut
  303. jujubes
  304. jumbo
  305. junket
  306. juxtaposition
  307. kaleidoscope
  308. kaput
  309. kerfuffle
  310. kerplunk
  311. kibosh
  312. killjoy
  313. kismet
  314. knickerbocker
  315. knickknack
  316. kowtow
  317. kumquat
  318. kvetch
  319. lackadaisical
  320. lagoon
  321. lambasted
  322. lampoon
  323. landlubber
  324. laughingstock
  325. lexicographer
  326. limburger
  327. lingo
  328. loco
  329. loggerhead
  330. logjam
  331. logophile
  332. logorrhea
  333. lollapalooza
  334. lollygag
  335. loofah
  336. loony
  337. loophole
  338. lugubrious
  339. lummox
  340. machinations
  341. madcap
  342. maelstrom
  343. magnificent
  344. majordomo
  345. malapropism
  346. malarkey
  347. manifesto
  348. mastermind
  349. mayhem
  350. mealymouthed
  351. mellifluous
  352. menagerie
  353. miasma
  354. miffed
  355. milquetoast
  356. misanthrope
  357. mishmash
  358. moocher
  359. mojo (also a character in THE MONSTORE)
  360. mollycoddle
  361. mondegreen
  362. moniker
  363. monkeyshines
  364. monsoon
  365. mnemonic
  366. moonstruck
  367. muckety-muck
  368. mudpuppy
  369. mudslinger
  370. muffuletta
  371. mufti
  372. mulligatawny
  373. mumbo-jumbo
  374. murmuration
  375. muumuu
  376. nabob
  377. namby-pamby
  378. nimrod
  379. nincompoop
  380. nitwit
  381. nomenclature
  382. nonplussed
  383. noodge
  384. nudnik
  385. numbskull
  386. onomatopoeia
  387. oomph
  388. orotund
  389. outfox
  390. outlandish
  391. oxymoron
  392. pachyderm
  393. pagoda
  394. palindrome
  395. palomino
  396. panache
  397. pandemonium
  398. pantaloons
  399. papyrus
  400. parabola
  401. parallelogram
  402. parapet
  403. paraphernalia
  404. pedagogue
  405. peewee
  406. pell-mell
  407. persimmon
  408. persnickety
  409. pettifogger
  410. phalanx
  411. phantasmagorical
  412. phantonym
  413. phylactery
  414. piffle
  415. pizzazz
  416. plethora
  417. pogo
  418. pogonip
  419. pollex
  420. pollywog
  421. poltroon
  422. pomposity
  423. poppycock
  424. portmanteau
  425. potpourri
  426. pseudonym
  427. pugnacious
  428. pulchritudinous
  429. pusillanimous
  430. pussyfoot
  431. quibble
  432. quicksilver
  433. quicksticks
  434. quiddle
  435. quinzee
  436. quirky
  437. quixotic
  438. quizzity
  439. rabble-rouser
  440. raconteur
  441. rainmaker
  442. ragamuffin
  443. ragtag
  444. ramshackle
  445. ransack
  446. rapscallion
  447. razzle-dazzle
  448. razzmatazz
  449. rejigger
  450. rendezvous
  451. resplendent
  452. rickrack
  453. ricochet
  454. riffraff
  455. rigmarole
  456. riposte
  457. roundabout
  458. roustabout
  459. rubberneck
  460. ruckus
  461. ruffian
  462. rugrat
  463. rumpus
  464. sabayon
  465. sashay
  466. sassafras
  467. scalawag (also scallywag)
  468. scatterbrain
  469. schadenfreude
  470. schlep
  471. schluffy
  472. schmooze
  473. schmutz
  474. scintillating
  475. scrofulous
  476. scrumdiddlyumptious (Dahlism)
  477. scuttlebutt
  478. serendipity
  479. sesquipedalian
  480. shabang
  481. shenanigans
  482. skedaddle
  483. skirmish
  484. skullduggery
  485. slapdash
  486. slapstick
  487. slipshod
  488. smithereens
  489. smorgasbord
  490. snollygoster
  491. sobriquet
  492. sojourn
  493. spellbind
  494. splendiferous
  495. squeegee
  496. squooshy
  497. staccato
  498. stupefaction
  499. succotash
  500. supercilious
  501. superfluous
  502. surreptitious
  503. Svengali
  504. swashbuckler
  505. switcheroo
  506. swizzlestick
  507. synchronicity
  508. syzygy
  509. talisman
  510. taradiddle
  511. tchotchke
  512. teepee
  513. telekinesis
  514. thingamabob
  515. thingamajig
  516. thunderstruck
  517. tidbit
  518. tintinnabulation
  519. toadstool
  520. toady
  521. tomfoolery
  522. tommyrot
  523. toothsome
  524. topsy-turvy
  525. trapezoid
  526. tub-thumper
  527. tumultuous
  528. typhoon
  529. ululation
  530. umlaut
  531. umpteen
  532. usurp
  533. uvula
  534. vagabond
  535. vamoose
  536. verboten
  537. verisimilitude
  538. vermicious (well, if I included one Dahlism, why not another?)
  539. vertigo
  540. verve
  541. virtuoso
  542. vivacious
  543. vuvuzela
  544. wackadoodle
  545. wallflower
  546. wanderlust
  547. whatchamacallit
  548. whatsis
  549. whimsical
  550. whippersnapper
  551. whirligig
  552. whirlybird
  553. whizbang
  554. whodunit
  555. whoop
  556. widget
  557. wigwam
  558. willy-nilly
  559. windbag
  560. wipeout
  561. wiseacre
  562. wisecrack
  563. wisenheimer
  564. wishy-washy
  565. woebegone
  566. wonky
  567. woozy
  568. wordplay
  569. wordsmith
  570. wunderkind
  571. wuthering
  572. xylophone
  573. yahoo
  574. yokel
  575. yo-yo
  576. zaftig
  577. zeitgeist
  578. zenzizenzizenzic (yes, this is a word!)
  579. zephyr
  580. zeppelin
  581. ziggurat
  582. zigzag
  583. zonked
  584. zoom
  585. 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!)

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