Making a Cheryl Klein Book Map

I’m attending Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein’s Master Class this coming Saturday, so this week I’m doing homework (I secretly love homework). We have to make a map of our book. I spent too much time yesterday trying to make a chart using Word–but I couldn’t get the little boxes big enough, yet small enough with margins large enough, and I know that some scenes are much shorter than others–I needed flexibility. So I went to the office supply store (I secretly love office supply stores) and bought legal sized paper and pens in fun colors.

Here’s my blank map:

The categories are: scene#, pages, total number of pages (I combined these into one little box); when the scene occurs; the setting; characters (I assigned my main characters colors and listed them by name); what do they want in this scene; the action in the scene; change that occurs in the scene; revision notes.

I’m going to box my map after I write what is needed for each scene so I won’t have to cramp complex scenes or take up too much space for short scenes.

Here are the first five scenes all mapped out:

Here’s what I’ve done so far–it’s one long document. Now I just have to finish writing those final few chapters. I’m SO close, but probably won’t quite finish the whole manuscript by Saturday.

As the sticky notes indicate, I’ve already targeted several parts of my story to strengthen during revision.   I also realized that I suffered a bit of Middle Fatigue, writing too-short, underdeveloped chapters in the middle of the book. Time to lengthen those too!

Can’t wait for the workshop. I’ve already learned a lot doing the homework.

The Benefit of Small Conferences

I spent last weekend speaking and critiquing at the SCBWI Canada East conference in Niagara Falls–and it got me thinking about how much I love small conferences.

I’m standing just above the waterfall. 

We all slept, ate, workshopped, and socialized (the best part) at the Mount Caramel monastery and retreat center.

My roomie Fran Cannon Slayton and I could hear the waterfall from our room.

Before the conference, SCBWI volunteer extraordinaire, Jackie Garlick-Pynaert, took the faculty members on a tour of the falls. We got really close to all that thundering water.

Getting soaked with author Terri Farley.

But we also grew close to the attendees. By the end of the weekend, I’d had the chance to talk to nearly everyone. Small events allow the faculty to get to know you as a person–you’re not just a face in the crowd or 5 critique pages. You’re the person with school-aged kids (like me), or the one who tells hilarious bear stories.

Post-workshop Q&A time. I talked about character development.

Small workshops create a cozy, intimate atmosphere. Even a shy writer (and aren’t we all a little bit shy) won’t feel intimidated about asking questions. I also had the chance to talk to people about their work after my workshops. We chatted about stories, writing, and balancing writing with family over lunch, dinner, and during evening socializing. Only a small conference offers so many of those moments.

During our sight-seeing tour, I wondered if the American Falls, which would be a truly impressive waterfall in any other location, felt like the sidekick to a much more beautiful, impressive friend.

American Falls is downstream from the huge horseshoe-shaped Niagara Falls.

I used to feel overwhelmed by all the writers filling the ballroom at big conferences. I’d think, all of these people share my dream? Yikes! And I’ve never been good at squeezing myself into a group of professional schmoozers to chat with faculty. Small conferences allow me to be my quieter self. And I’ve made friends who’ve allowed me to connect with even more friends at bigger conferences. (I’m learning to schmooze.)

Veronica Rossi, Terri Farley, Hilary Breed Van Dusen, Josh Adams, me, and Fran Cannon Slayton.

So, if you’ve been thinking about attending a conference, but aren’t sure if you’re ready, try a small conference. I know Jackie already has a great lineup for Niagara Falls next year!

Much thanks to Jackie Garlick-Pynaert, Lizann Flatt, and Alma Fullerton for a wonderful weekend.

Shake Up Your Story Settings

Most of the time I hear bands play in concert venues like sports arenas, outdoor amphitheaters, or grimy bars. Here’s Arcade Fire playing last week at Utah Valley University:

I had a whole blog post planned about how the lead singer forgot the words, singing “something, something,” until the crowd helped him along. Moral: people forgive your mistakes & even Grammy-winning rock bands blank out sometimes, so don’t freak out when your own words don’t come.

But alas I had two presentations to give at our regional SCBWI conference in Boise, Idaho on Saturday so I didn’t get that post written. Saturday afternoon, I found myself listening to another band play at Boise State University:

Most people don’t equate children’s writing conferences with electric guitars, right? And who knew that picture book author Judy Cox could really rock that bass! Come to find out, she’s been in a band for thirty years & plays regular gigs.

I never would’ve known about Judy’s inner Guitar Goddess had we not switched up the setting. Take the rock band out of the club and plunk it into a writing conference. Not only did the silly songs make us laugh, but the whole show revealed character. (I have crazy creative SCBWI volunteers in Boise!)

Now think about your own writing. What would happen if you took that big argument between your MC and her parents out of the kitchen–and put it in her dad’s office? A bowling alley? Outside church?

Too often we rely on the same old settings in our stories: school cafeteria, home, home, home, Biology class, home, cafeteria… Shake things up. Make lists of all the unique places in your character’s town or fantasy world. Are your scenes happening in some of these places? Why not?

Putting your characters in unique and varied settings will allow you to reveal new things about your characters. Try it!

Synopsis or Root Canal?

With SCBWI Work-In-Progress Grant applications due soon, my writing group has been preoccupied with synopsis writing. How to sum up 50,000+ words in fewer than 750? One member joked that she’d rather have a root canal than write her novel synopsis. 
Last year, I had a root canal. On my birthday. I’d rather write a synopsis. In fact, I usually begin the writing process by crafting a detailed synopsis. Things always change during the creative process of drafting a novel, but I like the security blanket my synopsis provides.
So I figured if I’m going to talk about *almost* enjoying synopsis writing, I better give you some hints to make the process less daunting:
The Basics:
  • Write in present tense.
  • Write in the 3rd person POV, even if your story is told in 1st person POV.
  • Give away the ending. 

To Begin:
  • Think of your synopsis like a sales pitch—like a book jacket blurb. Keep it short, fast & exciting.
  • Establish the hook right away (this can also be your 30 second elevator pitch, you know, to avoid those long-winded explanations: oh, and then this happens, but wait, I have to explain so-and-so, oh, and then there’s this other character who, but let me back up and say… Snooze!).
  • Introduce the main character and the main conflict.
  • What’s important about the main character? Include motivation, goals, conflict, but not physical description (unless vital to the plot).

The Middle:
  • Highlight the plot points (scenes) that move the story forward. Give the reader a clear idea of what the book is about.
  • Write your synopsis in chronological order. Do NOT make lists.
  • Weave everything together like you’re telling a story. Try to capture your main character’s voice, even if you’re writing in a different POV.
  • Focus on the main character and the main plot. Touch on the subplots and minor characters. Do not include every character or every subplot. A short synopsis shows things that reflect on the MC’s journey.
  • Show increasing tension, increasing conflict.
  • Think: action, reaction, decision.

The Ending:
  • Tell the reader how the main plot resolves.
  • Try to make the ending of your synopsis evoke the emotional response you hope a reader will feel upon finishing your story.

The Picky Stuff:
  • Does your synopsis reflect the style, tone, and voice of your story? If it’s funny, show humor in the synopsis. Writing something literary? Your synopsis should shine with gorgeous sentences.
  • Does the reader know which characters to care about? What’s at stake? How it will turn out?
  • Have you woven together your character’s external and internal journeys?
  • Did you select the best plot points–the ones that affect your MC’s emotional arc?
  • Did you make every word count? Use strong adjectives and verbs (avoid adverbs).
  • Did you select the most telling details to use? Don’t weigh down your synopsis with extraneous or confusing details.
  • Did you format your synopsis properly? Double-spaced, 12-point font, 1″ margins. 

Online resources: check out the “crapometer” archives great writing advice straight from an agent  good advice about synopsis writing
If you’re still struggling to write an effective synopsis take a critical look at your story. Are you missing some key scenes? Does your main character lack internal motivation? Could you use an intriguing subplot to increase tension? 
Really, it isn’t that bad–you can still eat birthday cake after writing a synopsis. Not the case with root canals! 

Writing More Emails Than Fiction

In addition to writing, I’m also a Regional Advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI). I hold monthly meetings & organize conferences in Utah and Idaho (with the help of my assistant Neysa Jensen in Boise). I love helping aspiring writers & illustrators improve their craft & make those helpful connections. Just like Carol Lynch Williams & Rick Walton did for me when I was just starting out. 

Children’s writers are friendly like that! 

Volunteering as a Regional Advisor has also helped me learn skills I’ve needed as an author. I’m no longer a shy speaker & by promoting others I’ve gotten better at promoting myself.

Today I ended up on NPR–part conference promotion & part celebrating our supportive Utah writing community. Take a listen!

So this week I’m spending more time phoning caterers, taking last minute conference registrations, and answering emails instead of adding to my WIP word-count. But maybe I’ll have some small part in helping someone else’s publishing dream come true.

And that’s totally worth it!  

A Weekend With The Pros

I spent last weekend visiting one of my favorite cities, Boise, Idaho, for our regional SCBWI conference.

Our speakers included Scholastic Books editor, Cheryl Klein, Jill Corcoran from The Herman Agency, as well as authors Chris Crutcher, Kelly Milner Halls, Amy Cook, Sarah Tregay, Laura Bingham, and me.

Cheryl Klein talked about seventeen revision techniques. One that I’m going to use: List the first ten significant things each character says or does in your novel. This gives you a quick snapshot of that character. You may discover that your character needs to be softened a bit, or maybe you could use a bit of humor, etc. I would’ve seen that a certain character in my WIP didn’t do much of anything at all!

I also liked how Cheryl emphasized that editors value quality over speed. I think so many writers rush home from conferences and submit their work that week. Take the time to think about what you’ve learned and apply those lessons to your novel. You can find out more about Cheryl at

Jill Corcoran spoke about writing query letters. Over and over again she emphasized that query letters are business letters. Be professional, not cute! But do make a good first impression with clear, concise, yet interesting writing. If agents aren’t requesting your manuscript, something might be wrong with your query letter. Workshop your query letter just like you’d workshop a manuscript. To find out more about Jill check out her blog. She’s absolutely passionate about the authors she represents!

I loved Kelly Milner Halls talk about school visits–lots of great information. I also learned a lot from Kelly by sitting next to her at our pre-conference book signing at Rediscovered Bookshop (one of my very favorite bookstores!). She relates so well to kids, drawing them into her stories, talking to them with such respect–and she shows potential readers her passion for her subjects.

If you ever have a chance to hear Chris Crutcher speak–do it! I loved his talk about censorship (many of his titles show up on banned book lists). “There isn’t something that we shouldn’t write about,” he said. He told stories about the kids he’s known through his therapy work. “Censorship works against kids who don’t have much anyway,” he said. And those kids need books that show them that they’re not alone.

Sitting next to Chris Crutcher at the book signing was inspirational. Avid fans brought beat up copies of his books–warped and worn with years of reading. Teachers, librarians, parents, and students all came to meet him. What an amazing accomplishment to write books like that!

So today I’m back at my desk, completely inspired, and ready to make my writing the best it can be!

SCBWI LA Tidbits (Part Two) + Giveaway!!!

Welcome to Part Two of my SCBWI LA conference tidbits. Don’t miss the giveaway!

EB Lewis (illustrator of Coming On Home Soon): We need to fill ourselves to overflowing and then give it all back. I loved this, because it reminded me that we all need to take creative breaks–I’ve done that this summer. Lots of games, cupcake parties, matinee movies…

Rachel Vail (Lucky, Gorgeous, and Brilliant): Rachel talked about how she collects characters in the notebook she carries with her all the time. “Spying is the key to being a writer,” she said. She also said that it’s important to think about the things your character’s notice. What is your character’s perspective on the world? She also asks her characters a lot of questions before she begins the writing process. (See her website:

Later during her keynote, she talked about how middle-grade readers are at that moment in which they realize: my family is weird. “Life and death moments are a dime a dozen in 7th grade,” she said. We should all remember that intensity of changing so dramatically in front of the entire world.

Gail Carson Levine (Ella Enchanted): She told us to be patient with our ideas. “Plot arrives out of situation and character,” she said. And if a character is going to change the reader needs to understand why. “The reader will join you in adding complexity to your character if you show the way.”

Later I attended Gail Carson Levine’s session about Infrequently Asked Questions. She had a lot of great things to say about writing from a male point-of-view, naming characters, setting, and revision. Many of her wonderful writing tips can be found on her blog:

Gennifer Choldenko (Al Capone Does My Shirts): She talked about how kids may seem more sophisticated on the outside, but inside they’re the same as always. She always tries to get to the emotional core of her story. She told us not to be angry if our risks don’t pay off. “Learn and move on,” she advised.

I also loved how she talked about taking care of our writer self. After a weekend of sometimes conflicting writing advice, it was nice to hear that you have to see what works for you. “You have to feel yourself through the novel, not think your way through it. It has to come from your gut,” she said. “Don’t take yourself too seriously!” She also told us that kids deserve the best books that we can write. And it’s up to us to teach ourselves how to write.

Paul Fleischman (Whirligig): He talked about various organizational techniques that he uses when writing, like keeping lists of names and scenes. I loved it when he advised us to “weigh each word like it’s on a gang plank.” I’m doing that as I revise my current WIP.

The conference ended with an amazing presentation by illustrator Ashley Bryan. We recited poetry together (Langston Hughes!!!!) and it left me feeling grateful for a wonderful conference week–and inspired to make my writing the best it can be. I left LA, ready to go home, but first I stopped at Sprinkles so I could host an impromptu cupcake party when I returned to Utah. It’s one of my favorite post-conference traditions! I’ve learned to get there right when they open so I don’t have to wait in line. Mmm. Fresh, still sorta warm, cupcakes… I wish I could give you all Sprinkles cupcakes. Instead I asked Gail Carson Levine to sign a copy of Ella Enchanted for you!

To win the book, please a comment along with your contact information. Contest ends at midnight, Friday, August, 27, 2010. Open to anyone in the world!

SCBWI LA Tidbits + Giveaway!!!

I had a great time at the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles. Since I’m a Regional Advisor, I arrived a couple of days early for meetings. The highlight was having dinner at the SCBWI Headquarters-such beautiful, cozy offices! And so many books!!! Here’s a photo of Lin Oliver, one of the founders of SCBWI, in her office. Below you’ll find Part One of my conference tidbits. Plus I’m doing a giveaway: a signed copy of Carolyn Mackler’s Guyaholic. Just leave a comment!

MT Anderson (Feed, Octavian Nothing): In his keynote, MT Anderson told us to embrace our eccentricities. I loved that!

Later I attended his breakout session about experimental fiction. He showed us all the techniques used in One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss (oh, can he read a bedtime story!). He warned that experimental techniques—like footnotes in fiction—can be trying for readers in long novels, but used every now and then can be really effective. I’m excited to add some more adventurous touches to my own writing.

Jennifer Hunt (Editor, Little Brown): Jennifer said: Be smart about what kids like. Read the best books in your genre, but also study media outside of books—like TV shows (and she mentioned my favorite: Friday Night Lights–yes!). She also talked about developing a personal work philosophy that will help you strive toward excellence, telling the audience to, “Challenge yourself to develop your full potential.”

Gordon Korman (Pop, 39 Clues): He told us to find out what’s cool about a subject—picture a bored 11 year old asking, “Do I care about this?” He also advised us to try a lot of different stuff. I love that advice, because if I hadn’t tried writing lots of different things I’d still be writing bad picture books.

Carolyn Mackler (The Earth, My Butt, & Other Big Round Things): She talked about how thorough research—interviewing teens, writing exercises, finding unique details—helps her create characters unlike any others. We did a fun writing exercise about what our character has hidden in his or her underwear drawer. Try it–you might be surprised!

Later Carolyn gave a wonderful keynote address, talking about how reading and writing helped her keep her sense of self in tact during tough school years. She described her journey as a writer, how some books came easy, others not so much, but “words will always ebb and flow.” Regarding banned books, she told us that the worry is that some books will never be written, never read. I felt really inspired to write after listening to Carolyn!

And later I got a book signed by Carolyn Mackler–so I could give it to one of you!

If you’d like to win a signed copy of Guyaholic (one of my favorites), please leave a comment below. Drawing will take place on Friday, August 20, 2010.

Open to anyone in the world!


For the past few days my physical self has been camping in Nevada’s beautiful Ruby Mountains with lots of cousins–very fun!

My virtual self has been hanging out at:
The Mixed Up Files of Jennifer Bertman–talking about my writing space (and habits).
YA Central Books Blog–talking about Swoon At Your Own Risk.
My virtual self doesn’t have any bug bites! Today I’m off to learn all kinds of cool things at the SCBWI conference in LA. I’ll pass along some of the best tidbits to you!

SCBWI New York Part Three: A Taping of ABCs The View

Since the main character in my work-in-progress ends up on a couple of TV shows, I couldn’t resist a fellow SCBWI Regional Advisor’s invitation to join her for a taping of The View. Research, right? Okay, so I do watch Hot Topics during my lunch break–how else would I keep up on celebrity divorces?

We had to arrive two hours before the taping where we waited in line with about two hundred others. I’ve never seen so many people with great hair and makeup crammed into one place. Plus, we were all wearing our bright colors and uncomfortable shoes (no one ever saw my feet, but oh, well…)

See how shiny and clean everyone looks? I was a little surprised that ABC couldn’t spring for a bigger TV in their waiting area.
Around 10:30 a.m. the perky staff began taking us in small groups to the elevator. When we arrived in the studio they handed us each a package of cookies and a cold bottle of apple juice as if we were about to have preschool circle time or something. But then I realized that they wanted to give us a quick sugar rush. And then we met this guy:

His job was to whip us into a happy, clappy frenzy. He relied heavily on butt jokes. I half expected him to start in on some my mom’s Uranus jokes, but we were spared stooping quite that low. And then there was dancing! Bring on the Beyonce!

The striking woman in green is a stage actress (we struck up a conversation in line and later sat near each other). And could she dance! Her friend did a totally Glee-worthy Single Ladies routine. Very fun to watch. Barbara Walters also came out to tell us how special we were as an audience. Aw! (I’m sure she says that to all the audiences, but it was still kinda cool).

Here I am just before the show started. My pink sweater made me easy to spot when I later watched the show. My daughters enjoyed pausing me with funny expressions–and then laughing hysterically.
And here are the Hot Topics–a whole day of ’em! I have to admit I was a little surprised at how shabby the set looked in person. But I guess since ABC hasn’t bought a new waiting area TV since the early 90s…
I loved watching what happened during the commercial breaks. Hair people came out to fluff Elisabeth Hasselbeck, Whoopie joked about her butt, Joy joked about her butt, Sherri joked about her butt… Elisabeth talked about her butt. The jokey-clapping guy joked about his butt. Again.

We all agreed that we received The Worst Giveaway Ever! (A book no one in the audience particularly wanted). But I did get some nice tidbits for my work-in-progress–and a package of cookies from Barbara Walters to take home to my daughters (they’re not fans–they think she wears too much leather. I brought the cookies as a peace offering of sorts).

Now I’m home and back to real life–revising that novel!