Be A Maker

Engineer Jennifer has always been a builder. LEGOs were a right of passage for me – probably for most kids headed for a career in Civil Engineering. Among my peers, there were two schools of thought regarding those LEGO kit directions. I fell strongly into Camp Toss-The-Directions-To-Build-Something-Better. For me, “something better” always resulted in a creative structure. I still build them with my LEGO CREATOR EXPERT modular building sets.

Now I look back and wonder if Young Jennifer was ever actually a builder. My mother would probably still insist I am too stubborn to listen to directions on HOW to build anything. She is not wrong – and that might be exactly why I’m a maker. My constant need to modify the directions for everything from LEGOs to craft kits to quilt patterns may have been the first clue. The string of projects abandoned whenever I was pressured to follow the directions may have been another.

My first exposure to this concept of being a maker was a commercial for Goldie Blox toys from April of 2014.  You can check it out on YouTube here:

I loved this Rube Goldberg machine constructed with all the stereotypical “girl” toys these young ladies had little interest in. Young Jennifer felt the same way about most of these toys. Writer Jennifer was inspired to create a picture book manuscript centered around a similar Rube Goldberg machine made with household items. Engineer Jennifer appreciated the marketing efforts to expose kids of all genders to STEM toys. What I didn’t understand then was the actual difference between a builder and a maker.

A builder usually constructs something according to a set of plans or directions.

A maker uses the items available to solve a problem or create something new.

This distinction became clear to me when my daughter received the Keva Maker Bot Maze last Christmas. My first instinct was to set aside the booklet the kit came with and build our own maze. My daughter is very different than Young Jennifer, though, so I opened the plan sheet to look for the numbered directions. What I found instead were suggestions.

The young maker was encouraged to decorate her two bots any way she wanted with the glue, felt, pipe cleaners, pom poms, and eyeballs provided. Several maze obstacles were detailed using these same supplies, but in picture format rather than numbered directions. Makers were encouraged to invent their own maze obstacles with items found around the house. A few maze layouts were pictured on the plan sheet, but the maker was encouraged to create her own designs.

My afternoon of being a maker with my daughter inspired me to take a closer look at the books on my shelves. Makers already existed in KidLit before the catch phrase “Be A Maker” was coined. The first character to come to mind: Kate and her bucket from The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Scott. I had recommended that book to an engineering co-worker’s middle-grade daughter years ago because she, like Kate, was a maker.

The current “Be A Maker” trend has become evident in fiction STEM picture books. Three of my favorites include:

Rosie Revere, Engineer

Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty

Made by Maxine

Made by Maxine by Ruth Spiro

Be a Maker

Be A Maker by Katey Howes

I’d love to read more of these great Maker characters (any gender or age). If you have book recommendations, please share.

Posted in Creativity, Engineering, Jennifer, Middle Grade Books, Nicole, Parenting, Picture Books, Publishing, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Be A Maker

Social Media for Middle Graders

Recently I’ve noticed an increasing number of authors on Facebook asking what social media 12-year-olds use. Writer Jennifer understands the question. These authors want to keep their writing relevant to modern kids by incorporating the methods of communication being used today. I agree. We shouldn’t write contemporary stories for modern kids that are actually set in our historic, low-tech childhoods. Social media and electronic devices are the center of modern kids’ lives.

I am the mother of an 11-year-old. I know which social media platforms Daughter begs for: Snapchat and She also loves to text, Facetime, and watch YouTube. Her television shows are binge watched on Netflix – not network or cable television. According to her, Facebook is for old people. I’ve never heard her mention Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. Basically, if Mom is using a social media platform, then Daughter isn’t interested. Makes sense – but also makes it more difficult for adult writers to depict authentic modern kid lives.

Mother Jennifer has an entirely different concern when this social media question is asked. Authors asking about a 12-year-old character may actually be writing for the middle grade audience of ages 8 to 12. Kids read up. The sixth grade protagonist with social media could become the role model of a fourth grade reader.

Each parent makes her own decision about when her child is old enough to have an electronic device, which device is age-appropriate, what age restrictions will be set, and what social media will be allowed. These decisions are subjective and vary greatly. The more restrictions set, the less popular that parent will likely be with her kids.

What does not vary: the minimum age limits specified by the social media platforms. To the best of my knowledge, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and all have a minimum age requirement of 13 years old. That means a character must be a young adult to legally have social media. Kids using these social media platforms in the middle grades are either registered under a parent’s name (which may or may not be supervised by that parent) or they are lying about their birthdates to create their own accounts.

As a parent, I took the hard stance that there will be no social media accounts until Daughter meets the minimum age requirement. She can text and Facetime friends she knows in person (though her iTouch and iPad limit her to messaging only other Apple devices). She can watch YouTube (which has no age restriction settings) and Netflix (which has age restriction settings) with regular Mom spot checks of what she’s choosing to watch.

What makes it more difficult for me to hold my ground on this unpopular rule?

  • Parents of other kids allowing these social media accounts for much younger kids. (My daughter knows kids who’ve had their own smart phones with every social media platform since they were 9 years old.)
  • Books, movies, and shows depicting all middle grade kids having social media accounts. If the cool celebrity middle grade kids have social media, all middle grade kids beg for it, too.

Why did I make this unpopular social media decision? Kids in the middle grades aren’t ready for the dangers of cyber bullying, sexting, online trolls, and childhood posts coming back to haunt them as adult professionals. They’re still navigating in-person friendships and relationships. Some kids do bully in person, but their cruelty escalates online where they may not know their target or have to look that person in the eye. There are also less parents, teachers, or other authority figures monitoring kid behavior online to intervene and discipline bullies.

Kindness and empathy are values best taught and role modeled in person, in the middle grades, before kids are launched into social media cyberspace as young adults.

Posted in Jennifer, Middle Grade Books, Parenting, Publishing, Reading, Social Media, Writing | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Social Media for Middle Graders

Working As A Reader To Improve My Writing

For the past four months I’ve been sneaking a peak behind the scenes of a New York literary agency. Yes, I was snowed in at my Midwest writing office most of that time. I’ve been working remotely as a middle grade and young adult manuscript reader. No, I don’t plan to move to New York to become a literary agent. So why did I volunteer to read other people’s manuscripts?

To improve my writing . . . and yours.

Don’t ask – I’m not going to share the name of the agency, agent, or manuscript authors. What I can tell you is how the reader process works at this particular agency and what I’ve learned during the past four months.

The Process:

This agency accepts unsolicited queries. That means any author can submit a query – after carefully following the submission guidelines – even if she hasn’t met the agent at a conference or workshop.

Each agent reads her own queries and decides which manuscripts to request. (Note that some agencies have an assistant agent or intern read the queries).

Once the requested manuscript arrives, it’s sent to a remote reader like me. I typically have one week to read the manuscript and write a report. What does my report include? A synopsis of the novel plot, the writing strengths, the writing weaknesses, and whether I recommend the agent represent the manuscript.

Once I turn in my report, the agent decides whether or not to take the time to read the manuscript. Sometimes my report is enough to result in a rejection. If I note great potential, a busy agent might read excerpts from the beginning, middle, and end of the manuscript to get a feel for the consistency of the writing quality. If the agent is strongly considering representation, she’ll read the entire manuscript. Others at the agency may also read the manuscript. All of these manuscript reads can add up to a long wait for the author.

I don’t know how many queries this agency receives per week, but I’d guess it’s in the hundreds. What I do know: only six manuscripts were given to me to read in four months. There are two other readers, probably receiving a similar number of manuscripts to read.

The verdict: I recommended passing on all six manuscripts, despite great potential in a few cases, because the manuscripts would require significant revision before they could be sent to editors.

Authors tend to query their manuscripts before they’re actually ready for an agent to read.

What Have I Learned:

  • There is often a decrease in writing quality after the first two chapters of the manuscript.

What does this mean?

The occurrences of grammar mistakes, typos, missing words, and repeated words dramatically increase after the opening pages. Pacing sometimes changes – either slowing down with tons of backstory or speeding up to tell the action as stage directions. The promises made to the reader in the opening – for both plot arc and emotional arc – often get lost in the muddy middle. A big Ta-Da ending often comes together too conveniently without feeling earned.

What can you do?

You’ve probably invested significant time critiquing and polishing your opening chapter in hopes of turning a query into a manuscript request. Don’t forget the entire manuscript will then be read. Don’t query until you’ve invested the same level of revision effort on every single chapter of your manuscript.

Revision should start at the developmental level with character, plot arc, and emotional arc. Revision passes should also be done at the chapter, scene, paragraph, and line levels. If you’re not great at grammar or spelling, find a beta reader who is. Make sure every one of your 80,000 words is clear, concise, and serves your story.

  • New writers often have similar writing craft tells.

What does this mean?

New writers tend to convey emotion by stating the emotion name (ex: She screamed in anger.), using cliché body language (ex: Her heart pounded. She clenched her fists.), or using descriptive dialog tags (ex: “Yeah, right,” she chortled.). There are often an excessive amount of tears, used as a crutch to tell the reader a character is upset instead of showing a more specific emotion. Exclamation marks can become another crutch to convey excitement.

The action often stops, in what is called a pause button violation, for the author to describe every detail of a new setting or info dump backstory (ex: A kid steps up to the plate, followed by five pages of setting description and batting backstory, before a pitch is thrown. Another three pages of inner monologue convey worries about striking out before the kid swings the bat. A page of detailed description following the arc of the ball comes before the character takes off running, etc.).

What can you do?

It’s okay if all these tells, and many other personal writing tics, show up in your first draft. An agent (or manuscript reader) shouldn’t ever see that draft. Take time to critique and revise before you query. Remove emotion names and show your character experiencing a specific emotion. Improve your dialogue so you only need “said” as the tag, if there is any tag at all. Replace adverbs with stronger, more specific verbs. Replace all clenching and pounding with fresher body language or figurative language. Setting can also set mood and convey emotion. Don’t forget that a character may feel one thing and say something completely different. Scenes should have subtext or misunderstandings that create conflict and tension.

Insert backstory in brief snippets, only if absolutely necessary for clarity, only when the narrator would naturally have that thought, and only when the narrator would have time to think that amount of text. The author needs to know a lot more backstory while writing than what belongs in the final manuscript.

Describe only the setting elements that matter – what your narrator would notice in that moment, in that emotional state, and in that amount of time. Consider using shorter sentences in fast-paced moments. You don’t have to always use proper grammar. You do need to use vocabulary and expressions that fit the age, experience, interests, and time period of your character.

  • Most manuscripts lack an emotional connection.

What does that mean?

If a reader doesn’t feel emotionally connected to the character and hooked into the story by reader questions, it is very easy for her to set down your manuscript to go do something else. As a manuscript reader, I must read each manuscript from beginning to end, but it’s a bad sign if I start skimming purely to write my plot summary for my report.

What can you do?

The manuscripts sent my way all have something great that caught an agent’s eye – maybe a clever plot, a unique character, an interesting setting, rich worldbuilding, a relatable obstacle, or an intriguing mystery. These elements of writing craft are important, but they won’t emotionally connect me to your manuscript.

Don’t tell me a story. Let me experience the story alongside your narrator. I want to know who the story is about, what that person desires (both emotionally and more concretely in the plot), why, what obstacles stand in the way, and what is at stake if the person doesn’t get the desire. I want to feel each of the character’s emotions along the way and grow with her.

  • Jennifer the Writer falls into all the same traps that Jennifer the Reader is warning you about.

I get sloppy and use shortcuts in my first drafts. I get impatient while working through a young adult novel sentence by sentence. I feel the urgency of getting my manuscript into the hands of an agent NOW.

Then I imagine a manuscript reader, much like myself, wishing an author with so much potential had taken more time to revise and polish her work. That image sends me back into the revision trenches every time.

Posted in Jennifer, Publishing, Reading, Revision | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

KidLit Nonfiction Beyond Picture Book Biographies

Earlier this month, I hosted an SCBWI Rockford Network guest speaker who really resonated with me. Michael Leali, the Children’s Department Manager for Anderson’s Bookshop in La Grange, presented Beginning at the End: Informing Today’s Writing By Considering the Future Bookstore Shelf. Michael gave us a behind the scenes look at what’s flying off the bookstore shelves, what customers want but can’t find, and how that information can help writers craft first lines and first pages that hook a reader.

The item that most surprised me: nonfiction picture book biographies are still hot, hot, hot in bookstores. Last October at my Highlights retreat, I learned they’re equally hot with nonfiction writers. To the agents and editors I’ve spoken with recently – they’re not.

An interesting dynamic occurs within the publishing industry. Agents and editors acquire picture book manuscripts two years ahead of the bookstore release. If picture book biographies are flying off the shelves now, there are likely another two years worth of books in production. The acquisitions market can already be saturated while the trend is still hot at the bookstore.

I’ve heard hints that the next big thing in KidLit nonfiction is non-biography STEM Narrative Nonfiction. I struggled to picture what that engineering picture book might look like.

What came to mind first: Fiction engineering picture books.Rosie Revere, EngineerMade by MaxinePop's BridgeBuilders and Breakers

Look at That Building!: A First Book of Structures (Exploring Our Community)







Looking through my collection of engineering nonfiction picture books, it quickly became apparent I’m biased toward structural engineering and bridges. I found . . .

Informational Texts (which are nonfiction books without a narrative story):Superstats: Mega StructuresBridges: Amazing Structures to Design, Build & Test (Kaleidoscope Kids)Simple Machines (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2)Fantastic Feats and FailuresThe World's Most Amazing Bridges (Landmark Top Tens)

Nonfiction Biographies:

Gustave Eiffel's Spectacular Idea: The Eiffel Tower (The Story Behind the Name)Mr. Ferris and His Wheel

Nonfiction Biographies of a Structure Instead of a Person:The Brooklyn Bridge: The story of the world's most famous bridge and the remarkable family that built it. (Wonders of the World Book) Brooklyn BridgeYou Wouldn't Want to Work on the Brooklyn Bridge!: An Enormous Project That Seemed ImpossibleTwenty-One Elephants and Still StandingSky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building

And now for the hot new acquisitions trend:

Non-Biography STEM Narrative Nonfiction!


Baby Loves Structural Engineering! (Baby Loves Science) A Book of Bridges: Here To There and Me To You

That’s it. I only own two non-biography narrative nonfiction books about engineering, and one is a board book for very young readers.

The Highlights vow I previously blogged was refined: I must write a non-biography STEM narrative nonfiction picture book.

After my Highlights workshop, I also took a six-week online class through The Writing Barn. Beyond Biographies: Creative Nonfiction & Informational Fiction Picture Books by Miranda Paul.

If you ever have a chance to attend one of Miranda’s classes – take it! She really helped me understand what a non-biography narrative nonfiction picture book is and gave me the tools to start writing one. I recommend reading lots of these picture books to get a feel for the wide range of formats and tones that can be used. None of the class example books were about structural engineering, which gives me an exciting market gap to play in. There were many great STEM examples using other areas of science and math:

Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks PlanetWater Is Water: A Book About the Water CycleA Hundred Billion Trillion StarsSeven and a Half of Tons of SteelTiny Creatures: The World of Microbes (Read and Wonder (Paperback))


I already have two non-biography STEM narrative nonfiction story ideas coming to life. Of course they are both about structural engineering.

How about you?



Posted in Engineering, Highlights, Jennifer, Nonfiction, Picture Books, Publishing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on KidLit Nonfiction Beyond Picture Book Biographies

Finding My Own Inspiration

Last weekend many of my writing friends returned to VCFA for residency. I did not – for the first time in two and a half years. It was harder than I expected to view the social media posts about the snow, the arctic temperatures, the dorm rooms, the faculty, and the community coming back together.

I’ve sent cards and gifts for my graduating friends. All three residency live feeds are marked on my calendar. I’ve moved forward with many of my post-grad goals and explored a few new paths I hadn’t anticipated. Teaching was swapped for editing. Invaluable industry connections were made with authors, agents, and editors. Nonfiction and fiction took on equal priority. I assign my own homework now (like finishing my YA manuscript by the end of this month!). My classmates and advisors remain in touch. Yet I still miss being in Vermont at the residency hub of creative inspiration.

Instead of traveling, I’ve been reviewing the past two months since I last blogged, looking for my own inspiration. An interesting pattern emerged. In November, I had one of my most prolific writing months. Fifty thousand words written for NaNoWriMo. In December, I wrote zero new words, but did edit the SCBWI IL Prairie Wind (which will be released today for SCBWI IL members!) and purge my house to make space for my own art room.

If you’re into averages, twenty-five thousand words per month isn’t bad. I’m more into revelations. What did these two months teach me about my own writing process?

November Revelation:

NaNoWriMo was less about the word count for me and more about discovering my best writing process. When you are challenged to write every single day, you have to experiment with lots of times, places, and conditions. It quickly becomes apparent what works best for you.

I learned that I’m most likely to produce new creative pages if I write first thing in the morning, before my day is taken over by the many other reader / editor / teacher / Network Rep roles I’ve taken on. The words come slow at first, but if I make myself write for an hour, momentum takes over and the story starts flowing. During that first hour, any little distraction will yank me away. Reading, e-mails, household chores, errands, TV shows, and even people watching feel more urgent. I’m most successful if I remove those distractions by disconnecting from social media and working in my quiet writing nook.

Resolution Resulting From This Revelation:

My daughter bought me this awesome hourglass for Christmas:

I resolved to pay myself first.

I will start each weekday by flipping the hourglass in my quiet writing nook to focus only on my new creative pages for one hour. Usually that first hour results in more revision of previous pages than production of new ones, but I rarely stop when the sand runs out. By then the scene has come to life in my imagination and my typing speed increases exponentially.

When I flip the hourglass first, I usually meet my goal of 1500 words per day. When I don’t flip the hourglass first – even for a valid reason like a morning doctor appointment – the day can slip away from me without any new words.

December Realization:

Writing drains your creative energy. While I was a student, residency and monthly advisor letters refilled my creative well. For two years, I put aside my art, games, puzzles, travel adventures, and any other distraction to focus on writing. After I graduated, I forgot to bring those other creative items back.

Living life to the fullest also fills your creative well. In December, I spent a lot of time relaxing with family and friends. There were weekend adventures, puzzles, games, and – most important to me – a return to art. Unfortunately, that also meant a return to the hassles of lugging bins of art supplies up from the basement and taking over the kitchen or living room with my projects.

Once upon a time, I had a dream of earning an MFA to take my writing to the next level. I had forgotten I also had a dream of creating an art space in my home.

Resolution Resulting From This Revelation:

Operation House Purge moved into the dreaded basement. It was shocking how much junk had piled up down there after fifteen years in my house. It was also sad to see how chaotic and unorganized my art supplies had become over the past two years. Supplies were pulled out for a quick project and never put back. Surfaces meant for setting up a longer work in progress were heaped with supplies and bins. It wasn’t relaxing to make art anymore because there wasn’t any space to do it.

I resolved to make the first step toward a new art space: organizing the basement room so it will work for both my daughter and I. Right now it’s unfinished. Folding tables sit where I imagine desks someday. Stacks of bins organize the supplies that will one day be stored in cabinets. There’s no big window to let in the sun or door to keep out the cat. But it’s a start, which my daughter has already embraced to manufacture a scary amount of glitter slime and resin jewelry. I’m still pondering what to create in our new space.

My New Year Resolution:

Balance – a combination of writing and fun in the same month.

Posted in Art, Creativity, Home Improvements, Jennifer, MFA, SCBWI, VCFA MFA WCYA, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Highlights Foundation Magic

Visiting Highlights Foundation for the first time is much like entering an enchanted forest, the leaves dripping with writing magic. Three nonfiction story ideas were born in my little cabin in the woods. Several familiar Illinois and VCFA writer names were spotted in the Cabin #10 journal, reassuring me that I was among friends. Drastic revision of my narrative nonfiction project occurred. Even more powerful: the community of writers who gathered in The Barn to share their love of KidLit nonfiction.

My Tell It True workshop was taught by Leda Schubert and Tod Olson, with Skype visits by Steve Sheinkin and MT Anderson. Editor Kandace Coston also visited in person. If you have the opportunity to hear any of these nonfiction experts speak – take it! So much wisdom and encouragement was packed into our four days together.

My first revelation: Nonfiction picture book biographies are super popular right now.

Okay, maybe that should have been obvious based on the nonfiction picture books being published right now. For this workshop, students were asked to submit a narrative nonfiction piece for the group to critique. What surprised me: almost everyone submitted a picture book biography. I thought I was in the beginning stages of researching a middle grade piece, but my workshop group disagreed. I had also submitted an early draft of a picture book biography.

How did they know?

Research constraints. The primary source documents available for most of the historic women in engineering I’ve been researching are mainly newspaper and magazine articles from their adult lives. There are no letters, memoirs, interviews, or transcripts of the key scenes in these women’s lives. These women are also no longer living, so the opportunity to ask them questions is gone. In some cases there is so little information that a woman’s story is lost to history. I selected the woman on my research list with the most primary sources, but it is likely enough for a picture book, not a middle grade story.

Here’s why I can write a picture book biography with less primary sources than what is required for middle grade:

  • Picture book biographies have more summary than scene, with many of the scenes shown in the illustrations rather than described in the narrative. Why? A tight picture book word count, and the strict nonfiction requirement that all text have sources to document it.
  • Dialogue is often not used in picture book biographies, avoiding the tricky question of how to document what exactly was said in historic conversations.
  • Little internal monologue is used in picture book biographies, once again because of the tight picture book word count and the strict nonfiction requirement that all text have sources to document it.

There must be voice, character emotion, and conflict to tell a nonfiction narrative story – of course – whether it is a picture book or a longer biography. For middle grade or young adult, this story must be told primarily in scene.

It surprised me to hear every one of the authors who write middle grade or young adult nonfiction mention a story they were passionate about but had to walk away from. Why? Not enough primary resources to develop the key scenes, or not enough scenes that kids will find engaging and connect to.

My second revelation: The personality of the biography subject is super important.

The best picture book biographies don’t use a bland narrator voice spewing out chronological facts. Narrative nonfiction is a story, not a history textbook. The narrator voice can bring a subject to life, especially if that voice is inspired by the personality of the subject.

It is also very difficult to impose the author’s preferred narrative structure on a person’s life. Real life timelines are very different from narrative storylines. Reading about the subject’s life and getting to know his personality will bring out a structure that best fits that person’s story.

The picture book biography comparison our group kept coming back to was Handel: Who Knew What He Liked versus Strange Mr. Satie: Composer of the Absurd. Both were written by MT Anderson, both are picture book biographies of composers, and yet they have completely different narrative voices and structures. We asked MT Anderson why. His response: the two composers had very different personalities.

My third revelation: I will find a narrative nonfiction story idea that is not a biography.

My workshop group probably thought they were encouraging me that I was on the right track. My story is a picture book biography, which might be an easier sell in the current market. They are correct. I have begun significantly cutting the text with the use of a picture book dummy, thanks to Leda’s wise suggestion.

What my workshop group had in fact done was lay down the challenge for me to find a non-biography STEM topic with enough research materials available to write middle grade narrative nonfiction. Challenge accepted! A few ideas were already germinating during my long day of travel back to the real world.

My fourth revelation: I must return to the Highlights Foundation. It’s not a question of if, but when.

Posted in Highlights, Jennifer, Kandace Coston, Leda Schubert, Middle Grade Books, MT Anderson, Nonfiction, Picture Books, Steve Sheinkin, Tod Olson | Tagged | Comments Off on The Highlights Foundation Magic

Tapping Into Your Creative Inner Child

This fall author / illustrator Lynda Barry has fueled my creative fire. She generously shares her teaching materials and encourages others to follow along with the UW-Madison courses she teaches by sharing her syllabus, exercises, and homework assignments on Tumblr under The Near-Sighted Monkey. Making Comics is her current class, and I’ve been following along.

Much of Lynda’s teaching involves turning off the analytical half of the brain to tap into the creative half of the brain. The goal: Finding my inner child, who fearlessly plays without worrying about whether she is good at drawing or too old to use crayons.

I recently watched my daughter cross the threshold from “I’m an artist” to “All I can draw are stick people.” This experience really made Lynda’s work resonate with me.

As you may already know, I have a very analytical brain that is difficult for me to turn off. Since my MFA graduation, my analytical brain has led to much fiction revision, many new nonfiction pages, structured lesson plans, and planning for a new SCBWI Network. My analytical brain is very productive. It has also caused a drought of new fiction pages, because I’m overthinking the story instead of feeling it and playing creatively.

How can I turn off that analytical brain? By starting a Lynda Barry style journal. The emphasis on What I Did, What I Saw, Quotes I Overheard, and Questions I Have is designed to help you notice the world around you. There is also a drawing / coloring component that taps into your inner creative child.

The first assignment was to trace your handprint, a task many of us did as a child, on the first page of your journal. This is a place to write your name, the date, and assign yourself a writing alias for the semester. It also allows you to see yourself reflected in the page.

My creativity was apparently dying to be released. The simple one-page assignment took over two pages of my journal and became a full color doodle.

The creativity was contagious. My daughter decided to start her own journal. She asked me to draw for her, to get past that “I’m not an artist” barrier, but the picture she described to me was clearly artistic and creative. Her alias as a giraffe was a perfect fit.

Yet the only alias to inspire me was an owl, an animal known for its wise thinking ability. Perhaps my analytical brain hasn’t quite been turned off yet. More drawing and coloring are clearly needed.

Posted in Art, Creativity, Jennifer, Nicole | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Tapping Into Your Creative Inner Child

Post-Grad Revelations

Last month I checked a few major writing milestones off my bucket list:

1) Delivered my graduate reading of my young adult science fiction work-in-progress, Eraser.


2) Presented my graduate lecture, Shift That Narrow Trend Line into a Scatter Plot of Possibilities: Crafting a Wider Range of Authentic Lesbian Protagonists in Middle-Grade and Young Adult Novels. It will be on the Commons soon for VCFA students and alumni to listen to. If anyone else is interested in the topic, I’m happy to share a copy of my critical thesis on the same topic.


3) Graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults!



4) Vacationed in Vermont with my family to relax and celebrate after two years of hard work and sacrifices. There were a serious number of maple creemees involved in that celebration, but also lots of nature, laughter, and love. Believe it or not, my extremely supportive husband even agreed to ride a horse for the first time.

IMG_4577 IMG_4707 IMG_4724 IMG_4779 IMG_4777

Now I’m back home, starting the adjustment to life after the MFA. It’s funny how you don’t appreciate the way an MFA program breaks the writing life down into manageable pieces until you’re facing an endless horizon that is deadline free.



Book annotations.

Critical papers.

Creative pages.

Writing Prompts.

Revision comments.

My family definitely does not miss all of those stress-inducing words, but I might. Writer Jen is now bobbing in her canoe in the middle of a still lake, unsure which shore the wind will push her toward.

Post Grad Revelation #1: No writer spends all her time writing. 

As my classmates and I discussed our many post-grad goals and dreams during our last residency together, it occurred to me that there are many variations of what it means to be a writer. In pretty much all of them, that writer is juggling at least two full time jobs. Here are some of the many combinations I heard about:

Writer + Illustrator

Writer + Teacher

Writer + Public Speaker

Writer + Editor

Writer + Book Reviewer

Writer + Book Seller

Writer + Librarian

Writer + Pre-MFA Day Job

This last one somehow gets the lowest status, but is, in my opinion, the most difficult combination to juggle. If your pre-MFA day job is an analytical STEM related career, such as Structural Engineering, it is unlikely you will find others who are juggling that same combination of work. In my experience, it is also unlikely the people in either of those two worlds can relate to or understand the demands of your other world.

Working in the overlap of that venn diagram can be a lonely place. But it can also be an asset because you have a unique skill set from your day job to bring to your writing. For me, that involves crafting girl characters with STEM interests who break gender rules in my fiction and writing about the female pioneers of structural engineering in my nonfiction.

What combination do I envision for myself? My MFA qualifies me for Writer + Teacher, which I’m excited (and a little terrified) to try. Writer + Editor appeals to me, too, but might require further education. I have my eye on a great one-month summer program, but have promised my husband we won’t be paying any more grad school tuition (for at least the next year).

Post Grad Revelation #2: Regarding the Structural Engineering Day Job 

The most commonly asked question since I graduated from VCFA: When do you start back at your structural engineering day job?

Not whether my young adult manuscript is completed (It’s half-finished).

Not how my nonfiction proposal is coming along (It’s ready).

Not the status of the many queries I’ve submitted for picture books, magazine articles, and short stories from my creative thesis collection (I’ve been doing revisions for an interested magazine editor!)

There is this assumption that my structural engineering career is my real career that I must hurry back to, while writing should resume its hobby status.

The answer: Jennifer does not have plans to return to her structural engineering career. Yes, she is still a licensed Structural Engineer and will maintain her credentials. No, she will not be designing any bridges in the near future. For fifteen years, I used writing as a skill in my structural engineering career. I’d like to take a few years to see if I can use engineering as a skill in my writing career.

Right now, that means I’m going to give Writer + Teacher a try. This fall, I’ll be teaching a community creative writing workshop that is an introduction to the age levels and formats of writing for children. If you live in the Rockford area, check out the listing in the RVC fall catalog. I’ll also be an SCBWI Network Rep, working with my local critique partner to set up the first SCBWI Rockford Network. And I’ll be writing, of course.

Post Grad Revelation #3: Many Roles Require Many Goals 

After two weeks back at home, I barely feel settled into my new post-grad writing routine. What have I been up to? Flipping through two years worth of notes on lectures, workshops, and writing craft books. Sorting out the items that will be most helpful to Writer Jen and Teacher Jen. Most importantly, making goals.

What immediately follows those goals? The To Do list.

For me, the Writing Super Star has been a key component to making those goals and establishing the first steps on my to do list. It looks something like this:


This little guy has been popping up all over my journal. First, I had to establish the five main categories of my writing goals: fiction, nonfiction, art, teaching, and SCBWI Network. Once I had those categories established, it was easy to doodle a star and put a goal next to each star point.

SCBWI Network: Send out survey to SCBWI members in the Rockford area to ask what would be most helpful to them at a network meeting. If you live in the area and didn’t receive our survey, please let me know. We hope to schedule our first meeting in September.

Teaching: Course listed in RVC catalog. This goal came with pretty firm deadlines to apply to RVC, fill out the course description paperwork, and now to prepare the lesson plans. It is the most structured of my star points, which is something I really needed to remind me that writing and teaching are now a job.

Art: Right now this star point is about making time for art again. I’m not ready to illustrate anything yet, but I have ideas of projects I could illustrate, and I’ve been learning and practicing. This star point is the least urgent for me, my one fun category, which is also something I really needed.

The last two star points, related to my actual writing, are the most difficult to set goals for. So much of publishing is out of the control of the author. The only things I can control, and set goals for, are the projects I want to write and the dates I’d like to have each draft completed.

At VCFA I discovered a key aspect of how I write best: I need both short projects and long projects in progress at the same time. Short projects allow me breaks from the marathon of my longer projects. They also give me something to finish and submit when the completion of my longer projects feels like an eternity away. I’ve also learned that finding someone with a similar goal really helps you stick to your own goal and gives you someone to swap pages and critique with.

Nonfiction Short Goal: Picture book biography of Olive Dennis to swap with an awesome VCFA classmate. Research is already underway.

Nonfiction Long Goal: Query middle grade nonfiction scrapbook proposal about Elmina and Alda Wilson. The nonfiction proposal is ready!

Fiction Short Goal: Write a short story to meet a specific anthology theme to swap with an awesome VCFA alumni. I’ve been wanting to practice writing to a specific prompt and am so thankful I found the perfect person who shares this goal. We’re starting with a middle grade mystery.

Fiction Long Goal: VCFA Writer’s of the Lost Arc pact to finish by year-end. “Finish” means different things to everyone in my class, but it is awesome that we have a group of writers who are so eager to support each other. My goal is to finish a first draft of my young adult science fiction manuscript.

Will we also see Jennifer posting on this blog more than once per semester now that she has graduated?

You may have noticed the blog isn’t a point on my writing super star, but my fingers are crossed that you will hear from me more often.

Posted in Creativity, Engineering, Family, Jennifer, MFA, Nature, RVC, SCBWI, Teaching, VCFA MFA WCYA, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Open Question

My first revelation of 2018 is that MFA programs have magical time slip powers. I last blogged in September when my third semester at VCFA was just getting started and I had taken on the challenge of writing a pretty complex, lengthy critical thesis. I blinked, and now it’s a new year and about to become a new semester.

Where did all that time go? There wasn’t a lack of things to write about. I had many great personal and professional events and revelations during that time. I attended the SCBWI MI Fall Conference and the SCBWI IL Prairie Writer’s Day with a great group of writers and learned so much. I ventured into the suburbs three times for awesome author events at Anderson Bookstore. I watched my daughter’s love of the arts expand as she played the saxophone in her first band concert. My husband and I braved the freezing Chicago winds to see Hamilton. I read so many books there isn’t enough laptop battery life to tell you about them all. I also wrote creative pages with more depth, heart, and nuance than I’ve ever accomplished before. And yes, I did conquer that critical thesis.

Now the creative thesis, and the New England blizzards, are staring me down. If my flight actually happens, I’ll be back at Brigadoon in five days preparing for another MFA time slip. I’ll graduate in July, and who knows what lies beyond that milestone.


Of all the books I devoured over my Christmas Break, the one that most resonated with me was Deborah Heiligman’s young adult biography Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers. There is much to admire and analyze about the way she likened a biography to a portrait and used that extended metaphor in the novel structure, her writing craft, and her insights into the story of this remarkable brotherhood. But more than that, this story inspired me both as a writer new to nonfiction and as a hobby artist considering attempting illustrations for children. Vincent has inspired many, but his quieter, younger brother Theo stole my heart. The most resonant revelation for me, though, came from the author’s note:


Everyone has an opinion about Vincent van Gogh, an agenda of some kind. This was overwhelming. But I benefitted from two great pieces of wisdom at this time. My editor told me: “We want your tour of Vincent. Nobody else’s. When friends come to New York City,” she said, “I can’t take them everywhere. So I take them to my favorite New York places.”

And then, over lunch in a museum café, an artist friend said this: a work of art on a wall is an open question.

I thought about both of these things as I visited museums and looked at Vincent’s paintings. I looked at other artist’s paintings. And soon I realized that when we look at a work of art, we look at it from where we stand – who we are, where we’ve been, and what we’ve seen, how we feel. A work of art is an open question, a question that invites you in.

A life lived is also an open question.

When we look at a person – alive or dead – we do so from our own perspective. We bring our own particularly to art and also to biography.


Not everyone is a fan of New Year’s Resolutions. My husband, for example, believes that stating a New Year’s Resolution makes it sure to be discarded before the snow melts. He feels life changes are hard, and they require more commitment than declaring a drunken promise at midnight.

Perhaps a deeper way to consider personal growth and life changes is to consider:

          What is your open question?

          How is your current lifestyle helping or hindering your efforts to answer it?

          What do you want your biographer to select as the theme of your life?

Perhaps no one can clearly identify the open question in a life currently being lived. It’s sure to grow and change over time. What we can do is consider how we’d like to answer that open question and invite others into our lives.

I want the answer to my open question to be strongly rooted in:

Empathy, not Hate

Building, not Destruction

And all forms of Artistic Expression.

Posted in Creativity, Jennifer, MFA, Nonfiction, Reading, SCBWI, VCFA MFA WCYA, Writing, Young Adult Books | Tagged , , | Comments Off on The Open Question

You Snooze, You Lose

waking up whiteI recently started reading Waking Up White And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. This book was recommended during an incredible VCFA WCYA lecture by Tom Birdseye called “Fish Talks Water,” which discussed white privilege and the importance of understanding the water you swim in, including its systemic racism. I highly recommend the lecture and the book, both of which bravely share personal stories and pose challenging questions.

Here’s an example of one question from Waking Up White, which resonated with me:

What values and admonitions did you learn in your family? Think about education, work, lifestyle, money, expression of emotions and so forth. Try making a list of ten principles, values, and unspoken beliefs . . . Now consider what conclusions you drew about people who did not appear to follow your family’s belief system.

The family slogan that sums up the beliefs I was raised with:

You Snooze, You Lose.

Literally, this slogan meant if you slept in and missed breakfast, no food would be saved for you. It extended to apply to showing up late to any meal or family gathering. No one would wait for you, and if the food ran out, too bad.

From this one slogan, I can list five core values that raised several hard-working generations of German-American Catholics.

  1. Be responsible for yourself.
  2. Be on time and considerate of others.
  3. Hard work will earn you what you need and / or want.
  4. No one else is going to give you a handout.
  5. If you’re lazy, you deserve the consequences.

These are all values I hope to instill in my daughter. They helped shape me into the person I am today. Yet, as I look back at my life, I can now see the unspoken caveats to this family slogan as well.

  1. There is no acknowledgement of the possibility that you could work your very hardest and still fail due to factors outside of your control or a rigged system. And if you do fail, a horrible realization follows: you might be deserving of that failure and its consequences.

This lesson was a tough one to learn as I faced a divorce I couldn’t fix no matter how hard I tried.

  1. There is no acknowledgement of the fact that one person cannot really see or understand how hard someone else is working or what unique challenges he may face. Judging someone as lazy and deserving of his situation because of a perceived failure is not only unfair, it may in fact be racist.

This lesson is one I still struggle with. Empathy is the answer, and an understanding that not everyone has the same goals, the same challenges, or the same approach to problem solving as I do.

  1. There is no acknowledgement of the fact that not everyone begins life on a level playing field. A college education, for example, might be an assumed expectation in one family and an impossible dream in another family.

This issue is the one that feels too big for any one person to conquer alone. Systemic racism cannot be erased without a systemic change in beliefs and behavior.

The first half of the challenge is being aware of these negative biases that were silently passed down to me along with the very positive values this slogan was intended to produce. The second, and exponentially larger, challenge is what to do about it. That’s the one I’m still working on.


Posted in Jennifer, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on You Snooze, You Lose