Monday, October 31, 2011

Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore"

"But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore -
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking `Nevermore.'"

--From Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven

Go with us here. It's Halloween. We're also participating in Juliana Brandt's Warm Fuzzies Blogfest. . Although we had our responses posted in a sidebar by last Friday as requested, that didn't give any of you the opportunity to weigh in with any of your comments. So today we are transitioning those responses out of sidebar-land and into a real post. A real post that is also a multi-post as the Swaggers weigh in to the question for the first week: How do you broach the subject of being a writer to other people who aren't authors?

Before we list the Swaggers responses, at least one of us has had the pleasure of visiting every single blog participating in the Warm Fuzzies Blogfest. This Swagger is blown away by the creativity and energy of these fellow bloggers. Obviously, these blogs are the brain children of writers. Not New York Times best-selling authors, but writers who feel the calling of language and yearn to create something beautiful with it. And do.

And by far the majority opinion of the participants in this blogfest seems to be one of consternation over broaching the subject. (And that includes some Swaggers too.) Why? Because these writers seem to be empowering others to determine their self worth. Now here we go, trying to tie in the above quote to the issue at hand in the spirit of Halloween. Isn't looking to others to validate what we do, sort of like looking to the raven for wisdom?

If we can't summon that sure-fire belief from within, won't we just drive ourselves mad trying to find approval from others?

And now, rightly or wrongly, here's how the Swaggers deal with the situation.

Kim: I do a lot of volunteer work as a Girl Scout leader and service unit director. Sometimes that seems easier for people to understand. If I'm talking to someone who I think won't approve of a "writer" who doesn't have a best-seller on the shelves, I revert to my glut of volunteer work. Everyone gets that!

Melissa: I am very proud to call myself a writer/author and love to share that fact with others. I was a closet writer for many years so sharing and owning my writing title now is very important to me. The best response I've heard from telling others that I am a writer is, "Me too!" There are SO many of us out there! It seems to be one of those things that people don't openly admit unless someone else does - which I do - so it is neat to see others open up.

Jon: I gave up a long time ago really worrying about people’s reaction when I told them I was a writer. I used to freak out answering that question, because other than a few small things, I didn't have any publishing credits and the next question from them was inevitably, “Oh, what have you written that I may have read?” So now when people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m a writer and when they ask what I write, I generally respond by saying, “Words!” Then I just go with the flow of the conversation.

Juliet: Though I have published articles, short stories and a picture book, I still feel a twinge of self-doubt when I call myself a writer. And I think there is an additional er, um moment when I explain that I write for kids. But there isn't much any of us can do to combat people's generalizations or assumptions about what it means to be a writer - or a chef - or a supermodel, etc. Each identifier is accompanied by some stereotype that can only be dissolved through deeper associations. So mostly, I just go with supermodel instead of writer...

Regina: "So do you do anything outside of the home?"
"Actually, I'm a writer."
"Do you have a book?"
"Well, I have some manuscripts I'm working on and I have a poem published in a children's book."
"Oh, so you write for kids?"
"So that's not that big of stretch from raising kids, huh? Not rocket science, ya know."

This conversation ended as I excused myself to the open bar at my husband's holiday work party.

Kathy: I rarely offer the title Writer unless asked, "What do you do?" because I always get that same question, "What have you published?" Earlier this month a friend in the publishing business introduced me to a charming woman. "Kathy's a writer," he said.
"Oh that's wonderful! What books have you published?"
"None have been published, but I've written many."
Egg on both faces, yes. But damn it! I AM a writer & I don't care who knows it!

Graziella: Recently I attended a class reunion and retired teachers' luncheon, and on both occasions I was asked, "What do you do for fun these days?" I think I shocked everybody.

"I have a book coming out. I am a writer. Well, it is not always fun, but yes, I do enjoy writing. I Iove taking writing classes and workshops, improving the craft, and meeting new, interesting people. I want to continue to learn and grow as a person and as a writer."

Besides that, it is a great excuse for getting out of full-time babysitting the grandkids.

The Swaggers

Friday, October 28, 2011

Middle Grade Highlight Might Be Rocky Horror

Everyone knows that middle school can be awful, right? I mean, when you look back at your own life, I bet most of us wouldn't rank that period after grade school but before high school as a highlight. Weren't we all trying to muddle through those confusing early teen years the best we could? And sometimes the results weren't pretty.

But other times, these new teens catch you by surprise and take your breath away with their still-exuberant love of life. We all know that when teenagers find something they like (i.e., video games, TV, text messaging) they tend to spend as much time as they can get away with doing it. Because despite what they say, they're still kids. Kids want to have fun and aren't afraid to demand it.

So when six of my Cadette Girl Scouts decided they wanted to create a seven-minute radically altered version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show to perform continuously at Lake Farmpark's beloved Haunted Hayride, I was skeptical. This project would be the service component for these girls to earn the Silver Award, the highest award girls at this rank can earn.

We need boys to pull this off, I told them. And we could use a few more girls too. We have to develop a G-rated story, choreograph it, make our sound track, build a set, design costumes, pull together props, and practice, practice, practice.

Sounds like fun, they said.

They recruited boys to help. Other girls followed. They came to practice after practice all summer long. I witnessed bursts of creative genius from all of them. Most astoundingly, they showed up for every performance.

Aren't you bored yet? I asked them after the 55th show.

Nope! they all said.

And it was obvious they weren't. They chattered and commiserated and discovered things about themselves and their audiences. They helped one another with make-up, gave kudos where kudos were due, consoled when mistakes happened. They joked and teased and flirted. We were the group kicked out of Kirtland, Ohio's Lake Farmpark every night because the kids dawdled over their end-of-the-evening pizza, wanting to hang out together just a few minutes longer.

I'm not going to sugar-coat the difficulty of keeping 13 middle-graders on task. I supervised everything and spent a huge chunk of time on this project.

Still...the kids surprised the hell out of me. They made a commitment and stuck to it. They created a memorable show that they never tired of performing. They worked together as a team.

And when they look back on their middle-grade years, they'll probably remember this show...fondly. It might even be a middle school highlight.

Kim Van Sickler

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Agony of Waiting

I am sure it is not the first time that a book’s release was postponed…but why did it have to happen to me, that is, why my book?! My editor informed me of the delay, and told me it was due to a problem with the presses, something about the colors running "hot" and they were trying to correct it.

Well, I guess these things happen, but I can’t help feeling like a girl who has been told that Santa had an accident and cannot deliver her presents for a while.

I have to be patient and tell myself that this delay will make my joy even greater, when finally I hold my first book in my hands. In the meantime, I keep busy preparing for the launch of my first born, named Dancing on Grapes.

Despite these setbacks, I am very excited that I gave my first reading of the yet-to-be-released picture book (author’s copy) at the Warner Library in Tarrytown, NY, and at Main Street Sweets (home-made ice cream parlor) in Tarrytown.

Later this fall, on Sunday, November 13, at 4:30 p.m., I am hosting a party at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, in Sleepy Hollow, NY, to celebrate the launching of the book.

All Swaggers are invited too. Hope to have more dates to share soon.

Graziella Pacini Buonanno

Sunday, October 23, 2011

I'm Seeing Stars!


My debut novel, My Beginning, won the young adult title of the 2011 Hollywood Halloween Book Festival! I just got back from the awards ceremony which took place in Hollywood, California on Friday, October 21st - just two weeks after our Swagger family reunion!

With award winning novel and certificate!

The journey started with a couple of days of exploring the nostalgic west Hollywood, including taking a trek up to Griffith Observatory, mingling with crowds in front of the Kodak theater, stepping on stars on Hollywood Boulevard, and enjoying some exotic beverages and meals.

Someday, this star will be mine!

Friday afternoon I readied for an evening at the famous Roosevelt Hotel where the awards ceremony took place.The Roosevelt Hotel towers above Hollywood Boulevard in the heart of West Hollywood amongst many other historical landmarks. When you walk in, you are immediately whisked back to another era. That old tinsel town vibe is everywhere.

In lobby of Roosevelt Hotel

The Halloween Book Awards ceremony was on the 2nd floor in the Academy Room where I was warmly welcomed by Bruce, the event coordinator and founder of the Halloween Book Festival. I was treated to delicious hors d' oeuvres and cocktails as I mingled with other authors and participants.

When the ceremony began, Bruce talked a little bit about the Halloween Book Festival and how it all got started. Here is a little blurb from the evening:

"Tonight's awards ceremony marks the culmination of years of hard work by our authors and publishers...We are very proud to honor the winners, runner-ups and honorable mentions of one of our top book publishing festivals...less than five percent of our festival entries are ever honored with recognition by our staff...Tonight's winners truly represent the best of what current book publishing has to offer."
There were ten winners in total along with several honorable mentions and runner-ups. My Beginning was the Young Adult title winner - and this was its first contest! Whilst Bruce was introducing me, he said that My Beginning is Motion Picture Worthy! What a compliment!

Giving a speech at the podium.

I told a little bit about my book, then thanked my family and publisher Janice Phelps Williams for being so supportive and encouraging. After all of the speeches and awards had been given, we had a press shoot and interview with a couple of reporters. I felt like a true celebrity!!! I made some great new friends and had a wonderful time getting to know some of the other authors.

Getting paparazzi'd!

I'm truly honored to receive this award. It is all so surreal and hasn't completely sunken in yet. I can't believe I spoke at a podium... On a microphone... In front of a ton of people... In Hollywood... At a famous hotel... AWESOME!!!

All in all, it was a very successful trip - a dream come true! I'm so proud to be a Halloween Book Award winner.

Thank you Swagger family for always believing in me. I love you guys! :)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Finding Your Cave

In my bio, I claim to be a reluctant writer, and I firmly believe that’s a true statement.

I’ve read more than a couple of books dealing with the writing process, and while there are many different suggestions for developing your craft, most seem to have two common suggestions: find a space to write, and write something every day. Well, I agree that for most people this is probably great advice, but sadly for me it doesn’t quite work that way.

When we moved to Lake Arrowhead, my ever-supporting wife suggested that I take the whole area on the second level of our house, previously used as a game room and make it my writing cave. I’d have a stunning view of the lake, be surrounded by inspirational books, paintings, and general nick-nacks from my past writing retreats, and therefore should have no problem penning many best sellers.

So I set up my gorgeous desk (I do love my desk: distressed wood, wrought iron, with a weathered leather writing surface) facing the lake, moved my superbly comfortable office chair into place, spent literally weeks deciding on a color for the walls (even researched color psychology on the net so I could choose one that aided in creativity), removed all the possible outside distractions, purchased an office armoire where we could keep all of life’s day-to-day minutia hidden from view (i.e. bills), then we stood back and admired my cave. It was perfect. I could almost feel my muse taking up residence in the reading chair by the window.

We moved into this house nineteen months ago and I’ve done some writing since then: finished my first full-length novel, started another new one, dug into one that I set aside a few years earlier, even wrote some poetry. Trouble is, I don’t sit down every day and write. In fact, I can easily decipher the work I’ve done on days that I did sit down and make myself write as opposed to the work I did when I felt that unconscious urge to craft letters into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, blah, blah, blah. (Actually, I rarely use punctuation and I barely know when a sentence should end and a new one should begin – KVS edited this.) Sadly, the urge to write doesn't come along too often, so consequently all the writing I’ve done could’ve been done in the course of a month.

Oh, and my gorgeous, inspirational, cave has never been used for writing. Nope, not even once! Although I have sat at the desk a couple of times… to catch my breath after running up the outside stairs.

I guess my point is, that it’s okay if you don’t follow conventions, and it’s okay if you don’t write every day, and yes, it’s okay if you don’t have a cave. (By the way, I have done all my writing sitting at the dining room table in a chair that long ago lost any semblance of padding that faces the kitchen instead of the lake.) I may not write every day, but I never stop thinking about writing. I do envy the people who can get words on paper on a regular basis, but I no longer beat myself up because I can’t. I just try and make the most of it when it happens.

Two of my favorite books on the writing process:
Stephen King – On Writing.
Anne Lamott – Bird by Bird.

Jon Egan

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Becoming a Writer

I wrote my first poem when I was five. I pounded it out on the keys of Dad’s old manual Underwood typewriter. It was sixteen words long, and I was hooked on the Power and Magic of Words. After that, I used the old Underwood every chance I got. I wrote poems and plays. A few of my fellow fourth graders performed one of my plays in class.

I was 23 when I mailed my first submission. My first rejection letter arrived soon after. I still have it. I’ve saved all my rejections. Early on, most were form letters. Eventually, many of them gave advice and criticism. And more recently, editors have asked for more of my work and to see revisions.

I kept writing. I wrote poems, short stories, and novels. One short story won a prize from the Children’s Writer in 1996. Another won a prize from them in 2011.

In 2002, I received my first acceptance letter, my first sale. It was for a poem (My Face), published in February, 2005 in Ladybug magazine.

While those contest prizes and that acceptance letter helped to validate my struggles, they did not make me a Writer. Seeing my poem in Ladybug was a dream-come-true, but that didn’t make me a Writer either. What makes me a Writer is all the time I spend doing what I love, choosing the words to put on the page, structuring them into sentences and stanzas and paragraphs.

I’ve been a Writer since I was five.

Kathy Cannon Wiechman

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Workshops - Always a Learning Experience - Even for the Teacher

About three times a year I get together with a group of writers at the homestead of the founders of Highlights for Children magazine. The publication’s been around since 1946, so it’s fostered the careers of a great many writers. These days, in addition to the wonderful magazine, a book division, a web presence, and a lot more, Highlights has a non-profit side that provides dozens of workshops each year with the aim of improving the offerings of what’s being written for kids ( ). That’s how I met this group of people who’ve since dubbed us the Swaggers; we gathered two years ago for a workshop on writing novels for teenagers. It was obviously a success, because most of the group returned for a second round earlier this month.

I was technically still “the teacher” this time, but I didn’t feel like one at all. I always learn a lot from these workshops, but this time was particularly enriching. There’s been a lot of success from this group since the last time we met: a published novel, a published picture book, a number of projects that are ready to submit. Listening and participating in group discussions of the work was enlightening and uplifting. Can’t wait to do it again.

Here are my five favorite TV characters of all time:

Barney Fife
Ed Norton
Bugs Bunny
Lisa Simpson
George Castanza

Rich Wallace

Friday, October 14, 2011

Finding a support network

Some people are really good at networking.  They use their natural charm to fill strangers with sunshine and uplifting theme songs.  These people show up for networking events wearing just the right outfits. They make jokes that everyone laughs at and they laugh at everyone’s jokes. When they tilt their luminous heads and say goodnight, the whole room aches to follow them home.

Then there are writers.

On the whole, writers have a reputation for being awkward in social situations. After all, sitting at a desk all day creating alternate realities while wearing sweatpants and occasionally breaking to scrounge for non-molding leftovers in one’s refrigerator, doesn’t exactly build social skills.

So when writers get together, it’s a little like assembling an assortment of mismatched dolls at a tea party.  Everyone sizes each other up, wondering what they could possibly have in common with the others. There is shy Barbie whose deeply rooted fantasies have been channeled into fabulous sci-fi novels with badass female main characters. Sitting next to her might be gentle Madame Alexander. She’s mined the landscape of her experience and memory to weave together prose so gorgeous it makes your teeth hurt to read it. Often, there will be a stuffed animal type. This writer/doll pours out the content of their heart with such skill that the reader can actually see their glistening guts and throbbing heart.

Also, sometimes there will be a guy at this tea party.

This is less common in groups of children’s book writers, but it does happen. The male doll might possess any of the aforementioned doll personalities or he might be rocking his own unique G.I. Nerd or Don’t Care Bear.  But when these writer dolls sit down for imaginary tea and invisible crumpets served on plastic plates, the thing they all have in common is their predictable discomfort at being surrounded by strange dolls who they should “get to know.”

Two years ago, I went to one of those tea parties. It was a retreat of sorts – a few days of sharing work and participating in writing exercises. It turned out to be an altogether pleasant experience. I learned a few useful tips about craft, chatted awkwardly with a big New York editor and made polite small talk with the other writer/dolls.

So I was a little perplexed when one of them suggested an “alumni workshop.”

“Hey,” she grinned.  “Let’s all get together and do this again!”

“Yes!” Another chimed in.  “How about two years from now?”

I nodded agreement, thinking, I’m up for it, but more than likely I’ll never see these dolls again. I flew home from the tea party relieved to return to my messy desk and the half-eaten box of pop tarts hidden on a nearby shelf.

But it wasn’t too long before e-mails poured in from the other dolls. We swapped Christmas cards. I slept in one’s living room on an out-of-town trip and visited another just to see her new baby and eat a fabulous lunch at her favorite local restaurant.  One of the dolls, whose writing makes me drool with joy, took me under her wing by critiquing my work and suggesting clever tips to improve it. Another joined my online critique group.

I learned things about the other writer/dolls that made it clear we did have things in common and even if we didn’t, I could appreciate the difference with respect and sometimes awe. I learned their stories.

Two years came and went and it was time for that “alumni workshop.” We crossed the country on planes and in cars to get back to the place where we’d originally met, under the careful nurturing of Kent Brown and the Highlights/Boyds Mills Press family.

And the magical thing about the second time around was that, after two years of building relationships, of shedding our uncertainties and tearing the plastic from our skins…we were no longer dolls.

Now we were ourselves, messy, imperfect and infinitely accessible. This time, we shared and wrote without fear. We laughed, cried, drank wine and leaned against one another, rejoicing in the small triumphs of words put together to form flawless images or evoke faultless emotions. A visiting editor remarked, “This is a really unique group! You guys seem to have such a lovely rapport!”

And we did--we do.

This is more than a pleasure. It’s a gift in a world where writing is solitary and sometimes competitive (even for those who write for children.) We need others to lift us out of the dark places and battle self-doubt. We need them to tell us when the work isn’t good enough and help us to make it better. We need their stories to assist us in shaping our own. True camaraderie is powerful in its ability to uplift and instill drive, but it’s often hard to come by.

I won’t stop donning my doll attire and attending tea parties. Networking is a necessary activity in publishing.  But I’ll carry inside me the knowledge that, somewhere in the Pennsylvania hills, is a room of writers who have my heart and have my back. And that kind of knowledge can bring a writer the kind of confidence that just might help them to leave sunshine and echoes of theme songs in their wake.

Juliet Bond

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Swagger Swag Giveaway

We're proud to launch our group writing blog for writers and readers and we'd like you to be a part of it!

All you have to do is share the following link:
somewhere on the internet - on your blog, Facebook, Twitter, etc., advertising our site AND follow us.

Then, leave a comment below with proof that you shared one of these links. If you tweeted it, attach your twitter url; if you posted it on FB, comment with your FB url ; if you blogged it, include your blog link, etc. To be entered in our drawing to receive a prize, you have to include the web address to the shared link in a comment.

What are the prizes, you ask? We NOW have thirteen of them. That means we'll have THIRTEEN winners. The first name drawn picks their first choice and so on:

-critique of the first ten pages of an MG or YA manuscript by Kristin Wolden Nitz, author of Suspect

-critique of your PB by Juliet Bond, author of Sam's Sister

-critique of your PB by Graziella Pacini Buonanno, author of Dancing on Grapes

-one copy of War & Watermelon, Rich Wallace's new MG book about Woodstock

-two copies of Kickers Book One: The Ball Hogs paperback by Rich Wallace

-two copies of My Beginnings, Melissa Kline's sci-fi debut YA novel

-a first-year anthology of short story contest winners from the Center for Writing Excellence (featuring a story by Kim Van Sickler)

-a Creating Characters that Speak Workbook by Center for Writing Excellence's Director, Janie Sullivan

-one copy of Dancing on Grapes, the picture book debut by Graziella Pacini Buonanno

-one copy of Sam's Sister, a hardback picture book about open adoption by Juliet Bond

-one copy of a Chicken Soup for the Soul (featuring a poem by Juliet Bond)

Giveaway is extended to Tuesday, November 15, 2011. Please make sure we can contact you to send you your prize.

Thanks for supporting Swagger. We think you're gonna like the diversity and depth our blog plans to offer.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Can't Please Everyone

I think I'm in danger of becoming a milquetoast editor of my own writing.

This is distressing.

I've arrived at the crossroads of being able to see the POV of whomever criticizes my manuscripts. But rather than enlightening me, this awareness is my latest source of confusion as I try to revise my MG mermaid novel a final time before I send it out into the world.

And nowhere is my latest revision bothering me more than the all-important first scene. I agonize over it. I need to capture the reader's attention. I need to make that all-important promise to the reader. I need to start the journey in my hero's world. I need to provide an opportunity for the reader to get to know my MC. And now...I need to reconcile totally different opinions on how I should do this.

What do you do when you get contradictory advice and you see both POV's?

My critique group loved my opening. "OMG, Kim! This is so good! I'm totally hooked. YOU NAILED IT!" they told me in our last critique session. I left the meeting elated and psyched about my chances with the agent who was coming to the Northern Ohio SCBWI Conference. The agent that I paid to get a critique from. Maybe she'd love it too, and would either ask to see my book or tell me it wasn't something she was interested in, but that it was a great start. She'd tell me that some other agent would love it.

But that's not what happened at all. She hated it. She ripped it apart and said my MC's "interiority" was merely a mask for me to tell and not show.

Oh no. After I picked myself off the floor and dragged a friend to the bar to down a much-needed drink, I fixated on the critique. "Yes," I told my friend. "I see what she's saying. I'm going to start the story at school and hammer home my point by showing how my MC goes to great pains to keep any friends from ever going to her house."

And the next day that's exactly what I did. I rewrote the first scene entirely and much of the next two chapters as well. I brought my revisions with me to a writing workshop I attended with The Swaggers the following week. "I want to read to you my revised first two chapters. I got this great advice from an agent and I took it and here's the result." I read the new opening to them, expecting congratulations on churning out an even better product.

But that didn't happen. They thought it was a very average opening. "Read us the opening the agent hated," they told me. So I did. They loved it. LOVED IT!

Then they spent the next twenty minutes trying to convince me to go back to it.

One agent versus eleven writers. I respect all of their opinions. But I guess I gotta go with the majority. Like one of the writers told me, maybe the agent had a bad day. Maybe she'd just read a bunch of crappy manuscripts before she picked up mine. Or maybe she was wrong. She's only human too, and just as capable of making mistakes as the rest of us.

I hope that the agents and editors who read it next agree with my writer friends. Fingers crossed. But I also need to take a stand. I like the opening the agent hated. I'm going to stick with it. Even if I hear back, "Why don't you change that opening..."

Instead, I'll address the agent's criticisms another way. I'll flesh out scenes for maximum impact and review my manuscript to make sure it's showing plenty of action. So does that still make me a milquetoast?

Kim Van Sickler

Thursday, October 6, 2011

From the desk of Graziella Pacini Buonanno...

Introducing... Dancing on Grapes, my picture book debut! It is a true story of me as a young girl in Tuscany, and how I overcame my fear of heights to participate in my family's annual grape-stomping party on the roof of our wine-making shed. 

The book is published by Boyds Mills Press and available at: 

I will read my book on October 21st at 3 pm at the Warner Library in Tarrytown, NY.

Mary-Alice Moore, editorial director of Book Publishing for Boyds Mills Press (left), presents Graziella Pacini Buonanno with her new picture book, hot off the presses.

Stay tuned for more from The Swaggers! :)