Monday, February 27, 2012


Shakespeare’s immortal words from ROMEO AND JULIET: What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

How much time does a writer spend deciding on a character’s name? Is it as tough as naming a child? Did JK Rowling consider other names for Harry Potter? Claude? Or Marvin? Now that we know Harry, can we imagine him by any other name?

I’ve been told not to dwell too long on a name because an editor might change it anyway. For me, there’s more to it than that. If I want to do justice to a character’s story, I need to get inside his head, and the right name can make that easier.

In one of my historical fiction novels, my protagonist’s family history is integral to the plot. Her ancestors have lived in West Virginia since it was part of the Virginia colony. The family name had to be appropriate to the time and place. And I knew it would help my writing if the name evoked something in me.

The girl’s grandpa had a brother who died in battle, and Grandpa is a key character in the story. When I thought about Grandpa and his brother, I remembered a pair of brothers who lived nearby when I was a kid, Jimmy and Sammy Kent.

Jimmy was older, and Sammy followed him everywhere. Jimmy often tried to ditch Sammy, especially when girls were around. Once, as Jimmy hurried up the street, trying to outdistance his brother, Sammy fell and skinned his knee. Jimmy was beside his brother in an instant, comforting him. He took Sammy’s hand and led him home to take care of the injury. I didn’t know these brothers well, but that image remained with me.
So I gave Grandpa in my story Jimmy & Sammy’s last name. It made him real to me, and I was more able to believe in the brothers’ relationship. Now that it’s written, I wouldn’t mind if an editor wanted to change the name. It already served its purpose.

Kathy Cannon Wiechman

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Thinking like a (wo)man

The other night my hubby and I were relaxing in front of the TV watching Blade Runner in real-time. We were lying on the couch like slugs in our sweats. He was cuddling our 50-pound dog. We passed a sleeve of Do-si-do Girl Scout cookies back and forth. A commercial for came on followed by one for eHarmony. 

In my not unusual way of saying exactly what pops into my head at the same time it's popping, I made some joke about the types of things his ad might say that would definitely not attract women.

And I hurt his feelings. I felt terrible about it.

To make it up to him, I crafted a personal ad describing him in a more flattering light. I wrote it with an eye towards highlighting his positive qualities that I thought women would find desirable.

Handsome white male with piercing baby blue eyes is looking for a woman with whom to work-out, cuddle on the leather couch in front of the big screen TV, walk his black Lab mix, and eat candlelit dinners. Easily shares details about his job managing the Ohio office of a nationwide engineering and consulting firm, but eager to hear about your day. Great listener. Likes to take care of his lady in every way.

What woman wouldn't follow up with a guy like that! I thought. I sent it to him to show him that he did indeed have great qualities that women want. That I want.

Then he returned the favor. It was an eye opener. It wasn't anything like what I would have written about myself. Even if I was trying to write from a male POV.

As I read it over again, the difference between what's important to men versus what's important to women really sank in. Even for me, a woman who wouldn't describe herself as stereotypically female (ex: shopping is my idea of torture and I think most gossip is mean-spirited and don't partake.) Here's what my husband viewed as very attractive:

Beautiful hazel-eyed lady with an 18-year-old's body! A bit rough around the edges at times, but very loving and forgiving; loves to be massaged and even allows her man to watch action movies and sports on a fairly regular basis.

Try it with your significant other. Don't belabor it. Take no more than five minutes and write a personal ad about your partner. Have him/her do the same. Compare the two perspectives. Marvel at how men and women really do notice and value different things.

Let me know how it worked out for you.

Kim Van Sickler

Monday, February 20, 2012


By Juliet C. Bond

            I've written two short stories and one poem that were published in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series.  I know, I know.  This particular series has become the source of mockery for many “serious” writers but in its defense, the books sell like hotcakes.  Stores can’t keep them on their shelves and for every ailment or interest, there is a Chicken Soup for the Soul response.  A few years ago, I walked into my chiropractor’s office and noticed her copy of Chicken Soup for the Chiropractor’s Soul.  My husband was given a Chicken Soup for the Teacher’s Soul, by a devoted student and my son cherishes his copy of Chicken Soup: Teens Talk Middle School. 

            The success in these publications lies in two main techniques.  First, the publisher targets unique topics and groups to create content for and market to.  People like to buy books that are tailored to their life experiences.  Second, and this is the most important, the stories make us feel our hearts swell a little bigger with their good news.

            In a world where the popular newsroom direct is, “If it bleeds it leads,” we all hear bad news in an almost constant loop.  As a result, most of us suffer from a profound lack of good news – of stories that lift the ache from our shoulders and remind us that kindness and human triumph exists. 

            And there is something else.  In a recent interview with the amazing Joy Cowley, she noted that,

           I found that as often as I opened a book I could enter new lives!  Whoever said you could only 
           live once wasn’t a reader!

She made me think about how often I immerse myself in the new life of a character in a book.  My favorite characters are brave where I would be shy, they act when I would be paralyzed, they say just the right thing at the right time to the right villain, their adventures are ones I would be too careful to ever engage in, but they generously offer me the opportunity to travel the world, fall in love and fight injustice without ever leaving the comfort of my couch.

Oh!  To be Katniss from The Hunger Games, with her perfect shot, her fearless commitment to justice and the way she almost rabidly protects her mother and sister!! Not to mention Katniss's juicy challenge of deciding which of her two love interests to choose from – the sensitive, caring one or the sensitive, caring one.

 Pure joy for a generation of gals hooked on “Twilight’s” Bella who cowers in corners while her dangerous boyfriends resist their urge to eat her. 

Which reminds me of a quote by the writer and activist, Muriel Rukeyser.

            The world is made up of stories, not atoms.

            I’d always wondered about my stratified interest in social work and fiction writing.  I think it was the nature of stories in both professions that drew forth my passion.  Ideally, a good story transforms the main character.  That’s true in fiction and in real life crises where people need intervention to aid them towards a new beginning. 

Yep, the power of a great tale is firmly centered on the magical, arduous transformation within a flawed person with limited potential.  And isn’t that what we all are? 

That’s why the Chicken Soup for the Soul stories work so well.  In only a few words, the imperfect reader is introduced to a believable, relatable main character.  Then, we are led through tragedy, despair, lost hope, unexpected solution and finally, a glorious, satisfying, triumph.

It’s so pleasurable it’s like... chicken soup for the soul.


Thursday, February 16, 2012


What I am about to confess will not come as a surprise to anyone who really knows me or even to a few who have met me only casually. It is something that embarrasses & confounds me, but since I am unable to control it, I’ll confess.

I cry.  

And I don’t just tear up at funerals. My family says my nose gets red first, before I weep, sob, & blubber until my voice dissolves into hiccups. Snot has been involved. And it isn’t just at funerals. I have cried at weddings, graduations, parades, ball games, & dance recitals. I cry at movies and shed tears across pages of books. My husband teases, “What’s the matter? You have something in your eye?” when the only thing in my eye is tears.

I cry when I’m happy, sad, proud, angry, or witness anything that stirs me. I cry for the victors and for the defeated. I cry at partings & reunions. Apparently, my emotions have a direct line to my tear ducts.
I have come by this trait genetically. Mom was a crier, but so was Dad. There are some who find man tears a sign of weakness, but to me they are a sign of caring. If Dad talked about his family, his home town, or his Army crew, tears gathered in his eyes. It was that emotion/tear duct connection that we share.

I have been an avid reader since I first learned how, but in recent years I’ve done a lot of manuscript critiquing, and a good manuscript must pass the tear test with me. If a story doesn’t make me cry at some point, the author failed to pull me in emotionally. The characters didn’t make me care.

Bruce Coville once said, “A story should contain at least: one belly laugh, one honest tear, and one gasp.” Good test, Bruce. But if you want me to love your book, it should leave me wiping my eyes and blowing my nose. Hubby should ask if I have something in my eye.

What was the last book that made you cry?

Kathy Cannon Wiechman

Monday, February 13, 2012

Guess what I did last weekend?

 I followed Gina's advice and had me a BURN.

 I took three large Highlights canvas bags, from the Chautauqua Conferences and the Founders Workshops attended through the years, and filled them up with hundreds of pages. They were old, rough copies of manuscripts, scribbled notes, rejection letters, used up journals, etc., that were taking up space in my bursting file cabinets, and no longer served any purpose. I loaded them in the trunk of my car and brought them to our house in Northwest Connecticut. While my family went off skiing at Butternut Mountain, I leisurely fed the pages into the fire.

I cannot tell you how good it felt. I was completely at peace. While snacking and enjoying mugs of steaming coffee, I had time to muse over my luck at encountering The Highlights Foundation and its wonderful people: staff, teachers, editors, and most of all, Us, the writers/students/new friends. And I was filled with joy, appreciation, and deep gratitude.

Graziella Pacini Buonanno

Friday, February 10, 2012

Group Poetry

Twice a month I attend a group poetry therapy session. I know what you are thinking, poetry therapy? In a group setting?

Basically we come together and with the help of a facilitator we write poetry. The prompts are poems that we are given to open up our writing brain. It is a pretty amazing experience.
At the last meeting our facilitator gave us a poem by Leonard Nathan entitled So? It is a poem about accepting who you are not and who you will never become but also about who you are. We were encouraged to write our own version by following the format of his poem. It is admittance of your weaknesses, the shortcomings that you have imposed on yourself. But also the acceptance of your strengths.

And it was liberating. I encourage you to do the same. Who have you always aspired to be? What have you hoped to do but know it is impossible? By writing my version of this poem, I let go some of those dreams and accepted who I am right now.

So?                                                                             So?
Leonard Nathan                                                       Regina Gort

So you aren't Tolstoy or Saint Francis                   So you aren't Jacques Cousteau or Mary Oliver
or even a well-known singer                                  or even the Queen of England,
of popular songs and will never read Greek            will probably never again read Tolstoy or
or speak French fluently,                                     speak Japanese fluently.
will never see something no one else                    You will never fly to the moon or discover
has seen before through a lens                             the missing link.
or with the naked eye.                                         You have been given the ability to love and   
You've been given just one life                              receive love.
in this world that matters                                     and more than that you can look yourself     
and upon which every other life                            straight in the eye
somehow depends as long as you live,                 and honestly say that you matter.
and also given the costly gifts of hunger,
choice, and pain with which to raise
a modest shrine of meaning.

Regina Gort

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

-------Savoring the Little Things

Troop 71009 standing in front of  Raccoon Roost.
I took my Girl Scout troop of eighth graders to a camp in Trumbull County, Ohio, over the weekend. We were fortunate to have mild weather: temperatures in the 40s during the day and sinking to the mid-20s at night. Our cabin, built in the 1950s, was the original caretaker's cabin. It was constructed with a wood-burning stove for the sole heat source and no indoor plumbing. We had to stoke the stove every 2.5 hours,  heat any water we wanted to clean dishes with, and prepare three basins of water (from containers I brought from home) to clean up after each meal. The first basin's hot water and soap was for washing, the second's bleach/water combination was for sanitizing, and the third's water was for rinsing. Cleaned dishes went in dunk bags and air dried.

Amy stokes the wood-burning stove.

Carli & Tina wash dishes.

The girls planned the menu and I tweaked it. I decided we'd make a dump cake for dessert Friday night and a hashbrown-sausage-egg casserole bake for breakfast Saturday--in a Dutch oven, a cast-iron pot that you heat with coals and that I had learned to use in theory and training, but not practice.

Carli, Megan W., & Kathryn learn that Dutch oven cooking isn't quick. 
Does it surprise anyone that most of our time and energy was devoted to keeping the cabin heated, cleaning up after meals, and trying to cook with the Dutch oven?

There wasn't much grumbling. Any sissies I might have had in my troop dropped out long ago. The girls know me, and accepted the fact that we spent all Saturday morning trying to follow the recipe before admitting defeat and popping the dutch oven sans lid in the beat-up indoor oven so we could finally eat breakfast at 12:30 pm.

Bethany's soup on the stove complimented our grilled cheese in the pie irons for lunner after our late brunch.
That afternoon we were working on requirements for a couple of Cadette awards. One of the prompts was, "I'm glad I'm alive because..." The girls gave some thoughtful answers. Then Bethany blew us all away with hers. "I'm glad I'm alive for all the little things," she said.

We pressed her. "What do you mean?"

She shrugged. "You know, all the things that take you by surprise as you're going about your life. You may not expect them and when they happen you sit back and go, "Whoa, that's so cool; and it really makes you think and appreciate that you're here to notice them."

 Tina gets 'em going.         
My turn.

Boom, boom, pow. Hammering the sign back in.

Blind trail.
Like the orange glow from the moon that transfixed us Friday night as we spent way too long squatting in the fire ring trying to heat our coals to cook our dump cake. Like the amazingly good percussion routine the girls spontaneously created with the lummi sticks they found in a corner of the cabin while they waited for one of their meals. And like the way one girl whispered heartfelt advice to another in the wee hours of the morning, when they thought everyone else was sleeping, about boys.

Our luxury sleeping accommodations.
The little things. The things that when they happen, you stop what you're doing for a minute to appreciate them. The things that when you recall them, they bring back that powerful feeling you had the first time. The things that make life worth living. Sometimes it takes a child to remind us jaded, over-worked adults of the wonder of the world. It's out there, just waiting for us to notice it.

Kim Van Sickler

Saturday, February 4, 2012

She did it Anyway

By Juliet C. Bond
In writing, as in most things, we take a leap of faith.  We gather up bits of ourselves, observations and old ghosts, and do our best to invite them in.  Then, surrounded by this motley crew of ideas and memories, we sculpt a series of scenes.  For me, the leap comes in sharing my stories.  This makes sense because the offerings are parts of ourselves.  To share these sacred dreams are a little like undressing in front of a mirror, behind which, stands a roomful of respected peers.
But we do it anyway.
We willingly shed our skins for others to cluck, fuss over and judge; believing our stories are worth the risk.
In, “Take Joy,” the prolific author, Jane Yolen writes,
Writing for a living is much easier than sitting in a therapist’s chair.  Cheaper too.  Authors get to parade their neurosis in public disguised as story.  If we are lucky, we get paid for doing it.  And we get applause as well.  As Kurt Vonnegut said, ‘Writers get to treat their mental illnesses every day.’
…That one’s writing goes out and touches someone else on that same level – thought differently- is one of the pieces of magic that attends to art.
On bad days, avoiding writing is like avoiding the mirror, never mind the peers.  It’s our own judgment that’s ultimately most damaging.  We cancel the therapy appointment with some lame excuse and watch an episode of “The Housewives of Beverly Hills,” instead.
But in the end it isn’t worth it.  If it’s our own judgment we are most afraid of, then that episode of “The Housewives,” definitely won’t be the cure.
So this is what I hope for myself and for all writers.
When I am most fearful, reluctant to attend the imaginary session.
I do it anyway.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


          If you read this blog, you know the Swagger Writers met at a Highlights Foundation workshop. Actually, I first met Rich Wallace at the HF Workshop at Chautauqua in 1999, and I took one of his HF Founders workshops in 2003. I met Jon Egan three years later at another workshop, and we all met up at Rich’s workshop in 2009. Why so many workshops? Why did I keep going back?
          I’m frugal. I clip coupons and shop for bargains, but when it comes to my writing, I want the best. For me, the HF workshops are that. I get questions answered and work critiqued. I get encouragement. I get treated as someone whose work matters. I come home with knowledge gained and notes on what to do next.
          Some who have never been to a HF workshop say they cost too much, but a bargain hunter like me has to look at what one gets for the price. I’ve gone to many one-day conferences that are cheaper, but there I am, one in a sea of participants. If I attend the night-before dinner, it costs extra. If I get a 15-minute critique, another extra fee. And, of course, there’s the cost of my hotel. If I want the most from it, it’s no longer inexpensive.
          At the Foundation’s workshops, all meals (cooked by chef extraordinaire Marcia Dunsmore, who makes my dietary restrictions taste fabulous!) are included. 
Gourmet meals are served at the Farmhouse when you attend a Highlight's Foundation workshop.
          My room (actually a cozy cabin in a gorgeous bucolic setting) is included. And the ratio of faculty to participants keeps me from feeling at sea.
Private cabins for sleeping and late-night writing.
            Rich’s workshops are not the only HF workshops I’ve been to. I attended ones with faculty like Joy Cowley, Patricia Gauch, & Peter Jacobi. These are experts, who know how to write & sell children’s literature, and they are willing and eager to share their knowledge. And they work one-on-one with each participant—& not just for a 15-minute critique.
            Since my first HF workshop in 1999, I have recommended the workshops to writer friends who might benefit from that one-on-one attention. One of those friends was Dave Richardson.
Kathy (back, fourth from left, and Dave Richardson, standing next to her), with other Highlight's workshop attendees.
Dave had already been published in Highlights magazine, and was a natural fit for the Chautauqua workshop in 2004. He talked to everyone there and made lasting impressions on many of them. One of those contacts led to his landing a job writing a book review column for Reading Today. 
          Another was Patti Gauch. The faculty for Patti’s HF workshop coming up this summer (Master's Class in Fiction Writing for Children & Young Adults, June 24-July 1) includes my friend Dave Richardson. It also includes special guests Joy Cowley & Peter Jacobi. Plus authors, an illustrator, editors, & an agent, all at one workshop. Wow!
          What can you expect from a workshop with Dave? You can read all his impressive credentials by checking out the faculty for the workshop at & you can find his blog at, but as someone who knows him, I can tell you he reads more books for young people than anyone I know, and he has a sharp eye for what a reader will love. We’ve been in the same critique groups for more than ten years and he offers tremendous insight into what works and what doesn’t. And he’s always thrilled to spot undiscovered talent.
          If you’ve never been to a Highlights Foundation workshop, why not give this one a try? And if you have been before, you can’t beat this wonderful faculty for a return visit. Check out the web site and see what you think. Who knows? You could meet a great group of friends to swagger with.
          If you sign up, come back to this blog and let us know. And be sure to give us a report when you get back from the workshop.

Kathy Cannon Wiechman