Writing Tip #1 – No Wrong Answers

I love writing. I love teaching. I love teaching writing. I love listening to writers talk about their manuscripts. I love problem solving with writers. I love the delicacy and boldness of writing. These tips are things I’ve learned over the years that have held me in good stead and kept me going through the hard dry times. I hope they help you.

And hey they are only one minute long. Click here.

“One of the things I love to tell students is: Writing = No Wrong Answers. Writing is your chance to see your imagination come to life. It is your invention on the page. And there are no wrong answers when it comes to putting your imagination on the page. Set the timer for five minutes. Give yourself a prompt like “Once Upon a time….” See what happens.

What about grammar and spelling and punctuation, you wonder? That’s editing.”

Thinking Out Loud*–Dear John

Dear John,

When I leaned over and touched your shoulder yesterday and said, “How about Joe Biden? A pretty good alternative, right?” I was truly thinking that you would be able to get behind a guy who is from a working-class background and has worked with the legislators in Washington to get laws passed and changes made for real people. I knew you probably voted for Trump in 2016 because, well, Hillary wasn’t your… But I guess I thought, that the past four years had shown this president to be a dishonorable and amoral bully. Someone you, in your heart of hearts, wouldn’t and couldn’t care for.

So when you said, “This president has been good for my 401K,” I was, well, a little shocked. I mean I know money in the bank makes a difference but didn’t you have any money in the bank before 45? Didn’t we have a President from 2008 to 20016 that pulled us out of the sub prime disaster, avoided an Ebola outbreak and got the economy going again? As we talked, you said, “This president is tough. He doesn’t give our country away.”

I think I sighed and looked sad.

“Are you going to cancel me out because I’m voting for Trump?” you asked.

Of course not, I love you. And because I love you, my friend, I am going to take the delicious risk of telling you what I think and feel and understand.

As a writer and teacher of children’s books, there was a seismic shift in our industry in 2008. A grassroots organization called WeNeedDiverseBooks surged into being, calling for more diversity across the board: From characters in books to the authors who write those books to the editors at publishing houses who acquire those books. Shortly afterwards, another surge called #ownvoices came into being which basically called for books about, for instance, Black people to be authored by Black authors. It called for a kind of authenticity and more importantly, it called out publishers to acquire more books from Black, Brown, Native American and LGTBQIA authors and not give advances to white authors who were trying to populate their books with diversity in answer to this sea change.

It was a chilling moment for many white authors. What? Isn’t my imagination my license to drive? Didn’t Buddy Guy, the famous blues guitarist, say, “All you need is five fingers to play. The guitar don’t know the color of my skin.”

I felt pushed out. I felt like I didn’t belong. White writers were targeted for writing one dimensional (read: demeaning) characters of color. White writers’ voices were being questioned for their authenticity. White writers didn’t receive as many book contracts and advances. White writers couldn’t write anything they wanted. It has been, to put it lightly, a very bumpy time.

We all love the idea of equality until it hits our bank accounts, right? Then it feels unfair and unjust and “I didn’t do anything wrong.” I mean I’m a good person, why am I bearing the brunt of this problem? Yes, we are all good people but I had to take a big step away from my feelings to be able to see what WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OwnVoices is trying to accomplish.

It is this:

If we have more diverse authors writing more authentically diverse books, then we will have more diverse populations reading and resonating with those books. If we have a more diverse readership who feel like their stories are being told and told correctly, then we will have more readers in the world and, possibly, a more educated world. If my bank account has less in it but the result is more kids reading because they have access to more authentic books with characters who look like them then I have indirectly made an investment in a better, more educated world. If, in one generation, we have more kids who are looking up to authors who look like them as role models, then I say yes to this shift. If that goal is where we are headed, then I will be okay with stepping aside so more books by diverse authors can be published. Why? Because more readers and more stories make a better world.

Does it mean I will stop being a writer? No, I love writing. I can’t stop. Does it mean I won’t have diverse characters in my books? No. But I will have to work harder to make them real and authentic and NOT a one-dimensional place holder. Does it mean I won’t feel jealous and resentful and worried that I won’t have enough? I probably will, but at the end of the day, I know in my heart, it’s the right direction to take to undo years systemic racism.

All of which is to say, John, I understand the security you feel in having more money in your 401K but step back, look at the inequities we have kept in place, look at how these inequities keep us all scared by scarcity and scared of one another. I think 45 preys on that fear and promotes it. I think his idea of making America great again, is a secret message to turn back the clock when we didn’t have to look at pollution or racism or sexism, when my father’s generation could pursue a so-called American dream with no thought of any else’s well-being except his own and his family’s.

We can’t pursue that dream anymore. As this pandemic has proved beyond a doubt, we are so very connected. We are one world. We have to watch out for one another. We have to keep one another safe. That’s why I’m voting for Biden and I feel excited by that choice on the ballot.

Sure, he’s not perfect. And the relief from the disaster we are currently experiencing will take time. But to watch a man run our country with trade wars and threats and withdrawing from agreements like the Climate Accord and abandoning international organizations like NATO which hold us to a higher ideals is perverse. And really, John, if you’re counting on him to run America like a business, his record in that arena sucks. Trump hotels. Trump University. Trump Casinos. You would be appalled and I doubt you could work for a person who ignores contractual obligations and walks away.

I don’t know if this letter will make a difference to you or, if in the quiet of the election booth, you might change your mind and vote for a more decent human.

In the end, what makes a difference to me is that that you know me better.

Your dear friend,



*As the youngest in my bio-family, I was preverbal for many years. My sisters and my parents were a walking, talking tribe. Paragraphs and sentences ahead of me. Consequently, I became an exquisite listener. I didn’t speak up. I didn’t practice trying out my thoughts because I didn’t want to embarrass myself by saying anything less than perfectly. To express myself, I became a writer, carefully crafting thoughts and sentences and putting them out into the world. But even in that arena, I have been tentative. This series, for however long it lasts, is about me speaking up and thinking out loud.


Going Behind The Fence-Year Five…So far…

We had no idea when our Pay It Forward class convened in January 2020 what would befall our world. We were only able to have two in-person classes before the Lane Murray Unit went into Co-Vid induced lockdown. While I know the year isn’t over, I want to take a minute to share what’s been going on behind the fence with our class. Remember, these women are but a small microcosm of what is going on in jails and prisons around the world.

As soon as we knew we couldn’t do in-person classes, we pivoted to monthly correspondence which included news, homework, creativity. Below are news snippets from letters. Followed by apology haiku poems and answers to homework questions. Thank you for reading and keeping these beautiful women in your hearts.

News from letters:

“We wake up early to have our temperature taken. Then we receive our breakfast johnnies. Then we lay down and read or sleep. All we can do is wait for this to be over.” April 14

“I pray we’ll be able to contact our families soon. They haven’t heard from us and I’m sure they are worried.” April 15

“We haven’t had a real meal since April 6. I’ve gained more weight on all the bread alone.” April 20

“Lunch/dinner on a good day: Hamburger/Chicken Patty/Fish Patty. If cheese is included it’s really good. Lunch/Dinner on a bad day: Corn dog/Bologna/Salami/Beef roll/Burrito…only made marginally better if cheese is included.” April 22

“Being right on top of each other makes for straining situations.” April 22

“They give us masks. But no cleaning supplies. Only when someone gets sick do they come in and spray with bleach. It’s virus pandemic mayhem.” April 22

“As of April 19, I was removed from the dorm because of a high temperature. I had to do a nose swab. Ouch. That shit brought tears to my eyes.” April 26

“I’ve been in isolation since April 21. I am not feeling well. I can’t contact my children because the phones are off limits. Please don’t let me die in here.”  April 30

“All of us are wearing masks. Even to the bathroom. Only time we don’t have to wear them is in our cubicles.” May 7

“No one is going to school. No priests for Wednesday mass. No transport for medical to Galveston. I was supposed to have my last treatment for liver cancer this month but that’s not happening.” May 7

“I tested positive for Co-Vid 19. Please pray for me.” May 10

“I’m so sad to write to say the J was diagnosed with stage four bone cancer in April and was sent home. She was able to see her nine-year-old son for a few weeks before she died in May. She was only twenty-nine years old. We’re shocked.” May 20

“OMG. They are putting in AC. It’s about time. I can’t wait.” June 18

“I had a slight headache and lost my sense of taste and smell but I did not get sick.” June 30

“Lots of construction going on. Able bodied offenders are moving upstairs. Disabled offenders live downstairs. We’re moving around a lot and it’s raining men! Hallelujah. We can’t talk to them but the testosterone on the unit makes the virus situation tolerable.” June 30

Apology Haikus

Bunky. Rude. Yelling.
Says shut the F—K up
Tears. Sorry. Alone.

I beg for pardon.
Remorse. Hung by guilt
Feelings murderer. Okay, onward.

A place blind to love
Where kindness is abnormal
We are all one blood

Who’s following me?
Oh, that is my own buttocks!
Fast. Cleanse. Work it off.

Dang. What? Why? Where?
Cloudy mind. Forgot
Why I was in my lockbox.

On Radical Self-Acceptance:

“I have a self who likes to think ugly things when people make me angry. I can usually feel better if I am left alone to think or meditate.”

“I have a self-conscious self when people look at me as if I’m from another planet. If I remind myself that their opinions do not matter, I can usually find my peaceful self.”

“I do not like to accept things that I think are not right or just but when I can find my compassionate self and remember we all are not perfect, then I can usually find my way to making them a cup of coffee.”

“I have a needy self when I haven’t heard from home. When I remind her that she is not alone and has value, I can find my way to happy.”

“I have a paranoid self who trusts no one. Sometimes I have a generous self who loves to give secretly, without recognition.”

“I have an angry self who doesn’t know why things are happening to me. If I can find my way to understanding, I can help calm my angry self.”

“I have a mean self that shows up when I don’t agree with how people do things. If I can find a way to laugh, I get an attitude adjustment.”

As always, the women close their letters praying for our good health and safety.

They are: Amazing grace.





Inspiration from the SCBWI Summer Spectacular

Last weekend, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators hosted their annual summer conference virtually. They dubbed it the Summer Spectacular and it earned that moniker. Normally three hundred people attend in person. This year, five thousand people from all around the world listened to the best and most generous thinkers in children’s literature. Here are a few inspirational quotes from the five-day conference.

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the most important things in the world.”
Sir Phillip Pullman

“The storyteller’s responsibility is to tell the story as well as you possibly can.”
Sir Phillip Pullman

“When you write for kids, you have to be on their side.”
Judy Blume

“Write what is inside you. Throw knowledge away.”
Judy Blume

“Surround yourself with yes people who support you because writers are tender with self doubt.”
Kwame Alexander

“The ability to draw matters less than your understanding of design.”
LeUyen Pham

“Beautiful sentences have to have an emotional life. The writer’s heart must connect with the reader’s heart.”
Jill Santopolo

“It’s important to know your unique voice and what matters and is important to you. That’s the connection between you and the reader.”
Julie Strauss-Gabel

“I have no idea what the world will look like in 2023 but I do know publishing will adapt.”
Neal Porter

“Seek your truth; not the market. Reveal your truth on the page. It will stay with you through the vicissitudes of the business.”
Namrata Tripathi

“Take more chances.”
Stacey Barney

“If you write outside your culture, criticism isn’t canceling. Criticism is part of being an artist. You have to be mature and know the waters you are swimming in.”
Laurie Halse Anderson

“Build on every tiny success. How you connect with others matters. Your career is your relationships with writers, teachers, librarians and readers.”
Meg Medina

“The desire line is vital. It is the driving force of human nature and it creates a steady momentum to drive the story forward. Knowing your character’s desire makes for great suspense when conflicts are introduced.”
Linda Camacho

“Everyone is the hero of their own story. From the protagonist to the antagonist.”
Brooks Sherman

“I try to write responsibly and not hurt people.”
Jacqueline Woodson

“When I was writing BROWN GIRL DREAMING, I didn’t know what I was trying to say. But I kept trying to figure it out. That’s what editors do. We have many worlds, many stories in us. Editors help us figure out what those many stories in us.”
Jacqueline Woodson

“The most important elements in writing picture books are: Compression, Lyricism, Arc and Visuality.”
Jane Yolen

“Earning your ending means finishing the arc of your story. The beginning and the ending must shake hands.”
Jane Yolen

Writing in the hard times: “Untie the anxiety and tap into creativity. Pick out what is bothering you and turn it into beauty to remind you of the good things during this time.”
Jane Yolen

“I hope that my legacy is: I never compromised my work; I always said yes I can and I was a good sharer.”
Jane Yolen

“Anyone can write. But a real writer is someone who can rewrite and fill out the story.”
Caitlyn Dlouhy

“You don’t have to do all the work for the reader. Leave room for them to figure stuff out. That’s their part in the book.”
Jason Reynolds

“Separate yourself from your work. Don’t let perfection haunt your work.”
Nic Stone

“Writing is hard because that’s what makes books great. Lean into the difficulty.”
Jason Reynolds

“I know it’s a picture book when the pictures are telling a different story from the written story.”
Grace Lin

“If you love it, stay with it. It will pay off.”
Alvina Ling

The agents’ panel answered this question: What prompts you to work with an author?

  • “An author who is willing to collaborate.” Regina Brooks
  • “Trust.” Linda Camacho
  • “Chemistry, communication style, no fear of connection and collaboration.” Rosemary Stimola
  • “Someone who knows the heart of the story and is willing to go to the mats for it.” Brooks Sherman

SCBWI Executive Director Lin Oliver closed out the conference with this quote:

“All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say is, “I love the world.’”
E.B. White

Well done, Lin Oliver and the SCBWI team. It was perfect.

Snuggle up with Snuggle Mountain

When I first saw Melissa Iwai’s sketches of Emma, the main character in Snuggle Mountain, I fell in love with her, from slipper to nose. It is my pleasure to share these coloring pages with you so you can fall in love with Emma too and ‘color her up’ any way you want with these free coloring pages for your little one.

I hope you and your little artist have as much fun with Emma as I did creating her story of climbing Snuggle Mountain.

Snuggle Mountain Coloring Sheets