Nancy's Books

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Critique Groups Provide First-Aid for Writers, Part III

For the last two weeks, I've presented reasons to join a critique group. Today, I'm focusing on how to join a critique group.

One way to form a critique group is to post notices on the bulletin boards of public buildings—library, college, church, museum and other places that may attract potential members. Church bulletins, free classifieds in local newspapers, and community calendars on local television and radio are other ways to notify writers. Attend local writing groups and writing conferences to network with attendees. Check out Web sites, such as and SCBWI, that have message boards for writers.

Critique groups vary in size and goals so join or start one that fits your needs. Hand over your manuscript to the members you trust and respect. Your manuscript will come back to you, stronger than ever.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Critique Groups Provide First-Aid for Writers, Part II

A critique group is vital to the development of a writer, not only in the realm of the craft of writing but the emotional ups and downs associated with publishing. Here's an inside look at the critique group to which I belong.

Members of my group provide emotional support for each other. If a member has a manuscript rejected or another personal problem, we listen and provide words of encouragement. When a member receives good news, we perform a chocolate dance in celebration.

Each month, a member is responsible for generating a weekly newsletter that provides news about grants, conferences, and all aspects of writing, marketing, and promoting our work. Since my group consists of four people, I will be responsible for the newsletter three months (twelve weeks) per year.

The primary purpose of a critique group is to read and evaluate works in progressfor each member. My group submits manuscripts, a maximum of 1,000 words per submission, on the first and fifteenth of each month. That means that each membercritiques three, 1,000-word manuscripts every two weeks. That also means that each member receives three critiques per manuscript every two weeks. Critique groups require a vast amount of time and effort from each member to be successful, but the rewards gained are invaluable.

If you decide to join or form a critique group, set guidelines. How often will members submit work? What is the time period for critiquing and returning each manuscript? What is the maximum number of words per submission? How extensive are the critiques, line-by-line or general overview? Set guidelines on allowing additional membership once the group is established. Remember to critique the manuscript, not the writer. Be respectful of the writer at all times. Be honest in your critique.

I want the members of my group to be honest in each evaluation of my work and react to my manuscripts as an editor would. Anything less than total honesty is of no benefit to me. I want to know WHY my manuscript didn’t get the contract and HOW I can improve it. If I could figure out WHY and HOW on my own, I wouldn’t need a critique group. The honesty of each member and their varied viewpoints can only make my work stronger, better, and more likely to be accepted for publication. Therefore, I have a responsibility of not taking the criticism personally. I wear my rhino hide when I read the critiques and often think AHA! She’s right! when I read a criticism or a suggestion. Why didn’t I see that? Because I only see from one perspective—mine.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Critique Groups Provide First-Aid for Writers

Since many students will soon be on a holiday break, I’m going to write about tips for writers in a series of three blogs that focus on critique groups.

You’ve pounded the keyboard day after day, week after week, creating your story. You’ve spit-shined the revisions, rearranged the sentences, and typed the last word. Now you’re ready to kiss your manuscript good-bye and ship it off to strangers, AKA editors.Not so fast! Mailing you’re manuscript at this time may be a little premature. Consider joining a critique group. Not only will group members view your work with new perspectives, they will also provide feedback, positive and negative. The critique group will hone in on areas of quality writing, praising your efforts, and will offer examples for improvement in areas that need revision.

I’ve been writing for publication for twenty years and have had thirteen picture books and one chapter book published. During that time, I completed revision after revision, relying on my skills, alone.

A couple of years ago I joined, via the Internet, a critique group composed of four children’s writers. In that short period, my critique group has provided professional input into picture and chapter book manuscripts, making each work stronger. This group completes line-by-line, in-depth critiques, rather than general overview critiques. For me, the more specific the evaluation, the better.

Next week, I'll provide specific detail as to how our group functions.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Overused Words

We writers strive to make our stories and articles interesting. One way to up the interest level is to avoid overused words. Every writer falls prey to the overuse of certain words, and those words vary with each person who puts ink to paper. My downfall is the word just. I just didn’t realize I was so dependent upon the word just and wrote it over and over throughout a manuscript. A member of my critique caught the problem and justly brought it to my attention. Hats off to my critique group.

From that point on, I use the computer to check for those words that just seem to pop up all over my manuscript make it look like it has a bad case of chicken pox. I highlight the entire text, click on Edit, click on Find, and write the word in the box. The magic of the computer points out each use of a particular word. Just like that, I find how many times I’ve use a word.

Here’s a list of words that are often overused.

Check your writing. If you’re dulling the text with the same old words over and over, just eliminate them and add sparkle and shine to your manuscript.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Writing Contests for Students

Seeing our hard work and creativity published is one of the greatest thrills for writers. Publishing articles and stories written by students is more than thrilling for them. It encourages even the reluctant writers to put pen to paper, builds self-confidence, and promotes a positive attitude in a job well done. In today’s blog, I’m showcasing two contests that publishes work by students.

Contest #1
Olive Garden’s Pasta Tales begins online Oct. 19
Reading, writing and arithmetic — no matter the subject, teachers often leave their mark on students, inspiring them to strive for success and reach their goals. In recognition of teachers across North America, Olive Garden has announced the topic for its 14th-annual Pasta Tales essay writing contest: “Describe a teacher who has inspired you in school and how they have impacted your life.”
From Monday, Oct. 19 through Friday, Dec. 11, 2009, Olive Garden’s Pasta Tales contest will give young writers in first- through 12th-grade in the U.S. and Canada the opportunity to share their stories in essays of 50 to 250 words. Pasta Tales entry forms and complete rules will be available beginning Oct. 19 at and on Oct. 26 at local Olive Garden restaurants.
The contest grand prize is a three-day trip to New York City including dinner at the Olive Garden in Times Square and a $2,500 savings bond. Winners also will be chosen in each grade category and will receive a $500 savings bond and a family dinner at their local Olive Garden restaurant.
Pasta Tales entries must include the writer’s name, complete address, phone number with area code, grade, date of birth including year and a statement that the work is their own. Entries must be submitted either online or postmarked by Dec. 11 and sent to Pasta Tales, PMB 2000, 6278 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale, FL, 33308-1916.
Submissions will be judged based on creativity, adherence to theme, organization, grammar, punctuation and spelling by the Quill and Scroll Society of the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Iowa, with finalists selected by Olive Garden.
Since its inception, Olive Garden’s Pasta Tales has provided young people in the communities it serves a way to creatively express the influences, experiences and stories that have shaped their lives. For more information about Pasta Tales, call Katie Lennon at (954) 776-1999, ext. 240 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. EST.
List of 2009 Pasta Tales Grade-Category Winners
Please be sure to read the official rules of the contest.

Contest #2
2009-2010 High School Poetry Contests

Sponsored by Gannon University and the Erie County Poet Laureate Initiative

Two contests: one for students in grades 9 through 12 who live outside of Erie
County, Pennsylvania, and one for students in grades 9 through 12 who live in
Erie County, Pennsylvania.


• Each student may enter up to 3 poems, totaling no more than 6 pages.
• Poems may be about any topic and in any form and must be the original work
of the student.
• Poems must be typed.
• The student’s name, address (including county), phone number, and grade in
school must appear in the top left corner of each poem.
• The student’s school, school’s address, school’s phone number, and teacher’s
name must appear in the top right corner.
• Poems will not be returned; students should not send their only copies.
• Poems must be postmarked by February 1, 2010.

Students who live outside of Erie County, Pennsylvania, should mail their poems to:

Berwyn Moore, Associate Professor of English
Attn: Gannon University High School Poetry Contest
Gannon University
109 University Square
Erie, PA 16541

Students who live in Erie County, Pennsylvania, should mail their poems to:

Berwyn Moore, Associate Professor of English
Attn: Erie County High School Poetry Contest
Gannon University
109 University Square
Erie, PA 16541

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Show, Don't Tell interview with Sandi Underwood, Part II

Sandi Underwood, author of the new e-book, THE SECRET OF THE AFRICAN AMULET, (published by Keith Shaw at, is visiting my blog again this week.

NKA: Welcome back, Sandi. In your writing you show rather than tell the action in scenes. What advice do you have for writers in using show, don't tell?

SU: One method that works for me in identifying opportunities to show rather than tell comes during the rewrite. I use a red pen and underline all the verbs, one page at a time. From this, I narrow the search to the most interesting scenes and rewrite using more action.


Rachel looked up toward her bedroom, but was too scared to climb the stairs. Her imagination conjured up all kinds of scary things, but she mustered all her courage and climbed upward.

In this scene, Rachel has come home to an empty house and is worried her wish has come true-that her mom would disappear! The last place Rachel saw the African amulet was in her bedroom. By showing that same information in the paragraph below, we heighten the suspense.

Rachel peered up toward her bedroom. ‘Dust angels’ waltzed in the streaming sunlight. Shadows danced in the corners. The hair on her arms twitched as she placed one shaky hand on the handrail. Mustering all her courage, Rachel raised one timid foot to the first landing and leaned slightly forward to shift her weight. Step-by-step, Rachel climbed the stairs.

Lastly, I’ve been known to utilize a more personal approach. I’ve actually performed a ‘walk-through’ to better visualize a certain scene in order to show rather than tell. Three questions that help pinpoint the action are:
1. What am I doing?
2. How am I doing it?
3. Why am I doing it?

In closing, I once read the description of writing is say what you’re going to say, say it, say what you said. I think a better way would be to do what you’re going to say and be done with it.

NKA: Thanks, Sandi, for your excellent advice and examples. Good luck with your wonderful new book. I look forward to you visiting my blog again.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Show, Don't Tell interview with Sandi Underwood

Today and next week, I’m interviewing, Sandi Underwood, a friend and author. She’ll give us ideas of how she incorporated show, don’t tell into her new book, THE SECRET OF THE AFRICAN AMULET.

NKA: What does show, don't tell means to you as a writer?

SU: Thank you, Nancy, for the opportunity to talk about something near and dear to my heart. My first thought about this crucial writing technique is, as a writer who loves words, telling normally takes more words than showing. And like most writers, I’m guilty of loving my words! However, taking it one step further, as a reader I much prefer the writer who has successfully mastered the art of showing. The difference often determines whether or not I’ll continue to read the book. Editors must surely look at manuscripts in the same manner. A book filled with action is much more captivating that one filled with description.

NKA: How did the use of show, don't tell improve the writing in your book.

SU: In my new e-book, THE SECRET OF THE AFRICAN AMULET, (published by Keith Shaw at my main character gets caught up in magic spells and native tribes in Africa. She dreams about being the ‘guest of honor’ at a human sacrifice. The following two sentences relate the same information, but the second sentence shows the action instead of telling it:
The flames burned closer and closer.
Scorching flames licked at her bare feet.

Another example of showing is to incorporate the actions of sub-characters, in this case, the pet cat:
Primrose, the cat, even seemed to sense the danger as she disappeared into the closet. It was as if she knew more than she was telling.
Consider changing to:
Primrose warily padded over to the partially closed closet doors and peered inside. Her long fluffy tail swished rapidly back and forth, as if the wise cat knew more than she was telling. After a few minutes, Primrose disappeared into the shadowy closet.

By showing the rapidly swishing tail of the cat, the reader understands, without being told, there is more here than meets the eye.

NKA: Thanks, Sandi, for your explanation and great examples. Next week Sandi is going to give us more advice on using show, don’t tell.

If you would like to purchase Sandi's e-book, The Secret of the African Amulet, log on to

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Show, Don’t Tell

Show, don’t tell is advice we often hear at writing conferences, but what does it mean? Think of the phrase this way: don’t just tell me Bobby is angry, show me how he acts and what he says.

When a character shows emotions, the reader gains a better understanding of the character. As readers, we want to know more about a character than what he is saying or his actions. We can do this by showing the character’s sensory reactions, what the character sees hears, touches tastes, and/or smells. Show the readers with words what you want them to see, rather than telling them.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

When I was writing my picture book, The Munched-Up Flower Garden, I wrote “James ran” in the first draft of my story. That phrase is telling. When I revised the story, I changed “James ran” to “James sure can make the dust fly as he pick them up and puts them down.” The revision shows a more detailed picture of the character’s movements.

Mary was happy is telling.
Mary’s face opened into a wide grin, and a laugh spilled out of her mouth is showing.

Telling Mary’s reaction is an uninteresting way of writing. The reader learns more about the character by showing Mary reaction.

As you read books and articles, notice the different ways authors incorporate show, don’t tell into their writing styles. Give it a try and watch your writing sparkle.

Next week, I’m interviewing, Sandi Underwood, a friend and author. She’ll give us ideas of how she incorporated show, don’t tell into her new book, THE SECRET OF THE AFRICAN AMULET.

For the Younger Writers:

Hand out a sheet of lined paper to each student. Ask students to write their names at the top of the page. Explain that they are in a word race. Each student will look around the room for words. The goal is to write as many words that they see in the classroom on the sheet of paper. Each word must be spelled correctly. Allow about 10 minutes for this activity. When the time is up, ask students to read from their list. Limit reading to about five words each. Collect the papers and count the number of words each student wrote. Add the totals and write the combined number of words and the date on a chart. Play the game again each week or month with an attempt to increase the number of words. Display the chart so the students can see their progress.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Visual Images

One great way to stimulate the imagination and creative process is through a guided visual tour. If you’re a teacher, ask students to close their eyes. If you’re a writer, just close your eyes and become your own tour guide. Ask questions that inspire visual images of a setting, object, or person. Imagine a trip. You are traveling. What is the type of transportation you’re using? Car? Foot power? Plane? Train? Boat? How comfortable is the transportation? How does it sound? What is the color? How fast are you traveling?

Imagine that you have reached your destination. Look around. What do you see? Buildings? Trees? People? What do the buildings look like? Are the trees like those you have seen? How are the people dressed?

Listen to the sounds? Do you hear people talking? Can you understand the language? Do you hear other sounds? Are the sounds familiar?

Reach out and touch something. Does it feel hard? Soft? Rough? Smooth?

Is there something edible? How does it taste?

Take a deep breath. What do you smell? Do you like the odor or aroma? How would you describe it?

Your trip is now over and you are back where you started. The sensory descriptions form mental pictures that help writers describe settings, events, objects, and people. Use words to express the visual images you created on your imaginary journey so readers can see the story the way you see it. Create word pictures using similes and metaphors. Think of your story as a movie. Picture what your characters look like, where they live, what they do, and how they talk.

Do you have a favorite method of developing sensory images? If so, pass it along. I’d love to hear from you.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

First Aid Kit for Short Story Writing/Alphabet Chart

This week I'm posting two writing activities, one for older students and another for the younger groups. Many of the writing activities I post can be altered to work for most age groups simply by altering the length or details of each piece. Sometimes, I will address activities geared solely toward the younger students.

First Aid Kit for Short Story Writing

Preventative treatment keeps our bodies healthier and the same practice applies to our writing. With a little planning, we can gain a better understanding of our stories before we put pencil to paper or fingers to keyboards. Our stories will reach tip-top shape with less revision. Work smarter, not harder, right?

Complete the following prescription to give your story a boost.

Who are the characters? How old are they? List each. [In a short story, use no more than four characters. Two or three will probably work better.]
How will your story begin?
How will your story end? [Figure out the ending before you start writing the story. The character that has the problem must solve the problem without help from adults. Spend more time on the beginning and ending than the middle of the story.]
Where will your story take place?
When will your story take place?
What will happen in your story? [If you’re writing a short story, write about one event. Start with a problem. Add three situations that keep the character from reaching the goal or solving the problem; then have the character solve the problem.]
Give the story a title.

After you write your story, read through it slowly. Look for ways to improve the writing so the reader can understand it. Let a friend read the story. If there is something the reader doesn’t understand, you may need to rewrite that part.

For Younger Students:

Young students love to move. Put those actions into a constructive mode in the form of a trip around the school or playground. Stop in different areas and instruct students to look for and identify people, places and things that are part of the school community. Give each student a clipboard with an Alphabet chart and a pencil to use during the outing. Students will draw or write observations, such as a flag. Write the letters f-l-a-g by the “f” on the alphabet chart or draw a flag. Encourage students to write words phonetically and not worry about correct spelling while on the trip. Students should try to find several items to represent various letters of the alphabet. Allow time for sharing when the group returns to the classroom.

Do you have a first-aid kit for writing? If so, pass it along. I’d love to hear from you.

Next week, I’m writing about visual images.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Creating Ideas for Personal Narratives

As with fictional stories, personal narratives need to be problem driven, also. Imagine reading a story about Jack’s trip through the South. He passed through small towns where people sat on front porches and waved as he drove by, saw cows grazing in grassy fields, cotton growing, roadside fruit stands, and finally a sandy beach with frothy, crashing waves. The reader will yawn a couple of times and fall asleep long before Jack sees the ocean, because there is nothing exciting happening. The character is not involved in the action, merely viewing it. The same story would becomes more exciting if Jack looks out the window of the car and sees smoke billowing toward the sky up ahead. Traffic stops. Jack steps out of the car and hears a loud bang, followed by bang-bang-bang. Jack jumps back into the car and locks the door. “Hide under the dashboard,” he yells to Joan, who sitting in the front seat.” The reader wonders what is happening so the story becomes more interesting.

Personal narratives, like short stories, should focus on one event, not a series of events. Begin the story with action, where the problem arises. Personal narratives are short so there is little room for the build-up of a story. Beginning a story with action and a problem captures the attention of the reader immediately. The job of the writer is to place the reader in the middle of the action by letting the reader see, hear, feel, touch, and taste the relevant details. The writer expresses thoughts and feelings throughout the piece and explains how and why the experience mattered.

Personal narratives differ for everyone because each person has different experiences, emotions, and memories. Choose an event that stands out in your mind. What made that event memorable? Do the emotions that spilled over into your memory make you scared, happy, or sad? Think of events that bring out strong emotions. List those events and choose one to write about.

Do you have a favorite method of creating ideas for writing personal narratives or for helping students formulate ideas? If you would like to post an idea, click on Comments. I’d love to hear from you.

Next week, I’ll provide a first-aid for story writing.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Creating Ideas

Each week I will address one aspect of writing. This week, I'm writing about story ideas.

All stories begin with an idea. Novice writers and students often struggle with creating an idea for a story. Fictional stories need a problem or goal to hold the attention of the readers. The problem must have a solution and the goal needs to be attainable. The problem in the story is what is happening to the main character, also called plot. When I visit schools and conduct writing workshops with students, I avoid abstract definitions. Let's use the word plot as an example. An abstract definition might be a device to carry the story forward. What? Some students may question the definition wondering what it means; others may simply tune out the remainder of the class, already lost. Concrete definitions work much better with students. Again, using the word plot. A definition students can relate to is Plan Lots of Trouble. The definition is concrete and understandable.

So how do we develop an idea for a story? I've used this method with success for grades three and up. Noun + Action Verb + Problem

Think of a noun--a person or thing, such as a cat. Add an action verb that relates to the noun. Ask yourself, what problem could possibly happen?

Cat + Leap + Broke sister's favorite lamp

Again, ask yourself, what if my cat leaped and broke my sister's favorite lamp?

Try this method with three or four ideas. You just might develop an idea worthy of a story.

Next week, I will write about developing ideas for a personal narrative.