Friday, July 3, 2020

Hone Your Craft With Flash Fiction - Exercises Included!

We all love when inspiration strikes. Flash fiction can feel much like that. It's a story in micro, a focus on a compelling moment in a character's life. 

Reading flash can help stir ideas for your own long or short writing. When you practice writing flash fiction, there's even better payoffs in your own work.

Improve Your Focus

Flash fiction gets a lot done in a very short amount of time. Big emotions and major change must coexist in a tiny, little writing space. Flash fiction word counts can range from just a few words to the more typical 1000. 

As you practice creating flash fiction, consider how tightly focused you can be on the main aspects of your story. What can you cut and still keep clarity? 

Exercise: Write a sentence summarizing your story using ten words or less.

Tighten Your Prose

When a story must be crafted to fit the short requirements of flash fiction, you learn to say a lot with few words. This habit will carry over into your other works, making them more concise and compelling. 

Exercise: Go through a current work-in-progress and see if you can cut the entire thing by 25% or even 50%. Alternatively, try replacing three words with one. Are there whole sentences or paragraphs you could cut while retaining or enhancing the impact of the story?

Experiment With Form

Flash Fiction is a fun, low-risk way to try new structure. If you want to try a story in texting or email form, this would be a great format to experiment with it. And you have nothing to lose but a little time and maybe 1000 words. Low-risk, high-return. 

Exercise: Experiment with something new in a piece of flash fiction. Maybe write the entire thing in iambic pentameter. Or starting every sentence with the next letter in the alphabet. The options are endless. You're creative; I'm sure you'll come up with something new to try!

Amp the Tension

Conflict and change are essential in any story, even flash fiction. Sometimes we might trick ourselves into thinking that because flash focuses on a moment in time that it is static, but that is a mistake. Static is boring. Nothing is happening. 

Try starting your flash fiction pieces close to a character's life-changing event or realization. It can be dramatic - the loss of a loved one, or subtle - the realization that their best friend is capable of lying to them. Whatever it is should change the main character's world and/or worldview. 

Conflict and change are things we grapple with regularly. They are essential to every story. As you learn to incorporate them in the small world of flash fiction, you will find it easier to build the needed conflict and change in your other works.

Exercise: Determine what life-changing moment will rock your character's world. Start the story right before or just after that moment. What's next? What suspense can you build that will keep the reader hooked all the way to the end?

Monday, June 15, 2020

How Children's Literature can support Black Lives Matter

The protests that started in the United States three weeks ago after yet another senseless murder of a black person has ballooned into a  worldwide movement to end racism. There have been tons of protests here in Canada, and I so hope that maybe this time, real change will occur.

As a white ally, I know that the most important things for me to do right now are listen, call out racism wherever I see it and at the systemic level, and learn.

And one of the best ways I know to learn is by reading books by black authors (and those written by other people of color), especially children's books.

Books are a powerful tool that allow us to share lived experiences with other people by stepping into their shoes for awhile.

There are excellent resources all over the web with lists of books for kids about racism, including this list compiled by the amazing treasure that is Jacqueline Woodson.

Books that I've read in the past few years that have had a huge impact on my understanding include Jacqueline's award winning Brown Girl Dreaming as well as the others listed below.

Everything ever written by Jason Reynolds, including

Nic Stone

Angie Thomas

Leah Henderson

David Barclay Moore

Elizabeth Acevedo

This is NOT intended to be an exhaustive list, just a list of books that I love and that have made me a better ally. Most importantly, they are all WONDERFUL!

What can you do to help?

Start following black authors on Instagram and twitter. Buy their books. Demand that publishers increase the number of books written by people of color so that the industry is representative of our population. Demand that schools use books written by people of color in the classroom.

One great thing happening this week is #BlackOutBestsellersLists #blackpublishingpower.

I'm ordering my two books. And to spread the word further, I'm ordering some extras and taking some of my books by black authors and placing them in LittleFreeLibraries all over my city!

Also, authors Nic Stone and Kim Johnson recently gave an excellent interview in Entertainment Weekly magazine about being a black author in the publishing world. One issue Nic raised in the interview was the importance of publishing stories that allow black children to see themselves and reflect their lived experiences. It is an excellent and thought-provoking read!

Fighting racism in all its forms ought to be ALL of our life's work. Children's literature is a wonderful place to start to educate ourselves.

Let's do this!

Monday, June 8, 2020

Review of Slug Queen Chronicles by S. O. Thomas


Cricket could always see colors around objects, but she always thought it meant there was something wrong with her. Until her birthday when Cricket's Dad gave her mother's journal to her as a gift. From the journal, she discovered that her mother saw the colors too, meaning Cricket wasn't as odd as everyone thought. But when the colors she saw started indicating bad and strange things, she knew something was wrong. And after a creature replaces her baby brother with aslumgwump, things really started to get out of hand. When no one else seemed to notice the difference and Cricket was blamed for the strange happenings, she made it her mission to put things back the way they were. Cricket must find her brother and return him before everyone she loves, including her parents and her best friend, turns against her and her baby brother is gone forever.

The Slug Queen Chronicles was a great imaginative story with inventive ideas. While it was a little heavy on details at times, Cricket is a fun and inquisitive main character. I would have loved to have seen Cricket encounter more difficult challenges, but she asks lots of questions that the reader is asking right along with her. The world Cricket enters to rescue her brother, takes things from the known world and flips them sideways that gives the book a similar feel to Alice and Wonderland. And the illustrations at the start of every chapter are a lot of fun. I would recommend for readers looking to escape to an imaginative world.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Prompts to Set Your Writing on Fire

Inspiration can strike at the strangest times. We may be holed up for quarantine when a lighthearted mystery springs to mind. Or maybe lockdown finds us drowning in dark stories that wind nowhere we really want to go. Once, when I spotted a huge bull wandering through the meadow behind my house, my mind spawned all kinds of ideas about dragons and lumbering beasts.

But sometimes...and we've all been there...we feel just as empty as the blank page we are staring at. This is a perfect time for writing prompts. Here's a few to fire up your neurons and help you hatch some exciting new tales. Try them yourself or share them with your favorite middle grader!

Poetry Prompt 

Choose a poem. It can be an old favorite or something new, a poem that stirs your emotions or evokes strong images. Read it through. Then close your eyes and note what feelings and images arise. Finally, write, capitalizing on what you felt following reading the poem. You'll be surprised at the ideas that emerge.

Here's some intriguing poems to start you off. The Tyger by William Blake, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost, Twistable, Turnable Man by Shel Silverstein, Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll or The Daffodils by William Wordsworth.

Visual Inspiration

This is a fun way to stir up your creative writing. Browse through magazines, personal photos, or online images. Some great places to find intriguing photos and art are,, and

Once you've chosen an image, use your imagination to place yourself or one of your characters there. What would you see if you looked around beyond the frame? What might you hear or smell? What could have brought you or your character to this situation? How do they feel about being there? Happy, angry, purposeful, afraid, or some other emotion? What is your character about to do?

Musical Muse

Music drives inspiration in so many ways. I like to listen to music to set the tone of a scene I'm preparing to write. Something heart-pounding like Eye of the Tiger by Survivor is a great primer for writing a scene where my characters discover their own motivation and get fired up for success. 

The Pirates of the Caribbean Theme Song generates fighting or swashbuckling images. You might like The Mother by Brandi Carlile to stir up heart-aching feelings of love for family. Try Bang! by AJR for a fun surprise and see where your muse takes you.

Try these prompts when you're feeling a little brain freeze. They're also useful as a quick warm up to get your juices going for other writing you have planned. Enjoy!

Monday, May 25, 2020

Shaped by Books

The other day I had a brief exchange with a writer friend about the movie You've Got Mail -- in particular, that quote from Meg Ryan's character, about how when you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of you.

That quote resonates with me. SO MUCH!😍 All the resonance, lol. I believe books shape us, and yes, that more than at any other time in our lives, the books we read as a child shape who we are and who we become. It's a significant part of why it's so important to put diverse books into the hands of kids (and adults, of course). Stories help us become empathetic, compassionate people. They help us understand our world. They create hope, and they fuel the belief that we can -- and should -- make a positive difference in the world.

Do we recognize this shapingthis becoming part of our identity, as it's happening? Do we notice the many ways books are equipping us for the future? Do kids feel themselves growing, changing, being shaped by the stories they take in?

Personally, I don't remember -- childhood was a looong time ago, lol. But giving it some thought, honestly I don't recall noticing the impact stories were having on my beliefs and values and priorities. I only knew I loved reading them. And that was enough.

I wonder, though, how different were other kids' reading experiences? Do middle-grade readers notice the impact books have on them? I'd guess only the very self-aware among them do, except occasionally, all readers might, when a specific book comes along that precipitates a dream or drive for them (I must adopt a shelter dog just like Character A did! I vow not to be a bystander when I witness bullying, just like Character B!). But more often, the power of stories is subtle.

I recall loving certain books as a child -- some that I love still -- and I wonder if those books in particular were the ones that most became part of my identity. It's something I want to ponder more. Tell me, do you remember the impact of specific books from your childhood?

Monday, May 18, 2020

Interview with Angie Smibert, author of The Truce

Today, I'm thrilled to welcome author Angie Smibert to the blog!!! She's the author of the Ghosts of Ordinary Objects series. The third book in the series, The Truce, comes out May 26th, 2020.

First things first, can you tell us more about The Truce?

In the third book of the Ghosts of Ordinary Objects series, it’s December 1942 in the small coal mining community of Big Vein, Virginia. By now, Bone Phillips (12) is growing accustomed to her a Gift, a family Gift, as her Mamaw calls it, and maybe even begun to embrace it. Bone can see the stories or ghosts inside ordinary objects. But there’s one object her beloved Uncle Ash has forbidden her to touch: his dog tags from the first World War. He came back from that war a changed man, and every year about this time, he needs to escape for a while. He packs up the truck and his dogs and asks Bone to declare a truce with her dreaded Aunt Mattie while he’s gone. Reluctantly, Bone does. However, the truce is soon threatened by a discovery in the mine:  a body—wearing Uncle Ash’s dog tags. Bone has to use her Gift to solve the mystery. And that’s all I’ll say for now…except there is a ghost dog involved.

Ooh, a ghost dog!! Love it! Bone is such an interesting character. How was she born?

The story started with a sense memory of swimming in the New River as a kid, much like Bone does in the beginning of Bone’s Gift, the first book in the series. I remembered the feeling of being that kid who didn’t want summer to end or to particularly grow up and be the ‘little lady’ that other people expected. Bone was born out of that feeling.

This is the third novel in the series. Will there be more?

That’s it for now! I’m playing around with a short story, though.

These three novels are set in rural Virginia, where you live. How do you feel about the connection to place in your writing?

Actually, I live in a city—Roanoke—in Southwest, Virginia. However, I grew up in Blacksburg, a small college town west of here. And my mother’s family is from McCoy, a rural area outside Blacksburg along the New River, where there were coal mines until the 1950s. One of them was called Big Vein. My grandfather and his brothers were miners there—until he got hurt. Then he took over his father’s store. In fact, I kept that store in the books. In many ways, writing these stories has been an exploration of this place that I came from. And as Eudora Welty wrote, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.”

You weave folklore into the story. Tell us more about that.

Appalachian folklore is part of the place, the characters, and even the plots of the books. Bone loves stories, from folktales and legends to movies and books. However, she doesn’t like real-life stories—so, of course, that’s why I gave her the Gift of being able to see those.

In each of the books, Bone or one of the other characters—like Uncle Ash—is always telling a folktale or ghost story from the region. Plus I also used a particular story as the “spine” (for lack of a better word) of the plot. For instance, in Bone’s Gift, Bone’s life mirrors a story she’s telling called “Ashpet”—the Appalachian version of Cinderella. In Lingering Echoes—which is set at Halloween—the ‘spine’ tale is Stingy Jack, the origin story of Jack O’Lanterns. At the heart of The Truce, there’s a ghost dog story.

Ghost or spirit dog stories are popular in the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. (And also found in many other folklores.) A ghost dog might come to warn someone about an impending death. Or the big black dog might actually be there to claim a wicked person’s soul. However, in a few stories, the dog is protecting someone or some thing, such as a fabled silver mine. And as I said, in the Truce, there is a ghost dog and he/she might be near a mine.

For more on folklore and history in the series, please see my resource page:

Wow! So many folklore connections! Now for the big question: what can we expect next from Angie Smibert?

I’m working (slowly) on a spooky magical realism-type story set in the early 1970s in Appalachia that involves (so far) an old resort turned into an artist commune and a ghost or two. I’m also still teaching writing. That takes up a lot of my time lately. ;)

Yup, I'm going to need that book ASAP! Sounds awesome!

Now it's time for the dreaded Lightning Round...muahahahaha!!!

Hogwarts house:  Ravenclaw

Favorite spooky book or movie: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (tho, as you'll see below, I'm also a Harry Potter fan.)

One fact most people wouldn’t know about you: I'm on level 38 of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. ;) (I'm a level 14 magizoologist, btw. Anyone want to ride the Knight Bus to come battle foes with me at Hogwarts Castle?) And, of course, I'm in Ravenclaw.

Best Halloween costume from your past: boxing aliens. This was in the late 90s. My friend had given me a boxing alien puppet. (Do they still make these? There were others, including a boxing nun.) So we decided to make matching boxing alien costumes. This involved making paper mache heads, complete with glowing neon eyes, and duct tape-foam boxing gloves. We got graduation gowns from a thrift store. The costumes were a hit at the party--but very hot! Did I mention this was in Florida?

Favorite board game: If you'd asked me this a few months ago, I would've said Pandemic. And I was thrilled when its designer, Matt Leacok, blurbed my board game book last year. Right now, though, I'd say my fave board game is either Code Names or Exploding Kittens (which is a card game). 

What are you reading now?: Actually, since I'm teaching an MFA thesis course right now, I'm reading A LOT of student manuscripts.  I have also been listening to short stories from a few recent volumes of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year (edited by Jonathan Strahan) on Scribd. One of my favorite these  is "Red Dirt Witch" by NK Jemisin. Love her stuff and have the latest on order!

Angie Smibert was born in Blacksburg, a once sleepy college town in the mountains of Southwest Virginia. She grew up thinking she wanted to be a veterinarian; organic chemistry had other ideas. But she always had stories in her head. Eventually, after a few degrees and few cool jobs - including a 10-year stint at NASA's Kennedy Space Center - she wrote some of those stories down. Visit her online at:

Monday, May 11, 2020

Author Eileen Moskowitz-Palma discusses her new book THE POPULARITY PACT: CAMP CLIQUE: BOOK ONE

Now that the weather is getting warmer, I can almost imagine summer. And speaking of summer, I thought this would be the perfect time to interview author Eileen Moskowitz-Palma about her new book THE POPULARITY PACT: CAMP CLIQUE: BOOK ONE.

I got a chance to read this book (and blurb it!) before publication, and I absolutely adore it!

About the Book: 

In the blink of a summer, Bea goes from having a best friend and a place she belongs to being dropped and invisible, eating lunch alone and only talking to teachers. The end of sixth grade and the start of Camp Amelia can't come soon enough. 

But then the worst part of school, ex-best friend Maisy, shows up in Bea's safe place and ruins it all. Maisy lands in the same bunk as Bea and summer suddenly seems dire. Never having camped a day in her life, Maisy agrees: it's hopeless. She should be at home, spending time with her little sister and hanging out with her super popular crew of friends--not at this stupid adventure camp failing everything and being hated by everyone. In a desperate bid to belong, Maisy offers Bea a deal: if Bea helps her fit in at the camp, she will get Bea into the M & M's, their town's popular clique, when they enter seventh grade in the fall. The Popularity Pact is born.

The interview:

First of all, tell me what inspired The Popularity Pact: Camp Clique: Book One? 

From my experience as a teacher and a mother, I noticed there are many kids who feel socially accepted in one part of their life, while struggling in another. Sometimes it’s the captain of the travel soccer team who has no one to sit with at lunch, other times it’s a kid with a tight friend group at school, who doesn’t know how to make new friends when they move to a new school. I wanted to explore what happens when a child’s confidence is shaken because they don’t fit into a part of their world.

Changing friendships is a common (and painful) theme in middle grade fiction. Why did you want to focus on it and did you experience anything similar to what Bea and Maisy experience in the story when you were growing up? 

I remember middle school as the time when friendships matter more than anything else. Kids start to feel more independent from their parents and they haven’t started dating yet, so their best friend often becomes the most important person in their life. I didn’t experience what Bea and Maisy did, but my daughter was dropped from her friend group in eighth grade and it was the hardest season of parenting for me because there was nothing I could do to help her walk through that experience. I wanted to write a story to help kids who are experiencing the loss of a friendship, while also getting across the message that authentic friendship is more important than fitting in.

I love the cold-bloodedness of the two girls’ pact. They each believe that the pact is the only solution to what they’re each experiencing. How did you come up with the idea? It’s genius?

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert describes ideas as life forms that come in search of a human to partner up with. I know this sounds a little out there, but that is exactly what happened to me. I was on a long car ride with my family, when all of a sudden this idea showed up quite insistently. I thought about what might happen if the queen bee of middle school (Maisy) ends up being the underdog at camp and she has to rely on the invisible girl at school (Bea) who is popular at camp to help her fit in. The idea of the pact came to me so suddenly and in such a powerful way that it felt very much like Elizabeth Gilbert describes. 

Getting to experience someone else’s world is both daunting and eye-opening; Whose shoes would you love to walk in for a day? 

Because I have chronic autoimmune issues, I have been homebound during this pandemic except for the occasional walk outside. For the past eight weeks, my husband has been working long hours as a veterinarian in Manhattan in the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis. On his days off he has to shoulder the burden along with my daughter Molly of doing all of the grocery shopping and errands because I can’t leave the house. If I could trade places with anyone right now, it would be my husband, so that I could do all of the grocery shopping and errands and give him a reprieve. 

There is a neat twist at the end of the story that I won’t give away, but was book two completely plotted and written before your agent pitched this to your publisher? Is it already written (I can’t wait!)

Originally, The Popularity Pact was a stand-alone book that only told what happened when Bea helped Maisy fit in at camp. When I queried my agent Lauren Galit, she pointed out that I only told half of the story. She asked me what happens when the girls go back to school? She said readers would want to see what happened when it’s Maisy’s turn to help Bea fit in at school. As soon as she said it, I realized she was right. So I revised the manuscript so that it was half of a two book series, and outlined book two. Lauren shopped it around to publishers with the first manuscript Camp Clique completed, and the outline for the second book School Squad, which is now written and will be published on October 6th.

You and I have both had new books released during the pandemic. How did you pivot your book launch to reach people?

Leading up to my publication date, I was really looking forward to school visits because I am a former elementary school teacher. I made it to one school visit in the Bronx the last week before schools closed in New York and left feeling inspired to connect with more kids over writing. Days later, when I realized that there would be no more school visits I was immediately caught up in my own disappointment. But then I saw my social media feed fill up with parents who were suddenly figuring out how to homeschool and work from home at the same time. At the time schools were still in the process of setting up online curriculum, which added another layer of stress for parents who wanted to keep the education momentum going for their kids, but didn’t yet have a solid game plan in place. I realized that I could help. I set up virtual creative writing camps for kids in grades two through eight. I worked with almost 100 kids from all over the country in the first three weeks of the program. There is no cost for the camp, I only ask that parents order both books. 

How are you engaging with readers during this time of social distance?

I promised all of my writing camp kids that we could reunite after they read the book for book club discussions. I told the kids to jot down any questions they had about the book while they were reading it and to bring those questions to our meeting. It gave us the opportunity to have a discussion based on the things they really wanted to talk about. They asked such great questions that I am going to include them in the reading discussion guide at the end of the paperback edition of Camp Clique. This experience taught me that there are all different creative ways to connect with readers. I am looking forward to continuing the virtual writing camps and book clubs through the summer and will be partnering up with libraries, museums and other programs over the country. 

Eileen's Social Media Deets:

For information about writing camp or book clubs, please email Eileen at