Archive for August, 2011

The Writing Life, Chapter 5: The Joy of Research

One of the things I enjoy most about writing is the chance to do research and learn about interesting people, events, and facts. For instance, I just turned in an article on student activism for Teaching Tolerance magazine. Along the way, I had the opportunity to learn the stories of three remarkable young people: Rachel Beckwith, Alex Loorz, and Sarah Cronk.

Instead of asking for presents for her 9th birthday, Rachel asked family and friends to donate to charity: water, a nonprofit organization that provides clean water to people in developing countries. Rachel initially fell short of her $300 goal, but then on July 23 she died following a tragic auto accident. Word about Rachel’s death and her campaign spread and, as of August 29, people from all over the world had donated more than $1.2 million to charity: water through her webpage ( I’ve got to admit that when I first tried to read a news story about this to my wife and daughter, I couldn’t get through it without choking up. To learn more about this remarkable story, see this CBS news clip:

After seeing An Inconvenient Truth, 12-year-old Alec Loorz formed a nonprofit organization called Kids vs. Global Warming ( This past year, the now 16-year-old activist has worked to get teens to sign on to a series of lawsuits seeking to force the federal government and states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to protect the atmosphere as a “public trust” for future generations.

After watching her older brother struggle to fit in at high school because of his disabilities until being invited to join the swim team, Sarah Cronk formed an inclusive cheerleading squad at her school. Soon after, she helped form a nonprofit organization called The Sparkle Effect to spread the concept, and now there are more than two dozen Sparkle Effect cheerleading squads across the United States and in South Africa. Sarah recently received the $100,000 grand prize in the 2011 Do Something awards. To learn more, watch this clip from the awards show, which aired on VH1:

What a joy to learn about the work of these young activists! It renews my faith in the next generation and the ways they might make our world better. And I never would have known about any of them if I hadn’t been doing research for my article. Whether creating backstory for a novel or doing research for a nonfiction article or book, curiosity is a hallmark of any successful writer. We love to uncover interesting facts and learn new things.

Random Thought of the Week: It’s a real feeling of helplessness as you watch a hurricane approach your region and realize that, beyond taking some basic precautions, there’s nothing you can do about what’s coming. We feel very fortunate; we only had a few branches down, no water in the basement, and no power outages. Our thoughts go out to those who weren’t so lucky and suffered significant damage.

The Writing Life, Chapter 4: A Juggling Act

For the first three months of my freelance career, projects came in at a slower rate than I had hoped. I spent much of my time developing marketing materials for my new business, taking an online course to learn about self-publishing, working on several children’s book manuscripts, and brainstorming ideas for several more. 

This week, however, I’m frantically trying to get two projects completed, with another due soon. I’m bouncing back and forth between them, focusing first on one, then the other. All are fun projects—an article on student activism for Teaching Tolerance magazine, a news release promoting the One School, One Book program, and a brochure for the Highlights Foundation.

On the one hand, it can be a bit disconcerting to keep shifting my focus back and forth. On the other, it helps keep my perspective fresh. By working on one project for a while and then setting it aside for a bit to work on another, I never get into a mental rut.

Whenever I work with young writers in schools, I always stress the value of setting aside a draft for a while—a few hours or a few days—before editing it. That allows them to view the piece with fresh eyes and [hopefully] catch problems or errors they might not have seen otherwise. Weeks like this one help ensure that I practice that principle with my own writing.

With that in mind, I welcome the opportunity to juggle projects. Not only does it mean that the work is coming in at a good pace, but it also allows me to maintain a fresher perspective than if I were totally immersed in a single project.

Random Thought of the Week: I’m getting together with a college friend later this week, which started me thinking about my hopes and dreams for my writing back in the late 1970s, when I bounced back and forth between thinking I would someday be a bestselling author and simply hoping I’d SOMEDAY get SOMETHING published SOMEWHERE. At the time, if I’d known that at this point in my life I’d have 16 published books to my credit (all of which put together don’t equal one bestseller), I guess I would have thought that was pretty good.

The Writing Life, Chapter 3: A Great Assignment

For many years, I have been a fan of Teaching Tolerance, a magazine published by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Alabama to raise awareness about issues pertaining to tolerance, peace, racism, gender equity, and related topics. This spring I served on an awards judging panel for the Association of Educational Publishers with Maureen Costello, director of SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance program. I mentioned to her that I would love to write for Teaching Tolerance magazine sometime, and she put me in touch with Sean Price, one of the magazine’s editors. Sean and I traded e-mails for a few months, and I have just been assigned to write an article on encouraging student activism for an upcoming issue.

I’m sitting here this morning feeling really fortunate that I can earn money exploring a fascinating subject like this and bringing information about it to a wide range of teachers throughout the world. The background research I’ve been doing for the article has been often inspiring and sometimes heart-rending. When the article is finished, I’ll let everyone know how to access it.

I’m moving forward on some book projects as well. We were enjoying the cool August evenings in Maine last week, and I spent some time editing my still untitled book of beach poems for children. This is a project I started about a dozen years ago, but I wasn’t able to find a home for it with a commercial publishing house. I’ve totally rewritten most of the poems, and I’m now looking at producing it as a self-published project.

My poems will be paired with wonderful photographs taken by my friend Lisa Goodman, an accomplished professional photographer. I was in a writer’s group with Lisa about five years ago, and when I saw some of her beach photographs I knew they would make the perfect accompaniment to my poems. This summer we’ve finally had time to pursue that idea, and it’s been really gratifying to see the project begin to come together. I’ll keep you posted on our progress.

Random Thought of the Week: I went back and forth last week in Maine between feeling guilty that I spent a chunk of my vacation working and feeling guilty that I wasn’t getting more work done. After all, as a self-employed writer/editor, if I don’t work I don’t eat. In the end, I decided that I had struck a good balance between work and fun. Besides, when working involves spending a few hours in the Bangor Public Library, one of my favorite places on Earth, it’s not really working anyway!

The Writing Life, Chapter 2: Getting Ideas

When I visit schools, students often ask where I get my ideas. Generally, I offer a nebulous response such as “Anywhere…Everywhere.” I’m not simply being flippant. Ideas comes from the strangest places, and they often come when I’m least expecting them. Sometimes I can see almost immediately how an idea might bloom into an article or book. Other times the process is somewhat akin to giving birth to an elephant. Almost always, it takes a good deal of work and research to turn an idea into a usable piece of writing.

The other week my wife, Debbie, and I went to the University of Delaware library to see a special Revolutionary War exhibit. This field guide to the 13 colonies gave generals an overview of all the strategic places where battles might take place. It was a fascinating exhibit, but try as I might I could not think of a way to translate any of the information into usable form for a children’s book or article.

While we were in the library, however, we wandered through other parts of the building and found a brand-new exhibit of books about the Civil War. Most pertained to Abraham Lincoln, but it was another book that caught my eye–the autobiography of Sarah Emma Edmonds, who impersonated a man and served two years in the Union army. Not only that, but she also served as a spy, assuming the guise of a slave and an Irish peddler. She also worked as a nurse.

What a fascinating person, I thought! My mind immediately began turning over ways that I might turn this story into a picture book for youngsters at the older end of the picture book spectrum (ages 8 to 10). I did some preliminary research and found only a single middle school/young adult biography of Edmonds that was written several years ago. I saw my book as occupying a different niche and got excited about the prospects.

Alas, a second round of searching on revealed not one, but two, picture books about Edmonds that came out just this spring. I intend to find copies of them, but I doubt that I can find an angle that is sufficiently fresh to justify another book on the same topic. And that’s the other thing about ideas–you have to go through a lot of them before you find ones that are unique, marketable, and appropriate for your interests and talents.

Random Thought of the Week–My computer shared my disappointment in finding out about the other books on Sarah Emma Edmonds. As I completed my search, it gave me an error message and promptly shut down. The problem turned out to be a crashed hard drive, and even the best efforts of a computer whiz friend were unsuccessful in bringing it back to life (even freezing it overnight, which I learned sometimes revives it long enough to get the data off of it). So my sage advice to others this week is to be more diligent than I was in backing up files. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I backed up and when, what I have available in other places such as e-mail attachments, and what is simply lost. Live and learn!


The Writing Life, Chapter 1

Welcome to my writing blog! Making a living as a freelance writer/editor/children’s book author/speaker is an interesting experience, and I hope to chronicle some of the joys and challenges with weekly updates about my progress on various writing projects, as well as other random thoughts that may or may not pertain to writing. I hope this blog will be of interest both to student and adult writers, as well as literacy teachers and friends who follow my writing career.

Recently I’ve been reminded about two keys P’s in publishing: patience and persistence. I’ve started work on two projects that were first discussed more than three months ago. One is a brochure for the Highlights Foundation; the other is an article for Teaching Tolerance magazine. In both cases, the initial ideas were generated in early April, but it took three months and several rounds of correspondence before the projects actually got going. So, whenever I start to fret about queries that remain in limbo, I take comfort in remembering that projects often do come to fruition–when the time is right.

I’m also juggling various stages of several book projects: a book of poems about the beach for young readers, a picture book titled The Sound in the Basement, and a young adult book about the ongoing attempts to solve the history mystery surrounding Amelia Earhart’s disappearance in 1937. I just finished taking a really interesting online course about self-publishing, and I hope to follow that path for some of my future projects.

I’ve also begun research for three more history-related children’s books. I’ll describe these projects in more detail in future postings when the ideas have taken a bit more shape. I’m a little superstitious about saying too much about a project until I “have my head around it.” Otherwise, I feel I may somehow jinx it!

That’s all for now. Watch for another update next week.

Random Thought of the Week: As I have watched our elected officials in Washington struggle to avert default on the national debt, I’m reminded of recess on my elementary school playground years ago. We often spent precious minutes arguing over the rules of whatever game we were playing. Sometimes we needed a teacher’s gentle reminder that if we couldn’t compromise there might not be any game at all. Maybe we need some of my elementary teachers down in Washington!