Category Archives: Writing Techniques

writers can learn a lot from a dummy

Collage by Vicky Lorencen

Collage by Vicky Lorencen

Back in the late 1900s, there was a clever public service announcement encouraging seatbelt use. It featured crash test dummies and the tagline “You can learn a lot from a dummy.”

Fast forward to, well, right this very minute. When I hear the word dummy, I think of a mini mock-up of a picture book, not a badass mannequin.

Some of my friends write picture books exclusively. (If you must know, I admire/loathe them all. Blast their bundles of talent! Promise not to repeat that, okay?) While, I, on the other cramped hand, write picture books illusively. Meaning, I get a won’t-go-away idea. I do my best to puzzle the idea into a manuscript and then tinker with it until it begs for mercy. Then rinse and repeat. It is never easy or pretty. But, Seuss help me,  it brings me a perverse, inexplicable delight when I finally pin that butterfly of an idea to the board. Making a dummy helps me get to that point.

Whether you and picture books are going steady or you only hang out when the mood strikes,  dummy-making may be wise for you too.

Smart dummy pointers . . .

  • Do not waste a nanosecond worrying about your inability to draw. Dummies are designed to be tools, not  objets d’art.
  • Illustrators need a dummy. Writers need a dummy. All God’s children need a dummy (more or less).
  • If your picture book word count needs a serious count down, making a dummy can really help. You can easily see which words are keepers and which are just leftovers. Aim for 500 or less–a whole heap less.
  • Dummies will also tell you if your cute or clever idea is robust and active enough to sustain a 32-page page-turner.
  • For a tip-top primer on how to make a dummy, visit this blog post from picture book author extraordinaire Tara Lazar.
  • At a recent SCBWI event, I picked up this cool trick from masterful picture book author Kelly DiPucchio. Once Kelly has a decent draft, she prints it and cuts out each line, then uses an existing 32-page picture book (any one will do) to check her pacing. She paperclips or lightly tapes her lines into the book to see how well her story fits the format. If not, she can tailor and tighten or expand.

You simply must be convinced of a dummy’s brilliance by now.

And so, my little cummerbund of cuteness, my bon vivant of brilliance, do you dare devise a dummy? Indeed, I hope you do.

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. ~ Steve Jobs

can’t even believe I’m giving you my secret to character interviews

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

I knew I wasn’t crazy. (Hey, I saw that eye roll!) In her lecture about the interior life of our characters, young adult and middle grade author Coe Booth said, “Characters should exist before we know them. They should keep ‘talking’ when we aren’t writing about them.” Coe had no idea how good her words made me feel. I wasn’t the only one who thought that about my characters!

When I began my third middle grade novel, I interviewed the people I hoped would populate the story. My goal was to become better acquainted with my already-identified main character and his family as early in the novel-writing process as possible.

Why? Well, for one thing, we were going to spend a heck of a lot of time together. Why start out as strangers? Also (and this is a big ALSO), knowing my characters allows me to anticipate how they’ll think and feel in the situations I’ll plot for them.

Based on the interview outcomes for each player–primary and secondary–I compiled character sketches. Each character has a job to do and I had to know they were up for it. Slackers need not apply!

Oh sure, my characters have surprised me already–and that’s the fun part–but hosting that meet and greet for the entire cast at the outset made a big difference before we buckled up and motored into the unknown together.

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Here’s my secret for a great character interview–turn off your inner censor. Unplug the darn thing and put your mouth on mute. Not unlike a brainstorming session where you agree there are no “good” ideas or “bad” ideas, the same must hold true as you query characters. LISTEN. Don’t interrupt or wonder if what they’re telling you is factual or even fits with the story you want to tell. Let your subconscious and your intuitive side have free rein. If you can do this, you will be amazed by what will surface. I recorded information about my characters and only afterward learned how the pieces fit together in powerful and significant ways I never could have planned or predicted.



Here are some sample character interview questions:
Who is your hero?
What’s your favorite day of the week? How come?
What’s under your bed?
What’s your earliest memory?
Do you have any allergies?
What candy is your all-time favorite?
If you could change your name, what would it be?
What’s your biggest fear?
What are you good at in school?
What do you wish you were good at?
When you look in a mirror, what part of your face do you like best?
What do you like to do when you get home from school?
Do you have a pet?
Do you have brothers or sisters?
How do you parents get along?
Who lives at your house?
What’s the best vacation or trip you’ve ever taken?
What seems unfair to you?
If you could live in another time in history, when would it be?
What ticks you off?
What rule would you change if you could?
What would happen if your best friend moved away?
What’s your least favorite chore at home?
Do you have a bad habit?
Do you like being hugged?
What would you do with $100?

Consider these questions for starters. I know you can think up even better ones (and please, feel free to share!)

Why not interview your characters too? Even if you’re mid-novel, it’s not too late to conduct an impromptu Q and A session. You may discover something that will add depth or quirkiness to your characters and “maybe” even help to explain why they do what they do (or aren’t cooperating).

But remember the secret–shift your censor into neutral. Let your characters delight, surprise and perplex you, and then they will do the same for your readers.

Every time I write a new book, I want to push myself to try something different. ~ Lauren Myracle

recognizing the detail smorgasbord (plus spring giveaway winners!)



Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

This time of year is an absolute boon for children’s writers. If you have children or grandkids, you’ll soon be attending award ceremonies, field days, banquets, carnivals, graduations, end-of-year parties or picnics. Well, when you do, be sure to take notes. These occasions are an All-You-Can-Record Detail Smorgasbord!

Oh, I know you think you’ll remember. You are wrong. Even if you take photos, many details will be spirited away. I am the mother of a high school senior. Benefit from my experience.




Jot down the names of the various awards and how students react to them, the food and amusements offered at the carnival, how the banquet was decorated and what was served, choice sound bites you overhear, and what teachers say to regain crowd control. Take note of the popular (and the not-so-popular) kids are wearing and how they talk, the words to songs that are sung, the music being played at a ceremony, the names of the games being played (and so on and so forth and what have you).

These notes will become precious to you when you sit down to write. You’ll have a stockpile of details to bring your work to life and ground it in a reality that is so familiar to your readers. (Oh,  and yes, you’ll have recorded dear details from your child’s school year, so there’s that too.)

The truth of the story lies in the details. ~ Paul Auster

Congratulations to the winners of the Frog on a Dime Spring Cleaning Giveaway . . .

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Lindsay Fouts–winner of Writer’s First Aid: Getting Organized, Getting Inspired and Sticking to It by Kristi Holl

Danielle Hammelef–winner of Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books by Uri Shulevitz

Please contact me with your address and I’ll be delighted to send you your book!


time for the spring cleaning giveaway!

Take your pick!

Take your pick!

It’s time. As much as it pains me, I must purge my bookshelves a bit. Because I’m your fan, I want to share my purgings with you. Huh. That didn’t come out right, did it.

Moving on–we have a resource for non-fiction writers, one for picture book attempters,  a practical book for any writer and (yes, there’s more) a set of brilliant middle grade novels by masters of the genre. And you thought this was going to be an ordinary day. Silly you!

Lean in and I’ll tell you how you can be a winner of the Spring Cleaning Giveaway: simply comment on this post and let me know which book (or books), you’d like to win. Then, I’ll draw names on Friday, April 17 at Noon. Easy sneezy.

Here’s what’s on the menu (and good luck deciding!) . . .

The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It Write It by Peter Jacobi

This book was published in the late 1900s (makes it sounds really outdated, doesn’t it). What it lacks in advice about online research, it more than makes up for in how to add substance, depth and honesty to your work as a non-fiction writer. Plus, it’s Peter Jacobi. He’s amazing. If you ever get the chance to hear him speak, do. He’s a true orator. And can that guy write. Oh, my. Did I mention this book is signed? I almost hate to part with it.

Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books by Uri Shulevitz

This is a classic. If you write (or aim to write) picture books, you simply must have this book. It’s a treasure. And yes, I am willing to share it with you. Is that love or what?

Writer’s First Aid: Getting Organized, Getting Inspired and Sticking to It by Kristi Holl

I met Kristi ages ago at a Highlights Foundation workshop. This lady knows her stuff. While this little volume looks demure, it can be a real kick in the pants.

These fine middle grade novels, I’m offering as set. You can study them for craft, enjoy each as a fun, quick read and then share them with a child you love.

  • A Series of Unfortunate Events, No. 2: The Reptile Room by Lemony Snicket
  • Lost in Cyberspace by Richard Peck
  • Hank Zipzer, The World’s Underachiever: Niagara Falls, or Does It? by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver
  • This Gum for Hire by Bruce Hale

Have you made up your mind? Don’t wait too long. Leave a comment by Noon on Friday and hopefully you’ll be a winner. Regardless, you are a fine person and there are plenty of kids who would be happy to sit by you at lunch. Remember, don’t slouch.

With freedom, books, flowers and the moon, who could not be happy? ~ Oscar Wilde

top 4 post-workshop mistakes to avoid

Vermont College of Fine Arts Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Vermont College of Fine Arts
Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Kathi Appelt, David Macinnis Gill, Dana Walrath, Joy Peskin Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Kathi Appelt, David Macinnis Gill, Dana Walrath, Joy Peskin
Photo by Vicky Lorencen

You roll your quarters, register, and highlight the dates on the calendar. You pre-pick your plane seat and pack your bags. You’re going to a workshop! You look forward to it for months, fret about how many pairs of shoes to take, and finally, it’s time to blast off. I got to do just that earlier this month when I attended the amazing 12th Annual Novel Writing Retreat at Vermont College of Fine Arts. (If you’d like a great recap of the experience itself, I highly recommend visiting Debbi Michiko Florence’s site.)

I don’t know about you, but time passes at a sloth’s pace leading up to an event, but then the workshop itself whisks by at road runner speed. If you’re not careful (and by you’re, of course, I mean, I’m), it’s easy as gliding up an escalator to let the whole experience slip away once you’re back home.

Watch out for these post-workshop mistakes . . . 

1. Rushing to query or submit your manuscript. Some writers think, if I don’t send that editor or agent my manuscript as soon as I get home, they’ll forget all about me. Not true, especially when you wisely offer a little reminder in the first sentence of your cover letter about how you met. Even if a presenter gives you a teensy window–like six weeks–to submit, take your time. Better to email a glistening, well-groomed manuscript, than to rush yourself and offer a schloppy copy. Your work is a reflection of you. Go for shiny, not speedy.

2. Neglecting your notes–if your notes are handwritten (mine always are), type them up. Seriously. It won’t take long, and while you’re typing, you’ll be reviewing the gems the presenters shared with you. It’ll be easy to highlight the parts that resonate with you too. [Next, pop some brackets around a hint or suggestion that perfectly applies to your WIP and cut/paste it into your ms. to serve as a reminder when you return to that section.] Don’t want to type? Use an old school highlighter or sticky notes to spotlight the bits you most want to recall. Put those pages (or copies of them) in the folder of goodies (research, hard copies, feedback) you’re compiling for this new novel. The idea is to incorporate every epiphany, aha and eureka into what you’re working on now, plus you’ll make them easier to find for future follies, that is to say, novels.

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

3. Disconnecting with the people who “clicked” with you. Friend them on Facebook, send a follow-up email or connect with them on LinkedIn. Send a text, a tweet or smoke signal, whatever works for you. These are your new peeps who share your passion. Passing on this chance to expand your circle is criminal, okay, well, at the very least, a pity.

4. Cooling off—you arrived home pooped, but positively giddy about a new idea for your WIP, but then your fervor fizzled. Family, your tyrannical to do list and Facebook eclipsed your euphoria. Don’t let them! If you have a critique group (or a beloved writing buddy), share what you learned with them. Talking about the lectures will help to solidify concepts in your mind. Your group/buddy may also be able to help decide out how to best use what you learned (and of course, you can return the favor). Ask someone to hold you accountable and offer to do likewise.

How about you? How do you keep the momentum moving after a workshop or retreat?

It is our choices, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. ~ J.K. Rowling

if it sounds like i’m begging, it’s only because i am

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Let’s say a real estate agent sends you one of those slick postcards, inviting you to an open house on Sunday. You’re not really in the market for a house, but the agent’s photo is so endearing, and well, there might be cookies, so you and your beloved make plans to go. You show up between the hours of 2 and 4, and there stands the darling real estate agent—on an empty plot of land.

You and your sweetie make simultaneous brow furrows and head scratches. Wrong address? Then one of you suggests, perhaps she’s going to walk us over to that quaint house next door. Maybe she was so excited to usher us into our new dream home, she waited outside. You both exit the car and approach the agent. She nods and laughs at your quizzical faces. “Yes, yes, this is the right address,” she assures you. “But there’s no house here. Not yet.” You two do a simultaneous brow lift. “Heavens,” she says, “It’s still in the design phase.”

What? Doesn’t that sound loony–to seek buyers for a house that only exists in the mind of the architect? Why, yes, indeed it does. But you know what? (Uh oh, here she goes . . . )

It snaps my heart in two when I see people who are new to children’s writing splintering their time in unproductive ways. (Probably because I hate seeing them repeat some of my own dundering blunders.) And while I hate calling a story a product, if you plan to sell it, it is. It would stand to reason then that one must have a product to sell before one goes to market. Yes?

So, please, please . . . you’ve got me down on my old knees here . . . if you are new to writing for children, pretty please with Nutella on top, place your focus on crafting not publishing.

Here’s where your focus needs to be (according to yours ever-truly):

  • Craft–first-drafting, revising, sharing with your critique group, revisiting and polishing
  • Establishing good writing habits and routines
  • Asking questions
  • Attending conferences and workshops centered on writing (not publishing)
  • Networking–yes, online, but also at retreats and what-have-yous
  • Joining or establishing a critique group
  • Reading books, blogs and articles on craft
  • Reading books in your genre of choice
  • Reading books outside your GOC
  • Cultivating interests and experiences away of writing–dance, gardening, making pickles–anything that widens your world a bit
  • Maintaining a positive online presence

Please don’t divert your precious writing hours by: 

  • Spending time and money learning how to give a stellar school visit
  • Searching for an agent (they need a polished product to take to market first!)
  • Submitting manuscripts (do not rush the process, let your manuscripts cool and mature)
  • Hunting for an illustrator (that’s the art director’s job)
  • Practicing your autograph (okay, well, it is fun, I’ll grant you that)
  • Drafting your Newbery acceptance speech (but I do admire your radiant self-confidence)
  • Investing metric tons of energy into building a fancy web site and online platform*

*Okay, you got me there. You may have noticed, since you are reading this after all, that I myself have a blog. Am I published? Well, no. Not yet.  But I do see value in having a site for several reasons–it gives me a way to share ideas, offer encouragement and connect with other writers, it makes me feel more like a professional writer, and yes, it is a means to building a wee online presence for myself (even if it is the size of a frog on a dime). So, go ahead and create a blog or web site, but only if you really want. Don’t feel pressured to do it and certainly do not let it gobble up your writing time.

Focus on craft when you’re starting out, and then, once you’re more established, you can focus on craft (some more).

Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana. ~ Anthony G. Oettinger

would you like to see a menu? my 4 recommendations



Photo by Vicky Lorencen Silver Bay, Adirondak Mountains in Lake George, NY

Photo by Vicky Lorencen
Silver Bay, Adirondak Mountains in Lake George, NY

Studying the menu at a new restaurant can be tantalizing. You scan the appetizers:  olive tapenade, baked brie and calamari, then peruse the main course options: lamb chops, tilapia, steak medallions, and finally the scrumptious desserts: peach pie, crème brulee or chocolate lava cake. So many choices. Sometimes it helps to ask your server for a recommendation.

Well, my charming writerly friends, I have a different menu of options to tempt you. I can personally attest to the high quality and value of each. You simply cannot make a bad choice (unlike that unfortunate experience with the ahi tuna sushi special. Sorry to bring that up again. Ew.). Any one of these will nourish your writing skills and expand your network (without expanding your waistband!) Because you can click the links to get all of the particulars, I’ll focus on my personal experience with each.

Highlights Foundation

Whether you write picture books, novels or non-fiction, you will find an outstanding collection of workshops with top-notch faculty hosted in the gorgeous natural surroundings of Pennsylvania. The Highlights team will treat you like gold and feed you like royalty. Presenters take a personal interest in your work and the small workshop sizes allow you to get to know the other participants and learn from them as well. Workshops are pricey, especially if you need to fly, but Highlights does offer scholarships, free shuttle service and makes the experience all-inclusive, so there are no extras to worry about beyond getting there. I loved it!

Vermont College of Fine Arts

Photo by Vicky Lorencen Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, Vermont

Photo by Vicky Lorencen
Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, Vermont

You probably already know about VCFA’s two-year low residency MFA program. But do you know there are also weekend workshops? What made this workshop a standout for me was the exuberantly positive atmosphere. The faculty–simply fabulous too. Truly. I came away feeling pretty darn giddy. I’m going again later this month and I can’t wait!

Falling Leaves/Green Leaves Master Class Retreats 

Moon over Lake George

Moon over Lake George

Hosted by the Eastern New York Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators, these fall and spring weekends take place on magical Silver Bay in Lake George, New York. This retreat has an amazing participant:presenter ratio–35:5. It’s no surprise, spots fill quickly. This workshop will stretch you and give you a boost.

UCLA Extension Writers’ Program

This online program pairs you with an instructor and a small group of students. I took a course called “Creating Memorable Characters,” which included textbooks and novels to read, as well as the expected homework. Interacting with the instructor and with the other students who were from all over the planet made this course especially fun.

I’ll give you a moment to look over the menu. If you have any questions, please let me know. I’m happy to serve you. Bon appetit!

Hors d’oeuvres have always had a pathetic interest for me. They remind me of one’s childhood that one goes through wondering what the next course will be like–and during the rest of the menu one wishes one had eaten more of the hors d’oeuvres. ~ H.H. Munro