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Monthly Archives: April 2016

YA & Middle Grade Literature: TRIVIA!

YA & Middle Grade Literature: TRIVIA!

I want to let you guys know that I am teaching a workshop class this summer for people who are working on YA or Middle Grade novels. We will do a combo of mini-lessons, discussions, writing exercises, and plenty of critiques of each other’s work. I taught the class this winter, and it went really well, and I’m excited to teach it again. Classes will be held on Tuesdays at 2pm at The Writers Center in Bethesda. If you know anyone in the DC area who might be interested, please spread the word!

And so, in honor of my YA/Middle Grade class, I’ve decided to do another round of Literary Trivia — see below. For some reason, I love trivia, even though I’m terrible at it. I went somewhat recently to DC Improv’s trivia night and was ecstatic just because my team didn’t come in last.


Our door decoration is ready for the spring/summer season!


“Why do you like trivia so much?” my husband asked me when we got home. “You’re so bad at it.”

“I think it’s the anticipation of the next question,” I said.  I’m always hoping the next question will be something that is totally in my wheelhouse, like Beck songs, or children’s literature from the early nineties. Then, I will be the only one in the room who knows the answer, and I’ll feel super awesome.

Of course, then the next question comes, and it’s something about golf, and I’m like, “uh… Tiger Woods?” because he’s literally the only golfer I know. This doesn’t deter me, though.  I just get excited about the next question. Thinking that maybe the next one will be the one I magically know.

Every time I go to trivia, I fantasize about hosting my own trivia night, with nothing but questions I know the answers to. And then I remember, hey, I can do that on my blog!  (I’ve done it before.)

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Don’t worry, I won’t ask about the Baby-Sitter’s Club book I wrote in 2nd grade.


So, here you are. In honor of my upcoming class at The Writers Center, I present to you:


Answer as many of these questions as  you can without the help of google.  Answers are at the bottom of the page.

#1 The title of Lewis Carroll’s book about a girl named Alice falling down a rabbit hole is NOT Alice in Wonderland. What is the actual title?

#2 Before writing The Hunger Games series, Suzanne Collins was a writer for what American teen sitcom from the early nineties?

#3 This British children’s novel about time travel and girls at boarding school inspired Robert Smith of The Cure to write a song with the same name. What is the title of this novel (and the name of the song)?

#4 In the YA book Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver, what day is protagonist Samantha made to live over and over again?

#5 In the book Blubber by Judy Blume, the class bully (Wendy) forces the class victim (Linda) to eat a piece of candy. What does Wendy tell Linda the candy actually is?

#6 Who is the narrator in the middle grade fairy-tale inspired book Far Far Away by Tom McNeal?

#7 What color is protagonist Karou’s hair in the book The Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor?

#8  In Francesca Lia Block’s book Weetzie Bat, what is “duck hunting”?

#9 Name at least one of the jobs held by Louis in E.B. White’s book The Trumpet of the Swan. (P.S. Louis is the swan.)

#10 In the John Green novel An Abundance of Katherines, what is the significance of the name “Katherine?”


The cover of The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey





#1 Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland

#2 Clarissa Explains It All

#3 Charlotte Sometimes

#4 Cupid Day (February 12)

#5 a chocolate-covered ant

#6 The ghost of Jacob Grimm

#7 blue

#8  looking for guys to date

#9 camp bugler at Camp Kookooskoos, works for the Swan Boat in Boston, and a jazz trumpeter in a nightclub,

#10 The main character, Colin, has dated nineteen girls named Katherine, all spelled that way.




I Fell in Love with Tanka Poetry: A Review of Dawn Manning’s Postcards from the Dead Letter Office

I Fell in Love with Tanka Poetry:  A Review of Dawn Manning’s Postcards from the Dead Letter Office

At first, I wasn’t going to review Dawn Manning’s book of poetry, Postcards from the Dead Letter Office. After all, I don’t consider myself a poet. I don’t read much poetry. What would I have to say about her book? Certainly nothing intelligent.

But then I read the book, and I fell in love with it. I decided to review it (even though I might not say anything intelligent) because I want other people to discover this beautiful little book and fall in love with it, too.

One reason I’m so intent on sharing is that the poems in Postcards from the Dead Letter Office are accessible. You don’t have to be a literary scholar or have a degree in poetry to understand and appreciate them. And that, to me, is so wonderfully refreshing. These poems remind me that poetry isn’t supposed to make me feel stupid. Poetry is supposed to make me feel. And these poems do.


Postcards from the Dead Letter Office by Dawn Manning was published in 2016 by Burlesque Press.  It is available here, or on Amazon.  (What a good thing to read during National Poetry Month!)


Most of the poems in the collection are tanka, a form of Japanese poetry similar to haiku. When writing in English, Manning explains in the introduction, you can think of tanka “as a five-line poem that can be said in about two breaths.” What’s most important about the form, however, is that there is a pivot within the poem in which one image or idea turns into another:Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 10.47.25 AM.png

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Don’t you just love it? A row of gravestones becomes the teeth of a zipper that joins together heaven and earth. There’s so much to love in those five little lines. The image, the surprising metaphor, the feeling — both simple and complex — that this poem evokes. But I gush…

Manning’s tanka are bite-sized, able to be consumed in about two breaths. And yet they pack such an emotional punch. I have been reading a handful of her tankas each morning and feeling satiated all day.

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Dawn Manning in Mexico.  Several years ago, I did this interview with her.


Postcards to the Dead Letter Office is broken up into themed sections:  tankas for each season and tankas for the various places the globe-trotting Manning has visited: Mexico, Venice, Scotland, and China to name a few. Interspersed among the tanka poetry are a few longer poems, though (to my short-attention-spanned-delight) none longer than twelve lines. The organization of Postcards as a whole was neat and beautiful, and when I finished reading the last poem, I felt complete; as if I had traveled the world in a single year and come home satisfied:

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Though the tankas are short (tweet-able, even), they say so much. Some explore beautiful images. Others take on personal topics. Occasionally, Manning mentions high-brow ideas like Ezra Pound or Monet paintings, but she kindly explains the references in her Notes section of the back of the book – she wants us to understand.  But perhaps the most wonderful thing of all is Manning’s cleverness, her quiet humor:

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Before reading Manning’s poetry, I had never heard of tanka. Now, I find myself so enamored with it I even tried writing some tanka of my own. It’s a fun form to dabble with, even for a self-proclaimed non-poet like myself.

Any poetry book that inspires me to write my own poetry must be good. And any poetry book I can read and enjoy from cover to cover… well, let’s just say, that doesn’t happen often.  Postcards from the Dead Letter Office is a collection I know I will come back to. Read and reread, savoring each deliciously dense poem. I can travel the world from the comfort of my living room, as Manning’s careful images bloom and turn in my mind.

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I did a terrible job taking a picture of it, but Dawn made these wonderful postcards with her poems and photographs she took on her travels.

Awkward Pitches & Bad Questions (How to Avoid Both) at the Philly Writing Workshop

Awkward Pitches & Bad Questions (How to Avoid Both) at the Philly Writing Workshop

Over the weekend, I attended the Philadelphia Writing Workshop in downtown Philly. I had signed up (and paid for) for three 10-minute meetings with literary agents, and so, for the first time ever, I pitched my book in person.

My first pitch was at the beginning of the conference, but my other two weren’t until late afternoon, so I had stomach butterflies all day, which certainly weren’t aided by the spicy pulled pork sandwich I chose to eat for lunch. (Thank god I didn’t spill any on myself.)

The agent pitches were awkward. I mean, how could they not be? You are herded into a room with a bunch of other nervous writers. The timer is set for ten minutes. You sit down and try to make quick small talk. (I told one agent that I liked her necklace, which I did, but I’m sure it just came off as sucking up.) You talk about your book, and then you wait to see if the agent says she’s interested. (I’m sure it’s awkward for them, too.)

Talking about my novel took me less than two minutes (I didn’t want to ramble), so then I had to think of ways to fill the remaining time. Mostly the agents asked me questions like, “what inspired you to write the book?” and I asked them questions like, “are you an editorial agent?” even though I already knew from reading interviews with them online that the answer was yes.

Here are a few things I learned about myself in these situations:

  1. I have a really hard time maintaining eye contact. I don’t know if it was the fluorescent overhead lighting or what, but looking into the agents’ eyes made me feel like I was going blind.
  2. Apparently I have a nervous tic: scratching my head. I was scratching my head so often I hope the agents don’t think I have lice.

Here are a few things I wish I had come prepared with:

  1. Middle grade authors and books I most admire. (I was able to come up with a few on the spot, but I would have liked more time to think about it.)
  2. A better-working pen to use when writing down the book titles one agent suggested I read.


Despite how I’m making it sound, the meetings went well. All three agents said they were interested and asked that I send them the first 50 pages of my manuscript. I know better than to get too excited at this point. I know they might read the pages and decide my book isn’t right for them. But, hey, three for three means I’m doing something right with my pitching. And no matter what happens next, it was good practice to sit in front of agents and tell them about my book.


Here I am in Philly a few years ago, with my friend, Dawn.


When I wasn’t pitching agents, I attended the sessions about how to get published and market yourself as a writer. These talks were given by Chuck Sambuchino, the editor of Guide to Literary Agents, who spoke like the Micro Machines guy and doled out plenty of quips, stories, and tough-love advice. Even though most of the information was stuff I already knew from books and the Internet, he was definitely entertaining, and I’m sure he was super helpful for those just starting to investigate the writing world.

One of the best things about Chuck, in my opinion, was that he knew how to shut down bad questions and move on.

“I have a question. I’ve written a memoir that’s about twenty percent fictional, and–” a man began.

“I’m going to stop you right there,” Chuck said. “Memoir isn’t fictional.  At all.”

“Okay then, a novel inspired by real invents, and—“

“All novels are inspired by real events. This is a boring question. Moving on. Next question.”

A little harsh, yes, but as a person who has suffered through a lot of annoying questions at a lot of literary events, I appreciated it.

And I know, I know, there’s supposedly no such thing as a stupid question, but when you’re sitting in a room with two hundred other people and a speaker who has a limited time to get through a pile of information, there is.

Here are a few ways, in my humble opinion, to avoid being the person who asks a stupid question:  


  1. If your question can be easily answered by google, don’t ask it.
  2. If your question is super specific to you or your project, don’t ask it.
  3. If you are somewhat new to the writing world, maybe it’s better to listen and soak up as much info as you can. Chances are, your question will be answered eventually, or you might realize that the question you were going to ask is sort of silly.
  4. You can always ask questions later, in a smaller setting, instead of in a room with 200 other people.



Sometimes it’s best to keep quiet!


And that’s it. That’s my take-away from Philly Writing Workshop. I met some super nice people, practiced pitching to agents, and made it home to DC despite the SNOW. On Monday morning, I sent the first fifty pages of my manuscript to all three agents. We’ll see what happens. I’ll keep you guys posted.

Acting Auditions & Pitching to Literary Agents

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Acting Auditions & Pitching to Literary Agents

When I was younger, I desperately wanted to be an actress. I remember going to auditions and being totally bummed out when I didn’t get a part.

In the eighth grade I tried out for the role of Scout in our community theater’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird. They were looking for a middle school kid who could play a believable six-year-old. I was already five-foot-five at the time, and yet somehow I thought I could win the part based on my acting abilities alone. I didn’t even get a call-back.

I tended to take rejections very personally. Freshman year of high school I assumed the theater teacher didn’t like me when he didn’t cast me in the spring play. I ruminated about it in my diary: I think I’m good. I AM good at acting, aren’t I? Rejections did a number on my self-esteem.

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My acting headshot from when I was 19.


After high school, I decided to go for total self-esteem suicide and move to Los Angeles, where I got rejected even more.

The thing I didn’t realize back then was that it often wasn’t about whether I was “good” or not. It was about whether I was what the casting directors were looking for or not. If casting directors were looking for a blond bimbo, or a gorgeous waif… well then, I just didn’t fit the bill, no matter how good my acting was (although, in hindsight, maybe I wasn’t quite as amazing as I thought I was.)

In any case, it wasn’t that I was bad at acting. It was that I wasn’t in the right place at the right time.


Acting in a community theater play, age 24.


A similar thing happens in the world of publishing. You query agents and get rejections, and it’s hard not to take it personally. It’s hard not to start questioning your writing abilities. (I think I’m a good writer. I AM a good writer, aren’t I?) It can really do a number on your self-esteem.

What you have to realize is that a rejection doesn’t always have to do with whether or not you’re a good writer (although obviously that’s important, too). It’s not enough for your book to be good.  Your manuscript has to make an agent super-duper excited… excited enough to hawk it all over town.

And not only that.  Your book also has to be what the agent is looking for. Maybe you wrote a really great book about time travel, but the agent doesn’t think she can sell a time travel book right now. Or, maybe she already represents an author who writes about time travel and doesn’t want two competing clients. Or, maybe she just doesn’t like time travel for whatever personal reason. Her rejection might have nothing at all to do with the caliber of your writing.

So many agent rejection letters say something along the lines of, It wasn’t right for me, but another agent may feel differently. That’s what you have to remember. It’s not (necessarily) that your book is bad. It’s that you’re not querying the right people at the right time.


Rejection can be hard to take.


I’m about to go on a big audition in the literary world. This Saturday (April 9) I’m attending the Philadelphia Writing Workshop, a one-day conference on getting your writing published.  And I’ve signed up for three ten-minute pitch sessions with agents.

These are meetings I had to pay for ($29 a pop), but I am guaranteed ten minutes in which I can talk about my book(s) and see if the agent is interested.

I’m pretty nervous. I’ve read all sorts of things online about how to do these pitch sessions. “Have your logline memorized,” some people advise. “This is a chance to give your query out loud.”

“I mean, should I just sit down and start reciting my query letter?” I asked a friend of mine who’s done one of these before, “or should I talk about my book like a normal person?”

“Talk like a normal person,” she said.

“Oh good. That’s what I’d rather do.”

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Acting in a community theater play.  Age 26 or 27.


Anyway, I do plan on taking advice from several websites that say to give the genre, title, and word count up front so the agent knows what she’s in for.

And I certainly plan on practicing what I’m going to say – in fact I already have. But I’m also going to try to have a somewhat-normal conversation with each agent.  I’ll tell them about my book, see if they’re interested, no big deal.  It might be what they’re looking for, it might not be. Nothing to freak out about… right??

I’m also going to keep in mind that these pitch meetings are not just about me showcasing my book to an agent. They’re also for both of us to decide if we’d like to work together for the next few decades of our careers. (In which case, talking like a normal person and not a query-spouting robot is probably a helpful thing to do.)

In a way, it’s not just the agent auditioning me. I’m auditioning the agent, too. I’ll ask questions: are you a hands-on or hands-off agent? How many other clients do you have? How and how often do you communicate with your clients? I should make sure we’re right for each other.

All it takes is for one agent to say yes. Then I’ll have the role I’ve always wanted: the role of an agented author (again).

Not everybody has to like my book, but I do need to find the right person at the right time. So, fingers crossed that this person is going to be at the Philadelphia Writing Workshop this weekend!

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