The Real Housewife of Kidlit: Daily Life Holds the Key to Humor with @TaraLazar

Oh, remember that old saying “write what you know”? Scholars have been trying to simultaneously support and debunk that adage for millions of years. (Yes, it dates back to the early Jurassic period and Shakespearasaurus.) But me? How do I feel about it? I can confirm and deny the statement with equal fervor, depending upon which story I am writing.

LazarT_headshotFor today, I will tell the tale of how my own life informed the humor of NORMAL NORMAN. I will support “write what you know” even though I had no idea what kind of animal Norman was when I began writing. That little tidbit I will leave for later…

One of the most common phrases overheard at Chez Lazar is, “Mommy, you are NOT NORMAL.” So that is how Norman came into being. I created NORMAL NORMAN with every intention of making him ABNORMAL. His opposite-than-expected antics are the basis for the humor throughout the book.

Then, I gave this strange animal his own stuffed animal. Guess what I named that stuffed anteater? Something soft and cuddly which would sound funny when Norman referred to his pal. I stole the name “Mr. Scruffles” from my daughter’s favorite plushie and had Norman call him “my wovey-dovey Scruffle-di-poo.” Again, real Lazar life crept into my story.

Then at one point Norman tries to escape. I wanted something hilarious for him to race away in. It triggered a memory of my husband’s favorite stuffed toy as a child, a koala named Rufus Dunebuggy. So what did Norman hop into? A dunebuggy. Think of it, a purple orangutan driving a dunebuggy—what’s not to love?

NNFinally, there is a line in the book when the junior scientist tries to pretend that all the previous madness did not happen. She tries to gloss over her major meltdown. So she says, “Please pardon that interruption. We were experiencing temporary technical difficulties.” Once again, I mined my mind for that humorous little pause. A similar thing happened to me in elementary school. I was being filmed but made a mistake and I asked the teacher to start over. She shook her head NO in that very authoritative teacher way and I had to think quickly to cover my goof. So I said the line above. And I’d also like to say that I got an A on that project!

So try it—comb through your own experiences to find humor for your stories. You don’t necessarily have to come up with something out of nowhere. Take it from somewhere. If it happened to you and it made you laugh, that’s good material. It’s gold. Write what you know!

But I am going to be abnormal (and a pain in the butt) by telling you that you can also write what you don’t know. Like, what kind of animal your character is. I did not know what species Norman was when I wrote NORMAL NORMAN. I thought the illustrator would have a far better idea than I would. There had to be some visual humor at play, and I did not know how best to approach that, so I left it up to him. And guess what happened? S.Britt created a character so far beyond anything I ever could have imagined!

In conclusion—write what you know…? Or don’t? That is for you to figure out in your next manuscript, my friend!

tarafall2011picTara Lazar loves writing bios that make her sound witty and interesting, but often fails. Her picture books play with puns, irreverent humor and irresistible characters. NORMAL NORMAN, featuring a nerdy purple orangutan, released this spring from Sterling. Tara is the founder of Picture Book Idea Month, affectionately known as PiBoIdMo. She is a RUCCL council member and a speaker at SCBWI events. Tara guffaws with a unique laugh that is often mocked by her two daughters and husband. If you’d like to bribe her, Manchego cheese and Rice Krispie Treats will do the trick.

To stay in touch with Tara, follow her on Twitter @taralazar and check out her website at




Balancing Act by @KristineAsselin

Work. Kids. Family. Pets. Volunteering. You know, Life. Oh right, we’re writers. Add writing to that list.

Lately, my life has felt like a metaphor for balancing these golf balls. And not particularly well, I might add.

I’m guessing some of you have experienced the same feeling?golf balls (1)

This is a picture I actually took. Two is pretty easy.  We did this on my dining room floor in a few minutes.  I’ve been able to balance three before…but I didn’t have the patience today. 

I constantly beat myself up about not writing enough. You know how it goes, “you should be BIC (butt in chair) every single day. You’re a writer, you must write.”

The thing is, we all need to give ourselves a break. Especially this time of year. Last week, I had an end-of-the-year school commitment for my daughter every single evening. Plus her first semi-formal. Plus two writing workshop commitments on Saturday. And then another work thing on Sunday. Every day for the last fifteen days, I’ve had something scheduled outside the house. Not including “the day job.”

Then I remember the golf balls stacked up. And I know that with one fell swoop, they’ll come tumbling down. It takes care and patience (a lot of patience, I’d say) to get complete balance.

When things get a little crazy, and I find myself taking that much needed break from writing, I think about all the ways to “fill the well” while I’m not working. I may be taking a break, but watching AGENTS OF SHIELD with my daughter gives me ideas on character development and story arc. Listening to my Pandora station keeps me in my character’s head. Sometimes just listening to the chatter of girls in my back seat gives me a snippet of dialogue or a plot point. It’s all useful!

By the way, according to a quick google search, Don Athey of Bridgeport, OH holds the Guinness World Record by stacking nine golf balls (without adhesives).

Nine. Try it, I dare you. You’ll find balancing your life much easier.

Things settle down next week. I’ll be balancing golf balls working on my novel with my butt in the chair. I hope you will be as well!

Signing up for Kid Lit Summer School is a great way for you to get your mojo ramped up and roaring.


Click HERE for details.

1425737_10151884607793880_803966058_nKristine Carlson Asselin writes Young Adult and Middle-Grade fiction. Her YA novel Any Way You Slice It (Bloomsbury Spark) is currently available and her debut middle-grade, The Art of the Swap (co-authored with Jen Malone) has recently sold to Simon and Schuster for publication in 2017. Kristine is also the author of sixteen nonfiction children’s books for the elementary school library market. Kris does query package critiques under the alter-ego @QueryGodMother and loves doing school visits for kids all over New England.

To keep up with Kristin, follow her on Twitter at @KristineAsselin and check out her website at

Play Cat’s Cradle: Making Character Connections with @RebeccaPetruck

Oft-quoted writing advice includes, “Put the manuscript in a drawer until you can read it with new eyes.” If you have time to do that, great. But there is another way to create distance and gain new perspectives on your work. I’ve called it “play cat’s cradle” especially for KidLit Summer School! 🙂

To play cat’s cradle you need a string tied into a loop by a knot. Without the knot, there is no loop, it is only string. The same is true of your main character and your story. Your main character is the knot—without him or her, your story is only a string of events. Every meaningful character in your story exists to effect change in the main character during the arc of the story. So a useful exercise for me is to follow the thread for how each character is connected not to the MC but to the MC’s change.

First, I ponder the knot, which for me has three elements: the MC’s Want, the MC’s Need, and Theme. Generally, the Want and Need are in conflict with each other, and that conflict shines a light on the Theme. Key words tend to pop up, and I use them and my trusty Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus to make connections.

The process is easiest to explain by example.

In my next book, Will Nolan Eats Bugs, Will’s Want is to be a good friend, which he identifies with being loyal, having someone’s back. His Need is to be a decent person, which requires he be loyal to himself and his personal values. Synonyms for “loyalty” include: allegiance, faithfulness, adherence, devotion, steadfastness, staunchness, trueheartedness, dependability, reliability, trustworthiness, duty, commitment, and patriotism. The key antonym is treachery.

All these words have the same connection—loyalty—yet watch what happens when I begin to group them by Will and the three key players who affect the most change in Will’s character.

Will: truehearted, steadfast, trustworthy.

Darryl (friend since kindergarten; overtly challenges Will’s personal values): staunchness, allegiance, duty, adherence. Darryl’s vision of loyalty is very much like patriotism, somewhat blind, owed, and any betrayal is like treason which makes Will a traitor.

Eloy (potential new friend; an ally, but one who calls Will on his crap): reliability, truehearted, trustworthy, dependability. Though Eloy has a growing loyalty to Will, he first and always has a deep loyalty to his family and self. He is very much in the camp loyalty is earned, not owed.

Hollie (Will’s sibling; is “betrayed” by Will’s actions): trustworthy, commitment, devotion, dependability. She can call Will an idiot, but no one else can. As family, loyalty is both owed and earned.

Grouping synonyms by character highlighted connections I hadn’t noticed, not only to Will but between the other characters.

cats cradle


(The pretty chart I drew just for KidLit Summer School!)

Darryl is the most overt antagonist, and now I see Why. Though the root word is the same for all, his approach to loyalty is very different from the others. Like Darryl, Hollie is betrayed by Will, yet her response to the betrayal is different because her sense of loyalty is rooted differently. Additionally, I see why Eloy and Hollie keep after Will, not abandoning him even when he acts like a doof—the three share similar senses of loyalty.

This bird’s eye view of the connections between my main character’s change helps me clarify what actions might be taken not only by Will but by all the characters. Now I have a great resource.

cats cradle 2. jpg

(The actual working chart; not as pretty, but useful.)

As I consider a scene, I hold it up to my chart and think, “Where is this on the thread? How does it pull at Will’s knot?” It also helps me think more intentionally about each character’s development. It’s not only that they do something to effect change in the MC, but also that I get why they do that something and how it pushes at the MC.

I hope this pre-writing exercise helps! And now I’m off to find more yarn…

PetruckR_headshotRebecca Petruck’s debut Steering Toward Normal is an American Booksellers Association New Voice and a Kids Indie Next List title. Vanity Fair’s Hollywood and the L.A. Times also have spotlighted the MG novel. Petruck was a member of 4-H, a Girl Scout, a cheerleader, and competed in MathCounts. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. Her next book is Will Nolan Eats Bugs (Fall 2017).

This year we welcome Rebecca back for the third year in a row to STNKLSS to lead us in  #30mdares, online writing exercises where we motivate each other to write by setting aside 30 minutes and writing with a prompt Rebecca gives us. The only “rule” is to set a timer and go without stopping for 30 minutes. Look for more announcements about these fun events in future KLSS emails and blog posts! 


For now, follow Rebecca on twitter: @RebeccaPetruck, on Facebook: /rpetruck, and visit her website by clicking HERE.

KLSS Announcement: Webinar TONIGHT for pre-registered students at 8:00 pm, EST. Yes, the time is now 8:00 pm, EST.


The Awesome-Sauce by @JohnClaudeBemis


Ursula Nordstrom was the legendary editor for many children’s book luminaries such as 20160628_003124E.B. White, Shel Silverstein, and Maurice Sendak. Two years before Sendak wrote Where the Wild Things Are, he sent Nordstrom a letter (oh, the days of authors and editors exchanging actual letters!) lamenting that he was no genius like Tolstoy or Melville. In Nordstrom’s typically wry style, she assured him that, indeed, he was no Tolstoy.  Then she added, “But Tolstoy wasn’t Sendak, either.”

I love this advice. We often look with admiration and envy at other writers, when we should set our sights on recognizing the unique perspective only we have to offer in our stories. Sure, I would never have invented Hogwarts or Narnia, but Rowling and Lewis would never have dreamed up the magical America of my Clockwork Dark trilogy or the fantastical Venetian Empire in my latest fantasy-adventure The Wooden Prince.

What is the story only you can write? The story no other author possibly could because they don’t have your singular way of seeing the world?

One simple way of discovering your unique vision is to make a list of 10 – 20 things that fascinate you. Maybe they’re types of characters like 10 year-old con artists or astrophysicists. Or places like Venice or lost tropical islands. They could be video games, dust bunnies, Thai food, or even revenge, unrequited love, or shapeshifting.

Obviously, your list will include things that might fascinate other writers, but how many others will have your list? It’s the combination of things on your list that reveals aspects of your unique storytelling angle.

Wooden princeWhen I began developing The Wooden Prince, I knew I wanted it to be a retelling of Pinocchio. But what could I do with this classic story that hadn’t been done before? I began making lists of what I thought would be. . .well, to put it simply, awesome. Call it your awesome-sauce: the basic ingredients that not only make the story appealing to you, but hopefully to readers as well. I had ingredients like robots and sea monsters, Leonardo Da Vinci and reckless fairy princesses. At first, it didn’t seem like sci-fi elements like robots would go together with a magical Renaissance Italy. But I found a way to make it work organically and to develop a wonderfully strange world that put a new twist on Pinocchio.

The key was making connections between awesome-sauce ingredients that might seem disparate, like Da Vinci-technology with monsters and magic. Some might say all ideas have already been used. But truthfully there are endless new story ideas waiting to be discovered if we only combine things in ways readers have never seen before.

So develop your list of awesome-sauce—your ever-growing list of character-types, places, things, and story elements that ignite your imagination. Then look for unusual and unexpected ways that they might be combined in your story. This could be a first peek into the unique story only you could write, the book readers have never seen before and are going to be ecstatic to discover.

John Claude Bemis author photo 2015John Claude Bemis is the award-winning author of five middle grade novels and one picture book. His latest fantasy-adventure is The Wooden Prince, the first book in Out of Abaton series from Disney-Hyperion. John served as North Carolina’s Piedmont Laureate for Children’s Literature. He lives in Hillsborough, NC. You can find out more about him on his website HERE, or by visiting his FACEBOOK PAGE.



*Note: The pre-registration webinar will be held on Wednesday night. Pre-registered students, don’t forget to check your emails Wednesday.




Finding the Starting Line with @jenmalonewrites

Let’s play with an analogy today. Let’s equate Kidlit Summer School to running a 10k road race. You’ve signed up, you’re raring to get going. But of course, you won’t just show up on race day—you’ll train to build endurance. Over the upcoming steamy weeks, you’re going to pound pavement (okay, keyboards), learn tricks and tips from the pros for streamlining your techniques, and be cheered on by teammates who’ll help you dig deep for extra motivation when you need it.

And when race day comes, you’ll be cheered on from the sidelines by crowds of supporters. This is gonna be fun!

But wait. Back up just a bit. There’s a step that comes before any sweating begins, and it happens to be my favorite. You get to join the running club, shop for new springy shoes and super cute Lycra running shirts, and pencil in the training times in your calendar. You’re (literally) gearing up, building motivation, and giving yourself tools for success.

In NovelLand, we call this pre-writing… and it’s no less a part of the process than revision or drafting. It’s a time for allowing yourself to get excited and inspired. Your story is nothing but sheer possibility at this point, and you can play with abandon as you become acquainted with your characters and enter the world you’re creating for them.

It’s also a time to go from abstract to concrete, to begin zooming in closer and closer on the race map until, at last, you spot it: the starting line!

Try out any (or all) of these pre-writing activities to keep you energized while you wait for Day 1:

  1. Pinterest boards- create digital bulletin boards that help you get to know your characters (what does she look like, what would he wear, how is her room decorated), or their world (what is the scenery on his planet, how might the castle look or the monsters appear), or even one that simply evokes the mood of the story, to get you into the right frame of mind before a writing session. I’m an Author in Residence at a middle school and here’s an example one my students created when I had them do this assignment (using a similar program called Educlipper): educlipper
  1. Research the time, setting, or subject matter of your story through trips, texts, and personal interviews. I’m co-writing a novel set in the Gilded Age in Newport, RI and my co-author, Kris Asselin, and I spent a day walking the grounds of the mansion we’re using as our backdrop, snapped hundred of photos, and interviewed the caretaker at length. Since returning home, I’ve read a dozen books set in that time period and watched period dramas galore—this is hardly a hardship and I’m picking up the details that will make our descriptions as uber-rich as those high society types were.
  2. Interview your character. it can be a simple five questions or as detailed as an FBI background check, and there are tons of sample sheets online (Google: character worksheets) to get you started. Here’s a fairly basic one I have my students complete:JM image
  1. Make a timeline for your story. For my YA Wanderlost that just released and follows a teen on her own for the first time and charged with leading a senior citizen’s bus tour through Europe, I went to AAA and collected brochures for actual European bus tour itineraries so I could see how much time might be allotted at each location and which routes would be followed. Below is a snippet of the timeline I had open next to me as I wrote my 2017 YA, Changes in Latitudes, which features a girl sailing from Oregon to Mexico. The timeline ended up dictating much of the story, because I needed to know the sailing times and weather conditions between each possible port, so I could figure out where to set pivotal scenes and how to get her into place for those events. The amenities she’d have access to at each port dictated how she’d be dressed and what tasks she’d need to concern herself with at each point in the trip. Had I skipped this step, the revision process would have been intense!TL


  1. Draw a map of the story’s world. Even if what you’re writing is less Game of Thrones and more “takes place on one square block in NYC,” maps are incredibly useful tools and they don’t have to be fancy. This is one of my co-author Gail Nall drew for us to use while drafting the You’re Invited series, which was set on the (fictional) teeny-tiny island of Sandpiper Beach in North Carolina:sandpiper beach
  1. Create a playlist of songs that fit your story. I have a friend who blasts them on her drive home from work to get her in the world of the story, so even if you can’t write to music, it can be a helpful tool in your arsenal. This site has collected a series of authors’ playlists to give you some inspiration.
  2. Write your cover blurb. Last year during Kidlit Summer School I talked about how I always start my stories by writing the jacket flap copy.
  3. Send that blurb to friends and ask them to come up with five “what if’s” for twists and turns your story could take. People tend to underestimate how much of the book writing process relies on outside eyes and opinions to push things forward, and pre-writing is a perfect place to begin embracing that idea. You never know what jumping off points they might offer you!

So, while I’ll be cheering you all along the course (although, of course, writing is never a race. Bad Jen for even invoking this analogy!), I’m more excited to see you at the starting line, full of energy (and carbs) and wearing those cute, springy running shoes.

Have a blast gearing up!

Jen MaloneJen Malone writes fun and flirty YA travel romances with HarperCollins and humorous “girl power” MG adventures with Simon & Schuster. Her 2016 titles include The Sleepover (MG) and Wanderlost (YA).  She once spent a year traveling the world solo, met her husband on the highway (literally), and went into labor with her identical twins while on a rock star’s tour bus. These days she saves the drama for her books. You can learn more about Jen and her books at Find her on Twitter and Instagram @jenmalonewrites.


*Thanks to Jen for this excellent idea-generating post! Today is the last day to pre-register for KLSS and the pre-registration webinar is Wednesday, June 29. Click on this link for more details.