Turbo Monkey Tales is a group blog focusing on the craft, production, marketing and consumption of Children's Literature. We are illustrators, writers, animators and media mongrels. We are readers! We are published, unpublished and self-published; agented and searching, and 100% dedicated to our Kid Lit journey, no matter where we are on the path. Join our Tribe and grab a vine. The more the merrier!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Something's Coming...

I spent a good part of this afternoon looking out the window. Hurricane Sandy is coming and boy, could I tell. The sky was leaden. Wind pulled at the treetops. It felt like that moment when a perfectly still cat flicks its tail, and you just know it's ready to pounce…

It's the perfect example of what I learned last weekend in Honesdale. During the Heart of the Fantasy Novel Workshop led by Patti Gauch, I began revising the novel I wrote over the summer. (Nearly 80,000 words in two months. You will not be surprised to learn it needs work.)

One of the big issues I dealt with was what Patti called “staging.” In a theater sense, I think this refers to the physicality of the set: where people stand, etc. However, as best I can describe it,* Patti meant that the climax of each scene or chapter must be set up.  (This is different from foreshadowing, where an event in the first chapter might foreshadow something at the end of the book.) Staging means that every portion of a chapter sets up what happens a few pages later. There should be a narrative wave, or momentum, that carries the reader to a specific moment in every scene and chapter.

However, in my hurry this summer, I often just plopped major plot points or moments into the narrative. It happened a lot towards the end, where I wrote as fast I could figure the story out. Now, as I'm revising, those story plops** need to be set up. Here's what I think that means, specifically: 

If I reveal a major plot point in a chapter, I better be sure that the reader has been curious for a while. The reader shouldn’t find out where the villain comes from before she wonders about it. I need to stage a fight-- or a kiss. The reader needs to cringe away from the fight before it starts, or lean in for that kiss. To play with an old adage, if I'm about to take the horse reader to water, I'd better be sure I've salted the oats story. 

This may seem obvious, but I also need to identify my narrative high point for each scene and chapter. I can't build to it if I can't find it. And if there isn't a high point at all, well, I'd better put one there. 

Now, as I revise, I pick that one moment that the scene rises towards. Then I check to see if I’ve staged it. If I haven’t, I spend some time making notes or thinking about how to set it up. Should I draw attention to some portion of the environment? Should I tilt the dialog to reveal a specific emotion? Maybe one sentence of a main character’s introspection will do the trick. (Craig told me he actually writes down what the set up and payoff will be for his scenes.)

I also think about what I should cut. Are there any places that would draw a reader’s attention away from the moment I’m moving towards? Are there any sections that could be tightened so that the momentum doesn’t lag?

All today, I've known Sandy was coming. I would've known it without the Weather Channel. I need to make sure I do the same for my story. I want readers to feel in their bones and blood that something is about to happen. They don’t need to know what it is, but they better feel it coming.

And to all our East Coast friends, please stay safe and dry these next few days! You’re in my thoughts and prayers. 

*Anything I've said about staging that makes sense should be attributed to Patti. Anything that doesn't came straight from yours truly.

** Not unlike cow plops because, narratively, a reader often ends up just stepping in one. Story plops do smell better, though.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Act Like a Writer!

Improv Games for Authors

By Amy

Hi Tribe. I’d like to talk today about the voices in my head. I’m sure you have them, too.  Most writers do. They’re the characters we’ve created (and the ones still lurking in the shadows), murmuring to us while our busy mind is occupied. They whisper the most amazing words…words that would surely earn us a Newbery or a Caldecott if only we could get those voices to speak WHEN WE WANT THEM TO!

Patience, young Grassmonkey. There’s a way to make them talk and it’s called IMPROV! I did some Improv in college, while pursuing a minor in theater, and just recently started taking classes from a graduate of The SecondCity Training Center. Almost immediately after starting classes again, I noticed a difference in my writing. Words came faster.  Dialogue nearly wrote itself. I wasn’t terrified of putting the wrong words on the page, because I knew how easily I could erase them and go in a different direction! Sweet -- like bananas!

Improv is taught through acting games which require you to think on your feet…and think quickly! In Two-Headed Expert, for example, two actors are given a subject about which they are supposed to be very knowledgeable. Then, speaking one word each, they proceed to explain how to do something. Let’s say the topic is ‘How to Ride a Bike.’ Two-headed expert might go something like this:

Person A: To

Person B: ride

Person A: a

Person B: bike,

Person A:  you

Person B: must

Person A: first

Person B: buy

Person A: a

Person B: helmet.

Things usually start off pretty easy, but the longer the game goes on, the harder it becomes. You have a clear idea of what you want to say, but your partner has different ideas. Inevitably, they’ll come out with a word that makes no sense with where you thought the monologue was headed. Two-headed Expert teaches us to think fast and keep an open mind.  It’s great for writing dialogue, since our characters often have their own ideas about what they want to say.

Here are a couple other Improv games you might try. FYI, little monkeys love these games and they’re great for car ride entertainment. So you can work on your writing, play with your kids and fulfill your carpool duties all at the same time!

Yes, but…

This is one of my favorite games. Two actors are given a setting and a relationship, such as employees in a coffee shop. The rule of the game is the actors must respond to each other, with one sentence, always beginning with “Yes, but…” The goal of the game is to keep the conversation going as long as possible.


A:  You ate my bananas!

B: Yes, but you ate mine last week.

A: Yes, but you said I could.

B: Yes, but I thought we were sharing.

A: Yes, but you’ve eaten everyone’s bananas for a whole year.

B: Yes, but I’m a growing monkey.

A: Yes, but you’re growing sideways.

B: Yes, but bananas taste good.


Yes, but… is especially good training for first drafts, because it teaches us to build on actions and keep the story going. It’s also great practice for brainstorming. You can take one possible direction for a  Yes, but… scene, run with it as far as you can, then start over with a different direction. Try playing it with your characters, when you’re not sure what they’ll do next.


This one requires three or four people. It would be an awesome opener for a critique group meeting. Two actors sit in chairs, side by side, facing the same way…like in the front seat of a car. One is the driver. The third actor stands ‘outside’ the car and thumbs for lift. The hitchhiker has in mind a ‘persona’ which s/he makes known once they sit down in the 'backseat.' The other actors then adopt the same persona and ad lib a conversation. For example…

Hitchhiker: Duuuude, thanks for picking me up. I been hanging loose out there since low tide.
(clearly, the hitchhiker is a surfer)

Driver: No worries, man. We’re headed down coast to pick up some Emmas and catch the next tide.

Hitchhiker: Right on, Bro. I’m with ya’.

Passenger: Dude, did you see the epic waves hitting Kaui? They were, like, totally bodacious.

Driver: Yeah, man. I totally wanted to eat that surf!

 Once the conversation goes on for a while, another hitchhiker appears on the side of the road. The car pulls over, the driver gets out, the passenger slides over, the hitchhiker becomes the passenger and they drive on…picking up the new hitchhiker soon after. The new hitchhiker has a totally different persona, and the actors must change their personalities to match.

 I find Hitchhiker to be awesome practice with “voice.” Voice isn’t just dialect or a strong accent. It’s word choice and inflection, timing, pace, humor (or lack thereof)… All of these things combine to give a character strong voice. Consider playing Hitchhiker as one of your characters and see how much stronger you can make their voice.

A couple things to keep in mind…
Being funny is generally a goal in Improv games (despite my lame-o examples above), but being funny isn’t mandatory. Serious scenes pop up sometimes, and that’s fine. Also, the No. 1 rule of Improv is, if someone asks you a question during a game, the answer is always yes. It keeps the scene moving forward.

 There are many, many other Improv games, all of which get you thinking outside the banana peel. If any of you have favorite Improv exercises, I’d love to hear about them. In the meantime, consider trying some of these … and start acting like a writer!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Preparing for NaNoWriMo: A Countdown for Success

by Marilyn Hilton

National Novel Writing Month is once again upon us, when anyone and everyone can write an entire 50,000-word novel in the month of November. Will you be among the thousands of writers tapping out the first words of your novel on November 1? I truly hope so, because finishing NaNo is one of the most rewarding things a writer can do. It builds confidence (Yesss! I finished a novel!) and helps you form a daily writing habit.

This will be my fourth…or fifth?...year joining the legions. In full disclosure, I’ve finished only twice. But, hey, a 40% success rate is better than 0. Over the years I’ve discovered that the most successful NaNos are those I prepared for. And the better I prepared, the more likely I was to cross the 50K finish line by November 30.

The goal of NaNo is not to complete a literary masterpiece by November 30, but to have a sloppy draft. That’s right—a sloppy draft. You know what I mean—not a wayward, drifting, aimless collection of typed words, but the bones of a story that you can then revise into a better second draft, and then an amazing novel. If you’ve done the prep, your actual writing will go smoothly and quickly each day, and you'll stay excited and motivated, all increasing your chances of finishing.

So, are you in?  Yes! If you’re reading this post on October 22, you have 10 days to prepare. I’ve broken down the prep steps into the 10 days until November 1. If you're reading this a little later, no worries—you can catch up in time to begin your novel with confidence on November 1. The countdown begins…here we go!

Get Ready!
Day 10 – Oct 22: Sign up to participate in NaNoWriMo. Once you sign up, you can link up with writing buddies who are also NaNo’ing. Buddies keep you accountable and give you lots of cheers. And they can offer you virtual soft shoulders and chocolate.

Get Set!
Day 9 – Oct 23: Decide on which novel you’re going to write in November. If you don’t know yet, brainstorm a list of 5-8 story ideas. Ask yourself: What have I been burning to write? What would I like to write? What do I need to write next? What has my mom/dad/critique buds/children/teacher/probation officer been bugging me to write? What has my agent or editor been waiting for?

Days 8-7 – Oct 24-25: Choose one of your ideas, then write a one-sentence description about the main character (your protagonist) that includes what she wants, why he wants it, what stops her from getting it, and what he gets in the end. (“What, Why, But, Then.”)  For example, Mary wants to travel to Tasmania to meet her online soulmate, but she has no money, so she starts a catering business and realizes the real man of her dreams has owned the shop next door all along. Then do the same for every other major character in your story.

Days 6-3 – Oct 26-29: Create an outline or roadmap for your story. Don’t balk at the idea of structure, because that’s what will get you from A to Z, with a few challenges and pitfalls, in 30 days. It’s fine to veer off the outline during the daily writing, but use it as a guide to your final destination.

Here are a few ways to help you create a structure or outline for your story:

- The Snowflake Method. This organic plotting method, developed by Randall S. Ingermanson (“The Snowflake Guy”), helps you build a story painlessly from idea to summary draft. There’s even a software program, Snowflake Pro with all kinds of great tools for snowflaking your book.

- Index cards. Here’s a great video by author Kimberley Griffiths Little about how to outline a book using index cards.

Spreadsheet outline. Open a new Excel (or other spreadsheet) document, and label columns Chap, Desc, What’s Next. Number the Chap rows 1-30. For each chapter, write a brief description about what happens. This can be a short as one sentence. Don’t forget the story arc—add disasters in (or around) chapters 15, 20, and 28. You can get fancy and add more information in each row, but these are the very basics. In the What's Next column, write what needs to happen in the next chapter or later in the story. And you can track your word count in another column.

- Notebook outline. Do the same as for a spreadsheet, but in an ordinary notebook. Number the rows 1-30, and write a one-sentence description about what happens in each chapter.

- The 9-box method, storyboarding, outlining your story backward, plotting your story in 15 minutes. You can find information about all of these on the web.

Day 2 – Oct 30: Decide on a tool you’d like to use for writing fast. You’ll need to write an average of 1667 words each day in order to finish on Nov 30, so the trick is to write fast and not look back to edit or revise, or sit and ponder the universe. You can use your everyday computer, but you’ll be tempted to stare at the blinking cursor or search the thesaurus on every other word. This is not efficient or productive. Here are some tools that will help you write quickly:

- AlphaSmart. This lightweight device is a keyboard with a very small screen. It’s portable and durable, and the batteries last forever. After you finish writing, you can send the file to a document on your computer for editing later.

Free writing. Get a steno pad—a small spiral stenographer’s notebook, which has a vertical line down each page. Start writing really fast, ending each line at the vertical divider. You write faster because you don’t have to move your hand all the way to the edge of the page. When you come to the end of the page, flip to the next page—don’t flip to the other side. Keep writing as fast as you can and fill about eight pages. (You'll have to shake out your hand once in a while.) When you get to the last page, flip the notebook over and start writing on the other side of the page last page. This is good method for daytime writing when you have a block of about 20 minutes—at lunch hour or waiting in the dentist office, for example. Later, when you’re in front of your computer, transcribe your pages.

- Flash writing. When you only have cracks of 3 or 5 minutes to write, fill them in with flash writing. Set a timer, and do some fast typing or handwriting (see above), or tapping on your smartphone. You'll be amazed at how much writing you'll accumulate in those bits of writing.

- Write or Die by Dr. Wicked. This software program forces you to write quickly without looking back. If you pause too long, it does things like turns your screen a scary red or starts deleting what you just wrote. Believe me, this really works!

Day 1 – Oct 31: Take out a calendar and block out days you know you won’t be able to write at all, not even for 10 minutes. (You probably won’t find any.) Then, block out time every day to write, keeping in mind that you’ll need to write a daily average of 1667 words to meet the 50K word count. Visualize yourself writing each day and meeting your daily goal, and then meeting your final goal and how great it will feel. Finally, get a good night’s sleep!

Day 0 - November 1: Start writing!
Here are some tips:
- Set your expectations for quality very low. Remember the goal—a draft with bad skin and muscles, but excellent bones.
- Read your outline to see what you need to finish that day. Write fast, don’t edit (see above). If you can’t think of a word or a necessary transition, write <??> in the text and keep going. You can fill in those blanks after NaNo is over.
- Each day, try to write a little more than your goal, giving yourself a cushion for days when you unexpectedly can’t write.
- Each day, open the file you worked on the day before, and save it as a new file with today’s date. That way, you have a trail if you need to go back.
- At the end of each writing session, copy your work to a USB drive or email the file to yourself for backup. You don’t want to lose your precious work!
- Find some way to reward yourself for finishing, and keep that reward in mind as you work.
- If you know any young writers in your life, check out Amy Cook’s post on the NaNo Young Writers' Program.

One...and two...of my rewards
Are you doing NaNo this year? What strategies do you have for preparing and meeting your word count?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Whole Novel Help

By Kristen Crowley Held

You've finished your novel! Woohoo! Congratulations! Now what?

Maybe you’ve already taken advantage of opportunities at workshops and conferences to have an industry professional critique the first 5-25 pages of your manuscript. You’ve polished those first few pages until they shine, but you’re not sure the rest of your novel is up to snuff.

Is there such a thing as whole novel help?
Absolutely! Let’s take a look at some options.

Find another writer who's willing to do a manuscript swap. They critique your novel and you critique theirs. Finding a good match isn’t easy, and may take some trial and error. Get to know the other writers in your area by attending local conferences and author events. Your regional SCBWI chapter can also be a great resource. You just might discover the perfect crit partner in your own hometown, but if not, there are several websites where you can find writers who are willing to do a manuscript swap. Here are a few places to look for your perfect match (note that some of these sites require you to register in order to gain access to their boards, but registration is free):

Verla Kay’s Blue Board: Queries and Critique Requests 
Absolute Write Water Cooler: Beta Readers, Mentors, and Writing Buddies 
Nathan Bransford: Connect with a Critique Partner 

In addition, several writerly blogs have offered matchmaking services in the past and may do so again. A few to watch:
Maggie Stiefvater's Words on Words Critique Partner Love Connection 
Mary Kole's Kidlit.com Critique Connection

Bid on a whole novel critique and help out a worthy cause! Some annual opportunities to check out:

Keep your ears open for other auction opportunities that may be one-time events, but just might offer that full manuscript critique you’ve been looking for.

Want to spend a few months working on your novel with an industry professional and have the added bonus of meeting other writers who are doing the same? These programs can be amazing opportunities to improve your craft.

(All the fabulous things you’ve heard about this program are TRUE!)

Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshops (Middle Grade  and Young Adult)

Many SCBWI regions also offer workshops on novel revision that include the opportunity for feedback on your entire manuscript. Check the SCBWI website under Regional Events to see if there’s an upcoming event that will work for you.

You can find oodles of information online about what to look for when choosing an independent editor to work with one-on-one. Here are a few our monkey tribe has had the pleasure of working with:

Whatever route you choose, keep in mind that what you are seeking is feedback, not a “quick fix.” Be sure to communicate your aspirations and expectations and give yourself time to process the input you receive.  If you approach the experience of soliciting “whole novel help” as an opportunity to learn, you really can’t lose.

And if you've already benefitted from some "whole novel help" I'd love to hear about your experiences!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Writing Mojo on a Monday

It's my turn driving carpool and as I sit waiting outside the school in my car, I tune in to a saved copy of This American Life, episode 476, "What Doesn't Kill You." Ira Glass explains that the show will focus on people who have experienced serious brushes with death. And then I'm listening to Tig Natoro deliver a stand-up comedy routine about just having been diagnosed with cancer, about losing her mom tragically, breaking up--this whole insane list of horrors in a crazy short time. And I'm laughing. Out loud. She speaks of how tragedy plus time equals comedy. Even without time, she creates something deeply touching--and funny--and heartbreaking. When the junior high's final bell rings entirely too soon, I hope the kids will take their time getting to the car...

Home at last, I buy the mp3 of Natoro's whole set. I want to own it, to know how she has the courage, the mojo, to pull that off. It's a lesson I could use.

A few years ago, I began writing in earnest after a dear friend of mine suffered this unspeakable tragedy in her life. Even from the sidelines it was devastating, and I channeled  some of the feeling into  a story that centered on ways people cope with tragedy, with how they more and less successfully carry the pieces of life they wish they’d never been handed. The words came so quickly it almost felt like actual channeling.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Portfolio 101 - by Hazel Mitchell

Putting together a portfolio should be SIMPLE, right? Just put in your best work and make sure it's in the style you want to work in. That's it. Then why is putting together a portfolio such an AGONIZING process? I think it's because as illustrators we're constantly changing and developing. What we did a year ago - six months ago - yesterday (!) may completely change our perspective on our work. Oh, the hours we can spend fiddling with our portfolio ... the hours I have spent!

And here's the thing ... it's totally subjective. What may get one art director/editor/other dancing on the ceiling, could leave the next one as damp as a rained out firework. That's why there's room for all of us (well, the diligent) in the world of children's illustration.

One illustrator friend of mine gave her portfolio to her friend and said - YOU DO IT! Good idea. But if you don't have an obliging friend handy, here are some guidelines:

Monday, October 8, 2012

Augmented Reality -- Not Just For Geeks

Greetings it’s me Craig,Turbo and my new assistant Smittens. 

So, today I’m writing about AR.  

No, it’s not pirate speak, not the state west of Memphis, and no my good teacher friends, not Accelerated Reader.  I’m talking about Augmented Reality.  Sound like Future Geek Speak? Until now it has been just that.

Originally AR technology was created for the military to provide marking ability of landmarks. 

If you have watched football in the last few years you’ve seen AR technology at work showing viewers the first-down line.

According to Wikipedia: Augmented reality (AR) is a live, direct or indirect, view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data.  

Blah, blah, geek, nerd, geek, tech speak...

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Perfectly "Pinned" Novels

Hello Monkeys, Ellen here . . .  A few weeks ago, Monkey  Kristen blogged about making collages (here) and how doing so can help with the writing process. Her ideas were imaginative, creative, and very helpful. While reading Kristen’s post, fellow author and friend, Heather Petty, remarked how she uses Pinterest to do much the same. Being that I like Pinterest, I wanted to know more. 

But first, you might be wondering what’s Pinterest? Well, Pinterest is an online site where you can create “virtual” pin boards. Kind of like bulletin boards, but online.  You can categorize them with any theme you wish. I’m not going into detail about how to join or how to use the site, but if you haven’t “pinned” yet and are curious, click (here)

I’m a chart kind of person and I love to organize. I’m not obsessive about it, but I get a feeling of “calm” when things are in order. (Wish that applied to my housekeeping.) I also enjoy design and creating “artsy” things. All these are reasons I enjoy Pinterest. But the potential of Pinterest in representing your novel is endless.

Monday, October 1, 2012

NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program

by Amy

Happy October, Monkey Tribe!!  Or, as I like to think of it, NaNoWriMo Eve. I’m sure the writers among you are intimately familiar with the literary kick-in-the-pants that is National Novel Writing Month, but did you know there is a NaNoWriMo for kids? And it totally rocks!

The Young Writers Program is similar to the regular NaNo in that you have the month of November to write a book. You can register online to have rabid word-count competitions with your writer friends.  And you get inspirational emails, in this case from famous kidlit authors like Jerry Spinelli and Phillip Pullman.

In the YWP, though, participants set their own word count goal, so writers of all ages can play. There are down-loadable (is that a word?) Young Novelist Workbooks that offer writing prompts, and tips to help with plot, character, setting, etc. There are different workbooks for elementary, middle school and high school.