Posts Tagged writing exercise

Interview & Giveaway With Author Toni Buzzeo

I’m thrilled to welcome middle-grade and picture book author Toni Buzzeo to the Mixed-Up Files. Congrats on your debut MG, Toni. I’m happy dancing that it’s been chosen as a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. That’s fantastic! What inspired you to write Light Comes to Shadow Mountain?

I am thrilled to qualify at long last for MUF with my first MG novel!

As for inspiration, you’ll read in my Author’s Note that I had encountered two essential books. The first was Mary on Horseback by Rosemary Wells. I fell in love with that lyrical book with its musical language and stories based on the life of nurse-midwife Mary Breckinridge. I learned about the important work that Mary did in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky establishing the Frontier Nursing Service to bring medical services to those mountains and went on to do much more reading and research.

Then, three years later, Kathi Appelt and Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer published Down Cut Shin Creek, about the intrepid librarians of the Pack Horse Library Project who delivered books to the homes and one-room schoolhouses scattered across those same mountains. Both the FNS and the PHLP were in operation at the same time in the same place!

Add in the fact that in 2011, I learned that the mountains of Eastern Kentucky were dark, without electricity until 1937, and I knew I had the makings of a powerful story. However, what I didn’t know was that the story I wrote—a picture book—needed a lot more words and space to tell it properly.

I’m so glad you expanded it into this amazing novel. After having 31 picture books published, what was it like writing your debut MG? Are there picture book skills that helped, or ones you had to push aside while writing this?

Economy of words, a skill I’d employed over the course of 31 picture books, was a skill I had to push aside. Many of my editor’s early notes and line-edits challenged me to expand on description. I had learned, especially as picture book texts became ever-shorter over the last two decades, that one should scorn the paragraph and use a sentence instead, scorn the sentence and employ a carefully crafted phrase, scorn the phrase and find a single word if you could!

Perhaps the most important skill that I did bring along from picture books to the MG novel was the use of lyrical language. I started my writing life as a teenage poet and the drive to employ poetic language has never left me. Given the MUCH broader canvas of a novel, I was able to employ so much more of it in telling this story. My favorites were similes, metaphors, and personification. I had to assume that most of my readers weren’t familiar with my setting, but I enjoyed sharing the minute details of that setting in this way.

A couple of my favorite similes from the novel:

“Now, our beechnut isn’t a practical tree to climb—silver bark as smooth as river rocks and no low-slung branches like the others nearby.” (Chapter One: In the News)

He [Pap] holds my gaze. “I think you’re near old enough to understand this, Cora. Your mommy is in a mighty struggle with a demon as fierce as that giant catfish folks say pulls people underwater.” (Chapter Four: Mommy Has a Day)

A couple of my favorite metaphors from the novel:

“I chew on Glenna’s words for a silent moment, trying to separate out electricity from Glenna’s description of a crowded, busy city.” (Chapter Eleven: Ready for the Bee)

“Cora Mae Tipton, the heroine of the day,” Pap says as I fling myself into his arms. “I hear you and Stormy flew down the mountain with the wings of Pegasus to save your sister!” (Chapter Thirty-Eight: The Interview)

And here are two of my favorite uses of personification, both from Chapter Eight: Pies, Pies, Pies:

“On the way down the path after school, the reds of the sourwood and sumac shout their glory.”

“It was the very isolation and the quiet darkness of Shadow Mountain that called to our Scots-Irish ancestors, Cora Tipton.”

I love these so much, Toni! Your language absolutely sings.

What tips do you have for people writing MG for the first time?

For me, the most important practice was immersion in the world of the novel. I read only books set in my geographic landscape (Eastern Kentucky) during the period of time I was writing about (the late-1930s). I watched (and watched and watched) films and shorter documentaries about the area. I sought out photographs from the area, especially portraits of individuals and families. I listened to so many interviews of people who had lived a childhood like Cora’s young life themselves. I mined all of those sources, not just for the volumes of notes I took, but for the bonus it gave me—a sense that I, too, was inhabiting Cora’s world.

I also learned a lot from three of my mentors, Donald Maass, Lorin Oberweger, and Brenda Windberg at the Breakout Novel Intensive (BONI) and the Breakout Novel Graduate Learning Retreat.

The most helpful craft book I read and employed was James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel from the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers, and Everyone in Between, recommended by my friend, novelist Dorian Cirrone, my chief plot brainstormer and multiple-draft reader.

And perhaps most importantly, I’d advise you to join a critique group of really smart, really dedicated, really talented writers. I’m lucky enough to have two groups. (If you peek into the acknowledgements in my novel, you will see the members of both groups named.) To employ an overused phrase, it really does take a village!


Yes! It definitely takes a village. And having trusted critique groups and mentors is a huge help. I’ve heard amazing things about the Breakout Novel events. And I absolutely love the Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass. It’s helped me have so many amazing ‘aha’ moments.  

How did you make Cora’s world so vivid? The neighborhood map is helpful and gave me a glimpse of the setting immediately. Did you use a map or other methods while drafting and revising? 

Well, as I’ve said, I dug deeply into details of the place. What animals lived there? What was the weather like? What were the most beautiful aspects of the geography? What were the harsh geographic challenges? And for so many scenes, I worked to imbue them with these details (often expressed lyrically as you’ve seen).

As to that wonderful map, no, I didn’t work from a paper map of Shadow Mountain and Spruce Lick. It was 100% in my mind. I did, however, know every inch of that mountain. So when Kelly, my editor, asked if she could draw the first draft of the map (it was eventually rendered by the cover illustrator, David Dean), I said sure. But honestly, I think the story did such a good job of describing the place that Kelly’s hand-drawn map got it almost entirely right—just as I’d pictured it in my mind.


Can you share a writing exercise with everyone? 

Picture the main character of your picture book or novel. What pose are you seeing them in? Get a clear picture of them–standing, seated, reclining–and imagine the position of each of their limbs, of their hands, of their feet. What does this pose, with its details, reveal to you about their core personality? Now ask yourself how this core trait will be/is revealed in your story. How will that trait play out in the outer story arc (external journey) and inner story arc (internal journey)?


I love this, Toni! I’ve never seen this exercise before, and will definitely use it on my novels and picture book main characters in the future. Thank you!

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?  

I write in a fairytale writing cottage that my late husband Ken built for me when we lived in Maine. I moved to Massachusetts after his death, but I brought the cottage with me and did much of the work on Light Comes to Shadow Mountain right in that cottage. There’s even a video of it being built on my website.

I’m currently working on my second MG novel. It’s a Colonial time-travel novel set in contemporary Maine and 1770 Maine Territory, Massachusetts, on the cusp of the Revolutionary War. I wrote the first draft 37 years ago when I really didn’t know a thing about writing a novel. Now I hope to employ my mad skills and those of my brilliant editor to bring it to print!

Your fairytale writing cottage looks amazing! I’m so glad you were able to bring it with you to Massachusetts. Your second MG sounds fantastic. I hope it will be out in the world soon.

Thank you so much for stopping by the Mixed-Up Files—and for your generous book giveaway. One lucky reader will win a copy of Light Comes to Shadow Mountain. U.S. only. Enter the Rafflecopter below.

It’s 1937 and the government is pushing to bring electricity to the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. It’s all Cora can think of; radios with news from around the world, machines that keep food cold, lightbulbs by which to read at night! Cora figures she can help spread the word by starting a school newspaper and convincing her neighbors to support the Rural Electrification Act.

But resistance to change isn’t easy to overcome, especially when it starts at home. Cora’s mother is a fierce opponent of electrification. She argues that protecting the landscape of the holler—the trees, the streams, the land that provides for their way of life—is their responsibility. But Cora just can’t let go of wanting more.

Lyrical, literary, and deeply heartfelt, this debut novel from an award-winning author-librarian speaks to family, friendship, and loss through the spirited perspective of a girl eager for an electrified existence, but most of all, the light of her mother’s love and acceptance.

*A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The winner will be shown here and contacted on Thursday, July 20. Good luck. 😊


Toni Buzzeo is a New York Times bestselling children’s author of thirty-one picture books and board books, and her first middle grade novel, Light Comes to Shadow Mountain, a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection. A former librarian and writing teacher, Toni and her books have won many awards, including a 2013 Caldecott Honor for One Cool Friend, illustrated by David Small. Her fictional characters sing with her deep understanding of human emotion. Endlessly enthusiastic, Toni draws on her career experiences as a school librarian in crafting her books and speaking with young audiences in schools and libraries. Toni lives in Arlington, Massachusetts just downstairs from her two lovable grandchildren (endless sources of inspiration!).

Garbage Writing Exercise



If you need a creative boost for yourself, your children, or students…Garbage Writing is the perfect solution!


*Set a timer for 15 minutes.

*Write, write, write…nonstop!

*No editing. (Your internal editor will hate this…but it’s such a great way to get past all those judgments and fears of words not coming out right).


This can be rambling nonsense. A rant that lets you get all your anger and frustrations out on paper.

Or…if you have a story you’d like to write, an issue you’re working through, etc. you can keep that in mind during this exercise. But if you choose this option…you still need to let the words flow and not edit. Yes, there will be lots of garbage to toss at the end, but you’ll discover gems that gleam so brightly that might not exist without letting your words gush out like this.

Garbage Writing is great to do with writing groups, classes, etc. And you can do it daily or on weekdays to stifle your internal editor before jumping into writing or revisions for the day.

Happy writing! I hope you discover tons of sparkly gems. 🙂

Interview & Two Book Giveaway with Fred Koehler and Sarah McGuire

I’m thrilled to interview Fred Koehler and Sarah McGuire—both of them had a middle grade novel released this month. Sarah’s is a fairy tale retelling called The Flight of Swans. Fred wrote and illustrated Garbage Island (The Nearly Always Perilous Adventures of Archibald Shrew).

Sarah McGuire and Fred Koehler were once both awkward teenagers who mostly grew out of it. Each draws on their unfortunate adolescence to write stories for young readers. They met at a writers conference and decided to get married. In common they share: love of travel and adventure, dogs over cats, and sci-fi movies. They most often disagree about Oxford commas, whether or not Florida has hills, and who gets the fuzzy blanket.

Huge congrats to both of you! Can you tell us how you met and how you celebrated two book launches in one month?

Sarah: We met three years ago at one of Lorin Oberweger’s fabulous BONI workshops. Fred lived in Florida. I lived in Virginia. And we met in Hood River, OR. The manuscripts that we were working on then both sold– and they released October 1st and October 9th.


Fred: We celebrated in pretty low-key fashion. Dinner out with a little live music. We’ll have a proper celebration with our local community this weekend. A book signing, writing workshops, and other fun shenanigans.



It’s amazing that you met at a writing workshop! How did each of you come up with the ideas for your middle grade novels—and were there any bumps along the way?

Sarah: I’d known for a while that I wanted to write a retelling of “Six Swans.” In fact, I had a really thin first draft by the time we met at BONI. And while I adored the story I was telling and the characters I’d discovered, most of the novel felt like one big bump. The original tale gave me a mute heroine, a six-year timeline, and not too much action other than the relentless suffering of the heroine. So there was lots of work to do!

Fred: As a lifelong fisherman and outdoorsman, I spend a lot of time on Florida’s coast and I pay attention to stories about water quality and pollution. When I learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, my first reaction was disbelief. But the more I researched it the more I could visualize how it formed, and I also decided it would be an intriguing backdrop to an animal adventure.


After writing and illustrating so many wonderful picture books, how did you decide to write an illustrated middle grade novel and how did it compare to writing and illustrating a picture book? Can you share a bit of your process, Fred?

Fred: I started with novels, always wanting to write long form fiction. Problem: my stuff was terrible. Picture books became a great learning tool for storytelling, because this format allows 500 words or less to tell a complete, compelling narrative. That word-count limitation permits you to fail fast and try again. Through the process of making picture books, my writerly brain eventually caught up with my artist brain, and I knew that I had the missing pieces to return to novels.

I like to see each chapter or scene as an independent story, the kind you’d pull your friends together and say “Guys you won’t believe what just happened.” Anytime a passage doesn’t grab me with that sort of excitement, I know it’s missing something. Then I’ll go back in and make something explode or someone almost die horribly and the scene improves. 🙂


We’d love to hear some tips for writing a great fairy tale retelling, Sarah.

For me, the key to a great retelling is figuring out what you love and what you want to change. Both let you tap into your deepest emotions about that story– and that, in turn, fuels your retelling.

In “Six Swans” (retold as The Flight of Swans) I loved that a girl did the saving. That was so huge to me when I first read it as a child. I loved how all the siblings looked after each other. I also became fascinated by stinging nettles! On the other hand, I didn’t like that the heroine’s main role to was to suffer in silence. I wanted her to push back. And I really didn’t like how her husband just steps aside at the end when her enemies want to burn her at the stake. Knowing what I didn’t like let me “fix” it. I was able to write a heroine who had agency, not just endurance. And I made sure that she ended up with guy who would appreciate such an amazing heroine.


What do each of you love about your spouse’s novel? What surprised you the most?

Sarah: This is an awesome question! I love the adventure in Garbage Island–the near misses, and the moments when you wonder whether the characters will make it. And I also love how the characters surprised me. Fred is definitely an explosions and mayhem sort of guy, but his characters also have heart and depth and … how can you not love that?


Fred: Anytime I can see the story someone is telling, I know it’s going to be a good one. Sarah paints a world of words that I want to live in. Without any visual art, she inspires the imagination to create gorgeous landscapes filled with intricate detail, characters whose faces I can see in my head, and dynamic lighting that matches the magical mood of her story.

Both of your responses made me smile! I can hear the excitement and appreciation you have for each other’s work.

Can you share a writing exercise?

Fred: Stealing Jon Maberry’s “What’s the Story?” game. It’s brilliant, it works for every genre, and it goes like this: Walk around until you see two things that don’t belong together. A cat in a pizza box. A flip flop on a rooftop. A businessman on a swing set. Then ask yourself, “what’s the story?” By the time your imagination creates a dozen scenarios that could have gotten those two mismatched items together, you’ll have one or two really fun beginnings.

Sarah: I always hear and write dialog first. I can’t help it. I don’t delve much into the physical surroundings or body language until I’m revising. So when I hit dialog-heavy portions of my book, I’ll ask myself what the speaker is holding, touching, or looking at. (This is a variation on advice that Hannah Barnaby once gave me.) What’s in her pocket? What does he hope someone won’t find in his satchel? What’s the one gift she wishes she’d never received? These objects don’t always show up in the story, but they’re a great way to help me understand and develop my characters.


Thank you so much! These are fantastic writing exercises that I’m sure writers and teachers will love to use. I’ll definitely play “What’s the Story” to help me come up with a bunch of future book ideas during Storystorm in January. And I also hear and write dialogue first and can’t wait to delve deeper using Sarah’s suggestions.  

What are you working on now?

Fred: The sequel to Garbage Island is due, um, yesterday and I’m about 80% finished. I’m calling it The Sailing City. It’s got the same loveable, flawed, adventurous characters with even more mayhem, misguided inventions, and deadly peril.

Sarah: I’m working on a YA retelling of a Russian fairy tale, “Finist the Bright Falcon,” where a princess in iron shoes and an eagle huntress embark on a quest to save an enchanted prince.


Those both sound wonderful! I hope we’ll have the chance to read them soon.

Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know?

Fred: A positive Goodreads or amazon review is always super-helpful and encouraging.

Sarah: I’ll be offering free Skype visits to classes and book clubs- look for information on my website.


Thank you both for this wonderful interview and your generous giveaway. The way you two met and have middle grade novels coming out the same month feels magical, and I can’t wait for our readers to learn more about you and your awesome books.

You can find out more about Fred on his website and Twitter.

Learn more about Sarah—including her FREE Skype visits on her website and follow her on Twitter, too.

Enter the Rafflecopter widget below for a chance to win signed copies of The Flight of Swans and Garbage Island (The Nearly Always Perilous Adventures of Archibald Shrew).  One lucky person will win both books on Thursday, November 1. Good luck!

*This giveaway is only available in the United States.

The Flight of Swans

Princess Andaryn’s six older brothers have always been her protectors–until her father takes a new Queen, a frightening, mysterious woman who enchants the men in the royal family. When Ryn’s attempt to break the enchantment fails, she makes a bitter bargain: the Queen will spare her brothers’ lives if Ryn remains silent for six years.

Ryn thinks she freed her brothers, but she never thought the Queen would turn her brothers into swans. She never thought she’d have to discover the secret to undoing the Queen’s spell while eluding the Otherworldly forces that hunt her. And she never thought she’d have to do it alone, without speaking a single word.

As months as years go by, Ryn learns there is more to courage than speech . . . and that she is stronger than the Queen could have ever imagined.


Garbage Island

Mr. Popli, the mouse mayor of Garbage Island, is always at odds with Archibald Shrew, a brilliant but reckless inventor. When Garbage Island, their home in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, splits apart, they are trapped together in Mr. Popli’s houseboat, desperate to find their way back home. At first, they only argue, but when they face a perilous thunderstorm and a series of predators, they begin to work together and recognize – in themselves and in each other – strengths they didn’t know they had.

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