A Story Published

January 2, 2012

I have some good news to report. Another of my children’s stories has just been published in Stories for Children Magazine. “Sock Monster,” a humorous mystery for young readers, appears in their Holiday (Dec/Jan) 2011 issue. You can find it here at:


– Cheryl Spanos

Her Christmas Tree

December 27, 2011

December 25th was my mother’s birthday. I wrote this poem for her after Christmas last year. I post it now in her memory.



By Cheryl Spanos


Decorating the Christmas tree for Dad

I unwrap ornaments

Felted angel, painted sled

Ones I had made when I was young.

Each a memory Mom had wrapped

Carefully preserved in tissue.

Touching them like holding a part of her

For one brief moment, having her back.


Later, at the cemetery

Hanging ornaments on the pine near her grave

Crystal snowflake, golden dove

Tinkle of wind chimes and glass bells

Each a tribute left in remembrance.

Even on that windswept hill

Overlooking the frozen lake

Mom has a Christmas tree.


Growing Characters

March 9, 2011

I’ve been working through Martha Engber’s Growing Great Characters from the Ground Up. The purpose is to get a better handle on my protagonist before penning my next novel. Geez, this process is much harder than I thought, mostly because this is so foreign to my normal way of approaching a story. You see, I’m a bit of a “pantser.” My normal process is to start with an idea and then begin writing. The characters usually develop as the story evolves.

With Engber’s approach, you start with the character first. You explore what you know about them to pull out their “one defining detail.” This detail could be an incident, an object, or a physical feature, but whatever you choose, this detail must be essential to their outlook on life. The defining detail reveals their primary motivation and greatest fear. Once you know their motivation, you put the character in situations (action) that will motivate them to face their greatest fear (conflict) and force them to change. And, there you have it, the major arc of your story.

The second half of the book gives several more helpful tips, but the exercises are far too detailed for my “pantser” tendencies. Even so, Engber’s book is just what I needed. I have files on each of the major characters and a detailed profile of my protagonist. In addition, I have a list of scenes that take me through the major plot arc. I can honestly say that this is the most meticulous I have ever been in planning a story.

Through these exercises, I understand my character better and am more inspired to write. The story is gelling for me and I’m itching to hit the keyboard. I know that taking the time to lay this groundwork will pay off as I write my novel. I hope this experience will help me take my writing to the next level.

What writing resources have you found helpful? Any other recommendations?

Guernsey Literary Society Review

March 2, 2011

I’ve recently read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. I’d hesitated and debated over this one for a while, since it is an epistolary novel and I thought the lack of “scene” structure would bother me. I’m pleased to report that my early reservations about this book were unfounded. 

In the book, WW II has just ended. Writer Juliet Ashton is on a book tour for her latest novel and facing writer’s block on her next project, when she receives a letter from a stranger.  Thus begins her introduction to the eclectic members of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and a tale of the Channel Islands during the German occupation.

Despite the unusual format, I was quickly hooked.  I loved this novel for its offbeat characters, the touches of humor, and Austen-like romance.  What impressed me most was the voice. Each of the letter writers had a distinctive quality and the content of their letters gave insight into their foibles and agenda – each one a study in character.

The only drawback was that I’m terrible with names. There were so many characters that I had trouble keeping them all straight (especially without physical descriptions to anchor my memory). I contemplated keeping a list, but in the end, I managed without it.

Have you ever read an epistolary novel?  What about a novel in verse or other unusual format?  What did you think of the experience?

Real Life D’oh

February 19, 2011

A recent article in my local paper caught my attention—a “Real Life” essay in which a free-lance writer shared her reflections on rejection letters.  Having plenty of experience with rejection letters myself (what writer doesn’t), I read on.  The author wrote non-fiction articles, but had an idea for a children’s fiction piece, so she’d queried several magazines about her work.  When her efforts met with rejection, she decided to expand her queries to children’s book publishers.  She was overjoyed when she finally received a request to see her manuscript from a big publishing house.  

Hurray for her success!  I cheered along with her…until the next sentence.  She hadn’t even written the story yet.  I just about sprayed the kitchen with my morning tea.  Yikes! 

Rule #1 of fiction: Don’t even think about querying until you have a completed and polished manuscript.

The writer then told how she’d whipped off the first draft of her manuscript over the weekend, polished it up the next week, and mailed it off.  My jaw hit the countertop. 

Rule #2 of fiction: Writing a children’s story is not easy.  Every word counts.  Plan on working at your craft and rewriting the whole thing several times.  Then when you think its perfect, get feedback from trusted writer friends.  And revise again.

Needless to say, she received a rejection. The sad part is that her idea might have been great.  The outcome might have been different, if she’d spent more time on her manuscript.

The best piece of advice that I give to any aspiring children’s author is to join the SCBWI. That’s the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.  This organization is a goldmine of information and support.  The packet of resources that you receive upon joining is worth every penny of the membership fee.  And that’s just the beginning of the benefits.  Check them out at www.scbwi.org.  Believe me, you’ll thank me for it later.

The Hunger Games: A Review

January 3, 2011

I recently read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and was absolutely floored by it. I would never have picked a dystopian novel on my own, especially one with such a gruesome premise. [The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic U.S. made up of twelve districts ruled by a brutal, totalitarian regime. Once a year, each district is forced to send a tribute of its children to participate in the Hunger Games – a nationally-televised fight to the death.]

My daughter has been reading dystopian novels in English class and this was one of the selections. It’s been mentioned several times at writer’s conferences as well; thus, my curiosity was piqued. So I picked it up and started reading.

The novel pulled me in from the first paragraph with the mention of “the reaping.”  As the chapter unfolds, we learn about the Hunger Games and begin to fear for Katniss and Gale, who are at great risk of being chosen for the games. At the end of the first chapter, we discover whose name is picked.  It’s a twist that I didn’t expect and set the stakes very high.  And I was hooked.

The Hunger Games is written in first person present tense.  Using first person brings an immediacy and limited perspective that really adds to the tension. We only know what Katniss knows and discover things as she does.  I thought the use of present tense would be a problem for me, but that too worked given that the narrator is only sixteen.  It fit the teenage protagonist.  

While it does have its gore, the novel was far more hopeful and engaging than I ever expected. And the suspense was incredible. It’s the kind of story you can’t get out of your head. You end up thinking about it long after you close the book.

A Short Story Published

October 27, 2010

Another of my short stories has just been published.  “Counting” appears in the October 2010 issue of Beyond Centauri, a science fiction and fantasy magazine for young readers.  I was thrilled to see my story in print when I received my author’s copy in the mail this week.

Beyond Centauri is published quarterly by Sam’s Dot Publishing. You can find out more about Sam’s Dot Publishing and their magazines by visiting their website at


Magyk: A Review

July 26, 2010

It’s summer time.  My synapses are firing in heat-induced slow motion.  Edit that chapter or compose a coherent sentence, I think not.  But it is a perfect day to flop on the couch with a cool drink in one hand and a good book in the other.  Ah, yes, time for summer reading.

My kids have an ongoing competition to see who can read the most.  My son currently holds the lead at nine novels, but my daughter isn’t far behind.  I’m the laggard in the group at a mere four since mid-June.  And our favorite summer reading fare?  The MG/YA novel.

I’ve just finished Angie Sage’s Magyk, the first book in her Septimus Heap series.  My kids adore this series and have read each book numerous times as the dog-eared pages attest.  They own all five books published so far.  I expect that there will be seven in total.  Despite their enthusiastic recommendations (They loved the humor!), I was hesitant.

Septimus Heap was born the seventh son of a seventh son, destined to be a wizard with great magical powers.  But the newborn boy is declared dead and spirited away shortly after birth.  In his place, the Heaps are given a foundling baby girl to raise her as their own.  When the girl’s life is threatened by assassins, the Heaps must protect her and in the process discover what really happened to their infant son.

Author Angie Sage tells the tale via an omniscient narrator.  With no single point of view, this makes it difficult to latch on to the plight of the characters or to identity the main protagonist.  I found the start slow and the constant head-hopping distracting.  (At one point, we were even inside the head of Maxie, the Heap’s family dog.  My kids found this hilarious.)  I was about to give up, but my crew persuaded me to stick with it. 

For me, the story picked up with the arrival of the Hunter.  Now the stakes were clear: I had a villain to oppose and a protagonist to cheer for.  From this point on, the plot unrolled at a speedy clip right up until the satisfying ending.  Along the way, I enjoyed the humor and Sage’s engaging cast of characters.

Collectively, we give Magyk five out of six thumbs up.  (Maxie the wolfhound gives it seven gobs of dog drool.  If you haven’t already guessed, seven is an important number in this series.)

Holey Vole-y

June 29, 2010

I should be writing. Instead I sit in my office, staring out the window at a pair of voles cavorting in my front yard.  They scamper back and forth past my Havahart trap, taunting me. 

Living near open space, I’ve had my share of wildlife encounters: skunks ambling up behind the house in the early morning, a gopher snake sunning itself on the garden path, fence lizards doing push-ups on my front deck.  I’ve surrendered our walnuts and pecans to the ravenous squirrels. In the ten years we’ve lived here, I’ve yet to taste a single one.  I’ve moved my roses to preserve them from deer that forage for tender shoots along our driveway.  But this time, the animals have gone too far.

Round holes the size of quarters multiplied among the colorful blooms in my favorite garden.  Then one by one, whole plants began to disappear – sunny marigolds, blue lobelia, cosmos, and impatiens.  What could have caused so much destruction? 

“Voles,” my neighbor said.  She called an exterminator.  I set a trap. 

That day, I caught my first vole – a tiny, gray-brown, mouse-like creature with black beads for eyes. Small ears flattened against its head, its tail short and furry.  So cute, like the hamster my daughter wants.  “Can we keep it?” she pleaded.  Killing it or calling the exterminator was out of the question now.  We released it in the open space far away from our house.  I hoped it couldn’t find its way back.

I filled in the holes and sprinkled a fox-scented repellant around my flowers to protect them.  I set the trap again and patrolled my garden.  I caught three more.  Finally, I think I have eradicated the little pests from my backyard.  All my efforts have convinced them to move elsewhere…

Right into the greener pastures of my front yard. 

Those coin-sized holes now litter my front garden, hidden under star jasmine and periwinkle.  And the critters have gotten wise to my tactics: they skirt my Havahart trap, playing close, oh so close, but never venturing inside.  From my window lookout, I spy two – a courting male and his mate.  If I don’t catch them soon, they’ll have little vole babies and multiply faster than my words.

Can anyone loan me a cat?

Second story published

June 11, 2010

Another of my short stories has just been published.  “Bones in the Cellar” appears in the spring 2010 issue of Hunger Mountain, the journal of the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

You can read my story on-line at the Hunger Mountain website here   

Also check out the other fine stories in Hunger Mountain‘s  YA/children’s section.