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"A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men." -Roald Dahl
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I’m thrilled to welcome Steve Barr today with an idea that will touch the hearts of many…
As a professional cartoonist and the author of 13 “How to Draw” books, I’ve spent my entire life trying to make other people laugh and smile. While this has been an extremely satisfying endeavor over the years, it’s not exactly a get-rich-quick scheme! My path along the way has had many ups and downs, triumphs and failures. But the rewards—those smiles on other people’s faces—have always made me feel like the roller-coaster ride we know as freelancing was worth it.
However, lately I’ve found myself longing to do something with a much more profound, longer-lasting impact. I’ve begun to feel drawn (no pun intended!) to begin working with pediatric patients and their families. Art activities, as well as music therapy, has been shown to substantially reduce stress in young children who are battling really difficult diseases. Drawing and painting has even been proven to have fairly long-lasting effects involving pain reduction.
Find that hard to believe? Check out the results of this study that was released by the National Institute of Health!
I can’t think of a better type of art therapy than teaching children to draw cartoons! It’s easy to do, entertaining and distracting. When kids are in the hospital, they have very little control over anything in their life. They’re expected to follow orders, and do whatever they are told. But when they’re drawing cartoons, there are NO RULES! Cartooning is one of the only art forms I know of where someone’s art is not expected to look exactly like someone else’s. Every successful cartoonist I know has a very distinct style that is easily recognizable as their own.
That’s why I’ll be teaching the children to experiment, to try different techniques, explore options and just have fun with their creations. Their drawings will begin with simple lines and shapes, and we’ll build on that to come up with characters that they can bring to life! The lessons are so easy to follow, I’ve had five year-olds grasp them immediately and amaze me with their natural talent.
Click image for full page, printable version.
Once the patients and their families feel comfortable with the cartoons they’ve drawn, they’ll be encouraged to experiment by making slight alterations to their creation to change them into other characters. That will let them have hours of fun on their own after I’ve left.
I want to provide these services completely free of charge to the hospitals, patients, their families and the art therapy groups that serve the facilities where they’re being treated. I’m dreaming of also sharing them with the surrounding communities and bringing more attention to the lingering benefits these classes will have.
But I can’t do this alone. I need help. I’ve begun researching grant opportunities and funding possibilities, but those can be very difficult for individuals to qualify for. With that in mind, I decided to set up a “Go Fund Me” page and seek funding from other people who would like to help me make this happen. If you’d like to take a peek at that campaign, here’s a link: http://www.gofundme.com/e9oahg
When children are hospitalized and fighting diseases like cancer, they often have a difficult time expressing how they are feeling. Art therapy can often help them open up and share their emotions. When they’re drawing cartoons, they can do that simply and easily with just a few shapes and lines. This can help both the medical staff and their therapists determine where the kids are in the process, and address any problems they’re having in dealing with their treatments.
I am hoping that this idea will continue to grow. If it really takes off, I would love to involve other cartoonists and illustrators in the effort. It has already become quite a time-consuming process, but I know the rewards will be fantastic.
If you’d like to help, but can’t contribute, please feel free to share the link with your friends: http://www.gofundme.com/e9oahg. Any exposure will be helpful, and together we can put smiles on lots of little faces and laughter in their hearts.
I honestly cannot think of a better way to spend the next few years of my life. And perhaps even longer than that!
Note: Please feel free to use the drawing lessons I’ve included in this blog if you are an Art Therapist, Child Life Specialist, Teacher or Nurse who works with children. Parents and guardians are also welcome to share the lessons with their kids. It’s not to be republished commercially without permission, but I’d be quite happy if it was shared personally with kids who would enjoy it.
You get a lot of spam, right? (Don’t worry, this isn’t spam.)
I do, too.
But lately, the nature of the spam has changed. I’m receiving all kinds of press releases from companies who want to announce products on my blog. And, these folks have really done their homework! (No, they haven’t, just like my new middle-schooler. Sigh…a story for another time.)
They’d like me to blog about their moto-scooters, high-tech floss, fireplace pokers, vegan wallets (they’re no longer called “vinyl”), birdhouses and beanbags. You name it, they think you, my readers, would LOVE it! The mistake they make is not even reading my blog or relating their story to this blog’s readership. They’re all “thrilled to announce” their stuffy stuff but fail to convince me why *I* should be thrilled.
And then, I received an email from CuratedQuotes.com. They offered to design a quote image for my blog. Why, here’s something I would actually use! That my readers might actually want, too!
I spend a lot of time searching for re-usable images on which to overlay a quote.
(Ugh, I’ve misplaced the image credits, which were all Creative Commons-ified.)
But here’s some folks that will do this for me. And make it look all cute and jazzy. So I said YES! And I sent them my very own quote!
Isn’t it wonderful? (I imagine that’s a little girl doing “the wave” with a wave.) Feel free to use the image quote yourself!
CuratedQuotes.com categorizes all these lovely quotes for us. They have a plethora of profound, beautiful quotes prêt-à-porter, for use in your social media communiques. (Those are such fancy-schmancy words! But when quotes look so fancy-schmancy, you need to keep up.) Here are 57 awesome quotes about creativity, like this one I picked just for you:
I’m so pleased CuratedQuotes.com contacted me.
They get us. They really get us.
And they will REALLY get you. They’re offering to make a custom image quote for one of my lucky blog readers! Just enter the quote you want to be picture-fied in the comments by October 1st. A random winner will then be selected. Good luck!
You know I love lists. I’m a listophile. This blog features t a list of 500+ Things that Kids Like, Things They DON’T Like, and a list of over 200 fun, cool and interesting words. List-o-mania! List-o-rama! The lister! (Pretend I’m talking in Rob Schneider’s SNL “annoying office guy” voice.)
Today I invited debut author Darlene Beck Jacobson to the blog to share the Top 10 Toys and Candies of the early 1900’s, the time when times, well, they were a-changin’. It was also the time during her new middle grade novel, WHEELS OF CHANGE! (Don’t you just LOVE that cover?)
TOP TEN TOYS OF 1900-1920
- Teddy Bear (1902)—in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt who, on a hunting trip, had an opportunity to kill a bear and didn’t.
- Erector Set—invented by AC Gilbert, a gold medal Olympian in the 1908 Pole Vault.
- Lionel Trains (1901)
- Lincoln Logs (1916)
- Raggedy Ann Doll
- Radio Flyer Wagon (1917)
- Tinker Toys (1914)
- Crayola Crayons 8 pack (1903)
- Tin Toys
Other popular toys of the time included: Baseball Cards (1900), Ping Pong (1901), Jigsaw Puzzle (1909), Snap Card Game, playing cards, marbles, checkers, chess, yo-yos, wooden tops and (of course) dolls.
Let’s see, what would the top 10 toys of today be? I think Teddy Bears might still have a shot at it. Maybe Crayola crayons, too. But I bet no one back then could envision an app being the most popular toy. (An app? they might say. You mean a tiny apple?)
Now let’s devour the top tasty treats of the era!
POPULAR CANDY FROM 1900-1920
- Candy Corn (1880-s)
- Juicy Fruit Gum, Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum (1893)
- Tootsie Rolls (1896)
- Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar (1900) with Almonds (1908)
- Necco Wafers (1901)
- Conversation Hearts (1902)
- Brach Wrapped Caramels (1904)
- Hershey Milk Chocolate Kisses (1906)
- Peppermint Lifesavers (1912)
Hmm, I think Hershey would still rank pretty high today. But my kids love Sour Patch and Fun Dip and AirHeads and all kinds of gross things now. Give me a Hershey’s any day (although make it a Cookies-n-Cream bar).
Last night was back-to-school night at my daughter’s elementary, and I’m astounded every year when the principal says, “Our children will be working in fields that haven’t even been invented yet.” That’s how fast things are moving. I’m sure in another hundred years the top toys will be time machines and molecular transporters that will bring the catchphrase “Beam me up, Scotty” back in style.
Today’s world is moving fast, and that tempo is paralleled in WHEELS OF CHANGE with racial intolerance, social change and sweeping progress. It is a turbulent time growing up in 1908. For twelve year old EMILY SOPER, life in Papa’s carriage barn is magic. Emily is more at homehearing the symphony of the blacksmith’s hammer, than trying to conform to the proper expectations of females. Many prominent people own Papa’s carriages. He receives an order to make one for President Theodore Roosevelt. Papa’s livelihood becomes threatened by racist neighbors, and horsepower of a different sort. Emily is determined to save Papa’s business even if she has to go all the way to the President.
Sounds exciting, right? IT IS!
And guess what, you have yet another chance to win another book! Leave a comment stating what YOU think the #1 toy and #1 candy is right now, in 2014. You have until the last seconds of September 29th to enter. The winner receives WHEELS OF CHANGE.
To learn more about Darlene Beck Jacobsen and WHEELS OF CHANGE, visit DarleneBeckJacobson.com.
Tara and Darlene at NJ-SCBWI 2013!
Good morning, writers! (Yawn! Stretch! Crack fingers. Sip tea.)
Let me tell you the reason for my uber-early morn, besides rousting my middle-schooler from her zombie-slumber. Not only do I have a SCBWI event at a “hipster cafe” (according to said middle-schooler), but I’m here to announce another debut by a friend! I’m pleased to share with you an adorable Noah’s ark tale, GOODNIGHT, ARK by Laura Sassi. Once again, a picture book writer makes a breakthrough with a new twist on a familiar theme.
Laura, a lot of time on this blog is spent talking about inspiration and story ideas (because of PiBoIdMo). What’s the genesis of GOODNIGHT, ARK?
First off, I just love your play on words here. The Biblical story of Noah’s ark is indeed found in Genesis! And I’ve always loved the story of Noah and the flood and all those animals packed in the ark two by two. Indeed one of the earliest stories I ever wrote – just for fun as a seven or eight year old – was a funny retelling of Noah and his ark. It has illustrations and everything—including horrendous spelling. My mom saved it. Wasn’t that sweet of her? This new Noah’s ark story, however, has a different genesis—experience! As a fellow Jersey girl, you know we’ve had some mighty fierce storms in the past few years and my kids and dog did not like them. Indeed howling winds and pelting rain sent them tumbling into our bed more than once. However, I thought that a story about ordinary kids piling into an ordinary bed might be boring, so I kept flipping the idea until—Zip! Zing!—it hit me—I could set the tale afloat on Noah’s ark! I knew I wanted my story to rhyme, and so once I had my setting, it was fun to brainstorm which animals might pile in and what might happen when they overloaded poor Noah’s bed.
Such an adorable idea! My kids are always crowding into my bed, and I remember doing it myself as a kid.
Did you have any hesitations about writing in rhyme? You know, because we hear so often not to do it because it’s difficult to do well.
Actually, I did not. Some stories are just meant to rhyme. For GOODNIGHT, ARK, I used the rhymes to create page turn riddles to encourage young readers to guess what will happen when page turns. But writer beware! You better make sure you have a good ear for it because creating good rhyming verse is complicated. You not only need to follow your established meter, you also you need to make sure your rhyme and meter are not driving the story. There is nothing worse than forced rhymes where words are inverted to make the rhyme or meter work, or where the plot has to go in awkward directions in order to rhyme. Stay away from that kind of rhyme!
You’re so right, some stories are meant to rhyme. And it’s good to follow your instincts for a story. I often say that the “gut” is a writer’s best friend. This business is so subjective. You can’t please all the readers all the time, so be true to your vision.
How did you land this debut contract?
The first key to opening that contract door was to find an agent who believed in my writing. The second key was not settling for what I thought at the time was my best effort, but pushing myself to take the manuscript to the next level before subbing it to publishers. The third key was sending GOODNIGHT, ARK to small, but well-thought-through sub list. For several months my agent and I heard nothing, then all of a sudden there was a flurry of interest. The manuscript ended up going to three acquisition meetings and getting two offers! In the end I chose Zonderkidz because I loved their vision for the story which they saw as a perfect piece to bridge both the Christian and broader secular markets. And then I was completely over the moon when, soon after signing the contract, the editor emailed me to say that Jane Chapman had agreed to illustrate it!
WOWZA! You hit kidlit gold there! Every author dreams of getting a top-notch illustrator attached to their project. Did you go thru the roof of the Ark when Jane Chapman said “yes”?
I first encountered Jane Chapman’s work when reading Karma Wilson’ BEAR SNORES ON to my children when they were little. And I LOVED the way she rendered Karma’s little creatures and that big bear with such warmth and sweetness. I couldn’t wait to see how she would depict the frightened tigers, skunks on board the ark in my story. I had no doubt she would do a wonderful job and I was right! Her lovely lantern-lit illustrations are rich and engaging. And here’s a funny tidbit: Shortly after I found out that Jane had signed on to illustrate GOODNIGHT, ARK, I read an interview with Jane Chapman over at Joanne Marple’s blog. At one point Joanna asked Jane if she had any favorite animals that she loved to draw. Jane answered something along the lines that she’s often commissioned to draw bears and mice, but that she’d really love the opportunity to draw some other more unusual animals such as ostriches…or WILD BOAR! (Well, there are wild boar in GOODNIGHT, ARK, so when I saw that I smiled because I knew, or at least hoped, that Jane was just as excited about this project as I was.) GRUNT! SQUEE! (That’s me trying to sound like an excited boar!)
What a cool surprise!
Speaking of such, what’s one of the surprise bonuses of the recent publication of your book?
This is an easy and wonderful answer for me. Special mother/daughter bonding time! I had no idea my nine-year-old would be so excited about the publication of GOODNIGHT, ARK. From theme-based cookies to celebrate the launch, to being my sidekick at book signings, I’ve loved the extra time she and I have spent together doing GOODNIGHT, ARK things. For example, this past Saturday, she accompanied me to a book signing at a lovely independent book store just north of us. She helped the children settle down, then took pictures while I read the story. Afterwards, she helped hand out the craft, and then (and this is my favorite part) completely of her own accord, she gently walked around to each child with the skunk puppet I’d brought along to help me read the story, and asked each child if they’d like a chance to pet the skunk. The children LOVED that! And so did I! In a couple of weeks my fourteeen-year-old will be accompanying me on a road trip down to Lexington, VA to do double book signings. I hope that will also be a special mother/son bonding trip. (With skunk in tow, of course.)
Awesome. I love how your kids are involved. My middle-schooler says “yeah, yeah, Mom” when I get excited about a manuscript. Then she asks for a grilled cheese, stares at it while I read, and then exclaims, “Mommy, that story is too cheesy, just like this sandwich.” Why do I bother to wake her?
Thanks so much for sharing your story with us, Laura! And I understand your publisher will be sharing the book with us!
Comment below once for a chance to enter the GOODNIGHT, ARK giveaway. You must have a US address (and not a PO Box). You have until September 28th to enter!
Laura Sassi has a passion for telling humorous stories in rhyme. She writes daily from her century-old home in New Jersey where she lives with her husband, two children, and a black Cockapoo named Sophie. Her poems, stories, articles, and crafts have appeared in Highlights for Children, Cricket, Ladybug, Spider and Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse and Clubhouse Jr. and elsewhere. GOODNIGHT, ARK is her first picture book. Visit her at LauraSassiTales.wordpress.com.
September should be “giveaway month” here on the blog, since we’ve got a bounty of books ‘n’ stuff. The winner of THE LAKE WHERE LOON LIVES was Carol Nelson, who was notified, and who exclaimed that she never wins anything. I was tickled to prove her wrong!
And today we’ve got yet another giveaway, from a long-time blog reader and PiBoIdMo participant, Lori Alexander. Her debut picture book, BACKHOE JOE, is being released TODAY! A round of applause for Lori! I sat down with her to discuss the making of a debut. (Well, I sat HERE, while she sat THERE. We did not sit together, although I would have loved to. I mean, look at her! Isn’t she adorable?)
Lori, there are many truck books on the market because they’re so popular with young children. (In fact, once an editor told me not to write a truck book because of others already out there!) Tell us what makes BACKHOE JOE different and special!
You are right, Tara! There are lots of truck books. When my son was younger, he was crazy about construction. He wore truck shirts and slept on truck sheets and had truck birthdays. We pulled the car over for close-up looks at construction equipment (which set an exhausting precedent on cross-country trips, with me wishing my son had been born a dinosaur fanatic instead. No stops!). We also sought out as many construction books as we could get our hands on. After a while, they all seemed similar to me: a bulldozer pushes, a dump truck dumps, an excavator digs. A playground is built at the end. To mix it up, my son and I had lengthy conversations about what we would do with our own backhoe. Our backhoe could scoop Legos into a pile, dump dirty laundry into the washer, and drive all the neighborhood kids to school (that front loader is roomy!). These dreamy discussions led to the kernel of the idea for BACKHOE JOE which is about a boy who tries to adopt a “stray” backhoe. So, like pirate books and dinosaur books and princess books, BACKHOE JOE joins a crowded subject, but I’m hoping he will dig out some space of his own on the bookstore shelves.
I’m sure he will! (I mean, look at him! Isn’t he adorable?) And that’s what we all have to do, take a common theme and make it unique! I love the idea of a truck as a pet.
Is this the project that landed you an agent? How did you pitch it?
That is something you hear editors ask for…a fresh twist on a common theme! With Backhoe Joe, it took me a few years to get it right. My early drafts were about a boy asking for a backhoe for his birthday, through a series of letters to his parents, à la I Wanna Iguana. I received some positive feedback from a small publisher, who liked the concept, but wasn’t sold on the letter format. Many more months of big-picture revisions as well as tiny tweaks lead to the current version. I received some positive feedback from agent Mary Kole during a webinar critique, and that gave me the boost of confidence I needed to begin querying agents. I queried with BACKHOE JOE but had two other PB manuscripts ready to go, in case an agent was interested. Lucky for me, one was! And you asked how I pitched it. I believe in the cover letter I said something completely cheesy, like “it’s FANCY NANCY for boys!”
Well, that would certainly grab my attention!
What can you share about your debut book experience that’s been most surprising?
While writing BACKHOE JOE, I really tried to nail the page breaks. I studied the page turns in my favorite picture books and read blog posts about layout (Tara’s “Picture Book Dummy, Picture Book Construction: Know Your Layout” is one of my favorites). I submitted BACKHOE JOE to my agent divided into 16 spreads. I thought she might want to remove the breaks and submit it to publishers in paragraph form, but it never came up. I was surprised (in a good way!) when my editor at Harper agreed and the final layout of Joe was exactly how I envisioned it. All that homework paid off!
Another surprise was, although I should have known better, having one sale under your belt doesn’t make it any easier to sell the next book. Rejection—a thing of the past? Not so!
Ha, don’t I know it! They never stop, but they do get easier to swallow. (However, I am not advocating eating your manuscript.)
What’s your favorite line in the book?
My absolute favorite line is on the last page, but I don’t want to spoil anything. I will say Craig Cameron did a fantastic job bringing Joe to life and he set-up the twist ending beautifully.
Aha, I LOVE a twist ending! I think it’s so important for a successful picture book, to surprise your audience, to extend the story beyond the story. Let them imagine what happens next (plus set yourself up for a sequel)!
My second favorite bit is when the main character, Nolan, tries to train Backhoe Joe like he’s a dog. But naughty Joe revs at the mailman, buries his cone in the flowerbed, and digs in the garbage. It was fun to think about the ways a dog and a construction truck might behave similarly.
OK, one last question. I have a list of fun words I posted recently, which has become quite popular. What’s your favorite word?
This time of year, my favorite word is monsoon.
Yeah, I love ooh sounds!
And now our readers are gonna make ooh sounds (corny segue, Tara) because Lori has a BACKHOE JOE prize pack to give away! Just leave one comment below by September 23rd!
The prize pack includes a signed copy of BACKHOE JOE, bookmarks, stickers, and squishy foam stress “rocks”. (Hey, I could use some of those! Remember, the rejections never cease!)
Lori Alexander lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband and two rock-collecting kids. Her family always brakes for road construction so they can admire the dozers and diggers. Lori still secretly hopes a backhoe will follow them home. She is represented by Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. This is Lori’s first picture book. Visit her at LoriAlexanderBooks.com.
by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen
It’s back to school season here in New Jersey (or, outside Philadelphia, as I typically refer to it) and that means big changes in my household. All summer, my kids and I are bums. We hang out at the beach, at the pool, at the mall. We travel, we sleep in, we do nothing. Summer is heaven.
But come September, my children’s lives change. Gone are the no schedule, no stress days and in their place we have wake up alarms, agenda books, and deliverables (and, it seems, a LOT of laundry!). The kids aren’t the only ones who go back to school—as a children’s book author, the school year means that I go back to school as well.
Every year, between school visits, Skype visits, and events like Dot Day or World Read Aloud Day, I connect with about 100 different schools all around the world. Because I spend so much time with school kids, I end up doing quite a bit of teaching, especially teaching writing. Which happens to be a completely different skill than actually writing.
There is a very stupid expression that you sometimes hear people throw around: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” I want to be very, very clear here: that is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. Not only is it disparaging, inflammatory, and demeaning, it also has the distinction of being very WRONG. I definitely knew that before I personally started working with schools, but now that I teach on a regular basis, I can tell you that those who teach can do better than anyone else.
It has to do with the nature of teaching. In order to teach someone a skill, you have to know it so well that you can explain every step, even the ones you do automatically or on muscle memory. Here’s an example: when I was in graduate school, I bought a brand new Mustang that I couldn’t drive. Because it was a stick shift and I only knew how to drive an automatic. So I had a friend try to teach me how to drive stick. We got in my car, I started it up, and I asked him what to do next. He said, “OK, now drive.” I looked at him blankly. “Just don’t stall the car,” he added. I had no idea what that meant. So he said, “Don’t ease off the clutch to quickly. Or too slowly!”
At that point, I threw him out of the car. He, to this day, doesn’t understand what had upset me.
He knew how to drive a manual, and things that I needed to know—how to properly come off the clutch when changing gears, how to tell when to shift up or down, etc.—were things he’d stopped thinking about. So he couldn’t teach me to do them because he hadn’t been thinking about all those little steps that you do to succeed that once you’re successful, you completely forget about.
(For the record, I can now totally drive a stick.)
When I started teaching writing, I struggled with this same thing. I thought to myself, How can I teach something that I just DO? Trust me, this was very difficult to figure out. But the more I did figure it out—the better I got at teaching others how to write—the better I actually got at writing. Just like my friend who failed at teaching me how to drive my Mustang because there were so many things he was doing on autopilot that he couldn’t explain, as writers, we do that same thing. When you get to a certain point in your writing journey, you don’t even think about certain things like how to conceptualize a complex character or add layers to your plot, you just do it. But if you try to teach someone else how you do what you do, you have to break down every action into baby steps so that you can show your students how to mimic your actions. This forces you to think through your methods, and in the process, refine them even more.
So even if you’re not at the point in your publishing career where you are teaching, I’d like to encourage you to think like a teacher to become a better writer. For example, instead of saying, “I’m going to create a charismatic main character,” I’d ask you to analyze what steps you’d take to do that, like:
- Start with something familiar
- Add some positive unique features
- Give the character some flaws that make him or her relatable
- Give him or her positive relationships (family, best friend, etc.) and negative relationships (nemesis, villain, etc.)
- Temper every extreme (like “good” or “bad”) with something that brings it back a notch (like “good but hates kittens” or “bad but rescues kittens”)
The more you go through this process of treating your writing objectives like lesson plans, the deeper you’ll understand what you’ve done when something work—and what you may have left off inadvertently when something doesn’t work.
When you’re a good teacher, your students will benefit. When you yourself are your own student, your teaching skills make you so much better at doing.
Happy Back to School!
Sudipta is an award-winning author of over 40 books and the co-founder of both Kidlit Writing School and Kidlit Summer School. Her books include DUCK DUCK MOOSE, TYRANNOSAURUS WRECKS, ORANGUTANGLED, and over thirty more books that have been acclaimed by the Junior Library Guild, the California Reader’s Collection, the Bank Street Books Reading Committe, the Amelia Bloomer list, and many more. Find out more about her by visiting Sudipta.com or her blogs Nerdy Chicks Rule and Nerdy Chicks Write.
Sudipta’s new class: Picture Book A to Z’s: Plotting in Picture Books
The Picture Book A to Z series is designed to be a collection of master level classes that cover all of the fundamentals of picture book craft. While each class is complete on its own, taken together, the series will teach you everything you ever wanted to now about picture books- and a lot more!
The ability to craft a strong picture book plot is one of the factors that separates unpublished writers from those who consistently sign publishing contracts to see their work in print. This course will teach you the essentials of creating compelling plots, starting with Arcs, Beginnings, and Climaxes — then literally taking you through the alphabet. Each topic will be explored in depth, both in the lessons and in the discussion forums and webinars. The writing exercises that are a part of of the course are designed to help you apply the lessons to your own writing seamlessly and immediately. By the end of the course, you will never look at plotting the same way again! The first course in this series, Plotting in Picture Books, will begin on October 6, 2014.
Bonus Critique: Register for Plotting in Picture Books before September 20, 2014 and receive a free picture book manuscript review and 20-minute Skype session with Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, redeemable within six months of the course’s completion.
Thanks, Sudipta! And now for the giveaway…either a 20-minute telephone/Skype PB critique with Sudipta or one of her signed books. The choice is yours. Just comment once below by September 16th to enter!
by Marcie Colleen
“Show, don’t tell.”
We hear this all of the time. Yet, many writers struggle with this very idea.
Writers like to research. We travel to faraway places, we talk with people who live there. We look through old files and photographs. We mine our memories for tidbits and call upon our imagination to fill in the rest.
We stay cerebral.
But this is where we fail ourselves. This is where we fail our readers.
We all want to write books that make people feel, but in order to do that—we must feel first. We must cry. We must get angry. We must laugh. We must fall in love. We must face fear.
But to achieve true emotion with our words, we need to get out of our heads and tune into our guts.
To do this, I like to call upon the actor’s craft.
Here are 3 tips to get out of your writer’s head and write from the gut.
- Keep an Emotion Diary.
An actor knows that whatever happens to them in life is fodder for their craft. Even at a moment of extreme heartbreak, an actor knows, “I can use this.” Observe yourself on a daily basis. How are you feeling? Don’t detail the situations that are happening to you, but write down what an emotion feels like physically. Tune into your hands, your chest, your legs, and your jaw. These are places we hold emotion.
- Be emotional.
An actor practices playing with emotion. They take the time to experiment in order to better know how to portray it when the time comes. Much like a yogi will hold a pose to build strength, actors practice holding emotion in their bodies to gain emotional fluency. Refer back to your Emotion Diary to remember how a certain emotion manifests in your body. Soak in it. Go about some daily tasks while in this emotional state. (Although keep these tasks solo. You are working on craft here, not ruining relationships and getting a reputation. Hint: scrubbing the tub while angry is amazing!) Observe how the emotion affects your movement and your actions. Of course, when play time is done, find ways to unwind…we don’t want you to end up a basket case.
- Embrace the First Person.
An actor walks in the shoes of others to learn to live in their moments. They speak directly from the mouth, the heart, the gut of the very person they are performing. Spend some time pretending to be your character. You can go through the same emotional practice you did in the previous step, but this time with your character’s situation in mind.
Take your character to the most heightened moment in this emotion. How do they react? Write a letter or a diary entry as your character while holding this emotion. Or create audio or video as your character. Abandon flowery metaphor and other authorly devices for the time being and speak raw, from your character’s gut. You might be surprised what you learn.
It is so easy to fall into summarizing a scene instead of delving in and living each moment. Maybe as writers we prefer to play God and observe the tough situations from afar. It’s more pleasant to be omnipresent than personally absorbed.
But when we learn to write from the gut, our hands may tremble with each keystroke, a lump might form in our throat, tears might well. It’s not always comfortable. Yet it is essential that we learn to breathe life into each moment, so that the very DNA of our story can breathe on the page and fill the lungs of every reader it touches. This is the essence of “show, don’t tell.” In fact, it takes the idea one step further.
“Be, don’t show.”
Before Marcie Colleen was a picture book writer, she was a former actress, director and theatre educator. In her 15 year career, Marcie worked within the classroom, as well as on Regional, Off-Broadway and Broadway stages. Formerly the Director of Education for TADA! Youth Theater, she also worked for Syracuse Stage, Camp Broadway, the Metropolitan School for the Arts, and Tony Randall’s National Actors Theater. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education and Theater from Oswego State University and a Masters degree in Educational Theater from NYU. She has taught theater workshops in the UK and throughout the US, including Alaska.
Marcie’s From the Gut: An Acting for Writers Workshop (being held on September 14th at NJ-SCBWI) helps writers get out of their heads. Her up-on-your-feet techniques feature acting and writing exercises to tap into raw emotion. Through guided practice, writers learn to breathe life into the voice of every character. Time is spent exploring, playing and simply “being” emotion while learning how to transfer the discoveries onto the page in a way that creates immediacy and authenticity for the reader. Participants are given tools to deepen their writing through voice and movement even when alone in their writing caves.
Visit Marcie at www.thisismarciecolleen.com.
Before we talk cumulative tales with guest author Brenda Reeves Sturgis, it’s time for a little blog business. The winner of EXTRAORDINARY WARREN is:
Congratulations…and be on the lookout for an email from me.
Now let’s get to a LOON-y interview with Brenda…
Your newest book, THE LAKE WHERE LOON LIVES, is a cumulative tale (like The Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly), where each new scene builds upon the previous ones, all repeated in the text. What inspired you to write a cumulative picture book…and what special considerations does a writer have when writing such a story?
I didn’t set out to write a cumulative tale, but just set out to write what I heard in my head and in my heart.
I live on a lovely little lake in Maine and I am always elated when the loons come back to the lake in the spring. Their haunting hoots and wicked wails always leave me breathless wanting to hear more, and so when the story came to me as a gift in the middle of the night (which is my usual writing time). I just began writing, and writing and writing and what appeared was THE LAKE WHERE LOON LIVES.
In a cumulative story, each line builds and stacks on the previous sentence, and loon is written in rhyme so that made it even more challenging because every time I changed a word, the story would start to crumble and I would have to rewrite not only the sentence that I was revising but also all of the sentences before it, so that I would keep the right rhythm and meter.
I wanted to depict what a day in the life of a loon might be like, so I put in chicks, a fly, a fish that would snap at the fly, a boy on a dock that would give fishing a try, a cast, a struggle, and a splash and a swish, and then after a HUGE RUCKUS, the story starts to unwind where Mama Loon finds the SPOT on the lake that she loves best. She tucks her chicks in tight, and just like all loving Mama’s do, she reads her babies a goodnight story before she settles in with a nice cup of tea by her campfire.
Little did I know when I wrote it that the illustrator would illustrate LOON so totally different than I had pictured, and I am so very glad that she did. Because in this loon story mama loon LOVES to waterski, she is daubed white and black because her chicks used her as a canvas with Loon White waterproof paint. I think the illustrator, Brooke Carton did a fabulous job with her loose illustrations which compliment the tight text very nicely.
I hope your readers will enjoy reading THE LAKE WHERE LOON LIVES as much as I enjoyed writing it. Islandport Press has been wonderful to work with, and they had a book launch for LOON at The Maine Audubon Society in May, and I’ve been busy with signings and events almost every weekend since.
Why are cumulative tales beneficial for young children?
Cumulative stories teach word repetition and children therefore know what to expect in the story, which then helps them learn languague and pick out familiar words. This enhances their reading abilities, making for a stronger student and a more confident learner. A cumulative story is a perfect tool to teach a reluctant reader.
Tell us about Islandport Press. How did you find them and why was this story such a good fit for their list?
I’d heard about Islandport for years, and when I started researching their books I saw that they were Maine-and-New-England-themed, so on a whim, I submitted to them on my own, then sent an e-mail to my agent Karen Grencik saying, “By the way, I submitted to Islandport!” She answered back, “GREAT, fingers crossed!”
I got the acceptance e-mail while sitting in the Biddeford Library. I went outside, sat on the curb and cried, because up until that point, I didn’t know if I got published on a fluke, or if I had any kind of talent or chance at another book at all. It was a wonderful process, and I am so grateful to Dean Lunt the publisher, and Melissa Kim my editor. They have an amazing marketing staff, they are kind and thoughtful and amazing to their authors!
Also, on the back of LOON, something I am most proud of is a nice blurb by author Chris VanDusen.
What’s next for you, Brenda?
TOUCHDOWN, after 7 years, after winning Smart Writers, after being rejected 50 times (not once because of the writing but because of the marketing “hook”) has become a finalist for the MeeGenius Author Challenge, and whoever wins will be awarded $1500.00.
Good luck, Brenda! And thanks for giving away a copy of LOON to our blog readers.
Comment below by August 29th or a chance to win! And feel free to ask Brenda questions about cumulative stories or her work.
Is your goal to get a picture book published?
So I’m here to tell you, write a picture book.
Ha! That seems like DUH advice, doesn’t it?
But I don’t want you to waste your time, like I did, writing for magazines, trying to build publishing credits, if magazine writing isn’t your ultimate goal. Magazine writing is a completely different skill, and while credits are nice, they are not going to make or break you. Magazine credits prove you’re a professional and that you’ve been through the editing process, but they won’t convince anyone to buy your manuscript if it’s a sub-par story. You need to hone your picture book skills, and that only comes with writing dozens of picture books.
Agent Ammi-Joan Paquette takes clients based on their submission, first and foremost. “For me, the number one focus is on the writing: the voice, the story, the way the language sparkles and draws me in. If you’ve got that, I’ll follow you just about anywhere. All the writing credits, awards, and fancy degrees in the world—on their own—won’t make me take on an author. It’s about the writing, pure and simple.”
I received some misguided (but well-intended) advice when I began writing for children. I was told to place fiction in magazines in order to build my writing resume. So I gave it a shot. Then I found out how difficult it was to place stories. Not any less difficult than getting a book published! (I don’t know why I thought it would be.)
Your story must fit the theme of the magazine issue, which means you’re better off reviewing editorial calendars first, then writing to fill that need. Instead, I wrote what I wanted to write and then found it was only appropriate for a single issue, to be published in three years’ time! Magazines are often booked far in advance. Back in 2008, if I were to place that story, it would have been printed in 2011. Yikes!
Now that’s probably an extreme example, but it’s an important lesson I learned. I was veering off my intended path to publication.
A magazine story has to be more descriptive than the language in a picture book because there are far fewer illustrations to accompany the text. You’re often writing for a single spread with no page turns, and page turns are crucial to picture book pacing, humor and reader anticipation. So I was writing for a wildly different format and not for the goal I desired: to get a picture book published.
Some will argue that writing for credits is necessary prior to getting a book deal, but I say that is incorrect. As long as you have a professional-looking, easily found web presence and membership in a professional writing organization like SCBWI, that’s all you need in your bio to prove that you’re “serious”. The thing you need most of all? You know—a winning manuscript! I had zero children’s publishing credits prior to getting my agent and a book deal. I’m definitely not alone in this.
Children’s magazines are wonderful, but if they’re not your goal, don’t use your precious writing time in this manner. Want a picture book deal? Write picture books! (I say books, plural, because if an agent is interested in your manuscript, that agent will ask for more of your work.)
And I hope that’s not DUH advice!
Do you agree or disagree? Share your opinion in the comments!
I know what you’re thinking—where has Tara been all July? (Well, maybe you’re not thinking that. Maybe you’re daydreaming about a fro-yo fix. And who could blame you?)
Well, it’s August and I’m back with an extraordinary interview. The talented author-illustrator Sarah Dillard turned what she thought was a picture book into an adorable early-reader chapter book. What did it take to get EXTRAORDINARY WARREN published? Let’s find out while we devour our fro-yo…
Sarah, what exactly made you realize that WARREN was destined for more than a picture book?
When I started working on Warren, I intended it to be a picture book but I felt that the story and ideas that I wanted to tell with him were a little more complex than the picture book format would comfortably allow. This is not to say that there are not complex picture books because there certainly are. But with Warren, it just seemed like he needed a little room to spread his wings. I didn’t worry about chapters though until a few drafts in. At that point it felt like there were natural breaks in the story for chapters. I have to say, when I am working on something I don’t automatically think “I am writing a picture book or this is going to be a chapter book.” I focus on the character and the story and let it unfold and then see what fits it best.
That’s great advice, to focus on character.
Thanks, Tara. I also wanted to add, that as picture books seem to be skewering younger, there is a great opportunity for illustrated early readers and chapter books to fill the gap for the beginning reader.
So what inspired Warren’s creation? How did he hatch?
Warren began as a doodle of a chicken looking at an egg. He looked curious to me and felt like a character who was looking for life’s answers. Did I draw the egg first or the chicken? I’ll never tell!
My favorite spread in WARREN is the one with the hill in separate panels. How did you come up with that unique visual concept?
That is one of my favorite spreads too! When I started thinking about how I would do the art for this book, my art director suggested a limited palette—with three colors plus black and white. I was hesitant at first but when I realized that I could use black as more than just an outline, the art took a fun graphic turn. I felt the use of black for the hill added just the right drama for this spread. I also liked the idea of having basically one hill but several panels that show Warren’s progression up and over that hill. I think it works both literally and figuratively for this part of the story.
How different is it to write/illustrate your own book as opposed to just being an illustrator on a project?
I think it is quite different to illustrate my own book than illustrating someone else’s work. Illustrating someone else’s story is a huge responsibility. It is kind of like having someone say here is my beautiful child, please raise it. I am very conscious of wanting to do justice to the story as the author might have envisioned it while also bringing my own sensibility to the story.
When I am illustrating my own work having the art serve the story becomes the primary focus. I thinking of the images and what part they will have in telling the story as I write, so the art and the words feel inseparable to me. I think when I am working on my own books I have a stronger intuitive sense of what the story will need and am more willing to take risks to give it that. For instance, WARREN is done digitally and in a style quite different than I any I have worked in, but I think it was the best approach for the book.
We’re hearing a lot about how editors want character-driven stories. What about Warren’s character makes him especially appealing?
That is a great question, and I’m glad that you find WARREN appealing! In creating WARREN, I tried to think about things that I thought about as a child, and probably still think about; the big questions—Who am I? What is my place in this world? I think we all want be special in some way but worry that maybe we are not. WARREN taps into that and hopefully it makes him someone that the reader can relate to and cheer on.
And…are there more WARREN books planned for the future?
I’m happy to say YES! EXTRAORDINARY WARREN SAVES THE DAY will be published in October. I don’t want to give too much away, but I can say that this book will deal with another of life’s big questions. Finally, we will learn, once and for all, why the chicken crossed the road.
I’ll let my blog readers know that you’re giving away a signed copy of EXTRAORDINARY WARREN: A SUPER CHICKEN—they just have to leave a comment by August 8th. Hey, that’s even better than fro-yo!
Sarah Dillard studied art at Wheaton College and illustration at Rhode Island School of Design. She lives with her husband in Waitsfield, Vermont. For more about Sarah and her books, visit SarahDillard.com.
By: Tara Lazar
Blog: Tara Lazar
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by Anna Staniszewski
As an author who’s slowly been transitioning from novels to picture books (my first picture book will be out in March 2015), I’ve realized that picture book techniques have started influencing my novel-writing process. Here are a few examples.
1. Brevity and Word Choice
This is probably the most obvious connection. When you’re used to working with 500 words, you tend to get a little pickier about the words you use in longer projects. Even when I have 50k words to work with, for example, I still find myself making sure to cut out unnecessary phrases (particularly unneeded dialogue tags) and using strong verbs and interesting nouns to make each sentence count.
2. Tying the End to the Beginning
This is my favorite picture book technique. In picture books, the ending almost always echoes the beginning of the tale. I love using this approach in novels, reflecting something from the opening chapter in the closing chapter in a different context. This technique shows us that the character has grown and changed, and it also makes the story feel cohesive and satisfying.
3. Repeating for Emphasis
Repetition can be great in picture books, but in novels it can feel like telegraphing. A strong repeated image, however, especially one whose meaning deepens over the course of the story, can work well if it’s revisited throughout the novel. It can help show how the meaning of that image or experience has changed for the character over time.
4. Using the Senses
In picture books, we have to be mindful of not focusing too much on the visual details so that we don’t step on the illustrator’s toes. That means we have to use other senses to give the story depth. I try to use a similar multi-sensory approach in my novels, so I’m not simply describing how things look to the characters, but I’m also thinking about the smells, sounds, and textures around them. I’ve also found myself using a lot of onomatopoeic words—kapow!
For those of you who write in longer and shorter formats, how do you find the two influencing each other? What’s your favorite picture book technique to use in novel-writing? Please comment below and join the conversation!
Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Anna Staniszewski grew up loving stories in both Polish and English. Currently, she lives outside Boston with her husband and their crazy dog. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. She is the author of the My Very UnFairy Tale Life series and the Dirt Diary series. Her newest novel, The Prank List, released on July 1st from Sourcebooks. You can visit Anna at www.annastan.com.
It’s my birthday, but I’d rather not be reminded, because I’m slipping ever so closer to eligibility for the “AARP Junior” card, as my father likes to josh. (Thanks, Pops.)
Last year on my birthday, something fun happened—my agent and I announced the acquisition of LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD by Heidi Kilgras at Random House Children’s. And this year, Meredith Mundy and Merideth Harte of Sterling have stepped up to the birthday cake. They have acquired NORMAL NORMAN, a story that began with just the quirky title. (Always have pen and paper on you, folks. I jotted it down on the grocery check-out line.)
Many thanks again to Ammi-Joan Paquette for brokering the deal. Here’s the full scoop:
Who here has yet to pay a visit to THE MONSTORE? It’s okay, we’ll wait. (You won’t regret it!)
Once you’ve stopped off to visit Tara Lazar’s deliciously quirky debut picture book, you will of course want to know what else she has on the horizon. And the answer is: much, much more! The next book to drop will be I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK, coming from Aladdin in summer 2015.
And today, I’ve got still more good news—which is really the reason we’re here today. Tara Lazar’s brand new picture book, NORMAL NORMAN, tells the story of Norman, a little creature who does not want to do all the normal things that creatures do. He wants to be different! Unique! Unexpected! Not everyone likes this plan… not at all. What is a think-outside-the-box creature to do?
I’m delighted to say that NORMAL NORMAN has been acquired by Meredith Mundy and Merideth Harte at Sterling, and that an illustrator is already on board: the talented Stephan Britt. Congratulations, Tara—and here’s to Norman!
A PiBoIdMo “Kind of” Success Story
by Nancy Tandon
After hearing about PiBoIdMo for several years, I decided to play along last November. Actually, the truth is, what I really decided to do was participate in NaNoWriMo, which runs the same month, and write a full novel. But on November 2nd, I got a little freaked out by what I’d bitten off, and turned to the supportive atmosphere of Tara Lazar’s “Writing for Kids (While Raising Them)”, and PiBoIdMo, for some user-friendly structure and guidance.
I told myself, it’s just one idea a day—you can do this! So every morning, I’d poke around in my brain until an idea popped up that (at the time) seemed good enough to write down. Then, on most days, I worked on the novel as well. But it was the act of writing down a picture book idea that got my butt in the chair. Already, the support was working!
The other part of PiBoIdMo that I had not realized would be so helpful was reading all the juicy guest posts. Tips on character, theme, story arc, rules of three, and much more, make PiBoIdMo a kind of month-long conference for PB writers.
One commonality that I noticed across posts, no matter what the topic, was the idea of the importance of story. (I know, duh, right?) But it can be deceptively hard to get all the necessary story elements to line up, particularly in so few words.
Then one morning, I was having trouble coming up with even a bad idea. So, I looked back at earlier entries to see if that might help spark something.
One of these older ideas had been fun to play with, but my sketchy first draft was very episodic. It was missing that narrative arc that makes a story, a story. The premise was a bit like IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE, and was based on the phrase, “which was good…” (Things kept happening, or not happening, which was good because…and on and on).
Then as I was playing with this idea in my mind, and searching for a story framework, the phrase “which was good” flipped in my mind to become “witch was good.” And that’s how the idea for my picture book THE WORST WITCH was born.
The tradition of picture book characters that do not fit the mold society expects of them is as old as Ferdinand himself. I worried this story had been done. But I decided it would be worth it to give this little witch, who just couldn’t help being good, a chance.
Several months and several revisions later, I submitted the manuscript to the New Voices in Children’s Literature: Tassy Walden Awards Competition, which is run by the Shoreline Arts Alliance. The competition “encourages and nurtures the creation of exceptional quality books for children by unpublished Connecticut writers and illustrators.”
A few months after that, I learned that my manuscript, THE WORST WITCH, was a winner in the Picture Book/Text Only category. What a thrill! Recently, I had the pleasure of reading my text aloud at the awards ceremony. The absolute highlight for me was when I was approached afterwards by a young girl named Lucy, who said, “I liked your story a lot. I like witch stories.” Her praise meant as much to me as the award itself.
I don’t know if THE WORST WITCH will ever reach more kids like Lucy, but I hope so! And if it does, I will have to come back and take the words “kind of” out of my success story.
Thank you, Tara, and all the contributors to this year’s PiBoIdMo. I’ll be back next year, and hope you will, too!
by Ashley Fedor, Editor and Director of Content at MeeGenius
In the next few weeks MeeGenius, the #1 app with over 700 e-books, will be kicking off our Author Challenge—an open challenge for aspiring authors. I wanted to let you know about it in advance and invite all aspiring authors to participate. I exchanged some emails with Tara prior to writing this post and we thought it would be a great opportunity to share some aspects of our publishing process.
At MeeGenius, the publishing process begins—where else?—in the slush pile! As the editor, I read through hundreds of submissions, looking for stories that I know will resonate with our readers. This could mean unique characters, an engaging voice, a topic that will be particularly powerful to parents, or simply great writing.
Once I decide to acquire a manuscript and the contract is signed, then the fun part begins! I work with the author on 1-3 editorial passes. We collaborate to take the manuscript from something good to something great. This can take anywhere from one week to several, depending on our timelines.
Once we have a finished manuscript, I assign it to an illustrator and provide art direction. The illustrator sends a round of sketches, which I review with an eye for editorial accuracy (if a character is supposed to be wearing a dress but she’s wearing snow pants, we need to fix it!) as well as layout (if it’s a landscape picture, will the text fit on the page?).
At the same time, the manuscript is sent out for narration and cues (word highlighting). Once all assets are completed, it’s time to build the book! Our production team works tirelessly to create beautiful e-books, QA them across platforms to catch any issues, and finally, to send the book out into the world.
Previous Winner: The Secret Police Dog
Thank you so much Tara for giving us the stage here to share this exciting opportunity with your audience.
Here’s a post by our CEO Wandy Hoh that shares what we’re looking for in “MeeGenius authors”.
All other challenge details can be found here.
The challenge kicks off next Monday, June 16th!
Graphic by Edna Cabcabin Moran
Yes, we’ve gotten to a fourth installment! Or maybe I can call this THE FOURTH STALL?
(P.S. I loved this book. It includes one of my favorite things to write about—a secret place that adults don’t know about.)
So, there have been three previous Q&A’s…check them out here: Part I, Part II, Part III.
Without further ado…Part IV!
If you already have several picture books published, what are the best blogs and other sites to use to get the word out and market your books?
So many kidlit authors tend to stick with promoting on writer blogs, which is certainly good, but we can be preaching to the same audience over and over again. I, myself, worry that people are gonna get sick of me.
Instead, look to librarian blogs, parenting blogs, teacher blogs, homeschool blogs, bookseller blogs and other “gatekeeper” sites that target those who buy children’s books.
Technorati.com is a good place to search for top blogs in various categories, like books, education and parenting.
Some blogs have review policies, so read them and reach out. I receive many unsolicited requests every month. I can’t accept them all, but I do what I can. Bloggers are always in search of good content, so you’ve got nothing to lose by asking for coverage. Make sure you appeal to that blog’s readership with your pitch. (I receive pitches that don’t come close to interesting my audience, which tells me the sender is doing a mass mailing rather than targeting me specifically.)
Pat Miller asks:
When you have a drawer full of PiBoIdMo drafts that just don’t seem to get off the ground, how do you maintain your motivation to dig back in and make one of them sing?
Another tough question!
I have barrels full of uncompleted manuscripts. Honestly, I tend to think that if I’m not “feeling” them, they’re not worth my time, at least not at the moment. I might feel them later, so that’s why nothing ever gets tossed.
Jerry Spinelli’s EGGS was in a drawer for 20 years when his wife Eileen made him pull it out. He reread the manuscript and felt re-energized. Neil Gaiman got the idea for THE GRAVEYARD BOOK 20 years before he actually wrote it. He wanted to wait to become a better writer because he knew the idea would be challenging.
Other writers will argue that you cannot wait for the muse, you just have to keep pounding on the manuscript. I tend not to do that because I have enough ideas that do sing to me, in key and on beat.
And hence we get to the reason why I do PiBoIdMo—the more ideas in your file, the more potential manuscripts you’ll have. You can ditch one idea and move onto another. In my experience, the best manuscripts have begun when I have stopped working on a manuscript that’s been giving me headaches. It’s like my brain has suddenly been freed from its chains. My upcoming title, I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK, came about after I ditched a struggling manuscript. The words for BEAR just flew out, whereas I was laboring hard on the previous story and it just wasn’t working.
Sometimes changing the voice or POV in a manuscript is enough to get it revived.
A critique partner pow-wow can also provide a boost. Just sit around with some best buddies (and coffee and coffee cake) to discuss the challenges and concerns you have. Ask for suggestions and solutions. If you can’t do it in person, Google hangouts are fun, especially since you can stay in your jammies. I truly believe critique partners are not just for completed manuscripts, but those in progress, too.
When all else fails, go for a walk or take a shower. Research shows that “thinking on our feet” leads to creativity. And mundane, repetitive tasks give our minds freedom to wander.
I’m going to my first SCBWI regional conference in June. Any tips on what to bring?
Have fun, Amy! You should bring:
- A list of your PB ideas. I think it’s great to get a professional’s opinion about whether your story ideas are marketable or if they’re too common and need work. You might have an opportunity to sit down with someone to discuss them.
- Your manuscripts. You never know when a critique opportunity will arise.
- A list of industry questions. I know I tend to forget everything once I arrive at a conference. If there’s something you want to know, write it down and keep it handy. There’s often panel discussions where you can post your questions.
- A notebook and pen to take good notes. (Then when you go home, type up your notes. This will help them soak into your brain.)
- A camera. Take pics and share them.
- Your business cards. Even if you’re unpublished, you’re still officially a “writer”. You want to connect with professionals and potential critique partners. If you’re having meals there, hand them out to those sitting at your table. Everyone else will remember to hand them out, too!
Side note: sometimes at conferences I’ve seen unpublished writers carrying plush likenesses of characters they’ve created. This seems like a smart idea, to attract attention and questions about your work, but some professionals just think this is strange. Great writing is guaranteed to attract positive attention, not gimmicks.
Mrs. Ricefield asks:
I would also love to hear more on how to make the best out of conferences you attend. Thank you for the question.
See my suggestions above on what to bring. Also, make friends. See someone standing alone? They’re an introverted writer, but writers love to talk about writing, so go say hello. This is your opportunity to network and gain a support system. Have fun and be yourself.
Don’t go with too many expectations—it’s rare to get a book deal or an agent at a conference. (But be sure to follow-up if someone expresses interest. Things happen AFTER the event.)
Volunteering at a conference is also a great way to get one-on-one time with professionals and to be remembered. Why not volunteer to pick up agents and editors at the train station or airport? You’ll have time to chat and get to know them.
Ask editors about life outside the office. You’ll connect on a more personal level and you’ll be one of the few people who aren’t trying to squeeze a book deal out of them. Editors are people, too. They get tired of being pitched, poked and prodded.
Great friends at the NJ-SCBWI Annual Conference. Authors Ame Dyckman, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and Kami Kinard.
Angela Turner asks:
I am writing a nonfiction book in narrative form but I want to put notes on the same page that tell a little more with more specific language. What is the proper way to show this in your manuscript?
While I haven’t written this kind of book before, I suggest using a format similar to how we place art notes in a picture book manuscript. Use brackets to denote the sidebars. Like this: [Sidebar text:].
Maybe someone more experienced with these manuscripts can comment below.
Joy Moore asks:
How would you describe your writing style?
A quirky, punny word-a-palooza.
Brenda Harris asks:
If an author-illustrator is self-publishing, who are the most important people (editors, art directors, etc) I should ask advice(hire?) from about my dummy book. And- where can I search and find these legit helpers?
There are independent editors with decades of publishing experience whom you could try. Just a few:
Read through each consultant’s site to determine the best fit for your writing style.
Also, be aware of current publishing scams and hustles. There are those who prey on writers with dreams of publication. Check out Preditors & Editors.
Before you begin, you should know the distinction between true self-publishing and publishing via a vanity press. Read this blog post.
I’d really like to know what your best time to write is (and the importance of having a set time to write).
Erik, I don’t have a set time to write. I have found that routine tends to stifle my creativity. I know some writers insist upon writing the same time every day, in the same place, with the same materials, claiming that routine means they write whether or not they’re in the mood. And I suppose that does work nicely for a lot of writers. It doesn’t work nicely for me.
I’ve never been a routine person. Something about my personality always eschews routine. I cannot remember to take a daily vitamin. I don’t wake up the same time every day nor go to sleep at a set hour. I have a tough time eating leftovers.
I like changing things up. Sometimes I write in the morning, sometimes late at night. Different times of day can lend varying moods to my writing. Same as with different places—sometimes I write in bed, sometimes in the kitchen. Occasionally I work on my back deck, at the park or at the library.
And I don’t write every day. That may have to change when I start writing novels and I’ll need to get more words down, but for now, I take writing breaks. Two days on, one day off. Three days on, three days off. One day on, four days off. (GASP!) Again, I change it up a lot. And sometimes these breaks are dictated by family or other obligations.
With this non-routine routine, I’ve had no shortage of creativity, no writer’s block. I’ve got four manuscripts under submission right now and four under construction.
The bottom line is that there’s no “right” thing that works for everyone. It’s totally up to you to find your creative groove. Don’t take anyone else’s advice unless it resonates with you.
Why does it seem that there are so many women writing for children, attending SCBWI conferences, posting here, etc., and yet by comparison there seem to be so many successful children’s books by men? Ya know what I mean? Certainly there are tons of successful children’s books by women, but the rations have me baffled. At the last SCBWI conference I attended, women outnumbered men 98-2. Even if there are more children’s books by women authors, the ratio is not 98-2, not even close. So what’s going on? Do men feel more free to write wackier stories? Do women censor their own out-of-the-box impulses? Do editors and agents subconsciously give men more leeway to push the boundaries/break the rules? Do women tend to write more lesson-y stories? Are there just as many men writing and they just don’t show up at conferences? Whaddaya think?
Charlotte, you may want to check out the VIDA Count. VIDA has found a distinct imbalance between the amount of literature by women that’s published and awarded versus that of men. See these articles:
From VIDA’s FAQ:
But don’t women read more? Don’t they buy more books? Don’t they edit these journals [and books] and read slush? And therefore—isn’t this largely the fault of women, as well?
First: sexism pervades our culture, and so it is often unconsciously absorbed/internalized by everyone, including women. Feminism is an act, not a bumper sticker. It requires the constant re-evaluation of one’s assumptions, habits, and biases. By being a part of the system, women are often a part of the problem.
Further, as Sarah Seltzer points out,
“In my experience, the reality may even be worse than the numbers. Women who are allowed to be prominent — and this is not to erase those who do it on their own merit, because their numbers are growing — often don’t challenge the worldview of those who hire them. In fact, given all the anti-feminists like Caitlin Flanagan, Katie Roiphe and Christina Hoff Summers taking prime media real estate, it would seem that for women, reinforcing sexism is a good formula for vaulting ahead.”
~ Sarah Seltzer, Jewish Daily Forward, March 2012, “Byline Bias – and What We Can Do About It.”
Stacy Couch asks:
I was wondering about the different stages of birthing a PB. PiBoIdMo does a great job re: brainstorming. Maybe posts about craft would help bring those ideas to life.
- Character-driven picture books: What they are, what makes a character sing.
- Plot: How to plot a PB.
- Plot: Why stakes matter.
- Rule of Three
- Plot and the Rule of Three.
- Different Genres within the PB World (Quiet, Noisy, Character-Driven, Interactive, Etc.)
- External vs. Internal Conflict
- Allowing Room for the Illustrator
Then perhaps a series about critique groups (how to find them, how to set up one), conferences (purpost, intensives, tips) and another querying agents, editors (the importance of etiquette, researching them beforehand).
I’d love to see more craft-related posts, though, since any agent or editor would focus on the work itself.
Great suggestions, Stacy! I’ve covered some of these topics already. Check out:
I’ll cover all your suggestions in craft posts soon. Thanks for the input!
In closing, thanks to everyone who submitted a question. This was a fun series and I hope to make it a recurring blog feature!
In case you missed it:
Grab your PiBoIdMo mugga joe and let’s get to it, shall we?
When submitting query letters for picture books, is it standard practice to include a manuscript?
Always follow an individual’s submission guidelines. Some agents/editors don’t ask for a query first because a picture book is a short read. They’ll ask for a cover letter and the manuscript instead. And even though some want the full manuscript, they’ll still ask for a query letter with it. Why? They want to hear how you SELL the story.
Not sure what goes into a query letter? See yesterday’s post.
But everyone is different; pay attention to their guidelines. Guidelines are in place to help an agent/editor work most efficiently, according to their preferences. Therefore, not following guidelines is subject to an immediate, automatic rejection.
Anne Bromley asks:
I heard recently that one needs at least 3 polished, ready-to-submit picture book stories in order for an agent to take serious interest. Has this been your experience as well?
Yes, this is what I recommend—have at least 3 to 5 picture book manuscripts polished and ready for submission.
An agent will rarely take a writer based upon one manuscript alone. Yes, it happens, but your odds are so much better if you have several ready. Why? If the agent likes your work, they will almost always ask for MORE WORK. An agent wants to ensure that they are a good fit for you, so they want to connect with a body of work, not just one piece. If they like your submission and want to see more but you don’t have anything else, you’ve wasted an opportunity.
More books ready means more books to sell, which is preferable for the agent. If they can’t sell one manuscript, they have another to sub immediately.
But what about an editor? The same holds true. They could like your manuscript but not have the ability to publish it for whatever reason. They may ask for something else. You want to have that something else ready!
And honestly, you become a better writer with each manuscript you complete. So although you might have only one ready to submit, wait until you have more because the next manuscript might be the better sell.
Patricia Tilton asks:
When do you set aside a MS after many rejections, even though it’s polished, been through editors and you’ve done the revisions and more revisions? Or do you just keep submitting?
Tough question, Patricia! I feel like this is dictated by a gut feeling more than anything else.
I have an agent, so my rejections always include a reason. If I receive compliments and suggestions, then the manuscript is on the right track and we keep submitting. If I receive a lot of similar suggestions for improvement, I take it back and revise.
For those without an agent, if you receive only form rejections without any personal rejections, it’s a signal that perhaps the manuscript needs more work.
It’s not uncommon to hear of manuscripts rejected 20 or more times, so sometimes it’s about just connecting with the right editor at the right time.
If you’ve submitted widely without a bite, I’d recommend putting the manuscript aside and coming back in a few months to see if you can make improvements. Then try another round. Again, some rejections are about timing rather than quality, so a new round of submissions can yield new results.
Carrie Brown asks:
We know, as writers, to revise until our very best work is present. Then, we know to send it out to our critique groups and revise some more. Repeat. Repeat again. Etc. Once our work is “the best it can be,” do you think there is a secret numbers formula as to how many subs a manuscript should go through before being shelved? What if, for example, a manuscript goes through a period of requests mixed with personal feedback from agents, and then said changes are made and it goes back out to be met with chirping crickets? Then what? Just like everything in the writing world, I know these questions will be met with subjectivity, as well. But this inquiring mind values your opinion!
Yes, as you’ll see by my answer above, it really is subjective, a gut feeling. I’ve known writers who have submitted 27 times with rejections and the 28th time was the charm. I’ve known writers who have revised a manuscript on and off for nearly 10 years before it was bought.
I suppose my suggestion is to keep plugging away as long as you feel passion and confidence in your work. Again, sometimes it’s about timing more than anything else.
Let’s go to the scenario you proposed—if you’ve made changes that were requested but have only heard crickets in response, I would probably go back to the previous version. When you revise based upon suggestions from one individual, it’s purely being done to meet their specific taste. And if they don’t like it after the changes have been made, it probably wasn’t the right move.
Jo Dearden asks:
In your query letter, when it comes to describing your Picture Book, should you include a short paragraph in the style of a jacket blurb, or should it be a straighter description (like a mini, paragraph-long synopsis)? This is assuming you’re sending the whole text to the agent/publisher.
Yes! It’s an excellent idea to write your synopsis in the style of jacket flap material. This kind of paragraph whets the appetite and makes the reader want to dive in. Pick up a bunch of picture books at your library and study the book jackets. Try to emulate them.
Guess what? There one final installment coming tomorrow!
Continued from yesterday…
Jennifer Kirkeby asks:
What do you do to keep yourself motivated? Especially after rejections?
You know how “location, location, location” is real estate’s most important criteria? Well, “new work, new work, new work” is how I keep myself motivated. A new story is always so exciting, isn’t it?
I’ve seen writers try to sell the same manuscript year after year. On one hand, it’s good to be persistent, but on the other hand, you should know when it’s time to move on. Once you’ve finished a manuscript and started submitting, work on something new. Always have your list of ideas ready. Review them. Grab onto whatever resonates and start writing. An editor might not like what you’ve just submitted, but they might like your NEXT project. The more projects you have, the better your odds of becoming published.
Don’t let rejections get you down. Everyone gets them. It’s the nature of our business. I’ve gotten so many now that they’ve lost their sting. I read the rejection, absorb the comments, decide if I agree or disagree, and move on.
Not every manuscript is for every editor—and a rejection doesn’t mean your story’s terrible and it will never find a home. Editors can reject a manuscript because it competes too closely with one of their existing or upcoming books, or because it doesn’t fit with their imprint’s personality and goals. An editor with a bug phobia may stay away from beetle books. An editor might even love your story, but their team isn’t as enthused.
Remember a rejection is not a personal attack. They are rejecting the work you submitted, NOT YOU. YOU are marvelous. YOU are creative. YOU just need to write another story.
Hi! I thoroughly enjoyed your presentation at the MD/DE SCBWI in Maryland last month. It was the highlight of my day (and I still find myself saying, “whhyyy?”)! But I left wondering more about how and when to insert the art notes. In the margins? Within the text (but doesn’t that break up the flow?)? Do you have an example you can showcase on your blog?
An art note can be written in the body of your text, right after the words the art will accompany. I typically put the art note in brackets and italicize the text, like this: [Art: bear tickles alien.]
I’ve also written manuscripts with so many necessary art notes that my agent has submitted them in graph format. This is because the art notes broke up the flow of the story too much, making it difficult to read. The graph format allows an editor to scan through the story easily while still being able to comprehend the illustrations. I explained this in a post here.
I attended a picture book writing conference recently, and the presenter asked for a show of hands of all those who at least occasionally wrote manuscript in rhyme. Nearly every hand in the room went up. And many new rhyming picture books are published each year. Yet aspiring PB writers are told frequently that rhyme is a very tough sell. So I’d love to see a post or two on how to sell rhyming PBs. Not tips on how to write in rhyme–there are lots of resources for that–but on how to SELL it, including the no-nos either in queries or in manuscripts that will stop an editor or agent cold.
Tim, there are no tricks to selling a rhyming manuscript other than making that rhyming manuscript GREAT. (There’s nothing you can say or do to sell a sub-par manuscript.)
Editors see a lot of bad rhyme, which is why they often tell new writers to avoid it. Rhyming manuscripts that don’t sell:
- use common and predictable rhymes,
- feature wonky meter,
- veer off in an unbelievable direction to meet the rhyme scheme,
- use awkward sentence structure to make a rhyme work,
- feature too many near-rhymes, or
- explore an overdone theme.
What’s a GREAT rhyming story? A manuscript whose rhyme scheme is original and whose meter is consistent. A manuscript that features an appealing, marketable hook.
For a picture book, some agents and editors zip right past the cover letter to get to the meat of the manuscript, so I don’t think anything is going stop them cold, unless you’re wildly unprofessional and stuff your envelope full of glitter.
Your query/cover should:
- address the agent/editor by name,
- explain why you are submitting/targeting that editor/agent/imprint,
- compare/contrast your book to existing titles,
- include a brief synopsis,
- offer a short bio (only with information relevant to writing for children), and
- have a polite closing.
It should be one page only.
The manuscript should be double-spaced in a 12 pt serif font, like Times New Roman.
Again, don’t use gimmicks. Good writing and a professional presentation is all you need to attract an agent/editor’s attention.
What does a picture book look like in written form and do you add picture ideas?
I mentioned the standard format above. Here’s a pic of what the first page of a PB manuscript might look like:
The second and each subsequent page header will include “Name/TITLE” on the left and numerical page number on the right.
Regarding art notes, that really requires its own post! See these previous posts:
The bottom line is that you only include art notes if it’s not clear what’s happening from the text alone. For instance, if your text says “Felix was happy” but he’s really upset, you need an art note so the illustrator doesn’t make him smile.
Write something like: “Felix was happy. [Art: Felix isn’t happy.]” You should not write “Felix was happy. [Art: Felix is stomping his feet, wearing red, waving his arms and sticking his tongue out.]” That’s far too specific and doesn’t leave the illustrator room to interpret Felix and his feelings.
Part III to come tomorrow!
You may be wondering–what ever happened to Tara? It’s been almost a month since she blogged. (Or you may not. You may be relieved your inbox has been devoid of my blog blivel. I made that word up, in case you’re wondering. A portmanteau of blog and drivel.)
Well, I’ve been traveling! I’ve actually changed out of my pajamas several times in the last few weeks!
Not so pristine whiteboard.
At the end of March I drove down to MD/DE/WV SCBWI’s Annual Conference to present my workshop “From Concept to Dummy for Picture Book Writers”. About 70 writers attended–it was a full house in our little room. The attendees got a taste of my imbalance. Yes, my mental imbalance, but also my MS imbalance. Luckily I didn’t topple the whiteboard. I did, however, have one sinking moment when I thought I used a permanent Sharpie on the pristine white surface. It reminded me of NJ-SCBWI 2008 when I volunteered to hang signs on the aging plaster of the Princeton Theological Seminary, only to take chunks of wall with me when I removed the signs. Be forewarned, I cause mayhem and destruction at SCBWI events.
I think many will agree that the best part of the workshop was when we read the beginnings of successful picture books to discern the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN in each opening line. Incorporating these details makes your reader ask WHY and eagerly turn the page to find out.
Many new writers mistakenly begin stories with, “My name is Jamie and I’m six years old.” This tells a reader nothing about the story to come. And more importantly, an editor who reads this plain first line will most likely stop there. YIKES. Not what you want. You have to break out of that slush pile with a line that captures the editor immediately.
After reading a dozen picture book openings, with me screaming WHY? WHHHHHYYYYY? and bending over in feigned painful anticipation, shaking my fists at the sky, I challenged the participants to rewrite their opening lines. Everyone was quite thrilled to get their own Tara WHHHHHYYYYY? in response to their improved introductions.
Writer Sarah Maynard summarized my workshop with bullet points, to which I’ve added my thoughts from the event:
- You have 30 seconds to grab their attention. MAKE IT GOOD!
Like a resume to obtain a job, you have limited time to make an impression with an agent or editor. They can have hundreds of manuscripts to read each week, so they give each one only a few moments to grab them. Punch that opening, make them want to continue reading.
- “Writing a picture book is 99% staring and 1% writing.”
There is A LOT of thinking involved in writing a picture book. Don’t worry if you’re not actually putting words on paper every day. Think about how to resolve problems in your story. Stare at your manuscript. Your subconscious will most likely be working on a solution and it will pop out while you’re doing mundane chores, like emptying the dishwasher, folding laundry, or taking a shower.
- Learn who YOU are as a WRITER.
A lot of authors, including me, espouse advice that may not work for you. Discover how YOU work best and stick with it. For instance, routine doesn’t jive with me, although it works for a lot of other people. I used to force myself into routine only to get frustrated, losing my creative mojo. Only you know how to thrive in your creative mode. It’s very personal. Don’t take advice that doesn’t serve you well.
- If it’s not apparent by words you’ve written, add an art note.
One attendee told me I was the first person to speak positively about art notes. Yeah, I think they get a bad rap. They’re absolutely ESSENTIAL to use if it’s not apparent what’s happening by your words alone. If the text says your character is smiling but you actually want them to frown, you need an art note to convey that. Of course, you should not use them to direct the entire shabang, but to ensure there are no misunderstandings. Which brings me to the last point…
- Don’t make an agent or editor guess!
I find that some new writers like to surprise the reader on the second or third page of a manuscript. This means the beginning is not entirely clear and the reader must guess what is happening. Well, what if your reader guesses wrong? Then they become hopelessly confused at the reveal and probably discard your manuscript. You don’t want an agent or editor to have to guess what is happening in your tale. Make it CRYSTAL either by the text or the addition of art notes. It can be as simple as “[art: the character is a bear]” to make everyone understand.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Maryland—the hospitality of the chapter went above and beyond. We had a lovely faculty dinner at the Craftsman-style log cabin home of former RA Edie Hemingway. Is there anything more writerly than that (I mean, c’mon, HEMINGWAY)? Edie has a charming home with a writing hut tucked into the woods.
Far better than my writing space—my unmade bed!
As I crawl back into my pajamas, I’ll be getting another blog post ready. This time, about my trip to Reading is Fundamental and the donation that my publisher and PiBoIdMo participants made possible, enriching the lives of children with BOOKS!
Thank you, PiBoIdMo participants, guest bloggers and illustrators. Do you know what you did?
You helped me raise $433.62 to donate to RIF, Reading is Fundamental.
Your purchases via the PiBoIdMo CafePress Shop made it possible.
With Carol Hampton Rasco, CEO of RIF
For every $10 donated, RIF is able to distribute four books to a child in need.
So last month I made my way down to RIF Headquarters in D.C. I toured their offices and talked with RIF staff about the important work they’re doing.
One staff member had just returned from a county in Appalachia, where 28% of the schoolchildren were officially homeless, and where even more lived in crowded trailers with multiple families apiece.
The school Principal told RIF that amazingly, their test scores rose from 9th percentile to the 22nd percentile in just one year. To what did they attribute that growth? RIF! Now that these children have books of their own, they’re able to continue learning at home and over the summer break instead of being left behind. Books are AMAZING. But you already knew that, right?
As part of my trip to RIF, my publisher, the Aladdin imprint of Simon & Schuster, donated 100 copies of THE MONSTORE to the children at Bancroft Elementary in Washington, D.C. I was honored to appear at the school to talk to the children about writing and to personally sign every copy.
The best moment of the day? When I told the children they’d each be going home with a copy of my book. They cheered and hoorayed, and two besties in the front row hugged each other so tight they tumbled over in joy. Now that’s a great day for any author. Thank you, Aladdin and RIF!
I have something else important to tell you.
RIF’s donations have taken a plummet in recent times. The economy has hit them hard. So please consider donating directly. Remember $10 = 4 books!
Donate here. Or here.
And again, thank you for making the PiBoIdMo donation possible!
Happy Mother’s Day to my mama-writer friends. What you do every day is amazing! You created kids…and now you create stories!
And what I just did is amazing, too. I gave birth to a new book cover!
(Well, really, Benji Davies did.)
I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK releases in August 2015 from Aladdin/Simon & Schuster. But you can catch a glimpse of the alien-bear mayhem right here, right now:
Many thanks to my very cool editor, Alyson Heller, and art director, Karin Paprocki, at Aladdin. And of course, none of this would be possible without über-agent Ammi-Joan Paquette.
More sneak peeks to come soon. I promise you a cute bear tushy.
Have a great day, Mama Bears!
Today there’s not one guest post, but TWO. On the radio, this would be called a TWO-FER TUESDAY. But it’s Thursday. Yeah, this is why I’m not on the radio.
My Favorite Parts of Writing for Kids by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen
So far, 2014 has been a really big year for me. I’ve had four picture books come out in the first four months of the year—DUCK DUCK MOOSE, ORANGUTANGLED, TYRANNOSAURUS WRECKS, and SNORING BEAUTY. I’ve had books selected for the Junior Library Guild, chosen as Amazon Big Spring Picks, and reviewed in the Wall Street Journal. I also joined the faculty of the Children’s Book Academy and began teaching writing.
Almost 12 years ago, I made the decision to leave graduate school in biology and begin writing books for children. In that time, there have been many highs and lows, though right now is certainly one of those highs. In light of the good fortune I’m experiencing right now, I wanted to share my three favorite parts of being a children’s author.
- Nobody tells me what to write about.
Every project I take up, I do so because it is something that interests me. I get to decide what to write about, and if that means spending one day on a concept book about the bond between a mother and a son, the next day on a picture book biography of Jackie Robinson, and the next on a story of some ducks whose best friend always MOOSES everything up, I can certainly do so (and I have!). It is a wonderful thing to have complete control over what I have to work on.
- I can work barefoot in my bed in my pajamas.
In the spirit of no one telling me what to do, I don’t even have a boss who makes me get dressed before I go to work! Some of my finest writing has come out of the left side of my bed, under the covers with my feet poking out.
- I get to create something out of nothing.
This one’s the key. In so many jobs, people follow instructions, push paper from one end of their desk to the other, execute against a task list. I’m not knocking those jobs at all—without them, our world doesn’t work. I’m just saying that it’s very rare to be able to start with nothing—just me and my imagination (and my laptop!) – and end up with something that is real and good, that didn’t exist before, that is entirely the product of my willing it into existence. Artists are driven to create. To be able to follow that imperative and still be able to support my family—well, that’s what I’m most grateful for. That’s my favorite part.
My Favorite Parts of Teaching and Agenting by Mira Reisberg
That part is easy–helping!! This helping boils down to helping make dreams come true, helping people improve their skills, helping to create a more level playing field with Children’s Book Academy scholarships, helping get great books and art out into the world created by great people, and finally helping bring more happiness and joy in the world (oh and having fun playing with people, words, and images).
Being a creative is hard. We live in a culture that generally undervalues and underpays us though this seems to be shifting a bit with new technologies where there is more of an emphasis on storytelling and image-driven messages.
But the payoff, and it’s big, even if it does take a long time for the money to come, is having a meaningful, heart-filled, and very fun life. I was talking with another agent this morning where we were helping each other out and it was just so lovely. That’s what we do in community-oriented organizations like PiBoIdMo, Rate Your Story, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and the Children’s Book Academy, and this is another thing that I love about what I do.
In the old days, being a writer or illustrator meant slaving away in isolation. Now we have all these fantastic resources that not only help us with our craft, but also with our hearts providing support, resources, companionship, and practical assistance. So if you are feeling isolated or stuck, just reach out and ask for help. How amazing that we can do this. I certainly couldn’t be doing what I do at any other time in history. In some ways I love what I do a little too much and having a slightly addictive personality, tend to do too much. But this is a small price for all the joy and happiness that I get from being creative and helping others. So I guess this is another thing that I love about what I do, getting to live a wildly creative life and do good at the same time.
Tara’s Favorite Part of This TWO-FER
Years ago, I attended NJ-SCBWI events to learn about the business and craft of writing for kids. That’s where I met Sudipta. She has taught numerous picture book courses. She’s the most savvy and knowledgable instructor I know. She has taught me story techniques that no one else has ever divulged!
And now everyone has the chance to gain writerly wisdom from Sudipta. Along with Mira, she’s teaching the outrageously interactive online course: “From Storyteller to Exquisite Writer: The Pleasures and Craft of Poetic Techniques” starting May 19th. Mira and Suipta have nicknamed this course “The Missing Link” because it really is what most writers are missing in foundational knowledge. CLICK HERE for details and top secret discounts. This is the only time that Sudipta and Mira will be co-teaching this course together with the wonderful Mandy Yates assisting.
Thanks, Sudipta & Mira!
So now it’s your turn. What are your favorite parts of what you do?
On the Facebook PiBoIdMo group, I’ve been asking picture book writers which topics they want to see on my blog. Then it finally dawned on me (and Dawn is my middle name, so this should have occurred far sooner)—I should ask on the blog. DUH.
Tara-ra-BOOM-dee-ay by AJ Smith
See that? It’s my head exploding from the geniusity. (Yes, I made that word up. I’m allowed. I write picture books!)
So here I am, asking you, dear blog readers, what is your most burning, head-blasting kidlit question?
Leave it below in the comments and later this month, I’ll strive to answer them all.
But just remember, you’ll be getting an answer from someone with half a head.
I rarely talk about my disability here, because really, who wants to talk about that ugly word? It suggests that we CANNOT. Others have decided to label me “disabled,” not me. From the parking spaces I gladly pull into (who doesn’t want to be right by the front door?), to the forms I fill out, I’m reminded of this label constantly. I accept this label but this label doesn’t define me. It’s the last ingredient in the complex recipe that is me. It’s there, but it’s not important. My cake will rise without it. (Oh boy, that’s corny. But hey, that’s me.)
Me and my cane with the “Good Luck Cow” in Brandon, Vermont, May 2014.
Multiple Sclerosis hit me in late 2009, just as my career was catching fire (excuse the blatant allusion to Suzanne Collins). In fact, when I was being interviewed by literary agents, I was on an anti-anxiety medication that made my anxiety WORSE, although it took my doctors and me a few weeks to realize this. I took the medication before bed and then couldn’t even speak in the morning until it wore off, around 11am or so. That’s right, I was so full of worry that I could barely force my voice into a whisper. Yet an agent, excited about my submission, called me 90 minutes earlier than our agreed-upon noon conference call. I had to suck it up and somehow appear brilliant and enthusiastic. I don’t know how I made it through that call.
The year 2010 was a blur. I don’t remember most of it. I know I signed with my agent and received my first book deal for THE MONSTORE, but it barely registered. All I could think about was that I would never walk properly again, that I would never figure skate again, never play tennis again, never take family hiking vacations. I couldn’t even drive a car. I couldn’t pick my children up from school, which was only 2/10 of a mile from my home. I focused on the COULDN’Ts. There seemed to be an avalanche of them.
What finally pulled me out of my funk? Was it reaching the elusive goal of publication?
Sure, that helped. But this lifelong goal realized had little to do with my recovery.
Time did. And so often, this is not what people in crisis want to hear. They think there is some magical solution to get through the hard times. And sorry, but I don’t have one. I just had time. And the great thing about time is that EVERYONE has it. It’s available to anyone who’s going through a rough patch.
I had time to process what had happened to me. Time to understand how my body had changed. Time to make adjustments in my daily life. Time to realize that the inner core of ME hadn’t been altered. I was the same goofy, bookish, creative, foodie, writer and loving wife and mother. Albeit with a cane and a mobility scooter. Big freakin’ deal!
Time also made me realize how much time I had missed. I never wanted another “lost year” in my life. All that worrying didn’t solve anything. Worrying rarely does. It makes you miss out on the here and now. The present is so precious. I didn’t want to miss another second of it.
So I got back to being ME. I started writing again. I sold more manuscripts. I began teaching and speaking at conferences. The word “adapt” became my mantra. I learned that I COULD do all that I intended, just with preparation and adjustment.
I’m here to tell you all that you can indeed reach your goals. You’re in charge. If you encounter a roadblock, it is only a temporary one. You will find a way around it. It may take time, but try to see time as a gift rather than a burden. We authors know that it takes years to get published and years to see our books in print. We eventually learn to accept time, as time brings great things.
The only way you won’t reach your goals is by quitting. (Or by excessive worrying.) Envision success, not failure. Focus on the elements within your control, not those beyond it.
Go ahead, make a list. What can you control? What can you NOT control? Then rip the paper in half and throw away the “beyond” section. (There’s a reason I made that section black.)
Today I’m happier than I’ve ever been, even though I can only walk the length of my driveway before needing to sit.
So guess what? I sit.
And then I get up—time and time again.
Tara speaks to audiences big and small about overcoming disabilities big and small. Contact her at tarawrites (at) yahoo (dot) com for more information.
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You asked for it, you got it, Toyota.
Sorry, no car giveaway here. Not sure you’d want a ’77 yellow hatchback anyway.
What you’ve got are your burning kidlit questions with my answers. Please remember that these are my opinions and not necessarily gospel. (I can’t sing, anyway. Except, apparently, for 70′s car commercial jingles.)
If you have follow-up questions, please leave them in the comments!
Is there a better place than Amazon to search to see if the fabulous (at least in my head LOL) idea you came up with has already been done a million times?
Besides Amazon, try searching WorldCat.org, the world’s largest database of library holdings. A simple Google search is also a good idea. Try the various types of Google searches, including images and news.
But just remember, even if your title is taken or your idea has been published, there might be room for your manuscript, too. General ideas can be similar, but the execution can result in wildly differing stories. Of course, if there’s an extremely popular book with your idea, odds are that a publisher won’t take a chance on a directly competing book. In other words, if your dragons love tacos or your crayons are going on strike, you probably want to look elsewhere for ideas.
Do you have any inside tips as to what themes or topics publishers are looking for?
This information is always changing. Right now, I hear that character-driven picture books are all the rage.
“Looking for” details can often be found at SCBWI conferences and on blogs when a particular agent or editor has been interviewed. You might want to search for conference bios, where professionals often divulge their wish lists.
You’ll also want to visit the bookstore at least once or twice a month. See what’s being displayed face-out (publishers have paid for this promotional opportunity). Are there are a lot of books on one particular subject, like trucks? Well then, the truck ship has probably sailed. (Whoa, that was a mixed metaphor, huh?) Once you see an abundance of one kind of book in the stores, the end of that craze is probably upon us. Remember pirate books during the Johnny Depp “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies? I went to a conference around that time and the editors practically screamed, “No more pirate books!” Sometimes they know more about what they DON’T want than what they DO.
Bottom line: everyone wants a good story. You don’t have to write to the marketplace’s demands. In fact, I suggest that you don’t. Whatever idea stirs up the most passion in you is the manuscript you should be writing. Your enthusiasm will be evident on the page—and that is always appealing.
And always remember Karma Wilson’s example. McElderry’s sub guidelines said “no rhyme and no talking animals” when she sent them BEAR SNORES ON, which turned out to be a huge hit, launching her successful career. It was a great manuscript, so the DON’T guidelines became moot.
Maria Matthews asks:
Is it better to aim at writing a current popular topic or to write a quirky unusual book?)
As I noted above, “currently popular” isn’t your best bet, simply because the books released today got purchased as manuscripts two to four years ago, on average. So you can’t necessarily catch up to what’s hot. And what’s hot is always changing. You never know what the next “big thing” will be.
That’s why I suggest writing from your heart. If quirky and unusual is what you enjoy, then by all means, write quirky and unusual!
Josh Funk asks:
How do you get awesome illustrators to do “head shots” for you? (like AJ Smith did in your previous post)
When I first began my blog seven years ago, I paid illustrators to do graphics for my site, like this watermelon-themed banner by the talented Val Webb.
Now that my blog has become well-read, I often ask on Facebook or Twitter for a particular graphic and someone volunteers their services, in exchange for a mention and link. I’m usually blown away by the response, and so grateful!
So after reading your previous post, I want to know the super secret story techniques you learned from Sudipta?
I’ve learned a ton from Sudipta. If ever you get a chance to hear her speak or teach a class, grab the opportunity. I’m going to send you to her very pink site instead of spilling her secrets here…
Nicole Snitselaar asks:
I would like to know, how much details you must write down when you are planning a PB without words…?
Only as much detail as you need to get the idea across. Be as succinct in your word choices as you are while writing a regular picture book. Paint the overall picture but don’t go into minutiae. You still must leave some things for the illustrator to fill in.
Author Linda Ashman has posted her manuscript for NO DOGS ALLOWED, which is nearly wordless. Check it out here. It’s an excellent example.
Tune in for Part II tomorrow, kidlit fans!