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by Laura Gehl
Unless you live in a cave (a real cave…hiding from the cold under your covers doesn’t count), you know that Kwame Alexander won the Newbery Medal on February 2nd for his book THE CROSSOVER.
On February 19th, I was lucky enough to hear Kwame speak informally in a Question & Answer session at the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C.
Listening to Kwame was so inspiring that I began furiously scribbling notes, with the idea that I could share the experience with other children’s writers.
Ten things I learned (all over again!) from Kwame Alexander:
1. Kwame can’t write at home because his six-year-old daughter tries to make him dress up like a princess. So he writes at Panera instead.
My Takeaway: We all have distractions in our lives.
2. Kwame also likes to write at Panera because he can steal from those around him…a snippet of conversation, the way a man touches a woman’s cheek…
My Takeaway: You are always working as long as you are aware of the world around you. Yes, this means you can totally go to Hawaii, sit on the beach, and consider it work. (Please consult your tax advisor before writing off the trip, however.)
3. THE CROSSOVER took five years from concept to sale.
My Takeaway: Be patient. (My critique partners know that this is not exactly my strong suit.)
4. Kwame got twenty-two rejections on THE CROSSOVER and was considering self-publishing before he finally got an acceptance.
My Takeaway: Those twenty-two editors must feel like idiots. Just kidding. My real takeaway: Don’t give up. Or, as Kwame put it, “You have to say yes to yourself.”
5. When he needed to revise THE CROSSOVER, Kwame Googled “novel in verse writing coach” and then worked with his coach for months.
My Takeaway: Revision is hard. Nobody can do it alone. Also, thank goodness for Google.
6. Kwame said, “Publishers don’t know what they want until they get it.”
My Takeaway: Write what you are passionate about, not what you think editors are looking for. If your book is great, it will get published.
7. When Kwame was speaking, every single person there…from picture book writers to YA writers to nonfiction writers to illustrators…from the unpublished to the multi-award-winning…was captivated. Enthralled. The whole room crackled with excitement, and with happiness and pride for Kwame.
My Takeaway: The kidlit community is amazing, and we can all gain knowledge, inspiration, and support from one another.
8. Other Newbery winners told Kwame, “The price of a Newbery is a book,” meaning that he should give himself a break this year and just enjoy the ride.
My Takeaway: Successes can be few and far between in this business, and it is easy to immediately go from “YAY! I GOT A CONTRACT TODAY!” to “Okay, now I need to sell another book.” We should all take time to truly appreciate and enjoy every success—big and little—along the way.
9. The night before the Newbery announcement, Kwame couldn’t sleep. He drank root beer, watched TV, worried and wondered…could all of those who said THE CROSSOVER was a Newbery contender maybe, just maybe, be right? Around 3:00 am, Kwame decided to re-read the book. He found a bunch of errors and decided that his awful book could not possibly have won the award.
My Takeaway: We all doubt ourselves. Especially at 3:00 am.
10. Kwame said, “We are at our best when our passions become our jobs.”
My Takeaway: We are incredibly lucky to be writing books for children. Who could possibly ask for a better job???
Oh…and one more thing I learned, as a bonus for those of you who read this far:
11. A year and a half ago, Kwame was selling his books from a small booth at Eastern Market in Washington D.C. (and had happily paid $100 for the privilege of selling books from that booth).
My Takeaway: Just like the boys in SAM AND DAVE DIG A HOLE don’t realize just how close they are to an enormous diamond, you never know just how close you may be to enormous success. [Refer back to #3…Be patient…and #4…Don’t give up.]
Laura Gehl’s newest picture books are AND THEN ANOTHER SHEEP TURNED UP and HARE AND TORTOISE RACE ACROSS ISRAEL. She is also the author of ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR, a Charlotte Zolotow Honor Book, and the PEEP AND EGG series (hatching Spring 2016). You can visit Laura online at LauraGehl.com and Facebook.com/AuthorLauraGehl.
by Dev Petty
I wrote a whole post for this very blog some time ago about NOT writing and just thinking. I wrote about getting to the heart of your story idea in your head before you ever write a word. I believe in that process…big time. But it’s not how I wrote I DON’T WANT TO BE A FROG. That’s a different story. That’s the story of how a sort of basic story idea turned into one with legs…frog legs! In fact, it was the writing of FROG that taught me to slow down and think, to find the story thread before I started writing.
I knew I wanted to write a story all in dialogue. I wanted it to be funny. And I wanted it to be about a frog. I like frogs, it was that simple. Not much to go on, eh? Believe me, my first efforts on frog reflected just how thin the idea was. Frog went from animal to animal saying “I want to be like you…because…you’re furry (or you can fly or you can hop).” It was repetitive and a little hollow and NOTHING REALLY AT ALL HAPPENED. These are the sort of problems I usually suss out when I’m just thinking instead of writing, so I don’t usually have this situation. But there was something about the first draft I liked enough to keep at it.
This is when I stopped and realized I needed to answer my own critical, favorite story writing question.
“What is this about?”
The answer, as written, was “A frog who wants to be a rabbit or a cat or an owl.” And after a ton of rewrites and rearranging, it wasn’t getting any better on the page. So I stopped revising. I stopped writing. As I closed the laptop and started thinking, I realized it was a little deeper. The answer really was, “This is a story about a frog who doesn’t want to be a frog.” It’s about wanting to be something other than what you are. Now THAT’S a little more interesting. When I started thinking about it that way, the story opened up and it wasn’t anymore about cats or owls, it was about nature, it was about accepting your nature.
That answer allowed me to start thinking about the frog, the good parts, the bad parts, the way we all sometimes envy things about others that we can never, and probably should never have. The story was getting deeper, but still…nothing really happened. The frog went from animal to animal saying he wanted to be them and then the book ended. You’re a frog. Get over it.
Confession. I’ve tried to write novels. A bunch of em. I am a Viking at writing three awesome chapters and then running out of steam, throwing the laptop across the room and eating ice cream for a while. But I do it often enough that I’ve learned a few things. Newsflash Dev, your story has to have a PLOT and not just be a rambling treatise on frog existentialism. So I decided to bring a new character in…a wolf…who would act as a bit of a therapist, a reality checker who would point out the good parts of being a frog through his own nature. Once something happened, the wolf, my story had a turn and a direction and something, albeit small, happened. I hope kids will read frog and realize that everyone has things they want to change about themselves, and that’s a totally okay, natural thing to explore. But you also sort of have to accept who you are, find the bright parts about who you are and work with what you have.
I guess the truth is, I sort of violated most of my own rules of picture book writing in the writing of the one picture book I have out there. I kind of teased a good story out of a pretty mediocre one. But that’s ok too, it taught me a lot about finding that thread. It helped me develop a process…find the thread FIRST! Remember to TELL a story and not just muse.
Since we’re talking story threads, I thought I’d put down a few tools I use to try to figure out what I’m getting at when I’m developing a story idea in my head, before I start writing.
- I write a poem. It’s not the kind of poem anyone would ever, ever, ever want to read. But the lack of rules in poetry allow me to explore an idea without limitations. I usually write pretty long, stream of consciousness poems about my story idea and most of it will be total garbage. But usually, when I read it through, somewhere in there is a thread I can hold onto and start crafting a story around.
- Imagine your story as a trailer. I’d never thought of this one until I started watching a lot of picture book trailers and working on my own, for Frog. But when you have to introduce your character, a story problem, a plot twist and a possible solution- you’ve covered a lot of story elements and it’s pretty easy to find where you need to go a little deeper.
- Ask yourself what your story is about. Sounds obvious, I know, but I forget to do it ALL THE TIME. And, while you’re busy talking to yourself, why not have a whole conversation?
“Dev, what is this story about?”
“Well, it’s about a frog who wants to be a cat or an owl or something else.”
“Gosh, Dev, that’s not very interesting.”
“It’s not? Crap. OK, it’s about not wanting to be a frog.”
“You’re bossy. Fine. It’s about not wanting to be what you are.”
“Okee…it’s about accepting who you are.”
“I don’t like you.”
“I don’t like you either.”
Finally, Never throw anything away. Whether you save one giant list of picture books in Scrivener or text files or email drafts (I’m partial to that one), never give up on a story. Put it aside, let it steep, even put it in total cold storage, but don’t throw anything away. SO many of my stories come from little breadcrumbs of ideas I left myself along the way.
Dev Petty is the author of I DON’T WANT TO BE A FROG (Doubleday 2015, Illustrated by Mike Boldt) and CLAYMATES (Little Brown, 2017). A former film effects artist, she lives in Albany, California and writes funny books for kids and immature adults. Visit her at DevPetty.com.
Do you want to be a frog? No? Do you want to own a frog? Not really? How about own a SIGNED COPY of Dev’s I DON’T WANT TO BE A FROG? Plus bookmarks? Yes? OK then, leave one comment below and a winner will be randomly selected in two weeks! Good luck!
“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.
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-intentioned) 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, you don’t need to 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!
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.
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.
Thank you so much Tara for giving us the stage here to share this exciting opportunity with your audience.
The challenge kicks off next Monday, June 16th!
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—a secret place that adults don’t know about.)
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 to execute.
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 pose 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.
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:
- The Rule of Threes in Picture Books
- The Rule of Threes for Picture Book Writers (with video evidence)
- Every Day I’m Structurin’ (by Tammi Sauer)
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. They just can’t afford the time to read submissions that don’t follow directions.
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 picture book 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 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’s one final installment coming tomorrow!
And remember, follow-up questions are welcomed.
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 are 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.
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!