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You’re a lovely person. Simply charming. I mean that, I really do. You read my blog and leave nice comments and buy my books and write like you can’t go wrong. But I have to tell you:
“It’s not you. It’s me.”
In short, that’s what a literary rejection means. It’s not about YOU. Remember, YOU are lovely! It’s about the editor and whether the proposed project fits with her taste and imprint list.
Subjective, it’s all subjective! One editor’s rejection is another editor’s next book!
But editors and agents often provide writers with rejection statements that we want to understand. We feel the need to analyze, to determine what we can do better. But don’t over-analyze. Sometimes a rejection is just a way of saying “no, it’s not for me.”
Here is a list of common rejections heard by picture book writers (and other writers), plus an interpretation of what they mean. (Note that I said “interpretation”! Your mileage may vary.)
“It feels familiar.”
The editor is reminded of another book (or books) while reading your manuscript, but he can’t quite put his finger on it. Maybe it’s the character, the theme or the structure, but it’s impossible to pinpoint. In short, the story doesn’t feel unique enough. The editor doesn’t think it will stand out in the marketplace. There’s too much similar competition. If you wrote about a common theme (new sibling, moving to a new house, first day of school, etc.) without a fresh new twist, this could be the problem.
“It’s too slight.” or “It’s too one-note.”
The editor feels your story doesn’t have enough meat to it. It may be lacking a universal emotional theme (friendship, being yourself, perseverance, etc.) or a clear story arc. The editor may feel there isn’t enough going on to encourage re-readings. The story feels more like a one-line joke than a fully fleshed-out tale. The main character may not have struggled enough before finding the resolution, which is sometimes why an ending can “fall flat”. Also rejected as “needs more layers.”
“It’s not right for our list.”
Every imprint within each publisher has a specific “style”. Some are commercial, some are literary, some are message-driven, some are wacky and humorous. Know which imprint publishes what.
“It’s too similar to…”
Your story competes too closely with a book on the editor’s list or a wildly popular book by another publisher that’s already in the marketplace.
“It’s not right for us at this time.”
See above. They might have projects in the hopper that compete too closely with what you submitted. (You submitted a story about a bowling ball. They just signed a bowling ball book! What are the odds???) They may have recently contracted multiple projects and no longer have room on their list. They may be moving away from “older” picture books into the younger set (ages 2-5 vs. 4-8). Unfortunately, this rejection is also used as a polite catch-all or a form rejection.
“It’s too quiet.”
The imprint you submitted to might not publish literary fiction. The editor feels your manuscript doesn’t have a strong hook, something that will make your book marketable. They don’t feel it will stand out in the marketplace. It cannot be easily summarized into an elevator pitch, which is what their salespeople will use to market the book to stores, schools and libraries. It’s not a commercial or high-concept story.
“It’s too commercial.”
The imprint you submitted to might not publish commercial fiction. Commercial books have a strong marketing hook, are often high-concept (can be boiled down to an immediately understood, succinct statement), have a clear plot struggle and appeal to a wide range of readers. Literary fiction features artistic prose and often contains an internal conflict and more meandering plot.
“It doesn’t resonate with me.”
This is really a case of “It’s not you. It’s me.” The editor may think the story is well-written and even enjoy it, but it isn’t tugging at her heartstrings. Being an editor is like dating, like finding a potential mate—the story has to light something within her to want to devote passion and commitment to it. Remember, the editor has to spend two or more years with your story, bringing it to life. They need to feel sincerely attached to it. You want them to LOVE it, you want them to be EXCITED so they can create the best book possible. Examine your emotional theme—is it strong enough?
“I didn’t quite connect with this in the way I’d hoped.”
See above. The editor may have liked your concept and pitch, but not the execution of the story. Again, the story isn’t tugging at his heartstrings. Examine the POV, voice and the emotional theme (often referred to as a “layer”). A revision might be necessary…or not. Another editor may connect. Also rejected as, “It doesn’t have that WOW factor” or “I’m not getting that YES! feeling.”
“This needs a stronger voice.”
Voice is the unique way an author combines words and strings together sentences. It is your story’s personality, its manner of expression. It’s the difference between “Oh, shucks!” and “Oh, slippery slush!” (Little Red Gliding Hood) It’s the difference between “Charmaine’s showing off” and “Charmaine’s strutting hard enough to shame a rooster.” (The Quickest Kid in Clarksville) It’s the difference between “Pancake raced away” and “Pancake rappelled down a rope of linguini.” (Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast)
Go ahead and play with your words—use stronger verbs, alter the sentence structure, use alliteration, internal rhyme, onomatopoeia and uncommon words. Heck, make up a word every once in a while! Think of voice the way a poet thinks about meter—there’s a certain beat that the reader can dance to.
Pretend YOU are the main character. How would he or she TALK? Does the way you’ve written the story—the cadence of the words—match the character, the setting, the situation?
“There’s no current market for this.”
Your story’s subject matter and/or theme is either too popular or too obscure.
Remember when vampires were all the rage in YA? Same thing with pirates in picture books. There were a slew of well-received books featuring gangplanks that sold gangbusters. (Hey, there’s “voice” again!) But then that ship sailed. The market got soaked with pirates. So guess what? Editors didn’t necessarily buy a lot of pirate titles because there was too much existing, well-established competition. But everything is cyclical. I spot new pirate books on the horizon, captain! Land, ho!
Also, your manuscript might not be a picture book because it’s too long or too descriptive, yet it doesn’t fall neatly into another kidlit category, either.
Form Rejection vs. Personal Rejection
Most will send a form rejection. There’s just not enough time in the universe—or even in the flux capacitor—to personally respond to every manuscript. But if you receive a personal rejection, the editor or agent sees something promising. You haven’t hooked him, but he sees potential. Think of it as encouraging. You’re on the right wave. Just keep swimming; just keep swimming.
On the other hand, getting only form rejections doesn’t mean you DON’T have potential. It just means the editor or agent is crunched for time.
I mean, imagine this is what gets dumped on your desk every day!
One thing you should know: if an agent or editor wants to see more of your work, they will ask. No need for interpretation; it will be there in black and white. If they complimented your story but did not ask for a revision, DO NOT send one anyway thinking they just forgot to ask. If they want it, they WON’T FORGET. And if you send something they didn’t ask for, THEY WILL REMEMBER.
Let’s face it, the fact that you’re even receiving rejections is good. Yes, GOOD! You’re putting your work out there. And the sting of each rejection will lessen with every new one you receive. So let them pile up. Read ‘em. Move on. You WILL get rejections for the rest of your life if you’re a writer. Bottom line: learn to live with them, their brevity and their occasional ambiguity. Ever onward.
And, in case you forgot, you’re a lovely person.
by Tammi Sauer
Psst. Hey, you there. Yes, you. Do you want to wow an editor with your next picture book manuscript? Great!
It only takes one thing. Come up with the next Fancy Nancy, Olivia, or Skippyjon Jones. Editors are wading through their slush and/or agented submissions in the hopes of finding an irresistible, can’t-put-down, character-driven manuscript. They want manuscripts that make them feel something and a great character can do just that.
Examples of strong characters in picture books:
OLIVIA by Ian Falconer
Olivia is a feisty little piglet who has too much energy for her own good.
FANCY NANCY by Jane O’Connor
Nancy is very into fanciness whereas her family is not.
SKIPPYJON JONES by Judy Schachner
Skippyjon Jones is a little kitty with a big imagination.
A PET FOR PETUNIA by Paul Schmid
An exuberant Petunia wants, wants, wants a pet she really shouldn’t have.
DINOSAUR VS. BEDTIME by Bob Shea
The seemingly unstoppable Dinosaur is very much into his own bad self.
CLARK THE SHARK by Bruce Hale
Clark has super-sized enthusiasm which leads to all kinds of mayhem.
Developing a unique and engaging character like the ones listed above, however, is a huge challenge.
When I’m working on a new picture book manuscript, I remind myself that if people don’t care about my main character, they won’t care about my story.
I always keep A.R.F. in mind.
A stands for Active.
I want my main character to be doing something. No one wants to read about a kid who just sits on the couch all day with a bag of Doritos.
R stands for Relatable.
I want my main character to connect with readers. I want readers to think, “Yeah, I know what that feels like.”
F stands for Flawed.
I want my main character to have some sort of flaw. Nobody longs to read about little miss perfect. Yawn. Perfect is boring. A flawed character is much more interesting. A bonus? A flaw often increases the story’s tension and makes the character more endearing and root-worthy to readers.
In my latest book, GINNY LOUISE AND THE SCHOOL SHOWDOWN (Disney*Hyperion), illustrated by Lynn Munsinger(!!!), Ginny Louise is the new kid at school.
But Truman Elementary is no ordinary school. This is made clear at the very beginning of the book:
The Truman Elementary Troublemakers were a bad bunch.
Especially these three: Cap’n Catastrophe, Destructo Dude, and Make-My-Day May.
Day after day, these scoundrels made waves.
They dodged danger.
And in the classroom?
You don’t even want to know what went on.
Ginny Louise is Active. She happily goes about her school day. She paints, she sings, she learns things. All the while, she is oblivious to the fact that everything she does drives the Truman Elementary Troublemakers bonkers.
Ginny Louise is Relatable. She doesn’t fit in with her classmates in the classroom or out on the playground. (Readers can empathize with her because everyone has experienced the feeling of not fitting in at one time or another.)
Ginny Louise is Flawed. She only hears what she wants to hear. This results in all kinds of miscommunication.
By the book’s end, this active, relatable, flawed character turns things around at Truman Elementary. Well. For the most part. :)
GINNY LOUISE AND THE SCHOOL SHOWDOWN debuts TODAY! Next summer, Ginny Louise and the rest of the gang return for more mayhem in GINNY LOUISE AND THE SCHOOL FIELD DAY.
And now it’s a great giveaway for GINNY LOUISE!
Leave a comment naming your favorite PB character and you will be entered to win a signed, first-edition copy of GINNY LOUISE AND THE SCHOOL SHOWDOWN!
One comment per person, please.
A random winner will be selected in two weeks.
Tammi Sauer is a former teacher and library media specialist. She has sold 23 picture books to major publishing houses. In addition to winning awards, her books have gone on to do great things. Mostly Monsterly was selected for the 2012 Cheerios Spoonfuls of Stories program. Me Want Pet! was recently released in French which makes her feel extra fancy. And Nugget and Fang, along with Tammi herself, appeared on the Spring 2015 Scholastic Book Fair DVD which was seen by millions of kids across the nation. Tammi’s books Ginny Louise and the School Showdown (Disney*Hyperion), Your Alien (Sterling), and Roar! (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman) debut in 2015.
This morning I thought I was still at the NJ-SCBWI Summer Conference because I stumbled downstairs expecting to find fresh-baked coffee cake and a fruit platter. Instead, I found a slumbering adolescent who never got up for middle school and missed the bus. Hence, I was rudely thrust back into the life of a mom. Sigh. So I decided to ignore my life for a while and write this post. Relive the glory days!
The weekend was chock full of good friends, like author extraordinaire Tammi Sauer, whom I’ve known for SEVEN YEARS but had never met in person. I wanted to make a good impression upon her, so I picked her up from the airport…and then proceeded to get hopelessly lost in Newark. We did spy a ’57 Chevy during one of our dozen-or-so U-turns, so perhaps all was not lost.
And then, we got cut off by a rumbling, muffler-roaring Racini. RACINI, PEOPLE! Only in Jersey.
Of course, there were also the usual suspects present: Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, Kami Kinard, Marcie Colleen, Ame Dyckman, Adam Lehrhaupt, our fearless RA Leeza Hernandez, and newly-signed talents like Jason Kirschner, Colleen Rowan Kosinski and Kelly Calabrese. (For those of you with bets in the pool, Ame’s hair shone bright blue this year, bordering on periwinkle, stylishly accented with a coral red bow.)
Katya Szewczuk from KidlitTV let us know that her last name is pronounced “Shove Chuck.” Sadly, Chuck Palahniuk was not in attendance. What a fight club that would have been! (P.S. Isn’t Katya adorable? I call her Ame Dyckman Jr.)
Carrie Charley Brown, Kirsti Call, Lori Degman and Robin Newman were there, too…but the Witherspoon Grill couldn’t get us a table for 10. For shame! But they did get us a bottle of Prosecco. Next time, it should be on the house.
My editor from Sterling, the smart and lovely Meredith Mundy, made an appearance with a stack of NORMAL NORMAN cover designs from which to choose. Tammi, an author of eight Sterling titles, offered her expert opinion, too. And guess what? We all agreed on two favorites. (Now do we eeny-meeny-miney-mo?)
I only saw critique partners Corey Rosen-Schwartz and Mike Allegra briefly. I waved to Mike from my post at the registration table. Then he promptly dissolved into the crowd. This became a new picture book idea. Thanks, Mike!
So I bet you’re like ENOUGH ALREADY, TARA. GET TO THE NUGGETS.
Opening Keynote by Denise Fleming
Denise encouraged us to find out what age we really are. No, this isn’t a plug for how-old.net. Go back to your childhood and discover the age of your true voice. Denise never aged past Kindergarten. Me, I’m perpetually 8.
So that’s what you write. Dig down to emerge as a child, forever locked in a state of wonder.
Denise told us an impromptu paper-making class inspired her to choose this art form as her picture book medium. She evolved from precise watercolor paintings to a more loose, bold, colorful style. HER STYLE. Her illustrations set her apart. She asked us to ponder what makes us each unique. You’ve got to offer something different and not be like everyone else. Stand out, don’t blend in.
Oh, by the way, Denise thinks you’re pretty.
Writing Picture Books that Sell! by Tammi Sauer
With 23 contracts in 10 years, you’ve got to listen to and respect Tammi’s advice. She presented her top 12 tips for picture books, citing from her titles as examples. The quirkiest thing I found out is that she loves to use the name “Louise.”
Tammi recommends reading A LOT of picture books. You will begin to absorb information about their structure and format without even realizing! This knowledge will then seep into your manuscripts.
Tammi also wants us to write titles that POP. Up the tension in your stories and use words that SING.
Me? My name sings. I shall hereforthto be known as Tra-la-la Lazar.
Writing Mainstream (BUT COOL!) Picture Books by Ame Dyckman and Adam Lehrhaupt
This dynamic duo demonstrated a lot of energy, pizzazz and “special sauce.” No, we’re not talking about McD’s. Their “cream of creativity” is a mixture of unique elements that add up to writing a hook-y, mainstream winner. Slather on your own writing style, stir in heart and humor, and you will concoct a winning picture book recipe.
But remember, that’s just the sauce—an accent. Your picture book still needs meat! Pick popular subjects, relatable situations and age-appropriate “big picture” messages to make your story its most delish.
Thinking Outside the Box to Market Your Book with Jen Malone
I call this presentation “How to Sell Your Book Without Being Creepy.” As natural introverts, we writers don’t like going outside to deal with “people and weather.” We abhor the uncomfortable, used-car-like sales pitch. We don’t want to plaster the interwebs with “BUY MY BOOK!” Ick.
So what’s an author to do? Jen presented unique, creative ways to market by simply being you. Look outside your own book community to find opportunities for connections. Offer others what they want and they might just offer what YOU WANT—an introduction to a new audience. Jen has been doing work with the Girl Scouts and a famous bakery to reach her target audience, tween girls. (And, there are CUPCAKES involved. Win, win, stuff yer face.)
7 Revision Tips to Take your PB from WAAH to WOW! by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and Marcie Colleen
Don’t let the high-heels distract you. These two PB experts offer furlongs of fabulous advice. (Furlongs? I gotta stop the alliteration.)
They emphasized reviewing your picture book to ensure visual variety. This refers to textual elements as well as compositional ones. Think story AND layout. Think page turns. Think scene changes. Dump anything that’s repetitive or passive without purpose.
Is Your PB Worthy? by Marie Lamba
Oh, how I regret not getting a photo of Marie hugging her presentation easel. Adorbs.
Marie, an author and agent, bubbles with enthusiasm for picture books. She brought some of her all-time favorites to share and exclaimed, “Isn’t that HILARIOUS?” while doubled over in laughter.
We all want that—a reader who loves our book five, ten, even 20 years after first reading it. So how do we get that?
Be different. Don’t just write the first idea that comes to mind. Write five ideas. Then another five. Use the tenth one. Applying this tip from Donald Maass means you’ll arrive upon something no one has done.
Marie also shared the top 10 mistakes she sees in picture book submissions. For example, she doesn’t want to see “just a schtick.” (Don’t you LOVE Yiddish words?)
Your picture book can be ridiculous, but quirky humor isn’t enough. She cited her own manuscript about a girl who wears gloves on her feet and pretends she’s a monkey. It’s cute and funny, but it’s not enough. Marie didn’t have a story, she had a schtick. Your manuscript needs a plot to matter.
Other common errors include rhyming NO MATTER WHAT and writing a slice-of-life vignette—a set-up instead of a story.
Sunday Morning Keynote:
Top 10 Things You Need to Know About the Children’s/YA Market by Harold Underdown
Harold! You have to love him. (You have to follow his Purple Crayon website!) He’s bursting with kidlit experience and wisdom.
First, he told us some great news: the children’s publishing market rose 20% last year!
Hard copy books are not disappearing and ebooks are not replacing them. In fact, the ebook market has hit a plateau and represents only 15% of the children’s market, but that number leans heavily toward YA. Picture books are preffered in hard copy by a wide margin.
Bookstores (both online and brick-and-mortar) are now the biggest sales channel (40%), as opposed to schools and libraries in years past.
Know that diverse books are hot and that writers and publishers are taking this issue seriously.
YA remains a boom area, MG is very healthy and PBs are experiencing renewed interest. Some are even calling this time “the golden age of picture books.”
However, Howard emphasized that you should always do your best work and not focus on what’s hot. This is what will get you published.
Marrying the Right Manuscript with the Right Publisher by Steve Meltzer
Steve is a welcomed, popular mainstay at NJ-SCBWI. He emphasized doing your research when searching for a publisher. It’s important to seek out comparable titles published within the last three years, those that are of a similar subject and format, but not famous or mega-selling. No one’s gonna believe your series is the next Harry Potter. Query with a reasonable comp, not an outrageous claim.
The Changing Face of Humor in Picture Books by Steve Meltzer
Do I even have to talk about this? Steve and I disagree. I respect his opinion immensely, but I think a popular recent title missed the mark and had opportunity for so much more humor than it presented. He nudged me on the lunch line, “It’s a great book.” I topped my salad with bleu cheese and thought about it.
How to Be a Writer Without Losing Your Mind by John Cusick
John Cusick said much about life as a writer and agent, how he uses an Iron Man figurine on his desk to distinguish agent-time from writer-time, and how to balance our life roles.
He reminded us that our job is to “sit down and start.” Don’t worry about writing the whole book. Write a little bit for now. (This resonated with me. I tend to panic about writing AN ENTIRE NOVEL when I should really just put one word in front of the other.)
Also, no one cares if you stop writing. YOU MUST be the motivator.
Have a writing friend you can complain to…and let them know that this is their purpose. (Not their sole purpose, of course. We all need to kvetch and we need a kvetch catcher.)
Bottom line, it’s irrational and childish to make things up for a living. It’s crazy-making. So embrace it. Be crazy. It’s crazy that anything can be this good!
“Don’t worry about being normal because what you do is extraordinary,” John said.
I couldn’t agree more. How about you?
Kidlit Creativity Camp
with Deb Lund
September 15-18, 2015
Letchworth State Park
Glen Iris Inn
Genesee Falls, New York
Tara, I’m so excited for our Kidlit Creativity Camp play date in September! I’ve already started packing my creative play toys…
Springs, sprockets, my word purse, pictures, improv prompts, puppets, gadgets, gimmicks, doodles, dance shoes, dice, anti-inner-critic spray, troublemaking dares, a jillion idea generators, and assorted missing pieces for revision puzzles. I might have to pay for an extra bag on the plane—especially when I add all the Whidbey Island (no woo-woo) wishing stones and magic wands! (Yes, you get to take them home with you.)
In case that sounds like too much silliness, it’s not. In case someone might be thinking it’s only for picture book creators, it’s not. In case it appears too elementary (pun intended), it’s not. Our days together will have all the usual craft activities like critiques, writing time, individual attention, and encouragement, but we’ll spice it up with the creativity coaching you probably don’t even know you need and the playfulness that you already know you’ve been missing.
Play is a neglected necessity for creative people.
We think we don’t have time—that we must directly and diligently work toward an outcome. Purposeful play is a prerequisite to product. Play helps you connect the unconnected. It actually speeds up the creative process, expands possibilities, and makes your work more meaningful and joyful.
I totally get how play can seem unproductive, even though the opposite can be true. The need to play, like the need to dream, is one of those things I know intellectually and might still instinctively choose work habits that have evolved from years of built-up misinformation and plain old wrong beliefs.
As writers, we can have an excellent work ethic, but if purposeful play isn’t part of that work, we’re working too hard! I’m tired of working too hard and not getting anywhere—aren’t you? Wouldn’t you like to exchange some hard work for more results?
Creativity requires play.
I know Tara knows that as well as I do—probably better. We’ve played together in online classes, in blog posts, and in our jammies on Skype. And now, finally, we get to play together in person (jammies optional)!
Creativity needs a safe space (especially if you’re in your jammies).
Ever feel like throwing a tantrum because it seems like there are far more obstacles in the way of your writing dream than you could ever dream up to throw at your characters? That’s not bad! It means you’re in the right place for a transformation—in your writing and in your writing life. At camp, you can take off your mask or try on others! (I’ll provide the masks.) We’ll explore, regroup, energize, and connect!
No judgment allowed. We’ll be replacing that with curiosity.
Our safe circle will allow you to face your fears, address your doubts, and claim your creativity. But please sign up now! We’re capping enrollment at 24, and reserved rooms and lower rates are in place only until July 1.
Creativity takes time.
The Kidlit Creativity Camp can help you make the best use of your time. You deserve the opportunity to create new habits, to make time for your dreams, to get support in making your writing be the best it can be, and to be part of the supportive, creative playful community that we’ll create together at Kidlit Creativity Camp.
I’ll see you at our September play date.
Wear your play clothes.
I hope you’ll join me for Deb’s amazing camp and retreat. I signed up immediately after she announced it because I know what a great coach and teacher she is!
And now for YOUR prize (as if the camp isn’t enough)! Deb is giving away a deck of her fabulous Fiction Magic cards to one lucky blog commenter!
And if Deb fills the retreat, all attendees will receive a deck as well.
A winner will be randomly selected in a couple weeks.
I grew up with a funny guy.
(No, Walter Matthau isn’t my dad, but I don’t have a digital photo of my father and he looks just like Mr. Wilson from “Dennis the Menace.” So this will have to do.)
Anyway, he’s the one who passed along his sharp, dry humor to me. He was actually a Chemical Patent Attorney for a large petroleum company and used to speak about opening a law firm together when I grew up. Only being a Chemical Patent Attorney is quite possibly the career of my nightmares. I suppose his job is why he’s so funny—it didn’t provide gas for humor so he had to create his own laughs. (It did provide gas, though.)
A simple man, he has means but always preferred to live in a small apartment or condo. When I asked him why he didn’t buy something larger, he quipped, “Why? You can only be in one room at a time.”
So I began thinking about this concept recently…as it applies to picture books, of course. You know I suffer from PBOTB (Picture Books on the Brain, not Picture Book Off-Track Betting). Here’s what I came up with:
“You can only be on one spread at a time.”
So what does this mean?
When you’re finished with your tale, cut it in pieces.
You may already be aware of my layout templates:
Look at each spread of your story individually and ask yourself some questions:
- Does it move the story forward?
- Does it provide a page-turn surprise?
- Does it provide ample opportunity for illustrative interpretation or an illustrative subtext?
- Is it interesting and entertaining? Does the reader want to linger?
- Is it active?
- Does it have too much text?
- Does the scene change from the previous page?
Remember, you can only be on one spread at a time. Make each one MATTER.
Maybe you’d like to comment with your interpretation of this witty Pops-inspired picture book phrase…? Please do!
And now, the winner of my March giveaway–Philip C. Stead and Matthew Cordell’s SPECIAL DELIVERY!
Congratulations, Diana, I’ll be emailing you!
Now I usually end with something witty, so I called my dad for comment. He says being a children’s book author is quite possibly the career of his nightmares. And with that, he’s ready for a nap…albeit a scary one.
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.