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The Picture Book Idea Month success stories just keep pouring in!
The latest news is from lucky Penny Klostermann who was named runner-up for the 2012 SCBWI Barbara Karlin grant! This makes THREE YEARS IN A ROW that a PiBoIdMo story either snatched the grant or was named next in line.
Without further ado, I’ll let Penny tell you all about it!
In the fall of 2011, my wonderful critique group, Picture Bookies, made me aware of Tara’s brilliant concept, PiBoIdMo—30 picture book ideas in 30 days! My very first PiBoIdMo idea was to do a rewrite of THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS. I know….holiday stories are hard to sell. I know….rhyme done right is hard to write! But, it was November…and Christmas was just around the corner…and I love the original. By the end of November, I had three different ideas for rewriting THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS.
From the time I wrote the first line for my 25th idea, MARS NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, I knew it was my favorite.
Then, in December, Susanna Leonard Hill hosted a competition on her blog for a rewrite of THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS. This brought my idea to the forefront, and I decided to work on it right away. I read every version of the story I could get my hands on. I researched Mars and Space! I got excited as words and phrases from my research enhanced my manuscript.
February 26, 2012, I emailed my manuscript to my critique group. As usual, their comments were incredible. I revised and revised and revised some more. Then on March 12, 2012, I mailed my manuscript to the Barbara Karlin committee…and waited.
I got the call/voicemail at 6:36 p.m. Friday, August 3rd. (Of course I took a picture of my call log!) I didn’t listen to the voicemail until 10:30 p.m. The caller said she was with the Barbara Karlin Grant, and could I give her a call. COULD I GIVE HER A CALL?????? I live in Texas. She was in California. It wasn’t too late! When she told me I was runner up I just couldn’t believe it. Uncontained happiness!!!
I have to say, Tara, that PiBoIdMo is out-of-this-world awesome. As I look through my list of ideas for the next manuscript to tackle, I am amazed. Your organization of the event with inspiring posts and interaction among so many picture book writers took my mind to places it wouldn’t go sitting alone in front of my computer. Thank you.
I just have to brag on my critique group, Picture Bookies. Rebecca Colby was the winner of the 2011 Barbara Karlin Grant. Also, in 2011, Mona Pease received a Letter of Merit. The other members are just as incredible. I am lucky to be a part of this group.
Congratulations, Penny, and thanks so much for sharing your success story! You can visit Penny online at her blog: “A Penny and Her Jots“.
Now folks, you know the old rhyme: “Find a Penny, pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck!” So let Penny’s story sprinkle some good fortune on you.
PiBoIdMo guest bloggers and badges will be revealed on October 1st, with registration to begin on October 24th right here on this blog. Subscribe via email (← see left column) to make sure you don’t miss PiBoIdMo updates!
If you have suggestions about who you’d like to see guest blogging this year, please leave a name (or two or three) in the comments!
‘Twas the night before Conference and all through the hotel,
Authors were dreaming of merchandise deals with Mattel.
The manuscripts were printed with name and website,
In the hopes that an agent would find love at first sight.
The editors were snoring tucked into their rooms,
Knowing before them a day of pitching looms.
And while I am too warm, and Corey Rosen Schwartz too cold,
We share a king bed because the queen rooms are all sold.
Out in the hallway, there arose such a noise,
Wouldn’t you know it, it’s the conference’s only two boys.
The place is packed with slinky stiletto-heel wearers,
‘Cause style in books means style in fashion is fairer.
A kidlit conference is full of women who are hot,
Who sell tons of stories while you just want one shot.
But we authors are friendly, we certainly don’t bite,
We’re not filled with envy, we’re not filled with spite.
We will welcome you to our world that’s so crazy,
So will editors and film agents who’ve worked with Scorcese.
Get out there and network! Polish your pitch to a shine!
Relax in the lounge with a smooth glass of wine.
A kidlit conference is the place to make a friend,
It’s where deals happen ’cause deal-makers attend!
But don’t drone for hours about your book’s premise,
Talk about your life, your hobbies. Do you play tennis?
And don’t just stand there, go mix and go mingle.
Don’t stare at the editors like they’re all Kris Kringle.
Be yourself and you’ll find that you’ll be an attraction,
Don’t croon like Jagger about not gettin’ no satisfaction.
Be happy, be cheerful, take crits with salt if need be,
Remember we’re here to help you succeed, see?
(Excuse the bad meter, I’m not really a poet.
Ask Corey the rhyme genius, she really does know it.)
And with that I bid you a hearty good luck.
Break a leg, do your best, get that writer’s block unstuck.
Enjoy yourself for three days and two nights.
Happy Conference to all, and to all a good write!
Last November this blog hosted “Picture Book Idea Month,” a daily exercise for picture book writers. The object was to create one new picture book idea a day. (As an added benefit, it kept us from having NaNoWriMo envy.)
When I tried PiBoIdMo on my own the year prior, I came up with the concept for THE MONSTORE, which became my first book to be purchased. It’s set for release with Simon & Schuster in 2012. And, this week, my editor is meeting with the art director to talk about illustrators. Oh yeah, it’s a fun time.
Then this week I got word that Diana Murray won the 2010 SCBWI Barbara Karlin grant with one of her PiBoIdMo 2009 ideas! Wow! So I asked her to tell the story…take it away, Diana!
When Tara announced PiBoIdMo on the blueboards, I was thrilled. One idea per day was something I could handle time-wise and I was looking forward to an excuse to ramp up my picture book writing. It was more challenging than I expected, but the best part was, it helped me figure out my main problem: I’m a compulsive writer. As soon as I think of an idea, I run for my laptop and I can’t stop writing until I get the whole story out of me. I literally find myself waking in the middle of the night to jot things down. In other words, I’m completely nuts. In many ways, this can be a good thing. Motivation has never been an issue for me. But participating in Piboidmo forced me to delay my compulsion to write about anything that popped into my head, and for me, that ended up being more efficient.
I came up with most of my ideas during little “holes” in time throughout the day, like while pushing the stroller or putting my kids to sleep. Some of these ideas were pretty awful, like: “Tabby Moves to Dogtown” and “Mabel’s Amazing Hat,” about a do-everything hat with a remote control. Ha! That one still cracks me up. Some of the ideas were worth investigating and I kept getting tempted to drop everything and start writing. But I held back in the interest of coming up with at least one new idea each day. I knew that if I started writing, I wouldn’t be able to stop and move on to thinking of other ideas. I held off as long as I could.
Finally, on idea #23, I couldn’t take it anymore. The idea of a stubborn, messy witch who keeps losing things resonated with me (Gee, I wonder why?). It’s a very personal experience, of course. An idea that works for one person may not appeal to somebody else. But for me, it just clicked. For a few days, I thought about it and planned it out in my head. Actually, idea #23 had been brewing since idea #1 (to borrow a metaphor from my MC, Grimelda). That’s the good thing about ideas: even the bad ones can ultimately lead to something that inspires you. By the time I started writing, I was overflowing with creative juices and the whole manuscript just poured out.
So, long story short, I’m a PiBoIdMo loser! My compulsion got the best of me, and I didn’t get past idea #23. But the good news is, I won the 2010 SCBWI Barbara Karlin Grant and learned something in the process.
For the record, I announced my participation on the blueboards but not on Tara’s blog. Let’s just say I was a little new to the concept of blogs at the time. Luckily, I was able to read all the inspiring posts after the event.
Congraulations, Diana! I hope you’ll let us know when your manuscript gets purchased!
Do you have a PiBoIdMo success story to share?
Agents and editors have told me they occasionally receive calls from writers who are brand new to children’s books. These aspiring authors ask, “How do I get my book published?”
Kindly folks that they are, these agents and editors don’t slam the phone down. They’ll sometimes spend a few moments providing basic details. But this information can be easily found online. That’s what makes being a new writer so exciting these days: there’s professional advice available via websites and blogs, you just have to search for it. It’s not all so mysterious anymore.
So if you’re looking to launch a kidlit career, please don’t call an agent or editor to learn the basics. Let them read manuscripts, sell books and do their jobs. Come here instead…
A New Children’s Writer’s To-Do List:
I knew you’d like that one.
- Read children’s books.
Become familiar with the genre in which you write. Understand appropriate length and content for specific age groups. See what’s being published. Don’t follow trends, but know the competition. When pitching editors and agents, it’s often helpful to compare your book to another title. You can’t compare if you aren’t well read.
- Join SCBWI.
Take advantage of their resources—local chapter events, national conferences, online discussion boards and publications.
- Join a critique group.
Find fellow writers who work in the same genre as you. They provide support, motivation, and helpful feedback. (And if you can, find a group with writers who are more experienced than you.) P.S. Your mother, daughter, spouse, and neighbor’s 2nd grade class are not a critique group.
- Attend workshops, conferences and events.
Seek out opportunities to learn and network with authors, agents, editors and writing peers.
- Read books on the craft.
Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children by Nancy Lamb
Writing for Children and Teens by Cynthea Liu
Writing with Pictures by Uri Shulevitz
- Revise and rewrite.
It’s not going to be right the first time (or maybe even the second or the fifteenth). It’s just not. Resist the temptation to submit an early draft to a publisher.
- Take time to develop your skill.
Your writing will improve with practice.
- Submit when you have more than one project polished.
Finished your first manuscript? Keep writing. If an editor or agent likes your manuscript, but not enough to make an offer, they may request other material. Have a few manuscripts at the ready.
- Learn to have patience.
It can take years to write publishable material, sell your first project, and develop a career.
- Call yourself a writer.
Because you are one!
If you have some newbie suggestions, let’s hear them. Please leave a comment.
Children’s book writers were treated to another fun and informative first page session this week in Princeton, hosted by the NJ-SCBWI. Editors Michelle Burke and Allison Wortche of Knopf & Crown Books For Young Readers listened to 30 first pages read aloud as they followed along with each manuscript page. Then they gave their immediate first impressions of the work.
If you’ve never attended a first page critique, it’s a quick way to get a handle on what your peers are writing. A first page session shows you what it’s like for an editor to spend two hours in the slush pile. Common themes emerge. Mistakes reveal themselves. If you listen carefully, you’ll learn how to avoid first page problems and encourage an editor to read on.
So what did the editors say? I encourage you to read on…
Use varying imagery in picture books. One manuscript conveyed a lot of emotion and the editors didn’t see where the illustrator would take inspiration for art. The same scene through several page turns may lose a child’s attention.
Dialogue needs to match the age of your character. A picture book character shouldn’t sound older than a five- or six-year-old child. Their actions should also match their age.
Cut excess detail in picture books. The first page of the manuscript should reveal a clear story arc. If the manuscript is bogged down with details, it slows the story down. For example, writing that a mother is carrying a napkin to the table and setting it down next to the plate is unecessary (unless that specific action is crucial to the story, and even so, it could probably be illustrated).
Premise and conflict should be apparent on the first page of a picture book manuscript. For example, dialogue between two characters should reveal a story, not just serve as adorable banter.
Every line in a picture book should move the story forward. There’s no room for chatting or extraneous stuff.
Picture books should have a linear approach. Moving back and forth in time can confuse a young child.
With holiday stories, you automatically have to work harder. Stories about specific times of year are a tough sell. There’s a lot of competition and a small sales window.
Some picture book stories are told better without rhyme. If the phrasing is unnatural in rhyme–things you wouldn’t ordinarily say–it can be jarring to the story. One bad line can ruin the manuscript’s chances.
The narrator/main character should be the highlight of the first page. One manuscript began by describing a minor character as a way to compare/contrast the narrator. However, when that minor character disappeared from the rest of the page, the editors were confused. Was that comparison necessary to introduce the narrator?
Historial fiction should tell a story. The reader should get a sense of the main character first–how he/she is affected by historial details. Too much fact will bog the story down and lose the character.
Don’t be too reptitive in a novel–get on with the story. If a main character reveals the same thing over and over again on the first page, it feels overdone. Introduce a concept and then move on with the story; don’t circle back paragraph after paragraph.
A first person narrative should have more narrative than dialogue on the first page to take advantage of this device. Plus, the narrative voice and the dialogue voice should match (unless the disconnect is for a specific purpose).
Avoid the stereotypical whiny, displaced, unhappy middle-grade voice. More than one middle-grade manuscript began with a character learning that he/she had to move. The result was a whiny narrator who wasn’t necessarily likeable. Editors warned that they see a lot of the parents-uprooting-child theme, so to rise above the slush, consider a different approach.
Be cautious in stories with several important characters. It’s difficult to write a story with multiple characters because introducing them can sound like a laundry list. Reveal their personalities in a way that’s organic to the story. It also asks a lot of the reader, to keep track of several characters.
Watch tense. The switch from dialogue to narrative in one story felt very abrupt because the dialogue was in past tense and the narrative was in present.
The difference between MG and YA is edgy, gritty. If the main character’s personality feels innocent, the genre might be middle grade, not young adult.
Balance description and dialogue. Dialogue moves a story along fast. Description slows it down. Long stretches of each create a choppy storytelling rhythm.
Make descriptions specific, not generic. One story began with vague details that could be applied to almost any story setting. It wasn’t until further down on the page that the reader learned the unique time and place, something that attracted attention. The editors suggested moving that info higher up.
YA characters should be teenagers. College YA characters and those over the age of 19 can be a tricky sell. That moves the story into adult territory. YA readers need to relate to the characters, and 20+ seems like a lifetime away to a 15 year-old.
Finally, stories should be kid-friendly, not sprinkled with adult sensibilities. One of the editors warned, “this feels like it’s about kids rather than for them.” Don’t let a parental point of view creep into your writing–kids find that creepy.
Every SCBWI first-page session I’ve attended has had one thing in common: picture book manuscripts about new babies in the family. At least two or three are submitted each time. Editors and agents respond by warning new writers: “The market is saturated with mom-is-having-a-baby books. If you’re going to write about a new sibling, the idea must be unique to stand out.”
I remember a harsh moment. After reading the first page of a new baby tale, an editor said, “This isn’t special enough to continue.”
Daunting, isn’t it? Makes you want to toss your baby—erm, your manuscript—out the window!
So when they say the idea has to be unique, what do they mean?
In a perfect world, they’d whip out Michael Sussman’s Otto Grows Down. Illustrated by Scott Magoon, it’s a tale of a boy who wishes his baby sister Anna was never born. “Be careful what you wish for” might be a cliché, but trust me, Otto Grows Down is an uncommon cautionary tale.
Otto makes his Anna-be-gone wish on his 6th birthday as he blows out the candles. Immediately, life begins to travel in reverse. Otto wraps up his gifts and hands them back to his friends. The second hand on his new watch ticks backward.
The next day at school, they start with mess-up time. Otto can’t get used to sliding UP the slide, and he’s so tired at the end of the day, he just wants to eat breakfast and get to bed. And going to the bathroom? Nasty business. (Nasty, hysterical business to my kids.)
Otto’s parents soon return Anna to the hospital and she disappears. Otto rejoices. But strangely, time doesn’t move forward again, it just keeps unraveling. Otto celebrates his fifth birthday, his fourth, his third…and he realizes that he may disappear, too! He’s slowly losing the words he needs to make his new wish come true: OTTO BIG!
Call it a dark comedy for kids. Scott Magoon’s film noir feel strikes the right balance between humor and horror. Dark shadows and warm colors mimic Otto’s flip-flopping emotions. (And hey, did you notice all the character names are palindromes? Another cool touch, huh?)
I won’t tell you where it ends—or where it begins—but let me just say: every editor who sent Mr. Sussman a rejection probably wishes they could make time go in reverse, too.
Otto Grows Down
Story by Michael Sussman
Illustrated by Scott Magoon
Sterling, February 2009
Want it? Get it!
P.S. Author Heather Ayris Burnell interviewed Michael Sussman on her blog–plus she’s giving away a copy of the book!
Hooray! More notes from the September NJ-SCBWI first page session!
Those familiar with peer critiques know the “sandwich” method: begin with what you liked, then move onto what needs work, and end by pointing out the manuscript’s merits. The editors followed this method well and offered compliments to soften the criticisms. Everyone must have left feeling good about an aspect of their writing. But we still have plenty to work on.
Some common suggestions:
- Rhyme carefully. Rhyme should have a consistent beat and meter. The editors easily picked out when a rhyme stretched to make it work. There was only one rhyming manuscript that worked. The other manuscripts felt limited by rhyme, and one in particular featured subject matter for an older audience, so the rhyme felt out of place. There’s a lot to live up to if you’re going to rhyme, so read many rhyming picture books to get a sense of how it all fits together. It’s not impossible, but great skill is required. They advised rewriting in prose and suggested using alliteration, which can be as fun as rhyming, without the restrictions. But use alliteration in moderation! (Umm, I didn’t mean to rhyme there…)
- Amp up the humor. The editors felt picture book laughs weren’t taken far enough. They wanted the stories to go from simply funny to outrageous. There’s always room for more humor. Make it crazier and more outlandish.
- Avoid common themes. Pets dying. New babies in the family. Monsters. Imaginary friends. First words. Retellings of The Three Little Pigs. These have all been done before, and done well. Stories on these subjects need to dig deep to find something new to say. Stand out, don’t blend in.
The editors also discussed avoiding clichés, clarifying the conflict on the first page, and cutting text to move action along faster. Out of 26 manuscripts, only two or three were considered strong contenders as written, and even so, they still required a little tweaking.
[An interesting tidbit for all you artists: if you're an author/illustrator, consider yourself at an advantage. An editor is attracted to working with you since they skip the difficult step of matching your PB manuscript with an illustrator. Instead of communicating with two professionals to produce a book, the editor works directly with just one person---you.]
My friends and I thought that for the most part, both editors agreed on the manuscripts. However, one editor thought they didn’t agree very much at all!
But I think we can all agree that we need to work smarter. Some questions to think about as you work on your manuscript:
- Why should a publisher choose your story? What makes it unique and appealing, different from any other book in the marketplace?
- Why should a publisher spend tens of thousands of dollars, work several months (and in the case of PBs, years), and utilize the resources of a dozen or more staff members to produce your book?
- Is this truly the best story you can write? How can you make it even better?
The New Jersey Chapter of SCBWI was treated to an afternoon of professional first page critiques yesterday in Princeton. (Heck, we even felt smarter just being on the campus of Princeton University!)
Editors Connie Hsu and Kate Sullivan from Little, Brown shared their literary insights with 30 aspiring authors. Manuscripts ranged from a whimsical picture book about goldfish to a compelling young adult novel set in a foreign village under siege.
After each first page was read aloud, the editors provided their immediate impressions of the manuscript–what worked, what didn’t.
Some helpful advice included:
- Use first person point-of-view to your advantage. It helps the reader get into your character’s head, so if there’s too much dialogue on the first page and not enough introspection, you’re not using that device to its full potential.
- Make sure the voice fits the genre. This is a common critique I’ve heard repeated at every first-page session. Some picture books were wordy, with long sentences and adult sensibilities. If it takes the entire first manuscript page to set up the story, then you need to cut, cut, cut. Little kids beg their parents to turn the page, so you must get to the story quickly. The first manuscript page needs a clear story arc. Regarding books for ‘tweens and teens, a young adult novel should have longer sentences and be more gritty than middle-grade. In general, the editors said an MG voice can sometimes be classified as “whiney,” whereas a YA voice is angrier and angst-ridden. Yes, let that YA voice curse and swear.
- Make room for illustration in a picture book. You don’t have to describe every detail. Instead of saying, “the girl’s hair was red and wavy like her mother’s red, wavy hair,” try instead, “the girl’s hair was just like her mother’s.” This provides the double benefit of cutting words and leaving the family’s appearance to the illustrator’s interpretation. (Read Linda Urban’s interview with illustrator Marla Frazee regarding The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman. Great example of how an illustrator fleshes out the story.)
- Don’t try to surprise your reader on the first page. It can lead to confusion instead. Some stories left important details aside (who/what/why/where) and forced the reader to guess what was happening. You don’t want your reader to guess wrong! If they do, then when the correct information is revealed, they will be confused. You want the reader to move forward, not double-back to re-read.
- Set the scene. The setting provides a clear context for your character’s actions and emotions. Again, don’t make the reader guess where your character is. Show the reader. Immerse the reader in your world.
One of the funnier moments occured when the editors cautioned against using the word “puberty” in a middle-grade work. It guarantees giggles of embarassment among that age group. “It’s a word no ‘tween wants to admit exists,” said Kate Sullivan.
While the insights above were specific to the pages submitted, they can be applied to your own manuscript. Keep in mind that rules can be broken, but it typically takes an experienced, talented author to make the unconventional work.
Want to read more about first pages? Check out these previous posts: