You may be wondering–what ever happened to Tara? It’s been almost a month since she blogged. (Or you may not. You may be relieved your inbox has been devoid of my blivel. I made that word up, in case you’re wondering. A portmanteau of blog and drivel.)
Well, I’ve been traveling! I’ve actually changed out of my pajamas several times in the last few weeks!
At the end of March I drove down to MD/DE/WV SCBWI’s Annual Conference to present my workshop “From Concept to Dummy for Picture Book Writers”. About 70 writers attended–it was a full house in our little room. The attendees got a taste of my imbalance. Yes, my mental imbalance, but also my MS imbalance. Luckily I didn’t topple the whiteboard. I did, however, have one sinking moment when I thought I used a permanent Sharpie on the pristine white surface. It reminded me of NJ-SCBWI 2008 when I volunteered to hang signs on the aging plaster of the Princeton Theological Seminary, only to take chunks of wall with me when I removed the signs. Be forewarned, I cause mayhem and destruction at SCBWI events.
I think many will agree that the best part of the workshop was when we read the beginnings of successful picture books to discern the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN in each opening line. Incorporating these details makes your reader ask WHY and eagerly turn the page to find out.
Many new writers mistakenly begin stories with, “My name is Jamie and I’m six years old.” This tells a reader nothing about the story to come. And more importantly, an editor who reads this plain first line will most likely stop there. YIKES. Not what you want. You have to break out of that slush pile with a line that captures the editor immediately.
After reading a dozen picture book openings, with me screaming WHY? WHHHHHYYYYY? and bending over in feigned painful anticipation, shaking my fists at the sky, I challenged the participants to rewrite their opening lines. Everyone was quite thrilled to get their own Tara WHHHHHYYYYY? in response to their improved introductions.
Writer Sarah Maynard summarized my workshop with bullet points, to which I’ve added my thoughts from the event:
- You have 30 seconds to grab their attention. MAKE IT GOOD!
Like a resume to obtain a job, you have limited time to make an impression with an agent or editor. They can have hundreds of manuscripts to read each week, so they give each one only a few moments to grab them. Punch that opening, make them want to continue reading.
- “Writing a picture book is 99% staring and 1% writing.”
There is A LOT of thinking involved in writing a picture book. Don’t worry if you’re not actually putting words on paper every day. Think about how to resolve problems in your story. Stare at your manuscript. Your subconscious will most likely be working on a solution and it will pop out while you’re doing mundane chores, like emptying the dishwasher, folding laundry, or taking a shower.
- Learn who YOU are as a WRITER.
A lot of authors, including me, espouse advice that may not work for you. Discover how YOU work best and stick with it. For instance, routine doesn’t jive with me, although it works for a lot of other people. I used to force myself into routine only to get frustrated, losing my creative mojo. Only you know how to thrive in your creative mode. It’s very personal. Don’t take advice that doesn’t serve you well. (It may be useful to note here that I’ve shunned routine my entire life.)
- If it’s not apparent by words you’ve written, add an art note.
One attendee told me I was the first person to speak positively about art notes. Yeah, I think they get a bad rap. They’re absolutely ESSENTIAL to use if it’s not apparent what’s happening by your words alone. If the text says your character is smiling but you actually want them to frown, you need an art note to convey that. Of course, you should not use them to direct the entire shabang, but to ensure there are no misunderstandings. Which brings me to the last point…
- Don’t make an agent or editor guess!
I find that some new writers like to surprise the reader on the second or third page of a manuscript. This means the beginning is not entirely clear and the reader must guess what is happening. Well, what if your reader guesses wrong? Then they become hopelessly confused at the reveal and probably discard your manuscript. You don’t want an agent or editor to have to guess what is happening in your tale. Make it CRYSTAL either by the text or the addition of art notes. It can be as simple as “[art: the character is a bear]” to make everyone understand.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Maryland—the hospitality of the chapter went above and beyond. We had a lovely faculty dinner at the Craftsman-style log cabin home of former RA Edie Hemingway. Is there anything more writerly than that (I mean, c’mon, HEMINGWAY)? Edie has a charming home with a writing hut tucked into the woods.
Far better than my writing space—my unmade bed!
As I crawl back into my pajamas, I’ll be getting another blog post ready. This time, about my trip to Reading is Fundamental and the donation that my publisher and PiBoIdMo participants made possible, enriching the lives of children with BOOKS!