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I awoke this morning and thought, “What a fine day for a new blog post.” Of course, I also thought, “What a fine day to go swimming” and “What a fine day to finish reading that book.” Sensing that I have packed today’s schedule, I decided that said blog post would have to be ultra-short. (I would have said “uber” short, but that word has been bogarted by some taxi service.)

So here I have pieced together quick quotes and sage snippets from the SCBWI events I attended in the spring—New England SCBWI and New Jersey SCBWI.

I hope you enjoy while I do the backstroke with a soggy book.

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“A picture book is an amazing thing, a world unto itself. You can do anything in those 32 pages and that is the thing I love about it.” ~David Wiesner

“As I create, I am continually asking myself ‘why is this happening?’ You know you are desperate when you go to the ‘magic button’ solution.” ~David Wiesner

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“Be nice. Be resilient. Set goals. Adapt & learn. Your biggest achievement is just around the corner.” ~Jarrett J. Krosoczka

“Don’t do a $50 job like a $50 job, you’ll get $50 jobs your whole life. Do it like a $500 job and you’ll start getting those.” ~Jarrett J. Krosoczka

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“It’s not necessarily ‘write what you know.’ Write what you want to know ABOUT. The passion for that subject will come through.” ~Wendy Mass

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“When it comes to the nitty gritty marketing of your book, always remember, something is better than nothing.” ~Laurie Wallmark

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“A postcard is the best way to get our attention. I get 60 emails a day…it’s too much. I like the tactile nature of a postcard. I love feeling them and looking at them…if they hit anything in me, I keep them.” ~Laurie Brennan, Associate Art Director, Viking

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“Characters who make interesting mistakes are inherently interesting. The kind of mistakes your character makes defines her. How a character acts in the wake of a mistake should be unique and personal to her. Failure is fertilizer: a world of things can grow from the mistakes your character makes. Someone who is always right is BORING.” ~Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

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“I wanted to write a book where my daughter could see herself—that’s me!” ~Suzy Ismail

“Writing from a multicultural perspective is no different than writing. All writing is about crossing boundaries.” ~Suzy Ismail quotes Debby Dahl Edwardson

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And, finally, my favorite quote…which is still making me think long and hard:

“How are you creating a literary world besides being a literary creator?” ~Donalyn Miller

 

Sylvia Liusylvialiu is co-founder of the comprehensive children’s literature resource Kidlit411 and a picture book author whose debut A MORNING WITH GRANDPA (illustrated by Christina Forshay) won Lee & Low’s prestigious New Voices Award. 

One of the most important and inspiring movements in kidlit today is diversity, so I’ve asked Sylvia to talk to us today about creating authentic stories with relatable, diverse characters. Get those pencils ready because you will want to write after you read this interview!

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Sylvia, what does the movement “We Need Diverse Books” mean to you?

For me, We Need Diverse Books means that every child can easily find stories and books that are mirrors and windows. Mirrors that reflect their own stories and circumstances and windows that show other people’s stories. This means that previously underrepresented groups need to be better represented at every level of children’s books. On the supply side, we need more diverse creators and more diverse gatekeepers (agents, editors, booksellers, librarians, reviewers). On the demand side, we need a reading public that buys and demands more diverse books. To achieve these isn’t a matter of wishful thinking or good intentions, because the societal inequalities that created the lack of supply and demand ultimately need to be addressed. For example, publishing and the creative arts are professions that are still very much based in apprenticeships—i.e., you need to have enough money to take unpaid internships when you’re starting out, or to take creative risks.

What led to you entering Lee & Low’s “New Voices” contest?

I have known about the New Voices Award ever since it began in 2000 because I have been following Lee & Low for over twenty years (my college and law school friend is related to the company’s founder). Over the last five or six years that I’ve been writing picture books seriously, I have always had the award in the back of my mind. Most of my stories are not specifically geared towards multicultural or diverse topics, so I didn’t submit any until 2013, when I wrote A MORNING WITH GRANDPA. After I wrote it, I thought it would be a good fit because it told a universal story about a grandparent and grandchild’s fun and funny relationship but with specific cultural references.

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“When writing a diverse story, you should not just insert a character of a certain ethnicity or race. It is about so much more.” Can you expand upon this concept?

You’re right. It’s about telling a story from deep within a point of view or culture that requires intimate knowledge or experience to that culture. It’s more than changing a name to Maria or Mei Mei. It’s inhabiting that character’s world and showing and sharing the details of that world that make it specific to the culture, ethnicity, or world view. I do believe authors are capable of writing from different perspectives and cultures other than their own, but if they do, they need to approach the story with respect and research.

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Going forward, what are your hopes for diversity in children’s publishing?

In the ideal world, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. We would have all different kinds of stories written by all different kinds of people, reflecting the multiplicity of experiences–social, cultural, racial, ethnic, economic, gender, ability, and more. But in the short term, as I mentioned before, I hope that gatekeepers (editors, agents, reviewers, book sellers, librarians, parents) take seriously the emerging commitment to diversity–promoting and giving voice to people of color, LGBTQ people, and other underrepresented people in the industry through hiring, contracts, reviews, and book sales.

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Sylvia, any final thoughts?

Remember that only you–a specific person on this planet with a particular worldview, background, culture, family, sense of humor, and self–can tell your stories. Don’t be afraid to share your stories with your truths and perspectives, and don’t deprive the world of them.

What an inspiring statement, Sylvia! I hope this sparks new ideas for our blog readers.

Thank you so much for sharing your “new voice” with us…and for having Lee & Low share your “New Voices” picture book!

One copy will be given away within the next two weeks. Just leave one comment below to enter. (US addresses only, please.)

Good luck!

Before I recap the SCBWI conferences I’ve attended the last two months, there’s a pressing topic that requires outing…a little quirk I have witnessed at every kidlit conference from the dawn of time (or, in my case, since 2008).

FOMO.

Maybe you don’t have a teen in your household and you’re shrugging right now. What the heck is FOMO?

Well, let’s describe the scene.

See the new-to-kidlit conference attendee, nervous yet determined, marching around the event carrying a stuffed animal based on their story’s character so people will inquire about it, talking to anyone who will listen to the pitch…which, unfortunately, the attendee hasn’t quite figured out yet.

Witness the cornering of an agent or editor in a hallway, a conference room, the buffet line, or heaven forbid, the restroom stall, being asked if they will read the manuscript, listen to the pitch or “peek” at other work.

See the attendee making conversation about the story and only the story, never asking anyone what they’re writing or even about their family, where they scored that awesome vintage dress, what they do for fun, where they’ve traveled, or anything unrelated to WORK.

You see, the new kidlit conference attendee is gripped by FOMO:

FEAR
OF
MISSING
OUT

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FOMO makes us jumpy, anxious, pushy and, dare I say it, annoying. The person-with-the-manuscript thinks this conference is THE ONE CHANCE to break through, to get the manuscript not only read, but read and LOVED, contracts thrust forward with gusto. They envision a bidding war breaking out right at lunch table 10, pitting Viking against Sterling, swords thrust forward with gusto.

It’s an unflattering portrait I’ve painted, and I apologize. But you see, I too was afflicted by FOMO. I know it so well because I lived it. (I am the first person above with the stuffed animal, just so you know.)

It took me a couple years, and some serious coaching by professional authors, to calm down at conferences, to realize that the lunch table duel just DOES NOT HAPPEN. Yes, an agent or editor may fall in love with your project, but more frequently they fall in I-think-I-like, ask for revisions, and begin a relationship with you. The opportunities happen AFTER the conference.

And remember, relationships can start with something other than A MANUSCRIPT.

Editors and agents are real people, too. They are not these mystical beings who float away to enchanted realms after a conference ends. They are wives and husbands, fiancés, mothers and fathers, lacrosse coaches, knitters, ukelele players, cycling enthusiasts, City Harvest volunteers, Rick Springfield fans and even former accountants who love spreadsheets (these people mystify me). They are multi-faceted, shimmering personalities. They like to sip a glass of wine at cocktail hour and talk about anything other than the books sitting on their desks. Honestly, an editor will remember the person with whom they share a passion for the Amazon rainforest and try to forget the pleading, desperate person who repeatedly asked if they had five minutes to hear a pitch.

FOMO. It can ruin your judgment. It can make you forget how to forge friendships.

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Do not fall victim to conference FOMO. Because if you are clamoring, praying, hoping for JUST ONE book deal, I have to warn you—this is not true! Because once that book deal happens, the satisfaction may indeed last a lifetime, but the longing for a NEW book deal circles back again and you think: JUST ONE MORE book deal. The ideas never end. The storytelling never ends. If you are a writer, a creative being, you are hopefully in this for life. Getting published does not change the mission—to pour your innermost being out on paper. Getting published does not fundamentally change your life (unless you get a 7-figure debut deal). Yes, you have accomplished something few people ever do, you worked hard for it, but you are still you. You will want to do it again. You will want to ride this crazy rollercoaster of rejection and self-doubt and discovery over and over.

So the FOMO you feel? It actually never goes away once you are published. The trick is to learn to control it.

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Do not let that BAD FOMO MOJO zap you of your creative energy, your imagination, your unique perspective, your force to do good in the universe. Don’t let FOMO make you a BOZO.

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If you are new to kidlit conferences, RELAX. Listen. Learn. Just be you. Don’t fixate on selling the manuscript in your tote bag. Getting published takes years and it is not a race. It’s a marathon, an insanely strenuous yet joyous journey. Sit back and enjoy the run! You are not missing out on anything. You are in the thick of it.

For years I mistakenly thought that writing was just about words. About particularly poignant sentences. Flourishes of the language. Creating a passage so magnificent, it makes the reader stop and ponder the meaning of life.

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Of course, it isn’t just about words. It’s about all the words, together. It’s about the story.

So in pursuit of the best story this week, I had to kill darlings. We’ve all heard the phrase before, but what does it actually mean? What are we bludgeoning to death?

In short, “darlings” are pieces of writing that do not further your story. They are superfluous lines only there because you want to admire their shine and glow. Ooh, sparkly!

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The reader should not be jolted out of the story by the beauty of your words. The point is to draw the reader further in, not shove them out.

So what do these little darlings look like?

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Sorry, not Kristy McNichol.

These darlings may drag a scene on too long. The point has already been made, but you stick it to the reader one last time in such a witty way. Sorry, kill it.

Sometimes we get so caught up in fun devices like alliteration, internal rhyme and onomatopoeia that we end up with gobbledygook rather than glory. Sorry, kill it.

On occasion, we write jokes that fall flat. Sure, we laugh hysterically but to everyone else they go SPLAT, right in the kisser. Sorry, kill it.

You know that character who magically appears, says one important thing and then leaves? Why? Where’d she go? Is she ever coming back? No? Well then, murder must be committed.

And if we’re writing a story based upon real events, we can feel inclined to include things that actually happened, even if they don’t necessarily add anything but word count. Kill, kill, kill.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “Single Effect” theory suggests that everything in a short story should contribute to an overall emotional theme. Everything you put into the story, he said, should be carefully selected to elicit the desired effect.

And since we’re writing what can be considered super-short stories, we need to be even more diligent about leading the reader down a specific path. Veering off means higher word count—which can kill the story’s publication potential. Sacrifice some darlings and save the whole village!

Super-short shorts.

Super-short shorts may have killed WHAM!

Finally, don’t be sad about killing your darlings. When you have to kill one or two, just refer to these gifs. They’ll make you feel better. (I know they helped me.)

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balloonpop

blowcandle

 

I got zapped with the flu two weeks ago. Really walloped me, like being endlessly pummeled with pillows at a sleepover party. Just when I thought I was getting better—PHHHHHHUMPT! Down I went. Cold compresses, hot tea, lukewarm toast. Sleepless nights, endless days. What a funk!

Now I’m happy to be back in the land of the living. Did you know there’s a sun out there? And trees budding? Birds singing?

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There’s also winners waiting to be announced!

clarksville

Natalie Lynn Tanner, c’mon down! You won a copy of Pat Zietlow Miller’s THE QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE!

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Hey, Pat! PJHollow, that is! You won a Logitech Bluetooth Keyboard!

I'mNotHatchingjacket

And Rimna! PEEP & EGG is yours!

I will be emailing the winners shortly. Thanks to everyone who entered.

Didn’t win? Here’s another chance!

In celebration of being well again, and in celebration of my first-born’s 13th birthday TODAY (OMG, I’m the mother of a teenager!!!), and in celebration of my fourth book, NORMAL NORMAN, I’m giving away an extended classroom Skype session. I’ll teach a writing lesson that fits in with your current curriculum. Yes, a custom half-hour lesson just for your class or your child’s class…or your homeschool group. All you have to do is leave a comment below. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.

And now I shall get back to writing. I took an extra-long break while I was sick, although I think I missed an opportunity to capture hilarity that only 103-degree-fever hallucinations can create!

I'mNotHatchingjacket

The creators of PEEP & EGG, author Laura Gehl and illustrator Joyce Wan, are letting us hear a peep from their recent conversation about making this seriously cute new book…which is just in time for Easter! It’s all it’s cracked up to be! (Man, I’m really pushing the puns lately.)

LauraGehlBooks joycewan

Joyce Asks Laura….

Joyce: How did you first come up with the idea for this book?
Laura: With four kids of my own, I spent many years hearing I’M NOT every day. And by every day, I really mean every minute. But on the rare occasion that I got a full night’s sleep, or a full bar of chocolate, I could recognize that my kids and their peers weren’t actually trying to drive adults crazy (most of the time). A lot of the hesitation and I’M NOT came from nervousness, rather than stubbornness. I hope Peep and Egg will help parents start conversations with their kids about fears—however ridiculous those fears may seem. And I hope Peep and Egg will remind toddlers and preschoolers that they can overcome their fears.

Joyce: You left a lot of room in the text for illustrations, which was great for me! Is that a challenging thing to do as a writer?
Laura: YES!!!!!!!!! It is extremely hard to do! As an author, you have to resist the temptation to write a zillion detailed illustration notes and instead trust the illustrator to make magic happen. I always need to remind myself that if I am doing my job correctly, then my words—without the pictures—should only tell part of the story. If a child could hear only the words and get the full experience of my story, then I’ve totally failed.

Joyce: When you were writing this book, how did you imagine the illustrations?
Laura: I imagined the illustrations like Richard Scarry’s illustrations in I Am A Bunny. Just as you can see every hair on his bunny, I imagined seeing every feather on Peep. It’s hilarious to think about that now, since your style is totally different and yet I LOVE LOVE LOVE your interpretation of my words, and the magic we made together. That’s what I mean about trusting the illustrator—and also trusting the editor to make the perfect partnership between words and pictures. I know Janine, our wonderful editor, had you in mind from the beginning. It was her wisdom that made Peep and Egg the adorable book it is today!

Joyce: Peep and Egg is also written entirely in dialogue. Was that something that evolved as you were writing the story or was that something you decided from the start?
Laura: Over the various versions of Peep and Egg, certain aspects of the story changed—the ending most of all. But the story started in dialogue and stayed that way through every revision.

Joyce: Would you say you are more like Peep or more like Egg? (I’m more like Peep and tend to jump head first into everything!)
Laura: Now I know why we make a great team. I am definitely an Egg. I worry about everything and most days would love to stay inside my safe, cozy shell (as long as I could have chocolate inside, and a good book to read!).

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Laura Asks Joyce…

Laura: When you began developing the characters, who was more difficult to draw–Peep or Egg? (In this case, I mean Egg as an egg. I still can’t believe how much personality you bring out for Egg without the benefit of facial expressions!)
Joyce: The voice in the manuscript was so strong I could see the characters in my head right away. They were a joy to draw because they are such opposites personality-wise, and so expressive in their dialogue. Yes, Egg as an egg was hardest as I was unable to show facial expressions or body movements, but it was a fun challenge.

Laura: How did you decide on the color palate that you used? Did you experiment with other colors before narrowing in?
Joyce: I tend to gravitate to a particular color palette in a lot of my work and they’re usually colors that are a little off from the traditional rainbow colors. So instead of straight red, green and blue, I love colors like blush pink, olive, teal, lime, and aqua, which you will see a lot of in Peep and Egg.

Laura: Can you tell us a little about the process of designing the ridiculously adorable cover?
Joyce: What initially started as a two-book project became a four-book project over the course of working on the first two books [side note from Laura: WOO-HOO!] so I felt like this first book cover needed to be branded in a way so that recognizable design elements could be carried over a few books. I even sought feedback from my design-savvy agent on a number of design ideas, which helped me tremendously throughout the cover design process. That is one of the nice things about having an agent who worked on the design side of publishing before becoming an agent. It took a few rounds of different ideas before I reached a final design that the editor loved.

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Laura: Which illustration from the book is your favorite? Mine is Egg wearing the football helmet.
Joyce: I like the front endpaper, as I hid a little surprise for readers to discover.

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I suppose you’ll have to pick up PEEP AND EGG to find out!

Thanks, ladies. I can see this adorable series easily growing into a dozen books! A DOZEN! GET IT? (Groan, Tara.)

Macmillan is giving away a copy of PEEP & EGG: I’M NOT HATCHING to one lucky blog commenter. U.S. addresses only, please. Just leave a comment below to enter. Giveaway closes March 14th!

 


Laura Gehl is the author of ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR, a Charlotte Zolotow Highly Commended Title, International Literacy Association Honor Book, and Booklist Books for Youth Editors’ Choice for 2014; HARE AND TORTOISE RACE ACROSS ISRAEL and AND THEN ANOTHER SHEEP TURNED UP (both PJ library selections for 2015 and 2016); and the PEEP AND EGG series. A former science and reading teacher, she also writes about science for children and adults. Laura lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland with her husband and four children. Visit her online at lauragehl.com.

Joyce Wan is an award-winning author and illustrator of many best-selling books for children, including YOU ARE MY CUPCAKE, WE BELONG TOGETHER, and THE WHALE IN MY SWIMMING POOL, which was a Junior Library Guild Spring 2015 selection. When she’s not working on books, she teaches courses at The School of Visual Arts in New York City. Joyce is originally from Boston, Massachusetts and currently lives in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Through all her work, she hopes to inspire people to embrace the spirit of childhood and follow their dreams. Visit Joyce online at wanart.com.

rejectedYou’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.

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“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!

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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.

tammiforsiteby 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.

ginnylouise.spotart

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.

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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.

ginnylouisehighrescover

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.

Good luck!

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.

You can visit Tammi online at tammisauer.com and at picturebookbuilders.com.

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!

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This would make a great WHERE’S WALDO? spread.

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.

57chevy

’57 Chevy! Yes, I snapped this while we were stopped.

And then, we got cut off by a rumbling, muffler-roaring Racini. RACINI, PEOPLE! Only in Jersey.

Racini! (Not the full license plate.)

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.)

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Sudipta, Marcie & Kelly. Yes, they can go by first names only.

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.)

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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.

prosecco15

Me, Kelly, Marcie, Kami, Sudipta and Tammi

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?)

normalcovers

NORMAN!

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

denisefleming15Denise 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.

tammisauer15Workshop One:
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.

tralala

Workshop Two:
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.

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jenmalone15Workshop Three:
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.)

Workshop Four:
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.

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Workshop Five:
Is Your PB Worthy? by Marie Lamba

marielamba15Oh, 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.

hunderdown15Sunday 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.

Workshop Six:
Marrying the Right Manuscript with the Right Publisher by Steve Meltzer

stevemeltzer15Steve 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.

Workshop Seven:
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.

johncusick15Closing Keynote:
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?

deblundKidlit 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.)

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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!

The Glen Iris Inn

The Glen Iris Inn

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.

Library Inn

Library at the Glen Iris Inn

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!

Visit her website for more information and to sign up!

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.

Fiction Magic Title screenshot

A winner will be randomly selected in a couple weeks.

Good luck!

Follow Me on Pinterest As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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