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***STORYSTORM REGISTRATION IS CLOSED. You can still join in the challenge by reading the daily posts and jotting down ideas, but you will not be eligible to win STORYSTORM prizes.***
Oh, Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…
That’s right, Picture Book Idea Month has been blown away by STORYSTORM! Need to know why? Check here.
STORYSTORM is a month of brainstorming new story ideas. This event is open to any writer seeking inspiration, support and community.
How does STORYSTORM work? It’s simple…
- Register here by signing your name ONCE in the comments below. Teachers participating with a class can register under the teacher’s name.
- Registering makes you eligible for prizes.
- Visit this blog daily (taralazar.com) for inspirational essays by guest bloggers—professional authors, illustrators and experts in creativity.
- Instead of visiting the blog directly, you can receive the daily posts via email by clicking the “Follow Tara’s Blog” button in the left column—look under my photo for it.
- After you have read the daily inspiration, jot down a daily story idea in a journal, computer, anywhere you like to write. Some days you might have no ideas, but some days you might have five or more.
- At the end of the month, if you have at least 30 ideas, sign the STORYSTORM pledge and qualify for prizes.
- Prizes include professional consults, signed books, original art, writerly gadgets and gizmos.
Remember, do not share your ideas publicly. They are YOURS. No need to prove that you have them at the end of the month. The pledge you will sign is on the honor system.
Are you in? Awesome. Pick up your Official Participant badge below and affix it to any social media account you wish. (Right click to save to your computer, then upload it anywhere.)
May I suggest a STORYSTORM journal to keep those ideas safe?
Go to the CafePress STORYSTORM Store here: cafepress.com/storystorm.
All proceeds ($3 per sale—only if you use our URL) will be donated to Reading is Fundamental (RIF), to help put books into the hands of underprivileged children. Please remember to enter the store via cafepress.com/storystorm. If you search CafePress instead, we do not receive the funds.
Other merchandise will go on sale once the event begins, but you can order your journal now.
The final piece? Join the STORYSTORM Facebook discussion group. You need friends for the journey!
The group is completely optional, but it remains a year-round source of writing information and support, mostly focused on picture books, I admit, because that is where this all began.
Registration will remain open through JANUARY 7TH.
What are you waiting for? Register and go celebrate! I’ll see you back here on New Year’s Day.
Here it is, the moment you’ve been waiting for…
SANTA SLAM DUNK!
OK, maybe not what you were expecting. A little holiday humor. Let’s move on…
Those of you who participate in Picture Book Idea Month already know I moved the annual writing challenge to January instead of November. And you also know I changed the name. The new, much-easier-to-pronounce moniker is…
Did that just blow your mind?
I hope so!
Now, I hear you asking some questions.
WHY THE NAME CHANGE?
The original challenge—to create 30 picture book concepts in 30 days—was named “Picture Book Idea Month” or “PiBoIdMo” for short. Everyone pronounced the awkward acronym a different way. And if you managed to say it, it didn’t make sense to others.
“STORYSTORM” is a portmanteau of story and brainstorm that is more immediately understood.
The new name signals a broader scope—any type of writer interested in being inspired in January can now join the challenge. Novelists, short story writers, non-fiction authors and even teachers and their students are welcomed. Any writer, anyone who wants to brainstorm for a month.
The goal is for STORYSTORM participants to jot down 30 story ideas in January. Then everyone will have thirty new shiny ideas to ponder, flesh out and write in 2017.
WHY THE MONTH CHANGE?
PiBoIdMo was originally held in November because it was modeled after NaNoWriMo, which runs at that time. But November is so busy with the start of the holiday season. Starting fresh in January—a new year, new goals—will hopefully prove to be both inspiring and motivating.
IS IT STILL FREE TO PARTICIPATE?
WHEN CAN I REGISTER?
After the slam-dunking of presents down the chimney is over. In other words, Boxing Day. In other, other words, December 26th.
Registration will remain open for the entire first week of January. You do not have to register, but doing so makes you eligible to win prizes—agent consultations, books, critiques, and a whole lotta fabulous stuff that even Santa can’t make possible.
So THANK YOU for being patient while I pondered these changes. More announcements soon—like the guest-blogger line-up!
But in the meantime, join our STORYSTORM Facebook group which is active year-round for friendly support and discussion.
Once again it’s time for Santa to load up his sleigh—and good little writers everywhere will be hoping to discover inspiration in their stockings. These are the lovely trinkets, thingamabobs and tasty tidbits I’ve found that may tickle the fancy of that children’s writer you know (wink, wink, that’s you). I’ve also asked kidlit friends to suggest gifts. Plus, please feel free to leave a comment with your own holiday picks. Also remember there are many more selections on my Things Writers Like Pinterest board.
Of course, I wish publishing contracts for you all!
You get a book, YOU get a book, YOU ALL GET A BOOK!!!
selected by Tara
Every writer needs a good cuppa while they’re compiling their next masterpiece. A morning chai allows me to think through what I want to accomplish for the day. Taking time to stop and ponder before committing pen to paper is always a good idea. I confess to playing a daily game or puzzle in the AM to get the gears moving. So I find this playful mug serves a dual purpose—delivering a dose of caffeine while also jump-starting the creative cogwheels.
TYPEWRITER DESK ACCESSORIES
selected by Tara
I admit it, I’m a sucker for anything TYPEWRITER. Not wanting to leave a mug ring on the pristine, polished surface of my new desk, or on a new manuscript, this coaster set seemed like a perfect solution.
I’ll take a pair of these bookends, too. Yes, I am running the risk of overdosing on Underwoods.
VEGAN ENGLISH TOFFEE
PILOT METROPOLITAN FOUNTAIN PEN
selected by the indecisive Deborah Underwood, author
Speaking of Underwoods, Deborah is one kidlit author you could never overdose on.
Deborah says, “I have many loves, so this was a tough decision. Should I recommend the beautiful S’well bottle that keeps my coffee hot? Or the vegan English toffee from Chocolate Inspirations (arguably the best candy in the world)? Heaven knows writers need both coffee and chocolate to fuel our work and drown our rejection sorrows.
But no—Tara said only one item. (Ha! See what I did there?) So, because writing comes first, my pick is the Pilot Metropolitan Fountain Pen, medium nib, in black. It’s reasonably priced, it has a pleasing weight in the hand, and it makes me feel like I’ve stepped back in time to a slower-paced, more civil world. Go forth and create, elegantly!”
FATBOY BEANBAG PILLOW
selected by Tara
When you need some R&R–rest and reading–the Fatboy provides a comfortable respite. This is not Greg Brady’s beanbag chair. Made in a variety of sizes, colors and nearly indestructible, washable materials, the Fatboy will shape up to be your favorite reading nook.
selected by Tara
This blog began when I decided to post my NJ-SCBWI notes online. I still take copious notes at every conference and writing event, and the Echo Smartpen is on my please-please-oh-please list because it records what you hear…and what you write…in-sync. So that doodle doohickey you cannot recognize? You will hear WHEN you scribbled it and it will make sense again. You could also talk to yourself while writing, as if you needed another reason for people to think you’re odd.
ICEY DESIGNS JOURNALS, PENCILS, PINS
selected by Marcie Colleen, author & educational consultant
Marcie says, “It never fails, as soon as I proclaim to the heavens, *I do not need another journal,* along comes an Etsy shop like Icey Designs and I am hornswaggled. This shop is chockfull of amazing writerly gifts, including inspirational pocket journals and notepads reminding those who need it “To Thine Own Self Be True” and “Breathe.” While you are there, you have to check out the craft-inspired pencils–my favorite is the “Let the Madness Flow” pencil. I know I can relate to that! There are also adorable enamel pins. What Harry Potter fan wouldn’t want to wear “Mischief Managed” on their lapel? Bottomline, I can’t pick just one item from this fabulous store from designer and author, Hafsah Faizal. You can bet that when the business of writing gets me down I’m heading to Icey Designs for a little retail therapy and a reminder to “Live Wondrously” as their motto says.”
Tara says, woozy with whimsy, “The enamel pins!!!”
JANSJO USB LED LAMP
selected by Tara
I know I am partial to kitsch, so here’s something for the more pragmatic writer—a (an???) USB LED lamp. With the darker afternoons of winter, I need the extra light, especially when I am Skyping with a classroom. They can now see me and my jammies du jour. This smart and inexpensive little lamp stays in position and lights up the keyboard as well as your own fingertips do.
DREW THE PENCIL LAMP
selected by Tara
See, I’m right back to kitsch. I adore this adorable lamp. Even the cord is a design feature–wind it any which way for an extra curlicue of quirk.
WRITING CRAFT BOOKS
selected by Erin Murphy, literary agent
Erin says, “My gift suggestion is (huge surprise) books! Every writer needs more books, and a gift certificate to a local indie is even better, so the writer can choose the books him or herself. But if you really want something with some heft for them to unwrap, you can’t go wrong with inspiration in the form of two outstanding books about craft and the writing life from two of the best editors in the children’s book business: Cheryl Klein’s THE MAGIC WORDS: WRITING GREAT BOOKS FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS and Kendra Levin’s THE HERO IS YOU: SHARPEN YOUR FOCUS, CONQUER YOUR DEMONS, AND BECOME THE WRITER YOU WERE MEANT TO BE.”
ROCK PAPER JOURNAL
selected by Tara
At this spring’s NE-SCBWI conference, keynote speaker and NY Times bestselling author Wendy Mass confessed she likes to write in the bath. Knowing that could prove disastrous (and soggy) for a normal notebook, she told us she uses water-resistant, tear-resistant paper made from ROCKS. And then she gave everyone in attendance a rock paper journal. I was especially pleased because armed with my new notebook, I can now play Rock-Paper-Scissors FTW!
MINI LIBRARY SCENTED TEA LIGHTS
selected by Tara
If you’re an avid writer, chances are you are a voracious reader. Your nose is always in a good book. Continue to take care of that nose with this set of ten scented tea lights inspired by classic novels.
Heidi says, “SISTER FOX’S GUIDE TO THE WRITING LIFE by Jane Yolen is a collection of poems about writing. Some funny, some poignant, all a call to get your BIC (butt in chair) and get writing. It’s not easy to get (as it is published in the UK) but, I have a supply to sell from our office ($20 includes shipping and autograph—be sure to include a name; this offer is limited). Also, book scarves (or, honestly, anything by Storiarts) made with the text of some of your favorite books, are soft, well made, and wearable. But, more importantly, they are real conversation starters. I have 3 (plus the writing gloves). I am partial to, of course, Alice in Wonderland. Don’t just buy this scarf, though…search through their site. You will NOT be sorry.
Jane says, “When we’re both working, and one of us want a break, we’ll find the other and ask ‘Banangrams?’ We play almost every day.”
(Bonus: Tara found a jumbo outdoor edition of the popular game.)
ANIMAL CARD HOLDER
selected by Tara
When I return home from an SCBWI conference, I love poring over the creative postcards and business cards of writers and illustrators. There are ones I want to keep in view because I love the artist’s style or I want to swap a manuscript with another author. This clever desk accessory is very practical…and comes in a variety of animal styles and colors. This one makes me want to write an albino hedgehog book.
WHEN IN DOUBT TEE
selected by Tara
Available via The Library Store
I always follow this advice. I bet you do, too.
ROALD DAHL POSTCARDS
selected by Tara
Available via The Literary Gift Company
What a wangdoodle of a good idea. I bet a writing friend would love to receive this entire box…or even one sincere missive via post. Texting is so last week. Dahl is FOREVER.
WRITER AT WORK SIGN
selected by Tara
Available via GraphicsMore
Ah, if only we could give our favorite writer the gift of time.
Until that time, let’s continue to give them space. (Otherwise known as “the space-time continuum”?)
WRITER’S TEARS WHISKEY
selected by Tara
Alas, if your favorite writer received another rejection, missed that deadline, or went out of print, this would be the perfect gift. Just remember—drink responsibly, folks.
For more writerly nonsense and giftsense, check out my Things Writers Like Pinterest board!
by Kendra Levin
A few years ago, my friend and I joked that there should be a National Don’t Write a Novel Month. In fact, we even created a Twitter account for it and spent the month of November that year tweeting about all the things we were doing instead of writing a novel.
Writing is hard. Writing a novel in a month is even harder. And while NaNoWriMo and Tara’s own PiBoIdMo are fantastic ways to light a fire under your butt and get words on the page, it’s just as important for writers to spend time…well, not writing.
So this year, if you’re feeling creatively fried, emotionally exhausted, distracted by the election, or just plain burnt out, try spending November replenishing yourself artistically.
Consume culture. You already know how important it is for writers to read—and not just the genre or age category you write, but all kinds of books, articles, and other content. Go see an art exhibit, a dance performance, or a concert. Play a video game. Go to a movie you wouldn’t normally be interested in. Try art forms and genres you don’t expect to like and see what happens!
Explore your world. On the way home from the gym, your job, your kids’ school, any place you visit more than once a week, try a new route. Always go to the same gas station? Try a different one. Instead of walking, running, or riding your bike wherever you usually go, head to the next town over and investigate a neighborhood you’re not familiar with. See what inspiration is hiding in the world adjacent to you.
Learn a new skill and bring new people into your life. Join a club, a meetup group, or a casual sports team. Find an activity you’re curious about that’s different from anything else you do and give it a try. Go to a place that you know attracts people with different interests than you and see if you can make a new friend.
Read your journals. If you keep a journal, you have a potential goldmine of material in the experiences you’ve had and thoughts you’ve recorded. Go back and look at what you wrote this year, last year, five or 10 years ago, or even in high school, and see what you find that intrigues or surprises you.
Make non-writing art. See what it’s like to express yourself without words, and without the pressure that can come with doing your primary creative focus. Collage, draw, paint, compose music. Make a silly video on your phone. Create a whole story just using gifs. Don’t worry about it being good. Make art with no agenda and have fun!
Meditate, be present, nurture your spirit. If you love the idea of meditation but never seem to make time for it, now’s your chance. Take a contemplative walk alone, ideally in nature. Attend a service of a religion you don’t practice, or visit a place that is sacred or spiritual to you. Spend time alone without plans and see what you gravitate toward or where your thoughts take you.
This year, let the month of November be an opportunity to find inspiration, challenge your preconceptions about yourself, and rejuvenate your psyche. By the end, you’ll be ready to roll up your sleeves and write, or to take on the next challenge life brings: the holiday season!
Kendra Levin helps writers and other creative artists meet their goals and connect more deeply with their work and themselves. She is a certified life coach, as well as a senior editor at Penguin, a teacher, and author of The Hero Is You. Visit her at kendracoaching.com and follow her @kendralevin.
And Kendra is giving away a free 30-minute Skype coaching session to one lucky writer. Just leave a comment below about your favorite way NOT to write. Winner will be selected randomly later this month. One comment per person, please. GOOD LUCK!
Check out Kendra’s new book THE HERO IS YOU, released today!
The humidity whacks me in the face each time I step outside, so yeah, it’s August. Already.
Every summer I entertain grandiose plans to write outdoors while enjoying a picnic of luscious home-made ciabatta sandwiches and baked goods the likes of which would make The Barefoot Contessa swoon. I buy light, airy dresses, relish being barefoot in the cool grass and imagine the stack of manuscripts I will have completed, polished and prompting auction offers…
And then August smacks me upside the head. Already.
Nasty, vile August. Why do you curse me so?! You let my children out of camp teeming with bug bite scabs, force me to endure three-hour back-to-school lines at Staples, and leave my computer devoid of new manuscripts.
Well, at least someone is winning this month. Finally, a list of all the prize winners from recent giveaways!
A MORNING WITH GRANDPA WINNER:
PENNY & JELLY WINNERS:
THE STORY CIRCLE WINNER:
DUMP TRUCK DUCK WINNER:
Congratulations, everyone! I will be emailing you shortly.
Now, because I want everyone to be a winner in August, here are some excellent writing articles I’ve come across lately. All are worth a read!
- How to be a Better Writer: Six Tips from a Master Linguist via THE WEEK
- How Does What You Read Affect Your Writing? via mother nature network
- The Two Minutes it Takes to Read This Will Improve Your Writing Forever via Medium
And finally, one of my favorite books OF ALL TIME, although I discovered it only a couple years ago, is MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND by Matthew Dicks. Matthew offers a fabulous newsletter jam-packed with writing and storytelling tips. You can even win a storytelling consult with him. He is a multiple winner of Moth’s Story Slam and GrandSlam competitions. He posted an engaging TEDx talk recently about how to hone your story radar and even improve your life in the process. I encourage you to watch:
I hope this video makes your August better than mine!
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.
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!
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?
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!
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.)
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.
by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen
It’s back to school season here in New Jersey (or, outside Philadelphia, as I typically refer to it) and that means big changes in my household. All summer, my kids and I are bums. We hang out at the beach, at the pool, at the mall. We travel, we sleep in, we do nothing. Summer is heaven.
But come September, my children’s lives change. Gone are the no schedule, no stress days and in their place we have wake up alarms, agenda books, and deliverables (and, it seems, a LOT of laundry!). The kids aren’t the only ones who go back to school—as a children’s book author, the school year means that I go back to school as well.
Every year, between school visits, Skype visits, and events like Dot Day or World Read Aloud Day, I connect with about 100 different schools all around the world. Because I spend so much time with school kids, I end up doing quite a bit of teaching, especially teaching writing. Which happens to be a completely different skill than actually writing.
There is a very stupid expression that you sometimes hear people throw around: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” I want to be very, very clear here: that is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. Not only is it disparaging, inflammatory, and demeaning, it also has the distinction of being very WRONG. I definitely knew that before I personally started working with schools, but now that I teach on a regular basis, I can tell you that those who teach can do better than anyone else.
It has to do with the nature of teaching. In order to teach someone a skill, you have to know it so well that you can explain every step, even the ones you do automatically or on muscle memory. Here’s an example: when I was in graduate school, I bought a brand new Mustang that I couldn’t drive. Because it was a stick shift and I only knew how to drive an automatic. So I had a friend try to teach me how to drive stick. We got in my car, I started it up, and I asked him what to do next. He said, “OK, now drive.” I looked at him blankly. “Just don’t stall the car,” he added. I had no idea what that meant. So he said, “Don’t ease off the clutch to quickly. Or too slowly!”
At that point, I threw him out of the car. He, to this day, doesn’t understand what had upset me.
He knew how to drive a manual, and things that I needed to know—how to properly come off the clutch when changing gears, how to tell when to shift up or down, etc.—were things he’d stopped thinking about. So he couldn’t teach me to do them because he hadn’t been thinking about all those little steps that you do to succeed that once you’re successful, you completely forget about.
(For the record, I can now totally drive a stick.)
When I started teaching writing, I struggled with this same thing. I thought to myself, How can I teach something that I just DO? Trust me, this was very difficult to figure out. But the more I did figure it out—the better I got at teaching others how to write—the better I actually got at writing. Just like my friend who failed at teaching me how to drive my Mustang because there were so many things he was doing on autopilot that he couldn’t explain, as writers, we do that same thing. When you get to a certain point in your writing journey, you don’t even think about certain things like how to conceptualize a complex character or add layers to your plot, you just do it. But if you try to teach someone else how you do what you do, you have to break down every action into baby steps so that you can show your students how to mimic your actions. This forces you to think through your methods, and in the process, refine them even more.
So even if you’re not at the point in your publishing career where you are teaching, I’d like to encourage you to think like a teacher to become a better writer. For example, instead of saying, “I’m going to create a charismatic main character,” I’d ask you to analyze what steps you’d take to do that, like:
- Start with something familiar
- Add some positive unique features
- Give the character some flaws that make him or her relatable
- Give him or her positive relationships (family, best friend, etc.) and negative relationships (nemesis, villain, etc.)
- Temper every extreme (like “good” or “bad”) with something that brings it back a notch (like “good but hates kittens” or “bad but rescues kittens”)
The more you go through this process of treating your writing objectives like lesson plans, the deeper you’ll understand what you’ve done when something work—and what you may have left off inadvertently when something doesn’t work.
When you’re a good teacher, your students will benefit. When you yourself are your own student, your teaching skills make you so much better at doing.
Happy Back to School!
Sudipta is an award-winning author of over 40 books and the co-founder of both Kidlit Writing School and Kidlit Summer School. Her books include DUCK DUCK MOOSE, TYRANNOSAURUS WRECKS, ORANGUTANGLED, and over thirty more books that have been acclaimed by the Junior Library Guild, the California Reader’s Collection, the Bank Street Books Reading Committe, the Amelia Bloomer list, and many more. Find out more about her by visiting Sudipta.com or her blogs Nerdy Chicks Rule and Nerdy Chicks Write.
Sudipta’s new class: Picture Book A to Z’s: Plotting in Picture Books
The Picture Book A to Z series is designed to be a collection of master level classes that cover all of the fundamentals of picture book craft. While each class is complete on its own, taken together, the series will teach you everything you ever wanted to now about picture books- and a lot more!
The ability to craft a strong picture book plot is one of the factors that separates unpublished writers from those who consistently sign publishing contracts to see their work in print. This course will teach you the essentials of creating compelling plots, starting with Arcs, Beginnings, and Climaxes — then literally taking you through the alphabet. Each topic will be explored in depth, both in the lessons and in the discussion forums and webinars. The writing exercises that are a part of of the course are designed to help you apply the lessons to your own writing seamlessly and immediately. By the end of the course, you will never look at plotting the same way again! The first course in this series, Plotting in Picture Books, will begin on October 6, 2014.
Bonus Critique: Register for Plotting in Picture Books before September 20, 2014 and receive a free picture book manuscript review and 20-minute Skype session with Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, redeemable within six months of the course’s completion.
Thanks, Sudipta! And now for the giveaway…either a 20-minute telephone/Skype PB critique with Sudipta or one of her signed books. The choice is yours. Just comment once below by September 16th to enter!