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16 Feb

photo-26It’s a common enough question. One I’ve asked children countless times… at the end of the day while we waited for dismissal and around the dinner table when the conversation was lagging. I was just asked this question myself at our local SCBWI meeting after my trip to New York for the national winter conference. I answered with a few of the ‘big ideas’ I’d garnered, but here I’d like to share more general observations.

Let me begin by saying this was my first national conference and I was quite awestruck. I had attended several regional conferences before this one, but I quickly learned that a national conference is much more overwhelming than the regional conferences. I did my best to soak in all the combined knowledge and talent surrounding me. I took copious notes, which I highly recommend. You know, you think you’re going to remember every syllable just to walk out the door and be in fan shock over seeing a ‘celebrity’ and completely forget everything you just heard. Not saying that happened to me. (Not saying it didn’t happen, just not saying it did.)

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I recommend you attend as many functions as possible. It’s not only beneficial but also economically sound. After all, we paid a lot of money to attend, why not squeeze every ounce of  the experience out of the opportunities afforded. This particular conference offered more than 30 workshops and 55 faculty members. (Read all the materials carefully before registering. Diligence is key in making your selections.) In addition to the workshops, there are keynote addresses, panel discussions, and various formal and informal gatherings. Take in as many of these as you can.

Have a plan. Know what you want to get out of this experience. Are there specific questions you’d like to have answered? What contacts do you especially want to make? Is there something new you’d like to try? Knowing what you want will help you focus your energy in the right direction. img_1446

Relax (if you can) and enjoy the ambiance. There are superstars all around you!  Make connections. You never know who is sitting next to you until you ask. I had lunch right next to Tomie dePaola and across from Jane Yolen. I listened to, and cried with, the multi-award winning illustrator, Bryan Collier   and got my picture taken with him. I ran into many Facebook friends and made new friends. No, you won’t get to see and talk to everyone (there were over 1000 participants this weekend), but you will get to meet some very interesting people.

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Take advantage of the opportunities to submit your work to agents and/or editors. This is one of the perks of attending a conference. Many of the editors in particular are closed to submissions except for these special circumstances. If you have something ready, do that immediately. The window of opportunity is small, don’t miss out. Be sure to research the recipient’s tastes and wish list before sending it out. Follow their guidelines to the letter. You don’t want to waste your time or theirs.

Enjoy yourself. No matter where you go, take in a local experience. In NYC I didn’t have time to do the  typical ‘tourist’ things, but I did ride the train and eat the cheesecake!

Simmering Stories

20 Sep

One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve heard is, “Leave your writing in a drawer for at least a month and come back to it with fresh eyes.” I call this, simmering. Just like sauce, soup, or stew, simmering stories adds flavor, richness, and tenderness to the finished product. And like in cooking, you cannot simmer a story by watching over it constantly. Sure you need to check it now and then. Give it a stir. Taste it. Add more seasoning. Turn down the heat. But ultimately, you need to cover it and walk away.

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Recently, I was given the opportunity to let a story simmer. I actually received a lovely rejection note from an agent I had submitted to THREE YEARS ago! Having that manuscript land back in my inbox was like finding a forgotten recipe. I read it over and laughed at my naiveté. I saved the story and rejection letter in a file and I walked away from it. But the story didn’t leave me. It began to simmer and bubble in the back burner of my brain. I opened the file and reread it several days later. I thought about what changes could be made to save it, make it more palatable. I took my fresh ideas to my critique group. I outlined and storyboarded. I wrote a new draft using the heart of the original story and deleting the unnecessary ingredients. I’ve got two weeks before my next critique meeting. Time enough to let this draft sit. Time enough to allow myself fresh eyes when I open it up again. It won’t be long before I take off the lid, sample another taste, and decide what spices need to be added.

Simmering uses all five senses. I encourage you to do the same in your writing. Evoke the sense of smell and taste as well as sight and sound in your readers. The way to a man’s heart may be through his stomach, but the way to a reader’s heart is through your words. Touch your readers in their hearts.

Writing, like cooking, takes practice. You have to write a lot to get good at it. Try different styles, points of view, genres. Find what you like. Just like chefs, agents and editors have different tastes. Some like it hot; others mild. Some like complex spice pallets; others like simple flavors. So my best advice to you, is to make it the way YOU like it. Then find someone who likes it the same way you do and share it with them.

Bon appétit, or as my mother always says, “Buen provecho!”

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Classic Remake

3 Jul

 

Many folks remake classic stories, fairy tales, and songs. Last year I wrote a little story to go along with the classic Who Took the Cookies from the Cookie Jar song and hand play kids love. I took it to a new critique group last month to get a new perspective on it. Lo and behold, one of my critique partners had just read something similar to her preschooler that week! At first I was bummed, it’s been done. But then I got a copy of the book she read, Who Took the Cookies from the Cookie Jar? written by Bonnie Lass and Philemon Sturges and illustrated by Ashley Wolff.

614330The story is clever and the artwork adorable! Skunk finds the cookie jar empty and begins the search for who took the cookies. With only a trail of cookies crumbs to follow, Skunk begins the search. On each page Skunk finds a clue leading her to believe she knows the culprit with the refrain kids will join in saying, “Mmm…Oh! Now I know…”. But each guess is incorrect and the accused has a catchy little rhyme explaining why it isn’t them. Eventually the trail of cookie crumbs leads to the guilty party. Luckily there’s plenty of cookies left and everybody shares in the cookie feast!

I’m so glad I didn’t give up without reading the book. First of all, I love finding new and wonderful children’s literature to share with my family and friends. Secondly, I can see that this has genuine kid appeal. Thirdly, although both my story and this one are based on the same premise, I believe mine is different enough to be unique in the market. (fingers crossed) And, bonus… this version was published in the year 2000, so I figure it’s been long enough between stories to hit a new generation or two of young readers. (toes crossed) Now I just have to convince my agent and future editor!

 

 

 

 

 

One Month Check-Up

5 Jun

Wow! I can’t believe it’s been a month since I wrote my last blog post. Having an agent has not simplified my life like I thought it might. I no longer stalk the internet in search of agents looking for stories I might have written. But I do have lots of contact with my wonderful agent. She has sent my story to nine publishing houses and keeps me updated on the feedback as she receives it. Yes, I said feedback. One thing I’ve learned about subbing with an agent, is that the editors actually give feedback when they reject your work. So far I’ve gotten four declines from the nine submissions, that’s 44% rejections. In more positive terms that’s 56% chance of still having my first story published, so that’s something to bounce about!

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And, what have I been doing besides collecting rejection letters? Reading… a lot! Writing… some. Revising…a tad. Other things keeping me busy…meeting with critique partners, keeping up with my Facebook contacts, studying picture books, interviewing authors, reviewing books for friends, reading articles, chasing my muse and living life!

What I haven’t been doing… blogging (obviously), sitting around waiting, or wondering what to do next. My to do list is growing longer than a summer day. I have so many unfinished revisions to work on, so many undrafted ideas, and so many partial WIPs I think I’m going to need a few more rotations of the earth to catch up.

Until next time, happy writing, friends!

 

How I Got My Agent

5 May

 

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I am so thrilled to finally have this story to tell! It’s the one every writer yearns to tell. It’s the one that’s unique to every writer.

This one is mine.

After three years of writing and submitting to agents, I finally broke through the barrier. You know, the one between being someone who writes and being a writer with an agent.

I did a lot of the usual things aspiring authors do. I joined SCBWI. I continue to go to monthly meetings. I have attended several state and regional conferences and workshops.  I took online classes and webinars. I started three different critique groups specifically for picture book writers, two of which are still active. I joined several online writing groups. I became an administrator in one of those groups, the Debut Picture Book Study Group. I am active on several social media sites.  I purchased and devoured how-to books. And I got to know my local librarians and bookstore owners on a personal basis. I read, read, read picture books.

In short, I did everything I could to learn the craft.

And of course, I did my best to write good stories and submit to agents who were taking on new clients in my genre.

But I also did my best to make connections in the writing community. It was one of these fortunate connections which ultimately led to signing with my agent, Tina Schwartz of The Purcell Agency. I met Tina during a webinar on Writing Queries. We hit it off right away and I began working as her Literary Assistant. Tina was interested in my work. The first story I subbed to her was rejected, but the second pitch was a hit! She called me on Wednesday morning and made a verbal offer of representation. We spoke for a long time and she emailed a standard contract. Luckily for me, my son is an attorney so I emailed the contract to him for a quick look-see and an explanation of some terms of ‘legalese’.

The very next day I was on my way to Chicago for a writing conference. I was so crazy over the moon I could barely stay in my lane! My friend and critique partner (and passenger) was almost as excited as I was. And being the sweetheart that she is, she reread every single workshop and discussion offered as I drove  pondering which alternate sessions to attend in light of my new circumstances. We memorized the names of agents/agencies and editors/publishing houses we wanted to meet that weekend. I’m so happy we had decided to take the shoulder days on the conference. This extra evening gave me the opportunity to better prepare myself without feeling rushed the morning of the conference with new concerns in addition to a 5 hour drive. Then we focused on having fun and learning as much as we could. It was actually a nice reprieve from the constant preoccupation of possible representation. If my brain wasn’t overstimulated before the conference, it certainly was afterwards.

In the meantime, my son had redlined the contract with a few suggestions and I made a list of questions, questions, and more questions I wanted to ask Tina. (Remember those shoulder days? We stayed Sunday evening, had dinner with new friends and didn’t head home until Monday morning.) Monday, I relaxed, reviewed notes, discussed it with my son and husband and I called her on Tuesday morning with my inquires. We spoke for almost an hour, something I appreciate in an agent. She was very patient with me and answered all my questions and concerns. We negotiated the terms of the contract, and Tina re-mailed it on the spot. I printed it out. Signed. Returned a scanned copy. And celebrated!

Now, Wednesday again. One week after the initial phone call, Tina emailed me again. She has sent my manuscript to five publishing houses, houses I would not have been able to get into without an agent.

Unreal! I’m still pinching myself!

 

 

 

 

 

Would You Rather?

20 Apr

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I bet you know the game. Choose one of the questions below and answer in the comment box.

  1. Would you rather… have only your favorite book to read for the rest of your life or have only literary crap to read forever?
  2. Would you rather… win a Caldecott, Newbery, Pulitzer, (or another award of your choice) or be able to eat an unlimited amount of chocolate without gaining weight?
  3. Would you rather… be forced to write your next book on your phone or win the lottery?
  4. Would you rather… become a national best selling author or touch the life of only one child?
  5. Would you rather… be a beloved author or live in a world of peace?

 

Studying Art Notes

3 Mar

 

If you’re writing picture books, you’ve certainly heard these words more than once.

Leave Room for the Illustrator.

One of the most important aspects of  illustrations is how much information the reader gets from the artwork that is not narrated in the text of the story. Picture book readers trust that the illustrations tell the story as much as the text, and often times more than the text. Illustrations convey emotion, definition, story arc, plot twist, and surprise elements.

In studying picture books which do this well, it’s helpful to practice writing  your own art notes where you think it’s important to the story that the illustrations depict a specific element. I sometimes mark the page with a post-it note to show where I might have added a note if I were the author. Then look back over these notes and try to word them so that my meaning is clear without interfering with the illustrator’s work. Later I can rewrite these in a notebook or just stick the post-it note in my writing journal.

Shutta Crum must be an expert art note writer. Her books Mine! and Uh-Oh! are written using only one word each! If not, how were these nearly wordless picture books written since she is not also the illustrator? Although I have heard that some writers write in a side-by-side column, with the text on one side and the art note on the other, I cannot say with certainty that this is how Shutta submits her work. But it is a good exercise for us to practice.

Look at these spreads and think about what is necessary to put in an art note and what can be left to the illustrator’s imagination.

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Notice that it isn’t always important to leave a note. Do the children need to be siblings or friends? No. Is the specific collection of toys important? No. Is it important that one toy get left behind? Yes. Is it important that there is a dog in the scene? Yes. (That comes out later int he story.)

Note: There are more of these than you realize.

I wonder how many, and what kind of art notes Tammi Sauer included in her first manuscript for Your Alien. I’m thinking there weren’t as many notes as in the example above, simply because there is more text in the story. The illustrator is an adult who can visualize a scene without help.

Take a look at this scene. Was it necessary to say exactly what the alien should be eating (or even doing) on this page?FullSizeRender

I don’t think so. The alien could be eating popcorn, bananas, or pizza. He could even be zipping around the room or playing with the cat instead of eating. Either way, it doesn’t affect the outcome of the story. This is purely up to the illustrator to decide what ‘other ideas’ the alien has on this page.

Even books which are written and illustrated by the same person, must have a certain element of art notes even if they are not specifically written out since the work is submitted as a whole unit, not in pieces.

My guess is that Chris Haughton either jotted down ideas in words or sketches before he produced the final art for his story, Shh! We Have a Plan.shh2

Before he began illustrating, he knew that the littlest character was a different kind of hunter than the others. He was kind and friendly. He was always the first to spot a bird and instinctively attracted the birds to himself. He didn’t carry a net or a ladder, but used bread crumbs to charm the birds.

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As a writer of picture books, balance is the key. Tell your story in a way which allows your reader to be an active participant. Give enough information to feed their imagination while allowing them to make their own connections.

 

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