Kathleen Kemly: What Illustrator’s Can Teach Writers

Here is another amazing video produced by Dana Sullivan,  Assistant Regional Advisor of the Western Washington region of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. This one features Kathleem Kemly and her work on the picture book Molly by Golly.  

As with Paul Schmid, I was fascinated by how she combines computer capabilities and traditional illustration techniques.  Don’t skip the video thinking that they combine them in the same way because their approach is completely different although both of them talk about creating spontaneous, lively drawings.

If you are a picture book writer, this is an especially good video to watch because Kemly shows how she storyboards and dummies.  She also discusses the flow of a manuscript in terms of illustrations as well as various design elements.

I think my favorite part was watching her layer in color, adding it, wiping it off, painting blue then yellow then red. Amazing!

If you write picture books, take a look and see how the “other half” of the picture book team works.


Contentment: How to Take Pleasure in Your Writing

Recently Jon Bard posted a video in which writers will be successful.  He pulled no punches.  Negative writers will fail because their negativity will dampen their creativity.  If you want to succeed, you need to find the joy in writing.

I’ve been noodling over what Jon had to say so maybe that’s why a Zen Habits blog post caught my attention.  In this post, simplicity blogger Leo Babauta talked about the lessons in contentment that he learned hearing Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger speak.  Here is my take on how what they had to say applies to the writing life.

  1. Find What Turns You On.  We all have to make a living, but spend at least part of your writing time doing something you love.  Really love.  This means that if you have to write testing material to make a living, then write testing material.  But also spend some time each day writing the novel that you simply can not get out of your head.  Write what you love.  Early on, I was lucky enough to get a gig writing equine nonfiction.  I always loved horses and I love ferreting out the facts for a top nonfiction story.  Follow your enthusiasm because it will not only carry you through the marketing and editing processes, it will also snag that editor or agent.
  2. Don’t Worry What Everyone Else Is Doing.  You need to know what’s already on the market but do not write to the market.  This means don’t try to follow a trend just because you think there might be a check in it.   Find a project you can make your own.
  3. Know Your Strengths.   Fiction is fun, but I’m a natural when it comes to nonfiction.  I like taking seemingly complex topics and writing them up for children.  Perhaps you have a natural middle grade voice.  Or you love laying down the clues for a mystery.   If you haven’t found your writing strength, don’t worry.  Try different types of writing and pay attention to what sings in your soul.  You will find it.
  4. Fewer and Higher Quality.  I cringe when a new writer tells me that she has 30 manuscripts circulating.  If someone has been writing for two years or less and has this much out, then most if not all of it probably needs to be rewritten.  On the other hand, I know a novelist who seldom has more than two or three pieces out at a time.  She has six books in print.  She did this by only submitting her very best work vs the shot gun approach.
  5. Know What You Like and Forget the Rest.  It is easy to second guess yourself as a writer.  There are so many people who are eager to tell us what we should be writing, how to build our platforms and more, but the reality is that you won’t have time for all of it.  Find what feels do-able and right and stick with it.  I blog regularly and have a presence on Facebook.  Twitter?  Haven’t touched it because I have enough on my plate already.

Find your way to your writing passions if you want to succeed.  Nothing else will work.


Writers Conference: Registration Now Open

speakersJust a quick heads up that online registration is now open for the Missouri SCBWI Fall Conference.

Speakers and their topics include Matt de la Peña  “Working-Class Writer,” Lisa Yee “Following Your Dream Without Falling on Your Face,” Judy Young  “Counting Her Lucky Stars,” Dan Santat “The ‘IT’ Factor (Parts of getting published that you need to know but no one has taught you),” Regina Brooks “Tapping Into Your Muse: One Whisper At A Time,” Lori Kilkelly “Thoughts from a Literary Agent,” and Krista Marino “The Business of Publishing at Delacorte Press.”

You can also register for afternoon breakout sessions, paid critiques and Sunday morning intensives.

It promises to be quite an experience!



Rewriting: How Long Should It Take?

How quickly do you make all recommended changes when you rewrite?  Stop. Consider.
How quickly do you make all recommended changes when you rewrite? Stop. Consider.

When you get a critique from an editor, do you immediately go home and pop off a rewrite?  Many writers do that, working their tails off to get the manuscript into the mail that week or at the very least in under a month.

My word of advice?  Don’t.

Take some time.  Think about what you were told.  Think about how the changes will impact the manuscript as a whole, because they should.

When we rush into a rewrite, the changes that we make are mechanical.  I’ve had to do this kind of rewrite and generally I just go through the editors comments and make changes.  I don’t take the time to think things through because I don’t have the time.  Fortunately, most of the changes that I have to make with this kind of rewrite aren’t all that deep.  I change one word for another, clarify a foggy point and add examples.

But sometimes even with a rapid rewrite, I’m asked to make a change that raises my hackles.  “No.  Not going to do it.  That is absolutely the right word.”

At times like this, I need to take a step back.  I clean a sink.  Pull a handful of weeds.  Dust in the dining room.

Then I come back.  Sometimes given even a few moments away, the change now seems perfectly reasonable.  Other times, it still isn’t right but I can see why a change of some kind is necessary because I now see what isn’t working.  Then I can cook up a change we can both live with.

And that’s what’s wrong with most rushed rewrites.  We don’t take the time to think about why I change has been requested.  We don’t look beyond comments on dialogue to see that the character’s voice isn’t fully developed.  We add details to our setting without understanding that we need to use it to more completely reflect the tone of the story.

When you can, take some serious time with a rewrite.  One editor I hears speak said that she didn’t want to see anything from anyone at the retreat in less than 4 months.  She didn’t care if we were work-shopping a picture book or a novel she wanted us to take the time to make the changes our own and let them ripple throughout the manuscript as a whole.

And that really is the best way to do it when you can.




Paul Schmid: What Illustrator’s Can Teach Writers

I just love it when I find a great Youtube series.  The Western Washington region of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators had created a series of Youtube videos featuring some of their illustrators.  The producer is Dana Sullivan.  He is the Assistant Regional Advisor for the Region and, obviously, very talented himself.

The first video in the series, or at least the first one I found, features illustrator Paul Schmid.  He discusses his work on A Pet for Petunia.  

I don’t know a whole lot about illustration, so I really enjoyed hearing Schmid explain how he uses line to convey various aspects of Petunia’s personality, specifically that she is high energy, as well as how design elements enter into telling the story and conveying her emotional state at that particular point in time.  I also found it fascinating that he combines the super inexpensive (drug store Pentel pencils) with high tech (using Photoshop).

As a writer, I know how much work I put into a project, but I’ve always been a bit clueless as to how much work goes into it from the illustrator’s end.  After watching this, I realize how much effort Schmid puts into creating artwork that looks effortless and free.

If that isn’t a take away for writers, I don’t know what is.



Book Awards: Children’s Book Council Gives Children’s Choice Awards

On May 13, the Children’s Book Council named the winners of the sixth annual Children’s and Teen Choice Awards.  This is the only national book award in which the winners are chosen by the young readers themselves and this year over 1,000,000 votes were cast.

The winners they chose are:

AUTHOR OF THE YEAR:  Jeff Kinney for Diary of a Wimpy Kid 7: The Third Wheel (Abrams/Amulet)

ILLUSTRATOR OF THE YEAR: Robin Preiss Glasser for Fancy Nancy and the Mermaid Ballet(HarperCollins)

KINDERGARTEN TO SECOND GRADE BOOK OF THE YEAR:  Nighttime Ninja by Barbara DaCosta, illus. by Ed Young (Little, Brown)

THIRD GRADE TO FOURTH GRADE BOOK OF THE YEAR: Bad Kitty for President by Nick Bruel (Roaring Brook/Macmillan)

FIFTH GRADE TO SIXTH GRADE BOOK OF THE YEAR: Dork Diaries 4: Tales from a Not-So-Graceful Ice Princess by Rachel Renée Russell (S & S/Aladdin)

TEEN BOOK OF THE YEAR:  The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Dutton)

I’m a little embarrassed to see how few of these books I’ve already read.  Off to make some requests from my local library.

How many of the books beloved by your audience have you read?



Classroom Visits

Just over a week ago, I got to do a different kind of classroom visit.

Instead of going to a school to talk to a classroom or auditorium full of kids about reading, books or writing, I went to a university campus in Springfield, Missouri.  Through the Ozark Writing Program, middle school students (5th to 8th grade) get to come take three different classes and work on their writing.  I was one of a large number of instructors (maybe 30?) who were there for the day.

My topic was Telling True Stories and I showed my students how to find character, dialogue, setting and story/plot in a variety of nonfiction scenes.  The scenes came from Bomb by Steve Sheinkin (Flashpoint, 2012) and Cave Detectives: Unraveling the Mystery of an Ice Age Cave by David Harrison (Chronicle Books, 2007).  I chose the first book for the teachers since it is a recent award winner.  I chose the second for the students and BINGO at least one of them had read it and met David.


Then I gave them a chance to do some writing.  Some students used facts that I gave them to write a scene.  I had pulled the facts from four different books:

  • A Day that Changed America: Earthquake! by Shelley Tanaka (Hyperion, 2004)
  • In Disguise: Stories of Real Women Spies by Ryan Ann Hunter (Beyond Words Publishing, 2003)
  • Painting the Wild Frontier: The Art and Adventures of George Catlin by Susanna Reich (Clarion Books, 2008)
  • The Prairie Builders: Reconstructing America’s Lost Grasslands by Sneed B. Collard III (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005)

The vast majority of the students had troubles getting going on this assignment.  Translating the facts on a sheet of paper into a scene seemed to befuddle them.  A few kids chose the earthquake scene but the vast majority chose the scene about the woman spy.

For the second writing assignment, I asked the kids to write a scene of their own choosing.  What a huge variety!

  • A girl wrote about dance competition.  
  • Another wrote an “as told to me” piece about military service in Afghanistan.  
  • A third girl wrote about a local civil war battle.
  • Another, who is allergic to bees, wrote about getting stung while taking nature photos.
  • A fifth girl wrote about guinea pigs.
  • One boy wrote about playing paint ball.
  • Another wrote about playing baseball and waking up with an IV in his arm.  

What did I learn doing this?  One thing that I asked them was which assignment they preferred.  The baseball player simply prefers writing fiction, which he does a lot of on his own.  He and I debated which is more fun — fiction vs nonfiction.  I was really surprised that a number of the kids, often the one who had the most trouble getting started, said that they like writing from my fact sheets better because they had a ready made topic.  Still, if I do this topic again, I’ll put more emphasis on writing their own scenes and take my examples of true stories from biography, autobiography and memoir.

If you get the chance, get into the classroom.  I learned quite a bit from my readers.


Headers in Word: How to Use both Headers and Page Numbers in Word 2010

You know how your editor wants your manuscript to be formatted.  She wants a header with your name to the left, book title centered and page number to the right.  Easy peasy.  Or at least it was until you got Word 2010.  Now it’s impossible!  If you use Header and Page Number on the ribbon (menu at the top of the page) you can get a Header or a Page Number, which ever one you do last, but not both.

This was one of those topics that might critique group and I were discussing at the Missouri SCBWI Advanced Writer’s Retreat.  At the time, I hadn’t figure it out because I’d only been using Word 2010 for about two weeks.  But tell me I can’t do something, and I will figure it out.  Unless you tell me to clean my room.  My parents tried that.  It didn’t work.

But it did work when my critique group said no one could figure out header formatting.  I’m not going to tell you that it’s easy, but I will show you how to do it.  For the most part, I figured it out because I found a video which I’ll plug in here but after the video I’ll tel you how to do it just in case you find the zooming in and out as distracting as I did.

Here are the steps:

  1. With your document open, first add your header.  To do this, select the Insert tab (toward the upper left) and then select Header on the ribbon.  I tend to use the second one down, Blank Three Column.
  2. Select the left field labeled Type Text and then type your last name and first initial.  I type Edwards, A.  
  3. Select the center field also labeled Type Text and then type your abbreviated title.  In my case, this was Rat Race.  
  4. Select the right field labeled Type Text but instead of adding text, delete it.  
  5. Be sure to select different first page if this is necessary.  Now it’s time to add the page number.  
  6. Now it’s time to add the page number.  Select the Insert tab and this time select Quick Parts.  
  7. From the Quick Parts Drop Down Menu, select Field.
  8. From the Field Names on the left, select Page.  
  9. From Field Properties toward the center, select the proper Format.  I generally chose the first one (1, 2, 3…).
  10. Then select OK.  

Frankly, I’m surprised no one just figures this out.  ::snort::


Your Opening Scene

Always say start where action is.  Start where change happens.  We’ve heard that advice time and time again and it’s entirely surprising.  Have you ever read a manuscript where the writers starts way too early, poking and plodding through paragraph after paragraph of yawn inducing back story?  Heck, we’ve all written a few manuscripts like that when we’re being honest with ourselves.

Unfortunately, I tend to err in the other direction.  You want action?  I’ll give you action.  Me?  I tend to plunk the reader down in the middle of something BIG.

That’s what I tried to do with Rat Race and my critique group just shook their heads.  “Too confusing.  We need to know this, but we need to know X first.”

So I’d write a new first chapter, squeezing it in before the original.

Nope.  Still starting too late in the story.

Fortunately, I was able to diagnose by problem when I sat down with Martha Alderson’s Plot Whisperer Workbook and the original Plot Whisper book.  Check out Saturday’s post at the Muffin to find out how using these two books got the ball rolling.