Happy Cake Day

I know it is Friday but this is something of a throwback Thursday photo.

This is my adorable self at my grandmother’s house at about 5 years old.  This is the age that my grandmother would have made me a doll cake — Barbie standing in a bundt cake.

Today is Happy Cake Day for me so I’m going to be taking a bit of a break today.  So you all on Monday!


The Best Laid Plans of Rats and Writers

Okay, these are mice, not rats, but isn’t this an amazing illustration by Molly Brett?

I worked my tail off last week so that this week would be as easy as possible.  Not easy. but easier.  After all, I had a book deadline on Wednesday.  But I had a solid draft done almost a week ahead of time.  That just left any final polishing and the footnotes and bibliography to make pretty.

Oh, why do I even try to plan?

Just as I finished up the back matter, the day after finishing the draft, I got an e-mail from my Pearl Harbor editor.  “I’m going to need you to do the rewrite next week.  I’m not done with my comments yet, but I thought you could get started on the chapter that I want you to rewrite.”


He’s right.  The parts that he wants to come out need to go and the parts he wants to add are essential.  It will make the whole book much stronger.  But really?  It sure is stressful when it comes in on top of another project.  How on earth do they do that anyway?


Writing Tips from Edgar Allan Poe

IPoen addition to being an amazing writer, Poe was apparently a rather opinionated one.  In his essay, The Philosophy of Composition, Poe reveals five secrets for writing vivid poems and short stories.

Keep it short.  The very best literary works can be read, according to Poe, in only one sitting.  I can’t say that I entirely agree with this but you should definitely keep it focused.  Writing that rambles and wonders has lost many a reader.

Focus on the desired effect.  Poe calls it the choice of an impression.   In some of his work, he wanted the reader to focus on beauty.  In other pieces, to be drawn to tears.  What is the emotion that you want your reader to feel?  For you, the author, to work toward this end, you need to make a decision.  Do you want your reader to laugh?  To take up environmental activism?  You need to decide before you can achieve it.

Select your tone.  What is the mood of this particular piece of writing?  Poe achieved this mood by using a word or image as a repeated refrain.  In The Raven, it is the word Nevermore.  In The Tell Tale Heart,  it is the beating of the heart.  What can you use to create the desired effect in your story?

Choose your characters.  Only after deciding on the many abstract features of  a piece, did Poe work on his characters.  I’m not sure that I would recommend this approach.  Face it, how many of his characters do you really remember?  Bingo — the RAVEN.  For me, that’s pretty much it although I remember the mood of his work all too well.

Select the setting.  If you think Poe is late in getting around to his characters, he is even later with the setting, but the way he works it makes sense.  Only once he knows the tone and effect can he set it in the right place.

I’m not sure how effective doing each of these things in this order would be, but I tempted to give it a shot.  Anyone else up to the challenge?


Branching Out Creatively

Alive NowIs all of your writing in one area?  I know people who write only picture books or only YA.  Others writer fiction but would never touch nonfiction or just the opposite.

And I can see the point of that.  You brand yourself.  When they see your name, editors and readers know what to expect.  And that’s good.

But I don’t write only one thing and I’ve come to view that as a strength.  At one point, most of what I wrote was for Young Equestrian Magazine (YE).  Fortunately, that was also about the time I started writing for Children’s Writer newsletter.  I say fortunately because eventually YE closed.  I sure was glad to have another type of writing to fall back on.

That isn’t the only reason that I write more than one thing.  Some of my ideas are young adult or middle grade nonfiction and nothing else.  Others are still nonfiction but perfect picture books or magazine articles.  Then there are the ideas that I have for crafts, science experiments and even the occasional essay or devotional.

One of my devotionals is in the January/February issue of Alive Now.  You can read the blog post that I wrote for them about creativity here.

I wouldn’t say that writing only one thing is bad, but it is something that definitely would not work for me.


Character dynamics: What I learned from The Walking Dead and the Cuban Missile Crisis

Walking deadMy son has finally managed to get me to watch The Walking Dead.  I’m not quite ready to admit that I’m hooked but if I ever make that claim, I’ll say it is for the writing.  I know that different people write different episodes but at least one of them has done their homework on how groups of people under stress interact.

At one point, the main party is trying to decide what to do with a captive.  They rescued him from zombies but only after he had taken a shot at several of them.

Logically, there should have been several choices and, as with any big choice, there are pluses and minuses with each.

  • Make him part of the group.  Pluses:  Survival means having people who can fight.  Minuses:  Not sure how trustworthy he is.
  • Toss him out.  Pluses:  Not sure how trustworthy he is.  Minuses:  He was part of a huge hostile group that he could always lead back to the main characters.
  • Execute him.  Pluses:  No more worries.  Minuses:  Ethics.

This kind of decision is huge and huge decisions take time.  Not surprisingly, the first character who argued for execution also pushed for a quick decision.  As other characters tried to bring up the other choices, he would shout them down and bring it back to his choice.  Again and again.  Soon other characters were doing the same thing, again and again bringing it back to this choice.  Those wanting to show him mercy quickly figure out that there only hope is to draw this out.

This is exactly how it works in a group facing a big, awful choice.  I’m writing about the Cuban Missile Crisis.   When Kennedy and his advisors were debating how to respond to the presence of missiles in Cuba, the military men all wanted war.  Nuke ’em and nuke ’em now!   The politicians were way on the other end.  Let’s give ’em a stern warning.  Kennedy was in the middle.  He knew a warning wasn’t enough but also knew how hard it would be to avoid war.  Yet, it got to the point that ideas other than war were rapidly silenced as the group circled back to that time and time again.  The need to make a decision, pressed them forward.  If you want to read more about this, look for David Gibson’s “Decisions at the Brink” in Nature, July 5, 2012.

What big decisions are the characters in your book facing?  If you have a group, do they spend equal time mulling over each option?  If so, you might want to create a tenser, more psychologically accurate situation.


Curing Your Writer’s Block

Over Christmas Break, my writing slowed to a near halt.  I was having problems with a back ache and it just didn’t inspire me to sit for any length of time at my desk.  Then my husband asked me a question.  “Have you been planking?”

Ugh.  The reality is that I despise planking and, even when I’m working out, conveniently forget to do it.  And that’s on a good day so, no, with an achy back, I had not been planking.  But this ache had been with me for two weeks so I was willing to try.  And, as long as I was going to plank, I might as well do something I enjoy so I got on my treadmill.  Much to  my utter disgust and my husband’s ability to be a pill, the planking helped.  Immediately.

Feeling much better, my writing started to come together as well, but was it just because my back no longer ached?  I hate to admit this, but I think part of it was the exercise.  Exercise gets the blood flowing and, with it, my thought flow as well.

Author of The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown agrees.  He keeps an hour class on his work table and once an hour sets it to work out for a specific period of time.  He does, ugh, calesthenics.  He also believes in getting the blood flowing directly to his brain, but I’ll let him tell you about that himself.  Just click on the video.

Sad to say, because I’m really not fond of exercise, but it does help me get beyond whatever is keeping my words at bay.  What works for you?


Picture book, early reader or app?

manuscriptLast year, I sold a manuscript.  Well, I thought I sold it but the contract never showed up because the company started having money problems.  Needless to say, I need to get it back out there but I’m left trying to decide what it is.

Maybe it is really an early reader.  That’s how I originally wrote it.  One of the companies I was writing for way back when wanted to start their own line of early readers.  They sent each of their writers a box full the kinds of stories they wanted to produce.  I wrote and submitted four pieces, including this particular manuscript.  I made sure that the reading level was in their tartet range.  I double checked to make sure I had only written simple sentences.   Then they cancelled the line.

I pulled out my favorite story of the four.  It was short and poetic, so I rewrote the manuscript as a picture book.  I made sure there were enough illustration possibilities.  I amped up the characterization.  I made sure to include fun word play.  I submitted it to several publishers but never got anything more than a polite rejection.

When I read about a publisher looking for apps, I pulled this piece out.  I still loved the simplicity of the story and it had what was needed for the type of app this publish wanted.  This wasn’t a situation but a complete story.  There was also plenty of room for interaction.  In this case, the reader could cue a variety of sounds from the story.  An interactive map would allow the reader to decide which path to take.

I submitted the manuscript and had a long phone call with the publisher.  We shared the same vision for the manuscript.  Yes!  I would love to do this . . .

I’m starting to wonder if this particular story is cursed but it has gotten close often enough that I know there is something editor’s love.  But which editors?  App editos?  Ebook editors?  Or traditional picture books?  Part of deciding is knowing what it takes for a story to succeed in each category.  To read more on that, check out my post today at the Muffin.


Breaking into Print: Educational Series

Educational seriesWriting for a packager can be one of the best ways to break into print.  By the end of this month, I will have written 3 books for Red Line Editorial.  Red Line is producing them for Abdo.  All three of these books are being published in different series which means that I am one of several writers for each series.

Writing only one book in a series is challenging especially if this is a new series in production.  When this is the case, you don’t have a book in print to study.  Here are three tips for creating a book that will mesh with the others.

Follow the instructions.  The author’s guidelines for the series will give you detailed instructions.  Often they are too detailed to absorb all at once.  This means that you will have to go back and review them from time to time.  How long is a sidebar?  How many do you need per book?  Is the back matter part of the word count?  If something about the instructions doesn’t make sense, e-mail your editor a quick question.

Ask for a sample.  Often the instructions use phrases that, while descriptive, only tell you that they want something very specific without telling you exactly what this is.  In my own experience, I’ve encountered phrases like “conversational but academic.” Then there was the instruction to base each sidebar on a number.  Um, okay.  Too bad I’m not sure what you mean.  In both cases, I e-mailed my editor and asked, not for clarification, but a sample.  The question about tone was answered with two books in PDF format.  The question about the sidebar was answered with 6 PDF pages.  In both cases, I could scan the files and find my answers and even more.

Note series breadth.  The first book that I wrote for Red Line was about the Ancient Maya.  In addition to the Maya, I had to cover earlier cultures in the Yucatan so that readers would understand the importance of several Mayan inovations.  When I wrote my next book, on Pearl Harbor, my outline included similar background.  I had to completely redo that outline because I had failed to note that this series focused on WWII.  Much of the background for my book would be revealed in the other books in the series.

Don’t submit to just any educatoinal publisher or packager.  Most of them assign topics.  To find out who wants what, study their web sites.  You can find many of them listed here.


Picture Book Revision

My shortest picture book manuscript is something like 150 words.  The longest was 1200, but I’ve got it down to 750.  As simple as these stories are, it is amazing that take so many rewrites to get right.  What isn’t amazing is that with this much work and so few words, we often get discouraged and quit before we finish.

I find that the biggest motivator for me to work on something is an external deadline like a contract, a critique group meeting, and even a writing challenge.

Last week, I took part in Revimo 2015.  In the course of this challenge, I did four rewrites.  I also read about the rewrites other people were doing.  A picture book rewrite can consist of:

Firming up or changing the format.

Reworking back matter.

Reordering sentences for greater impact.

Adding a chorus.

Changing from prose to rhyme or vice versa.

Changing the POV character.

Adding sidebars in a nonfiction text.

Adding picture book language other than rhyme — assonance, onomatopoeia or another type of word play.

Cutting out a character that doesn’t do enough.

Changing the ending so that the main character solves the story problem.

Trimming excess words.

Deleting visual descriptions (color, etc.).

Replacing ho hum verbs with the specific and exciting.

Correcting forced rhyme and faulty rhythm.

Changing the setting.

Using a dummy to check pacing.

With so many ways to improve a picture book manuscript, it really isn’t surprising that writing and rewriting something so short can take so many drafts.  Now, if you will excuse me, I need to read my manuscript out loud to check the sound of my sentences.


Martin Luther Kings Birthday and Picture Book Biography

This is my all time favorite biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  A picture book biography is more than just a short book with a lot of pictures.  If you are contemplating writing a biography in picture book form, keep these tips in mind.

Story.  Very few picture book biographies tell of the person’s life from birth to grave.  Instead, they tell a story.  In this book, the author tells the story of his life using quotes from his speeches.

Character.  The person you are writing about is a real person but in this course of your story, they are a character.  Even if it is someone famous like MLK, you have to assume that your reader does not know THIS character, the one that walks THIS story.  Eventhough this person is famous, you have to take the time to introduce him to the reader.

Dialogue. When creating dialogue for any nonfiction, including a biography, you have to cite sources.  Where and when did he speak these words?  Not in quotation marks can be made up. It all has to be something he said or wrote.

Kid friendly.  Although the person you are writing about probably isn’t a child, your story and your character have to have kid appeal.  Why would a young reader want to sit through this book?  What about it pulls the reader in?

Keep these traits in mind as you play  with your manuscript and you will have a piece that hangs together and pulls the reader in.