Brainstorming via mem

I love looking at the various mems my friends post on Facebook.  Okay, not the political ones so much but the funny ones, the historic ones, and the “what would you…” variety.  They are wonderful opportunities to brainstorm story ideas.

What magical power do you posess?  What superpower?  What supernatural ability?

Those are all great opportunities to brainstorm.  What would be the best superpower?  Personally, I have no interest in flying and superspeed which just mean that I ran into more things more quickly.  No thanks.  Mind reading? That would probably get old fast.  I’d be annoyed whenever someone lied.  Xray vision?  That would be tempting.  I am, as my grandmother called it, a nosey Parker.  I was never 100% certain what that meant beyond “nosey.”

I may not have settled on the best superpower, but look at all those potential story ideas!  That could keep me going for a while.

Historical mems are just as good.  I posted this one on Columbus Day.  The full story potential didn’t strike me until me friend Walter commented on it.  “I claim this Astin Martin in the name of Spain.”  Whoa.  What is your character really tried this?  It couldn’t possibly work unless he had found some extraordinary legal loophole.  That could be a wild story.

Then another friend posted a mem today about the women who were against suffrage.  That’s the sort of thing we sometimes forget.  Not everyone, not even all women, thought it was a great idea.  Why would a woman work against it?  I could see this one working as either nonfiction or fiction.

When you are stuck for a story idea, take a closer look at the mem’s your friends post.  Maybe one of them will spark a story idea.  And, if it does, you can tell your spouse that Facebook time now counts as research.



I’m a Real Boy . . . I Mean Writer

(Startup Stock Photos)
(Startup Stock Photos)

Last week we had parent teacher conferences.  I’d love to say that I behave myself but occasionally I get bored.  This normally happens when a teacher is droning on about the importance of writing.  Honey, you’re preaching to the choir.  I get it. This particular teacher had been discussing the importance of the research paper in his class when he mentioned citations.  “Oh, you want MLA.  The book I just turned in was in Chicago Manual of Style.”  After he asked me what I write, I told him and he looked surprised.  “Oh, you’re a real writer.”

Yes, I would seem to be.  His response does make me wonder what other types of writers he’s met.  I’ve met a wide variety of non-writers including:

“I have a story for you to write.”  My personal favorites are the people who want me to pay them for an idea so that I can write it.  Honey, I have more ideas than dust bunnies and there are tons of dust bunnies in this house.

One Trick Ponies.  These are the people who have one idea and only one idea.  They work it and rework it and keep going over it. Unfortunately, they never let it sit while they work on something else so it never gets any better.

When I have time. . . A lot of would-be writers never get around to it because there is always something else to do.  Writers have other things to do too.  There are dishes in my kitchen sink and I have to rehearse but I have two blog posts to finish so that’s what I’m writing.

Show Me the Money.  A lot of people don’t want to go through the effort until they have a check in hand.  If you can get that job, go for it but that’s probably only going to happen once you have a reputation as a writer.

In truth, if you want to write you are going to have to make the time and really work at it.  Do that and you may manage to make some money at it.  But you’ll have plenty of work to do first.  For four tips on writing for children, check out my post today at the Muffin.




Mind the details

light-arm-love-flowersOne of the blogs that I like to read is about selling your work to Woman’s World magazine. Recently I read a post about how the details in a specific story convinced her that the writer knew what she was talking about in terms of running a flower shop that supplies bouquets and the like for weddings.   The author used florist jargon, knew about the flowers and also about operating a small business.  These are definitely the types of details that you need to get right to convince your reader that you’ve done your research.

If you get something like this wrong, the story or book as a whole will lose credibility.  I’ve read pieces that call apes (gorillas, orangutan, chimpanzees or gibbon) monkeys.  Ugh.  Although they are closely related, they aren’t monkey and this is the kind of thing that drives me nuts.

The hardest details to get right seem to relate to food.  I remember reading a young adult book in which the author described the character drinking a concrete through a straw.  What?  A concrete?  Through a straw?  Here in St. Louis concretes are a huge deal.  They are like milkshakes but much thicker, made from custard not ice cream.  One brand advertises that their’s are so thick that you can hold it upside down without it running out of the cup.  You don’t drink a concrete through a straw or any other way.  You eat it with a spoon.  The author had her characters in the right part of the country for a concrete.  She had probably seen a photo and the cup that is the exact same cup you would get a soda or milk shake in.  But she had clearly never had one.

That’s part of the reason that I try to eat food from a region before I describe it.  I listen to music and view art instead of describing them sight or sound unseen.

These are the kinds of details that can convince your reader that you know what you’re doing, or that you don’t.  I know where I’d rather be on that spectrum.


Researching Publishers

Don't go with the publisher who takes a cookie cutter approach to cover design.
Don’t go with the publisher who takes a cookie cutter approach to cover design.

Last week I saw a market report on a new-to-me publisher.  The genres that they described are those I love but I didn’t know a single thing about this publisher.  Honestly, I wasn’t even sure if they were a children’s publisher.  I Googled their name and took some time poking around their site and I’m glad I did.  This is publisher is now on my “no thanks” list.

It wasn’t their submissions policies.  That all looked legit and fairly typical.  Face it, there’s a pretty wide range of submission policies out there from a synopsis and three chapters to full manuscripts.  Nothing in what they asked for set off any alarm bells, so I clicked on the catalogue.

Their catalogue was arranged with 3 or 4 books per row.  I glanced at the titles on the first row.  Nothing made a huge impression good or bad so I scrolled down.  One of the covers looked familiar.  Too familiar.  I scrolled back up the page.  Book #1, Row #1 had a cover created from a very recognizable stock photo.  Book #3, Row #2 had a cover created from the same photo.


They had used the exact same photo for the cover.  Scrolling through the catalogue, I found 14 books with the same cover.  Sure, the title and author’s name varied but it was the exact same photo.  Not cropped differently.  No colors altered.  Just slapped down on the page.

When I see a publisher that puts this little effort into their books, I run in the other direction.  I may not be a book designer but even I know that this is a bad, bad sign.

Before you submit to a specific publisher, take a good hard look at their web site.  Do their covers appeal to you?  Try to get ahold of several books.  Do you like the overall book design?  Book design is a huge part of the package so you shouldn’t go with a publisher whose book design appalls you whether it took them 5 minutes or 5 days.  Do your research.  Please.


Picture Book Idea Month

While I do not NaNoWriMo, there is another November challenge that I participate in every year — Picture Book Idea Month or PiBoIdMo.  The goal for PiBoIdMo is to come up with 30 picture book ideas throughout the month of November.

Ideally, you come up with one a day.  Ideally.

I don’t think that I’ve ever done it quite like that but I also find that if I can come up with two or three ideas, I can normally come up with five or six.  One simply leads to another.  Coming up with one a day is much more difficult for me.

The great thing about PiBoIdMo is that you aren’t working in a vacuum.  Like NaNoWriMo, you register and have the support of your peers.  Tara Lazar is the brains behind PiBoIdMo and she invites a variety of people associated with picture book creation to write blog posts throughout the month; see left for the blogging schedule.  There are also prizes to be had but I have to admit that I’m more into reading the blog posts and the brain storming.

I’m really looking forward to writing some new picture books during the upcoming year.  And a big part of that will be brainstorming characters and other ideas.  PiBoIdMo is what will get me  going.  Care to join me? Starting today you can register for this challenge here.


Antagonist vs Villain: Which are you writing?


Which type of character are you creating for your story?  Before you can answer, you need to know the differences.

When I hear the word villain, I think of an old-fashioned, cartoon baddy.  Mustache-twirling.  Skulking in the shadows.  It can be hard to pull off a villain because they often come across as two-dimensional.  But if I had to name a well-done villain, I’d say Voldemort from the Harry Potter books.  He’s bigger than life (or death), he’s bad as all get out, and he’s got no redeeming qualities.  Villain.

If you are writing an antagonist, you are writing a character that wants something that is in opposition to your protagonist.  If you’re protagonist wants to save a historic building, your antagonist wants to tear it down.  If you’re protagonist wants to win the heart of the cool boy, so does your antagonist.

Unlike a villain, your antagonist is not necessarily bad.  He just wants something that is in opposition to your protagonist.  They can’t both win.

In fact, your protagonist will probably be a more interesting character if he isn’t bad.  Remember to give him some good qualities so that he is more well-rounded.  Maybe he volunteers in a soup kitchen but thinks that the key to urban renewal is tearing down dilapidated buildings.  Maybe she wants to date a specific boy because he is into the environment and so is she.  Or he plays her favorite sport.

The fact is that it is really hard to make a bad-guy work if he has no redeeming qualities.  I’m not really sure how Rowling managed to pull it off!


Agents: A Bit More Research

Agent HuntAbout two weeks ago, I took one of my three agent query letters to critique group to get some feedback.  As always my writing buddies had some great ideas.  Thank you!

Then I realized that with this one letter, I had done something a bit different.

In all three letters, I had told the agent why I picked them.  “This is why you and I are a good fit.”  One likes diverse books.  One has made sales to one of my publishers.  The third loves the same kinds of nonfiction that I love and we both love to craft and we like diverse books. But in only one letter had I mentioned one of the agent’s books.  “This book is very like mine in this way.”  See, says a statement like that, we have the same sensibilities.

And that’s a good thing.  By finding said books, I make sure that I’m a good fit with the agent.  By pointing this out to the agent, I let her know I’ve done my research.  I didn’t just draw her name out of a hat.

That said, I honestly don’t know what was wrong with me.  Any time you query an agent, you need to show familiarity with them AND with the books they represent.  How on earth did I manage to forget that in two out of three letters?  I have no idea, but I am glad that for whatever reason I remembered it before  the letters went out.

Now that I’ve remember it, I’ve done more reading about each agent and I’ve been to my library’s catalog.  Now I am waiting . . . and waiting . . . and waiting for the books I’ve requested to arrive at the library.

Big goof that I am.



Family Story Time: Learning about Your Audience

Last week, our church sponsored a Family Story Time for the families at our preschool.  If you’re a picture book writer, you need to find something like this so that you can spy.

First I watched the kids while Julie read a book about a wild romp through the house — Is Everyone Ready for Fun? by Jan Thomas. The animals start out by jumping on chicken’s sofa. Chicken is less than thrilled with this idea.  Jumping thwarted leads to dancing, leads to wiggling, etc.  Finally, Julie asked the kids.  “What do you think they’re going to do next?”

“Jump on the bed!” yelled one young listener.  This response caught on quickly so I didn’t get the others but WOW.  The energy that went into listening to this story.  They were transfixed but they were absolutely never still — something the author clearly knew would be the case.

Next she played a game with the kids.  It was a little like Simon Says in that the kids had to copy some goofy, wiggling activity.  This one was a lesson in what they understood vs what they didn’t.  Stomping?  Awesome!  Marching?  They had no clue but quickly copied what she was doing.

These kids LOVED books and stories and having fun.  But they had the attention spans of . . . preschoolers.  If you don’t understand why publishers want books that are 500 words or LESS, then you need to observe a preschool story time.

If you do, you’ll come way with a much better understanding of what your audience wants out of a book and what will keep them happy.


What do you do after you meet a deadline?

time-watch-theme-machines-gearsI remember when I was a new writer, unpublished, and I thought I would have these amazing rituals to celebrate sales and meeting deadlines.  Hey!  Back off!  I majored in anthropology.  Rituals.

I’d celebrate like this . . .

I’d go buy that . . .

I’d have something that represented each of my sales . . .

I hope that I’m not dashing anyone’s wildest dreams but that isn’t how things have worked out.  For one thing — this is what I do for a living. I’d love to say that I have time to recooperate.  I’d love to say that, at the very least, I get dinner out and a movie.  But very often I have another deadline so I move on to that project.

In this case, I have 7 educational activities due next Monday.  I’d love to say that they’re written and I only have to finish the projects and take the photos.  But that’s not quite the case.  I have started on them but this will be my focus for the next few days.

I’m also going to get back on my letter to agents. More about that Thursday.

And, for the first time, I have a second book in the same series.  I just turned in Women in Science.  Now I get to write Women in Sports.

I wish I could take a few days off but I don’t think its in the cards this time around.  That said, I’m lobbying for a movie and dinner this weekend…


Meeting a Deadline

time-watch-hands-of-a-clock-clock-pointersI have a book due tomorrow.  Yep.  15,000 words.  So what did I do this weekend?  I went on retreat.  I had had it planned before I had the deadline but that’s not the only reason I went.  It was a writing retreat.  Yep, a retreat with fellow writers.  Writers get deadlines.  We were all there to write and we held each other accountable.

The funny thing is that nonwriters often worry about me deadlines more than writers.  I remember attending a Boyscout Court of Honor about two weeks before my first book was due. One of the moms marched up to me and started in.  “If I was you, I’d be at home working if I had a deadline.”

“What do you write?”

“I’m not a writer but…”

“Do you mean your not published or do you really not write?”

“I don’t write but…”

“Don’t worry.  I’ll get it done.”

“I just think…”

“Here, have a cookie.”

Oddly enough, I’ve never had another writer ask me why I’m not holed up.  They smile, they nod, they share strange deadline stories.

“I finished that first book working on the laptop while my husband drove the entire family cross country.”

“I had a file corrupt and had to retype the whole book …”

“Once I wrote all night long…”

It may not sound supportive but they’re like war stories.  This is what I’ve survived.  You’ll get through it too.  And I will.  I’ve met deadlines working in my father-in-laws basement when we lost power.  I stood on top of my son’s fort and conducted an interview when the closest phone tower was out.  My husband has had to send files from work that were too large to send before we had WiFi.

I’ll get it done but it sure was a lot more fun to do it on retreat than standing precariously on top of the fort…

For more on writing retreats, see my post today at the Muffin.