Easter Eggs: What They Are and Where to Hide Them

When I say “Easter eggs,” what do you think of?  If you’re hungry, you may be thinking of spring time Easter eggs, either the hard boiled or the chocolate versions.  But in terms of movies, especially movies based on graphic novels, an Easter egg is a pop culture reference hidden in the movie.

One of the best movies for spotting Easter eggs is Ready Player One. And no, I don’t mean that whole bit with The Shining.  That is way too obvious to be an Easter egg. Movie posters that appear as part of the setting, a button or patch on a character’s jacket, a character’s name or a scene that is blocked to mimic the scene in a classic film, those are all Easter eggs.

In Ready Player One, you need to pay close attention to the skins that the various characters wear when they are in the OASIS.  And I don’t mean just their regular character skins.  Instead of paying attention to the main action, look at that skins they wear in battle and you will spot a Gremlin, the Iron Giant, Battletoads, Halo soldiers, and more. Background music and cars in the race scenes are other ways that this movie works in Easter eggs.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Easter eggs after reading Alissa Grosso’s column at YA Outside the Lines.  Whenever possible, I try to work Easter eggs into my work even when I’m writing nonfiction.  My favorite place to do this is in chapter subtitles.

But after reading Grosso’s column I’ve started wondering if I should be working Easter eggs into my graphic novel script.  I’m writing this for a picture book audience so anything I work in wouldn’t be for my young readers as much as for the adults who are reading to them.

Some Easter eggs would definitely be the work of the illustrator but I could do something with my character names.  This is definitely something I’m going to be thinking over as I work on my rewrite.


Fact-Based Fiction: Writing Fiction Based on Fact

Inspiration comes from many different places.  Museum displays, the movies I see and the books I read all prompt story ideas.  Often these ideas are based on little known people or events.  Once I find something that intrigues me, I have to decide if I’m going to write nonfiction or fiction.

When I am writing for younger readers, I try to end my piece on a hopeful note.  This can be tricky when writing a biography of someone who died young, broke, or as a result of addiction or substance abuse.  Some events in-and-of-themselves are not upbeat or inspiring.

Such was the case of the ship wreck that inspired Chris Van Dusen’s The Circus Ship. In 1836, a circus ship went down off the coast of Maine.  After the wreck, rumors persisted that the circus elephant had survived, making it to show.  Nonetheless, it is believed that most of the animals died.

Warning:  This paragraph contains a plot spoiler!  In light of this morose ending, it isn’t surprising that Van Dusen decided to fictionalize the story.  In his account, not only do the animals all swim ashore, they make places for themselves among the islanders.  When wicked circus owner comes for the animals, the islanders hide them.

Just how much liberty you take with a fact-based story depends on the story you decide to tell.  Van Dusen has created a fanciful world where tigers save children from house fires, alligators make smart companions, and gorillas in hiding wear men’s clothing.

When you write fact-based fiction, whether it is a picture book like this one or a novel, the first thing to remember is that you need to create a story that works.  This may mean adding, subtracting or vastly altering characters. You may have to invent acceptable motivations for character actions.  And the ending has to work.

Again, how far you can go will depend on your story.  When writing historic fiction, you can’t reinvent history, something that you are actually encouraged to do when writing alternate history.  Figure out what story you want to tell, learn about the genre, and do your research. Then set about creating a story that springs to life.



Creative Nonfiction Essay ContestDo you write essays?  If so, there is a creative nonfiction essay contest sponsored by Women on Writing.  Sadly, because I work for them, I can’t enter.  But if you have something ready to go, send it in.  They take only 300 entries and the deadline is Wednesday.

Prizes include $500 cash for first place, $300 for second, and $200 for third. Runners up will get Amazon gift cards with coupons for those writers who get an honorable mentions.

What is a creative nonfiction essay?  For this contest it can be any style of nonfiction narrative including  memoir, personal essay, hybrid, lyric, and more.  The topic is wide open. The word count must be between 200 – 1000 words.

Essays may have been published. Submissions are accepted only through e-mail.  Simultaneous submissions (submitted to more than one market at a time) and multiple submissions (more than one essay submitted to the contest) are both acceptable.  There is an entry fee and I don’t remember exactly how much it is although it isn’t very mich, if I remember correctly.

For the complete rules, download the Creative Nonfiction Essay PDF here.

I don’t read for this particular contest but this is a really good opportunity for anyone who writes essays.  Good luck!

Social Media Do and Don’t

First and foremost, to get published, you need a top notch manuscript.  It doesn’t matter if you are a picture book author/illustrator or a young adult author, it is your work that will get your foot in the door.

That said, there are things that will make editors and agents want to slam that door shut.  I’ve had both editors and agents look me up online.  More than one editor has told me that my social media presence encouraged them to make me an offer.  This wasn’t simply because I had a social media presence.  The nature of your presence can also make a big difference.

In addition to wanting to be able to contact you easily, they check out how you behave online.  Simply put, be professional and positive.

In greater detail, avoid rants.  Although each and every rant you post may feel justified at the time, whether you are ranting about a slow editor or the critique group that didn’t like your work, rants paint a picture of someone who is difficult to work with.  They make you look uncooperative and argumentative, the Negative Nancy of the publishing world.

Furthermore, don’t be continually negative.  Sure, we have all spells where we feel like the world is out to get us.  But avoid posts about how bad the publishing world is now compared to when you started.  Don’t pan publishers, editors and agents.

Does this mean that you can’t post less than glorious news?  No.  I’ve posted before about publishers that were closing or filing for bankruptcy. It is important to help fellow authors and illustrators stay informed.  But stick to the facts and try not to spiral into an epic tale of gloom and doom.

Be informative.  Be upbeat.  You can even be a bit irreverent and fun.  Be the kind of person that you want to present to future co-workers.  Quirky is good.  Volatile?  Not so much.


Arcadia Children’s Books

When you want something, it pays to ask.  The proof?  Arcadia Publishing has recently announced the creation of Arcadia Children’s Books.

“Retailers everywhere are telling us that their customers are hungry for local content, and we keep getting asked to add a hyper-local program for kids. We’re listening to our customers, and we couldn’t be more pleased to have Nancy Ellwood, such a proven and talented children’s publishing leader, joining the Arcadia team,” says Arcadia president and CEO David Steinberger.

Steinberger told PW He told PW, “We are likely to publish books for a range of ages.” Their plans including publishing in a variety of formats and have not ruled out producing books for any single age group.

With more than 20 years of experience in children’s publishing, particularly in children’s nonfiction, former DK editorial director Nancy Ellwood who has more than has been chosen to head up the new endeavor.

“It’s an honor to apply my years of experience to building a new children’s program for Arcadia, America’s leading publisher of books of local interest. We are going to tap into kids’ natural compassion, curiosity and openness, and create books that focus on here, now, home and community,” says Ellwood.  Ellwood will be working from New York and hiring her own team.

Arcadia may be best known for their Images of America series.  They have published a handful of children’s titles in the past but this is their first major commitment to publishing books for children.

For more on this story  in Publisher’s Weekly. 





Book Reviews and Recommendations

A novel I recommend.

I am a ridiculously avid reader.  What do I mean by ridiculously avid?  At any time I am reading:

  • One magazine that stays in the car.
  • One magazine that stays in the bedroom.
  • A book that is on my nightstand.
  • An audiobook for when I am crafting or washing dishes.
  • An ebook (Kindle/treadmill or RB Digital/rowing) for exercise.

You might think that reading this many things would slow me down considerably.  Granted, I also count the picture books I read, but I finished book #90 yesterday.  I don’t bother to keep track of the magazines.

Perhaps because I am such an avid reader, I want other people to love reading too.  This means that when I post about a book on Twitter or Bookshelf, my book review blog, I am recommending the books.  I don’t post about a book just so that I can complain about the ending or the research.  And if there have been highly critical reviews, I don’t agree with them.

So what do I post?

Obviously, what I post on Twitter is going to be short, sweet and to the point.  “I just read XYZ, a great picture book for . . . this novel is a great choice for writers who are studying plot or pacing.”

A picture book I recommend.

When I review a book, I start with a summary of the book.  In fiction, this includes the main character and the story problem.  In nonfiction, this includes the topic and breadth of treatment. Then I go on to discuss who would like the book.  Is it a good book for reading aloud?  A great choice for reluctant readers?  Is it a mystery that fantasy fans would enjoy?  Then I include this information.

If people online have been critical about the book, I might address it.  Maybe.

I have to admit that I don’t tend to read critical reviews.  Often the people who complain about a book and give it only one star don’t seem to have been clear on what the book was about in the first place.  Simply reading the jacket copy would have made it clear that this book would touch on evolution, politics or some other equally terrifying topic.  Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if these same people freaked out each and every morning when the toast pops up out the toaster.  After all, who could have possibly seen that coming?!

Do I love every book I read?  Um, no.  But I am not going to pan a book in public.  There is only so much time in the day.  I’d rather recommend a book I loved.


Graphics: When to Include Them When You Aren’t an Illustrator

Now that Earning, Saving and Investing is up on Amazon, I wanted to talk about one of the challenges I faced in writing this book.

Money is an abstract concept so writing about it is never easy.  I found myself struggling to make my explanations as concrete as possible.  This was especially difficult when I was trying to explain things like simple interest vs compound interest or what type of investment you might consider based on how long you are willing to tie up your money and how great a risk you are willing to take.

When I had roughed out the section on interest, it took me two pages to explain what I wanted the table to include.  “For simple interest, you compound the interest thusly so this space would show X and this space would show Y.”  Explaining compound interest looked like I was trying to write out a calculus problem without using any mathematical symbols other than the numbers themselves.

Finally, I roughed out the table.  The formula for simple interest and the appropriate numbers ran down the left column.  The formula for compound interest and the numbers took up the right column.  The columns were lined up so that readers could compare month by month.  It wasn’t a thing of beauty but it was a lot easier to understand than my long, drawn out explanation.  Along with my table, I noted that I didn’t expect it to go into the text “as is” but here is where I got the formula.

For two other sections I gave up on my “if X then Y” explanations and simply created flow charts.  I worked them up on Illustrator but first I wrote a post-it note for each “space” and laid the tables out on sheets of cardboard.  That helped me see where things would fit on the final chart. Again, I let my editor know that in no way did I consider this final art.  It was just easier to convey the information to her graphically, in much the same way that it would be conveyed to the reader.

Just a little something to think about as you are struggling to describe a chart, table or graph textually.  It might be easier just to mock it up.


Onomatopoeia or SFX, Part 2

Just over a week ago, I wrote this post about using SFX in my graphic novel.  If I was writing a picture book, we’d say I was including onomatopoeia.

On Friday I found myself yet again including SFX.  One character was shooting another with a goop gun.  Then there was the girl armed with a marshmallow shooter.  The next spread included a character whose superpower manifested in a huge power surge.  In my head, I can hear the sound.  It starts low in volume and quickly rises in an electrical crackle.  Crackle?  crackLE? (Word hates this last version so much that it changed it four times to “crackle.”)

Sometimes I figure out how to write an SFX by listening to a recorded sound.  That worked for a blender and a vacuum.  But the energy surge was giving me a lot of trouble.  If only I could see how someone else had written it.

I hoped that having more than one source to investigate would help so I did a Google search on “how does an explosion sound” and then “how to write out that sound of an explosion.”  This last one returned a really helpful site, the Onomatopoeia Dictionary.

Type “explosion” into the searchable database yielded twenty-five results.  I adapted one of them to work in my graphic novel.

The site also provides tips for a better search.  If pace doesn’t yield anything helpful, try a synonym such as walk.  Also, use a shorter search term (walk) vs (walking on gravel).  If, on the other hand, you think your word should be included as is, you can click “submit a word” at the top of the screen.

The fifteen most searched words?  Water, car, door, cat, siren, fall, rain, helicopter, drum, beep, dog, alarm, heart, plane and train.

Personally, I think my top choice will always be to listen to the sound and determine my own spelling.  But sometimes my mental pump needs to be primed and I want to see how someone else has written it before I adapt the word to create a sound more accurate to my story.


Picture Books: A Variety of Formats Telling Simple Stories

Which structure should your picture book take?

One of the things that I discuss with my students are various picture book structures.  The structure for a particular book will depend on the topic or story.

Character has a problem.  In many fiction picture books, the character has a problem to solve.  The first and second attempts to solve this problem fail.  Tension builds and the character tries one last time before Victory!  Think of this as a play in three acts.

A circular story.  Some stories are circular.  These stories often deal with cycles such as the water cycle, the seasons, or day leading into night which then leads into day.  A nonfiction book about migratory birds can be circular since they undertake the same journey again and again. The stories satisfy young readers who have learned that some things happen again and again, regular and reliable.

A sequential story.  Journeys and building stories can sometimes be written in one sequence and one sequence only.  Why?  Because the stops along the trail or the steps in building something can only occur in a very specific order.  A leads to B leads to C, etc.

Cumulative stories.  Cumulative stories are a lot like sequential stories.  You pile more and more on until something happens.  Examples of this kind of story are The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly and The House that Jack Built.

Decreasing stories.  On the flip side are stories with a countdown.  Ten Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed is a decreating story.  The key items is reduced little by little until something big happens.

A story with a mission.  Some stories by their nature challenge the reader to take action.  Save a species, plant trees, clean a beach.  Some of these stories literally challenge the reader to go out and apply what they have learned.  “Go out and …”  In other stories, the challenge is implied.  “Wow.  If this person could plant 50 trees, I can plant trees too.”

Which structure should you use for your picture book?  Even if it seems obvious, that your story should be sequential, a subtle shift in emphasis could make it a decreasing story or a story with a mission.  Try more than one structure and see which works best.


How Adaptable Are You? Surviving in the Freelance Market

Sorry this is late going up.  A six hour power outtage yesterday wouldn’t have stopped me but someone had to prep for a calc test so he got my laptop.

Earlier this week, I saw this TED talk with Natalie Fratto, a venture investor.  She explained that when decided who to back, many investors look at the persons IQ (intelligence quotient).  She looks at the AQ (adaptability quotient).

Fratto explained that in our rapidly changing world, it is vital to be adaptable.  As she went on to explain, this is the difference between being Blockbuster and Netflix.

What does this have to do with writing?  If you are asking that question, you might be in danger of being Blockbuster so pay attention.

It is easy to tell ourselves that good writing is good writing.  Perfect your craft and you will be able to sell your work and, to a point, this is true. But what is popular and selling changes just as much as how it is presented.

So how do you know if you are adaptable?  Fratto looks for three things.

What if… Fratto calls this running simulations but I prefer the simpler what if?  Why?  Because many writers play the what if game.  What if this was to happen?  What if that was to happen?  You can play it with your stories, contemplating how a group of teens would survive if, but you can also play it in terms of your own work.  “I haven’t had an assignment from X in a while.  What if they are using fewer people?  Who else could I approach?”  Fratto encourages people to run simulations to practice manipulating information.

Unlearning.  When you unlearn something, you are going beyond learning a new skill.  You have actually unlearning an old one.  The example Fratto gave was someone who rigged a bike to turn left when he steered it to the right.  When you game, it is a lot like having to know that with X game, the A button makes you jump but on another you crouch.  In writing, it can be writing fluid, lyrical prose for one client and short, sharp to the point text for another.

Exploration vs Exploitation.  Are you someone who enjoys learning new ways to do things and does this before it is forced upon you? Than you have this skill.  It may be my strongest of the three simply because I love to learn new things.  I am learning to write graphic novels even as I play with poetry.

The beauty of adaptability and practiced by Fratto is that it can be learned.  Pick one of the three categories and play with it today, tomorrow and the day after.