3 Lessons from Pablo Picasso

Take four minutes and watch Pablo Picasso paint Visage: Head of a Faun.  Seriously, it is all I can do to write my own name and . . . well, just watch it for yourself.  Watching this, I realized three things:

  1. Don’t mistrust the fast draft. When you are young and you make art, you just do it.  Your efforts are sincere even if they aren’t lengthy yet somewhere along the line we come to believe that if the process isn’t long and drawn out, it isn’t worthwhile.  A friend took an essay writing class.  The instructor challenged them to fast draft a micro essay and then find someplace to submit it without editing.  You’re cringing, aren’t you?  Guess what?  It sold.  You can see “Rise,” by Ann Kelly here. I’m not saying that you should do this with everything you write, but somehow, some day, find a way to have faith in your work.
  2. What you see isn’t what the reader sees. I loved it when I realized that Picasso was painting something and the camera was filming it from the back of the page.  We are seeing the reverse of what Picasso saw.  And it works.  Your reader is never going to see things exactly the same way that you do.  And that’s okay.
  3. The steps may not show in the end result.  In painting this, Picasso lays down flowers, a chicken and then a faun’s head, one over the other.  In the end, you see hints of what came before but the only thing that is clear is the faun’s head.  When your readers see the end result, they aren’t going to be able to see exactly what went before.  So if there’s a really horrid stage in the middle?  Don’t sweat it.

This clip is part of a documentary on Picasso, ‘Le Mystère Picasso.”


How to Add Layers to Your Picture Book Story

When you write a magazine story for young readers, it can be fairly straightforward. But when you tell a story with the same theme as a picture book, there needs to be more.

The reality is that if your story is going to be printed as a picture book, it needs to have enough to it to bring readers back to experience it multiple times.

Irene Latham does a great job of this with her recent picture book Nine (Charlesbridge).  Check you the video above.

This is a story about a nine year-old telling her younger brother about all the great things about being nine.   Each spread contains a poem about “nine.”  There is a poem about the nine players on a baseball team.  There’s another about Engine Number 9, a cat’s nine lives, and more.

Latham could have simply written a poem about each topic but she wrote a nonet about each topic.  A nonet is a poem of nine lines.  The first line has 9 syllables, the second 8, on down to the nineth line which has 1.  Unless you do it in reverse, which is allowed, staring with a 1-syllable line and ending with a 9-syllable line.

That’s a lot of layers and a lot of nines, but it doesn’t stop there.  The illustrator got into the act and if you look carefully at each spread you will find various things depicted nine times such as nine clouds in one spread.

Think we’re done?  Nope.  The publisher got involved as well. This book is a nine-by-nine square.

The next time you write a picture book, stop and think.  How can I add addition layers? What can I do to being more (insert theme here) to the story?  Because, face it, now you have to compete with Nine and that’s going to take some effort.


10 Ways to Write Funny for Young Readers

Recently one of my editors commented that she had just heard from an agent that in adult writing editors want romantic comedy and humor.  I have to admit that I’ve expected to hear something like this about writing for children and teens as well.  Maybe that’s why I’ve been thinking about humorous writing for young readers.  Here are 10 types of humor for young readers.

  1. Cummulative Tales.  In cummulative tales, things start small and grow ridiculously large.  One of my favoirte examples is One Dog Canoe in which the narrator and her dog are in a canoe.  One animal after another joins them until . . . comedy!
  2. Silly situations.  Can you take a story and turn it into a silly situation?  I appreciate this stories, such as Neil Gaiman’s, Fortunately, the Milk but they are not what I am good at writing.
  3. Dark Humor.  I have to admit that as much as I love dark humor (think Zombie in Love), I am not sure that these are the stories that are going to sell.  Maybe, but I’m not sure.
  4. Puns and Punny Stories.  Are you good at weaving puns into your stories?  Jeanie Franz Ransom did this in What Really Happened to Humpty?  which just happens to be a story of a hard boiled detective.   Get it?
  5. Funny Characters.  Sometimes you can create a funny character and build a story around them.  This is what, in my opinion, Kate DiCamillo did with Mercy Watson, her tutu wearing, toast eating pig.
  6. Normal Character/Odd World.  Think Wizard of Oz or MT Anderson’s Whales on Stilts. 
  7. Parody.  It is hard to write parody that works for young readers because it has to be a story that they know.  This makes nursery rhymes ideal.  Not sure what I mean?  Think The Little Red Fort by Brenda Maier.
  8. Bathroom Humor.  I almost left this one out but there is a whole class of stories that revolve around bathroom humor as in Walter the Farting Dog.  While I will admit to sometimes laughing at these books – hey, I’m a boy mom – I can’t imagine writing them.
  9. Voice. You can also write a story with a humorous voice.  Think the Lemony Snicket books.
  10. Topsy Turvy.  Stories where characters switch places are funny.  The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Freaky Friday.

Can you think of something forgotten?


6 Opportunities for Writers Looking for Agents

If you are one of the many writers, myself included, seeking representation here are 6 opportunities.  One of them may be the right one for you.

Raven Quill Literary Agency is a new agency founded in 2020.  The agents are:

  • Jacqui Lipton (middle grade and young adult fiction and nonfiction)
  • Kelly Dyksterhouse
  • Kortney Price (picture book through young adult)
  • Lori Steel (children’s and YA literature)

Maria Rogers is an associate agent at the Tobias Literary Agency.

  • She represents nonfiction.
  • She is interested in science writing.
  • She wants to find work that will engage young readers in nonfiction topics.

Erin Clyburn is an associate agent at the Jennifer de Chiara Literary Agency.

  • In picture books, she is interested only in nonfiction.
  • She wants to sign a high-concept chapter book series.
  • Graphic novels
  • Magical realism

Abigail Frank is an associate agent at Sandford J. Greenburger Associates

  • Novels with unforgettable teens falling in love.
  • Chapter books with amazing voice.
  • Original picture books

Erin Files of Aevitas

  • Upmarket young adult or middle grade fiction.
  • Issue-driven stories.
  • Nonfiction in psychology, history, or popular science.

Bibi Lewis is an associate agent at the Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency

  • Fiction and nonfiction
  • Picture books through young adult.
  • Fiction with a strong hook.
  • Well-developed fictional characters

As always, before you submit to an agent find out as much about them as you can.  Look at what they like/read and who else they represent.  Newer agents can be a good opportunity since they frequently have fewer clients.  Personally, I think upbeat or humorous stories will be easier to sell right now but that’s just my two cents.  Take your cue from what they post and what they have to say about their work.

And, if you choose to submit, good luck!


3 Things to Remember When Writing Inner Dialogue

Joan Dempsey

I may be hip deep in a nonfiction title but my brain keeps drifting towards fiction.  I think part of the “problem” may be that I’ve been hanging out in Gutsy Great Novelist Studio, an online writing community hosted by author/writing instructor Joan Dempsey.  Earlier this week, Joan posted an article on inner dialogue, one of the lessons in her free course on dialogue.  So that is where my thoughts have been today.  Here are three things about inner dialogue to keep in mind.

  1.  Include it.  If you are writing a novel for young readers, be sure to include some inner dialogue.  It is one way that you can clue the reader into your character’s emotions.  This is something I frequently find myself reminding new writers.  We need to know what your character is thinking.
  2. Inner dialogue isn’t dialogue.  These are your character’s thoughts.  You can also use dialogue to tell us what your character is thinking but dialogue can also be a lie. So inner dialogue is an opportunity to tell your reader a truth that may be unknown to many of the characters in the story.  For example, you might write:  “Thank you, yellow cake with chocolate icing is my favorite,” Clara said while thinking that really she loved chocolate with chocolate.  Yellow cake with chocolate had been her twin brother’s favorite.
  3. Keep the punctuation simple. This one was from Joan. Often new writers will put inner dialogue in quotation marks but avoid doing that to avoid confusing your reader.  When I asked Joan how to punctuate two character who communicate mind-to-mind, she said to do that with quotation marks because it is communicated externally if not audibly.  So it would be something like this:  “I hate chocolate cake,” Clara thought to her cousin Emily.

I really enjoyed the free class on dialogue.  Starting Monday, April 27,  Joan is teaching a Master Class on Great Dialogue.  You can learn more about it here.  I haven’t taken the paid version but given how much Joan gives in the free version, you are sure to learn quite a lot.





The Most Vital Thing to Include In Your Opening Scene

Today I finished watching Randomhouse Editor Sara Sargent’s digital SCBWI workshop on opening scenes.  I watched it in the hopes understanding why the opening scene in my mystery doesn’t quite work.  I’m still not sure but I also know why.  As Sargent said, finish your novel and then revisit the opening.  I haven’t made it to the end yet so I know what the next step needs to be.

But I did come away with a better understanding of what I need to do for an earlier piece of fiction.  Yay!

Something that Sargent said stuck with me throughout the day and has had me thinking about not only my story but the one I am reading.  What is the most important thing for your reader to know about your character?  As it stands, my fantasy opens with a chase scene because later on a chase scene is pivotal.  Winning it is literally a matter of life and death.

That’s how I justified keeping this scene even when readers questioned it. It mirrors what happens later.  Mirroring!  That’s an advanced technique – right?  Right?!  Maybe it is, but only when it works.  And in this case it doesn’t reveal what is most important about my character.

In addition, I set it up so that you think her friends are pursuing her as in “I’m going to get you, my pretty!”  The reader is well into the scene when it is revealed that it is all a game of chase.  I meant that to be clever but it proved to confuse at least some people.

The scene doesn’t show how important her friends are to her.  And because that is the core of the story it really needs to resonate through out my opening scene.   I don’t know yet exactly what I’m going to do but I have a much better understanding of what this scene needs to accomplish.

Thank you, Sara Sargent!


3 Things to Remember When Researching a Topic Online

At the moment, a lot of us find ourself working from home and having to meet all new challenges.  This means lots of time at our desks or dining room tables, challenging our bandwidth.  Given the fact that I’m currently writing about the coronavirus, I’m happy to be doing  my research from a distance even if doing your research online can be tricky.  Here are three things to keep in mind when you do a Google search.

  1. Check the site.  Anytime you do research, you need to check the source to see if it is one you can trust.  When you are doing research online that means checking the site.  I avoid taking information from personal sites.  Instead, I look for medical organizations (The WHO, CDC, NIH, and the Mayo Clinic).  I also click through when I spot a university or other research institution.
  2. Check the site again.  I say this because there are sites out there that try to look more official than they are.  Since I want to collect legitimate information, I want to avoid sites sponsored by religious organizations and far right political groups.  And, yes, they have sites full of coronavirus misinformation.  What group is going to misinform the world about your topic?  Make sure that isn’t where you’ve landed.
  3. Check the date.  Whether or not your topic is as new as coronavirus, new research is being done all the time.   When I researched evolution, a found a lot of material that contradicted what I had learned in college.  Gene sequencing has redrawn the evolutionary family tree.

For more on how to research online, check out my article “3 Ways to Explore Place.”  I will be teaching a four week class on research in May.  You can find out more about my class here.



The Biggest Mistake You Can Make Using Questions In Your Writing

Yesterday I read an interesting blog post by Mary Kole on how not to use questions in your writing.  Specifically, she was warning against using rhetorical questions.

A rhetorical question is any question where you don’t expect an answer.  Parents are famous for rhetorical questions.  Do you want me to give you a reason to complain?

Umm . . . no?

Kole points out that many writers use rhetorical questioins in a lazy attempt to get information across to the reader.  They ask questions like:

  • Would he ever be able to eat pork-n-beans without thinking of his lost love?
  • Could he rely on the evil magic user to keep his promise?
  • Why did entering the arena and hearing the roar of the crowd make him anxious?

Okay, those are my own slightly off examples.  We use questions instead of coming up with three or four solid sentences the communicate something important.

Mom though pork-n-beans were still Kendrick’s favorite, but he had hated them ever since he had found the gate open and Patches missing.  It just wasn’t the same without her bumping his elbow asking for a taste.

I hope you’ll take the time to click on the link above and read Kole’s post.

She isn’t saying that you should avoid using questions entirely.  Which is excellent because as I was reading her piece I thought of The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree.  The three young bears explore inside a spooky old tree. Throughout the story the author asks a question – Do they dare?  What they dare varies throughout the book.  “Do they dare go into the spooky old tree? ” Then comes the answer.  “Yes.  They dare.”

Please bare with me if I’ve misquoted the book.  I’m working from memory here.

But the question and answer becomes a chorus or a call and response.  The adult reader says “Do they dare (whatever)?” and the young listener knows what is coming next.  “Yes, they dare!”

Questions can be an effective way to engage the reader, but not rhetorical questions.  Those you simply need to avoid.


Two of my Upcoming Books

Last week I was grabbing a quick breakfast before heading into work.  Translation: I was at the kitchen table eating fruit before sitting down a my computer.  My phone pinged to let me know I had a message.

“Congrats on the Covid-19 book!”

::insert cricket noises here::

As you may know if you read my blog, I don’t tell you all what I’m writing until my publisher gets it up on Amazon.  I check Amazon regularly so that I know what I can tell everyone about.  This book was not on Amazon.  Probably because I’m still writing it.

But my friend sent me the above ad from Abdo.  That’s my book right in the middle – Coronavirus: The Covid-19 Pandemic.  They are taking pre-orders for this and the other book I’m working on for them.  Today I turned in the rewrites for The Impeachment of Donald Trump.  I’m actually still working on the Coronavirus title.  This is absolutely surreal.

Writing about an ongoing situation is tricky because you have to find the most up-to-date information.  No matter how current the material is that I find, something new will happen between when I send in the manuscript and when I rework it from my editors’ comments.  Between a content expert, an editor and a managing editor, someone is bound to know something I don’t know, something that happened between the time I turned in the manuscript and got their comments, or something that just isn’t public knowledge yet.

That’s the best part about having a content expert on a project.  They are bound to have inside knowledge.  This isn’t like inside trading.  It just means that I’m working with a profession who knows things that haven’t been discussed in the press.

With that in mind – I better get back to work.  I have a book to finish drafting.

If you are interested, you can pop on over to Abdo and find out a bit more about these two titles.



The Most Important Thing to Remember When Writing a Series

Rowling excelled at building bridges for her readers.

Recently I read a series title that I will not name.  Yes, normally I tell you what book I’m talking about but not this time.  Why?  Because I’m giong to complain and I really like this author’s books.  Their other books.

Recently I read a series title.  This was not the first book and it was also not the final book in the series.  When I got to the end, I was really glad it was a library book because that meant I got to drop it into the library back to return. I would not have to look at it on my shelf.

What was the problem with this book?  It didn’t have a complete plot.  It was going along quite nicely but when I got to the end I felt like turning it over and smacking it on the base like you do with the ketchup bottle.  Certainly there has to be more story in there!   Where is the ending?

This book was nothing more than a very long prequel for the next book.

Do I have to clarify that as a reader this really ticked me off?  When you write a book in a series, that single book has to work on its own.  There has to be a plot that works.  The characters have to function in this book and not just be there waiting for their opportunity to step into the limelight in the next book.

I thought maybe it was just me until I read this post by agent Scott Eagan, A Word of Caution When Writing a Series.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I love it when an author does a great job plannig out all the book in a series.  Rowling did this with Harry Potter.  Something that is mentioned in book 1, like the core in a wand, becomes important in a later book.  A parent’s job, a secondary character, a spell.  So many things that were vital in later books were planned and planted early on.  But each book, unlike each movie, had a complete plot and a climax.

Each.  Book.  Needs.  To Be.  Complete.


I mean it.  I am a very disgruntled reader.