One Writer’s Journey

May 24, 2017

Picture Book Writing: It Started with a Title

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:59 am
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Yesterday I was piddling around doing something else, talking to my teen when a phrase popped into my head.  “Yeti yoga.”

“Sasquatch swimming, what’s your point?”

“I’m not sure.  What would yeti hope to get out of yoga?”

Fortunately he’s grown up with Writer Mom so this didn’t particularly phase him.  I wasn’t sure what if anything would happen with this but it seemed like a fun title so I jotted it down and got back to work on the outline and chapter one of Advertising Overload. I turned those in after dinner and did some yard work.  It wasn’t until I turned off my computer and got in the shower that ideas started popping into my head.

Main Character: Gigi.  Daughter of two explorers.  Home schooled, naturally.

Setting: Himalayas, also naturally.

I knew what specific yoga positions yeti would practice (triangle, downward dog and a high lunge) as well as why (the normal reason, relaxation, and reducing your profile during high winds).  Now to work it into a story.

By the time I got out of the shower I had my chorus, my story problem and several scenes worked out.  Of course I’d already shut the computer off so I quickly drafted the book on a pad of Post-It Notes.  The benefit of a Post-It draft is that it is easy to see how many scenes you have, judge balance and see what, if anything, needs to be shifted.  Normally I do this by putting the POst-Its on the story board but not this time.  It’s still in its hiding place on top of my filing cabinets.

By morning it was obvious that my ending didn’t quite work but I also knew how to fix it.  So I wrote up another post-it and added it to the pile.  It feels kind of odd to be rewriting without actually having a full typed draft of the manuscript, but I’ll take it!  Before I do take the time to type everything out, I’m going to check the balance and make sure the pacing works.

Last but not least, I need to decide if the title gives too much away.  I suspect that it does but it can also easily become a second, shorter, chorus within the text.  I’ve never done this many “drafts” on a picture book while it is still in the Post-It stage but I kind of like it and may very well try it again.

–SueBE

May 18, 2017

The Dot Test: Rising Tension

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:35 am
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I’ve been contempleting one of my new manuscripts, working on a rewrite.  This particular picture book has a fun concept and interesting characters.  I say “interesting” because one of them is more interesting than she is sympathetic although she does change and grow.

But in addition to this you also have to have a story arc and part of that arc is rising tension.  One of these easiest ways to test this in a picture book is with the dot test.  I first read bout this test in a post at Adventures in Agenting.

Here is how you test a picture book.

Draw a line across your page.  Make a dot at the left end of the line and label it 1.  That is the level of tension in your first spread – spread because it is a picture book.  Otherwise it would be chapter.

Anywho, read the first spread and then read spread #2.  Is the tension higher?  If so, make another dot to the right and slightly higher than the first.  If the tension is the same, the two dots will be parallel.  If the tension drops, Dot #2 will be lower than Dot #1.

Spread by spread, read through your manuscript and judge each spread compared to the one just before it.

Ideally, your spreads will plot out something like your traditional story arc.  You need to have a climb toward the climax with tension dropping off several times immediately following an attempt by the hero to solve his story problem. A story that continually climbs in tension but never drops off even slightly, may seem tiring and burn the reader out before they finish.  A story that plots out as a horizontal line isn’t climbing towards a climax.

How does my story test out.  It climbs and then holds steady and then climbs again.  Way too much time spent with no climb or drop.  At least I know where to focus my efforts!

–SueBE

 

May 16, 2017

Picture Book Mentorship

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:27 am
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Do you feel like you’ve hit a brick wall with your picture books?  You’ve read all there is to read about writing picture books.  Your critique group likes your work but you still can’t find a publisher or an agent.  What are you doing wrong?

One of the best ways to get past this point is to work with a mentor.  A mentor is an more advanced author who works closely with you to help you develop your talent.  The good news for picture book writers is that the Kansas/Missouri Region of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators has an annual mentorship, and the mentor for 2018 is picture book author Ann Ingalls.

In addition to being a friend, Ann is a top-notch picture book author.  Her titles include J Is for Jazz (Bright Connections Media 2014), The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend (HMH 2010), and Fairy Floss (Little Bee Books 2017).  Anyone who has ever had the opportunity to be a critique group with Ann knows what a fantastic opportunity this is.  Ann is an insightful writer with the skills needed to help someone see the potential in their story.

To find out more, visit the KS/MO web site.  The lucky winner will definitely grow if they take advantage of this opportunity. As it says on the web site:  “If you apply, plan to study the picture book market, see what is out there, pay attention to what works and doesn’t in that marketplace, and spend loads of time with your rear in a chair and fingers poised above the keyboard while waiting for inspiration.  All the while, the goal will be to make your book submission ready for agents and editors.”

The deadline is June 30, 2017.

–SueBE

April 25, 2017

Fact vs Fiction When You’re Making Things Up

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:03 am
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Just how fictitious is too fictitious?  That’s the question that I’ve been asking myself as I research a new picture book.  It isn’t fantasy in the unicorns and elves sense.  There is no magic.  But there are animals doing things that animals simply do not do.

Without giving it all away, I have animal and human co-workers, specifically human and penguin co-workers. They are employed on a joint project in the Antarctic.

Obviously not realistic but how fanciful do I want to get?  I want my penguins to act like penguins which is going to require reading up on penguin behavior and watching scads of videos.  Oh, the horror.

But not every penguin behaves like every other penguin. So what kinds of penguins do I choose?

Obviously, I have to pick an Antarctic penguin which rules out Galapagos penguins.  But it still meant that I had to chose between King, Emperor, Adelie, Gentoo, Chinstrap, Macaroni and Rockhopper.

There were several criteria that I could use to choose.  I could pick a penguin with specific characteristics.  Some penguins nurture both chicks vs simply the one that hatches first.  Others are more social.  Some are noisier than others.  They vary in what they eat, where they live and how long they mate.  Yeah, that last one never really featured in the decision process. This is, after all, a picture book and not that kind of picture book.  Enemies are pretty consistent — adult penguins have to watch out for leopard seals and chicks are preyed on by skua.

I finally decided to select the penguin that researchers would be most likely to encounter.  This meant comparing maps of penguin nesting locations with maps of human activity and habitation.  There really wasn’t as much overlap as you might think.

Penguin type – check.  Now I’m ready to start watching those penguin videos and working to weave penguin fact into my highly fictitious penguin story.  Fact definitely blends with fiction in unique ways when you are writing a picture book.

–SueBE

 

 

 

April 18, 2017

Poetry Terms: A Few Key Words You Need to Know

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:54 am
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April is National Poetry Month.  Whether you are a serious poet or just someone who dabbles like I occassionally do, this Writer’s Digest post includes thirty-seven key terms that will help you know what everyone else is talking about. Of course, if you are a serious poet, you probably know most of them.

Rhyme, rhythm, and stanza I already knew but another term I’ve frequently seen, but never seen defined, is chapbook. If you write for children, that sounds a lot like chapter book, a type of book for newly confident readers who can handle chapters but still need fairly direct, straightforward text.

In poetry, a chapbook is a small book of approximately 24 to 50 pages.  Not what the “chap” stands for but when I looked deeper into it I found that they are also called brochures or pamphlets.  Traditionally they were stitched but they can also be stapled and generally have a paper stock cover.   They are often themed and have kind of a DIY feel so if you have the urge to try self-publishing something you might want to study up on chapbooks. You can read more about chapbooks here and here.

A lot of other poetry terms, including anapest and dactyl,  have to do with stressed and unstressed syllables. Then there are the terms that have to do with sounds other than rhyme — assonance and consonance, for example.

If you only dabble, you may not feel the need to know all of these terms but if you write picture books it is important to know about word play and how to make your story a fun read-aloud experience.  That means poetry.  You may not need each and every one of these words to know if your piece “works” but an editor or other critiquer may use one of these terms to explain why your rhythym is off.

This list made it obvious that I have a whole lot to learn. I have to say that I knew only about 25% of the terms but now I have a good source for new things, including chapbooks, that I want to learn more about.

–SueBE

March 31, 2017

Counting Books: Thinking out of the box

Just a few days ago, I reviewed Billions of Bricks: A Counting Book about Building by Kurt Cyrus.  It was a marvelous lesson in out-of-the-box thinking.

When I picked up the book, I expected something along the lines of one brick, two bricks . . . up through ten. But Cyrus gives the reader anything but the expected one through ten progression.  There are even numbers, specifically two, four, six, and counting by fives but never one through ten.  It is a book about building perhaps even more so than it is a book about counting.

I haven’t been planning to write a counting book, but now I find myself wondering how I might do it.  A book of count downs?  I wonder if that’s been done.  That could be a lot of fun dealing with space launches and race starts.

Squares?  1, 4, 9, 16, etc.   Hmm. I’m not sure how that one would work.

I’ll have to noodle this over while I’m on the treadmill.  I do have an idea for an alphabet book about trains.  Yes there are already train books but I’ve got a plan that would make this one different.  I hope it is unique enough to be “out of the box.”

At this point there are so many counting and alphabet books as well as books about shapes and colors that you have to come up with something creative to get a positive response.  Why buy your book when they can buy one illustrated by Dr. Seuss or featuring a favorite character.  Especially if you are considering a counting book, take a look at Billions of Bricks and see how your book stacks up next to the competition.

–SueBE

March 13, 2017

Poetry, Writing in Rhyme and Word Play

Saturday I had the opportunity to attend a top-notch writing workshop put on by KS/MO SCBWI.  The subject was poetry and rhyme and the workshop leader was Peggy Archer.

Writing in rhyme is not natural for me.  Part of it is my subject matter.  Black Lives Matter, Race and Racism and the Zika virus are not exactly topics that are just begging for a rhyming treatment.  Nope.

But I am trying to get back into picture book writing and picture books frequently rhyme in spite of the fact that many editors and agents advise writers not to write in rhyme.  Why?  Because it is so very hard to do well.  While I don’t tend to write in rhyme, I love wordplay and fun language in a picture book.  To that end, I tend to use onomatopoeia (sound words like pitter patter or kaboom) and alliteration (wicked wiley words).  As in poetry, picture book writing requires using each and every word for maximum impact.  Poetry workshops are a great help and Peggy’s was one of the best.

Here are 3 things I learned from Peggy.

  1.  Word lists pay off.  Whether you are trying to rhyme or just looking for fun read aloud words, Peggy recommends creating word lists.  Don’t put as much effort into adjective and eliminate virtually all adverbs.  Put your effort into specific, colorful nouns and verbs.
  2. Word length can be used to speed up and slow down your text.  Multiple syllable words give the impression of speed. Single syllables slow things down.
  3. Rewriting is 100% essential.  This doesn’t mean tweaking a word or two.  It may mean discarding and adding lines or altogether changing the rhythm.  Be aware of the emotion and idea that you want to convey.  I knew this but getting to see Peggy’s examples helped me to see what I rewrite on even very short text can accomplish.

I’m never going to be a world class poet, but Peggy supplied me with some tools to make my picture book texts shine.

–SueBE

February 28, 2017

Picture Book or Magazine-Length Story

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 5:51 pm
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Oonce-upon-a-time-719174_1920ne of the most difficult things for new writers, and even experienced writers, to grasp are the differences between different types of writing.  How does an early reader manuscript differ from a picture book?  How does a magazine story differ from a picture book manuscript?

Today, I’m going to talk about how a magazine story manuscript differs from a picture book manuscript.  And let me emphasize something.  We are talking about manuscripts.  Once the two pieces are published, the physical form of the published piece takes over and dominates the form of the story or manuscript.

That’s why we are focusing on manuscripts.  So how does a magazines piece differ from a picture book?  First lets cover how they don’t differ.

It isn’t length.  Manuscripts for either form can have a word count of well-below 100 words to several hundred.

It isn’t focus.  Magazine stories focus on the protagonist.  You generally don’t have to the time or space to bring in numerous siblings or the entire class.  But a picture book can also have this super tight focus.

There are two principal differences between a magazine story and a picture book.  The first is illustration possibilities.  Due to the format, a picture book has 32 pages.  Some of these pages may become back matter.  There is going to be a title page.  But you usually need at least 14 spreads.  If you don’t have 14 distinct illustration possibilities than you probably aren’t writing a picture book manuscript.

The second principal difference is lasting appeal or value for the buck.  Is your story something that a parent or grandparent would be willing to pay $16.99 to read again and again and again?  If the story isn’t going to hold up to multiple readings, either to a classroom or a single child, then it isn’t a picture book.  This means that a picture book story has to have depth and adult appeal.

Take a look at your manuscript.  Have you created something with 14 distinct illustration possibilities? These can be changes in action, tone or setting.  The illustrator can zoom out or zoom in but you have to give this person a story they can work with.

Now look at it for value/depth.  Is this something that you can see an adult reading again and again?  Neither type of writing is easy but it is all much easier if you know what to look for in your work.

–SueBE

July 1, 2016

Picture Books: Leaving Room for the Illustrations

illustrationFor those of us who write but don’t illustrate, part of the balance we need to achieve is writing a story that leaves space for the illustrations.  I knew better than to include specific character descriptions or clothing descriptions.  After all, unless the story depends on the character’s bright red hair, that’s the sort of detail that you can leave to the illustrator.

What I hadn’t considered was minimizing how much information I give about specific character actions and how my character gets from point A to point B.  Then I read Fred Koehler’s post, Writing Between the Lines.  Fred is the illustrator of One Day, The End by Rebecca Kai Dotlich which just one a Boston Globe Horn Book Award.

One spread has the words “One day I took a bath.”  Yes, the last illustration shows the character in the tub but before she gets there she uses her boot to shelter a flower, slips into a mud puddle, has wind-blown leaves stick to the mud and that’s why she needs the bath.  But the text doesn’t detail what led to the bath.  Koehler got to play.

Koehler’s recommendation is to imagine an omniscient narrator who tells the story in your head.  He also recommends that you imagine either the voice of Sean Connery or Morgan Freeman but I think Judy Dench would be a better match for my story.  Any who, imagine this voice narrating the heart of the story.

Yes, write the scene with all the words that you need to get it down and then rewrite it including only this heart.  This is something that I’m going to try with my fiction picture book in progress.  It isn’t going to be easy to give the illustrator so much room to play but it will be worth it if, by giving the illustrator space, I can entice an editor to pick up the project.

–SueBE

PS. A special thank you to Lee Wind who pointed Fred’s blog post out to SCBWI members.

May 26, 2016

Writing Books that Break the Rules

Your child character must solve his own problem.

Write picture books or listen to talks on picture books and you’re going to hear this advice. And, why not?  It’s really good advice.  No one wants to follow an inactive child character through the pages of a picture book.

But I just read a book that breaks that rule.   PLOT SPOILER

Did you see that?  I’m going to spoil the plot so don’t read on if that’s a problem for you.  

Bill Cotter’s Beard in a Box breaks this rule.  The story problem is that the narrator wants to be cool like his Dad.  He decides that it is Dad’s beard that makes him so cool so he sets out to grow his own.  He makes several unsuccessful attempts (poor, half-naked kitty) and even buys a beard growing kit.  Just as he figures out the kit is a scam in walks Dad sans beard.  Dad comforts junior and explains that awesomeness doesn’t have anything to do with the beard.  It’s all about you as a person.

Yep.  Dad explains it all.

No big epiphany for junior.  No Aha! moment.

So how did this picture book sell when the child narrator doesn’t solve the problem?  I think there are four things that helped this manuscript sell.

The narrator knew the answer all along.  When he’s thinking about how awesome his Dad is, he isn’t thinking about Dad trimming his beard, combing his beard or anything else along those lines.  He’s thinking about Dad playing basketball, playing his guitar and going biking.  It’s all about what Dad does not Dad and facial hair.

This book is really funny.  The humor in this book is going to appeal to both the child reader and the adult reader.  How can it not?  He shaves the cat.  All of his attempts to create a beard are funny as are his imaginings of “life with beard.”  because, you know, the beard will definitely make you a pirate.

The ending is satisfying. This book might seem quiet in that the ending is sweet and touching and look at Dad and Jr. playing basketball, biking, making music and fishing.  Isn’t that sweet?  But is it also satisfying.  It isn’t a big slam-bang type of satisfying ending but it is a warm and heart-felt and that’s what makes the book…

Marketable.  Think Father’s Day Book.  This might not be the book that Dad would buy, it is definitely the type of book that Mom would buy for the kids to give Dad on Father’s Day.

The lesson?  The book you write can break the rules as long as it still works well and there is a market for sales.  And it doesn’t hurt if it is really fun too.

–SueBE

 

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