Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Picture Book or Short Story?

After rough drafting your picture book manuscript and revising it several times, you anxiously share it with your critique group. You hear suggestions and comments, some of which you agree with, some not, but the devastating opinion is when you hear, it’s more of a “short story” and you should consider magazines. AAAAH!

As writers, we need to accept criticism of our work. Okay, we can do that. But when is a story more suited for a magazine than a picture book (ages 5 to 9)? 

Both picture books and short stories have main characters who should solve their own problems and there should be a point to the story.  The basic differences between picture books and short stories are explained below. These differences don't apply to board books or concept books.

In a picture book, there is little description of the characters or the setting because we leave room for the illustrator, the word count is short, usually 500 or less (different publishers have different guidelines), the “take away” should not be pedantic or preachy, there may be repeating lines or a refrain, the language should be fun with a read-a-loud quality to encourage multiple readings, enough different scenes to support a 32-page format and a text that encourages page turns.

Short stories have more descriptions of your characters or setting because there are only a few art spots, word counts will vary for each magazine (400 to 800 for Highlights for Children), the read-a-loud quality and multiple readings are not as important and you don’t have to worry about line repetition, scene changes or page turns.

The differences are few, but critical to your understanding if your objective is to write picture books.  

I recently read Go Sleep In Your Own Bed by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Lori Nichols. When the pig goes to bed and finds a cow in his sty, it sets off a chain reaction of all the animals moving to their own bed.

The language is fun with onomatopoeia, fun verbs like “straggled, peckety-droop” and fun expressions like “Oh, fluff and feathers.”

Page turns are encouraged by each animal going to bed and finding a partially hidden animal already bedded down. “Who do you think he found?” The reader must turn the page to expose the animal. The repeating refrain of “Get up! . . . Go sleep in your own bed!” is read by the reader.

This book is a great example of fun, read-a-loud language and a text that encourages page turns.







Friday, June 30, 2017

June 2017 CWHV Conference

Our 5th annual June CWHV conference was an inspiring success! As always, our attendees were hard working and attacked every exercise with passion and due diligence. Our presenters were well-informed, personable and entertaining.

John Cusick, agent at Folio Jr./Folio Literary Management, schooled us with helpful tips on time management, creating a work space, how to persevere in our writer’s journey, the value of critique groups and what qualities they should have and how the “Love of your life” can mess you up! My favorite line: “Give your inner voice a name.” He explained why.

Sarah Jane Abbott, assistant editor for Paula Wiseman Books and Beach Lane Books at Simon & Schuster (Riveted), talked about what contributes to a picture book’s read aloud quality, audience participation, creating a plot arc, your story’s heart and meta books. She discussed character qualities and how to achieve them through writing devices (my favorite part!).

The writing exercises were graphing your plot arc, editing a picture book manuscript using the tools and techniques discussed earlier and giving your character a quality and showing it through writing devices.

Brett Duquette, senior editor at Sterling Publishing, reviewed the plot arc elements for a novel, why more choices or complications are better for your characters, different ways to start a novel and when to use a prologue. Favorite line: “Write to kill your characters; edit to save them.”

The hands-on exercise involved writing out a plot arc for your novel or WIP (work in progress).

Harold Underdown, independent editor, publishing consultant and founder of the well-respected Purple Crayon website, discussed reader’s response and revision tools. What is the goal of your text? Attendees received a handout listing helpful revision resources, questions to ask yourself about your characters and picture book and novel revision grids. My favorite line actually happened during our First 100 Words Panel: “The way we are reading these is like a parlor game for your amusement. We don’t really do it this way.”

The attendee participation was pairing up with someone who was not familiar with your story and reading your first page. What was the other person’s reader response?

We closed out the afternoon with our First 100 Words Panel. John, Sarah, Brett and Harold read the first 100 words of randomly selected attendee first pages. Their first impression comments were insightful and helpful to all our attendees.

I tweeted writing tips and advice during the conference. Enter #cwhv in the search bar or go to my feed @val_marchini and scroll down.

We are indebted to our faculty and attendee writers who made our conference a wonderful event. Thank you John Cusick, Sarah Jane Abbott, Brett Duquette, Harold Underdown, attendee writers, Merritt Bookstore and the CWHV committee for your time, participation and investment in our conference!

“As usual, it [the conference] was fabulous. I really appreciate the work you all put in to make this a stellar event! I especially loved the sessions by John Cusick and Brett Duquette.” Karen Versace, 2017 attendee

“I loved the 100-word critique session. Even though mine was not read, I found that session to be extremely educational. Lots of “lightbulb” moments.” . . . “Great speakers, venue, food, etc.” Judy Cooper, 2017 attendee



Lunch with Brett
An attendee talking with Sarah and John
Harold's presentation















Sunday, May 21, 2017

Does Your First Chapter Do its Job?

Who knew your first chapter had a job to do? Some of my examples are personal favorites, well known or current titles. The goals of your first chapter are listed below:

1. Grab the editor’s, agent’s or reader’s attention by your compelling first few lines, sentences and paragraphs

           In THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak, his sixth line reads “You are going to die.” What? Why?! You are immediately intrigued, curious, maybe even frightened, but you keep reading.

2. Introduce the main characters

In THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins, Rachel is a heavy drinker, divorced, and unhappy. She lives in Cathy’s flat, a former school friend, and frequently leaves drunken messes that Cathy cleans up. We learn about Rachel’s former life with Tom, her ex-husband, who she still loves. Rachel doesn’t respect boundaries and drunk calls and texts him which causes problems between him and his new wife, Anna. Rachel is obsessed with a couple that she watches through the train window at a signal stop. She calls them Jess and Jason and has invented a perfect, happy life for them.

       3. Hints at theme

In THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS, a Newbery Honor, by Katherine Paterson, we learn in the first chapter Miss Ellis, the social worker, has placed Gilly with multiple foster families desperately trying to find a home for her. The theme is about love and belonging.

       4. Sets the tone

Is your story humorous with silly plotlines line the CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS books by Dav Pilkey or is it a serious subject like gangs and police violence in THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas? 

       5. Lays down the foundation for conflicts or problems that will arise later

In THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas, Starr and her friend, Khalil, suspected of being a drug dealer, run out of a party after shots are fired by a gang member. They drive away, but see the flashing lights of a siren behind them. We have a shooting in a black neighborhood and a cop pulling over the main character and her friend, what could go wrong?

Once you’ve completed your novel, you may have to revise your first chapter to include or strengthen one or more of the elements listed above.

You can do it!






Saturday, April 22, 2017

National Autism Awareness

April is National Autism Awareness month.  Below are my thoughts on two books that supplement the understanding of autism.

I SEE THINGS DIFFERENTLY: A FIRST LOOK AT AUTISM, a picture book by Pat Thomas, a psychotherapist and counselor. The author explains some of the behaviors of autistic children including their rituals, fear of loud noises or crowds, repetition of words or phrases, avoiding eye contact and insistence on routines or habits. Some children are nonverbal and some are gifted in math, music or numbers.

She explains their brains work differently which means they see or interpret situations unlike me or you which may make them scared or nervous. The book is written in language that is kid friendly and would encourage a conversation between parent and child.

I feel the best part of this book is the last page. The aim of this book is to help children who have siblings or classmates understand what the perspective is from the child with autism. The last page also includes tips to help parents and teachers foster an understanding of what autism is and to promote interactions with children who have autism.

RAIN REIGN by Ann M. Martin is a middle grade novel. Rose Howard is a 12-year-old girl with Asperger’s, high functioning autism, in 5th grade and has an aide with her during school hours. Rose loves rules, numbers, especially prime numbers, and homonyms. When someone breaks the rules, she yells out and brings it to the attention of her teacher, dad or uncle. She recites prime number or homonyms when she is frustrated or scared and finds noises and crowds stressful.

One day, her dad brings home a stray dog. It is his gift to her. She names the dog Rain because the dog was found in the rain and rain (reign) is a homonym. Rain is lost during a hurricane and Rose decides she must find her dog. With the help of her uncle, who has more patience than her dad, they set out to find Rain using Rose’s plan.

The story has an unexpected twist ending which is heartbreaking and comforting at the same time.

I like this story because the reader not only sees Rose as a classmate, a one-sided view, the reader also experiences her home situation. Rose, like many children, does not get a pass on a troubled family life and lives in a single parent home where the parent is absent most of the time. The parent drinks too much, is easily frustrated and gets angry with Rose, who has learned to hide for protection.

My hope would be children reading these books would have more understanding and empathy and be kind to all children, especially those who are different or disabled.







Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Rules for Picture Book Writers

I had the pleasure of spending a few days with Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann in Honesdale. They were the instructors for the Highlights Foundation Founders Workshop that focused on picture books. We had lectures, assignments, sharing, manuscript critiques and enjoyed a writing camaraderie that is only found when you spend several days with like minded people. I left inspired with itchy writing muscles and couldn't wait to get home to attack my picture book manuscripts.

Below is a list of the basic dos and don’ts when writing picture books:

1. Your story starts on page 5 of a 32 page picture book.Your beginning tells your ending. Make a book dummy.

2. Does it sing? Do the words have a cadence, a rhythm? Do they flow out of your mouth? If not, revise until it sounds better. Use wonderful, rich language.

3. Read your story out loud. Cut unnecessary words, repetitive phrases or words, clich├ęs and adverbs.

4. Don’t overuse dialogue. Talking heads don’t make exciting pictures, unless your POV is two person conversational.

5. Do your scenes have action? Do they advance the plot? If not, cut or revise them.

6. The character needs to solve the problem. Keep the parents and adults in left field or better yet, leave them at home.

7. No predictable ending. In fact, throw out your first ending. Have a twist or nice surprise for the reader that is also satisfying.

8. Keep the story singularly focused. Write a one line summary to help you stay on point. Remove any loose ideas or tangents.

9. Does your story have a bigger message?  What is the take-away? But don’t be preachy.

10. Make the character someone that a child can relate to. Will the child want to listen to your story more than once? Is the story funny? Or does it have a sweet "Awww ending" ?

Of course, your best resource for writing picture books is not a top ten list, but a book on craft. Some of my favorite craft books are Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul and Second Sight by Cheryl B. Klein.







Monday, February 20, 2017

Ten Creative Exercises to Improve Your Writing

As writers, we're always trying to hone our craft. We take courses, we join critique groups, we form writing groups, we read books on craft, we read within and outside our genre, we write or "percolate" and revise.

Ten Creative Exercises That Will Help You Improve Your Writing is written by Leigh Anne Jasheway, a guest writer on The Writer’s Dig. She is a comedy writer, stand-up comic, author of 21 published books and teaches comedy writing.

Leigh has discovered that the concepts taught through improv can spark creativity, advance your storytelling, expand your dialogue expertise, help in problem solving and, best of all, restore the fun in writing.

These exercises can be done alone or with a partner. Pick your favorites, free yourself from the writing world of rules and have fun with it!









Sunday, January 15, 2017

100 Plus Query Tips

Once you have written, revised (using beta readers) and polished your manuscript as best you can, your next challenge is the submission process. Before you send that first query letter, double check that your query letter is giving the best first impression, is properly formatted and professional in tone and language. (Don't threaten, give ultimatums or swear.)

The following tips will help you navigate the intimidating world of submitting to agents (many tips also apply to editors), compiled and clarified by Chuck Sambuchio of The Writer’s Digest.