Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Consider Adding a Bully

Bullies come in all shapes and sizes and at all stages of your life.

The bully could be the 7-year-old punching the 6-year-old on the bus, a skinny street-girl who talks smack to you and threatens to beat you up after school, a group of nice girls who ditch someone by changing the location of planned outings or the tall girls who pat you on the head in the hallway calling you “my size Barbie.”

It could be a teacher, parent or boss who is verbally, physically or emotionally abusive. It could be the angry customer who screams at you about everything. The person in the car behind you honking, banging on the steering wheel and yelling because you’re not driving fast enough. (We call it road rage as if giving it an adult term makes it more acceptable.)

What they all have in common is bullying does emotional damage to your self-esteem and in the worst cases, physically harms you. They make your life miserable.

You may be asking when would I need or want a bully? How about in your story? Does your story need more tension, more obstacles or more subplots? Consider adding a bully. The bully could be your antagonist’s sidekick or a secondary character that delight in tormenting your main character, also known as “a toy breaker.”

Think about the bullies in your life. Here’s your chance to punish or confront them on paper. Go for it. No holds barred. The possibilities are endless.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Picture Books for Autism Awareness Month

THIS BEACH IS LOUD! by Samantha Cotterill (author and illustrator) is a story about a young boy who doesn’t like loud sounds or different textures, but he is super excited for his beach outing today. He wakes up Dad, makes breakfast, packs for the beach and gets himself dressed.

The beach is busy with lots of people and different sounds. Dad finds a spot that is empty and a little isolated. On the way to this perfect spot, the boy is bothered by the feel of the sand in his boots and bathing suit and the sand is hot! He wants to go home.

Dad teaches him a relaxation technique. The noises increase, but the boy uses this new technique, and they make it to their isolated spot. They enjoy their day playing in the sand and the boy can’t wait to return to the beach.

The illustrations are ink, charcoal and block printed on watercolor paper.

Two of my favorite pages are double spreads. The first one is the use of panels moving left to right. The first panel shows a quiet activity with little noise. As the panels progress, the noises increase as shown by the text getting larger and thicker and the activities around him become chaotic, ending with a plane overhead. The reader sees the anxiety increase on the boy’s face.

The next page is the second double spread. The pages are filled with different noises, bigger and thicker text but with a bulls eyes radiating from the child’s head with the concentric circles growing bigger. The boy is uncomfortable and anxious, with hands to his ears and eyes closed, while Dad is enjoying the noise and activity. Dad encourages him and reminds him of his relaxation technique.

This page illustrates that to many noise is just noise, but to others who don’t like loud noises, it is a different experience entirely and not pleasant.

Publisher is Dial Books For Young Readers, 2019.

I AM UTTERLY UNIQUE Celebrating the Strengths of Children with Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism by Elaine Marie Larson, illustrated by Vivian Strand.

This alphabet book, from A to Z, describes the unique talents and gifts of many children on the autism spectrum in a positive and entertaining way. Some of my favorite lines are: “I have Precise Pronunciation.” “I have an XXL (eXtra, eXtra large) memory.” And “I like unusual words like Yakow, Yapok, Yarak, Yeanling, Yelt and Yellowlegs.”

The illustrations that support the text are colorful, diverse, fun and self-explaining. The picture book is designed in AT Pelican and Avant Garde.

Publisher is Autism Asperger Publishing Company, 2006.

Friday, March 31, 2023

Don't Forget Your Novel's Structure

Critique groups are essential, provide a fresh look and perspective, and have that emotional distance from the writing. Easy readers, picture books, and young chapter books are easily tackled during a critique meeting because they are short. But critiquing a novel chapter by chapter misses the big picture. I think you’ll also need a secondary source to critique the novel as a whole.

You can ask a writer friend who writes novels, and this is important, who is also aware of a novel’s structure to give your manuscript a holistic critique.

You can pay for a professional whole novel critique from published writers or editors who freelance. Prices range from several dollars per page to several thousand dollars for a whole novel critique.

There are workshops and retreats that offer whole novel revisions focusing on the structure or character or plot, etc. I am a strong supporter of the Highlights Foundation Workshops. I’ve attended many and they are excellent.

The most affordable option is reading Save The Cat! Writes A Novel by Jessica BrodyIn her book, she breaks down the novel structure into 15 beats starting with the first beat, Opening Image, to the last beat, Final Image. She explains each beat using examples from popular novels.

She discusses 10 different genres, also using well known novels, and breaks them down into their 15 different beats.

There are thought-provoking exercises after some chapters, a chapter on writing loglines and synopses, and a chapter specific to helping the author solve their novel problems.

What I love about this book is her explanations because I’m a why person. Tell me why this works or why I should do it this way. I really appreciated the examples because I’m also a visual person, if I see it, I will remember it better. I read some of the novels listed and I could visualize the scenes that she used for her examples.

There are many excellent books written on the craft of writing. But my favorite is  Save The Cat! Writes A Novel by Jessica Brody.


Tuesday, January 31, 2023

What You Should Know About Your First Page

First pages is one of my favorite writing workshops. Below are some of my writing tips from a previous first pages event on picture book manuscripts (the examples are my own).

1. The main character should be the first character introduced. Limit the characters on the first page to one or two.

2. The first few lines should answer some basic, but essential questions. Who is the main character? What does the main character want or lack? Where is the story’s setting? When is the story taking place?

In CHRISTINA KATERINA and the TIME SHE QUIT the FAMILY by Patricia Lee Gauch, illustrated by Elisa Primavera the opening line answers the four Ws. MC: Christina Katerina, MC’s Want: to quit her family, Where: family’s home, When: quarter past nine on Saturday.

3. Does your story have enough set up? Are the main character's wants clear?

4. Choose your kid-friendly details carefully. Unless it’s important to the story, we don’t need to know the main character has a barrel chest, lives in a tree house and eats worms. Leave room for the illustrator.

5. Narrator’s voice is also important. Make sure it has voice or personality.

6. Packing too much information into the first page can make scenes confusing and the first page boring. Avoid info dumps.

7. Is the story something a kid can relate to? Is it age appropriate? Is it new? Different? Does it entertain?

8. Is there some tension on the first page? In my earlier example, Christina Katerina’s opening line is full of tension. She wants to quit her family! Wow!

9. Does your story sound like a list rather than a narrative? Even alphabet books have a story. In HI, KOO! A YEAR OF SEASONS by Jon J. Muth, children learn about the four seasons, but in every verse there is a letter of the alphabet, starting with A and ending with Z.

10. If the story is written in verse, why? Is the rhyme forced to advance the story? Did the story get left behind?

Sunday, December 11, 2022

November 2022 CWHV Conference

Our November 2022 Children's Writers of the Hudson Valley Conference was a wonderful success. It was a pleasure to see so many familiar faces, and our faculty was welcoming, knowledgeable and their presentations, excellent. We had Frances Gilbert, VP and Editor-in-Chief of Doubleday Books for Young Readers; Rachel Orr, agent at Prospect Agency; and Talia Benamy, editor at Philomel Books.

We opened our conference with fellowship over coffee, cookies and muffins.

Our Keynote was Frances Gilbert. She talked about the rules of writing. The tip is there are no rules in writing. She showed a slide of 9 picture books, four of them were medal winners, and all of those writers did not follow the rules. She talked about some of her editorial preoccupations, including word counts, plot, stories being too formulaic, main character growth or no growth, plus others.

Rachel Orr talked about strong beginnings that will hook the reader, the different categories of beginnings, what makes a bad beginning, and what is the purpose of picture book beginnings. She talked about nontraditional structures and the three categories of endings. Working on our own manuscripts, we used some of the techniques that we learned to improve our beginnings and endings.

Talia Benamy’s workshop was on crafting compelling characters. We reviewed what makes characters seem real, three dimensional and someone you’d like to spend time with. We examined ways to make characters come alive, what are their wants, what do they think they want, mannerisms, habits, etc. Our exercises encouraged us to delve deep into our characters to flush them out.

Our final session was a panel with Frances, Rachel, and Talia. Some questions asked were about the submission process; multiple authors on the same story and how royalties are split; if a client and agent part ways, what happens to future royalties and commissions; how did the editors and agent feel about self-published works; and what happens if an editor leaves in the middle of an acquisitions?

The faculty and attendees enjoyed a Panera’s lunch. Thank you Panera for providing our lunches. We want to thank our faculty, staff, and our dedicated and hardworking attendees, without your support, we wouldn’t exist.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Seven Easy Steps to Write a Query Pitch

Writing a query pitch (not an elevator pitch) requires one to pare down their story to seven sentences or less. Whether your story is a picture book or an adult novel, writing an effective query pitch is challenging. There are several formulas online and after trying several, I came up with the following questions to help me state the key points in my pitch when sending out query letters.

1. Who is the main character (MC)?

2. What is the MC’s problem?

3. What is the MC’s goal?

4. What are the obstacles preventing the MC from obtaining their goal?

5. What’s at stake? Make it personal.

6. What happens if the goal is not reached?

7. For picture books, how does MC solve the problem?

For middle grade and older, read the back jacket copy of published works. You’ll notice it doesn’t state how the character solves the problem, it is more of a tease or left unanswered.

I sent my 4-sentence picture book query below to an agent who she requested the manuscript.

When Charles visits his grandma in the country, he misses the excitement and noise of the big city and wants to go home. Charles tries to adapt to his new environment by making his own noise. After several attempts of making smaller noises, his imagination kicks in and soon enough the whole farm is in an uproar. Charles is enjoying his time with his grandma and can’t wait for his next visit!

Breaking it down:

When Charles (1. MAIN CHARACTER) visits his grandma in the country, (4. OBSTACLE, NATURE OF COUNTRY IS QUIET), he misses the excitement and noise of the big city (2. MC’S PROBLEM) and wants to go home. (5. WHAT’S AT STAKE, NOT VISITNG GRANDMA). Charles tries to adapt to his new environment by making his own noise. (3. MC'S GOAL). After several attempts of making smaller noises, his imagination kicks in and soon enough the whole farm is in an uproar. (7. MC SOLVES PROBLEM). Charles is enjoying his time with his grandma and can’t wait for his next visit! (6. IF GOAL NOT REACHED, CHARLES WILL NOT COME BACK)

Excluding how the problem is solved, my query would have looked like this:

When Charles visits his grandma in the country, he misses the excitement and noise of the big city and wants to go home. Charles tries to adapt to his new environment by making his own noise. Charles solves his problem and is enjoying his time with his grandma and can’t wait for his next visit!

Adding how the character solves the problem makes the query stronger.

If the seven sentences or less doesn’t work for you, use the number that you need to answer the above questions, but keep the pitch to two or three short paragraphs.

Friday, September 30, 2022

Writing in Verse

Writing is hard, no matter what age group you write for, and writing in verse is even harder.

Here’s why: the rhyme and meter has to be perfect; the story still needs a narrative arc with increasing tension, the main character needs to solve the problem and the story needs a satisfying ending; and many times, the writer focuses on the rhyme and meter that the story elements are left behind.

You may say what about books that are lists, there is no narrative arc, no main problem for the character to solve, it is simply a list. A list it is, but those books are written by award-winning authors whose books are bestsellers.

For example, Duck & Goose How Are You Feeling? by author illustrator Tad Hills, as the title suggests, several emotions are illustrated – selfish, proud, frustrated, and others. His books are sweet and charming with name and character recognition.

I read some authors that write in verse, write out the story in prose first. Once they are satisfied that the story has all of the story elements, and has been revised and revised, then they work on the rhyme and meter.

In addition to studying stories in verse and reading books on craft, I suggest reading reviews on Amazon (School Library Journal), Kirkus Reviews and Betsy Bird’s blog.

I feel book reviews from reputable sources are a teaching moment. They tell us what they liked about the story and /or what was lacking and what was excellent. Whether you write in verse or prose, it’s all about the story.

Board Books, reviews by Betsy Bird


Kirkus Reviews