Sunday, January 28, 2018

Questions to Think About Before Writing Your Story

I recently read that many writers, new and seasoned, spend too much time revising their rejected picture book manuscripts (guilty). Maybe we change the setting or characters or POV hoping that revision will lead to an offer from an editor or agent. But who can blame us? To discard a story that we've invested time in without exploring every avenue or possibility is akin to saying we knew it wasn't any good to start with!

Other reasons why we refuse to ditch our old manuscripts: 
1. We know this is a subjective business. (Just because several editors or agents didn't like it, doesn't mean the next one won't!)
2. We’ve all heard stories about an author being rejected hundreds of times until he hit the right agent or editor.
3. We know agents or editors can be brutal when they’re trying to clear their inbox before a vacation or holiday. (One editor told me she gives each query 3 seconds to make her fall in love with it!)

The truth is, as much as we love our story, the reason it’s not being accepted is probably because the concept is not strong enough or absent, the idea is not unique or marketable. The other truth is, we need to let go of the old stories and focus on better ideas. 

I've posted a link to a blog post by picture book author Tara Luebbe. She explains how to consider the market before even writing your story.

Savvy Book Writers has a blog post with more questions to consider before you even put fingers to keys.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Time Frame for Revising a Manuscript

Signing up for your first or twenty first novel critique from an industry professional can be both exciting and frightening. You frequently check your inbox and then one day, there it is. The critique. But when you open the email and see six pages of notes and comments, you’re shell shocked. 

You didn’t think the manuscript had that many problems. You read the notes and disagree, maybe even think she doesn’t get it. After a few days of pondering the suggestions and rereading the email, the sting is gone and you’re ready to start the revision.

You may not know where to start. Some people use Post It notes or different colored highlighters to track each character's thread, plot lines, complications, climax and resolutions. Once the manuscript is marked up, some writers address one problem at a time while others take it one page at a time.

Once you’ve figured out how you’re going to tackle the revision, you plunge in and start the process. At some point, you start to wonder if you’re taking too long, if you’re doing it wrong or even how long should it take.

Below is the link to a blog post from Tracy Marchini, agent at BookEnds Literary and children’s author. She explains why a revision takes time and answers the question: How long should it take?

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Picture Book Reviews

In THE ONLY FISH IN THE SEA by Philip C. Stead and illustrated by Matthew Cordell, Amy Scott gets a goldfish for her birthday and announces to everyone that “goldfish are boring!”  She marches to the dock and drops the fish into the sea. Sherman worries about the fish being all alone and floating away. Sadie is apprehensive about the dangers that lie ahead in open waters.

Sadie names the fish Ellsworth and with Sherman's help, she plans to rescue the fish. They secure a boat, fishing gear, balloons, a bucket of paint, headwear and with a crew of monkeys, set sail. They encounter rough waters and sea creatures. They wait patiently and find Ellsworth drifting in troubled waters. They bring Ellsworth home and give him a nice place to live, and friends who will feed him and keep him company. But Amy Scott will not be as lucky.

Everyone will delight in the pen and ink illustrations of the monkeys and their antics. Readers will enjoy following the monkeys through the story as much as they'll root for the other characters.

I particularly like that Sadie names the fish, Ellsworth, it humanizes the fish, it has value and should be saved. Sherman and Sadie empathizing and showing concern for the fish is powerful. Later, Sherman sees Amy and says hi to her, even though she threw away the fish, he acknowledges her, and asks about her in the closing scene.

The take-away is about bullying and knowing that that you can count on your friends to help you.

I recently read the latest Duck and Goose picture book: Duck & Goose Honk! Quack! Boo!! By Tad Hills. In the opening scene, Duck and Goose discuss what they will be for Halloween. Their friend, Thistle, tells them there will be a swamp monster and to be cautious! Goose is afraid and has difficulty sleeping, while Duck admits he doesn’t like monsters, he still closes his eyes and sleeps.  

The next day, Duck and Goose dress as a scary ghost and a brave superhero, respectively. During trick-or-treating, a friendly daisy tells Duck and Goose a swamp monster is looking for them. When they see the monster, they run and hide in fear, but the swamp monster finds them. Together, Duck and Goose are scary and brave and save themselves. After discovering who the swamp monster is, all three continue trick-or-treating. In the closing scene, Duck and Goose share their candy and tell Halloween stories about a superhero, a ghost and a swamp monster. 

Children and adults will enjoy the lively illustrations, the amusing banter between Duck and Goose and how they solve their problem.

In this story, we learn that on Halloween we can be whatever we want to be or wish we were.


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Guilt Free Writing

Sometimes, writers feel guilty or are made to feel guilty for not spending enough time on their writing. The most frequently heard “right way to write” is butt in chair, 8 hours a day, your writing is your job. But what if your writing is not your day job? (This girl needs a regular paycheck!)

The truth is everyone has different writing practices.

Some writers have a day job, take care of their kids after work then write for several hours after they’ve gone to bed. I tried that, but I realized I’m not creative at the end of the day, but drained.

Other writers wake up early and write before work. I tried that, too, and was late for work every time and by day three was exhausted from not getting enough sleep and had co-workers ask me if I was sick.

I’ve read other writers write 15 minutes a day or on their days off or weekends.

What I’ve learned is every writer must figure out what works best for them.

First, consider your work schedule and/or family commitments, then ask yourself when are your creative juices flowing. Embrace that time. Don’t compare yourself to other writers. Don’t beat yourself up because you feel it’s not enough writing time.

Here’s the secret: words become sentences which turn into paragraphs which lead to pages. Pages become chapters.

My best writing time is in the morning. I write on my days off or the weekends. The time may vary from an hour to all day.

Closing note: I did have a writer make me feel guilty. I was at a local book fair talking to a guest author. She asked me what I wrote and how often. After I told her, she replied if I was a real writer, I’d be writing eight hours a day! When I said I had a day job and a family, she said “that's no excuse.”  

I was shocked and discouraged. After a few days, I gave myself a pep talk and decided it didn’t matter what she thought, I had to do what worked for me. And you need to do what works for you. 

Believe in yourself, be patient and persevere.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Pitfalls in Novel Pacing

In novel writing, pacing is a critical tool in your writer’s tool box. If the pacing is too slow, it drags out the action, interferes or eliminates any tension or suspense you were trying to build and makes the story boring.

Some things that might slow down your pacing:
1. Superfluous dialogue: Common examples would be when one character meets another character and too many words are wasted on the “hellos, how are you, blah, blah, blah,” or the good byes. Cut to the point of the conversation.  “Did the jury reach a verdict?”  “Did the doctor call?”

2. Long descriptions on setting: We need to know the specifics, but not every minutia of the setting. For example, telling us the Victorian house was surrounded by Lilac bushes and the sweet smell filled the front rooms gives us specific details. Victorian house, Lilac bushes and it introduces a smell. Telling us when and where the Lilac bushes were bought, their height and width, how often they bloom or are fertilized is not vital information unless that somehow reveals character or will play in to the plot.

3. Info dumps: Be sparing and discriminating when telling the backstory or reminiscing. Too many paragraphs or pages of information can be boring and slow down the story’s pace. Try to weave in the crucial details throughout the story.

4. Not enough plot: This can cause the writer to meander and use fillers getting the writer further away from the plot. The answer could be more subplots. This will also help your characterization by giving them more depth and making them more three dimensional.

5. Too much time inside your character's head: When we read pages and pages of your character's thoughts and feelings, there is no action. It's important to know what your character is thinking and feeling in order to  learn their motivation, but be mindful of how long the reader is inside their head.

6. Timing: When we spend time on a scene or a specific detail, we are telling the readers, this is significant. We are shining a light on it, pay attention to it. Be aware of this when you are editing, cut those long scenes of description or even dialogue if it’s not essential to the plot or character development.

Your story’s pacing is the right amount of dialogue, information, action and plotting.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Would A Bully Help?

Bullies are equal opportunity tormentors. Some pick on the weak, the disabled or the different. No one is out of bounds and, sadly, no one is too young or too old.

The bullying doesn’t have to be physical; it could be the 10-year-old on the bus name-calling the 8-year-old or the kid who spits in your food at lunchtime or a group of "nice kids" who post unflattering or embarrassing pictures of you on social media.

It could be a parent, teacher or boss who is physically, verbally or emotionally abusive. If you work in the service industry, it could be the angry customer who screams at you for everything that is wrong in their life.

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

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

In Jay Asher's  powerful and thought provoking, THIRTEEN REASONS WHY, without bullies, there'd be no story. Spoiler alert, the girl commits suicide because of the bullying.

Think about the bullies in your life, past or present. Here’s your chance to punish or confront them on paper. Go for it. No holds barred. The possibilities are endless and the catharsis —therapeutic!

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.

Go Sleep In Your Own Bed is a great example of fun, read-a-loud language and a text that encourages page turns.

The above post does not address marketability of a picture manuscript which is a whole different animal, but will be the subject of a future blog post.