The character struggle.

Don’t they say ‘It’s a sign of strength to know your weakness’? I’m not sure who ‘they’ are either but someone says that, right? Or something similar maybe?  Well, regardless I just said it and one of the areas that I struggle with most is Character Development. For the most part, my characters are flat, one dimensional and probably a little cheesy which leads to the dreaded ‘sweet’ labels that my stories so often get. (As a gentle reminder for those of you who haven’t been on the receiving end of this word, ‘sweet’ is typically not a good thing… not in this picture book world. Here it basically means ‘soft’.) I’ve mentioned before that I’m participating in a book study right now of Ann Whitford Paul’s WRITING PICTURE BOOKS, and let me tell you, I’ve been anxiously waiting for Chapter 6, Creating Compelling Characters.  By anxiously waiting I’m talking about the kind that comes when you’re sitting in the waiting room at the dentist office, and you’re pretty sure he/she’s going to tell you that you have a cavity, even though you really have been brushing twice a day albeit a little hurriedly each time. In your defense it’s only because you’ve been busy writing brilliant picture books. Not to mention, when an idea strikes you have to act on it, even if you just so happen to ALWAYS be brushing your teeth. Still, you know you need to hear it. You’ll be glad when it’s over, even if it’s a little painful and you’ll have a better, healthier mouth as a result. Sure.

I was having a conversation about this struggle of mine with a dear friend (and book study moderator- extraordinaire) when two things hit me:

1.       I struggle with only feeling productive when I’m actually writing/revising a manuscript so stepping back to do a character study on someone you only see for 500 words is easily dismissible. (I know this line of thinking is only hindering me, I’m working on breaking this habit.)

2.       I did one. I did a massive character study on a certain main character from a certain first (and shelved) manuscript. (CoughNathanCough.) I knew him inside and out, front and back. I know his favorite color, family life, interests, etc. You name it, I knew it, and it didn’t get me anywhere. If I can be honest, a part of me feels a little burned.

And I had this conversation with a fellow picture book writer that I had the pleasure of meeting at the SCBWI JambaLAya Kid Lit Conference in March.

As a writer of picture books, I’m always aware that I will have no say in what my characters will ever actually LOOK like. I don’t get to decide their facial structure, eye color or physical quirks.  I won’t get to decorate the walls of his bedroom. I don’t know if her hair will be in pig tails or braids. I don’t know the color, size, shape or shine of any of these characters that are swimming around in my brain. The illustrator gets to decide all of this.  I think I have a very healthy appreciation for this unique aspect of writing picture books but, as a result, the characters I’ve created are all a little blurry in my brain. I think it’s how I keep myself emotionally detached, but if I can’t envision your face, how well am I ever going to know you? Even all of my far-flung writing friends have a Facebook photo I can glance at.

And this is all to say that I really have no excuse. Everything I’ve ever read says that if you want to write a picture book that has any chance of becoming successful, regardless of your definition of the word,  you have to know your characters and know them well beyond the 32-page snippet of their life. There’s a part of me that also thinks character development should be an active, engaging, creative process in and of itself.  I’m often called away from the computer when I start leaning in that direction; maybe I grab a paper and pen, or a sketch book and pencils, once was even molding clay, but I never got very far with any of them. I spent so much time gathering supplies and making glamorous, glorious plans, that I didn’t have any time to actually do anything creative. So, I probably need to let that go too, this expectation that I’m going to make something wonderful as I get to know my character. Or maybe I don’t need to let it go, but reign in it. Maybe I need a process and one that is easily reproduced? I definitely need to change my line of thinking that it’s not a productive use of my time. I also should quit wallowing in the past and be grateful for everything I learned the first time around. I also need to let myself own my characters a little more. They are mine after all, they shouldn’t be blurry.

I have 4 manuscripts that I consider ‘priority’ right now for one reason or another. I owe it to all four to pause and flesh these characters out, regardless of whether or not they are submission ready or not (or even submission SENT.) Oh, well. There’s no time like the present! In order to hold myself accountable, I’ll post here and update on my progress next week. Doesn’t that excite you? Won’t you sleep better just knowing I’m brushing my teeth like I’m supposed to? 😉

 Hold the phone!  What was I thinking? It’s NaPiBoWriWee! It’s #50PreciousWordsforKids! The character studies still need to happen, but two of my favorite writing challenges converged on the same week (when I’m also up against a big work deadline!) It’s go time, folks… stay tuned for more on NaPiBoWriWee (National Picture Book Writing Week) and #50PreciousWordsforKids. 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

 

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What’s the question?

Almost every day of the week, for the past 36 weeks I’ve helped my daughter with her homework. This week, as we started the fourth and final quarter of the school year, something on her study guide caught my eye.  Right smack dab in the middle of the page her teacher had written, just like every week prior two words: essential question?  If I had been in a movie, it would’ve been the scene where my head started spinning and it all came together. The essential question.  Ann Whitford Paul wrote about this very thing. Professional critiques have touched on the same concept and last week a critique partner of mine challenged me to dig deeper into a work in progress and build up this one element of the story… The essential question. IMG_1012

I’m a member of a wonderful group of wise pre-published picture book writers and we’re in the middle of an online book study of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS by Ann Whitford Paul.  (You remember how much I love this book, right?) Early on, in Chapter two, she challenges her readers, assuming we’re all aspiring picture book writers of course, to find their ‘Story Question’ and soon after, their ‘Story Answer.’  These two concepts, she argues, are fundamental to guiding the course of a picture book from point A to the finish line while keeping a reader actively engaged. (I’m not doing this concept any justice though, you really have to read it for yourself)

For the sake of the book study, I wrote a new story rather than slowly working through one of my many existing manuscripts.  It’s a silly little story about socks and its one of the reasons I’m so in love with my current genre.  (Where else can you write an entire story about SOCKS?) I hammered it out one afternoon and then per the book study guidelines, posted it for the other members to review and discuss.  All of our stories were very different, and Story Questions for each varied greatly.  Some were silly and shallow, others dove deep and broached the subjects of acceptance and authenticity, all of them were eye-opening and stimulated great conversation.  It was a great exercise but, for some reason, I haven’t done it again.

Why did I show this brand, new, baby manuscript enough love and attention to probe with these deep, though provoking questions, and not do the same for my older, more polished manuscripts?  It was a critique partner of mine that I should really give the lion’s share of the credit to.  I talked to her about my love of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS weeks ago, and on my recommendation, she bought and started reading her own copy. We’ve been trading manuscripts for a few months now and are starting to know each other’s style well.  This month, my submission to her was weak, rough and scattered. She honed in immediately and challenged me to ‘find my question’ and give my story more direction. So, imagine my surprise when I found these same words on my daughter’s study guide.  My eight-year-old has a better handle on this then I do! She knows the ‘essential question’ for every story she’s studied. Do I know these questions for each of my works in progress?  More importantly, if I know the question, do I know the answer?  If I don’t know the question and answer, will my reader? My daughter has read my stories more than anyone else, every draft of every story even.  Would she be able to pinpoint the essential questions of each?   Truth be told, I’m nervous to find out because even though it’s essential to the process, it’s a deceptively difficult task.

I had given myself the assignment of creating a(nother) dummy for my nearly-submission-ready manuscript, but first I have to start asking questions for all of my works in progress. 

          What if you don’t love the work you’re expected to do?

          What do you do with a broken heart?

          What will it take to change a stubborn, little, picky-eaters mind?

          What can you do if you aren’t appreciated for being you?

          Who (or what) determines your self-worth?

          What is making that noise?!?

Do you know your ‘Essential Question’?

Next up, I will be making a dummy because the submission window for the SCBWI Work-In-Progress Grant ends on 3/31! Plus, as of the end of this month, I’m determined to be ‘submission-ready’. My story has been critiqued many (many, many) times, my word count is down, my illo notes are almost non-existent, my query letter was critiqued, my ending is tighter, my opening is stronger and my mind is made up. Look out editors (and contest judges) here I come!

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

Paper People: Camille Andros

One of my favorite things in the world is stumbling upon a book that seems to be written just for me, but I get an even bigger rush when I find a book that is PERFECT for someone else.  That’s what happened with CHARLOTTE THE SCIENTIST IS SQUISHED.  One busy afternoon, I stopped in at  B&N with this Paper People interview in mind. It took me all of ten minutes to find it, check out and rush from the store, eager to share my newest treasure with my daughter. As the oldest she is spirited, strong and selfless with an insatiable thirst for all things science.  This adorable bunny book belongs on my daughter’s shelf as much as my trusty copy of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS belongs on my own. Since the beginning of Paper People, I’ve been so grateful that the books I’ve read introduce me to their author by way of these interviews. In CHARLOTTE’S case, I feel blessed that reaching out to Camille helped my daughter and I to know Charlotte. Trust me, if you don’t already, you’ll be glad to know Camille and CHARLOTTE, too. They’re powerful women!  So, what are you waiting for? Read on!

Camille, thanks for being here! Before we get started, can I get you something to drink?  You’re such a great hostess, thank you Jennifer J I always love a cup of cocoa on a cold winter day.

Cocoa it is! Although it’s not wintery here, anymore, there’s just enough of a chill in the air that I think I’ll join you.  So, it seems you are a woman of many hats. Your website mentions that you garden, have six kids and are an EMT along with being an author. Plus, you’ve lived all over the country (and Israel!)  You must have countless stories to tell!  How did you start writing for children? I’ve always loved picture books, never out grew them and always wanted to write them. When my youngest was finally sleeping through the night I decided see what it would take to make that dream a reality.

Elizabeth Gilbert (BIG MAGIC) gives full credit for her writing career and deep-seated respect for creativity to the fact that she watched her mom live a creative life.  Do you see your writing having an impact on your children? The impact I hope for it to have on my children is that they have seen firsthand how I had a dream, set goals to achieve that dream and then worked really really hard to make it happen.

I wish the same for my own! I don’t have a publishing contract in hand, nor one in the foreseeable future, but I keep reminding myself that if I’m helping my kids to embrace their creativity and understand what it means to work towards a dream, then I’ll consider myself a success.  I’ve ‘met’ some of your Picture the Book-mates over recent months and read an interview you did with Anna Forrester. In it, you mention that you’re the oldest of 7 kids! Basically, you have first-hand, life-long experience being ‘squished’.  Where was your favorite place to retreat to when you need a minute alone? My bunk bed. I would walk to the grocery story, buy myself a candy bar, snuggle up in my bed, eat my candy and read. My grandparents also had a tree I loved to climb and read up in the tree. It always sounded like a good idea, but in practice it was actually kind of hard to balance a book up in a tree.

Let’s talk about CHARLOTTE THE SCIENTIST IS SQUISHED! I love science (my background is in nursing) and so does my eight-year-old daughter.  We read it often!  Was this story your first picture book manuscript?  How long was it a ‘work in progress’? This wasn’t my first manuscript. I had several I was working on trying to build up a body of work that I could share with an agent, but it was the first book I sold.  My first picture book manuscript I wrote is THE DRESS AND THE GIRL and will be coming out this August illustrated by Julie Morstad.

Not long after we first ‘met’, I saw your cover reveal for THE DRESS AND THE GIRL! It’s beautiful and simple and rich.  Can you give us a taste of what this one is about? Does it have a similar feel? THE DRESS AND THE GIRL is totally different from Charlotte. It’s a story about a little girl and her favorite dress, the power of memory, and how a life we think may be ordinary is actually quite extraordinary.

Tomorrow, March 14, you’ll have been a published author for one whole year! Happy Book-iversary!  Do you have plans to celebrate? Thank you! I hadn’t actually thought of celebrating, but I do love any excuse to celebrate, so now you’ve got me thinking…maybe I’ll have a birthday party with my kids for Charlotte the Scientist! J

 Do you remember the first time you saw CHAROLTTE on a bookstore shelf? Yes! A friend texted that she saw it at Barnes and Noble so after everyone got home from school we loaded all the kids up in the car and went to make it official. It was a pretty fun night!

I can imagine! So, tell us, how did you get it on those shelves? Oh my. I think I had zero to do with the book getting on shelves other than writing it. There is so much out of our control in this business and that is one of them. I think you just do the best with the information you have and don’t look back. You can “should-a, could-a, would-a,” yourself to death, but it’s not productive. Spend your time writing more great books.

I’m a member of an online book study and we’ve just started making our way through Ann Whitford Paul’s WRITING PICTURE BOOKS.  I don’t know if you’re familiar with her book or not, but in the first chapter she recommends typing out a ‘picture book you love’ as a guide. I can tell you that CHARLOTTE THE SCIENTIST was one of them… for a couple of us! It is so cleverly written.  Where did you get the idea to use the Scientific Method to guide your story? Thank you! In the early drafts of the book the scientific method was only mentioned in passing. It was only after the book was sold that we decided to add in the specific steps of the scientific method.

 It’s spot on! I don’t think we’ll ever study the scientific method the same way again. Now that you have one year and (nearly) two books under your belt I’m curious: What’s been the most surprising thing about making it to the published side of the industry? I’ve learned that most people feel like they are an imposter and are just waiting for everyone to figure it out. I’ve also learned that it’s not productive to compare yourself to anyone else. It’ll only make you feel bad. The world is wide enough (to borrow from a Hamilton reference;) for all of us and all of our books and ideas, so our time is best served writing good books, and helping to cheer others on to do the same.

 Yes! Just write good books; so simple and so powerful. Can you remind us when we can expect THE DRESS AND THE GIRL?  Anything else coming down the pipe?  Where can we find and follow you on social media?  THE DRESS AND THE GIRL will be out August 7, 2018, another CHARLOTTE THE SCIENTIST book will be out next year, as will a picture book biography about ELIZA HAMILTON.

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Instagram: @camilleandros

Twitter: @camdros

Facebook: Camille Andros

Thanks so much for visiting with me!

Let’s Talk, Writing Picture Books (and so much more)!

It was one of those surreal moments that will forever be embedded in my brain.  Right in my inbox, an email from the Contact Me page here on my blog. She read my recent post and thanked me for mentioning her book.  This line was the kicker, “If you ever want to interview me for your blog, I’m available… “ANN WHITFORD PAUL, Y’ALL!  I started this blog to make connections, but this was more than I dreamed of.  You see there was a time at the end of last year when I decided that it was time to invest in myself and my writing journey.  Being a one (and a half) income family with three small kids, a mortgage and a life, I had to spend wisely.  At that time, I wasn’t fully aware of the expansive Kid Lit online community, but I did come across a deeply discounted webinar package that came with a copy of Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul.  I had been eyeing this book for months, and the price of the whole bundle was exactly what I was looking for.  As soon as the book came in, I devoured it and it has since found a permanent spot on my nightstand.  For me, this book was the beginning of my education as a writer; it’s my kid lit foundation.  In addition to her impressively informative book, my kids and I are also huge fans of her picture books and she has another coming out soon! So, I invite you to come along for my conversation with Ann as we talk about her writing career, including books for both children and adults.

Thank you so much for agreeing to visit with me, Ann! This is such a wonderful treat.  Can you start by telling us a little about yourself and how you started writing for Children?  I was born and lived mostly in the Midwest, Chicago and Madison Wisconsin, with interludes in Philadelphia.  Graduated from the University of Wisconsin and Columbia University School of Social Work.  I worked for several years in a hospital where I met my husband.  Our honeymoon was a drive across country to California where he had taken a job.  I stopped doing social work when the first of my four children were born and would have loved working part-time but Ronald Reagan was governor and cutting back on social programs.  I had to find something else and it was that lovely quiet time of reading with my children that inspired me to try writing books that other grown-ups and children could share together.

Your first picture book was published in 1985, and you have upcoming books scheduled for the next two years, how tremendous! How do you keep up with the changing industry?  How do you keep your writing skills sharp? I think I keep up with the changing industry badly.  It’s been a special challenge when editors are looking for “edgy”.  That’s not me, but I do try to add a little more humor to my writing and to think outside the box.  Still, I’m me and it’s hard for me not to write who I am.  I keep my writing skills sharp by writing every single day and I belong to a monthly kid’s lit group where we discuss a new middle-grade or YA and a picture book.  That keeps me up with the latest publishing trends.

What is the most interesting shift in the children’s book market that you notice happening now? When I started out in the business, most sales went to the school and library market.  Now on-line and independent stores are where the sales are going.  That means the books have to appeal to parents who are not necessarily savvy about what makes a good story.  Art is becoming much more important and especially what appears on the cover to attract buyers. 

In 2009, 24 years after your debut picture book was released you published Writing Picture Books.  What prompted you to put this book together?  Was there anything new about the publishing process in writing for adults? I had been teaching for over ten years at UCLA Extension and at numerous conferences.  One of my students suggested, no pushed and prodded, me to write a book.  It was certainly a challenge, but once I told myself to look at each chapter as a long picture book, I was able to fool myself into thinking I could do it.  One of the super-nice things about writing for adults is that I didn’t have to split my earnings with an illustrator.  And I hear back from so many writers about how the book has helped them.  I love getting those notes and e-mails.

I have to tell you, my critique partners and I call your book ‘The Picture Book Bible’. Writing Picture Books is filled with such invaluable information and advice.  How did you organize and compile all your thoughts for the book?  See what I mean about hearing back from writers.  Thanks so much!  The organization was actually fairly easy, because I tried to organize my classes around those chapter subjects.  Also, because I’d given many talks, I was able to adapt some of those into the book.

 It sure seems to have a life of its own. Has the book accomplished everything you hoped since its publication?   What does the future hold for Writing Picture Books?I’m so glad you asked this question, because right now I am deep into doing an updated and revised edition of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS which will be published fall 2018.  There will be some new chapters, all new examples and all new books cited.  Also, Writer’s Digest Books (the publisher) and I are partnering to fund the SCBWI Most-Promising Picture Book Award to recognize and encourage the work of aspiring picture book writers.

Ohh, that’s very exciting!  I can only imagine the wisdom those pages will hold.  Since you’ve taught so many of us HOW to write, I’m curious, what is the most important piece of advice you’ve been given as a writer?  “Write what you know.”  I’m aware that’s mundane and everyone has heard it over and over again, but I’m an insecure writer and have lived a fine and thankfully uneventful life.  I’ve never saved a child from drowning, never stopped a bank robbery and never swam the English Channel, (but my son did) so I worried, and still sometimes do, wondering what on earth I have to write about.  But years ago at an SCBWI conference, hearing those words made me think about the patchwork I loved sewing and about how the names of the patterns spoke of long ago life.  I was so inspired, I finished the manuscript for EIGHT HANDS ROUND: A PATCHWORK ALPHABET IN six months.  That my hobby, my love of history and how people lived, could resonate with others (the book is still in print after twenty-five years) has made me less likely to push aside my ideas that might seem pedestrian.  I accept that my ideas might be boring to me, but exciting and fascinating to others.  Write what you know and are passionate about and your stories will touch others.

 Such great advice!  I try to remind myself often to be authentic in my writing, I can only tell my stories, not someone else’s right?  Speaking of my stories, I’ve learned from more than just your book, in your webinar for Kid Lit College, you talk about the importance of making a dummy.  That webinar is still one of my favorites. It completely reinforced what you wrote about in Writing Picture Books and totally transformed my creative process.  Why is making a dummy such a crucial step for writers? I’m glad you found making a dummy so helpful and transformative.  It was, and continues to be, the same for me.  There’s something about seeing your words cut out and pasted onto pages that you have to turn that shows you where your story weaknesses are.  Invariably when I make a dummy, I find words that can be cut.  Recently I’ve noticed in my writing that I tend to go on a bit too long after the problem has been solved.  That usually means I don’t have enough in the middle of my story or that I can delete or tighten the wrap-up at the end.  The act of reading my dummy aloud and turning the pages helps me to create stronger page turns also.  I would never submit a manuscript without making a dummy first.

Next month (October 2017) you’re scheduled to release If Animals Said I Love You.  This makes your Animals an adorable series. Congratulations!  Can you tell us a little about how the second book came about, eight years later? (If Animals Kissed Goodnight, 2009 was the first) On a trip to New York, I decided it would be a good time to meet the editor, Janine O’Malley, who had taken over for my original editor on IF ANIMALS KISSED GOOD NIGHT and had a lot to do with making it into a board book.  I arrived at an auspicious time for that very day, FS&G had ordered a huge reprinting of the book.  The board book, much to my joy and delight, had taken off in this new format.  In that meeting, Janine had suggested writing a follow-up, which I did.  I wrote TWO!  One about animals bathing in tubs and another about animals wearing clothes.  She rejected them both and suggested I write IF ANIMALS SAID I LOVE YOU.  I was doubtful.  Wasn’t that very close to IF ANIMALS KISSED?  However, my son Alan and his family live in South Africa and we were headed there for a visit and I determined to at least try and write that story while there.  We went on several safaris where I made notes and wrote couplets about them.  Also we went trekking to see Gorillas.  Something I would never do again—three hours straight up to find them.  I ached for days afterwards.  To make this story a bit different, I decided not just to have parents and children express love, but grandparents and cousins and siblings.  The manuscript was completed during our three week trip.

That sounds like the trip of a lifetime, and it was productive to boot! Fabulous! I actually have a safari themed manuscript and going on safari is on top of my vacation wish list, now my wheels are turning… Hmmm… Okay, before I get carried away let’s get back to the good stuff… The rhythm and rhyme scheme of If Animals Kissed Goodnight is one of my all-time favorites.  Was writing the second book more, or less challenging than you anticipated?  It was both.  When there’s a first book, the format is already determined, so you’re kind of locked into it.  The challenge for me was to work to differentiate the two since they were both about ways of expressing love.

While I was preparing for this interview, I read a 2013 interview you did with Henry Herz and I realized we share a love of Jane Austen! Just to make sure my daughter started her little life off right, I read Pride & Prejudice to her as a newborn.  Are you reading anything now?  Who’s your favorite author? Jane Austen is definitely my favorite author.  I’m also hooked on Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache mystery series.  I belong to three different book clubs so am always in the middle of a book—one is a couples reading club, another women only (and you wouldn’t be surprised to discover that co-ed book clubs are drawn to different books than the single-sex ones.)  In addition, I belong to a book club of teachers, librarians and writers and illustrators that read one novel (middle-grade or YA) and one picture book each month.  We post our discussions here:http://bookchatthursday.blogspot.com/

Is there anything else you have coming out soon?  Where can my readers find you if they want to follow along?

There are two more books upcoming in the animal series.

IF ANIMALS SAID MERRY CHRISTMAS will be published in the fall of 2018

IF ANIMALS WENT TO SCHOOL will be published in the fall of 2019

WRITING PICTURE BOOKS—New and Revised edition will be published in the fall of 2018.

I publish a monthly (sometimes less frequently) newsletter that you can sign up for here:

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Check out my web-site www.annwhitfordpaul.com.

Thank you so much for sharing your time, energy and wisdom with me! I had such a hard time narrowing my questions down to these 12.  Congratulations on your upcoming releases! Happy Writing! 

 Guess what? I have ANOTHER exciting interview coming next week… actually, make that TWO.  First up, is my chat with Megan Ur-Taraszkiewicz, founder of The Writer’s Match.  Do you have enough critique partners? Do you have a go-to place to find and connect with more?  If you answered ‘No’ to either of those questions, stop what you’re doing and check out The Writer’s Match.  It’s a free website that creates critique partnerships and allows you to search based on genre, experience level, and more.  I’ve had great success, and I know you will too! And after I share Megan and I’s chat, it’ll be time for Paper People with Liz Wong, author/illustrator of the adorable Quackers.  She has so many exciting things happening, you definitely don’t want to miss it.  Okay, that’s all for now.

And after I share Megan and I’s chat, it’ll be time for Paper People with Liz Wong, author/illustrator of the adorable Quackers.  She has so many exciting things happening, you definitely don’t want to miss it.  Okay, that’s all for now.

 

See you Friday!

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

Steering the Craft

It’s been a struggle of mine from the beginning.  I love to learn, I’ll soak up every chance I find to hone my skills and expand my knowledge on writing for children.  I keep hitting the same roadblocks, however, and in my most honest moment yet… the biggest one is cost.  I desperately want to learn from the greats.  I would devour any and every piece of wisdom that these prolifically published authors can share if only I could afford it.  You may or may not understand the struggle, but for me, it’s become quite the ‘hamster wheel’.  How am I ever going to find success as a picture book writer if I don’t learn more from those who’ve done it well?  How am I ever going to be able to afford these courses if I don’t sell (a few) books first? But, I can’t sell books that aren’t sellable, so I need to improve… but in order to improve, I need to find a way to afford the fees… and on, and on, and on.

My first venture into the picture book world came by way of a deeply discounted webinar package that included a copy of Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books.  Since then I’ve remained on the hunt for the literary version of clearance rack deals: webinars offered at a discount, free courses and social media communities that offer guidance and expertise.  Truth be told, some of what I was hearing started feeling repetitive and I couldn’t help but feel that something big was missing from my toolbox though.  In a moment of clarity, I realized that I can hear the same lessons over and over and over again, taking something different from each… but only if my writing is good enough to handle the challenges.  I think I allowed myself to get so bogged down in writing the perfect picture book, that I jumped ahead of myself.  All my energy focused on the picture book end, and I am still missing key components of basic writing.

So, what do I do when I’m feeling down and discouraged? I take myself to the library!  Down at the very bottom of a shelf, taking up only a small section of space, I found the books on writing.  (Seems ironic to me, that in a building filled with writings, there were so few books on the topic, but I digress.)  I only had about ten options, and the attention span of my three cohorts was waning, so I quickly chose two and we checked out.  Fast forward to the following weekend and I realized that I held a gem in my hands.  One chapter in to Steering the Craft by Ursula K. le Guin and I ordered my own copy from Amazon. (On sale, no less!) I also stumbled upon an idea, and after sleeping on it and fleshing it out a bit, I created an online book study via Facebook.  There, a handful of critique partners, kindred spirits, new friends and I will take one chapter at a time, and reset our focus on basic writing skills.  (Are you interested? Email me or find me on Facebook if so… we start Oct 1!)

I think so highly of those who see a void and take actionable steps to fill it.  So, that’s what I’m trying to do with the book study, even if it’s only my own personal void.  I hope all the group members benefit from the book, I also hope we connect a bit more as a small community who can support each other on this journey. I have no doubt that my time and energy (and money) will be well spent, once I sharpen my skills a bit more. And there are numerous communities and opportunities out there at little/no cost to help writers along the way.  I’ve included a short list here of the ones I’ve found helpful… If you have other suggestions, I’d love to hear them!

  • Kid Lit College offers webinars for a small fee ($20-$40 range) and some have been incredibly helpful… one, in particular, ‘Be A Better Critique Partner’ by Heather Alexander I keep on repeat, for myself and my critiques.
  • On Facebook, a group called ‘Debut Picture Book Study’ takes one debut picture book each month and breaks it down and holds a discussion to help readers learn from it. I’ve not been able to participate as much as I’d like, but the conversations are enlightening and I’ve learned a good bit, even if from the fringes.
  • Susanna Hill’s blog is a treasure chest of all things Kid Lit, she runs many different series… ‘Would You Read it Wednesday’ is a great segment, that allows readers to submit their PB pitch and then allows other readers to comment/critique. Pitches are so important to the PB process and something I struggle with in a big way. I think I’m going to try… (update: I did it! I’m on the books for November 8!)
  • Podcasts! I’ve fallen in love with the wisdom these audio gems provide. I really need to start taking notes…
  • SCWBI’s webinar calendar offers a wide variety of topics and all are very well priced. I haven’t dug into these but I’m eager to do so.

I know there are other opportunities, some I’m not even familiar with yet (and some are going to be discussed in another post!) To wrap up, I want to include a quote from the Introduction of my new favorite book…

“A skill is something you know how to do.  Skill in writing frees you to write what you want to write…. Craft enables art.  There’s luck in art.  And there’s the gift.  You can’t earn that. But you can learn skill, you can earn it.  You can learn to deserve your gift… but first of all-it is an art, a craft, a making.  And that is the joy of it.  To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit.  To learn to make something well can take your whole life.  It’s worth it.”            

Ursula K. le Guin Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story 2015 edition, pg.xii

 

Here’s to leaning to deserve my gift, your gift, all our gifts.

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

PS- I have a couple of exciting interviews coming up! Stay tuned for the next couple of Tuesdays for an extra Let’s Talk posts (one of which is about a certain ‘PB How-To’ book I mentioned earlier!), and then soon after the October edition of Paper People with Liz Wong!

Show, Don’t Tell

This afternoon, somewhere in the midst of end-of-school-year mayhem and baseball season fatigue, I had an epiphany.  I’m not even quite sure what to do with it yet, and honestly, it scares me a little.  Writing picture books is very VERY different than telling stories.  We tell stories all the time in my house.  There’s a series about ‘Bob the silly dragon’ that’s five years running. These get told every nap time or in the event of an extended potty stay. (Parents of current or former toddlers know exactly what I’m talking about.)  There’s a game we play often at the supper table, putting ourselves into our favorite fairy tales and telling them from a different perspective.  Sometimes on road trips, we take turns adding sentences to a story that becomes a family affair.  To be clear, I did not get into picture book writing because I thought it would be easy, or I thought that our silly little dragon would make me rich and famous.  But I did think that the two were similar, and though they are in some ways, they are not in many more.

The concept of ‘show, don’t tell’ confuses me.  I thought I knew what it meant. I thought I understood the concept, but with every critique I receive, I’m realizing how wrong I was.  As I try to find the balance between using great words, but only a few of them, I realize that I need to figure out how to tell a story without ‘showing’ much of it.  I’ve learned that adverbs should be used carefully, and prepositional phrases are almost never needed. I know that I shouldn’t say anything that can be shown in illustrations, except that this is such a vague and hypothetical concept for me, and therefore a struggle.  I have a good story.  I know how to tell my story using my spoken words and do it justice.  I’m struggling with how to tell it in written words, and as few as possible to boot.  I’m struggling to hang on to my voice and untangle the knot of words I’m hanging on to.  I think I’m on the cusp of something really good, and for lack of any other obvious, next-step options, it’s time to make a dummy.

Here’s my homework from a long forgotten webinar:

  1. Use 8 pieces of paper, cut in half and staple
  2. Number 1-32, and starting on page 5 or 6 (different schools of thought here) put your words on the page.

That’s it.  I’ve been avoiding it like a stack of unpaid bills.  You know, the kind of things you know better than to procrastinate on, but for some reason NOT doing it seems easier.  I could do it now, but I also have real work I could do too… or laundry… hell, it’s 9:30 pm, I could also sleep…

…I did it. I walked away from my computer and started on my dummy, slept a bit and now I’m back.  Honestly, I’m a little obsessed and outdone with myself for allowing my manuscript to stall for so long.  I can see things in the dummy that I couldn’t in a Word document. One thing many people don’t know is that I almost always carry one of my WIPs with me.  In my purse, or in my car you’re certain to find a manuscript or two.  Now that I have a dummy, you may find Him buckled into the passenger seat. Stay tuned for more of my ‘lessons from a dummy’.

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

Demolition

Two things happened recently, that have greatly altered the course of this little writing journey I’m on.  First, I watched a fantastic webinar on ‘How to Be a Better Critique Partner’ given by Heather Alexander.  I learned a great deal, and I’m still unpacking much of what she said, but one part resonated with me (and it actually had nothing to do with critiquing).  During her presentation, she made a comparison between that the revision process and a home renovation.  She made it clear, not the kind of remodel that involves slapping on a coat of paint and changing the light fixtures; what she was referring to was ‘knocking down walls kind of stuff’.   I’m a very visual person, and I appreciated the analogy, I even went so far as to write her words in large print on the bottom of my notes page.  But kids got home, life moved on, I slept and somehow lost track of it.

Fast forward a couple of days, and I received feedback from someone who graciously agreed to beta read for me.  I could’ve pinched myself when she agreed to do so. She’s previously published (with more picture books on the way) and comes from a similar background (healthcare turned writer) with much more experience.  I heard back from her sooner than I expected, and her feedback was all too familiar.  For the third time now, someone with industry experience told me, “Drop the Rhyme.” All three times it was said with much more tact, but I like to cut through the fluff when possible.  Three different times, each one separated by months and miles, but the advice didn’t change and this time I heard it.  If I can be honest, I felt like I had the wind knocked out of me.

I am terrified at the thought of not writing in rhyme.  It’s all I know.  In my family, rhyming is my ‘thing’.  Just ask my parents to see old Anniversary cards or Christmas picture books, and you’ll see that my history of rhyming goes back a long way.  Heck, I won a poetry contest in the eighth grade… I RHYME…IT’S WHAT I DO.  I know I’ve talked about writing versions of my story that don’t rhyme, and I promise I did.  I just I never did so with the intention of putting all my eggs in that basket.  I don’t know if I’m even any good.  But I believe, with every ounce of my ‘wanna-be’ writer self, that fear should never be the reason to hit the brakes.  At least not in situations like this.  Sure, it feels foreign, a little scary and like I’m starting from scratch, but the boy at the center of my story deserves for me to try.  (As an aside, I recently read “… if you write, then you are a writer” so I’m trying to settle in with the title.)

I think I’m starting to understand what Heather was talking about now.  Not that I hadn’t done major revisions before, because some those had been painful, but this is taking “kill your darlings’ to a whole new level.  (For my non-writer friends, don’t panic… the ‘darlings’ in this case are words, favorite words even, that need to be cut from a story.  William Faulkner said it, so you know its good advice.)  One of the first things I did was go back to my main character and ask for his help.  He did not disappoint.  What he did do, however, is throw the entire sequence of my stories about him in a tailspin.  I have three stories written about this boy and they landed in different pieces and different places than I had ever previously considered.  I think he may be on to something, but to get there will take a few more swings with a sledgehammer.  Words are starting to flow, but I’m not taking off my hard hat yet.

Sure I loved my ‘house’ before the renovation, it was filled with first words and early lessons, but I can already see I’m going to like the changes. It’ll make a mess in the process, but I feel energized and I’m eager to see where this takes me.  So here I go, in the middle of a self-induced rhyming fast (library books included) and venturing into foreign lands.  I’m also halfway through the Picture Book Page Turns webinar (kidlitcollege.org), I think I’ll be making a dummy with my WIP this week.  I’ll share what I learn soon. Wish me luck!

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

Handing in my homework

I’m happy to report that I actually did tackle the homework assignments I gave myself last week.  I re-wrote my story without rhyming at all, and I loved it, which was a pleasant surprise. In the spirit of full disclosure, the last time I tried this, I did so without a lot of effort.  This time, I wrote with intention and polished it up real nice… in fact, I’m not finished editing it, because I may need it after all.  I realized in the process that I need some outside help figuring out this eternal RHYME vs PROSE dilemma, and if I’m going to ask for opinions, both versions must be equally well written.  I am excited to say that writing the story in prose did, in fact, help me untangle the words in my brain, and I could ‘finish’ this draft, cute little rhyme and all.

So, where do I stand now?  I have my rhyming story, the 6th revision of it, and I have the same story written without rhyme, draft number 1.  I also have the second in this series that I’m slowly chipping away at.  (Have I mentioned that my first book is part of a series?  Again, this goes against most of the advice I’ve received but I can’t stifle this sweet boy and the stories I’ve been asked to tell about him… more on this another day).  This weekend I have the first of a two-part webinar, presented by Ann Whitford Paul titled Picture Book Page Turns and First Pages.  I’ve mentioned her book Writing Picture Books, before.  I’m thrilled because I learned so much from it, I can’t wait to hear her live.  This is an area I’m needing a lot of help in now that my story is “finished”.  A ‘page turn’ is where the text of a picture book is divided, from one 2 page spread to the next.  There’s so much emphasis placed on this concept because I want the reader eager to turn the page and see what happens next.  The page turns help the story to build speed and momentum, setting the pace for the story.  (Pacing is another concept I’m excited to learn more about too.)

One thing I hope she goes through and explains in the course is the benefits of ‘making a dummy.’  There’s a whole chapter devoted to this in Writing Picture Books, so I think it’s safe to assume she will.  A ‘dummy’ is exactly what it sounds like, blank pages, stapled together to resemble the 32 pages of a picture book.  Then, after I’m schooled on ‘page turns’, I can put words on these blank pages and see how well my story reads, as a book. (For those of you who didn’t know this, there’s a standard layout for picture books, which uses 32 pages. Typically, only 24 pages of the 32 are used to tell the story… put this on my “list of things to elaborate on, one day”)

I did something else this week that I’ve been excited about.  I finally mustered up the courage to approach one of the ‘cool kids’ on the playground, and ask if I could play with them.  It didn’t surprise me that she was super nice and approachable, it DID surprise me that she said yes! Slowly but surely, I’m building my writing community.  You know the saying “you are who you associate with.”  Well, I’m trying.

So, what’s on tap for the next few days? Part one of the webinar, ironing out wrinkles in my prose version of my manuscript and figuring out how to blend in with the cool kids. (I have a bad habit of either trying too hard or coming across as reserved and shy… crossing my fingers I can find a happy medium here).  That’s all for now!

 

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP