Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Moment-by-Moment

I was recently reminded of the importance of being in the moment. If a scene is important enough to write, shouldn’t the reader get to feel as if they are with the characters while it is happening? I’d say a big resounding YES!

But what does that look like? It’s showing what is happening with action, sensory details, dialogue, thoughts, etc. No glossing over or summarizing, but being on scene with the character. Think immersion experience versus someone telling a story.

Say a fifth grader is walking into his new school cafeteria for the first time. Is this a good, bad, or neutral experience for him? What is he thinking? What sensory details are striking him? How is he reacting? Is he going to meet the guy who’s going to be his best friend or his enemy? Is he going to be invisible or draw everyone’s attention? There are so many possibilities and a generic: “He walked into his new school cafeteria” isn’t going to cut it.

Let’s try a few possibilities:

Or how about this one?

Similar situations, right? But so different because we have a clear picture of what each individual character is experiencing. They and their situations are unique. We learn more about each character than that they are eating lunch in a school cafeteria. Readers want those specifics.

Leave summarizing for transitions or things that aren’t important. For example: He got undressed and went to bed. The next morning after breakfast…

To end, I’d like to share this reminder from Kathryn Sant, “Strong action verbs actually allow our minds to feel the action as if our bodies had performed it.” So, don’t forget to include strong verbs in your moment-by-moment scenes.

Posted in Business Side of Writing, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, The Publication Process

How to Submit a Picture Book

Your picture book manuscript is written. You’ve revised it again and again, gotten feedback from other writers, revised yet again, and it’s in the current word count range—which these days is mostly under 500 words. (Nonfiction and informational fiction may be longer.) Now what?

The following is advice aimed specifically at writers.

You can submit directly to some publishers—mainly smaller houses.

First, read some of their books. Look at their online catalogs. Does your manuscript look like it will fit with their other books? Has the topic been already done? Do you have a fresh twist? Don’t submit without making sure your manuscript suits their list—not all publishers publish all kinds of picture books.

You might gain special insights by attending a conference, workshop, or webinar where you can hear an editor speak. (And sometimes get a chance to submit to a house normally closed to unsolicited manuscripts.)

Some publishing houses offer subscription newsletters that talk about their newest books—another chance for you to “get acquainted” with them.

When and how to submit.

Always check to make sure you’re reading a publishing house’s most current submission guidelines. Some publishers have windows of open opportunity. Others are open year-round. At times they’ll be closed to submissions entirely. Some only want a query letter—others may accept full manuscripts. A few still want hard copies by postal mail. Most probably want manuscripts via email. Some will ask for the manuscript to be pasted into the emails—others may accept attachments. Yet others may have a form where you paste in your query or cover letter and manuscript. However, they want it sent, you’ll be ahead by completely following directions.

Here are some links to some house’s submission or writer’s guidelines that are currently open:

Albert Whitman & Company

Charlesbridge

Creston Books

Familius

Flashlight Press

Holiday House

The Innovation Press

Page Street Publishing

Sleeping Bear Press

Sterling Children’s Books

Tilbury House Publishers

Any of these could close tomorrow. Research well before submitting. This list is not an endorsement—I’ve just done some research for you.

You can submit to agents who handle picture books.

Often, it is recommended that you have at least three manuscripts ready when you submit—in case an agent asks to see what else you have.

Here’s a great resource: the Monster List of Picture Book Agents.

Again, with agents there will be specific guidelines. For example, some agencies you may only submit to one agent. Certain agents may be closed to submissions, etc. They usually list clients and you may be able to get an idea of the agent’s likes and dislikes from their titles.

How do you decide where to submit?

Take the time to do your homework. Do you like what you see on their website when you are looking at either agents or publishing houses? Have you read their entries on manuscriptwishlist.com or their blogs? Search for interviews. Check Twitter.

Make sure the editor or agent is legit. If you’re an SCBWI member, you can check to see if a publisher is on their list by going to your member page and act as if you are entering a new book. If the house’s name comes up in the search, you’re good to go. If you’re not finding information elsewhere, ask in groups such as Sub It Club or Kidlit411 if someone is familiar with a specific agency or agent.

What’s next?

Prepare your cover letter* or query letter, proof it, and do the actual submitting.

One useful tip for submitting via email is to paste in your letter, paste or attach manuscript, type in your subject as guidelines specify, proofread, THEN when everything looks good, type in the TO: email address. This will avoid accidental sends before you are ready.

Be ready to keep going despite rejections.

*I like this post on writing cover/query letters.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Show Your Character’s Character

What’s more interesting to you? How someone looks? Or what they are really like? Sure a beautiful vivacious person might grab our attention, but if that’s all there is, I doubt we’ll be friends. I like warm genuine personalities. I like a sense of humor. I like imperfect humans who are willing to show vulnerabilities. And I bet you do too.

So, how do authors get that across? My “go to” is always to look at examples. I’ll start with some middle grade novels.

From the graphic novel When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed: “Walking with Hassan sometimes takes a while. He stops to greet every neighbor we meet. If he sees someone pushing a wheelbarrow, he likes to help out. He says hello to the donkeys pulling carts.” Don’t you like how that shows Hassan’s heart? Of course, with a graphic novel we do have images of what the boy looks like, but the words go deeper than the pictures. Later on you find out about the narrator Omar because of what he says and does.

Listen to this one: “I’m allergic to trouble. It makes my hands itch. But today in science when Mr. Levy starts calling out lab-partner assignments, I don’t even get the lightest tingle. I just sit there, barely breathing, waiting for him to assign me to the perfect lab partner.” When Shayla hears who she gets, here’s her internal response: “No. And I mean no. This is the opposite of perfect.” (A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée) Do you like her? I do. She’s eager about science and she likes to avoid trouble. But now things are not going her way.

Here’s one that quickly creates sympathy in me for the character: “No luck that day for my pocket-pick hands, and I hadn’t managed to filch my supper or a bit of copper to buy it with. I was hollow with hunger. I might have tried somewhere else, except the Underlord had a word out on me, and his minions would beat the fluff out of me if they could.” (The Magic Thief by Sarah Prineas—I love the whole series!) Not only do I feel sorry for Conn, but I’m curious why the Underlord is concerned about him. I like how Conn speaks, too, and know he isn’t from my time and place..

Now for a few young adult examples:

From The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg, in the main character’s point of view: “For a brief moment, too brief even for a security camera to catch it, I close my eyes, release my grip on the cool aluminum handrail, and dare myself to wonder if this is what it feels like to fly. Weightless. Breathless. Free.” The next sentence reveals her name, Ana. I know hardly anything about the character except that she is being watched and she isn’t free. But I want to know why! This short section implies unhappiness and hints that something is going to happen, so of course, I have to keep reading.

“Why did I volunteer to do this stupid presentation? Public speaking: not my strong point. Let’s be honest, public anything: not my strong point.” And then a few lines later: “I suddenly feel very small, like my classmates have shrink rays attached to their eyes. Shrinking Violet. This makes me laugh—now I look unhinged as well as nervous.” (The Fandom by Anna Day) I can sympathize with Violet’s discomfort but she also has a sense of humor which is appealing.

So, what do we see in common in these examples? There is so much internal to the characters. Someone else in the same situation would not think, feel, say, or react the same. I don’t care about their hair, skin, eye color or other exterior features. I’m hooked by who they are.

I like this quote from Cat Rambo: “Characters must shape the story. They need to influence the action and make the narrative one that could only happen to them.”

Posted in The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, Writing Life

Work to be Done

Except for writing quotes, this blog has been on hold the last two and a half months. Getting a manufactured home set up—which entails much more than I ever knew—moving out of two storage units, and an apartment, and moving into the house has taken so much time and energy. And there’s still more to do.

I likened our unpacking boxes of items that have been in storage for twenty months to Christmas. Oh, there’s that wonderful ______. Aww, I’d forgotten about ______. Yea, I have my _____ back. Other times I was reminded of a garage sale. Why’d I pack that? Or, some of it’s great stuff, but I don’t have a place for it. The result has been a lot of culling.

Which is similar to revising a piece I haven’t looked at in a while. Wow, did I write that? It’s good. Oh, yeah, I remember this part—it works. Why did I think this was important? Nice, but doesn’t fit here. Cut, cut, cut. Reorganize, rethink, rewrite.

One recent task was sorting boxes of papers from over 20 years ago. Notes and cards from friends and family, newspaper clippings, documents from and to my children in their teen years, travel itineraries, play programs, photographs, etc. What I didn’t expect was how much emotion these would create.

  • Some brought up sweet memories.
  • Others made me laugh or smile.
  • Some brought pain as the dear person is now gone from this life.
  • I was puzzled when I couldn’t remember a person in a note or photograph. Who was this person? I wasn’t even sure of context. From church? A husband’s coworker? A class? A fellow writer?
  • Others made me think fondly of those I’ve lost contact with.
  • Some I shared with those involved. Which was quite fun, by the way.

However, I didn’t expect to be exhausted during and afterward.

Writing can be mentally as well as emotionally exhausting as well. I’m reminded of my critique partner and a scene she recently glossed over—”I just wanted to get it over with,” she said when we all needed more. It was going to take further energy and emotion to get the scene right. But, when she took the time to dive deeper, the chapter was so much stronger. R.R. Martin said, “Fiction is about emotional resonance, about making us feel things on a primal and visceral level.” If we’re not feeling anything but impatience when we write, will our readers also be impatient?

I could moan about how much time I’ve lost during this physical move.  Or I can move on. I’m choosing the latter. By September I plan to be back into a regular writing routine, but I’m starting now with this blog. I love this quote from Eric Maisel in Fearless Creating: “What are any of us to do? Abandon the work or complete it, learn from the experience, cry, forgive ourselves, and move on…Now dry your eyes. There’s work to be done.”

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

I, I, I – Writing in First Person

It’s so easy when writing in first person to start too many sentences with “I” or a form of the word. A recent student had a whole page where every paragraph started with “I,” “I’ve,” or “I’m.” I suggested different methods of changing up sentences. These include adding time, rearranging, and removing “I” entirely. Let me show you with a simple one sentence example.

Instead of:
I added to the list in my notebook.

Mention time (or place) first:
All day I added to the list in my notebook.
Off and on throughout the morning, I added to the list in my notebook.
In my bedroom, I added to the list in my notebook.

Rearrange:
The list for what I need is saved in my notebook.

Remove I:
There’s this long list in my notebook.
We have this long list in my notebook.

Other options to cut the number of “I”s are to combine sentences, add a modifying phrase, or change a statement into a question.

Instead of:
I woke up when the dryer buzzed. I sat up and brushed hair out of my face.

Combine sentences:
When the driver buzzed, I woke up and brushed hair out of my face.

Add a modifying phrase:
The dryer buzzed. Waking up, I brushed hair out of my face.

Take from statement to question:

Instead of:
I knew he was coming here.
Ask:
Wasn’t he coming here?

Another way to cut the number of “I”s is to avoid, “I thought,” “I wondered.” Trust your reader to get it. In the opening of Hunger Games, Katniss has this thought about her sister: She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. It’s obvious from context without the words, “I thought.”

One of the big dangers of writing in first person is filtering or distancing the reader. Warnings of this problem are, “I saw,” “I heard,” “I watched,” “I noticed,” etc. Simply state what’s happening and the reader will assume the main character is seeing, hearing, observing, etc.

Instead of:
I watched the car turn off the main road onto a rutted gravel road.
Write:
The car turned off the main road onto a rutted gravel road.

In a similar manner, don’t state emotions with a simple “I,” such as “I felt.” In Wish by Barbara O’Connor, Charlie doesn’t say, I felt worried or I worried. Instead, she says, The worry clutching at my heart, told me my mama might never get her feet on the ground.

My final suggestion if you’re feeling as if you’re drowning in “I”s, is add someone else to the scene. As James Scott Bell says, “Don’t leave your lead character alone very long. Two or more characters, plus conflict, animate scenes.”

Perhaps you have other suggestions for caging wild “I”s—please post them in the comments.