Posted in Business Side of Writing, Inspiration, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, Tools, Writing Life

Creating during Anxious Times

Yesterday, a student who deals with depression and anxiety and, like all of us, now this pandemic, said that looking at the instruction manual felt overwhelming. Yet still she had sent in her assignment. In my letter back to her, I commended her for her accomplishment and then gave her some writing “work” advice.

Writing it made me aware of my own creativity. Or should I say lack thereof.  I’m finding it much easier to do a student lesson, critique someone else’s picture book or novel, than to actually create myself. It’s easy to jump on the news, Facebook (for socializing), etc. I need to take my own advice.

We all have upheaval in our lives right now with social distancing and worrying about the coronavirus. Some of you have children home full time now. You and/or your spouse may be working from home which is another adjustment. Or someone in the family has been laid off. It’s stressful. Perhaps these suggestions for making writing “work” easier will be helpful to you, too.

First, pick one task

Get that one done today and stop. Don’t worry about other writing things that need to be done. However, if doing one tasks leads you to wanting to do more, feel free. Just don’t agonize over those days when you can only do one thing.

But how do you know what task to do?

Set yourself a writing work schedule

1. Start by making a list of all the things you want to get done:
– read recent children’s books
– brainstorm ideas
– research for one idea
– work on first draft
– revise a short story, article, picture book, or chapter
– do market research
– listen to a podcast on ____ topic
– read blog posts on _____
– analyze feedback from others on my work
– write a cover/query letter for _____
– submit manuscript _____

Be as specific as possible.

See more sample task ideas at the bottom of this article and in the chart.

2. Commit to a time period whether it is a half hour or an hour or two. Pick three to five days a week.

3. Next, if you can, prioritize you list in order of most important. If none stand out, that’s okay too.

4. Then take your “to-do” list and plot them on a calendar OR during each scheduled time just pick one off of your list.

5. Add and cross-off items on your “want to get done” list.

Word by word, project by project, if you spend a little bit of time, you will make progress. Celebrate those accomplishments no matter how small.

Here’s a chart suggestion for recording what you’ve done so you can look back on it and be encouraged:

Second, remember you are not alone

We are all affected. Interacting digitally with others can help us not feel so isolated. My critique group is using Zoom to meet weekly. Don’t have a critique group? Offer to exchange critiques via email with other writers. (You can find them through SCBWI.org, on the Blueboard, through Facebook and Google groups, etc.) Talk to others in these groups. Comment on blog posts or podcasts that you found helpful. Share those links with others you know. And/or share on Twitter.

Third, encourage yourself

I’m finding myself doing a lot of what I call “comfort” reading—that’s rereading books that I know I’ll enjoy. Recently, it’s been the Harry Potter books. I’ve also connected with some old friends whom I haven’t talked to in years. I’m getting outside in the fresh air. What makes you happy? It’s necessary to take a break from all the bad news and uncertainty.

SOME RESOURCES:

“Turning Anxiety Into Creativity”

“What You Need to Know to Start Working from Home”

“10 ways to take care of yourself during coronavirus”

SAMPLE TASK IDEAS:

Subscribe to one blog post related to kidlit creativity. I don’t read them daily but spend time periodically to read posts. Some of my standbys are:

Kathy Temean’s Writing and Illustrating https://kathytemean.wordpress.com/

Always in the Middle with Greg Pattridge
https://gpattridge.com/

Susannah Leonard Hill’s “Perfect Picture Book Friday” https://susannahill.com/blog/

Institute for Children’s Literature blog
https://www.instituteforwriters.com/blogs/writing-for-children-blog/

Read recent children’s books. Whatever fits what you want to write. A novel. A handful of picture books. Chapter books. What did you learn?

Research one magazine market. Read about the magazine in the market book, go to the magazine’s website, read guidelines and editorial calendars, and sample copies if available. Take notes, if you like. I often write directly in my copy of a market book.

Search #MSWL on Twitter. Agents and editors give updates using this hashtag.

Brainstorm picture book ideas. January Storystorm posts on Tara Lazar’s site still up and can continue to be used. Here’s a link to day one: https://taralazar.com/2020/01/01/storystorm-2020-day-1/

Research agents on Manuscript Wishlist. https://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/

Add sensory details to your short story or one scene in your novel. Taste, smell, texture, temperature, sound, and sight. What makes this setting unique?

Read an article on self-editing and practice one idea. Focus on a weakness. Do you have trouble with dialogue or punctuation? There’s help out there.

Read opening paragraphs in novels you like. Do you see a pattern? Can you apply it to your work?

Write up the backstory for one character. Then you can work in snippets of it throughout the novel. But beware of info dumps.

I could go on and on. All I know is doing something (like this blog post) makes me feel better than doing nothing creative. I bet the same will be true for you too.

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Posted in Before You Begin, Inspiration, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Why Are YOU Doing This?

Why are you writing? (Or illustrating or both?) Do you have an answer?

I have so many students who sign up to take one of the writing courses I teach, then don’t turn in assignments. Two things happen. They either get tired of being nagged and send something in, or drop out. Some do several lessons, then drop the class. Some are almost done with the course, then quit. (And this is a course they’re paying for!)

I get it. I do. Some find this writing gig is much harder than they thought. Many think that writing for children is so simple. Especially picture books. They look simple. Others have life interfere—something has to give and the class is easy to cut.

Mem Fox said, “We need to be honest, right from the start, about why we want to write for children. If we intend to moralise, teach a lesson, patronise, categorise, marginalise, or show off our own brilliance, we are doing it for the wrong reasons and we’ll need to reassess our motives. We are not writing academically de-constructible literature. Nor are we writing as therapy to eradicate our guilt about the world and what we have done to it.”

Writing as therapy is fine, but it’s different than writing for publication.

Hobby or Business?

For me, putting the words on a page is something I do. Yet, I don’t do it only for my own pleasure. I want to affect others, whether it is via entertainment, words of wisdom, or helpful tips. The latter is one of the reasons I blog.

I treat writing like a business. Just like a “regular” job, I show up. I get to work. I write. I read for research purposes. I do other parts of the job, such as record keeping, social media, critiques, etc. Look what Nathan Bransford has said, “The only way to stay sane in the business is to enjoy every step as you’re actually experiencing it. Happiness is not around the bend. It’s found in the present. Because writing is pretty great — otherwise why are you doing it?” I will admit that writing for me is a part time job.

Patricia Wrede said, “Talent is way down on the list of things you need to write; it comes in a distant fourth, after persistence, motivation, and discipline. And the reason is that “talent” is as common as mud; what’s rare is the motivation to sit down and actually do something with it, the discipline to do it regularly, and the persistence to stick with it until it’s finished.”

“Being a writer and eventually a published author is no different than the pursuit of any profession. You have to pay your dues,” Pam Torres said. Treating your writing like a business is part of paying your dues.

I also agree with Vita Sackville-West: “It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone.“ I am most happy and satisfied with myself when I write.

SO, what about you?

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

Inspired by Pictures

One fiction assignment at the Institute of Children’s Literature is to write something inspired by a picture in the manual. The pictures show people (or animals) doing something—each picture can inspire ideas for a story.

Many years ago I attended a workshop where the speaker, Peggy King Anderson, had laid out newspaper and magazine clippings of drawings and photos. Our instructions were to pick several images that appealed to us. Then, asking ourselves questions about who, where, what, and when, we wrote a paragraph triggered by the pictures and the questions. That exercise created a character for me who wouldn’t let me go.

 Once I was contacted by a publisher who had a project where books for English as a Foreign Language had been written and illustrated, but not published. There was a change in company staff and the new editors wanted to go a different direction. However, it was too expensive to start from scratch with new illustrations, so they wanted writers to take the existing spreads of illustrations and fix the text.

Here’s part of what my editor said, “It has the potential to be a fine story, it just needs a little work. The main thing is that it’s pretty humorless. And with a title like that, it needs humor! Also Jake’s moaning about how his summer is ruined . . . gets old fast. Really try to write it from the mind of a kid. You can change the whole story or just tweak it. Try to make it more entertaining! Don’t be afraid to be funny. And you can change the title.”

I read the original story and agreed that the main character was too whiny. I analyzed the story and found this main issue: the main character didn’t have a strong reason to solve the problem and he wasn’t in control. His mother made a lot of the decisions. That meant I didn’t care about him. There also was a lot of telling.

Brainstorming, I asked how I could make the problem a bigger deal for this kid. I asked how it could become more important to him. What could make it worse for him? I made the problem relational—it wasn’t just something ruined, but his friend’s possession that was ruined. His friend might get mad at him if he can’t fix it. That raised the stakes.

Next, I printed out the illustrations and ignored the existing text. I rewrote the story using showing instead of telling and made each set of words fit with the picture on a page. I rearranged some of the pictures. Changed a character where I could. Most every time there was a place for a decision or suggestion to be made, I had the main character make it—that put him in control, not his mom. Most importantly, his suggestion at the end of the story solves the problem.

When I submitted it to the editor, this is what I got back: “You’ve done a great job with this story! I think it works really well; it’s a lot of fun and now it makes a lot more sense why Jake was so worried . . . I really like what you’ve done. I have a few small changes to suggest . . .”

I revised again and the story (and new title) was approved. (The Smell of Trouble was published in 2012 by Compass Media.) Plus, they asked me to do more stories.

How does this apply to you? You can also be inspired by pictures. Here are some ideas:

Ask someone else to choose some story starter images for you.* Action pictures are good. Also, ones that make you asks questions. (Internet sites such as pixabay.com could be used. Challenge yourself to come up with a story for one picture and write the story.

*in case you don’t have anyone willing to do this for you, here are some images:

Start an image collection. Add anything that appeals to you, causes emotion, or reaction. This might be a character you’d like to write about, a setting that reminds you of something from your childhood, an interesting object. There’s no limit. I know one writer who pastes them into a journal and sometimes jots down a few words. When he needs an idea, he flips through the pages for inspiration. You can do the same whether your images are in a folder or a journal.

Take a picture book or easy reader that you don’t like. Only look at the images. What else could be happening in the story? Perhaps you’re more interested in a sidekick than the main character. Brainstorm about the sidekick and what he needs. Remember the images don’t have to stay in the same order. Nor do you have to use them all to get ideas flowing.

Or take characters from two different stories. What would it be like if you put them together? You aren’t limited by who they are in their stories. Consider changing their personalities. Create different conflicts. Put them in a new setting. Have fun with it and something extraordinary might happen.

And don’t forget your own cell phone photos. Some of them may prompt story ideas, too.

I’d love to hear from others who have been inspired by pictures. Feel free to share in comments.

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Posted in Inspiration, It's Not Just Books, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

How Do You Choose?

light-bulbs-1822112_1920.jpegI’ve heard people say they have so many ideas they don’t know which one to write. Having a lot of ideas is great, but it can also be a form of procrastination or indetermination. Don’t get caught in a trap of endless idea generation that means you never write.
Here’s what works for me when choosing ideas. I’ll address different categories of writing.
Magazine Piece Ideas
I’ve sold over a hundred and fifty short stories and articles. If I’m in the midst of writing a story and another idea comes to mind, I open a file write down my ideas and save it in a folder labeled Story Starts or Article Ideas. Then I get back to the original story. When I finish my first draft of the piece, then I can move on to a new idea or an unfinished story or article.
But let’s say today I have no stories or articles in progress–just ideas. How do I choose? I look at my ideas. Some may feel “meh.” (At least at the moment.) Others may look interesting, but I’m missing something to make it compelling and I’m not sure what, so I set it aside. Another idea is intriguing, so I start writing. Why look for other ideas if this one looks good? Go ahead and write it. If no ideas grab me, I look at editorial calendars and theme lists. I may have something already written that fits or need minor adjusting, or this outside input may be the missing inspiration I need for an idea on file. Or it may inspire me to write something totally new.
It helps me to finish stories by knowing these things:
1. The main character’s problem
2. How he/she will solve the problem
3. Something of the character’s personality
4. Setting
For most articles, some research will be required. What information can I find? Are there books on the topic? Good internet sources? Good articles written for adults? Interviews? Diaries? While I’m looking at this material and taking notes, I ask myself, “What will be the focus on my article?” “What will be especially of interest to kid readers?” Sometimes the research will point at another idea, which goes in my idea file.
I’ve also done interviews for articles. That takes preparation too. Finding someone interesting to interview, arranging the interview, preparing intelligent questions, taking notes on their answers and taking pictures. If allowed, I tape the interview. My notes might include details about the person and setting and observations about what they do as well as direct quotes. Then I have to look over my notes, perhaps listen again to the interview, look at the pictures, and start organizing my article. I find it helpful to make a mini-outline after I’ve written a piece to see if it works or needs rearranging. (I’m not an outliner.)
When I’m done with the first draft of a story or article, I can move on to another idea. Giving the draft a week or more to settle while I work on other things helps me come back with fresh eyes to do editing. After that, I share with my critique group and do another rewrite (or two or three) before submitting.
TIP: If you never finish any stories or articles, you’ll never have the satisfaction of a complete piece. Nor sales.
Picture Book Ideas
Picture books are usually going to take a lot more work to get right than a short story. I have to be really motivated by the idea. Does that mean I jump in and write it? Often, not. I might look and see if there are similar books out there on the topic. If too many, then it’s not a good topic to write unless I have a fresh twist. I might abandon the idea or throw it in an idea file.
I may need to do some research on character or setting before I begin to write. What will work the best for this story idea? Who will be the right character for this story? I have to think of character names that fit. I might do research on objects or an experience I want to include in the story.
Sometimes ideas come almost full blown. I lie down at night and keep thinking of the story. I wake up in the morning and the story is nagging me. I may not want to get dressed, eat breakfast or do anything, but get to the keyboard. Does that mean the picture book comes out perfect first time? Absolutely not! But it usually means I’ll get a first draft written in a hurry.
Again, all my picture books go through revisions before my critique group sees them. They may go through several rounds with my group as well. Sometimes I get a professional critique, too.
TIP: Write to the end, even if you don’t like your first draft. You’ll learn something by doing so.
Novel Ideas
Novels are a big commitment–usually a number of years for me. I have to know the main problem, have a character, and have an idea how the problem might be solved before I write anything. I have a number of novel starts–a page or two or even a chapter–where I didn’t know enough and couldn’t get going because of it.
Ideas I’ll develop into a novel have to have a theme that resonates with me. I’ve discovered that many of my manuscripts deal with the theme of facing fears. Having a theme helps provide a partial roadmap for the story.
These story ideas may be inspired by past experiences, by the voice of a character, or by a predicament I’ve read about or imagined. I start with the one that is tugging me most.
I try to finish a draft of one novel manuscript before starting another. However, sometimes a new story is pressing me so much, I work on two projects. Of course, at any time, I may stop and make notes on a new idea that I’ll attack later. While writing that first draft, I spend a lot of time thinking about what my characters are doing, do any necessary research, and keep plugging away until I reach the end. Once I have a completed draft, I may let it “sit a spell” and work on something else so I can come back to it with fresh eyes for revisions.
Just like with the other forms of writing, my critique group gives me feedback.
TIP: As a pantser (versus an outliner), I find the use of a story timeline or story ladder helps me keep track of the who, where, and when of each of my scenes and chapters.
Assigned Writing
Sometimes writers are asked to write on a specific topic which means they didn’t have to find the initial idea. This often includes a deadline. But I’ll leave that discussion for another time.
Does It Matter Which Idea I Choose?
Eventually. But I’ve found all writing, helps develop my writing muscles and skills. I find the more I write, the more I want to write. Picking an idea and going with it will get you in the habit of writing. So, don’t agonize too long over which idea to develop–write!
I love this quote from John M. Cusick, “Writers, your job today is to sit down and start. Finishing, getting better, getting through it–that will happen on its own. Just start.”

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

Diverse Books

DiversityinChildren'sBooks
I have 271 book recommendation posts on my blog–some of those include multiple books. When I started the blog ten years ago, there wasn’t such a big push for diversity as there is now. Recently, I was curious how many of my entries were about diverse books. Doing some research, I discovered 49 of the entries had books with diverse characters who were integral to the story. (That’s about 18 percent.) The books were not necessarily fully focused on diversity, but at least presented an important character who was nonwhite or other “abled.” (If you want to see what books are included, search my blog for diversity.) If I’d looked at the fantasy books, many of them would fit the diversity category too, as fantasy books often deal with characters who are different from the mainstream of their culture, but I don’t think those books are usually counted as diverse.
I didn’t set out to read “diverse” books specifically. Fortunately, I was raised to believe people are people despite skin color, cultural differences, etc., which means when I hear of a good book, or pick up a book, I’m not automatically offended because the main character is not like me on the outside. What I see as I read is that these characters are so like me on the inside. Which is why it is so important for “white” kids, “abled” kids, poor, middle class, and rich kids to read these books. They need to see we are more alike than we are different!
On the other hand, according to the 2015 Census, about 62% of Americans are white only, 17% are Hispanic or Latino only, 13% are black only, 6% are Asian only, 1% are Native American or Alaskan, and 2.5% are two or more races. (Note: Arabs are classified as “white” for censuses.) And these statistics don’t include “differently abled.” But even with these skewed figures, it’d be hoped that good books are written by/about 40% nonwhite “abled” people. Because people who fit these “other” categories deserve to see themselves represented in story too.
The reality is we’re not there yet. Look closely at the above infographic. You might find this source post from September 2016 of interest. And here’s an interesting post on CCBC on how books are counted.
What can I as a white writer do? Deliberately support those writers who write diverse books by blogging about those books, buying them, sharing about them, etc. And support diversity organizations. I just came across this list: 2016 LINKY (Diversity Children’s Books Reviews). It can be a source for me to find books. Plus, I can let people know about it through twitter, etc. And, of course there’s the We Need Diverse Books organization. This site has links to awards for specific types of diverse books. Again, it’s another source to find books that I can share. SCBWI has a page on their site that focuses on diversity, plus has two diversity grants. Several of these diversity sites want you to notify them if you know of books, awards, etc. not on their lists. That’s something any of us can do.
FYI, Multicultural Children’s Book Day is coming up on January 27th. You can download a free kindness kit here.

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