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

Creative Picture Book Formats

The other day I was helping a friend edit a fiction picture book and we were talking about how layout of the language can give a different feel.

To demonstrate I opened up my quote file and found this one by Tana French, “Don’t get discouraged if you’re hammering away at a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter, and it keeps coming out wrong. You’re allowed to get it wrong, as many times as you need to; you only need to get it right once.”

Look at it written as a poem:

“Don’t get discouraged
if you’re hammering away
at a sentence
or a paragraph
or a chapter,
and it keeps
coming
out wrong.
You’re allowed
to get it wrong,
as many times
as you need to;
you only need
to get it right
once.”

– Tana French

I loved the quote in the first place, but I love it as poetry even more.

Let’s think about this specifically in regard to picture books. Will a poetic format add to your story? (I’m not talking about rhythm and rhyme particularly, although that is a possibility.) Or is there another format that will benefit your story?

One that comes to mind is Gretchen McLellan’s No Party Poopers! where the story is only written in dialogue with no tag lines, beats, or description.

Or an oldie Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School by Mark Teague. The opening has a newspaper clipping, then come the hilarious letters. These books are called epistolary.

Author Doreen Chronin has a series of bug diaries. Will journal format work for your story?

I was stunned when I read Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse by Marilyn Singer where you read the poems one way and then the opposite.

Then there’s the cumulative story where each line builds from the line before. The poem “This Is the House that Jack Built” may have inspired this type of tale.

You might find Karin Lefranc’s list of picture book genres interesting.

I like stretching my mind about how stories can be written. If you know of different picture book formats, please share in the comments.

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

How Well Do You Word?

Use Microsoft Word, that is. Last month, I discovered several of my critique partners were using spaces instead of indents or tabs. And one was using spaces to center titles. I’ve seen this with students too. Two also weren’t familiar with the right tab. (Standard tab is a left aligned tab.)

Blue dots above are individual spaces. Backwards “P” (¶) is a paragraph mark or hard return (enter). (Word may show these dots and symbols as gray instead of blue.) See how there are spaces before the word “Text” and an extra space between the words “line” and “breaks?”

What’s the big deal? First, the writers were creating more work for themselves by not using the tools of the word processor. Second, they were perhaps creating more work for those receiving the manuscripts. It’s a pain to convert all those extra spaces. Though if you’ve got extra spaces, Find and Replace works wonders.

How did I find it? The show/hide option on the menu that is a backwards paragraph. It shows each space, paragraph mark (aka manual line break or manual return), etc. It’s especially helpful when needing to change column or page breaks. I don’t type with it on—only use it when I think there’s something strange.

Learn some shortcuts to make word-processing easier. Most of us are self-taught and only use Word to type, but we can do more. If you’ve ever thought, there ought to be a better way, it may already be there. You can find out how to do most anything in Word within Word’s Tell Me or Help option. You can search in Microsoft Support. Or you can google your question.

Examples:

Indent

Great for moving a section over, such as a long quote or indenting side material or for use in a novel-in-verse. One writer was doing informational fiction. Each page has story text and fact text. Using indents on the facts, made it stand apart from the story itself. It would take over 20 spaces each line to get the result below versus highlighting a section and clicking three time on indent.

Or another possibility would be to set a left tab exactly where you want the section to start. (It can be set on your ruler or in Format, Tabs.)

Right aligned tab

It’s a great way to put genre or your word count on your manuscript on the right of the page while still having text on the left. See how neatly picture book and the word count are right aligned? If you have ruler turned on, you’ll see that there is an indicator that a right tab is set. (Standard tabs or indents are ½ inch unless you change them.) I’ve only changed the tabs in this section—not my entire document.

The arrows above indicate a use of the tab key.

How do you find out how to do any of these?

  • Word – click on the word help or the lightbulb on your menu and type what you’re looking for: how do I set a right tab in the search box, and click on “Smart Lookup.” A window will pop up with a number of “how to” article links.
  • Microsoft Support – go to the website and type: how do I set a right tab, then press return (enter). A window will pop up with directions and other suggestions below.
  • Google – in the search bar type: how do I set a right tab in Word, then press return (enter). You can choose from written directions and videos. In your search you can even specify which version of Word you have, e.g. Word 2019.
  • Get a friendly nerd to show you. For example, I zoomed with my critique partners.

I hope this Word lesson has been helpful. Let me know if you have questions.

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

Three Commonly Overused Words in Fiction

Overuse of “look” or as Deborah Halverson aka DearEditor says, “Stop Looking!” A character looks up, looks down, looks around, looks another character in the eyes, looks at his watch, looks in her mirror. Some try to replace “look” with “gaze,” “stare,” etc. But the problem is deeper than that.

Looking is not as descriptive as other possible actions. It’s fairly passive. It doesn’t provide sensory details. Sometimes, it is distancing the reader.

Here are a few examples:

  1. John looked out the window.
  2. Leslie glared at her daughter.
  3. I looked at the paper on my desk.

Stronger possibilities:

  1. Out the window the Ponderosa pines were swaying in the wind. If John is the main character, we will assume he sees this.
  2. Leslie’s eyes narrowed emphasizing the hated wrinkle between her eyebrows. If her daughter is present, it will be pretty obvious that Leslie’s not exactly pleased with her.
  3. The paper on my desk said, “Don’t come back.”

I always suggest using Find in Word (Control F for PC, or Command F for Mac) to see how many “look”s there are. Usually it’s a surprisingly high number.

Then start replacing them with more dynamic content. Of course, you don’t have to get rid of all of them, but changing many and getting out of the lazy “looking” habit will definitely power up your writing.

Too many feelings. Using “feel”, “felt,” and “feels” often are telling instead of showing.

Here are a few examples:

  1. His legs shake and he feels an overwhelming blanket of anxiety stifling his mind.
  2. She felt sad. What does that look like?
  3. I felt sweaty and the mosquitoes were biting. Definitely telling!

These could become the stronger:

  1. His legs shake and an overwhelming blanket of anxiety stifles his mind.
  2. Her shoulders drooped to match the shape of her mouth. Now that I can picture.
  3. I licked sweat off my upper lip and smashed a mosquito on my jeans.

The fix. I do a search in Word (Control F for PC, or Command F for Mac) for the correct verb tense of “feel” in my story.

I change them one of two ways:

  • Rearrange the sentence to share the same info without the word “felt.”
  • Make it more active by helping the reader experience what is happening.
  • Show and add sensory details.

You may ignore it in dialogue.

Write seemlessly (pun intended). Avoid “seem,” “seemed,” “seems.” Often used with “to.” You are the writer and creator of the story, so you know whether something happens or not. You should be sharing what happened—not guessing what happened. “Seemed” indicates uncertainty.

Here’s a simple example: It seemed to be raining. It’s either raining or not raining, isn’t it?

Look at these two:
She seems to remember many of the other cousins and there were a lot of them.

The walls seemed to lean toward me.

The fix. Remove “seem” forms in your narration and correct the verb tense. Tighten if necessary. The two above could become:

She remembers many of our numerous cousins.

The walls leaned toward me.

A possible exception. Sometimes a character expresses an opinion in dialogue or even in their thoughts. “You seem unhappy,” Jon said. If that’s how Jon talks, fine. Or perhaps he might say, “You look unhappy” or You sound unhappy.” But if Jon has an attitude and is more concerned about appearances that actual unhappiness, he might say, “Wipe that frown off your face!” It depends on Jon’s personality and the situation.

Of course, there are other commonly overused words and you may have some unique to your own writing. But go on a search and destroy mission with these three and it’ll give you a good start on self-editing.

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

Exciting News for Jasmine and Advice

Guest post on querying.

One of the Facebook groups I enjoy is Sub It Club. I learn from others, help others, and share in the ups and downs. I’m sharing this January 7th post by Jasmine A. Stirling with permission.

Hi everyone! I’m excited to announce that after querying in December, I received ten offers of representation, and am now represented by Alyssa Eisner Henkin at Birch Path Literary, the force behind books like Wonder, The Lovely War, and The Right Word.

Someone asked me on this forum if I have any suggestions for querying. One thing I would suggest is that you mention some recent projects the agent has done which you’ve read and enjoyed, and which fit well with your work, before you begin your pitch. It’s important for agents to know you understand who they are as an individual, and the kinds of projects they are passionate about. To get this information, I use a combination of Publishers Marketplace and Twitter. On Twitter, I get a sense for what projects the agent is enthusiastic about at the moment. 

Many of the projects listed in Publishers Marketplace are not yet out, so you don’t want to laud a book you obviously haven’t read. Sometimes I mention I’m looking forward to a book that has been announced in Publishers Marketplace but is not yet out. This shows the agent that I’m not just looking at Twitter or their website. They get the sense that I am familiar with industry news.

Take extra time and get familiar with the books the agent is publishing. Agents can tell if you are just querying everyone who might be remotely interested in your work.

Composing a good query letter and strategy takes time and research. Think through anyone you know who might be able to make an introduction. Don’t be afraid to network on Facebook. I did get an introduction through a cold request on Facebook to a very successful, closed agent, who subsequently made an offer.

And finally, this might not make me popular here, but I would take the advice you receive on groups like this with a grain of salt, even if they come from agented authors or moderators. The truth is, the rules of querying, receiving offers, and making choices, are more flexible than you might think. Everyone wants to make sure you find the right agent for you, including agents who are offering to work with you. 

Be respectful, be communicative about your timeline, be honest, but follow your gut and keep trying if you’re not getting the offers you want. There’s no secret police of agents who are going to kick you out of the club for anything you do. Just be a professional, and things will work out fine.

Good luck to everyone and Happy New Year!

Read more about Jasmine and her books on her website. You’ll definitely want to check out her delightful picturebook: A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice.

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

Chronology in Fiction

I always have to laugh at myself when a critique partner points out something in my writing that I usually catch in others’ writing. In this case, it was sentence chronological order. (Or time-order sequence.)

Usually it is clearer to write in a cause and effect order. Examples: The car behind us honked and Dad let up on the brake and drove off. When the dog barked to be let in, she opened the door. In each of these cases, the first action resulted in the person doing the second action. Pretty obvious.

But sometimes when we write, it’s easy to mess up. Here’s what I wrote in a picture book text: She started with Grampa Joe. She fixed up her hair special, put on her best outfit, and popped into his room. I told what the character was going to do—start with Grampa Joe—but showed what she did first before going into his room. My critique partner* wisely suggested: She fixed up her hair special, put on her best outfit, and popped into Grampa Joe’s room. Chronological order not only made the story stronger by reducing telling, but reduced word count from 21 words to 17. (Definitely an important factor in a picture book.)

I think chronology can especially become a problem when using the connecting word “as.” Example: He waved as the school bus pulled away. A reader will assume this is a simultaneous action. But look at this one: Snow fell from the tree as the wind blew. It could be simultaneous. However, thinking cause and effect, probably the wind made the snow fall. In a short sentence like this it may not make much difference, but I think it’s always worth considering whether a sentence or paragraph should be in chronological order.

Does that mean we should never write out of chronological order? Of course not. You’ll see beginnings of novels that foretell terrible things are going to happen. There will be flashbacks, especially in novels for teens and adults. Sometimes stories are written in multiple viewpoints and we see what happens in one character’s life, then move on to what happens in another’s life at the same time. Nonchronology may be used for the purpose of suspense, to reveal character backstory, or for worldbuilding.

But I think for the most part a sentence or paragraph should show the sequence of events in the order they happened.

*Thanks, Carol!