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

Picture Book Problems

I often am asked to review books—frequently by self-published writers. I explain I’m a book recommender and will only share the book if I like it. If the author is willing to accept that, and the book sounds interesting, then I say “send me the book.”

Perhaps some lessons could be learned from two I got this past month.

One was a darling story. It had fun art. I liked the twist in the ending. But sadly the picture book had some pages that didn’t make sense. (One was the character seeing something she could only feel. Another was the animal in the art and text didn’t match—one hoofed mammal can’t be replaced by another.) There was bad grammar and the overused idiom “all of a sudden.” Another page looked as if the artist drew the background then forgot to put the character in. One page randomly had text all in caps and in a different font.

An editor and an art director would have caught these issues. I don’t usually share my opinion in detail with an author, but in this case…I did because the book isn’t in print yet. I’d really like to see this book have a chance.

The other book got a “no” almost immediately. The art looked amateurish. And the first page had forced rhyme. I started skimming. The story continued with forced rhyme. I found alliteration with adjectives and nouns that didn’t add. An “all of a sudden.” It was preachy. Another character solved the problem for the main character.

First, let’s talk idioms. It’s not that they can’t be used, but they should be used with purpose. Look at this collection of picture books that use idioms—they use humor to explain the phrases. To me, “all of a sudden” is like writing, “hey, reader, pay attention something exciting is going to happen.” Instead, consider using a sound effect. E.g. “Wham! George crashed into the tree.” Or simply show the reader what happened. “The cat dashed out behind the couch.” Here’s a list of phrases and words, you might want to consider avoiding, plus suggestions on what else to use.

Preachy or didactic. How many of us like being told what to do? When a story is too obvious about the message, it isn’t entertainment. And fiction picture books are meant to entertain, comfort, challenge, stoke imagination, and yes, even sometimes teach. But that’s not why kids want them read over and over and over. I like this post on mistake two in “5 terrible, horrible, no good, very bad children’s book mistakes.”

Main character doesn’t solve problem. Our job as adults is to teach children to become adults who know how to solve their own problems. It’s never too early to start. Don’t you remember how proud a small child is when he or she could say, “I did it myself!” Don’t take that away from picture book characters either. Here’s a list of picture books—new and classic—about characters solving problems.

Grammar mistakes. Even the best grammarian can make mistakes. Don’t go it alone. If you aren’t sure of something, look it up. Get others to read your material and check your grammar.

Eyes on your work is good for art, too. Each spread should have something interesting going on. Art is supposed to enhance the text, not just be a filler.

In general, critique groups can help improve your manuscripts, and hopefully avoid errors like the ones mentioned in this post.

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

It’s that time of year again

Time to set up for the new year’s record keeping.

First, a folder for 2021 Writing Finances.

Next, new spreadsheets:

  • Writing Expenses*
    • Used my template and updated the year.
    • Transferred recurring expenses from last year’s writing expenses to the new spreadsheet.
    • Entered January 1st car mileage (same as year-end mileage for 2020).
  • Writing Income**
    • A simple “save as” since I have a template that has my recurring payments.

Then, updated others with new tabs for 2021:

  • Instructional spreadsheet where I enter student lessons.
  • Google drive sheet for our online critique group schedule—we have a moderator each week and keep track of which two writers are presenting a manuscript.

These processes take an hour or two.

*The categories on Writing Expenses’ spreadsheet are:

  • date
  • expense item (event, address; postage to submit manuscript, etc.)
  • agent/publisher/magazine (and those extra details, if needed, such as to whom)
  • manuscript
  • mileage driven
  • other car expenses (tolls or parking fees)
  • advertising (website hosting, domain renewal)
  • office supplies (those things you need to run a home office: paper, printer ink, etc.)
  • travel (airfare, taxis, hotel)
  • meals (while traveling–only a portion is deductible)
  • misc (where I put conference fees)

I have a worksheet for each month with a year-end sheet that pulls the totals from each month and gives me a grand total.

**The categories on Writing Income are:

  • date
  • payment from whom or what:
    • teaching
    • critiquing
    • book royalties
    • flat fees
    • magazine and online articles/stories
    • speaking
  • amount

I have my spreadsheet set up to auto total all the amounts.

Time to double check the old year’s record keeping.

For me, I have to print out the expense and income spreadsheets to make sure that every entry has an amount (money or mileage as appropriate). I always find a few errors. Once they are all corrected, the reprinted sheets are stapled together by category so when all the other tax documents come in, we’re ready to do our taxes.

Depending how accurately I’ve kept records, this probably takes a couple hours.

I find this pre-work makes my record keeping easier and quicker.

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

Storystorm 2021

This is my second year to participate with Storystorm—30 ideas in 31 days. And this time I joined the Facebook group which has already been helpful. Cindy Williams Schrauben shared how she lists her picture book ideas:

Main Character –
Problem –
Title –
Setting –

Because Susanna Leonard Hill always asks for up to three themes for “Perfect Picture Book Friday,” I decided to add Theme.

And then on Day 3, Ashley Franklin talked about feelings, so now I’ve added Emotion.

I’ve put these headings in a spreadsheet.

I know, I know. What does that have to do with coming up with story ideas? Day 1, Tara Lazar reminded us to write our ideas down. The method I used last year wasn’t so helpful—I think this will work better for me.

In fact, I think I might reorganize my ideas from last year the same way on a different worksheet. Maybe it will make one of those ideas pop. Or as Cindy suggested, something from my old list might mix or match with something on this year’s list of ideas.

Doing a challenge or activity like this can get us moving and thinking. If you haven’t registered for Storystorm, there’s still time. (And it’s not just for picture book writers.) Check it out here and make sure you subscribe to Tara’s blog to get the posts.

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

Idea Generation – Words and First Lines

Sometimes the ideas just don’t come. But one thing I know is ideas breed other ideas. As John Steinbeck said, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”

Here are a couple ways to get your mind working:

WORD LISTS

Make up long lists of….

  • specific places.
    • where you’ve been.
    • from childhood (include dramatic places where you or someone else was worried, afraid, injured, etc.).
    • places important to you now.
    • where you’d like to be (research probably needed).
  • specific nouns.
  • active verbs.
  • specific situations or problems.
  • talents and skills.
  • habits and quirks.
  1. Pick items from three or four lists and see what happens when you put them together.
  2. Do you come up with an opening for a story? Interesting ideas for a character or a problem? A way a character could solve a problem? A setting? An antagonist?
  3. Experiment with these ideas and see where they take you. Enjoy playing around.

OPENING LINES

Make up a list of first lines without worrying whether or not you’d actually want to use them. Make them compelling and interesting.

  1. If you need a starting point, look at famous opening lines and reimagine them.
    • You can search online and find many. Here’s one source: https://www.boredpanda.com/famous-books-first-lines/
      • Imagine how your character, if you have one already, might say something similar.
      • Imagine how a specific animal might say it.
      • Put it in picture book language.
      • Make something serious funny or vice versa.
      • Have fun—there are no rules.
  2. When you’ve got a good number, read through them again.
  3. Ask yourself questions such as…
    • Which ones catch my attention?
    • Which ones make me laugh?
    • Which ones make me want to know more?
    • Which ones make me sad?
    • Which are boring?
  4. Pick a couple of favorite opening lines. Can you expand them into a paragraph or more? If you find ideas are flowing, keep going to see how far it takes you.
  5. Set the list and the paragraphs aside.
  6. If any ideas keep “haunting” you, consider how to make them a complete project.
  7. Look at the list again at a later date. Do the same lines grab you or do different ones? If different lines grab you, expand those.
  8. Look at the paragraphs again at a later date. Does more scene unfold in your mind? Write and see where you go.

I ended up writing a whole novel inspired by a writing exercise. Others have inspired picture books. Yet, others sent me back to the writing desk to works-in-progress. And at the very least, they got me putting words on a page.

As Louis L’Amour said, “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the tap is turned on.”

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

Trust Your Reader

In a recent student lesson, the writer was sharing the same information over and over in her short story. It was similar to saying as you’re getting your purse, “Honey, I’m going to the store” and when you put on your coat, “I’m going to the store, Honey.” And yet a third time when you opened the front door, “I’m off to the store now.” Most of us would get it the first time. And be annoyed by the repetition. Trust your reader to get what you write, too. Don’t annoy them.

Ruth E. Walker says, “Don’t poke your reader in the eye.” Yes, that’s how I felt reading that story.

Historical and fantasy author D.B. Jackson says, “Trusting your reader means, in essence, not slowing your narrative to explain things that don’t need explaining. It means trusting that you have done a good enough job showing your readers elements of plot, character, and setting that you don’t need to tell them as well.”

“More to the point, by explaining too much, by using those markers, I was denying my readers one of the great joys of reading:  That feeling of epiphany that comes when we figure things out along with the characters we’re following.” – David B. Coe

Besides repetitive information, what other warning signs show we aren’t trusting our readers?

  • The phrase “as if.”
    Example: He sagged and braced himself on the table, as if he had no energy to stand up. The first part of the sentence shows; the second tells. (I realize, I’ve used this one!)
  • Stating in dialogue and writing an action where both get the same information across.
    Example: “I don’t have any energy to stand up.” I sagged and braced myself against the table.
  • Overexplaining in dialogue. As you know Bob.
    Example: “Stacey, I’m just so upset. How could my father leave us like that? It’s been two weeks and he says he’s not coming back. It’s not fair to me or my little brother. And to choose that bimbo over Mom? It’s just wrong.”
    The main character’s best friend Stacey would already know the dad had left and why and that our main character is upset. The above is an info dump for the reader.
    More natural: “How could he do this to us, Stacey?” I held back a sob. “It’s like we’re not his kids anymore.”
  • Adverbs with “said” or “asked,” or explaining tone of voice.
    Examples: “Run!” he said urgently. “I’m sorry,” she said with compassion. “Please don’t go,” she said in a pleading voice.
    Each of those pieces of dialogue would stand on their own.
  • Introducing or qualifying with words like “no doubt” and “obviously.”
    Example: Ranger ran back to me and dropped the ball at my feet. “Good boy!” Obviously, he understood the game of fetch now.

Janice Hardy says, “It’s hard to know when it’s too much, but the tendency is to over explain, not under. When you find yourself thinking, ‘Will they get that? look back for the clues that will allow the reader to get it. If you find them, don’t worry about it. If you don’t, then add a few.”

So, where have you found yourself not trusting the reader? Please share in comments.