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 Craft, It's Not Just Books, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Short Story Revision

Years ago a magazine editor responded to my initial submission with a letter requesting me to make changes and to resubmit the story on spec. Excited about her interest, I made the changes, cutting the manuscript from over 700 words to less than 500.

The editor wrote again: “You’ve done a great job on this revision! However…” and she went on to say how part of the story wasn’t realistic. I politely wrote back expressing why I thought it was realistic, but also offering to revise it.

The editor’s next letter began: “Sometimes the simplest stories are the trickiest to get right! We like this a lot, but…” She then pointed out a problem that made me say “OUCH!—I should have seen that.” I fixed it and sent the story again. This time my reply was an acceptance!

Of course, the editor could have sent a letter saying, “No, it still doesn’t work for us.” If that had happened, I’d have been disappointed, but still would have sent the improved manuscript off to another market.

Here are ten tips to help you with your next revision:

  1. Refresh. Set your manuscript aside for several weeks.Don’t look at it or even think about it. When you return to the manuscript, your goal is to read it as if you’ve never seen it before.
  2. Reformat. Change the font size or style, before rereading. Even simply changing margins will help you see the manuscript differently.
  3. Have someone else read it aloud. It’s amazing the mistakes I hear in a manuscript despite having silently read it over and over again. I also hear where the reader stumbles or doesn’t give my desired emphasis—both hints that I need to work on those sections. I may even realize I can’t decide who is talking without the visual cues of new paragraphs.
  4. Get your writing reviewed by other writers and listen to their critique with an open mind. Don’t automatically shut out ideas and suggestions. Even if they don’t work for you, looking through another’s eyes can stimulate your mind. However, if several point out a problem, you know you haven’t reached your target yet.
  5. Don’t stifle your own reactions. I don’t know how many times my inner voice responds to someone else’s comment with, “You knew that wasn’t quite right, didn’t you!” I also like asking myself if my story came full circle. If I can’t give myself an honest yes, I have more work to do.
  6. Request help. Sometimes, I know something isn’t working, but don’t know where to go next. Another writer may make a simple suggestion that turns the light on for me.
  7. Re-examine. Ask others what they think the theme or premise is. If you’re writing is working, their answer should be close to what you envision. Tell them what emotion you’re hoping to evoke in a scene and ask if you accomplished it. Ask them to state your story problem. If your reaction is “Wow, they didn’t get it,” it probably means you didn’t give it clearly.
  8. Renovate with viewpoint. Not just from 3rd to 1st person, although that can make a difference, too, but change who is telling the story. Make that boy a girl. Or see it through her best friend’s eyes instead of her own.
  9. Reshape. Changing the form sometimes purges the dross. Try writing poetry instead of prose, diary entries, or a newspaper report of the events. You may discover the story takes off on its own in another format.
  10. Rewrite. All the thought stirring usually motivates me to get to rewriting. Sometimes it’s with excitement; sometimes with frustration at how I’ve fallen short.

Whenever I feel like giving up, I remember how revision took my manuscript to published short story in Highlights for Children (April 2000). That makes it much easier for me to revise.

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

LinkedIn Is Not “Social” Social Media

Despite emails that are misleading such as “Connect to your colleagues from SCBWI” LinkedIn was not designed as a social connection site, but for professional networking. Yes, SCBWI is a professional organization, but please bear with me and read on. The LinkedIn system has no idea how large of an organization SCBWI is—it’s only using keywords to create these messages. Connecting with someone on LinkedIn who is an SCBWI member you have not met is not the same as on other social media sites. Unlike Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, etc., LinkedIn says, “We strongly recommend that you only accept invitations to connect from people you know.”

LinkedIn’s Vision is to “create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce.” Two of the tabs are “jobs” and “work.” If you’ve ever declined an invitation, you’ll see the “I don’t know this person” small window pop up on the left. That’s a report system. If someone gets too many of these, LinkedIn may restrict their account.

Dave Roos says, “a LinkedIn profile page is essentially an online résumé.” This article, “The Difference Between Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Google+, YouTube, & Pinterest,” by Karisa Egan, explains, “LinkedIn is different from the rest of the social media outlets because it’s specifically designed for business and professionals. Users mainly go to LinkedIn to showcase their job experience and professional thoughts, making it one of the more important platforms to use for those in B2B.” (B2B – business to business).

Does that mean SCBWI members should never connect on LinkedIn. Of course not. I connect with those I’ve worked with in various volunteer capacities. I can validate their “work  experience” because I know their capabilities. I don’t connect with people I don’t know. I personally leave that mostly to Twitter, however, I do connect with many people through Facebook groups. And don’t forget the SCBWI Blueboards are a great place to connect.

So, please don’t be offended if even though we’ve met at a conference or event, or you’re also a children’s writer, that I don’t accept your LinkedIn invitation.

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

It Takes Time

“How did it get so late so soon?” – Dr. Seuss

I thought for sure we’d have my updated website switched from a Movable Type platform to WordPress sometime in May. However, due to complications in life, and difficulties with updating the website, it didn’t happen until a third of the way through June. I still have some broken links to fix, but am pleased with the new look. I know the ease of new posts is going to be worth all the time and effort.

Writing often takes more time than I expect, too. This past weekend I was on a four day writing retreat. I had a huge stack of manuscript pages I hoped to get through. I worked hours each day and only reduced the stack by half. I think part of the slog was that it had been so long since I’d looked at the novel that it took me a while to get back into the character’s voice. I’m grateful though to be that much farther ahead.

My TBR (to be read) stack got higher and higher this last month and a half. Now I have “catch up” to do on book recommendations. Looking forward to sharing those soon.

What’s been taking longer in your writing life?

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

Revising a Novel

typewriter-584696_1280.pngI’ve seen writers propose the 5-draft novel writing process. Others talk about how many drafts they’ve been through before the book goes to their agent/editor. What draft am I on? I never know because I revise as I go. Some writers will tell you this is wrong, but I’m not alone in my process. Jared Reck says, “I write a few scenes by hand, then go back and type and revise, then back to hand-writing — the first finished draft of A Short History of the Girl Next Door was pretty polished; it just took me four years to get to that point.”
Revising During the Writing Process – How it Works for Me
When I get ready to write a new scene or chapter after a break in writing, I read the previous one or ones. This gets me back into the story, and yes, I will make changes and additions. Typos, misspellings, or wrong words annoy me, so if I notice any, those are fixed. (I write on a computer.) Then I move forward with the story. My break could be stopping for lunch, quitting for the day and coming back the next, the weekend off, or even longer depending on what else is going on in my life.
After I’ve made some progress on a novel (more than a couple chapters), I create a novel timeline or story ladder that is unique for each novel. You can read about that process here. This helps me have a quick overview of the story anytime I need one.
I also begin to share a chapter at a time with my critique group. This reading aloud helps me spot more typos or awkward phrasings. My critique partners are good at pointing out where I need more, have confusing areas, etc. Of course, this causes more revisions. Sometimes what they say means I create a whole new scene. If that new scene requires changes elsewhere, I’ll do that during this time, too.
Then I move forward with the story again, repeating these processes until I reach the end.
Meanwhile
Meanwhile, I am always learning. I learn by attending workshops, conferences, retreats and other writing events, by reading blogs, newsletters, and articles, and by reading novels in and out of my genre. These often make me think about my story and I go back with new insights which most likely mean I need to add to my story. (I have a tendency to underwrite.)
I also learn from what my critique partners are working on. It may be what they are doing well. Or it may be something not working that I or someone else notices which makes me wonder if I’m doing the same thing.
Revisions Once the Story Is Complete
After some time away, I try to read the whole novel quickly with the purpose of thinking about the big picture of the story. I make notes on the major problem areas to work on. I also note bumps (where I stopped reading, felt something wasn’t quite right, etc.) When I’ve read the whole manuscript through, I attack the areas I’ve noted. When done, I wait a few days and reread the revisions to see if they are working.
I may ask myself questions. Sometimes, I ask my critique group the same questions about my story. E.g. Is the ending satisfying? Was the problem solved too easily? Did this scene feel realistic? Are the beginning and ending as strong?
Polishing
I have several stages in polishing. Some add to the text, such as making sure I’m using sensory details in scenes (post here). Others take words away, which includes tightening, cutting overused words, getting rid of passive verbs, etc. (my post here). But whether adding or subtracting, these methods are meant to make the writing itself stronger.
Querying
I also revise after feedback from agents I’m querying.
In the End
Is my method the best? Probably not. But it works for me. Writing a novel is not a one-size-fits-all process, so please don’t let anyone try to convince you it is.

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