Posted in Inspiration, Market Prep, PB, So Many Good Books, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Keeping Up with Picture Books

It could become a full-time job keeping up with all the new picture books coming out. And especially with libraries and many bookstores still being closed, it’s harder to do than ever. This is where I’m grateful for a number of blogs that help me stay in tune.

One site I’ve not shared before is Picture Book Builders. Formed by a group of well-published authors or author/illustrators, their goal is to explore“how one element of a picture book’s story or art manages to grab us or wow us or strike an emotional chord.” They take turns blogging about picture books. It may be an interview with a new author or illustrator about a book, or a recommendation of a new picture book, or maybe even a giveaway. The blog started in 2014, but I only discovered it last year. I subscribe—there are about 8 posts a month—so the info comes right into my inbox. A recent book from this site that I want to read is FIVE MINUTES (That’s a lot of time) (No, it’s not) (Yes, it is) (Putnam, 2019) written by Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick and illustrated by Olivier Tallec.

I think I’ve talked about Susannah Hill Leonard’s blog before. I’m interested in her “Tuesday debuts” and “Perfect Picture Book Friday” posts. For the latter, anyone can add picture books they are reviewing or recommending, too. Susannah’s shared books on Fridays aren’t always the newest books, so there’s a nice mix of old and new. One of her recent posts is a book I’d already discovered, but love so much I’M A HARE, SO THERE (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021) by Julie Rowan-Zoch. Susannah posts about 3 times a week. Again, I subscribe.

And if you’re familiar with Storystorm, you probably already know about Tara Lazar’s Writing for Kids (While Raising Them). It’s not just a January idea month blog. Posts are often written by other authors sharing their inspiration for a book, a cover reveal, success stories, etc. Here’s a book birthday post I recently enjoyed: BIRDS OF A FEATHER! (Philomel Books, 2021) by Sita Singh and illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman. Except in January when posts are daily, posts vary but usually there are several per week. Again, I subscribe to get them in my inbox.

And the final blog I depend on is Kathy Temean’s Writing and Illustrating. Among her variety of posts there are always book giveaways—they aren’t always picture books, but I love the interviews and insights into these books. One that caught my attention recently was LITTLE EWE: The Story of One Lost Sheep (Beaming Books, 2021) by Laura Sassi illustrated by Tommy Doyle. Posts are daily! And, yes, I subscribe.

Do I look at these posts every day? No. Instead I take a few hours a few times a month and look at a batch of posts. Sometimes that means I miss out on giveaways from all of these sites, but since my main purpose is to get my eyes on picture books, that’s okay, too.

Do I like every book they share? Of course not. Books are very subjective. But I definitely find books I want to read. My library doesn’t always have them, but that doesn’t stop me from requesting they order the picture books!

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

So, You Want to Write a Book…

I periodically get asked, “How do I get started writing a book?” My first response is questions. “What kind of book? Novel or nonfiction?” Then I ask, “For children or adults?” If for children, I ask for what audience age. For a novel, I may ask what genre. For example, fantasy, contemporary, adventure, romance, sci-fi, mystery, historical, etc.

Until I know the answers to these questions, I can’t help as much. But I can make these suggestions:

  • Imagine where your book would be on the shelf in a bookstore or library. This will help you know what kind of book you will be writing.
  • Read books similar to what you want to write. This helps you know the genre. There are rules for many genres, and you need to know them. And it helps you absorb good writing when you read lots and lots of books.
  • Read books published within the last five years. This helps you understand what publishers are currently publishing in the genre or age category.

For this post, I’m going to focus on writing fiction.

My next suggestion would be to write the pitch for your story. Sometimes called an elevator pitch, sometimes a book summary or a logline—no matter the label it can help you know where you want your story to go. It includes WHO, WHEN, WHAT, and WHY.

I love this article aimed at children’s book writers from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators: “Preparing for Online Pitch Contests: How to Write a Killer Logline”by Laurie Miller. Another great resource is this one from a literary agent that has simple examples: “A Pretty Much Foolproof, Never-Fail, Silver-Bullet Query Openingby John M. Cusick. Both of these are specifically aimed at getting attention for your book when trying to sell it. However, it can really help you focus as you write. You can also see samples in pitch contests on Twitter. For example, #PitMad. Check out the website. Next one is March 4th.

If you’re having trouble with the pitch idea, write a character problem statement. For example, Main Character wants to overcome the bullies in his life. It can be posed as a question. Will Main Character be able to overcome the bullies in his life without himself becoming a bully? Here’s a good article with examples: “How to Define Your Characters’ Story Goals” by Kristen Kieffer.

Story Elements for Fiction

Most of us learned about basic story elements in grade school. We probably learned more in middle school and high school. When writing our own story, we may forget some. So, let’s review. Story elements include: Character, Setting, Conflict, Plot, Point-of-View, and Theme. Some lists add Style or Literary Devices. Others add Tone.

You as the writer must know:

  • who your character is (although you may learn more as your write) and what she wants
  • where you are setting the story (our world in contemporary times or historical, fantasy world, etc.)
  • what external and/or internal conflicts the main character will experience (again you may not know all, but should know at least one before you start writing)
  • what will happen in the story (outliners’ plan this out, but even if you don’t outline, you should have some general idea)
  • whose story it is and in what POV will it be told (although authors sometimes write in 3rd person and switch to 1st person in later revisions—just be consistent in the story)
  • the universal ideas in your story (e.g. good wins over evil).

The style you write your story in or the literary devices you use may develop as you write. Ditto with the mood you establish, but if you know tone ahead of time, great!

Writing for Children

I’m going to focus now on writing books for children which can include for young adults.

Here’s a very helpful article on the process: “How to Write a Children’s Book in 12 Steps (From an Editor).” I do disagree with point 6—it depends on the book. And none of his examples seem to be children’s books.

Make sure you know what kids today are like! They are your audience. And especially if writing contemporary, you must show realistic kids for today’s readers. Here’s a great post by author K.M. Weiland: “Necessary Tips for How to Write Child Characters.”

Next? Finish Writing the Book!

First drafts are just that—your first ideas. Revising and editing will come later, if you finish. Here’s a wonderful quote: “Get those ideas down without wondering what will become of them. It’s the habit, not the single idea, that will set you on a creative journey you can’t even anticipate.” – Angela Burke Kunkel.

I’ll end with a link to another helpful article: “6 Tips to Help You Finish Your Book” by K.M. Weiland.

Posted in Market Prep, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

You’ve Written a Children’s Book—Now What?

I often see writers say they’ve finished their first children’s book and don’t know what to do next. These are questions I would like to ask each one:

What type of children’s book have you written? A picture book? An early reader? A chapter book? A middle grade novel? If you don’t know, find out.

Does the word count fit the category? For example, picture books are often under 500 words. The others have specific word lengths as well. Check out this resource.

Is your book appropriate for the age range? Most 10-year-olds are not reading picture books. Here’s a quick resource: “Age Levels for Children’s Books.”

Are you reading books in that age range? If you don’t know what’s out there, how can you judge your own work?

Is your story unique? Or is it an oversaturated topic? If a common picture book topic, does it have a unique twist at the end?

Have you researched books like it? That means you’ll know where it would fit on a shelf in a bookstore. That it fits the style of books published in the last five years—not what you read as a child.

Is it preachy? Is it written to entertain or to teach a lesson? What do you prefer reading? A novel or a sermon? I love what Roald Dahl said, “The contents of my books are not going to teach them anything at all, except to grip them by the throat and make them love to read.”

Have you revised? All writers have to revise their work. “Do not query before you have a) finished writing your book, b) revised your book, c) shown your query to someone unfamiliar with your work who can point out confusing bits.” -Lauren Spieller

Have you gotten any feedback from other children’s book writers working in the same category? Critique partners are an invaluable part of the process. You can find them through writing organizations, classes, and online groups. My first choice is the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (scbwi.org)—it’s where I’ve gotten my groups. Several Facebook groups I belong to have critique partner matchup areas: Kidlit411 has Manuscript Swap and Sub It Club has a Critique Partner Matchup.

If it’s a picture book written in rhyme, is it well done? Most editors hate near rhyme and forced rhyme. If someone else reads it aloud, do they read it in the correct rhythm? I love Josh Funk’s “Don’t Write in Rhyme.”

Others often jump into these conversations and ask, “Do you want to self-publish or traditional publish?” I believe you need to know what your book is, and about the market, before making any publishing decisions.

Feel free to comment or ask further questions.

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.