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I am so excited to welcome our May 12 x 12 featured author, Debbie Diesen! Two of her books, The Pout-Pout Fish and its companion, The Pout-Pout Fish in the Big Big Dark, are two of my kids’ all-time favorite picture books. My son asks me to read one or the other of them (if not both) at least once a week. Furthermore, Debbie is one of my rhyming heroes. She can wield that meter like nobody’s business. So you can imagine how excited I was when she offered to do a post on the nitty-gritty of rhyming! I’m here to tell you that this will be one of the best blog tutorials EVER on the art of writing in rhyme. And last, but not least, she hails from Michigan – my home state. What more could you want in an author? A critique from her, you say? Well, one lucky 12 x 12 participant is going to win just that! See the end of this post for instructions on entering. Now, please welcome Debbie!

The Beat Goes On — Or, How To Be A Meter Reader: Identifying Rhythm Troublespots In Your Rhyming Picture Book Story

I love to write in rhyme.  Who doesn’t?  Writing in rhyme combines the joy of story, the fun of words, and the delight of music, all in one.

But writing in rhyme can be exceedingly frustrating.  Frustration usually crops up early in the writing process, because it’s challenging to carry through a story idea in a rhyming format without resorting to sentence structure gymnastics and/or Lame Rhymes.  But often the bigger load of frustration arrives just when you think you’re done:  when you discover that, despite your countless hours of work, the word song you hear in your head hasn’t translated to the page.

Maybe your critique group tells you, “something’s wrong in the second stanza” or “that refrain doesn’t sound right to me.”  What?  I thought it was perfect!  Or maybe an editor tells you, “this doesn’t quite scan.”  Yet try as you might, you can’t pinpoint what it is they’re not getting.  To your ear, it flows effortlessly!  Why does it sound so different when someone else reads it?

If you’re in this situation (and we’ve all been there; in fact, that’s pretty much where I live…), what you will need to do is detach for a while from your storyline, and focus instead on the mechanics of your story’s rhythm.  To do this, you’ll need a baton (and, optionally, a drum corps shako), a pen, a highlighter, and a colored pencil.

Let’s get down to work, shall we?

1.  Find your inner band leader 

To get started identifying problems with your rhyming story’s meter, grab your baton, step back from your story for a moment, and think about the rhythm that defines it.  Go ahead and use the baton.  If you don’t know what to do with it, just flail it around a little.  Snap your fingers.  Tap your toes.  Sing.  Hum.  Whatever works for you.

Your story may have more than one defining rhythm (for instance, one rhythm for the verses, and one for the refrain), but generally speaking, you’ll have one main identifiable rhythm structure.  As you wield your baton, ask yourself:  How many accented beats do I have in a phrase?  How many nonstressed syllables do I have between accented beats?  Do my phrases start on an accented beat, or on an unaccented syllable?

Maybe your rhythm (numbers showing the accented beats) is…

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and

Or perhaps it’s…

1 and-a 2 and-a 3 and-a 4 and-a

Or it could be…

1 ee-and-a 2 ee-and-a 3 ee-and-a 4 ee-and-a

Or maybe…

and-a-1 and-a-2 and-a-3 and-a-4

Or, instead of 1s, 2s, 3s, and 4s, you might have just 1s and 2s.  Or maybe 1s and 2s and 3s.  Or maybe you have regular variation between –ands and –ee-and-as.  When you look at all the variations, the possibilities are nearly endless.  But you don’t have to contemplate every possible rhythm!  You simply need to identify your story’s rhythm, so that you can commit to it.

Another aspect of your commitment is knowing how your beat loops from line to line.  Is it steady throughout each line of the stanza?  Or do you have a rest beat at the end of your rhyming lines, and/or at the end of the stanza?

For instance, your stanza might sound like:

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and

But it could well sound like:

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and

1 and 2 and 3. [rest]

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and

1 and 2 and 3. [rest]

You may be able to analyze your defining rhythm in a snap, or you may need to invest some time, especially if it’s more complicated than just 1 and 2 and 3 and 4.  But once you’re ready (and/or if you grow tired of wearing your old band uniform) it’s time to…

  1. 2.  Put down your baton and grab a pen.

Once you’re confident of understanding your story’s intended rhythm structure, read your story aloud.  As you go, mark on the page how your ears hear the cadence of the lines you’ve written.

When I do this with my own manuscripts, I use a box around accented beats and an underline under unaccented syllables.  After marking up a line, it might look like this.

[ ]  __    __  [ ]  __    __  [ ]  __    __  [ ]  __    __

(Note:  I haven’t figured out how to make a box symbol in WordPress, so squint a little at each bracket pair to magically transform it into a box.)

When you’re finished marking up your whole story, go back to the beginning.  Ignore the words, and just focus on the boxes and lines.  Read those out loud (using your own choice of sound effects for the two kinds of markings.  I recommend a big booming bass drum sound for the accented beats, while sitting next to an open window; because if you haven’t scared the neighbors yet with your quirky writer habits, isn’t it about time?).

As you “read” your rhythm out loud, how does it sound without the words?  Think about the rhythm that you identified as being the defining rhythm of your story (in Step 1).  Are you actually carrying out the rhythm you had in mind?  Are there slight inconsistencies?  Big inconsistencies?  Are there places you fall into a different rhythm entirely?  As you identify spots where your story’s beat doesn’t carry through exactly as you meant it to, you may have found places in need of revision.

However, a word of caution:  Some rhythms allow for – to my mind, even demand — a bit of wiggle room in terms of unaccented syllables.  Small variations that don’t interfere with the overall rhythm but do tweak it a bit to highlight and elongate certain spots in the text can sometimes actually benefit your story.  To explain what I mean, let’s look at the first stanza of my story The Pout-Pout Fish.  It reads as follows:

Deep in the water

Where the fish hang out

Lives a glum, gloomy swimmer

With an ever-present pout.

The meter of this stanza is not flawless.   Though my defining beat structure centers around a [ ]  __    __   __  rhythm, in fact, there are  also  [ ]  __    __   beats and even a  [ ]  __   beat.  To keep to the [ ]  __    __   __    perfectly, I’d need something along the lines of:

Deep down in the water where the ocean fish hang out, there lives a glum and gloomy swimmer with an everpresent pout.

Does that revision scan better?  Arguably, Yes.  A computer voice could read it and not miss a beat.  But for a human, is it as fun to say?  For me, the answer is No.  In its unrelenting adherence to regular meter, it sounds annoyingly sing-songy.  Plus it takes away the fun of popping out and holding certain words, like “deep” and “fish.”

So, as in all things, you as the writer must be the best judge of what works for your story.

But while you’re contemplating that, it’s time to:

3.  Put down your pen and find a highlighter.

Go back to the beginning of your manuscript.  Use the same copy that you marked up with the boxes and lines, but ignore them for now.  Instead, focus on the words that are more than one syllable.  With your highlighter, highlight each multisyllabic word’s accented syllable.  (In a few cases, you may have a word with two accented syllables.)  Do not highlight any of the single syllable words.

Put your highlighter down.  (It’s OK to still be wearing your shako.)  Now go page by page, and look at each highlighted segment.

Do the highlighted spots all have boxes around them from the previous step?  That is, do the natural stresses in the multisyllabic words you’ve used in your story correspond in fact to the way your ear desires the beat of the story to fall?

If you have places in your story where you have highlighting without a box, these are areas you need to scrutinize.  They might be trouble.  You may be asking the impossible of your reader:  to ignore a word’s stressed syllable, perhaps in order to put the beat on the word’s unstressed syllable.  Definitely not recommended.

But again, this problem-identification method comes with a cautionary note:  Though these spots may well be problem spots for your story, don’t assume in all cases that you’ve got a clunker!  For instance, in my stanza above, the phrase “glum, gloomy swimmer”, which my ear hears as  [ ]  __    __   [ ]  __,   would show highlighting not only in the “swim-” box but also on the underlined, unaccented “gloo-.”  Potential problem for my rhythm, right?  I don’t want an accented beat on “gloo-.”  But in the actual context of the stanza, most readers do not give any particular stress to “gloo-” when reading aloud.  To my knowledge, it hasn’t tripped anybody up.

So you don’t necessarily need to change all, or even any, of the highlighted-but-not-boxed spots you find.  That said, you should scrutinize them very carefully.  Depending on what your basic rhythm structure is, these places have the potential to derail your cadence entirely.

Finished with that?  Now go back through again.  This time, look at all the boxed spots that don’t have highlighting.  Boxed spots without highlighting are places where you’re expecting your reader to put the beat – but the words themselves don’t demand it.  In many cases, your reader will have no trouble putting the beat in the right spot, especially if the words are in the latter half of a line or in a later part of the story, after your rhythm has been very clearly established.  But if you’ve got a long string of single syllable words at the beginning of your story or at the beginning of a line, your reader may flounder to find your drum beat.  Worse yet, left to his or her own devices, your reader might put stress in a place that you didn’t expect, which will throw off the rhythm of the entire line, perhaps even the whole stanza.   So go through all of these areas carefully.  They are potential danger zones that may need more cueing (through use of multisyllabic words that provide ready-made stress spots) for your reader.

At this point, you’re nearly done – but you still have one more sweep to do.

4.  Last but absolutely not least…

In a rhyming story, your rhymes must pass rhythm muster!  Go back through your story one last time, this time with your colored pencil, and circle all your end rhymes.  Scrutinize each rhyming set, keeping in mind that to rhyme rhythmically, it’s not enough that the words end with the same final syllable sound.  Instead, the last stressed syllable and everything that comes after the last stressed syllable must rhyme.

For instance, though the word “bunny”  has an -ee sound at the end, it’s not enough to have a rhyme for just the –ee sound.  Bunny does not rhyme with chickadee, even though they both end with an –ee sound.  Your rhyme must include the UN- sound (which has the stress) and the –ee.  Think funny, sunny, money, etc.

A good rhyming dictionary, such as The New Comprehensive American Rhyming Dictionary by Sue Young, can guide you through finding fun and rhythmically appropriate rhymes to use in your story.

Final Thoughts

 I hope these tips may be of some help to you in pinpointing potential rhythm troublespots in your rhyming story.  But remember that they aren’t offered prescriptively.  These are not rules you must adhere to.  Instead they are simply tools to add your toolbelt and use as needed.

Further, I’m quite sure that if you look you’ll be able to find much better explanations of scansion techniques, written by folks with much more knowledge of the ins and outs of poetic meter than I have.  These you should seek out and add to your toolbelt as well.

Because the more you know, the more confidently you can hold your baton.

And the better you keep the beat, the more gloriously your story will sing!

Debbie Diesen lives in Michigan with her husband and two children. She is the author of three rhyming picture books — The Pout-Pout FishThe Pout-Pout Fish in the Big-Big Dark), and The Barefooted, Bad-Tempered, Baby Brigade. You can find Debbie at her website, her blog, Facebook and Twitter.

Participants – to enter to win a critique from Debbie, you must be an official challenger and leave a comment on this post (INCLUDING YOUR FIRST AND LAST NAME) any time during the month of May for one point.  On May 31st, l’ll put a check-in post on the blog.  If you completed a picture book draft in May, you can let us know in the comments of that post for another point.  I will draw a winner using Random.org and announce on June 2nd.

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Important note: Due to a recent family emergency, I will not be drawing April winners until later this week, and possibly next week. Once I know when winners will be drawn, I will post that information here on the blog.The monthly check-in procedure AND the deadlines (commenting by midnight ET May 1) are the same.  Thank you for your patience and understanding.

Whew what a month! I can’t say I’m sorry to see this one go.  It’s now time for 12 x 12 in 2012 participants to check in.  Did you complete a picture book draft for April?

For the first time, I must admit I did not complete a draft.  What can I say? Life happened.  However, I am participating in National Picture Book Writing Week (NaPiBoWriWee) starting tomorrow, so I hope to make some good ground there.

Many thanks, once again, to our four featured authors for April-Palooza – Jennifer WardLinda Ravin LoddingSandy Asher, Susanna Leonard Hill!!!  If you left a comment on their April 1st post, you are automatically entered to win a critique from Jennifer, Linda or Susanna or a copy of Sandy’s book WRITING IT RIGHT: How Successful Children’s Authors Perfect and Sell Their Stories, regardless of whether you completed a PB draft this month.

If you did complete a draft in April, let us know in the comments and that will get you another entry.  YOU MUST LEAVE YOUR NAME (FIRST AND LAST) IN YOUR COMMENT IF YOU WANT IT TO BE COUNTED AS AN ENTRY.   You have until midnight EST May 1st to leave a comment on this post and/or the April 1st post to be eligible for the drawing.

Don’t forget to come back tomorrow to meet our May authorl!!

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It is my pleasure to announce our three winners for the March 12 x 12 in 2012 prizes! The first prize is a copy of Katie Davis’ outstanding ebook – How to Promote Your Children’s Book: Tips, Tricks and Secrets to Creating a BestsellerNext, I am giving away two free Brain Burps About Books iPhone apps because I love the podcast so much (and NOT just because I am sometimes in it. :-))

Winners, if you already have Katie’s book, or the iPhone app, OR don’t have an iPhone and therefore can’t use the app, please let me know ASAP.  I’ve kept the Random.org list of winners, and if you can’t use the prize, I will simply keep going down the list until I find someone who can.  Thanks!

And now, for the winners…. *CUE DRUMROLL*

Winner of How to Promote Your Children’s book is…..    BRENDA HARRIS!!!!!!!!

Winners of the Brain Burps About Books iPhone App are….    ROBYN CAMPBELL and JARM DEL BOCCIO!!!!!!!

Congratulations to all the winners! Contact me for info on how to claim your prizes.

Onward, ho!!!

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It’s no foolin’! April has arrived and with it, blooming flowers, singing birds, and the shining sun. Plus – Poetry Month!  AND for 12 x 12 in 2012 participants, it’s not just one but FOUR opportunities to win prizes to improve your writing craft.

That’s right.  April features four multi-published authors, all of whom are participating in the 12 x 12 challenge.  I asked each of them to answer four questions about writing and publishing picture books.  4 questions, 4 authors, 4th month.  (I’m sorry I can’t help myself!).

First allow me to introduce these generous and accomplished authors in alphabetical order by first name — Jennifer Ward, Linda Ravin Lodding, Sandy Asher and Susannah Leonard Hill.  Then keep reading for their valuable insights into the craft of picture book writing.

Jennifer

Jennifer Ward is the author of numerous acclaimed books for children, including, Way Out in the Desert, Somewhere in the Ocean, and There Was an Odd Princess Who Swallowed a PeaShe’s also written parenting books including, I Love Dirt! 52 Activities to Help You and Your Kids Discover the Wonders of NatureLet’s Go Outside: Outdoor Activities and Projects to Get You and Your Kids Closer to Nature, andIt’s a Jungle Out There: 52 Nature Adventures for City KidsForthcoming titles by Jennifer include What Will Hatch? (Bloomsbury/Walker Books), Mama Built a Little Nest, (Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane Books),  The Sunhat, (Rio Chico), and, There Was an Old Pirate Who Swallowed a Fish, (Marshall Cavendish). You can find Jennifer on her website and Facebook  Jennifer is offering one 12 x 12 participant a manuscript critique.

Linda

Linda Ravin Lodding is the author of The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister (Flashlight Press, 2011) and the upcoming Hold That Thought, Milton! (illustrated by Ross Collins) and Oskar’s Perfect Present (illustrated by Alison Jay) both from Gullane Children’s Books, London. Linda is originally from New York, but has spent the past 15 years in Sweden, Austria and now The Netherlands. Today she lives in a one-windmill with her wonderful husband and daughter (who is, at times, as busy as Ernestine) and their sometimes-dog Nino (who speaks Dutch, Swedish, Spanish and a smattering of English). She loves dreaming up stories, biking along the canals, taking photos, doing pottery, traipsing through quaint towns, playing the flute…and sometimes just playing. You can find Linda, on her websiteFacebook and Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn and located (in person!) at 52°9’7″N , 4°23’05″W.  Linda is offering one 12 x 12 participant a manuscript critique.

Sandy

Sandy Asher’s first book for young readers, SUMMER BEGINS, was published in 1980. Since then, she’s written 25 more. Her latest picture books are all about Froggie and Rabbit, Too Many Frogs!What a Party!, and Here Comes Gosling!. Sandy has also edited five anthologies, including, DUDE! Stories and Stuff for Boys, coedited with her friend David Harrison. Her latest anthology is WRITING IT RIGHT: How Successful Children’s Authors Perfect and Sell Their Stories. Sandy and her husband are the proud parents of two grown children, and have three small grandchildren.  They live in Lancaster, PA, with their cat Friday. You can find Sandy at the website she co-founded with David Harrison – America Writes for Kids, their blog and on FacebookSandy is offering one 12 x 12 participant a copy of her book, WRITING IT RIGHT! 

Susanna

Susanna Leonard Hill began writing as soon as she could hold a pencil, but her first published book was The House That Mack Built, released by Little Simon in 2002. Since then, she has published eight more books, including: Punxsutawney Phyllis (Holiday House, 2005), No Sword Fighting In The House (Holiday House, 2007), Not Yet, Rose (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2009), Airplane Flight! (Little Simon, 2009)Can’t Sleep Without Sheep, (Walker Books, 2010) and April Fool, Phyllis! (Holiday House, 2011). In her spare time, Susanna is also a chauffeur, housekeeper, laundress, reader, rider-when-she-gets-the-chance, gardener-wanna-be, and former teacher. You can find Susanna on her website, blog (where she hosts the popular Perfect Picture Book Friday, and Would You Read It? series), Facebook and YouTubeSusanna is offering one 12 x 12 participant a manuscript critique.

1. What, in your opinion, is the most important element of an outstanding picture book?  Please name one picture book that executes this well.

Jennifer: The most important element found in an outstanding picture book is the ability to transcend the reader’s thoughts and emotions. The story isn’t simply read by the reader, but processed on a variety of levels.  This happens during the book’s creation, when many-many thoughtful, technical and artful elements are woven into the book’s design, seamlessly:  language, characters, concept, text placement, illustration, tone, composition…
The result is a book that not only resonates with each individual reader on some personal level, but also stands the test of time, becoming a classic.
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, written and illustrated by William Steig, is an example of a book that executes this perfectly.

Linda: Only one element? There are so many important ones. Great character! Rich text! Read aloud rhythm! Strong narrative!  Sense of playfulness! (See how I worked in more than one?) But if I had to choose, I think I’d linger on the word “picture” in “picture book”.  Ultimately, an outstanding picture book is a “pas de deux” between words and pictures; each without the other isn’t complete.  So for me, (one of) the most important elements of a picture book is the way the text and illustrations dance together — each relying on the other to create something magical.

There are so many books that do this brilliantly but one that pops into my head is Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathmann.

Sandy: As Sue Alexander told me long ago, an outstanding picture book works on three levels:  Very young children understand and enjoy the events.  Older children understand and enjoy the connections between the events.  Adults understand and enjoy the universality of the connections between the events.  Example:  Very young children laugh at Max’s antics at home and with the Wild Things in Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak.  Older children realize that Max’s misbehavior has gotten him sent to his room, where he’s angry and imagines the land of Wild Things until he’s ready to calm down and everything’s okay again.  Adults appreciate the depiction of a world in which a child can misbehave and get angry and wild but still be surrounded by his knowing parent’s love as symbolized in the waiting dinner.  Those levels are a lot to accomplish in only a few words, but that’s what makes a picture book truly outstanding.

Susannah: Someone (sorry, I forget who) said that picture books are big emotion for little people.  To me, the most important element of an outstanding picture book is the emotion, the connectedness, the “I know exactly what that feels like” rush of understanding you get when a character experiences something that you’ve experienced.  A picture book that does emotion well – whatever the emotion is – speaks to kids.  It brings comfort, or reassurance, or relief, or a laugh, or a feeling of common humanity to small people who have yet to learn that everyone sometimes misses their mom, or feels sad, or gets angry, or thinks a joke is funny, or is afraid of something.  Owl Moon by Jane Yolen shows the quiet happiness of a father and his daughter sharing something special together.  The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn and Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney help children feel the depth of parental love even when kids and parents have to be apart.  Z Is For Moose by Kelly Bingham is laugh-out-loud funny because every child understands impatience and not wanting to be left out.  Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak lets kids know that even when they’re bad, they’re loved.  To me, it is this depth of emotion that resonates with children and makes them ask for a book over and over and over.

2. What is your number one piece of advice for improving in the craft of picture book writing?

Jennifer:  Read, read, read.  Don’t ever stop reading in the genre you’re writing. I also believe it is important to give each manuscript time for subconscious processing – you know, that time you think about your work while doing the mundane, day-to-day stuff?  During this time, don’t ignore the “aha” elements that may surface:  a new twist, a different ending, another level or layer that adds to the reader’s enjoyment of the book. Often these thoughts surface as nothing more than a fleeting whisper in your mind and could easily be ignored.  But latch on to them and give them attention.   There might be a shy bud of thought that blossoms into a moment of genius.

Linda: It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again… Read!  On Linda Sue Park’s website she quotes an editor who once said, “Read a thousand books of the genre you’re interested in. THEN write yours.”

Sandy: Read, read, read.  We learn language by hearing it spoken.  We learn the elements of storytelling by listening to storytellers.  Read, read, read picture books until their rhythms become a natural part of your own storytelling voice.

Susannah: I guess my number one tip for improving in the craft of picture book writing is two-fold.  First, read a lot of picture books to get a feel for the length, the rhythm, and the language, to get a feel for what is in the story and what is in the pictures, and to learn what works and what doesn’t.  Second, write.  Every day.  Practice your craft.  The more you write, the more you will find your own rhythm and language – the kind of stories you can make work well, the voice that is yours and yours alone.

3. What is the one thing you know now that you wish you had known starting out?

Jennifer:   I’m going to spin your question around, because today finds me grateful for what I didn’t know back when I started out.  I suppose it is true on some levels:  ignorance is bliss!  In the beginning, I had no knowledge regarding the “business” aspect of being a writer.  I didn’t know about reviews or sales numbers or marketing.  I was green!

Back then, I wrote because I loved children’s books, words as a medium, and writing.  I sent off my first manuscript to one publisher, it was accepted, it was successful, and continues to sell very well today. Back then, the process of writing was pure bliss and joy. My focus was solely on craft.

Fourteen years and many books later, I am a full-time writer who makes a living as a writer.  Today I find it’s quite easy to get consumed with the business aspect of making books:  the marketing (a whole world in and of itself), traveling, speaking and promoting.  I will spin all of those plates on my fingers, and since there’s no finger left to spin the writing plate, I’ll try to spin that one on my toe.

So to answer your question, I am glad to know what my experience was like in the beginning, because it serves as a reminder that craft needs a place in my day-to-day realm of existence: to ensure success in this business, and to provide me with some balance.  The fact of the matter is – writing/creating – brings me the greatest joy.

Linda: To refer back to Q1, I wish I had known how to write with the illustrator in mind. Ten years later, and, by George,  I think I got it! It took me awhile to learn to let go of my manuscript and trust that a savvy editor, wonderful illustrator and a child’s imagination would “tell the rest of the story.”

Oh, and I also wish I knew that I’d have to be patient (but I’m still working on this).

Sandy: I wish I’d known how to study the market.  A story is art when you create it and art when readers receive it, but everything in between is business, and you can’t get your story to readers if you don’t understand how that business works.  Basic rule:  If a publication, publishing house, or contest offers specific guidelines, believe them!  Sure, people break the rules and get away with it.  But not often!

Susannah: The one thing I know now that I wish I had known starting out… hmmm… that is a tough question!  I’m not sure I have an answer.  I’m glad I didn’t know how long it would take to get published, or that I would have to do my own marketing, or that even once I was published I would have no guarantee of future publication.  I think those things would have made the process more intimidating than it already was.  I have certainly learned a lot along the way, but I can’t really think of something I wish I’d known.  I’m sure when the other authors post their answers I’ll think, “Oh, yes!  Of course!  I wish I’d known that too!” 🙂

4. Why, as a multi-published author, did you decide to participate in the 12 x 12 in 2012 challenge?

Jennifer:  My reason relates to Q3.  The 12 x 12 served as a vehicle to allow Craft to jump back into my work days and elbow Business out of the way a bit.   As a bonus, being part of the 12×12 challenge has allowed me to meet many wonderful people who share a passion for children’s books and creating. So thank you, Julie, for providing such a rich place for picture book lovers to converge.  I have drafted four complete manuscripts so far, and I am “loving” the momentum!

Linda: For the past  two years I participated in Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo and, while I ended up with a list of ideas, they stayed seeds buried under a pile of dirt (or laundry as the case usually is). The 12 x 12 challenge seemed like the perfect opportunity to tend to those seeds – give them a bit of water, a ray of sunlight, coo to them and see if they actually could grow.

But the number one reason for jumping on the 12×12 bandwagon with all you wonderful participants, was because I wanted to get back to writing.

In the run-up to the debut of my picture book The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister, I threw myself head first into marketing and promoting the book — built my website, organized bi-continental book launches, signed at bookstores, posted on blogs, solicited reviews, prepared school visits – everything that writers do….except I wasn’t writing. In addition, I’d been working on edits for  two new picture books due out in 2013 (more like sitting on them and waiting for then to hatch but still…).

While this doesn’t diminish the thrill of all the things that happen post-book, it got me wondering if I had any books left in me.  I wanted to find that spark again, make writing a priority and feel the buzz of a new book project. Nearly four months into 12 x 12, I have four new picture book drafts!  Thank you, Julie!

Sandy: Quite frankly, after 40+ years in the business, I’d reached a place where I wasn’t sure I had anything more to say — and that was bothering me.  I’d completed WRITING IT RIGHT, an anthology of other authors’ work, I’ve been working on several plays that are centered on bringing other people’s stories to the stage, and I’m helping my husband with his blog America — The Owner’s Manual (http://americatheownersmanual.wordpress.com).  Obviously, I’m deeply committed to helping other people share their stories, but I never intended for that to be all my work for the rest of my life!  I read about the Picture Book Marathon in the SCBWI Bulletin and signed on, but weeks passed and I didn’t hear back from the organizers, so I figured it wasn’t going to happen.  Then I heard about 12 X 12 via a Facebook posting and decided that’d work just fine, so I signed on.  About the time I finished my January draft for 12 X 12, I heard that the PB Marathon was indeed on for February!  What the heck, I thought, I’ll do them both.  And sure enough, the more I’ve written picture book drafts — one in January, 26 in February, one in March so far — the more ideas I’ve discovered for writing picture books. Rather than an exhausting double dare, it’s all been wonderfully invigorating!  Have I thanked you recently, Julie?  THANK YOU!

Susanna: I have been lucky to be published, but I know I still have a lot to learn about writing.  For me there is always room for improvement.  I joined 12×12 partly to learn what I could learn, and partly for the motivation – to help me make sure that at the very least I would have 12 new MSS by the end of 2012.  But I also joined largely for the camaraderie.  I like being part of a community of picture book writers.  I love the guest posts on this blog.  I’ve enjoyed getting to meet so many wonderful people.  We all have things to teach each other, and it’s nice to have a place where everyone understands the ups and downs, the joys and frustrations, of being a writer.  I’m so glad you had this idea, Julie, and I’m really enjoying participating!

It is truly my honor to host these four inspiring authors on my blog this month.  PLEASE help me thank them by visiting their websites and social media networks and, especially, BY BUYING THEIR BOOKS! 

12 x 12 Participants – to enter to win one of the four prizes, you must be an official challenger and leave a comment on this post (INCLUDING YOUR FIRST AND LAST NAME) any time during the month of April for one point.  On April 30th, l’ll put a check-in post on the blog.  If you completed a picture book draft in April, you can let us know in the comments of that post for another point.  I will draw winners using Random.org and announce them on May 2nd.

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Well, here in Boulder March came in AND out like a lamb.  I’ve never experienced such a warm and early spring before.  I hope that is auspicious for writing!   12 x 12 in 2012 participants know that today is the day to check-in on your picture book draft for the month.  Did you complete one this month?

I completed a draft this month – once again on the second to last day.  You guys are such slave-drivers – LOL!  Seriously though, you all keep me so motivated and inspired.  You amaze me – truly.

Thanks again to Katie Davis for giving us fantastic marketing and promotion tips as March’s featured author.  If you left a comment on her March 1st post, you are automatically entered to win a copy of her book – How to Promote Your Children’s Books: Tips, Tricks and Secrets to Creating a Bestseller, regardless of whether you completed a PB draft this month. I am also giving away two of her Brain Burps About Books podcast apps. If you did complete a draft in March, let us know in the comments and that will get you another entry.  YOU MUST LEAVE YOUR NAME (FIRST AND LAST) IN YOUR COMMENT IF YOU WANT IT TO BE COUNTED AS AN ENTRY.   You have until midnight EST April 1st to leave a comment on this post and/or Katie’s original post to be eligible for the drawing.  I’ll draw a winner via Random.org and post it to the blog on Monday, April 2nd.

Don’t forget to come back tomorrow to see who’s on deck for April!!

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Please welcome Elizabeth Stevens Omlor to the Tuesday 12 x 12 series.  With her trademark wit and charm, she shares her own banana peelin’ moments on the way to calling herself a storyteller. 🙂

I’ve never thought of myself as a storyteller. Well, that is until I began to share my picture book manuscripts with other poor kind souls outside my family. Someone mentioned it casually, you see, my name in the same sentence along with the term storyteller. I thought, “Who, me?” It might seem obvious to some that they’re storytellers, but for me I really had to think about it for a couple of days or seven months. I had to roll the idea around in this little noggin of mine for a while, each roll slowly dusting off memories of my storytelling self, starting way back when, yep, back in the olden days. I believe it was 1988.

It was an eventful year, what with my parents’ divorce (don’t be sad, it’s been awesome), my introduction to Roald Dahl (and therefore the onset of my obsession with unwrapping chocolate bars), and my brief law breaking stint having to do with my friend Annie H., clean desk checks and a delicious/tempting Starburst reward (long story that basically ends with me living a law abiding existence for the rest of my days). The memories I really have had to struggle to recall though are the tall tales I began telling at this age. I had tall tales of me having ten siblings, of me speaking other languages, and of someone else carving my same exact initials into our staircase’s wooden banister (How could they!).  I say tall tales, because it sounds more literary than white lies. Mostly, however, to think of myself as a storyteller, I must believe that these tales were a sign of boundless imagination, not moral corruption.

With my tall tale days behind me, still trying to persuade myself that I, Elizabeth Stevens Omlor might somehow be a storyteller, I began my search for more evidence that would prove that I had in fact been bit by the storytelling bug. Ashamedly, I love being the center of attention. Family dinners were and still are, my family sitting in silence, nodding, smiling, gritting their teeth, as I recount events I deem humorous, complete with big arm gestures, a loud voice, and dramatic endings (think Gone with the Wind meets Carol Burnett). When I truly think about it, I guess I can see myself as a storyteller, and what better way to channel that love for telling stories than through writing?

Involvement in Julie’s 12 x 12 in 2012 has been an absolute gift. This challenge has inspired me to break out of my shell (well, online shell that is). Previously, writing was such an isolated practice for me. I sat on the sidelines during Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo 2011, just dipping my big, chubby toe in the water by writing new ideas every day. I still relied on my in-person peeps for feedback. My first peep, my husband, the poor, poor man, was previously forced, guilted and yes, sometimes bribed to read my manuscripts. He, along with my mom, my sister, and a couple of kind and gracious friends, even though they may not know you, they all thank you 12x12ers. And I thank you. I can now pretty much guarantee that the relationships with my peeps will last and stand the test of time since I have found others to suffer  read through my manuscripts and with whom I can talk shop.

In December of 2011, after downing several glasses of wine mustering up enough confidence, I felt it was time to unleash the beast, the blog beast that is. Well, it was more like a sleepy and shy blog beast who wandered lost into the cyber forest with her wicker basket filled with embarrassing moments from writing and mothering, complete with  seven followers: a sister, a few supportive friends, a cousin, Lynn Davidson from Canada (I’ll never forget you Lynn!) and some occasional hits from Russian spammers. My blog, Banana Peelin’, was the perfect avenue for me to share my own banana peel moments, moments where I had felt confident and on top of the world only to slip on a banana peel or have a huge piece of spinach dangling from between my teeth. I had come to the conclusion that some people were just born cool. But were they, really? Older and wiser, I now choose to believe that others, even the cool ones, have experienced humiliation of some kind. And thus, the Banana Peel Thursdays blog series was born. With published children’s authors giving accounts of their very own banana peel moments, we learn:

a)     what mistakes we should try to avoid along the road to publication

b)    that these authors are in fact human

Did you hear that Universe? THE COOL KIDS ARE HUMAN!

I am so grateful to have stumbled upon the online children’s literature community. The relationships that I have been lucky enough to make in this short amount of time have been life altering. My blog has become what I consider to be a part-time job. I choose to put time into it because I love doing it. It’s my baby. Personally never a big fan of the idea of giving birth alone, one might say that each author, artist, follower, reader, commenter, Russian spammer, who has contributed to the progress of the blog these last few months has basically helped me to give birth. There you have it. And for the record, ANY individual who has assisted either with the birth or nurturing of my “blog baby” basically has me on a short leash for the rest of my days!

Julie’s interview with Sandi Hershenson was poignant in that she mentioned the beauty in the authentic relationships she has created through the building of her online presence. In an attempt to create this online presence for myself, I had no idea how much I would learn, what sense of community I would feel, and with how much gratitude I would be filled through the kindness and generosity of others. I am sure fellow wanderers in the cyber forest feel the same. For me, storytelling is this amazing dream and nothing could be greater than to have the support of one’s peers in the pursuit of their dreams.

From the bottom of my caffeine-pumped heart, THANK YOU!

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Please welcome Sylvia Liu, a 12 x 12 in 2012 participant and illustrator.  She gives us advice on how to overcome a challenge I know we all face – procrastination.  Thanks Sylvia!

Do you struggle with procrastination? I do. Once I sit down to write or paint, I’m fine, but getting myself to my work space without detouring is extremely difficult. I also have trouble deciding what to work on first if I have several projects, and I find myself spinning my wheels. Other people in the same boat who have a goal to achieve — whether it’s exercising more or finishing a manuscript — have turned to commitment devices.

What is a commitment device? A commitment device is a term economists use for a self-imposed mechanism to achieve one’s goals. Commitment devices are based on the idea that there are two selves, a rational one who knows what’s good for herself (I’ve got to work every day to get my picture book done), and a less rational self who decides she has better things to do (I really need to check Twitter and Facebook, and look, a really cute video of singing cats). A commitment device lets the present rational self constrain the choices of the future irrational one.

So how would a commitment device work for picture book writers doing the 12x12x12?  Here are 4 options, starting from the least “commitment-y” to the most:

1. Publicly commit to the goal. By signing up for 12x12x12, you have already taken this first step. You have proclaimed to the world that you intend to write 12 picture book manuscripts in 12 months. Signing up for online challenges like this motivates you to stick to a schedule and to report back to your peers when you have accomplished the goal. Unfortunately, this is a pretty soft commitment, because there’s no downside to failing other than disappointing yourself. It also may backfire. As founder of CD Baby Derek Sivers explained in his TED video, psychology researchers have discovered that telling someone about a goal will make it less likely to happen. It turns out that the act of getting affirmation from others tricks your brain into thinking you’re well on your way to accomplishing your goal.

2. Bribe yourself. As any parent with a toddler knows, bribes can work wonders for getting something done (anyone give out M&Ms for successful potty training activities?). You can promise yourself a small reward at the end of each month when you have completed a manuscript. Take yourself out to a nice lunch or put $20 away for an end-of-the-year $240 splurge.

3. Get a partner. Another commitment device is to make yourself accountable to someone else. I am a really fair-weather runner, only going out when it’s pleasant. I have found, however, that I will run in cold and windy conditions when I have a weekly standing appointment with my friend. One way for you to make sure you stick to the 12x12x12 schedule is to pick a writing partner who is also doing this challenge. Report back to each other once a month, or swap manuscripts at the end of each month.

4. Set up a contract with yourself. You can do it yourself or use websites to help you commit to a goal with a consequence if you don’t meet it. For example, you can decide that if you don’t finish a manuscript each month, you will donate $10 to a designated charity. Websites like http://www.Stickk.com help you do this by helpfully taking your credit card number and setting up a system (including designating referees) to enforce your goals. (Using similar principles, Gympact is an iPhone app that lets you decide how often you will go to the gym. You get paid each time you meet your goals and penalized each time you fail; the money comes from the pool of people who participate.)

If you really want to give yourself further incentive, you can set up the payments to go to a charity that is antithetical to what you believe in. A recent Freakonomics podcast about commitment devices reported how one man committed to living healthfully for a month, and when he failed, he sent a $750 check to someone his girlfriend liked but he really didn’t, Oprah Winfrey.

Have you ever used a commitment device? What kind of commitment device might help you achieve your goals in the 12x12x12 challenge? Is mere will power and the satisfaction of accomplishment enough? 

Sylvia Liu was an environmental attorney working on protecting the oceans for a decade. Now she has gone back to her first love, art and illustration, and is working on several projects, including writing and illustrating picture books. She blogs about ebooks, tools for writers/illustrators, and other fun stuff at: http://www.sylvialiuland.com, and can be found many other places on the web: Twitter: http://twitter.com/artsylliu, Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/ArtbySylviaLiu, Portfolio: http://www.sylvialiuart.com, Google+, and Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/sylliu/

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