Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Rhyming’ Category

Since Debbie Diesen was kind enough to have me as a guest blogger this week, I figured I’d share the book of hers that my kids so adore, The Pout-Pout Fish.

Written by Debbie Diesen, Illustrated by Dan Hana
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, March, 2008
Suitable for:  Ages 2-8
Themes/Topics:  Ocean, Fish, Moods, Friendship
Opening and brief synopsis:
Deep in the water,
Mr. Fish swims about
With his fish face stuck
In a permanent pout.
Can Mr. Fish get rid of his “dreary wearies,” or is he doomed to gloom forever?
Activities:  Debbie Diesen’s website contains a list of curriculum ideas and activities, all available for free.  She also provides links to the illustrator Dan Hanna’s many add-on activities, including live Pout-Pout films!
Why I Like This Book: I love that my kids love it, and that they say the refrain with me: “I’m a Pout-Pout fish with a Pout-Pout face, so I spread the dreary-wearies all over the place. BLUB…. BLUUUB… BLUUUUUUUB” (they especially love the blubs!) 🙂 

For more books with resources please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s blog and find the tab for Perfect Picture Books!

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

A Troop of Monkeys

ETA: Although the contest is now over, I’ve kept this post as I originally wrote it with one exception: MeeGenius took down the link to my story on their website, so I have removed the links that were in the original post. 3/3/12

Many of you know by now that I recently submitted one of my stories to a contest with MeeGenius – an e-publisher.  For the past week, I’ve been emailing contacts and posting it on Twitter and Facebook – getting my first real taste of promoting a book.  Hands off to published authors – it’s very time-consuming, difficult, and if you are like me and not used to self-promotion, pretty uncomfortable.  It just feels strange to contact people and say, “Hey, look at me! Vote for me! Please!”

I decided I’d feel better about it if I shared a little background behind the story.  Because every story has a story!

This book, A TROOP IS A GROUP OF MONKEYS, was one of the first I wrote once I decided to try my hand at children’s picture books.  My husband came up with the original idea after he found a website with a list of some of the collective nouns for animals.  He thought I should write a simple book with just the group name.  A group of monkeys is called a TROOP.  And so on.

When I looked over the list, I was surprised to see how few of the group names I actually knew.  I’d heard of a pack of wolves, a herd of buffalo and a pride of lions.  But a float of crocodiles? An ostentation of peacocks?  Those were entirely new and fun to discover.  I also enjoyed the fact that the group names tended to describe either the animal’s appearance or behavior.  So I decided to write the story as a concept book (rather than one with a plot), and use rhyming couplets to teach both the collective nouns and one fact about each of the animals.

A couple of years ago, after putting TROOP through a few rounds of critiques, I submitted it to a few editors.  I got a couple of “helpful” rejections with the message that the story wasn’t “big” enough to be a trade picture book and that there were other, similar books on the market.  In my own research, I had found a board book with a few collective nouns and a book of the type my husband had suggested I write, but none just like mine.  Nevertheless, I moved on and kept TROOP in a virtual drawer.

I never stopped loving it though, and two years later, with the world of publishing turned upside down as a result of e-books, e-readers, and apps, I started

An "ostentatious" peacock

thinking about bringing TROOP back from the dead.  I think the book would translate very well to the enhanced e-book format.  I envision kids pressing on the owls and hearing them hoot, or tapping the peacocks and seeing them shake their tail feathers.  And although it’s a dirty word when submitting, I gathered so many of these collective nouns in my research, I have enough for a series based on different types of animals – birds (a convocation of eagles), aquatic (a smack of jellyfish), insects/reptiles (a rhumba of rattlesnakes).

Finally, there are many ways to use a book like this in the classroom, the least of which being the difference between collective and singular nouns.  It’s an opportunity to teach interesting vocabulary and tie it back to the animals.  What does ostentatious or shrewd mean, and why do we use those words to describe peacocks and apes, respectively?  There’s a “green” element to the book with its final plea to take care of the earth and share it with animals.  There’s also a science and geography component – where do these animals live?  What do they eat?  How do they behave?  I look forward to doing these presentations in classrooms myself!  In fact, if I win, my kids’ school library gets a complete library of MeeGenius books for free!

While I don’t love the promotion aspect of this contest, I do believe in this story and want to see it published.  Furthermore, I am set on publishing it in an e-book format.  The MeeGenius contest is a good opportunity to try to make that happen.  I wish the winner was chosen entirely on editorial judgement so I could hide behind my laptop, but I have to admit I’ve learned a lot from putting a tiny toe into the waters of promotion.  So here it is once again.  If you haven’t already, please take a look at A TROOP IS A GROUP OF MONKEYS, and if you have a Facebook account, vote for it if it speaks to you.

I know there are other picture book writers who follow my blog who have also entered this contest.  I invite you to include links to your stories in the comments.  I know I’ve “liked” several from the PiBoIdMo group, but there may be more.  Feel free to share the “story” behind your stories if you are so inclined.  🙂

Thanks for reading! I feel better having provided some background on this story, how it came to life, and what it means to me.

Read Full Post »

Today, please welcome Jean Reidy, another terrific Colorado author, to the How I Got My Agent series.  This is an especially exciting week for Jean because her book, LIGHT UP THE NIGHT released on Tuesday.  I’m honored to be part of her blog tour celebrating the book.  I met Jean at last year’s Rocky Mountain SCBWI conference, where she discussed the craft of writing picture books.  I bought her second book, TOO PICKLEY, for my son whose eating habits seem to get pickier and pickier even as he gets older.  I laughed when shortly after I brought the book home and read it to him, he said he didn’t want his bread one night at dinner because it was “too crusty.”  TOO PICKLEY is a companion in style to TOO PURPLEY, and the third in the series, TOO PRINCESSY, comes out in 2012.  If you’ve ever wondered how to write a compelling story in less than 100 words (TOO PURPLEY is a whopping 40 words long), GET THESE BOOKS!

LIGHT UP THE NIGHT has been released to rave reviews and is a story every child can relate to.  Jean is a master at taking everyday activities for kids (eating, getting dressed, going to bed) and turning them into adventures.  Without further adieu, please welcome Jean.

Jean, how long had you been writing before seeking an agent, and what made you decide it was time to look for one? What kind of research did you do before submitting?

I’m afraid my answer isn’t very direct. Are you ready for a long-winded and winding story?

Of COURSE we are!!

Okay, here goes.

I’d been writing articles for magazines and newspapers for quite a while. But it was on a family road trip about ten years ago – after listening to a Sharon Creech recorded book – that I decided to write for children. On that trip, I actually brainstormed my first middle grade novel; however, I soon realized I didn’t know what I was doing. So when I got home I began to explore the craft of writing children’s books in earnest.

As part of that exploration, I attended a workshop in which I wrote my first picture book manuscript. It was both challenging and fun. That first manuscript actually won an award at a writer’s conference and I made the mistake of thinking it would be snapped up quickly by an editor or agent. Silly me. I queried it widely, yet that manuscript still sits in a file waiting to be reworked.

While I was querying agents and editors with that first book, I focused on finishing my middle grade novel.  I only dabbled in picture books whenever an idea struck me. Knowing that fewer and fewer agents were taking on picture books, I approached agents with my middle grade novel instead. One of those agents – my dream agent – was Erin Murphy.

How did I know it was time to get an agent? First of all, I’d been getting positive feedback from a variety of readers in the profession including editors. I had a hunch that I had a few “very close” manuscripts. Secondly, after studying the ins and outs of publishers and editors and imprints, I could see that marketing my manuscripts was taking precious time away from writing them. I’m a ferocious follower of editor and agent websites and blogs as well as the publishing trade bulletins. But there was no way I could keep up with all the nuances, preferences and movements in the industry. Erin does that masterfully.

Why was Erin my dream agent? I’d been reading message boards and interviews and chatting it up with a few of her clients and they all just gushed about her. Plus, she represented children’s literature exclusively, including picture books. Finally, Erin is an editorial agent, she works with her clients to put the best story out there. Her feedback on my drafts is amazing.

But Erin only considers potential clients from referrals or from writers she meets at conferences and she happened to be attending our Rocky Mountain SCBWI conference that fall – YIPPEE! -on the same day as my niece’s wedding – SHEESH! Anyway, I wrote to her and explained the situation and she very kindly agreed to read my novel. So I sent it off to her – with fingers and toes crossed – pronto.

During that same fall, I wrote TOO PURPLEY!  I read in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Bulletin that a veteran editor was moving to Bloomsbury and that her specialty was books for very young children. Bloomsbury was open to unagented submissions, so I sent the editor my manuscript, which her intern pulled from the slush pile. Within a few weeks of submission, the editor asked for companion manuscripts to go with TOO PURPLEY!  So I wrote three additional books, one of which was TOO PICKLEY! and another was TOO PRINCESSY! which comes out in 2012. We were going to acquisitions and I was TOO excited!

Meanwhile, back at Erin Murphy Literary Agency, Erin was in the process of reading my middle grade novel when TOO PURPLEY! was on its way to acquisitions. With that contract in sight, I signed on with Erin and she has negotiated and sold all of my picture books.

The dreaded questions: How many queries?  How many rejections?

I had great luck landing a home for TOO PURPLEY! and TOO PICKLEY! and signing with Erin all within a matter of months. Now if you want to talk about my picture book manuscript that won that contest – hah! – I’ve tried to block out those rejections. Too many to count.

Some may think that since landing an agent my life is rejection-free. Hardly. I have one picture book manuscript that both Erin and I love, but it’s had trouble finding a home. I’ve even revised it for an editor to no avail. I’ve also had manuscripts that have been rejected by my own agent. But I know Erin is always looking out for my career and I trust her completely.

That is such a great point.  I think those of us on the “other side” of the agent equation imagine that life is all tap dancing in the tulips after you get an agent.  Writing and publishing is a tough business for everyone.  We have to be in it for the love.

Your first two books, TOO PURPLEY and TOO PICKLEY are rhyming, and we always hear that agents and editors don’t want rhyming manuscripts.  How did you break that particular barrier?

As a matter of fact LIGHT UP THE NIGHT (Disney Hyperion), is a cumulative verse which also uses rhyme. TOO PRINCESSY! (Bloomsbury 2012) follows the same rhyme scheme as TOO PURPLEY! and TOO PICKLEY! and ALL THROUGH MY TOWN (Bloomsbury TBD) is a rhyming story about community. TIME (OUT) FOR MONSTERS! (Disney Hyperion 2012) is my only picture book that doesn’t rhyme, so far. So I guess you can say I sort of love rhyme. I feel that when rhyme is done well, it can facilitate a child’s own ability to read and enjoy a book. And editors know that.

Before I use rhyme, I ask, “Why does this story need to rhyme?” I often read manuscripts that have fantastic premises but are restricted by the rhyme. Or they grow to be hundreds of words too long for the sake of the rhyme. I think rhyming writers need to honestly assess if the story is better because of the rhyme.

Once I’ve decided to rhyme, I line up loads of fresh readers for my story. And I ask them to read the text out loud, noting where the rhythm or rhyme trips them up. So often rhythm artificially perfects itself via repetitive reading. And as writers we can trick our own ears quite easily. But with fresh readers, I only get one chance.

Stories need to rhyme perfectly on the first read. Natural accents and beats need to roll off the reader’s tongue. The rhyme must essentially disappear and not call attention to itself. It’s a bit like background music in that regard. Bad rhyme jolts readers and listeners out of a story ─ which more or less ties in to my best advice for picture book writers. Remember, the best picture book experience is the magical interaction of the reader, the book and the child. Make sure your writing doesn’t stand in the way of the magic.

I am totally guilty of tricking my ears with rhyme and reading it with the rhythm I intended.  I love the suggestion to line up lots of fresh readers!

In addition to the “rhyme” factor, lately it seems like many agents who do represent picture books are looking for author/illustrators. Was it difficult to find an agent who wanted to represent an author-only focusing solely on picture books? How did you know your agent was “the one?”

There are fewer and fewer agents that seem to be interested in picture book authors. And I completely understand the economics of why agents may prefer author/illustrators. But thankfully, Erin does take on picture book authors. She believes in representing a writer’s career, not just a book, and when she sees your potential as a children’s author, she works right alongside you to build your career – whether it be in picture books, middle grade, young adult or a combination of multiple children’s genres like mine.

Has your writing process changed since signing with an agent?

Since signing with Erin, I’ve not only acquired a kind and inspiring mentor in the business but a “family” of Erin’s clients. Her agency is rather unique in this regard. We have an agency listserve on which we bounce ideas off of each other, celebrate good news and offer one another support. Participation is completely voluntary.

Oh, but you asked about process. My process hasn’t changed much. I sometimes run ideas by Erin before I dive into them and other times I’ll send along a polished final manuscript that I haven’t shared before. I find having an agent has allowed me mental freedom to delve more deeply into my writing and take more risks. Knowing that I have someone who will be receptive to my work allows me to stretch myself without fear. Granted, Erin may not always love what I give her, but she’ll always read it with interest.

Great answer!  Being able to stretch your writing knowing you have a receptive audience with a professional perspective is a unique benefit agents provide.

What advice would you give to picture book writers looking for agents today?

Elevate your understanding of the craft and industry first. Attend conferences. Connect with picture book writers and industry professionals online and in person. The picture book writing resources available online are endless. If you have a computer and a library, you have no excuse to be uneducated about the market. Worry less about your pitch and more about your product until you’ve grown the support of several tough and trusted readers all saying, “You have GOT to send this to an agent.” If you need a fresh read of your picture book manuscript, check out my Picture Book Peek Weeks on my blog at http://jeanreidy.blogspot.com/.

Hmm… I may be sending one over to you soon! 🙂

If you could go on a writer’s retreat anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?

My agent has an annual retreat with all her clients. I have yet to be able to attend. They recently held their 2011 retreat in Austin to coordinate with the Texas Library Association conference. I wish I could travel back in time to attend that one with them. It sounded like a perfect combination of business, inspiration, friendship and fun – hanging out with kindred spirits in children’s literature. Hopefully next year.

Wow – I was totally expecting Hawaii or someplace else completely exotic.  Just goes to show you how community is as important, if not more important, than location.

What’s up next/what are you working on now?

I have five picture book manuscripts in the works and I have a middle grade novel I’m revising that I’m really excited about. I just got the F&Gs for TOO PRINCESSY! and TIME (OUT) FOR MONSTERS! and they are so fun. Genevieve LeLoup and Robert Neubecker, the respective illustrators, connected perfectly with these texts.

For any of our friends in Colorado, Julie, I’ll be reading and signing LIGHT UP THE NIGHT on November 12th at the Tattered Cover in Highlands Ranch at 10:30 A.M. Be sure to bring your kids and grandkids along with their favorite blankets and stuffed animals. We’re gonna have some fun!

I SO wish I could go with my family, but my daughter is performing in a musical that day.  However, Coloradans – make time to attend this event if you can!!

I’m always blogging, tweeting and updating my website and I love visitors. So please visit me at http://jeanreidy.blogspot.com/ or my website at www.jeanreidy.com or follow me on Twitter at @jeanreidy for all the latest.

Finally, I’m working on a very special launch for LIGHT UP THE NIGHT. I’m holding an online auction November 7-18 called LIGHT UP THE LIBRARY which benefits the library at Musana Children’s Home in Iganga, Uganda where I worked last summer. I’ll be auctioning loads of fabulous items for writers at all stages of their careers and other gifts and services just in time for the holiday. You can find the all details at the auction website at http://lightupthelibrary.blogspot.com/. I hope everyone has a chance to stop by.

I can’t wait for your auction! I’m so inspired by what you are doing.  Note to readers: I’m donating a special item for the auction, so I’ll announce it once the event goes live.

Thanks so much, Julie! Happy writing!

Thanks to YOU Jean, for such thoughtful and comprehensive answers and congratulations on the release of LIGHT UP THE NIGHT.  You’ve given us lots to think about.  You can check out the rest of Jean’s blog tour at the links listed below:

October 10 – 14 (THE WHOLE WEEK) – Picture This! http://robsanderswrites.blogspot.com/

October 11 – Sharing Our Notebooks http://www.sharingournotebooks.amylv.com/

October 13 – Literary Friendships http://literaryfriendships.wordpress.com/

October 14 – Write Up My Life http://writeupmylife.com/ – That’s Me!!

November 4 – Writing for Kids While Raising Them http://taralazar.wordpress.com/

Are you a picture book author with an agent?  Want to share your story?  Contact me so we can include you in this series!

Read Full Post »

Thanks again to Linda Ashman and Jennifer Mattson for last week’s giveaway and How I Got My Agent interview.  Please mark your calendars for this Friday, October 14th when another Colorado author, Jean Reidy, will be here both as part of the How I Got My Agent series and her blog tour for the release of her newest picture book, LIGHT UP THE NIGHT.  Light Up the Night releases tomorrow, so you heard it here first.  Go out and order your copies!!

I also spent a day in Austin over the weekend, courtesy of the Austin SCBWI, learning as much as I possibly could about digital storytelling and publishing.  I’ll share some tidbits on the blog this week so keep an eye out.

Now, without further adieu, here are the winners of Linda Ashman’s amazing new books!  Drum roll…

NO DOGS ALLOWED! goes to Beth MacKinney!!!!

THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS IN COLORADO (which wasn’t on the original giveaway list, but Linda has it and this reader wanted it, which enabled us to draw more winners, so…) goes to Stacy Jensen!!!!

SAMANTHA ON A ROLL goes to BOTH Joanna Marple and Julie Musil (Turns out we have an extra copy, so we were able to give away two of these)!!!!!

Congratulations to the winners.  Please email me at jhedlund33 (at) yahoo.com with your mailing addresses and who you would like the books to be signed to and we’ll send them on their way.  Woo Hoo!

Read Full Post »

I am so excited to present my first-ever author/agent duo for the How I Got My Agent Series.  Thanks to Jennifer Mattson for agreeing to go under the microscope participate alongside Linda. I decided on a She Said/She Said format, with their pictures as the indicator for their responses.  Of course I couldn’t resist sprinkling in a few of my own comments, which appear in italics.

Linda Ashman is the award-winning author of more than two-dozen picture books.  She has had three books released in the past three months, and you can enter to win one of them (details below).  Yesterday’s post includes my reviews of the books, and you can earn double points in the giveaway if you also comment and share that one.  Linda lives right here in the great state of Colorado with her husband Jack, son Jackson, and dog daughters Stella and Sammy.

Jennifer Mattson is an Associate Agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency.  Before joining ABLA, Jennifer spent nearly five years  reviewing children’s literature as part of the Books for Youth staff of Booklist magazine. Prior to Booklist, Jennifer was an Associate Editor at Dutton Children’s Books. She represents authors across all children’s genres – picture books, MG and YA.  Jennifer is also the co-author of THE OFFICIAL EASY-BAKE COOKBOOK, which we happen to own! (although I hide it because truthfully, I dread the days my daughter asks me if we can “Easy Bake.” Same thing with Play-Doh actually, but enough about me…)

Let’s dig into the questions shall we?

Linda, when did you seek an agent for the first time, and how/why did you know it was time to look for one?

I signed on with my first agent around 1999, after selling seven manuscripts on my own.  Although I wasn’t actively looking at the time, a writer friend spoke highly of her new agent and suggested I talk to him.  Since I’d been “negotiating” my own contracts (as in, “Where do I sign?”), it made sense to work with someone more knowledgeable about contracts — and the business in general — than I was, and who had relationships with more editors and knew their particular tastes.

Jennifer, the first question this audience will have is: Are you currently accepting submissions from picture book authors and/or illustrators?  If so, what kind of manuscripts are you looking for?

Yes, of course.  I am accepting text-only picture book queries and queries from author-illustrators, but at this time I’m not looking to sign up illustrator-only clients.

It impresses me when an author knows how to develop a character and tell a complete, satisfying story with extreme concision, with 750 words as a target maximum, and under 500 words much preferred.  I’m not looking for issue-driven/teachable moment stories, stories with historical settings, fairy tales or fairy tale retellings, nor, as a rule, nonfiction picture books – though I’ve been known to take a shine to nonfiction that illuminates some truly surprising corner of history or science with strong kid appeal (I loved The Day Glo Brothers, for instance – wish I could have represented it!)  What excites me most, though, are humorous stories that turn on universal conflicts resolved in memorable character-specific ways.

Since poetry is Linda Ashman’s specialty, it’s clear that I’m open to rhyming manuscripts. Having said that, I now have a few clients who primarily write in verse, so for the time being I’ll be most active about adding writers-in-narrative to my roster.

Note, in a few months I will be taking a hiatus from reading queries for a while because I’m going on maternity leave (my e-mail autoresponse will be clear about when that goes into effect).

What an excellent reason for a query hiatus. Many congratulations!! One more voracious reader of children’s books is about to enter the world…

Linda, Jennifer was not your first agent. What have you learned from working with three different agents?

I’ve learned that it’s really important to get a sense of how an agent works.  When you send her a story, will she read it within a matter of days, or does she, for example, devote one week a month to reading clients’ work?  Does he have an overall submission strategy for your manuscript, or does he send it to one editor at a time and wait for a response?  Does she notify you right away when she hears back from an editor, and — if it’s a decline — discuss with you the next plan of action?  Is the agent a one-person shop, or part of a larger organization?  (Neither is necessarily better than the other, but I really appreciate the support Jennifer gets from her colleagues at Andrea Brown.)

In order to avoid annoyance on one side and frustration on the other, expectations are everything.  Be very clear about communications.  How often should you expect to hear from him — only when there’s news, or will he check in periodically?  Is she accessible by phone or email if you have questions?   Beyond that, make sure you like this person, and feel comfortable asking questions.  This could be — hopefully will be — a very long relationship.   You don’t need to be best friends, but respect and compatibility are important.  And, above all, make sure the agent is genuinely enthusiastic about you and your work.  This is a tough business, and it helps to feel you have a professional ally looking out for your interests.

Wow, that is such a great answer.  I so often think that in this competitive market, writers think any agent is better than no agent and forget that it’s a business relationship that should benefit both the agent and the author.  Thanks for giving us some great questions to ask!

How did you find Jennifer and then come to the conclusion that she was “the one?”

I met Jennifer when we both were on the faculty at the “Big Sur in the Rockies” writing retreat in Boulder in May 2010.  I really liked her, and was impressed with her thoughtfulness and intelligence.  I knew she’d worked with Meredith Mundy, my Sterling editor, so I asked Meredith about her.  I really trust and respect Meredith, so when she gave Jennifer a ringing endorsement, I decided to contact her to discuss working together.  I’m so glad I did — Jennifer has been a dream to work with.

I’ve met Jennifer at two different ABLA events, and she is so knowledgeable, but also so friendly and approachable.  Readers, query her if you think your stories are a good fit!

Likewise, Jennifer, what drew you to Linda’s work and made you want to sign her as a client?

I’ve known Linda’s work for a long time, because when I was an associate editor at Dutton Children’s Books in the late 1990s, she would regularly submit (and be published by) the head of our imprint.  The publisher would bring promising manuscripts to an editorial board meeting, so I recall seeing Linda’s work and being impressed by her professionalism and her gift for poetry.  Later, Linda went on to publish with a former colleague and friend of mine, Meredith Mundy at Sterling.  The degrees of separation kept getting a bit smaller over time – and finally Linda and I were faculty members at the same writers’ workshop, Big Sur in the Rockies in Boulder, CO, cosponsored by our agency and the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI.  In a way, meeting Linda felt like greeting an old friend, partly due to our professional connections, and partly because I had spent so much time reading my daughter her board book, BABIES ON THE GO!  I was thrilled when, several months later, I received a note from her asking if I’d like to discuss working together.  Honestly, it didn’t take much thinking!

BABIES ON THE GO is great! But you guys have probably already figured out that we’re big Linda Ashman fans in this household.  By the way, at that very same Big Sur in the Rockies meeting, I was fortunate to have Linda as one of my faculty members.  From that experience, I can tell you that her manuscript critiquing service is well worth the price.

Linda, the picture book market is tough right now, and it seems many agents don’t take PB clients only.  I know your situation is a bit different because you had already sold many books before signing with Jennifer, but what advice would you give to a pre-published PB writer seeking an agent today?

Sometimes, in our eagerness to get published, we send our work out there before it’s ready.  I certainly was guilty of this when I first started writing, and I cringe when I come across old manuscripts which should have landed in the recycling bin instead of on an editor’s desk.  So before even thinking about editors and agents, I’d advise writers to become students of the picture book.  Reading them to your kids or your students — or recalling old favorites from childhood — isn’t enough.  Study the really good ones, especially those published in the last five years or so.  Start with year-end “best of the year” lists from ALA, School Library Journal, Bankstreet, the children’s blogging community, etc.  Really look at what makes these books successful and appealing (or not; this is highly subjective, after all).  Pay attention to the voice, the pacing, the escalation of the drama, and how the story is resolved.  Then make a dummy of your own manuscript and see if your story fits the picture book structure, if you’ve cut out every extraneous word, if your voice is distinctive, your story dramatic and visually interesting, and your ending satisfying.

Once you’ve got several strong stories, and you’ve followed the manuscript formatting requirements (and a meticulous friend has checked for typos), then you can turn your attention to agents.  Here again, research is key.  If you can go to conferences and meet agents in person, that’s great.  But it’s not necessary.  Fortunately, you can find tons of information on the internet.  Study agency websites, and make a list of agents who appeal to you and seem open to your writing style and interests.  Then google them.  Many have been interviewed on blogs, and a few have blogs of their own.  The more information you have, the easier it will be to target your submission and write an informed and personal query letter.

I’m chuckling as I read this because Linda shared one of her early manuscripts with us at a rhyming workshop she gave. Don’t worry Linda – I won’t name it here! Suffice it to say it’s inspiring to see how much a writer can grow if they truly commit to studying the craft.  And now, for a shameless plug of one of my own posts: If you want more information on how to research agents and editors, go here.

Jennifer, Linda writes almost exclusively in rhyme, yet we hear agents and editors say (often) that they don’t want to see rhyming manuscripts.  What separates a saleable rhyming story from one that is not?

That’s a great question.  I think that there is a note of inevitability communicated by the best rhyming manuscript – in other words, one barely notices the rhyming, except to be delighted by it, and one can’t imagine another way of expressing the same idea.  It’s a combination of perfect rhythm / scansion and absolutely perfect end rhymes:  I’m never fond of slant rhymes.  (When I was a kid, I used to hate reading British poems that rhymed things like “again” and “rain”!)

Apart from technical perfection, to be saleable in the picture book market, editors need poetry to be more than just gorgeousness and musicality.  Linda and I have had the same comment on a number of manuscripts recently, and it’s not uncommon at all:  “This needs a stronger story arc!”  So, writers of verse face an exceptionally high bar.  Their manuscripts must be technically flawless but also must advance a storyline.  It is so rare for a writer to have mastered all of those elements simultaneously that I think many editors and agents have simply found it more efficient to put the kibosh on rhyme preemptively.  For whatever reason (perhaps the prominence of Dr. Seuss?), it seems that amateur writers gravitate to verse before trying their hand at anything else.

This might be some of the best advice I’ve seen on what makes a rhyming manuscript work – thanks!

Given how tight the picture book market is these days, what advice would you give to PB writers looking for agents on how to stand out?

An exquisitely professional query letter that references specific, comparable, recent titles on the market always catches my eye.  We receive tons of queries from people who clearly don’t read much in the contemporary picture-book marketplace, so it’s nice to include any sign that you’re engaged in the industry in an active, ongoing way (it’s also nice to mention membership in SCBWI and critique groups).

Other aspects of your submission will convey the professional level of your work, too.  It helps when a project reflects the typical length of a frontlist picture book (rather than the typical length of a published-long-ago classic, like Robert McCloskey’s wonderful but 2000-words-long TIME OF WONDER…).  I also look for writers who know how to creatively anticipate the contribution of an illustrator, e.g., by not overwriting description and, when appropriate, leaving certain key beats of story development to the visuals.

I always recommend that authors of picture books line up three or four projects that they feel are ready to share with an agent before first submitting.   Agents usually ask queriers to focus on one manuscript, but if an agent is interested in continuing a discussion, normally he or she will ask to see more of your work.  You’ll want to be ready for that.

Linda, dogs are frequent characters in your books, including your latest release, No Dogs Allowed!  Can you tell us one of your favorite real dog stories based on one of your own pets?

Sammy, our Lab mix, is very smart and has an impressive repertoire of tricks.  When appropriately bribed, she’ll fetch the paper, wake Jackson (our son), deliver canned goods from the kitchen cabinet, jump like a kangaroo, roll over, speak, whisper, dance, spin (once, twice, or three times, as directed) and more.  But she has a lot of attitude, and feels that this sort of performing is really beneath her.  And she has a way of showing her resentment.  After every meal, she goes on a raid and finds a sock — on someone’s dresser, in the laundry basket, in a closet — and runs off with it.  She never actually chews it.  She just likes to hold it hostage for a while (usually until we tell her how funny and cute she is, thereby rewarding her for her naughtiness).

Awww, too cute! I want to give her a hug just reading this. If I’d thought ahead I would have asked you for a picture of her.  🙂

Jennifer, please complete this sentence:  “If I could take just one book with me to a remote desert island, it would be….”

I hate to compromise the children’s-lit focus of this blog, but I’d probably choose something lush and long-lasting, like George Eliot’s MIDDLEMARCH or Thackeray’s VANITY FAIR.

Nope. I totally get that.  If you’re stuck on a desert island, you need something a bit broader in scope than a children’s book.  My own choice would be A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY, by John Irving.

Let’s all give it up for these two lovely ladies for this great post!  I hope you learned as much as I did.  Also, don’t forget that Linda Ashman is giving away a personalized, signed copy of both SAMANTHA ON A ROLL and NO DOGS ALLOWED for two lucky winners. You must be a follower of the blog to enter (new followers welcome!).  Here are the ways you can enter:

  • Leave a comment on this post and/or yesterday’s post.  Be sure to say which book you’d prefer if you win. – 1 point
  • Tweet this post (include link in your comment) – 1 point
  • Like this post on Facebook (include link) – 1 point
  • Blog about the contest (include link) – 2 points

THANKS AGAIN to both Linda and Jennifer. I had so much fun putting this post together, and I hope you did too!

Read Full Post »

Linda Ashman is a favorite in our house.  My kids ask for her books by author rather than title.  She is one of the first picture book authors I got to know well here in Colorado, and how lucky I am for that!  Besides being a friend, she is also an award-winning author of more than two dozen children’s books, and a master of rhyme.  Linda’s books should be on your “must read” list if you ever plan to write in rhyme.

We’re here today celebrating three things.  First, the fact that Linda has had three (yes three) books released in the last three months.  Second, we are giving away signed copies of two of those books (details below).  Third, Linda will back tomorrow to breathe new life into the How I Got My Agent series for picture book writers with an added bonus – her agent Jennifer Mattson will be with her!!!  Now onto the goodies – the books!

Samantha on a Roll, Margaret Ferguson Books/FSG, October 2011:  Poor Samantha wants to try out her new skates, but Mama’s too busy to help her.  I’m pretty sure every child can relate to that scenario.  What’s a girl to do?  Sneak out and try them herself of course!  Hilarity ensues as the story takes on fantastical proportions that kept my kids on the edge of their seats.  My youngest literally let out a sigh when we reached the immensely satisfying ending.  I think he’d been holding his breath.  But you don’t have to take my word for it.  Kirkus gave it a starred review, saying, “Things get a bit dicey when plucky Samantha experiments with her new roller skates in one frightening, hilarious inaugural “roll” through town.”  And the School Library Journal said, “The rhyming text makes this delightful story tons of fun to read aloud.”  Too true.

The Twelve Days of Christmas in Colorado, Sterling, October 2011: I’ve seen books in the Twelve Days series but hadn’t picked one up until now.  What a joy!  Of course the format follows the song, replacing the traditional version with all things Colorado.  But the best part is the letters the little girl is writing home about her stay, which include many golden nuggets about Colorado’s history, landmarks, and vast recreational opportunities.  This book is perfect for my daughter (3rd grade) who is studying Colorado facts and history right now.  It’s way more fun to learn about the state bird (lark bunting), state tree (blue spruce), etc. reading this fun book than studying a list of facts on a sheet of paper that she got at school.  I’ve fallen in love with Colorado all over again – what’s not to love? – as a result of this beautiful book.

No Dogs Allowed! Sterling, August 2011:  I must admit that while I love all of Linda’s books, I’m partial to the ones with animals – especially dogs.  In this nearly wordless book, a cafe owner turns away a boy who wants to come in with his dog.  In order to prevent others from attempting the same, our cafe owner writes – NO DOGS ALLOWED! on his menu board.  Our poor owner, however, gets stumped as more and more customers arrive with more and more outrageous pets.  Eventually, the boy with the dog arrives at a solution which leads to a heartwarming ending.  My son has carried this book with him everywhere since we got it.  He loves that he can “read” the story all by himself because the story is told primarily in the illustrations.  As a writer, I am amazed by Linda’s ability to write a wordless book when she is not an illustrator.  She’s gotten so many questions about how to do that she’s kindly a near-final version of the manuscript on her website.

Linda is kindly giving away one personalized signed copy each of SAMANTHA ON A ROLL and NO DOGS ALLOWED.  You must be a follower of the blog to enter (new followers welcome!).  Here are the ways you can enter:

  • Leave a comment on this post.  Be sure to say which book you’d prefer if you win. – 1 point
  • Tweet this post (include link in your comment) – 1 point
  • Like this post on Facebook (include link) – 1 point
  • Blog about the contest (include link) – 2 points
  • Come back tomorrow and earn all these same points by commenting on Linda’s How I Got My Agent post.

I will be running the contest all week, and will announce the winners next Monday, October 10th.

Read Full Post »

Yes, I do realize I have a "Holy Crap, I'm standing next to Adam Rex!" look on my face...

Author/illustrator extraordinaire Adam Rex was the keynote speaker at last weekend’s Rocky Mountain SCBWI conference in Denver, and I would be willing to bet folks in Boulder could hear us laughing.  In fact, I hardly took any notes both because I was laughing so hard and because I didn’t want to miss anything he said or showed us in his slides.

He started by showing us a “motivational” poster.  It’s message?  AIM LOW: They wouldn’t call it bottom-feeding if there wasn’t food down there.

He kids.  He kids.

My favorite part of his speech was when he took aim at the gobs of people who think writing children’s books, especially picture books, is easy because there are so few words.  He wants to say to them: “Here’s an exercise.  Sit down and write a memorable quote.  You know, the kind that Mark Twain or Albert Einstein would say.  Something that people will still be repeating in 100 years.  It should be easy.  After all, it’s only 10-12 words.  Take your time; I’ll wait…”  Followed by: “Oh you think that’s difficult?  My STARS that’s interesting.”

I’ll have to remember that one.

I waited in line with nearly every other attendee to get my books signed.  When it came to my turn, here’s how our conversation went:

ME: You should really put a sign on the door warning people that they should use the restroom before listening to your speech.”

ADAM: Wow! I can honestly say I’ve never gotten that feedback before…

What, I’ve never mentioned my talent for winning friends and influencing people???

Luckily, I had several other chances to talk to Adam, although I can’t say the content of the conversations (at least on my end) were on a higher plane.  What I did learn is that he is an incredibly approachable, down-to-earth person who has a great deal of gratitude that he has been able to earn a living in this incredible business.

He told us why, after many years of doing game cards and adult comics, he decided he wanted to be a children’s writer.  He walked into a bookstore and saw a book he’d read in his childhood, and it made him go weak in the knees.  He said it was like a tin can tied to a string that took him back to his five year-old self.  That, he said, is the “Taj Mahal” of real estate in a person’s life.

I could not agree more.

This is why these conferences are so inspiring.  You get a chance to peek inside the mind of someone who wrote a book with the title, FRANKENSTEIN MAKES A SANDWICH: And other stories you’re sure to like, because they’re all about monsters, and some of the are also about food.  You like food, don’t you?  Well, all right then.  Here are just a few of the story titles included in this monster anthology (get the double meaning there??):

  • THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON Doesn’t Wait an Hour Before Swimming
  • THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA Can’t Get “It’s a Small World” out of His Head
  • THE YETI DOESN’T APPRECIATE BEING CALLED BIGFOOT
  • THE LUNCHSACK OF NOTRE DAME
  • NOW THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA Can’t Get “The Girl from Ipanema” Out of His Head
  • BIGFOOT CAN’T BELIEVE YOU CALLED HIM YETI JUST NOW, And… my kids’ personal favorite:
  • GODZILLA POOPED ON MY HONDA

My kids have now created, GODZILLA POOPED ON MY HONDA: The Musical.  It’s quite a show.

One writer I sat with at the banquet, also marveling at this warped and wonderful imagination said, “I want to know what he dreams about at night.  I want to know what he eats!”

I didn’t ask him what he eats (mercifully), but he did mention a dream he had about the moon landing in his backyard which became the basis for another book coming out in 2012, one he said took him 12 years to write.  As someone who’s written about 200 drafts of one of my picture books, I had to ask why it had taken him so long and what his process had been.  He answered with something that will stick with me always.  He said that after so many revisions, he’d lost the feeling of the dream, which was how he was connecting to the story.  Your feeling about your story is how you, as the writer, connect emotionally to the work.  If it gets lost, you probably need to find it again.  So true!

In other words, if it feels like there is a Dementor hovering over your shoulder sucking the soul out of your story, you may be revising too much or listening to others too much (my words, not Adam’s).  This has most definitely happened to me before, such that I no longer recognized my own story.  Now I have a good idea why that story hasn’t gone where I hoped it would – I don’t feel connected to it anymore.

Not a small amount of wisdom to take away from a weekend, eh?

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: