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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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I know Elvis Poultry likes to make a grand entrance and all, but it’s been so hectic this week I have to keep it simple. I’ve been running around like a chicken with my head cut off.

I mean… *cough*

Anyway, let’s just get right to the chicken winner shall we?

The lucky winner is…

Elizabeth Stevens Omlor!!!!!!!  Congratulations Elizabeth! With this book, you won’t be lonesome tonight.

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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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At last the moment has arrived to announce the winners of Tamson’s pitch contest.  I, of course, have read through her post and I can’t believe how much information she provided on what makes a good pitch, what trips them up and why she selected the ones she did.  She even gave us a few honorable mentions.  Thanks so much Tamson!  I am very envious of the winner, because after reading this post, I know you are going to get a phenomenal critique.  And don’t forget – even if you didn’t win, Tamson is a freelance editor and you can hire her to help you with your manuscripts.  

One last thing.  In this post, Tamson talks about titles, and I feel terrible because I think the reason some of you didn’t submit with a title is because I didn’t specify that you could.  I said to submit your pitch and the first line.  Of course that didn’t mean you couldn’t submit titles, but I wasn’t clear. Mi dispiace (Italian for “my apologies”). Live and learn for the next contest!  Now, onto Tamson!

Congratulations, Pitch Winners!

It’s been a lot of fun working on this contest and seeing all the cool stuff that’s gestating in all of your fertile brains. It’s got me thinking a lot more about what makes a good pitch and what doesn’t, how important the pitch is in terms of introducing your manuscripts, and whether or not a bad pitch can be overcome by a fantastic idea. I’d like to share a few insights here as a prelude to the big announcement.

Titles: Many of you did not submit titles with your entries! Presumably, you have them, and just didn’t think they were a necessary part of the contest. And I didn’t end up holding it against you…much. Seriously though, you should be using every tool at your disposal and a title is one of those tools. You might not think you are good at coming up with titles, but you should try, even if it means soliciting help. In all honesty, you may end up having to change it before it’s published, but you should definitely try to find a title that will grab your readers’ attention.

Length:  Many of the pitches should have been shorter. Try to keep it to one sentence. If the sentences are pretty short, you may be able to get away with two. But don’t make it longer than that. Picture books are short! It drives me crazy when I see flap copy that is half the length of the accompanying book, and I feel the same way about a lengthy pitch.  Fear not! None of you were that far off the mark, but there was some excess verbiage floating around.  One way to help you keep it short is to rewrite your pitch about 20 times until it’s pared down to its essentials, while still retaining a personality.

Questions: What role should questions play in your pitch? Usually none. Here’s why: There’s a tendency that we sometimes have to make our pitch sound like aggressive marketing copy, a la infomercial: Do you like Flies? Do you like soup? Well this picture book is for you! Either that, or it sounds like you’re being coy or are playing out a joke or riddle all by yourself: What’s a fly doing in this man’s soup? Why, the backstroke, of course!  When you could just get to the point: A man is enjoying a delicious bowl of soup when he notices something in it that wasn’t on the menu.

Rhyme:  Rhyming manuscripts, much to my chagrin, are taking a bit of a hit these days. Some agents and editors won’t even look at them. For example, see this post by Mary Kole [link to: http://kidlit.com/2009/09/05/rhyming-picturebooks-a-rhyme-with-reason/] (which, admittedly, is just one agent’s perspective). You have to make sure those first lines really shine. That means, ideally, you show the agent that you are the master of your craft [link to this post: http://tamsonweston.com/blog/rhyming-picture-books-arent-so-scary/]. But at the very least, you should show her that you are a confident and capable versifier. That means that none of those four lines should feel like they’ve been put there merely to accommodate the rhyme scheme. They should flow out eloquently and organically.

Personality: The pitch is a tool to get people to want to read your manuscript and there are guidelines to help your pitch do its job. It helps, though, if there’s a little spark to it as well. Is your character’s voice really engaging? Is your manuscript funny? Is your language lyrical? Then, ideally, your pitch should reflect that. You can, then, bend the “rules” a bit to make this happen. Don’t overwork it though. If you are having trouble getting personality in there without making the pitch very long, then just get to the point. This is a picture book, after all. It’s short. Agents are just going to want to dispense with the introductions and move on to the manuscript.

The Unexpected: Finally, I have to say that sometimes I was almost won over, in spite of myself, by pitches that weren’t ideally executed, but had a great concept behind them. For example, one of the winning pitches contains a question which I thought helped capture the personality of the character. I considered a couple of others that had questions too. Sometimes the idea just wins out, even when the writer doesn’t follow the guidelines to the letter. The best route to a good pitch is to follow the guidelines as closely as possible while capturing the essence of your manuscript.

Here are a few honorable mentions and a little critique of their execution.

TITLE: MARCUS AND THE FUNTASTIC BROBOT — by Angela Padron

PITCH: Marcus wants a brother. So he builds his own “brobot”, only to find that having a little brother – especially a robotic one – isn’t easy.

FIRST LINE: Marcus wanted a brother to play with, but his mom wouldn’t give him one, and he didn’t have enough money to buy one.

This is just a great idea for a book. The proof is in the pudding, of course, but it’s a good concept. The pitch, however, is unnecessarily wordy. This is pretty easily fixed: “Marcus wants a brother—so he builds one!” I wouldn’t use “Funtastic,” either. It’s feels like too much of a marketing buzz word at this point, much like Spooktacular. Marcus and the Brobot is solid on its own. Brobot is a good, evocative invented noun.

PITCH: Are you ready for a French nickname? To get fluffy? To save a flower? A charming dandelion enlists the your help in NAPOLEON BLOWN APART.  — by Julie Falatko

FIRST LINE: Bonjour. I am Napoleon. Yes, yes, I know, I am very beautiful. My lovely yellow petals shine like the golden sun.

This one cracked me up. Unfortunately, it’s not a great use of questions—this falls into the category of infomercial-type language.  Just the last sentence of the pitch would have been fine, but it probably be shouldn’t be in second person. This can put off some agents. I would also recommend cutting the third sentence in the opening of the manuscript.

TITLE: SECRETS OF THE NOT SO DEEP — by Sue Heavenrich

PITCH: After a week Maya’s mud puddle is teeming with life. What are those fast swimmy things, and how did they get there? Nonfiction/ecology.

FIRST LINE: After yesterday’s rain I am ready for puddle stomping.

Great title. I like playful approaches on nonfiction, so this appealed to me. However, this is a case where the question is not helping the copy. Just the first sentence in the pitch is enough. The  “nonfiction” tag is also not necessary.   The first line of the manuscript is good. Quite solid.

AND THE WINNERS ARE…

Second place, winner of the book Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom is…

ABIGAIL RAYNOR!!!

PITCH: Arabella is desperate to keep Penweezle, an ex-witch’s cat, but convincing her family is not easy, especially when the cat tries to help.

FIRST LINE: It was just before teatime when the doorbell rang and Arabella found a cat on the doorstep.

This pitch has a funny deadpan quality to it. It sounds like a conventional pitch, but that clause on the end really gives a little punch. I immediately was imagining the kind of havoc this cat could wreak. The repetition of “door” (in doorbell and doorstep) in the first line is a little unfortunate and easily fixed. It needs a title, of course.

First place, winner of the book, Writing with Pictures, by Uri Schulevitz is…

HEATHER NEWMAN!!! 

PITCH: Esther is a fashionista sheep trying to bring a little style to her flock, but finding the perfect accessories on a ranch isn’t easy at all.

FIRST LINE: Nothing made Esther happier than trying on different outfits.

A really concise, well-worded pitch with a little personality. I would change “fashionista” to “fashionable” however. “Fashionista” is too new a phenomenon. This may be just me. I would also delete “at all” but that’s a pretty minor quibble.

Grand Prize, winner of the manuscript critique is…

MELISSA KELLEY!!! ***confetti toss***

PITCH: Elly is wild to save her favorite endangered zoo animal – but big brother claims there’s no such thing as Unicorns! Then what are those?

FIRST LINE: I am the luckiest girl in the world.

This is a case where the question really worked for me, and it adds a little element of surprise to the pitch, which is nice. I wonder why there’s not a “her” before “big brother,” though, since, presumably, it’s not his name.  The first line of the story is great. Gives us a sense of this exuberant girl right away and you don’t even resort to using an exclamation mark. Amazing. But, no title! (Save the Unicorns! Unicorns at the Zoo!  The Finest Unicorn at the Zoo). Well done. I look forward to reading the rest.

Let’s all give a big thanks to Tamson for hosting this contest for 12 x 12 participants.  Congratulations to all the winners and to everyone who participated.  I learned loads in the process of running the contest, and I hope you all did too.  

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Today I have the pleasure of introducing one of the other judges for the Tamson Weston pitch contest. Mira Reisberg is here to talk about what it takes to get published.  She is also generously giving away a one-hour Skype consultation to help one 12 x 12 participant polish his/her picture book draft.  To enter, read this post and then comment on this post on Mira’s blog telling her which “P” is the most challenging for you and why.  The deadline to enter is March 30th, and Mira will announce the winner on her blog on April 2nd. Welcome Mira!

I’ve been making, teaching, and mentoring others for over 20 years and realized recently that my own books had sold over 600,000 copies while my former students have sold well over a million copies of their books, including two New York Times best sellers. Needless to say, this made me very happy.

Over the years, I’ve developed what I call my 4 P’s. Until recently it was only 3 P’s, but after a wonderful conversation with master illustrator and author Ashley Wolff of the Miss Bindergarten, and Stella and Roy series fame, she pointed out that I was missing the word “Passion.” For me this is a given, but it needs to be included and spelled out loud and proud! So here are my four P’s and why they are so important for anyone who wants to get published.

Passion– You’ve got to really, really, truly, deeply care about making and loving picture books – if you don’t you’re never going to be able to do the other 3 P’s. If you’re not passionate about picture books, you’re not going to be haunting libraries and book stores getting excited about picture book discoveries or constantly reading and getting inspired and excited by picture   books and learning from them. If you’re not passionate about picture books, you’re also not going to have the willingness or joy or heart to do what it takes to create fantastic products.

Product – Your story and/or art has to be exceptional. Picture books are expensive and picture book publishing is a business. Often a business with tremendous heart (some publishers more than others) but the bottom line is that you have to both be and show that you are professional. That means revising, revising, revising. Reading, studying, taking courses, getting your work critiqued, using your passion, whatever it takes to have your work be the very best, most original, lyrical, funny, dramatic, heartfelt, adorable or whatever the major characteristics are. Your writing or illustrations have to sing, but it can sing in many different tunes. Send it out in a professional way with an appropriate cover or query letter, researching, researching, researching appropriate publishers and their submission policies (usually on their websites). Children’s book writing and/or illustrating is a craft; it takes practice and study to learn those skill to create a fantastic product that special publisher will love.

Patience – It takes a lot of patience to develop skills through practice and more practice. It also takes a lot of patience to redo something over and over until it’s as perfect as it gets. When I do school visits, I show and tell the students how in one of my books, Uncle Nacho’s Hat, I had some Brahmin cows common in Nicaragua (according to my research) in the background of the painting and because I was really tired, I didn’t redo them even though I should have. Now it’s 20 years later and I still have to live with what I call my “painting of sham,” (learn from me here).

The next two places requiring patience are in the rewriting or re-doing art – I’ve never heard of an editor or art director not wanting any revisions, but it is possible and I’ve never heard of it. Here’s where you really get to practice with your most gracious self – mostly agreeing to make this changes.

And the final pieces of patience necessary are waiting for the book to be illustrated and designed (if you’re not the artist or author/artist) and then for it to be printed and distributed. This is a whole subject in and of itself, but suffice to say it can take anywhere from six months to many years depending on many different factors. Waiting after submitting also requires A LOT of patience. It’s also a great time to research other editors or art directors or publishing houses to submit to and to start work on your next project.

Another place where patience is needed is if you get that magical call or email from an editor wanting to work with you. First, put your hand over the phone if they call you and then scream. Then listen to what they have to say and tell them that you are very interested but would like to see their contract first or if they offer you a number tell them you’d like to see the contract and think about it. Be patient, if they are contacting you, they’re interested and have probably already investing quite a bit of time and thought before contacting you. If you can afford it, join your area’s “Lawyers for the Arts” or see an intellectual property lawyer. Their contracts are set up to favor them, not you, no matter how nice they are. Sometimes, I think of patience as a form of surrender (not as in giving up) but as part of a spiritual practice of acceptance if that helps.

Persistence– Think J.K. Rowling, Dr. Seuss and just about every published author or illustrator out there. Persist in developing and honing your craft – join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI.org), which is an invaluable resource if you are serious. Attend their conferences and meet editors, agents, and art directors who you would not normally have access to as well as peers that you can network and connect with and learn from on this wondrous journey. Take classes and courses; keep working your craft and sending out to researched and specifically targeted editors. And most importantly, don’t give up!!! Fortunately, so many of the greats didn’t give up either : )

Mira Reisberg is the award-winning illustrator of 6 picture books and co-author of two award-winning anthologies of stories and art. Her books have sold over 600,000 copies world-wide. Mira received her MFA from Mills College in Painting and Digital Art. She received her PhD in Education and Cultural Studies from Washington State University writing a 370 page dissertation on children’s picture books and the healing power of art.

Mira is also an editor, art director, instructor/mentor and picture book consultant whose students’ award-winning  books have sold over a million copies. Mira’s passion for picture books spills out into her empowering online Hero’s Art Journey course, which features contributions from major picture book authors and illustrators  (www.herosartjourney.com) as well as in the courses that she is creating for the Picture Book Academy (www.picturebookacademy.com). The next Hero’s Art Journey course starts March 5th and will be amazing. Please feel free to contact her at miraguy@gmail.com with any questions.

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