Thursday, June 30, 2011

Pacing--According to Alexandra and Humor--According to Alan

Week of June 26—Reflections from SCBWI, Orlando
Thursday, June 30—Pacing—According to Alexandra and Humor—According to Alan

Alexandra Penfold gave a remarkable Powerpoint presentation that contrasted a storyboard and text acquired from an author/illustrator and the finished book. The changes that were made illustrated the many stages of revising the writer/illustrator did and what happens during the editorial process. Alexandra also used another Powerpoint presentation to illustrate pacing. If you’re lucky enough to ever hear Alexandra speak, I hope she shares these great presentations.


Alexandra shared Freytag’s pyramid to begin her presentation. I guess I slept through high school literature classes because I have no memory of ever seeing the pyramid. Whether you are using a three-act structure or not in your writing, stories follow this dramatic structure. THis structure creates a story. This structure is also what makes picture books different than magazine articles.

According to Alexandra, we read magazine articles and stories one time and are satisfied. We put the magazine down, and while we may remember the story, we aren’t compelled to read it again. Picture books have to be something people want to read and reread. Additionally, there has to be a compelling reason to bring the book home to begin with.

The pacing of the story should take the reader on a journey and make the journey a wonderful ride. Always remember the readers/listeners of picture books have short attention spans and the pacing should take that into consideration and make their reading/listening journies enjoyable.
Page turns are used to build drama. 

Page turns are mini cliffhangers. According to Alexandra, some ways to develop cliffhangers via page turns are through punctuation (dashes and ellipses, for instance), through transition words (such as until, when, and), and by splitting compound words, revealing a surprise, or featuring a cause on one page and the effect on the following page.

Appeal to kids, but don’t offend adults.
—Alan Katz

Alan Katz, humorist, song writer, comedy writer, and picture book author, was a hit in Orlando. His presentation was entitled “What Makes Kids Giggle, Chortle, Guffaw, Snort, and Read?” Below are some of his tips for adding humor to your writing.

1. What Makes Kids Laugh?
Alan says the keys are: incongruity, puns, and the absolute ridiculous.

2. Ask yourself “What if?”
What if the world was made of peanut butter?
What if mom had a clone?
The answers you find may be funny and may lead to a story idea.

3. Remember SNOT—Something Not Ordinarily Thought
To set up a joke, Alan suggested a four-line structure of Normal, Normal, Normal, Funny.

4. Don’t Be Condescending
Kids are smart. Let them in on the joke. Or even let them be ahead of the joke.

5. Never Insult
Funny does not mean insulting. Making fun of someone is never funny.

6. Appeal to Kids, But Don’t Offend the Adults
Remember that parents, teachers, and librarians buy the books that kids read and enjoy. To get the humor to the kids, you can’t offend the adults along the way.

7. Play with words

8. Break rules whenever possible

9. Remember to FART—Find A Real Toddler
In other words, think like a kid by being around kids. Remember, kids get oral puns before they can read and understand written puns.

10. Make An Inventory
When beginning to work with a topic/subject/idea, take an inventory of everything you know about the subject. (For instance, making a list of everything you know about swimming.) Then put the killer—the funniest thing—at the end of the story. (For instance, reveal that the character in the story who is afraid of swimming is a lifeguard.)

11. Make It Smelly
Kids favorite sense is the sense of smell. Use that sense and they will immediately relate and find the humor.

12. Don’t Be Afraid to Try New Forms and Genres
Alan has written picture books, developed aps, designed games, created Barbie collector cards, written comic books, and more. By experimenting with different forms and genres, he is able to reinvent himself and find new ways to use his humor.

It’s Your Turn!
1. When was the last time you laughed aloud when you read a picture book? Go to your local library or book store and put your hands on some Alan Katz’s books. I can guarantee you’ll laugh and you’ll learn more about including humor in your writing.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Revising Like a Writer--According to Lisa

Week of June 26—Reflections from SCBWI, Orlando
Wednesday, June 29—Revising Like a Writer—According to Lisa

I love to revise, so I when I learned that Lisa and Alexandra were including a revision session in the Picture Book Intensive, I was excited. And then when the two of them approached the subject from their own points of view—an author and an editor—I knew it was going to be a great session.

Picture book writers entertain children and parents
without leaving either behind. –Lisa Wheeler

1. Redundanices
Any unintentional redundancies need to be revised out of your writing.

2. Obstacles to Forward Movement
Cut everything that does not move the story forward.

3. Unnecessary Description
If you have exposition that can be illustrated, take it out. Make sure every detail is necessary and that you are showing, not telling. Be sure to read your story aloud to hear if it flows smoothly, or if it is slowed down by descriptions.

4. Too Many Stage Directions
The reader does not need to spend every moment with the character. We only need to include the details and directions that move the character forward. Remember, page turns are scene separators, time devices, and people movers. (In other words, page turns can serve as transitions.)

5. Too Many Names to Keep Track Of
Only give names to important players in the story. Characters must earn their names. Be carefully with alliterated names, they can cause confusion. We learned one of Lisa’s pet peeves—Ridiculous names not found in nature. Fun is fine, ridiculous is ridiculous!

6. Unnecessary Dialogue
Dialogue should sound authentic. Even in rhyming pieces, the dialogue must be natural. Don’t use dialogue to give information the reader already has, to slow down the action, or to slow down the reaction. Keep dialogue short and sweet. Also avoid going overboard with accents and colloquialisms in dialogue. (A little goes a long way.)

7. Show vs. Tell
Don’t try to tell and explain to the reader. Instead, put the reader in the moment. The reader wants to fell and experience—not be told.

8. Red Herrings
Everything in your story must be relevant and move the story forward.

9. Weak Verbs
Use vivid verbs (and strong nouns), take out or replace weak words.

10. Choose the Best Tag Lines

11. Beware of Author Intrusion.
Author intrusion is when you interrupt the story to ask the reader a question or to talk to the reader. For instance: I don’t like the dark. Do you? Author intrusions breaks through the wall between the author and reader and interrupt the flow of the story.
1.The Rule of Threes
In the big picture of your manuscript, the rule of three refers to the three scenes/three attempts that are often used to solve a problem in a picture book. In the smaller scheme of things, repeating lines three times, trios of sounds, etc. can emphasize the rule of three. (Per Lisa: Sometimes you need more than three, and seven is also a magic number.)
2. Word Play
Picture books are all about the words, so add alliteration, onomatopoeias, internal rhymes, puns, and other forms of word play.

3. Frame the Story
Use something at the beginning of the story and something at the end of the story to frame it or give it book ends.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Lisa shared an approach to use to know what to do following rejection letters.
Step 1: If you get three rejection letters on the same piece, it’s time to revise again.
Step 2: After revising, send the piece out again.
Step 3: If you receive three more rejections on the piece, put it aside for awhile and move on to another piece.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Opening Lines--According to Lisa and Alexandra

Week of June 26—Reflections from SCBWI, Orlando
Tuesday, June 28—Opening Lines—According to Lisa and Alexandra

The first chapter is the last chapter in disguise.
—Richard Peck

We’ve talked about first lines before, so I was thrilled to see that the Picture Book Intensive was dealing with this subject. I had heard Lisa talk about first lines before and she always uses the comparison that first lines are like first dates. I’ll tease you with a bit of her presentation, but to really get the full impact you’ll need to attend one of her writing boot camps. Visit Lisa at First lines come in many shapes and sizes. Lisa shared the examples below. 9Of course, you only use one of these idea per story.)

1. Face-to-Face Opening Line
Using the first line to introduce your character. (Remember to be creative in how you do this, not predictable.)

2. The Flirt
Giving a sneak peak at things to come by introducing the character and by setting up a problem.

3. Setting the Mood
Choose the just-right words to set the mood and tone of your story. Don’t introduce a serious subject with a bouncy, rhyming beat and don’t introduce a fun story with drab, dreary words.

4. Air of Mystery
An opening line can intrigue you, tease you, and make you want to know more.

5. Perfect Location
Opening lines can start by establishing a setting.

6. You’re So Fresh
Choose an original, different, one-of-a-kind, custom-made line as an opener . . . something no one else would think of and something unique to your story.

7. Mixed Bag
Sometimes, you can use more than one type of opening line and mix them together to form something new and different. Make sure you are creating a pedigree and not a mutt, however!

Lisa reminded us that picture books may actually have opening lines or even an opening paragraph and not just one single line. But be warned, that doesn’t give us license to be overly wordy.

Alexandra’s take on first lines is that they are not the first thing to think about. The story always has to come first. After that you establish your characters and begin to reveal the characters, plot, and action.

A huge set-up to a story is not necessary in the beginning. Don’t try to explain too many things in the opening line or lines. Set the reader in the moment rather in the steps that get the reader to the moment.

Novelists write a first chapter first (of course), but they often have to come back and rewrite the first chapter when the manuscript is completed. The entire story, its arc, its climax, its resolution, and its ending can influence how the story begins. Alexandra quoted novelist Richard Peck who said, “The first chapter is the last chapter in disguise.” She said the same is true with picture books. It may take ten attempts to get the perfect first line. But write the story first—then let the first line develop.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Throughout the weekend, almost every conference leader spoke about critique groups. You need to make sure you are an active member of a critique group. I am a member of a face-to-face group and an online group. You can check the SCBWI discussion boards for critique group openings and most SCBWI Regions have a critique group coordinator who can help hook you up with a group.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Picture Book Characters--According to Lisa and Alexandra

Week of June 26—Reflections from SCBWI, Orlando
Monday, June 27—Picture Book Characters—According to Lisa and Alexandra

If you like someone, you want to hang out with them. It’s as simple as that.
—Lisa Wheeler

I suppose it’s no secret that I think Lisa Wheeler hung the moon. So you won’t be surprised that I was thrilled that she was a featured speaker at the Picture Book Intensive. Alexandra Penfold, editor at Paula Wiseman Books/Simon and Schuster, was also a terrific presenter. Together, Lisa and Alexandra were a dynamic duo!

Lisa launched the session entitled “Creating Terrific Story Book Characters” by saying, “If you like someone, you want to hang out with them. It’s as simple as that.” The characters we create should be the kind that people want to hang out with over and over again. Lisa then led a discussion of different kinds of characters:

Many main characters in picture books are naughty, but they still must be likeable. Mean Jean in The Recess Queen by Alexis O’neill and Laura Huliska-Beith and the wolf in the The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith are examples of naughty characters. You know immediately that kids are going to love the naughtiness of the character, but just remember they also have to relate to and like the character.

Anthropomorphic characters are universal and are on a level playing field with all readers despite the a reader's gender, age, race, religion, and so on. Anthropomorphism also allows your characters to do things and go places that “regular” children can't and can put characters in situations that can be made wilder and more hilarious than real life. For instance, if Marge and Lola from Chicken Dance had been actual children, the author could not put them in danger by having them fly off a roof or go swimming when they couldn’t swim. Finally, anthropomorphism can allow characters to be naughtier than human characters. Readers aren’t as caught up in what is fair and right and just when they are reading about a cuddly puppy or silly pig.

Personification is a hard sell and must be done well to be successful. A great for-instance is found in the characters in Robot Zot! by Jon Scieszka and David Shannon. Other examples are When Moon Fell Down by Linda Smith and Kathryn Brown where the moon is personified and Avalanche Annie by Lisa Wheeler and Kurt Cyrus which has a personified avalanche.

Adults who are characters in picture books are generally childlike in some way. They must be endearing adults

1.  Don’t be stereotypical with animals—busy beavers, proud peacocks, etc. Be unique.
2.  Avoid cutesy alliteration names such as Timmy Turtle.
·  Characters should seem to have a life before the book and possibly a life after the book.
·  Characters are what make you want to come back to a book again and again and they are what cause you to turn from page to page in a book.
·  Characters must be compelling and well-rounded.
·  Characters are the heart and soul of a picture book.

Alexandra led us through the process of developing a character profile for a character we were creating or a favorite character from an existing picture book. You can find character development tools through a simple online search.

It’s Your Turn!
1. If you have not yet joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators you need to do so TODAY. Visit the SCBWI web site at Then find the web site for your regional SCBWI. I believe very few of us will ever be published without attending SCBWI-sponsored events and meeting industry professionals.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Author Dinner

My critique group, PB&J, had the pleasure of enjoying dinner with Lisa Wheeler and her daughter, Kate. Kate is an aspiring illustrator. Lisa and Kate would make a powerhouse duo! From left to right are Dionna, Lisa, Kate, Madeleine, Heather, Cheryl, and me. (Fellow members Maryann and Susan were unable to attend.) Thanks, Lisa, for letting us pick your brain!

Coming This Week!

Week of June 26—Reflections from SCBWI, Orlando
Quote of the Week:
You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.
—Albert Einstein

I’ve just returned from the Florida SCBWI Mid-year Meeting in Orlando. What a great experience! I attended the Picture Book Intensive on Thursday. The intensive featured author, Lisa Wheeler, and editor, Alexandra Penfold. Saturday’s Picture Book Track included Alexandra Penfold; consultant Emma Dryden; author and humorist Alan Katz; and Priscilla Burris, illustrator. This week on PICTURE THIS! I’ll recap some of the things I learned during the sessions.

Monday—Picture Book Characters—According to Lisa and Alexandra
Tuesday—Opening Lines—According to Lisa and Alexandra
Wednesday—Revising Like a Writer—According to Lisa
Thursday—Pacing—According to Alexandra and Humor—According to Alan
Friday—Characteristics of Picture Books—According to Emma

Friday, June 24, 2011

Anthropomorphic Main Characters

Week of June 19—Main Characters
Friday, June 24—Anthropomorphic Main Characters
/ [an-thruh-puh-mawr-fik]

1. ascribing human form or attributes to a being or thing not human, especially to a deity.
2. resembling or made to resemble a human form: an anthropomorphic carving.

Yes, you know them and you love them—those adorable (and sometimes not so adorable) animal characters who populate many children’s picture books. “Animal characters imbued with human characteristics have [been] featured in many stories for children . . . Crucially, the use of anthropomorphized animals in a story enables the illustrator [and author] to depict a situation without any particular reference to age, social standing, gender, or race.” (From: The Encyclopedia of Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books, by Desdemona McCannon, et al, p. 38.)

These wonderful animal main characters come in a variety of levels of humanness (or so it seems to me).

Barely Human

Curious George falls into this category for me. His mischievous ways are human-like, but does George ever talk, make change, or drive a car? Geroge is, well, curious, and that could be because he’s a monkey or because he’s a anthropomorphized monkey.

Walter, from Walter the Farting Dog fame, truly seems dog-like throughout the book. But there is that one scene where he is rolling around on the couch trying not to fart where is human. (No matter how gifted you think your dog is, he still can’t reason that holding his farts will keep his family.)

More Human-like

In the Newberry-award winning, A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Sneed and Erin E. Sneed, the zoo animals do human activities (playing chess for instance), have reasoning skills (and map-following skills) that enable them to find Mr. McGee on his sick day, and the animals can even empathize with Mr. McGee. Too me, they animals are still not fully human, they don’t talk like humans, for instance.

Fully Human with Animal Traits
In Hedgehog Goes to Kindergarten by Lynne Marie and Anne Kennedy, Spike is fully human in every way. His one flaw (and his one recurring animal trait) is the way his spikes-up just like every other hedgehog. Spike with is fully human with an animal edge.

I don’t know that I will ever get tired of talking about Chicken Dance by Tammi Sauer and Dan Santat. Marge and Lola are definitely human in this story, but they do have some residual chicken in them. They can’t fly or swim (just like any other chicken) and their own really talents are their chicken abilities to bawk, flap, and shake (which, lucky for them, looks a lot like dancing).

Fully Human with No Evidence of Animal Traits

The animals in Say Daddy!, by Michael Shoulders and Teri Weidner, are fully human with no hint of animal traits. I heard Michael talk about this book years ago as he held sketches in his hand. He wrote the book thinking of human characters, when he received the sketches was the first time he saw/thought/knew that animals would portray the characters, which they do very well. I think the decision to make the characters into animals made the book more marketable since the bears represent all families without race or ethnicity being an issue.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Would you main characters be more intriguing as animals? Do you have an anthropomorphized main character now that needs to slide up or down the scale of humanness to be effective? Make your characters into creatures if it serves your story and makes it stronger. If not, then don’t

Thursday, June 23, 2011


How do you like the new look of Picture This!? If you think this is something, you should see my redesigned website at Thanks to the talented Donna Farrell for her great work. Visit Donna's site at

Flawed Main Characters

Week of June 19—Main Characters
Thursday, June 23—Flawed Main Characters

Every protagonist, or main character, has to have a problem to overcome or a goal for which to strive. That problem may also be the main character’s flaw, or he/she may have a flaw that makes overcoming the problem more difficult. A flawed character is a more believable, relatable, and likeable character.

Now, don’t worry, your main character doesn’t have to have a Jerry-Springer-ish flaw or even a Dr.-Phil-ish flaw. Your main character only needs to have that little bit of humanness (even if he/she is an animal) that makes us feel for him/her and empathize with him/her.

My friend, Lynne Marie, has a new picture book that was just released by Scholastic for their Book Fair customers. Hedgehog Goes to Kindergarten is the story of Spike, a hedgehog, who rides the bus to kindergarten each day and hopes to find a bus buddy. (That’s Spike’s problem that he’s trying to solve.) Spike’s problem is complicated by his character flaw. Every time the bus turns, or bumps, or thumps, the jolt causes Spike to spike, and his prickly quills scare off his would-be friends.

Spike’s flaw is a physical flaw—that’s a rather rare flaw in a picture book main character. Flaws are often internal—self-doubt, fear, or shyness for instance. Let your main character’s flaw grow out of who he/she is and what he/she is facing. That will make for a tighter fit and can lead more naturally to a resolution.

Below are some examples of problems faced by some main characters and the flaws that complicate their situations. (Note: These examples represent my analysis. You may see the problem and flaw in a certain book differently than I do. No worries . . . we both are focused on problems and flaws and that’s what matters!)

·        In Cowboy Camp, Avery’s problem is that he doesn’t fit in and his character flaw is his lack of self-confidence and his self-doubt.

·        In Fancy Nancy, Nancy’s problem is that her family isn’t fancy. Her character flaw is that she wants them to be fancy in the first place. (Thank goodness for her accommodating family!)

·        In Chicken Dance, Marge and Lola’s problem is that they desperately want to win the talent show and get those tickets to the Elvis Poultry Concert. Their flaw is that they are hopelessly untalented.

·        Mean Jean, from The Recess Queen, has a problem—she’s a bully. Her character flaw is . . . well, she’s a bully!

·        Bernadette’s problem in Mostly Monsterly is that she wants to fit in at Monster School. Her flaw is that she is nice and sweet under her monsterly appearance. (Nice and sweet are flaws for a monster!)

A perfect character is a boring character because a perfect character has no problems, and if a character doesn’t have problems, he/she isn’t flawed in any way and thus can easily solve any problem he/she might face. There’s not much story inside a perfect character. Besides, can you relate to a perfect person? Me either. Would you like being around a perfect person? Ok, maybe you would, but I would resent the whooey out of that perfect little pest. LOL!

Make your main characters flawed, and they become relatable and likeable as they overcome their problem despite their flaws. Strive for characters who are perfectly imperfect!

It’s Your Turn!
1. Analyze your own writing today. List the main character in each of your picture book manuscripts. Next, list each character’s problem that has to be overcome. Finally, list each character’s flaw. If you see a hole in one of your manuscripts—a weak problem, the lack of a flaw, etc.—you may want to rethink the story.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Relatable Main Characters

Week of June 19—Main Characters
Wednesday, June 22—Relatable Main Characters

As we continue on our main character ARF journey, we now turn to R—relatable.

Jill Santopolo, a children’s book editor and author says, “The two most important things to have in a picture book character are uniqueness and relatability . . . Finding the balance between those two is the trick to a really strong character with potential longevity.”
On her delightful web site,, author Memo Fox writes: “A good picture book for the young child has . . . characters whom readers care about deeply.”

To me, there are four ways for readers to relate to a main character:
1.      I can relate—I’m like that!
2.      I can relate—I’ve felt that way, too!
3.      I can relate—I know someone like that!
4.      I can relate—I want to be like him/her!

An author may write a book with one of the four approaches in mind, but the reader may relate to the main character in a different way. As a matter of fact, get a group of readers in a room and they may each relate to a main character in a different way. But the key is for those readers to relate. Let’s look at some examples of relatability. Read the following excerpts and see in which way you relate. (After all three, I’ll tell you my feelings.)

Avery kicked the toe of his boot in the dirt. He looked at everyone else at Cowboy Camp and knew he was all wrong. His belt buckle was too big. His hat was too small. His boots were too red. Even his name was wrong. The other boys had tough names, like Hank or Jimmy Jean. Whoever heard of a cowboy named Avery? he thought.

From: Cowboy Camp by Tammi Sauer and Mike Reed

Relatability Quiz
r A. I can relate—I’m like that!
r B. I can relate—I’ve felt that way, too!
r C. I can relate—I know someone like that!
r D. I can relate—I want to be like him/her!

MEAN JEAN was Recess Queen
and nobody said any different.
Nobody swung until Mean Jean swung.
Nobody kicked until Mean Jean kicked.
Nobody bounced until Mean Jean bounced.
If kids ever crossed her,
she’d push ‘em and smoosh ‘em,
lollapaloosh ‘em,
hammer ‘em, slammer ‘em,
kitz and kajammer ‘em.

From: The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill and Laura Huliska-Beith

Relatability Quiz
r A. I can relate—I’m like that!
r B. I can relate—I’ve felt that way, too!
r C. I can relate—I know someone like that!
r D. I can relate—I want to be like him/her!

I like being fancy.
My favorite color is fuchsia.
That’s a fancy name for purple.

I like to write my name with a pen that has a plume.
That’s a fancy way of saying feather.
And I can’t wait to learn French because everything in French sounds fancy.

Nobody in my family is fancy at all.
They never even ask for sprinkles.

From: Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser

Relatability Quiz
r A. I can relate—I’m like that!
r B. I can relate—I’ve felt that way, too!
r C. I can relate—I know someone like that!
r D. I can relate—I want to be like him/her!

Ok, it’s time to share our answers to the Relatability Quizzes . . . and I have good news. There are no right or wrong answers. As long as you related, your answer is correct.

Most people probably answered B to the Cowboy Camp quiz. Haven’t we all felt like Avery, even if we’ve never attended Cowboy Camp? We can relate. (Some of you might be at Cowboy Camp right now and may have answered A. To you we say, “Rock on Buckaroo!”)

The Recess Queen quiz probably got a lot of C votes. But again, some people may have answered A. We salute your honesty and suggest you get some therapy.

I’m interested to know how you voted on the Fancy Nancy quiz. Maybe you are A., just like Fancy Nancy. Maybe you have B., felt like Fancy Nancy. (If not about being fancy, about something else that identifies you, but that doesn’t identify your family or those close to you.) Maybe it was C., because you know a Fancy Nancy or D., because your deepest desire is to be a Fancy Nancy. Either way, you related.

One other word we need to add to relatability is likeability. If you’re character isn’t likeable, who cares if someone can relate? Even ole Mean Jean is likeable. Perhaps it’s the way she’s drawn, maybe it’s the way she changes at the end of the story, maybe it’s because we know deep in that mean heart is a little girl.

Our challenge is to make unique, relatable, likeable main characters. Can we do it? Give me a big, “OH, YEAH!”

It’s Your Turn!
1. Search through some of your favorite picture books. Explore the main characters you find and analyze what the author has done to make those characters relatable (and unique and likeable, too).