Sunday, July 31, 2011


Week of July 31—Picture Book Trends—I. C. E. Q.
Quote of the Week:
The larger the island of knowledge, the greater the shoreline of wonder.
—Ralph Stockman


You are scratching your heading trying and trying to figure out who or what I.C.E.Q. is. You’ve tried pronouncing it. You’ve Googled it, thinking perhaps a rapper has appeared on the picture book scene. At least one of you has even posted a query on Twitter. Well wonder no more. I.C.E.Q. stands for a few trends or styles of pictures books I keep hearing a lot about, and this week we’re going to explore some stellar examples of each.

Tuesday—C—Character Driven
Wednesday—E—Event Driven

As we explore these picture book trends this week, we’ll try to do what our quote says—enlarge our island of knowledge and then see what wonders await us on the shores of writing.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Next Level Seminar

Saturday, July 30—The Next Level

Friday through Sunday I am attending one of the stellar trainings in Joyce Sweeney’s and Jamie Morris’ THE NEXT LEVEL: Craft Intensives for Dedicated Writers. This three-day seminar focuses on what Joyce and Jamie say are the two essential ingredients for any story (from picture books to adult novels)—love and suspense.

I’m in love with the idea and filled suspense entering into this time of meeting new writing friends, learning from two masters, and going deeper with my writing. Check out Joyce and Jamie’s seminars at or!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Start in the MIddle

Week of July 24—Revision Strategies that Work!
Friday, July 29—Start in the Middle

When I’m critiquing, this is the comment I give most often: “I think the story actually begins here . . .” Then I’ll point to or mark a spot halfway down the page or even on the second page of the manuscript. That’s because some picture book writing greats taught me through conferences and their books that stories often start in the middle of the action. Would you like a real-life example? I can still give a perfect example from a children’s literary classic—Charlotte’s Web. Not a picture book, I know, but the example is so powerful it will help any author no matter what genre he/she writes.

E.B. White

According to Barry Lane in his book How Do You Teaching Writing (pages 144-145), E.B. White’s early drafts of the beginning of Charlotte’s Web were nothing like we’ve come to know in the book and the numerous movie versions. Take a look . . .

     A barn can have a horse in it and a barn can have a cow in it, and a barn can have a hen scratching in the chaff and swallows flyin’ in and out through the door—but if a barn hasn’t got a pig in it, it is hardly worth talking about.

     Charlotte was a big, gray spider who lived in the doorway of a barn. She was about the size of a gumdrop and she had eight legs and plenty of tricks up her sleeves.

Now consider the actual published beginning of Charlotte’s Web:

     “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

So what changed about the beginning? E.B. White started in the middle of the action. He did away with the backstory, the lead up, and the character and setting descriptions. He plunged us into the center of the action, and as a reader we’re wondering right along with Fern, “Where’s he going with that ax?” The problem is already established (though we don’t realize it). Fern’s role as protector of Wilber is established. The practicality of the farmer father is established, also. And it only took 19 words!

As a writing teacher kids often write what is called a bed-to-bed story. You’ve seen them. Perhaps the kid is writing about going to Busch Gardens (our local amusement park) and the story beginnings with getting up the morning and ends with going to bed and a little tiny bit in the middle might be about Busch Gardens. Something like this:

     Ringggg. Ringggg. Ringggg. I turned off my alarm and got out of bed. I washed my face and combed my hair. The I called to the kitchen, “What’s for breakfast?” Since no one answered, I walked to the kitchen and fixed a bowl of cereal. Trix is my favorite cereal and Cocoa Puffs is a close second. I like the way the pieces of Trix explode in my mouth and don’t get soggy in milk. After I ate my Trix and slurped the milk from the bowl¸ I rinsed my bowl out and put it in the dishwasher. I headed to the bathroom for my morning shower . . .”

What a sad waste of words and good writing ability (not to mention pencil lead).

My normal reaction to the kid is this (said with dramatic flare): “Who cares? I thought we were going to Busch Gardens. What’s the most fun thing to do at Busch Gardens?” The answer is ALWAYS SheiKra (a rollercoaster). So, I say: “Ok, great. So what do you do as soon as you get to Busch Gardens? The kid will say something like: “I yell, ‘Let’s ride SheiKra!’” And I will dramatically scream while jumping up and down (you think I’m kidding, but I’m not), “THAT’S IT! THAT’S WHERE THE STORY BEGINS! WRITE THAT! HURRY! WRITE IT BEFORE WE FORGET! Now tell me all about SheiKra.”

All writers need a pesky little writing teacher on one shoulder who keeps saying, “Who cares? What’s the best part? Start there!” That’s the revision voice we each have to develop. Yes, our critique group members can be that voice for us. But eventually, we have to take on the responsibility for ourselves. (Once one of my students masters one skill, then I know he/she is ready for another. Isn’t the same true for us as writers?)

To further illustrate starting in the middle, I’ve pulled some picture books from my shelves to drive home the point. I’ve chosen books that were Caldecott medal or honor books in years gone by.

“Help! Help! A mouse!” There was a scream. Then a crash. Cups, saucers, and spoons were flying in all directions.

Alexander ran for his hole as fast as his little legs would carry him.

From: Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse by Leo Lionni

I had a new horn and a paper hat.
And I went for a walk in the forest.

From: In the Forest by Marie Hall Ets

My mother works as a waitress in the Blue Tile Diner. After school sometimes I go to meet her there. Then her boss Josephine gives me a job too.

From: A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams

Grandpa was a song and dance man who once dance on the vaudeville stage.

When we visit, he tells us about a time before people watched TV, back in the good old days, the song and dance days.

From: Song and Dance Man by Karen Ackerman and Stephen Gammell

Does every book begin in the middle? No. Does every book need to begin in the middle? No. But if you master this revision strategy you’ll be able to purposefully start in the middle of the action when a story demands it. And you’ll be able to revise your writing to start readers on the journey of your story as soon as they read the first page.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Now gather some of your favorite picture books. Read the opening lines of each. Sort out the stories that begin in the middle of the action from those that don’t. Then study the ones that started in the middle. Put this revision strategy in your box of writing tools and you’ll be further down your writing road.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Point of View

Week of July 24—Revision Strategies that Work!
Thursday, July 28—Point of View

I think we all make point of view harder than it really is. We revert back to sentence diagraming and literature analysis in some high school classroom—and our eyes glaze over with boredom. But alas, my friends, POV need not be such a pain in the behind! Let’s quickly overview POV.

Objective Point of View
With the objective point of view, the writer tells what happens without stating more than can be inferred from the story's action and dialogue. The narrator never discloses anything about what the characters think or feel, remaining a detached observer.
Third Person Point of View
Here the narrator does not participate in the action of the story as one of the characters, but lets us know exactly how the characters feel. We learn about the characters through this outside voice.
First Person Point of View
In the first person point of view, the narrator does participate in the action of the story.
Omniscient and Limited Omniscient Points of View
A narrator who knows everything about all the characters is all knowing, or omniscient.
A narrator whose knowledge is limited to one character, either major or minor, has a limited omniscient point of view
I usually write to whatever point of view comes naturally.  Later, during the revision process, I frequently change my point of view to hear how a different voice and viewpoint will change the tone and the overall voice of a particular piece of writing.
—Georgia Heard, The Revision Toolbox, p. 51

So when drafting a story, the important thing to do is to get the story on the paper. Later, the point of view (as well as tons of other details) can change.

Another way to think of point of view is to think of who is telling the story or who owns the story. You can easily revise a first-person story into one with a third-person narrator. You can also shift which character is telling the story, who the story is about, or who owns the story. This can completely change a story. A wonderful example is the picture book The City Kid & the Suburban Kid by Deb Pilutti and Linda Bleck. This is literally two books in one. You read the story from the city kid’s POV to the center of the book, then you flip the book over and read the story from the suburban kid’s point of view (or vice versa).

A fun revision experiment to do with a piece of writing is take an existing story and tell it from another perspective. If my story is about the grandchildren throwing a birthday party for Granny and her dog not being happy about it, I can obviously use a narrator to tell the story. I could tell the story from the perspective of one of the grandchildren. I could tell the story from Granny’s perspective. And I could tell the story from the perspective of the dog. Each attempt would show a completely unique view of the story.

Even if you do a revision exercise like the one above with one of your stories and end up using the same POV you started with, you will have gained new insights into your characters; possibly new elements of confusion, mayhem, and conflict; and possibly new humorous elements.

Revision is never wasted, even if you are the only one to see the revision. Each time you revise for any purpose, but especially for POV, you are growing as a thinker, a story teller, and a writer. A dare you to look at things from a new point of view.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Look through your picture books and determine what point of view you find in each. Do you see any trends? Do you see in opportunities?
2. Examine one of your manuscripts—perhaps one you’ve been stuck on. How could you alter the POV? Why not experiment and see what happens?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Cracking Open Words and Phrases

Week of July 24—Revision Strategies that Work!
Wednesday, July 27—Cracking Open Words and Phrases

When we revise we do not so much revise the page as revise our thinking, our feeling, our memory, ourselves—who we are.
—Donald Murray, The Craft of Revision, 3rd Edition, p. 1

In her book, Revision Toolbox, Georgia Heard talks about the concept of cracking open words, phrases, and sentences to get to the real meaning . . . the picture, the heart, the real message, our thinking, our feelings, our memories, our ourselves. Think about cracking open an egg . . .

cracking open a geode . . .

cracking open a mysterious door.

In each case, cracking open the known reveals the unknown. And, in most cases, it leads to something better, more exciting, more useful, more colorful, more surprising. Often in our manuscripts—especially early drafts—we may have non-descriptive words, phrases, and sentences that need to be cracked open and elaborated to really get to the good part. COnsider tehse rather boring sentences:

·   It was a pretty morning.
·   He was a good boy.
·   The food was good.
·   It was a surprise.

These are all telling sentences and we know that good writing shows and does not tell. And even though they tell, they sure don't tell much. The reader is left with questions and uncertainty because of a lack of details. When we crack open words and phrases we're trying to get to the show of the sentence. The process is easy. When you find a word, phrase, or sentence that tells, stop; envision the person, place, or thing; and give words to what you see in your mind. Then use the words that describe what you envision as you rewrite. Let me show you some examples and let you practice a couple of examples, too.

What I Envision
Cracked Open Rewrite
It was a pretty morning.
·        Sun/clouds
·        Palms/sway
The palms swayed as the sun rose in the cloudy sky.
He was a good boy.
·        Trevor
·        A boy scout
·        Trustworthy
Trevor was as good as a boy scout (and just as trusthworthy).

Now it’s your turn. Try cracking open some sentences yourself.

What You Envision
Cracked Open Rewrite
The food was good.

It was a surprise.

The two best keys for cracking open words, phrases, and sentences are specific word choices and sensory details. Now let’s be honest, as picture book writers we don’t have the luxury of writing a 60-word paragraph describing the rising sun like a novelist might. However, we still have the responsibility to show and not tell. We also have the responsibility to fill our books with the best words that can weave our writing into memorable stories.

Don’t feel that you have to use a form or format (like the one above) when cracking open words, phrases, and sentences. Once you’re conscious of cracking open your writing, you’ll find the approach that works for you.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Read through one of your manuscripts. Underline each word, phrase, or sentence that tells or that lacks description. Choose one or two of these words, phrases, or sentences to crack open and see what the results are. Continue cracking open your writing until it shows instead of tells.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Specificity of Words--Nouns and Verbs

Week of July 24—Revision Strategies that Work!
Tuesday, July 26—Specificity of Words—Nouns and Verbs

If verbs are the engines of sentences, then nouns are the wheels on which that engine rides.  Nouns need to be sturdy, solid, and specific.
—Georgia Heard, Revision Toolbox

Call me a writing nerd if you must, but I love to revise. And to further make you roll your eyes, I’ll tell you that I most love to work with nouns and verbs—to change them, play with them, massage them, until they are perfect (at least in my mind). I’m happy to say my affinity for verbs and nouns puts me in good company. Consider this quote from William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White:

Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.

And this from Georgia Heard’s The Revision Toolbox:

The more specific the verb, the more energy and specificity the sentence will have.  Using a particular verb can go a long way in creating a scene or image that we want to convey. 
An Exercise
We’ve discussed nouns and verbs and their power on Picture This! before. But let’s do a quick exercise to show it, instead of just telling it! Let’s work with this sentence:

The dog ate the food.

Let's deal first with the verb ate. As you make the verb more specific with the choices below, see how the sentence changes.

The dog ate the food.                      VERB CHOICES:
wolfed down
dined on
polished off

The more specific the verb, the more accurately we know what the dog is doing. Now let’s work with the noun food.

The dog ate the food.                       NOUN CHOICES:
Filet Mignon
pig slop
bag of treats
just-cooked burgers
cherry pie

Once again, we see that the specificity of a word choice, in this case a noun, can change the entire meaning of a sentence. So, of course, when you make both the verbs and nouns specific, a sentence can come to life. Try various combinations below to see what different story ideas you create from this one sentence.

The dog ate the food.          VERB CHOICES:   NOUN CHOICES:
sniffed                        scraps
devoured                   Filet Mignon
wolfed down             pig slop
nibbled                       bag of treats
inhaled                       just-cooked burgers
dined on                     groceries
polished off               cherry pie

Now, of course, not every noun and verb in a sentence or a story needs to be made specific. After all, we didn’t change dog in our example. If every noun and verb were specific, reading would be tedious and we’d probably lose track of the story line in the midst of the specificity (the trees might block the forest, in other words). But carefully and strategically choosing which nouns and verbs to make specific is essential to effective revision.

A Bit of My Editing Process
When I have finished something approaching a final draft, I make verb and noun lists. I might start with verbs and as I read the manuscript I list every verb I encounter in order. I then can instantly see where I have overused a verb or used the same verb in two locations that are too close together. I can see if my dialogue tags (yes, they are verbs, too) are effective, colorful, have variety, or have too much variety. I can do the same thing with my nouns. Then I make changes accordingly and reread the piece.

When my editor asked me to cowboy-up a manuscript, all I did was go back and make more verbs specific. In this case, I made them more colloquial, more cowboy-ish, more like an old-timey western movie. Every story requires a unique set of specific nouns and verbs to make it come to life.

An additional step I take is to go back and circle every pronoun in my story. Then as I read the piece again, I see if those pronouns actually make sense. Would someone not familiar with the story know who or what each he, it, them, there, that was referring to? If not, I need to insert some specific nouns in to help with the situation.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Take a piece of your writing and find two different colored pens, pencils, or highlighters. Use one color to highlight all the verbs. Use the other color to highlight all the nouns. Then get specific with it!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Whose Attending SCBWI, LA?

Are any Picture This! followers attending SCBWI, LA? If so, would anyone like to get together at one of the lunch times or have a critique group time together? The schedule allows for informal critique sessions some evenings. We could easily just meet up after a general session, get acquainted, share our work, and enjoy one another’s company. Let me know if you’re interested!

The Difference Between Revising and Editing

Week of July 24—Revision Strategies that Work!
Monday, July 25—The Difference Between Revising and Editing

Some of you know that for many years I worked as an editor and editorial manager for a major religious publishing company. That’s when I learned there are different kinds of editors who do different kinds of work. I would call the editors who might buy your book the substantive editors (not an industry term). They deal with substance—ideas, concepts, acquisitions, budgets, design, and revision. Somewhere else in the company (and usually lower down the totem pole of responsibility and pay, unfortunately) are copy editors who deal with grammar, punctuation, word choice, and the like.

Most “substantive editors” expect that a manuscript they receive will not have big issues with editing. (If it does, you’re dead in the water. Few editors read beyond a misspelled word, a poorly punctuated phrase, or a paragraph where the writer doesn’t seem to know the difference between there, their, and they’re.)

As a writer wanting to sell a piece and have it published, you have to be your own editor and reviser. So what’s the difference between editing and revising? In the most basic terms, editing deals with the conventions of writing and revision deals with the art of writing and the meat of the story. The bottom line is that you have to insure that your manuscript is as stellar as you can make it. Here’s how Georgia Heard distinguishes between editing and revising:

Revision involves changing the meaning, content, structure, or style of a piece of writing rather than the mere surface changes that editing demands . . . and (revision) occurs throughout the writing process.

—Georgia Heard, The Revision Toolbox, p. 1
Revision and editing don’t just happen when you complete a draft. They happen throughout the entire writing process.

From my work as a writer I know that revision is more than a stage in a four- or five- or seven-step process, it is the source of the entire process.

Barry Lane, After the End, p. 5

Since a poorly edited manuscript can stop you before you get started, let’s look at simple editing strategies. The four most essential things to look for when editing are:

Word usage/Grammar

Most word processing software programs will do the basics for you by highlighting misspelled words (sometimes even changing them automatically), underlining a sentence where the grammar or punctuation isn’t working, or by questioning a word that does not seem correct. But as a writer, you cannot rely on a software program alone. (After all, who’s the author, you or Bill Gates?) You have to build an arsenal of editing tools. Some resources you can consult include:

·  Grammar and style guides
·  Dictionaries and thesauruses
·  Google searches for specific questions

After I have a manuscript in good shape, I always print out a hard copy. And I use a simple little tool to help me focus on each of the “Big Four” listed above. Below is a photo of my EDIT IT! sheet. (In my classroom I have multiple copies of the sheet laminated for students to use as needed.)

I choose which side to begin with—let’s say SPELLING—and I lay the sheet so the word SPELLING on my sheet is horizontal below the first line of text. Then I read one manuscript line at a time, sliding the sheet down as I go. This forces me to think and focus solely on spelling and make corrections as needed on the hard copy. (If you discover another issue needing correction that doesn’t pertain to spelling, by all means change that, too. Then get back on your single-minded focus.) After making the first pass through the manuscript, I turn the sheet to another focus (perhaps PUNCTUATION) and I repeat the process. I continue until I’ve made four passes through the manuscript, each with a distinct purpose.

Ok, it’s a bit A-R, I’ll admit. But you’ll be surprised at what you find and correct. And if you don’t find anything, your mind can rest assured that editorially your manuscript is in good shape.

Simple, but effective. You can take my word on that!

It’s Your Turn!
1. Make your own EDIT IT! sheet and use it ASAP!

Sunday, July 24, 2011


Week of July 24—Revision Strategies that Work!
Quote of the Week:
The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile.
—Robert Cormier

Mention revision to a student writer and you’ll hear:
            “I’m finished.”
            “You want me to change this?”
            “I like it the way it is.”
            “You want me to rewrite it?”

Interestingly, many writers have similar comments when it comes to revision. Maybe you’ve heard a critique group friend say, “I took all your comments last week and I made some changes. Now I’m ready to send it out.” Or maybe you’ve heard, “I’ve done all I can. If an editor really loves it, she’ll fix any problems.”

I will admit there are writers on the other side of the coin, too. Like the writer I met last summer at SCBWI, LA, who had been revising and rewriting the same picture book for ten years. Yes, ten years.

This week we’ll discover some practical, do-able approaches to revision that can not only make your writing better, but make the revision process less painful. I hope you’ll follow allow and re-vision revision!

Monday—The Difference Between Revising and Editing
Tuesday—Specificity of Words—Nouns and Verbs
Wednesday—Cracking Open Words and Phrases
Thursday—Point of View
Friday—Start In the Middle

A special note: Much of my study of revision was done in conjunction with friend and co-writer, Jim Osborn. Jim, I hope you have as many found memories of those weeks of work as I do!