Monday, October 31, 2011

It's A Sign!

Week of October 30, 2011—Randomness of a Picture Book Author
Monday, October 31—It’s A Sign!

Do you ever feel you’re getting mixed messages about writing picture books? Or that you’re being sent down one path after another?

Or are there times when you feel you’re not getting all the pertinent info? That for some reason everyone else knows what to do or what to avoid on their picture book journey, but no one’s let you in on the secret?

Do you question the motives or reasons behind the advice and guidance you are receiving?

Or do you sometimes feel that maybe someone gave you an answer they thought you wanted to hear?

Sometimes we truly get mixed messages from the picture book signs. When that happens, the only thing to do is to get more information. Think of it as a second opinion. Check another source, ask a trusted writing friend, check another blog, ask another question. If all else fails, go with your gut and follow the path that seems correct. You can always change course at a later time if needed.

Always read the small print. Don’t take a sign about writing that you hear or see at face value. Look deeper. Go deeper. Think deeper. Find the message behind the sign and take heed.

But sometimes you just need to believe the sign. Trust what you see or what you’re told. When it’s clear that the message you’re receiving is honest and truthful (no matter how distasteful), believe it. Don’t fight it. Don’t try to convince the sign its wrong. Believe it.

We all want to live on Awesome Street and be told how wonderful we are. But that’s not the job of the people who make the signs along the picture book writing road. Their job is to show us the signs. If you’re waiting for an editor or agent to tell you, “Wow! You’re really something!” you may be waiting a long time. Awesome Street has an occupancy of one—you. Believe in yourself, then others will see the results.

But you’re not alone in this world of confusing picture book signs. You’re not the only one trying to read the signs. Others are on this journey, too. As you collaborate with other writers and work in critique groups, you’ll be able to stop your sign reading, and get down to the business of writing.

That’s when you’ll be able to find some inspiration and begin to grow toward your true destiny—being the best author you can be (and being published).

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Coming This Week!

Week of October 30, 2011—Signs of the Time for Picture Book Writers
Quote of the Week:
All the signs were right. And when I say all the signs were right, the only signs we care about when we start a project of making a record is, do we have the songs—it’s that simple.
—Graham Nash

Picture book writers are always looking for a sign and trying to read the many signs and signals publishers, editors, and agents send out. Maybe it’s just a sign of the times. But before you can sign on the dotted line of a contract, or host your first book signing, or see dollar signs from your book deal, you’re going to have to sign yourself up for the long-haul of writing and growing in your craft.

This random week of Picture This! will hopefully inspire you, motivate you, and tickle your funny bone. Be sure to sign in every day!

Monday—It’s A Sign!
Tuesday—Pinning Up a Proclamation
Wednesday—You Might Be A Picture Book Writer If . . .
Thursday—The One Sign Every Writer Needs
Friday—PiBoIdMo Check-up!

What Would You Ask?

If you could interview a picture book editor, what would you ask? Post your questions here and I'll add them to my list. I can't guarantee that every question will get asked and answered, but I'll do my best.


Friday, October 28, 2011

More About Horn Book

Week of October 23—What We Can Learn from Horn Book Reviews

Friday, October 28—More about Horn Book

I believe in gathering the tools you need to do your work. And I believe in doing your homework. With that in mind, I want to share additional information with you about The Horn Book Magazine. I hope you’ll become a subscriber and a follower and use these tools to help you do the homework of strengthening your writing.

The Hornbook Web site (frequently updated with new articles and information):

Hornbook subscription information:

Hornbook Blogs
Read Roger—The Horn Book editor’s rants and raves

Out of the Box—An exclusive look at what comes into the Horn Book office

Calling Caldecott—What can win? What will win? What should win?

It’s Your Turn!1. Isn’t it time you become a Hornbooker?!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Personal Approach to Reviews

Week of October 23—What We Can Learn from Horn Book Reviews

Thursday, October 27—A Personal Approach to Reviews

I’ve got good news and bad news. Today your favorite manuscript is going to be reviewed! (That could be good news or bad news, depending on your opinion.) And YOU are the reviewer. (Again, that could be good news or bad news! LOL!) Here’s what you do.

1. Choose your favorite manuscript.
2. Read it objectively (and as if you’ve never seen the piece before).
3. Begin your review by summarizing the story’s plot points.
4. Then evaluate the plot, the pacing, the word choice, and character development.
5. Be honest and be fair. (In other words, don’t beat yourself, but don’t go easy on yourself either.)

Below is my review of one of my manuscripts.

In Granny Weathers the Storm, Granny Steinert is preparing for a surprise party, but she can’t remember who the party is for. Just in case, she prepares a cake, balloons, and a banner. But when she heads out to the party, she has to deal with a hail storm, gusty winds, and torrential rains—all of which destroy her party preparations. Luckily she arrives at the party safely where she suddenly remembers the surprsie is for her. Granny is a hapless character, charming but a bit one-dimensional. We love her, but don’t know why. The party preparations are fun, but predictable. The weather escapades are the funniest part of the story, but seem to move too quickly. Dialogue is warm and colloquial and perfect for Granny. The end is a surprise to Granny, but probably not to the reader.

What this review process has done is to help me identify the problems in my own writing. Now I know what next-steps to take to strengthen and improve the manuscript.

Ok, are you ready? It’s time to review your manuscript. And if you’re brave, feel free to post your review in the “Comments” section of this post. 

It’s Your Turn!1. Get busy! You’re supposed to be reviewing one of your stories!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What Does this Mean to Me and My Writing?

Week of October 23—What We Can Learn from Horn Book Reviews

Wednesday, October 26—What Does this Mean to Me and My Writing?

I’m a so-what kind of person? After I hear something or learn something, I always say, “So what?” What I take away from the negative book reviews I wrote about yesterday can be summed up in a four categories: plot, pacing, word choice, and character development.

At its simplest, plot is the beginning, middle, end of a story. But as picture book writers, we know that plot is so much more. It’s a problem, rising action, a dark moment, a climax, falling action, a resolution, and often a denouement. When you read (or hear in critique groups) comments such as—feels forced, I can’t follow the story line, falls flat, there’s not much here, feels trite, it’s hard to figure out what’s going on, lacks cohesion, the narrative is unexciting, I’m confused, this seems to move too quickly, this seems overly long, or seems too sentimental—there's a plotting problem. Questions like the following can also indicate plot problems: What’s the problem in the story? Who’s the main character? Why do we care about this character? How does the character attempt to solve the problem? Where’s the ending?

Plotting is essential to any book, but I contend it may be even more important in a picture book than in a novel.  In theory, a novelist has pages he/she might be able to devote to setting description, back story, chasing rabbits, and the like. But picture book writers have only 36 pages (and not all of those will be used for text) and around 500 words to tell the entire story, the entire plot.

I am a nut about pacing. To me, pacing is such an essential ingredient to picture books. Have you ever read a picture book aloud and gotten lost or felt the momentum of the book slow? That’s a pacing problem. On the other hand, have you ever felt a story pull you through the action as you read? Perhaps it helps speed up your pace, slow down, tick off details, then speed up again. That’s good pacing.

Some indicators of pacing problems can be found in comments such as: the story line is too jumpy to follow, plodding, moves to quickly, moves to slowly, wordy, laborious. Would you rather hear: lyrical, snappy, well-paced, nothing interrupts the forward momentum?

Word choice is another thing the Horn Book reviewers kept coming back to. I used to work in a field of publishing where we paid authors by the word and had word counts for columns, chapters, etc. If you have limited word count you make each word count. Picture book authors DO have limited word count. Right now the suggested count is around 500 words. (Yes, I’ve fought that concept, too. It’s time to give up your fight and start writing what the industry is asking for! J) Picture book authors must choose each word carefully and precisely. The review comments that indicated weak word choice include: bland and stumbling rhymed text, word choice seems gimmicky and disjointed, the text is trite, witless rhyme, stilted prose, lackluster rhyme, plodding text. On the other hand, consider these raves about good word choice: witty dialogue, lyrical laconic lilt, rollicking read-aloud, plays with words, witty narrative, authentic dialogue, sly humor and light touch, and witty text. (Please note the many negative comments about rhymed text. Unless you were born a rhymer or have studied rhyme extensively, it’s best to leave it alone.)

Finally, the importance of character. Just because you have an idea of a charming chicken or a sweet little girl or a dinosaur with a problem, doesn’t mean you have a well-developed character. In the negative comments in the reviews we discussed, dialogue is usually the thing that gave away the weakness of the character. In another review I read a comment that went something like this, “There were so many characters and they were so much alike I could not keep them apart.” Conversely, look at the descriptions of characters in the positive reviews: cheerfully upbeat character, a narrator who incorporates Spanish words naturally, and cheerfully upbeat character. What a difference.

As you continue to read reviews, look for these four common threads: plot, pacing, word choice, and character development. Also note other common threads you notice in reviews . . . there may be lessons to be learned.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Do a Google search for “picture book reviews,” then read and make notes of what you find. Do you see the “big four” mentioned in this post? What else do you notice?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Time to Sign Up for PiBoIdMo!

It’s time! Time to sign up for PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month), that is. November is the official month for gathering ideas, but registration has now opened on Tara Lazar’s blog WRITING FOR KIDS (WHILE RAISING THEM). Visit for more information and to sign up for this great experience. I’ll be sharing my progress as I experience PiBoIdMo and I hope you will, too.
You are one idea away from a best seller—so get busy
collecting those ideas!

What Causes Some Picture Books to Falter?

Week of October 23—What We Can Learn from Horn Book Reviews

Tuesday, October 25—What Causes Some Picture Books Falter?

Of the 329 picture books reviewed in the latest edition of The Horn Book Guide to Children’s Young Adult Books, forty-eight books received a score of “5” and one book received a “6” for a total of 15% below the “recommended” categories. Remember what the “5” and “6” ratings mean:

5 = Marginal, seriously flawed, but with some redeeming quality
6 = Unacceptable in style, content, and/or illustration

In all fairness to these authors, they did get published which is saying a lot these days. But in all honesty, booksellers and librarians use the Horn Book reviews (and other reviews) to help inform their decisions about what books to order, stock, sell, buy, and shelf. So these reviews can’t be taken with a grain of salt.

While I have no intention of offending the authors in these “5” and “6” categories by listing their names or the titles of their books, I do want to explore what kind of observations the reviewers made about the text of the these books. (Please note that the reviewers were also critiquing the illustrations, but I’ll focus solely on the writing in this post.) I’m hoping I can learn from this overview what stumbling blocks to avoid in my writing. Hopefully you can do the same.

Here are some of the comments I discovered about . . .

·        Bland and stumbling rhymed text
·        Feels forced
·        Wordy, esoteric text, isn’t likely to resonate with readers
·        The story line is too jumpy to follow
·        Well intentioned, but falls flat
·        Packing books with words that include the featured letter feels disjointed and gimmicky
·        Distracting experience for readers
·        What’s meant to be humorous, falls flat
·        There’s not much here
·        The text is trite
·        It’s hard to figure out what’s going on
·        Little cohesion
·        Anyone averse to gender stereotypes should steer clear
·        Witless rhymes
·        The overall effect is bland
·        Stilted prose
·        The story is very slight
·        Plodding, heavy-handedness
·        Laborious and facile
·        Narrative is unexciting
·        The text is cheery . . . but forced
·        Lackluster rhymes won’t appeal to anyone
·        Grown-up aimed jokes
·        The story is lackluster and difficult to follow
·        An utterly confusing book
·        Predictable
·        The wordy text meanders
·        The rhymed text confuses the issue
·        Overlong, plodding text
·        Doesn’t even bother with an ending
·        The story is overly sentimental

·        In-your-face gross out element feels forced
·        . . . the lengthy book seems not to be storytelling so much as a desire to introduce quirky characters
·        The story and the concept are muddy
·        What’s supposed to be hip, seems like squaresville
·        The problems [addressed in this book] have been treated with more originality and sophistication in countless other books
·        TV tie-ins with so-so story lines

·        Fabricated dialogue may prove too difficult to young readers
·        The dialogue is groan-worthy
·        Jokey dialogue falls flat
·        Narrator’s voice feels forced
·        Wooden dialogue

·        The plot rolls along, but the message-y ending rings false
·        The moral lesson is too transparent
·        The lesson is predictable

Did reading those remarks make you as depressed as typing them made me? I feel for those writers. I almost think we should light a candle and have a moment of silence for them. Granted, a critique is one person’s opinion, but for the majority of the books reviewed to fall in the middle and these books to fall in the bottom 15% is telling.

Tomorrow we’ll think about how to apply what we’ve learned from these reviews. In the meantime, I have some candles to light.

It’s Your Turn!
1. If you’re like me, one or two items from the list above may ring true to you regarding your own writing. Make a note of those concerns and then make a conscious effort to revise your manuscripts with those concerns in mind.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Best Picture Book Releases of the Last Six Months

Week of October 23—What We Can Learn from Horn Book Reviews

Monday, October 24—The Best Picture Book Releases of the Last Six Months

This week I received my copy of The Horn Book Guide to Children’s Young Adult Books. I am a new subscriber to The Horn Book (the quintessential guide to children’s literature) and didn’t even realize that this gem came with my subscription. “The Horn Book Guide strives to include short, critical reviews of all hardcover trade children’s and young adult books published in the United States within a six-month period. (Novelty books, board books, and mass market titles are reviewed selectively.) Qualified books that arrive . . . too late to be included will be reviewed in the next issue.” (The Horn Book Guide, Fall 2011, Volume XXII, Number 2, page 291).

329 picture books were reviewed in this volume, and that does not include a host of books in a separate category entitled “Preschool.” Each book is rated on a scale of 1 to 6 (with 1 being the highest score). Here’s what the ratings mean . . .

1 = Outstanding, noteworthy in style, content, and/or illustration
2 = Superior, well above average
3 = Recommended, satisfactory in style, content, and/or illustration
4 = Recommended, with minor flaws
5 = Marginal, seriously flawed, but with some redeeming quality
6 = Unacceptable in style, content, and/or illustration

The vast majority of books received a 3 or 4 rating. Twenty-six picture books (8%) received a “2” rating and none received a “1” rating. I want to learn from that 8%. What makes them stellar? What makes them memorable? Here’s the list of the 8%:

Are You Awake?
By Sophie Blackall

A Call for a New Alphabet
By Jef Czekaj

Prudence Wants a Pet
By Cathleen Daly
Illustrated by Stephen MichaClinkel King
Roaring Brook

By Kelly DiPucchio
Illustrated by Matthew Myers

By Teresa Duran
Translated by Elisa Amado
Illustrated by Elena Val

My Side of the Car
By Kate Feiffer
Illustrated by Jules Feiffer

Three by the Sea
By Mini Grey

The Wicked Big Toddlah Goes to New York
By Kevin Hawkes

The Secret Box
By Barbara Lehman

Manners Mash-Up: A Goofy Guide to Good Behavior

Goyangi Means Cat
By Christine McDonnell
Illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher

Tia Isa Wants a Car
By Meg Medina
Illustrated by Claudio Munoz

The Honeybee Man
By Lela Nargi
Illustrated by Krysten Brooker
Random/Schartz & Wade

By Laura Numeroff and Nate Evans
Illustrated by Lynn Munsinger

Happy Endings: A Story About Suffixes
By Robin Pulver
Illustrated by Lynn Rowe Reed

Tony Baloney
By Pam Munoz Ryan
Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham

I’m Not
By Pam Smallcomb
Illustrated by Robert Weinstock
Random/Schwartz & Wade

Foxy and Egg
By Alex T. Smith

Edwin Speaks Up
By April Stevens
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Random/Schwartz & Wade

The Little Red Pen
By Jane Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel
Illustrated by Janet Stevens

Passing the Music Down
By Sarah Sullivan
Illustrated by Barry Root

Lost & Found: Three by Shaun Tan
By Shaun Tan

The Queen of France
By Tim Wadham
Illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton

Harry & Hopper
By Margaret Wild
Illustrated by Freya Blackwood

The Invisible Man
By Arthur Yorinks
Illustrated by Doug Cushman

Ten Birds
By Cybele Young
Kids Can

What makes these books critically acclaimed? Here are some of the comments about the text of these books that stood out to me:

·        Appealing premise, fey logic, offbeat character            
·        Clever
·        Unflinchingly evokes emotions and treats respectfully
·        Witty dialogue         
·        Lyrical, laconic lilt
·        Rollicking read-aloud, plays on words                
·        Witty narrative
·        Cheerfully upbeat character
·        The narrator incorporates Spanish words naturally, giving the dialogue authenticity
·        Sly humor and light touch
·        Genuinely sweet and moving climax
·        This triumph of hope over reality ends on a high note
·        Witty text, occasionally interspersed with onomatopoeic robot-centric words
·        Dry humor and a wonderfully persistent protagonist elevate this book
·        Amusing questions and answers; text is all dialogue

The good news for us is that this list includes well-known authors and new authors; books written and illustrated by one person and collaborations between an author and illustrator; books with a wide variety of topics and perspectives; and books from large and small publishing houses. In other words, the highest Horn Book ratings aren’t reserved for the high and mighty, the notables, or the famous. They are reserved for books that represent the best writing and illustrating in the world of picture books. That’s the club I’m striving to join—how about you?

It’s Your Turn!
1. Look for some of these critically-acclaimed books in your bookstore or library. Do a little informal research project and see what you like about the books and then determine how you could use what you learned to impact your writing.