Sunday, February 26, 2012


Dear Picture This! Reader,

I am in the last days of preparations for our state writing assessments, and I’m giving all my time and energy to my students. (Let’s not even talk about what we feel about state writing assessments! LOL!) Posting on Picture This! will resume the week of March 4.

Thanks for your patience!

Rob Sanders

Friday, February 17, 2012

Picture Book Mash-up Mini-Challenge

Week of February 12, 2012: A Mini-Challenge Throw Down
Friday, February 17—Picture Book Mash-up Mini-Challenge

Years ago, I wrote for an editor who liked to stretch his authors’ creativity by asking them to mash together ideas that normally wouldn’t go together. “What would you get if you paired roller skates and an easy-bake over?” he would ask. (Okay, he was eccentric.) Then writers would sit around the table and brainstorm—A Rolling Oven, Easy-Skate Cuisine, or Hot Wheels! This fun, albeit silly, activity teaches an important writing lesson. Originality lies in taking what exists and combining it in new and unusual ways.

Today, pull a pile of picture books off your shelf (or the shelf of a book store or library). Of course, you’ll want to reread the books. Then make a chart with three columns: Character, Setting, and Problem. Below is a quick example:

Two hens
Need a talent for the talent show
Lost his cap
A singing cat
Keeps stepping in messes
Loses his favorite toy
Construction equipment
Construction site
An old duck
His routine is disturbed

Now randomly mash together one item from each column. The goal is to see if you can make a capture a new story idea from the ideas on your chart. (Note: The more books you start out with, the bigger your chart, and the more apt you are to uncover a gem.)

When you mash-up your ideas, all kinds of things can happen. For instance Duck/Forest/Lost his favorite toy. My immediate thought is: “What does a duck float in his bathtub? A rubber human?” Let your brain wander and create! Or Dog/Barnyard/Keeps stepping in messes. Oh, gross! Come on . . . be disgusting. Kids will love it. Or Two hens/Pond/Bedtime. Don’t worry if you don’t come up with an idea for each combination. Keep mashing together ideas—you’ll be surprised (and hopefully pleased) with the results. And if a story idea doesn’t surface, no worries. You’re retraining your brain to think in new and unexpected ways. The work will pay off in the end.

Have fun and happy mashing!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

100 Great Books

For Children's Book Lovers
Everywhere . . .
USA Today is out with “The 100 Greatest Books for Kids.” Access the list at:
Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful! Check it out!

A Walk in Nature Mini-Challenge

Week of February 12, 2012: A Mini-Challenge Throw Down
Thursday, February 16—A Walk in Nature Mini-Challenge

Today, take your writing notebook and your digital camera outside. You can explore your backyard, a park, a nature preserve, or other location. Make a list of the first 20 things you notice. For instance, in my backyard here in Florida: Oranges on the trees, white lilies, waving palms, squirrels on roof, possum running on the back fence, dogs barking, and so on. Now point your camera at inspiring sights you see—a close-up of three oranges nestled together, Spanish moss hanging from a giant oak, a wild violet pushing up through the soil. (I know some of you are in colder climates, so your images will be different, but just as inspirational!)

1.      Think of how you can use what you see in nature to inspire a story. (For me, maybe squirrels who own an orange grove and must keep the humans out.)
2.      Think of poetic prose to describe your photos. (For instance: Spanish moss weighted down the Oak.)
3.      Now see where your list and your visuals take you. Perhaps you’ll imagine a setting for a story, a problem to motivate a story, an idea to inspire a concept book, or see someone or something that might become the main character in a story.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Childhood Memories Mini-Challenge

Week of February 12, 2012: A Mini-Challenge Throw Down
Wednesday, February 15—Childhood Memories Mini-Challenge

Sit down and recollect. What was the happiest memory from your childhood? Summer camp? Time with a grandparent? Swimming with cousins? A family reunion? Time alone reading a book? Learning a new sport or skill? Free time with friends?

1.      List out those memories.
2.      Identify one or two memories that might have universal appeal and could serve as a story starter.
3.      Now take the opposite approach. Think of your worst, most embarrassing moments of childhood. (Mine was ripping my pants in P.E. as a 4th grader.) Now list down those memories and see if they inspire a story.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

What's News? Mini-Challenge

Week of February 12, 2012: A Mini-Challenge Throw Down
Tuesday, February 14—What’s News? Mini-Challenge

Listen to the news—NPR, your local traffic report, the national news¸ Entertainment Tonight (ok, that’ sa stretch). Read the newspaper, magazines, and children’s periodicals. Look and listen for tidbits to inspire a story. Perhaps it’s a story about a physicist who saw inventions in his boyhood dreams, a story about lotus flowers blooming in a dump in Bangladesh, or an elementary school perched on the edge of a volcano. I don’t fancy myself a nonfiction writer, but that doesn’t mean nonfiction topics can’t inspire my writing.

1.      Spend a day immersed in news and pop culture.
2.      List what you discover.
3.      Do you feel inspired to research a nonfiction story? Do you see fiction potentioal within the nonfiction?
4.      Keep listening and looking.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Something to Laugh about Mini-Challenge

Week of February 12, 2012: A Mini-Challenge Throw Down
Monday, February 13—Something to Laugh about Mini-Challenge

Today ask at least five people to tell you the corniest joke they know. (You get bonus points if the people you ask are kids.) Look for what makes the joke humorous—is it the character, the setting, an unexpected combination of elements, the punch line?

1.      Write down the jokes.
2.      Find the funny. Then see how far you can brainstorm that element. (For instance, if the humor is that a dog chases his own tail, then brainstorm “chasing” and “tail” and see how many new ideas you can come up with.)

Take another approach. For children, gross is often the opposite of funny. (And for some kids gross is funny.) So if you have a gross memory (such as when my family transported a calf in the backseat of our Buick), jot that down as a possible seed idea, too

Coming This Week

Week of February 12, 2012: A Mini-Challenge Throw Down
Quotes of the Week:
Enthusiasm is excitement with inspiration, motivation, and a pinch of creativity.
—Bo Bennett

Inspiration is the highest kite one can fly.
—Lauren Bacall

I’m always looking for new ideas, inspiration to spark a new story. Aren’t we all?
So this week I’m offering a series of mini-challenges to spark ideas and to inspire your imagination. All you have to do is give it a whirl. Each daily mini-challenge will only take a few minutes, but will hopefully spark one or more ideas you can work your magic on and turn into a fabulous picture book story.

Monday—Something to Laugh about Mini-Challenge
Tuesday—What’s News? Mini-Challenge
Wednesday—Childhood Memories Mini-Challenge
Thursday—A Walk in Nature Mini-Challenge
Friday—Picture Book Mash-up Mini-Challenge

Friday, February 10, 2012

Putting Critiques Into Action

Week of February 5: The Power of Critiques
Friday, February 10—Putting Critiques into Action

I think I’ve written about the writer I met last year in the cab from the SCBWI/LA conference to the airport. She’s the woman who has been working on the same picture book for ten years. “My critique group has been helping me a lot,” she said. Then there’s the woman I met in a critique setting who began by saying, “I know you all suggested that I make changes in this, but I brought it back the way it was just to see if you’d have a different opinion this time.”

Makes you laugh, doesn’t it? It’s sad though how so often writers (that includes you and me) won’t listen to what they hear in critiques. I have been guilty of it. Actually, I have discovered I often have to hear things two or three times before it dawns on me I need to change something. I once piad for an expensive critique and was told exactly what I was told in a critique group. A real waste of time and money.

Everyone listens and hears differently. Here are some things that stand out to me when I’m hearing critiques that are things I know I need to pay attention to:

1.      I hear several people saying the same thing.
2.      Someone addresses something I know is a problem, but didn’t know how to fix.
3.      When someone says something so true, I can’t believe I didn’t realize it earlier.
4.      When the group reads my manuscript aloud and I hear a voice other than my own reading it.
5.      Someone points out a silly mistake I should have caught on my own.
6.      Someone suggests something and it makes me uncomfortable. (That is always a sign that I need to listen to what I’m being told.)

In her helpful article “The Give and Take of Critique” (© 2007, SCBWI, For use by SCBWI Members ONLY), Linda Sue Park describes the process she follows after receiving critiques.

First, I sort the comments. I suppose this could be done in your head, but I actually make a list. Three columns at the top of a page. Yes / Maybe / No No No! I put brief notes under each heading based on the comments I received. Then I start revising. I start with the Yes column—the comments I love. You know what I mean—when someone says something and you think, “Eureka! That’s perfect—why didn’t I think of that! Thankyouthankyouthankyou!” I make those changes first.

Then I stop and think. A lot. This phase takes the longest. I think about the other two columns—especially about the items under No No No! If enough time goes by, my wounded feelings about these negative comments subside and I’m able to be much more objective about them—rather than dismissing them emotionally.

Ok, can I confess a crazy thing I do? I take a clean copy of my own manuscript with me to critique group meetings. As it’s read or aloud or as people talk about it, I make my own critique notes. I try to have an out-of-body experience, to not be the author of the piece for just a few minutes. I’ve made some important discoveries doing that. It might work for you, too.

One final note . . . Becky Levine has written a great article in the February 2012 Writer’s Digest. The article is entitled “Critique Your Way to Better Writing.” One quote from the article stands out to me:

“Every bit of effort you put into your feedback, into the critiques you produce, will take you miles further along your writing path. When you dig deep into a manuscript, when you get to the root of a story’s problem, when you explain clearly and help another author revise, you strengthen your own writing skills in a way that no book or class can.”


It’s Your Turn!
1. Find those notes from your last critique. Pour of them. Maybe you want to make a Linda-Sue-Park list. Maybe you want to an out-of-body experience and critique your own work. Maybe you can face those suggestions that were too difficult to face before. Go on, get to it!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Receiving Critiques

Week of February 5, 2012: The Power of Critiques
Thursday, February 9—Receiving Critiques

Let’s face it, listening is difficult. And listening to someone critique the work you’ve spent days and weeks perfecting is even more difficult. And actually hearing what is said is the most difficult thing of all. So exactly how does one go about listening to feedback (even the Sandwich Method kind)? I can give you an example of how not to do it . . .

At the first SCBWI regional event I attended, the presenters were providing first-page critiques. If you’re not familiar with that process, writers turn in the first page of their manuscripts with no names or identifying information attached. The presenters pull out a few pieces at random from the stack and read them. Then they critique the pieces on the spot in front of everyone. Even if your piece isn’t chosen, you get to hear the process that editors and agents go through when they are reading the first page of anything they receive.

The presenters had probably completed two or three pieces and critiqued them when . . . they pulled out THE PIECE. As they read it, they stumbled over meter, there were obvious rhyme problems, they even noted spelling errors, there were questions about logic and the plot. The presenters were kind, but honest. The crowd was hushed. Then a woman raised her hand, “I don’t think you get it,” she said. “The character is a dog. And if you’d read it again, you’d hear him say he wanted a home. And if you could see the rest of the . . . “

At that point, one of the presenters interrupted the woman (whom we all now knew was the author of the piece) and reminded her that the pieces were anonymously submitted and this was a time to listen and reflect on what was said.

I tell you that horrifying story to reinforce that we LISTEN to critiques without responding, questioning, or interrupting. In “The Give and Take of Critique” by Linda Sue Park (© 2007, SCBWI—For use by SCBWI Members Only), we are told:

The writer does not speak during the comments phase of the critique session. Not once. Not a single word.

Why not? Because the work must stand or fall on its own. When the piece eventually gets submitted and is read by an editor, the writer won’t be there to says things like, “Well, what I meant there is . . .” or “That’s supposed to refer back to . . .” The writer should listen, take notes, and listen some more. Later, when all the commenters are finished, there can be discussion including the writer. But not at first.

When the commenters have finished the “sandwiches,” the writer is then free to join in the discussion. Where possible, the writer should pose his/her responses as a question . . . The writer should avoid making statements . . . As a writer who presumably wants comments on your work, your job now is to receive responses and information—not to give them.

Wow. That’s tough to hear and even tougher to do.

I’ll be quick to say every group is different. My PB&J group is interactive and animated and we’ve developed a give-and-take kind of process for critiquing. We interrupt with questions or ask for clarification. But this is not the norm, and some people would be uncomfortable with our process.

Let me give you an example of how asking a question after critiques can help clarify and move you along in your writing. In our last PB&J critique session, the members said many positive things and several construction things about the piece I had submitted: “I didn’t get that the parents were angry until the end of the story . . . I didn’t understand that there was a problem . . . I didn’t know the motivation of the kids . . .”

I listened and made notes, than I asked, “Is it a verb problem? If I changed the words like said to complain, would that begin to address the problem?” The group thought that was worth trying. When I came home, I did just that, and the story was amped up two or three notches. (Thanks, group!)

As you and I get better at listening to constructive feedback (and even criticism) from our critique group members, we’ll be better prepared to handle what we hear from agents and editors. When we develop our listening skills in the safe confines of our critique group, we’ll be better listeners with industry professionals. When we learn to ask our critique group members questions after hearing feedback, then we’ll be ready to ask thoughtful questions of our editors following their feedback.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Reflect on how you receive feedback. Try a new approach or refine the one you are using now so you ensure that you are listening and hearing.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Giving Critiques

Week of February 5, 2011: The Power of Critiques
Wednesday, February 8—Giving Critiques

Critiquing is an art, but it’s an art you can learn. When you receive a manuscript to critique:

1.      Read the entire manuscript aloud. Do not write on the manuscript at this stage. Just read and listen.
2.      Think and reflect.
3.      Read the manuscript aloud a second time.
4.      Write notes. Pay attention to big issues first: Did anything not make sense? Were you confused at any point? Was anything out of order? Was the rhyme or meter off? Did you stumble as you read? Note those concerns.
5.      Some groups make line edits on manuscripts—changing punctuation, word choice, etc. That is a group decision.
6.      Offer possible suggestions for changes.
7.      Note any other books of the same genre that have similar themes, similar characters, or that might provide insight into the development of the manuscript.

When sharing a critique aloud (and even in writing), most folks follow the Sandwich Method.

Here’s how we state our critiquing process in our PB&J Critique Group guidelines:

   Because PB&J members seek to provide honest feedback in a positive, constructive manner,
we use the sandwich method of critiquing. We begin with a positive comment/insight, provide constructive criticism, and end with a positive comment/insight.  

   The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators offers the following suggestions:

   Criticism should be constructive and not destructive. “I didn’t like the way you wrote that” is never a valid criticism. It always helps a fellow writer to know the strengths of a manuscript as well as the weaknesses. A compliment offered first softens a “constructive” negative to follow. Try to tell your fellow writer why something doesn’t work for you and offer possibilities for change. Always be encouraging.

When I participate in paid critiques at our Florida SCBWI meetings, the critiquers always use a form that discusses nine points:
1)     The positive aspects of the work
2)     The elements that require attention and improvement
3)     Notes on character development
4)     Notes on plot/structure
5)     Notes on language/diction
6)     Notes on voice
7)     Notes on marketability
8)     Next steps
9)     Additional comments

In addition to writing on a manuscript, I sometimes type up my critique. Here is an example:

Rob’s Critique of Baxter by Alice Author

1.      Congrats on the word count! That is usually one of the hardest things for picture book writers.
2.      You have all the ingredients to make a great story—problem, growing tension, resolution.
3.      You can never go wrong with a dog!!! And one that tugs at your heartstrings is even better!

1.      Right now I think the story reads like a magazine article, not a picture book. That has to do with pacing I think.
2.      I really don’t get Baxter’s feelings and why people are treating him so badly (as stated in the first of the story). Is this strong emotional situation needed? What is his real problem?
3.      Does the title represent what the story is about?
4.     This is a quiet story and those stories are a hard sell. If you can amp up the action it may be more marketable.
1.      To clearly get the problem/solution established, try completing this sentence:

Baxter was a dog who more than anything wanted ________________ but couldn’t because ___________________, until _________________ happened.

2.      It might be cool if Madison and Baxter’s problems were parallel. For instance:
Has no animal friends                                
Favorite food eaten by others                   
Taken to shelter                               

Picked last for team
Favorite lunch/spills
Sent to time out

It’s Your Turn!
1. When critiquing others, practice the Sandwich Method.
2. Read your comments aloud to yourself before reading them aloud in your group. Make sure your comments have the constructive tone you want them to have.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Beginning a Critique Group

Week of February 5: The Power of Critiques
Tuesday, February 7: Beginning a Critique Group

After working in a critique group with no picture book authors, I knew I needed to find people who had the same interest, industry struggles, and hopes that I did. I wanted to find a picture book critique group. I searched, and emailed, and hunted, and emailed—still nothing. One day, an idea struck. Why not start a picture book critique group myself?!

Well, I’ll tell you why not:
1.      I never had led a critique group before and had only been a member of a group for a short time.
2.      I didn’t consider myself an expert.
3.      I didn’t know how to lead a critique group.
4.      I didn’t know how to begin one.
5.      Besides, what I really wanted was for people to help ME!

Then these answers came to me:
1.      There are many things you’ve not done before, you learned as you went along.
2.      Everyone in a critique group is an equal. There’s really not a leader. (Maybe a facilitator to get things going and keep them moving, but not a leader.)
3.      I could learn.
4.      I could learn.
5.      People will help me, as I help them.

What it all came down to was one word: WILLINGNESS.

So I placed an ad in the Critique Group section of the SCBWI Discussion Boards:

Want to start a Picture Book Critique Group in the Tampa Bay area. Looking for serious writers of different experience level who have the goal of being published.

Within 24 hours the critique group coordinator from our SCBWI region contacted me. She sent information from other critique groups and sent out an email to members in our area. Soon I began to receive emails from potential members. I sent a survey to the prospective members asking their preferences about days and times to meet, frequency of meetings, etc. We soon had an organizational meeting and our group began. We developed these guidelines to guide our group:

Picture Books & Java
Tampa Bay, Florida

The members of PB&J meet twice a month to critique manuscripts, learn together, and encourage one another in our writing journeys. Our ultimate goal is for all members to become published picture book authors with ongoing writing careers.

Meeting Time and Place
We meet the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Barnes and Noble at 213 N. Dale Mabry, Tampa, FL 33609 (between I-275 and Kennedy Blvd.).
All PB&J members have the goal of meeting together twice a month. We recognize that there may be times when a member cannot attend a meeting or does not have a manuscript to submit. We hope those times will be few and far between, however.

Adding New Members/Size of Group
New members will be added with the agreement of the group. The facilitator will gather names of prospective members and will ask each interested person to complete a questionnaire. The group members will overview the questionnaire before extending an invitation to join.

While we currently do not have a limit on the number of members in our group, we do want every member to receive a critique at each meeting. For that reason, we realize that our group size may eventually need a limit.

Meeting Guidelines
To make the most of our short meeting time, we will stick closely to our agenda. We will begin meetings with up to fifteen minutes for sharing personal updates, writing resources, industry updates, and so on. The remaining time will be spent critiquing. The meeting time will be divided evenly among the number of critiques needed for that evening. The facilitator will determine the critique order and select a time keeper for each meeting.

Critique Submission Guidelines
PB&J members critique picture book manuscripts, query letters, and book pitches. An item to be critiqued must be emailed to all members of PB&J at least a week prior to the meeting. Members will print out each document, then read and critique each manuscript prior to the meeting. At the meeting, we will read the manuscript aloud (the author will not read his/her own writing) and then we will share critiques. Printed manuscripts will be given back to the author.

If a member submits more than one item to critique for a meeting (such as a picture book manuscript and a query letter), the member will prioritize which item needs to be critiqued first. If time allows, a member’s second submission will be critiqued after all other critiques are completed.

Guests at Meetings
As a rule, we do not have guests sitting in on our meetings. However, from time-to-time that may happen. While we certainly want to be friendly to a guest, the guest will be expected to observe the meeting and not interject comments during the meeting. If time allows at the end of the meeting, the guest may ask questions or make comments about the group, but not about manuscripts being critiqued.

Critique Guidelines
When being critiqued, listen to the complete critique of your work without interrupting. If there is time after all members have provided critiques, the author may ask clarifying questions or ask for more specific guidance. Since the time we have is divided among the number of critiques needed, a time keeper will ensure that a critique stays within its time limit.

Because PB&J members seek to provide honest feedback in a positive, constructive manner,
we use the sandwich method of critiquing. We begin with a positive comment/insight, provide constructive criticism, and end with a positive comment/insight.   

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators offers the following suggestions:
Criticism should be constructive and not destructive. “I didn’t like the way you wrote that” is never a valid criticism. It always helps a fellow writer to know the strengths of a manuscript as well as the weaknesses. A compliment offered first softens a “constructive” negative to follow. Try to tell your fellow writer why something doesn’t work for you and offer possibilities for change. Always be encouraging. Not everyone will respond to a manuscript in the same way. Those receiving criticism should remember that any suggestion offered can be accepted or rejected. The author has the final word on what stays.
Remember that you are in a critique group to get feedback. Try not to be defensive when you are critiqued; be good-natured about it.

A critique group can remain strong only when the sanctity of that group is respected. Thus, it is never okay to use the ideas or the research done by another member, to impose upon their contacts in the publishing world, or to reveal to others outside of the critique group any work-in-progress without the author’s express permission.


PB&J currently has six members. One member now has a publishing deal and others have had great feedback and nibbles. We are confident it is a matter of time before we are all published. We frequently email each other with info we gathered online or at a conference and also share what’s going on in our life. We’re a great little group.

Since starting PB&J I’ve also started an online group. I met Linda, Aimee, and Kari-Lynn at the SCBWI, LA, in August 2011. Kari-Lynn knew Val and I knew Lynne-Marie and soon we were a group (one Californian, three Canadians, and two Floridians). Four members of the group are published or have publishing contacts for picture books and another member just got an agent. A second group offers a whole other set of critiques, opinions, and insights. I am one lucky critique group “:leader.”

It’s Your Turn!
1. If you are looking for a critique group, I encourage you to consider starting one yourself.