Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Maria Modugno Says . . .

Week of July 29, 2012: Revise It, or Bury It?
Tuesday, July 31—Maria Modugno Says . . .

Maria Modugno
Vice President and Editorial Director
HarperCollins Children’s Books
(And my editor for the Ruby Rose books!)

The overwhelming reason that manuscripts are declined is because they just don’t have that extra spark, something that makes them irresistible. And that quality is the most difficult to define.

There are some things you can check—does the story have a distinctive voice? Does the plot work without relying on coincidence? Does it end with a surprise [such as a] birthday party? How does it sound when you read it aloud, or better yet have someone read it to you. Take care that you are not convincing yourself that it’s a good text.

I’m a saver of scraps. I have a jar of mismatched buttons that I keep on hand just in case. Don’t ever give your manuscript a funeral. Set it aside for a while first underlining the parts you love the best.

Something that isn’t working completely will still have a number of gems you can use somewhere else.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Lisa Wheeler Says . . .

Week of July 29, 2012: Revise It, or Bury It?
Monday, July 30—Lisa Wheeler Says . . .

Lisa Wheeler
Picture Book Author Extraordinaire
(And my friend and adopted mentor)

I think there are two ways I know a manuscript is ready to be abandoned. The first is if I lose interest. I am generally excited when I begin working on a new idea. I am on fire! As time goes by, that fire may dim, but I can usually find a spark within myself whenever I think of a turn of phrase, or a clever word.

But if I get to a point, where there is nothing, I mean nothing at all that interests me about this manuscript, then I bury it. I do not bury the idea, because the idea had merit. (That is why I was so excited!) But I start questioning where I went wrong with the execution of that idea.

The second way is if I write the entire story, put it away for awhile, and then forget about it. I may come across the file and think, “Hey! I don’t recall writing this.” And when I read it, one of two things happens. Either I realize the reason I forgot this very forgettable manuscript or I think, “This has merit. I will revisit it.”

If my reaction is the former, I know this story will stay buried.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Coming This Week!

Week of July 29, 2012: Revise It, or Bury It?
Quotes of the Week:
It’s always too soon to quit.
—Norman Vincent Peale

Never give up, even when you should.
—Kelly Creagh

Life is like riding a bicycle—in order to keep your balance, you must keep moving.
—Albert Einstein

A few weeks ago, Madeleine (a friend and fellow critique group member) asked, “When does a picture book manuscript need revision and work, and when does it need a funeral?” What a good question. I’ve met picture book writers who have literally spent five or ten years working on one manuscript. I’ve met other writers who give up and abandon manuscript after manuscript. We all get to the point when we face the question: “Is it time to continue to revise this manuscript, or does it just need to be buried forever?”

I shared the question with several picture book authors and industry professionals and have received a few responses back so far. Follow along this week to see if you need to put on your work boots or a black suit.

Monday—Lisa Wheeler Says . . .
Tuesday—Maria Modugno Says . . .
Wednesday—Rob Sanders Says . . .
Thursday—Frances Gilbert Says . . .
Friday—Aimee Reid Says . . .

Saturday, July 28, 2012


Yesterday was the 500th post on Picture This! My fingers are tired! J Actually, I’ve loved every minute. Thanks for following along and supporting Picture This! I hope we can continue to learn together for 500 more!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Trying Too Hard

Week of July 22, 2012—Common Problems in Picture Book Manuscripts
Friday, July 27—Trying Too Hard 

Have you seen the Youtube video where a mom is asking her less-than-two-year-old what she wants for dinner? Mom says, “How about mac and cheese?” The little girl responds with glee, “How about . . . cupcakes!” Mom says, “How about a hotdog?” The little girl replies, “How about . . . cupcakes!” Who doesn’t love cupcakes, especially cupcakes with those little sprinkles on top?!

Cupcakes and picture books? I know you think I’ve lost track of today’s topic. Actually, today’s topic isn’t cupcakes. It’s sprinkles! Any time I introduce a new literary device to a room full of writing students, I use my sprinkles example. “Who loves cupcakes with sprinkles?” I’ll ask. “What if I took a handful of sprinkles and smashed them on top of my cupcake like this . . .” and I demonstrate by mashing my hands together and drowning the imaginary cupcake with sprinkles. Then I grind my hands together to make the point. “No, Mr. Sanders!” someone will scream. “Not that many sprinkles!” That leads me to reply, “Well, that’s what happens when you use to many ______ (fill in the blank). I want you to sprinkle them throughout your writing.”

Overdosing with sprinkles is what I see lots of picture book writers do in their manuscripts, too—especially when it comes to literary devices, punctuation, and style. Too the reader, it seems like the writer is trying a little too hard. Often writers over do the one thing that could have made their writing unique and special. For instance . . .

NToo many onomatopoeias
NToo many idioms
NToo many exclamation points
NToo much alliteration
NToo much personification
NToo many similes
NToo many metaphors
NToo much hyperbole
NToo much word play
NToo many jokes
NToo many ellipses
NToo much dialogue (as we mentioned yesterday)

Let me say again, any time there’s too much of one thing in your writing, it can ruin the positive effect of that “thing.” Too much of one thing can make everything else around it seem weak and ineffective as well. You don't need to try that hard.

Another place I see picture books writers trying to do too much is with rhyme. Of the paid critiques I do (mostly by new writers), three-fourths are written in rhyme. I like to try to rhyme, too, and I write in rhyme sometimes. But I’m no good at it. The reason I know that is because rhyming doesn’t come naturally to me. I have to work HARD to make solid, unique rhymes and getting meter accurate is even more difficult. (I also know I’m not a rhyming pro because my agent has never accepted one of my rhyming pieces!)

If we’re not natural-born rhymers (of the Lisa Wheeler and Sherri Duskey Rinker quality), then we either need to take graduate courses in rhyme, or we need to consider giving it up all together. We probably should leave rhyme and meter to those who do it well, and develop our prose skills to the fullest extent possible.

Sprinkles. You want to carefully shake the sprinkles onto your cupcakes, and you want to carefully add literary devices (and other devices) into your writing. No more drowning our cupcakes with sprinkles, or our writing with literary devices.

It’s Your Turn:
u Sprinkle Check! Look through your latest manuscript. Is there a literary, punctuation, or other device you use frequently? Are you smashing or sprinkling it into your manuscript? Revise and de-sprinkle all but the sweetest sprinkles in your manuscript. In the end, I think you’ll end up with a more delectable cupcake . . . I mean . . . manuscript.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Talking Heads

Week of July 22, 2012—Common Problems in Picture Book Manuscripts
Thursday, July 26—Talking Heads

Have you read a fourth grader's writing lately? Here’s what you often find:

            “He said that I said I did,” I said.
            “No, he didn’t!” she said.
            “Yes, he did!” I said.
            “He should not have said that,” she said.
            “You’re telling me,” I said.
            “Why would he say such a thing?” she said.
            “Because he always says stuff like that,” I said.
            “He should stop saying stuff like that,” she said.
            “You’re telling me,” I said.

That dialogue may be true to life (if you’re nine or ten), and it may sound funny, but it’s not a story. All we have is two people talking. I tell my students writing like that is chit-chat, not a story. I also teach students:

u Action tells a story, not dialogue.
v Dialogue is sprinkled into a manuscript to accomplish a purpose (to tell us more about a character, for instance).
w Dialogue can be used to propel the action of the story along, to speed it up, or to slow it down.
x Let one character speak and another character respond, then show some action.
y Continue to break up the dialogue with action throughout the story.

My students soon learn that they can fudge with my “rules”, but I hope they also learn that these rules are big, overarching guidelines that, when used, can make their writing stronger.

Editors and illustrators call the kind of writing shown above talking heads. (They probably also call it awful writing!) I had that problem with the early versions of Cowboy Christmas. I had the cowboys sitting around the campfire telling stories of their Christmas memories. Why would that be a problem? Because how many ways can you illustrate cowboys sitting around a campfire talking? The illustrator is telling the other half of the story, and talking heads don’t give much to tell or show via illustrations. (And talking heads aren't all that exciting or interesting to readers or listeners.)

After several revisions of Cowboy Christmas, I was able to add in the needed action and use my dialogue to paint a picture of the cowboys and their colorful personalities. The dialogue became something that anchored the action from scene to scene.

Many manuscripts I critique are suffering from chit-chatting talking heads. Here’s a simple strategy to see if you might have too much dialogue in your writing.

u Gather highlighters in two different colors.
v Go through your manuscript with one color and highlight every piece of dialogue.
w Use the second color to highlight the action in the story.
x If you have long blocks of dialogue, you may have chit-chatting talking heads.
y If you have more dialogue than action, you may have a problem.
z If you have a sprinkling of dialogue amidst lots of action, you probably have a good balance.

It’s Your Turn:
u Grab your highlighters and your manuscript and get to work!
v Type up the copy of one of your favorite picture books by one of your favorite authors. Then use the highlighter trick above to analyze the dialogue and action you find.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Too Much Backstory

Week of July 22, 2012—Common Problems in Picture Book Manuscripts
Wednesday, July 25--Too Much Backstory


“It’s all the information that comes before the actual story.”


“It’s an info dump!”

Backstory is also called exposition, which literally means telling. I hate to be the bad guy here, but there’s hardly ever (dare I say, NEVER?) a place for backstory in a picture book. Unfortunately, too much backstory is another one of problems I frequently see in the picture book manuscripts I critique.

Let me give you an example of backstory using the well-known nursery rhyme “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.”

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn't know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread;
And whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

The backstory for this nursery rhyme might go something like this:

            Deep in her sole, Mavis contemplated giving the children a tongue lashing. But the tongue of the old shoe house was ripped and cracked, and probably wouldn’t stand up to the abuse. At 85, Mavis had lived inside this shoe for half her life. “We’ll have a real home soon enough,” her cobbler husband had promised for years, but a house never came. Instead, the children came, one after another.
            If Mavis, were honest, she would admit that she had lost count of how many children she actually had. Once she had begun her second round of alphabetical names, it all become a blur.
            With all these children you would think she could get some help around the shoe, but no. She cooked, cleaned, did the laundry, and the rest of the shoehold chores while those children played ring-around-the-rosey with the shoe laces and peek-a-boo through the eye holes.
            It didn’t help matters that today was the twelfth straight day of ninety degree weather, with no rain in sight. The heat index inside the old leather shoe must have been one hundred and ten.
Mavis plodded into the kitchen to prepare dinner for her brood. I have half a mind to serve them broth for dinner, she thought.

Granted, that backstory is interesting, but we seem stuck waiting for something to happen. Backstory often:

Q Slows down the forward momentum of a story
Q Overloads readers with unnecessary information
Q Overemphasizes character and setting descriptions
Q Lacks action
Q Keeps us from knowing the problem of the story
Q Bores the reader/listener

In a picture book, backstory can also:
Q Keep the illustrator from telling his/her half of the story
Q Eat up word count

Backstory may be helpful for an author. If you are the author of Mavis’ (aka: The Little Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe) story, you may need to know all the details about her husband, the composition of the shoe, the number of children she has, Mavis’ age, and so on in order to write a compelling story. But just because you know the backstory, doesn’t mean you have to write it into your story.

Most writing gurus suggest starting in the middle of the action. When it comes to picture books, often the main character and his/her problem is introduced on the first page, or first line. This gets the reader into the story instantly and allows the writer to have plenty of words and pages remaining to build the plot.

Some writers try to trick us into thinking they don’t have backstory. They introduce the character and problem early on, but then start giving us tons of information before the character starts solving the problem. If we don’t get quickly from the introduction of the character and problem to the first attempt to solve the problem, we probably have backstory that needs to be weeded out.

It’s Your Turn:
u Look back at your latest picture book manuscript, is there some backstory you can eliminate? If so, get busy!
v Not sure if you have too much backstory? One simple way to find out is to type up your manuscript in the format of a first-page critique. Start the story at the very top of a sheet of paper, and then type in 12-point type, double spaced. When you get to the bottom of the page, stop. Read back over your story. Underline when the character and his/her problem are introduced on the page. Then underline where the first attempt to solve the problem occurs. If you have lines of copy before we know the character and his problem, you probably have backstory. If you have lots of text between the introduction of the character and problem and the first attempt to solve the problem, that’s probably back story, too.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Under-developed Plot

Week of July 22, 2012—Common Problems in Picture Book Manuscripts
Tuesday, July 24—Under-developed Plot

Even if a picture book writer has a problem/conflict that anchors the story, there’s still a giant hurdle to face. And it’s a four-letter word . . . P-L-O-T!

You could describe plot like this:

1.                 u The story begins with a character in his/her normal life.
v A problem presents itself, and the character decides to/needs to/has to solve it.
w The character tries and tries and tries to solve the problem, but things get worse and worse and worse.
x Just when it seems things can’t get any worse, they do.
y When all hope is lost, the problem is solved—life returns to normal (or a new normal).
z And, AHHHHHHH, we have a feeling of satisfaction as the story wraps up.

Most readers (and probably most authors—even successful ones) don’t know all that much about plot. They’re like you and me. But most readers (and most authors) KNOW if a story sounds right, or feels right. We are coded in our DNA for stories. It started around the camp fire as our earliest ancestors told stories. We feel that a good story should put us on the edge of our seat, or make us laugh, or cause us to cry. We intrinsically know that the main character’s situation is going to get worse before it gets better. We want to root for that main character and see him or her succeed.

Even my three-year-old great niece knows when a story doesn’t work. She puts the book down. Or she interrupts the reader with a request to do something else. The reader or listener—even a three-year old—without knowing it, wants and needs the elements of plot to be present so the story feels right to them.

So what are the biggest plot problems picture book writers seem to have?

The Problem
The Result
Not escalating the problem by making things worse and worse for the main character
Readers’ empathy for and relationship with the main character can’t form properly, or fully
Not letting the main character try and fail
Readers may not be able to relate to the main character, since in real life people try and fail all the time. Again, empathy for the character may not grow and develop
Not making us feel that all hope is lost
Readers may not be prepared for the ending, or may feel the ending comes too soon because they have not been “set up”  enough for the “good” part of the story
Not letting the main character solve his/her own problem
Readers may feel that the main character—usually a child—is unable or incapable of doing things for himself/herself which makes the character less appealing or relatable. This may also give readers a false impression of the world—that someone else is responsible for solving their problems or will always come to their rescue
Not finally letting the main character find success in a way that is appropriate or fitting for the character
Readers may never actually feel satisfied with the story, or invest in extending their imagination to believe in the character and trust his/her story
Not providing a denouement—the “Ahhhhhhh” moment
Readers may never get that warm, fuzzy feeling, laugh-aloud moment, or tear-jerking reaction from the story, and thus may not fall in love with the story, or want to read it again

I don’t think plot has to be as hard to tackle as we often make it out to be. We just need tools to help us. The need for tools is what caused people to develop Three-Act Structure, Freytag’s Pyramid, and The Plot Clock. Because I’m a visual person and a teacher, I often organize things in a visual way. (Or perhaps I do this because I’m from Missouri—the Show Me State!) That need for something visual led me to create a couple of graphic organizers for picture book planning.

Though I’ve featured these graphic organizers on Picture This! in other posts, this seems an appropriate time to share them again. The Picture Book Graphic Organizer will help you outline a picture book from start to finish.

The second resource, Steps to Growing Trouble, is specifically focused on making us think of growing the problem/tension in a story.

It’s Your Turn:
u Examine the plot in one of your manuscripts. How is it holding up? What plot elements are strongest in the piece? Where are the weak spots? How can you correct the problems you see?
v Use one of the graphic organizers to plan a story you’ve been thinking about.

Monday, July 23, 2012

A Problem with the Problem

Week of July 23, 2012—Common Problems in Picture Book Manuscripts
Monday, July 24—A Problem with the Problem

A problem is the conflict in the story. The conflict is what compels the main character to move through the story from beginning to end. Without conflict, the characters don’t have a reason to do anything, to go anywhere, or (above all) to try to change anything.

A lot of us picture book writers fight against having a problem in our stories. “Can’t a bunny just hop through the woods and enjoy his day?” Well, yes, of course a bunny can do that, but will anyone care? If, however, the bunny is Peter Rabbit and he is in Mr. McGregor’s garden and about to get whacked with a hoe (after Mother told him not to go there in the first place), the reader definitely cares about what is happening. That is how a problem changes a ho-hum story into a work of fiction.
My first real ah-hah about problems and conflicts came when I heard Linda Arms White and Laura Backas talk about the three-act story structure used in television shows. Think of any of your favorite shows when you were growing up:

Bonanza                                 Lassie                                     The Partridge Family
The Munsters                        Mork and Mindy                    Laverne and Shirley
The Facts of Life                  Alice                                       The Cosby Show
Three’s Company                  Gilligan’s Island                    Happy Days
Frasier                                    I Love Lucy                           Cheers

Every time we tuned into our favorite program, we found the characters we loved with a  new problem to solve. Lucy had spent too much money, baked bread that caused the over to explode, worked in a chocolate factory, stomped grapes, tanked up on too much Vitameatavegamin.

Think about your favorite Saturday morning cartoons . . .

Josie and the Pussy Cats                Fat Albert                              Roadrunner
The Tasmanian Devil                      Scooby Doo                          Johnny Quest
The Flintstones                               Elmer Fudd                            Foghorn Leghorn
Transformers                                  Dexter’s Lab                         Johnny Bravo
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles       Thundercats                          Bugs Bunny

Every Saturday, a new episode would introduce a new problem. I mean how many times would it take that Coyote to figure out he wasn’t going to catch Roadrunner? Of course, Velma and the kids happened to stumble into a new mystery each week. If Fred and Barney didn’t do something stupid to get themselves into some kind of trouble that they had to get out of, would the show have been funny at all?
Later, when I started learning about Freytag’s Pyramid, rising action, falling action, and the like, my understanding of trouble and conflict expanded. Soon I started to realize that nearly every picture book had a problem. Look at any Caldecott Award Winning book. Of course, the books on the list won their award for the art, not the story, but you can still find the problems in each one . . . from Make Way for Ducklings to this year’s wordless book A Ball for Daisy to Where the Wild Things Are.

The problem in a picture book can be:
R Funny
R Serious
R Weird
R Common
R Odd
R Universal
R Unique
R Tried-and-true

The problem in a picture book must be:
R Something kids care about
R Something kids relate to

If you’re still fighting against problems in your picture book manuscripts, you may soon find that your problems with your picture book manuscripts go away when you have a solid problem for each picture book manuscript!

It’s Your Turn:
u Gather up a stack of picture books and find the problem in each one.
v Look at your latest picture manuscripts. What is the problem in each?
w Click on the link above and visit the Picture This! Directory to discover more posts about problems, three-act structure, and Freytag’s Pyramid.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Coming This Week!

Week of July 22, 2012—Common Problems in Picture Book Manuscripts
Quotes of the week:
The important thing about a problem is not its solution, but the strength we gain in finding the solution.

Laugh at your problems, everyone else does.

I critique lots of manuscripts—and I love it. I belong to two critique groups with a total of twelve members, I critique student writing on a daily basis, I critique the model writing that teachers present in lessons with students, and I have a critique business which brings the manuscripts of picture book writers from around the country (and a few from Canada) to my house on a regular basis.

Critiquing others, makes my writing better. Why? Because it always seems easier to identify a problem in someone else’s writing than in your own! Which reminds me of another quote . . . “If you caught it, you got it.” When I catch the same problem over and over in manuscripts, often it’s an indicator that I have that same problem in my own writing.

This week we’ll look at five of the most common problems I see when I critique picture book manuscripts. (And when I write my own.)

Monday—A Problem with the Problem
Tuesday—Under-developed Plot
Wednesday--Too Much Backstory
Thursday—Talking Heads
Friday—Trying Too Hard 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Upcoming Picture Book Conferences

The Highlights Foundation Announces Picture Book Conferences

At a recent workshop, New York Times best-selling picture-book author Alyssa Capucilli spoke of the responsibility that all children's book writers and illustrators have to their audience. She said, “It is with the picture book that we as children’s book creators can support and empower our readers. The picture book is more than a tool for literacy; equally, it is a guide to understanding our world.” Like Alyssa, we believe in the power of the picture book. We know that this art form holds in it beauty, emotion, and security.

The Highlights Foundation's fall lineup is filled with workshops to hone the craft of picture-book writing and illustrating. If you are interested in creating a picture book from scratch or polishing something you’ve been working on for years, we have a workshop to fit your needs. Follow the links below and find the workshop that is right for you.

From Prose to Pictures to Published: The Process of Writing a Picture Book
Through one-on-ones, group critiques, hands-on workshops, and private writing time, you can expect to leave with a completed dummy, ready for submission, and a clear understanding of what makes a picture book sell.

Workshop Leaders: Candace Fleming, Rebecca Kai Dotlich
Special Guests: Eric Rohmann, Melanie Hall

The Power of a Picture Book
Sweet and simple as these books may be, the formula for writing a picture book is quite complex. Through daily writing exercises, exposure to the best examples of picture-book writing, and intensive, one-on-one critiques of your work, you will learn how to turn your picture book idea into a powerful story for children.

Workshop Leader: Deborah Underwood
Special Guests: Kate O'Sullivan, Steve Metzger, Suzanne Bloom

Writing for Little Eyes and Little Ears: Read-Alouds for Early Learners
In the hands of a skilled writer, musical language can add immeasurably to meaning and overall effect. This workshop will show you how to make your writing sing. Learn to write books for early learners that beg to be read aloud and have kids pleading, “Read it again!”

Workshop Leader: Barbara Jean Hicks
Special Guests: Suzanne Bloom, Steve Metzger

Advanced Illustrators Workshop
During this intensive, five-day workshop you'll immerse yourself in illustration-oil wash on board, printmaking, pen and ink, watercolors, and more. Daily hands-on workshops will challenge you to sharpen your illustration skills, all under the support and guidance of our highly talented mentors.

Workshop Leaders: Floyd Cooper, Eric Rohmann, Kelly Ann Murphy, Ruth Sanderson
Special Guests: Donna Jo Napoli, David Wiesner, Robbin Gourley

The Brilliant Dummy: Creating a Picture-Book Dummy for Submission
Your mentors will break down thirty-two pages of picture-book content into what really belongs on the half-title page and full-title page; what is “front matter”; and what pages are best for tension, release, and the all-important happy ending. You will have individual attention that helps you refine your story and decide what images you plan to illustrate. Careful attention will be paid to text placement and page breaks, and whether to design double spreads, spot illustrations, or full bleeds. Your leaders will also share how to send your completed dummy to an editor or agent.

Workshop Leaders: Lindsay Barrett George, Judy Schachner

To secure your place at these or any of our additional workshops, please visit our website at www.highlightsfoundation.org. You can also call (570-253-1192) or e-mail Jo Lloyd (Jo.Lloyd@highlightsfoundation.org).

The Highlights Foundation is a public, not-for-profit 501©3 organization. We dedicate our efforts to connecting, nurturing, and inspiring children's book writers and illustrators.