Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Wise Link for Rhymers

Week of January 27, 2013—Wisdom from FL SCBWI, Miami
Thursday, January 31—A Wise Link for Rhymers

On Friday at the FL SCBWI, Miami event I shared the stage with four other authors who were published for the first time in 2012. One of those authors was Laen Fredrickson Ghiloni. Laen’s rhyming picture book, Watch Your Tongue, Cecily Beasley, was released in August 2012 by Sterling Children’s Books.
Laen is a wonderful rhymer and has just launched a web site to help others with rhyme. If you are a rhymer or a rhymer-wanna-be, you have to check out Laen’s site, Rhyme Weaver, at

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wise Quotes

Week of January 27, 2013—Wisdom from FL SCBWI, Miami
Wednesday, January 30—Wise Quotes

“You need to care about what the marketplace wants right now.” 
—Toni Buzzeo

“I’m looking for commercial picture books with strong literary appeal and strong stories.”
—Maria Modugno

“Ask yourself, ‘Why do I want to write for children?’ Push the why as far as you can—there’s always another level.”
—Bruce Coville

“We want to meet kids where they are and kids are on digital devices.”
—Rubin Pfeffer

“Outline extensively.”
—Michael Stearns

“Is the wall [getting a picture book published] higher? Yes. But who says we can’t climb higher?”
—Toni Buzzeo

—Dan Yaccarino
(Dan’s entire presentation was about saying yes to opportunities.)

“Work on projects that matter to you.”
—Ellen Hopkins

“Talent + Perseverance + Luck + Courage = Success”
—Ellen Hopkins

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Wise Advice from Maria Modugno

Week of January 27, 2013—Wisdom from FL SCBWI, Miami
Tuesday, January 29—Wise Advice from Maria Modugno

You met Maria Modugno, editorial director for picture books at Random House, a couple of weeks ago when I interviewed her on Picture This! Maria was a member of the faculty at the FL SCBWI Miami event, and I had the pleasure of hearing her speak several times during the weekend. Below are some of Maria’s memorable quotes.

“I believe in magic,” (Maria was referring to the fact that even when all the ingredients for a bestselling picture book are in place, there still has to be an element of magic to make a book resonate with readers.)

“A picture book is two artistic visions—two ways to tell the same story. One with words and one with pictures.”

“As a picture book writer, your first job is to be a reader.”

“Picture book characters should be stand-ins for real-life kids, and must be appealing and well-rounded.”

“A character must have a distinguishing quality—something that signals the character’s personality.”

“Writers must think of character and plot. A story must have a beginning, middle, and end.”

“Picture books that do well, do well because of their placement on book store shelves. Books need a sales hook, a reason to be on the shelf in a store.”

“If you want to know what promotional hooks book stores follow, keep an eye on the card section of your local store. The holidays, events, and occasions celebrated with cards can be sales hooks for picture books.”

“Three key pieces of advice
1. Read everything you can and ask yourself why you like (or dislike) the book.
2.  Look in book stores and libraries.
3. Listen to kids.”

Monday, January 28, 2013

Wise Words from Rubin Pfeffer

Week of January 27, 2013—Wisdom from FL SCBWI, Miami
Monday, January 28—Wise Words from Rubin Pfeffer

Rubin Pfeffer from East West Literary Agency was one of the featured faculty members at the FL SCBWI Winter Workshop. Rubin is my agent, so I always enjoy hearing him speak, spending time picking his brain, and hearing his latest insights about children’s publishing. Throughout the weekend, Rubin emphasized four words that stuck out to me. Today I'll share those words and my reflections on each.


RELATIONSHIPS—a connection, association, or involvement 
Throughout the weekend, Rubin and others talked about the importance of relationships. That includes the relationships writers form with agents and editors they meet and eventually work with, the relationships agents have with editors, the relationship between author and illustrator (although we usually don’t meet or correspond with one another, we still have a working relationship), and so on. Our goal is to build relationships that are lasting and productive.

SYNERGY—the interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements, contributions
The work between writer, agent, editor, art director, and illustrator takes synergy. Each component of the process adds more and more to what ends up being a picture book. We have to accept, embrace, and celebrate the synergy that goes into our work.

CIRCUITOUS— roundabout; not direct: a circuitous route
Many things in the writing and publishing process take a circuitous route. An editor mentions a topic that reminds you of a manuscript you put away years ago. A rejection establishes a relationship that eventually leads to a book deal. A project is delayed and in the meantime the perfect illustrator becomes available. Circuitous events are part of the daily life of a picture book author. While these round-about journeys may be frustrating, they can also be extremely rewarding when the path finally leads to publication.

REALISTIC—interested in, concerned with, or based on what is real or practical
Rubin spoke during the weekend about writers being realistic. I took away that he meant we have to be realistic about the work writing requires, be realistic about taking our craft seriously, be realistic about our chances of getting published, be realistic about whether writing will be a career or not, be realistic about the market and its demands, be realistic about the changes coming in publishing, and so on.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Coming This Week!

Week of January 27, 2013—Wisdom from FL SCBWI, Miami
Quote of the week:
By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.

Last weekend, I attended the Florida SCBWI Winter Workshop in Miami. This was one of the best workshops we’ve had since I’ve been attending. The content was deep. The faculty was stellar. The suggestions were practical. The barn dance was fun.

This week, I'll share notes, discoveries, and links from the workshop. I hope you find some helpful info. By the way, mark your calendars for our Florida SCBWI summer meeting in Orlando—June 7-8, 2013!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Word Order

Week of January 20, 2013—Syntax Needn’t Be Taxing
Friday, January 25— Word Order

Today’s post will be short and sweet because I’m still learning to find this syntax
issue in my own writing. During Joyce Sweeney’s seminar on voice, she talked
about word order in sentences. She called it chronological syntax. “Don’t say
things backwards,” was her admonition.

Backwards:            He cried, “Come here!”
Correct:                  “Come here!” he cried.

Cried is the powerful, emotional word in this sentence. It needs to be at the end of
the sentence for emphasis.

Backwards:            He snapped up the ball after I threw it.
Correct:                  After I threw the ball, he snapped it up.

This sentence literally has an chronological issue. It makes no sense to tell about
snapping up the ball, before it’s thrown, so the sentence must be flipped to be

Fortunately, I have some members of my face-to-face critique group who are great
at spotting these backwards sentences and they’re helping me spot them, too. Lookfor
them in your writing. A simple change in chronological order can impact the
syntax of your writing in a powerful way.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


Week of January 20, 2013—Syntax Needn’t Be Taxing
Thursday, January 24— Punctuation

In addition to end punctuation, there’s lots of internal punctuation which can add
sentence variety to your writing, add voice, affect pacing, help add details, and
more. Again today, I’ll use examples from The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr.
Morris Lessmore to demonstrate the use of each of the internal punctuation marks that
I'm highlighting.

Comma Before and After a Sentence Interrupter

Rather than looking down, as had become his habit, Morris Lessmore looked up.

Note how you can remove the “interrupter” between the commas and have a
complete sentence. What’s in between the commas adds additional details.

Comma after a Sentence Opener

Drifting through the sky above him, Morris saw a lovely lady.

Note how the the portion of the sentence after the comma could stand on its own.
The “opener” adds details.

Comma before a Sentence Closer

The flying lady knew Morris simply needed a good story, so she sent him her

Note that the first part of the sentence could stand on its own, independently. The
portion after the comma adds details.

Italics to Add Emphasis

Morris wondered if his book could fly.

Quotation Marks to Set Off Words

The book led him to an extraordinary building where many
books apparently “nested.”

Commas in a Series

Morris found great satisfaction in caring for the books, gently fixing those with fragile bindings, and unfolding the dog-eared pages of others.

Ellipses as a Transition

The days passed.
So did the months.
And then years.
And years . . .
. . . and Morris Lessmore became
stooped and crinkly.

Dash to Add Details

. . . till everything Morris knew was scattered—
even the words of his book.

Note how the dash causes a pause in your reading, then the additional details tell
you more about the first phrase.

Now I’m not going to tell you that the my examples are the only ways you can
use internal punctuation to impact the syntax of your writing, but I will tell you that if
you master these eight strategies, you’ll have a great writing toolbox at your disposal.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Sentence Type

Week of January 20, 2013—Syntax Needn’t Be Taxing
Wednesday, January 23— Sentence Type

This year at school our fourth graders have participated in GPS Class on Mondays.
G-Grammar, P-Punctuation, and S-Spelling. Sadly these topics haven’t been taught
directly to lots of children for years (and their writing shows it). Suddenly our
students are expected to excel in these areas, but teachers have little or no
curriculum to use to teach the topics. So we’ve been developing our own
curriculum as we go through the year and spot the needs of our students. One of
their needs, is one of the important parts of syntax—knowing and using effectively 
different types of sentences and knowing how to punctuate them correctly.

Think back to your grammar instruction and you’ll probably be able to recall the
four kinds of sentences.
§  Declarative—A declarative sentence makes a statement and is followed by a period.
Example:     The neighbor’s dog is barking again.
§  Imperative—A command or polite request followed by a period or an exclamation mark.
                              Example:     Please close the door. (Polite request.)
                              Get over here now! (Command)
§  Exclamatory—An exclamatory sentence expresses great excitement or emotion. It ends with an exclamation mark.
Example:     The British are coming!
§  Interrogative—An interrogative sentence asks a question and ends with a question mark.
Example: Is this your house?

A quick glance at our book of the week—The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr.
Morris Lessmore by William Joyce—reveals no exclamation points or question
marks, so we can infer that the sentences in this book are all declarative or
imperative. With closer examination, I found only declarative sentences.

When I examine Cat Secrets by Jef Czekaj I found periods, question marks, and
question marks—we truly see declarative, imperative, exclamatory, and
interrogative sentences in this book. Why the difference? I think it probably goes
back to tone. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore has a more serious
and warm-hearted tone, while Cat Secrets is more playful, with wacky humor. The
sentences used in each picture book fit the need of the story. The same should be
true in our writing.

A warning about exclamation marks—Jef Czekaj could get away with using lots of
exclamation points in Cat Secrets. You and I have to be careful with those little
end marks. A little dab will do ya when it comes to exclamation marks.

There are, of course, other types of sentences—simple, compound, and complex
sentences. Since most picture books tend to not venture into the world of
compound and complex sentences all that much, I’m not going to delve into them
here. But a great online resource that explains each of these types of sentences can

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sentence Length

Week of January 20, 2013—Syntax Needn’t Be Taxing
Tuesday, January 22— Sentence Length

Short. Long. One word. There ya have it—the primary ways to view sentence
length. Short sentences read faster and keep the pace moving forward. Longer
sentences slow down the action and make the reader be more thoughtful and pay
attention. One word sentences (or even sentences with two or three words) can stop
the action altogether. Short sentences demand attention and can make a strong
emotional impact.

The thoughtful writer uses sentence length to conduct the action of the story and to
dictate the pace of the reader. Consider the opening page of The Fantastic Flying
Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce:

Morris Lessmore loved words.

He loved stories.

He loved books.

His life was a book of his own writing, one orderly page
after another. He would open it every morning and write
 of his joys and sorrows, of all that he knew
and everything that he hoped for.

Did you feel the pace of your reading change sentence by sentence? That’s the
power of sentence length.

The first sentence—a statement of fact—is a short sentence—Morris Lessmore
loved words. We read it a normal pace, maybe even quickly. But then we have the
next two, short sentences. He loved stories. He loved books. We are compelled to
read each of these sentences slowly and pause after each. If you’re like me, you
may even read each sentence word-by-word with slight pauses between the words.
The rhythm stops because of the use of each short sentence. These sentences make
an also make an emotional impact.

Then two longer sentences follow and we read at a more deliberate rate as we try
to soak in all the important details. The author is making us slow down and absorb
information that we need to know before we can go on with the story.

Sentence length dictates pacing—both of the story itself, and how it is read. Allyn
Johnston of Beach Lane Books calls picture books “performance pieces.” They are
meant to be read aloud and performed for the listener. When an author varies
sentence length intentionally, he/she can change the pacing of the story and the
pacing of the reader’s performance. It’s just like a director telling the actors in a play
how to deliver a certain line, where to slow down, or where to speed up. Sentence
length is part of the powerful punch syntax can deliver.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Rhythm of Sentences

Week of January 20, 2013—Syntax Needn’t Be Taxing
Monday, January 21— The Rhythm of Sentences

Below are some of my notes from Joyce Sweeney about syntax and the rhythm it
creates . . .
§  Syntax can slow pace, quicken pace, add emotion, and make emphasis
§  The longer the sentence, the sleepier the reader.
§  Syntax can wake up readers, and make them pay attention.
§  Syntax can help create intentional pauses.
§  Syntax can clue the reader into what is important.
§  Syntax—the rhythm of sentences—is very important to younger readers, though they may not even notice it. (They will feel it.)
§  Picture book writers must be the strongest at syntax.

As we explore syntax this week and discover some ways to impact the rhythm of our writing with syntax, I’m going to focus on one picture book—The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce. The story inspired the Academy Award winning short of the same name, and is filled with syntax created rhythm. If you can get your hands on the book (or an electronic version of the book), do so. You’ll be glad you did!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Coming This Week!

Week of January 20, 2013—Syntax Needn’t Be Taxing
Quote of the Week:
All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary—it’s just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences.
—Somerset Maugham

Last week we looked at my notes from Joyce Sweeney’s voice seminar. This week I’m going to address the last element of voice—syntax. Here’s how Joyce defines syntax:

Syntax—the devices used to encourage readers to read in a particular rhythm . . . includes sentence length and type, word order, punctuation
—Joyce Sweeney

As a writing teacher, I talk about all these things with my students—but I lump it all under the heading of sentence variety. I think I need to start being more specific in how I talk about each example of syntax. I'll try doing that with you this week by using examples from picture books that model the various components of syntax.

Remember this week’s quote from Somerset Maugham— “All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary—it’s just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences,” and let’s work on arranging our words into stellar sentences.

Monday, January 21— The Rhythm of Sentences
Tuesday, January 22— Sentence Length
Wednesday, January 23— Sentence Type
Thursday, January 24— Punctuation
Friday, January 25— Word Order

Friday, January 18, 2013


Week of January 13, 2013: Painting with Words
Friday, January 18—Imagery

Imagery: All language used to provoke a sensory (not just visual)
reaction in the reader
—Joyce Sweeney

Imagery can ground the reader.
—Joyce Sweeney

Most writers are good with visual details. (Interestingly, as picture book writers, we
use visual details less than novelists because we work with an illustrator who will be
showing those visual details.) However, when writing, don’t forget the other senses of
hearing, taste, touch, and smell. Joyce said, “Smells are evocative,” and that by using 
the sense of smell in our writing the reader can be transported to a place, time, or

Imagery is developed through revision and is seldom established in the first draft.
It’s something you consciously look for when revising.

For You To Do:
I’ve mentioned Owl Moon by Jane Yolen several times this week. The voice is so
strong in Yolen’s work that it can be a model for us of how to strengthen our own
writing. Type up the text of Owl Moon. Then use a colored pencil for each of the
senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, feeling). Using your colored pencils, underline
the imagery found in Yolen’s text. I think you’ll be amazed how “colorful” and
image-filled the piece is.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


Week of January 13, 2013: Painting with Words
Thursday, January 17—Detail

We’re continuing our discussion of the elements of voice, and today’s topic is
details. Joyce Sweeney defines details as “the specific elements mentioned in the
work.” A lot of the work of specificity is done with nouns. Specificity always
trumps generalizations. When you generalize you miss the opportunity to add

Generalized sentence:                He ate cereal.
Specific/detailed sentence:         He ate Fruit Loops.
                                                He ate oatmeal.

When you’re working with nouns, you think of making them stronger and/or
making them specific/proper. The chart below shows examples of what I mean:

Stronger Noun
Specific/Proper Noun
chocolate candy
Hershey’s Kisses
Zumba Carpet Gliders
thrift store
Goodwill Store
cake flour
Pillsbury All-purpose Flour

Joyce told us that sometimes you don’t need to describe, you just need to tell. If you tell the name of a teacher named Mrs. Crankster, you’ve already described her. If you say wiener dog, no other description may be necessary. If you write in the shade of a Weeping Willow, you may have painted the picture with the specific noun you chose. Joyce said that relying on nouns to tell details “pulls the reader in and makes them do some of the work. Tell the details (and only enough details) to make readers think.” Of course, as picture book writers, we know that the illustrations will also fill in some of the information and give clues to meaning.

For You To Do:
1. Go on a stronger noun and specific/proper noun hunt through some of your favorite picture books List out the details you find.
2. Read through you latest picture book manuscript. Underline all the nouns. Then go back through your nouns and highlight the ones that are stronger and/or specific/proper. Examine all the nouns not highlighted. What other nouns can you make stronger and/or specific/proper?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


Week of January 13, 2013: Painting with Words
Wednesday, January 16—Diction

We’re continuing to look at the language elements that go into voice. Joyce
Sweeney, my mentor and a fabulous writing coach, recently led a seminar about
voice in Tampa Bay. We’ve already discussed the role of tone in voice. Today
we’ll look at diction. Joyce defined diction as “word choice.” Joyce said, “Every word
you choose impacts readers.” Tips she shared for making stellar word choices include:

§  Consciously choose each word
§  Avoid words that are too lofty, they can make your writing unemotional
§  Choose words that speak to your reader at their level, but don’t dumb down your word choices
§  Avoid adverbs—they usually indicate you’ve chosen a weak verb
§  Adjectives can ruin good verbs
§  Word choice is all about revision—keep revising until you have the perfect word choices

I thought back to some of the books I mentioned in Monday's post. Let’s look at some of the stellar diction/word choice in these books.

§  Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
as quiet as a dream; crunched; crisp; little gray footprints followed us; tree line of pines, black and pointy against the sky; The move made his face into a silver mask; Who-whoo-who-who-who-whooooooo; I could feel the cold, as if someone’s icy hand was palm-down on my back; whiter than the milk in a cereal bowl
§  Avalanche Annie: A Not-So-Tall Tale by Lisa Wheeler
Michisota; Mount Himalachia; Annie Halfpint; Her voice booms soft as thunder; Her skin feels smooth as gravel; It started on a noonday in the frigid month of Mace; Yoohoo Valley; They polished up their parkas; They saddled up their smiles; They scaled Mount Himalachia in the latest snowshoe styles.
§  Saturdays and Teacakes by Lester L. Laminack
Every Saturday I coasted down our long, steep drive, slowing only enough to turn onto Thompson Street, then left onto Bells Mill Road; Pedal, pedal, pedal; Every Saturday Mammaw was there, sitting on her old metal glider—criiick=craaack-criiick-craaack; sunlight poured through the windows like a waterfall and spilled over the countertops, pooling up on the checkerboard floor; Golden Eagle Syrup; Mammaw rolled it out on the flour-dusted cloth

If ever there were examples of choosing every word carefully and precisely, those are the examples. I challenge you to read more works by Yolen, Wheeler, and Laminack and see how their word choices/diction are noticeable and distinctive in everything they write.

For You To Do:
Quick! Name your favorite picture book of all times. Now go reread that book and note the diction/word choices throughout. I bet you’ll find that each word has been chosen with great care—that’s one of the reasons you love that book, consciously or unconsciously.