Write Like WONDER WOMAN (FOUR Tips for PICTURE BOOK WRITERS)

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Me- circa 1976 – during my “Wonder Woman” phase

Recently I was asked in an interview if, even as a child, I always wanted to be a children’s author.  And after a bit of thought, I answered no. When I was a child what I really wanted to be was Wonder Woman! I had her twirl perfected and everything.  Activating her super powers, I would spend hours with friends, or sometimes alone, creating fantastic make-believe scenarios.  These were the plot lines that brought wonderful play worlds to life.

As picture book writers we, too, have super powers we can activate to create engaging stories.  So now, in celebration of my first career dream as a super hero, here are FOUR SUPER POWERS we call all use to bring our wonderful picture book stories to life:

The POWER of the KID-FRIENDLY PROBLEM:  Losing a favorite toy, wanting a cookie, being afraid of a storm, not wanting to take a bath. These are just a few examples of kid-friendly problems in the books we read.  A kid-friendly problems connects the reader to your story.

The POWER of PICTURES that ADD: The hallmark of picture books, of course, is that they are illustrated. But there’s more. Good picture book writers let the pictures tell part of the story. Sometimes the pictures even include important details that are not in the text. (See Mo Willem’s KNUFFLEBUNNY for a great example of this, or GOODNIGHT, ARK for that matter.) As you write and revise your stories, put stars next to parts of the story that could be told (or enhanced) by the illustrations.  Then consider omitting the words from the text, instead substituting a simple illustration note, but only if absolutely necessary.

The POWER of the PAGE TURN:  With only a few sentences per spread, picture books include almost constant page turns.  These built-in pauses provide authors a great opportunity to build suspense. Consider pausing an exciting moment mid-sentence as you write.  What happens next?  To find out kids will have to TURN THE PAGE! (Note: creating a book dummy during revisions is a great way to figure out how you can take advantage of page turns.)

The POWER of HUMOR:  Kids love to laugh, or at least chuckle, and so do parents. So anytime you can infuse humor into your story, via text or illustration, go for it!

Happy Writing, all!

GUEST POST: On Revising and Never Giving Up with Tami Charles

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Today I am delighted to have children’s author Tami Charles as my guest.  Tami and I first met at a NJSCBWI gathering at a local tea shop.  She was in the midst of revising her first novel,  LIKE VANESSA (Charlesbridge 2018).  This summer, again, we organized our own little writers’ retreat and  spent a lovely day on my porch (and inside, too ,because it was dreadfully hot) revising our current works-in-progess.  Disciplined, smart and funny- she knows her stuff.  Take it away, Tami!

So, you wrote a picture book. You received feedback from your critique partners. Your agent has given it her stamp of approval. She submits it to editors and you sit back and wait for the offers pour in. New York Times Bestseller list here you come!

But then, the unthinkable happens…

(Cue horror film music.) 

Radio.

Silence.

Several months pass, your hair turns grayer, and the rejections start rolling in—nice ones, albeit. The feedback from the editors is pretty much the same, and you just know what you have to do…revise.

Revisions can sometimes be painful, especially when you’ve already revised your manuscript many times over. But there’s no time for wallowing. It’s time to put a new spin on your story and here’s how to get ‘er done:

Step 1: Take your old manuscript, ball it up, and throw it in the trash. Follow this cathartic moment with a beverage of your choice.  (Iced, skinny caramel latte, anyone?)

Step 2: Go back to the trash and take out your manuscript, silly goose! (Then wash your hands, please!)

Step 3: Strap on your big kid boots and get ready to freshen up your manuscript. Clearly, it was good enough to be subbed out in the first place. It just needs more work. So here are a few tricks to get the ball rolling:

  • Gobble up those mentor texts. Read as many books as possible that fit the theme of your story. Sure, you probably read comp titles when you first wrote your story, but that was a long time ago.  There are new books on the shelves waiting to be explored. Read them. Study them.
  • Rewrite your story in a different verb tense. Is your original manuscript written in past tense? Try writing it in the present. Or take a risk and write it in future tense. Don’t be afraid to experiment with verb tense until your story feels shiny and new.
  • Change the point of view. Did you write your story in third person POV? Consider switching to first person. This will give your reader insight into how all the characters are feeling—not just one.  You could also try second person POV, which if done right, can be an enjoyable reading experience. There are several books that do this well. Some of my favorites are: “Warning: Do Not Open This Book” by Adam Lehrhaupt and “How to Raise a Dinosaur” by Natasha Wing.
  • Rethink your setting. I speak from experience on this one. A few years ago, I shopped around a picture book that had only one setting. Agent feedback was basically the same. Can the characters go somewhere else besides the kitchen, so that the story doesn’t feel stagnant? Challenge accepted. After many revisions (and several lattes), I created additional settings to help move the story along. And guess what? I got an offer! Hooray! Try this tip and thank me later.

Step 4: Submit and MOVE ON! Once you’ve done the necessary revisions, go out on another round of submissions. It may take a while, but trust me, your “yes” is waiting. Use the down time to work on your next manuscript.

Here’s the hard truth: The kidlit universe is a tough industry to crack. Whatever you do, do not give up. You are full of stories and the world needs to hear them. I wish you productivity, creativity, and lots of luck as you revise.

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BIO: Recovering teacher. Amateur gardener. Debut author. Tami Charles writes picture books, middle grade, young adult, nonfiction, and enjoys the occasional work-for-hire project. Her middle grade novel, LIKE VANESSA, debuts with Charlesbridge in spring, 2018. She also recently sold two picture books, but can’t spill the beans just yet! For 14 years, Tami served as a public school educator but now writes full time. She is represented by Lara Perkins, of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency and lives in Central New Jersey with her husband, son, and a family of deer who take pleasure in annihilating her garden.

Connect with Tami on Facebook,  Twitter and at her website: http://www.tamiwrites.com

 

Guest Post: FEELING STUCK? JUST ADD FOOD with Ariel Bernstein

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Today I am delighted to have fellow New Jersey author Ariel Bernstein as my guest. I met Ariel at the NJSCBWI Conference this past June. She is talented and articulate and joins us today with some tasty writing advice!  Take it away,  Ariel!

There are a lot of ingredients you can add to make an irresistible children’s book. A bold beginning, a charming voice, words that are fun to read aloud, and of course, a snappy twist ending. But sometimes when you are mixing all of these different parts together, you can end up feeling a bit stuck. You may have an original opening and a sensational end, but the middle is feeling lackluster. One thing I do to work out the kinks in a story is add food to it.

There are some books where food is an intricate part of the story, such as DRAGONS LOVE TACOS and CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. But in others, food is used more sparingly in ways that help move the story forward.

Food can be a great way to show a character’s personality. If a character serves mushy oatmeal to children, you can be pretty sure they are not to be trusted, such as Lemony Snicket’s Count Olaf. Choosing to eat some food versus others, like snozzcumbers instead of ‘human beans’ in THE BFG and eating carrots instead of bunny rabbits in WOLFIE THE BUNNY, help to explain characters’ trustworthiness and kindness.

Food can be used to convey mood and tone. Comfort food such as chocolate chip cookies are often used to create peaceful scenes of contentment and happiness. After much rousing competition between Billy and Javier in MUSTACHE BABY MEETS HIS MATCH, it’s no surprise that their eventual friendship at the end is shown in a scene of them eating stolen chocolate chip cookies together. And you could always be sure that Voldemort and his Death Eaters would never turn up in a scene to cause chaos when Harry Potter and his friends were drinking their favorite Butterbeer.

Food can even be used as red herrings. In LITTLE ELLIOT, the initial goal of Elliot’s seems to be getting a cupcake. But when Elliot meets Mouse, it turns out what he wants most of all is a friend. When Elliot and Mouse get the cupcake by working together, it ends up being the icing on the cake.

In my chapter book, WARREN AND DRAGON’S 100 FRIENDS, I thought about how to show the characters’ personalities. Dragon is a vain and sometimes selfish character, but I also wanted to add charm, so I decided to make him obsessed with marshmallows. It became a recurring joke throughout the story and whenever I wasn’t sure how to keep a scene moving, writing in a small bit about Dragon and his marshmallows provided humor and consistency.

Of course, not all books need food in them. But if you’re not sure where to go with a story, adding food can be a fun way to experiment and possibly come up with something delicious. And no matter what, doing the research will be often be its own reward.

13689753_10209437144387419_1500425181_nAriel Bernstein is a children’s book author. Her debut picture book, I HAVE A BALLOON, illustrated by Scott Magoon, will be published by Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books in Fall 2017. Ariel’s chapter book series, WARREN & DRAGON’S 100 FRIENDS, will be published by Viking Children’s. Ariel can be found at http://www.arielbernsteinbooks.com and on Twitter at @ArielBBooks.

SKUNKS and SKETCHES: Thoughts on the Creative Process

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Since today is National Skunk Day, I simply can’t resist re-sharing these writerly thoughts on skunks, elephants, and creativity. So, please bear with me and enjoy! 

Can you guess what these are?

They’re preliminary sketches for the sleepy little pair skunks and the large pair of frightened elephants that appear in GOODNIGHT, ARK. When Jane Chapman first posted them on Facebook last year, I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I was amazed at all the detail and artistic brainstorming that went into developing these delightful animals. They clearly show that she spent at least as much time “playing with pictures”  as I spent “playing with words” in the creation of my story.

Jane’s sketches are a wonderful reminder that there is joy in the process of creating and that creating takes time.  Don’t rush the process by just sketching one skunk or elephant.  Sketch a a full page of them!  Likewise, don’t rush to finalize your word choice or your plot twists. Keep on playing with those words and let the creative process work its magic. Fill an entire notebook if you need to. That’s what I did!

As a fun aside, and in conclusion of today’s skunk-themed thoughts, if you have a copy of GOODNIGHT, ARK, you might enjoy examining these sketches and then perusing the pages of the story to see which sketches made the final cut.  The students I share the sketches with LOVE doing this and I have to agree, it’s fun!

Enjoy!

P.S. You might also enjoy this skunk quiz!

THE POWER OF LISTS: Getting Your Creative Juices Flowing

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Please join me over at my online critique group’s blog – PENS AND BRUSHES – for some thoughts on making lists as a writer. I’ll make it easy for you. Press here.

 M-O-T-O-R-C-Y-C-L-E: Thoughts on SOUND Effects in Picture Books

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A few years ago, my husband and I were eating a lovely supper with our son, age three, when one of us, who shall remain nameless, passed some extremely audible gas. Before anyone had a chance to be mortified, my son squealed with delight: “M-O-T-O-R-C-Y-C-L-E!” I share this because it’s a perfect example of the magical effect sounds have on young readers. They’re so mesmerized by sounds that, even when sounds aren’t emitted naturally (as above), they create their own. Eavesdrop on any small child playing and quite often you’ll hear the putt-putt of imaginary cars, the whoosh of imaginary jets, or the tippa-tap of invisible fairy wands.
As writers for youngest readers, we can enhance our stories by tapping into this intrinsic love and infusing our texts with sound words. Technically called “onomatopoeia”, sound words can add richness to any writing, but especially to picture books. Indeed, one of my intentions in writing my debut picture book, GOODNIGHT, ARK was to infuse it with as many ear-pleasing sound words as possible. Thus the hail in my story goes pop pop and ping ping and the lightning flashes with a zip and a zing. The wind goes whoosh and the sheep baah as they dash into Noah’s bed. The book trailer the publisher produced gives a fun sense of how sound words infuse the story.

I’m so keen for sound words that when no perfect translation exists, I come up with my own. Here are some examples of ear-pleasing phrases I’ve concocted to capture special moments.  See if you can guess what they are. (Answers at end of post.) NO PEEKING!

A. Vroom! Pt! Ptta! Clack!

B. Flump-flump! Flurp-flurp!

C. Sloggle, sloggle…
IMG_3152 Are you a collector? You know, the sort who collects shells, or bottle caps, or little toy cars (as my son used to)? Yes? Then perhaps you’d like to join me in a challenge. This week, with ear-pleasing wordplay in mind, I plan to collect sounds as I go about my day and then translate them into creative sound words for possible use in a future picture book or poem. I’ll be collecting my words in my writing journal, but any repository will do.

Need a little inspiration to get you started? Here are two great examples of picture books in which the author splendidly incorporates sound words, often made up, to add hilarity to the text.

IMG_0006.JPG In PLEASE SAY PLEASE! PENGUINS GUIDE TO MANNERS (Scholastic, 2004), author Margery Cuyler does a splendid job of infusing fun sound words into her story about a little penguin who invites his friends to dinner. Each spread depicts a humorously horrendous manner, with the more polite, preferred alternative depicted on the page turn. This book was one of my daughter’s favorites when she was little and includes sound words such as hee-hee, splat, and wheee. My daughter’s absolute favorite bit, however, involves a hearty bur-r-r-r-r-r-r-p! 

IMG_0007Candace Fleming’s MUNCHA! MUNCHA! MUNCHA! (Atheneum/Schwartz, 2002) about three persistent rabbits trying to get into Mr. McGreeley’s garden is also rich in onomatopoeia. As the story builds, Mr. McGreeley takes ever more drastic measures to keep the rabbits out. Each time the rabbits outwit him, Fleming humorously celebrates their triumph with a repeating, sound-pleasing, growing refrain that begins “Tippy-tippy -tippy, Pat!” and ends with “Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!” In between, she adds sound words that reflects their success in overcoming the latest rabbit-thwarting barrier created by Mr. McGreeley. For example, after Mr. McGreeley installs a wire fence around his garden to keep out the rabbits, Candace adds a “Spring-hurdle, Dash! Dash! Dash!” to the interior of the refrain.  Later, when Mr. McGreeley builds a moat, Fleming adds a “Dive-paddle, Splash! Splash! Splash!”

 

Happy sound hunting and word building all!

Answers to Onomotopoeia Challenge:
A.            The sound of our vacuum cleaner picking little toy bits.
B.             The sound of a little wingless chick trying to fly.
C.             The slurpy sound little paws make when trying to trudge through a muddy puddle.
(NOTE: This post first appeared on the lovely British blog, Picture Book Den in August 2014).

OLDIE BUT GOODIE: Spider Webs – Thoughts on Weaving Stories

IMG_2366I’m taking break from the tour this week to enjoy a special, but busy, week.  I’ll be visiting two schools, celebrating someone’s eleventh birthday, hosting a birthday party, and finalizing a couple of homemade costumes. I also plan to take nice, reflective walks each day.  Lately, I’ve been enjoying looking for and marveling at the abundance intricate spider webs in my neck of the woods. With those beautiful creations in mind, here’s an oldie but goodie to inspire your writing. Enjoy!

 Lately, I’ve been noticing an abundance of spider webs dazzling in the early morning light as the first rays catch their dewy threads. Their strength and structure amaze me. Each spider web I notice follows the same basic pattern. First the spider established her outermost framework and then worked her way inward in concentric spirals until she reached the heart of the web.

There’s no doubt that there is a universality to spider webs.  But look closely and you will see that even though they share many common characteristics, each web is also a unique creation.  Each web’s shape and size varies depending on where it was woven and on the delicate dance the spinning spider performed as she leapt from anchor point to anchor point. One web I saw was spun snuggly between two slender stems of Queen Anne’s lace, stretched oblong by early fall breezes.  Another was hung high among prickly pine boughs, round and tight, so as not to get prickled, yet big enough to capture a passing fly.

As writers, it sometimes seems that every story has already been spun and that there couldn’t possibly be a new way to tell anything. Yes, it’s true, like spider webs, most stories fit into plot types and there are common structures.  There are also universal themes.  And like spiders, who all use liquid silk to build their webs, our stories too, are created using the same building blocks – words.

But does this mean originality is impossible? Not at all. Like webs, the best stories do have a universal quality about them.  But, if we listen to our inner creative spirit, something unique will unfold within that universal framework.  A spider web’s uniqueness emerges as she weaves in response to the specific setting and conditions surrounding that creation.  She also leaps and dances in a way that only she can.  Another spider spinning her web in the same spot would create a different web altogether.

So take heart as you write and listen to your deepest inner voice, the one that expresses itself in a way only you can. If you do, then I am convinced that, like a spider weaving uniquely concentric circles, you’ll weave the story as only you can.

Happy spinning all!

GUEST POST: WRITING, BAKING, RUMINATING with Annie Silvestro

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Today I’m delighted to have children’s author, Annie Silvestro, as my guest.  Annie and I met at the wonderful June NJSCBWI conference several years ago. She recently announced that her debut picture book BUNNY’S BOOK CLUB, illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss, will be published by Doubleday in Spring of 2017! Way to go, Annie! She’s joining us today with her thoughts on how to work through writing when the going gets tough. You are in for a tasty treat! Take it away, Annie!

Writers can spend hours in front of a screen or notebook, staring.

And after all those hours, we’ve finally got it! The right word. A strong sentence. A cohesive paragraph.

Those little successes can make us feel like a million bucks. But the time it takes? That can feel daunting.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not always that way. Sometimes writing is magical in how smoothly it flows and how quickly ideas take shape. But when it’s not, and particularly when you’re stuck on an idea, it can be very frustrating.

I’ve found that as part of my writing process, when my words get muddled, I make like Amelia Bedelia and bake. I think that’s because with baking, in a relatively short period of time I can accomplish a sure thing – something tangible, pleasant, and delicious that I can share (or not).

Plus, with baking, I follow a straightforward recipe. There’s no guesswork, no hair-pulling, no screaming at the screen. I grab butter, flour, and sugar without even thinking. I measure and mix precisely, then pour the sweet concoction into a pan or onto a cookie sheet. When the timer goes off, voila! Muffins! Banana bread! Snickerdoodles!

The best part is, while I’m baking, my subconscious is freed up to ruminate over the ingredients I’ll use in whatever story I’m working on. Ingredients like good characters, strong plot, tension, page turns, and the ever-important layers of emotion, humor, and heart.

We writers pull those ingredients from our imaginations, measure and mix as we see fit (revise, revise, revise), then pour them into a well-structured arc. Finally, and maybe most importantly, we let our stories bake.

Ideas need time to come together so we can see that their particular flavors and textures are just right. Just like too much flour can make your cake dry out, too much or too little of any story ingredient, and your manuscript can fall flat.

Time gives you the opportunity to read your story with fresh eyes so you can see more clearly what works or doesn’t work. Perspective helps you tweak your recipe so it’s absolutely delicious. And when the story is done, and the fork comes out with only a few crumbs clinging to it, you can bet you won’t mind sharing.

What do you do when you’re feeling unproductive in your writing? Share your ideas in the comments.

Annie Silvestro 5-2015Annie Silvestro writes, bakes, ruminates, and reads, reads, reads on the Jersey Shore where she lives with her husband, two boys, and a cat named Blinky. Her debut picture book BUNNY’S BOOK CLUB, illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss, will be published by Doubleday in Spring of 2017. Twitter: @anniesilvestro

SKUNKS and SKETCHES: Thoughts on the Creative Process

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NOTE: I simply can’t resist piggybacking (or should I say skunk backing) on yesterday’s skunky quiz with a few writerly thoughts on skunks, elephants, and creativity, so please bear with me and enjoy! 

Can you guess what these are?

They’re preliminary sketches for the sleepy little pair skunks and the large pair of frightened elephants that appear in GOODNIGHT, ARK. When Jane Chapman first posted them on Facebook a few months back, I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I was amazed at all the detail and artistic brainstorming that went into developing these delightful animals. They clearly show that she spent at least as much time “playing with pictures”  as I spent “playing with words” in the creation of my story.

Jane’s sketches are a wonderful reminder that there is joy in the process of creating and that creating takes time.  Don’t rush the process by just sketching one skunk or elephant.  Sketch a a full page of them!  Likewise, don’t rush to finalize your word choice or your plot twists. Keep on playing with those words and let the creative process work its magic. Fill an entire notebook if you need to. That’s what I did!

As a fun aside, and in conclusion of today’s skunk-themed thoughts, if you have a copy of GOODNIGHT, ARK, you might enjoy examining these sketches and then perusing the pages of the story to see which sketches made the final cut.  The students I share the sketches with LOVE doing this and I have to agree, it’s fun!

Enjoy!

The POWER of LISTS: Getting Your Creative Juices Flowing

IMG_0336I am a list maker and have been all my life. As a child I wrote lists of what I wanted for Christmas and birthdays. I also kept lists of the books I read. I was a proud member member of the “Newbery Award Club” – group of kids dedicated to reading every Newbery to date.

My mother was a list maker too. And so was her mother. I know this because my mother insisted that I make packing lists before traveling and showed me how to do it. And my grandmother kept lists on index cards documenting every single dinner party she ever hosted, who came, what time they arrived, and what she served. I have those index cards and I’ve actually been contemplating resurrecting one of her dinner menus just for fun.

But I digress. Back to lists. Now that I’m in my mid-forties, and somewhat forgetful at times, I keep daily lists to help me remember the things I need to do. I have a list of all the places I have lived. For awhile, I kept a list of every new word I learned.  And I still keep lists of the books I have read and the books I want to read. This post actually is becoming a list of all the kinds of lists I like to make.

The point is – I couldn’t survive without lists. Neither could my writing. Flip through any journal of mine and you will see lists. Lists of potential story ideas. Lists of potential character names. Lists of favorite memories. Lists of craft ideas and poem ideas. You name it, I’ve listed it. Indeed, lists have become one of  my go-to strategies for combatting writer’s block. But even after I have an idea and the creative juices are flowing, lists play a crucial role in developing that idea. As I wrote GOODNIGHT, ARK,  for instance, I paused many times to make lists. I wrote lists of fun rhyming pairs and vivid animal sounds. I made lists of cozy bedtime words and fiercesome storm words. And, as I point out to students at school visits, those lists helped immensely! Indeed, many of the words and ideas generated in those lists appear in the final version.

Are you a list maker too? If not, why not give list-making a try this week as a way to get those creative juices flowing! Have fun!