CROCUSES in FEBRUARY:  Thoughts on Rushing the Writing Process

Look at all these crocuses I spotted in my neighborhood this week. I mean, really, it’s only February, way too soon to be blooming!  Every time I walk past them, I think, what’s the rush?  I mean, they’re dazzling, but still… as a writer I don’t ever want to be tempted to force one of my stories to bloom too soon.

Early on, though, I have to admit I was like a crocus in February, only my stories weren’t dazzling. Far from it. The first few stories and poems I sent to publishers way back when were sent far too prematurely! They were stilted, clumsy and rough.

I should never have forced them to bloom.

It took me a couple of years to really take to heart the truth that good writing takes time – lots of time.  But now that I’m a seasoned writer, I can see that my best pieces are the ones I’ve let sit and then revisited over several nicely spaced intervals.  These intervals can be as short as a week or as long as a year. But, for me, taking time between revisions is a great filter for weeding out unnecessary words, seeing plot flaws and inventing even better twists and turns. The challenge? I’m impatient by nature. But, even though it’s hard, I’ve learned that taking time to let pieces sit between revisions is well worth it.

So back to those February crocuses. They’re pretty, yes, but something about them doesn’t feel quite right. Each time I see them- and they are everywhere this week – I feel the need to remind myself (and maybe you need reminding too) that writing is not a race to get published. Rather it’s a beautiful journey to be savored and enjoyed. So, enjoy the process and remember, you don’t have to be like a crocus in February.  In fact, it’s far better, in my opinion, to let your story bloom when, and only when, it is ready.

GOODNIGHT, ARK: Original Spread (And a Writerly Pep Talk)

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I love my porch. It’s a wonderful spot for reading, people watching, and playing board games with my kids. It’s also a great landing spot for special packages, like this sturdy parcel which landed here on Friday!

I knew this was my long anticipated birthday/Christmas gift and I couldn’t wait to unwrap it!

First, there was the bubble wrap. Next, I could  could just see the top edge in a tidy plastic encased swirl.

Finally, first through plastic…img_3782

and then – oh my – in my hand!  

img_3783-1It’s the original hand-painted spread for the “Time for bed/It’s getting dark” spread in GOODNIGHT, ARK!  I just love the details in the original – actually being able to see the layering of paint and those tiger whiskers, Jane, are just amazing!  

Thank you, Dad, for this lovely gift, and thank you, Jane for being will to part with one of these treasures!  

img_3786After oohing and aahing with my family, I took the illustration straight to my favorite local framing shop.  And Stefanie and I (Thank you, Stefanie!) spent almost two hours playing with mattes and frames and lay out options.

Now, here’s my writerly pep talk – which I very much needed on Friday, by the way. I had optimistically put $.50 in the parking meter, thinking that an hour would be ample time to select the perfect matte, frame and layout for Jane’s piece.

But after an hour, we still hadn’t found a winning combination. To be honest, I was ready to be finished, but Stephanie handed me $.50 to replenish the meter and so, even though it was raining, I dashed out to buy another hour’s time.

When I returned to the shop, waterlogged, Stephanie said something so simple, yet so wise.  Here are her words:  “Oh, good, we’ve got more time because I think you and I both know it’s not quite working yet.”  I smiled at her honesty.  And somehow, with that truth now out there in the open, it was easier to return to the quest. Indeed, shortly thereafter, tucked low on one of her revolving racks, I found a simple wooden frame that really said “Noah’s Ark” to me. Once we had that, it was suddenly clear as daylight which matte we should use.  What it took was admission that we weren’t quite there yet and renewed intent and joy in the search.  

It’s like that as writers too.  We work and work on a story, at points even hoping that it’s finished and ready to submit.  But, sometimes, it just isn’t and what that story really needs is an honest voice – maybe your own, or maybe that of your critique partner or agent – to say “Keep at it, it’s not quite working yet”.  

Then, even if your spirit feels rained on, go add money to the meter!  Keep at it. Don’t give up! Persevere!  You will make that story sing. It may just take looking at it from a new perspective, digging deep and finding a new ending twist -or bit of arc- tucked low in the recesses of your brain, waiting to be discovered. 

Happy writing this rainy  week and don’t be afraid to add extra money to that meter!

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!

PUMPKIN TIME: Thoughts on Carving Stories

IMG_1284There’s a sudden new nip in the air and it finally feels like fall is here.  With that in mind, I couldn’t resist re-posting this pumpkin-themed post from 2014.  Enjoy!

The way I see it, the stories we write are like pumpkins. The good ones are well-rounded with firm plots. They also possess a certain quirkiness, or one-of-a-kind feel, just like those jack-o-lanterns we enjoy at this time of year.

But here’s the thing. Even if you think your current pumpkin-in-progress is the best pumpkin you’ve ever written, most likely it could still use a good scooping out. Sure, extracting the extraneous goopy bits from your story will be messy, perhaps even disheartening. You may say to yourself, I’m taking out all the best parts. You may may even worry that there’s nothing left!

But, getting rid of the goop will help you hone the structural essence of your story. All those gloppy first-draft ramblings will have been scooped away. Then, to make your story glow, you will need to carve your pumpkin’s soul (i.e. face) with purpose and heart. Add jagged teeth (conflict) and a penetrating gaze (character). Maybe even carve in some goofy eyebrows (humor). Don’t rush. Savor the process. And when you are ready, light a candle and see if your story, er pumpin, glows! If it does, rejoice! If not, double check to make sure you haven’t overlooked any hidden goop. Then keep carving as necessary.

But don’t toss that goop out too quickly! For tangled in those slimy strings, you will find something precious – seeds. For various reasons, these discarded seeds didn’t fit your current pumpkin’s plot. But if saved and explored later, a special few of them may germinate into new and completely different, but wonderfully creative pieces.

Happy Pumpkin Carving all! And don’t forget to save the seeds.

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

 

FINDING A CRITIQUE GROUP: Four Tips for New Writers

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My wonderful in-person critique group celebrating the release of my first picture book with me!

After singing the praises of critique groups, I think it’s only fair now to offer a few tips on how to find a good critique group. After all, finding a critique group can be daunting, especially for a new writer who has been spending most of her/his time writing in isolation. At least, that was my experience as a new writer.

Here then are four tips, I’ve found helpful:

  1. Look inward.  First, decide what you want out of a critique group. Do you want an in-person group or an on-line group? Do you want a genre-specific group (i.e. picture books or poetry, YA or MG etc) or would you like a mix of genres? How much time are you willing to spend per week/month writing critiques? How often do you want to be responsible for submitting work? How big or small do you want the group to be?
  1. Network, network, network.  Once you have a sense of what you want from a critique group, you can use your social networks (on-line and in person) to see if anyone you know is part of a group. If so, is that group open to new members?  Another good strategy is to be pro-active at conferences to see if anyone is in a group that is interested in new members.  The SCBWI blue boards also have a thread devoted to critique groups seeking new members so that’s another possible venue to tap.  Finally, check your local library and book stores to see if they have groups that meet there.
  1. Do a little research.  Once you’ve discovered some potential groups, do a little research. Do the groups have both new and seasoned writers?  Have any members of the group be process? (In my experience, most of the better groups do.)
  1. Give it a try.  Once you have done all of the above, it might be time to take the leap and give it a try! If you feel it is the right step for you, apply to the group that sounds best for you.

Thanks for checking out these tips! I hope you will find, as I have, that being part of a critique group makes all the difference in your growth as a writer.  Happy writing, all!

TOP TIP FOR ASPIRING WRITERS? Join a Critique Group

img_4320Last week fellow Zonderkidz author Glenys Nellist wrote an inspiring post about her top tip for aspiring authors:  attend a writing conference. I love her tip and I wholeheartedly agree that attending conferences is important. It’s a great chance to interface with editors and agents, for example, and to network with other authors. It even led to her first book offer! (Yes, you really should read her post.)

But what would my top tip be?  Hmmm… there are so many possiblities.  Writing daily, reading voraciously. Attending conferences. Yes. But I guess if I had to pick one top tip for aspiring writers, it would be to join a critique group.

Often when I chat with newer writers, I discover they’ve been writing in isolation. And very often the manuscripts they share would benefit from several more rounds of revision. As a new writer, I, too, was guilty of writing in quiet isolation, never sharing my work in progress with anyone (except maybe my husband or mother) and consequently sending pieces to publishers far too prematurely.

It wasn’t until I started sharing my work with a handful of trusted critique partners that my writing really improved. Joining a critique group also got me connected with other writers eager to learn and grow and succeed.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that being part of various critique groups over the years has made all the difference in my love for this writerly journey.

Here then, with gratitude to my awesome, trusted critique buddies, are FOUR wonderful perks I’ve enjoyed by participating in critique groups.

1. COMMUNITY SUPPORT:  Writing can be lonely and the intricacies of the publishing world are certainly confusing. What a blessing it has been to be part of various critique groups that have included both new and seasoned authors, all eager to support and encourage each other, providing advice and insights along the way.

2. FRIENDLY ACCOUNTABILITY:  Most critique groups have rules for submitting and sharing work. Members are expected to abide by those rules and are kept accountable by the other members in the group. My current online group, for example, has seven members and we each take turns submitting one manuscript per week. My in-person group meets monthly and we all bring something to share. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been tempted to set a story aside because I’m stuck over some sticky wicket, but instead I’ve pressed on.  Why?  Because my critique group was counting on me (and cheering me on) to produce a presentable draft.

3. FRESH EYES AND FRESH PERSPECTIVE: I am grateful for the honest, thoughtful feedback I’ve received from my critique partners. Indeed, there’s nothing like fresh eyes on your story to give you much needed perspective.  I must confess, however, that I have grown as a writer, just as much, if not more, from giving feedback to others. Sometimes it’s easier to see what is and isn’t working in someone else’s writing. And if you can articulate that for your critique partner, you not only help them, but you can most likely apply that feedback , or some variation of it, to your own writing.

4. DEEPER UNDERSTANDING OF YOUR GENRE:  Finally, participating in a critique group offers members a chance to gain a deeper understanding of their genre. This happens quite naturally as you read and respond to each others’ work.  For example, when critiquing each others’s work, members in my groups will often suggest helpful titles to read, perhaps pieces that follow a similar structure, or that have a similar theme.  Through this process of feedback and discussion and reading suggestions, our understanding deepens and our skill improves.

Now it’s your turn. What critique group perks have I missed?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Happy reading, writing, and critiquing all!

P.S. Stay tuned for a follow-up post on how to find a critique group.

 

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.

QUAIL EGGS: Making IDEAS EXTRAORDINARY!

I’m taking a blog break this week to spend time with my family, but I thought you might enjoy this writerly post from 2012.  We still love quail eggs at our house!  Enjoy!

A Korean-American friend invited me to shop at a Korean supermarket. The store was brimming with the most beautiful produce and authentic Asian foods I have ever seen. I filled my cart with Korean BBQ sauce, dumplings, seaweed, barley tea, bok choy, Japanese eggplant, oyster mushrooms and more. But the best find of all was the carton of tiny speckled quail eggs I discovered by the tofu.

“How do you eat these?” I asked my friend. “Hard-boiled,” she answered. “Then pop them in your mouth.”

The excitement at our house over these miniature eggs was astounding. My kids couldn’t wait to try them and insisted that I boil them immediately. Then, even though it was almost dinner time, we peeled them and, lo and behold, the inside of the shell was aqua colored. When we popped them in our mouths, they tasted exactly like chicken eggs. The magic was in their tiny size and their magical shell.

“Can we share them?” my daughter asked. Then, nestling them in her hands, she shared the magic of the quail eggs with the neighbor kids. They were a big hit!

Ideas are kind of like eggs. Sometimes it seems they’re a dime a dozen. The trick is finding one that stands out from the rest. After all, no one wants to read yet another story about an ordinary egg. YOUR egg needs to be extraordinary. Add speckles and a magical lining. Scramble it. Fry it. Poach it. Do whatever it takes to make it stand out from the rest.

Quail eggs are destined to become a frequent snack in our house. Not only are they rich in protein and pretty, but they’re a tasty reminder that I don’t want to settle for plain old chicken egg ideas. Instead, I want to savor the exhilarating process of transforming ordinary ideas into extraordinary eggs. Happy writing!

FINDING YOUR INNER POET

IMG_2762I grew up in a family of readers. Indeed, some of my earliest memories include sitting in my mother’s lap while she read to me from A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young. I loved the rhythmic rhyming sound of Milne’s poems and memorized several, quite by accident, because I asked my mother to read them to me so often. I’ve carried the rhyming beat of those poems with me ever since.

As soon as could hold a pencil and spell (sort of), I started writing poetry on my own. How do I know this? I know because my parents sent me a box full of papers and notebooks from my childhood including limericks, riddles, and silly rhyming snippets – all proof that I’ve loved playing with language for a very long time.

IMG_2766As an adult, I have continued to foster that love by educating myself on the intricacies of meter and rhyme, by reading the best children’s poetry out there, and by honing my own skills by writing, writing, writing!

Poetry, especially rhyming poetry, is harder than it might first appear because it’s not just about good rhyme.  It’s also about rhythm and keeping a consistent rhythm throughout a piece.

Do you have an inner poet somewhere deep inside, too?  Here are tips to help  you find him/her:

1. Write from the heart.  Have an idea for a poem? At this early point, don’t worry about perfecting the rhyme or meter. Simply enjoy the process of writing and see where your pen and imagination take you. Dabble with rhyme and meter, if you feel so inclined, but it’s better to have fresh ideas than tight, strained stanzas. Once you have written from the heart, then you can go back and creatively work on meter and rhyme.

2. Read, read, read! It will help your inner poet grow if you read poetry. There are many great children’s poets out there. You might enjoy exploring poet Renee LaTulippe’s Big List of Children’s Poets. Her website, No Water River, also includes children’s poets reading their works. This is a great way to hear poems read and to appreciate how seemingly efffortless the final version should sound. I also make a habit of checking out poetry anthologies and collections from the children’s poetry section of my library.  I do the same with rhyming picture books. As I read them, I analyse what makes them work and take notes for future reference.  

3. Pick a poem to model. This is a great exercise for broadening your poetic skills.  I love doing this when I have writer’s block or am between projects. First, I pick a poem that I like.  Maybe I’ll pick a limerick one week and something with couplets the next. Once I’ve picked my poem, I dissect it – examining each line, as well as the whole – to see how the poet put it together. I also make guesses as to why the author chose certain wording, or a certain theme.  Then I pick a topic and/or theme that is completely different and write my own poem using the form I’ve just studied.  I’ve learned A LOT this way!  Plus, it’s just plain fun and your inner poet will love it.

IMG_27634. Invest in several poet-friendly resources. Of course in this day and age, we poets have lots of free poetry- aiding resources at our finger tips. These include on-line rhyming dictionaries such as the one found at RhymeZone. This nifty resource includes not only rhyming options but can also serve as a thesaurus. Most computer dictionaries also have a thesaurus function. However, in my experience, nothing is quite as good as two old-fashioned resources that will forever be my bffs when it comes to writing poetry.  The first is Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases. I have still have the 1982 edition I got when I was in junior high!  The second, I bought for my inner poet on my birthday in 2008.  It’s called The Complete Rhyming Dictionary, Revised. Edited by Clement Wood and revised by Ronald Bogus, it includes not just an exhaustive rhyming dictionary, but The Poet’s Craft Book  as well.

5. Finally, remember to HAVE FUN! There is joy in playing with words and it’s a real treat to carve out time to write. So, my last tip is to enjoy the process. I do! Happy writing, all!