Monday, June 28, 2010

Fiction vs. Nonfiction

I subscribe to the Institute of Children's Literature e-newsletter.  I'm also a graduate.  Jan Fields is a writer, an instructor at ICL, the moderator for their newsletter, and has been a writing instructor at a community college in North Carolina (my home, too).  She wrote a great little essay/article in the e-news dated June 24, 2010, titled "Why Nonfiction Doesn't Need to Be Jolly."  My being a writer of both fiction and nonfiction picture books, I found the information interesting and helpful.  Thought I might share it with you.  And I quote...

I suspect a lot of writers connect the word "nonfiction" with horror filled 
memories of slogging through dull textbooks and trying to memorize all the war dates through history. Or trying to memorize the states and capitals. Or trying to memorize scientific terms for the test. In other words, we remember mostly painful associations with nonfiction as a child. So we assume kids won't want to read our article unless we jolly them into it.
So many beginning writers will do one of the following...
1. Address the reader directly, a lot, in kind of a jolly voice...asking questions about the readers life to try to draw comparisons with the article subject.
2. Mix fiction into the nonfiction much like you'd mix tasty syrup into icky medicine to force it past a cranky child's lips. Since we assume fiction is tasty and nonfiction is icky -- we're sure we need some fiction to make the nonfiction fun.
And yet, those are two things editors hate to see and will reject you over. Why? 
Editors know something many writers have forgotten. Kids actually like nonfiction a lot. Many young children will choose a nonfiction book over a fiction book. Many fluent readers become obsessed with specific topics and will read every scrap of nonfiction on the subject. Many children go to an obsessive collecting period --  and find themselves collecting quirky facts right along with their Pez dispensers and game cards.
Kids know that the world is an endlessly interesting place and they want to know more about it. They aren't interested in reading about sharks in an article that constantly asks them how they would feel personally about swimming constantly or gulping hunks of meat at dinner. They know those questions are taking up space that could be filled with unexpected, exciting information about sharks. And it's the sharks that made the child pick up the book or flip to the article. The kids are after the facts, not the frivolity.
Editors know kids don't want a lot of filler cluttering up their article. They don't need to be told about sharks by Tubby the Tuna. They don't need to be spoken to in a whizbang golly gee voice. They just want the goods -- the facts, the true story, the new research, the information they don't yet know on the subject.
And kids know a lot. If a boy is interested in sharks, his shark knowledge can rival the folks at Sea World because he reads everything he can find about sharks. So if your shark article just goes over the same stuff the boy can read in an encyclopedia or his school science book, he's going to be disappointed. He wants you to tell him the thing he doesn't know. More than that, he wants you to tell him the thing is other shark-loving buddies don't know either.
That's why books like Dinosaur Mummies grabs reader excitement -- if dinosaurs are cool. And mummies are amazing. Imagine the excitement over Dinosaur Mummies. No hype needed, just the topic blew the reader away. If you remember history as a blur of dull dates and facts, you haven't read a lot of kid magazine history lately. That's where you'll find out about the president who let a foreign dignitary bring an alligator to the White House. That's where you can learn about 
the president who chased a goat down Pennsylvania Avenue. Or about the president who brought a Wind in the Willows-type love for motorcars to the White House -- and the problems he faced as a result (Mr. Toad would have totally understood.)
Kids want the true untold totally cool stories from history. They want the little known facts and cutting edge research from science. They want clear looks into specific moments and event in other cultures. They want nonfiction that is focused and fresh. No jolly needed.
So if you're still thinking of nonfiction as dull and dry -- get thee to a library! Kid nonfiction today is amazing! Let what you find help get you excited about nonfiction all over again because I promise your readers are already excited.

Thanks, Jan for that great article!  Happy writing and keep on keepin' on!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Plot Poem

I happened upon a cool blog, Plot Whisperer for Writers and Readers. This is a "poem" that one writer penned to define plot.

Plot is a series of
deliberately arranged by
cause and effect
to create
dramatic action
 filled with
conflict, tension, suspense, and/or curiosity
 to further the
character’s emotional development
and provide
thematic significance.

Each italicized line is expanded in the original post.  How does this work for a picture book?  Picture books have a perfect marriage with the word scenes.  Each page MUST have a scene, a different scene.  The cause and effect action must happen quickly.  The dramatic action that is filled with conflict, tension, and suspense helps create page turns just like an adult novel, but there is typically only one or two main turning points.  The character also must always get what he or she wants.  Themes in picture books are not usually deep issues, but simple things important to children, such as friendship, family, bullies, summer, babies, moving, animals, toys, robots, cars, dinosaurs, princesses, dragons, lost teeth, adventures, make believe, and the list goes on and on.  A major theme of picture books is that of HUMOR.  If you do it well, you can definitely find a place among the bookshelves.

Challenge for the day:  Read a picture book, and break down the plot.  See if you can mimic it in a story of your own.

Friday, June 25, 2010

A Day Late and a Dollar Short

I know of a writer that had an awesome idea for a great picture book. She had a daughter whose hair was always tangled and wanted to write a book about the tangle fairy. She put if off and years later, lo and behold, there her book was on the bookstore shelves - written by someone else!

We all know that you can't copywrite an idea, but if you fail to follow through with them, someone else may well steal it from the Muse. And you'll come up a day late and a dollar short.

I think most writers do not willingly share their ideas with others for fear that someone will steal them. But sometimes when we get an idea that is so exciting, we want to tell people about it. I get enthusiastic and energized about the idea and have to share it with SOMEONE, even if that someone is my two children. And sometimes, they get excited about it too and give me more ideas about what should be included in the book.

I have several ideas that I'm working on right now. And a list of more to work on as I finish the current ones.

Today's challenge: Make a list of five of your favorite book ideas and decide which one (or two) that you will work on now. Follow through to the end. Write the story, and the query, and make your dreams of sharing the book with the world a reality.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Writers Love Words, And So Does Max

This week's Gemstone:  Max's Words

  • by Kate Banks, illustrated by Boris Kulikov
  • published by Frances Foster Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • 2006
  • 698 words (took me about 40 minutes to copy by hand)
  • Summary: When Max cuts out words from magazines and newspapers, collecting them the way his brothers collect stamps and coins, they all learn about words, sentences, and storytelling.
Sparkle Element:  As with all good books, I like this one on several levels.  I like it because as a child, I collected both stamps and coins.  Oh, and words too.  Now, I only collect words (and 4-leaf clovers).  I like how Max has all the power in the story, even though he doesn't know it at first.  He works hard to find a way to get what he wants.  

The fact that storytelling has been done and continues to be done as a group effort resonated with me.  It's a great way to brainstorm ideas and to make the mind work.  It's a good writing exercise.  For plot, character, suspense, action, and even setting.  In fact, I have something up my sleeve for the future.  Stay tuned to find out soon.

A list of picture books about writing and words:
  • Max's Words by Kate Banks
  • The Plot Chickens by Mary Jane Auch
  • Patches Lost and Found by Steven Kroll
  • The Boy Who Loved Words by Roni Schotter
  • A Weave of Words by Robert D. San Souci
  • Words Are Like Faces by Edith Baer
  • Frederick by Leo Lionni
  • Jeffrey and Sloth by Kari-Lynn Winters
  • The Desperate Dog Writes Again by Eileen Christelow
  • You Can Write a Story! by Lisa Ballard
  • The Best Story by Eileen Spinelli
  • Snow Day by Moira Fain
  • Library Mouse by Daniel Kirk 
This list is by no means comprehensive.  I even own three of them.  Do any of you know more fictional picture books that are about writing and/or the love of words?  Enjoy!  And keep on keepin' on... 

Monday, June 21, 2010

Bootcamp Wisdom SKILL #7


It's been a while since I last posted a bootcamp tidbit, so here's number seven, according to Linda and Laura.

First Person - "I" or "We"  (Narrator may not be trustworthy.)
Second Person - "You"  (Ex. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie)  Seldom used.  Not a common convention.
Third Person - "He" or "She" or "They"  MOST often used.

  • 3rd person Limited - told from one character's point of view.  We know only the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of the main character.
  • 3rd person Unlimited/Omniscient - told from multiple characters' viewpoints.  Knows inner life of all.
The most important thing I learned here is that MOST picture books are told in 3rd person Limited.

And that First Person is USUALLY told when the character has lots of BIG problems, or if you need to or want to identify most strongly with the main character, especially emotionally.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Reporter, Kit Kittredge

This past Tuesday, I watched a movie with my children at the free summer movie festival in town.  It was Kit Kittredge: An American Girl.  I loved it!  She was such an inspiring character.  She never gave up on her dream of becoming a reporter.  When times get tough and my spirits are low, I will remember Kit and maybe even rewatch the movie.  It's definitely a keeper.
You can watch the movie trailer here.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

How to Study, Analyze, or Dissect a Picture Book

celebrations,diamonds,engagements,gems,jewelry,jewels,marriages,special occasions,weddingsHow Can We Keep Our Manuscripts Out of the Slushpile?

By studying others that were considered to be gems! So how does one study a picture book? Or analyze or dissect a picture book?

First, identify what makes a picture book work. What makes it a gem? In Make Your Picture Book Sparkle, by Peggy Tibbetts, she goes into detail on how the following elements help to make a great picture book: story, character, humor, imagination, emotion, and word play. She discusses how to write with each of these elements.

10 Ways To Dissect a Picture Book
  1. Read, read, read. That should be obvious, but it's SOO important! We can't analyze anything if we never read picture books.
  2. Write, write, write. Write them all down, that is. The following sublist includes all what I write down about each book, before the actual analysis takes place.
    1. Title
    2. Author
    3. Illustrator
    4. Publisher
    5. Date
    6. Word Count (Renaissance Learning has a huge database and lists word counts. If they don't have it, you can type the text into Word and it will calculate the word count for you.)
    7. Summary (often found in beginning of book on copyright page)
    8. Sparkle Element: my reaction to the story, how and why I like it, emotions I felt, etc. 
  3. Copy the book, strictly for PRACTICE only! Copying the "masters" (of those we like best, those we admire, those we aspire to be like) will help develop our own voice and the language of picture books.
  4. Copying by hand and typing work on opposite sides of the brain. To get more bang for your buck, especially on your absolute favorites, copy it twice. First, by hand, then type it.
  5. For those that aren't your favorites, just hand copy the first and last pages. This will give extra help for beginnings and endings. Still type the whole book. With beginnings and endings, try to take a closer look at the first and last paragraphs, and the first and last sentences.
  6. Write down your favorite part of the book. What scene is it? Copy the section to train your subconscious muse to pick up on those elements. Then imitate it by replacing each word with your own words, noun for noun, adverb for adverb, and so on. Casey McCormick describes how this works on her blogpost on writing exercises.
  7. After typing the whole text, try this exercise. Find all adverbs and adjectives and replace with a different one, just for fun. Again, Casey McCormick talks about how to do this exercise that she calls "Word Removal" which comes from Noah Lukeman's "The First Five Pages." There are lots of variations. Find nouns and verbs, too. When studying a picture book, maybe make a list of each type and see how many of each are used in each picture book studied. See if you can find a trend.
  8. Lastly, have a plan or a schedule. Here are two different approaches to try, one serious, and one less vigilant.
    • read three picture books a day
    • type one a day
    • study one a week
    • OR...
    • read three a week
    • type one a week
    • and study one a month
  9. [added 8-31-10] With each book that you read, also list what makes it work, how is it held together or organized?  See powers of three post: seasons, journey, circular, alphabet, counting, threes, sevens, months, weeks, etc.
  10. [added 9-14-11] Use my NEW pb chart to study pbs and create your own!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Free Online Children's Writers' Conference

Just learned of an upcoming writers' conference ONLINE, for FREE!  It will be held on August 10-12 (Tues-Thurs).   First one ever!  Will have lots of editors, agents, and authors in attendance.  Should be awesome; check it out.  I know I'll be there.

Monday, June 14, 2010

How to Give a Good Critique (what makes a good critique)

Friday I mentioned I would post today about what makes a good critique.  If you're looking to pay a professional for a critique, check out children's author, Margot Finke, and her advice of what to watch for.

It has been said to also be leery of fellow writers (or anyone else) who wish to dole out free critiques because they are often looking to make their fellow writers feel bad and become discouraged.  Some go out of their way to really trash a manuscript.  I am not one of those writers or critiquers.

I love to write and I love to read good picture books.  I love to give encouragement and help others feel the same level of determination that I enjoy.  I respect writers and the work we do.  When I do critiques for the winner of my monthly contest I hope to offer helpful comments and an honest opinion.

Here's what you can expect:

  • Praise for good writing found in phrases, paragraphs, and sections.
  • Examples of where and how to cut wordy sections.
  • Examples of how to make dialogue more age appropriate.
  • Examples of how to create stronger verbs.
  • Comments on the overall structure of plot. 
  • Suggestions to help clarify the plot in areas of confusion.
  • A summary of my critique detailing the areas that need help and the areas that work well. 
Another good thing to do is to join a critique group, or start your own.  You can become a member of the CBI Clubhouse (Children's Book Insider) and hook up with fellow writers.  I know of several writers that are members of multiple critique groups.  One may be for picture books, and another may be for novels.  The more people you have look at a piece, especially in the early stages, the more eyes and ears you have working for you.  And I'm just one more set of eyes and ears.  One opinion.  Any story you write is YOUR story, and you must stay true to your own vision.

Happy writing!  And happy revising!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Contest is Here!

Check out my Contest Tab above.  This being the first contest, you may enter any time this month.  I will select a winner on August 1.

Side Note:  Monday's post will actually be on critiques instead of the next Bootcamp Wisdom.  Sorry for the delay.


When writing the beginning of your story, we have to think of the reader and what will make them continue to read more.  Some have asked the question, should it be action/plot driven, or character driven? Jennifer R. Hubbard gives her panel-answer from a writer's conference.  She also gives several examples of first lines in some of her favorite novels.

Here are just a few picture book opening lines:

  • Jenny loved to draw pictures. (Patches Lost and Found by Steven Kroll)
  • At haying time the midway comes to town. (A Net of Stars by Jennifer Richard Jacobson)
  • "Grandma, can I walk into town by myself?" I asked, one hot summer's day. (White Socks Only by Evelyn Coleman)
  • Grace was a girl who loved stories. (Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman)
  • Jenny Fox was bored. (Sally Arnold by Cheryl Ryan)
  • ...At the far end of the ocean lies a beach...and at the end of that beach stands a house.  But this is not an ordinary house, for this is not an ordinary beach. (Father Sea by Clayton Creek)
  • This is the story of brave little Pete who lived in a house on Geranium Street... (Brave Little Pete of Geranium Street by Rose and Samuel Lagercrantz, adapted from the Swedish by Jack Prelutsky)
Most of these openings introduce the character.  Some ways to start a book are:
  • with a question
  • dialogue
  • a thought
  • comparison or contrast
  • start with one of the five w's (who, when, where, what, why)
  • an action that is happening
  • an action that is about to happen 
This list is by no means comprehensive, but hopefully it will get you thinking about beginnings.  Sometimes we have to write the whole story and then go back and fix up the beginning, even if it means deleting it all together.  

What is your favorite way to start a picture book?  Do you have a favorite opening line and/or page of a picture book?

Let's Get Froggy

I love animals.  One animal my husband and I like to refer to is frogs.  This picture came from free nature  When  we get motivated to do yard work or house work or any type of goal, be it fitness, exercise, diet, a trip, a big dinner, we say, "Wow!  You got froggy!"

It feels good to get froggy.  Last Saturday, I finally put a story of mine on a powerpoint presentation for some of the classrooms I work in.  The essence of being froggy is the feeling of accomplishment.  Not just goal setting or having determination, but actually working hard at it!  When I work hard at something and jump high, I can see and feel the results of my effort right before my eyes.  I already revised my latest story from one critique.  I was froggy.  What I really need to get froggy on is my nonfiction proposal.  I don't know why I keep procrastinating.  It's an awesome project, so getting froggy about it will feel awesome, too.  I just have to have the determination of a frog that wants to eat a fly for dinner.  My dinner will be to see my book in print, okay, that will be dessert.  Dinner will be when it's accepted for publication and the editor contacts me to say so.  So, let's get FROGGY!!!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

First Time For Pleasure

In Quips and Tips for Successful Writers, I found this nugget of wisdom, which I have read before. But it is true and warrants being repeated. Just substitute picture books in for novels.

5. Re-read novels you wished you’d written. “The first time, read for pleasure,” writes Cinda Williams Chima in 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists. “Enter the dream of fiction and stay there. If the book is stunningly good, read it a second time to found out the how of it. Reading for craft takes the juice out of fiction, but it is a fabulous way to learn how to write well.” This habit of highly effective writers may take the fun out of reading…but it will improve your writing skills immensely.

I am definitely going to read even more picture books, AND reread my favorites! I will become a picture book surgeon in dissecting pages, paragraphs, sentences, and words. So, who dares to take the challenge with me? Any bits of wisdom you guys can share in the comments will help all of us to know what types of things to look out for. Actually, I'll do a little digging and post about it next Wednesday, too.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Bootcamp Wisdom SKILL #6


In college, I learned to create a character log, or a character chart. It's supposed to help with getting to know your character for novels. I never did like it. I guess that's one of many reasons why I never finished my one YA novel (although I do have 6 of 12 chapters finished - which definitely need some serious revision, even still!)

Most of my picture book ideas come from a topic. I don't really do themes, per se. I like to leave that up to the readers (whether child, parent, or editor). Sometimes I'll think of one plot point as the beginning basis of a book. Sometimes it's a character. It just depends on each book idea.

One helpful thing I learned at bootcamp was the relationship between plot and character, especially if you're stuck, even for picture books. By doing a character chart, it can help lead to the plot. In other words, by answering definitive questions about your character (details that will probably never even show up in the text), you get a better understanding of the character and the plot will begin to unfold effortlessly. I'm definitely going to have to use this approach for a few of my books! There's a certain TONE and mood I'd like to have come across, and I'm hoping this will help that as well.

Next topic: Point of View.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Boring Blabbering Blog Post - But At Least I Still Wrote One

Today is the last day of my current job. Testing is over, and with only one week of school left, it's all parties and celebrations, field days and awards, so I'm not really needed for tutoring anymore. I enjoyed the day and my time at this job these last several months (since November), and will miss working, but I also look forward to the summer. I'll go to the library probably 3x a week, go to the "free movies" 2x a week, and occasionally visit family and friends. We'll just stay at home the rest of the time and hang out. I HOPE to get a LITTLE more writing done, but we'll see.

As far as writing goes, the one thing I'm most looking forward to is studying picture books more thoroughly, not just reading them, but actually studying them. I know this is a short post and there's not much to offer in the way of advice, knowledge, or inspiration, but at least I still posted! And it is about my life (Fridays - On Life.) so I am making improvements. Over time, I hope to feel as though I have more to say. Some days we just feel dry, I guess. And when my creative juices are flowing, I get lots more ideas. Come to think of it, I did get another awesome idea for a picture book a couple days ago.

Perhaps I should put my kid-brains in gear and speak the kid-robot-lingo. Writing blogs - activate now! Boring life - disengage now!

One more thing. I got a lot done for my nonfiction series. It's gonna take a LOT of work. I'm still working on the proposal, but it's like there's a lot of prep work to do before I can actually write it. But I DID work on it for about an hour tonight.

See you Monday, and keep on keepin' on!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Glass Bottle Tree by Evelyn Coleman

This book has special meaning for me. The author is the first picture book author I have ever met. I bought this book at a conference in Augusta, Georgia. She signed it for me, of course. I love to read it because it gives me hope. She said that I will no doubt go on to become a great author. But her words sound a lot better.

The book is about a girl who lives with her grandma and they have a glass bottle tree in their yard, a custom often observed in the deep south. The state folk come to try to take the girl away and place her in a state home. I love Coleman's richly lyrical language. And the message of love has given me the nudge to read it many a time over the years. Definitely one of my favorite books!

The best advice I gleaned from the Sandhill Writer's Conference from Evelyn Coleman many years ago was to read, read, read. She studied books and magazines until she could mimic the patterns she most enjoyed reading. A self-taught author (as we all are, really), she succeeded in becoming published, the ultimate dream of every writer. I admire her tenacity for studying the books, which is what I aspire to do.

In fact, I have set a new goal: my aim is to read 150 picture books this summer. Monday - Friday, 3 a day. I'll even post a summary each Wednesday of my favorite book each week.

Thanks for stopping by! Do any of you have a summer reading/writing goal? Like to share?