Saturday, May 28, 2011

Meeting Sampler

Our group meets once a month to review one another's manuscripts, point out what is working and offer suggestions for improvement. It's also a time when we catch up with news, share market knowledge, and encourage each other. Here are some topics that came up during our recent May meeting.

QR Codes: These little babies look like patchwork quilts the size of a postage stamp. They are incredible! Hazel showed us the one she made for her website. What a great marketing tool! We oohed and aahed as she demonstrated how it worked. We admit to being easily amused, but still . . . it was very cool.

Settings: Think about giving your story a specific setting (a certain park) as opposed to a general setting (any park). A specific setting lends richness and depth that general settings don’t. While a general setting might have universal appeal, specific settings can ground your story in authenticity. People are usually interested in specific places, even if—or maybe because—it’s somewhere they haven’t been.

Beginnings: Finding the best entry point for your story is TOUGH! Sometimes you have to write a whole bunch of scenes before the best opening becomes evident, and that is perfectly normal in the whole process. The opening scene should reflect the kind of story you’ll be telling the reader. If there are fantasy elements in the book, there should be something up front that makes it clear that magic is part of (or possible in) this world.

The Art of Exaggeration: If you’re writing a fictional story based on something that actually happened, sometimes you have to take that event and exaggerate it. Make the emotions stronger and the tension higher. Build things up in a crescendo that leads to the resolution. Sometimes we are wedded to the actual event, but we have to let go and really take it over the top!

What's the latest buzz with your writing buddies? Do tell.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Bits and Bytes

Not-So-Catchy Titles

Harry Potter and the Order of Takeout
Are You There Todd? It's Me, Margaret
Anne of Unpainted Gables
A Series of Unfortunate Outfits
Horton Didn't Hear Much of Anything

See more less interesting books at Publishers Weekly's Twitter Watch.

Lana's less interesting books:

Full-Stomach Games
Where the Mild Things Are
The Briefcase of Ordinary Yoda
Okay Forever

Leave a comment with your less interesting title!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Business of Writing

Do I Need An Agent?

By Lana Krumwiede

Questions about literary agents come up in exactly 100% of the writing conferences I attend. To get the definitive answer, let's consult the modern marvel of decision making, the magic eight ball. The answer is: Yes. But quite possibly no. And  furthermore, it depends.

Let’s start with the yes answer. You need an agent because so many publishers are not open to submissions from unpublished, unknown,  untested writers. Even in the case where the editor does take unsolicited submissions, Mt. Slushpile is a pretty tough climb. When you have an agent, he or she handles all the submissions and therefore your manuscript automatically gets higher priority. That’s just the way things work. Additionally, most agents help you hone your manuscript, which gives your writing  an extra coat of professional polish. In this ultra-competitive market, you will need all the professional polish you can get. Believe me.

Now on to the no answer. Agent or no agent, a writer with the aim of becoming published must present a captivating manuscript, couple it with a cover letter, carefully research the person to send it to, and hope for the best. Agents can be as equally hard to attract as editors, so why not skip that extra step and go directly to the editor? That just might work for you. There are ways for unagented writers to gain access to editors; namely, attending conferences and workshops. Plenty of writers break in this way and that makes it a viable option.

And lastly, we have the ever-popular “it depends” answer.  It depends on the genre you write in. It’s hard to find an agent that is interested in representing picture book texts. Nonfiction writers often deal more directly with editors when it comes to proposals and idea development.  Your decision about seeking an agent should also take into account your goals as a writer and on how you want to handle your career. If you don’t have an agent, you have to be your own agent. You have to learn everything there is to know about contracts, publishers, the children’s book market, etc. Agented authors need to know the business end of things too, but a good agent can be a mentor and a guide through the complex landscape of publishing.

A strong work of caution: NEVER pay an agent any kind of up-front fee. Good, reputable agents earn their money from selling a manuscript. The shady kind of agent earns money from pulling a fast one on an inexperienced writer.  That’s where the research comes in. Check reputations of publishers and agents at websites like Preditors & Editors and Query Tracker.

When you’re starting out, the best thing to do is focus on your writing. Find a critique group, join professional writing organizations like SCBWI, go to conferences, and read, read, read! Work hard to become the best writer you can and in the process, crank out some incredibly awesome stories. When it comes down to it, that’s the only way to catch the eye of either an agent or an editor. And until you have a great manuscript, you don't need either one.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Illuminations from the Illustrator

Go to the Movies!

By Hazel Buys

Illustration is a visual experience. This may seem painfully obvious; but illustration is that, and also, much more. A successful illustrator is a successful movie-maker, but in reverse.

Huh? When I approach an illustration assignment for a book, I begin with the first of many read-throughs. But I am not just reading, I am seeing. I let the words on the page build an outline and I release my imagination to fill in the colors and details. The outline moves and flows in my mind’s eye, from the beginning to the end of the story. This is an iterative process, building the essentials over many readings. As I repeat this process, reading and “seeing” the movie I am creating, I begin to make sketches on a story board. The outline that was moving and flowing becomes fixed as individual frames take shape, “stills” resolving backwards from my moving images. I fill in, erase, add new images and make changes until the illustrations speak for the story without repeating it, add to the story without changing its essence and/or expand on the story without taking it beyond what I think the author intended.

Then I put down the text and repeat the process, but this time I am “seeing” the story only, without the written words. By now I know the story so well that I can determine which images are fitting in harmoniously and which ones are not. This is also the time for embellishing, adding visual bells and whistles, because, by now, I am able to determine when extra touches are appropriate and will add to the story, and when they will be a distraction.

When the drawings are finished, more work remains: adding shading and color as required by the style and complexity of the final images. But if I imagined my moving pictures well, the book’s illustrations will carry the life and animation I visualized onto the still pages of the book.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Light Bulb Lab

Prepare yourself for poetry with backbone! Book spine poetry, that is. No, I didn’t invent it. I’m not sure who did, but I was first introduced to book spine poetry by Travis Jonker at 100 Scope Notes.

It’s simple. Just stack up some books with the spines facing out. Each title is a line in the poem. Now take a picture and . . .

          Here's another one:

Once I got started, I couldn't stop!

My daughter and I had a great time making book spine poems from our home library. This would be a super fun public library activity, too.

This is such a blast; you have to try it. Send us your book spine poetry!

P.S. One of these books is written by a Richmond author. Do you know which one?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Story Sense: Writing from the Back Door

by Pat Tabb
In a rush of excitement, I recently began building a story about three characters thrown together through adverse circumstances.  After a number of chapters, I found a flaw. One of them, a girl we’ll call Allie, was the main protagonist and it was her story that was supposed to drive the rest of the narrative.  Problem was, she had a lot of competition from her “peers.”  I needed to establish her at the front door of the book so as to make that clear and to keep the other two strong characters “in their places.” There was no way past it—I had to take a few steps back and write that infernal prologue, where she would make her grand entry.
I wrote the prologue—well, the first prologue.  Then I wrote another.  When I started constructing a third (each telling a different angle of the story), I threw up my hands.  I had written enough of the story to know what it was about, but not enough to know exactly where I was headed; thus, the introduction kept folding on me. 
That’s when I decided to walk around to the back door of my story’s structure.  After asking questions about where I thought Allie (and the other characters) would land at the story’s end, I honored the pictures that came to mind.  Immediately, I took this scene to paper.  It was easier than I had thought.  I had written enough to know my characters fairly well and could project the ending. 
The back door was a great way to explore my story’s introduction.  The prologue that “fit” was much more apparent.   I could make good decisions about what and how much I wanted to reveal about Allie upfront.    
The next chapters took better shape as well.  Now that I am in full swing, halfway through the writing, I am more focused and more productive as I see each chapter a step toward the final scene.  (Although I must admit that the ending still gets a good tweaking now and then.) 
It’s a thought worth considering:  Is there a final scene in mind for your current story? If so, how will it serve the development of the narrative from page one and on?

Bits and Bytes

Congratulations to J. Patrick Lewis on being named the new Children's Poet Laureate. Read about Mr. Lewis' life and work at Publishers Weekly.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Writers' Round Table

We are a group of children’s writers brought together by our passion for books. All writers have at least one thing in common: they began as readers. Today, each of us is digging down --way down--to our earliest reading memory.

Brian: The first book I remember reading is Frog and Toad are Friends. I reached a word I wasn’t familiar with and asked my mom for help. She told me to sound it out. To my amazement, I was able to sound out the word – jump! That was the moment I realized that I could read by myself and set sail on my own adventures whenever I opened the cover of a book!

Lana: The first book I remember reading all by myself was called The Mouse Book. The photographs drew me in-- a real mouse looking for a house. Like all great early readers, this book had a predictable pattern that repeated. “Is this a good house? No, it’s too cold. Is this a good house? No, it’s too hot.” I was so proud to be able to read the words without any help! Many years later, adult me was looking through a stack of books that the library was getting rid of and guess what I found! My beloved mouse book. What a treasure!

Hazel: My earliest memory about reading is more about looking than reading. This possibly hinted at my life-long interest in art and image-making. The book in question was an English language translation of Japanese folk tales, illustrated with wood-cut prints. The colors were muted by today’s standards. But the expressiveness of the lines imbued the characters with personality and the images flowed beautifully alongside the text. The understanding that illustrations could blend, enhance and expand on the stories I listened to, and then learned to read by myself, opened a doorway for me. I realized that I could “graduate” to books that were all text and still supply a rich visual adventure by using my imagination. I have loved “seeing” stories as well as reading them, ever since.

Pat: Two books fed my appetite for words during my earliest years.  One, a fat tome of fairy tales, was the first book I read, sort of.  I devoured pictures of princesses, elves, woodland creatures, and the heroes who saved them from the nasty ogres with their fat lips and snarling teeth.  As Mom read to us, the pictures and words interwoven on the same pages lured me into the possibility of reading on my own.  This need to read was further encouraged by The World Book (well, that series of books).  We three kids traced with our fingers pictures and words of animals, costumes, and other fascinating subjects.   Again, words and pictures together lured us into the world of reading. 
Care to share? We’d love to hear about your earliest reading experience. Leave a comment and tell us about it!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Funniest Thing About...

By Brian Rock

The funniest thing about book store readings is that they're so unpredictable. At one reading I had forty kids show up at a store where they usually get less than ten per reading. The community relations rep was so busy running around looking for extra seating that she forgot to introduce me! At another store I only had three children show up because no one at the store put up any in-store promotion in advance of the reading. So always remember to help promote your own readings!

But the most unpredictable (and therefore funniest) thing about readings is the children in the audience. At my very first reading, I was so excited to share my magnum opus (my poetry collection, Don't Play With Your Food!) with the world. I had just finished reading my first poem, TV Dinner. To my delight, most of the audience was laughing in response to the poem. But before I could soak in the joy of that moment, one little four-year-old in the front row blurted out, "That's not funny!"

Of course the adults in attendance roared with laughter. I had just been upstaged! Like a comedian dealing with a heckler, I had to think quickly. So gesturing to the little boy, I said, "My first critic. I feel so validated!" The adults laughed again, my front row critic was confused and quieted, and the rest of the reading went on without a hitch. So remember when you plan your readings, expect the unexpected (and prepare to be humbled!)