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Fri 7 Sep 2012
Posted by Pat under Me, Writing
I’ve long had a pet theory.
Picture books and pop songs are pretty similar things.
Sure, the format is different. You process one through your eyes and the other through your ears.
But, they both have the same goal.
To convey a story or emotion using a very limited number of words in a very specific format in a way that is catchy enough that people will want to read or listen to it again and again and again.
They both also suffer from the same misconception.
That good ones are easy to write.
Anyone can scan the shelves of a bookstore or surf their car’s radio settings and then declare, “There’s nothing good out there. I could write something better than this drivel.”
But anyone who’s ever tried putting pen to paper or fingers to guitar strings to actually come up with something that works knows writing something as memorable as Hanson’s “MMMBop” or Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” is way harder than it seems. So is coming up with picture book classics like Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day or Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny.
You have to ask yourself …
What’s going to get into someone’s head and stay there, so that years later, some words or notes will flip a switch and make the whole thing comes flooding back?
I recently saw some comments from the the band Hot Chelle Rae about songwriting that I think really apply to picture book writing too. Hot Chelle Rae is a newer band — and, yes, I do have three of its songs on my iPod – but I admired one of its singles from the first time I heard it.
“Tonight, Tonight” has well-written lyrics (which include a rhyming reference to actor Zach Galifianakis) and a very catchy hook of a refrain. (“La, la, la. Whatever. La, la, la. It doesn’t matter. La, la, la. Oh well …”) Check it out here. You know you want to.
Here’s what lead singer Ryan “RK” Follese, who’s the son of Nashville songwriters Keith and Adrienne Follese, says.
“My dad told me early on that writing hit songs is just like your batting average,” Follese says. “He reminded me that Barry Bonds hits 70 homeruns a year, but he doesn’t hit a homerun every time — it’s maybe one out of ten. So if you want to write hit songs, you’re going to have to write 50 songs for your first record, which is what we did. We threw out loads of songs.”
Every picture book writer I know has the same story. Lots of attempts. Lots of times they thought they might have gotten it right only to find out it still wasn’t there. Lots of setting manuscripts aside or abandoning them altogether as they learned more, got better and became better judges of their own work.
The hard part can be knowing when to throw something away.
But Follese says it’s easy.
All the members of Hot Chelle Rae write, and the band also works with other non-band-member songwriters. As Follese notes, “We have a rule: The best song wins.”
That’s a good rule for picture book writers to follow as well. It’s easy to get caught up in something you have an emotional attachment to, when what you really should be asking yourself is, “Of all my works in progress, which is really the strongest?” And, “What can I write next that will be even better?”
I find that I sometimes listen to pop songs for picture book writing inspiration. Not in subject matter, but in structure. How did they handle that rhyme scheme? What makes that refrain so memorable? And I know some authors come up with playlists for the book they’re currently writing featuring music that supports their characters, mood or theme.
As I said, the link between pop songs and picture books is a pet theory of mine.
But, I did think there was one glaring exception.
Despite these similarities, I thought you’d never see a picture book where the author inserted him or herself blatantly into the book.
It happens all the time in pop songs whether it’s Usher chanting his name rhythmically in the background of “Scream,” Nicki Minaj telling everyone exactly who she is in “Super Bass” or all the references to Chaka Khan in “I Feel for You.”
“Ha,” I used to laugh. “It’s not like you’d ever see me insert a paragraph of text in my next manuscript that simply says ‘Pat Miller. Pat Miller. Pat Miller.’ It just wouldn’t work. Besides, I’m not famous like Usher, Nicki and Chaka. Who would even care?”
But then I saw Chloe and the Lion (Hyperion Books, 2012) by Mac Barnett and Adam Rex, and my theory was shot to smithereens. (If you don’t have the book handy, this video gives you an idea of what’s going on.)
So, I was wrong.
But, that’s OK. I guess I can just quote Taylor Swift’s latest Top 40 hit and say, “Never say never …”
Sun 22 Apr 2012
I just got back from a great Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference in Bettendorf, Iowa. As always, the conference was full of great tips from editors, agents, writers and attendees.
And, as always, my note-taking skills could not keep up with all the great advice, but here are some highlights and quotable moments.
Brett Wright, assistant editor, Bloomsbury USA
- On his presentation: “I have no PowerPoint, so you’re going to have to look at me. I did shower this morning. You’re welcome.”
- On plotting: “Ask yourself, ‘What warrants a novel in your character’s life?’ If it’s a common what — like moving to a new house or dealing with a loss — it needs a fresh twist or it won’t stand out.”
- On e-books and apps: “At this point, we are looking at every book we acquire as at least going into an e-book.”
- On trends: “Paranormal has been a really saturated part of market. Chapter books are under-represented in the market, but they can be hard to write. They need a strong series appeal.”
- On what he wants to see: “If you can write something that’s Newbery-worthy, that would be perfect.”
- On how he reviews content: “I usually commit to reading the first 20 pages of a manuscript before I decide if I want to keep reading or if it’s a polite ‘no’ for me.”
- On authors having a Web presence: “I think if it’s something you enjoy and can do, it’s helpful. But you shouldn’t do it at the expense of writing your books.”
Marilyn Brigham, editor, Marshall Cavendish / Amazon Children’s Publishing
- On her acquisitions philosophy: “We’re a huge slush-pile publisher. We really love to build talent.”
- On why you should want your book published with her: “A benefit of being a Marshall Cavendish author is that you will be loved.”
- On her reaction when she found out Amazon was purchasing Marshall Cavendish: “I was a little worried at first. Then, I realized, who wouldn’t want to purchase Marshall Cavendish? We so rock.”
- On what she wants to acquire: “No board books. We don’t need picture books or young adults. We do need solid middle-grade fiction and chapter book series. Chapter books should have a strong voice, strong characters and a marketing hook. What will make it sell?”
- On writing overall: “Stories are everywhere.”
- On authors having a Web presence: “By the time a book comes out, they have to have a Web page. That and being active on one other form of social media — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or a blog — are a good place to start.”
Kari Pearson, editorial assistant, Abrams
- On submitting and acquisitions: “You can’t always predict what will be quite right for someone. There’s always an element of surprise. I like that about publishing. You can’t always account for taste.”
- On waiting to hear back from publishers: “It’s like throwing your life’s work into a black hole or off a cliff. You have to hang out while a group of mystery people think about your work. Any number of things might run through your head during this time because you’ve got lots of time to think about it.”
- On cover letters: “A lot of cover letters sound like a robot sent them in. Feel free to add a little of your personality.”
- On editors: “I think editors are excitable in general. We like to get excited about work.” And, “Editors are creative as well. They love finding that diamond in the rough and helping others see it’s a diamond and not a cubic zirconia.” And, “Editors are really easily confused.”
- On authors having a Web presence: “I went with a friend to hear an author I didn’t know speak. There were teens there who were really excited and dressed in costumes from her books. One of them said, ‘I love her Twitter feed.’ Based on that, they felt like, on some level, she was a friend of theirs.”
Ty King, junior agent, Writers’ House (Who likes to speak barefoot.)
- On her passions: “I’ve always been a lover of story.” And, “Oddly enough, I really love contracts.”
- On being professional: “This is a personal industry. But sooner or later, you and your work become a commodity. So be very present in the process. You don’t want to be the weak link in the chain.”
- On giving back: “Most successful authors do what they can to be good citizens of the children’s book world.”
- On book sales: “Not every book is a New York Times best-seller or an award winner. Every book has its own path. Some are quieter. Some build slowly over time.”
- On tenacity: “The quick and painless path to publications stardom doesn’t exist.”
- On being an informed writer: “We should allow ourselves to be genuinely consumed and curious about what’s going on in the industry. We should be conversant in the world of children’s literature.”
- On revision: “Your first draft is not the draft you show anyone. You put that draft in the bottom left drawer of your desk and let it sit there in shame. Then, you write your second and third drafts. then you show your critique group and get an outside opinion. You don’t show an editor or agent at this stage. You show your writing group. Only send your best most polished work to an editor or agent.”
Jan Blazanin, young adult author of A and L Do Summer and Fairest of Them All
- On backstory: “Every character had a life before your story began. And that story influenced who they are in your story. Even if that backstory doesn’t appear in the novel you write.”
- On character development: I write characters sketches for all my characters because my memory is not that good. That way, I can go back and check things like what color her eyes are supposed to be or what kind of a car he drives.”
- On your protagonist: “She should have a need or want so strong that she keeps going no matter what.” And, “She should be a good person at the core. She may not always do good things or make good decisions, but there should be a reason that people can understand.”
- On writing about your main character’s nemesis: “Your antagonist is not all evil. Some of the scariest antagonists are ones who think they are actually doing good in some way.”
Peter Pearson, conference attendee, Hamline graduate student, techonology guru and wearer of cool children’s literature T-shirts:
- On Facebook: “Facebook is what you do when you don’t want to be doing other things.”
- On Freedom, an online tool that lets you temporarily block Internet access so you can focus on things like writing: “It’s like going back to the 1980s. It’s a useful tool for holding the dogs of the Internet at bay.”
Picture book author Wendy Heinrichs also spoke, but her presentation was at the same time as another one, so I could not attend both. If you’d like to learn more one of Wendy’s books, you can read this review.
Thanks to all the speakers and the conference planners and attendees!
Sat 7 Jan 2012
Posted by Pat under Me, Writing
This fall, I was fortunate to sell my first picture book manuscript — Sophie’s Squash — to Schwartz & Wade, an imprint of Random House Publishing. (Full, enthusiastic details of this event were shared here.)
And now, just a few months later, I’m doubly fortunate to say Schwartz & Wade has acquired another of my picture books, Sharing the Bread.
It’s awesome news. In fact, I’m still beaming.
But I’ve heard a lot of comments like this:
“It’s cool you sold your second book so quickly after your first. It must only have taken you a few weeks to write.”
Um … no.
I’m sure there are authors who dash off a manuscript in an afternoon, read through it the next day, smile, add a few commas, change a word or two and send it off to editors who greet it with shouts of delight and fight for the right to publish it.
But that’s not me.
So I thought I’d share the evolution — so far — of this 310-word story.
The initial idea.
Three years ago, I was in a meeting. It had nothing to do with food, families or cooking, but out of somewhere, these words popped into my head: “Mama be a cooking pot, cooking pot. Big and round and black and hot. Mama be a pot.”
That’s stupid. I thought. How could someone be a pot? (As you can tell, I’ve got a pretty critical internal editor.)
My internal editor wasn’t done lecturing me either. Writing a rhyming book is HARD. And you are not a rhymer. Remember that awful rhyming story about okra you spent months slaving over before you realized it was awful? Hmm? Well? Do you?
But I kind of liked the rhythm, so I jotted the words down. During the next few weeks I played around with them until I had several verses about a family making a meal together. At first, each family member was pretending to be some part of the meal. I vaguely thought the story might be something kids could act out.
But thanks to the wise counsel of my internal editor who was, I believe, making gagging noises, I realized this was not a good idea. So I had the family gather the ingredients and cook the meal without any play-acting. Mama was no longer a pot.
Not knowing what else to do with the story, I sent it to my critique group at the time. They didn’t love it. So the story sat on my hard drive, largely ignored, for a year while I worked on other things.
It might have stayed there forever if I hadn’t needed a manuscript to send to another critique group I belong to. I didn’t have anything new, so I dusted the story off and sent it out, cringing a little as I did.
Are you kidding? asked my internal editor.
But these group members liked it. “You need to work on this some more,” they said.
So I did. I used their feedback to make the verses stronger and the rhythm better. I consulted rhyming dictionaries and tried to be as creative as possible. I shared it with a few other writing friends and took their suggestions to heart. I spent lots of time staring off into space tapping out the story meter with my fingers to make sure it was correct. My cat thought I was playing. My family thought I was crazy.
When the story was as good as I could make it, I sent to to someone with a well-deserved reputation as an excellent rhymer for a paid critique. Her response echoed my second critique group’s, “I really like this. I think you should work on it some more.”
She suggested a more traditional rhyme scheme and shared a few books written in a similar vein. Even though I sighed at the thought of the work involved in changing my rhyme scheme, I knew her advice was valid. So I read the books, ripped my story apart and started rewriting. And re-rhyming. And tapping my fingers on my desk. Again.
The new story revisited both my critique groups, several writing friends and a few family members. I made more changes. Eventually, I sent it back to the rhyming expert. “I think you can sell this,” she said.
But don’t cue the balloons.
I was tempted to celebrate. After all, this writer said the same thing about the manuscript that eventually became my first sale. Then I remembered it had taken several years and several more revisions before that sale occurred. Still, I sent out some submissions.
I heard back more quickly than usual. One form rejection. One note saying this wasn’t quite right but to send other things that I wrote. One note saying it was lovely but too quiet to stand out in the marketplace. This last editor did mention that the story might do well with a holiday or educational hook.
By this time, I had acquired an agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette. She and I decided to add a holiday angle to the story by having the family prepare Thanksgiving dinner instead of an everyday meal. Joan also showed the manuscript to Anne Schwartz of Schwartz & Wade. Anne liked it, thought a Thanksgiving angle would be helpful and asked me to work on it some more.
What rhymes with turkey?
So I dug in again. Only to realize that not much rhymes with turkey. (“Jerky?” “Murky?” “Perky?”) Or with stuffing. Or mashed potatoes. So I put the Thanksgiving words in the middle of the sentences so I could rhyme more common sounds at the end. I pruned. I polished. I pulled out large chunks of hair. But, I persevered.
(By the way, I was going to post a photo with this blog showing me in the throes of revision. But when I revise, I run my fingers through my hair and end up with what my husband calls “edit head.” It is not an attractive sight.)
Joan liked this version, and sent it off to Anne. Anne liked it but shared an email full of further suggestions. So, in response, I varied my rhyme scheme slightly, added a refrain, deleted two stanzas, added a new one and reordered some of the others. The updated version went back to Joan. She had a few more ideas. I incorporated those, and Joan returned it to Anne.
By this time, my internal editor and I were afraid we had used up all our chances to get this right. Personally, I was amazed at how much better the manuscript had become from the first time I’d thought it was done. But would Anne agree? Would it be enough?
A few days later, Joan called. Anne liked the manuscript and wanted to acquire it. To paraphrase Ernest Thayer, “There was joy in Mudville.”
But I’m still not done.
Anne wants me to work on it some more. I just got her line edits in the mail today.
And I seriously can’t wait to see how much better my story — and the ultimate book — will be after this next rounds of changes.
Tue 4 Oct 2011
Posted by Pat under Me, Writing
I’ve had two pieces of good news recently, and I’m sharing them now because I’ve only just stopped breathing deeply into a paper bag.
My first piece of good news.
I sold my first book! From the slush! To one of my all-time favorite publishers!
It happened after four years of writing, revising and submitting MANY manuscripts and receiving 126 rejections. (Not that I was counting.)
Here are the details:
Sophie’s Squash, a picture book. It’s probably the fourth or fifth one I wrote. And it was one I had revised and reworked at least 10 times. But it was worth it, because the story got drastically better each time.
To which publisher?
The amazing Anne Schwartz and the lovely Lee Wade at Schwartz & Wade, a Random House imprint. Have I mentioned I adore their books and the other authors they’ve published? Well, I do. A lot. And I’m still having trouble believing I’m going to be part of their list.
Want to see why I’m so excited about working with them? Read this interview they did with Ilene Cooper at Bookmakers.
Want to see all the cool authors they’ve published like Candace Fleming, Lenore Look, Jenny Offill and Patricia McKissack? Check out this link.
Where’s that paper bag? I think I need it again.
How did it happen?
I had a day off work and had just gotten home from exercising. (A shout-out to my friends at Phitness Plus.) I was sweaty and sticky, so when the phone rang and the caller ID said, “Random House” with a 212 area code, I thought perhaps I was a little light-headed from the crunches I’d done.
Plus, I didn’t recall sending anything to Random House. But when the person on the line said, “This is Anne Schwartz from Schwartz & Wade and you probably don’t remember sending us Sophie’s Squash …” I knew exactly what was going on.
I had sent them the manuscript in early January, and they called eight months later. For all my nonwriter friends, waiting that long for a response is not unusual in the publishing world.
What makes this more unusual is I had sent the book to them after I saw a website that said they accepted unsolicited manuscripts. Apparently, this is incorrect. Anne said they normally don’t look at slush, but they had just gotten a new editorial assistant and decided to have her go through some.
That assistant pulled my manuscript on a Wednesday, and Anne and Lee called me on Friday. So … wow! (I’ll even say it backwards. “Wow!”)
When will the book come out?
I don’t know. The illustrator has to be chosen first. And I have edits to do. Once those two things happen, I’ll know more about a release date.
Now, my next piece of big news.
I also have an agent. The awesome Ammi-Joan Paquette from the equally awesome Erin Murphy Literary Agency!
Pause for a moment while I take a few more deep breaths into that bag … There, I’m feeling better now.
Again, I feel extremely lucky. Joan, whom I heard speak at the Spring 2011 Iowa SCBWI Conference, represents a lot of people I am very impressed with. And, she’s a very good writer herself – with a picture book (The Tiptoe Guide to Tracking Fairies) and a middle-grade (Nowhere Girl) already published and a young-adult novel (Paradox) set to come out in 2013.
And, I really like the way she talks and thinks about writing and books.
Finally, some thank-yous.
I could not have written or sold Sophie’s Squash without the help, advice and support of many people. So a thousand thank-yous to:
Two wonderful people who got me on track early in my writing efforts.
Authors Jill Esbaum and Linda Skeers. I attended their picture book retreat soon after I decided I wanted to get serious about writing for children. I brought my earliest draft of Sophie along.
They were very encouraging, but said that the plot needed work. So we sat down and brainstormed what could happen. They supported me and offered advice along the way — even when I didn’t seem to be making progress. They definitely made me a much better writer.
My writing friends and critique partners.
Everyone listed below has looked at various versions of lots of my stories, some of them many times. They’ve made me a better writer, too.
Sharon Hart Addy, Kate Carrigan Blackwell, Carolyn Cassel, Andrea Donahoe, Kim Falkenstein, Ned Gannon, Susan Herr-Hoyman, Janet Larscheid, Ellen Lawrence, Kiz Leppert, Pat Lessie, Joanne Linden, Bridget Magee, Lisa Morlock, Cathy Stefanec Ogren, Norene Paulsen, Eve Robillard, Jessica Vitalis and Jeff Waltz.
Thanks also to all the fun and talented folks at the Wisconsin and Iowa SCBWI conferences who have always been welcoming, positive and willing to share their expertise.
I’ve always heard you shouldn’t trust your family’s opinion of what you write. After all, they love you and can’t be objective about your work.
That’s probably true.
But families are great at telling you to keep trying, reminding you that you have what it takes, not getting mad at the time you spend at the computer and feeding you chocolate when a particularly painful rejection arrives.
So thanks to Faye Clow, Dick Miller, Gwen Miller, Lynn Miller, Mark Miller, Sonia Miller, Clark Wells, Pam Wells, Allen Zietlow, Jean Zietlow and Tom Zietlow for believing in me during the journey so far and celebrating these recent milestones with me.
This post probably makes it sound like my writing journey is at its end, but I know it’s really only beginning. I also know writing and publishing books can take a while. But that’s all right with me. I think it’s going to be a fun, fun, trip.
As long as I don’t misplace my paper bag.
Sat 9 Apr 2011
Posted by Pat under Writing
I hang out with second graders regularly – reading them books and helping them complete reviews for this blog.
But last week, I got to spend time with 15 middle school students talking about writing and story structure. I’m never nervous about meeting with the second graders — they’re always happy to see me — but I was worried the middle schoolers might be different story.
I have one middle schooler at home, and know how hard it can be to keep her engaged and on task. I wasn’t sure what I’d do with a whole group.
I shouldn’t have worried.
The kids I spent time with were excited about writing. Most of them wrote on their own one way or another — whether it was journaling, poetry, short stories, books (!) or as one seventh-grader said, “just random junk.”
And, they had lots of enthusiasm and thoughts to share, whether we were discussing the initial incident in The Wizard of Oz, why Harry Potter had to struggle for his story to succeed or how to learn more about our characters’ backstories.
I was amazed by how readily everyone participated in the getting-to-know- your-character exercise. Everyone chose a picture of a teenager and then responded to questions about that person to come up with a robust character outline.
And the thoughts they came up with were impressive. Some created very serious scenarios about broken homes, jailed parents, murder and drug use. Others took a humorous approach with unrequited crushes, Barbie and Ken fixations, and a desire for swag.
Most impressively, it seemed like everyone wanted to share what they had done.
My favorite moments of the session were when:
- The girl who told me she wrote “just random junk,” later said, “You make me want to write a book.”
- A boy who had been very quiet during the session stayed after to privately show me the character sketch he had created.
- A teacher said another student in the class asked if he could stay in and keep working on the project instead of going out for noon recess.
And my daughter (who I think was privately worried I would embarrass her) even heard some good comments from her peers.
I brought a copy of Spilling Ink: A Young Writer’s Handbook by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter and held a drawing to give it away. Response was so enthusiastic, I wish I had been able to give a book to everyone.
I also wish I had remembered to bring my camera. Then, I could have shown you all their smiling faces.
Sun 17 Oct 2010
Every fall, the Wisconsin Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators gets together to listen, learn and laugh. And the line-up at this year’s conference was one of the best yet.
Authors, editors, an art director and an agent spoke about all facets of children’s books from writing and revising to publishing and marketing.
Here’s a quick glimpse at some of the memorable quotes from the past few days.
Bruce Hale, author of the Chet Gecko mysteries, on SUSPENSE:
- Anxiety is the engine that drives your book. If you can get your reader to ask the big question, ‘What happens next?’ you’ve got them hooked.
- When your character has a secret, it’s like trying to keep a beach ball underwater. There’s energy that wants to come out.
- You don’t want to reveal everything at once. There’s a reason a stripper starts out wearing all his or her clothes.
Learn more about Bruce and his books at his website.
Loraine Joyner, art director at Peachtree Publishers, on PICTURE BOOK ART:
- No one wants to flip through a picture book and see just one point of view. You want your pictures to be up and over and in and out and around and under. They should be graceful, like choreography.
- Good artists add their own unwritten story line for the children to notice the third or fourth time they’re listening to the book. Everything doesn’t have to be told in words.
Lisa Yoskowitz, an assistant editor at Dutton Children’s Books, on VOICE:
- Ask yourself, is my voice age-appropriate for kids? Is it well-drawn and multidimensional? Is it original?
- Make the voice of your book shine through in your cover letter. If your book is a rollicking adventure story, don’t write a somber, solemn query letter.
Deborah Wiles — author of Love, Ruby Lavender, Freedom Summer, Each Little Bird That Sings, Countdown, and more — on WRITING FROM THE HEART.
- You can take your life and turn it into stories by asking, “What do I know?” What do I feel?” “What can I imagine?” We’re always telling our stories the best we can.
- I wrote about everything I loved and was frightened of when I was 10. You have to be brave enough to go there. It’s where stories come from.
- No one can tell your stories but you. It is your obligation to tell your stories.
Learn more about Deborah’s life-based fiction at her website. And, to see what she wrote about this retreat, visit her fine blog.
Greg Ferguson, an editor at Egmont USA, on SIMPLICITY:
- Keep your story simple. You don’t need to gun for this blazing metaphor. You can be subtle. Your readers will understand.
Pat Schmatz, — author of Circle the Truth, Mousetraps and the forthcoming Bluefish — on REVISION:
- I used to want to publish a book. Now, I want to write the best book I can possibly write.
- To revise, you must have both commitment and curiosity in large and equal measure.
- I usually revise two or three times before I have what I call a first draft. Then I say, “Oh, THIS is what the story is about.” And then I revise some more once I know that. Most of my books go through at least eight full revisions.
Learn more about Pat and her books at this website.
Mary Kole, agent at Andrea Brown Literary, on A WIDE VARIETY OF MATTERS:
- If it falls out of the sky or crawls out of the ground, I probably don’t want it. The market is pretty saturated with paranormal creatures.
- There are more than 300 editors working in the children’s book market. Agents know their editorial styles. They can tell you who’s a good fit for your manuscript.
- Visit independent bookstores. I go every two weeks to see what’s on the shelves. The books there are the cream of the crop. They’re what’s selling. They’re the winners.
- Writing is an art and a craft, and it takes time to learn.
Mary also has a blog that’s well worth reading.
Thanks to Pam Beres, Judy Bryan and a host of other volunteers who planned and delivered an excellent, uplifting conference.
If you’d like to learn more about the Wisconsin SCBWI, visit our website.
Wed 22 Sep 2010
Which of these have you read? Share your favorites in the comments.
Sun 13 Jun 2010
Writing rebuses looks like it should be easy.
They’re short. There are pictures where some of the words should be. And the language is usually simple and repetitive.
But rebuses are really the sudoku of the writing world. A specific arrangement of words needs to fit into a defined space, follow a rigid set of rules AND tell a compelling story. And if that doesn’t happen, a rebus simply doesn’t work.
Wisconsin writer Pat Lessie might be the master of the rebus. So far, she’s sold 10 to Highlights For Children. And not only does her work meet the format’s stringent requirements, many of her rebuses rhyme.
Pat’s latest rebus, “Lightning Bugs,” will appear in the July, 2010 issue of Highlights.
Here, she describes her journey as a rebus writer and shares her tips for success.
What got you interested in writing rebuses in rhyme?
I was working in an elementary school. One of the students was an autistic girl. She spoke little and had a short attention span. However, in music class, she sang songs along with the rest of the class. I thought rhyming rebuses, written in verses similar to songs, might be something she would like. It turned out that the girl wasn’t much intrigued by my rebuses.
When did you write your first one?
I wrote my first one in about 1999. At that time, I was writing long rebuses, two or three times longer than those I write now.
How long did it take before you sold your first one? What was it about?
I tried to market my long rebuses, a collection of eight, to a few educational publishers first, without success. Then, in early 2001, I read several rebuses in Highlights for Children. I decided to send one there. The editor asked me to shorten it to 14 lines or less. It was about snow. It was published in early 2002.
What are the easiest and hardest parts of writing a rebus for you?
Nothing is easy about writing a rhyming rebus. However, the ending is usually the hardest section for me. That part has to have a point or a surprise or something amusing.
What are your secrets to success? What tips would you give a beginning rebus writer?
I don’t really have any secrets. I enjoy doing these, but I work hard on them. I write my first attempt, then polish it over several days, trying to get the rhythm as perfect as I can. Then I set it aside for some period of time before I take it out to rework some more. Of course, some of my attempts end up in the trash.
I would suggest writing some non-rhyming rebuses first. Someone starting out should read lots of rebuses. Language must be simple for early readers. The editors at Highlights won’t accept anything over 14 lines. That’s roughly 100 words. They want a rebus picture in each line, and would like rebus pictures repeated. The rebus pictures must be nouns.
One of my recurring problems is wanting to put more information in a 100-word piece than there is room for or than a beginning reader needs.
Here’s one of Pat’s rebuses. It it illustrates how much information and plot need to be effectively packed into a small space. This one is illustrated by Wisconsin artist Bonnie Leick. So in case you were wondering, the rebus writer does not need to draw his or her own pictures. They do, however, usually indicate which words they think could be illustrated and then the publisher hires the illustrator.
To learn more about Pat, visit her website.
To learn more about rebus writing, check out this article from Writing World. Or this one from the Institute of Children’s Literature.
Photo taken by Luigi Diamanti. Available on FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Sun 14 Mar 2010
Posted by Pat under Writing
I’ve always been fascinated by names. When I was young, I told my mother I wanted to have children just so I could name them. At the time, I was leaning toward Esmeralda, a name that – in my mind – was strangely underused.
I did not end up using that name for either of my children, although I still see its appeal. But I did put a lot of thought into their names. To me, a name should pass four tests:
- It should sound good when it’s yelled out the back door late on a summer evening.
- It should sound good when it’s announced at sporting events. As in, “Now on the line shooting one-and-one …”
- It should sound good completing the sentence, “According to noted Supreme Court justice …”
- It should sound good with the last name and not be so unusual that the child is condemned to a lifetime of spelling and pronunciation problems.
If you write fiction, the same amount of thought you spend naming real children should go into the names of your characters. This is not the place to make a quick decision. Think of well-known children’s books. Would Newbery winner The Higher Power of Lucky been as effective if it had been called The Higher Power of Kayla? Would The Wednesday Wars have been as powerful if Holling Hoodhood were called Bruce Smith?
Sometimes, I see books where it seems like the author took the easy way out. Naming errors I see often fall into one of two categories:
- The names aren’t current. The book is set in a present day middle school and the main characters’ names are Roger, Susan and Betty. There’s nothing wrong with any of those names, but very few of today’s pre-teens have them.
- The names aren’t diverse. Schools today are much more diverse than they were when many authors were growing up. And unless you’re specifically writing a story where the cast needs to all be the same race, it helps to have characters who reflect the actual make-up of the schools where the book will be read. Obviously, no names belong exclusively to people of one background, but being conscious of why you chose the names you use and how they might be interpreted by your readers helps. For an enlightening look at author Lauren McLaughlin’s decision to diversify her books, read this blog post.
Looking at baby name books and Web sites is one good way to find modern name options. Another way is to look at the names posted on lockers and over coat hooks at schools.
You may be amazed at what you see. Here’s a sampling of names I’ve seen posted at the schools, sports camps and other activities my kids take part in. And I don’t live in an especially diverse area.
Alberta, Alfonso, Araceli, Arun, Ashlyn, Athena, Azalea, Bram, Brigit, Carnita, Daijon, D’Angelo, Darius, Dharma, Diamond, Emmanuel, Ezra, Felix, Gordon, Greenleigh, Griffin, Harley, Haven, Helena, Ike, Irene, Isndro, Jade, Kyrie, Lelah, Leo, Magdalena, Masha, Milinda, McCall, McLain, Nazelah, Nico, Niharika, Orlando, Oscar, Sage, Sasha, Selma, Solara, Tawyme, Thiago, Trinity, Vivian, Xavier, Yume, Yuritzr and Zeb.
Happy naming! If you’re looking for more advice, try these sites:
Sun 17 Jan 2010
Posted by Pat under Me, Writing
I like lists.
Whenever I take those personality tests, I come out as a confirmed list-maker. I think it gives me the illusion that I have some level of control over my life.
Plus, there’s something so satisfying about crossing off an item on my list. It’s over. Done. Time to move on.
I hesitate to admit this, but I’m even one of those people who will add items I’ve already completed to a list just so I can cross them off.
Lately, I’ve seen lots of posts and articles and heard lots of conversations about words that annoy people. Maybe they’re over-used. Maybe they show the user is trying too hard. Maybe they’re words that break commonly held beliefs about proper language use (turning a noun or adjective into a verb, for example). Maybe they’re just … really stupid.
Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, even puts out an annual list of words it thinks should be banished. The 2010 list includes nods to pop culture (“chillaxin’”) politics (“stimulus”) and corporate life (“transparency” and “shovel-ready”).
My personal list of words that should be banished includes:
- Synergy – If people are really trying to sound impressive, they say “synergistic.”
- Utilize – Try “use” instead.
- Key – It’s fine as a noun, but adds no value as an adjective.
- Strategic – Sounds important, but is it really necessary?
- Within – “In” almost always works instead.
- Prior to – “Before” is much more conversational.
- Disconnect – OK if you’re discussing electricity, plumbing or computers. Not OK if you’re talking about ideas as in, “I sense a disconnect here.”
Please note that I’m talking about an ideal society. I know many of these words won’t go away. I edit articles every day that contain lots of these words. I try to reduce their use, but sometimes they’re still in the final copy. And I can live with that.
So here’s YOUR chance. What words would you be happy never to see in a manuscript or hear in conversation again?