Sunday, December 26, 2010

Jump-Starting Your Creativity Engine

     From time to time, I'll share pieces that I've published in writers' magazines for my blog.  I wrote this article for the writers' magazine The Creativity Connection back in January 2001.

                    Five Easy Ways to Jump-Start Your Creativity Engine

Sometimes I’m not sure what to do with all the half-written thoughts and fragmented phrases scribbled in my journal.    

You can call it writer’s block.  To me, it’s more like I my engine has stalled.  Because this happens to me more than I care to admit, I have found five tricks to help get me back on the writing track. 

1.      Take a walk.  Walking helps me think.  Besides, it’s a great way to get exercise and take a break from sitting in front of the computer.  While I walk I might think about a word or phrase that I have written.  I quiet my internal editor, and then I allow free thought to take over.  Or, if I don’t want to think so much, I might make observations as I walk.  Seeing and hearing things along the way may help me find just the right words to finish a poem or an article.

2.      Take classes.  I like to take workshops offered at our literacy center.  Not only have I have met other writers, I’ve also had instructors help me find direction for my ideas.  Similarly, taking online classes may be worthwhile, although I haven’t tried these yet.

3.      Re-write a story.  For instance, changing the point of view can liven up a story.  Sometimes, I like to switch from third person to first to give the story an up-close personal feeling.  Changing from past to present tense is another way to re-shape your piece. 

4.      Study writer’s magazines.  I like to read Writer’s Digest and The Writer magazine, to name a few.  I save informative articles and pull them out whenever I need help.     

5.      Read a favorite novel, some short stories, or poems.  I like to analyze why I like them.  Sometimes, I practice mimicking the technique, which helps me re-invent or strengthen my style.
Out of the five, going on a walk is the easiest and least expensive.  Walking can help bring focus to creative ideas.  Likewise reading, whether it’s for enjoyment or education, is a great way to help channel your ideas.  Moreover, taking classes can give birth to new ideas or give direction to your work.  Although classes involve a little more effort (and money), the payoffs are worth it.  Re-writing stories and studying magazines is a little like doing homework, but the results may just spark ideas to explore and to write about.
These five ideas work for me, but the bottom line is to discover what works for you.  What can you do to jump-start your creativity engine? 

Monday, December 20, 2010

From Crabs to Acceptance

Over the past two years, I pitched several articles to Highlights for Children, but they all got rejected.  Last month however, I earned an acceptance with a piece on crabs and I think I figured out what won the editor over.

I am listing twelve steps to follow before submitting a piece to a magazine editor.  Points #6 and #8 are two of the most important points.  You can tackle all of the twelve points perfectly, but if your writing is unimaginative and you fail to create a story, you’ll have a harder time finding a home for your work.    

1.   Read articles in the magazine for which you wish to pitch
2.   Follow the publisher’s guidelines. 
3.   Find a topic that interests you and interests children. 
4.   Use primary sources, reliable websites, and up-to-date books for your research.
5.   Make a brief outline for your article.    
6.   Keep the language lively and the vocabulary age appropriate. 
7.   Choose a point of view that’s unique.
8.   Spin the well-researched information into a story with a beginning, a middle, and an ending.  
9.   Edit your work.  Read it aloud.  Use spell check, but know that it’s not always accurate.
10.  Have an expert review your work for accuracy.  
11.  Write a professional cover letter. 
12.  Aquire photos for your article.  They could be the pièce de résistance.

In the past, my writing style was more informative than playful.  So for my latest submission to Highlights for Children, I constructed a piece with a beginning, a middle, and an ending and wrote the story from the point of view (POV) of a small crab.  The research information was subtly woven into the paragraphs. Following these twelve steps, especially step six, worked for me and this publication.  I’m willing to bet it will work for you.  Give it a try.  Believe in yourself.  Never give up.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book Review: The Great Snowball Escapade

The Great Snowball Escapade
by J. D. Holiday;  illus. by the author
Primary     Book Garden Publishing     90 pp.
3/10     978-0981861425 $5.99

Wilhelmina, or Wil as she likes to be called, is upset.  Her cousin Bud is now living with her family and she knows that he stole her new pink pencil sharpener.  Bud denies it, but makes little effort in winning her friendship or the friendship of others.  Wil has to find a way to get along with Bud.   But a snowball fight ensues, a friend’s cat is lost, and a bully appears with a scary dog.  What more could go wrong for Wil?  J. D. Holiday delivers just the right amount of suspense to entice children to turn the pages.  Perfect for six to eight year old readers and loaded with black and white illustrations, the story shows the effect of bullying and the value of understanding another’s point of view.

Win an autographed copy!  Become a follower of The Maggie Project by simply creating a Google account.  Followers will be entered in the giveaway contest.   A name will be drawn at random on December 31st.  The winner will be announced the next day. 

Monday, December 6, 2010

Writers' News

Photo by Lucas

I found a website with many helpful writing resources: 
On Rachelle Burk’s website you can spend hours checking out writers’ articles, agent and editor listings, critique groups and much more. 

For personal news, I submitted to Albert Whitman in June.  After waiting 4 months, I conclude they are passing on my manuscript.  I received a personal rejection letter from Curtis Brown Literary Agency.

Here’s a list of the publishing houses that I submitted to this fall:
Tanglewood Press, Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, Dutton Books, Boyds Mills Publishing, Peachtree Publishing, Philomel Books, Holiday House, and Charlesbridge.

I’ve had more luck with placing my nonfiction articles.   After several attempts, I was awarded an acceptance with Highlights for Children. And Appleseeds, the respected social studies magazine for children, accepted my article on the Derby race horse, Visionaire. 

Remember as you write your picture book to practice writing in different genres.  Consider writing fictional short stories, poetry, or nonfiction articles for children’s magazines.  Now take it one step further and submit your work. (Of the three, nonfiction is the easiest to get published.)  Two markets that will most likely welcome your work are  and .  I’m an editor at both publications and look forward to reading well-researched, interesting topics for children.  Publishing nonfiction will help you earn credentials, which will impress a picture book editor.     

Coming next week:  a review of J. D. Holiday’s chapter book, The Great Snowball Escapade. Sign up as a follower to enter the book-giveaway contest.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Preview of The Great Snowball Escapade by J.D. Holiday

Stories for Children Magazine is hosting a book tour in December. After I receive and read The Great Snowball Escapade, I will write a review and offer a book giveaway.  All followers of my blog will be eligible.  Contest details will be posted soon.   

From the Publisher: The Great Snowball Escapade by J.D. Holiday is a 90 page chapter book for six to eight year olds. Its young readers will have many enjoyable hours reading about Wil, her cousin Bud and her friends.

Wilhemena Brooks' cousin, Bud Dunphry comes to live with her family. Wil, as she likes to be called, finds her pink pencil sharpener is missing after Christmas. Wil knows Bud has it! Who else would have taken it? Bud doesn't like girls! In fact, Bud doesn't like anybody. Wil tries to ignore him but he pulls her friend’s hair and takes over games.  When Bud is in trouble he makes his "you're going to get it" face at her. After a snowstorm closes school, Wil and her friends go sled riding. Bud shows up and starts a snowball fight, which lands Wil in her room for the rest of the day for fighting. When her pencil sharpener is found, right where she left it, Wil decides she has to try harder to understand her cousin and stay out of trouble. Her mother told her to be nice to Bud and to treat him like she would like to be treated. If Wil treats Bud nicely does that change anything for her?

I look forward to sharing J. D. Holiday’s book with you.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul

I ordered Ann Whitford Paul's Writing Picture Books as recommended by Harold Underdown, editor and creator of “Writing, Illustrating, and Publishing Children’s Books: The Purple Crayon” says of Paul’s book: 

Writing picture books is not easy. Picture books are a unique form of writing with a large audience of 2- to 8-year-olds, and they must appeal to both the adult purchaser and the child listener/reader. They are generally 32 pages long and must be tightly focused and told partly through illustrations. And novice picture book writers make a lot of mistakes--and get a lot of rejections from publishers flooded with inappropriate manuscripts. From this book these writers will learn the writing and revision process that will lead them to creating more salable picture book manuscripts. Ann Whitford Paul covers researching the picture books market, creating characters, point of view, plotting, tips on writing rhyme, and the lessons writers need in order to write great picture books that will appeal to both editors/agents and young readers/parents. She uses a mix of instruction and hand-on exercises, often asking readers to cut, color and paste their way through revision.

Many of my picture book stories have won writers’ awards, but I’ve yet to have one published.  With this book, I’m hoping to learn more and to get closer to the goal of publication.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Waiting Game

When you submit a picture book to a publisher you may wait up to 4 – 6 months for a response.
Here’s what you can do in the meantime:

Create a list of publishers and agents you’d like to send your work to
Read publishers’ and agents’ blogs
Research topics that interest you
Take those topics and write a fictional story or a nonfiction article
Write articles for writers’ newsletters and magazines
Read books in all genres, first for enjoyment and then as a writer
Meet with another writer for coffee or lunch
Form or join a critique group
Talk with librarians about their current needs
Enter a writing contest
Offer to help another writer edit his work
Create a website
Re-write an article using a different slant and pitch it to another market
Consider co-hosting a writers’ event or workshop
Sign up for a writing class
Brainstorm new ideas for another picture book  

What other writers’ ideas do you have when you play the waiting game?

Monday, November 8, 2010

15 "Must-Haves" before Submitting

I write and submit nonfiction articles as well as picture books.  Writing can be challenging—publication even harder. But I’ve discovered that the process is easier when I have the following:           

A comfortable chair
A room with plenty of light 
Coffee, chocolate, or any comfort food
The will to let the answering machine pickup
Passion about my writing
The drive to read my work out loud 
A first reader to point out mistakes or to make suggestions
The resolve to edit my work to perfection
An understanding of the market 
A grasp of the submission guidelines
An irresistible query letter, one page
Patience as I wait for an editor’s response
Tough skin if I receive a rejection
Perseverance to submit again

What "must-haves" do you need when you write?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Make an Editor's Day

If you’re thinking about writing and submitting a picture book, it pays to accrue writing credentials.  The fastest way to do so is to write nonfiction.  Really.  It’s easier to get published writing nonfiction than fiction.  Find a topic that interests you.  Make sure it has kid appeal.  Research it.  Write the piece in a kid-friendly in tone.  Then research the magazine markets to find a publisher. Pitch your idea to an editor.      

I’m an editor for the educational website and assistant nonfiction editor for Stories for Children Magazine.  So take it from me, you can improve your chance of an acceptance when you:

Follow the writers’ guidelines, even if you’ve submitted to the publication before
Present an ordinary topic in an extraordinary way
Use reliable sources (that does not include Wikipedia)
Write an article with a great hook, a beginning, middle, and satisfying ending
Incorporate similes, metaphors, alliteration into your articles
Use spell and grammar check  
Check your facts, dates, and spelling of proper nouns
Use a grade assessment tool as a guide to writing for the appropriate target age
Ask a reader to take a look at your piece before submitting
Have an expert read your work for accuracy
Keep your query to one page
Provide photographs or images 
Thank an editor for her time
Make the revisions an editor has requested 

There you have it—14 tips to garner an acceptance.  I guarantee it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

28 Picture Books

My husband Jim read picture books to Abby at bedtime, starting on the night we brought her home from the hospital when she was five days old.  These books are some of our favorites and are suitable for children ages 4 – 8.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst
Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina
Edward the Emu by Sheena Knowles
Goodnight, Moon by Margaret W. Brown
Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Suess
I Need a Hug by Clara Barton Elementary First Graders
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura J. Numeroff
Is Your Mama a Llama? By Deborah Guarino
June 29, 1999 by Davie Wiesner
Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes
Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel by Virginia L. Burton
Miss Nelson is Missing! by Harry Allard and James Marshall
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale by John Steptoe
Oliva by Ian Falconer
Round Trip by Ann Jonas
Ruby the Copy Cat by Peggy Rathmann
Stellaluna by Janell Cannon
Tacky the Penguin by Helen Lester
The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle
The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper
The Math Curse by Jon Scieszka
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert N. Munsch
The True Story of the Three Pigs by A. Wolf, John Scieszka
The Tub People by Pam Conrad
What do you do with a Kangeroo?  by Mercer Mayer
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Wilford Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox

Monday, October 18, 2010

Initial Results

Maggie and the Third Grade Blues had been sent to several editors.  Most publishing houses will respond in three months if interested.  So far:
Dial—sent the manuscript; no reply
Arthur Levine—sent the manuscript; a signed rejection
Atheneum—sent a query; no reply
Clarion—sent the manuscript; no reply
Flashlight Press—emailed the manuscript; personal reply: a sweet story, but only publishes 2 PB/year
Tricycle Press—liked my previous submission, sent the manuscript, received a personal rejection   
Christy Ottaviano Books:  project not right for her list, personal rejection with a sticker!

Andrea Brown Literary Agency—sent an e-query + manuscript; no response after 6 weeks
Writers House Agency:  personal rejection 
Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency:  post card, no thank you

Contest news: 
The Decatur Public Library Annual Writing Contest—contest discontinued this year

And finally, better news:
The Alabama Writers’ Conclave Annual Contest—Honorable Mention
Writers’ Digest—among the top 100 winners

Monday, October 11, 2010

Dangerous Myths and Terrible Truths

I read this article many years ago, and it is still relevant.  Here are a few snippets from the piece.  Check out Aaron Shepard’s article for 10 more myths and truths about picture book writing.

MYTH: Children’s books are easier to write than adult books.
TRUTH: Good writing is difficult no matter what the reader’s age—and children deserve the best.
MYTH: Since my kids/neighbors/students like my story, it will make a great book.
TRUTH: Your kids/neighbors/students may like it only because it’s yours, or because they enjoy your reading.
This does not impress editors.

MYTH: To sell my work, I must get an agent.
TRUTH: Though it has become harder to sell children’s books without an agent, you can still do it—and getting an agent may be as hard as getting a publisher. Agents are more useful and available once you’ve sold on your own.
MYTH: My chances are better if I submit to small publishers.
TRUTH: Not unless your book is specialized. Small publishers issue fewer books and must often be cautious in their selections. Large publishers can afford to take an occasional chance.

MYTH: When submitting, I must protect my ideas from theft.
TRUTH: Theft by children’s publishers is rare. Ideas are plentiful, so editors are more interested in finding writers who can handle ideas. In any case, copyright law protects your work—without any official registration or notice.

Monday, October 4, 2010


Most picture books are made up of 16 spreads.  A “spread” is both pages of an open book. 

To represent the spreads, draw sixteen rectangles on a piece of paper, using four rectangles per row.  Draw a line down the middle of each rectangle to divide them into 2 squares.  These represent the picture book pages with text and illustration (usually 32 pages). 

Rectangles 1 – 4 represent the beginning.  Introduce characters, the setting, the character’s want, the conflict. 

Rectangles 5 – 11 represent the middle of your picture book.  Introduce other characters (most picture books should have 2 – 3 characters), action, and complications.  Rectangle 12 is the crisis or climax page. 

Rectangles 13 – 16 represent the ending.  Examine the character’s feelings and solve the story problem. Include a physical resolution and an emotional resolution.

You can fill in the squares with sticky notes and move them around, if needed.  This technique will  help you visualize your story.

Monday, September 27, 2010

10 Questions to ask before you write your picture book

1. What is your picture book about?  State the idea of your book in one sentence. 
2. What is your character’s problem?  Use only one problem in a picture book.
3. Is the central theme kid-like?
4. Does it have kid-like resolution? If it’s preachy, reconsider.
5. Who will tell the story?  Consider viewpoint. 
6. Is your character unique?  Quiet your editor and listen for his voice. 
7. Will you use present or past tense? 
8. Does each page have illustrator possibilities?
9. Does your story have movement and take place in various settings?
10. Does each page should have “turn-ability”?  Check for pacing and page breaks.  Now read your story aloud.  The text on each page should read like a mini chapter, ending in a cliffhanger or with exciting action that urges the reader to turn the page.  

As you write your picture book, consider this advice from author Marisa Montes:  “use the best words, in the best order, to write the best story.”

Monday, September 20, 2010

Five elements and a Formula

When you begin to write a picture book, keep these five elements in mind. Refer to Eve Bunting’s formula  as well. 

Story:  a character-drive plot by which a character faces a conflict, deals with set-backs and complications, and resolves the conflict by himself, and in doing so, changes or grows.

Setting:  Where the story takes place.

Main Character:  the person who faces a conflict and actively resolves it himself/herself with no help from adults.

Conflict: the problem the main character faces.  Without conflict, there’s no story.  Types of conflict include man vs. man, man vs. society, man vs. nature, and man vs. himself.

Want:  the one thing that the main character desires.  Conflict is propelled by want.

A picture book formula by author Eve Bunting: Will the main character be able to (whatever you want him/her to do), despite (conflict), despite (conflict), and despite (conflict) and in so doing, learn a lesson?   Character + conflict + conflict + conflict = growth.

Monday, September 13, 2010

So you want to write a picture book?

Here are 18 tips before you start writing:

Read books on the craft of writing, especially those on picture book writing.

Read many picture books.

Keep words to less than 1000.

Avoid using adverbs.

Use active verbs.

Combine wordplay and lyricism.

Write with a tight simple style.

Rhyming must be spot on.

Give details (example: use poodle, basenji, etc., not just dog).

Avoid writing a story with a message.

Think in terms of 16 pictures.

Do create a page turner.

Don’t worry about illustrations—the publishing house pairs you with an illustrator.

Holiday stories are hard to sell.

Stories about talking animals or inanimate objects that come to life are hard to sell.

Folktales require a natural storyteller and a storyteller’s voice.

Well-written nonfiction and biographies are always in demand.

Humorous books can be read again and again.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Birth of Maggie

Maggie and the Third Grade Blues began as a completely different picture book: The Adventures of Pirate Girl. But that piece never took wing. For the life of me, I found myself copying one of my favorite picture books, Ladybug Girl. As I struggled to create a character-driven book, I followed the outline for writing a picture book: the set-up (who and where), things happen, a series of complications, climax, resolution with a twist and character growth. I played with different themes, characters, and plots. For weeks nothing worked, until one day, Maggie whispered in my ear.
Here’s the book description:

On the first day of school Ms. Madison writes on the board: Welcome to the third grade. Maggie is fine until she reads: What I did on my summer vacation. Due: Tomorrow. Ms. Madison adds, “Bring in something to show.” The fact is: Maggie wants to go back to the second grade. She’s thinking, she wished she had traveled to Australia (she’d bring in a koala) or she had paddled the Amazon River (but there’d hardly be enough room to squeeze in an anaconda). Time is running short and the evening gets complicated when her dog, Trooper runs away during a thunderstorm. Later reunited with her pet, Maggie reminisces how she and her family rescued the injured dog over the summer break. She’s thinking, she could talk to the class about adopting and healing a stray. The fact is: Maggie realizes it’s not where you travel in life, but who travels into your life that matters.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Those of us who write for children know that publishing has become more difficult. We compete with published authors and celebrities. We read that publishers are producing fewer books. We learn that some publishers will only respond to agent represented writers. It takes on the average three months to hear from a publisher. Many only respond if interested. Not particularly encouraging. But despite the odds I will submit my picture book manuscript to 30 publishers, 15 agents, and 5 contests in one year. To meet my goal, I’ll send out two – three submissions to editors each month. I will query one to two agents a month. Contest submissions will be sent out one month prior to deadline. Why not send one batch to all of the editors and another batch to all of the agents? Quite simply, it’s frowned upon and it’s not my style. Read about the responses and results, plus insights as an editor and inspiration for writers as I pursue The Maggie Project.