Thursday, December 29, 2022
Thursday, December 15, 2022
Our second cat is named Ozzie. This time, it was my choice since Abby was 400 miles away in college. I adopted him from the Lexington Humane Society several months after Ollie died. Originally, Ozzie was named Polo, meaning brave wanderer—which he actually became seven years later when he escaped our house last Thanksgiving*. But Ozzie didn't look like a Polo. I wanted to pay homage to Ollie, so I decided to use a similar name using a double consonant. After naming him, I discovered that Ozzie is Hebrew for strong and Old Norse meaning bear god. Ozzie is neither.
|Ozzie, not Polo|
✌ and ♥
Tuesday, November 15, 2022
|Photo: Josh Applegate|
THE ESSENSE OF YOUR STORY
When agents and editors read your work, they are not only looking for character and plot, they want to get a sense of the theme. Theme is a word or two that gives the essence of your story. It touches on what the main character learns and how that character changes in the process of the story.
That said, can you identify the theme or themes in your picture book stories? For me, two themes often appear in my picture books: bravery/courage and kindness/empathy
Why do I choose these themes? It's kind of like the sorting hat in Harry Potter, where the hat chooses the wizard. I don't choose a theme; the theme becomes apparent after the first draft of the story.
When I write a children's book, I concentrate on character and plot. The theme turns up when most of the story has been developed.
For instance, in one of my picture books, a young girl wants to find a way to help a homeless person. This story, based on a true experience, honors my daughter who gave her umbrella to a penniless person. As the story developed, the theme of empathy emerged by showing the actions of the main character.
If you're struggling with theme, consider what Writers Write has to say:
"A theme can be chosen by answering one or both questions:
Writers Write identifies 10 Powerful Recurring Themes In Children’s Stories:Of course, there are many other choices, as listed here:
Saturday, October 15, 2022
|Photo: Nong V|
GIVE AGENTS WHAT THEY WANT
Let's take a look at these two pieces. In one of them, the story is about fencing, an activity the writer had loved as a child and still enjoys as an adult. The writer describes the uniform, the épée (sword), the stance, the attack and the three main moves. This goes on for about 500 words. And that's it. Descriptions. There isn't a main character who confronts a problem.
In the other story, we have two characters, best friends, who go on an adventure. Picture books can have more than one character, but one of them should be the central character and this central character should have a problem. But in this piece, the conflict was unclear. I couldn't tell what the main character wanted, what got in her way, and how she would resolve the problem. To me, the story was an imaginative playful journey with no major conflict.
Most books, whether they are picture books, middle grade, young adult, memoirs, or novels, have character and conflict. They go hand in hand. Conflict is born out of a character wanting something—and having trouble getting it.
I had the fortune to listen to five agents on a SCBWI webinar panel weigh in on the subject. They agreed a story should have a good sense of the main character (MC), plot, what the MC wants, and what stands in the way (conflict).
An agent from the Andrea Brown Literary Agency states writers must find a way to connect with young readers not by story, but with the MC. She explains writers must create a relatable character that elicits emotion and develop a story arc which shows character growth or change.
Children's author Margot Finke writes that conflict is on the checklist for picture books. She states that "the main character needs to be in conflict with something or someone for the story to grip small readers. Have some problem that bothers, or gnaws, or leads to trouble. The hero/heroine gets to solve the problem over the course of the story. The solving is the meat in your story."
So, returning to the two manuscripts, what can the writer do to improve the books? For the fencing story, the writer can keep the fencing descriptions, but she must develop a character who cares deeply about the sport. She must describe how the character feels about fencing. It's all about emotion. Once that is established, then the writer can devise a problem the fencer faces and has to solve.
In the adventure story, the writer can take the main character that has already been developed and invent a specific problem that gets in the way of what this character wants. That conflict should be obvious and challenging to solve.
These solutions may seem obvious to more seasoned writers. But some newbies may struggle with character and conflict. When that happens, I have a few exercises that might help.
For character: Set the plot aside and focus on the protagonist. Let the imagination run wild and think of the first character that pops in your head. Then cast that character as the star in the story. This initial character will probably not be the best choice, but it gets the creative juices flowing and it will lead to finding the perfect character as the piece is revised.
For conflict: Think about putting yourself into the story and running into a problem you'd never want to face. Or even better, have a conversation with the MC and have her tell you about the problem she's encountered and how she plans to solve it.
As a writer, you are free to write whatever you're craving to write. Even if it's a description of an activity you love doing. Or a wacky or wondrous adventure. But like many agents, I believe that manuscripts must have the basic elements of a story. So, if you want to publish a picture book, take an honest look at your work. Does it have character and conflict?
✌ and ♥
Thursday, September 15, 2022
|Photo: Dmitry Schemelev|
FINDING THE COURAGE TO WRITE
The week before had been easier. I submitted two picture manuscripts to agents, one playful and the other more serious. These stories have unique characters, memorable opening lines, good flow, strong tension, and story arc. I believe they are different than what agents expect to find in their inboxes. But will an agent be open to something different? Will they get my writing and share my vision? Will an agent fall in love with my work?
Ozzie relaxes behind my computer and I give him a chin rub. Lizzie climbs in my lap for attention. They are a nice distraction. I need it. My cats help keep the depression at bay.
At times, I wonder why I continue to write when publication has changed so much over the years. At first, writers only had to compete with the celebrities and published authors. Now days, writers have to compete with author-illustrators and with writers who have a referral. Lately, we compete with the LBGTQ and marginalized authors and I applaud them because it's time their voices are heard. But submitting has never been tougher.
On top of the competition, writers must match their manuscripts to an agent's wish list. But it's like trying to read an agent's mind. I do my best to send an appropriate piece and end up with replies that say, "it's not a good fit," or, "it's not what I'm looking for." I feel defeated. And I don't want to feel this way.
By chance, I noticed an online class on querying. Though I've been submitting for years, I signed up. One can always learn something new and useful.
Instructor Kathy van Eecke revealed 20 common query mistakes (yep, I had made one) and ways to correct them. She advised us to take a look at Query Shark, a website that critiques queries. Most of all, she encouraged us to rethink our queries. She said it probably wasn't our books that needed help, it was our hooks.
The timing of this workshop could not have been better. It was the boost I needed. After watching the webinar and studying a lot of query examples, I scrutinized the hooks of the five books I had written. They were good, but they needed to be exceptional. They had to grab agents and make them want to keep reading.
So, I inserted a teaser (a captivating line or quote) before the book description. I also reworked the book descriptions so that the first line of each one indicated three things: the main character, the inciting action, and the dilemma. I found this would require concise writing. But within a few days, I had jazzed up the five queries.
I don't know how agents will feel about my submissions. They are a picky crew and have very specific tastes in what they want to acquire. But at least I know my queries are more intriguing and even a bit mysterious. Having taken my queries to the next level, I have more belief in my hooks and in my books. I am hopeful. More positive. Encouragement flows in, so real that I can almost touch it.
✌ and ♥
Monday, August 15, 2022
|Photo: Anita Jankovic|
Before the pandemic, Baxter's Corner had expressed interest in publishing my children's book titled Tajo Speaks Out. When I informed people of the news, some of them said, "Anyone can write a children's book. Writing for kids is easy."
Those of us who write for kids would strongly disagree. And here's why. Writing and publishing for children can be broken down into two parts: the creative process and the submission process. For the creative process a writer must develop a manuscript that is about 500 words, that allows for illustrations, and that centers around a theme relatable to young kids. It must be engaging, marketable, and revised multiple times.
|Photo: Johnny McClung|
Before the first word of the story could be written, I was asked to develop the objectives. This involved describing the character's problem, the rising conflict, the solution, and the resolution.* After writing the objectives, I sent them to the publisher and she discussed them with her team of consultants. When everyone made their assessment, the publisher sent me their suggestions. Then publisher and I went back and forth many times over many months to polish the objectives.
Once this step was nailed, I got the green light to write the story. Here's the catch: Baxter Corner books are written in rhyming couplets, but the rhymes could not be repeated. Also, the meter or beats (syllables) had to be even so that the story wouldn't sound forced or choppy when read aloud. I checked to make sure the rhyming was smooth and then moved on to the next phase of the process.
My beta reader critiqued Tajo. After implementing his suggestions, I sent the story to the publisher so she and her team could study it. The draft was heavily criticized and returned to me for more revision. I tweaked the story and I sent it to the publishing staff so they could review it again. After I made some minor changes, the team approved the final version and it was ready to be professionally edited and illustrated. Finally, this project was getting closer to publication.
✌ and ♥
* Jotting down the objectives is a great exercise and it can help in developing the structure of your story.
Friday, July 15, 2022
Dear faithful readers,
I would love to write a biography for kids about a young woman named Jo, who was the wife of Theo van Gogh, the younger brother of Vincent van Gogh. She was married for only two years when Theo passed away.
Jo was left with a child, her husband's correspondence with Vincent, and hundreds of Vincent van Gogh's paintings.
After reading her diaries (Diaries Jo Bonger (bongerdiaries.org) I discovered Jo was terribly depressed. She poured over Theo's letters, hoping to feel her husband's spirit. In doing so, she learned how deeply Theo cared about his older brother.
|Johanna van Gogh Bonger and son Vincent|
After perusing the letters, Jo realized her life's mission. She felt Vincent's paintings needed to be hung in galleries and appreciated by the public. Jo devoted her life to promoting the art Vincent van Gogh—this from a young woman with no art or business education. And she succeeded!
So, here's where you fit in.
I need help in with choosing an opening. Will you please take time to vote on your favorite? I am torn between all three.
You may respond in the comments or at my email address: Rlmrvos (at) gmail (dot) com
Ready? Get set. Vote!
1. In the days when artists shied away from dark colors, set up easels outside, and painted their impressions of nature, there lived a young woman who grew to believe in a man, an artist named Vincent Van Gogh.
2. Jo spreads the canvases on a table, runs her fingers over the brushstrokes and makes a few selections. She keeps the most brilliant, her favorites at home, for Jo van Gogh Bonger has a plan.
3.Jo kneeled in a cemetery upon a tangle of ivy and whispered to her husband's stone, "What shall I do with 400 paintings that were painted by Vincent van Gogh?"
4. When Jo was young, she loved to write and she put down her thoughts in a diary. She never guessed that one day her words would touch others, like the art of Vincent van Gogh.
Thank you for helping!
✌ and ♥
Wednesday, June 15, 2022
|Publisher of Baxter's Corner and grandson|
You know the proverb all good things must come to an end. One could say that about my first book Maggie and the Summer Vacation Show-and-Tell. As a book produced by a small press, it actually sold very well and it was time to move on to other projects. But I wasn't sure what those would be until an opportunity fell into my lap.
When I attended the Kentucky Book Fair in Lexington to acquaint the public with Maggie, I met the publisher of Baxter's Corner, a small press located outside of Louisville. Mary Ellen sat next to me selling her company's books, but we didn't have the chance to talk much until after the event. As we packed up, she gave me a copy of Gerome Sticks Out His Neck. This book takes a novel approach by telling an educational story in rhyme. I was impressed by the book and told her I'd love to write for Baxter's Corner.
Baxter’s Corner uses storytelling as a way to affect positive behavioral choices for children from birth to eight years old. The books highlight specific themes such as respect, anti-bullying, compassion, determination, and overcoming obstacles.
Taking part in the Kentucky Book Festival presented me with an amazing opportunity to meet a publisher and to write a children's book. And I jumped on the chance to make something good happen.
I don't know what will become of my book for Baxter's Corner. There's a possibility it may get published. After all, the publisher has the completed version and she may feel inclined to move forward with it. If that doesn't happen, I will consider it a valuable experience which has helped me grow as a writer.
✌ and ♥
How to Take Advantage of Opportunities on a Daily Basis
Sunday, May 15, 2022
DEALING WITH AN UNETHICAL PUBLISHER
About five years ago, a small press published my book Maggie and the Summer Vacation Show-and-Tell. I was on cloud nine. Nothing could go wrong. But, well...things did go wrong, and therefore I feel the need to inform my readers.
For me, the publishing process was daunting, frustrating at times, but overall thrilling. I even got to audition illustrators for my book. The best part was knowing my story would have the potential to entertain and educate kids. Having a book published was a dream come true. But now it's a bit of a nightmare.
The publisher stated upfront that she would only do a few things for promotion. She said she would get an ISBN number, sell it on Amazon, and write a press release. That's it. The author is supposed to do everything else: design and pay for bookmarks, attend book fairs, market on social media (Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Instagram), get newspapers to write an article, persuade libraries to carry the book, arrange book signings and more. I knew this from the get-go, and was up to the task.
And even though I knew the publisher would do very little promoting, I wished she would have been more supportive when I informed her of the write-up in a literary magazine, the many positive reviews, and my television appearance and participation in a prestigious book fair. I was hoping she might pay a small portion of my marketing expenses, or at the very least, promote my book on the company's website. None of this happened for me.
In fact, the opposite happened.
My publisher got angry at me for not selling all of the books the organizers had ordered for the Kentucky Book Festival. She tried to coerce me into paying for the returned books and told me my contract stated that I was responsible for the unsold books. Actually, it was not in the contract. And I refused to be intimidated and comply.
So, a punishment was dealt out to me: she removed my books from the publishing company's online library and stopped carrying them on Amazon.
Wow. How can someone be that mean, that childish? Don't you think she could have found a way to work with me to promote and sell the extra copies? No, she had to get even. Revengeful.
So, you might ask, what can I do now? Lots. I can edit my Amazon profile to direct people to my website where they can order a book. Since I have a pdf of the story, I can upload it to Amazon and print copies. What else can I do? I can leave Google reviews. I can report the company to Editors and Predators and to Writer Beware. I can warn writers on Facebook and Absolute Write. I shed light about the company's practices on LinkedIn.
Don't get me wrong. I was ecstatic to have a book published. I only wished the publisher could have been more professional and honest.
To sum up, when a publisher fails to be supportive, the author loses. Actually, the publisher and the author lose. No, the public loses, too, because a children's book has been removed from places where it can be printed and bought.
I don't know how often a publisher gets vindictive. But I want to bring this issue to light. I want to warn others. If ever you find yourself interested in working with a small press, here's what you need to know: Research the publisher. Read what others have to say about them before signing the contract. Scrutinize the contract and be sure you will not be responsible for books that aren't sold. Lastly, be sure that the publisher wants to help promote your book. That she wants to make it successful. And above all, that she wants to put your book in the hands of a child.
✌ and ♥
Friday, April 15, 2022
|Photo: Brooke Cagle|
JOINING A CRITIQUE GROUP
I'll be honest. Being part of a critique group has never been my cup of tea. I prefer to get critiques from my beta reader, my husband. He cheers me on and he gives me great advice—I don't need others to weigh in on my work. However, about five years ago, I got curious about a writing group that met at a library close to my home.
When I arrived for the meeting, I discovered aspiring picture book writers eager to get published. They were passionate about the stories they had written, and because they seemed professional, I made a commitment to join them. It felt good connecting with local writers, helping them on their stories, and getting feedback on my own manuscripts. We met one day a month to discuss our work and to give constructive critiques. But before long, the group fell apart as people's schedules got complicated. I hated seeing this group dissolve. From what I observed, many members got a lot out of the sessions.
Since then, several years passed and I never gave any thought to joining another group. And then I meet a person through Mindy Alyse Weiss' Picture Book Party New Draft Challenge and Critique Train, an online event where writers were paired with critique partners. By luck, this person invited me to join a critique group called Friday Minds.
Friday Minds meets twice a month on Friday afternoons via Zoom. I'm the only writer on the east coast. Four of the others live in California and another gal lives in western Canada. Friday Minds is composed of teachers, poets, moms, and of course, picture book writers.
Before we dive into the manuscripts, we chat about what's going on in our personal lives, what we may have learned through workshops or webinars, writing events we may have participated in or hope to participate in, and what picture books we have read and loved. Then, we get down to business and one person reads a manuscript aloud. Next, we all give positive comments on the piece. Afterward, the members take turns pointing out the parts that are unclear or might need editing.
Friday Minds is a good fit for me. I was unsure at first, but the more I got to know everyone, the more I wanted to be part of this group. Everyone is talented, fun to hang out with, and offers great advice and insight. Now, I'm aware that other writers may feel differently about joining a critique group. Some writers simply like to work alone. Hey, I did that for years. However, if you're curious (or tired of rejections) sit in on a meeting and consider these questions:
- Does the group give positive feedback, discuss what works, and address the strengths?
- Do they give constructive criticism on the areas that need improvement?
- Do they give detailed comments on plot, character, word choice, pacing and page-turns?
- How do the members handle criticism?
- Is there chemistry and respect among members?
I'm thrilled to be part of this critique group. We brainstorm and offer new ideas to improve each other's stories. We help each other navigate the waters of publication. We commiserate over rejection and rejoice in our successes.
Being a writer is a hard, lonely profession. Now, my supporters have grown. I have five more people who want to hear my stories. I never thought I'd stick with a critique group, but Friday Minds encourages me. They give me confidence in my writing. They want to see me succeed. Like my husband, Friday Minds is always there to cheer me on.
✌ and ♥
Tuesday, March 15, 2022
|Photo by Marco Testi|
IT'S ABOUT TIME TO HEAR SOME GOOD NEWS
IT'S ABOUT TIME TO HEAR SOME GOOD NEWS
One would think that after submitting to agents for over four years, I would hear some good news. It shouldn't take this long. Or be this hard.
I make every effort to match an agent's needs. And it's not easy to nail. It would almost be better to learn how to read minds.
Luckily, I can peek into an agent's mind by doing google searches. Some agents express their tastes in interviews, on their agency's website, or on The Manuscript Wish List. They give clues by spelling out what they are looking for in a manuscript: the topics, character, settings, and genre. While that information is helpful, it is in truth somewhat vague.
Say for instance an agent is looking for a humorous character-driven story about a cat and you send her a hilarious piece starring a funny feline. That doesn't necessarily mean you're a shoo-in and she's going to offer representation. The agent must fall in love with the story and feel that she can sell it.
Let me tell you how I know this. I queried an agent who was looking for a book that could be used in the classroom for beginning discussion for social-emotional learning. I had just the manuscript: a narrative about a child who is kind to a person living on the streets. Handled delicately, this book has the potential to bring sensitivity to homelessness. However, the agent rejected it saying, she wasn't enthusiastic in her experience to sell it.
There are days when I feel I will never crack the code, that I will continue to read I'm not the right agent for this work. Recently, I felt defeated having received two rejections in one day. Ouch!
I had the opportunity to ask an agent why she rejected a manuscript. She said, "That's not your fault! We can only guess what other readers will connect with on that deep level. Same is true when I send books to publishers." I interpret her comment to mean the manuscript is good and she likes it, but she's not sure if the publisher would feel it's a good fit for their readers. So, it's a balancing act. You've written something you love and an agent is trying to figure out if that book will sell.
In the past few years, I've sent out (in my opinion) some damn good manuscripts. And I'm still looking for an agent who will love them as much as I do. At times, I'm optimistic even after receiving rejections. Some of them say I like the concept or your manuscript has much to offer.
There will always be rejections. But I try hard to focus on the positive: one agent tells me my manuscript is nearly there while another has requested my picture book. I believe in my work and I visualize success. I only have to be patient and persevere. But wouldn't you agree that after four years, it's time to hear good news?
Tuesday, February 15, 2022
|Photo: Ben White|
REJECTION—IT'S NOT PERSONAL
I try my best to limit rejection by visiting the Manuscript Wish List. On this website, I can match my work to the kind of manuscripts agents are craving. Even still, that doesn't guarantee the agent will say yes. Crazy, huh?
- This is not a good fit for my list
- I am not connecting with the voice
- I'm not the right agent for this project
- I have no vision where to pitch this
- I can't see where this would sit in the market
- It's not in my wheelhouse
After 50 rejections, I shelved Maggie and worked on other pieces. But five years later, there was an opportunity to have a manuscript critique by a highly respected editorial consultant. I revised Maggie because I hadn't seen it in years and then submitted it for a professional critique. When I received the consultant's notes, I revised the story again and sent it out again to five more agents.
It's difficult to stay positive when you receive rejections. But remember that the whole submitting process is subjective. If you believe in every aspect of it of your story—the main character, the plot, the voice, and the takeaway message—then don't give up. Assume and persist. Imagine the wish fulfilled. All things are possible. Don't think about what could go wrong. Think about what could go right. It only takes one agent to say yes.
✌ and ♥
When the world says, "Give up," hope whispers, "Try it one more time."
Saturday, January 15, 2022
ADVICE—TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT
How do you feel when someone gives you writing advice? Are you open to all of the suggestions and revise your entire manuscript? Do you accept a few ideas and edit those parts? Or do you shun all ideas that aren't your own?
I usually resist making changes to my work. (Some might call this being stubborn.) But if my first reader or critique partners feel something is not working, I will consider the advice. I'll look at the section in question, rewrite it, and weigh both versions. There's a chance the revision could work. However, if there's a portion of my story I deeply love and others have issues with, it's unlikely that part will be rewritten. When the original version represents my vision, change is not going to happen.
Usually, I know in advance when I'll get advice. I either hand my work to my first reader or schedule a critique with my writing group. Knowing ahead of time prepares me for the criticism. But one time, a piece of advice came my way out of the blue. Recently, my physical therapist asked about one of my manuscripts and I gave him the gist of it. Andrew, who is also a writer, said, "Let me play devil's advocate."
I braced myself. He was going to challenge me. And I wasn't prepared.
"While this subject matter is important, you still have to handle it sensitively. Otherwise, parents may not want to read it to their kids. It has the potential to be scary and send an unsafe message."
It was good advice. I never thought about it that way and I agreed with his analysis. What surprised me was how blind I had been to this part of the story, taking for granted that others would perceive the climax as innocuous as I did. This turning point could be perceived as a dangerous.
After speaking with Andrew, I examined the story again. The problem was, this part was critical to the plot. It could not be cut. When I looked at the scene from his perspective however, I could see how it might make parents feel uneasy—a child interacts with a homeless person. I had to figure out how to retain this part of the story. Realizing the scene needed to be handled more delicately, I made a slight adjustment by reinforcing the fact that the child was safe and with her mother.
Andrew expressed interest in another story I was writing. When I told him my picture book was an allegory, a story with a hidden meaning usually political or moral, he thought children wouldn't understand. Naturally, I got a little defensive. And as we chatted, I began to have some doubts about this piece. I wondered if it would be suitable as a children's book.
But as we talked about the messages of children's books, in particular those written by Dr. Seuss, my fears quickly evaporated. Seuss had intertwined messages flawlessly in his stories. Though I could never compare my work to Seuss', my book subtly conveys a powerful message. Basically, the plot of the story embraces truthfulness and bravery, and on a deeper level, it tackles politics, religion, and antisemitism. Heavy topics.
I remembered what author and Medium contributing writer Brooke Meredith had to say about difficult subjects: "We need stories that make us uncomfortable because reading stories about topics with which you are unfamiliar, which unsettle or even upset, which challenge your beliefs or make you think, can be the most important things you read."
Meredith's words restored my confidence and faith in my story.
On the whole, I love hearing what other people have to say about my work. It helps me think about it differently, to step into their shoes, and understand what it is they may be interpreting. It helps me to work out problems with my manuscripts. I may not incorporate all or even some of the suggestions from others, but I'll consider new ideas and be open to sound advice.
✌ and ♥