Tuesday, November 15, 2022

                                                                                                                                                           Photo: Josh Applegate


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:

  1. What does the protagonist learn about him or herself in the story?
  2. What does the protagonist learn to cope with in the story?"

Writers Write identifies 10 Powerful Recurring Themes In Children’s Stories:

  1. Courage
  2. Friendship
  3. Belonging/Identity
  4. Family
  5. Loss/Grief
  6. Growing Up.
  7. Anger
  8. Suffering
  9. Jealousy
  10. Love
Of course, there are many other choices, as listed here: 

Most memorable children's books revolve around a theme.  For example, the theme of Horton Hears a Who is taking a stand and the value of hard work is the theme in The Little Engine That Could.

But don't let finding a theme pressure you.  Relax, don't overthink it.  I suggest that you pour out your story and let it evolve.  Have confidence that a theme will appear.     

But...a word of caution:  If you're ready to submit your picture book, avoid pointing blatantly to the theme of your story.  This can be a bit of a turnoff to an agent.  Rest assured that when you describe the actions of your protagonist, you'll be able to convey the theme.    

Often, I've found that the themes in my picture book books end up being things I care deeply about.  They are issues I want to explore and causes I want to shed light on.  This may be the case for you, too.  Themes emerge when you write about something you're passionate about.  So, take a look at the pieces that you've written and the actions of the main character.  Can you identify the themes in your stories?  

✌ and 

Saturday, October 15, 2022

elements of a story, main character, conflict, literary agents
                                                                                                                                                                            Photo: Nong V

This week, a client sent me two picture book manuscripts that were beautifully written but lacked the basic elements of a story:  character and conflict.  It's very likely that these manuscripts will be rejected by agents.  Most agents crave stories with character and conflict.    

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

rejection, challenges of writing for kids, powerful writing hooks
                                                                                                                                                      Photo: Dmitry Schemelev 


From time to time, I question whether I should stick with writing.  This doubt arises when my work is rejected or worse ignored, which makes me wonder if my submissions were ever received.  

It's hard to remain positive, even though many authors say never give up.  

Disappointment lingered (so real I could almost touch it), but I shoved it aside to work on a fictional story and a nonfiction picture book.  I toggled back in forth between the manuscripts, editing the pieces but felt they would never be completed, never reach perfection (in my mind), never become what they should become.  I moved sentences around, deleted words, added dialogue, and I am so f*cking brain-tired and full of doubt.   

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

I take a break.  I work a Wordle.  I move on to Quordle.  I solve them both quickly. 

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

writing for kids, the journey to publication, why writing for kids is not easy
                                                                                                                                                                                                   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.    

The submission process is every bit as arduous.  A writer must compose a professional query letter and research agents that are open to picture book submissions.  Submitting to an agent doesn't guarantee an acceptance.  It can take years to find an agent.  On top of that, if a writer signs with an agent, the agent must submit the work to publishers.  The whole process, from initial idea to publishing a book can take up to two years.  

Since I had met the publisher of Baxter's Corner, I could skip the submission process.  But creating that book wasn't a walk in the park.  There were tight guidelines.  Specifically, I had to choose an animal character the company had developed and assign a moral value to this character.  Okay you say, select a character and the value and get on with writing the story.  But it wasn't that simple.  
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 then...COVID hit.  As the pandemic raged, the market changed, the focus of Baxter's Corner shifted, and Tajo was put on the back burner.   

This outcome was not a surprise to me.  I sensed the direction Baxter's Corner was taking on Facebook. The company had been making posts about the themes in its upcoming books—themes which varied greatly from Tajo.  So, when the publisher called to tell me my book had been shelved, I was prepared for the heart-breaking news.  Still, this setback sucked.  

But...it would not defeat me. 

I will move forward and use this experience to become a better writer.  A stronger, more resilient person.  Undaunted.  I will write in spite of rejections or the shifts in the market.  I will write in spite of the notion people say it's easy.  There will always be disappointments, setbacks and ignorance.  And spite of it all, I will write for kids.    

✌ and 

* Jotting down the objectives is a great exercise and it can help in developing the structure of your story.

Friday, July 15, 2022


Van Gogh self portraits


Dear faithful readers,

You have an opportunity to let your voice be heard, to get involved, to try to sway an author (that would be me).

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
Johanna van Gogh Bonger and son Vincent
She also began to understand Vincent's dark moods and passions.  She realized his genius.   

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

writing and opportunities
                                                                                                            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. 

Two months later, we met for lunch.  I learned more about Mary Ellen's life, her goals and her company.  As we waited for our food to be served, she pulled out a book contract.  It felt surreal, magical, and empowering.  She wanted me to write books for her company that would have a positive effect on kids.

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. 

Each book focuses on making good choices in difficult or confusing situations and using the endearing animal characters to make the point.  These cute creatures show children how to think and dream, how to be curious and courageous, and how to be kind and compassionate.   

The goal of Baxter's Corner is to put value-based books into the hands of children and to give caregivers, who may be reading to the child, strong examples that teach approaches to some of the struggles that children face in today’s world. 

My role with Baxter's Corner would be to assign a value to a specific character and write a 32-page story in rhyme while capturing the unique personality of that character. 

Six of the animal characters have been featured in books.  The newest characters, an orangutan and a tarantula, needed to have stories written about them.  I gravitated to the tarantula.  At first, I thought I'd never be able to write his story because spiders creep me out, but I changed my mind upon seeing how this furry creature had been rendered.  Tajo is not scary-looking.  He is actually an adorable character.  
After going back and forth with the publisher on pinpointing the objective, I got the green light to develop a story for the meek but courageous tarantula.  Six months later, the publisher accepted Tajo Speaks Up and then—the pandemic struck.  Unfortunately, as COVID ran rampant, Baxter's Corner pushed back its publishing schedule and therefore, my book was put on hold. 
It was disappointing because I had put so much work and love into this book.  But all was not lost.  I learned a lot about publishers and most of all, about the significance of opportunity.
Opportunity presents itself everywhere.  It takes being aware and taking advantage of what comes our way.  When we do, we have the potential to allow good things to happen.  The key is to develop the vision to see it.  For writers, good things can happen if we continue to submit, take a workshop, communicate and connect with other writers, go to book signings, join critique groups, or participate in literary fairs.   

The ability to discover opportunities depends on luck and chance as well as awareness and a positive attitude.  The ability to make the most of opportunities depends on not waiting for something better to come along, but to take advantage of the situation as soon as it presents itself.  

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.    

One could say good things came to an end with Maggie and quite possibly for Tajo.  But maybe not.  With eyes wide open for opportunities, good things will continue to happen.

✌ and 

How to Take Advantage of Opportunities on a Daily Basis

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Dealing with unethical Cactus Moon Publishing


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