Tuesday, March 14, 2023

writing picture books, the first 70 words, Mindy Weiss' picture book party, picture book writing challenge
                                                                                                                                                 Photo: Thecut.com


I have a challenge for you.   

Take your picture book manuscripts (yes, all of them) and see if you can arrange the beginnings so that they are exactly 70 words.  Not a word over the limit.  The beginnings however, can be shorter than 70.  But you can't end in the middle of a sentence.

I learned about this exercise by taking part in Mindy Weiss' PB Party.

To participate, a writer had to submit only the first 70 words of a manuscript.  The idea is to set up the story and introduce the conflict in order to entice the judges to read more. 

For me, that required rearranging the beginnings of nearly all of my work and then selecting the strongest piece.  

Believe me, none of the first seventy words of any of my manuscripts were compelling enough.  I had to do lots and lots of tweaking to lower the word count.  Often, I'd get close but would always go over the limit by just one word.  It was frustrating and yet fun.  It was like working a puzzle, trying to restructure sentences so that the opening was clear and captivating.   After I had pared down all of manuscripts, I had to choose the most intriguing one so that the story would leave the judges begging for more.  

Sound easy?  It's not.  

But I will guarantee when you strive to make the beginnings of your stories shorter, your manuscript will be irresistible.  And agents will want to read further.    

So, I throw down the gauntlet.  What do you say? Are you up to it?  Are you ready to take the 70-word challenge?    

✌ and 

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

writing, writing for kids, mentoring
                                                                                                                                              Photo: John Schnobrich


It's not easy helping friends with their writing.  Don't get me wrong.  I love supporting picture book writers.  But the ugly truth is, it can be trying.  Some friends ask too much of me.  It's getting to the point where I'm considering setting some ground rules.

I don't mind waiving my fees for my friends.  But sometimes, they may want me to line edit a chapter book.  They may want to meet multiple times and get feedback with every new draft.  They may even want me to help sell their self-published books.  

One friend asks me to take a look at her work and then gripes when I point out parts of her beloved stories that need attention.  She doesn't want to hear the truth about her work.  It's her nature to resist revision.  Though she'll make some slight changes, she really would like me to fall in love with the first draft.    

Another friend wants me to give him feedback on his work, but unlike my female friend, he never really listens to my advice and never makes a single change, even if there are grammar or formatting problems.  Ideally, he would like to find a publisher for his children's stories, but he always decides to self-publish his work.  Always.  He only wants my approval and for me to boost his confidence.    

These two examples are rare.  Most of the time, my writer friends don't abuse our friendship. They don't get frustrated and they are open to making revisions.  They make consulting fun and rewarding.

For instance, several years ago a friend needed help with a manuscript he planned to submit to a children's magazine.  I was happy to help him, and in the end, the piece got published in Highlights.  He sent me a copy and I found his story even retained some of my ideas.  Eventually he learned the ropes.  Now, he has been published by Highlights multiple times.  I'm thrilled that my advice has made a difference in his writing career.  

But there will always be a few friends who make my job challenging.  They may get defensive or disregard the suggestions.  Their attitudes frustrate me, and helping them feels like a waste of my time.  

Things have got to change when it comes to helping my friends.  We need to have a conversation.  I need to learn what it is they want from me and then they need to learn how I can help them.  So, here are some of the guidelines I'm thinking about:

  • discuss the goals for the consultation
  • limit appointments to an hour, whether on the phone or in person 
  • offer to look at the first draft, but charge for subsequent help  

I put thought and effort into reviewing manuscripts, and I don't expect all of my suggestions to be used.  But if friends contact me for help on a picture book, I expect that they do some editing and to do so without grumbling about it.  They will need to be considerate and respectful of my time.  I've got to put my foot down.  Would you agree it's time to clue-in my friends?  Would you agree it's time to set a few ground rules?    

 ✌ and  

Sunday, January 15, 2023


                                                                                                                                                 Photo: Hannah Olinger


How would you feel if a critic said your picture book manuscript was not a picture book?

Recently, that very thing happened to my friend Anne.  As you can imagine, she was upset.  The critic remarked it was more suitable for a magazine.  What's weird is I had worked with Anne on this particular project and I've always considered it a picture book.  

So, how do you know if you've written a magazine story or a picture book?  

Magazine stories have fewer illustrations, have one scene, and are meant to be read once.  

Picture books rely on illustrations, have scenes that advance the plot, and are meant to be read out loud and repeatedly.  

Specifically, picture books:

  • Are usually for ages 4 - 8 
  • Are usually 32 pages 
  • Are about journey and heart (those words that makes us feel)
  • Present universal themes (love, friendship, courage, hope, etc.) in a fresh way
  • Impart a message without being preachy.  
  • Have a rhythm and a flow of the language that invites adults to read the story out loud
  • Have an engaging plot that begs the story to be read again and again
  • Have well-timed page turns 
  • Have lots of visual opportunities for illustrations 

Some picture books are simply a lively romp with lyrical language and energy that’ll entice re-reading for the sheer joy of it.  More often, picture books are character-driven with a strong arc.  These stories center on an inner conflict which leads to character development.    

What if you're still unsure if you've written a picture book?  

You can separate the text of your manuscript into pages and try to envision the art that will support each page. 

When author Debbie Ridpath Ohi pages out her text, she does tiny thumbnail sketches using stick figures to check overall flow.  Debbie says, "You don’t need to be an artist to do this!"

So, what did my friend decide to do?  Anne realized the critic was entitled to her opinion, but she also realized the critic had made some good points, which inspired her to reevaluate her picture book.  Moving forward, Anne plans to edit her work by making the text more joyful to ensure re-readability and by developing more inner conflict that will lead to character growth.   

Anne has the right attitude.  She knows it takes determination to stay positive and to continue after hearing discouraging comments. But what would you do if someone were to give you a disheartening critique about your work, especially if you heard it's not a picture book?  I hope you would question that opinion.  You may need to find others for support.  You certainly have my support.  I will tell you to believe in yourself.  Believe in your writing.  Don't let one opinion get you down.  Be strong.  Keep on going and don't give up.  You know as well as me, it takes perseverance and a thick skin to write for kids. 

✌ and 

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Writing, naming characters and pets
Sweet ol' Ollie


Coming up with a great name for a character is one of the hardest tasks a writer will face.  I always explore the meaning of names to make the job a little easier and more fun.  And, having had practice naming characters for my stories, I assumed I'd have the honor of naming our cat.  

My daughter Abby however, didn’t want to hear any of my ideas.  She decided to call our cat Ollie.  And I’m not sure why.  Maybe she liked the sound of it.  Maybe it was the first name that popped into her head.  Maybe the cat looked like an Ollie to her.

Being a writer, I wanted to know the significance of his name.  So, I looked up the meaning of Ollie.  According to www.babynamewizard.com, Ollie is the pet form of Oliver, derived from the French word olivier or olive tree.  Which begs the question: why would anyone name a person or a pet after an olive tree?  I read on.  Some think the name Ollie has a Germanic origin composed of the words alf (elf) and hari (army). Whatever that's supposed to mean.  Regardless of the meaning, Ollie ended up being a fitting name for our cat. 

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 
I keep the bestowing of names to a minimum, for family, pets, and fictional characters. 

Some people get a little carried away and give names to their cars, boats, appliances, and laptops.  I knew a gal who gave her plants the names of Shakespeare characters.   
Some people name body parts.  I'll just leave it at that.    

Writer Geraldine DeRuiter, travel writer and blogger of The Everywhereist, gave her brain tumor a name.  

"As for why I named it Steve... well, duh. What else was I going to name it? There is no one to whom I am particularly close who is named Steve. I’ve never kissed a boy named Steve. I’ve never uttered the phrase, “Steve, I love you.” And Steve is nice and short and easy to add to a long list of unrepeatable words. Behold:  Fucking goddamn miserable piece-of-shit Steve.” 

As you know, names are important to writers.  We want our characters to be memorable and we want the names to reflect their personalities.  But sometimes, we choose names just because we like them and the name seems fitting regardless of what they mean.  

Which brings me back to our pet's name.  think Ozzie is perfect for our cat.  However, my husband tells me if he had been given a choice, he would have decided upon something different.  Something shorter.  In fact, it's even something he calls Ozzie from time to time.  Yes, Geraldine, my husband thinks like you, although his usage is less profane.  If he had been given a vote, he would have named our cat Steve. 

✌ and 

*Last year, Ozzie escaped on Thanksgiving evening.  Being an indoor cat, he didn't have the skills to survive outside.  We had given up hope of every seeing him again.  But two months later, someone posted a picture online of a lost cat that looked like our cat. Long story short, we were reunited with a very skinny, but unharmed (and grateful) Ozzie. 

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