Monday, February 28, 2011

Picture Books: Lessons I Learned from Writing My Own—Plus a New Book Giveaway!

It's Baby Says, “Moo!” week at Teaching! To celebrate the publication of my new rhyming picture book, we’re giving away an autographed copy. Entry details below!

As my contribution to the picture book topic the other Teaching Authors have already addressed, I’m sharing some lessons I learned by looking back at the writing and publishing process for each of my five picture books. I’ll post one each day this week.

I wrote the first draft of my first book, Cats on Judy, when I was in college and lived with my twin sister Judy. I had a dog, and Judy had two cats. The dog slept on my bed, and the cats slept on Judy’s bed. That observation was the inspiration for a poem I wrote in a creative writing class. I put the poem in a folder, stashed it in a file cabinet, and forgot all about it.

Twenty years later, I was reading to our sons, and I thought it would be fun to write a children’s book. I remembered the poem, dug it out of the file cabinet, took some classes in writing for children, expanded the poem to picture book length, polished the manuscript (a lot!), and submitted it to multiple publishers. Lo and behold, on one of the most joyful days of my life, it was accepted!

Lesson #1: Never throw anything away.

On to our giveaway!

Baby Says “Moo!” was inspired by a learning game my sisters and I played with our little sisters. Much later, my husband and I played the same game with our own kids: What does the doggie say? What does the kitty say? What does the birdie say? I can still hear a little voice answering, “Peep! Peep!”

The Baby in the book, however, answers every question, “Moo!” Publishers Weekly asks, “So is Baby (a) just being a goofball; (b) practicing for an actual cow sighting (which occurs at book's end); (c) giving multiple shout-outs to its purple-spotted bovine lovey; or (d) slyly subverting the parents' attempt to turn every encounter into a teachable moment?”

The answer is yes! To enter the drawing for an autographed copy of Baby Says “Moo!”, follow these steps:

1. Post a comment on any post this week and tell us about a learning game you’ve played with children. Enter only once, please!

2. Include your contact information in your comment. If you are not a blogger or your e-mail address is not accessible from your online profile, provide a valid e-mail address in your comment. Feel free to disguise your address by spelling out portions, such as [at] and [dot].

3. Post your comment by 11 p.m. (CST) Monday, March 7, 2011.

The winner:
• must have a mailing address in the United States.
• will be determined using the random number generator at
• will be announced on Tuesday, March 8.
• automatically grants us permission to post his or her name on our Teaching Authors web site.
• will also be notified by e-mail.
• must respond to the notification e-mail and provide a mailing address within 72 hours, or the prize will be forfeited and an alternate winner will be chosen.

Good luck!
JoAnn Early Macken

Friday, February 25, 2011

Metaphors, Similes, Panic in Picture Books, and Bathing a Dog--all! Happy Poetry Friday!

Happy Poetry Friday and howdy to all February Picture Book Marathoners!  You can do it, you can do it--you can, you can!

Similes.  Metaphors.  You know them well.

Similes compare two unlike objects using "like" or "as": That dog is like a lump of clay--he never chases balls.

Metaphors, in contrast, don't: That dog, a lump of clay, never chases balls. Or simply, That lump of clay never chases balls.
Eli being a lump of clay.
"Metaphor" sounds like someone saying, "May the Force," doesn't it?  (It does if you tilt your head sideways and sing LALALA really loudly...)  Their force, their power can create vivid images in our minds.

When I was writing It's Not My Turn To Look For Grandma!, my editor asked me to clarify that the story starts at sunrise and ends at sundown.  I had no idea how to communicate this without being too wordy or clunkily obvious.  I was actually pretty frightened.

I flailed about.  My flailing is not pretty.  Want to see what it looks like close up?  This Monday I had a boatload of writing to do in the afternoon.  But first I had to have lunch--I mean, c'mon.  Since I was a little lost and didn't quite know how to start any of the projects looming over me, another helping of veggies and rice seemed like a jolly good idea and oh, that left-over clam chowder sure looked yummy.
After my large lunch, the flailing continued.  I had a poem due and no ideas.  None. Nada.  I lead a pretty pathetic little life, I decided.  Except for the dog park and the gym, I'd had no human contact.  So I looked around my room.  Eli was a lump of clay on the love seat--no help there.

I was too lazy to actually stand up and walk to my bookshelf (sometimes I'm inspired by the pattern or subject of other poems).  There was a lemon next to my computer because I'd picked it from our tree and meant to drop it off in the kitchen but brought it into my office instead.
Not to make those of you shivering under snow jealous or anything, but this is our Meyer lemon tree right this very minute.
A lemon.  Hmmm.  So I wrote a poem about the lemon.  That lemon saved my day.

But back to my book and how to show time passing.  I flailed (picture a woman with eight arms, frantically waving them in all directions--yeah, that's me...).  I think I did some brainstorming.  Or maybe I opened the refrigerator and took out an egg.  I don't remember.  The key is that in the middle of this kind of panic, I know one thing: I've got to keep my eyes and ears open to any gifts the universe may be giving me.

I made a hard boiled egg.
My mind began to play.  What if the sun were an egg?  This turned into my scaffolding upon which I could hang time passing. Here's what I sprinkled throughout the story:
  • Dawn was just cracking over the hills.
  • Noon was sizzling like an egg in a cast-iron pan.
  • Afternoon clouds scrambled in the sky.
  • Shadows were eating up the day.
No one notices this as they are reading the book.  But it helped me stop flailing and begin writing.  

Are you flailing?  Maybe the Writing Workout below will help.

Writing Workout ~ Metaphors and Similes

In the poem below, I used the metaphor of war.  There are battle images in each stanza.  Which are similes?  Which are metaphors?

by April Halprin Wayland

My sister and I are pushing a big aluminum tub
across our brick patio to the grass
sounding like a tank rolling towards war.

I hold the hose and she turns the spigot.
Water thunders into the tub like a drum roll
filling it up.
we find him trembling behind bushes,
We pull our prisoner across the yard,
his head down,
his paws gripping the passing grass;
then, my sister, because she is older,
lifts him above the tub...
and with a long sigh, he surrenders.
This poem was included in the book, Poems for Brothers, Poems for Sisters selected by Myra Cohn Livingston (Holiday House, 1988)

So here's your assignment: go into your bathroom and look for gifts from the universe.  Could that bar of soap be a hunk of cheese or the remote control of a Martian space ship?  Is the bathtub a giant stew pot...and are you part of the stew? What could a toothbrush be?  The toilet?  Shaving cream?  A liquid soap dispenser?  If the bathroom doesn't trigger ideas, take your Metaphor and Simile Search to the rest of the house.  Is the stove a creature with four eyes?

Once you have a few fresh ideas, pick one and write a poem or start a picture book.  Dive in--and metaphors be with you!
poem, drawings and photos of our lemon tree and of Eli on the love seat (c) April Halprin Wayland

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"You Are as Good as Your First Line"

Over the last two weeks I learned (again) what a good first line can do for you. As I mentioned in my last post, I'm working on a picture book biography. While researching the genre, I came across an interesting article by award-winning biographer James Cross Giblin. In it, he speaks of the importance of finding "anecdotes that bring the subject to life in ways that can be appreciated by younger as well as older readers." I do have several such anecdotes about my subject, but I've been having a hard time arranging them into a story with conflict/tension that rises to a climax. My draft also lacked a well-defined focus or theme.

So I tried the Writing Workout I suggested last time: I went back to the stack of sample biographies I'd brought home from the library and I studied the opening paragraphs to see how each author set up the tension and/or piqued the reader's interest. In other words, I examined how the authors "say who, when, and where" and "state the problem," as Mem Fox says.  Here are several of my favorite openings from those books:
"No one expected such a tiny girl to have a first birthday. In Clarksville, Tennessee, in 1940, life for a baby who weighed just over four pounds at birth was sure to be limited." (34 words)
--from Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World's Fastest Woman
by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by David Diaz
"In 1917, some girls dressed their dolls. They played house and hopscotch, jump rope and jacks.
    But one little girl wanted more. Elinor Smith wanted to soar." (27 words)
--from Soar, Elinor! by Tami Lewis Brown, illustrated by Francois Roca
"From the time he was young until long after his beard grew white, Charles Darwin loved to collect things. He collected rocks from the English countryside he explored as a boy, coins in the home where he grew up, shells from trips to the sea, and dead bugs, too." (49 words)
-from Darwin by Alice McGinty, illustrated by Mary Azarian

Each of these openings hints at the challenges and/or aspirations of the book's subject while also introducing theme and tone. In each case, it took fewer than fifty words to hook me so that I wanted to know more.

I spent days working on a first line/paragraph that would accomplish the same thing for my manuscript. When I finally had it, so much of the story fell into place. My new opening provided more than a hook; it helped me find the focus I'd been struggling to define. What a Eureka! moment.

In a bit of Synchronicity, yesterday I came across a short article by author-illustrator Lindsay Barrett George on picture book writing in general. When writing picture books, she says:
"Keep these three things in mind:
  • You are as good as your first line.
  • Something has to happen.
  • The character that we meet on the first page cannot be the same character that we leave on the last page."
    As I learned these past two weeks, this advice is helpful for both fiction picture books and picture book biographies. (I think it applies to novels, too!) If you'd like to prove it to yourself, try the Writing Workout below.

    In my last post, I shared some resources for finding high-quality children's picture books to study, whether you're writing fiction or biography. Since then, I've found three more sites that list recommended books for children and teens (both fiction and nonfiction): 
    I also came across a book that both teachers and nonfiction writers should find helpful: Picture That! from Mendel to Normandy: Picture Books and Ideas, Curriculum and Connections--For 'Tweens and Teens by Sharron L. McElmeel

    And for those of you who, like me, are interested in picture book biographies, I suggest you read my friend Bruce Frost's blog, Words Not Taken. He's currently doing a series on the genre.

    Only five days to go in this year's Picture Book Marathon!
    Hooray for all of you who are heading toward the finish line, especially my good friend (and former student) Cathy Cronin. You can do it!

    Writing Workout
    Focusing on First Lines

    This is a variation on the Writing Workout I shared last time.
    Over at the Pen and Ink blog, Susan Berger recently posted "first lines from  first picture books." For today's Writing Workout:
    1. Read the first lines Susan shares from ten picture books. Which make you want to read more? Why?
    2. Now find the books in a library or bookstore. Does the rest of the story live up to your expectations?
    3. Can you apply what you learn from this exercise to your own picture book drafts?
    By the way, if you're a novelist, at the end of Susan's blog post you'll find links to posts containing the first lines of novels, too.

    Happy Writing!

    Monday, February 21, 2011

    Happy 300th to Us

        Today is the 300th post in the TA blog.  It's also President's Day, so some of you will be reading this tomorrow.

          For the TA's, this is National Toot Your Own Horn Day. At three blogs a week (with an occasional vacation) we have lasted longer than a lot of TV shows. (Anybody remember Supertrain?) This is no small feat.

         Back in the Paleolithic Age of the Internet (1996), when Alta Vista was my search engine of choice, and a site with graphics was  a rare treat, I first ran across this thing called a "blog." After  determining that "blog" was a combination of "web" and "log", and had nothing to do with Star Trek--my original thought--I checked out a few of these early blogs. After two weeks I was blogged out because so many of these early entries had a lot in common. Not good things.

        Lots of the blogs were intensely personal, like reading someone's diary.   Someone's really boring diary. I could not imagine that anyone could possibly be interested in every soy latte I consumed, or how many pounds I had lost that week.  The bloggers seem to have the same problems;  many of the bogs I read were "one-hit-wonders---especially the weight loss ones. The blogger would eloquently describe
    the woes of obesity (which in itself varied by definition), describe their new diet, vow to post every week and lose X number of pounds by (Christmas, Hannukah, 10th class reunion). There might be a post or two more...then silence, leaving me to imagine that the writer had returned to the Land of Many Calories.

       There were the ranters (usually something involving governments and/or conspiracy theories). Movie review blogs that I enjoyed, but like everything else, fizzled out after  few weeks or months.  Later on I discovered personal author blogs, which to me, the unpublished author, was a glimpse of the Promised Land with descriptions of book signings and school visits. I was so envious that I would have to read a weight-loss blog to calm down.

         When our Fearless Leader, Carmela, suggested doing a group blog of authors who also teach, I thought it was a great idea. I  was also skeptical, remembering all those one-entry-self-indulgent blogs I'd read. Learning I would have five other partners in crime helped me decide to join in. I knew I couldn't carve out time for a weekly blog, but every two weeks was something I thought I could manage. I think this is where some of my fellow bloggers fell by the wayside...underestimating the amount of time it takes to write a blog, overestimating what you have to say that someone would want to read or find helpful.

        Hopefully, in these 300 posts, we have provided some of you with something interesting or useful some of the time. We all hope we have been of some use to you in both the classroom and personal

       So here's to another 300 posts (helpful, hopeful, useful ones)...and now I'm going to Starbucks for a soy latte to celebrate.

    Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

    Friday, February 18, 2011

    This Is What Democracy Looks Like

    Thousands of teachers and other state workers are protesting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's proposed budget bill in Madison and across the state. Walker plans to cut spending on education and other expenses by canceling existing contracts with all state workers, including teachers, nurses, prison guards, road workers, and many other laborers and professionals.

    According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Walker will propose cutting statewide funding for school aid by about $1 billion for next year, about 15% of the current amount. Milwaukee Public Schools are already expecting almost $100 million less in federal aid and other grants, largely because of the end of two years of federal economic stimulus funding. Walker is also considering refusing federal Title 1 aid for low-income students, which brings tens of millions of dollars each year to Milwaukee Public Schools.

    I was supposed to post today about writing picture books, but that post can wait. Thursday morning, I visited second and third graders in a school that is already losing five teachers next year. Thursday afternoon, I went to Madison.

    Protesters gathered outside the Wisconsin state capitol . . .
    including firefighters and police officers.
    Supporters from across the country . . .
    packed the capitol . . .
    chanting and cheering . . .
    showing democracy in action.
    I hope that state leaders can resolve this difficult issue without sacrificing workers' rights or our children's education. Because I believe that education is not only a basic right but a critical key to success and even survival, I intend to keep speaking out. You can read more about the Wisconsin budget protests here:
    JoAnn Early Macken

    Wednesday, February 16, 2011

    Learning from a (Picture Book) Master...

    Hurrah for writers everywhere currently engaged in this month’s Picture Book Marathon, courageously writing a picture book a day.
    And Hurrah for writers everywhere currently engaged in writing a Picture Book period.
    Contrary to popular thought, the picture book format is – NOT – for sprinters, whether on a daily, monthly or even seasonal basis.
    Mem Fox said it best: “Writing a picture book is like writing War and Peace in Haiku."

    When it comes to writing a picture book, I share many of my fellow TeachingAuthors’ practices.
    I type out model texts.
    I read picture books non-stop, first as a reader, next as a writer.
    I read picture books aloud to myself, listening for the necessary rhythms, the essential lyricism.
    I read picture books aloud to children, paying careful attention to where their interest builds, where their interest wanes.
    Ann Paul’s Writing Picture Books (Writer’s Digest, ’09) and Sandy Asher’s Writing It Right! (Institute of Children’s Literature, ’10) anchor my shelves of writing books.

    Though two years new now, SCBWI’s Master Class On Creating the Picture Book with this year’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal Winner Tomie dePaola also holds a prominent place on my bookshelves. The American Library Association award honors an author or illustrator, published in the United States, whose books have made a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children. Tomie dePaola’s works include Strega Nona (Prentice-Hall, 1975), Oliver Button is a Sissy (Harcourt, 1979) and one of my favorites, Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs. Wilder Award Committee Chair Megan Schliesman praised the author/illustrator as “masterful at creating seemingly simple stories that have surprising depth and reflect tremendous emotional honesty. They have resonated with children for over 40 years.”

    Hosted by SCBWI Executive Director Lin Oliver, the 70-minute Master Class DVD offers an up-close-and-personal conversation that serves as a how-to for anyone creating this singular format, in words and/or pictures.
    (Teachers, please note: the DVD is an inexpensive and swell way to bring this well-loved author to your classroom!)
    I love how Tomie dePaola distinguishes between “an illustrated story” and a “true picture book” – one in which the young reader remembers the story just by looking at the pictures.

    Visit the SCBWI website to hear an excerpt, learn more and (hopefully) purchase for but $14.95.

    Happy Picture Book Writing, whether marathoning or not!

    Esther Hershenhorn

    NaNoWriMo Participants: take a look at the SCBWI Master Class on Writing the Novel for Young Readers with Richard Peck!

    Writing Workout

    In the SCBWI Master Class on Creating the Picture Book, Tomie dePaola addresses the need for writers to be economical in their writing. However, the writer needs to include enough words, or even better, the right words, to offer the illustrator the opportunity to both bring the story to life and include his or her vision.

    Select a picture book you’ve never read. Ask a friend, colleague, fellow student to cover the text with colored paper. Now tell yourself the story, aloud, from the cover forward, using only the illustrations.

    Who claims the story and what is it about? Where is the story set? What’s happening, scene after scene? How does the story build? What’s the resolution?

    Next, turn that telling into words you choose and order.

    Compare your telling to the book’s text, noting the economy of the actual text’s telling as well as any differences in viewpoint, tone, voice and concrete details.

    Monday, February 14, 2011

    Short, Sweet, Sold

    As someone who never read picture books as a child (the only kid I know who never cared to look at the pictures) and who has yet to successfully write a salable one, my primary qualification in writing this post is as a mother to a three-year-old and five-year-old.  Yes, I realize that I am hardly unique in this regard, but bear with me for a moment.

    Those pesky editors we keep hearing about who want picture books to be shorter than 300 words?  I have a confession.  They are my heroes! 

    Despite the oft-heralded demise of the picture book, both of my kids are read to at school daily. My son's preschool has an aftercare program called Leaping Into Literature, in which each day's activities are tied to the picture book du jour.  (They cooked Stone Soup last week - yum.)  The breadth of literature read is impressive and spans Hans Christian Andersen to Weird Al.  But at home, we chiefly read at bedtime. And if at bedtime I pluck from the shelf a book with enough words to place sleep another ten minutes from our reach -- back it goes in all due haste.

    When my kids were very little, I took them to story time at the library. Mostly I would chase them through the stacks in our (blessedly!) tiny branch. While I started reading to them when they were infants, it took until they were about three until they learned to sit still for a good story.  My son, age 3.5, can now read simple texts himself and will listen attentively to a book for at least fifteen minutes; however, I'm still not sure how much he comprehends.  For my daughter, the bedtime routine might include a picture book, an easy reader, and/or a chapter of a book meant for older readers.  Sometimes I read, sometimes she reads, and sometimes we read to each other. While she may practice her independent reading skills with an appropriately leveled easy reader, there are picture books that she could never read herself that have plots and vocabulary more befitting the story sense of a child her age.  Each has its purpose, and indeed, the pictures serve an important function in helping children to decode the words.

    Apropos of reader Bruce's recent comment about multi-layered picture books, a few weeks ago I was reading Jan Brett's Gingerbread Friends to Kate for the first time. In keeping with my typical failure to study the (gorgeous) illustrations, I got to the end of the story and was baffled as to what had happened.  Where did the gingerbread friends come from?  "Well," Kate said patiently, "Mattie was baking them.  See the pictures inside the hearts?" She pointed to the story within a story unfolding in the margins.

    Last night we were reading the fabulous Dear Tabby by my good friend, Carolyn Crimi.  While Kate obviously had no idea who Dear Abby was, she was thoroughly entranced and asked to hear the story again and again.  The grown-up humor was such that I was equally happy to read it repeatedly, and the uplifting message was one that I could stand to hear every day.
    (Real-life conversation:
    Me: We got a new book.  It's called Dear Tabby.  A tabby is a type of cat, and I know you like to read about cats. 
    Kate: A pussycat is another type of cat. What does 'pussy' mean? 
    Ah, aren't books great conversation starters?)

    For every 1,000-word book my daughter may read now, she will be just as happy to return to the board books for her infancy.  Can't we all relate to the nostalgia for the simpler days of our youth? :)

    I calculate that I spent roughly five years (3,000 sittings, conservatively estimated) reading the same fifty or so books (happily) and the another fifty or so more (not so happily) to my under-three set. I don't care how 'soft' the picture book market is at the moment. There is a dearth of books with very few words that are meant for the youngest readers -- the sort that our JoAnn Early Macken writes so beautifully.

    This is, needless to say, a tough market to write for.  Those of us who are also artists have a leg up.  Those of us who were kept after school in kindergarten because we were deficient in cutting skills (*raises hand*) have considerably larger hurdles when it comes to pitching a concept-heavy book for the youngest readers in which the pictures that we can't draw will tell a large part of the story.  But take heart from JoAnn (as I do).  It can be done!  

    Whoever your audience, whatever you do -- spend time with a little kid.  Get inspired.  Enjoy!
    --Jeanne Marie

    Writing Workout

    Crystallize your one-sentence idea.

    Write your book for a one-year-old.

    Write it for a three-year-old.

    Write it for a five-year-old.

    If you are feeling very ambitious, write it for a seven-year-old.

    Observe how it changes with each iteration. 

    Observe how it stays the same. 

    Read it to a real kid (or three or four). 

    Have fun!

    Friday, February 11, 2011

    Writing Picture Books...and Happy Poetry Friday!

    Howdy!  In today's post you'll find:

    • How I approach picture books (very carefully...holding a piece of raw steak?);
    • A poem about riding the metro to the downtown Los Angeles library;
    • A Writing Workout perfect for elementary schoolers, offering a quick and easy way to gather ideas;
    • A campaign to encourage teachers to read aloud (send in your memories of how listening to stories changed your life!)
    Let's begin, shall we?
    In honor of February's Picture Book Marathon (which authors Jean Reagan and Lora Koehler invented in 2008), we at TeachingAuthors are discussing how we each approach writing picture books. how do I write picture books?  The same way I write poems 
    (inspired by last year's Poem-A-Day Challenge, I write a poem a day--so far about 316 poems). Here's how I write most of my poems and picture books:

    1. I choose a topic.  Sometimes I choose an idea I've saved in my "Hot Idea File."  It may be inspired by real life experience (New Year at the Pier), it may be triggered by an overheard phrase ("It's Not My Turn to Look for Grandma!"), it may be written for a class assignment (The Night Horse)--which is why I continue to take classes.  Often I have no idea where the idea comes from...I just have to be there, waiting at my desk, when the idea flutters down.
    2. Then there's what my mentor Myra Cohn Livingston called the "raw spillage of emotions."  Once I have the topic, no matter how vague, I blurt out everything I can think about related to that idea.  No judgement, no small-gray-fuzzy-frowny-agitated-irritating critic is allowed to scuttle in, stomping on my still-wet clay.
    3. Next, I pull the story through draft after draft after draft after draft.  As Ann Whitford Paul advocates, I read each draft--be it a poem or a picture myself, to my dog, to my cup of decaf.  I take it to my critique group.  Sometimes I sailmail it to my friend Bruce, who lives on a boat (right now he's off the coast of New Zealand).  And, like Mary Ann Rodman, I take the word count personally.  Some days I consider it a triumph if I've chopped 100 words from my manuscript.  Less is, indeed, more.  And I, too, often put away a manuscript for a week, a month, six months or a year.
    4. Here's the REAL secret to writing picture books: are you ready?  There is no secret.  But then, you knew that, didn't you?  As Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing a novel.  Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”  Ditto for picture books.   But hey, here's one thing we DO know: today is Poetry Friday!
    by April Halprin Wayland

    My library card and metro ticket
    are in my jacket pocket.
    I run in, spot an empty seat, pop onto it.

    A man, belly as big as an empty lot,
    sings to his little baby in another language.
    What's their story?

    A girl with jangling, dangling earrings
    hugs a guitar.
    What's her story?

    A woman in worn work clothes
    holds red roses.
    What's her story?

    I leap off, run two blocks to the library.
    Books, books, books--look at all these books!
    What's their story?

    I like this one,
    this big blue one,
    the one with the Great Dane on the cover.

    I slide my card out of my pocket
    'cause I'm dying to know...
    what's this big dog's story?
    (c) 2011 April Halprin Wayland

    WRITING WORKOUT--Making Your Hot Idea File
    That's where I catch ideas before they get away.  Yes, I have a journal by my bed to jot down dreams before they dissipate.  And yes, I have an Idea File on my computer.  My Hot Idea File?  It's where I stash loose, 3-D ideas.
    A colored file folder and colored markers (and glitter and stickers and more if you really want to get fancy.)

    This is so simple it's embarrassing to write out these instructions...but here they are anyway:

    1. Write "Hot Ideas File" or your own title.
    2. Decorate the file to celebrate what's inside.
    3. Fill with hot ideas. 
    Here are some examples of what you might find in my Hot Ideas File:
    • a picture ripped from a magazine--he looks like the big brother in a book I want to write
    • a jotted down overheard phrase--a story starter or book title?
    • dog names or race horse names--character names
    • newspaper articles--most have a hook and a beginning, middle and end...story ideas, all!
    • amazingly clever things my son has said
    Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
    Collect ten ideas a week for five weeks.  After five weeks, pick one to develop.

    Blogosphere Buzz

    Author and poet Rick Walton has set up a blog called Why Read Aloud? to collect anecdotes about the impact of reading aloud.  
    Rick writes: "Did your teacher read aloud to you? Are you a teacher who reads aloud to your students? Tell your stories here...we will figure out a way to get your stories to the administrators and teachers who need to hear them. Your story...might motivate a teacher to read to her kids and make their lives better."

    So go out there and write.  Take a deep breath and remember to write with joy.  Some day, somewhere someone may read your words aloud...and make a child's life better.

    poem, photo and drawing (c) 2011 April Halprin Wayland

    Wednesday, February 9, 2011

    A Picture Book State-of-Mind

    In honor of Picture Book Marathon month, each of the TeachingAuthors will be sharing how we approach picture book writing. Mary Ann kicked off the topic in her last post, where she talked about how deceptively simple picture book texts appear to be to those who haven't studied them. I once heard Tomie dePaola, the author  and/or illustrated of over 200 books, say that of all writing genres (including novels for adults), a picture book text is the most difficult.

    Instead of discouraging me, dePaola's words were a great consolation. I didn't feel quite as bad about my struggles to sell a picture book. (Mary Ann's words about typically taking at least three years to write and polish a picture book are consoling to me, too.) As I shared in another post, I first became interested in children's publishing precisely because I wanted to write picture books. I eventually learned that novel writing comes more easily to me. But part of me still has ideas that I believe would make terrific picture books. So I work on them in between my novel writing.

    It's not always easy for me to transition between the two genres (especially when the novel I'm working on is in the voice of a teenager living in 18th-century Milan!). The best way I've found to get into a picture book state-of-mind is to begin by reading aloud several picture books that have a tone or rhythm similar to what I'm aiming for. As I've shared before, I sometimes also type out the text of those books. I recommend my students working on picture books do the same.

    Don't know which picture books to study? You might want to begin with those on the New York Public Library's 100 Picture Books Everyone Should Know, or the Top 100 Picture Books Poll Results compiled at the Fuse #8 Production blog. (See the Blogosphere Buzz below for some Fuse #8 news.) If you're looking for more recent favorites (especially if you're trying to create a manuscript that might actually get published in the current market), then check out the latest winners of the Charlotte Zolotow Award for picture book text. (In case you didn't know, my fellow TeachingAuthor Mary Ann Rodman won the Zolotow Award for her book, My Best Friend. So go back and re-read her post to learn whatt inspired that manuscript.) Another approach would be to do an author study of a picture book author's body of work. Some of my favorites for this include Mem Fox, Lisa Wheeler, Phyllis Root, and Carolyn Crimi. Mem Fox also has two terrific articles on her website that every aspiring picture book writer should read: "So You Want to Write a Picture Book" and "20 Do's and 20 Don'ts." One of Fox's comments inspired the Writing Workout below.

    As if writing a successful picture book manuscript wasn't hard enough, I am also working on my first picture book biography. This is a unique genre onto itself. Finding the best picture book biographies to study is a bit more challenging than simply finding great picture books. Most of the following lists are for general nonfiction, not necessarily picture books or biography, but they've led me to some terrific books.
    When I searched the I.N.K. blog for posts specifically labeled "biography," I came across a post by Barbara Kerley in which she says: 
    "In picture books, especially, there is no room for side-trips, interesting asides, meandering down this path and that—a picture book needs a tight focus and a clean storyline. And because a picture book is illustrated, the story you tell has to be dramatic—people have to do things, and, ideally, do them in different places."
    Ironically, reading Kerley's post became a "side-trip" in my search for resources that list well-written picture book biographies. :-) If you know of places to find exceptional picture books, especially biographies, please share them in the comments.

    And if you're participating in this year's Picture Book Marathon, hang in there. You can do it!

    Writing Workout
    The Need for Trouble

    On her website, prolific picture book author Mem Fox says:
    "At the start of a story we need to be as direct as possible. It’s a common sin to beat about the bush, and waffle on for too long. We should attempt to say who, when, and where in the first two sentences, and then begin to state the problem. We have to solve a problem during a story otherwise we have no trouble. Without trouble we have no plot. Only trouble is interesting. "
    1. For this workout, grab 6-12 picture books you admire. Study the opening pages. Examine how they introduce "who, when, and where" and "state the problem." Identify what the "trouble" is and how it is resolved.
    2. Now look at your picture book in progress and do the same thing. Have you done a good job of showing the "trouble" in your story? Does your resolution solve the initial story problem or have you inadvertently veered off-course?
    3. Go back to the Barbara Kerley quote above. In your story, have you kept "a tight focus and clean storyline"? Are your characters doing things, ideally in a variety of settings?
    Blogosphere Buzz
    • Congratulations to Betsy Bird, creator of the Fuse #8 Production blog, on celebrating her 5th Blogiversary. For those who aren't familiar with this blog, it's a great resource for both book reviews and general children's publishing news.
    • Even if you're not participating in this year's Picture Book Marathon, check out the official marathon blog for helpful tips on picture book writing. 
    • On Monday, Alice Pope announced on the SCBWI Children's Market Blog that the entry period for the first-ever SCBWI Crystal Kite Member Choice Awards has been extended. If you're an SCBWI member with a book published in 2010, be sure to see her blog post for information on how you can nominate your book. 
    • This week, there's a review of the I Fooled You anthology over at the Kiss the Book blog. I'm thrilled to see that the reviewer's son enjoyed my story, "Big Z, Cammi, and Me," the best in the collection. :-)
    As always, happy writing,

    Saturday, February 5, 2011

    The 29 Minute Picture Book

         Remember when rock and roll songs had to be under three minutes to fit AM radio format? (when AM radio had actual music) I don't know why this was, but those 45's were all two minutes plus. I will wait while you look for your old Herman's Hermits collection. There was endless PR (mostly untrue) that such and such a song had been written in 15 minutes. My father, who is pretty open-minded about all kinds of music, said he doubted it took more than a half hour to write Meet the Beatles, the entire album.

         Some people have the same attitude toward picture books. (None of you, of course.) Not a week goes by when someone doesn't ask why I've written "only six "baby" books in ten years. (I also wrote two novels, but somehow people zero in on the picture books.)  I mean how long can it take to write 700 words or less? Or if you happen to be Maurice Sendak and wrote what is arguably the classic picture book, Where the Wild things Are in 160--something words.

        It takes me three to four times longer to write a picture book than one of my novels. Why? For one thing, I never ever intended to become a picture book writer. I was very comfortable in my 45,000 word count zone.  I was intimidated by people who could craft these little jewels of less than a thousand words (This was years ago when a picture book could be a thousand words.)

    My first picture book, My Best Friend, sold in 2000, was 990 words. Today, adults often tell me they like the book "but it's so long."  Less is more...a lot less. Editors lust after the 600 words and under book. The best I've been able to do is 690 (Camp K-9, May 2011, Peachtree.) I'm still trying for that magic 600.

     Each word has to carry its own weight. The words have to be lively but easy to read aloud. My husband still turns purple at the memory of one of my daughter's favorite books in which nearly every word began with the letter "p." One page, and he was sputtering like Porky Pig.

    If all this weren't enough, you need actions that the illustrator can draw. "To be" "think" and "felt" are not words illustrators (or editors) want to see in a picture book.

         I have talked about novels simmering on the back burner of my brain for a year or two before I begin to write. By then, I know my characters, and the story arc.  Not so the picture book. They are on super slow simmer. I'm amazed they don't scorch, simmering so long.

         My Best Friend was a miracle. I wrote it in two hours. Two furious hours, because someone had been mean to my four-year-old and I wrote it to make her feel better. I failed; she didn't feel one bit better that I had given her real life problem a fictional happy ending. However, the nice people at Viking appreciated it and bought it. I have never again written a picture book in less than three years (which only goes to show what can happen when someone picks on your kid, and you are M-A-D!)

        Here's what usually happens. I get an idea. I write a first draft and put it away for a couple of months.
    I take it out again, and discover that not only is the first draft way too long, the story is lame.
    Write another draft. another couple of months. Another draft.  Around year two, I start sending the book around, even though I know it's not  quite right, but hey, maybe the editor won't notice. They notice, but they don't tell you how to fix it. Then I put the story back in the file, because you don't want to use up all your available editors.   Unless an editor says these words "This is almost right. Please revise and resubmit," do not revise and resubmit.  Being rejected by a publisher is a bridge burnt, And there are few enough publishers who will even read un-agented writers, like  me. But that's another blog.

    At this point I used to pester my picture book writing friends for their input. I have since learned to ask for their critiques before I start wasting postage and editors' patience. At this point big things start changing. Like the entire concept. I can write and write and still not know what the story is about. For instance, Surprise Soup started off as a story of two brothers, stuck in the house on a rainy day, so their father teaches them to make an old family recipe,  And it was 300 words too long. When the book finally came out (seven years after I got the original idea), the only thing that remained from the original story was the word "soup." Even my human characters had morphed into bears (the wise idea of my illustrator G. Brian Karas) Not to give away the whole story (and lose a possible book sale!) what really changed was the focus....from bored boys making soup to family dynamics. And 300 words less.

    At this moment, I have at least five picture books (plus my current novel) running on little gerbil wheels in the back of my head.  They have gone through all of the above agony, so it is time (when I find the time) to do what finally got Surprise Soup off the launch pad.
    Writer's Workout
     1. See if you can sum up your story in one sentence of seven words or less. Not the plot, the theme.
    If you can't do that, you're not "almost" there yet. Give it another couple of months.

    2.  Sometimes you can ignore step one. All I knew about Surprise Soup was that I had two brothers arguing over soup-making. This is kind of ironic since my idea of soupmaking involves a can opener and a microwave. Soooo....

    3. I made lists (I may have mentioned this in another post) of sounds you might hear. I didn't limit myself to actual words like rattle or clatter or clink. I made up words. I love making up words (although sometimes my copyeditors don't. Yes, I know it's not a real word. I made it up!) The list looked something like this--splooshety-sploosh, slippity-slop, plippity-plop, woosh, swoosh, whirrdiddy. Allowing myself to get silly with sound words encouraged me into the next part; sibling bickering.

    4. Some of you could probably write volumes of taunts and name calling and the accompanying body movements. I am an only child who has an only child. However I grew up in a neighborhood with huge families, who could stage some colorful throwdowns. I remembered what they said, plus some choice pieces of snittering (I know it's not a word, but it's what you do when your entire fight takes place in whiney or all-knowing voices.) That list really doesn't need to be repeated although I can't resist saying
    "you doodoo  French accent" was on that list (but not the book)

    5. One of my current lists (for a story I've been fiddling with for four years) looks like this; sand-itch, spliddle, spladdle, whooshswish, flippity-flap-flap,drippity-drip, bingety-bang, sproing, tickety-tackety.  Just writing this down makes my original concept do a 180.

    6. Stay with tis list making for part of your writing time for a week (I do not spend four hours a day just making lists)  You may have an a-ha moment. You may finish that sucker up in 24 hours. Most likely, it will get you some new directions know what I'm going to should put it back in the file for a couple of months. By then, I'll bet you will not only know what your story is about, but that you can finish it as well.

    Have  a happy writing week...and work in a few lists.
    Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

    Friday, February 4, 2011

    Snow, Showcase, & Buzz

    We had a blizzard!
    Here's the view looking down our front steps.

    And here's our back yard--note the snow shovels!

    Out & About

    In spite of the snow, ten Wisconsin SCBWI members gathered together for the Wisconsin Authors’ and Illustrators’ Showcase yesterday at the Wisconsin State Reading Association 2011 Convention. We presented brief excerpts of our school visit programs to an enthusiastic audience. Our chapter also staffed a booth loaded with information about SCBWI membership and members’ books and school visits.

    In the back row, from left to right: Sandra Ure Griffin, Bonnie Leick, Renee Graef, Jacqueline Houtman,
    Lisa Moser, and Laura Schaefer. In the front row: Ann Angel, Deborah Lynn Jacobs, Carol Schwartz, and me.

    Blogosphere Buzz

    Alice Pope’s SCBWI Children’s Market blog reports that the Amber Brown Grant application deadline has been extended to March 1. The grant, named after a beloved character created by author Paula Danziger, brings a guest author to a school that cannot otherwise afford to do so.

    Here's information on the grant from "One school will be rewarded with an all expense paid, full day visit by a well respected children’s author or illustrator. The chosen school will also receive a $250 stipend to assist in creating this memorable event to celebrate reading, learning, and children’s literature and $250 worth of books by the visiting author. Additionally, one runner up school will be selected and rewarded with books valued at $250." Click here for the application. Good luck!

    Last August, Esther interviewed Newbery Honor Medalist Patricia Reilly Giff. Random House generously donated two sets of books (Number One Kid and Big Whopper) to give away to two lucky TeachingAuthors readers. One of our winners, Pat Zietlow Miller, posted these kid-reader reviews on her blog, Read, Write, Repeat: Inside the Mind of a Children’s Book Lover:
    KID REVIEW: Cora (age 7 ) rates Number One Kid.
    KID REVIEW: Julia (age 8) enjoys The Big Whopper.

    Thanks for passing on the books, Pat! We’re glad your readers enjoyed them!

    JoAnn Early Macken

    Thursday, February 3, 2011

    Announcing the Winner of our Blessed Giveaway

    The winner of our latest giveaway is Rebecca Fyfe, who blogs at Imagine!Create!Write!

    Becky will be receiving an autographed copy of Blessed. She said she plans to share the novel with her teenage children. Congratulations, Becky!

    A big THANK YOU to all who entered the contest. I'm sorry you couldn't all win, but stay tuned for more giveaways coming soon.

    And, as always, happy writing!