Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Tomorrow the World! (Today the Toilet Bowl)

If you're like me, you get to a place where only a good toilet-scrubbing can help.  I wish I meant this metaphorically, but I don't.  I literally mean that scrubbing the toilets is the only thing that can make me feel better.

We all have a to-do list a mile long, right?  When my list gets so long my brain starts sizzling, I head for the toilet brush.  It seems that a good 'ole house-cleaning does wonders for my creative, spiritual, emotional (add whatever physio-psych word you want to add here) life.  My mother used to wake up at 5:00 and vacuum the house.  I thought it was crazy and a sure sign that I would have to institutionalize her later in life (or myself due to lack of sleep in my growth years), but now I kind of get it.  She needed to clear those cobwebs first thing in the morning, or she couldn't focus the rest of the day.

I find the same is true for me now.  Maybe it's sign that I'm older.  I can't concentrate on too many things at once.  Then again, maybe cleanliness does lead to godliness, or at least a decent approximation of maturity.  Whatever the reason, I gladly pick up that toilet brush and scrub away.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Top 100

Okay, I admit it.  I've gotten bogged down in my quest to read every picture book from A to Z at my local library.  It's a worthwhile pursuit, and if I had no children, husband, dog or guinea pig, I would be all over it like butter on a pancake.

But I do have a life, so I've switched gears.  At my recent conference, Bruce Hale suggested I read instead the School Library Journal's list of the 100 most popular children's picture books.  For those of you who might want to do this as well, you can find the list here:  http://blog.schoollibraryjournal.com/afuse8production/2009/05/16/top-100-picture-books-poll-results-1-101/.

It's a much tamer goal, and one that's definitely doable before my children graduate from high school.  I've also read many of the books on the list already, so it's been easy to shoot through the list.  I'm reticent to admit that I read for the first time some classics of the trade, including Owl Moon by Jane Yolen (wow, what use of language to create a mood), and Blueberries for Sal. 

I'll discuss some of my favorites as I move along, but if you have any from your childhood that you would like to share here, please feel free.

A Follow-Up

I feel that I should follow up on a comment I made in my previous blog entry about Tammi Sauer's picture book approach.  Tammi was gracious enough to comment on my post, for which I am flattered and thankful!

When you are training a bunch of newbie writers, such as myself, you of course need to give them a framework.  Dian C. Regan repeated much of the same advice when she critiqued my story.  I think now that I have attended several conferences, the information is starting to be repeated.  Maybe that's what I was picking up on during Tammi's presentation, and I didn't even realize it until later.  It's actually a good think that I'm hearing the same advice.  I can tell that some of it is starting to sink in (which for me, can honestly take a while, sometimes). 

The main issue from my comment, however, is having an agent.  Evidently, having an agent can limit the number of houses that see your work.  This is new to my ears.  I was under the assumption that having an agent actually opens up new doors to you.  They have relationships with many publishers and know who wants what, right? 

Well, yes.  A good one does.  In a follow-up with Tammi, a good agent has many relationships, but may choose to limit your houses while your list grows and as you develop as a writer.  They may approach other houses if your style changes, or after you have a solid relationship built with your current publishers/editors.

So Tammi, thanks for the clarification.  I'm beginning to feel that writing is 2% talent, 98% hard work, persistence and luck.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

KS-SCBWI Conference

I told my critique partner as we left the KS conference of SCBWI that I always leave these meetings both supremely pumped up and drastically depressed.  This conference was about the same, although I have to say I left with the hope that some of some of this writing advice is finally starting to gel in my mind.

Bruce Hale was a great speaker.  I especially loved his enthusiasm and his encouragement.  I also had a great personal conversation with him the night before the main conference.  I commented to him that his bio made me feel better about having so many careers throughout my life.  He said writers need it that way...we need to experience all of life, so that we can sit down and put it on paper.  I'd never thought about it before, but I'll use it as my excuse for never deciding what I want to be when I grow up.

My critique was awesome.  Dian Curtis Regan blessed me with a typed-out summary of her advice.  I think she saw potential in what I had brought in with a few tweaks.  Whew!  At first, I was disappointed that I did not get an editor or agent, but the benefit of having a picture book author became apparent as soon as I sat down.  You can't beat the experience of 50 plus picture books.

Here's a recap of information that was new to me:
  • Editors are constantly comparing your work to what is out there, so it's good to know (and mention in your cover letter) what book your story is like but also what makes it unique (Andrew Harwell and Maria Gonzales mentioned this);
  • Editors are at the mercy of big booksellers when designing covers (who knew Barnes &Noble held the pursestrings or the publishing world?);
  • When sitting down to do a picture book, make a brainstorm list of everything that might possibly relate to the subject (Tammi Sauer's idea).
Speaking of Tammi Sauer, I think she gave some great advice on PB writing.  What did strike me, however, is how formulaic her approach is.  She complained about being boxed in by four publishers, and I wonder if it has something to do with her method of developing a PB.  Who knows?  It's a useful framework, one that I've heard several times now.  (I'm not published, so what am I doing questioning it, huh?).

The first pages portion of the conference was helpful, too.  I brought a story about a girl who has to move to the city because her father lost his job (for those of you who remember hearing it, please forgive me!).  I brought it because it has never felt right to me.  I loved the language and cadence of the story, but something was amiss, and I think the panel put the finger on it.  It has an adult narrator.  Ouch.  I guess I had never thought about it before, but a third person narrator must also be child-like and not speak in adultese.  (Now panicked me is looking at all my stuff with fresh eyes, thinking,,,omg, all these kids sound old!  Hence why I come away from conference feeling depressed!)

Overall, the conference was a great experience, and one that I don't mind repeating.  Here's a nod of good luck to all of us in the coming year!  Remember the p's: passion, practice, persistence!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Away We Go to Conference

Tomorrow I'll be attending my third SCBWI conference, and I am excited.  Not just because I'm getting away from my hectic home for a day and a half (okay, that's a huge part of it), but because for the first time I feel like a writer.  I've sweated; I've stacked up the rejection letters; I've collected a few "no, but here's my humble suggestion" letters (even better); I've started a website, blog and printed business cards; I've (drumroll) sold a story to Highlights.  I am a writer!

I look forward to hopping into the fray this year, knowing that I can talk about writing and not sound completely stupid.  Of course I'm still intimidated a wee little bit, but I am determined to move past those queasy feelings and make some real contacts.  Wish me luck.  I'll give a report when I get back (would you expect any less?).

Monday, September 13, 2010

Questions for a Nine-Year Old

I recently posted a note on Facebook about something I had started with my son about a week ago (http://www.facebook.com/notes.php?id=1409662699¬es_tab=app_2347471856).  Each night, I ask him a question about himself.  It has to be open-ended, but otherwise, there are no rules.  I did it as a way to make him feel appreciated, especially as he gets older and the developmental need to pull away from the parental overlords becomes stronger.  I want him to know that we understand he is his own person, with tastes, thoughts, and dreams apart from our own.  So far, I think it has worked well.  Time will tell if he is soon uninspired by the whole process.

But a few nights ago, he surprised me with a question, "Are you asking me all these things for a story?"  "No," I replied, "I just want to get to know you better."  Which is true, of course, but the darker side of me did realize that I was getting some great information about the mind of a nine-year old.  I've used him for advice a couple of times before, and I'm not ashamed to say that with a few of my picture books, his advice was spot on.  Hopefully he'll forgive me if a little sparkle of our conversations makes its way into a book someday.  But for the most part, my son, it really is just a way to know you better and make sense of this mess called parenting. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

And so it goes...

I carried through on my promise to work through all the picture books in the library.  And you didn't think I would keep going, did you?  After the first few books this week, I wasn't sure I would either.  I hit a couple of "oldies but goodies" right away -- picture books from the 1980s that had at the minimum of 2000 words a piece.  I don't know if I'm a product of my culture or not (probably), but that is an awful lot to digest at night with your kiddie-pie.  I'm glad picture books have scaled back.

The one worth mentioning this week is The Babe and I by David Adler.  I didn't think I was going to like it.  I'm not into baseball at all, and period pieces aren't my favorite either.  But I was surprised.  It's a great example of how to intertwine history with a really good story.  I think I even teared up in the library.  Hopefully no one saw me behind the stacks (although I do wonder what the librarians think of the crazy weepy lady who keeps showing up to read through the children's section).

Thursday, September 2, 2010

From A to Z

I have read in numerous places that if you want to be a picture book author, you need to read every picture book in your local library from A to Z.  Sounds easy enough, right?  I decided to do it.

Well, I didn't pick the best day to start.  I was just getting over a head cold, and I felt like my head was swimming in a vat of jell-o.  I started with A and the first two books were long fables.  Not my favorite.  Not bad writing, mind you, just not my favorite kind of picture book.  But I made it through those and kept going.  Then I hit a really bad book.  Wow...didn't I just write a book that sounded kind of like this dribble?...keep moving and don't look back!  Then finally, something refreshing.  Some books by Alma Flor Ada structured as letters by famous fairy tale characters.  Really cute and funny.  How had I not seen these before (perhaps too early in the alphabet when I mosey over to the shelves and browse)?  And talk about voice.  Each character had a very distinct voice that came through in the letter.

And then I stopped.  My nose and my brain called a timeout.  Whew!  This is going to be harder than I thought.  But I'll give it a go, and let you know how I'm progressing.  I can certainly see after just one day, however, how certain books jump out from the rest.  The ones with unique writing, strong voice, fresh ideas....versus, well you know (i.e., the backlog of crappy ideas floating in my files!).