Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Doodle for My Noodle

I spend one morning a week mentoring a student at a local elementary school.  One of the perks of the program is the exclusive use of the "mentoring cabinet" -- a cubbard filled with all sorts of goodies and games to use with your mentee.  Today, we ran across a doodle book by Nikalas Catlow, Do You Doodle?  It's filled with all sorts of half-drawn pictures, and you're invited to fill in the rest with your own doodles.

What I didn't expect to feel as we flipped through the pages was the familiar (although sometimes hard-to-come-by) writer's "spark."  We flashed by a page of a boy looking into an empty cave.  The caption read, "What's in the cave?"  Another page showed a boy holding x-ray film over himself, and you're asked to draw his skeleton.  All sorts of images popped into my mind as we thumbed through the pages, as well as the phrase my family hears over and over: "Now, wouldn't that make a good picture book?"

As PiBoIdMo draws near, I've been wondering how I can feed that creative fire, to keep me stoked for ideas during the month to come.  I want to engage fully in the spirit of the challenge as well and come up with 30 brand-spankin'-new, hot-off-the-press ideas (not revisited versions of ideas sitting on the back burner and thereby stuck to the bottom of the pot!).  So like a kid with candy money in my pocket, I ran to the bookstore today and picked up a copy of Do You Doodle?  For my noodle, of course!  The real challenge will be not opening it until November 1st.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

And who said picture books are too easy?

I picked up The Odious Ogre at the library yesterday.  Who could resist such a title?  It's about an--you guessed it--odious ogre who wreaks havoc on the locals and is so horrible that he doesn't really need to try anymore.  Villagers practically roll over and insert themselves into his mouth.  It's not until he meets a kind young mistress that he becomes befuddled and loses all his ogrely confidence. 

I comment on this book, because it is an excellent example of a picture book that uses challenging language.  (Frankly, I could have used a dictionary myself as I wandered through the pages).  In light of the NYT article on the death of the picture book, I thought it appropriate to bring this book to your attention.  Picture books are not always for the extremely young set.  This book would be perfect for the older reader, who will undoubtedly soak up the advanced vocabulary like a sponge.  It's a fun read.  Pick it up!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

An Award

Thanks to my good friend Sharon for bestowing the Versatile Blogger award. 

I'm new to this brave new world of blogging, so forgive me if I don't get everything sorted out just right.  But if you're wandering how to blog and do it right, visit Sharon and get an education.  She's quite the blog diva.

Seven things about myself, per the award rules:
1.  I have the smallest toenails on the planet.
2.  I'm from North Carolina originally, so I really, really, miss the ocean out here in the Midwest.
3.  I have never broken a bone, but my daughter just broke two at once.  She is such an overachiever.
4.  I am married to a minister, but don't hold it against me.
5.  My favorite children's book is Knuffle Bunny (although growing up it was Amelia Bedelia).
6.  I once saw Sherman Helmsley in a grocery store parking lot.
7.  I am really nervous about this whole writing venture thingy-dingy.

As requested, I will dutifully pass this award to a few friends that I have met recently and have their own blogs:

Susan Uhlig (a.k.a. Ford), who gives great advice to aspiring writers.
Shannon Moore, who reviews new books in the children's market.
Lindsay Miller Weiss, who gets paid to blog (!) and is an aspiring children's author.
Michelle Brown, who is an awesome new critique friend and fellow writer.
Tara Lazar, who I just met in the blog world and is the founder of PiBoIdMo.  What a find!

Thanks again Sharon for getting me involved with the writers' blogosphere!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

PiBoIdMo 2010

No, it's not how to say hello in a foreign language, it's the Picture Book Idea Month, and it's going to start soon.  Head over to for details.  And dust off those thinking caps!

If I Can Make it There, I'll Make it Anywhere!

Start spreading the news...I signed up for SCBWI's New York Conference.  It's my first time!  I even dropped the big bucks for the pre-conference events.  I'm excited to say the least.  And nervous.  And pumped.  And did I mention nervous?

Mo Willems will be there.  And Jane Yolen.  And Lois Lowry (!!!)  Yowza! 

I'm trying to decide what story to take for the intensives.  It's a little bit like a Cinderella story.  You feel like you're dressed in rags, but you know the right dress is out there if only your fairy godmother would come along and whoosh it into existence.  Except then you realize there is no such thing as a fairy godmother, and you've got to whoose that story up yourself.  Gaccck!

If you're going, let me know.  I'd love to meet you.  I should be easy to spot.  I'll be the one in the homemade ballgown, hoping to find my Prince Charming!

Friday, October 15, 2010

How Do You Know When A Story Just Won't Work?

I've seen this pop up on blogs occassionally, so I know there's some advice out there somewhere.  I have a story...the robot story, you may remember from my last blog...that seems to get worse with every rewrite.  Most of my stuff gets better with revision, but this one just can't find a voice.  I'm thinking I need to retire it.  My critique group suggested as much at my last face-to-face.

So how do you know when to give a story a peaceful burial?  It's hard for this one, because I'm emotionally vested.  It was my first story, and the one my group loved at first.  I don't know why it's lost its way.  Unfortunately, I've sent it in to be critiqued at the Missouri conference, so I'll have to resurrect it one more time post-mortem.  I wish I had sent another one, but in a moment of weakness, I thought it was worth the CPR.

There is one more life-saving maneuver to try.  I think I'll rewrite it in first person, andsee what comes out.  Maybe Alberta (or Juliet as she was called previously...I got criticized for changing the name, too!), wants to tell the story herself.  I hope she can help, because I've got the funeral home on speed dial.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Taking it to the Next Level

I've noticed a trend in my early drafts, and my critique partners have as well.  While I am a fan of "quiet humor," it seems that I could improve my writing by taking it to the next level.  In other words, I need to ramp it up a bit and open my mind up to the possibilities.

For example, one of my earliest stories, and one that is being reworked in light of my recent conferences and manuscript exchanges, is about a girl who builds a robot to tie her shoelaces.  She is "a dreamer" I say at the beginning, but as a critique friend noticed, she really doesn't do anything outside of her house to move the plot along.  Great insight.  There are so many wierd and wacky things she could do to teach her robot how to tie laces, but I haven't opened that world up to her.  I forget sometimes that kids are much more open to the strange and fantastic.  I may think it is unusual to go to a ballet about shoelaces, but a child wouldn't.  (Hmmmm...that gives me an idea!)

So that's my goal over the next few weeks.  Ramp it up.  Take it to the next level.  Stretch those brain cells.  You have a plot, now dream!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Too Sad for Words

I saw an article in the New York Times today that made me sad, sad, sad.  See "Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children" at

This article predicted the death of the picture book, because parents feel that they do not challenge their children enough.  Evidently, five year-olds are being persuaded to read Harry Potter instead of Curious George these days.

I am sort of left speechless.  Of course, I have stakes in this argument, being a picture book writer wanna-be, but as a parent, I'm also confused and astounded that picture books are deemed less appropriate for budding readers than chapter books.

I have three comments:
1)  The article raises the point that picture books can have more complicated vocabulary than a chapter book.  YES!  The pictures can paint a definition of a word easier and perhaps better than a text-filled chapter book can through its context alone.  I just read a book called Violet the Pilot with my daughter this weekend.  It has big words out the wazoo.  My five-year old daughter had to ask for help reading them.  Good for Violet.

2)  The article did not discuss libraries.  Only booksellers.  I can understand why picture books are lanquishing in bookstores.  A $16.00-$18.00 book is a hard sell to parents strapped for cash in this economy.  (And it raised the issue of lowering prices on picture books.  Maybe it's time...)  But what about libraries?  I often use them as my go-to source for picture books when I can't fork out the dough for a picture book to stay in our home collection.  Picture books will always have a home there (of course, there's the funding issue for libraries as well...).

3)  What about the graphic novel?  This type of book has seen a huge jump in sells the past couple of years.  Who are these readers?  Maybe they are the wee ones who are pushed out of picture books when they are three, yet longing to immerse themselves in a visual as well as semantic world?  The industry shows that these are popular books.  Pictures sell.  Maybe the industry should take another look at an almost dead genre: the picture storybook.  Publishers have pared down picture books so much (many won't even look at anything over 500 words), maybe parents are feeling guilty about picking up such an brief story.  Flesh out a few of those books...see if parents return to them.  You don't have to read the whole story in a night.  Break it up, or let the kids soak it up by themselves.  Let it be their guilty pleasure.

4)  Okay, I have four points, and could probably think of more if I sat here long enough.  Stop growing kids up too fast!  If we start chapter books when they are 4, then they move to MG by the time they are 6, then it's on to YA when they are 9 or 10.  Do you know how hard it is to find a YA with suitable content for a 9 year-old?  It's hard.  My 9 year-old son is an amazing reader, but I'm not ready for him to pick up YA yet.  And I will still let him pick up the occassional picture book because he enjoys them, and because many of them are just as challenging to the creative half of his brain as MG fiction.

If you are a writer or a parent who cares about picture books, spread the word about this article.  Let the industry know that the picture book is not dead.  It just needs some believers.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Crawling Up through the Inferno

I told my husband the other day that writing felt like travelling through the levels of Dante's Inferno (okay, minus the eternal and unrelenting punishments).  You start at the bottom, the 9th level, and slowly work your way up to the limbo stage...waiting perpetually for that call into the promised land of publication.  But the weird thing is, you don't see it that way at the beginning...

When I first started submitting, it felt like a golden time.  You send your baby into the void and know that someone, somewhere will think it's the best piece of literature since Shakespeare.  You are blissfully unaware of the purgatory that awaits.  Then, the first rejection comes.  Okay, we still have some pieces out.  We'll get it next time.  Then the next rejection, then the next.

Before you know it, you've racked up quite a collection.  You're thinking you won't need to buy wrapping paper next year.  Then you realize it.  You're at the bottom of the pit.  You've got to scratch your way to the top.  It won't be easy.  Who were we trying to fool?  Why did we think a little revision here, a fixed typo there, could get the job done? 

I don't know what level I'm at now.  I'm not a 9, but I don't think that I've reached Limbo yet.  Maybe I'll give myself a 4.  I've learned a ton, but there's a few pieces of the puzzle still out there.  I hope they're not hard to find...maybe just hiding out under the couch.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Conference...with Benefits

One of the best things I get from going to conferences (besides the information and critique sessions with real live agents, editors and writers) is my growing number of contacts. 

The KS conference was quite a coup in terms of the great friends I made.  In the weeks since the conference, I have joined an online critique group for picture book writers; I have established a relationship with another budding critique group for short story writers, and I talk regularly with new writer friends around the midwest.

I was debating whether to attend the MO conference because of its close proximity to the KS and national conference in NY (which I am going to for the first time...yikes!), but I decided to give it a go again this year primarily because of my wonderful experience at the KS conference.  I'm sure I'll see some of my friends there, and I hope to make new ones.

If you are an aspiring writer and have ever wondered whether it's worth your time to go to a conference, then wonder no longer.  Go!  Go!  Go!