For the next few months, maybe longer, I'll be posting once a month and I celebrate the freedom to do this because . . . I don't have a book to promote! That's right. There are some positives to not having a book deal. At a local SCBWI event, writing coach, Joyce Sweeney, encouraged us nonpubs to embrace this time. Published authors in the room shared knowing glances and smirked. They remember their prebook days with fondness: no agent and publisher prodding you to do backflips and handstands to sell your book; no full calender of signings and school visits; no mad scramble to lure readers on blog, Facebook and Twitter.
Joyce offered many sage morsels that day. I sat in a back corner, womanning the sign-in table, and though Joyce couldn't see me, twice her words struck like a bullet. First, she talked of focusing on your sweet spot as a writer. She said often new childrens' writers explore every avenue from picture book to young adult and that's helpful if you use it to find your strengths. Then, it's time to concentrate. If it's PBs, start cranking out stories like a factory. If it's middle grade or YA, write short stories and work your way up to novels.
I've been writing for four and a half years and I've juggled PBs, MG and YA for almost the entire journey. I've always felt that my voice is better suited to MG and YA but the artist inside urged me to try PBs. I've been blessed to belong to the best PB group (in my biased opinion) in Florida, Rob Sanders' PB&J, Picture Books and Java. They are my writing family. Perhaps my attachment clouded my reasoning because from the beginning, I've heard: "Your voice is too old for PBs" (my words not there's. They were always much kinder.) So, Joyce's advice hit the target. I needed to quit struggling with PBs and focus on my novels for older children. A small part of me rejoiced, the sensible writer who fought the artist for my attention. A large part of me silently wailed at my inevitable resignation from PB&J.
As I recovered from that shock, Joyce addressed branding and how not focusing on one genre can affect new writers. She cited a writer who had a pending deal on a MG novel. The interested agent (or editor, I can't remember which) Googled the writer and up pops a website featuring the author's self-illustrated PBs. The agent wasn't interested in representing PBs so she turned the novel down. Joyce continued, saying agents and publishers want to see an author committed to building devoted readership by producing consistent books. OUCH! I slunk down in my chair, feeling as if a path had cleared from Joyce to my seat and all eyes targeted me. My website is all over the place. I tried to focus it on writing but . . . well, look at it; there's a giant, clothed rabbit hosting the home page! And even though there's only one portfolio page, the art is what viewers notice. No one ever comments on the writing. So, guess who will be revamping their website? One day, I hope to have agents and publishers Googling my name and when they do, I want to be ready. Until then, I'm enjoying my freedom. Today, I don't have to worry about branding or book promoting. The Bible says there's a time for every season. Rejoice fellow nonpubs! This is our season of learning to write the best book we can.
Since, I'm only posting once a month, I'm throwing everything I've got here. If you're in Florida, Tennessee or Missouri, please watch for events promoting Rob Sanders' debut PB, Cowboy Christmas. The launch party is Saturday, Nov. 3 at Inkwood Books in Tampa and you don't want to miss it. Rob's hired cowboy strummers and there's sure to be tasty refreshments.
Happy Halloween everyone. Wishing you treats, no naughty tricks!
The last few weeks I've been neck deep in picture books. I've been trying to learn to write one for over a year and I've come to believe the two most valuable assets for PB authors are imagination and a child's voice.
By imagination, I mean the mental flexibility that leaps past the real world into a limitless one where animals and inanimate objects talk, ships sail on deserts and monsters are tamed by peanut butter. The youngest readers or listeners (as many aren't reading yet) don't know laws of gravity. They don't distinquish between reality and fantasy. They are learning good from evil but they also believe their parents can protect them from everything. So almost anything goes in a PB. The more outrageous the better.
The ability to access a young child's voice is gold. To re-experience the love of sounds, giggle at funny words and delight in rhyme. To play with language, rearrange it in ways that speaks to children. The youngest book lovers don't need to understand every word. They have adults to explain if they feel they must know. But the words must mesmerize. Young minds have very short attention spans. If the words don't entice them, they wander off to find something that does.
Illustrations are the other half of the PB story and they should be equally imaginative. They aren't simply pictures illustrating the author's words. They are a separate part of the story, shown in art. Picture book illustrators are masters of expression, exaggeration and whimsy. They set the tone with line and color.
I, sadly, have neither a flexible imagination nor access to a young child's voice. But I'm trying to find them and I'm having a fabulous time hanging out with writers who are as witty and playful as the books they write.
The last few weeks I've been working on art for picture book dummies and some of that art is already discarded after feedback from peers altered the story. You'd think I'd learn. The image at left is from a dummy book I presented at my first PB meeting last April. The story was miles from being picture book material.
Since then, I've learned gobs about the genre and I hope my writing is approaching the mark. But hard as I try, I can't control the urge to create the other half of the equation, to SEE the story. I start with thumbnail sketches in pencil. Then a pen slips into my hands and I ink the lines. Next thing I know, I'm enlarging those images and refining.
The trouble is, I'm not sure of my stories. I take them to critiques, happy with their potential. I come home, knowing they aren't there yet. Tonight, I'm submitting a story for a second review. I've revised it multiple times and scribbled piles of sketches. I hope, oh I hope, it receives the kind of support that screams: It's Ready. Go For It! I've gathered research material for subject matter and I envision the drawings. My fingers are eager to begin.
I'm still trying to digest the mysterious writing of picture books. Most weeks, I pick up a stack from the library to study and I'm slowly compiling a list of favorites. I usually choose books based on recommendations but sometimes inspiration comes from unconventional places. Like a recent Jeopary show, when the answer to a clue was "What is Olivia?" Olivia, in case you're a picture book deprived soul, is Ian Falconer's hysterical piglet. She embodies a somewhat pampered, self-absorbed young girl with a short attention span. Olivia manipulates her younger brothers when she needs instruments for her one-man band, tortures her parents when her favorite toy goes missing and quickly forgives the dog for chewing it up. In other words, Olivia' a pretty normal six-year-old girl.
Maybe because I 've never had a child to read to, the picture books I'm drawn to offer humor adults can relate to. It's hard not to laugh at Falconer's illustrations, rendered in simple lines and minimal color. He expertly captures the expressions of bewildered parents and a fierce, imaginative child. In Olivia and the Missing Toy, Olivia begs for a new soccer shirt. Her mother spends the day sewing it, tormented by Olivia's impatience to have it done. When her mother finally presents the shirt, Olivia is too enthralled in a book to look up at the forgotten shirt.
There are ten Olivia books, including the original Olivia, a Caldecott Honor book. I'd like to have them all and I'd like to personally thank Falconer for his piglet. To read more about Olivia and Falconer, visit his website here. You can also catch Olivia's animated series on Nick, Jr.
Spring's here, no doubt. The azaleas are blooming and bees buzzing, oak pollen turning cars green. All that activity woke my muse from her long winter nap, ending an excruciating dry spell. She's granted me three picture book stories and rough sketches for a dummy book. While attempting to resurrect last year's novel, the protaganist of my very first book appeared. I listened to her telling her story in my head for a week and finally gave her the floor.
That's the thing about stories. You can't always control them. I considered my first book a learning experience and wasn't sure I'd ever revisit it. But here it is revived. I spent a week digesting the original's weak plot and passive protaganist and brainstorming new material. Chapter one is roughly written and the story's unfolding bit by bit. There's so little of the first book in it, they're barely related.
Picture books aren't docile either. Once you step into that realm, ideas for new stories multiply. I've been working on a dog book for kidlitart's dummy book challenge. Last weekend, a new story popped up and wrote itself in one day. I thought, maybe I should illustrate this story instead. New stories always seem shinier than old ones. They glow with potential, especially since no one else has seen them. Then you take them to critique and before you even get there, doubt dulls their finish. Afterwards, no matter how high the praise, you know that story won't shine again without lots of polish.
But I'm not complaining. I'm happy to have something to polish and I'm learning to accept the mercurial fountain that springs stories to life, grateful for the words that come.
I've entered the second week of the sixteen-week dummy book challenge on kidlitart. We started last week by brainstorming story ideas. I already knew my subject, a terrier puppy, but what was she up to in this picture book? I envisoned her leaving her mother and going to a new home. How would she deal with it? What was her goal and what obstacles would she overcome in roughly twenty-eight pages, 500 words or less? During the week, I ran ideas past my husband and eventually, the story jelled.
Our assignment this week is to create the first draft so yesterday, I siphoned the story from my head through computer keys to a file. But the visual part of me wasn't satisfied with that and I'm betting I wasn't the only artist crafting scenes in my head. Tomorrow, I'll start thumbnail sketches. I'd like to have a rough storyboard to present for critique next week . . . if I'm accepted back to the PB&J group. I'm still waiting to hear. There's a tiny person pacing in my head! I sent the request last week when PB&Jers were preparing to leave for the SCBWI conference in Miami. Not the best timing. Rob Sanders, the group leader is posting about the event all week on his blog, Picture This! He's a fantastic motivator, never failing to inspire and lift spirits.
It's good to start the year with a new project. Your mind hums with possibilities . . . that the story will blossom and the sketches turn into memorable art. That phrase "Don't get your hopes up" was never meant for writers. Writers hope every story they start will soar. Unpublished writers hope agents and editors will see the potential in their books. Published writers hope readers will love their characters and get lost in their stories. I hope for the confidence to finish this book.
I'm not a person who handles creative productivity slumps well. So, with my latest novel project stalled, I turned to a picture book I'd written. The text could be improved but what it really needed was art. After a week of uninspired drawing, I headed to the library for resource material and came home empty handed. How is it that two local libraries lack books on Louisiana?
I'm trying really hard not to panic about the absence of my artist self. She'll come back. She has to come back. Art's been a vital part of my life since toddlerhood. I can't imagine my life without it. I thought back to those early years when horses ruled my drawing. Eventually, I added dogs and people to my portfolio. An idea surfaced. Why not go back to the subjects I loved to draw the most, horses and dogs, find the joy art used to bring me before it became a job.
I immediately knew the story I would write about a very special dog who grew up with a horse trainer. But I also knew I needed support. I've tried to go it alone the last few months and it just doesn't work for me. The January news from Florida SCBWI mentioned the Dummy Book Challenge, a guided sixteen-week process from story idea to finished dummy at kidlitart . I signed up before doubt interfered. Then I emailed Rob, the leader of my old picture book group, asking if they had room for one more. I'm waiting on their reply. Next step, gathering photos of my subject, who is now deceased. I don't have many but I know the ones I have will make me smile and I'm hoping . . . praying, that they make my fingers itch for a pencil and paper.
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist. And creatures, always creatures. I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti of Dunham Lit.
Baggott, Asher & Bode
Rear in Gear
Kate DiCamillo on Writing