When all else fails… Revise AGAIN!

Megan Hoyt received her first picture book contract this year.

I have been at this children’s writing thing for about seven years now. It’s a little shocking that it can take so long to get a feel for what the business is all about, that it can take that long to allow your work to simmer and stew, to read a hundred picture books to get a feel for what separates mediocre from fabulous and to leave unpublishable behind forever. I recently became an agented writer. That’s a milestone! But I still have a ways to go. Is it a long way? Do I have seven more years to go before anything I have written for kids makes it into print? I don’t have any idea! But I hope not. I hope one of the picture books my agent is shopping around will be picked up. I received some positive feedback from one editor who said the work was scandalously witty, but they still passed on it. I think to a certain extent it’s a guessing game.

Will mine be the story they are looking for?

Is it written in the style a particular editor likes?

Did they publish something just like it last year?

Will I finally be at the right place at the right time?

A friend of mine joined a critique group a few years ago and her first submission — a puzzle for Highlights — was accepted. Highlights bought her puzzle! Sometimes you get a home run your first time up to bat, and that’s absolutely amazing! She is a talented writer. Brilliant, even. And here I sit, second guessing myself and revising, revising, revising, seven years later.

Here are a few strategies I’ve found to be helpful when the road gets rocky and I’m tempted to give in to discouragement:

1) Reread “how to” materials –  from books to old SCBWI conference notes to helpful websites to blogs and emails I’ve signed up for from people who know the business and have already been successful as published authors. Here are a few to get you started: http://www.jacketflap.com/ , http://www.underdown.org , http://www.write4kids.com/ , http://www.verlakay.com/ .

2) Implement a few of the techniques you’ve just read or reread. Go back to your manuscripts and one by one, pick them apart using the newfound knowledge you just gained. Here are a few tips to get you started:

a) Make sure your main character is loveable. There’s nothing less memorable than a character you have no reason to care about. When he gets into a predicament, you really don’t care if he gets out of it unless you are rooting for him! Try to remember, he’s your “care-actor.” We MUST care about his actions!

b) Make sure that your main character is facing large enough obstacles and working out how to resolve them on his own. Don’t send in a magic fairy to save the day! Let your main character figure out what to do through interacting with others, being courageous, taking the high road when the low road would be easier, etc.

c) Use strong, lively words rather than weak, mushy ones. If your character is loveable and your plot is thick and juicy like a porterhouse steak freshly grilled to perfection, but your words, especially verbs and adjectives,  are weak (nice, pretty, kind, ugly, mean, good), no editor is going to publish your work!

3) Last, join a critique group, meet often, form great friendships, and laugh a lot! We are all in this together, and in order to survive the sometimes lengthy period before your manuscript reaches the publishable stage, you’re going to need one another like I need my fellow Mudskippers!

Keep writing!

Megan Hoyt

Accept the Challenge

I was not born a writer.  Then again nobody is.

When I was young I gravitated toward areas in which I was naturally talented.  Math came easy to me and I liked that there was a specific correct answer for each question.  But with creative writing, there are many ways to be wrong and I never seemed to get it right.  I assumed I just couldn’t do it.  It didn’t help that my SAT scores clearly illustrated my ability in math and my struggles with the language arts.  My father even remarked to me, “wow, Jen, you are really good in math.  But you are illiterate!”

Now that I am older I find my self gravitating towards my weaker areas.  I find myself accepting greater challenges.  I’m specifically trying to get better in the areas that I used to struggle.  For instance, I was not particularly athletic in my youth through college.  But a few years ago I began participating in sprint triathlons.  Before my first race my stomach was churning and my nerves were rattled.  I really questioned whether I belonged out there at all.  Looking around at all the other seasoned triathletes was very intimidating.  I wanted to throw up, then quit and run home and climb back in bed.

But I didn’t quit.  Instead, I made myself finish that race.  Even though I trudged through that race, once I crossed the finish line the thrill of accomplishment kicked in and I was ready to do it again.  It was an awesome feeling to finish what I started.  Now I’m trying to get faster on my bike, better with my swimming stroke and become a better runner.  I’ve even taken up a boot-camp style fitness program at the YMCA to help me get better.

Creative writing can be very similar to competing in a sprint triathlon.  It can be intimidating for those that are not comfortable expressing themselves with words.  It certainly is with me.  I have many moments where I feel like I did before that first race.

But then it dawned on me that creative writing isn’t completely about the finished product.  It is also about the process of starting with an idea and bringing it to a conclusion.  It is about the journey from start to finish.  You should get better as a writer the more you do it.  It’s no different than exercise or practice.

One of the writers in our Mudskippers critique group, Tameka Fryer Brown, recently told us her about her journey to publication.  Just hearing her story and her emotions through the writing process helped me feel better.  She is a published author, yet she has been through all the same anxieties and frustrations I go through as a writer.  And she has succeeded.

As you face the challenges of writing, find other writers to support you, encourage you,and inspire you.  But most important of all is finding gratification in the process of creative writing.  That is the way you get better.

The Power of…

Un – Deux – Trois

Uno – Dos – Tres

Uno – Due – Tre

The POWER OF…THREE! 

I’m writing about the power of three for several reasons:

1. I am delving into the subject and need to share what I’m finding.

2. I want others to share what they already know and help me understand it better.

3. I have no idea what my third reason is, but I feel compelled to have one. It feels incomplete if I don’t!

Maybe you’re laughing at number three a little – b/c you’ve felt the same way before!

Think about it… we use the power of three everyday.

 “I’m going to count to three and everyone better be in BED! One – two – three… did you hear me? I said THREE!”

And what about stoplights? THREE phases. RED-YELLOW-GREEN.

Children use it on the playground, too…but they don’t always realize it. “Ready, set, go!” (do you hear it? 1-2-3!)

There are three acts in many stories (and plays, of course!). There are three main characters. Three “chances” to get it right. Three – three- three!

BUT… I’ve noticed many examples are actually stories with the power of three PLUS one. Have you noticed this? or am I just looking too deeply? Consider the examples below:

GOLDILOCKS and the THREE BEARS. That’s three plus one!

Cinderella AND the three members of her family (Stepmom and two sisters) — That’s THREE PLUS ONE.

What about the The Three little pigs story? We are leaving out the wolf! That’s THREE plus ONE.

COURTESY OF MORGUE FILEThe story of the three pigs is NOTHING without the wolf! He huffs…and he puffs… and puffs and huffs… and huffs and, well, you get the picture. (Have extra time? Read this version of the classic tale and see if you can find how many times the power of THREE is used:  http://www.rickwalton.com/folktale/bryant51.htm)

In the Bible, there are numerous stories with the power of three (and three plus one).  I am a believer in the truth of the Bible and find it very cool that the stories are written this way. They speak to us on a level that grabs us and holds on!

Three special gifts are listed for the baby Jesus. (Three gifts PLUS one Baby)

Jesus had 12 disciples (a multiple of three) BUT only three are described as his closest friends. (Three disciples PLUS Jesus)

In the creation story, we read about Adam, Eve, the serpent and of course, GOD. (Three PLUS One)

Jonah is told by God to go to Ninevah. After this, there are several times the power of three is seen in this story.

  • Jonah runs! He catches a ship to Joppa
  • God sends a storm, Jonah is thrown overboard.
  • Jonah is swallowed whole by a giant fish (or whale, depending on your translation)

THEN…

  • Jonah stays in the belly of the beast for THREE DAYS
  • He repents
  • The beast hurls and Jonah lands on dry land near Ninevah

THEN…

  • Jonah shares God’s message with the people. 
  • Then he leaves them and waits on a hill for God’s judgment to fall
  • He pouts b/c God forgives the people instead of destrying them

 On the THIRD day Jesus rose from the dead. – (Pretty straightforward! :) )

Jesus asked Peter THREE times if he loves him. (John 21: 15-19)

The examples go on and on!

Like I said…I’m learning. I’m digging in deep. I want to understand why I seem to gravitate toward writing in threes (and sometimes three PLUS one) in my stories. I want to know how to harness this fabulous tool and use it in a way that benefits my stories and those reading them.

So, it’s your turn…

Does the “power of three” show up in your writing? Do you use it consciously? Or is it a natural type of cadence as you create those stories?

(Did you see how I did that? Three questions. I couldn’t help it.)

Donna Earnhardt lives and breathes and washes clothes in Concord NC. She also homeschools her girls, writes every chance she gets and works with the Write2ignite conference team. (BTW, no threes were hurt in the production of this post or the original posting of it on her own blog – http://wordwranglernc.wordpress.com)

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and Other Failures I Have Known

I started the month of November with the noblest of intentions. I was going to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. Thousands of people were doing it, across the country, in coffee shops, home offices, tucked into their warm beds late at night with laptops on fire. I knew I could do this! And I started off really strong with almost 15,000 words right off the bat in the first few days. Then I staggered. I stumbled. I toppled and tumbled. It was week two and I still only had 15,000 words. To make matters worse, the website for NaNoWriMo allows you to keep track of your friends. My fellow Mudskipper, Kelly D., was kicking my proverbial hind quarters. She’d already written 35,000 words!

I gathered my family aside after dinner that night and informed them that I was writing a novel and I needed time alone, undisturbed, to get the job done. They tried. They really did. But when you have four children, there are always interruptions. “I need a ride to the playhouse. I have rehearsal in twenty minutes!” “What’s for dinner and can Austin eat over?” “Honey, I need to take your car to work tomorrow so I can get the oil changed at lunch.” Even my husband was in on the disturbance!

I decided to get up really early and try to write before anyone else was awake. Maybe that would stop the interruptions. I tiptoed into the kitchen, the living room, both sons’ rooms… Where was my laptop? Oh, they had used it to make an animation of some kind up in the loft. Found it. But the floor creaked as I went up the stairs and the dogs woke up. Now my husband’s alarm was going off. Things were spiraling out of control, and I hadn’t even written a word! I let the dogs out and in again, gave them doggie biscuits, made some coffee, woke the boys for school, and disappeared into my room.

This time I locked the door.

I made it through the next two weeks this way, writing feverishly, madly, at breakneck speed. The plot thickened, then stank. Speed does not produce lucidity. The rancid drivel had to be expunged! I purged and deleted and purged some more. I don’t think that’s what the NaNoWriMo police wanted, but I couldn’t write 50,000 words worth of cheesy crap, now could I? Back at it again at week three, I realized through the handy dandy NaNoWriMo stat application that I would not be able to complete 50,000 words at this pace until February 1. I was shooting for November 30. I redoubled my efforts and got back to the novel. It was a fairy tale of sorts. The Fairy Harp. Filled with mysterious goings on that affect a young teenaged girl whose mother has died tragically in a hit and run car accident that she herself caused by storming angrily across the street after arguing with her mother. Mom races after her and gets hit by a car. The girl retreats into the woods and into an imaginary world where she must retrieve a fairy harp or the entire fairy kingdom will be destroyed. In the end, we discover she’s retreating from reality into mental illness, but we don’t know this until the very last page. And how will it end?

The world may never know because a mother of four cannot finish a novel during the Thanksgiving holiday. Was NaNoWriMo created by a man?

The experience wasn’t a total loss. I learned how to get myself committed to writing every single day without fail, no matter what tries to get in the way. I learned that writing quickly is actually good for me. I tend to write slowly and methodically and my pacing is off when I do that. Yawn! The mere idea of writing fast enabled me to somehow write better. It makes no sense at all, but for me, it worked. I always second guess myself, go back, scratch through sentences, paragraphs, entire pages, and start over. When I forced myself to plunge ahead instead, waiting until later to edit, I wrote some pretty decent narrative and dialogue. Yes, there was drivel and nonsense and stuff I knew eventually would not make it into the final draft, but allowing myself to deal with it later was freeing. And frankly, I have yet to finish a novel. I write picture books in a flash, then edit them for years. How was I ever going to finish a full length manuscript of 50,000 words without some nudging and force from the NaNoWriMo authorities?

I’m glad I did it. And I’m glad I’m not so legalistic about it that I consider myself a failure for not finishing. I wrote 38,000 words or so. That’s not bad! Now maybe by April I’ll have a finished rough draft; by next November, a finished, polished manuscript ready to submit. That’s the plan for now. Wish me luck!

Megan Hoyt is a freelance writer and soon to be noticed (she hopes) children’s book author, working out the kinks in the children’s publishing biz on massive amounts of coffee and with healthy doses of encouragement from her zany family. She lives in Charlotte, NC, with her husband of 22 years, four children, three dogs, and a parrot.

The Specifics of Being Specific (or the details of details)

by Beth Miles

Say you’re a preschool teacher. You want to entertain four-year-olds with a story about a farm animal. Neal the chicken (close enough, anyway)You whip out some construction paper and crayons and draw a chicken. He’s a plain chicken, but you really persevere and draw a barn, a tractor, a scarecrow, and a cow, all to keep the kiddos entertained. Unfortunately, by the time you’ve drawn the generic black spots on the cow, three of the kids have run off to the block section and started using the blocks as guns. Five others are in the art center pretending the crayons are french fries and/or cigars. The rest are under the table, hiding from a dragon, which may or may not be you.

What did you do wrong?

You gave them the wrong details. The unimaginative ones.

Now, you’re back for another lesson. They watch as you draw a chicken. He’s a plain chicken, but you persevere and tell them his name is Neal and he lives on a farm where he’s afraid of the scarecrow. This time, you don’t draw the tractor and the barn. Maybe you just draw the scarecrow and he has scary teeth and only one arm made out of old pantyhose dangling by a safety pin. You ask them who Neal’s friends might be and what they’re going to do to help him. You ask them what they think happens next. They cry when their mothers come to pick them up. They want some more interesting details about Neal and the pantyhose-armed scarecrow.

What did you do right?

This time you didn’t insult their four-year-old intelligence. Everyone knows farms have tractors and barns and cows with black spots. Everyone does not know about chickens named Neal with scarecrow phobias.

So, how can a writer apply this preschool lesson to a novel?

“She walked into the teacher’s lounge. It was shabby and old. The couch was worn-out and the bulletin board was faded. She shook her head in disgust.” This tells your reader what the teacher’s lounge looks like, but you drew the details on non-specific paper. The environment is explained, but how real is it to the reader? How have you used details to make them care?

“She walked into the teacher’s lounge and carried her Tupperware container to the microwave. It was just like the one her grandmother had bought for her graduation present in 1988, with a dial instead of digital buttons. A thin layer of something yellow, mustard or maybe watery cheese sauce, smeared across the handle and black gunk filled the cracks in the control panel. She yanked at the door. The interior was stained orange and covered with splatters of tomato sauce along with the smell of years worth of burned popcorn. She wondered if she’d make it through eighteen more years of teaching until retirement.”

This time you didn’t mention the shabby couch or the boring bulletin board, but I’ll bet the reader knew it was there based on the details you gave about the microwave. Now you’ve allowed them to use their own imaginations to fill in the scene. It’s more real because they created it themselves. They own it. AND you used the details you gave them to create empathy for the poor teacher nuking three thousand more meals in the nasty microwave before she can retire.

Own your details and be specific with specifics. Readers will use their own imaginations. Hopefully they’ll care more about your characters. Maybe they’ll even cry when their mothers make them stop reading about your chicken named Neal.

Beth lives in Salisbury, NC with her husband and three children, where she tries to find time between loads of laundry and cooking to complete her middle grade suspense novel. She’s a member of the local children’s theater board, SCBWI, and proud to be a critiquing Mudskipper.

Emotions in Fiction

In her book Creating Characters Kids Will Love, Elaine Marie Alphin devotes at least three chapters to recalling and using our own childhood memories to create compelling characters in our works of fiction. She explains the process this way:

            Capture and record your childhood memories on paper or computer.

            Record in particular they way you felt during those incidences.

            Listen to family stories and record them.

            Observe today’s children and record their speech, actions, attitudes.

            Learn how to put yourself in today’s children’s places, with their thoughts and emotions.

            Blend all of these elements together to create incredible kid characters.

Jean Matthew Hall

Early on in the book Alphin details the process by which she recalls her childhood memories. She emphasizes capturing the emotions she experienced when those memories were originally created.

She says on page 53:

Writing fiction is completely different from writing your memoirs. Using your experiences in fiction is a way to show your readers the deeper truth of what memory has taught you…Do this by letting yourself make changes in what actually happened, while holding on to the reality of your emotions.

Episodes in real life can be unresolved, but your fiction should build to a climax that allows your main character to come to terms with the event still haunting your memory.

I experienced this first hand recently–not with writing fiction, but with memoirs I was writing to submit to an anthology. Like all anthologies this book has a narrow focus on the types of stories to be included. On top of that the guidelines specify what kind of take-away value to include in each story. In other words, these aren’t to be simply “feel good” stories, they are all to point to one thing–the true spirit of Christmas.

First, I had to identify the “true spirit of Christmas.” Sounds easy on the surface–but it took some time to refine and distill my thoughts.

For several days I racked my brain trying to remember the 61 Christmases of my life and trying to sift out incidences that would meet the criteria for this book. After three days of this I called in the heavy artillery–my husband, Jerry. He can’t remember where he lays his glasses today, but he can remember in vivid detail every incident that has occurred in our life over the past 42 years.

He talked, I listened. He reminded me of a couple of things that might fit. Then, like the wise man he is, he left me alone to “cogitate” as my Daddy always said. He left me alone to ramble through those memories.

As I rambled I began to feel those emotions that had locked the memories into my head. One memory led to another, and that one led me down the path to another. My fingers flew over the keys as the memories tumbled into view. I laughed when I typed certain people’s names. I cried as I typed the details of some  incidents. I cringed when I remembered certain places.

I wasn’t typing words–I was typing my emotions. And that made the telling of the STORY behind each incident flow like warm maple syrup. Having that clear focus in mind made the take-away value of each story rise to the top effortlessly. As I experienced those emotions again I was able to tap into details that I had long forgotten, or so I thought.

Brain research clearly indicates that it is emotion that creates strong connections in our brains, and those connections result in memories. It is also emotion that causes buried memories to come to the surface whether we want them to or not.

And all of us writers know that it is emotion that connects our readers to our characters and to our stories.

I do believe God really knew what He was doing when He created us to be emotional beings. Beings who feel, who respond, who connect to other human beings in real life, and in great fiction, too.

Emotion. It adds a whole new dimension to our stories.

‘Skipper-Talk with Kelly Starling Lyons

 

Today, Ripples from the Tide Pool brings you its first interview—a conversation with Kelly Starling Lyons, author of the picture book, One Million Men and Me. I asked Kelly several questions about the craft of writing. Below, she describes her inspiration for the book, her motivation for writing the types of stories she does, and more.

 

 

 

 

Q:  This October 16 will mark the 15th anniversary of the Million Man March, an event where black men from all over the country came together in a spirit of atonement, reconciliation, and responsibility.  You attended the march as a reporter. What inspired you to write about the occasion as a fictional picture book, versus some other non-fictional format?

A: I’ve written about the Million Man March in feature articles and essays. But when I first began writing for children and thought about stories I wanted to share, memories of the March rushed back to me — men holding hands and praying together, children sitting on their fathers’ shoulders, drum beats in the air. Writing the story as a picture book manuscript was the only format I considered. The event was so visual and poetic. I knew that text and art could work together to bring a part of that amazing day to life. Illustrator Peter Ambush conveyed such a range of emotions in the pictures of my main character Nia and her dad. The story wouldn’t be the same without that visual layer of meaning.

 

Q:  What made One Million Men and Me (Just Us Books, 2007) a necessary story for you to tell?    

A: The Million Man March was such a transformative event. It was a day filled with beauty, unity, purpose and peace. The images I saw there will stay with me forever. Here is a quote from a teen I interviewed: “All I saw was just an ocean, an ocean of black men, not just black, but Puerto Rican, Mexican, you name it, people of color. It’s like a feeling in your soul. I can’t even explain it. Everybody was standing around giving everybody hugs. If you bumped into someone, they said, `Excuse me brother pardon me.’ There was love all around.”

I can only imagine what kind of impact the March made on the young children who attended. When I saw a wide-eyed little girl walk past the Reflecting Pool clutching her daddy’s hand, I wondered what her day was like.  How did she feel to be surrounded by a tapestry of black men united in harmony? What would she always remember? That’s how the story came to be.

I wrote One Million Men and Me so that children today would learn about this amazing day in history and feel proud. So often, negative stories about black men and fathers are highlighted in the media. But on that sunny October day, the world saw a sea of black men stand together as one. I was so moved by the sight of that little girl there with her daddy, of the fathers – and mothers — there with their sons. I wanted to share the story of the March and the special relationship between an African-American father and child. It’s something we don’t celebrate enough.

 

Q:  As we approach the 15th anniversary of the Million Man March, why do you think it’s important for educators, librarians, and parents to teach children about historical events such as these?

A: It’s important because they won’t find out any other way. The Million Man March, though it was one of the largest gatherings in U.S. history, won’t appear in many textbooks. So it’s up to us to keep the memory alive and pass the story along. Unlike some more distant historical events, the March happened just 15 years ago. There are men all around us who are living history.

Just as it’s essential for all children to have stories that speak to their every-day lives, reflect their dreams and stoke their imagination, they need historical ones that explore the struggles and successes of all people. It’s affirming for kids to learn about people who blazed a path for the freedoms they enjoy now, who stood up and made a difference. I wish I had those kinds of stories growing up. I didn’t learn much about African-American history until I was in college. I write so kids today have a different reality.

 

Q:  You have two forthcoming picture books with Putnam, Ellen’s Broom and Teacakes for Tosh.  Which did you find more difficult: crafting a story about a historical event, or crafting a purely fictional one?

A: Creating the storyline was a similar process, but historical fiction has additional demands. The characters are made up, but the background comes from history. In the case of Ellen’s Broom, I had to read historical documents and make sure I understood what happened during that time. So for me, the level of research required makes historical fiction more exacting, but it’s just as rewarding.

 

Q:  Eddie’s Ordeal (Just Us Books, 2004) is your chapter book. Do you plan on writing more novels?  Do you prefer writing in one genre over the other (pbs vs. novels)?

A: I love writing picture books. That’s the genre I read most often and the one that drew me to children’s book writing.  So that will always be where my heart is. I have many picture book manuscripts in development. I’d love to see some of my fanciful ones published. But I definitely plan to write more chapter books and a novel or two.  

 

Q:  Considering all the stories you have written to date (both published and unpublished), what would you say is the common theme or characteristic that defines your body of work?

A: Like many authors, I mine my life for ideas. I write stories that explore every-day moments, memories and history.  In my stories, children discover something special and important about themselves or the people around them. That’s a commonality in the stories I create.

 

Q:  In your writing life, what’s the next step for you? Is there anything you want to write or achieve that you have yet to?

A: I have lots of ideas on my list. So there are definitely stories I want to write. I also have stories, contemporary and historical, I’d love to find homes for. But a big dream is to win the Coretta Scott King Award one day. That would mean so much to me.

The award honors outstanding contributions by African-American authors and illustrators. Too often, those treasures go unsung.

 

Q: Iced tea: Sweet or unsweet?

A: Definitely sweet. Peach and raspberry are my favorites.

 

Q:  Stilettos or flip flops?

A: Depends on the day. But flip flops win most of the time.

 

Q:  Sandcastles or snow angels?

A: Snow angels. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh. I have wonderful memories of making snow angels with my brother in our grandparents’ yard.

 

Watch the book trailer for One Million Men and Me here.

Accompany Kelly on the rest of her blog tour. The scheduled stops can be found here.

Also, visit her blog daily for many goodies, such as educational trivia about the march and downloadable coloring sheets. Leave a comment, and be entered into drawings for some cool stuff.