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

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)

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.

Desert Writing

I came across this article today: http://www.startribune.com/nation/104120468.html 

A hiker got lost in the desert for 6 days and survived on NO food and NO water. He stayed still…and wrote on his hat. This is the last paragraph of the article:

Rosenthal is known around Los Angeles for writing short, humorous poems and reading them aloud at public events. So he naturally had a pen with him, Kaplan said. But he had no paper, so he used the hat. It got crowded and he used a lot of abbreviations, but it was legible, and the pen never ran out of ink, Kaplan said.

I wasn’t sure how deeply the article affected me until I started writing this post.

I haven’t been lost in a real desert, but when it comes to writing, it feels like I’ve been in death valley for the majority of the last few months. And I feel like I’ve been at a stand still, just waiting for rain.

Writing is a huge part of my life. But other parts  of my life have needed my attention even more. Marriage and family, homeschool, housework, church and Write2ignite…all important. All with different needs.

And since the other parts of my life needed so much of me, for a time, it felt like the “writing part” of me dried up.

But to to my joyful astonisment, I’m finding that I can survive…EVEN in the desert.

When I’m snuggling with my teenager and listening as she shares what’s on her heart, I’m reminded of why I write. When she asks me to help her with the story she’s writing, the seed of an idea starts to take root. 

When I’m listening to my first grader read her favorite new early reader book for the upteenth time, I can feel the seed breaking through the dirt.

And when I’m reading about undersea creatures with my third grader, the idea is being watered. And when I’m helping her learn how to write poetry, the idea is growing leaves.

The idea is now blossoming…even though I feel like I’m still standing still. I am pushing forward and putting it to paper. Digging deeper and deeper, I pull out weeds of doubt that are sucking life away from the new growth. 

There is life, even in a desert. And just like Mr. Rosenthal, I pray my pen never truly runs dry.

Are you in a desert? If so, where is your pen?

Donna Earnhardt is a wife, homeschooling mom and wordwrangler. You can see her ramblings on life, writing and relationships at http://www.wordwranglernc.wordpress.com

Here’s To Commitment

By Jean Matthew Hall

Have you ever heard someone singing at a wedding or a party, perhaps at church, and thought, “He’s so talented! He should be on the road singing professionally, selling CDs, and signing autographs.” But the truth is that it takes a lot more than talent to be a professional musician.

It takes commitment—total stay-up-late-get-up-early-commitment. To become rich and famous as a musician, or even to earn a livelihood as a musician, it takes hard-line dedication not only to music, but to several critical things.

And guess what. The same is true of becoming a professional author.

  • Becoming a professional takes commitment to achieving goals. The first step toward achieving those goals is setting them. Integral to setting goals is making sure they are measurable and achievable. They can be measured in dollars; hours, weeks, months or years; pages or word counts; “followers” and “friends”; the number of submissions or contracts…   you get the idea.
  • Becoming a professional takes commitment to craft. To learning how to accomplish hundreds of specific skills related to professional writing. It means dedication to improving everything I do as relatedto writing.
  • Becoming a professional takes commitment to promotion. I HATE this part. Don’t you? But success in publishing depends on it.
  • Becoming a professional takes commitment to sacrifice. Yep. We have to sacrifice some good things to accomplish great things. And succeeding in an industry as competitive as publishing means devoting time that we could spend on other activities (or people) to writing, research, education, submission and promotion.
  • Becoming a professional takes commitment to vulnerability. These scratchings we put to paper and screen come out of our minds, our hearts, our souls. We make ourselves vulnerable each time  we put up a blog post, send an email submission or plaster a stamp to a big brown envelope.
  • Becoming a professional takes commitment to writing. What we learn about craft we must put into practice.  Writing–that’s what professional writers do.

When I compare what I do as a writer to these standards I see how really far I am from becoming a professional. But…I also see that I’m inching my way closer with each year, each conference, each page, and each big brown envelope.

Here’s to success for each of us as writers and authors!

Here’s to commitment!

Jean

Finding Your Inner Child

Posted by Jennifer Hudson

My husband was my first critic when I began writing for children.  I used him for his grammatical assistance and his proximity to me.  He was convenient and free.  I’d read aloud my newest creation and he’d smile his painted-on smile and reply, “Nice, honey,” out of marital duty.  Finally, after around the 20th read-aloud session, he said, “I guess you are just more in touch with your inner child than I am.”  

We have to figure out how to connect with children as we embark on a career (or passionate hobby) of writing children’s literature.  Yes, we have to connect with the editors to get to the point of connecting with children.  But how do we find that childlike voice inside ourselves to entertain and excite a child?
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For many of us, we remember important pieces of how our minds worked as children.  I first began writing years ago with a journal of funny stories from my childhood.  For me, it keeps memories alive as my memory fades the details of youth.
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But I also remember what it felt like to be a child.  I vividly remember being at the counter at the bank standing on tippy-toes, trying to see what exciting transaction was occurring over that countertop.  I also recall the thrill when the banker noticed me and handed me a lollipop.  My memories of Sunday church as being torture are quite clear.  To me, the priest sounded just like the adults in those old Peanuts cartoons.  “Wah, wah, wah, wah.”  I counted ceiling tiles and studied nearby parishioners’ funny outfits, until finally it was time for the children’s sermon.  Then they spoke my language!
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I have three children and I work with children every day.  It is not just the interaction with children that helps me write for children.  It is taking these interactions and interpreting them through the eyes of a child.   Once I am able to do this, I can truly find that connection to the children through literature.
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The biggest reward for me is to watch a child react to my story.  When I see their face light up from my writing, I feel that sense of communication that occurred when the banker spoke or the priest during the children’s sermon.
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As you challenge yourself to write children’s literature, find your inner child, embrace your inner child, and express your inner child. And have fun! 

Tooting, Beating, Patting

“Not to toot my own horn, but…”

“Don’t like to beat my own drum, but…”

“I’m not patting myself on the back, but…”

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It just so happens that my turn to post this month comes five days before my very first picture book officially releases, and I’ve spent the last couple of weeks promoting heavily. So much, in fact, that my inner introvert nearly gags every time I have something new to share…and my sarcastic alter ego whispers jabs, arrogant comments such as the three listed above. 

What’s a very private, reformed loner, debut author to do?

Answer:  Suck it up and promote.

pp

But it’s not just the debut author, or the established author that has to suck it up and “do”. It’s anyone who wants to transform a dream into a goal, then into reality. On the journey to achievement, there will be roads that are too difficult to cross without courage and agility; peaks far too high to reach without persistence and long-suffering; obstacles too big and too broad to surmount,  without equally heavy doses of self-confidence and self-consciousness. 

If you’re inclined to think to yourself, “I’m not a person who has those traits,”  I challenge you blindly follow this just-do-it method.  I bet you’ll find you have each of these traits, and then some.

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Practical applications of the Suck It Up Theorem:

*You’ve written a story. You think it’s really good. But you’re worried it’s not good enough.  Suck it up and submit it!

*You submit your story…and it’s rejected. You’re so disappointed.  Suck it up and get it back out there or suck it up and get a professional critique or suck it up and join a critique group so you can get some feedback on how you might make it more marketable.

*You’ve received insightful advice, polished, and resubmitted your story. You’re getting positive feedback from editors/agents (maybe even some revision requests), but still no sale. It’s all starting to seem pointless. Suck it up and get real with yourself. Is this still a goal you really want? No? Then find a new goal. Yes? Then full steam ahead! Revise (again and again and again and again,  if necessary) and resubmit (again and again) until…

*YOU FINALLY GET A YES! You sell your book. And it gets published. And the economy is bad. And the marketing budget for your book is minimal…

SUCK IT UP! Self-promote, market outside-the-box, do the things that are necessary to make sure people know that you and your book exists.

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Ummm…not to beat my own drum, but…

AROUND OUR WAY ON NEIGHBORS’ DAY officially releases on August 1, 2010!  You can order your copy now at your local bookstore, or online:

IndieBound.org

Amazon.com

BarnesandNoble.com

Borders.com

Target.com

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Also, if you’re in or around the Charlotte, NC area, my first local booksigning will be held on August 7 at Author Squad. For more information, click here.

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Lastly, I’m one of this month’s guest authors in the Writers Against Racism (W.A.R.) Series at Bowllan’s Blog. Click here to read my interview.

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About AROUND OUR WAY ON NEIGHBORS’ DAY

From Booklist (July 2010):  As an African American girl bounces around her urban neighborhood celebrating Neighbors’ Day, when everyone comes together for celebration and community bonding, she shares her energetic and enthusiastic observations: “Blue sky, no clouds, / Summer heat, side street, / Whirling, whizzing feet. / Everyone is out to play / Today, around our way.” She is happily surrounded by a multicultural crowd playing double Dutch and basketball, eating ice cream and drinking sour lemonade, debating in the barber shop, and playing chess in the park; and as the day and the block party progress, there is more food, music, laughter, and friendship. The acrylic art is saturated with rich color, energetic movement, and abstract figures and shapes, all reminiscent of Jacob Lawrence’s art. Most scenes are double-page spreads that, together with the words, demonstrate the size and diversity of a joyful world.

From Kirkus (July 2010):  ‎”Blue sky, no clouds, / Summer heat, side street, / Whirling, whizzing feet. / Everyone is out to play / Today, around our way.” It’s a sunny, summer day—perfect for a block party. A pig-tailed protagonist heads home after double Dutch and dancing to help Momma cook. On her way she encounters some familiar sights: Grandpop at the barber’s, Raven painting a mural, a ball game at the center. In this lively and accessible poem, a multicultural community brings food, music and laughter to the streets to celebrate their neighborhood.

😀