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NaPiBoWriWeek–My Turn!

Today marks the halfway point in Paula Yoo’s NaPiBoWriWee, and it also happens to be my turn as a Guest Author. So, here’s the tease…Want to learn something about me that only a handful of people know? (seriously, only my family knows this and some of them even raise an eyebrow at it).

Read my interview on Paula Yoo’s NaPiBoWriWee blog. I’m also chatting with participants so stop on by!

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The Value of Lists

I love lists. Maybe it’s because I go to lists when I’m in the throes of writing and don’t want to stop to brainstorm (or maybe I’m just being lazy!), but I keep a binder with various lists I’ve compiled through my years of writing. It holds all sorts of handmade lists from dinosaurs to popular children’s songs to cowboy words, and beyond! That way, when I’m searching for a unique or specific word to a topic I’m writing about, I’ve already got a list of words at hand (even better than a thesaurus!)

So today, I came across a new one. It’s from the Hybrid Rasta Mama site and lists 150 different words to describe the taste of food. What a great list to check out if “delicious” just isn’t cutting it for that new manuscript you’re working on. You know, when you need an adjective that’s food-specific and fresh! Check it out HERE.

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Book Two Ups and Downs

Today on EMU’s Debuts, author Katie Slivensky talks about writing the second book of a 2-book deal. I’ve always been TERRIFIED at the thought of writing a second book (especially a novel!) and the pressure that would come with it. But Katie points out that usually the second book is not in fact the second book you’ve written. Check it out here!

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Concept Books: What are they and how do I know if I’ve written one?

The first picture book manuscript I ever wrote was about ocean animals. I hadn’t done any research about children’s writing, much less the specifics of picture books. I just wrote—and in rhyme too! (yikes!)  I then attended a children’s writing conference and found myself utterly confused because so many editors kept saying that they wanted character-driven stories, not plot-driven. Hmm…my story didn’t have either of those things! But then, after doing some research at home (studying the craft—which I should have done first), I discovered there was a type of picture book called “concept books.”
Like my story, concept books often lack characters and their problems. They also lack a plot (e.g., rising story arc), instead structured by other frameworks, such as the alphabet, numbers, time, categories or a host of other structures. I was thrilled to discover this wonderful type of picture book! My story “fit” in somewhere. Through the years, I’ve learned more about concept books, which is why I wanted to write this—to help others understand more about these wonderful treasures in the picture book world.
What they are…
Concept books (either fiction or nonfiction) introduce children to an idea, concept or theme such as (but not limited to) the alphabet, counting, colors or shapes. Sometimes they tell a story using a character or they focus on a concept using some other form of structure (such as the alphabet). A classic example of a straightforward concept book is Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Bill Martin Jr. My own Blackberry Banquet is a rhyming concept book with a cumulative structure that features forest animals. An example of a concept book that uses a character to drive the story is Kelly Bingham’s Z is for Moose. The best way to learn more about concept books is to read them. Click here for a terrific list of books. 
So how do you know if you’ve written a concept book? The first thing I tell my writing students is to think about what drives the reader to turn the page. Does he seek information? Is his curiosity driven by the need to learn something? If the answer is yes; then the book is a concept book. Concept books are read by children whose curiosity is information-based. Structures such as a sequence, a journey, a cumulative build-up, a definition, or question and answer (to name a few) will provide the framework for a concept book.
What they are not…
Now, if the answer to the above question is no (the reader is not seeking information); then you must dig deeper and ask yourself again what drives the reader to turn the page. Does your story have a main character with some sort of problem or goal? If so, then the book is a character-driven story. The reader will turn the page because he cares about the main character and wants to see how he solves his problem. Character-driven stories are read by children whose curiosity is emotion-based. These stories use a traditional rising story arc with a beginning, middle and end to frame the story and show how the character resolves his/her problem. Examples are Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak or Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller.
So there you have it! Easy as pie, right? Well, probably not. As the picture book market continues to expand with amazing creativity, the variations of stories will grow and more hybrid versions will likely appear. But for now, I hope this helps you to determine if you’ve written a concept book.

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SDT: That Awful Writing Disease! (Show Don’t Tell)

“Show, don’t tell” is a problem with which many writers struggle. We see “SDT” scribbled in the margin of a critiqued manuscript. But what exactly is “show don’t tell?” Simply put, it occurs when a writer tells the reader what’s happening in the story, rather than showing what’s happening. And this creates a problem—it makes for a passive reading experience.

Showing puts the reader in the moment. Showing trusts the reader to interpret what’s happening and understand. On the other hand, when a writer tells the reader what is happening on the page, he’s conveying that he doesn’t trust the reader to figure things out for himself. He’s selling the reader short. Writing that “shows” is richer and more engaging for the reader.

How can you “show” when you write? Here’s one trick that might help: Imagine yourself (the story teller) as a camera, recording the scene. A camera cannot get into the head of the characters and identify their emotions; it can only show what is happening with the action. A camera can’t say someone is sad, it can only show them being sad by their facial expressions and body language. Imagine yourself as that camera, as you write. Here are some other tips for how to “show”…

Specificity

Be specific! Specificity and accurate word choices make for interesting writing. Listen to how Dav Pilkey describes Oscar in the opening of The Hallo-Wiener:

There once was a dog named Oscar who was half-a-dog tall and one-and-a-half dogs long.

Pilkey could have said that Oscar was a wiener dog, or a Dachshund, but instead he found a fun and creative way to describe him. The unique description pulls in the reader and lets him figure out Oscar’s breed.

Writers should also avoid telling the reader how a character feels (which is probably the most common mistake with SDT. I believe that 99% of the time, the words “feels” or “felt” should be deleted from a ms). Declared emotions are vague (like the mayonnaise of writing) so think about what your character is physically experiencing at that moment. Here’s an example from my first book, Two Tales of Hawaii:

The smile left Pele’s face as a flood of waves came up from the sea. The fires were in danger of being put out. “No!” she cried.

What if I would have said “Pele was shocked” instead? No doubt, I would have identified her emotional state of mind, but I would have taken away the chance for the reader to look at the illustration and examine Pele’s facial expression and concluded that she was shocked. In other words, I would have cheated my reader.

Sensory details

Utilizing the senses pulls the reader into the story. And try going beyond the sense of sight (because the picture often shows what the reader would see). Listen to how I showed Pele as she set out on her journey to find a new home in Two Tales of Hawaii:

Her canoe was trapped between the fiery sun and the cool deep ocean. She had to find the perfect place to keep her sacred fires.

Here, I wanted to convey the temperature difference that one experiences when out on the ocean—the heat of the sun striking against the cool water—to put my reader in the moment.

Dialogue

Dialogue reveals character and can move the story along. Listen to how Phillip C. Stead uses dialogue to reveal the character of Amos McGee on page two of A Sick Day for Amos McGee:

He would wind his watch and set a pot of water to boil—saying to the sugar bowl, “A spoonful for my oatmeal, please, and two for my teacup.”

Amos’s speech reveals his character—he’s polite, a bit quirky in speaking to the sugar bowl, eats healthy but enjoys a bit of sugar too (he’s not perfect!). This is also a great example of using specific details to show his character (the watch that he has to wind indicates he’s a bit old-fashioned and his use of a teacup—not a coffee mug—also tells us a bit about him).

Avoid “to be” verbs

“To be or not to be?” To me, there is no question. “To be” verbs (is, was, are, were) weaken writing because 1) they’re passive, and 2) they tell the reader the state of things, and in picture books, illustrations already show the state of things. Think about this—what if Judy Schachner opened SkippyJon Jones like this?

Skippyjon Jones was a strange cat.

Well, Schachner certainly could have chosen to start her story this way. She could have told us how Skippyjon Jones was, but the problem is that the illustration shows him in a bird’s nest in a tree, so “Skippyjon Jones was a strange cat” wouldn’t be a very interesting opening. Instead, she opened the story like this:

Every morning, Skippyjon Jones woke up with the birds.

Schachner shows us he’s a strange cat by letting us know that he sleeps with the birds—every night!

To see if you’re guilty of doing this (we all have been!), do a “Find” search in your manuscript of any “to be” verbs (is, was, are, were). When you find one, cut it and revise your sentence. Tip: You can also do this with “feeling” words (happy, sad, excited, etc.). Don’t “tell” us that Mary was excited. Show Mary jumping up and down, squealing!

A final caveat–in all fairness, I should say that sometimes, “telling” is good, even necessary. Can you imagine if a writer showed every single event in a story (especially novels)? It would become mind-numbingly tedious to get through it! Sometimes, writers need to summarize an event so we can move from one relevant scene to the next. However, for writing to absolutely shine and fully engage the reader, the writer must “show” what’s happening as much as possible, particularly in picture books and easy readers.

Happy revising!

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Enrollment is now open for my online fall course, INTERMEDIATE PICTURE BOOK WRITING, through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. This is one of my favorite courses to teach! We’ll dive into the world of picture books, going beyond the basic craft issues as we investigate this fascinating genre of children’s books. Students will have the multiple opportunities for feedback on their work. The end goal is a completed draft of a picture book.

For more information, click HERE.

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Time is Running Out!

My upcoming UCLA Extension course, Introduction to Writing Easy Readers begins in one week (on April 9) and there are still spots available! Nowhere else will you receive in-depth education about this vital genre of children’s literature. Weekly lectures, personal support, and four critique opportunities will help bring your easy reader idea to a complete draft.

Click here to register.

Happy writing!

 
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