ZOE Takes NYC!

A few days ago, I posted about the amazing ZOE GETS READY by Bethanie Deeney Murguia, out now from the Arthur A. Levine imprint of Scholastic. Well, in some very exciting news, Scholastic has chosen Zoe to decorate the window of the Scholastic headquarters flagship store in SoHo for the next month, right on Broadway in New York City.

This was something that Bethanie Murguia simply had to see for herself, so we got together to take some pictures yesterday. She also signed stock at Books of Wonder on W 18th Street, and at the Scholastic Store itself, so if you are in the area and want a signed copy of ZOE, head on down before they’re gone. We were joined for a delightful series of meetings and for dinner by Cheryl Klein, ZOE’s editor. Scholastic even made stickers that let kids dress and redress Zoe in various outfits! Those have been sent to booksellers, so I hope you see some in the wild.

The first picture is Bethanie and me in front of the window, the second is all three of us proudly showing off a copy of ZOE. What an amazing opportunity! I’m very grateful for the support of the Scholastic team, and so happy that Bethanie was able to see her work displayed with such style. A fun bit of trivia: Zoe’s closet in the window features real clothes from Stella McCartney Kids!

Happy Release: ZOE GETS READY and Bethanie Murguia!

How completely inappropriate…I am late in announcing the release day for the amazing picture book ZOE GETS READY by Bethanie Deeney Murguia, out on May 1st from Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic. It’s the story of a girl with big hopes for a day when she gets to choose her own outfit. But how can she make up her mind with so many possibilities in her closet? And just what kind of day will it be?

You can also watch the YouTube trailer for the book here:

I’m going to bring you another super cool picture of the team behind ZOE this week, but for now, get on over to your local independent bookstore and pick up your copy! If you are an online shopper, find it on Amazon or Indiebound. You can check out Bethanie’s website here. And don’t worry about falling in love with this spunky heroine and being left hanging…Scholastic will publish a follow-up ZOE book next year!

Change of Heart

This blog post was inspired by several picture book critiques that I recently did for my Writer’s Digest webinar, but it applies to novels as well. Deep and personal change in your main character is one of the most important elements in your fiction. If you can create that on your page, your audience’s involvement and investment cements forever. A lot of the time, climactic plot moments should rub up against these instances of deep personal change. When your character’s heart hardens, or softens. When one of their core defining values is broken down, or reinforced. When they make the most difficult decision of their lives. These instances are what great storytelling is made of.

Sometimes, though, a change of heart just happens to a character. They don’t like someone and then, well, they wake up one day and feel differently and then the writer continues the plot from that new perspective. The only problem is, any emotional turning point is an Event-with-an-E. Or it deserves to be, because it has great power potential with readers. Just like the beginning paragraph of your novel, every chapter opening, and every chapter button are Prime Real Estate in your writing, emotional turning points are hot spots that you absolutely must exploit.

From the smallest changes of heart to the most important, I need to be able to point to the very instant on the page where your character turns a corner. It will usually happen in reaction to something in your plot and be expressed mostly in Interiority (your character’s thoughts, feelings, reactions). After that, their new attitude or feeling about a person or situation will filter down and express itself in how they behave in scene and during the plot. But that moment when they see something differently has to be present.

I talk a lot more about this in my upcoming book, which I swear will have a cover and official title very soon! For now, though, do go back and examine your character’s emotional turning points and make sure that you’re juicing every last bit of resonance from them. This goes double for picture books, where you have a lot less text to work with. Sure, real kids change their minds all the time, but fictional ones need to be very strongly motivated in order for their emotional logic to make sense to the youngest readers.

SCBWI Central California Illustrator’s Day

On May 19th, I’m speaking to the wonderful group at the SCBWI Central California. This day of fun and learning is for picture book illustrators and authors, and it’s the first of its kind for this region. My talk will address both illustrators and writers and, even though it’s called Illustrators’ Day, I know that almost every picture book writer I’ve ever read could learn a lot by thinking like an illustrator, so come one, come all!

Here’s the official information from the SCBWI:

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SCBWI California North/Central’s 1st Illustrators’ Day (for picture book authors, too!)
DATE: May 19, 2012
LOCATION/TIME: 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, Rancho Cordova City Hall, 2729 Prospect Park Drive, Sacramento 95670

Join us for an exciting day with inspiring presentations, a first look panel discussion, a promo card contest, and an optional oral portfolio critique (extra charge). Our featured speakers include:

Rotem Moscovich, the brilliant editor/art director with Disney/Hyperion
Ashley Wolff, the talented author/illustrator of Miss Bindergarten and Stella and Roy fame
Mary Kole, the wonderful Andrea Brown Literary Agent based in New York

Member: $85
Non-Member: $90

The day includes:

Promo Postcard Contest (entries due May 1st)
First Look Panel Discussion (entries due May 1st)
Portfolio Display (bring your portfolio on conference day)
Nurturing Portfolio Critiques (an additional $35)

The talks at the conference will be the following:

Gestalt, or 1+1= More: Words and Pictures in Picturebooks
Rotem Moscovich, Disney/Hyperion
We’ll take apart the elements of a picture book, including pacing, page turns, and structure. Looking at examples together, we’ll discuss how the two main components—illustrations and text—work together to create more than a whole.

Creating in Words and Pictures: How to Craft Successful Picture Books
Mary Kole, Andrea Brown Literary Agency
A talk for picture book writers and illustrators that focuses on hook, story, character, voice, thinking like an illustrator for writers, thinking like a writer for illustrators, and how to write picture books that prevail in this challenging market.

Author, editor, illustrator, art director–A Book Has Many Parents
Ashley Wolff, author/illustrator
The only names on the jacket are the author and illustrator, but It takes a (small) village to make a book. I’ll look back at memorable collaborations over a 30 year career.

REGISTRATION IS NOW OPEN, so click here to sign up.

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If you’re a picture book writer and anywhere near Sacramento on May 19th, I hope to see you there!

Flight of Imagination Picture Books

I’ve been seeing a lot of picture book manuscripts that are what I’ll call Flight of Imagination. A kid is either dreaming or out playing and the plot of the book deals with them having an adventure based largely in their imagination. An example would be something like:

Johnny headed out into his backyard…

…only it turned into a swamp full of menacing alligators!

And this continues for the duration of the manuscript, until Johnny is safe and snug at last, back in the real world.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this type of story. In fact, my brilliant client Bethanie Murguia makes great use of a child’s active imagination in her upcoming picture book ZOE GETS READY, out from Scholastic in a few weeks. But one child’s imagination and the fruits of it can’t be the entire picture book. Imagination is a sales hook and a universal element for picture books, but it shouldn’t be the only one.

Most of the stories I see have great whimsy–Johnny’s backyard may turn first into a swamp, then into an ancient Egyptian tomb, then into a spaceship–but that’s almost a problem. They tend to be too specific. One kid’s imagination played out. A character who, other than his big imagination, is not well-defined. And they tend to invite clichés in terms of illustration because you’re practically forcing your art talent to illustrate the imagined scenes as if they were illustrating the contents of thought bubbles, which is a tired old trope.

This is basically how I like to explain my problem with these stories: Other people’s dreams are not interesting. Imagine your best friend calling you up one morning and telling you about this crazy, whimsical dream she had. It’s full of crazy adventures and really specific fantastical creatures and it is a thrill ride…for her. I find my own dreams interesting, but that’s because they’re specific to me. I am not nearly as captivated by a purely imaginative thrill ride through another person’s subconscious. If that’s all there is, then I’m less likely to be interested.

Now, it’s not like you can’t have a story that centers around a child’s journey through a land of imagination. We’d lose brilliant books like WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE if that were the case. But there need to be other layers in play, and an actual story within the imagined landscape, not just an episodic barrage of images or crazy adventures. Characters need to be fleshed out. A plot needs to be in motion, with sequential events that go from conflict to climax. Other themes and universal childhood experiences need to be embedded within the manuscript.

For this reason, Flight of Imagination picture books are a tougher row to hoe than most. Just like A Day in the Life picture books, that follow a kid from morning to bedtime and showcase the family, pets, and favorite toys. Neither has an inherent plot and, in this market, that’s a losing proposition. Look at your story objectively and see if it suffers from this colorful–but nonetheless problematic–issue.

ETA: Wendy’s comment, below, is particularly astute. And a lot more succinct than this blog post. Go read that instead! 🙂

Picture Book Alliteration

Picture book alliteration always annoys. Well, not always, but it’s getting there. I’ve been thinking a lot about picture books since I wrote a new picture book talk for the awesome SCBWI Southern Breeze Springmingle this past weekend. I’m also doing a lot of webinar critiques.

alliteration in picture books, alliteration writing, alliterative writing, alliteration, alliteration children's books, alliteration kid's books
The best picture books are fresh and vibrant, and alliteration dates a manuscript.

Picture Book Alliteration Is Overdone

This post isn’t inspired by any one picture book manuscript from that batch (so don’t worry, students, I’m not talking about one of you in particular)…and that’s the problem. One of my growing pet peeves about picture book writers (and their imaginations) is alliteration.

Gosh, I have a lot of pet peeves, I know. But I sit here and read manuscripts all day. That’s what I do. Tens of thousands of them. And so I see a lot of common trends and writer mistakes that I know you don’t because you don’t read nearly as many different potential books as I do. It’s an issue of context.

A lot of people seem to think that the bulk of their characterizing work or word choice craft in picture books comes down to alliterating. And that’s it. Just name him Sammy Skunk and kick up your feet because your work here is done! Right? Not quite. And “Sammy Skunk skips smilingly down the springtime sage-speckled slope” is all you have to do in order to nail that pesky concept of voice! Right? Again…not really.

Alliteration Doesn’t Add As Much As You Think to a Manuscript

But more and more, I get picture book manuscripts that lean way too heavily on alliteration in order to “accomplish” (so thinks their author) both character and voice. It’s a lot like rhyme. A lot of writers remember rhyme in picture books, so they think they have to write in rhyme. A lot of writers see alliteration in PBs, so they alliterate. Both cause scribes to contort themselves into a type of sentence pretzel of unnatural language.

In rhyme, writers adopt an almost Victorian syntax in order to make sure they end on the right word. In alliteration, word order also tends to sound unnatural because you’re letting the first letter dictate your word choice. This blog post has a terrible opening line. “Alliteration always annoys.” Nobody talks like that! It doesn’t sound organic! But I had to in order to shoehorn some alliteration in there, and the writers in my slush perpetrate a lot worse in order to stay consistent at the expense of meaning.

So instead of lending you a coveted voice, alliteration makes you sound contrived in most cases. And if I see another cutesy alliterative character name, I will scream. Aim for more sophistication in your writing, especially for the picture book audience. That will set you way, way, way above and beyond the rest of the slush.

Picture books are my absolute favorite manuscripts to work on. If you’re using alliteration but suspect you could do better, hire me as your picture book editor. We’ll figure out your unique writing voice.

Wise Words About Picture Books and Contest!

One of my very favorite picture book writers, Amy Krouse Rosenthal (LITTLE HOOT, DUCK! RABBIT!, and many more) gave an interview in the 2012 CHILDREN’S WRITER’S AND ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET book that I would love to excerpt here the day before my picture book webinar at 1 p.m. Eastern tomorrow, January 12th, which is still open for registration. As a reminder, you will get a 90-minute craft intensive talk on picture books, the opportunity to ask all the questions you have (every question gets answered, either live during the presentation or in an email afterward), and a critique of one picture book manuscript (up to 1,000 words in length).

During the webinar, I’ll talk about how to find the right hooks and universality to really make your picture books marketable on today’s shelves. I’ll also talk about the writer and illustrator relationship in publishing, as well as how writers need to think more like illustrators (and vice versa) in order to come up with truly successful picture book projects.

This excerpt features Rosenthal’s thoughts on finding just the right book idea, as well as working together with an illustrator and how that creative collaboration takes her work to new heights. Read on:

“When my kids were small, there were countless stories told. Often for the boys, I’d tell them stories about dinosaurs, monsters or something in a cape—all these nonsense stories they loved. Ninety-nine percent of the stories I made up for my kids were nonsensical things. But once in a while there was some kind of cool stuff. You have to tell one thousand bad ones to get to the one good one.”

Rosenthal says finding that one good one amidst all the others is a little bit like dating. “When a relationship isn’t right, even if you think I know this is going to work out, he’s really cute, it always has some convoluted glitch—this non-fluid, non-seamless barrage of obstacles. But true love is this flawless, shiny, perfectly smooth thing, at least in the beginning. When I’m writing something, I’m coming at it from a number of different angles. With the ones that end up working, everything falls into place more fluidly.”

That feeling of fluidity can also come from working well with an illustrator. For one of her most recent books, Plant a Kiss (which explores what might grow if you, quite literally, planted a kiss), Rosenthal worked closely with illustrator Peter Reynolds to develop the vision and feel of the book—a process she says has “been a dream.” Not only was it a chance for her to work with one of her favorite artists, but she was thrilled with the vision he brought to the book.

“When I started, I had mocked up the book with stick-figure illustrations. It was tidy, executed visually 100 percent. There was a moment of talk when we thought maybe the book should look like this. It was kind of cute. But thank goodness we reached out to Peter and he said yes. During the first conference call he said he’d send us some sketches. Later, I opened the document, and he had illustrated the entire book. And it was just this moment of ‘Oh my god, he nailed it.’ The characters are beautiful.”

With all of her picture books, Rosenthal has strived for this type of creative partnership. “I really value the collaboration. Oftentimes the writers are kept apart from the illustrator, but that paradigm never made sense to me. From the first ‘yes’ [for Little Pea and Cookies] I made the plea to be involved. I couldn’t imagine not doing it. The books gain so much by the writer and illustrator interacting.”

Interview excerpt of Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Meg Leder from 2012 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market (c) 2011 Writer’s Digest Books. All materials used by permission of F+W Media. All rights reserved

Now that you’ve heard one picture book creator’s thoughts, you can hear even more thoughts on the craft of PBs during the webinar. To sweeten the pot just a little bit, I am going to give away one more copy of CHILDREN’S WRITER’S AND ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET, edited by Chuck Sambuchino, but this contest is a quickie. You can enter in the comments below through 1 p.m. Eastern tomorrow (Thursday, January 12th). I will announce the winner during the webinar (and on the blog next week). If you are taking the webinar, do mention that in your entry. US residents only, please.

Forward this post around and let’s give away another copy of CWIM. Those picture writers out there registered for the webinar will hear more from me tomorrow afternoon!

For those blog readers wondering when I’ll get back to the craft posts here, those are coming up next week. It’s just that 2012 has so many exciting things going on right out of the gate that I have to spread the word. I’ll resume my regular programming once the Writer’s Digest Conference excitement dies down. I seriously can’t wait for this year’s conference. You can check out more details here, and be sure to email me if you still need a special $115 discount code!

Animal Characters

I got some questions from Darshana and NAP about animal stories. NAP asked why they seemed to be unpopular in today’s market given the many perennial animal favorites, and Darshana wrote the following:

I am under the impression that when you have a topic that could be traumatic to a child using animals lessens the effect. Example: Corduroy or Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. Also there are wonderful stories such as CLICK CLACK MOO, BEAR SNORES ON, LITTLE BLUE TRUCK that simply can’t be told any other way. Or is that if you use animals in your story, it has to be a story that couldn’t be possibly told with any other setting/character?

When I talk about animal stories, by the way, I mean mostly picture books, chapter books, and some MG. It’s highly unusual to see anthropomorphic animal characters in YA. And it’s true that there seems to be less excitement in general about animal stories than there was a few years ago. Sure, in ye olde days, animal protagonists were de rigeur. Now, I can acknowledge that they’ve somewhat fallen out of style, though publisher’s catalogs are still crammed with all sorts of critters, especially on the PB side.

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with writing stories starring animal characters. Ask Erin Hunter, the creator of the WARRIORS middle grade series. I’m pretty sure you can find her on the road to the bank…she’ll be the one laughing. And, as I said, there are tons of creatures on shelves today. But why is there this aura that animal stories aren’t quite as popular as they used to be?

Darshana brings up an intersting point. Are animals better suited for difficult stories that need one step of remove from reality? This could be a reason for choosing animal protagonists, though lots of the animal stories I’ve read are simply stories with critters who act very much like human children. In fact, as an interesting counterpoint, I know that one publisher, Lee & Low, will not publish stories with anything but real children, because their mission is diversity and they want the opposite of that remove, they want the human experience only so that their readers can instantly relate. In this vein, I think that we, as people, are so used to relating to protagonists in stories, whether animal or inanimate object or kid, that I don’t know how real this psychological distance is. I’m guessing it’s negligible, though it is good food for thought.

As for the other examples that Darshana mentions, she’s right, they can’t be told any other way, but I think the reason there is just because…they are stories that happen to include animals (or Little Blue Trucks and their animal friends). Her last point is true of all stories, I think, or at least it should be: You make the choices you do in your fiction because you simply cannot make any other choices. Your particular choices are so right that they seem like the only ones. This should apply to characters, of course, but also to setting, plot, word choice, etc. THE VELVETEEN RABBIT is a story about a discarded toy looking for a home. It literally cannot star anyone else but a toy character.

I think anthropomorphic animals are very much a case-by-case question, as well as one of very personal taste. Personally (and here I speak for me and me alone), I do not like chapter books or MG with animals. And most unpublished picture books with animals fall short for me. From what I see in the slush, I get the distinct feeling that some people are writing animal stories simply because they remember reading a lot of animal stories when they grew up. This is a red flag because it shows that they may not be as familiar with today’s market and that they may not be making the strongest and most inevitable choices.

Overall, across the tens of thousands of submissions I’ve read, animal stories tend to cluster near the bottom of the barrel. This is by no means true across the board, it’s a huge generalization, and it has nothing to do with the canon of successful animal stories out there, but this is a clear effect I’ve noticed. (Again, just speaking for myself here.) So I’m wary of them most of the time. And it could very well end up being my loss.

However, I’ve personally broken that mold on my list with BUGLETTE THE MESSY SLEEPER (Tricycle Press) by Bethanie Murguia (and its sequel, coming from Knopf in 2013, SNIPPET THE EARLY RISER), WHEN BLUE MET EGG (coming from Dial/Penguin in 2012) by Lindsay Ward, and POCO LOCO (coming from Marshall Cavendish in 2013) by John Krause. It’s important to note that none of these books deal with issues so difficult that we needed to project them onto animals. It’s more important to note that all of them are tales that could only happen with these particular characters, because their creators made very active story choices. I think that’s the bottom line, right there.

Preaching a Picture Book Moral

Are you excited to impart a picture book moral? Read on! I’ve been thinking a lot about picture books because I recently taught a Writer’s Digest webinar craft intensive all about them. Now that I’m digging into the critiques for the webinar, I wanted to reinforce a point that I made about preaching in picture books, or about didactic stories.

picture book moral, didactic picture book, preaching in picture book, picture book lesson
What is this picture book moral nonsense? Entertain me!

The Problem With an Overt Picture Book Moral

The kinds of picture books that make most agents and editors squirm are the ones that come to the page with a certain agenda. The writer wants to teach the reader something about life. Now, don’t get me wrong…the best picture books all contain big, universal ideas. They all aim to leave the reader with an emotional experience or a realization.

The difference between masterful picture books and those written by writers who maybe haven’t honed their craft quite yet, though, is that the masterful picture books get their point across without preaching overtly.

An Example of Preaching and Moralizing

For example, if you want to write a picture book about a stubborn girl named Tally who learns that sometimes compromise is good, too (because what parent wouldn’t like to teach their kids this lesson?), you would never write:

And then Tally learned that she could let her sisters choose the movie once in a while, and it would still be a lot more fun!

You may have a lesson in mind, but it has to be uncovered by the reader in the context of a) a character’s experience, and b) a larger story. If you find yourself coming out and saying the lesson, you are hitting it too much on the nose and it’s very likely that your story is skewing didactic.

Basically, you’re working too hard and being too obvious. The best picture book lessons are subtle, and they inspire the reader to come to their own conclusions without hitting them over the head.

How to Tell If Your Picture Book Is Didactic

Here’s a simple litmus test that I’ve been asking writers to apply to their picture books:

If you remove the lesson at the end, does the story stand alone?

For example, if Tally’s entire picture book is about how she won’t compromise and she won’t compromise and finally, is surprised when her first compromise works out well, then the plot serves the lesson. It doesn’t stand alone. If we took out the moral of the story, we would take away the plot because each event has been in direct service to the obvious ending.

How to Impart a Picture Book Moral Without Preaching

The best picture books are good stories (a very basic definition of “story”: a memorable character faces and overcomes conflict, is changed by the experience), first and foremost. The big picture idea and the overall lesson of the book is then delicately layered over and under the plot.

But if we take the lesson away and your plot crumbles, you’ve been leaning too heavily on only using your book to prove a point. Find your character. Find your conflict. Go back to the drawing board and stop attacking your moral so directly.

(There are, of course, obvious exceptions. Teaching picture books that discuss sharing are a hit with some institutional publishers, and people need them for teaching aides, etc. Also, you are free to teach if you are writing non-fiction, obviously. Here I’m just talking about story-driven picture books for the trade market.)

Are you worried that your picture book isn’t hitting the right note? Hire me as your picture book editor and I will help you stay on message while telling a great story.

Happy Release Day: BUGLETTE, THE MESSY SLEEPER

Today is the release day for BUGLETTE, THE MESSY SLEEPER by author/illustrator Bethanie Murguia. It’s out for Tricycle Press/Random House, and Bethanie has a contest going on over on her blog to celebrate, here!

Everyone go pick up a copy of BUGLETTE, and watch for the companion picture book, SNIPPET, THE EARLY RISER, coming from Knopf/Random House in 2013!

Congratulations Bethanie!