November is Picture Book Idea Month. If you’re a picture book writer, you should definitely be signed up. And if you’ve ever thought about maybe considering the possibility of potentially becoming an aspiring picture book writer, you should sign up as well. (You can join the party here – it’s free)
What is Picture Book Idea Month? PiBoIdMo (for short) is a November writing challenge for picture book writers and illustrators. The object is to jot down one picture book concept daily. By the end of the month you’ll have at least 30 bright & shiny new ideas to jump-start your creativity and write new manuscripts throughout the year.
Every day in November, author Tara Lazar (founder of PiBoIdMo and weekend clerk at The Monstore) has a different guest blogger lined up to give some insight and hopefully inspire all of us writers. Check out this year’s calendar:
(pay close attention Wednesday, November 12th)
There are loads of prizes (signed book giveaways, agent critiques, and more). It’s like a month long online party! Don’t be late!
So get your pens, notebooks, and brains ready to be inspired!
It’s important to know ONE thing: You don’t know EVERYthing. So …
I debated on whether to call this post Find the Right Critique Partners or Be the Worst … and Learn from People Better than You. I think there are a couple points I want to touch on regarding progression with your craft.
First, you don’t have to do it alone. The kidlit community, both online and in person, is full of friendly people who cheer each other on. Whether through SCBWI, PiBoIdMo, 12×12, or one of the many social networking groups, there is a profusion of resources available. You just have to ask.
Find a critique group. This is critical. It sounds like a cheesy acknowledgements section of a middle grade novel, but the truth is that I’d be nowhere without the many critique partners who’ve made my writing better over the years.
But don’t be the best in your critique group. If you want to keep improving your writing, be sure to work with people who are better than you (by this, I mean better at writing). I can definitively say I have never been the best one in any of my groups – and that fact has played a large role in any success I may have had.
There are many other ways to continue learning. One is by going to conferences, retreats, and workshops. This can get expensive and potentially prohibitive, but luckily lots of classes have popped up online that range from very affordable webinars to even free (see Nerdy Chicks Write Summer School, currently in session).
Read books in the genre you write. This is important for several reasons. It will help keep your focus on the audience for which you’re writing. It will also give you an idea of the business side of the writing world. What are publishers buying? What are librarians, teachers, parents, and children enjoying?
How do you keep learning? Do you find it important to continue expanding your knowledge of kidlit? Why?
Next time I’ll share why it’s important to …
[fill in later before you post this, otherwise you might look kind of silly and you wouldn’t want that, would you, Josh?]
Wow, that sounds like an interesting topic! Betcha can’t wait to hear about that!
Picture book ideas show up everywhere. Some of them are great! And …
Some Ideas Just Don’t Work
Yes, it’s true, I have a couple picture books scheduled to be published over the next couple of years. But I’ve written my share of terrible manuscripts along the way. Some of those ideas were doomed from the start – I just didn’t know it at the time.
A few years ago, I thought I would jump into the vampire fad (I know they’re particularly popular in picture books), so I wrote a story about a vampire boy who wants to be scary but all the little kids just love vampires now. I think it’s sort of like the end of that Adam Sandler movie Hotel Transylvania – when they’re running through the streets but everyone loves the monsters and isn’t scared of them. Oops, is that one of those places I should have said ‘spoiler alert?’ Anyway, my plot didn’t really translate to a young children’s audience, and I didn’t learn that until I worked on it for a while and brought it to a critique group where nobody ‘got’ it.
[Side note: I unintentionally chose gender-neutral names and when the vampire finally fell in love at the end, some thought he fell in love with a woman and some thought he fell in love with a dude (I’m not gonna say which was correct – I’ll leave that up to the illustrator)]
But it’s okay that this idea didn’t work! Lots of picture book ideas don’t work. That’s why the ultra-talented Tara Lazar came up with Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) – where all participants come up with one idea per day during the 30 days of November. Because it might take 30 ideas to come up with the one that really hits.
Uber-Author Kate Messner recently wrote a blog post discussing how she comes up with picture book ideas. It’s a great post and I suggest reading it, as I do for pretty much all her writing (except maybe her Twilight fan fiction). Madame Messner says “Hey! That could be a picture book!” nearly once a day about something, but over the course of a year probably delivers only a handful of manuscripts to her agent. Her experience probably stops her from working on a bad idea for too long before she wastes much time on it. Even the greatest writers have ideas that just don’t work.
Then sometimes, an idea will work.
One autumn morning when my children were deciding what to eat for breakfast, they began arguing. “Pancakes!” “No, French Toast!” “No, Pancakes!” “No, French Toast!” Two hours later I had an awful first draft and my children were still hungry. Two autumns later I had an offer on that manuscript. And two autumns after that, LADY PANCAKE AND SIR FRENCH TOAST is scheduled to be published by Sterling Children’s. (Remind me never to complain about bickering children again)
So don’t give up when an idea doesn’t fully materialize into the potential you once thought it had. Just grab your notebook and find another one. Draft it, revise it, and bring it to your critique group. Which brings me to the next thing I’ve learned: It’s so important to …
Expanding on my last post, today I explain why rhyming is not about rhyming.
Rhyming Picture Books Are All About Rhythm
I could spend all day (every day) talking about my thoughts on rhyming picture books. But rather than one or two or ten blog posts about it, I started a Tumblr called Victimless Rhyme. I plan on posting little quick hits on all aspects of rhyming, usually related to rhyming picture books. Check it out if you’d like.
But today, it’s rhythm. To re-emphasize a point I made earlier, there are three critical factors that must be addressed when writing a rhyming picture book. In order of importance, they are:
Story (and characters, plot, arc, etc)
Story is most important. Rhyme comes last. But more important than rhyme is Rhythm. You may be able to find the most amazing pair of rhyming words in the world. But if the meter doesn’t work, then the entire picture book will go up in smoke.
What is rhythm (or meter). I’m not going to go into a scientific description of Iambic Pentameter (or Anapestic Heptameter and so on), but on a high level rhythm is the sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables. Think of a famous limerick about Nantucket. Once, Man, and tuck all have the same stressed emphasis on them, while the rest of the syllables aren’t stressed.
But I’m not going to teach you rhythm. That would take more than a blog post (and there are already great resources out there … I personally like Rhyme Weaver if you really want to learn). I am going to stress (pun intended) the importance of rhythm. Just know that getting the meter right is much harder and takes significantly more time and effort than putting together a single pair of words that rhyme.
Although it’s hard to do, I find that the best rhyming picture books force the reader to speak with the correct rhythm. They’re carefully crafted with words that must be pronounced with the correct emphasis and stress. Rhythm can be subjective and the intended meter can easily be misinterpreted. And this is not something writers often think about. When the you write a rhyming picture book, you know which words to emphasize – but when someone else reads it, they won’t. And books are ALWAYS intended to be read by someone else.
I might say the word fire with 2 syllables. You might say it with 1 syllable. Put that fire in the middle of a line in your manuscript, and the whole text might come burning down.
There’s no easy road to writing quality rhyming picture books. It takes practice, study, and hard work (and maybe some talent). And not every book should be written in rhyme. I’ve tried and failed with some and next time I’ll share my thoughts on why …
It’s hard to get up the nerve to network. But networking is so incredibly helpful on the road to publication. Don’t get me wrong, you still need to have talent, work hard, and get a little lucky. A publisher probably won’t buy your book simply because you’re good at networking. But a publisher will never buy your book without seeing it.
A lot has happened to me since I last guest-posted here at Writers Rumpus. In the past 5 months, I became represented by a wonderful literary agent and have received offers on 2 picture book manuscripts (I also dropped the pseudonym Papa J Funk). And I’m not going to say my success is because I guest-posted here. Well, actually, I am … a little bit.
Beginning at the 2013 New England SCBWI Conference, I started rubbing elbows with everyone I could. I volunteered. I read a working manuscript at the open mic. I walked up to strangers to introduce myself. I’ll be honest, it was scary at times. But I returned home with a huge collection of business cards (and shared dozens of my own).
That collection of business cards led to an increased digital network on Facebook and Twitter. Those e-friends shared publisher open submission windows, and one even gave a glowing personal recommendation to that splendid literary agent.
Volunteering and hobnobbing helped me find and found new critique groups. Those additional critiques led to improved manuscripts. And that manuscript I read at the open mic? LADY PANCAKE AND SIR FRENCH TOAST is currently scheduled for a September 2015 release from Sterling Children’s.
I can’t tell you how to network. You’ll have to find what works for you. But here are some tips and options:
Personal: Get out there.
Go to conferences. Go to writing retreats. Go to workshops.
Introduce yourself to everyone. Pick a lunch table with people you don’t know. Force yourself to meet new people. Push yourself to get out of your comfort zone a little. Most people (at least in the kidlit world) are usually pretty friendly.
Make sure to bring business cards so you can stay in contact.
Virtual: There are virtually (hee hee) an unlimited number of ways to connect with people online. Some say “do them all!” But I find it can be overwhelming with all the choices. I’d personally recommend starting with Twitter and Facebook. Regarding all the others, I’m of the mind that you should only do what you feel comfortable doing.
Twitter (at least nowadays) is the forum of choice for many literary agents, publishers, and librarians. I’ve heard countless stories of writers and agents finding each other through twitter.
Facebook is a great way to stay in contact with others after those conferences and retreats are over. Via Facebook friends I heard about agents and publishers accepting submissions, awesome workshops to attend, and could even post questions when needing advice.
If I had to pick a third, I’d say GoodReads, as it is book related.
Other Social Networking: It doesn’t hurt to try Pintrest, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Google+, Mammoth, WordPress, or any of the other ones you find out there. But only do what you like. I’ve been told it’s better to very involved in one than not very involved in many.
Social Networking specifically for Writers: I don’t participate in any writer-specific social networking other than SCBWI. But there are lots out there. I’ll leave it up to you to google them.
Writers are shy. That’s why we write, rather than act, dance, or ride bulls in rodeos. But talent, hard work, and luck account for only half of the road to publication. The other half, at least in my opinion, is networking.
In the past two days, I’ve been referred to twice as a gateway of sorts to the publishing world. Two friends each contacted me regarding friends of theirs who have written a book (or books) for children. These friends of mine asked if I would meet/advise/consult/critique/etc their friends’ work.
I have yet to speak to either of the two writers, just our mutual friends. But I’m relatively confident this is the first time either writer has stepped outside their circle of family and friends regarding their writing.
So what should I tell them? I’ve written posts before about where to begin, but I really don’t want to overwhelm anyone. I want to educate, give a dose of reality, but ultimately inspire them?
What if I could find 5 articles or websites they could go to as that starting place?
Here are my five:
Start with Jennifer Laughran’s Word Count Post. It’s not impossible to get a 3,000 word picture book published in today’s market … no, actually it is. Get the disappointment over with first. You’re 15,000 word Young Adult novel just isn’t long enough. Let’s rip off the band-aid and move on.
If you’re still with me and haven’t cried yourself to oblivion (or your word count is actually in line with the genre for which you’re writing), then GREAT! Let’s make sure your craft is as good as possible. There is no single link that will help make this happen, but if you join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, you’ll be able to find workshops, critique groups, conferences, retreats, and more -> and that will help you hone your craft. So the second link is to Join SCBWI.
If you’re confident your manuscript is the best it can possibly be, it’s time to find somewhere to send it! Whether you are sending directly to publishers or looking for an agent, try to find a copy of the most recent Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market and SCBWI The Book. These will help you find out about which publishers are looking for what, as well as the agents looking for whom.
But don’t send yet. You still need to write your query. What’s a query, you ask? A query is the professional business letter you send to the agent or editor ‘asking’ if they would like to read your manuscript (oh, I get it? asking=querying). How do you write one? I suggest starting at AgentyQuery.com. There are links from there to other sites, which will link to others, which link to an unending list of others – all filled with help writing queries. Querying is hard. But you will survive.
“But publishers are constantly printing new rhyming picture books.”
“I’ve heard librarians like reading rhyming books at story time.”
“Children love rhyme, don’t they?”
“But Dr. Seuss was amazing and he only wrote in rhyme.”
and so on …
Here are the two simple reasons you should not write rhyming picture books:
The Business Reason: Rhyming picture books cannot be easily translated into other languages. Therefore, rhyming picture books are immediately less valuable to agents and publishers.
The Artistic Reason: It’s very easy to write bad rhymes. Lots of people do it. Therefore, there is a stigma associated with rhyming picture books – a cringe-worthy stain on the entire genre (I’m not kidding – I got a very painful looking cringe from a highly respected and successful agent when I told her I wrote picture books in rhyme – a look you might give someone when they tell you their dog died … a horrific death).
The Business Reason is pretty obvious. Yes, it’s possible a loose translation might work in some languages. And maybe (hopefully) your story and characters are good enough to be satisfyingly told without rhyme. But … maybe not.
The Artistic Reason is more layered. Even if your rhyming picture book is flawlessly superb both in content and execution, there is an excellent chance that agents will choose not to read it because, in fairness, most of the rhyme they receive is bad rhyme. If they have to read 99 bad rhyming manuscripts to get to your good one, was it really worth their time?
(hint: the answer is no)
What is bad rhyme, anyway? Well, there a lots of types of rhyme crime:
Simple, everyday, cliche rhyme: “My cat ate my hat, well look at that.”
Near rhyme: “I see a staple, it’s right on the table.”
Forced rhyme: “I opened my giant umbrella. It’s raining, I said to that fella.”
Regional rhyme: “In England, you see lots of rain. But I’m in the U.S. again.”
Seussian rhyme: “Dr. Seuss was Dr. Seuss, and nobody else can do that shlamboose.”
Yoda rhyme: “It’s raining and wet. In the car, I must get.”
But the worst bad rhyme has nothing to do with rhyme. Rhyme is the 3rd most important aspect of a rhyming picture book.
The #1 most important aspect of a rhyming picture book is that it has to be a good story. It must have characters, emotion, plot, arc, and all the other aspects that make up picture books (see parts 1-6 of this series).
The 2nd most important aspect of a rhyming picture book is the rhythm. Rhythm is way more important than rhyme. Any preschooler can rhyme. Rhyming is easy. That’s why I say writing a rhyming picture isn’t about rhyming …