I am asked that question all the time. Creativity can be a circuitous
route and often ideas wander down twisted paths so it's hard to know where
they begin. I recently received a copy of my latest book Scarlet and Igor, a
story about a vampire and mummy who are best friends. When I saw the finished
book, I thought about where the book began and where it
Scarlet and Igor didn't begin with the story. Instead, I was interested in finding a character that might appeal
to boys and because I primarily do my thinking in a sketchbook, I did lots of sketching;
Aliens, monsters, bats, anything that came into my head.
I liked drawing the bat, so I started putting the little bat in
situations and that helped me get a sense of his character.
I sent a few of the drawings to my agent and at about the same time she asked if I would look at a series of stories she had written about 2 friends. I read them, loved them and because I was drawing bats, jokingly said the stories should star a vampire. My agent thought this was a wonderful idea and wondered if one of the characters could be a vampire and the bat from my sketches. Again, I always think better in pictures so started
sketching again. I didn't love the result, the scale was wrong, and the 2 characters just didn't seem to relate to each other.
All the while I was wandering down this path, I was imaging
another character, someone who was physically opposite of Scarlet.
Sometimes I am inspired by shapes, like vegetables, so I experimented with different shapes.
I started sketching again and a little roly poly mummy's
emerged. He seemed like a perfect friend for Scarlet because they worked together visually.
Scarlet and Igor was a happy coincidence, It certainly wasn't the book I set out to do. Sometimes books take unexpected turns and as authors and illustrators we need to be open to the changes.
By Miranda Paul
If you’ve never been jealous of other writers’ successes, stop reading and go check your pulse. Fellow mortals trying to get a book published, read on.
In 2010, I became wedded—for better or worse—to the idea that I would write picture books.
That same year, life hurtled challenges at my newfound love. The New York Times ran an article titled: “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children”. Scholastic reported reduced production of hardcover children’s books. My writer friends began declaring that “the good ol’ days” of submitting unsolicited manuscripts and getting timely answers were long gone. (And some of those nostalgic conversations took place in our state’s largest children’s bookstore which would eventually close its doors after two decades.)
The “for worse” part of my vow to write picture books had arrived pretty darn quick.
I spent a few months comparing myself to others. How did so-and-so get a book deal so quickly? Why did a friend’s manuscript snag editor attention, while mine was thrown under the bus at a thoroughly dehumanizing live pitch session?
Like a suspicious lover, questions plagued me. There must be some conspiracy I wasn’t privy to, I thought. I became obsessed with investigating everyone else’s path to publication. I spent entire days scrolling people’s news feeds in an attempt to unravel the “secret” to getting published. Nearly a year passed and I hadn’t even begun submitting my work—that is, if I had anything worth submitting.
What I didn’t realize during my investigation was that each success story was igniting jealousy. Slowly, that inferno was feeding on my original passion for writing and my ability to produce new, good work. In addition to becoming consumed with the publishing part of writing, I sometimes “forgot” or got "too busy" to check in with and congratulate some of my own friends on their good news. Although I never acted or said anything rash or mean, this self-absorbedness wasn't typical of my kind-natured, supportive self.
One day, when my real-life husband came home from work and asked what I’d written that day (which, it turns out, was NOTHING) I realized I'd been cheating on myself. I was having an affair with jealousy, who turned out to be nothing more than a distraction and a control freak. I’d spent days pining over the nuts and bolts of getting published instead of nurturing my craft and shaping myself into the writer I wanted to be. I lost a lot of precious time that I could have spent actually writing or revising.
Jealousy (and self-doubt) was holding me back from achieving what I had set out to do, so I had no choice: I broke it off. I ran back to the loving jacketflaps of my favorite picture books and opened my unfinished manuscripts. They welcomed me, forgave me, and led me into a “for better” part of our relationship. In the process, I learned these things:
Remember that each time another aspiring writer lands an agent or signs a contract or wins an award, it’s solid proof that this impossible thing called breaking into today’s picture book market can be done. Being genuinely excited will lift your emotional energy and affect all aspects of your day. Let inspiration fuel your fire, not jealousy. Besides, when the tides turn (see #2), those authors won’t forget how you cheered them on, bought their books, and retweeted their news. If you're a good sport, maybe the grandstands will soon be filled with your roaring fans.
2. In the sea of publishing, the tides are always turning.
Vampires are out. Zombies are in. Suddenly everyone wants debut authors. Last year's bestseller is quietly going out of print while some unknown book published 20 years ago is trending.
You could drown just thinking about the whirlpool of industry news.
Some of the same writer friends I was silently jealous of early on in my quest are now struggling with rejections or switching agents or zooming down on this roller coaster ride we call writing. I’ve learned firsthand that getting a book contract or landing an agent is a far cry from blue skies. Your friends and contacts who are “published” are going through tough challenges too, even if they are different from your challenges. Be patient, be generous, be supportive, and be optimistic. The winds of change blow sails in every direction.
3. Anything plus an odd number equals an odd number.
Writing and publishing books can be as frustrating as solving a complex equation. The emotions you’re bearing while on the journey can and do seep into your writing (or block it completely). When you’re angry or jealous or doubtful, your Facebook comments, tweets, conversations with others, manuscripts, and relationship with yourself may inadvertently show signs of those odd or ill feelings. If you’re hanging out with “Negative Nellies” who always criticize others or complain about how unfair or hard this industry is, you’re going to begin absorbing those odd or negative thoughts too.
On the flip side, feeling good for others or "even" with yourself will render your comments positive. In short, like attracts like, and no one likes a whiner. (Remember your mother saying, “If you can’t say anything nice. . .”) Don’t be the odd one out.
4. The key toward what “could be” is to appreciate what already “is.”
Ask yourself these questions:
Gratitude helps you recognize the resources you already have. I could be jealous of empty nesters who don't have to break from writing to wipe an occasional number two, or I could appreciate the fact that I know my target audience well and my household floods me with a perpetual stream of fun, bizarre picture book ideas. Realizing your personal resources, whatever they are, will help get where you want to be. Understanding your weaknesses and appreciating your strengths lets you realize the unique aspects you bring to the table as a writer. If you're easily distracted, like me, shut your Internet off and write, write, write. When you log back online, you'll read all that stuff from the point of view of a driven, satisfied writer who filled some pages today.
My ex-lover still tries to sneak into my head sometimes, but I’m good at kicking him out. If he happens to stop by your house, tell him to get lost. Say “I do” to inspiration instead, and really commit to your love of writing picture books. Then, propose a toast to the “for better” part. I'll be there among all of your friends and fans, raising a glass and clinking it to yours. Cheers!
Miranda Paul is the author of One Plastic Bag (Millbrook, 2015) and Water is Water (Neal Porter Books, 2015). She is also the founder and administrator of RateYourStory.org, an online service dedicated to helping writers prepare their manuscripts for submission. Whenever she can find an ounce of free time, she hosts spontaneous dance parties with two kids, two cats, the best husband in the world, and an ever-changing rotation of international houseguests. Read more online at: www.MirandaPaul.com.
If you’ve ever sat down to write a picture book, you’ve probably wished the words would rush from your fingertips onto the keyboard like water from Niagara Falls. When we read the finished product on the bookshelves, it’s easy to imagine that that’s the way it happened. If only we could tap into that mystical source of picture book magic and write like that too.
When I sat down to write my first picture book many years ago, however, it was a completely different story. (No pun intended!) Instead of filling up the page with picture book perfection, it felt like I was trying to navigate a rocky river of possibilities, bumping into one rock of words after another. What did I want to write? Every choice seemed wrong when compared to the polished stories on the bookshelves. It would have been easy to give up and conclude that I wasn’t cut out to write picture books.
No doubt, whoever wrote them, lived some sort of charmed life where words floated magically into place like Cinderella’s gossamer gown at the flick of her fairy godmother’s wrist. How did writers write such wonderful manuscripts, anyway? My early attempts at writing picture books were fraught with multiple missteps.
But over time, I discovered an essential piece of the picture book puzzle—pinning down that first rough draft no matter how awful and misshapen it may be. Why? Because, each time I work on a manuscript--it gets better. I usually start with a crumb of an idea, and I’ve learned that great ideas don’t show up all at once. Instead, they wander into town like a distant relative who raps on the door unexpectedly. Each time I revise, I get new ideas, better ideas, ones that I would not have discovered if I hadn’t written the awful stuff the first time around.
My rhyming, nonfiction picture book, In the Trees, Honey Bees (Dawn, 2009) is a good example. Since my father-in-law was a beekeeper with over 300 hives, I decided to write a rhyming picture book about honey bees for young readers. There were already a lot of nonfiction books about honey bees, but I wanted mine to be different. This book would approach the subject from an angle every child would understand—what bees do from morning to night. I was excited to share the thrilling details. So, I opened with this verse the first time around:
What’s that sound
In the trees,
When I finished the manuscript, I sent it off into the editorial cosmos where everyone rejected it. After the first group of five rejected it, I took another look at it. Hmm . . . maybe it could be better, especially that first verse. So I revised it:
What a sight!
In the trees,
More rejections and revisions followed, such as:
Hive’s first flight . . .
Time for flight . . . .
So many possible rhymes. Which one was best? It seemed like a toss up, until ten rejections later, a better verse sprang to mind that made all the difference and captured what was most important in the first part of a honey bee’s day:
Warm and bright.
In the trees,
It sold the next time out and was an important lesson in learning to take my time and unearth the rich layers of “better” that were just waiting to be discovered with each revision.
My latest rhyming picture book, Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg (Clarion, 2013), is another great example of how an ordinary first idea can transform into something better if you keep going. I originally got the idea for this story because my neighbor’s dogs regularly bolted out of their backyard and raced down the street to jump into a refreshing creek. Seconds later, my neighbors raced down the street after them.
So one day I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to write a story with some kind of dog chase in it? My first draft was a complete snooze. A dog jumping over a log and lots of other rhyming obstacles. Ugh. After a while, I didn’t even want to work on it, which was a bad sign. But the idea niggled at me. Surely, there was something I could do. And there was. I’d recently read some picture books with a cowboy setting and all of a sudden it occurred to me that I could have a cowboy chase a dog. That sounded exciting. In an early version, the cowboy lived with his Ma and she was telling him to wash the dog. In time, I realized I didn’t need Ma to tell the story, so I ditched her and set Cowpoke Clyde off on his own merry chase to catch his dirty dawg for a bath. When it was finished, I knew an editor would want it! They had to. It was too fun not too.
It would have never happened if I hadn’t pinned down that first draft and kept going.
It’s a secret every writer discovers—it gets better.
Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than three dozen fiction and nonfiction books. A member of SCBWI, Lori is a frequent speaker at schools and SCBWI conferences. She also works as a writing instructor and is represented by Eden Street Literary in New York. Recent picture book titles include Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, (Clarion, 2013), Cindy Moo (HarperCollins, 2012), Come See the Earth Turn – The Story of Léon Foucault (Random House, 2010), and In the Trees, Honey Bees! (Dawn, 2009). Visit Lori’s website at www.lorimortensen.com
Over the last year, we have heard more and more about Nonfiction. It goes hand in hand with common core.
I mean, come on, how hard can nonfiction really be? HARD! Not to discourage you from writing nonfiction, after all it is my love. But, you must be prepared for all of the work that comes along. If you have ever written a regular story, you know that the revision process can take forever. With nonfiction the research can take even longer.
Let's assume that you know WHAT you want to write about, here is how to begin your research process.
1. Get an account with easybib.com, it's free. As you look for your resources, keep a running tab in easybib. Every website, news article, magazine, book, person, email, museum, gravestone, birth certificate, death certificate or speech about your subject MUST be cited. It will take you ten times longer to go back and enter than it will while you work.
2. Google everything about the subject and print off each document.
3. Visit www.uspto.gov and search for basic marks about my subject. Now, family members can trademark different aspects of the characters life or different events. You don't want to infringe.
4. I highly suggest a membership with http://newspaperarchive.com. This site maintains newspapers dating back to the 17th century.
5. Buy every book that you can get your hands on about the subject.
6. Call local historical societies in the town/state/country where the event happened, person lived or person is buried. Listen to the stories, learn what these people know. Ask if there are any monuments or museums dedicated to the person or event. Finally ask if they know of any descendants still living in the area. If the answer is no, move on to number 7.
7. Get a membership with ancestry.com. Enter the information that you know about the person. Look for relation, death certificates, marriage certificates, US census records. If the person came to America, you can look at the manifest from ships that came through Ellis Island, this will list who the person was accompanied by.
8. Put all of this into a box and begin reading. Sort through what you feel is relevant and what may not fit into your story.
9. Go back to the internet and search what life, weather and other historical events were happening during this time. Discover want it TRULY felt like, what life was like or what events may have caused this outcome.
10. Visit the site. Whether tracking off to Boone, Iowa, Patterson, New York or Moscow Russia. Be there. Try to walk in the shoes of the people you are writing about.
Finally, it is important to keep all of this together. This will assist your publisher's fact checker as well as help the illustrator relate to the story.
Kristen is agented by Kendra Marcus of Bookstop Literary and has some exciting non-fiction picture books in the works. She runs the WOW - Nonficpic Facebook annual contest and ongoing group here, and also has a ton of non-fiction resources on her website here. Besides reading, writing, researching, and revising, Kristen is also an avid zebra lover and lives in Florida with her rocket scientist husband and a menagerie of animals.
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