Writing has everything to do with chickens. At least that’s how it feels as I embark on my new homeschooling/backyard chicken adventure. Have you ever noticed that our language is inundated with chicken references and idioms? That was part one of my chicken unit for the kids: Find and define as many chicken sayings as you can. They came up with 82! Chickens have personalities, and preferences, and they are curious. Who knew? No wonder there are so many picture books about chickens!
So with the help of my chickens, I’ll tell you about 3 tips for hatching stories.
1. Fly the coop. Chickens need to leave the coop and get some light if they want to produce eggs. That’s why a chicken run and time away from the coop in essential.
Sometimes as writers, we feel cooped up or overly scheduled. This squelches the writing juices and we can’t produce. Don’t fill your life so full that writing isn’t possible. Write in the treehouse, at the library, in a park, or on a swing. You’ll lay your best eggs when you fly the coop!
2. Ignore the pecking order. I was shocked when I saw three of our chickens pecking Cuckoo, whose stubby beak makes a darling kissy face so different from the others. After three weeks of pecking and isolation for Cuckoo, all four of the chickens seem to be getting along better. Still, some of the chickens clearly rule the roost.
As writers we may feel like we are at the bottom of the pecking order, especially after the gazillionth rejection! Use your experience of rejection and pour it into your stories. Write the unexpected, make the underdog the hero, and ignore the pecking order.
3. Do a chicken dance! I never realized the chicken dance was a real thing until I watched Clucktrina puffing out her chest, clucking and strutting and celebrating how wonderful she was. Doing a chicken dance gets your blood flowing, makes you laugh and fills you with confidence. You have written a wonderful manuscript and revised it until it sings. You’ve produced a good egg, and that alone is a reason to dance!
I’m off to feed the chickens...Ahem. I mean, I'm off to write a story. And that alone gives me something to crow about!
Kirsti Call is a homeschooling mom of five. Her debut picture book, The Raindrop Who Couldn't Fall, came out last December. Her family band, Calling Out, plays songs written by her children. She contributes to Writer's Rumpus, and Kids are Writers. If you visit her house, you might find her doing a chicken dance! You can find out more about her at www.kirsticall.com.
Writing a successful picture book can be a mystifying proposition. After pouring ourselves onto the page, authors wonder why editors snap up certain stories while other stories never rise from the murky depths of the slush pile.
That’s the question, isn’t it?
As picture book authors, the ultimate goal of every manuscript we write is to achieve the dream of publication and see our words blossom into the vision we imagine. So when I thought about what has made a difference with my writing success, three ideas came to mind that have helped loft my manuscripts over that all-important dividing line between reaching my goal and falling short.
Plunge into Editor and Agent Research - At first, I was skeptical that this extra effort would pay off. Weren't all editors and agents just looking for the next great manuscript? I felt l'd done plenty just by finding the appropriate editor's name at a publishing house.
Over time, however, I realized that editors and agents have personal tastes just like everyone else. In the realm of published picture books, I absolutely love some picture books, like others, and can’t see why in the world some were published at all. It all comes down to taste. Somebody loved all of those books on the shelf enough to publish them at some point.
When I was searching for a new agent several years ago, I researched the different agencies and found out who represented children’s literature. Once I had their names, I looked for articles and interviews about them online. The more I learned about their individual tastes, the more I was apt to submit something they would like--and maybe even love. Mandy Yates recently shared a great list of agencies at the Picture Book Academy here. http://www.childrensbookacademy.com/mondays-with-mandy-or-mira/100-picture-book-agents. I also shared my “Agency Quest” at my blog at http://lorimortensen.blogspot.com/2013/03/agency-quest.html. A good example of the importance of taste occurred when I began submitting a zombie-related picture book manuscript. I was surprised when an agent quickly got back to me about it because she loved zombies. Although I hadn’t discovered this characteristic about her online (and I ultimately declined her offer of representation), it was a good reminder of how personal taste can drive opportunities.
Follow Your Passion - When I look back on my successful picture book manuscripts, I see that each involved tuning into what I felt passionate about. Whether it was a determined cow inspired by a nursery rhyme, or a frustrated cowpoke bent on catching his Dirty Dawg, my excitement about the story propelled the story forward. As I barreled ahead, it was exciting to see where the story would take me.
Some authors like to know where they’re going, but that’s usually not the case with me. I get an idea, then I see what twists and turns develop. I’m tickled when I come up with new ideas along the way that makes the story even better and opens up new possibilities. This was true when I wrote Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg. I started off knowing that Clyde was going to try and catch his dog. It was fun to figure out what sort of tactics he’d try and how each attempt would fail. It was fun to figure out what the climactic moment of the story would be and how low Clyde would sink in his pursuit before he succeeded. I remember the moment when I thought--Heck! He’s going to forget the whole thing!
Clyde cursed the mule, tucked in his shirt,
Wiped off feathers, fur and dirt.
“Fine!” he yelled. “I don’t care none!”
He kicked a pail. Ol’ Dawg had won.
Would Clyde catch his ol’ Dirty Dawg? I had to keep writing to find out. When it was published, readers had to keep reading to find out too.
On the flip side, sometimes as I’ve plugged along on something, I’ve thought, Well, I don’t really like this, but the kids will. Needless to say, that’s the death knell for any story that I feel that way about. Bad is bad, no matter how old you are, and when something sings, readers of all ages will connect with it. When I’m having fun writing it, the story blossoms before my eyes and it shows on the page.
Satisfaction (I Can't Get No?)- The more I write, the more I realize how important satisfaction is at the end of the story. This is where the story wraps up and leaves the reader with an “Ahhh” feeling along with an underlying message. Readers don’t just want to go through a series of events. They want to feel something. They want to be rewarded for their journey. In Cindy Moo, Cindy Moo comes up with a clever idea and shares her success with her cow friends. Her story was not only about solving her moon-jumping problem--she could have figured it out alone in a field--but it was also a friendship story. In the beginning, her friends doubted her. In the end, they marveled at her success and she shared her new-found fun with them, making their friendship stronger. In Cowpoke Clyde, Clyde chased his dog, got mad and gave up. But in the end, Clyde and Dawg are reconciled beneath the moon because there were two that liked to howl and croon.
So that's it! I hope my tips will be the difference between coming close to the line and jumping over it--just like Cindy Moo!
Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 70 books and over 350 stories and articles. A member of SCBWI, Lori is a frequent speaker at schools, SCBWI conferences, and has worked as a writing instructor for the past eight years at the Institute of Children’s Literature. 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). To learn more about Lori and her upcoming books, visit her website at www.lorimortensen.com, or read her blog at http://lorimortensen.blogspot.com
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