How to Write Like a Professional

How to Write Like a Professional
6 Surprising Writing Mistakes That Make You Look Like an Amateur Author... and How to Avoid Them

Monday, June 28, 2010

Fiction vs. Nonfiction

I subscribe to the Institute of Children's Literature e-newsletter.  I'm also a graduate. Jan Fields is a writer, an instructor at ICL, the moderator for their newsletter, and has been a writing instructor at a community college in North Carolina (my home, too). She wrote a great little essay/article in the e-news dated June 24, 2010, titled "Why Nonfiction Doesn't Need to Be Jolly." My being a writer of both fiction and nonfiction picture books, I found the information interesting and helpful. Thought I might share it with you. And I quote...
I suspect a lot of writers connect the word "nonfiction" with horror filled
memories of slogging through dull textbooks and trying to memorize all the war dates through history. Or trying to memorize the states and capitals. Or trying to memorize scientific terms for the test. In other words, we remember mostly painful associations with nonfiction as a child. So we assume kids won't want to read our article unless we jolly them into it. 
So many beginning writers will do one of the following...
1. Address the reader directly, a lot, in kind of a jolly voice...asking questions about the readers life to try to draw comparisons with the article subject.
2. Mix fiction into the nonfiction much like you'd mix tasty syrup into icky medicine to force it past a cranky child's lips. Since we assume fiction is tasty and nonfiction is icky -- we're sure we need some fiction to make the nonfiction fun. 
And yet, those are two things editors hate to see and will reject you over. Why? 
Editors know something many writers have forgotten. Kids actually like nonfiction a lot. 
Many young children will choose a nonfiction book over a fiction book. Many fluent readers become obsessed with specific topics and will read every scrap of nonfiction on the subject. Many children go to an obsessive collecting period -- and find themselves collecting quirky facts right along with their Pez dispensers and game cards. 
Kids know that the world is an endlessly interesting place and they want to know more about it. They aren't interested in reading about sharks in an article that constantly asks them how they would feel personally about swimming constantly or gulping hunks of meat at dinner. They know those questions are taking up space that could be filled with unexpected, exciting information about sharks. And it's the sharks that made the child pick up the book or flip to the article. The kids are after the facts, not the frivolity. 
Editors know kids don't want a lot of filler cluttering up their article. They don't need to be told about sharks by Tubby the Tuna. They don't need to be spoken to in a whizbang golly gee voice. They just want the goods -- the facts, the true story, the new research, the information they don't yet know on the subject. 
And kids know a lot. If a boy is interested in sharks, his shark knowledge can rival the folks at Sea World because he reads everything he can find about sharks. So if your shark article just goes over the same stuff the boy can read in an encyclopedia or his school science book, he's going to be disappointed. He wants you to tell him the thing he doesn't know. More than that, he wants you to tell him the thing is other shark-loving buddies don't know either. 
That's why books like Dinosaur Mummies grabs reader excitement -- if dinosaurs are cool. And mummies are amazing. Imagine the excitement over Dinosaur Mummies. No hype needed, just the topic blew the reader away. If you remember history as a blur of dull dates and facts, you haven't read a lot of kid magazine history lately. That's where you'll find out about the president who let a foreign dignitary bring an alligator to the White House. That's where you can learn about the president who chased a goat down Pennsylvania Avenue. Or about the president who brought a Wind in the Willows-type love for motorcars to the White House -- and the problems he faced as a result (Mr. Toad would have totally understood.) 
Kids want the true untold totally cool stories from history. They want the little known facts and cutting edge research from science. They want clear looks into specific moments and event in other cultures. They want nonfiction that is focused and fresh. No jolly needed. 
So if you're still thinking of nonfiction as dull and dry -- get thee to a library! Kid nonfiction today is amazing! Let what you find help get you excited about nonfiction all over again because I promise your readers are already excited.
Thanks, Jan for that great article!  

Happy writing and keep on keepin' on!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Plot Poem

I happened upon a cool blog, Plot Whisperer for Writers and Readers. This is a "poem" that one writer penned to define plot. Each italicized line is expanded in the original post.

Plot is a series of
scenes
deliberately arranged by
cause and effect
to create
dramatic action
filled with
conflict, tension, suspense, and/or curiosity
to further the
character’s emotional development
and provide
thematic significance.

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THEME AND TOPIC || subject matter vs. theme | is the subject of a kids book the same thing as the theme


How does this work for a picture book?  


Picture books have a perfect marriage with word scenes. Each page MUST have a scene, a different scene. The cause and effect action must happen quickly. The dramatic action that is filled with conflict, tension, and suspense helps create page turns just like an adult novel, but there is typically only one or two main turning points. The character also must always get what he or she wants. 

Themes in picture books are not usually seen as deep issues, but simple things important to children, such as:

  • friendship
  • family
  • bullies
  • summer
  • babies
  • moving
  • animals
  • toys
  • robots
  • cars
  • dinosaurs
  • princesses
  • dragons
  • lost teeth
  • adventures
  • make believe

The list goes on and on. A major theme of picture books is that of HUMOR. If you do it well, you can definitely find a place among the bookshelves.

Themes and topics or subject matter are often used interchangeably in the kidlit world, especially among picture books. The theme really is the deeper issue. The topic is the format to reach that emotional resonance.

Challenge for the day


Read a picture book, and break down the plot. See if you can mimic it in a story of your own. Or turn it into a poem!

QUESTION: Do you have a favorite theme in literature you love to explore, whether that be through reading or writing?

Keep on keepin' on...

Friday, June 25, 2010

HOW TO PROTECT YOUR WRITING IDEAS

I know of a writer that had an awesome idea for a great picture book. She had a daughter whose hair was always tangled and wanted to write a book about the tangle fairy. She put if off and years later, lo and behold, there her book was on the bookstore shelves - written by someone else! So, when the Muse strikes, listen!

HOW TO PROTECT YOUR WRITING IDEAS || can you copyright an idea | are ideas copyrightable | do writers steal ideas | when the muse strikes, listen

If you can't put a padlock on your ideas, then how can you protect them? We all know that you can't copyright an idea, but if you fail to follow through with them, someone else may steal it from the Great Muse. And you'll come up a day late and a dollar short.

I think most writers do not willingly share their ideas with others for fear that someone will steal them. The best way to counteract this fear is to work on your favorite idea.

Sometimes when we get an idea that is so exciting, we want to tell people about it. I get enthusiastic and energized about the idea and have to share it with someone, even if that someone is one of my children. And sometimes, they get excited about it too and give me more ideas about what should be included in the book.

I always have several ideas that I'm working on at a time. And a list of more to work on as I finish the current ones. If you're able to work on more than one story at a time, make a list!

Today's challenge: 

Make a list of five of your favorite book ideas and decide which one you will work on now. Follow through to the end so you won't face the same disappoint my friend faced. Write the story, and the query, and make your dreams of sharing the book with the world a reality. Now, go make that list. I don't want to hear you sighing, "If only I had written that book first. It was such a good idea."

Keep on keepin' on...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Writers Love Words, And So Does Max

This week's gemstone book to share is:  Max's Words by Kate Banks.
  • illustrated by Boris Kulikov
  • published by Frances Foster Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • 2006
  • 698 words (took me about 40 minutes to copy by hand)
  • Summary: When Max cuts out words from magazines and newspapers, collecting them the way his brothers collect stamps and coins, they all learn about words, sentences, and storytelling.
Sparkle Element:  As with all good books, I like this one on several levels. I like it because as a child, I collected both stamps and coins. Oh, and words too. Now, I only collect words (and 4-leaf clovers). I like how Max has all the power in the story, even though he doesn't know it at first. He works hard to find a way to get what he wants.  

The fact that storytelling has been done and continues to be done as a group effort resonated with me. It's a great way to brainstorm ideas and to make the mind work. It's a good writing exercise. For plot, character, suspense, action, and even setting.

PICTURE BOOKS ABOUT WRITING AND STORYTELLING || children's book lists that teach about writing | books that teach kids how to write

Here is a list of 10+ picture books about writing, storytelling, and words:
  1. Max's Words by Kate Banks
  2. The Plot Chickens by Mary Jane Auch
  3. Patches Lost and Found by Steven Kroll
  4. The Boy Who Loved Words by Roni Schotter
  5. A Weave of Words by Robert D. San Souci
  6. Words Are Like Faces by Edith Baer
  7. Frederick by Leo Lionni
  8. Jeffrey and Sloth by Kari-Lynn Winters
  9. The Desperate Dog Writes Again by Eileen Christelow
  10. You Can Write a Story! by Lisa Ballard
  11. The Best Story by Eileen Spinelli
  12. Snow Day by Moira Fain
  13. Library Mouse by Daniel Kirk 
This list is by no means comprehensive. I also own three of them.

QUESTION: Do you know of more fiction picture books that are about writing or the love of words? Share in the comments below!

Keep on keepin' on... 

Monday, June 21, 2010

POINT OF VIEW: 1st Person vs. 3rd Person

Point of view is the vantage point from which the writer tells the story. In a car driving video game, it might be similar to first person being able to see out the front windshield. And third person would be the view where you see the car itself, as well as the view out the front window.

POINT OF VIEW || 1st person vs. 3rd person | the writing craft | when do you use 3rd person | when should writers use 1st person

First Person - "I" or "We"  (Narrator may not be trustworthy.)
Second Person - "You"  (Ex. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie)  Seldom used.  Not a common convention. But more picture books are experimenting with this.
Third Person - "He" or "She" or "They"  MOST often used.
  • 3rd person Limited - told from one character's point of view.  We know only the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of the main character.
  • 3rd person Unlimited/Omniscient - told from multiple characters' viewpoints.  Knows inner life of all.
These two tips are the most important to keep in mind when considering what POV to use for your story:

  1. MOST picture books are told in 3rd person Limited.
  2. First Person is USUALLY told when the character has lots of BIG problems, or if you need to or want to identify most strongly with the main character, especially emotionally.
Keep on keepin' on...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Reporter, Kit Kittredge

This past Tuesday, I watched a movie with my children at the free summer movie festival in town.  It was Kit Kittredge: An American Girl.  I loved it!  She was such an inspiring character.  She never gave up on her dream of becoming a reporter.  When times get tough and my spirits are low, I will remember Kit and maybe even rewatch the movie.  It's definitely a keeper.
You can watch the movie trailer here.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

How to Study, Analyze, or Dissect a Picture Book

How Can We Keep Our Manuscripts Out of the Slushpile?

By studying others that were considered to be gems! So how does one study, analyze, or dissect a picture book?

HOW TO STUDY A PICTURE BOOK || how to analyze other writers' works | what makes a story a gem

First, identify what makes a picture book work. What makes it a gem? In Make Your Picture Book Sparkle, by Peggy Tibbetts, she goes into detail on how the following elements help to make a great picture book: story, character, humor, imagination, emotion, and word play. She discusses how to write with each of these elements.


10 Ways To Dissect a Picture Book
  1. Read, read, read. That should be obvious, but it's SOO important! We can't analyze anything if we never read picture books.
  2. Write, write, write. Write them all down, that is. The following sublist includes all what I write down about each book, before the actual analysis takes place.
    1. Title
    2. Author
    3. Illustrator
    4. Publisher
    5. Date
    6. Word Count (Renaissance Learning has a huge database and lists word counts. If they don't have it, you can type the text into Word and it will calculate the word count for you.)
    7. Summary (often found in beginning of book on copyright page)
    8. Sparkle Element: my reaction to the story, how and why I like it, emotions I felt, etc. 
  3. Copy the book, strictly for PRACTICE only! Copying the "masters" (of those we like best, those we admire, those we aspire to be like) will help develop our own voice and the language of picture books.
  4. Copying by hand and typing work on opposite sides of the brain. To get more bang for your buck, especially on your absolute favorites, copy it twice. First, by hand, then type it.
  5. For those that aren't your favorites, just hand copy the first and last pages. This will give extra help for beginnings and endings. Still type the whole book. With beginnings and endings, try to take a closer look at the first and last paragraphs, and the first and last sentences.
  6. Write down your favorite part of the book. What scene is it? Copy the section to train your subconscious muse to pick up on those elements. Then imitate it by replacing each word with your own words, noun for noun, adverb for adverb, and so on. Casey McCormick describes how this works on her blogpost on writing exercises.
  7. After typing the whole text, try this exercise. Find all adverbs and adjectives and replace with a different one, just for fun. Again, Casey McCormick talks about how to do this exercise that she calls "Word Removal" which comes from Noah Lukeman's "The First Five Pages." There are lots of variations. Find nouns and verbs, too. When studying a picture book, maybe make a list of each type and see how many of each are used in each picture book studied. See if you can find a trend.
  8. Lastly, have a plan or a schedule. Here are two different approaches to try, one serious, and one less vigilant.
    • read three picture books a day
    • type one a day
    • study one a week
    • OR...
    • read three a week
    • type one a week
    • and study one a month
  9. With each book that you read, also list what makes it work, how is it held together or organized?  See powers of three post: seasons, journey, circular, alphabet, counting, threes, sevens, months, weeks, etc.
  10. Read your manuscript aloud to yourself and to others to test for read-aloud-ability. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Free Online Children's Writers' Conference

Just learned of an upcoming writers' conference ONLINE, for FREE!  It will be held on August 10-12 (Tues-Thurs).   First one ever!  Will have lots of editors, agents, and authors in attendance.  Should be awesome; check it out.  I know I'll be there.

Monday, June 14, 2010

How to Give a Good Critique

Some writers warn us to be leery of fellow writers (or anyone else) who wish to dole out free critiques because they are often looking to make their fellow writers feel bad and become discouraged. Some have gone out of their way to really trash a manuscript. I am not one of those writers or critiquers. If you're looking to pay a professional for a critique, check out children's author, Margot Finke, and her advice of what to watch for.

HOW TO GIVE A GOOD CRITIQUE || writing advice for critique partners | what to include when you critique a story

I love to write and I love to read good picture books. I love to give encouragement and help others feel the same level of determination that I enjoy. I respect writers and the work we do. When I have done critiques in the past - and for my current critique group - I offer my honest opinion with comments that I hope will be taken as helpful and insightful.

To give a good critique, here's what I do, and what you can do too. Offer:
  • Praise for good writing in specific phrases, paragraphs, and sections.
  • Examples of where and how to cut wordy sections.
  • Examples of how to make dialogue more age appropriate or characters more believable.
  • Examples of how to create stronger verbs.
  • Comments on the overall structure of plot. 
  • Suggestions to help clarify the plot in areas of confusion.
  • A summary of my critique detailing the areas that need help and the areas that work well. 
If you want to get published, it is wise to join a critique group, or start your own. You can become a member of the CBI Clubhouse (Children's Book Insider) and hook up with fellow writers. I know of several writers that are members of multiple critique groups. One of their groups may be for picture books, and another group may be for novels.

The more people you have look at a piece, especially in the early stages, the more eyes and ears you have working for you. Any story you write is YOUR story, and you must stay true to your own vision. Remember that each person offers their own opinion and that each critique is the opinion of one. Use what you find helpful. Disregard the comments you highly disagree with. However, if you're just being unwilling to revise, but multiple people are saying the same things, then you should probably take it to heart and "kill your darlings" (i.e. FIX what you're so reluctant to change). Happy writing! And happy revising!

QUESTION: Are you a member of a critique group? Share your experiences in the comments!

Keep on keepin' on...

Friday, June 11, 2010

Contest is Here!

Check out my Contest Tab above.  This being the first contest, you may enter any time this month.  I will select a winner on August 1.

Side Note:  Monday's post will actually be on critiques instead of the next Bootcamp Wisdom.  Sorry for the delay.

HOW TO WRITE A GOOD BEGINNING

At the beginning of a race, the gun goes off and the runners take off running. They don't stop until they reach the finish line. As writers, we want our readers to make it to the finish line, too. When writing the beginning of your story, we have to think of the reader and what will make them continue to read more. Should it be plot driven or character driven? That is the question.

how to write a great beginning || writing a good beginning | story beginnings | opening lines of picture books | great novel openers | different ways to start a story

Author, Jennifer R. Hubbard was asked this question at a writer's conference author panel, "Do you plop your character right into the action, or do you build up to it more slowly?" Her answer?
The concept of a hook and a strong beginning sometimes leads writers to throw everything and the kitchen sink into an opening, to grab the reader by the throat. But we shouldn't neglect character; isn't a story more compelling when we want to see not only what happens next, but when we care about the person to whom it's happening?
Here are a few examples of opening lines from picture books:
  • Jenny loved to draw pictures. (Patches Lost and Found by Steven Kroll)
  • At haying time the midway comes to town. (A Net of Stars by Jennifer Richard Jacobson)
  • "Grandma, can I walk into town by myself?" I asked, one hot summer's day. (White Socks Only by Evelyn Coleman)
  • Grace was a girl who loved stories. (Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman)
  • Jenny Fox was bored. (Sally Arnold by Cheryl Ryan)
  • ...At the far end of the ocean lies a beach...and at the end of that beach stands a house.  But this is not an ordinary house, for this is not an ordinary beach. (Father Sea by Clayton Creek)
  • This is the story of brave little Pete who lived in a house on Geranium Street... (Brave Little Pete of Geranium Street by Rose and Samuel Lagercrantz, adapted from the Swedish by Jack Prelutsky)
Most of these openings introduce the character. Some other ways to start a book are:
  • with a question
  • dialogue
  • a thought
  • comparison or contrast
  • start with one of the five w's (who, when, where, what, why)
  • an action that is happening
  • an action that is about to happen 
This list is by no means comprehensive, but hopefully it will get you thinking about beginnings. Sometimes we have to write the whole story and then go back and fix up the beginning, even if it means deleting it all together.  

QUESTION: What is your favorite way to start a book?

Keep on keepin' on...

Let's Get Froggy

I love animals. One animal my husband and I like to refer to is frogs. When we get motivated to do yard work, house work, or to accomplish any type of goal, be it fitness, exercise, diet, a trip, or to prepare a big dinner, we say, "Wow! You got froggy!"

Let's Get Froggy || motivation | Just Do It | working toward a goal | writing tip

It feels good to get froggy. Last Saturday, I finally put a story of mine on a powerpoint presentation for some of the classrooms I work in. The essence of being froggy is the feeling of accomplishment. Not just goal setting or having determination, but actually working hard at it!

When I work hard at something and jump high, I can see and feel the results of my effort right before my eyes. I already revised my latest story from one critique. I was froggy.

When there is something you want to get done, but yet you feel like procrastinating, ask yourself why. You know it's an awesome project, so get froggy about it. You will feel awesome when you work toward your goals. Have the determination of a frog that wants to eat a fly for dinner. So, let's get FROGGY!!!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

First Time For Pleasure

In Quips and Tips for Successful Writers, I found this nugget of wisdom, which I have read before. But it is true and warrants being repeated. Just substitute picture books in for novels.

writing tips || reread the books you wish you had written | read for pleasure | improve your writing skills

5. Re-read novels you wished you’d written. “The first time, read for pleasure,” writes Cinda Williams Chima in 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists. “Enter the dream of fiction and stay there. If the book is stunningly good, read it a second time to find out the how of it. Reading for craft takes the juice out of fiction, but it is a fabulous way to learn how to write well.” This habit of highly effective writers may take the fun out of reading…but it will improve your writing skills immensely.

I am definitely going to read even more picture books, AND reread my favorites! I will become a picture book surgeon in dissecting pages, paragraphs, sentences, and words. So, who dares to take the challenge with me? Any bits of wisdom you guys can share in the comments will help all of us to know what types of things to look out for. Actually, I'll do a little digging and post about it next Wednesday, too.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Bootcamp Wisdom SKILL #6

CHARACTER AND PLOT

In college, I learned to create a character log, or a character chart. It's supposed to help with getting to know your character for novels. I never did like it. I guess that's one of many reasons why I never finished my one YA novel (although I do have 6 of 12 chapters finished - which definitely need some serious revision, even still!)

Most of my picture book ideas come from a topic. I don't really do themes, per se. I like to leave that up to the readers (whether child, parent, or editor). Sometimes I'll think of one plot point as the beginning basis of a book. Sometimes it's a character. It just depends on each book idea.

One helpful thing I learned at bootcamp was the relationship between plot and character, especially if you're stuck, even for picture books. By doing a character chart, it can help lead to the plot. In other words, by answering definitive questions about your character (details that will probably never even show up in the text), you get a better understanding of the character and the plot will begin to unfold effortlessly. I'm definitely going to have to use this approach for a few of my books! There's a certain TONE and mood I'd like to have come across, and I'm hoping this will help that as well.

Next topic: Point of View.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Boring Blabbering Blog Post - But At Least I Still Wrote One

Today is the last day of my current job. Testing is over, and with only one week of school left, it's all parties and celebrations, field days and awards, so I'm not really needed for tutoring anymore. I enjoyed the day and my time at this job these last several months (since November), and will miss working, but I also look forward to the summer. I'll go to the library probably 3x a week, go to the "free movies" 2x a week, and occasionally visit family and friends. We'll just stay at home the rest of the time and hang out. I HOPE to get a LITTLE more writing done, but we'll see.

As far as writing goes, the one thing I'm most looking forward to is studying picture books more thoroughly, not just reading them, but actually studying them. I know this is a short post and there's not much to offer in the way of advice, knowledge, or inspiration, but at least I still posted! And it is about my life (Fridays - On Life.) so I am making improvements. Over time, I hope to feel as though I have more to say. Some days we just feel dry, I guess. And when my creative juices are flowing, I get lots more ideas. Come to think of it, I did get another awesome idea for a picture book a couple days ago.

Perhaps I should put my kid-brains in gear and speak the kid-robot-lingo. Writing blogs - activate now! Boring life - disengage now!

One more thing. I got a lot done for my nonfiction series. It's gonna take a LOT of work. I'm still working on the proposal, but it's like there's a lot of prep work to do before I can actually write it. But I DID work on it for about an hour tonight.

See you Monday, and keep on keepin' on!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Glass Bottle Tree by Evelyn Coleman

This book has special meaning for me. The author is the first picture book author I have ever met. I bought this book at a conference in Augusta, Georgia. She signed it for me, of course. I love to read it because it gives me hope. She said that I will no doubt go on to become a great author. But her words sound a lot better.

The book is about a girl who lives with her grandma and they have a glass bottle tree in their yard, a custom often observed in the deep south. The state folk come to try to take the girl away and place her in a state home. I love Coleman's richly lyrical language. And the message of love has given me the nudge to read it many a time over the years. Definitely one of my favorite books!

The best advice I gleaned from the Sandhill Writer's Conference from Evelyn Coleman many years ago was to read, read, read. She studied books and magazines until she could mimic the patterns she most enjoyed reading. A self-taught author (as we all are, really), she succeeded in becoming published, the ultimate dream of every writer. I admire her tenacity for studying the books, which is what I aspire to do.

In fact, I have set a new goal: my aim is to read 150 picture books this summer. Monday - Friday, 3 a day. I'll even post a summary each Wednesday of my favorite book each week.

Thanks for stopping by! Do any of you have a summer reading/writing goal? Like to share?
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