Five Things Writing Novels Taught Me About Writing Picture Books

I write for children of all ages. Two years ago, when my first middle-grade novel, Deadwood, was released, I wrote a post called what What Writing Picture Books Taught Me About Middle-Grade Novels.

This month, my first picture book, Mira Forecasts the Future (illustrated by Lissy Marlin), hit the shelves. So now I take a look in opposite direction to assess what writing novels taught me about writing picture books.

5 things novels taught me about writing picture books

1. Nobody’s perfect.

When beginning to write picture books for young children, many writers have a tendency to want to model good behaviors. But good behaviors don’t make good stories.

Writing and reading novels prove that flawed characters are interesting characters. They make mistakes. They grow. They don’t have to be good influences.

Sometimes picture book readers — agents, teachers, parents, even kids — will call out characters for the wrong things they do, feel, or are. But the interesting, imperfect characters get your attention, and it’s the interesting, imperfect characters who have room to grow. That leads me to my next point.

2. Everybody arcs.

In my favorite books, every character wants something. Every character has their own story and growth. Even villains are the heroes of their own stories.

In a novel, there’s plenty of room to infuse each character with their own motivations, narrative, and character arc. This deepens the emotional impact of the plot and characterization, even if minor characters do much of their growing behind the scenes.

There’s not as much room in a picture book, but there also aren’t many characters. If you can make every character vibrate with their own motivations and change in the course of the story, your picture book will pack more resonance into 300 to 800 words.

3. Know your backstory (but don’t tell it all).

One of the biggest temptations when writing a novel — especially a big, juicy fantasy or historical — is to put all the worldbuilding and research on the page — addendums, family trees, glossaries, maps, footnotes with the history of the centuries. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it’s just an info dump.

When writing novels, you make a critical decision about what backstory not to include. Just because you know something doesn’t mean your reader needs to — the hidden history of your world makes the story more real even if you never put it in the foreground. That’s why it’s called backstory — you can’t show perspective and dimension unless there’s something in the background.

Of course, the few hundred words of text in a picture book don’t allow foreground backstory. The lesson from novels is to know the backstory even if you don’t tell it. If you understand your characters outside of those 300 to 800 words, if they live for you as people (or bunnies or sentient shovels), you’ll have a richer story.

4. Trust your reader.

One reason novel writers leave out backstory is that they trust their readers to pick up allusions and make connections. But can you do that when writing for very young children?

Yes. Your child readers may have only few years behind them, but they’ve accomplished hugely impressive cognitive growth before listening to or reading your story. They understand more than you think they do, and they are capable of understanding so much more than that if you give them a chance. So give them a chance.

5. Be in it for the long haul.

Writing a novel takes stamina. Even a short middle grade novel is 30,000 words. Adult novels are 80,000 and more, and don’t even think about the number of words in a multibook series. You have to write a lot of words, many days in a row or over the course of months or years until you reach the end. Then you revise, again and again. It’s a long haul.

A picture book is shorter than 1000 words, the amount many writers strive to draft in a single day. A picture book manuscript often doesn’t take long to write compared to a novel. But it’s still a long haul.

The individual manuscripts may be short, but shorter isn’t easier. Every word counts. You’ll probably rewrite each one. You may start from a blank page sometimes. You’ll workshop. Revise again.

And still, that first book you write probably won’t be published. Probably not the second. Maybe even your 10th manucript still won’t interest an agent. Maybe it will take your 15th or 20th to get published. And then maybe you’ll write 10 more before you get published again.

Picture books may be short, but they’re not a short cut. Every road in the writing business is a long one. Shorter isn’t easier. Younger isn’t lesser.

Writing is hard for every age. When it works, the writer finds the story, and the story finds the reader. And novel or picture book, that’s what makes it worthwhile.

Read the original post on Project Mayhem >>

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Surprise! MIRA is on Goodreads, where I learn many things

I adore Goodreads — I visit every day, both to update my own reading (just exceeded my 2015 Reading Goal yesterday!) and to stalk my author profile. So today I noticed that my book doesn’t have any ratings. My first reaction was to wonder where the reviews went — until I noticed that it’s Mira Tells the Future, my upcoming debut picture book! Surprise!

Then I see that my incredibly talented illustrator Lissy Marlin is listed, so I don’t have to wonder how to announce her involvement. Surprise! (I can’t wait to be able to share the cover and Lissy’s art for Mira, but not yet!)

Then I see a release date — May 3, 2016. Surprise!

And I look the title up on Amazon and you can already pre-order it. Whoa.

Maybe Goodreads can tell the future. Or perhaps a catalog update got loaded. Either way, I predict that May 3 will be a very good day.

So now you can add Mira Tells the Future to your Goodreads to-read list and pre-order it at Amazon. And why not add me as a friend, leave a book review, and judge my bookshelves while you’re there?

Diversity Doesn’t ‘Just Happen to Be’: Writing Diversity Deliberately

This post appeared as part of Middle Grade Month on Diversity in YA, a blog founded by YA authors Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon in 2011 to support diverse literature.

Deadwood, my middle-grade mystery, takes place in a diverse town, like communities I based it on and where I’ve always lived. Culture is not central to the story, which is about two seventh graders who must lift a curse on a tree to save their town from growing disaster, but I wanted to include diverse characters to reflect the reality I pictured.

Still, I was intimidated about writing someone from another culture, so I decided to hedge a little. When I began the novel, the main character of Martin had a Puerto Rican dad but was raised by his white mother and grandmother. I thought if he was raised in my own culture, I had the right to write him.

The story is not about the ethnic background, and it’s been said that Martin “just happens to be” Puerto Rican. But it didn’t just happen to him, just as my other main character, Hannah, doesn’t “just happen to be” white. I decided that these would be the characters, and I grew their voices, personalities, and backgrounds. It didn’t just happen.

As I wrote the story, my understanding of the character changed. Although Martin’s ethnic background isn’t central to the progression of the plot, I realized it IS central to Martin himself. He asserted himself and his identity as I wrote, so I changed his heritage to fit. His mother, grandmother, and aunt became Puerto Rican too, and that changed the threads of the story and his character. Martin holds his cultural identity very close, reflective of his feelings for his mother and abuelita.

There’s no such thing as culturally generic books, but we need them.

On May 1, 2014 right as #weneeddiversebooks was officially kicking off, SLJ published a list of Culturally Diverse Books Selected by SLJ’s Review EditorsSLJ wrote, “These books are those in which the main character(s) ‘just happen’ to be a member of a non-white, non-mainstream cultural group. These stories, rather than informing readers about individual cultures, emphasize cultural common ground.”

While culturally generic is not a term I love, it is established in literacy and education. Rudine Sims Bishop coined the term as part of a framework of multicultural literature for librarians and educators in Shadow and Substance: Afro-American Experience in Contemporary Children’s Literature (NCTE, 1982). The now-ubiquitious metphor of “windows and mirrors” is hers. She defined the categories of “culturally specific” — containing details that define the characters as members of a particular cultural group and “culturally generic” — representing a specific cultural group, but with little culturally specific information. (Companion Website for Elementary Children’s Literature: The Basics for Teachers and Parents, 2/e , Nancy A. Anderson)

But is The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata or Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina — two of SLJ’s listed titles — really culturally generic? Could these stories happen to any child, of any race? I don’t think so. If you put Summer in Medina’s book and Piddy in Kadohata’s, the stories would not be the same.  Summer and Piddy don’t “just happen to be” Japanese-American or Puerto Rican — it’s an essential part of their identity and the story. Good stories and characters are always specific.

But yes, as the “culturally generic” label indicates, these stories are supremely relatable for young readers. Readers of all kinds need diverse books because they are not windows or mirrors, but both at the same time. As KT Horning wrote in response to the SLJ list, characters by Kwame Alexander and Varian Johnson are viewed as culturally generic because they are writing from the inside: “more Us than Other.  They have invited readers to stand on their own bit of cultural common ground for a while.”

Much of the time, culture is the framework we live inside — we don’t always see it, but it doesn’t “just happen” to characters of color — or to white characters either. White is the default in the United States. It is almost always seen as culturally generic, but it isn’t. It’s the culture that many writers write and readers read within seeing it because it’s ground they’re standing on.

“Culturally generic” books — as problematic as the term is — do the same. They are the fantasies, mysteries, romances, coming of age, and science fiction books where readers can see diverse characters like and unlike themselves doing more than explore culture.  They expand the cultural common ground.

I wrote Martin as a skinny, wild-haired, Puerto Rican kid and Hannah as a tall, blonde, white one. Neither is culturally generic. Diversity in children’s books requires a decision by writers, readers, publishers, booksellers, and librarians to create and share books on that expanded common ground. Whether writers and readers experience diverse characters or only a homogenous world, it doesn’t “just happen.” It’s a decision.

Read the original post on Diversity in YA >>

Five Things Writing Picture Books Taught Me About Novels

I am a middle-grade writer first, but not only.

I read so many picture books when my children were young that I wanted to write one. Finally an idea hit me, and the story flowed out in a sitting. But that was the beginning — that story required many, many more sittings, drafts, and subsequent stories that improved on my first effort. As simple as a picture book manuscript looks, it’s hard to write one.

Switching gears between middle grade and picture books creates challenges, but it has its lessons. Here’s what I’ve taken into my middle-grade fiction from my efforts to write for younger readers.

5 Things Writing Picture Books Taught Me About Writing Novels

1. Let story guide progress.

When I was beginning to take writing seriously, I believed that a writer ought to write a thousand words a day. But if you’re writing picture books — where the average published book is 500 words — if you write a thousand words, you’re probably doing it wrong.

That’s not to say that high word counts are wrong for all writers, but it’s not how I measure progress now. I try to use scenes as markers — I’m telling a story, not stringing together words by the thousand. Word count is a simple metric to use when it works, but it can lead your story astray if you race after numbers.

2. Every word matters.

When you revise a picture book, you look at every word. Every one is a decision — is it the most precise one? Will it be understood by the reader? Is it colorful enough, fun enough? Can the sentence be said in a more concise way? Can the whole sentence go?

When writing and revising a novel, most of us won’t take that kind of care on every word unless we don’t care if we never have time to write another. But every word still matters. If not, it shouldn’t be
there.

3. Let go of what doesn’t work.

I can’t speak for other picture book writers, but it takes me a lot of ideas to find one that I can execute well enough to put in front of my agent. And then it takes a good number  of manuscripts before my agent finds one she feels is commercial enough to put in front of editors. I’m not sure how many stories it takes to find one editors will buy, but fingers crossed that my time will come.

That winnowing process has taught me to let go of ideas and stories that haven’t found a home, even if I love them. That’s harder to do for a novel, which is a bigger commitment of time and craft.  But sometimes you do have to let go and move on — which can mean leaving a favorite scene on the cutting room floor, shelving a problematic manuscript unfinished, or trunking a book that didn’t find a publisher. Hard, but not every story will find a readership, even with the possibility of self-publishing.

4. Leave room in the text.

For a middle-grade writer writing picture books, one of the biggest adjustments is leaving room for the illustrator. That means not describing what can shown in a picture and not trying to control the illustrator with too many notes.

For a novel, it means not overdescribing what the imagination can fill in. Don’t underestimate your reader. Young children understand more than they are often credited with. So do older readers — write up to them, not down.

5. Let go of control.

Picture book writers do not usually get to choose the illustrator, nor do they have veto power over the illustrations. Sometimes that can yield unexpected results in the wrong way, but in the best collaborations, the illustrator will bring more to the book than the writer ever imagine.

The same is true for novels. Once the story has been published, the writer does not own the story any more. It belongs to the reader. Sometimes readers misunderstand authorial intent. Sometimes they hate the story with burning intensity.  Sometimes they love it. But love it or hate it, once they’ve read it, it’s part of their understanding of the world. That’s the gift the writer gives, and the gift the reader gives back.

 

Read the original post on Project Mayhem >>

 

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Scary Stories for Summer Nights

ghostfaced tree-no words

Who said trees couldn’t be scary?

Anybody can scare a middle-grader with age-inappropriate scenarios. But what makes a book frightening within a strictly middle-grade world view?

Once my first book came out last month, I braced myself for reader reactions. One thing that I was surprised to hear is that Deadwood can be scary for the youngest middle-grade readers.  I didn’t know I was writing a scary book — suspenseful, yes, but scary? It’s not violent or graphic by any means, and I have a low tolerance for gore even as an adult. And it’s about a tree — not high on anyone’s list of spooky things.

Then I realized that the scariness comes from the supernatural occurrence in an otherwise realistic setting. A book is scarier if it seems as if it could really happen in the reader’s world. At 2 a.m., what seems scarier: a tale of a harmless ghost that hums sweet nursery rhymes in the hallway, or a book about a ferocious dragon that terrorizes a medieval village? (Trick question: nursery rhymes are naturally scary.)

But as a principle of spooky tales, familiarity makes frightening, whether the suburban school settings of R.L.Stine or “it happened to someone my cousin knows” of urban legends and campfire tales.

Read the list on Project Mayhem >>

That Middle Grade Voice

The long and the short:
Character sketch for a chapter-book-
turned-picture-book-turned-
middle-grade story


By the time I was middle-grade age, I wanted to be a writer, but for grownups. It was only as a grownup that I found my voice writing for middle grade. It’s not a coincidence I moved from writing for adults straight past YA to middle grade. Those were the books that made me love reading, and it turned out that I have a middle-grade voice.

Not-blurry middle-grade voice

So what’s middle-grade voice? It’s elusive — one of those “you know it when you see it” things. You know it whether it’s Lemony Snicket’s wry, formal omniscient or Rachel Renee Russell’s effusive, run-on first person. And while the lines might be blurry, middle-grade voice itself never is. It’s clear and succinct — no words wasted, whether lyrical or comedic, prose or verse.

Once you have that voice, it’s a bit persistent.

The long story of a short story

Once I decided to write middle-grade, I wrote two novels. (The second written  turned out to be Deadwood, which releases June 24 from Spencer Hill, and the first of which has not yet decided what it will turn out to be). Then I had a great idea for younger story — a chapter book featuring second-graders. The draft was 6,000 words, and I loved it. But I was between agents, and my querying efforts yielded exactly zero agent requests — chapter books are not great agent bait. My single request, actually, was from an editor in an early reader/chapter book imprint who found the voice (third person, whimsical) to be charming but the story too thin for 6,000 words.

Read the rest of the story on Project Mayhem >>

On Childish Things

This week there was another controversy where a columnist criticized adult readers of YA, believing that they should feel ashamed for reading books marketed to teens.

So what would she think of me? I write and read middle-grade novels and picture books.

The answer is that I don’t care. Someone more brilliant has said what I think:

“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

― C.S. Lewis

This isn’t exactly true of me. When I was ten, I read fairy tales and I wasn’t ashamed. But when I was thirty, I saw adults reading Harry Potter, and I thought they should be.

Then I read it too.

Read the rest of the post on Operation Awesome >>

Deadwood live on new Spencer Hill Middle Grade site!

Spencer Hill Middle Grade has a brand-new webpage, and Deadwood is there! Great resources for readers, librarians, teachers, and bloggers for Deadwood and all Spencer Hill Middle Grade fantasy and scifi titles.