by Annie Cronin Romano
As writers of children’s books, we are told to read the latest works out there in our genre to be aware of what’s selling, what topics might be saturated, and what areas are lacking. However, this past week I read two middle grade novels that were published about twenty years ago: Freak the Mighty, by Rodman Philbrick, and Tangerine, by Edward Bloor. Both books had been recommended to me numerous times by young and old alike. It took me a while to get to them as I have been doing what is recommended: reading more recently published children’s books to keep up with the current market. But the last time I saw my sister, she asked me if I’d read those books yet. “I loved them! So did the kids! Read them!” Because I’m smart, I don’t argue with my sister, so off to the library I went.
I am so glad I did! I thoroughly enjoyed both of them. Freak the Mighty particularly touched me as I work with special needs kids. And Tangerine won over my heart as this young boy stayed true to his passion of soccer while struggling to discover the truth about a family secret (I’d say more but I don’t want to give it away!). But what struck me the most about both of these novels was their timelessness. They are as relevant today as they were twenty years ago.
This made me consider my own writing. Will the stories I’m writing be relevant down the road? It’s a vital question. Some books can be dated and may not carry over well in the future. Others have a timeless quality to them and can be appreciated long after their initial publication. While longevity is not necessarily a prerequisite for publication, it’s something to think about when writing. So while it is important to keep up with the current children’s market, don’t ignore those oldies but goodies. They have a lot to teach us about the craft of writing.
~by Amanda Smith
Recently I have heard a lot of chatter about award winning picture books that do not seem to follow agent and editor guidelines. Some yet-to-be published writers try to reduce the sting by giving each other condescending, there-there, terrible, horrible, no good, very bad advice:
" Ignore word count. It is just a suggestion."
"Submission guidelines don't really matter."
"Editors and agents don't know what they want."
I am all for writing from the heart (http://www.24carrotwriting.com/-blog/what-is-in-your-heart), but that does't mean we can ignore the rules.
So why can I not just pull an Elsa?
Because I have done this. And I blew an amazing opportunity with a dream agent.
Four years ago at the NE SCBWI conference Dan Yaccarino shared “the recipe” for successful picture books. He urged us to study story arc and write fifty stories following the recipe. Once we had published some “recipe” books, we could start experimenting with form. But learn the basics first and learn to do it well.
I hated the recipe. I rebelled against the recipe. I was above the recipe. So the following year at the conference, I submitted a story for an agent critique. I wrote from the heart. As a matter of fact, it was ALL heart. The agent called it "not marketable". She was too kind. She urged me to study story arcs and practice writing that way. (Did I really just waste a whole year?). She advised me to learn my craft and read in my genre and research the market and follow the guidelines.
I am learning to love the recipe. I still work at that story arc and all its elements. I see it as a challenge to get under the 500 word mark and celebrate it as a victory when I do. I constantly ask myself, “How can I say this more concisely? Is there a better word?” You see, writing from the heart is the easy part. Creating a picture book with compelling characters, lilting language, engaging action, high stakes, a satisfactory conclusion, quirk and humor and room for illustrations is the hard work.
So what about all those books out there that did not follow the recipe? Were they written by new authors? Most likely not. I have heard several different agents admit that authors who have published multiple successful books “can get away with more”. But first get in the door!
In a recent workshop agent Ammi-Joan Paquette advised us to read exactly what we are writing. If you are, like me, a pre-published writer, do not use the award winning author-illustrator books as your mentor texts. Oh, read them for inspiration, but understand these authors are further along the road than you are. They also started by following the recipe and the submission guidelines.
My grandfather had a relevant, yet slightly irreverent expression: “You cannot outfart thunder.” The book industry is thunder. It is so much louder than your heart and the children. It is about librarians and teachers. It is about those in charge of acquisitions in book stores. It is about publishing houses and bottom lines. It is about market trends and what parents will buy. For you to place your heart into the hands of eagerly awaiting children, you have to successfully jump through all these hoops. And agents and editors are the people who help you get there.
Because agents and editors know exactly what they want. They want your heart. With an arc. In under 500 carefully chosen words.
by Francine Puckly
I’ve been reminded recently (today, as a matter of fact) that I cut off people when they’re telling me stories. My active, fiction-writing mind, eager to fashion the ending of the tale, jumps ahead to guess what happened next. And my mouth goes right along with my brain. It is an incredibly annoying (and rude) habit, and it’s ruined many a good story.
My habit is worse for some people than it is for others. If I cut off my husband (and inevitably craft the wrong ending), he merely says, “No,” and continues the story. But for my teenage daughter, the interruption stops her in her tracks. No amount of encouragement will restart her tale, and it’s a double-lose for me. I feel badly I’ve cut her off, and I am robbed of hearing a good story.
This habit has played itself out in my writing as well, most notably a year ago as I wrote the conclusion of my novel. I knew what the outcome would be. I plodded along toward the manufactured ending no matter how much one of my characters nagged that he had a different one in mind. After weeks of his hounding, I finally surrendered. “Fine!” I thought. “I’ll write your stupid ending. And then I’m going to burn it, because that’s not what happens!”
I wrote his story. Clouds parted. Light blinded me. Angels began to sing. And I was forced to concede it was a far better conclusion than the one I had been planning for months.
Since then, I’ve practiced a couple techniques that have helped leave room for my characters to dictate their stories to me, rather than forcing my ideas upon them.
1. Visit more often.
The longer I am away from my work, the stronger the urge to control it. That’s one of the many reasons I write a minimum of 20 minutes a day, no matter what. Holidays and weekends included. When I write every day, it feels less like work and more like listening and recording. It’s a comforting ritual, and there’s no need to panic about getting a certain amount done or dictating the direction.
2. Take a physical break.
Pausing to get moving physically helps separate the left side of my brain (and the preconceived outline) from the story and allows the right side to mull over the plot twists while I walk, stack wood, vacuum the floor, or weed my garden. The character’s voice shines through when I’m not over-thinking the next move.
I’ve had great success with a 22-minutes on, 8-minutes off writing and resting cycle. Twenty-two minutes of timed writing followed by an eight-minute timed break in which I run around the house at warp speed trying to squeeze in the maximum amount of shoveling, vacuuming, stretching or paperwork I can before the timer dings and I must return to my desk. The story simmers in the background during these sprint-breaks because I’m more focused on ticking off a task rather than plotting the next move. But every time I return to my desk after these active breaks, the next phase floods out.
3. Close your eyes and listen.
I can’t assume to know someone else’s experience, including my character’s, and I can’t force my expectations into a situation the character is trying to explain. It must be the character’s story, and the best way to allow the character in is to sit and listen. I close my eyes and wait. I push my thoughts back and connect with the emotions the character is feeling.
I’m still learning to bite my tongue, and hold the pen steady, so that I don’t cut off my loved ones and my characters. It’s hard work to resist the urge to construct the outcome of a story or blurt out the answers to "what if" before anyone else gets the chance. I’m a work-in-progress, as are my stories and characters. But may I always remember to sit and listen, both in writing and in my relationships!
“It was as if the novel was already written, floating in the air on a network of electrons. I could hear it talking to itself. I sensed that if I would but sit and listen, it would come through, all ready.” - A. S. Byatt
by Annie Cronin Romano
The most recent precursor to a critique from one of my beloved critique partners was as follows:
I've attached my thoughts on "XXXX." Don't kill me!!! Or go ahead and swear at me, curse my name around your home and secretly spit in my tea...
She (I’ll call her “Kelly” because, well…that’s her name) had no reason to be nervous. She is still a beloved critique partner. Despite the fact that I have frequent opportunities to spit in Kelly's tea, I’m pleased to say I’ve refrained from any retaliation of the sort. In all honesty, if I had taken my revenge on her critique, I would have had to spit in a few teas and lattes. You see, Kelly wasn’t alone. Our other critique partners—also beloved—had pointed out similar weaknesses and flaws in my manuscript.
It stings to get harsh critiques of your writing. Especially when it’s not the first draft. But it stings less when the critiques are constructive. And honest. And it stings even less when you realize your critique partners have given you a gift: the insights to make your writing the best it can be.
While I usually wait to make changes to a manuscript following feedback (I like to let the critiques “simmer”), I was so struck by the consistency in their comments that I immediately started my next draft. Then another. Then another. I weeded carefully through their suggestions. Some were considered and dismissed. Others I’m still pondering. But the biggies—those blood red, high-in-the-air flags which all my writing partners waved in my face—those were the flaws I targeted for repair. Without honest, constructive criticism, those are flaws I may have overlooked for a while…or missed completely. A solid critique group helps writers achieve their best work (See blog from October 2014: The Importance of a Writing Community). So be strong when reading those tough-to-take critiques. Sometimes the ones that hit the deepest nerve can be the most revealing and helpful.
When it’s ready, I’ll resubmit that picture book manuscript for the third (and probably not the last) time to my critique group. While I hope their feedback is glowing, all of them have keen eyes and a solid knowledge of strong writing, so I expect—and hope—for more constructive comments. And I promise I won’t spit in their tea. (*wink*)
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