We are thankful to have such warm, supportive individuals who cheer us on and share the highs and lows of the writing and illustrating journey. Thank you!
Happy Thanksgiving from all of us!
Francine, Annie, Kelly and Amanda
|24 Carrot Writing||
As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches and our last-minute preparation lists grow from one or two quickly scribbled Post-its into full-fledged Gantt charts, 24 Carrot Writing would like to take this opportunity to thank all of you for joining us on the creative journey—for sharing the twists and turns of the creative life on a road scattered with goals and carrots! This week, may you claim snatched moments of solitude amidst family, friends and feasts in order to pamper yourself, write or sketch a little something just for fun, or maybe just have a quiet chat with a family member you see all too infrequently (and who might have an interesting story to tell if asked the right questions!).
We are thankful to have such warm, supportive individuals who cheer us on and share the highs and lows of the writing and illustrating journey. Thank you!
Happy Thanksgiving from all of us!
Francine, Annie, Kelly and Amanda
24 Carrot Writing is beyond excited to announce that our blogging partner and co-founder, Annie Cronin Romano, will launch her debut picture book, Before You Sleep: A Bedtime Book of Gratitude, this Sunday, October 14, 2018 at 2:00 p.m. at the Silver Unicorn in Acton, MA.
We’ve been on the writing and publishing journey with Annie for over six years—none of us really knows when we came together, but it was long before 24 Carrot Writing was a thing. Since we convened as a writing support and goal-setting group, we have revised numerous drafts of picture books, magazine articles and MG and YA novels. We’ve deleted a few labors of love along the way, killed off a handful of darlings, and critiqued each other’s many drafts that appeared to us in rough or polished form—and everything in between. The four of us have amassed dozens of rejections individually and hundreds collectively.
Through all of this, Annie has been the model of persistence. Even though writing is the job of her heart, it is her second job. Despite a demanding day-job and juggling three teenagers’ schedules, Annie never stops writing. Her focus is laser-like when we have writing retreat days, and she continues to crank out at least one picture book manuscript a month. Her commitment to writing speaks of true passion.
Annie is also the Goddess of Boomeranging—that noble art of sending out a query quickly on the heels of rejection. On the rare occasion when Annie would be wounded by rejection and we worried she would cash in her chips, push back from the poker table and declare loudly and publicly that she had bet enough of her life’s time and energy on snagging the elusive publishing contract, she would find a ray of hope, cling to a hint of encouragement, tackle another revision, and fling another query out into the universe. Annie’s querying is relentless, and she does not wallow in despair. She painstakingly researches appropriate agents and editors and steadily sends out queries each month. And you won’t find a more organized submitter. Her tracking spreadsheets and detail of publisher data would put Sheldon Cooper’s string theory notes to shame.
If you were to take the time to go through the thread of Annie’s blogs on our website, you’ll find her journey…slogging through the emotionally-draining query trenches; balancing writing with social media when she was trying to establish her web presence; turning harsh critique into positive feedback; being happy and joyful about other people’s successes, but still wondering when her break might come; taking control of her goals, but then giving herself the gift of compassion when she couldn’t hit all the pedals from the demands of life, day-job , and writing.
It is because of all of those qualities that we find ourselves where we are today—announcing Annie’s debut picture book! (Before You Sleep is this week’s Book Pick.)
But over and above those wonderful attributes, Annie is our friend. So, yes—Yes!—we celebrate her publishing success and debut book, but we also raise a glass to honor what we love most about Annie—her bravery, her perseverance, her compassion, her kindness, her sense of humor, and her pluck.
From all of us at 24 Carrot Writing –
Francine, Kelly and Amanda
24 Carrot Writing is pleased to host Andrew Jenrich, Director of the Taft Public Library in Mendon, MA. All four of us have benefited from Andrew's comprehensive knowledge of the publishing industry, as well as his ability to place "just the right book" into our hands (as well as the many library patrons' hands!). We hope you'll find his perspective on what he's acquiring, and what he hopes to acquire in the future, helpful in your writing process.
Guest Post by Andrew Jenrich
As Director at the Taft Public Library one of the most rewarding tasks I have is developing the library’s book collection for children and young adults. That’s not to say it isn’t a daunting job, especially since so many new titles release weekly. If there is any frustration in the collection development work I do, it stems from the nagging feeling that I’ll forever be chasing the publishing game and will never quite catch up.
We are a smaller library and, since the shelf space in our library is limited, I realized long ago that I would need to be particularly selective about what winds up on our shelves. So, what determines the choices I ultimately make for our library? What catches my eye and peaks my interest enough to convince me to part with the library’s dollar? Those are interesting questions. I do know the criteria I use for evaluating a board book vs. a chapter book vs. upper-level juvenile fiction for purchase are different. There is no one method I employ. And there probably shouldn’t be. Audiences for each format vary and publishers have become very savvy about what appeals to different age groups. The challenge for me is in anticipating what our patrons will want of what does get published.
Some of the selection process is straightforward – series books for characters like Fancy Nancy, Pinkalicious, Pete the Cat, and Dog Man always circulate and they, along with series like Wimpy Kid, I Survived, and Spirit Animals take up a fair bit of space on the shelves. Add in books by renowned authors – your Rick Riordans, Mo Willemses, J.K. Rowlings, and Kate DiCamillos – and that’s a significant portion of the collection. But having those titles does not mean every interest of our library patrons has been met. There is still plenty of room for diversifying, for growing the collection beyond the core popular titles. Below is a synopsis of what I look for when selecting titles for the Children’s and Young Adult collections at our library. I’ve broken it down roughly by age group and, within each entry, I’ve tried to highlight some of the current trends I’m seeing and, where possible, pointed out the genres, subject matter, and storylines that seem too prevalent in some of these categories.
Board Books and Picture Books
I’m a fairly visual person so I admit that the first thing that draws me to a board or picture book are the illustrations. They don’t need to be a certain style. In fact the good news in publishing for the very young is that there are many styles illustrators can employ that work effectively. Sure there’s a bit of mimicry here and there, but there are plenty of illustrators whose style is unique and distinct. So, yes, I’m drawn to the illustrations. That said, there’s nothing more disappointing than a picture book which delivers on the illustrations but is weak on storyline and content. The words do matter. When I was a Children’s Librarian and hosted storytimes I have to say I gravitated to titles with less text (kids can only sit still for so long). The books I liked most in those situations were the ones that “brought the silly.” Mo Willems, Jules Feiffer, Jon Agee, and Jan Thomas were always a hit. If a book could bring the silly and convey a lesson, well, all the better. Some books with more text did work during storytimes (Tomie DePaolo’s Strega Nona and Michelle Knudsen’s Library Lion worked far better than I imagined, Marla Frazee’s books were great too), but those instances were rare.
What have I seen too much of in storybooks the last few years? Dragons, dinosaurs, princesses, penguins, mice, and bears. Don’t get me wrong, we still purchase titles with all of the above precisely because they circulate, but there’s entirely too much of it. And I do like anthropomorphism (Valeri Gorbachev and Peter Brown’s humanized animals are favorites of mine), but give me characters, animal or otherwise, I don’t normally see. Give me Lady Pancake, Sir French Toast, and Crayons that quit. I’ll likely take notice.
Easy Readers and Early Chapter Books
Some authors like Jan Thomas and Mo Willems have successfully moved into easy reader territory and we carry their titles. What’s nice is they continue to do work that isn’t text-heavy. I’ve found that text-heavy easy readers have a very limited appeal. If a child is looking for more text often they just move up to early chapter books like Nick Bruel’s Bad Kitty series or Doreen Cronin’s Chicken Squad books. Illustrations still matter in easy readers and early chapter books. In fact more and more books from both these categories seem to be taking a cue from graphic novels incorporating full page panel layouts, word and thought bubbles and other comic book devices. Scholastics’ line of early chapter books called Branches does this very well. They’re intended as a bridge between leveled readers and regular chapter books. Kung Pow Chicken, Monkey and Me, and Owl Diaries are all Branches titles that kids gravitate to here at the library. There’s plenty of text, it’s just that it’s often presented in comic book format with splashy engaging illustrations.
What would I like to see more of in easy readers and early chapter books? I’d like to see more nonfiction easy readers and rebus readers where pictures occasionally take the place of common nouns throughout the story. Based on patron requests there’s a demand for both. I’d also like to see early chapter books with a bit more heft and content to them. The great thing about series like J.C Greenburg’s Andrew Lost or Osborne’s Magic Tree House is that you learn something in the process.
With Wimpy Kid, Big Nate, and the Dork Diaries series you’re seeing hand-drawn diary and graphic novel techniques infiltrating juvenile (chapter book) fiction too. It’s clear publishers think kid culture is much more visual now and, based on readership of those series and others, it’s hard to argue they’re not right. We purchase all of the above and countless other series. Realistic fiction titles (school stories, family stories) seem to be on the increase due to the popularity of the Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries books. Most juvenile fiction series (and, believe me, publishers are obsessed with making everything into a series now) fall into the fantasy and adventure categories though. I loved the Harry Potter series but so many publishers started to roll out fantasy series during and after Harry hoping to “catch lightning in a bottle” that the result was a fair bit of forgettable fiction, though authors like Rick Riordan, Brandon Mull, and Pseudonymous Bosch capitalized. Bosch’s Secret series and Mull’s Fablehaven books are both very worthy and most everyone knows what a hit Percy Jackson has been with younger readers.
What’s lacking in juvenile fiction? I don’t think there are enough mystery and compelling historical fiction titles written for preteens. Every so often a series like I Survived stokes the imagination of young readers, but it doesn’t happen enough. More sports novels for girls would be helpful too. Mike Lupica, Tim Green, and John Feinstein write excellent sports novels, but they feature boy protagonists in male-dominated sports.
Young Adult Fiction
In my twelve years at the library no one area has grown so much as young adult fiction. The number of titles has grown and the category itself has matured. I think YA fiction suffered under the assumption that much of it was bleak and focused on hyper-dysfunctional families and relationships. There is a percentage of it that still does (and dysfunction provides drama), but I see authors taking more chances with genre now. Yes, YA literature had its vampire and werewolf phase (thanks Twilight) and it still clings desperately to its Hunger Games-inspired dystopias. Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, Alexandra Bracken’s The Darkest Minds, and Neal Shusterman’s Arc of the Scythe series all mine this territory and do it fairly well. But I like when an author takes an even bigger chance like Ryan Graudin does in Wolf by Wolf and its sequel Blood for Blood, novels that take place in Nazi Germany and feature a girl protagonist who is also a shape-shifter intent on assassinating Hitler. It sounds like a lot to swallow, and it is, but Graudin pulls it off beautifully. If an author is going to imagine an alternate world I like it when they go all in. Thankfully more of that is happening.
There is still plenty of room, of course, for realistic and topical teen fiction. I’ve been happy to see more teen mystery and suspense titles recently and it’s nice when historical fiction series like Laurie Halse Anderson Seeds of America books receive recognition and a devoted readership. I’ve also been particularly pleased that recent multicultural titles like Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone have found a wider audience.
In truth there is so much good stuff out there now for children and teens to enjoy. Some of the best work being done right now across the juvenile and teen book landscape is in graphic novels. Shaun Tan, Gene Luen Yang, Raina Telgemeier, Noelle Stevenson – I could go on ad nauseum about the brilliant work they’re doing. Perhaps another time.
Right now I have orders to place, so if I could kindly ask that publishers sit back and take a short break? I really need to catch up!
The Taft Public Library is located at 29 North Avenue in Mendon, MA.
by Francine Puckly
In the past two or three weeks, I’ve come in contact with nearly a dozen writers and illustrators who are struggling. So this post is part blog, part book pick and suggested reading, and part battle cry for all of my creative friends who have hit the wall and are questioning the pursuit of publishing books.
We are living and operating as artists during a time when we are expected to project a lot of energy outwardly—connecting, marketing, networking. Through the conversations I’ve had with writers in the last month, several of them said they had lost their way, and in all of the cases their energy had been depleted by social media, conferences, and the revolving door of submissions and rejections. As another friend told me today, “I have become a professional student, chasing after classes to inspire me to write. I just need to sit down and write.” We featured Melissa Sweet for our illustrator month, and she spoke of the lessons she learned from E. B. White while writing and illustrating the exquisite book, Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White. While E. B. White might have been eccentric in his need for nature, he can teach us about pulling back, sitting with an idea, and letting nature nurture us as our ideas are developed. Any man who spends a year studying spiders has something to teach me about pacing myself. We owe ourselves a break from the fast lane in order to reconnect to our writing. We can only spin like a top for so long before we lose steam, wobble, and topple over.
Instead I say, let’s embrace and find inspiration in life. If I stop and look around, I can find inspiration in all of my day-to-day surroundings. For starters, I am inspired by my daughter’s 99-year-old dance teacher, Georgia Deane, who continues to teach, dance and sing every day. (Here she is performing in Arizona last month.) And then there’s my critique group member who has spent years pulling together a family tome of photos, family trees and stories, poetry, and Ancestry.com details to pass along to her nieces and nephews. When she shared the book Monday night, we were speechless. The detail and care that had gone into creating it could rival any book written. Big publishing house project? Nope. But what a gift. Another friend faces a recurrence of cancer but remains upbeat and continues to draft her most riveting YA fantasy yet, and I can’t wait to read it! I’ve been on all sorts of adventures this summer with my son as he searches for a new home next year—at a university that will embrace all of his loves. It’s taking over a great deal of my “writing time” but I wouldn’t miss this journey for anything. The writing will have to wait.
This is life. We live it. We embrace it. We feel it. We will eventually create from it.
My friend and 24 Carrot co-founder Annie Cronin Romano said in one of our goals meetings last month that she was going to “throw it at the page.” Her wisdom hit me like a slap across the face. I have been struggling with a complete rewrite of a novel, but I was spending an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to control the direction of the writing. I had lost the love of sitting down with a cuppa, my favorite pens, and a pad and writing for the sheer joy of seeing something new—something never written before—on paper. It had been a long time since I had experienced that oneness with a snippet of a thought or story. Long overdue. So despite the fact that I have a meaningful and immediate deadline ahead, I am reeling myself in. I am going to dip in, splash it, mix it, repeat. I will trust that this is the only viable process if I’m going to deliver something fresh and engaging. I will probably miss my deadline but I'm determined to enjoy this process.
Autumn is here. Nature beckons, as do our creative souls. Go back to the basics. Do whatever you need to truly live and retrieve the joy you once knew when you sat down to draw or write. If you live in a place with seasons, take a hike, play in a pile of leaves, drink warm cider. If you live in a place without seasons, go to the beach or bask in the warmth in other ways! If rain drives you inside, buy a box of crayons or a set of watercolor paints (the kind with only eight colors and one brush). And listen to E. B. White’s wisdom. Explore The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic by Michael Sims and The Essays of E. B. White by E. B. White. And definitely don’t miss out on Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet!
Guest Post by Melissa Sweet
There is no separation between art and life in my book. I’m always seeing the world through the eyes of what I’m working on. In writing my biography Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White, I had the pleasure and privilege of reading everything he wrote, as well as listening to his three children’s books in my car for the better part of three years. It was an education, and an inspiration. There is much to admire about White and his writings. In the end, the essence of White to my mind was his sense of freedom, and the conviction for living life on his own terms. He personified what President Kennedy wrote in a speech celebrating the role of the artist: “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”
When Francine invited me to create a blog post I suggested: “10 things I learned from E.B. White” (even though there were scores of things I learned from him). Then I remembered towards the end of Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte had laid 514 eggs, and since 5+1+4=10, hence the organization for this piece.
Here is just a handful of White’s many words of wisdom:
1. “I think the best writing is often done by persons who are snatching the time from something else…”
Sometimes taking a walk, deadheading the flowers, or jotting down something that comes to me in a flash is still part of “working.” It’s all another form of thinking.
2. “Work from a suitable design”
Finding the design not just the writing, but the merging of words and pictures, is the best part of designing a book. Once I discover and decide on the “scaffolding,” the elements begin to fall into place. In Some Writer!, the hierarchy was first my text, then White’s quotes with illustrations, and finally the merging of archival photos, manuscript pages, and White’s ephemera. Creating the book was akin to inventing a three–dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
3. “I would really rather feel bad in Maine than feel good anywhere else.”
White left New York City and the The New Yorker, as well as fame and notoriety, to live in Maine, a place that had inspired him since childhood. While living on his farm, he wrote essays for Harper’s Magazine that became a collection of some his finest writings: One Man’s Meat.He also penned Charlotte’s Web and Trumpet of the Swan, to name a few. Just as important as loving where we live is carving out a space and time to work. John Updike wrote, “Try to develop actual work habits, and even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour, say -- or more -- a day to write." Even an hour a day adds up.
4. “I like to read books on dog training….to me a book on dog discipline becomes a volume of inspired humor. Every sentence is a riot.”
Why throw a wrench in the middle of deadlines when everything is going pretty well? In a fit of madness, or just to keep things interesting, we got a purebred shepherd puppy– I wasn’t looking for either. We named her Ruby. She continues to remind me not to take myself so seriously and that I need fresh air and exercise. For Ruby, life is a ball, and it might as well be the same for me, too. As White once wrote, “A really companionable and indispensable dog is an accident of nature.” Ruby is both. (With apologies to White’s famous line regarding Charlotte).
5. “The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.”
This says it all. Could crafting a book with this advice be that simple? Yes, along with the other bit of advice.
When I wrote my first book, Carmine: A Little More Red, I had Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style on my desk and referred to it constantly. By the time I began writing Some Writer!, I realized I had about seven copies of that book between my home and studio. It was the book that helped me understand White’s process.
1. A nod to another great writer…
Author John McPhee, a New Yorker contributor, is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. In his book, DRAFT #4, McPhee’s essays are a collection of writing advice that is fun and informative to read, as are all his books. Writing a biography of E. B. White was a gigantic undertaking, not just because he is one of our most beloved writers but the sheer volume of research that had to be read, sifted through, and organized. The following quote by McPhee is sage advice for choosing the content of a biography (and writing in general):
“What is creative about nonfiction?…here are a few points: The creativity lies in what you choose to write about, how you go about doing it, the arrangement through which you present things, the skill and touch with which you describe people and succeed in developing them as characters, the rhythms of your prose, the integrity of the composition, the anatomy of the piece…the extent to which you see and tell the story that exists in your material…. Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.” –– John McPhee
1. “Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.”
Dr. Dorian said this in Charlotte’s Web. White once watched a spider spinning an egg sac in the doorway of his barn, and the rest is history. It could be, as Mary Oliver writes, that “paying attention is the beginning of devotion.” Indeed.
2. “Omit needless words.”
This rule from the Elements of Style is a favorite. By editing and rewriting, we find clarity and simplicity. White goes on to write: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” And in conclusion: “There you have a short valuable essay on the nature and beauty of brevity– sixty-three words that could change the world.”
3. “Every writer, by the way he uses the language, reveals something of his spirit, his habits, his capacities, his bias. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication.”
All art is a form of communication. White wrote tens of thousands of letters in his lifetime. An invaluable exercise that lots of writers have used as a way of limbering up (myself included), is writing a letter, a postcard, or a thank you note. Try writing by hand or on an old typewriter. Why not email? Because doing something by hand slows us down, helps our mind become in synch with our hand, not to mention the recipient will receive a memorable gift in the mail. Also, a book titled, The Collected Emails of (insert name here) may not capture our imagination.
4. “A person who is looking for something doesn’t travel very fast.”
Stuart Little knew this. His quest was more important than the destination. You’re going artistically, and otherwise, write on!You are no doubt heading in the right direction.
Melissa Sweet has written and illustrated many award–winning books including, Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade, and two Caldecott Honor winning books, The Right Word, and A River of Words, both by Jen Bryant. Her most recent book, How To Read A Book by Kwame Alexander, will be published in June, 2019. You can find out more about Melissa at melissasweet.net and https://www.facebook.com/melissa.sweet.35.
Guest Blog Post by Brian Lies
My newest book, The Rough Patch, deals with a difficult topic—grief, especially the anger aspect of grief—and hope. The story is about fox named Evan who does everything with his dog, but one day the dog dies. One of their favorite activities had been working in Evan’s garden, and without the dog, Evan can’t bear to even look at the place they’d enjoyed so much together. He hacks it to bits, and in his grief, begins to tend the weeds that sprout in the space where his vegetables and plants had grown before. The garden becomes a dark place, but when a pumpkin vine sneaks in under his garden fence, Evan begins a transformation back to hope.
I didn’t set out to write a story about grief. Sometimes a story idea comes to you and won’t leave you alone. This was one of those ideas. The story of a man, a dog and a garden began as I was weeding my own vegetable garden, wondering what would happen if instead of pulling weeds, I transplanted them into even rows and tended them. Would some reverse psychology cause the vegetables I wanted to come up between my rows of weeds?
When you’re illustrating a story on a difficult subject, many questions arise. How are you actually going to depict the difficult parts? How much should happen “off-stage”? How much is too much to show? Or too little? I wanted the story to carry real feeling but not be so strong that it felt brutal or manipulative.
One roadblock at the beginning was that I originally envisioned Evan as human, a crusty old New Englander with a good heart. The more I thought about this, the more I worried that young readers wouldn’t empathize with him. When we’re children, most of us don’t see our grandparents as fully-rounded beings with complex emotional lives. Much of our relationship with grandparents is selfish—about how they make us feel, or what they’ll give us. So, would a child looking at a story about an old man really feel for him when he’s sad? I didn’t think so.
Turning him into an animal may seem like a no-brainer solution, but it took a while for me to see him differently. I tried him as a bear...
and then as a rhinoceros.
Both looked clunky, and I didn’t instinctively feel anything for them. But then I drew Evan as a fox, and knew I’d found him. A fox has soulful eyes, expressive ears and tail, and his long lines better echoed that crusty old Yankee that I’d originally envisioned. Evan became a fox, and I think it’s much easier for a child to look at his face now and think, “Poor fox! He’s so sad...”
The next big challenge was to find that storytelling line between bland and brutal. The interplay between text and illustrations is always important in a picture book, but here it felt critical. It’s easy to get maudlin if you say too much about how a character feels. So I decided to keep the text mostly factual, explaining Evan’s actions in a kind of reportorial way, and let the illustrations show his feelings. The classic “show, don’t tell.”
Several techniques or tricks came to the forefront as I worked on how to illustrate the story. One was using a wide range of compositions or “camera angles” to convey emotion and feeling. When Evan destroys his garden, I didn’t want to fill the page with a bird’s eye view, looking down at a character mowing down vegetation. The most important thing was his emotional state at that moment, so I came in for one of two extreme close-ups in the book—Evan filling the page, slashing with a hoe and vegetation spraying behind the hoe.
Evan is cropped in an uneasy way, with his lower body and one arm off of the page. On the next page, I wanted to focus on the emotional aftermath of his action.
So I zoomed out and showed him from the back, carrying an armload of plants to a compost heap, his tail curving in a counterpoint to his weight as he walks. In the foreground, everything is spiky—the slashed stems of plants, the shattered, splintery bamboo support pole. A garden fork sticks out of the soil in a stark silhouette. The sharp imagery echoes the sharpness of his pain.
Another thing I employed was white space. When I’m watching a movie, I don’t want to be aware that I’m watching a movie—I want to be in that world. I don’t normally like white space in illustrations for the same reason. White space reminds me that I’m looking at pictures in a book. But here, using white space felt important. Early on, we see vignettes of Evan’s life with the dog in little bursts surrounded by white.
This serves to pack days, seasons and even years into several pages. (If you look closely in the book, you’ll see the dog aging from a puppy to a gray-muzzled older dog). And then later, on the page where the dog dies, or where Evan loads up his pumpkin, the white space focuses our attention on the emotion of the moment.
We’re not distracted by additional details. And that’s not so unreal—sometimes, in fraught moments, the rest of the world goes away and we see only the one person or thing that’s the most important to us. Color choices felt very important in these pieces, too. We react to colors instinctively. So the palette here is very simple: in happier days, things are bright and tend toward primaries.
When Evan’s in the throes of anger and sadness, the color dims and becomes a kind of sickly green-gray.
And as hope returns to Evan’s life, the primaries re-assert themselves. Even if the text doesn’t say that Evan is going to be okay in the end, the palette suggests that it will be. The colors act as our guide.
This book was very rewarding to create. Each image was different enough from the others to make the process of painting them interesting, from the first day to the last. And it was also the most difficult book I think I’ve done, taking some fourteen years from when I first came up with Evan’s story to publication. But it’s a good reminder to keep plugging away if a story idea grabs you. I returned to the idea for years, thinking “I’ve got to do that story!” before I finally discovered how it should look.
Honestly, I don’t think I was ready to do this book back in 2004, and though it would have been great to get it out quickly, I think it’s a better book for the wait.
Brian Lies is the author and illustrator of the NY Times bestselling bat series (Bats at the Beach, Bats at the Library, etc.), and over two dozen other titles. The Rough Patch has already received three starred reviews (Booklist, School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly), been named a Junior Library Guild selection and is being translated into three languages. You can visit him at www.brianlies.com, connect on Twitter at @BrianLiesbooks, or Instagram at brianlies.
Guest Blog by Tim McCanna
I wrote my first picture book manuscript in March of 2009. I still have the file in a Dropbox folder where I keep all of my story drafts. Seeing the file’s creation date made me realize that I’m approaching the ten year marker of when I decided to leap into children’s literature.
Ten years is a long time to commit to anything. It’s plenty of time to experience failures and a few successes. You can surprise yourself one day and feel like you’re spinning your wheels the next. Is the 46-year-old me any wiser than the 36-year-old me? Maybe a little. I definitely have more gray hair. If I could give that young whippersnapper some friendly advice, here’s what I’d tell him…
STEER CLEAR OF THE SLUSH PILE
Let me save you some time and heartbreak, pal. Resist the slush pile submissions. You might as well go buy a lottery ticket or hunt for diamond rings at the beach. Yes, it can be tempting. And sure, lighting can strike. But especially when you’re starting out, the odds are not in your favor. You’ve got more productive things to do:
NUMBER ONE: Embrace the industry.Participate! Join SCBWI, volunteer, read blogs and reviews, listen to kid lit podcasts, and attend conferences and workshops so you can gain a pro-level understanding of how all the pieces of this business fit together.
NUMBER TWO: Make friends.Do anything it takes to join or form a critique group. Share your work and your experiences with these people. They will be your life raft in the turbulent kid lit seas. When you’re at a conference, turn to the people beside you and introduce yourself. Then ask them what they do. It really works.
NUMBER THREE: When all else fails, stick to your craft.If you’re feeling lonely or unsuccessful or unsure what to do to move forward, allow yourself some quality time to pursue creativity. Write, sketch, brainstorm titles, whatever.
Do all that and you’ll be too busy for the slush pile! Eventually, exciting opportunities will organically present themselves and propel your career forward in meaningful ways.
CUT IT OUT WITH THOSE 700 WORD MANUSCRIPTS
Hey man, a lot of your early manuscripts were too long. That’s okay. Don’t judge your work in those formative writing days. You have to put in the time to develop a sense of pacing and rhythm and structure. Get that first story out of your system and move on to the next one. While you write, read current published books and figure out why those manuscripts sold. Count the words on each spread, consider the passage of time between page turns, read out loud to a kid. At some point—after years of study and practice—something will click. You’ll see the difference between writing a story and crafting a picture book. You’ll actually treasure the editing and rewriting process. And when you figure out how to tell the same 700 word story in 285 words… that’s when the magic happens, buddy.
PLAY WITH WORDS
Your stories aren’t “leaping off the page” yet? Stretch those writing muscles. Trust your gut! Try something new! Be daring and innovative with letters, words, and phrases. You might discover a voice you didn’t know you had. You might even catch the attention of an editor with a fresh meter or distinctive grammatical style. Watersong started out as an experimental list of onomatopoeia strung together in rhyme. BOING! A Very Noisy ABC is a story told completely in alphabetical order. Recommended reading: Making the Alphabet Dance by Ross Eckler is an incredible book on wordplay. Could you write a novel without using the letter E? Somebody did!
Good luck, you handsome thirty-something aspiring author. Making picture books is a slow process. The industry is slow. It just is. Don’t try to rush your craft or your career. Every day offers an opportunity to practice and learn, so focus on that. Getting published is a great goal, but the journey is where the real achievement happens.
Tim McCanna is the author of Bitty Bot, Barnyard Boogie, Bitty Bot’s Big Beach Getaway, and Watersong, which is a New York Public Library Best Book for Kids and a National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Notable Poetry Book. His upcoming 2018 picture books include Jack B. Ninja, So Many Sounds, and BOING! A Very Noisy ABC. He lives in San Jose, California with his wife and two kids. Find Tim online at www.timmccanna.com.
by Francine Puckly
It’s spring! Time to dust off the mantel, shine up the windows, replace the rotting floorboards on the deck, and apply a fresh coat of paint to our nicked-up walls. But spring spruce-up doesn’t stop with our homes. Refreshing our writing spaces and projects before the heat of the summer hits is equally important. This is not a waste of valuable work time. Rather, this is rejuvenation of mind, body, and spirit so that we can go forth with extra verve as we tackle our projects. So grab the 24 Carrot Spring Checklist and get your ideas and writing space tidied up!
Clear Away Winter Debris
Just as we strip off heavy, flannel bedding and replace it with light cotton inside our homes and remove dead leaves and stems from our gardens outside, we also need to strip away paper clutter in our offices in order to lighten up for the summer. Spring is the perfect time to clear the unwanted and unnecessary (also known as “managing your papers”). New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield once said, “Tidied all my papers. Tore up and ruthlessly destroyed much. This is always a great satisfaction.” She was right. It feels great!
Be ruthless with your papers.
* Did you forget to file your conference handouts or have multiple copies of critique comments on your most recent manuscript or portfolio review lying around? Clear those papers. (Taming Conference Handouts). Keep only what cannot be referenced online. Remember: owner’s manuals, newspaper and magazine articles, and oftentimes workshop presentations are all available at the click of your mouse. There’s no need to keep the extra paper cluttering up your space.
* Have you been super aggressive with your annual goals and are juggling multiple projects? Make sure each project has its own hanging file with manila folders labeled Research, Marketing, Synopsis and Query Details, Drafts, and any other categories that are helpful for you. Place a cover sheet inside each file that gives a brief summary of the project at the top and then a blank section where you can list what is needed for the project: Do you need to buy or request research books or mentor texts from the library? Do you need to interview someone? If so, list those items here. When you open up the file in the future, your next steps are front and center.
* Keep all of your project files in one file drawer so you can reference them and also quickly refile them so that you won’t add to the clutter in your space.
* Once you’ve gone through all of your papers, compost that “yard waste” by shredding and recycling all of your papers!
Prune Dead or Damaged Branches
Are you hanging on to ideas that are dead? Don’t be afraid to prune out ideas and projects that you no longer have passion for. It’s okay to let go of the 47 versions of the very first picture book you ever attempted. Keep the draft that’s most nostalgic and let the rest go. Did you try a first draft of a psychological thriller and then decide your voice was in quirky middle grade humor? Delete the project and recycle the drafts.
Sharpen Your Tools
Writing with a pen that’s desperately low on ink? Choosing to print in gray scale because you can’t find or haven’t bought a replacement ink cartridge for the printer? Time to restock your supplies! Take a 20-minute trip to your favorite office supply store and refresh your supply of pens, pencils, paper clips, sticky notes, ink cartridges, file folders and paper and pads for your office area.
Wipe Down the Walls
Yup. This is the Lemon Pledge portion of our checklist. Now that you’ve tidied your workspace, it really is time to pull out the cleaning supplies. Be sure to vacuum, dust the corners, check the light bulbs in your desk lamp, and shine the windows. Buy a bouquet of fresh flowers or clip some lilacs from the garden. Arrange them in a pretty vase on your desk.
Fertilize Your Lawn
Our creativity won’t grow if we don’t take time to fill our wells with joy and new ideas. Start a summer reading list of genre books or summer beach novels. Crack out the sangria and enjoy a light and happy movie that makes you laugh or possibly dance.
Spring really is the time to lighten up. Take a few hours out to spruce up your space and care for your papers and projects. You’ll go forward with renewed energy as the Summer Solstice approaches!
by Francine Puckly
For years I have been revising and polishing one of my manuscripts in order to get it ready for an agent or editor. It’s been a struggle, a journey sprinkled with pockets of both excitement and disillusionment. I’ve had it critiqued numerous times by my critique group members and various other beta readers. I’ve also paid for 10-page critiques, first page critiques, query critiques, more 10-page critiques and back around again. This past weekend I attended a regional conference and had two more industry professionals weigh in on the manuscript. They were in violent agreement. I continue to miss the mark.
I read over their feedback several times. I had a two-hour “therapy session” with a writing colleague who is familiar with the manuscript. Then just this morning I pulled out two files of notes from past workshops and conferences—one on Beginnings, the other on Character Development. The file on Beginnings was a slap in the face. There, dated four years earlier, was feedback about my opening chapters—almost verbatim to the feedback I received a few days ago. Nothing had changed.
So I either A) hadn’t learned a thing in four years, B) don’t possess the skill to fix it, or C) am locked into what has already been written and can’t break out of the word trap to fix the problems with the novel. I’m going with option C.
I’m fiddling, not fixing. I’m tweaking, not writing fresh new prose. I’m trying to force stale, overworked characters to fit a pre-determined plot instead of creating fresh, fabulous characters and then sending them (and the reader) on an exciting journey that incorporates character, voice, and setting.
So I’m following Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s lead. I deleted all of the drafts of that manuscript from my hard drive. (Confession: I’m not crazy. Unlike Lynda, I do have them saved to an external drive. But the drive is packed away in the deep recesses of my office closet and not easily accessed.)
How do I feel after deleting five years of work? I’m scared to death! I’ve consumed every piece of chocolate in the house and thought about opening a bottle of wine at 8:30 this morning. (I opted for a decaf earl grey latte…) But I also know deep in my bones that this was the right move. I won't go back to those drafts on the external drive.
I have work to do. An editor I greatly respect suggested a list of novels to study on character and beginnings. I will. I am. I will go back to the drawing board on creating, sketching and really getting to know my characters. And only after I complete those tasks will I sit down and rewrite the story. With renewed vigor. With soulful characters. From scratch.
Guest Blog by Meg Lysaght Thacher
Every year, over 700 writers, illustrators, agents, and editors converge on Springfield, MA, to meet and learn and talk about their favorite thing: children’s books. If you’re heading to Springfield next month, here’s how to make the most of your conference experience.
First, go read Francine Puckly’s Essential Conference Preparation Checklist.
Your First Conference
About a third of conference attendees are first timers. (You can recognize them by the subtle “First Conference” labels on their badges.) If you are one, be sure to attend the conference orientation on Friday afternoon. You’ll get information and advice that’s even more useful than what you’ll read here, plus you’ll meet the conference coordinators and the New England SCBWI team.
Listen well. Take notes. Participate! Don’t sit in the back—this isn’t high school.
Go into your one-on-one agent/editor meeting with an open mind. No matter how many times you’ve polished your work, no matter how many critique partners have read it, an editor or agent will probably see something that needs improvement. You paid for this advice. You will get your money’s worth by listening.
Visit the critique prep and support room. There will be a moderator and other attendees who can give you an idea of what to expect in your meeting, or help unpack your 15 minutes of advice.
There will be talks by lots of famous authors. Do not miss Jane Yolen’s keynote address. Just trust me on this one. It will be short, sweet, inspiring, and you will finally learn what BIC* means.
Other events include panels, open mic, peer critiques, an interview with Patricia MacLachlan…um, I don’t think the 24Carrot folks have enough space for me to talk about it all. Read your conference schedule!
* Behave like a professional.
SCBWI has recently adopted anti-harassment guidelines for its conferences. Would you like to be a professional writer? Behave in a professional manner. The NESCBWI conference is a place to learn, network, and hang out with fellow writers. It is not a singles bar.
* Meet new people.
Sit down at a table with someone you don’t know at least once. When you meet someone new, tell them your name, age group you write for, genre(s), and current project. Don’t just read each others’ nametags.
* Do not pitch unless requested.
There are 600 people at the conference, and all of them have at least two projects they’re dying to pitch. We could all stand around pitching for the entire conference, and we would not have a single human conversation. That being said, it’s fine to pitch when someone asks you to.
* Treat the agents and editors like the human beings they are.
There’s plenty of time after the conference to send them your manuscript and perfectly polished query letter. Would you rather that query letter started with “Remember me? I’m the one who monopolized your time during the Friday night mixer!” or “I really enjoyed chatting with you about our favorite classic fantasy novels”?
This is an excellent way to get involved, feel like you belong, help the conference to run smoothly, and meet folks. Plus, there’s free food on Saturday night, and you get to learn the secret volunteer handshake.**
Take Care of Yourself
You can always tell the people who don’t get enough food or sleep at a conference. By the last day, they have glazed eyes, are speaking complete gibberish, and have probably introduced themselves to you three times. Don’t stretch yourself so thin that you can’t make a good impression. There are quiet spaces listed in the conference schedule. Use them if you need to decompress or regroup.
And drink plenty of water!
Beware of False Comparisons
At any given NESCBWI conference, about a quarter of attendees are published authors or illustrators. Everyone else is “pre-published.” We’re all here to improve our writing and learn. Comparing yourself to other people will get in the way of that. Embrace your you-ness.
After the conference
A major benefit of attending a conference is that you get a list of agents and editors who will accept your query for a few months after the conference. The list includes people who don’t normally accept unsolicited queries. Follow the directions on the list. Show them how easy you will be to work with. Make sure you submit only a polished manuscript. You’ll learn a lot at this conference. Apply it! And never share the list with non-attendees. You paid for this privilege. And we don’t want to swamp the faculty inboxes.
Approach your conference with a growth mindset. Everyone is there to learn—even the faculty. Even the editors and agents. And especially you. So learn!
Meg Thacher will be attending her eighth NESCBWI conference this April. She teaches astronomy at Smith College and writes nonfiction for Highlights and the Cricket Magazine group. This is her first blog post of any kind.
Find out more about Meg:
Twitter handle: @MegTWrites
2017 meeting stats courtesy of Shirley Pearson (who will remind you to fill out your post-conference evaluation). Thanks, Shirley!
*Nope. Not going to tell you. Listen to Jane.
**There is no secret volunteer handshake. Maybe we should make one up!
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