Writing Seasons

I am possibly the least agricultural person I know. I do not garden. I do not generally eat seasonal foods at their freshest. I don’t really do seasonal sports. But I do find that my writing is affected by the seasons.

This morning as I was walking around the pond before going into do weights, I could feel fall. This is my favorite time of year. Snappy breezes, blue skies, golden leaves… I love it all.

Each new season tends to bring changes to my writing routine, too. My energy level is different in different seasons. Fall always feels like a fresh start to me, and I have a lot more energy than I do in summer. In fall, I love the outdoors, and my writing tends more toward the nature side of things. In summer, it’s too hot for me. My interest in writing about nature decreases a little bit. When my kids were little, it was hard for me to immerse myself in longer, more complex projects in the summer. But when the school year started, I knew I had more open, uninterrupted hours to write.

I’m looking ahead right now at the time from now to the end of the year. I am going to have some changes to my transportation options soon, which is going to affect my daily schedule. It’s getting dark earlier at night, and it’s dark when Jack and I walk my husband to the bus in the morning. That means I don’t go work out right away (because I don’t feel safe walking around the pond in pitch blackness). These little things might feel like you have nothing to do with writing, but routines shape my days. So as a new season begins, I think about how my daily routine will be different in this season, and what that means for my writing.

What does fall mean for your writing? Do you have kids who are back in school, meaning more writing time for you? Or are you a teacher or librarian who was off for the summer and is now back to work? I would encourage you, if you haven’t already, to take a few minutes and think about what your fall looks like. Over the next few months, where and when will you be able to write? And what writing goals and routines do you want to set for yourself?

Accepting that change is constant is necessary to my life as a writer. Embracing those changes and using them to my advantage makes my writing life better. I’m hoping you will find some things to celebrate about fall and what this new season means for your own writing.

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Post-Irma Catch-Up

Hi, writers. I’ve been down in Florida for the past week on a vacation to go to the beach for a few days and then visit with family. Of course, Irma threw rather a wrench into the works, and things didn’t turn out quite like I expected. My family is safe, though, so that’s the main thing.

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My brother-in-law’s driveway

Despite the stress, there were several highlights related to my writing, and I thought I’d share them here.

  1. When I realized I might be stuck in Florida and not back to work as soon as I hoped, I was able to use my Carbonite app to access backup files I would need to be able to work on. What a relief. Automagic cloud storage is a miracle. I didn’t end up needing the documents I downloaded and printed before Irma hit, but it was peace of mind to have them.
  2. Several of my 10 beta readers for my Can You Make a Living as a Children’s Writer? book emailed to say how much they were enjoying it. That was such a blessing, because the manuscript is a big, honking, sprawling beast. I know it will need more rearranging and polishing and cutting and such, but it was so reassuring to hear some positive things about it!
  3. I was already in Florida when I got the good news that a rhyming nonfiction picture book manuscript was going to acquisitions last Thursday. And Thursday I learned that it got the thumbs-up–the publisher is acquiring it! Yippee! More info on that soon.
amish game night

We passed the time playing board games by candlelight while the storm raged.

I didn’t actually do any writing on my trip. But various projects were swimming around in my head nonetheless. I’m not sure a writer ever goes on total vacation. Do you? Or are there always thoughts about writing blowing through your brain, too? (I’d hate to think I’m the only one.)

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Get This Thing Done!

All right, I have been fiddling around with a mammoth writing project off and on since February. I am now at the “get this thing out of my sight” stage. Since it’s not something under contract, I keep sort of shoving it aside for other deadlines or sparkly shorter projects that put me under a trance. You know how that goes?

However. I can’t take it anymore.

I am hot and heavy with it right now, and have been for the past couple of weeks. I have a sort-of outside deadline coming up, by which time I want to have it out to some beta readers.

The project is my book on how to make a living as a children’s writer. If you are interested in possibly being a beta reader (first reader who gives some feedback), please sign up for my newsletter. I’ll be sending out an edition in the next day or two that will give more info and a spot to sign up. The reading period would be Sep. 5-30.

Thanks so much, and I am now diving back into my cave to work on the project. :>)

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The Story Behind If You Were the Moon

I don’t usually cross-post things from my blog for teachers to this blog. But today’s post might be of interest to children’s writers, so…

Hope you all got to see part of the eclipse yesterday! Here in Minneapolis, not so much. But it’s still fun to have so much attention focused on the moon. In fact, yesterday I shared a poem about how thrilled the moon was to finally be the star of the show.

Recently, I was happy to answer Linda Ashman‘s questions about writing If You Were the Moon for the Picture Book Builders blog! Linda is one of those people whose books consistently entertain and enchant me. In fact, her Castles, Caves, and Honeycombs was a mentor text for A Leaf Can Be…. And her recent Ella Who? is just so heartwarming and funny! So head on over to Picture Book Builders to check out the story behind the story of If You Were the Moon–and more. (That’s my way of admitting I answered the questions more than a month ago, and I will probably be as surprised by what I said as you will be:>)

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The Quick Pitch: Describing Your Manuscript in Two Sentences

I’ve been asked to describe a manuscript in a “quick pitch.” This got me thinking of some notes I have used often. I first wrote these down after attending or reading (it was 2003, and I really don’t remember!) Verla Kay’s Laundry List Query Letter workshop.

  • tone
  • pace
  • main character’s problem
  • flavor of the book
  • kind of ending

“These are the six words you’re looking for to define/describe your book for a query.”

I know. I’m missing a word. I don’t know whether I didn’t like the sixth word (I seem to recall something about theme, but I could be wrong), or whether I just took poor notes. I feel like setting could be a valid sixth word. Anyhow, I have used these five words often over the years to help me describe my projects to agents, editors, and educators.

Here’s an example. My next book is called Meet My Family: Baby Animals and Their Families. The title tells you what the book is ABOUT, but it doesn’t really give you a feel for the book. You know?

It’s so hard, but you try to identify the following things in just one word each. Here goes:

  • tone: light-hearted
  • pace: zippy
  • main character’s problem: family structures
  • flavor of the book: inclusive
  • kind of ending: reassuring, human

I think other things important to know about this book are that it features animals around the world with diverse family structures, it rhymes, and it has prose science sidebars.

So here’s my attempt at a book description:

In MEET MY FAMILY, baby animals around the world introduce their families in light-hearted rhyme, accompanied by science sidebars about diverse family structures. This inclusive book ends with human families, reassuring readers that their family, whatever it looks like, is just right.

Notice I didn’t end up using “zippy.” I felt like “light-hearted rhyme” pretty much implied “zippy,” and every word has to add new info.

Somehow having this list of touchstone qualities to use as building blocks makes it much easier to describe my book. Now, I’m off to put this method to use in another query pitch!

 

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Draft One Done–Next Steps

You guys know I’ve been working on my approach for a rhyming nonfiction book. Well, I just finished my first very ^%*^% draft of it. Yay! I have the information I want in there. And the couplets rhyme. And I think I like the contrast structure. In each couplet, the first line will show the topic at Point A, and the second line will show the topic at Point B. But that’s about all I can say for it at this stage! OK, let’s pretend I’m writing about famous buildings/structures that have been moved. That will help me describe my process a little better.

Draft 1

I had started with one idea about the structure (in black). Then I got a different idea and went back and tried that in purple. I often highlight notes to myself in yellow to catch my attention the next time I open a document.

Now, I have lots of decisions to make.

First, the lines of the couplet for each structure describe where it started and where it ended. I have to make sure I have the same reference points across all the structures, though. And the same relationship. In other words, do the actions/details of line 1 CAUSE the result of line 2? Or are they just observations at two different points? Is line 1 about the structure in its prime? And line 2 about the structure at its prime, just in its new location? Or is line 1 about the structure shortly before it is moved, reflecting the disuse or decay that leads to it being moved. I think I have some couplets each way, and I need to make them consistent.

Second, should I be talking directly to the structures? Or am I describing them in the third person?

Third, is each structure singular or representative of the whole type (e.g., bridges, towers, castles, office buildings, cemeteries, etc.)

I think I need to figure out those answers now, before I start working on the actual language (which is, at this point, dry as dust and in desperate need of some wordplay magic!). Even though I’m dying to get started on the fun part–the actual words and sounds!

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Luring Kids into Your Nonfiction Book

Some kids love nonfiction, but they might have lots of books to choose from on the topic of their choice. Your book has to stand out.

Other kids don’t like nonfiction. Or they don’t have any interest in your particular topic. Your book has to make them dive into it also.

Basically, your book has to hook young readers and be impossible to put down. This is why I have been playing with many different approaches to my current project. I have my topic, and I am fascinated by it. But the topic is not something brand new or intrinsically exciting. That means my approach needs to be. That will help it stand out among other books on the same topic and among all the books kids have to choose from.

I was at The Commons in Minneapolis recently, doing a story time with author friend Tracy Nelson Maurer. There were these two huge structures very colorful that we couldn’t figure out what they were. Then someone said something about birds, and we realize they looked like bird houses. Sure enough, I walked a little closer and saw that the signage was about birds. I thought they were bird houses, until I read a little more. Then I realized they were actually sculptures titled Orbacles. The signage at ground level and also text printed on each little section had to do with birds in Minnesota and what would happen to their populations if climate change continues unchecked. So this is art meant to educate. But what first drew me in was the color, the flash, the visual interest.

Orbacles, by MINN_LAB

Orbacles, by MINN_LAB

If the artist were to ask a stranger, “Hey, are you interested in climate change and how it’s going to affect our bird population?” I’m guessing the answer might be no for some people. But if you draw those people in with something really cool, looking a little bit mysterious, then by the time they actually realize what it’s about, they’re hooked. Smart art.

So that’s our job as writers, too. If we’re writing nonfiction, we have something we think is important for kids to know or something we feel drawn to write about in some way. The trick is how to prime readers so that they are eager to learn it, to read it, even if they didn’t jump up and down saying, “Please tell me about climate change!” Or whatever.

The way we get that curiosity going is often with our hook. Take Tracy’s most recent book, Noah Webster’s Fighting Words. I confess that history is not my strength. I am much more likely to read a nonfiction book related to science than I am to read one related to history. But in Tracy’s book, the ghost of Noah Webster is editing Tracy’s manuscript and making corrections all along. How freaking cool is that? As a reader, that makes me want to dive in and see: how does Tracy and how did history see Noah Webster, and how does that compare to perhaps the way Noah perceived himself? So that dichotomy right there becomes as much a part of the book as the facts I learn along the way about history and the dictionary and how American spelling had a lot of political meaning and thought behind it.

Awesome Millbrook editor Carol Hinz had a recent blog post about surprise and nonfiction  (and Tracy’s is just one book she uses as an example). I think surprising our readers, challenging their expectations, and just giving them something brand new that draws them in –even against their will–that is the way to win readers over. That’s our job.

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Facing Tough Odds with Every Submission

As I write this, I am sitting in front of my neighborhood Barnes & Noble. I am getting ready to go inside and do some market research, because I have a set of very beginning reader manuscripts that I want to submit.

This collection of stories got a verbal offer on it once years ago. That was when my agent submitted it to a former editor colleague of hers who loved them and made a verbal offer on them as a as a single picture book anthology of stories. But the timing wasn’t right, the editor said, and the official offer never materialized. They have sat in my Abandoned files for years. Then another editor recently looked at a TON of manuscripts for me, including these. Out of the whole bunch, she said about this project: “These probably came the closest; I like what you’ve done with these small stories. The question is what they are—and I think the answer is a collection of board books. They didn’t feel like a picture book anthology to me.”

These stories are kind of an odd beast because they are short even for beginner readers. And beginner readers are a terrible market to try to break into. I know this. But here I am ready to do more market research to submit these to some new editors. I love these little stories. I want them to become books. So I am ignoring the odds.

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Every time I submit a manuscript, I know the answer from the editor is probably going to be no thanks. That is just this business. But, I just keep telling myself that with enough persistence and practice on my part, somebody will say yes.

And that has been my experience. If you submit good work to enough people, somebody will eventually connect with it enough to want to publish it. So on every single submission, I ignore the likely outcome, because I love writing for kids.

I look at the long view. I keep researching. I keep writing. And I keep submitting. I hope you do, too.

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Brainstorming Nonfiction Approaches

A couple of days ago in the Writing for Children Facebook Group, I shared this:

approaches

Someone asked me if I could explain a little more, so here goes.

In my morning pages a few days ago, I wrote:

I’m struggling with XYZ. Before, for my nonfiction books, I’ve had the structure in mind first—brief rhyming couplets led to the Can Be… books; Things to Do if You Are… poems led to If You Were the Moon. But now I’ve got a specific topic, and I’m struggling to find a fresh way to approach it. Possibly a poetic way. But definitely an unusual, unexpected way. I’ve been thinking of travel posters, maps, kid analogies, news segments…nothing feels quite right yet.

I’m a list-maker and a thinker. I want to know where I’m going before I start writing. That doesn’t mean I don’t discover one approach doesn’t work and then try another. And another. But I like to at least TRY to figure out my approach before I start writing. So I decided to brainstorm a list of 20 possible approaches. I’m going to share some of them with you, although I’ve changed the topic.

So, let’s say my topic was all kinds of boats and what their jobs are. Here’s part of my actual brainstorming list, and in some cases you’ll see other books mentioned that I loved certain aspects of and would want to reread and gather technique tips from!

  1. Boat Adventure! I’m bored. Do what boats do! Then kid tries all the different things that boats do. Bold and funny.
  2. Cause/Effect – Emphasize the cause and effect part in the three section intros: carry cargo, do science, have fun.
  3. Storyline like [xyz] – unknown thing is trying to figure out what to do. “You could” ___________ “like a” [kind of boat]. “No, that won’t work. End reveal is that the unknown creature is a human kid. Kind of expected.
  4. Compare/Contrast: Slice through waves (speed boat) or drift downriver (barges). Maybe rhyming, maybe not. But very short and young.
  5. Some boats carry things or people. Some boats do jobs related to weather and science. Some boats just want to party. Three different reasons boats are shaped and work like they do.
  6. It’s a great day on the water. What will you do? // Rhyming answers from different boats. Just one line per boat.
  7. Rhyming survey a la Feathers and Hair.
  8. Lyrical straight nf with emphasis on language. Reread A Nest is Noisy, When Spring Comes, Looking for a Moose, Weeds Find a Way.
  9. Prose but with a boat refrain. Check out Jazz Baby again.
  10. Boats writing notes/letters to someone back home? Or some other boat? Not sure who. Reread Dear Mrs. LaRue. (Carol already bought THE OCTOPUS POSTCARDS) Meerkat Mail. Dear Tabby.
  11. Take off on a nursery rhyme or cumulative story? Read The Bickleby’s Birdbath. And Two Boys Booed.
  12. What Boats Know—Little Lessons from Boats. Reread Christmas Cookies.
  13. Diary of a Boat. Or just story from that person’s point of view. Look at Diary of a Worm again.
  14. Boats by the Numbers: work in lots of boat facts by highlighting one size or speed or something about each one. Mind-boggling Numbers.
  15. Riddle format about the boats. In rhyme? See Eggs, 1, 2, 3. And the JPL one…
  16. Story where a group of boats all plan to meet up, but the boats start disappearing one by one. Turns out they’re all collaborating to accomplish something big.
  17. Boat school – School play or school’s newscast with students sharing what they did that weekend.

OK, those are 17 of the 23 I came up with. I’m running out of time and some of the others are too hard to shift to boats! Hopefully this gives you a clearer picture of what I mean when I say I’m brainstorming approaches.

Successful picture books are 90% concept and 10% execution. For nonfiction, fresh concepts are always sought after. After doing my list of 23, I have 2 or 3 that really stood out as fun things to try.

I also realized that after several “quiet” nonfiction picture books, I’d like to try something a little more on the funny/zany side. So I’ll try my first choice. And if that doesn’t work…well, I have 22 others to try!

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Storytime for Mixed-Age Audience, Pt. 2

A few people here and on Facebook asked how my storytime went earlier this week, so here’s an update!

It went OK.

How’s that for definitive? Actually, it went fine. I had a decent crowd–about 40-45 people total, including moms and big brothers and sisters. It was quite an age range, though I had a row of about 10-12 kids of the 4-8 years old range seated right up front, so that was nice.

And my ending went well. I came back to my opening point, about books being great friends to have, and then I encouraged them to make good book friends this summer. I applauded them and then said, “Thanks, guys!” And then I went over to gather my stuff and hand out Oreos (make a full moon when you take off one cookie!) and READ! bookmark. So I felt like the ending didn’t peter out like I sometimes do. I’ll continue to work on my endings in the coming year of presentations.

Here are some things I could have done better:

  • Try to control the space more and get all the kids sitting together, close to me. When they’re spread out, it’s REALLY hard to get momentum and enthusiasm going!
  • When I have very young kids (K and younger) volunteer for extra stuff, give them extremely specific directions. (“Hold this ribbon and sit right here on the bench until I ask for the green ribbon, OK?” Then after he/she stands and holds ribbon for wingspan for me: “Thank you so much! I’ll take the ribbon back now and you can sit back down. You did such a great job holding that up for me!”)
  • End sooner. I always try to give great value and plenty of content. But I have to relearn constantly that it’s better to end after 30 minutes (for pre-K and K, for instance) while everyone’s still fully engaged than to keep going to 45 minutes, at which point the fidgets have set in a bit.
  • Find a specific role for the older kids. My focus was mostly on the young kids, and I did throw in a few riddle-ku and such for the older kids. But the older kids were all spread out, and they kind of wandered in throughout the storytime (which was in a park pavillion), but I wish I had had something specific that they could have helped with. One time when I had to do a school visit session for half 1st-graders and half 4th-graders in one session, I created specific roles for both groups, and that worked really well. Hard to do without tech so that the older kids could read something on-screen, but I’m sure there’s something I could ask them to do…Will be thinking more about that!

I sent an evaluation to the librarian today, and I specifically asked her for tips on presenting to and engaging multi-age audiences. I’ll be interested to hear her advice!

Thanks, you guys, for the encouragement and support!

 

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